Women and Superheroes, By the Numbers

Curator's Note

Although recent reports are promising, it’s hard to know how many female readers support superhero comics. What’s clear is that there are not nearly enough female characters and a shockingly low number of female creators. It also appears that female-centered superhero titles don’t typically sell exceedingly well. So we still have a long way before representation—both on and off the page—better matches the spectrum of real life gender identity.

This intransigence—amidst relentless calls for improvement and tremendous social change in other spheres of culture—speaks to the particularly indelible legacy of this medium’s industrial history. In the glory days of comics (the 1950s), women and men read in equal numbers. But even then, superhero comics were geared to boys. As superheroes pushed out other genres, in the 1960s and 1970s, comics skewed more male with each passing year. More recently, the introduction of digital retail spaces and a vocal and vibrant female fandom have helped gradually reverse that trend. But most superhero comics are still coming out of two eighty year old companies steeped in well-documented cultures of misogyny. And the characters themselves were mostly created before Women’s Lib, and before the popularization of contemporary notions of gender equality. Making more space for female and transgender readers and characters therefore requires that comic book workers throw off the structural shackles of old ways of doing business, old ways of telling stories, and old ways of bringing in audiences. It’s a tall order.

Avoiding some of these legacies, transmedia perhaps holds the most potential for change. Comic book adaptations have been slammed for their poor (or nonexistent) treatment of the few female superheroes we do have. But in standing at least somewhat outside the structures of publishing, film and television producers may have more leeway in forging new paths, creatively, and via marketing and distribution. But the key here may be in actually embracing wider gaps between the original comics and the media they generate. Story, character, and artistic divergences in adaptations just might be the thing that opens up representational spaces still foreclosed by the source material, and the industrial burdens (i.e. copyright maintenance, limited distribution, hiring practices) that limit it.


This is an excellent short piece that marks out the history of and reasons for the comics industries' continued intransigence. I also wonder how much of the comics culture sense of being outsiders (i.e., geeks, nerds) both recently and at the industry's origin and formative years has led to the ossification of that culture into one so rooted in an atavistic mentality. The sense of having to defend comic book culture and industry from cultural and occasionally governmental attack maybe set the industry into a defensive mode that it can no longer even recognize as such. Or is that just a super-villain origin story I'm laying over the industry?

Thanks for the comment Charlotte! And I think you're absolutely right. Comic book culture does have an outsider mentality and a tendency toward defensiveness. And it does cast a shadow over the medium, with too many fans and workers holding on to legacy--perhaps a little too tightly. The thing is, I don't think an accurate history of the industry totally justifies this sense of being under threat. Which is exactly why it's so important to get things right--remembering the past more clearly may help comic book culture to move forward into the future.

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