A Look at Women in the Comics Industry

Six women comics professionals met on Friday at 5:30PM for the Comics and Pop Art panel, “A Female Perspective on Comics.” Tana Ford, moderator Amy Chu, Chrissie Zullo, Joanna Estep, Tini Howard, and Afua Richardson chatted for an hour about their careers and their experiences in the male-dominated comics industry.

Chu started the panel with what she described as the world’s worst question: “Do you feel you can write or draw male characters?” She noted that she was often hired to work on female characters. Acknowledging that such offers are often the case, Howard said that editors had reached out to her to write male characters. Her first job for Marvel Comics was writing Captain America. She has also written Nightwing, who’s one of her favorites. She described both Nightwing and the Winter Soldier as each being “as good as his mentor but no one knows it.” Male readers have asked her why there are so many women in the backgrounds of her stories. She said she just puts them in but isn’t deliberately trying to short-change guys.

Estep reported often being asked to draw girls, particularly young girls, but joked that her “true passion is crusty middle-aged men.” The panelists agreed the female perspective is varied, not monolithic. Howard described her version of Catwoman as a sexual character who’s also funny. She said that female writers may tend to share flaws they see in themselves with some of the women they write.

Ford interjected that she loves complex characters, and Richardson noted that Storm, a character she loves, has stratifications of sexiness. Richardson believes Storm would be very muscular. Picking up on that, Ford said viewing comics through a female lens opens up a range of viewpoints.

Howard described her version of Betsy Braddock, once Psylocke and now Captain Britain, as long-haired, wearing armor and carrying a sword, because Howard considered that sexy. She was surprised when male readers came up to her and asked why Betsy wasn’t sexy anymore. When Howard’s version of Betsy isn’t in armor, she wears lingerie.

Chu asked the panel how far they believe the industry has come in offering the female perspective. Zullo replied that she started in comics around 2009–2010 and was one of a few women at the first convention she attended. Now, she noted, there are many more women at conventions. Ford mentioned that there is more representation of diverse characters as diverse creators generate material they like. Estep added that despite all the progress, there is still a tendency to have one of any type of character and that the one, representing all, tends to be perfect and not feel like a living person.

Agreeing, Ford said she does think there are more shades of gray and more messiness. Estep said she submitted a story that was gory to Smut Peddler in 2014 and was surprised when it was accepted, doubly so that it was the first story in the anthology.

Richardson pointed out that “diversity” is thrown around a lot when what really appears is tokenism. Characters fulfill one set of expectations instead of giving readers the honesty they want. Noting that Storm is the only Black woman in the X-Men, she said there’s less depth to the character, whereas if there were two Black women, they would be portrayed differently. The panel agreed that a single, token character is often depicted as a perfect role model rather than a complex individual.

Discussing social media, Ford described it as a necessary evil. Women are expected to be more accessible than men, and several of the panelists have decided not to go that route, to share only what they feel inclined to share. Ford said she occasionally finds work via Twitter but loves TikTok. Howard described finding useful research about strippers on TikTok for an upcoming issue of Catwoman.

An audience member asked whether women are welcomed in the industry more now than they were. The panel agreed that lack of representation was evident in writing classes where there was only one woman and the men wondered what she was doing there, and at conventions with only a single female guest. There are more female editors now, and Chu noted that DC Comics is run by a woman. The panel also discussed seeing women’s names on the credits of comics and agreed that it was empowering to see someone who looked like them sitting behind a table at a convention. Social media, despite its drawbacks, can be a way in.

Ford recommended that anyone wanting into the industry make comics and put them out on the internet. The panelists also suggested that creators make themselves easy to find with search engine optimization and creating a brand. Estep advised making a web comic, as she is doing. Creators who have product, she said, can “scream into the void” to make a name.

An audience member asked what the panelists would recommend as foundational material for understanding comics. Estep recommended Elfquest, and Howard proposed Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which explains the conventions and the tools of comics creating. She and Chu both recommended Saga.

The formal portion of the panel ended, and the panelists invited audience members to stay and chat.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.