Monday, July 30, 2007

The XX-Chromosome Factor

Yesterday on her blog, Lea Hernandez, creator of numerous OEL manga comics (before OEL was the hip thing to do) and outspoken commentator/critic on the state of the comics industry, took issue with the management of DC's Minx Comic Line (which is, at least in theory, aimed at girls and Young Female Adults).

The first thing that struck me about her complaint--that managing editors "Shelly Bond and Karen Berger would rather have a performance artist writing a girl's comic than a woman who's actually written comics "--is its familiarity.

Bemoaning the fact that the comics industry is more interested in bringing writers in from other media than working with and developing talent that actually, you know, wants to write comics, is hardly uncommon in the lower echelons of the creative hierarchy. I know because I'm in those lower echelons, and I have, on occasion, been frustrated, even vocally so, that the most efficient way to get a comic writing job these days seems to be to get a cult television show on the air. Or direct a movie. Or write a novel. Or create anything other than comics. Which is what I really want to write (but no longer feel I can afford to, exclusively. I may not be able to sell a spec screenplay, but it doesn't seem like the odds of selling it are substantially worse than those of getting a comic picked up, and the pay-off if something in another medium does get picked up stands to be considerably higher.)

That said, I certainly understand at least some of the reasoning behind companies going to these other media for talent:

-There's a presumption that writers from other media have some idea of how to construct a story (whether it's a story suitable for comics is another matter, and apparently a more or less irrelevant one.)

-There's the plain fact that those writers must have learned their craft from some readng material other than comics (something many of those aspiring to create comics honestly can't say.)

-There's the desire to pull new audience members for comics from other media.

I’d think it’s that last point that’s most important to the mainstream comic companies. Lea and I and the countless other people who are, or aspire to be, comic creators can get as pissed off about the situation as we want, but for those at the Big Two, commerce trumps artistic integrity almost every time. And even from a creator’s standpoint, Buffy Season 8 and Stephen King's Comic Based On A Ten Minute Conversation in Marvel's Office One Time are arguably important books to have available in the direct market, just to remind companies there actually is an audience for stories that don’t involve unrealistically proportioned characters wearing their underwear outside their pants.

So why is Minx making the choices it is in terms of content and promotion? Presumably for the same reason they claim to have chosen the Minx name in the first place--economics (in that case, market research apparently indicated Minx received the best response from the target audience of the options mentioned.)

Lea comments: “It's hard to spend so long putting up with comics business shit, helping to build an audience of female readers and female-friendly works, putting out work for that audience, constantly insisting on the existence of that audience, and constantly defending the viability of that audience--and along comes DC/Minks making comics for that audience the same way they make comics for guys.”

At the risk of showing my gender, I have some difficulty understanding why this is a problem for Lea. Surely the existence of Minx goes to show that, to some degree, her efforts have borne fruit. She’s won the argument, inasmuch as no less a pop-cultural instituation than TimeWarner has acknowledged the existence and viability of the audience Lea’s helped build. Off the top of my head, I can’t think what more she could realistically hope for from what is, at the end of the day, still the company that publishes Countdown and All-Star Batman and, oh, come on, Robin the Boy Wonder Wasn't Even In The Latest Issue.

Minx Editors Shelly Bond and Karen Berger have, at a conservative estimate, 30 years of editorial experience between them. Whatever else can be said of them, they know how to make comics, they know how DC makes comics, and they apparently know how to get comics made at DC--even comics that do not fit into the traditional DC mold. They are making comics for Lea’s audience…why is how they make those comics an issue?

Says Lea: “It might be girl's comics, but it's the same old way of making comics with the dubious addition of apparent distaste for female comics writers. (Male comics writers seem to be dandy, as there's not a single man on the line who came from without comics.)”

Early on, when the creative gender imbalance in the Minx line was pointed out, one of the editors (I think it was Bond, but I could be wrong) claimed that several female creators were approached. Why aren’t more of them in the line? I can see a few possible reasons, all, to my mind, more likely than a distaste of Minx’s female editors for female comic creators.

First is the possibility that female creators took a look at what Minx was offering and said, “No thanks.” I’m not aware of what sort of ownership or participation Minx offers its creators for their intellectual property--perhaps those who were approached figured they could get a better deal elsewhere, or already had one. Perhaps they were more comfortable working with more traditionally female-friendly companies, or putting their work online and retaining all rights. In short, maybe female creators aren’t as desperate to work for DC as their male counterparts tend to be.

Another possibility is unpalatable because of its implications, but must be considered: maybe, independent of gender considerations, Bond and Berger just liked the projects they selected better than the other options. If one wanted to be cynical (and really, it’s comics, so why on earth wouldn’t one?), one could argue that this preference is the unfortunate result of the previously mentioned years of experience editing comics for DC--Berger and Bond have lost the ability to see quality in non-mainstream comics writers’ work.

Personally, though, I suspect the decision is primarily an economic one. Female comic creators, in and of themselves, are not seen as adding sufficient star power to a package to make it worth Minx’s effort, while the male creators are perceived as having a comics fanbase that will follow them from their more traditional North American mainstream work to Minx stuff.

If that’s the case, it could, again, be predicated on a flawed perception of the audience, resulting from the editors’ time in the mainstream comic trenches. Or it could be an accurate but unfortunate perception that Bond and Berger, as part of the Time-Warner machine, feel they simply have to accept and deal with--unlike Lea, who works mostly independently and therefore is largely unfettered by interference from above.

In any event, if that were to be the case, it would explain why they seem to have aggressively pursued female creators outside the medium, while “settling” for male creators that come from within it.

Other comments from Lea:
“I ask, again, how Shelly Bond can look at girls reading manga and make something completely unlike that and expect to capture that audience?”

In conversations with various mainstream editors over the last year, I’ve noticed in many a tendency to focus on manga as a format above all else. The theory--and it does seem to be one that’s being put forward even by traditionally manga-focused publishers as they move into OEL books--is that the audience has been “trained” to accept a certain format as acceptable reading material (in much the same way many North American mainstream comic readers have been indoctrinated into accepting the 32-page floppy format as “real” comics.)

From that perspective, Minx is not “completely unlike” manga. Their books’ pages are smaller than the traditional North American comic; they’re black & white; they’re thicker than traditional NA comics; they’ve got a spine; they aren’t focused on superheroes; they’re being made for girls, even if they aren’t being made by them. Whether this is sufficient to draw the manga audience away from “real” manga remains to be seen, but it’s the logic many companies seem to be pursuing lately--if only because they want to get their fingers into the intellectual property pie original work they commission (rather than license from a third party) might bring them.

“…why NOT mention Kwitney's worked on a Sandman title? Why emphasize her novel writing, which is not juvenile or YA?”

My best guess: because it’s been around a decade since DESTINY came out, the series had minimal if any impact on Sandman continuity or the fanbase, and that these days Kwitney is simply better known as a novelist than a comics writer or editor. Or, to put it another way, for the same reason the PR doesn’t mention Brian Wood’s work in the videogame industry.

I realize a lot of what I just put forward is nothing more than unconfirmed (and in all likelihood, effectively uncomfirmable) supposition, but much of what I’m responding to is nothing more than that, and in the case of the comments aimed at Bond and Berger, insulting supposition at that. At the end of the day, their job is to get books produced, not to get them produced the way Lea or anyone else (who can’t fire them) would prefer to see books aimed at the target audience made.

For me, ideally, each book would be successful or not based on its merits, rather than the gender of the creators.

But then, I'm at least nominally a guy. And one who wouldn't mind writing comics of any kind (other than "unpaid') for DC, at that.


(Lea's post found via Dirk Deppey's !journalista!)

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