FEATURE

Devin Grayson owes her career in comics to a cartoon. In 1992, the 22-year-old post-graduate student was living in the Bay Area of California, writing a novel and working for a large HMO. One afternoon while channel surfing, Grayson stopped on a Batman cartoon. What she saw changed her life.
Batman and Robin were speeding through the streets of Gotham City in the Batmobile, and Robin’s feet were propped up on the dashboard. He had a huge grin on his face as he gave Batman a hard time, wisecracking while the Dark Knight stared straight ahead in annoyance. This moment of authentic human interaction was the last thing Grayson expected to see from two cartoon superheroes.

"That moment was so real, and said so much about the relationship between those two characters," Grayson said. "The Batmobile isn’t real, and those costumes aren’t real. But a grinning, cocky teenager loyally at ease with a dark, difficult, workaholic parent-figure was very resonant for me. I was immediately drawn in."

Grayson had never given any thought to comic books, but she was now determined to find out more about these characters. Luckily, Grayson had a friend who worked in a comic book store, and as she read more and more, she became hooked. "As silly as it sounds, I fell head over heels in love with Robin," Grayson said. "So my need to do comics professionally was about needing to get closer to the characters. It was very personal and, frankly, pretty obsessive—I just needed to do it somehow." After constant phone calls and submissions to DC Comics, Grayson landed her first job writing comics in 1997. The 10-page story was, of course, about her comic book crush, and she is now one of the comic book industry's leading writers. Batman: Gotham Knights, Ghost Rider and Catwoman are among her high-profile writing credits.

Like Grayson before her fateful encounter with the Cartoon Network, many women don't consider comic books a valid art form. They see comics as juvenile fantasies for guys who've never grown up, filled with women who have impossibly large breasts and muscular men with silly names who fly around in tights. Comics are the ultimate boy's club, a four-color example of arrested development and fantasy fulfillment. But the truth is that there are talented female creators in the comic book industry, doing exciting work that largely goes unseen because the medium is ignored and misunderstood.

Although today's comics are largely made and read by men, that wasn't always the case. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, many comics were teen and romance books, read mostly by teenage girls. "Many female comic book characters back then weren't exactly great role models for young girls," said Trina Robbins, comic book writer and author of From Girls to Grrrlz. "They wasted most of their time fighting over boys, but at least they were bright, perky teenagers." However, there were characters like Katy Keene and Patsy Walker, who were just as smart as the men in their lives. They had successful jobs, quoted poetry and even protested unequal working conditions for women.

In 1946, female comic book readers outnumbered males. But by the mid-‘50s, comic book sales had declined greatly. Comics came under attack by psychologist Frederick Wertham in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed that comics led to juvenile delinquency. He based his conclusions on interviews with teenagers in reform school that showed all of them read comics, so his findings were far from accurate.

However flawed the logic, many parents stopped buying comics for their kids, and the medium rapidly become non-profitable for publishers. Teen and romance comics died out by the early ‘60s, and superhero stories were the only genre to survive the rocky period. Today, the mainstream comic book industry is almost entirely made up of superhero stories, mostly written by men. "Superheroes really tend to attract boys," Robbins said. "The number of girls who read superheroes is extremely minimal."

Females didn't start working in comics again until the ‘70s, Robbins said, when they were instrumental in creating the comics "underground." Underground comics were decidedly not mainstream and had nothing to do with superheroes. They were about issues that women in American society faced in real life, such as sexism and poverty. Female-created underground comics had titles such as Wet Satin, Wimmen's Comix and It Ain’t Me, Babe. Their creators explored female sexuality, lesbian relationships and the reality of being on welfare. This exploration by female artists of subjects not embraced by the mainstream continues in today's independent comics, such as Dykes to Watch Out For and Bitchy Bitch.

"Meanwhile, in the mainstream, the portrayal of female characters by male writers and artists became more and more sexist," Robbins said. "Women in comics had humongous breasts and wore tiny little outfits. And then in the 90s, there's been this phenomenon of female characters drawn in this unbelievably exploitative, sexist way. They had never been drawn like that before." This portrayal became known as the Bad Girl trend within the comic book industry. The females in these comics were often powerful people, but they were drawn in borderline pornographic poses for less discriminating male comic book readers.

Eventually, female comic book creators decided that they needed to make positive changes in the industry. In 1993, female comics professionals held an informal meeting at a San Diego coffeehouse, where they discussed how to address the challenges facing women working in the industry. Out of this meeting, Friends of Lulu was born. Named after the female comic strip character Little Lulu, Friends of Lulu now has approximately 300 members and works toward increasing female readership of comics, promoting the work of women in comics and offering networking opportunities to female comics creators. "Women traditionally haven't been a part of the comic book network," explains Debbie Ginsberg, Friends of Lulu treasurer. "Friends of Lulu is trying to change that."

Female artists often use different drawing and writing styles than mainstream comics favor, Ginsberg says, and when they approach mainstream comics publishers, they are told they "draw like a girl." Colleen Doran, writer/artist of the award-winning fantasy epic Distant Soil, says this attitude is more prevalent in the industry than many people think. "The perception of a lot of older men working in comics is that women can't draw," she said. "The same men who see my work without my name on it are perfectly happy with it. After they find out I'm a woman, they start finding things wrong with it. These are guys from the old school, back in the days when comic books were all drawn by men. And they have never grown up. If anybody took a tape recorder into an editorial meeting in some of these places, the companies would be sued into oblivion for sexual discrimination."

Many writers and artists don't even attempt to do comic book work because they share the common perception that all comic books are juvenile. As Ginsberg noted, when people think of comic books, they think of superheroes. "Personally, I enjoy well-written superhero comics," she said. "But people in general think they're for geeks and adolescent boys. What's in it for the rest, based on what they know about comics?"
The public's perception of comics is also a reason that readership is low, particularly among female readers. Ginsberg says many women are turned off by the superheroes and pin-up images of girls they see in comics. Since these are the most common images of comics, women decide that comics have nothing to offer them.

"And even if women were aware that the medium actually included a lot of products of interest," Ginsberg said, "they would have to go to one of the most dreaded places on earth to purchase them: the comic shop. The comic shops I've gone to have been great, but many women have visited shops and found them dirty, dark and smelly. They have been hit on, asked what boyfriend they were buying comics for, condescended to, ignored. The comic store should be the welcome mat of the comics industry, not a barrier."

Until recently, actress Amber Benson thought that comic books were for guys only. Benson, who plays the shy witch Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said she thought all comics were about superheroes. It wasn’t until she started writing an issue of the Buffy comic that she found out how many different genres of comics there are.

"I totally dig comics now, "Benson said. "But it took writing my comic to turn me on to them. Luckily, I’m surrounded by some super-cool people who are comic-book crazy, and they turned me on to some great stuff. Promethea, Strangers in Paradise … comics that deal with things that appeal to me as a female."

Christina Z, writer of the successful superhero comic Witchblade, believes that a broader spectrum of believable story lines would attract more female readers. Z argues that the prevalence of female characters with exaggerated and unrealistic anatomies is not necessarily a problem. "Comics are fantasy," she said. "Why not embrace it? I do have problems with overtly objectifying men or women in comics, but there are many stories to be told—some good, some bad."

Grayson, whose work often stresses character interaction over action, says exploring character growth and relationships is another way to attract more female readers. A typical issue of Grayson's Batman: Gotham Knights contains the fight scenes Batman fans expect, but it also explores the complex character dynamics of Batman and the supporting characters. She says she writes that way because it's simply what she's interested in, not as a calculated effort to appeal to female audiences. "But if that helps attract female readers, great," she said. "I have noticed them increasing at conventions, and that is a nice feeling, to think that I might be a part of that."

Grayson has experienced little sexism within the comics industry, saying that she has just been accepted as one of many writers. She points out that one problem she has encountered is that she has never been offered the chance to work with a male character at a major company before being offered female characters. "I had to do Black Widow before I could do Ghost Rider. I had to do Catwoman before I could do Batman," she explained. "And I think this is simply because there aren't a lot of women writers, so it's motivated out of excitement about my presence. But that is gender bias."

Despite the obstacles they have had to overcome, female comic book creators seem to unanimously feel that the struggle is worth it to be able to work in this art form they love. The unique methods of storytelling provided by the comic book medium are what drew most of them to it. Robbins says comic books are the perfect method of communication and storytelling. "It's said that a picture is worth a thousand words," she said. "But a combination of pictures and words is incredible." Benson agrees, saying that comic books are like little movies. "They’re beautiful to look at, but they also have killer stories," she said.

For Grayson, it's the audience interaction and the possibilities of the art form that make her excited to work in comic books. "There's some kind of magic in the medium that really brings the fans alive," she explained. "You really have the ability to interact with the story. That gets people engaged with these stories on a level that you just don't see in a lot of other types of artistic media. So it feels like you're in on developing something that has a lot of resonance for people. And it's very exciting to be part of it.

"Comic books are still a young art form," she went on, her enthusiasm obvious in her voice. "It reminds me of jazz. It's still waiting for us to finish creating it."