Intrigued by some of the recent controversies surrounding comic books — the introduction of a female incarnation of Thor riling readers on the right; a variant Batgirl cover featuring a terrifying visage of The Joker leaving the left livid — I thought I’d pop down to my local comic book shop and see what all the fuss was about.
I should’ve called ahead: Aftertime Comics in Alexandria, Va., was almost totally sold out of all the books I had been interested in. I found a third printing of the second issue of the new Thor series. That was it. The helpful clerk smiled and shrugged, saying the store couldn’t keep that and a bunch of other books — “Spider-Gwen,” “Ms. Marvel,” some similar titles — on the shelves. The new books had piqued curiosity and were bringing in a whole new audience. Moms were buying books for their daughters, snapping them up and leaving shelves bare.
Thwarted, I headed over to Fantom Comics in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, where I chatted with staffer Raven Smith as she made some suggestions. Like Aftertime, Fantom Comics is seeing “a lot of new people…curious people, looking for recommendations,” Smith said. She highlighted the store’s “lady badass table” — covered with titles like “Spider-Gwen” and “Bitch Planet” — and said that the store was having a great deal of success with their ladies night.
“It’s a chance to come into a safe space,” she said, noting that many of the women who showed up for the monthly evening, which generally takes place on the first Saturday of each month at 9 p.m., claimed to have had a “bad experience going into other stores.” As someone who spent a fair amount of his youth* making weekly-or-better visits to pick up comic books, I wouldn’t say women were strangers to my local shop. But they were definitely outnumbered, and lord knows the regulars weren’t the most suave of individuals.
The stepped-up efforts to appeal to lady-nerds** as well as dude-nerds reminds me a bit of last year’s boomlet of religiously oriented feature films.
The reasons for making such appeals, in the movie and comic book industries alike, are clear: There’s money to be made! We’ve seen that time and again over the last few years. “God’s Not Dead” grossed almost $61 million on a budget of just $2 million. “Heaven Is for Real” raked in more than $91 million and cost just $12 million to make. “Son of God,” a two-hour adaptation of a 10-hour TV series that had aired the year before, grossed almost $60 million.
Similarly, sales are through the roof on some of these female-oriented comics. Spider-Gwen #1 sold more than a quarter-million copies. The first issue of the new Thor sold almost 151,000 copies; sales have dropped as the months have gone along, but at more than 69,000 copies in February it is still hovering near the top ten in sales and easily dwarfing Thor’s year-to-year sales (it moved 42,034 units in February 2014).
Appealing to new audiences comes with its own risks, of course. A certain amount of pedantry or didacticism has a tendency to creep into the product. “God’s Not Dead” — the story of a plucky, religious philosophy student triumphs over his professor in a debate — is basically wish fulfillment, the sort of thing that will bring hosannas from the faithful but do little to attract mainstream audiences.
We can see similar moments in some of the latest run of girl power comics, such as this scene from February’s Thor #5, which comes after the Absorbing Man complains about how “damn feminists are ruining everything”:
The praise chorus loved it, but it’s a bit on the nose, you know? Ditto this scene, from a recent issue of Wonder Woman:
Take that, mansplainers’ beliefs! Don’t even get me started on “Bitch Planet,” a smaller title from Image that takes pedantic didacticism to a whole new level. It’s a book about a planet in which women are sent to an intergalactic prison for being uppity and their husbands can pay to have them murdered so they can marry much younger gals. I was shocked, shocked to find an essay at the book’s conclusion from a writer who “taught gender studies at a large Midwestern college.”
There is one complication, however. Attracting Christians to movie theaters doesn’t lead to the displacement of mainstream fare. “God’s Not Dead” opened the same weekend as “Divergent” and “Heaven Is for Real” didn’t crowd “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” out of theaters. Comics like “Spider-Gwen” or “Bitch Planet” or the delightfully silly all-ages title “Squirrel Girl” aren’t displacing “The Walking Dead” or any of DC and Marvel’s heavy hitters from shelves.
I do, though, feel some sympathy for longtime, largely (thought not exclusively) male readers miffed by Lady Thor’s replacing the son of Odin and the cancellation the controversial Batgirl cover. That’s more of a zero-sum game. And when they see legendary figures in the field take heat — guys like Image founder Erik Larsen, who took a ton of grief for criticizing modern super heroine costume design; classic stories like “The Killing Joke,” which the canceled Batgirl cover paid homage to but feminists find oh-so-problematic — it’s hard to blame them for feeling like an important part of their life is under fire and that creative freedom may be taking a backseat to the concerns of identity politics. Perhaps a bit of compassion for them is in order as well.
*Full disclosure/nerd bona fides: I collected comics from 1987 to 2003 or so, until it got too expensive for a college kid with other priorities to keep up. I still pick up a few trade paperbacks a year, but my days of week-in, week-out collecting are long gone. Whippersnappers.
**Much love, see the footnote above.
Correction: This post originally attributed the essay at the end of “Bitch Planet” to one of the book’s creators; it was actually written by Danielle Henderson.