Why the Lack of Female Superheroes?

The book is much better than the lame character name leads one to believe.If you’ve been following my old comic reviews over at the Complete Marvel Reading Order, you’ll notice that I’m almost all the way through the red Hulk’s title and nearing the point where, with very little fanfare, it became Red She-Hulk for about a year before being canceled due to low sales. And while I doubt a book about the red She-Hulk would have become a best-seller in the current comics industry, the fact that it was basically doomed to failure from the start kind of bothers me.

Consider the circumstances in which Red She-Hulk was released:

1)      Rather than getting its own launch with a #1 issue, it started at issue #58 on a title that had been steadily bleeding sales for two years. This despite the fact that Marvel has gotten into the habit of relaunching books at the drop of a hat.

2)      It received almost no marketing push and wasn’t even included in Marvel’s original solicits.

3)      Unlike her male counterpart, who was plastered everywhere and even got a spot on the Avengers moments after he tried to violently overthrow the country, the only cross-promotion the character received was in an ill-fated Defenders title that got canceled before the red She-Hulk even got the book to herself. The character basically got no exposure outside of a couple Hulk-related guest appearances, thus leading to almost nobody realizing that she even existed.

Now, one of the criticisms of the comics industry is that it’s very exclusionary toward women. From the fact that female characters rarely get treated as more than eye candy to the fact that there has yet to be a female lead in a blockbuster superhero film, women tend to get left out in the cold when it comes to comics. Moreover, both Marvel and DC have publicly stated a desire to get more girls reading their stories.

So what happened with the red She-Hulk? Well, admittedly she is a derivative character and the initial fan reaction to her was pretty bad when she was introduced. However, neither of those factors stopped her male counterpart, the red Hulk, from being crammed into multiple crossover books, forced into the Avengers roster (again, he was pardoned by Captain America despite unapologetically committing an act of high treason), and becoming a focal point of Marvel marketing for a period of about three years. Why put all that effort into one character but then half-ass his female counterpart?

Marvel and DC both like to blame market forces and state that female characters just don’t sell. In reality, I think the problem is that they don’t want those characters to sell.

Okay, that last line is a bit sensationalistic. I don’t think Marvel and DC are deliberately trying to sabotage their female characters, although the above example of the red She-Hulk or the fact that with all the superhero films out there DC has repeatedly refused to put a Wonder Woman movie into development indicates that they’re certainly not really trying. It’s not so much that they don’t want these characters to sell as they don’t seem willing to put the work in that would be needed to make them sell.

Consider that superhero comics are increasingly part of a fringe industry. Not even the big crossover events sell huge numbers these days; mainstream comics as a whole exist largely as something that can be spun off into film and TV franchises. With such a small industry comes a small margin of error. Move too far away from the model that does sell and you risk alienating the installed audience, thus jeopardizing future sales.

Right now, the comics market is incredibly hostile toward female readers. The stories are fairly unenlightened, the art is sexist, and the entire industry itself is built in a way that makes it uncomfortable for women to become part of the hobby. To attract a large female audience, things in the industry need to change. Female characters need to be treated as more than damsels in distress or plot devices. The art needs to become less overtly sexual. And comics probably need to move beyond comic shops and into other sales outlets.

These are all difficult things to accomplish. They take a lot of work and would probably require moving away from what brings the industry what moderate success it does experience. It involves taking risks, and when the big two of Marvel and DC are owned by large corporations such as Warner Brothers and Disney, there isn’t much of an incentive to take those risks.

The one thing I wish Marvel and DC would stop doing is trotting out the argument that they would absolutely love to have more female superheroes but those books just don’t sell. As evidenced by cases like Red She-Hulk, by any sort of non-Linda Carter adaptation ever, and even by shows like Young Justice that have a mix of genders but a strong female fan following, neither company is really putting their all into actually making these characters sell. But then, I guess saying, “We could do a better job of marketing our female characters, but we don’t feel like it,” isn’t the best PR move out there.

Basically, I wish Marvel and DC would let their words and actions align. If they want to make comics more gender-equal, they should look at their marketing strategies and consider giving them a major overhaul. If they don’t want to go that far, they should feel free to keep comics as the boys’ club it is, but they should at least be honest about why they’re doing it.


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