The highlight of the San Diego Comic Con this year turned out not to be hot movie news, but old-fashioned comic book controversy. DC Comics have been generating column inches ever since they announced their ‘New 52’, but thanks to one persistent Batgirl cosplayer (known only as Kyrax2), the Jeremy Paxman of Comic Con, the focus was instead put firmly on the role of women in comics, as creators, characters and fans. Didio was dismissive and downright confrontational when this Batgirl asked why the number of female creators and characters had dipped in the relaunch. Defending his lack of female creators, Didio referred to Marvel’s similar imbalance. His timing couldn’t have been worse. Because while DC were getting a tough time from their neglected female fans, Marvel were announcing a female-led TV slate.
They currently have three live-action TV
shows in development: AKA Jessica Jones, Mockingbird and Cloak and Dagger. All
three feature women in leading roles, and two have black leading men. While DC
are doing nothing but ticking off their vocal minority of female fans, Marvel
are actively catering to them and trying to bring more on board. And, in a very
savvy move, they are doing that through a more female-friendly medium: TV.
Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(although it seems unfair to overlook The X-Files), sci-fi and fantasy
television shows have had a strong female appeal. Iconic female action heroes
were suddenly everywhere, from Sydney Bristow in Alias to True Blood’s ballsy
Sookie Stackhouse via River Song. The real indication that the tide had turned
came when the Battlestar Galactica reboot recast Starbuck as a women – and made
her one of the best female characters of all time. Women are increasingly
taking over message boards on even male-heavy shows, like Game of Thrones and Supernatural.
Maybe that’s just down to the leading men being really ridiculously good
looking. But I hope that the real reason is that sci-fi and fantasy shows are
growing up. The clever balance of comedy, drama, scares and action make these
shows equally appealing to both men and women. The fact is, you don’t need a
female lead to attract a female audience. These days people come to a show if
it’s good, regardless of the gender of the lead character.
Comics are a different beast, though. To an
outsider, they are dense and intimidating, with their decades of tangled
stories. New readers wouldn’t know where to start. The fact that, up until now,
you actually had to venture into a comic book shop in order to buy one also put
a lot of people off. Comics have never been the most inclusive medium. Luckily,
TV can act as a great gateway drug to the harder A-class comics. DC has had
prior success with Smallville, a show that introduced many fans to Clark Kent
and the wider DCU, as the cast of characters grew to include Green Arrow,
Aquaman, Black Canary and the JSA. Smallville – and before it Lois and Clark:
The New Adventures of Superman – attracted an adult audience in a way animated
shows can’t. DC tried to capitalise on this again with their Wonder Woman
pilot, but weight of expectation (and a shoddy script) sunk it before it could
There’s nothing to say Marvel’s new TV slate will make it beyond development, but since Marvel is owned by Disney, and since they also own ABC, the channel that will show these programmes, we can assume it’s a fairly safe bet. The fact that they are using these shows to attract women and non-white viewers, traditionally untapped market in comic books, is especially smart. DC is currently talking up a TV series centring on the Teen Titan Raven, but compared to Marvel their TV and film schedule is very flimsy. Comics on their own are unlikely to attract new demographics. Films and TV shows make more people familiar with comic book characters. Digital comics make it easier for people to buy them. But they won’t keep those new audiences unless the comics themselves are up to scratch. And it seems the Batgirl of San Diego has scored a victory: DC have just announced more projects by women, and they’ve taken some projects about women out of mothballs. I’m a DC fangirl, and in my opinion they have more and better minority characters (and in the comic book world, that includes women) than their chief competitor. I just wish they had a media strategy that would make more people aware of that. Because without it, I fear Marvel is going to sink them.