By Laura A. Parker.
Kelly Sue DeConnick is talking to a class of aspiring comic-book writers assembled in a ballroom, located in the back of a former gentlemen’s club on Powell Street in San Francisco. “I hate when I get asked, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in comics?’” she tells them. Then, imagining her sarcastic response: “‘Well, I sit around typing with my vagina, but that gets uncomfortable after a while.’ The notion that somehow women are wildly different infuriates me. Fuck those people.”
As one of the comic-book industry’s most successful writers, DeConnick, 44, has been credited with drawing female readers back to comic books. She is the writer of three popular comic-book series, all starring female characters: the Marvel imprint Captain Marvel, the western Pretty Deadly, and Bitch Planet, a cultural satire about an off-planet women’s prison. She writes passionately, both on and off the page, about feminism, female representation, and the need for more female comic-book creators. At San Diego Comic-Con this week, she’ll participate in three separate panels, including a workshop for another group of aspiring comic-book artists.
DeConnick takes another question from the class on Powell Street; this time, it’s about sexism in the comic-book industry. She sighs and looks down. “Being a woman in a male-dominated industry sort of sucks, but it doesn’t suck any more than being a woman in the world,” she says, facing the class. “My advice? Be terrifying.”
In 2011, Steve Wacker, the vice president of animation at Marvel Comics, proposed the relaunch of the publisher’s classic Ms. Marvel comic-book series, with one caveat: the superhero, Carol Danvers, would assume the name of Captain Marvel. Several superheroes have donned the Captain Marvel jumpsuit over the years, both male and female. But Wacker wanted someone tougher and more symbolic of comics’ changing demographic. “I wanted a lady Chuck Yeager,” he told me recently.
Wacker offered the job to DeConnick, who had pitched a new Ms. Marvel series earlier that year. Within the hour, she had sent him a dozen articles about female pilots in World War II. She also offered suggestions for a new costume. The previous one—thigh-high boots, black swimsuit, and opera gloves—felt somewhat dated. “This is a woman with a military background, a feminist background,” DeConnick said. “The idea that she would be flying around with her ass hanging out is ridiculous.”
The first issue of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel went on sale in July 2012. Historically, new or relaunched comic-book series require an established writer, artist, or character to succeed. DeConnick was relatively unknown, Carol Danvers was a minor character in the Marvel universe, and the Captain Marvel artist, Dexter Soy, had never done a major series before. “No one had any reason to believe that it would make it,” DeConnick said.
Sales of Captain Marvel are solid, but slow compared to DC and Marvel’s biggest titles: around 20,000 a week compared to Amazing Spider-Man’s 100,000 copies. But Carol’s fans are fiercely loyal. After Captain Marvel’s launch, DeConnick began tagging social-media posts related to the book—letters, fan art, cosplay—with the hashtag #carolcorps. It caught on. Fans began referring to themselves as members of the Carol Corps, tweeting photos of themselves reading the books, wearing Captain Marvel T-shirts, or getting Captain Marvel tattoos. A mother and daughter from North Carolina started a Carol Corps cat club, raising money for local cat shelters as a tribute to Carol Danvers’s cat. Another group, the Carol Corps Yarn Brigade, knit Captain Marvel merchandise for sick members of the Carol Corps. “I think it accidentally touched on a real thirst,” DeConnick said. “You’ve got 20,000 monthly readers…in the comic market that’s not that much, but 19,000 of them have tattoos of the main character on their arm . . . it’s something else. It’s a vocal, committed, and supportive fanbase.”
The past 15 years have been defined by what comic-book writer Mark Millar, whose comic books Wanted, Kick-Ass and The Secret Service have all been adapted into feature films, calls “the legitimatization of comics through Hollywood.” Movie franchises from Spider-Man and the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe to TV’s The Walking Dead have helped comic books re-emerge as a dominant force in pop culture. And nowhere is the renewed interest in comics more evident than in the sales of actual comic books themselves. Current industry estimates put the size of the North American market at around $900 million, compared to about $700 million in 2011.
Many of these new readers are women. In 2014, females between the ages of 17 and 33 were the fastest growing demographic in comics. According to comic book historian Tim Hanley the number of female-led comic-book titles has doubled in the last five years, with fans devouring heroines like selfie-snapping Batgirl, the new female Thor (who, after an initial period of fanboy anguish, is outselling the last Thor comic book by 30 percent), and Spider-Gwen, a version of Peter Parker’s first love, Gwen Stacy, who is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Woman. There’s even a new, all-female Avengers team called A-Force that will continue later this year.
These books, and associated phenomena like the Carol Corps, continue to prove the existence of an ardent female fan base for comics. But the legitimatization of comics through Hollywood has largely yet to extend to female characters. A stand-alone film for Wonder Woman and a Supergirl TV series are both on the way, but a planned Captain Marvel film has been delayed, and Marvel’s Black Widow doesn’t just lack her own film, but was the butt of sexist comments from several Avengers stars earlier this year. “I do think it’s interesting we got a talking raccoon before we got a female lead in a comic-book movie,” says Millar.