Invisible Women

Hello dear readers! How are you? I am grand!
I am also busy, because, for those of you who didn’t know, my current livelihood is writing a dissertation about superhero comics and fandom. It is super-fun, and also providing plenty of fodder for this column.
Like, for example, why, even in academia, is the superhero comic ‘fan’ nearly always assumed to be male? Female fans (like female creators and scholars) are treated as special outliers, and are usually described parenthetically or in a way that marks them as a special interest group. That is, when they’re acknowledged as existing at all.
There are, of course, presently far fewer female fans than male of the superhero books, although precise numbers are hard to come by. There used to be many more. But, like female creators and scholars, they do still exist, and in not insignificant numbers, as hitting any message board, comics blogroll or most comics shops will clearly indicate. And yet, we get situations like the following e-mail from a colleague of mine:
So I’m doing this Batman essay for a book, right? My editor just sent me the proofer’s comments, and he refers to the author (me) as ‘he’ throughout it. Despite my name being RIGHT THERE.
Of course, it’s difficult to assign a gender to some names, but ‘Mary’ is not generally considered to be one of them. Had the proofer been genuinely confused about the writer’s gender, he could have used gender-neutral language. Instead, I suspect that, despite the evidence to the contrary, he assumed the writer of a Batman essay was, naturally, male.
Or, how about this: in a recent collection of essays and interviews, Inside The World of Comic Books, edited by Jeffery Klaehn, there is an interview with artist and industry legend Bob Layton.
JK: The American superhero has endured for almost a century, sustaining both commercial and cultural relevance. Why do you feel this has been the case?
BL: … The struggle of ‘gods and mortals’ in comics is a theme as old as storytelling itself. Comics are the modern mythology that we, as a society, template our fears and dreams onto. It’s the universal power fantasy we all dream of to have the ability to soar above our problems or pummel them into dust.
Wonderful stuff! That’s certainly one of the reasons I love the superhero genre. But later:
JK:Why don’t more women read comic books in North America, in your view?
BL: Because they’re not written for women. Why don’t you read Harlequin romance novels*? I would speculate that they simply don’t appeal to you.
So superhero stories are modern mythology, the template for society’s fears and dreams and a universal power fantasy and not for women. If women don’t read comics, as Layton believes, yet society’s fears and dreams template onto the superhero comic, as Layton also believes, then there is implicitly no place for women in society. Women are simply excluded from the universal ‘we’ Layton envisages.
He could have, perhaps, made a case for superheroism as an exclusively male fantasy an argument that I deride as bull, but would at least have been logically consistent with his other claim but he doesn’t define the universal dream that narrowly. Instead, women are outside, Other, invisible to the ‘we’ that all dream of soaring over ‘our’ problems.
Incidentally, though Inside The World of Comic Books does a fair job of raising the question of women in comics during interviews, and the cover features a small boy and small girl both reading superhero comics, there is not a single contribution by a female author, nor a single interview with a female creator.
This follows a general trend. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on female creators are called things like A Century of Women Cartoonists or She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on male creators are given titles like Artists On Comic Art or Inside the World of Comic Books, or the unintentionally honest Masters of American Comics. Like every other goddamn thing in the world, exclusively male productions in comics are assumed to be universal.
A universe that excludes you is not a welcoming place. There are comparatively fewer female superhero fans, but they are there, and they are increasing. Perhaps they would increase a lot faster if the industry and the academy could stop treating us as invisible women.
Leslie Caribou, on the history of female fans.
Comment on this column here.

  • By the way, I am so sick of this comparison. There are, in fact, plenty of romance novels written for and enjoyed by men. They’re called ‘novels’. If we’re insisting on ‘romance’ as ‘stories written to formula with a focus on erotic or romantic encounters’, my father’s Westerns were just as formulaic and included as many erotic situations and resolutions as the Harlequins I’ve read, with the caveat that they were somewhat more limited in period and setting. Romance widely appeals to men if it’s not described as such and thus stigmatised as unmasculine.