Tip sheet

So you want to write about comics for and by women. Or your editor has told you to write about comics by and for women. Before you get started, there are two recent examples you might want to peruse. This one is awful. This one is much better. Yours can be even better than the piece in The Guardian, if you remember some basic points.

Don’t conflate “comics” with “super-hero comics.” The latter is a subset of arguable size of the former, and you’ll open yourself up to all kinds of nitpicking from people like me if you fall back on that kind of shorthand.

Don’t wait too long to bring up manga. As Tom Spurgeon noted yesterday, “it’s weird reading an article about female comics readership where manga is the 11th graph below Wonder Woman, Minx and the Smurfs.” It could successfully be argued that the ascendance of comics for girls and women in the United States is significantly dependent on the popularity of manga.

Expand on manga and its various demographics. For a lot of people, the appeal of the category is its variety, and that variety extends to sub-categories. Saying that shôjo is a category of comics targeted primarily at girls is fine, but you’ll look smarter if you note that the category contains not only stories about fantasy and romance but science fiction, adventure, comedy, sports, horror, slice-of-life, and so on.

Don’t make the mistake that shôjo is exclusively the domain of a female audience, or that it’s the only kind of manga that girls and women read. Naruto and Bleach wouldn’t be bestsellers without a healthy female audience, and Fruits Basket wouldn’t achieve its numbers without some y chromosomes in the audience. (Books like Naruto, Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist also give you the chance to note that girls already like super-heroes, though perhaps not the ones that immediately come to mind.)

Name names. If you’re writing about manga, you’ll sound more informed if you throw out a few titles that provide examples of the subject. If you want to write about manga targeted primarily at girls, pick up a copy of Shojo Beat. If you want to write about manga targeted primarily at boys, pick up a copy of Shonen Jump. Both are available at just about any bookstore, if not the supermarket. Both of these magazines feature several series with varied subjects and artistic styles, the better to help you avoid stupid reductions about subject matter or visual style.

Do some independent research. There are excellent resources available on manga, including Paul Gravett’s Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics and Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide. You might not be able to work in everything you learn about the art form, but hey, they’re great reads, and they’ll help you frame your questions and make sensible comparisons. (For bonus points, and if you’re looking for a slightly rounder survey of what the contemporary comics industry looks like, you might also check out Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know, which combines introductory pieces and samples from various categories.)

Don’t make Gail Simone do all of the heavy lifting. Even if you’re focusing primarily on super-hero comics (which you should specifically note as often as is practical), you’ll end up with a more interesting piece if you cast a wider net for sources. There are plenty of interesting women making comics and coming at it from different perspectives who would probably be happy to talk to you.

If Simone is one of your primary sources, try not to forget that she’s an excellent writer of super-hero comics. She’s not just a rabble-rouser who identified an unfortunate trend in super-hero comics. She’s also one of the better practitioners of the genre, blending action, character development, and humor into her stories.

Don’t believe everything a publisher tells you. Yes, DC is to be congratulated for developing the Minx imprint, but they’re hardly the first publisher to target an audience of teen-aged women with original material. Tokyopop’s been doing it for years, to name only one, and they’ve gathered a roster of creators that’s packed with talented women.

Don’t think that a woman finally serving as the regular writer for Wonder Woman is the beginning of the trend you’re covering. If anything, it’s a rather belated example of a trend that’s been healthily underway for some time. Super-hero comics are sort of the last guests to arrive at this particular party, and some could argue that they just found their invitations, so you have to decide whether you want to flatter your sources or examine their efforts in a larger context.

11 Responses to Tip sheet

  1. Gail says:

    This is an excellent article, David. In fact, it’s so great I can’t believe I didn’t realize how necessary it was until I read it.

    I believe a lot of the focus on me is a kind of steamroller effect because of the New York Time article on me taking over Wonder Woman. I believe that that spotlight will move elsewhere very shortly, which is a good thing. I’ve done a metric ton of interviews and the like since taking over Wonder Woman–it’s not my favorite thing to do but I’ll do anything to try to get Diana some attention. This, unfortunately, is not the first time I had a sinking feeling while talking with a reporter that later turned out to be prophetic.

    The Newsweek piece made me sad for a number of reasons, mostly because, in a long, long phone conversation about the vitality of comics and the greatness of Wonder Woman, the quotes used, out of context, make the whole effort seem patronizing and dim and a bit sad. It’s a shame, the reporter was a nice woman, but clearly not interested in writing anything worthwhile.

    Now, the Guardian reporter was a whole different thing. She went way out of her way to be informed and made a real effort to get varying opinions. I liked her a lot, and fortunately, she did a great article. Was it everything we might hope? No, but these articles aren’t written for insiders, they’re written for people who aren’t yet in the know.

    As I say, the focus on my stuff is strictly transitory, and I always try to plug as many other female creators as possible. I have a nice standard list I modify for every interview, and sometimes they take advantage of it, which is great. It makes me a little uncomfortable to have the focus be on my femaleness in the first place, as I really hope to be seen just as a writer, rather than some belated faux trailblazer when the trail has been blazed a long time ago by women who had it much tougher than I have.

    Anyway, great article, thank you so much for writing it!

    Best,

    Gail

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    Thanks, Gail! When you mention the transitory focus, I think that’s one of the big distinctions between the Newsweek and Guardian pieces… The Guardian got that it was one event in a larger context, and Newsweek really, really didn’t. It’s like The Guardian saw it as an starting point — and a perfectly legitimate one, don’t get me wrong — to talk about something larger, and Newsweek went all fast and shallow.

    But I’m glad you liked the post. And thank you for not being one of those comics creators who makes me favor the “press-shy recluse” approach when I read interviews.

  3. Oyce says:

    Thank you so much for this. I wrote my thesis on shoujo manga scholarship a few years ago, and while I’m glad the tone of traditional-media stories on manga has changed from “violence and porn!” to “women in comics,” many of the assumptions about manga, shoujo manga, comics, and women remain the same as they have been for nearly 20 years. It’s particularly frustrating to have articles trumpeting the new presence of women in comics while ignoring the fact that it’s not particularly new.

  4. I hope the PR folks at Minx read your article, David, as they seem to think that girls don’t like sci-fi, fantasy, or horror (or escapist romance, for that matter).

  5. […] David Welsh explains how to write a media story on women in comics without coming across like an […]

  6. davidpwelsh says:

    Oyce: I’d love to read your thesis. Is it available on-line, by any chance?

    Kate: That’s one of the four pillars of fallacy of that I see in that “real girls in the real world” chant that Minx loves so much. The other three are: 1. that you can’t invest fantasy with real emotions or frame contemporary issues in an imaginative way, in spite of the fact that there are too many counter-examples to mention; 2. that manga is completely dedicated to fantasy instead of real, contemporary stories, in spite of the fact that there are too many counter-examples to mention; 3. that Minx’s own books are devoid of fantasy elements themselves, unless the real world has more time-lost avatars, demon-worshipping women’s clubs, and entirely immersive virtual-reality landscapes than I suspect.

  7. […] your editor just assigned an article on this “women in comics” thing? David Welsh has some tips for […]

  8. thirstygirl says:

    Oyce- I would also like to read your thesis if it’s available online.

  9. Poison Ivy says:

    Excellent article.

    I have to recommend Manga for Dummies. It’s very clear and organized, and a good intro to manga that does not overwhelm–even though it is meant for people who want to draw manga. In fact, for writers who don’t know much about graphic anything, I’d suggest that this Dummies tome may be the best reference just because it talks so plainly about the art conventions of the genre.

    May I add that if you happen to mention women’s fiction or romance novels, not to call them “bodice rippers”? It’s the litmus test term that proves you haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 years.

    And then there’s the common claim “This is the first time that…” Well, no, it’s not usually the first time. It’s just the first you the reporter may have heard of, but if you do a bit of research, you’ll find that there have been other attempts or versions of the same.

  10. davidpwelsh says:

    Good points, Ivy. I keep meaning to take a look at Manga for Dummies, so thanks for the reminders.

    Oh, and dear old “bodice ripers”… the maiden aunt of “big eyes, spiky hair and speed lines.” Now you’ve got me all nostalgic!

  11. […] Welsh offers tips to journalists who want to write about women and […]

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