Wonder Woman had an opening weekend that millions of comics fans anticipated for years. Taking in over $100 million domestically, director Patty Jenkins’s big-budget debut—the first superhero film starring and directed by women—was hailed by critics and fans alike, earning a coveted 93 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
However, Gail Simone, whose Wonder Woman comics from 2008 to 2010 inspired several facets of the film, noted on Twitter that her name did not appear among other thanked creators in the credits. That list was, in fact, entirely male, leaving out other influential creators, such as series editor Karen Berger. And while “The Marston Family” is listed, William Moulton Marston’s partners Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne—two women who played integral roles in the character’s inception—are not named, nor is Marston’s assistant and longtime Wonder Woman ghostwriter Joye Hummel Murchison. This isn’t to say men weren’t snubbed too (H.G. Peter, another of Marston’s co-creators, remains uncredited), but it’s hard not raise an eyebrow when two men who created a sword are given credit instead of any woman who worked on the world’s most famous female superhero.
The erasure of women and their labor extends beyond this particular circumstance, of course, but women in comics have deeper and additional problems—like getting work in the first place. DC and Marvel Comics, collectively referred to in the industry as the “Big Two,” put out 180 new comic books in March 2017, with a total of 1621 creators credited across those books, according to numbers collected by analyst Tim Hanley for Bleeding Cool. Of those creators, 279 were women, making up just 17.2 percent of both companies.
With such massively disproportionate gender ratios, even incremental changes are hailed as major achievements for both companies. In his Bleeding Cool analysis, Hanley hails a 1.4 percent increase in female creators at Marvel, due to a larger than usual number of variant covers, as “fuel[ing] a strong month.” Only in comics can a handful of women’s temporary work-for-hire contracts be lauded as a step in the right direction for a company that controls 35 percent of its industry’s retail market. As for the competition, Hanley notes, “DC posted their lowest showing since a full year ago” after “[d]ropping for five straight months.” That’s a gender gap that shows little sign of narrowing: This week, DC announced that James Robinson—a writer who was widely criticized in 2015 for transmisogynistic content in his Airboy comic—would take over Wonder Woman this fall to focus on Diana’s brother, a new character. Robinson will replace Shea Fontana, best known for her work on the DC Superhero Girls property. It’s a bizarre and disappointing move, especially on the heels of Jenkins’s film.
Even though the Big Two occupy a majority of the comics retail sector, they don’t represent the entire industry. But even the independent comics industry has a long way to go. While opportunities may be more plentiful for women in independent comics, their work isn’t always afforded the same respect as men. Hanley notes that women made up just under 25 percent of nominees for the 2017 Eisner Awards, which recognizes the year’s best comics across all genres.
Speaking last month on the “Transcendent Obscenity” panel at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, comics writer and artist Julia Gförer said, “I think you have to assume that any art movement that seems like it’s mostly men—there’s a lot of women also doing it that don’t get taken seriously or men take credit for their work.” Gförer, who created the graphic novels Black is the Color and Laid Waste, specifically lamented the regularity with which women’s art is “pathologized,” saying that when female artists use erotic themes or imagery, “it’s perceived as being for some other end rather than because it gets them off. And I think for that reason, women who make pornographic work or just women who make art about taboo subjects are not categorized with male artists who use similar subject matter.”
At the “Women in Ink” panel, veteran cartoonist Roz Chast also sharply critiqued comics’ double standards: “There’s all of this sort of ‘enfant terrible’—of male artists who just…have people sort of [say] ‘Well, he’s just such a genius. He can be a mega-asshole, but he’s such a genius. For women, you better not step out: You better not be too much of a jerk, because…you know, we’re letting you do this.’” Recently, women in the industry have become more vocal about naming repeat sexual harassers and predators, but consequences for years of abuse are rare.
Because of this normalized toxicity and stereotyping, the gender balance in comics isn’t equitable, especially for women of color. Besides manga artist Rokudenashiko and producer and editor Anne Ishii, who translated for manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, there were no women of color on any of the World Voices Festival’s comics related panels. Women of color working in comics are a fraction of a fraction. As geek blogger Jamila Rawson commented at New York Comic-Con a few years ago, “There’s a lot of misrepresentation of women in comics, but those are white women. So, it’s like ‘OK, we’re not even in there to be misrepresented.’”
For that matter, transgender comics pros are just beginning to get a foot in the door. While a few artists like Tamra Bonvillain have found regular work, many other trans creators still struggle to find steady jobs in print. Rising quickly in the ranks is writer Magdalene Visaggio, whose popular limited series Kim & Kim and Quantum Teens Are Go have led to a story in Marvel’s Secret Empire: Brand New World #3.
When that book is released, Visaggio will join an highly exclusive club of trans women who’ve had work published by the Big Two, including Bonvillain, Rachel Pollack—whose two-year run writing Doom Patrol will be collected for the first time in 2018—and Lilah Sturges, who co-wrote the Eisner-nominated Jack of Fables before coming out last year. And while trans characters have begun to proliferate the mainstream, trans creators aren’t always working on those comics. Visaggio has criticized the industry for hiring cisgender writers for stories about transness, describing it in Paste as “akin to the Pope describing the experience of childbirth.”
Whether cis or trans, female comics creators are not afforded the same opportunities or respect as others in their field. Companies continue to offer work disproportionately to the same (sometimes abusive) men who have always dominated the industry. In a way, that’s why Wonder Woman’s success is so significant: It proved that men needn’t be the gatekeepers of popular culture. But for women in the industry that made Wonder Woman possible, many years of progress are still needed before equity is in sight.
That’s distressing, because comics are a cultural barometer and predictor like no other. So what does it say that comics, especially superhero comics, exclude cis and trans women? Perhaps more than any other entertainment medium, comic book publishing reifies gendered divides that prioritize men’s empowerment. Everyone else is left with token representation, damaging our ability to see ourselves in the media we consume. For all these reasons and more, Wonder Woman is seen as a gust of fresh air, but the question remains: How long will women in comics have to hold their breath?