Don't Be a Dick: A Comic About the History of Lady-Centric Comics

Welcome back to Don’t Be a Dick, The Ladydrawers Comics Collective’s in-depth look at comics and gender diversity, presented in partnership with Bitch Media.

This is the second in a series of six Don’t Be a Dick comics about the comics industry, all written by Janelle Asselin, edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore, and drawn by six great artists. Today’s strip will take a look at the history of comics (spoiler alert—it wasn’t always a male-dominated industry!)—and if you missed our first installment, do check it out here!


About the creators: 

The Ladydrawers Comics Collective (AKA “The Ladydrawers”) is an unofficially affiliated group of women, men, transgender, and non-binary gender folk who research, perform, and publish comics and texts about how economics, race, sexuality, and gender impact the comics industry, other media, and our culture at large. We’re doing another series at Truthout called “Our Fashion Year,” finishing up our documentary Comics Undressed, and travelling the world talking about gender and race diversity in comics. You can send us samples of your work or look over the Don’t Be a Dick artist’s roster here

Sarah Vaughn has moved around so much in her life that it’s shortest just to say she’s from America. Her love for vintage romance comics began in Fort Wayne, IN when she spent more time at her local comic shop reading than working, and her entire collection is due to searching for the one issue that slipped through her fingers. The former artist for the webcomic Sparkshooter, Sarah is the co-creator and co-writer of the Image series Alex + Ada.

From little houses on the prairies of Nebraska and Iowa to the posh Chicago suburbs to the mean (gentrified) streets of Brooklyn to sunny Glendale, California, Janelle Asselin has carried her nerdity everywhere with her. Janelle has been a video gamer for at least 26 years, a comics fan for 20 years, and an editor of comic-type things for seven years. She’s worked at comic shops, comics news sites, and comics publishers like Fangoria Comics, DC Comics, and Disney. She’s written a book about selling comics to women and has a weekly column at featuring female creators on the rise. 

Born in Winner, South Dakota, cultural critic Anne Elizabeth Moore founded the Best American Comics series for Houghton Mifflin and edited The Comics Journal before fostering the insanity that is The Ladydrawers. She’s also a prolific writer of word-books including Unmarketable (The New Press), Cambodian Grrrl, and New Girl Law (Cantankerous Titles). Her work has appeared in The BafflerJacobinAl Jazeera, and Salon, and she is the comics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Pretty In Ink

There's a great book out called Pretty In Ink by Trina Robbins that cover North American Women Cartoonists from 1896-2013. Just in case more people want to read about women cartoonists.

Requests and Expansion/Clarification

Liked this comic! Wish it was even longer and more detailed!

Hope/expect the creators will also talk more about comics diversity in multiple dimensions, not only gender! Where are the lesbians and queers?! More women of colour?! (as creators, editors, publishers, characters, fans, etc!)

Excitedly awaiting more!


I do have to expand/clarify/correct this narration in the panel where a woman is in the comics store: "Female readers especially found comics shops daunting, given the emphasis on superheros in the 1980s and 1990s."

I was shopping in comics shops in the 1990s as a teenage and twenties-age gal, and I can tell you that the problem was not just or primarily the emphasis on superheros.

The problem was freakin' sexism on all levels in the USA/Canada comics retail environment and the creater-end and company-end of the USA/Canada industry!

The emphasis on superheroes above all else _was_ a problem, partly because the vision of superheroes at the time was much narrower in certain ways compared to now (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, etc., and in terms of being little-influenced by Japanese manga), and partly because comics are not limited in any way to superheroes. That's like implying all novels are murder mysteries.

The retail environments were often (though not always) terrible: crowded, ill-lit, sometimes dirty and/or smelly, covered with half-naked boob-and-butt superheroine posters, usually staffed by straight cis comics-fan guys who happened to have no interest in anything except mainstream superhero comics, and who had no interest in helping any customers, let alone a woman (who clearly can't a be "real" comics fan.)

But I still kept going into comics stores. However, I did take learn to take my business to the best-organized and best-lit ones. They were still often covered in boob-and-butt superheroine posters.
Unless I went to the highbrow alternative comics store, which had lots of awesome stuff, but was sometimes covered in half-naked alt-heroine posters or comics-covers, for the benefit of the straight guys who like alternative comics. At least they carried various queer comics...

So I hope that this kind of thing might be explored with more complexity in another installment of the series!

Also, the history presented here does not address the implosion of the comics distributor section of the USA/Canada comics industry --an event which was quite significant! It decimated distribution options for any company or creator who did not want to depend on or rely on the interests of what I will call the Big 3 of the time (Marvel, DC, Image). This caused terrible problems for independent and alternative creators and companies, where a lot of interesting women were publishing work! It allowed Diamond Comics to establish a monopoly on distribution, and deny distribution to smaller-run publishers and creators in ways that were quite problematic!

Wish that had been included. Maybe the significance of the Distributor Wars will be addressed if/when the series talks about the early years of web comics and the impact of the internet?

You are correct

As a male, I too found comic books shops of the late 1980s/early 1990s to be a squalled mess. "Ill-lit" is being polite. One shop I visited a few times, I brought my own flashlight because there were two bulbs lighting the back issue section (which was massive; dozens and dozens of long boxes). The owners (the ones around me were all single-owner who ran the store) had no customer service skills with anyone. And the owners seldom bathed. To ask about a comic book that wasn't of interest to the owner was a problem.
Not amazingly, every single one of these types of owners went out of business, despite having a monopoly in their city. Most were never replaced as there weren't enough readers left for making a living.
Now that the industry refuses to broaden its distribution system, it's only a matter of time before we'll have no more print books left, and I see a time when the industry totally implodes and is no more (at least as we can perceive where it started).
Grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations were the entry point to comic books. The internet does not offer an entry point for comic books, only final destinations.

The Internet helps

I think the Internet can be a great entry point for comic books. Through tumblr and twitter I have found out about lots of great artist and creators. Comixology also makes buying comic online easy. Many traditional book publishers also publish and distribute graphic novels ; First Second is the standout imprint for these books.

Also, in your first sentence, the penultimate word should be squalid.

Couple of errors in that history

CCA did not let companies self-censor. ALL comic books that wanted to earn the code HAD to go through the CCA. CCA often employed pregnant women as their censors, and books regularly went back to the publishers for revisions.

In the 1990s, Marvel and DC did NOT split ownership of the major trademarks and characters. I'm sure each company wished it worked that way! But it does not. If a company shuts down, the remaining companies do not "split" the shuttered company's assets. In the 1990s, Marvel owned what it owned, and DC owned what it owned, and everybody else did, too. That statement about splitting trademarks and characters makes no sense. Trademarks and characters were never jointly owned.

You really need to correct these flaws in your history as the flaws lessen your argument.

This title is transmisogynistic.

The title of this feature is extremely transmisogynistic in obvious ways. "Ha ha, get it? Don't be a dick. Because women don't have dicks. Get it?"

It's not clever. It's not funny. It's hateful and reinforces a culture where trans women are othered, misgendered and dehumanized. I expect this kind of shit from assholes like Joss Whedon, but I thought Bitch magazine would be a little more conscious of the effect their words have.

Since when does acting like a

Since when does acting like a dick require having a dick and/or being a man?

Friendly Oh Yeah comics!

Nice thorough and pithy history. Honestly, I have been a member of the comics community my entire life, been studying it's history and the art of making them most of that time. I now make them and advocate for them daily and this is a very true history. Thanks to all involved. Nice work. As a man, I have been wanting more female readership, characters and above all creators to make the medium thrive and arrive at a place of respect in our culture. With diversity, history, innovation and quality efforts we will get there. Thank you.

Here we go again with the revisionist history about The Cat

"Did not find it's intended audience" is a false conclusion.

The fact is, there were so few women reading superhero comics at that time that there were not enough to support a comic targeted to women. That is a fact. The Cat, Shanna and Night Nurse were a group of three titles targeted directly to women. This effort was just as conscious as the effort to target black readers around that same time with several Blaxploitation inspired titles. There were just as many ad's in the advert pages promoting those titles as any other Marvel title. But at that point, the female comic audience was fragmented to the point of non existence and all three titles were doomed to fail. But apparently the comic history revisionists don't like hearing that. I see this all the time. And if these revisionists had even a basic, cursory understanding of Marvel bronze age history and the demographic of the time, they would know this. Actually, a freaking phone call to Roy Thomas would clear it up in about 2 seconds. Picking up an old issue of Comic Book Marketplace or Alter Ego would clear it up even quicker. But that would require actual work, it would require one to want to know the truth and it would shatter the illusion that there was this grand, mythical female fanbase in the 70s and we could not constantly parrot the tumblr talking point that billions and billions of women always read comics and it's just those terrible male executives refusing to take their money. Well, in the early 70s, there was no female dollar to be found. It was not there. The female dollar did not begin it's slow trickle back into the comic book marketplace until the 80s. Hell, even people like Trina Robbins and Louise Simonson have talked about this and know this to be true. Why is it so hard for contemporary women in comics to accept this objective truth? There are plenty of women reading comics today. Tons. And that's great. So why is it so hard to acknowledge that this was demonstrably not the case in the silver and bronze age? This lie is ridiculous and needless. It's like lying about your shoe size. Who cares? Just accept the truth and move on.

Now, feel free to continue with the revisionist history, already in progress.

Is it just me or are we haveing a symantic argument her?

I think there is some confusion on intent here (assumptions are tricky, I realize). When depicting in comics sometimes a short hand is needed and we are filling in the details in the gutter. My reading of this comic is not nessasaraly contrary or revisionist.

By 1972 we are talking about a period of transition in the Comics industry that is clearly set up by the comic. To elaborate a little:

About a generation earlier Congress has backed a witch hunt on Comics as a form of communication. A medium, that has the business history of marketing to anyone who will get hooked on the product. These business men (mostly) were scrappy, perpetuated a business culture that was not driven by ethics, but the bottom line. When the government and "social" groups misinterpreted the product, the business did what it had always done. Found the path of least resistance and most profit. It just so happened the Kirby, Lee and a mix of old and new talent inspired in a crucible of events across the street and the pressures of a golf game above their pay grade & the after math a witch hunt came up with a game changer. They reconfigured the Sci-Fi power fantasy of Superheroes and through inspirations like office gossip about an unconventional family unit, reinterpretations of myths & legends, nostalgia for lost adolescents, the space race, the war, immigration and social politics at the time into Marvel.

10 years into this experiment and most other genre had fallen by the wayside or was on it's way out. EC was reinvented as MAD, Golden Key, Dell ect...were collapsing. There was an emerging underground, but it was confined geographically and not sold at newspaper stands and general stores.

The culture in Marvel & DC offices was like a poor mans Mad Men. The product they sold at the time was seeing success, because the artist and writers had been given the authorization to produce what they wanted, as long as it followed the code. Their own lack of understanding the women's movement and the guidelines set by the code naturally facilitated a product that was difficult to relate to. Kirby and Lee were no strangers to making comics for women (Kirby was part of the team that invented the genre, Romance Comics) and they each had wonderful personal love stories. However, they also were seeing sales as a result of hyping themselves and their product, wich portrayed women in a limited role, even as members of a team. So a decade of dwindling images of covers marketed to women and girls, being replaced by products marketed to boys was taking it's toll in a culture already besieged by outside pressures to label the product as complacent in delinquency. By that time it was not that women were anti-comics, it was the women were being told they should be on one hand and that they were not welcome on the other. By the time a feeble effort of a few issues were shared that were marketed to them (despite the women involved, because in part of the editorial environment they were likely in) it was to little to late.

It is true, that direct to market, comic shops and conventions had not begun yet. These events would insulate the big players in the industry from diversity marketing opportunities for more generations to come. Complicating the cultures ability to open their doors to women and minorities. Isolating their ability to expand readership and delaying advancements in quality and effect on broader culture as an art form. For many still comics are seen as a limited Genre, not a medium. Their IP is easy pickings for other mediums (film, gaming) to exploit and profit off of now that the culture is desperate for a distraction from the harsh reality of modern life. It is no accident that Superheroes are big money on the big screen and comics are ripe for invovation, finally pushing forward artistically and finding more places every day for women and all people.

Frustrations about 1972 comes from the reality, that the people at the time, best positioned to broaden the audience and the potential of the medium they sheprered did what we see people in these sorts of positions today seem to do. They looked out for themselves, their own perspectives, their own desires and found convenience of a path and short profit gains to appealing to take their own place in our community and their own contribution to it a bit more seriously. I love superhero comics. I love what these men made. It speaks to me as a white, Jewish American male. It don't question for a second the notion that I was their target audience and that my daughters interests were never a consideration...until someone told them to take it seriously under duress. And then their harts were not in it, because who likes to work under those conditions and who likes to give up a paying opportunity so someone else can have a voice. That would take superheroic sacrifice.

I think the impact Archie

I think the impact Archie comics extensive lines along with a strong slews and market penetration o Harvey comics up until the 80's, along with Walt Disney/Gold Key/Dell.Charlton comics, have been overlooked in this history. Anecdotally I have heard many women tell me those were their introductions to comics and they collected and read them for years. I did as well!

While the landscape was pretty barren,
leaving those out of a summary of North American comics history is huge gap and a little convenient in bolstering the argument presented. I agree with the lack of female focused books one American comic history, but please don't leave these keys players out.

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