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Rachel Nabors

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05:49 pm: American Girls' and Women's Comics: White Space
Got my latest issue of Wired in my mailbox today. In the Jargon Watch section, this particular entry jumped up and poked me in the eyeballs with a toothpick:

"White Space: n. A potentially lucrative market for which no products or services yet exist--because nobody has thought to make people desire those hypothetical products or services."

What a deliciously descriptive phrase. It conjures images of my favorite graphic design element, white space, a powerful lack of anything which can be used to add impact and clean lines to everything from comic books to business cards.

I remember when I first started Manga Punk I strongly felt that girls' and womens' comics represented a substantially profitable (and to that extent exploitable) publishing opportunity. It was "white space."

I hear someone out there sputtering on about the comics industry's attempts to tap into this virgin audience. Tokyo Pop imports manga, Marvel launched "Mary Jane," and so on ad nauseum. But, it's not enough. Women's comics still haven't saturated book stands and library shelves the way they could.

When I ask, "Why not make comics for girls?" I inevitably hear responses like, "Why fix something that isn't broken?" or "We should change the industry slowly from the inside." Neither of these satisfy my ever-inquiring mind.

Q: Why should companies like Marvel and DC start making comics for a female audience when they are already so good at making comics for males?
A: Because women's comics are profitable. Women's magazines are a good example of profitability of that market. Imagine a Marvel publication with half the circulation of Hearst's Seventeen or Cosmo.

But, magazines are set up on a different model, different distribution, everything.
Oh, do give comics publishers more credit! They could start small with just a single comic title or anthology marketed to women. They could pitch an idea to a magazine publisher, maybe enter into a partnership. They could even start a mag of their own like Shoujo Beat.

It's a risk. You think any of the Big Three wants to flush money down the hole on a series of comics aimed at women that might not actually sell?
Call it "R&D." It's something all successful companies do: Research, expand, keep up with the market. Exploring new markets is what keeps a company healthy. GM is sinking incredible amounts of money into green energy research. Why? Because ho-hum combustion engines aren't footing the bill like they used to. They know they have to evolve, and this seeming upfront loss will pay out in the long run. It's the same with comics.

Producing even one solid, well designed comic title for young women (not just a spin off of a guy comic or female-friendly unisex comic) and keeping it going, even at a loss, for several years while moderately promoting and marketing it will attract media attention and dedicated fans. "If you publish it, they (readers) will come." It happened with Japanese comics long before Mixx Zine (the flagship of Tokyo Pop) came along. Persistence and ingenuity are key.

Besides, we already have buyers for these comics. Right now they give most of their money to Tokyo Pop.

Q: Why can't we change comics from the inside?
A: Resistance to the very idea of women's comics from within the comics industry is strong. Just bringing it up on a comics forum will result in some kind of flame war. Comics have grown fat and lazy, and although there are rumblings of steps being taken to create comics for girls, usually all that comes of it is a sexist spin-off, which more fan boys with hard-ons will buy than teenage girls.

I applaud women on the inside trying to make a difference, but I apologize that I'm just not seeing it on the comic store shelves. Maybe the books are hidden under all the floppy TNA rags squabbling over shelf space.

Q: Isn't shoujo manga enough?
A: Sure, if you don't mind subtly throwing away all the feminist ideals our mothers fought for in during the Women's Liberation Movement. Japan is not what you would call "female friendly." In Japan, it is acceptable for a man to grope a teenage girl on the train. I recall reading that a hideously large percentage of young women only go to college to seek husbands then drop out when they get married. Women are still considered inferior in business and the glass ceiling is more like a brick wall.

This chauvinistic attitude is visible in Japanese comics. Even in stories like Kare Kano that seem to champion strong young women, the females inevitably give up their own will, dreams and hopes in favor of adopting their sweetheart's.

But, America is pretty darn sexist itself.
America is far from perfect when it comes to respect and appreciation between the sexes, but at least we're not stuck in the forties.

But manga sells so well! Does it really matter if it has different cultural values? Americans need to learn more about the rest of the world anyway!
It is true that Americans need to learn more about other countries, but not everyone is keen on popculture immersion therapy. Many young American girls simply don't relate to Japanese or Korean heroines. I get emails thanking me for writing stories "that aren't about innocent Japanese school girls." Manga can only hope to reach so many people. Many females will remain put-off by another culture's byproducts.

Q: So, what can I do?
A: Make, sell, buy, love comics created by people like you for people like you! Take them to school and work. Show them to your friends. Spread the word!

Don't buy comics that support an ideal you don't agree with. You love Wonder Woman, but this new artist draws her like a slut? So, stop buying it! Complain to the editor! Put your money where your mouth is. You don't have to tolerate a product that offends you just because you've grown accustomed to it.

Write to editors. Write to publishers. Tell them what you like. Tell them what you hate. Tell them what you want to see. Be vocal. You will be heard. A single letter can be all it takes to change things. Editors and publishers know that for every letter they get, there are probably many other readers who share that opinion who didn't write. So, it is important that you be as vocal as possible.

Very soon, however, it is possible that the White Space that is the female comics market will be no more. All the doom and gloom I just wrote is completely bypassed by the activities of already established, large book publishers. Here's a peek:

The revolution is coming. If my suspicions are correct, which so far they have been, book publishers will saturate females' comics. Their superior marketing and distribution will have women's comics soaring as the "next big thing." Their stables of creators will turn out writing and art superior to much of what is found in comic shops, and by the looks of it, publishers are already calling dibs on the cream of the comicking crop. They will use the profits from the inevitable sales boom to fuel new titles and expand into the male market, eventually dwarfing the once "Big" Three, buying them out, and probably laying off a portion (or possibly all) of the staff, maybe keeping a few big names or useful individuals the same way a cattle farmer holds back a few bulls for breeding while sending the rest of the herd off to slaughter. That will probably only happen to larger publishers with nice, shiny properties. Marvel has the X-Men and DC has Batman and Superman. Of course buying one of these companies would be expensive, but as I always say, "Even 'big' in comics is small." I can imagine Disney or Hearst trying to use the purchase as a tax shelter.

Smaller publishers and larger ones without lucrative properties may get suffocated by the titles book publishers will be pumping out. That is, if book publishers don't insist that their graphic novels get placed in sections by genre rather than format, as Harlequin is doing with Ginger Blossom already. I can imagine the invention of a universal graphic to go on the spine of books to help browsers distinguish between text and sequential books. Book publishers will also siphon off the best talent from rest of the comics industry with competitive advertising and royalties. On the other hand, small comics publishers might survive and perhaps even benefit from the attention, remaining launch pads for undiscovered talent. After all, we have big record labels and small ones, and the Internet does wonders to level the playing field. But, they'll have to play a rousing bout of "catch up" or risk being kicked to the curb during the publishing upheaval.

So what if the Big Three are very good at what they do? I'm betting Simon & Schuster can do it even better.

(Edited so I could muse on the fate of smaller publishers.)

March 23rd, 2007: Comments are turned off because this is getting too many spam bot attention.

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