Milkshake Madness: Have Women Changed the Comic Book Industry?
Friends, I'm going to be honest - this isn't the post I want to write this week. I was planning to tell you all about the delightful manga series I've been reading lately, but it will have to wait, because once again, Twitter went insane over women in the comics industry, and it feels necessary to unpack that a bit.
If you haven't been following the story, you can read all about it here, but the gist is that Marvel editor Heather Antos posted a selfie with a bunch of her fellow Marvel lady friends, holding milkshakes. The caption was "The Marvel Milkshake Crew #fabulousflo." (More on that hashtag in a minute.) What she got in return were a bunch of nasty tweets and direct messages, complaining that the women were fake geek girls (yawn), who are responsible for Marvel's flagging sales because of their "SJW agenda."
Now, there were plenty of folks who jumped to Antos's defense, creating the #makeminemilkshake tag to show solidarity with Antos and women in comics in general. I think the supporters vastly outnumber the haters, and that's a wonderful thing. What troubles me with this whole foolish business is that it keeps happening, and I can't help but ponder the series of bizarre conclusions the haters need to have drawn in order to make the comments they did; the crazy leaps of logic that lead someone to speak with abject cruelty to strangers. It does no good to attempt to understand internet trolls, but I can't help it - I strive for understanding.
What it seems like is that there are three major issues at play here: 1. These people believe that women making comics is a recent phenomenon. 2. They equate these "new" women with story lines that promote a social justice agenda at the expense of storytelling, art, and the beliefs of the readers. 3. They believe that Marvel as a company is complicit in actively promoting said agenda.
So let's break these down in order. 1. Women in comics is a new thing: Remember that hashtag, #fabulousflo? It's a reference to Flo Steinberg, who passed away at the end of July from an aneurysm. Flo was one of the earliest members of the Marvel bullpen, hired by Stan Lee as a secretary, but taking on so much more in running the Marvel fan club, wrangling temperamental artists, and sending artwork to be approved by the Comics Code authority. After she left Marvel, she published Big Apple Comix, one of the earliest examples of "indie comics" - a bridge between the underground work that preceded it and the glossy mainstream work. She returned to Marvel in the 1990s, and worked as a proofreader until this year. Flo was truly a comics industry legend - and she was there from the beginning of the publisher that these trolls are lamenting is being ruined by women. And she's just one example - women at Marvel and DC are not a new thing, even if they've been more behind the scenes than they are today.
Which leads us to: 2. The trolls believe women (and pretty much everyone who isn't a white man) are promoting a liberal agenda. Spiderman's a black kid sometimes! Iceman is gay! They made Thor a lady! What's weird about these accusations is that writers on all of the stories are white men. Perhaps the women in the milkshake picture are manipulating everything behind the scenes! Hmm, that doesn't seem super likely, does it? What makes more sense is the fact that you have characters who are, on average, 50-100 years old, with whom you've been telling stories continuously for most of that time. It seems inevitable that changing up who wears the mantle will happen sometimes, and if that change is a dud, they'll either change back or into something entirely different yet again. Yes, you can make NEW characters who are women or Muslim or gay or trans, but that doesn't entirely give you a new direction for your old characters. So it goes.
And here we come to: 3. They think Marvel will ruin the company in order to promote a liberal agenda. Publishing is a business. The trolls point to these character changes, and point to Marvel's dropping direct market sales, and then lament that if only the publisher saw the error of its terrible liberal ways, they could FIX this! But because Marvel is so dedicated to this SJW message, they say, the company just won't do it.
There are two main problems with this thought-train. One simple one is that it doesn't really take into account how comic sales have changed. While direct market sales are still really important, they don't track digital sales on things like Comixology. So a book might not be doing well physically, but we don't really know its total reach.
But the part that puzzles me even more than that is the idea that people believe that a corporation would ever put beliefs over profit. For me, a liberal who IS invested in social justice, that's a really nice thought. It's also utter horseshit. Marvel cancels books with flagging sales all the time, without ceremony. They don't exist to promote an agenda, they're here to sell you comics, and if the troll-dollars matter as much as they seem to think they do, then the stories will change again in due time. We shall see.
In the meantime, this makes me feel that projects like LadiesCon are more important than ever, not because women, non-binary folks, people of color, and LGBT folks are a new thing, but because we've all always been here. We make comics. We read comics. We buy comics. And we drink milkshakes and take selfies, and we don't need to apologize for it.