14 December 2010


(This has been bothering me for weeks now. And has nothing to do with law. Sorry.)

It started with rain boots. The intersection in front of the law school tends to flood during heavy rains, so I wanted a pair. I saw an advertisement for some officially-licensed Marvel rain boots in a comic book. My first reaction was delight. Then I actually looked at the boots.

I hate them. The comic images are of a woman in some sort of troubled romance. There is a lot of pink. And tears. I don't know if they come from an actual Marvel comic or not. I suspect not. But regardless of the source, I scoffed at ever owning a pair. If I bought a pair of Marvel-related rain boots, they'd have Storm on them chasing the bad weather away (AMIRITE?) or something, not some weepy woman proclaiming her relationship problems to the world. Trying to buy a comic book t-shirt is no better. The official Marvel shop barely has any "women's cut" shirts. And most attempts to get licensed shirts into brick-and-mortar shops focus on the "X Male Superhero is My Boyfriend" type design.

The boots and shirts are only representative of a larger problem. Comic book companies do not know how to sell to women. No, strike that. They only know how to sell to a certain type of woman: the stereotypical one that spends all her time thinking about her nails and her boyfriend. I am sure there are customers out there who love these products. Yay for them (really). I don't have anything against pink or girly rain boots in general. Heaven knows the pair I decided on instead is pretty darn feminine too.

My problem, I think, is that there is no viable alternative. You want a comic book t-shirt cut for women? I hope you think Iron Man and the Hulk spend all their time fighting over you. But me? I want the hilarious Hammer Time shirt and the Deadpool logo one. They're fun and clever and, you know, about comics I actually read.[1] Why do I have to buy the unisex version that will not really fit me and therefore make me look like I'm wearing a tube sock? Why can't they just produce their "guy" products in women's sizes too? Or consider more licenses to companies like Tokidoki, that tread the line between gender and design with more thought?[2]

Comic book companies are trying to reach out to their female audience. Good on them. But they still don't seem to understand that lumping us together under the target audience header "women" is lazy and reductive. It's like when your parents suggest you should be friends with somebody because "you're the same age". Age is an immutable characteristic that generally does not give off much of a spark in the quest for kindred spirits. So why assume the audience you're marketing yourself to can be won over by appealing to a characteristic like that?

This is a snapshot of me: I love reading comics. I'm a huge fan of "literary" series like Fables and The Unwritten, and I dabble in ones like Ed Brubaker's pulp stories and Brian K. Vaughan's stuff[3], but mostly? I read Marvel superhero comics[4]. I like the adventure and the optimism and the fact that writers can actually make me care about the characters under those garish costumes. And yeah, I also dig the occasional romances that are thrown into these stories[5]. Chocolate and peanut butter. But when you take the adventure stuff out and just try to make it all about the romance, you lose me. And this is what the products I'm sulking about do: give you one or the other.

I'm not saying every woman who reads comics is like me. Exactly the opposite, really: not every reader/buyer is the same. And if there are pulp comics and superhero comics and literary ones and tie-in-for-TV-shows-that-died-before-their-time ones and zombie comics and Jane-Austen-and-zombie comics, then clearly the comic book industry is smart enough to have recognized that diversification of products is a really clever business strategy. And here's when I belabor my point a bit just because I want to throw in a quote I like. I realize that trying to define an audience is a lot like the Doctor trying to describe time:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly ... timey-wimey ... stuff.
It's complicated. Very complicated. So keep selling the shirts you've got. Keep licensing the boots that started this whole thing. Somebody is obviously buying them. But take a page from Threadless and TeeFury and offer your other current designs for men and women both. Get somebody to design those Storm boots. Think about your female audience like you do your male one: not just as a gender group, but as a discerning aggregate made up of a lot of smaller, often quite diverse factions. Comic book fans are well-known for being willing to drop significant amounts of money on products they like. So give 'em what they want. What they all want.[6]

[1] Weeeell, I don't currently read Thor. I've been planning to. But that t-shirt makes me want to start right now.
[2] I will take one of each, please.
[3] Just bought the last couple Y: The Last Man TPBs. So excited.
[4] Hence the beating in this post. Sorry, Marvel!
[5] Seriously. Bigby/Snow? Bucky!Cap/Black Widow? MOAR PLZ.
[6] I realize that I am being extremely optimistic in my vision. The reason there are products like this at all is because comic book companies are trying to make more money. And when a product line is not making enough, they stop selling it. Trust me, I've watched a lot of series I like go under the ax. But this is my rant, okay? And even within that framework, I still think there's a lot of room for improvement.

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