So last week, I made a post about women in fandom and the ways that they interact with canon. Many things were said in the comments, but one of them stuck in my mind particularly: Klytus, one of the commenters, said, “what makes me sad is that these girls could be reading the comics instead of just obsessing over the films.”
Setting aside the whole question of whether he refers to male comics fans as “boys”, even when some of them are in their forties, I have to ask: Why on Earth would you wish that on them? The question seems to imply that there’s some sort of inherent superiority in being a fan of the Avengers comic as opposed to “just” enjoying the movies, like there’s a whole world they’re missing out on if only they could be convinced to get into it. If only they could get into storylines like the Hood slapping around Tigra(1), or Jessica Jones getting raped and psychologically tortured by the Purple Man(2)…if only they’d really get to like the unrealistic depictions of hypersexualized female figures, drawn in poses that defy not just the laws of anatomy but quite possibly physics as well(3)…in short, if only they’d sit down and try to read a comic that has continually redefined itself to more narrowly appeal to an audience of adolescents and arrested adolescents, they’d be better fans! As defined, of course, by the shrinking-and-increasingly irrelevant audience of comics fans.(4)
To be fair, there is an alternative interpretation (albeit one that generously decides to ignore the pejorative connotations of “just obsessing” along with generously ignoring the pejorative connotations of “girls”, but never let it be said that I’m not generous…) Maybe Klytus was saying, “Boy, it’s really sad that there’s such a huge female audience for the Avengers, but the comics haven’t been able to capture any of them.” Which is absolutely true. I’m not going to get into question of “How did comics get to this point?”, because lots of blogs have had lots of long, sad conversations about it. But I will ask, “How did comics get to this point without anyone in the industry noticing?” Seriously, the Avengers movie just made a billion dollars. “Billion” with a B billion. That is 100 million tickets sold. Even if you assume that everyone who saw it was a sad obsessive who saw it five times apiece, that is 20 million discrete Avengers fans. Avengers moves about 100,000 copies a month. Not only does this mean they’re reaching one half of one percent of their potential audience, it also happens to be about half the numbers the series did at its peak in the 80s. These are the kinds of numbers that should get an entire building full of people fired, but Marvel actually seems happy with the status quo.
At that point, yes, the question “Why aren’t more women reading Avengers?” does need to be asked, along with the questions, “Why aren’t more kids reading Avengers?”, “Why aren’t more men reading Avengers?”, and “Why aren’t more (insert demographic here) reading Avengers?” But it needs to be asked from the perspective, “How can the miserably unsuccessful comics become more like the wildly successful move?” It’s time, in short, to stop assuming that the comics have narrative primacy, simply because they’ve been around longer. Right now, if you asked the average person on the street who the Avengers were, they’d tell you about the movie. We assume the comics are canon and the movies deviate from that canon because that’s how we’ve been following them, but let’s face facts. In terms of monetary success, public recognition, and number of fans, the Avengers are a series of movies that happens to have a lousy and inaccurate spin-off comic where Nick Fury is a white guy.
Right now, the people in charge of the comics are making only a superficial attempt to fix this(5), primarily because it’s been a point of pride for Marvel that they’ve never done a wholesale reboot like DC has. But when you think about it, it’s more than a little bit crazy that you are prioritizing the ability to read straight from issue #1 through issue #25 (taking in issue #500 along the way, because nothing gives the lie to the idea that you’re avoiding reboots for reasons of ‘accessibility’ quite like random renumbering schemes) than the ability to make a comic that actually reaches the vast audience of fans out there. In short, it might just be time to admit defeat and start working to make the comics more like the movies. Because the alternative is to eventually wind up selling comics to a group of about 10,000 sad obsessives who can’t understand why nobody else is an Avengers fan but them.
(1) It’s hard not to get even more irate about this storyline once you’re aware of Tigra’s backstory; this is one of the most explicitly, textually feminist characters in comics (one specifically created by women as part of an initiative by Marvel to appeal to female readers), and she has a long and unfortunate history of being abused in sexualized ways by writers who’ve had…shall we say, issues with women. Assuming these writers have been doing their homework when it comes to researching the characters they’re writing, which I generally do in all cases, one can’t help but feel like this is deliberate. Not necessarily “putting the womenfolk in their place by taking a feminist character down a peg or two” deliberate, but at the very least taking advantage of the character’s status as a feminist character in problematic ways.
(2) Yes, I know most of this happened in ‘Alias’, not in ‘Avengers’. Same writer, worked the character heavily into ‘Avengers’, let’s not split hairs.
(3) My wife commented on that this morning when we were discussing this. She said that one of her favorite comics was ‘Strangers in Paradise’, in no small part because the women in it looked like real people and not soft-core pin-ups. As for ‘Avengers’, well…how did she put it? “If the comic isn’t interested in me, why should I be interested in it?”
(4) Nothing quite brought home the status of comics as comics (rather than as fodder for adaptations into other media) quite like the famous clip from the San Diego local news a couple of years back where they talked about the flood of incoming comic book fans for SDCC…and the anchorman said, “Do they still make those?” Keeping in mind that the attendee count for SDCC is quite literally larger than the entire reading audience of ‘Avengers’ these days, and it fits into one large building, it’s not an unfair question.
(5) I think if you look up “half-assed” in the dictionary, there’s an actual picture of Nick Fury, Junior.