If all has gone well, this issue should be up at Weightless and online before the World Fantasy Convention. NYRSF will be well-represented at WFC—David Hartwell, of course, but also me, Arthur Hlavaty, Bernadette Bosky, Alex Donald, Jen Gunnels, and of course Weightless Books’s Gavin Grant and Kelly Link will all be there, along with many past, present, and future NYRSF contributors and staff. See you there, I hope!
Anyone who has been paying attention to the culture of science fiction and fantasy knows that increased diversity—of audience, of creators, and of characters depicted in the works—is one of the biggest concerns in the field today. Comics fandom in the US is going through the same upheaval, and even more extremely.
The American comic book was cast adrift by American commerce in a steady process from the 1950s to the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, the majority of comics sales in the US came from the comic book direct market, shops mostly run by hobbyists for the benefit of other hobbyists. Stores in the direct market would buy comics from the publishers as guaranteed sales, which meant that sales to the direct market were much more lucrative than sales to the traditional magazine market, as well.
The direct market saved comics, but it was a dangerous rescue. Many fields of commerce demonstrate what is known roughly as the “80/20” rule (or, more formally, a Pareto distribution, or a power law distribution): 80 percent or more of the sales come from 20 percent or fewer of the buyers. This distribution distorts those fields in many ways; most notably, companies in such industries will frequently gear most or all of their output, promotion, and marketing into chasing the 20 percent of dedicated buyers. The direct market amplified this chase after heavy consumers and superconsumers. And while the direct market has always had some female customers, the heavy consumers and superconsumers are overwhelmingly male. And, frankly, many of those hobbyist direct market comics shops have been actively hostile to women. In my 30 years as a retailer and a hobbyist, I believe I have met personally only one female “superconsumer” (at the level of 40–50 titles a month). Though I have met many, many women who are dedicated to comics, a variety of pressures kept the comics market pointed at a male audience for a long, long time, not generally through active exclusion but through the pursuit of the most lucrative customers.
All of that is leading up to a big “however”:
However. Simply put, the market is changing. Book publishers have (re)discovered comics, and traditional comics publishers have moved into book channels. This dual movement has been going on since the mid-1980s but accelerated in the 2000s. A generation of adult readers now find the idea of reading comics in book form completely normal. Comics by women already dominate the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list—I believe that every week this year a majority of the softcover list has been graphic novels written and drawn by women, and in many weeks, eight or more of the top ten have been. (Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical Smile and her followup volumes have had a Beatles-like dominance of the absolute top of the list for years now.) Also, digital distribution has allowed women to avoid the swamps of the direct market; the latest iteration of Marvel’s Ms. Marvel series, the Hugo Award–winning story of a teenage superheroine in Jersey City, is reportedly their best selling title in digital form.
As I said, the gender disparity issue in prose sf/f is less severe now than it in comics; there were always some women in the field, but an influx came in the wake of Star Trek (and more power to it for that) and has steadily been building in the decades since.
Progress is not inevitable, because there will always be people to stand in its way and even to actively push things backward. But the barriers to entry—for creators and audience alike—are falling, and there are more ways now for writers of all genders to find audiences of every gender, and it’s hard to see that changing back. The future audiences of comics and of science fiction and fantasy will not be, will never again homogenous; they will be multivalent. The sooner we all start acting like it, the happier the future will be.
—Kevin J. Maroney and the editors