Martha Thomases: The Great Comic Book Lock-Out

There’s been a story making the rounds on the Internet among women who work in the comic book industry. It’s the first-person account by a father who takes his young children to his local comic book store and finds himself embarrassed in front of his daughter. Like the smart little cookie she is, the daughter explains to her father that there is nothing in the store for her.

This is a complaint that women in the comic book industry have been making, as a group, for at least twenty years. Neil Gaiman captured the ethos perfectly in an early issue of Sandman – which is when a lot of fanboys learned that particular point of view was out there. Still, even with all this discussion over the decades, this gentleman did not notice until he had his own daughter, and looked at his comic book store through her eyes.

Some women, reading this story, immediately suggested a few dozen comics or graphic novels that his daughter might like but which, apparently, were unknown to the salespeople at this particular store. Some women were irked that this gentleman wasn’t aware of the problem until it was his problem.

I understand both reactions, but neither is the part of the story that made me the most angry.

There seems to be a school of thought in which the only fiction available to readers is about the readers themselves. Boys can only read about boys. Girls can only read about girls. African-Americans can only read about African-Americans or, possibly, racial minorities can only read about other racial minorities. Certainly, the thinking goes, white kids are only interested in reading about other white kids.

Let me be clear. I don’t think there is some kind of committee that issues these edicts. I think it is a more subtle form of bigotry.

Here’s an example: When I worked at DC and we launched Milestone, a lot of retailers told us that they weren’t going to order the books because they didn’t have any African-American customers. There are so many errors in this kind of thinking that it made me want to tear my hair out. Here is why:

  1. Milestone comics are not created by exclusively black creators for an exclusively black audience.
  2. White readers will not find anything they don’t understand in an issue of a Milestone comic.
  3. The money that African-Americans use for goods and services is exactly the same as that used by white people. If a retailer stocks comics that might appeal to African-American customers, these African-Americans may use this money in his or her store.
  4. Most capitalists consider more customers for their goods and services to be a desirable state of affairs.

The same thinking can apply to comic books that might be appropriate for young girls and, I would argue, for young boys as well. Comics that don’t overly sexualize the female characters. And yet, in the comments section, a retailer claims that no one buys such books for more than an issue or two.

Maybe none of his regular customers buy such all-ages titles regularly. However, a look at a national best-seller list shows a wide variety, including books appropriate to an all-ages audience. Booksellers make money with these books. There is no reason any particular reader can’t.

Comics are not the only literary format with this problem. To quote from the link: “Ellen Oh tells a story of being in a bookstore in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2012, and watching a little white girl reach for The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, a book with a black girl on the cover. Her mother takes that out of her hands and says, ‘Oh no, honey, that’s not for you.’’’ Oh recalls. This is a version of a story I heard repeatedly from the librarians, authors, and editors I interviewed.

We can’t do very much about individual narrow-minded parents. We can celebrate the fact that fiction in all media allows us to see the world through another set of eyes.

Comics do this in a way that allows us to immerse our senses with color and artwork and so much imagination that there was a time when people thought comics were just for kids. That kind of thinking started to fade away thirty years ago, and this was a good thing. It’s not a good thing to keep the kids out.

Nor anybody else.