For years, comic companies sought the much fought over demographic of white men, 18-35. That was the ideal and the goal, and companies stated many times how that was the only readership they were really interested in. People assumed men were always the ones reading comics.
Historically, though, comicbooks started out as reprints of newspaper funnies, specifically sold to young children, both female and male. When original content for comics was first created, which mainly consisted of humor, pulp stories, and Young Romance-style vignettes, children and female readers became the majority consumers.
It wasn’t until World War II that men became the iconic consumers of comics, as comics (many of which were now in the superhero genre) were easy to ship to the boys abroad and provided entertainment in a dark time. Even then, the women who remained and worked in the states, continued to read, and contribute to, comics. When soldiers returned from World War II, the comic book industry shifted tone to match the jaded men and women who were, respectively, dealing with serious conditions like PTSD and losing their employment due to men returning from the battlefield.
The tonal shift, when comics came to focus less on heroes and humor and more on war, horror, crime, and violence, is often associated with the inception of Fredric Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent book, and subsequent Senate investigation. Wertham’s presentation to the Senate, which resulted in the Comics Code Authority, however, featured both young men and women as primary subjects of his research, and even asserted that comicbook content had encouraged a 13-year-old girl to steal and that Wonder Woman was giving little girls the “wrong ideas” about a woman’s place in society.
Comics were never intended for an all-male, or all-adult, audience. The concept is an erroneous one, but one that has been perpetuated by almost every comic company.
However, in the past year, there has been a dramatic shift. While female characters are still not a majority in superhero comics, there has been a noticeable increase in female-led titles, and female characters being presented in a positive (or at least in a way that is not incongruent with male characters) manner.
If anything, titles like Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Gotham Academy, and the recent tone change for Batgirl emphasize the fact that comics have seen a visible audience shift to young women, and that companies are finally acknowledging this visible, and very verbal audience. These are characters in high school and college who are not sexualized in the classic, superhero comicbook style.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Erika Henderson and Batgirl’s Babs Tarr started out as “tumblr famous” artists, and their styles are referential to classic shoujo manga (an art style that aims specifically at appealing towards women), with an emphasis on modern clothing and realistic body types.
Just three years ago, it seemed like no company was interested in selling books for women, now major titles like Uncanny X-Men are using artists, like Kris Anka, who are known for drawing women with different body types and pleasingly unbroken backs.
While DC still seems to struggle—look at the current creative team on Wonder Woman. Although the writer, Meredith Finch, is a woman, the book’s dialogue is mired in internalized misogyny, and an iconically “strong” and lawful good female character, Donna Troy, has been turned into a murder machine by evil feminist Amazons—titles like Harley Quinn, and the upcoming Starfire and Black Canary series seem to speak towards a strong and varied female audience.
While Marvel tends to be the darling of the internet-based audience, their missteps with characters—like Silk, who has magical pheromones that work only with Peter Parker, or the Marvel and Disney decision to delay the Black Panther and Captain Marvel films in favor of another Spider-man movie—are acknowledge very openly by their audience online.
Market research, conducted via Facebook last year, showed that the comic-reading audience was almost 50% female, and that women were the majority readers on female-led titles (shocking that women like to read about female characters). But, moreover, it’s the fact that the Big Two are actually marketing comics pointedly towards girls and women. Women have been reading comicbooks since their inception, but now they are finally being treated like a significant demographic.