Sunday, April 24, 2011

What we can learn from the Women and Comics survey

("We" meaning comics creators, publishers, retailers, and others who care about the future of the comics medium!)

With this year's Women and Comics survey (see the results in Part 1 and Part 2,) we've learned an awful lot about how women - both those who read comics and those who currently do not - relate to the medium. For those of us who like tidy little lists, here are 7 tips for those who hope to attract new women readers and treat existing readers even better:

1) Get 'em while they're young.
Okay, that sounds creepy, but you get the point: Many women discover comics when they're girls. The vast majority of current readers began reading comics before they were 18, and many current non-readers indicated that they had read comics when they were younger. Comics that appeal to girls - from the frilly sparkle enthusiasts to the rough-and-tumble tomboys - are vital to maintaining a healthy readership.

2) . . . and be there for them when they grow up.
Alas, many of those women who read comics in their youth stopped after running out of titles that appealed to their age group, and many perceived comics as being strictly for kids. It's important to promote titles that appeal to adults, as well as teen-friendly titles to bridge the gap between kid stuff and mature reading.

3) Seriously, cool it with the sexified characters.
Many non-readers also said they were repelled by the way they saw women being treated within comics. While there are plenty of well-rounded women in comics of all types, they tend to be clouded over by those who are, well . . . "rounded." There's nothing wrong with close-fitting outfits and ample proportions, but creators/publishers hoping for a greater audience should pay attention to how they position female characters both on the page and within the narrative itself.

4) Retailers: Class it up a bit!
Comics specialty shops were the source of choice for many current readers, so a well-kept store can clearly benefit from being woman-friendly. Among current non-readers, opinions were split half-and-half - but the negative ones were very negative. Some complained about cramped corridors, confusing layouts, and dismissive employees.

Comics shops hoping to attract (and retain!) new customers might try:
  • Re-arranging shelves to provide more room to walk around and browse
  • Pulling down some posters from the window to let in more light (or invest in decent lamps to brighten up the far corners of the store)
  • Teaching employees how to help non-regulars, rather than ignoring them or simply pointing them to one section of the store
  • Creating a special display up front featuring popular titles, staff favorites, and good jumping-on points for long-running series

5) Break up the monolith.
More than anything, non-readers perceived the comics medium as being one solid chunk of . . . something. Mostly superheroes: The genre dominated associations with the comic book format, and even proved strong in other formats. Likewise, a lack of awareness of stories/subjects of interest was the main reason for non-reading. It is important to highlight the wide variety of comics available through increased promotion and more specific genre divisions within comics shops/sections.

(Manga publishers especially need to highlight both story variations and art variations, given the perception of a single Big Eyes Crazy Hair style.)

6) Teach people how to read.
For those of us who already read a lot of comics, the idea that someone wouldn't know how they work is beyond imaginable. And yet, judging by some non-reader responses, that's exactly what's going on. Many insisted that they didn't like the way comics rely on visuals - but I'm going to go out on a limb and say many of these women do enjoy visual-heavy mediums like film, theatre, and games.

The problem isn't with comics - it's with the perception of words as the only way to communicate a message. People need to be told that in comics the artwork is just as important to the story as the words, not simply decoration or "dumbing down".

7) Nothing is too out-there to try.
Non-reading women may not have a lot of experience with comics, but they sure do have some cool ideas for promoting them. Product placement/review deals with YouTube celebrities, freebie copies in salons and waiting rooms, comics emailed directly to the reader (a sort of pseudo-webcomic, if you will) - all, admittedly, a little odd. But maybe, just maybe, odd enough to work. Anything that reaches a new reader is worth it - especially if it makes them view the medium in a more appealing light.

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