If you're in any doubt whether women are having a Moment in the comics world, take a look at the new incarnation of superhero Black Canary. DC Comics' Annie Wu has taken the character's platinum hair and fishnets from kittenish to riot grrrl by way of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Glowering from the cover of the first issue, she seems to be saying, "Put your eyeballs back in your head and let me save you."
But some women aren't waiting around for the big publishers. While they appreciate recent attempts at outreach — including Marvel's female Thor and Ms. Marvel, and Image's Bitch Planet and top-selling Saga — a small but significant contingent of feminist creators and fans are launching their own, independent publishing projects. And they're being bankrolled to the tune of five and even six figures.
"There's no better way to get the word out [about a project] and no better way to reach women," says artist Amy Reeder. Along with writer Brandon Montclare, she used a Kickstarter campaign to help launch their comic Rocket Girl. She says crowdfunding "gives backers a sense of power to directly affect the market, to be able to speak up on what they want. With comics that's been pretty important."
C. Spike Trotman has had no trouble speaking up on what she wants. In the past six years, she's raised nearly half a million dollars to pay for comics projects published by her tiny house, Iron Circus Comics. Her most successful campaigns have been the feminist porn anthology Smut Peddler — to which more than two thousand people pledged a total of $83,100 — and its sequel, which raised $185,301 from more than 5,000 backers. That may be a record for a genre — woman-centric erotic comics — that's not exactly known for its mass following.
"Iron Circus comics happened very organically. I just wanted to make the kinds of comics that I wasn't seeing out there in the world," Trotman says. "Comics has been focusing on a single audience base for a long time to the detriment of all others — men of a certain age, older men — and that base is steadily shrinking. Now new blood is coming in and a lot of that is women."
Trotman has also masterminded campaigns for a horror anthology, The Sleep of Reason ($46,295 raised), a road-trip romance, The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal ($65,601 raised) and three others. Her numbers are possible partly because, although the big crowdfunding sites aren't female-focused, they enable women to capitalize on their existing networks. A crowdfunding campaign can galvanize people who might not even read comics. That's how Janelle Asselin, the senior editor of ComicsAlliance.com, found some of the funders for her new magazine Fresh Romance.
"I definitely have heard from some women [saying] this is the first comic they've ever picked up," she says. Her campaign for Fresh Romance, a reboot of midcentury romance comics, brought in $53,311 from 1,474 backers — almost double its original goal.
"Crowdfunding has really made an impact on the comics industry, maybe more than any other industry," she says. "Comics is not a wealthy medium outside Marvel and DC. The publishers [of] creator-owned things are often on a shoestring budget. I've spent a lot of time figuring out how to start a business — looking at all the things that go into it — and getting a small-business loan is a nightmare. Women in particular are still given fewer small-business loans than men are."
It was seeing successful women's comics projects on Kickstarter that inspired artist Hazel Newlevant to launch Chainmail Bikini. Having collected $67,427 from 2,375 backers, more than five times her goal, she's thought a lot about the nature of the crowdfunding process. Her take? It's a game.
"It has a lot of the [same] properties," she says. "There's a goal, you can track your progress, there's rewards — it's like a multiplayer game where a lot of people are in it together."
Still, it may be that the goal, or goals, are no big deal — that crowdfunding is simply a twist on the types of independent projects comics fans have been doing for years. That's Maggie Thompson's view. She put in three decades editing Comics Buyer's Guide, and she says crowdfunding is little different from how fanzines used to be paid for: Readers taped change to handwritten requests and mailed them off to P.O. boxes. Thompson also doubts whether women in comics are having a renaissance at all.
"I have long since lost track of the number of panels at comics conventions titled something along the lines of 'Women in Comics,'" she says. "Women in comics have been professionals [for] decades, and some of the most influential people in comics have been women behind the scenes."
The big comics publishers aren't eager to talk about how women fare in their ranks, or indie comics, or crowdfunding. Requests for interviews were rebuffed by Image, Marvel and DC. There's no question that the big guys' sales dwarf those of indie startups, though. According to sales-tracking site, Comichron.com, Marvel earned more than $2 million on just one of its books in May, while Kickstarter reports all its comics projects together raised close to $9 million last year.
Creators who work for the top publishers occasionally crowdfund their own projects — like Reeder and Montclare, with the Image Comics-published Rocket Girl. Their Kickstarter campaign raised $38,037, which covered some living expenses and production costs before Image's royalty checks began arriving. But their campaign didn't go over well with Image, Reeder says.
"Image doesn't necessarily appreciate being combined with Kickstarter," she says. "They have a very strong model of supporting comics retailers, so I think they were worried about the first issue being [available exclusively] through Kickstarter."
Ultimately it's up to women readers to decide what they're going to buy, and where. At Alley Cat Comics in Chicago, located in the historically lesbian-friendly Andersonville neighborhood, the prominent indie rack does a brisk business. Owner Nick Idell says he caters to the wide variety of comics fans who come through every day — including his own young daughter — not just to hardcore superhero-philes. Top titles include the new Star Wars line, from Marvel, and Image's Birthright.
"Our audience is eclectic. It's a very diverse neighborhood, so we get all different kinds of customers," he says. "It's awesome because it all completely works."
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.