If we’re being honest about the American comic industry, we know that most readers, creators, and characters are still men. That’s not to say that there are not any women who read American comics. One estimate says women may make up as much as 46% of the comic market. And, of course, there are many female creators and many female characters (who we like to write about). Nonetheless, comics and comic culture still have a gender problem. I’m not going to belabor that point (not that Infinite Comix is afraid to write about the issue). Instead, I want to give some positive attention to an effort DC made to attract women, especially young women, to comics.
In 2007, DC launched the poorly named Minx imprint. The goal of the imprint was to make comics for a younger and mostly female audience by capitalizing on lessons from the manga (Japanese comic books) market. Manga has been very successful at attracting female readers because manga often feature stories starring young women in relatable settings like high school. Furthermore, they don’t carry the same stigma that American superhero comics, and could be bought at bookstores instead of comic shops. Rather than being sold in the larger trade paperback form similar to American comic book collections, manga are sold in smaller digest formats. They are printed in black and white on cheaper paper. This allows manga to be sold in a portable format that provides more pages for less money. In other words, manga lowered social, economic, and retail barriers for female readers. The Minx imprint followed that manga formula. The stories had young female protagonists in relatable settings and sold the books for less than the standard DC trade paperback by printing them in black and white.
Financially, the imprint was a failure. It only lasted two years and never achieved much market penetration. This was because DC had trouble convincing bookstores to carry the books in their Young Adult sections and comic shops were wary of books targeted at young women. Without bookstores on board and with little direct market support, the Minx line was quickly cancelled. I want to look at some of the creative success and failures of the line. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am pretty far from the target audience of these stories. As an adult male, the Minx line was never designed for me.
Caption: The first day at a new school for Jane from The P.L.A.I.N. Janes
The books I read for this article were Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston, The P.L.A.I.N. Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, and Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm. All of these books are about high school aged girls living in American suburbia. Emiko Superstar is about a girl who discovers an underground performance art community called “the freak” over her summer break. The P.L.A.I.N. Janes is about Jane who, along with a group of other teenage girls, starts guerilla art movement in their suburb. Good as Lily is the only one of the three stories that has a fantasy element. On her birthday, the protagonist Grace accidentally summons a toddler version, adult version and elderly version of herself.
A common theme between all the stories is the importance of art and self expression. In Emiko, the characters are brought together by performance art. The protagonist in The P.L.A.I.N. Janes uses art to cope with trauma from experiencing a terrorist attack (it’s not a melodramatic as it sounds) and to make friends at her new school. In Good as Lily, Grace (all the versions of her) rally together to give her the chance to star in a high school play. In each case, the main characters are living out a fantasy of being star artists. While these stories are certainly escapist fantasies, they are a refreshing change from the majority of American comics which are more indulgent in their power fantasies.
The stories are far from perfect. At times, I had trouble relating to the high school drama and anxiety, but it’s been about a decade since I was a teenager in high school, so that could be because I am older than the target audience. Much like the drama, side characters were a little flat at times. Two of the books used the popular-girl-bully character who is rude to the protagonist, but is mean because of her bad home life. Also, all the male characters were included to be love interests for the protagonist. Of course, that is the same treatment that female characters tend to get in more mainstream comics (and popular media in general). I am not objecting to it on a representational level; they could make a hundred more comics like it and still not come close to evening the score between male romantic fantasy characters and their female equivalents. However, the consistent use of one dimensional male love interests are a good indication of how perfunctory and formulaic the romance in the books felt.
Caption: Performers at “The Freak” from Emiko Superstar
Despite those criticisms, all the books had relatable protagonists. They were easy to root for and their successes felt satisfying. In the style of Young Adult literature, the books focused on personal development and maturation. Some stories in that tradition (as well as the American superhero tradition) contrive an entire universe for the edification of the protagonist. Plot events and character choices are designed to serve the main character. Take the Harry Potter books, for example. The entire universe is designed to glorify Harry Potter right down to crafting the rules of the universe’s only sport (Quidditch) so that Harry gets to play the most significant role in every game. In the three Minx books I read, I felt as though the worlds they occupied weren’t crafted purely for the protagonist. As a result, these books rarely felt condescending and the character development in them felt honest.
Earlier this month, DC said they want more female representation in comics. While it feels like we have a long way to go before that is the reality of the industry, for the two years that the Minx imprint was running, they were making a genuine effort to increase representation in stories and on creative teams. However, the Minx imprint is not important just because it gave female creators and opportunity, but for telling young women to pursue self expression. While the imprint couldn’t find financial success, it told the kind of stories that comic books need, stories that encourage women to be confident artists. These are the stories that will help produce the next generation of female talent in comics and the arts at large. As a result, the Minx imprint was a creative success.
Cory Copeland is column writer for DC Infinite. He writes the Postmortem column which analyzes finished story arcs. He is a PhD candidate in Geography at UC Davis and former Macalester college alumnus.
Jan 23, 2015