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Crunching The Numbers: A Look At Gender And Comics

Comic book guy, one of the recurring characters on The Simpsons, is the avatar of the comic book fan: a fat, poorly-dressed, goatee-wielding man with an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and pop culture. And while this image may not be fair or even generally true, the fact remains that comics have mostly been – and still are considered – a male domain, both from the standpoint of audience and of creators. But, whereas this may be true about the print comic world, both mainstream and indie, is it also true about webcomics?

This feature will attempt to assess the ratio of male and female creators in a number of webcomic venues. The method for doing this is simple – the creators on each site included in this survey are categorized as male, female, or unknown. Regardless of how many different comics a creator has on a site he, she, or it will only be counted once for that site. For example, Donna Barr has several series on Modern Tales, but she is only counted once for that site. Ideally, it would have been possible to count the total number of creators for all sites, but since this would take a substantial amount of time and work it was simply not feasible. Because of this a creator may be counted several times on different sites. For example, Shaenon K. Garrity has comics on each of the Modern Tales sites, which means that she is counted once in each of them. Every contributor to a series was counted, providing he, she, or it was credited on the comics' webpage. It is advisable to take the precise numbers in this survey with a grain of salt. Errors, such as creators being counted more than once and missed contributors, may exist in the data collected. However, any such errors should be small enough that although they may affect the precise numbers, they won't affect the overall trends.

In order to put the counts for webcomics into perspective, we also conducted a survey of print comics. One way we did this was to use ICv2's list of sales estimates by Diamond U.S. to comic specialty stores in January 2005. In other words, the most ordered comics in the direct market. The first 100 comics on the list were sampled and the results were as expected. The total number of female contributors found was eight: three writers, two colorists, one inker, one letterer, and one penciler.

It is important to note that the actual number of female contributors is likely to be somewhat larger as information on inkers, letterers and colorists were unavailable on a number of the titles. Regardless of this, the number of female contributors was staggeringly low. The ratio of titles with female contributors found was 8%. If one was to actually try to calculate the ratio of contributors, the numbers would be even lower. With between three and five contributors on each titles (most often five), it is likely to be below 3%.

But comics are not all about the "pamphlets" in the direct market. Graphic novels are a growing market segment, notable in that they not only exist in the comic specialty stores, but also in bookstores. The result is better, but not by much. Out of the 26 featured cartoonists on the Fantagraphics webpage, only two are women. Top Shelf does a little better with 12.5% women.

Newspaper strips are the only mainstream comic medium to truly embrace the Internet as a tool. But when it comes to gender, they are firmly rooted in the male tradition. Two syndicates were part of the survey. Comics.com, which belongs to United Feature Syndicate, and King Features Syndicate. Of the creators connected to Comics.com, 6% were female creators, while King Features had the highest number of all of the print venues surveyed, a whooping 15.7%.

To say that women are scarce in comics would be an understatement, but what about webcomics? It is important to note that all of the print venues examined are firmly rooted in the corporate world. Self-publishers are not a clearly defined part of them, even though many of the creators probably have tried self-publishing at one time or another. But self-publishing is what webcomics are all about; the ease of it is a major factor for the rapid growth of the medium. While self-publishing on the Internet may be as easy as creating a picture and uploading it to a server, when it comes to actually making money from your comic there are barriers – especially if you want to join one of the webcomic syndicates. Both the Modern Tales family of sites and Keenspot have a process for selecting the comics allowed to join. The sites accept submissions from comics creators that want to join the site, but also extend invitations to comics they think would fit into their line-up.

This selection process may play a part in the ratio of male and female creators on the sites. What's clear is that the webcomic syndicates showed some diversity in the results of the survey. Keenspot has the lowest number of female contributors at only 11.1%, which puts them below both King features syndicate and Top Shelf when comparing with print. Among the Modern Tales sites, Modern Tales itself has the lowest at 15.6%, approximately the number of King features, and Girlamatic has the highest at 72%. Wirepop, which is not affiliated with Modern Tales but uses a similar business model, had a 50/50 split between male and female creators.

The numbers seem to indicate that webcomic sites aren't, in general, worse than their print counterparts. However, only Girlamatic and Wirepop truly break the mold. While Girlamatic's high number of female contributors may be fairly self explanatory considering that it is a site featuring webcomics "(mostly) by women, (mostly) for women," Wirepop offers a more interesting case. Is the high number of female contributors a result of the style of comics featured on the site – manga – or is it because a fairly large number of the contributors are of Asian descent, indicating a difference in comics culture?

In order to thoroughly examine the webcomic syndicates' figures we need to assess webcomics in general. To do this four sites were used, Keenspace, Drunk Duck, OnlineComics.net and Buzzcomix. Two different methods were used to select the webcomics in the survey. On Buzzcomix, we used the top 100 webcomics on the list and on Keenspace, we used the top 100 in the Keenspace guide's category for pages loaded. At OnlineComics.net and Drunk Duck, the 100 most recently updated webcomics were used.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Selecting the 100 most recently updated webcomics gave us a nice and random selection, but also includes comics that may never post more than a few pages before dying. The other method avoids this problem under the assumption that it takes a certain amount of endurance to make it into the top hundred on the guide and the toplist. But these type of lists may not offer a random selection if they give an advantage to any type of comic, perhaps as a result of update frequency.

The results show that none of the sites have fewer than 25% female creators. Compared to the webcomic syndicates, only Girlamatic and Wirepop have more than that. Most female creators were found on Keenspace, 40.4%. The number of unknown creators, creators using aliases that did not allow the gender to be guessed with any accuracy, increased significantly. Drunk Duck had the highest number of unknowns, 23.5%, while the other sites had slightly less than 10%.

From this we can derive that it is highly unlikely that the number of female webcomic creators is lower than 25%. The real figure is probably somewhere between 30-40%. This in turn means that there is a noticeable difference between the number of male and female creators on the professional sites, as opposed to the overall numbers. Establishing the reason for this is difficult without proper data on the number of submissions and rejections of male versus female creators, as well as the numbers of invited creators and how many declined the invitation. Without this, any attempt to try to explain this discrepancy would be pure speculation.

While men make up a majority of webcomic creators, it is clear that the number of women is significant. It remains to be seen whether the ratio of women to men in professional webcomics will become more balanced as the business grows or if it will go the way of its print forebears.

Re: Crunching The Numbers: A Look At Gender And Comics by Erik M

For the sheer amount of statistics done, I salute you.

Re: Crunching The Numbers: A Look At Gender And Comics by Erik M

Erik Melander's picture

Thank you kindly. After having clicked through quite a few comics I feel that I've gotten a pretty good "sense" of both keenspace and drunkduck that I didn't have before. For the curious ones, the number of webcomic creators included in this survey is 675. The number of syndicated cartoonists and graphic novel creators is 270, and not included in that figure are the 100 "pamphlet" comic books.

Re: Crunching The Numbers: A Look At Gender And Comics by Erik M

pclips's picture

I've been grousing for some kind of real webcomics census for some time. And this is an excellent approach. I'd love to see it done with other important data, such as traffic stats (as much as that can be evaluated), update schedule, time the comic has existed, etc.

Methodology question: I know at least 5 comics which are done by a M-F team. How did you count those?

Re: Crunching The Numbers: A Look At Gender And Comics by Erik M

Erik Melander's picture

The survey counts creators and not comics per se. With a comic that is the result of a team effort every person credited on the webpage would be counted (not for instance webmasters though, only people directly involved with the creation of the comic). A comic produced by a M-F team, such as for instance Jerzy Drozd and Sarah Turner's The Replacements, would add one male and one female count to the tally.
There is a lot of interesting demographics that could be collected on webcomics. One thing I myself got interested in, even though I did't have the time to do it, was to examine if there were any connections between gender and genre. Or more specifically what the gender distribution is among manga webcomics.
One piece of secondary information gained from the data I collect is the average number of contributors on a comic. Buzzcomics has 1.15 creators/comic, and Keenspace and Onlinecomics both have 1.14 creators/comic.