For over 30 years, mainstream comic book editors and publishers, seemingly suffering from a collective amnesia, have insisted that girls do not read comics. Dirk Deppey, editor of the trade magazine The Comics Journal, quotes an unnamed comics retailer at a San Diego comics convention who went so far as to say, “Girls don't read comics, there's something in how their brains are wired that just doesn't respond to the way comics work” (Deppey 2006 , p. 252).
In reality, girls have been reading comics as long as there were comics to read. Although no demographics have been found for the early years of the twentieth century, anecdotal evidence in the form of cartoons copied by teenage girls, cartoons cut out of newspapers then colored and pasted into scrapbooks, and letters from cartoonists to high school girls (many in the author's collection) shows that teenage girls were avidly reading the newspaper comics of women cartoonists Grace Drayton and Nell Brinkley, and the strip Flapper Fanny.
Nell Brinkley, whose delicate renditions of beautiful women known as “The Brinkley Girls” graced the pages of Hearst newspapers from 1907 to 1937, inspired later women cartoonists Hilda Terry (Teena), Marty Links (Bobby Sox), Marie Severin (Marvel Comics), Ramona Fradon (DC Comics), and especially Brenda Starr creator Dale Messick. In turn, high school girls of the 1940s and 1950s copied Messick's starry-eyed girl reporter in their school notebooks. Further proof that Brenda Starr was a predominantly female favorite can be found in the paper dolls that were printed along with the strip. Gladys Parker, who went from drawing Flapper Fanny to producing her own long-lasting strip, Mopsy, also included paper dolls with Mopsy. In fact, Parker was a well-known fashion designer in the 1930s, whose clothing was sold in such department stores as Best and Company, and who was featured in Look magazine.
Early Comic Books. Comic books, which started in the early 1930s, originally consisted of reprinted newspaper strips. This all changed in 1938, with the introduction of Superman to the pages of Action Comics, and soon caped flying men with fists of steel dominated the new industry. But in 1941 John Goldwater, publisher of Pep comics, called writer Joe Edwards and artist Bob Montana into his office and asked them to create a new and different comic character. He asked, “Why does every book have to be Superman?” (Robbins 1999, p. 8).
Archie, the character that Edwards and Montana came up with, was definitely not Superman. Along with his pal Jughead and his girlfriend Betty, the freckled, redhaired teenager made his debut in Pep Comics #22, in December 1941. Four issues later, Veronica joined the cast of characters, completing the eternal triangle that has been the basis of every Archie comic since then. By 1942, Archie and his pals had grown so popular that they got their own title. By the end of the war, Archie also had his own radio show and nationally syndicated newspaper strip. The majority of Archie's readers were girls, age 6 to 13, and demographics from the past 25 years show 60 percent female readership. Although no statistics for the earlier years have been found, ads in the books for such female items as charm bracelets, handbags, and women's belts suggest girl readers were in the majority.
The publishers of Archie Comics knew a good thing when they saw it. Perhaps reasoning that if one teenage boy comic was good, two would be even better, in 1944 they added blond Archie clone Wilbur to their line. And in 1944 they introduced Katy Keene in the pages of Wilbur Comics. By 1949, Katy had her own title and was wildly successful. Creator Bill Woggon not only included pages of paper dolls in his books, but he also came up with Page 239 | Top of Articlean entirely new gimmick: he invited his young readers to submit fashion ideas for his brunette movie star heroine, and he published the designs, crediting the designers. Although most of the designers were girls, some were boys. John Lucas, who sent in designs as a young fan, eventually drew Katy Keene when the title was briefly revived from 1984 to 1991.
This resulted in a devoted fan following, which, 20 years later, still put out Katy Keene Fan Magazine. In total, eighteen issues of Katy Keene Fan Magazine were published.
Other comic book publishers were quick to jump on the Archie bandwagon, producing comics with such titles as Candy, Taffy, Mazie, Cindy, Sunny, Sorority Sue, and Suzie Q. Smith. As suggested by the titles, these books starred-and were aimed at-girls. The protagonists of these books were plucky, peppy teenagers, and the stories dealt with light romance and funny misadventures. Some publishers, taking the success of Archie literally, experimented with comics starring boys instead of girls, but without as much success. Dudley (Prize Publications) and Meet Merton (Toby Press) both lasted only a year.
Besides Archie Comics, the biggest contender in the field of girls’ comics was Timely Comics, also called the Marvel Comic Group, under the editorship of the same Stan Lee who later gave the world Spiderman, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. A 1947 ad for the Marvel Comic Group that ran in Timely comics shows nine titles with a girl's name (Junior Miss, Patsy Walker, Miss America, Millie, Tessie, Cindy, Jeannie, Rusty, and Margie), four titles with a boy's name (Willie, Frankie, Georgie, and Oscar) and three gender-neutral titles (Teen, Joker, and Gay). Not all of the Timely girls’ comics were about teenagers. Career girl comics like Millie the Model, Tessie the Typist, and Nellie the Nurse provided positive images of working women in an era when most girls were expected to marry and raise a family rather than have a career.
During the 1940s, high school girls also found comics in girls’ magazines such as Junior Miss, Miss America, Calling All Girls, Keen Teens, Sweet Sixteen, and, for younger readers, Polly Pigtails. These magazines combined chatty articles about fashion, crafts, and pop stars with comics about role models like Madame Chiang Kai Shek and Louisa May Alcott, or comics about girls who were reporters or had some other exciting profession. The circulation of Calling All Girls, which started in 1941, was over half a million by 1944, and it can be surmised that the other girls’ magazines did as well. A 1946 graph in Newsdealer magazine showed that in the 8-to 11-year age range and also for ages 18 to 34, female comic book readers outnumbered male readers (Robbins 1999, p. 38).
The Postwar Period. In 1947, two young World War II veterans, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, produced the first romance comic, Young Romance. It was a runaway success with older teens and even young housewives, selling 92 percent of its print run. Soon the team of Simon and Kirby added three more titles to their line: Young Love, Young Brides, and In Love. These comics were inspired by the success of romance magazines like True Story, True Confessions, and True Experiences, which had been around since the 1920s. Like their magazine counterparts, the comics often pretended to be true stories that were narrated to the writer. Despite suggestive titles like “Back Door Love” and “You're Not the First,” the stories were comparatively tame and never mentioned sex. Nonetheless, they were racy enough for the high school girls of the late 1940s and 1950s, who gobbled them up in such numbers that a 1950 graph in Newsdealer showed that 17-to 25-year-old females were reading more comics than males (Robbins 1999, p. 54).
It did not take long after the 1947 publication of Young Love for other comic book publishers to come up with their own romance titles. Girls’ Love, Girls’ Romances, Heart Throbs, Romantic Secrets, Lovers’ Lane, Personal Love, My Confession, Sweethearts, and I Love You were only some of the titles that crowded the newsstands. There were even variations of romance in other genres, such as Wartime Romances, Career Girl Romances, HISchool Romance, and Cowgirl Romances. By 1950, over a quarter of the comic books published in America were love comics (Robbins 1999, p. 54).
It is no coincidence that love comics came into being after the end of the war. During the war, while the young men were overseas in the military, women stepped in to take their jobs. They worked in factories, made ships and planes, drove trucks and buses, and even flew planes. When the men came home after the war, they wanted their old jobs back. Women were encouraged to quit work, marry, and stay home to raise a family. This was the message in love comics: no matter who the heroine is, she will only find true happiness when she meets and marries the right man and starts having kids.
By the early 1960s, America had changed, and teenage girls changed along with their country. From 1961 to 1963, love comics were still one of the top two genres on the newsstands, but by 1964 they had been eclipsed by the fast-growing new superhero comics. The world, even for high school girls, had grown more sophisticated, and the simple stories in love comics seemed impossibly square. Comic book publishers attempted to keep up with the times by upgrading their heroines from high school girls and housewives to college students and stewardesses. They added the Beatles and Elvis to their covers, and produced stories like “His Hair Is Long and I Love Him” and “How Can I Love a Member of the Establishment?” But they had lost their audience, who were more interested in the new hippie lifestyle than panels featuring close-ups of pretty girls with tears rolling down their cheeks. Those panels, reproduced in pop art paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, had become clichés.
The Girl Comic Drought. Many love comics publishers had folded by the end of the 1950s, after the romance craze ran its course, and the remaining publishers limped on through the early 1970s. Marvel Comics published its last love comic in 1975, Charlton's romance line ended in 1976, and the last love comic, DC's Young Romance, ended in 1977. A similar fate had affected all those teen girl titles. Marvel's popular comic Patsy Walker folded in 1967, and its even more popular Millie the Model ended in 1975.
Except for the unsinkable Archie Comics line, from 1977 until the early 1990s girls were indeed not reading comics, because there were no comics for them to read. The phrase “comic book” had become almost synonymous with superheroes, and, with few exceptions, girls are generally not avid consumers of comics that feature hyper-violent male characters. Women and girls have also been turned off by the exaggerated poses, skimpy costumes, and large bra sizes they see on female characters-usually drawn by men-in superhero comics. Feminist fan blogs like Girl_Hero.com are full of angry comments on this subject, and in a June 8, 2000, issue of the Wall Street Journal, journalist Matt Phillips quotes Nicole Lewis, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, who says, regarding the image of women in mainstream superhero comics: “It's a little off-putting, especially to young girls who don't look like that at all” (p. B1).
There have been exceptions. In 1945 Timely's girls’ magazine, Miss America, featured a teenage superheroine named Miss America, who sported cateye glasses and a cute Page 241 | Top of Articleskullcap. A few years later, editor Stan Lee came up with a group of superheroines aimed at girl readers: Sun Girl, Blonde Phantom, Venus (who was actually the Roman goddess herself, returned to Earth as a superheroine), and Namora, fishy cousin to the Marvel superhero, Submariner. While all of these female characters were beautiful, they had realistic figures and were decently clothed.
Meanwhile, DC Comics published Wonder Woman, the creation of pop psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston (who also happens to be the inventor of the lie detector). Among the girls who devoured the adventures of the beautiful Amazon princess-who had left her perfect home on Paradise Island to come to our world and fight for truth, justice, and the American Way-was Gloria Steinem and most of the staff of Ms. magazine. Claiming that when they were girls, they had all been saved by Wonder Woman, they put her on the cover of their first issue in 1972.
And in 1942, Fawcett Comics came up with Mary Marvel, twin sister of their star superhero, Captain Marvel. Mary was a young teenager who said the magic word “Shazam” to be transformed into a flying, cape-wearing, short-skirted teenage superheroine. There was a Mary Marvel fan club for girls to join, and readers could even purchase Mary Marvel fashions-plaid blouses and dresses, dungarees and shorts-through the mail. The clothes were cute and fashionable, and the prices, at $2.98 for a blouse and $3.95 for dungarees, were right.
By the late 1960s, these characters, too, were gone or, in the case of Wonder Woman, greatly weakened, and of not as much interest to girl readers. In 1968, writer Dennis O'Neill demoted Wonder Woman from superheroine to an ordinary though mod young woman who ran a boutique. This unhappy state of affairs lasted until 1973, when the Amazon princess was restored with her special powers and her costume, in part due to the insistence of Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem. The late 1960s also saw the rise of the underground “comix” movement, and in 1972 a core group of eight women met in San Francisco to form Wimmen's Comix, the first and longest-lasting all-woman, feminist underground comix anthology. The 1970s and 1980s saw a proliferation of women producing underground comix, but because of their adult themes and often explicit sexuality, the books could not be sold to girls under 18. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that underage girls managed to get their hands on these comix anyway, smuggling them into their houses and keeping them hidden.
During the 1980s, several unsuccessful attempts were made to bring back girls’ comics. Inspired by the original Katy Keene comics, Barb Rausch and Katy Keene creator Bill Woggon produced a few issues of Vickie Valentine, published by Renegade Press. Trina Robbins drew six issues of a comic called Meet Misty for Marvel Comics, and went on to produce eight issues of another teen comic, California Girls, for Eclipse comics. At DC Comics, Barbara Slate produced nine issues of Angel Love, and in the early 1990s she produced six issues of Sweet XVI, a comic about a typical teen in the days of ancient Rome. Marvel even published Barbie comics for five years, but neither Barbie nor any of the other titles succeeded, because the managers of comic shops, now the home of superhero comics and adolescent boys, did not want to carry them, reasoning that “girls don't read comics.”
The Return of Girls’ Comics. The early 1990s saw the beginning of the end of the girls’ comics drought when the Japanese comic character Sailor Moon arrived in America, in the form of animé (animated television cartoons) and manga (Japanese comics). By the 2000s, wave after wave of manga had arrived on American shores and Page 242 | Top of Articleended the drought. Girls are now reading manga as never before, especially shoujou manga (Japanese girls’ comics). The Wall Street Journal for June 8, 2007, reported that in 2006, total sales of manga books jumped 22 percent to 9.5 million units, up from 7.8 million in 2005, and that the manga category in 2006 accounted for about two-thirds of all graphic novels sold in American bookstores, up from a little more than half in 2004 (Phillips 2007 , p. B1).
Shoujou manga, with beautifully drawn stories of teenage girls, involving romance and nonviolent adventures, represents a pleasant break from traditional violent superhero books. According to the Wall Street Journal article, Ms. Lewis, the college student quoted earlier, “says she likes the fact that female stars of manga are often girls without any special powers, who wear normal clothes, attend high school and are trying to resolve some life problems” (Phillips 2007 , p. B1).
In 2007, inspired by the success of shoujou manga, DC Comics started the Minx comics line, aimed at young female readers. Today there are more girls and women both drawing and reading comics than ever before (Robbins 2001, p. 148). There is no longer any excuse for comics editors and publishers to claim that girls don't read comics.
Deppey, Dirk. (2006, July). “Interview with Dallas Middaugh.” Comics Journal 277, 248-256.
Phillips, Matt. (2007, June 8). “Pow! Romance! Comics Court Girls.” Wall Street Journal, B1.
Robbins, Trina. (1996). The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink.
———. (1999). From Girls to Grrrlz. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
———. (2001). The Great Women Cartoonists. New York: Watson-Guptill.
———. (2005). What's Love Got to Do with It? The Education of a Comics Artist. New York: Allworth Press.
Steinem, Gloria. (1972). Wonder Woman. New York: Bonanza Books.
Triggs, Teal. (2005). Katy Keene: Forgotten Comics Icon. The Education of a Comics Artist, New York: Allworth Press.