A recent survey by DC revealed that 95% of people who were buying their New DC reboot comics were male. Now, that figure is nowhere near an accurate reality of the comic-book market, but it does serve as a reminder that mainstream comics don’t have anything like as many female readers as, say, anime does. Or normal novels. People can and have repeatedly gone into discussion over why this is, and what it is that female readers actually want. Do they want fewer female characters who aren’t worried about their sexuality? Would they like Zatanna to show less leg and for Wonder Woman to be more aggressive and violent? Or, as I’m now going to suggest, do they actually not care especially about female-led comics at all?
Ask a full-on female fan of DC who their favourite character is, and you’ll get all kinds of answers. But if you really want to get into the heart of what drives female readers into stores, just as them the following question:
“do you like Nightwing?”
YES YES OF COURSE YOU DO. Nightwing is an insanely popular character, the very first Robin grown up and turned into a youthful, vibrant, witty version of Batman. Imagine Bruce Wayne but with most of the brooding replaced by silly banter and acrobatics. That’s Dick Drayson. As written by Kyle Higgins in the current Nightwing series by Kyle Higgins, Dick Grayson remains the most eligible bachelor in the DC Universe. He may be capable and smart, but he’s also quiet and introverted in a way which makes him struggle to keep up with the women in his life. Batgirl runs circles around him on a constant basis, for example. And he’s fine with it. Unlike Spider-Man, who is smarter than all his female companions and also has no difficulty keeping them around despite being a bit of an entitled idiot, Nightwing consistently fails to keep the attention of the girls he likes. He’s lovelorn in the extreme.
And that’s something which you don’t see anywhere else in comics, for the most part. Especially at DC where, the central Trinity of characters are disarmingly sexless. Wonder Woman is maintained to be a virgin, while Superman keeps in chaste marriage to Lois Lane and Batman has to be doused in chemicals before he can be persuaded to take a woman to bed. The DC Universe has sexless characters at the core and “sexy” characters like Catwoman prowling the perimeter, constantly threatening to unsettle the flow of power. Nightwing sits in the middle, a sexually-active but inconsistent romantic who wins over women but can’t keep them. He wants to be in a relationship – unlike another female fan-favourite, Gambit, who can never admit how devoted he is to Rogue – but can’t quite keep it together. Even now, the girl he likes is secretly betraying him, once again showing him to be one step behind the woman in his life.
That’s where the line of gender melts away for DC. It’s not in changing the way that the female characters are represented – they already have some of the most diverse and interesting female characters in the entirety of comics. Changing the female characters to make them reflect the male ones doesn’t help anything, and it certainly doesn’t make the female fanbase more interested in reading, say, the Joker-inspired Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. It’s by offering more interesting male characters, who neither balk at sex nor treat it as their right, that DC can start making comics more interesting for both sexes. Nightwing has a massive fanbase, both male and female, because he speaks to both. Women aren’t interested in reading another issue where Superman fights a robot and then goes back to gently tuck himself into bed with Lois (generalisations!), but seeing Dick Grayson beat himself up over not being able to approach a girl he likes? That’s more realistic, interesting, and entertaining for everyone. Isn’t it?
Incidentally the current Nightwing series by Higgins and artists Eddy Barrows/Geraldo Borges is very good right now.