Another long, rambling thought dump here... I'm finding I write this stuff while I'm killing time until I can justify spending money on a tasty lunch. What? I wrote 1500 words? Ham-fuckin'-burger.
So I've been working on a fairly detailed essay on women in webcomics for a long, long time now... I think it will be coming up on a year in February. The overarching question is: "Why are men and women equally* represented as webcomic creators but comics created by men appear to be more popular among readers?"
Really. My strengths lie elsewhere than math but when you look at the top 25 most popular comics (T. Campbell's now-defunct "Unreliable Surveys" were the inspiration for the essay) the numbers are seriously skewed in favor of male creators. Just last week, Xaviar Xerexes released an updated "Most Read" list at Comixpedia where he lists the most popular comics through different ranking methods including Alexa and Project Wonderful tracking statistics. Check out the last list on the page, which aggregates the information from both Alexa and Project Wonderful into a single list: out of the top 25 comics there is one written by a female creator (Phoenix Requiem, no. 22 on the list). There are several by a partnership of male and female creators ( Girl Genius, no. 15; A Softer World, no. 21; and Menage a 3, no. 23)**.***
Now I've been having a hell of a time writing this essay because I strongly agree with Eric Burn's statement: "[Women] have absolutely the same capacity to build a webcomic, create a readership, develop an audience and influence and make a living as anyone else. It's the web. It doesn't fucking matter what kind of genitals they have. We can't see them." This is a barrierless medium, and the readership has no idea what gender you are unless you outright give them this information. But then there's that damned list...
So I've been emailing and talking to a whole bunch of female webcomic creators on this topic to try and get their take on the whole thing. This is what we've come up with:
- Duration and permanency: Many of the comics on the top 25 lists have been around for years and have an established readership, dating back to the early days of the Internet when gender actually did somewhat predict familiarity.
- Accessibility of Format: Certain genres, such as humor, are more accessible to a broader audience. Certain formats, such as gag-a-day, are easy to identify and require less emotional investment than storyline formats. The same could be said for art style (cartoonish versus realistic or abstract art, etc.).
- Topic: Certain topics, such as video games, poker, or zombies, have a greater appeal to certain limited audiences with an interest in these topics. If the audience itself is a large one, this benefits the webcomic.
- Frequency of Update: It is easier to put out multiple strips per week if the art or the writing is not labor-intensive.
- Taking Things to Extremes: One creator said men are more likely to push barriers than women. Explosions and shoot-em-ups, extreme shock value, etc.
- Gender of Protagonist: Does a webcomic's audience bear similarities to the research on children's books? It's been shown that boys prefer to read stories with male protagonists while girls will read stories with male and female protagonists. The majority of strips in that Top 25 list have prominent male protagonists, even though the supporting cast is made up of male and female characters.
- Gratification: A general collection of these factors, gratification is the sum of how a comic rewards the reader for taking the time to visit the site. It's arguable that comics that update regularly and frequently, have an immediate payout in the form of an immediately recognizable humorous punchline, and have accessible art are more likely to gratify the reader's interests than other types of comics. Oh, and issues such as the load time of the website and how user-friendly the site is for readers can also play into this.
Everyone I've talked to about this sends me back their own List. Basically, these Lists are a litany of the names of female creators, and the people I've spoken with strongly, emphatically emphasize that some (about half, let's say, har har) of the most brilliant work on the Internet is being done by women. Everyone has examples and they are all really, really good examples of women who are bringing funny, dynamic, poignant work to comics, and they meet some or all of the criteria on that back-of-the-envelop list I put up there.
But almost none of them are among the most popular webcomics.
Bah, I'm fed up with the whole thing. Okay, here's an admitted flaw in my research: as of yet, I haven't asked any male creators about this stuff. Just women. And the responses have been extremely varied - some agree that gender does matter, some clearly and definitely state that it does not, and some have walked the middle line where they say gender doesn't matter but then list the reasons they feel that there are differences between comics and the gender of the creators (yeah, I don't know how that works either). And all of them - and I cannot say this clearly enough - state that if the quality of the product isn't any good, then it will never become popular.
Maybe I need to start asking guys about this stuff. Maybe I should just give up. Right now I keep coming back to permanency, where it's probably something as basic as the most popular strips are those that have been around for aeons... except for xkcd (3 years), or Looking for Group (less than 2 years), or Menage a 3 (less than 1 year). I am having such a hard problem with the fact that the gender of the creator shouldn't influence popularity ... but.
Fuck it. Off to get my burger.
*Or around 40 - 60% or so as of Keenspot's analysis of creators' gender done back in 2005-2006, and I'd be willing to say it's a lot closer to 50-50 these days.
** Maybe Dr. McNinja counts, because it is now being colored by Carly Monardo.
***Natalie Dee typically shows up on these Top-Whatever lists but does not host Project Wonderful ads, which might be why her site didn't register on the survey.