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17 October 2008 @ 10:19 am
 
EDIT - Clarified why I selected the last list out of three at Comixpedia.

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.
 
 
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
galadrielladygzb on October 17th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
I had a few thoughts as I was reading this that I wanted to share with you; maybe they'll be a bit useful.

One is that I usually have no idea what gender a webcomic author is, especially if they use initials or a name like, say, "Otter" :) I often assume that a comic with a male protagonist is written by a male, and vice versa, but there's no reason why that ought to be the case. ("Misfile" and "Tao of Geek" are examples of mistaken assumptions on my part--only noticed ToG seems to be written by a "Liz" last week, though I've been reading it now for years.) Are other readers like me? Do we all just read whatever without much attention to who wrote it?

The other thought was this: I find that there are three things I look for in a webcomic, when it's not just a series of one-offs (like xkcd). There's art, there's the writing, and there's also something a little harder to pinpoint: whether the whole is compelling.

Art and writing are pretty straightforward, although I'll abandon a very art-intensive comic without reading much if I just can't figure out what's going on. There's a point where too much effort makes it impossible to see what the important parts are--and too small, too light, or too obscure text in the comic is just impossible. I have seen a lot of plugs for "Indavo," for example, and from the sources of the plugs, I'd probably like it, but it gives me a headache to try to read the archives.

But a very well-drawn and (on the surface) well-written comic sometimes just doesn't have anything that I want to read. A poorly drawn comic may have a great overall story. I've had comics I read all the way through the archive, because the story was compelling, even though I thought the writing was awful. I don't know if this can contribute to your paper or even just be tangential, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone else put it down this way before. (shrug)

~ ~ ~

Something else that has occurred to me as I'm writing this. It seems to me, though I don't have numbers or examples, that more of the completed comics may be written by women. I wonder if the numbers might show that more women write a story that's intended to end, and therefore don't get the decades-long effect. Narbonic and Get Medieval come to mind, but also Kismet stories, http://www.webcomicsnation.com/laylalawlor/, and of course lots more; those are just off the top of my head.

I suppose this relates to my notion of a compelling story; there are comics I read for years that I just dropped after a while; they used to have that compelling element, but the story is just not interesting any more. If you don't drone on and on forever after you've run out of original things to say, you have a much better product...but it's also no longer an ongoing webcomic, and so you don't have constant traffic looking for updates.

~ ~ ~

Going over the final top 25 list, I see a few things on there that don't surprise me, simply because I don't have a lot of faith in human appreciation of the new and original. This may or may not have any bearing on male as opposed to female authorship, but...people say they like originality, but tend to swarm around things that offer the familiar repackaged as "new" without any real added content. Yeah, oh yeah, there's a fair bit of that. Does it mean anything in relation to the question at hand? You probably have a lot more idea than I do.
filthspigotfilthspigot on October 17th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
T-stache at Fleen commented on this and made several observations that are similar to yours in terms what makes a comic appealing.

Going over the final top 25 list, I see a few things on there that don't surprise me, simply because I don't have a lot of faith in human appreciation of the new and original. This may or may not have any bearing on male as opposed to female authorship, but...people say they like originality, but tend to swarm around things that offer the familiar repackaged as "new" without any real added content.

This is pretty telling to me, although I'm not so much interested in the "warm fuzzy" response, or the "why is this comic appealing?" issue - I'm more interested in why certain comics bring down the house in terms of traffic (read: I just don't get why one or two of the those strips in the Top 25 are popular). But attaching subjective perceptions to understand hard numbers? Yeah, that's sure to work.

"From the Case Files. . ."dirkdada on October 17th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
Are there any statistics on the gender balance of your average webcomic reader these days? If it still skews heavily male, that could certainly have an influence.

Of course, I have no idea if that is still the case.

On a side note, I've heard it said again and again that males prefer male protagonists, and maybe it's true. But I'm male and if I had to choose, I usually prefer the female protag. Of course, while my reading tastes are pretty broad, I still favor the action/adventure kinda stories, so I might be more typically male in that regard.

So just in one person's PoV, there's a mixture of gender/genre/topic. I honestly don't think it's any one thing. I would argue that the dynamics of every item on your list contributes.
filthspigotfilthspigot on October 17th, 2008 09:42 pm (UTC)
Are there any statistics on the gender balance of your average webcomic reader these days? If it still skews heavily male, that could certainly have an influence.

The cleanest figures I've seen for creators is Erik Melander's "Crunching the Numbers." I don't know if it's the best and, since it was written in 2005, it's certainly outdated, but even back then the gender of creators skewed only slightly towards a male majority. Audience is harder to tell, although some of the bigger sites release their readership demographic in their press release packages and these skew heavily towards a male readership.
Rachel Keslensky: Thinking 'Sawlastres0rt on October 18th, 2008 09:16 pm (UTC)
I can't give you a good idea of how many men vs. women read my comic, but I can say that my fanatic index* is almost all men. Make of that what you will.

* Counting just the fans that go out of their way to contact me and keep in touch. Typically when women contact me about the comic, it's because they want advice about their own, not to talk about mine per se...
Rachel Keslensky: Flustered 'Sawlastres0rt on October 17th, 2008 08:25 pm (UTC)
You really shouldn't use Looking for Group as an outlier on permanency, especially as its brother comic, Least I Could Do, is done by the same guys and has been around significantly longer as well, which might, shall we say, "inflate the numbers" a bit.

A lot of these are there for the sake of being around a long time: PvP, Dominic Deegan, Ctrl+Alt+Del, and Dinosaur Comics strike me as part of this, and regardless of what gender you are they're going to be hard to unseat unless they really piss somebody off or otherwise die. I think it may just be fair to say that there're fewer women in the "old blood" of webcomics and so there's a handicap there.

I think you'd get better numbers trying to judge webcomic popularity when it comes to sites of similar age than anything else.
filthspigotfilthspigot on October 18th, 2008 01:27 am (UTC)
You really shouldn't use Looking for Group as an outlier on permanency, especially as its brother comic, Least I Could Do, is done by the same guys and has been around significantly longer as well, which might, shall we say, "inflate the numbers" a bit.

But if you do this, then you need to remove Phoenix Requiem from the list as well, as Sarah Ellerton's previous work of Inverloch is in part responsible for her current success. Then there are no comics created by a woman working solo on the list at all.
Walkings: cheers to thatunrendered on October 17th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
Just an aside, some clarification of gender vs sex might be worth being considered. Many have commented that my comic strip "Bruno" was written gender-female, although I am a male.

Of course, it never reached a huge popularity, so it doesn't disagree with your point. But is your point about gender or sex? or are there simply not enough examples of (more-than-surface) gender-crossing writing to count?

I would love to see more strong women-written strips regardless. Dixebox, Skin Horse, Family Man, Octopus Pie, Nowhere Girl, etc. All brilliant.
filthspigotfilthspigot on October 17th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I didn't expect this thing to get picked up. It's just off-the-cuff Cliffnotes for a much longer piece that I've been struggling with - there's no polish, the word selection is poor, and it was written for no other reasons than to kill time and to get some feedback on issues I've been struggling with. Clarification of the phrasing & terminology never even entered my mind... I even spelled Eric Burns' name incorrectly, and I think that's a hanging offense in the 13 original colonies.
Walkings: cheers to thatunrendered on October 17th, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC)
The web does that. Well, no criticism meant. I found the post interesting enough to want to contribute, so take it as a positive response. :)
Iscahwavestar on October 18th, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)
It strikes me that a lot of the listed comics appeal disproportionately to a male audience - gaming comics, like Nuklear Power, Penny Arcade, etc. and well, errr... sexist comics, like Least I Could Do, and Menage a 3, for all it's co-written by a woman. That suggests to me that the audience for webcomics, whose choices are observed here, may still be disproportionately male as well, although as with everywhere on the internet it's becoming more even. I think an increase in woman-created comics, many (but obviously not all) of which are more story-oriented and less tied to a specific subculture like gaming, is a huge influence in gathering more female readers.

The increase in women gamers and the visibility of women gamers can't be hurting, either.
Rachel Keslensky: Flustered 'Sawlastres0rt on October 18th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
A lot of it relates back to the way men vs. women approach the internet in general: i.e. that most women use the internet as a tool / goal-oriented environment (get THIS data, get THAT review of an item you want to buy, and GTFO) whereas men spend more time "surfing" and playing with websites, making themselves more comfortable doing things online and with technology.

To use an equally sexist metaphor, imagine how women shop in a mall-envrionment as opposed to men... it's a matter of making your readers comfortable in a certain environment, and reading comics online is very much a "surfing"-oriented (read: male) activity still.

How dramatically you can alter this with mere comics is questionable -- you need to either make women more comfortable with being online (hard) or make the comic(s) in question more goal-oriented (not easy, but not quite as hard as the first task either). There's a lot of sexist attitudes that still exist, and before we can argue whether male creators perform better than female creators, it may be a better question to ask if female READERS are as prolific / fanatical as their male counterparts are, and why.
“...something amazing, a boy falling from the sky”: ha!mckenzee on October 20th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
My randomness:

female webcomic creators are MUCH more fun to hang out with.

in my limited experience, female creators are much more outgoing than males (and surprisingly more likely to talk about sex {or is this due to my being viewed as nonthreatening again [I hate that]}).

I wonder how my several transgendered webcomic friends would skew your work?

I'm really not sure why I'm not capitalizing today.
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