Here's the thing. Along with some other RL friends, I've been selling art and handicrafts at anime cons' Artists' Alleys since I was 14 years old. (For perspective, I'm now 22.) It's been great fun, it taught me how to make small talk with just about anyone, and it gave me pocket money all through high school. We've worked well-run cons, where attentive staff nabbed shoplifters discreetly and brought us water when the convention center AC was threatening to mummify us, and we've worked horrible cons, where the convention planners stuck half the tables in a dead-end hallway and broke contract by trying to make us pack up at 6 PM, when most cons are just cranking into high gear. We've worked big, bustling cons, small, desperate cons, and one memorable con that had to stop on Saturday night to hold a live-action telethon to raise enough money to pay for Sunday's venue fee.
But until last weekend, we'd never worked a Western comic convention before.
Let me tell you, it was different
. Not in any of the essentials - the activity trifecta of panels-Artists' Alley-Dealers' Room was intact, there were dances and concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, and Saturday night was the big cosplay contest. But - and there's no good way to put this - the demographics were decidedly different. This first became apparent during set-up on Friday, when everyone was putting up their displays. My friend A put it best; about halfway through Friday afternoon, she said, "You know, I never thought of myself as having a girly art style until now, but apparently, I have a girly style." This was A's first big exposure to the western comics style, whose heavy lineart, primary colors, and anatomical excesses contrasted with her softer, more painterly style. No one stops at every booth in th e alley, but at this con, it seemed like no one was stopping. Hordes of middle-aged white men shuffled past our booth without so much as a second glance, while our target demographic (which skews young and female) seemed thin on the ground. After a while, it just got to be depressing. A and I started riffing to avoid discouragement and boredom.
Pax: Captain, we're detecting immense amounts of radiation emitting from that rainbow-colored booth off the starboard bow.
A: What's the source?
Pax: Sir, our sensors indicate that it's - estrogen.
A: GOOD GOD, MAN. Raise the shields! Set deflection protocols to Ignore. FULL SPEED AWAY.
Pax: It's too late! Smithy from Engineering's already been exposed. He's - he's started dressing in - in pink. And ruffles.
A: We'll have to euthanize him. Estrogen poisoning is no way for a man to die.
In all seriousness, however, it seemed like we had an invisibility shield around our booth, whose effects could only be pierced by women and those under the age of 25. Everyone else deflected to the booths around us. This had never been an issue at other cons; sure, we didn't get a huge adult male traffic, but we always had enough other traffic that we didn't notice.
So, out of boredom, we decided to do an incredibly informal survey of the typical gender of the artists of Artists' Alley. The methodology was thus: I would walk around and make a quick determination of the primary purpose of the booth (Anime-esque art sales, Western Comics-esque art sales, Novel promotions, and Goods sales, including buttons, pillows, plushies, steampunk gear and clothing, etc etc etc) and the gender of the people working behind the booth. To account for the fact that vendors often get friends or significant others to babysit their booths so they can go have fun for a bit, if there was a prominently displayed name on the booth that didn't match the gender of the person working behind the booth, I just put marks for both. Yeah, this wasn't the most accurate survey. Somewhere, my research methodology professor is crying, and she has no idea why. However, given that, the breakdown was something like this:
Artists' Alley Gender Breakdown
|Western Comics Art||66||24|
This was kind of appalling. We weren't just feeling outnumbered because we were in an unfamiliar environment; we were actually outnumbered. By 3:2. However, cons don't control who signs up for AA tables. They do, however, control who they invite as guests.
Official Guest Gender Breakdown
Son of a bitch
. When you went to the official program, the gender ratio got even worse
, particularly among artists and authors. The only fields to achieve relative equity were those out of the anime tradition and those in the entertainment fields. When it came to creators, the majority were males..
I realize that none of this is news. Men have dominated western comics for as long as they've been in existence. Marvel hyped the crap out of their Marvel Women impact, staffed from editor to inker by female employees, precisely because the reverse case is so common. Back in high school, when I was still buying comics on the regular (back when I still had money to buy comics), I'd frequently drive half an hour out of my way to go to the impersonal chain comics shore, rather than the local store where the clerks were either overly attentive or asked why a nice girl like me was buying Hellblazer and Preacher. But you don't often get such clear, immediate data on the gender slant in comics.
As I said earlier, this was mostly surprising in contrast with our experience at anime cons. We've been privileged to get to know a number of smart, funny women through our work at anime cons. Female creators at anime cons, at least at the artists' alley level, are present in equal or greater numbers than male artists. Fanart from the female gaze is as readily available as that from the male gaze - maybe more available, given the prevalence of easily slashable male characters in anime. I'd gotten used to the idea that at any given con, our neighbors were probably going to be female. Anime cons are not safe spaces (years of hearing about and sometimes experiencing low-grade (and sometimes high-octane) sexual skeeviness have disabused me of that notion), but, at least in my experience, they are relatively diverse ones, and they're ones we understand.
We broke this cultural barrier and got outside our comfort zone deliberately, because A and I were trying to promote our webcomic, and it seemed like an expedient way to entice in new blood. (I'm not going to link to the comic directly, because I believe in the separation of professional life and fandom, but PM me and I'll hook you up.) And don't get me wrong. This was a net positive experience. We had a few fans show up to say hi, and a few more people sign up for our mailing list. We broke even on sales, and took home a little extra, which, in this economy, isn't bad. It turns out that comic cons are much better for networking than anime cons, and every last one of the male creators we talked to were completely welcoming and professional. We made some excellent contacts at this con, a few of which might turn into actual collaborations down the line, and another few of which might turn into the kind of behind-the-table friendships that keep artists sane when it's two AM on a Saturday and the teenagers spilling out of the rave are trying to get you to sell a $40 plushie for a half-eaten bag of candy.
But it makes a difference when you're a member of a group that makes up half the population, instead of two-fifths. It makes a difference when you're not wondering whether it's just the audience or whether your stuff is actually crap. In two weeks, A's going to another anime con. She's going to repeat the experiment there, just to make sure that we're not painting them in a halcyon glow. In the meantime, I'm just going to keep writing. Because there's a trend here. The lower the barrier to access is, the more women creators you find. There are more women in the artists' alley than on the guest list; more women in the newer field of anime than in the older field of comics; more women writing on the internet than being published by companies. And the only way that changes is if we all keep writing and drawing and getting our work out there. There's a trend here, and I want it to continue.