Girls a growing presence in comic book world

Corridor comic book stores ready for Free Comic Book Day

Bill Adams/Freelance

Allison Hartman, 17, of Muscatine reads a Flash comic book while shopping at Daydreams Comics, 21 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City, Saturday afternoon, April 19, 2014. ()
Bill Adams/Freelance Allison Hartman, 17, of Muscatine reads a Flash comic book while shopping at Daydreams Comics, 21 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City, Saturday afternoon, April 19, 2014. ()

When Allison Hartman was in junior high school, she picked up her first comic book, an issue of “Teen Titans.” She was hooked.

As a girl reading comics, that made her part of a minority.

Hartman, of Muscatine, is 17 now and a freshman at Western Illinois University. She’s passed her comic book bug on to two of her younger sisters.

The three of them are still part of a minority, but it’s a growing one.

In just the few years Hartman has been a comic book fan, an increasing number of girls and women have engaged with a medium whose fans traditionally have been overwhelmingly boys and men.

It’s a trend local comic bookstore owners have noticed.

“Girls are maybe 15 to 20 percent of our readers. It’s not huge, but I definitely feel it’s getting more prevalent,” said Zach Power, co-owner of Daydreams Comics in Iowa City. “Even the last six months we’ve seen a general uptick in girls’ readership.”

Erin Tapken, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Marion, also has noticed an increase.

“It’s gone from single digits to maybe 15 percent in last few years,” she said, but admitted, “It’s still overwhelmingly male.”

As a woman who owns a comic bookstore, she’s been defying the demographic stereotype for years. She attributes part of the rise to comic book publishers expanding their offerings that appeal to girls.

“In the past couple of years there have been a lot of new books, especially Image Comics and other companies, that aren’t male-superhero driven. There are a wider variety of stories that are more interesting,” she said.

Image Comics features plenty of male heroes but also a slew of heroine-driven stories with protagonists such as Amber Atoms and Rocket Girl. That company’s efforts are just one example of efforts across the industry to refocus on diverse stories.

Diverse stories also means stories that aren’t all about people with superpowers.

Comic book author Jimmy Gownley has been part of those efforts. He created his comic book series, “Amelia Rules!,” in 2001, in part because of the lack of girl-focused stories he saw. His title character, Amelia, is a preteen girl who has everyday adventures centered around school, friends and family.

The series won several national industry awards, and his 2012 trade paperback book, “Her Pemanent Record,” made the New York Times best-seller list.

Gownley, based in Harrisburg, Pa., said he wanted to create a character to which his twin daughters could relate.

“In 2001, to do a comic book about a little girl, for kids, it was something the industry was hostile to. Comic book culture had said we’re actually for adults, and for men,” he said.

“When I started going to comic book conventions in the ’90s, to see even a grown-up, a woman, was rare. You would never see a little girl.”

He said things have changed a lot since then.

“Now you see whole families. And I think that’s because there’s more for her,” he said. “It’s quantum levels beyond where we were even 10 or 15 years ago.”

To Gownley, getting children — of any gender — hooked on comics is about literacy. He said the format can appeal to kids who struggle to embrace traditional novels.

“If you don’t learn to love to read, you’re never going to be a reader,” he said. “The comics format helps you understand the content so much better. A kid can read a full grade level higher because the picture helps them understand the context.”

Alter Ego’s Tapken agreed.

“My nephew, that’s how he learned to read,” she said. “Now he’s 20 years old and is still a happy reader.

“The visuals kind of bring kids in and give them interest.”

To promote comics as a literacy tool, Gownley started Kids Love Comics in 2006. The initiative promoted getting comics books into children’s hands.

He’s since disbanded the program because he decided it was no longer needed — an illustration of how quickly the industry is becoming more accessible.

“After a while it felt like maybe the point was proven,” he said. “Our time was better spent just making really good comics.”

“Really good comics” with female protagonists have taken off, and even the two mainstream comic giants, DC and Marvel, are starting to notice.

Marvel Comics, for example, recently rebooted the “Ms. Marvel” franchise with a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage superheroine as the main character. Marvel also carries one of Hartman’s favorite comics, “Runaways,” about a group of superpowered teenagers.

“They’re an incredibly diverse group, and it’s incredibly well written,” she said. “It’s primarily female characters, and you never see that.”

And Fantagraphics Books continues the 32-year run of “Love and Rockets,” which features among other starring characters two young Mexican-American women, Maggie and Hopey.

However, Hartman said there’s still work to be done.

“Far too often female characters are drawn to the straight male comic book fan. Often the bodies are drawn outlandish,” she said. “We need more diverse characters too, ethnically and racially diverse and LGBT characters.”

She said girls — and boys, too — need to see heroes who look like them and share their concerns.

“When you see a superhero who is just like you and who goes through incredibly hard days and still beats up bad guys, you realize you can face every single day with your head held high,” she said.

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If you go

•Where: Alter Ego Comics, 331 Seventh Ave., Marion

What: More than 1,000 free comic books and 10 comics for $5 grab bag

When: 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. today

Where: Daydreams Comics, 21 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

What: Free comic giveaways and a fundraiser for the Iowa City Animal Center; donations equal free graphic novels. Comic book artist Ian McGinty will be signing autographs and doing sketches.

When: 10 a.m. — 7 p.m. today

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