With Marvel's Agent Carter in full swing, the second season Netflix's critically acclaimed series Jessica Jones finally confirmed, and the buzz about next year's Wonder Woman film growing steadily louder, the message is clear: America is ready for female superheroes.
While this heroine chic moment is just now crossing over into mainstream entertainment, it's been percolating in the serious comic world for at least a year. Industry publication ComicBookResources.com called 2015 a breakthrough year for female comics, pointing to the successful relaunch of Rosy Press, a digital romance comic series with a mostly female creative team, and to Marvel Comics launch of A-Force, a new title with an all-female Avengers line-up.
There are no solid numbers on the demographics of comic book readership, but recent estimates put the percentage of female readers at between 30% to 50%. Moreover, women ages 17 to 33 were the fastest-growing group at comic book retailers nationally, according to a Publishers Weekly survey from last June.
Yet the world of comics—both in the business and fictional sense—is still extremely male-dominated. Nate Silver's number-crunching site FiveThirtyEight found that in 2014, just 29.3% of the character list at DC Comics and 24.7% of the Marvel Comics roster were female. The site also estimated that male comic book creators, including writers, artists, and editors, outnumbered women nine-to-one.
At Marvel, women make up about a third of the editorial staff, according to a company spokesperson. Fortune spoke to three of these women about their work, their favorite superheroes, what it's like to be a woman in what many consider to be a little boy's world.
Sana Amanat, director of content and character development
Claim to fame: A Muslim-American, Amanat grew up in New Jersey in a conservative family of Pakistani immigrants. Her background will sounds familiar to any reader of Ms. Marvel, the story of Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim girl growing up in—you guessed it—New Jersey. The major difference Amanat and Khan is that the latter happens to also be a superhero. "It’s ultimately about finding your own identity and rejecting the ideas that other people have of you," Amanat explains of the series. Since debuting in 2014, Ms. Marvel became a New York Times bestseller and was nominated for the prestigious Eisner award, the comic book world's equivalent of an Oscar.
Why comics? "I have three older brothers so I have been a big fan of sci-fi comics from a really young age, though I didn’t get into superheroes until the X-Men cartoon came out. That was the first time I felt a connection with the characters at a human level. There’s something really powerful and relatable about them: They're outcasts, misunderstood, trying to find the best in themselves, and it's all about turning that vulnerability into power."
My experience as a woman then... "Early in my career, I had someone doubt that I was good at my job because I was a woman, because I wasn’t reading comics since I was five years old. They [sic] really challenged whether I should be in this industry. It made me feel very insecure and created a lot of self doubt."
...and now: "It’s a far cry from where we were six or seven years ago. Marvel and comics aren’t traditionally a boy’s club anymore. The concept of being a hero isn’t a male-only concept."
What to read: "The new Avengers. It's the most diverse line-up of avengers that we’ve ever had."
Katie Kubert, editor
Claim to fame: Before her time at Marvel, Kubert spent five years at competitor DC Comics, where she oversaw the 2014 reinvention of Batgirl, Batman's sometimes-sidekick as he fights crime in Gotham. "She was kind of my brainchild and that’s one of my proudest accomplishments," Kubert says. "My favorite thing about her is how true to herself she is, being a female superhero and all."
Why comics? Though she is the the granddaughter of Joe Kubert, a renowned comic book artist and founder of the Kubert School of cartooning, Kubert's love for comics isn't genetic, she says. First working in TV, then in the art world, comics were something she moved into without quite intending to. "I wanted to have an effect on the current art world and comics seemed like a really good way to do that."
My experience as a woman: "There are definitely times where I’m the only woman in the room...sometimes there’s a half a second where you’re questioning what you have to say, but it almost wants to make me speak up more and make my voice heard. It doesn’t intimidate me, it makes me want to get out there even more." As far as female characters go, "all you have to do is look at what’s selling. People want to see more equal representation. It’s not going anywhere. It’s not a girl book, it’s a comic book with a superhero that is a woman."
What to read: "A-Force is a totally female team, but the cool thing about is they’re together because they have specific powers, not because they’re women. They just happen to be women, and strongest women for the job."
Emily Shaw, editor
Claim to fame: Emily Shaw edits Marvel titles that are exclusively female-led, including Scarlet Witch, Moon Girl, and Devil Dinosaur. "There's more pressure to write a female character because historically we haven’t had that many, so for every one there are a lot of eyes," she says. "Why does this character do what he or she does? That crosses every gender. In the past, these female characters haven’t been fleshed out in that way." Shaw also co-hosts the weekly Women of Marvel podcast highlighting female creators along with Amanat and others.
Why comics? "I didn’t get into the medium until I took a senior [English] elective in college. We read [graphic novels] Watchmen, The Fun Home, Runaways. I really fell in love with it."
My experience as a woman: "I was nervous about being a minority voice in the room, being female, but I was more nervous about not having grown up and having read comics all my life. I hadn’t brought that and that made me feel like my opinion wasn’t valid."
What to read: "The new [female] Thor. In this new version, Thor is dealing with cancer. And she’s dealing with chemo-therapy. It’s very, very real, applied. We open up the new series with her sitting in a chair going through chemo. It’s dark, unsettling, and very real."