I started this project last week as a look at the way gender has played out over time in DC comics. As I continued working with my dataset I found it showed me much more than just trends in character gender. It told the story of a publisher adapting to the interests of its viewership, it showed me social trends in America over the last 80 years and it showed me that one seeming small question can lead to many others tht you could never have thought of when the process began.
I chose DC comics because my favorite superhero/ villain combo (Batman and Joker) are part of the DC universe. My dataset is part of FiveThirtyEight’s article on gender in comic books. They used the wikia fandom databases for DC and Marvel to create the datasets they used in their article. The data covers 1935- 2013.
I think this project would be interesting to everyone from hardcore comic book fans to social scientists. Superheroes are part of the fabric of American culture and many parts of our live consciously and subconsciously. I think of the staple summer blockbuster superhero film to phrases used everyday like “captain-save-a-hoe”.
Seeing as these books laid the foundation for the other mediums (tv and film), I wanted to take a deeper look at the origins of what we are consuming as a culture. There are many iterations of these characters and universes. How have they changed over time? Do they reflect or comment on our society? My assumption initially was that the answer to both questions was yes. I also wondered why I thought that to begin with? DId I truly see comics as being super diverse? Was it good marketing? This was when I had to make an important distinction for myself. I was looking at the comic books themselves. The origin stories, not the cartoons I grew up watching. I enjoyed Batman the Animated Series and Batman Beyond that ran in the 90s. Both featured many female characters and black characters. I had to remind myself that these assumptions are based off my experience of the cartoons, not my experience with the text I was analyzing.
The visualization below shows the names of female characters based on the amount of times they appear in DC Comics. I limited the amount of names, so only women who appeared 50 times or more between 1935 and 2013 show up in this word cloud.
Dark Days for Comic Books
The second visualization looks at appearances over time. The Gantt chart at the top shows each year that there were new characters broken out by gender. The tooltips show character has the most appearances between 1935 and 2013 and debuted that year. For example, Batman first appears in 1939 and between 1939 and 2013 he appears 3093 times in the comic books. The second chart shows the number of appearances of characters in superhero comics between 1935 and 1954. This time frame is the Golden Age of DC Comics. This chart demonstrates the rise and fall of the golden age, where comic book appearances reach an all-time high during World War II and quickly fall in the late 1940s. This was due to oversaturation of the market. In the late 1940’s people had lost their interest in superhero comics. Comic book publishers focused on genre comics instead like sci-fi and horror.
In the early 1950s superhero comics received media criticism for it’s violence and sexual imagery. In addition to government pressure Frederick Wertham, a child psychiatrist wrote Seduction of the innocent A book condemning the violence, drug use, and sexual imagery in comic books. The popularity of this book along with the hearings delivered a blow to superhero comic book popularity in the mid-1950s. In 1954 the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency subpoenaed comic book publishers for public hearings. Many of these Publishers would go under. For fear of government censorship the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was created as a way for the comic book industry to self regulate the content of comic books. The CCA lasted well into the 80s but comics became disconnected from societal issues. A counterculture of “underground comix” rose in popularity during the 1960s and 70s that included violence, drug use, and sex, topics that we’re no longer present in mainstream comic books.
By the late 70s mainstream comic book interest is waning and the way comic books are sold goes through a major change. Direct Market Distribution allows for the proliferation of underground comix. In this new system comic book store owners can buy comic books directly from the publisher at a discounted rate, and get some too customers faster than traditional distribution routes. Selling this way got around the rules of the CCA. The codes are also changing By the 1980’s the CCA allowed some violence and drug use. The amalgamation of laxer codes and this Counter Culture That Grew and fizzled out allowed mainstream Comics to adopt and integrate some of these Concepts into their mainstream comics. I think this correlates with the rise in new female characters in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Your Turn! Look up some of your favorite characters! You might find something unexpected.
The last visual is for my viewers. Hi! Please feel free to look up your favorite DC characters and see how popular they were. In addition to tooltips include their first appearance, whether or not they’re alive, and how they align.