Leah Williams's career shows that fangirling can pay off. She once worked in a comic shop, where she was called "counter candy" for the mostly male customer base. According to Williams, after publishing a YA novel, The Alchemy of Being Fourteen, star Marvel editor Chris Robinson "emailed me out of the blue. He said he read my book and enjoyed it and asked if I had ever thought about writing comics before. I took 12 hours to calm down before replying, 'Yes!! I have'."
Robinson explained that this was a special case. "For years [Williams] has maintained a really interesting Tumblr account filled with anecdotes about the ups and downs (and way, way downs) of her life. That's where I became a fan of her writing style and of her encyclopedic Marvel continuity knowledge." Williams was a fan of Marvel, and Robinson was a fan of Williams. So eventually a meeting of the minds took place, even though the two have never met in person; instead they collaborated over the internet to find a Marvel property that would be a good fit for Williams's writing style.
The product of their collaboration is a story in The Totally Awesome Hulk #1.MU Monsters Unleashed—a mouthful of a title reflecting the ever-sprawling nature of the Marvel universe. This story, "Math Is Magic," has just two characters: Madame Curie (Maddy) Cho, scientist and twin sister of the new Hulk; and Lady Hellbender, a monster hunter superhero, the brawn to Maddy's brain.
Maddy's voice is fresh and relatable (even if her scientific genius isn't). She's plausibly proportioned, and she delivers lines like, "Dude, literally everything is just math," and, "I'm going to be pissed if you squelch on our deal because, you know, death." Williams connected to both of these preexisting characters."Lady Hellbender needs to date me," she said.
This issue, which was released March 1, is part of a larger trend toward inclusivity at Marvel. According to Tim Hanley, a comics historian tracking the gender balance of comic creators at DC and Marvel, March will be a record-setting month for Marvel in terms of the proportion of female creators. He explained, "By my count, there were 227 different creators in total in Marvel's March solicits, so that puts female creators at 16.3 percent."
How should people who aren't blessed with Maddy Cho's mathematical prowess interpret these numbers? Well, cautiously. Hanley, who has authored books on Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Catwoman, commented that the shift in female representation is decisive and steady, but "this shift is from 'barely any' to 'a few' relative to the rest of the line. While it's massive growth from where things were a few years ago, 16 percent women is still not very many at all."
And, as with so many things, the stats start to look less rosy when you peer into them. Hanley's analysis shows that that there's still a bit of a women's box, as "female creators are generally limited to certain kinds of books, specifically those starring female characters… Meanwhile, male creators write and draw comics with male and/or female leads. The mindset seems to be that men can work with any characters while women are better suited to female characters."
Also, women are under-represented in positions of authority, both on the business and the creative side. The lag between more progressive comics and the big-budget business of superhero movies, for instance, makes this clear. Hanley's analysis shows that over a third of Marvel's female creators working in March are only on the covers of their issues. He noted, "Not that this is a bad gig by any means, but writers and interior artists are the ones who are crafting the actual stories and steering the direction of the publisher."
Women are making inroads, but men are still largely the gatekeepers. An editor like Robinson may be "woke as fuck," to use Williams's description, but that's not the case throughout the organization. To take the highest level of examples, Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, who donated to Trump's presidential campaign, has joined the ranks of billionaire businessmen advising the president. There's been little of the outcry over this that greeted, say, the Uber CEO's advisory role (now relinquished), but this may be because Perlmutter stays largely behind the scenes at Marvel, or because activists are reluctant to politicize veterans' healthcare, Perlmutter's issue of choice.
Speaking of commerce in comics, there's also an argument to be made that any positive trends that we might see emerging in the industry are largely driven by profit and, as a previous VICE article has pointed out, the fact that "inclusion is buzzworthy" right now. If the buzz fizzles, Hanley suspects, so will the push toward more diverse representation. Already, comic site Bleeding Cool has reported, Marvel is starting to move back to traditional "meat and potatoes" versions of classic characters.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Hanley said that "both DC and Marvel are casting wider and wider nets to try to bring some [more female creators] in." This fits with what Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told me: "We look for good writers from all over—indie comics, novelists, playwrights, screenplay writers, TV writers. The art is in the casting. We try to put new writers in the best position to display their voice."
Williams's voice is one of these, and she can attest to the power of this greater breadth of representation. Take sexuality, for example—specifically, the lack of nuanced portrayals of bisexuality in pop culture. She said, "I didn't know I was bisexual until I was an adult because I had never been presented with anything other than 'that's fake' regarding bisexuality... growing up in Mississippi it could have been a lot easier if I'd had access to some simple truths through media consumption." She loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the warrior/ordinary girl dynamic it shared with Sailor Moon (another favorite of hers), but the show's treatment of sexuality wasn't all that helpful to her. In her view, Willow was often defined by her feelings for Xander in the early seasons, and then by her feelings for Tara in the later ones. "There was no in-between—no bisexuality."
One surprisingly helpful pop-culture product was the Dragon Age series of fantasy games. All of the role-playing choices gave Williams a sense of freedom to explore identities that helped with her coming-out process: "I could kiss a prankster lesbian elf!"
Regarding her own work, Williams said, "Anything with an audience has a responsibility. I think now more than ever all art has a responsibility to empower its audience with strong and diverse representation."