Book News & Features
4:03 am
Sun July 27, 2014

Lessons From Behind The Counter At A Comic Book Store

Originally published on Tue July 29, 2014 9:54 pm

When the news broke that Thor, the hyper-masculine thunder god, had become a woman, my Twitter feed exploded. It seemed like everybody had something to say. "Who will play the female Thor in the movies?" came up a lot. Meanwhile, I first had to figure out who Thor was. To me, stories about superheroes were for nerdy white guys imagining a world where they could lift heavy things and somehow get the girl. In short, boring. I was hopelessly behind the times.

But like any good journalist, I wasn't about to let total ignorance keep me from chasing down a good story. I saw in Marvel's press release that Jason Aaron was writing the new Thor — so I decided to give him a call. He's in his 40s, from Alabama and has the slightest hint of a Southern drawl. Gruff and to the point, he's the strong-but-silent type.

But when I ask him if he is a feminist, he says, "I'm not one of those people that think feminist is a bad word. I don't see why everyone shouldn't be a feminist."

Aaron has been writing Thor for Marvel since 2012, but the thunder god's been around since the '60s. For the uninitiated: Thor wields a hammer that reads: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor." Aaron says that he's always planned for something to happen to make Thor unworthy, and for someone else to pick up that hammer. Why not a woman?

"It's not like we sat around and threw a dart on the wall to change the gender of a character," said Aaron. "This was my idea. This wasn't Marvel coming to me. This isn't me throwing away what I've been doing."

If Aaron seems defensive, it's for a reason. The tone on Twitter is a bit cautious. And there's already been a backlash against the female Thor. Graeme McMillan from Wired wrote that if Marvel really wants to give voice to women it should create more standalone female characters, rather than just having them temporarily fill male roles. In the San Francisco Weekly, Benjamin Wachs parodied the Marvel press announcement, announcing that Wolverine will be a "transgender Samoan Atheist."

But despite what McMillan says about the new Thor being temporary, Aaron insists she's here to stay. He says he's worked with other writers and planned out story lines with the female Thor that go well into next year. "I'd love to do a Thor, Spiderwoman series," adds Aaron. Turns out Thor comics are about lifting heavy things — but they might also be about female friendship.

I clearly needed to find out what the experts thought. When I first entered Fantom Comics, here in Washington, D.C., I felt shy and out of place. I was expecting to be called out for the fraud I was. I didn't even know what a serial comic book looks like. But 27-year-old Esther Kim, the manager, can't wait to tell me all about the female Thor.

"When you make [female characters] part of the canon, that's exciting. The comic industry is realizing that women are a great and valid audience," she says, and offered me a part of a pecan cookie. Even if the new Thor series doesn't end up being about female friendship, it might have encouraged at least one.

The importance of female readership — particularly its economic importance — is something Esther has experienced as a store manager. Fantom has a list of weekly subscribers, and a quarter of them are women. And it's the comics with female characters that are making money. According to their most recent data, Fantom's best-selling superhero comic is Ms. Marvel, starring a teenage Pakistani-American from New Jersey, the first Muslim character to get her own series. The best-selling title overall is Saga, another series in which many of the main characters are female. And both Ms. Marvel and Saga have female creators — G. Willow Wilson writes Kamala Khan's adventures as Ms. Marvel, and Fiona Staples is behind Saga's gorgeous art.

Esther and Zephi Friel, a 25-year-old employee at Fantom, both insist that it's not just women who buy titles like Ms. Marvel and Saga. "If it's a great story, everybody reads it," they tell me.

After spending my lunch break standing behind the counter with Zephi and Esther, I no longer felt shy. Instead, I felt strangely at home. Fiction has always been as real, sometimes even more real, to me than real life. I modeled my childhood self off Anne of Green Gables, as a teenager I called everything depressing because that's what Holden Caulfield did, and in college Audre Lorde showed me how to be a grown-up. At Fantom Comics, listening to Esther wonder aloud about how Thor's enemies will react when they find out she is a woman, I felt like I had found my people — women for whom fiction offers stories to live through.

I'm not the only one who's come into Fantom with an outdated view of comic books. Zephi says that she's heard mothers say to their daughters,"No, no honey, that's for your brother" when they've asked to buy comics. "And we have to come up with a diplomatic way to say, 'No, comics are for everyone,' " says Esther.

I left Fantom with a stack of titles — Thor, Ms. Marvel, The Wicked + The Divine — my first comic books ever. All of them have (or will soon have) female leads. While they are all about superheroes who have super strength, they're all also about fighting with your family, sometimes feeling alone and inadequate, and trying to figure things out — in short, they're the opposite of boring. I read them all in a week.

Lidia Jean Kott is a production assistant for NPR.org.

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