Can Rashida Jones revive the comics industry? Her debut series, Frenemy of the State, promises action, adventure, and Perez Hilton parodies - but will that be enough to hook female readers into the series?
As Jones explained last year, Frenemy started with an intriguing premise:
Back when Paris was at her height of fame and people were just obsessed with her, I had this funny notion that she's actually some crazy genius who knew exactly what she was doing, and she was just conducting this elaborate anthropological study on the world. I imagined that she was going home every night and whispering into her mini-recorder: "Day three hundred and twenty seven. I continue to have them all fooled." That was sort of where the idea for this comic started. And also, I'm obsessed with our country's almost cannibalistic obsession with people who are famous for no other reason than that they're famous. I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to give somebody like Paris Hilton another layer? What if her fame is something more than just an overwhelming need to be an object of desire?" Ariana is a little bit reluctant to be in the spotlight, and there's a sadness to that.
Before reading the comic, I found myself concerned about how the storyline would actually play out. Was there enough fun in this one idea to spin a series out of? Luckily, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Jones, alongside married creative team Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis and comic artist Jeff Wamester, created a smart, reflective series about a woman in the spotlight. The group also slid a lot of jokes about our current culture into the mix - does this look familiar?
The narrative revolves around young heiress Arianna Von Holmberg, who feels trapped in her role as a young, affluent, socialite. Exhausted with the role she plays, Arianna often finds herself playing games with the other women of her set who are invested in the wealthy party life.
However, quick wit aside, Arianna is refreshingly flawed. An intelligent character in most respects, she still finds herself battling her own insecurities and making unwise decisions.
The ensuing mess with her ex is what led to her current situation with the CIA. Clearly, her relationship with the agency is based more on coercion than Arianna's ideas of civic duty. Still, her new buds at the CIA (who reveal the same types of social dynamics that Arianna left in celebutante circles) have plans for the young Von Helmberg, and the issue ends on a promise of danger and scandal.
So what makes Frenemy so appealing? Comic artist Hope Larson may have the answer. On May 19th, she posted the results of a survey of girls and women who read comics. 198 people responded to the survey, and Larson found that the demands of women comic readers (many of whom had fallen out of the habit of reading comics) and their ideas for improving the industry are elementary, but need to be stated again and again.
What can authors, publishers, retailers do to better serve teen/tween girls?
1. More and better female characters, especially protagonists. Girls want to see strong, in-control, kick-ass women calling the shots.
2. A welcoming atmosphere in local comic stores is key. Many respondents reported feeling uncomfortable in comic stores. They were stared at, talked down to, and generally treated without respect.
3. Pink, sparkly cutesy comics about boyfriends, ponies, cupcakes and shopping are widely reviled. Condescend to female readers at your peril, writers and comic publishers.
4. The hypersexualization/objectification of female superheroines makes female readers uncomfortable, and sexual violence as a plot point has got to stop.
5. Girls need good stories in a variety of genres.
6. Most girls don't even know comics exist, or that they would enjoy them. Publishers need to advertise in mainstream media and comic shops need to reach out to girls.
7. Make comics for boys and girls. Comics with dual male and female protagonists. Comics with large casts that offer something for everyone.
8. Use licensed properties to lure new readers into comics.
9. Availability is a problem. Get more comics into schools. Get more comics into libraries-especially school libraries. Get more comics into bookstores, especially large chains.
10. There need to be more women creating comics and working in the industry as editors and publishers.
Frenemy fits most of these parameters. Arianna Von Holmsberg is a socialite, but is seldomly represented as sexualized, and she's a kick-ass protagonist. The series is written in a smart, approachable way that will appeal to teens and adults and the project has a gender balanced team - in sum, it's almost the ideal comic for women. (Unfortunately, Frenemy may hit an availability wall - I had to hunt down my copy and put future issues on request at my local shop.)
Kelly Thompson over at Comic Book Resources interviews Larson and spends some time deconstructing the availability block, and how that discourages girls and women from reading comics:
HOPE LARSON: Everyone has a pet theory about what needs to happen in bookstores, organizationally. What I'd like to see is comics racked in sections divided by age group: adult comics, young adult comics, middle grade comics, and so on.
For this sort of system to work, though, comics publishers would need to start thinking like book publishers in terms of who their books are for. I've been railing about this a lot lately, but to a bookseller, all-ages is not a thing. If you tell a bookseller, "Oh, but this is a book anyone could enjoy!", she will laugh at you, and yes, that has happened to me. Booksellers need to know who they're selling your book to. If they can't figure it out, they probably aren't going to bother stocking it.
I may already have mentioned this, but Barnes & Noble and Borders don't carry my books at all–any of my books–and that's partly because they aren't sure where to shelve YA comics that aren't Manga.
Frenemy suffers from the same problem - the biggest hindrance to the comic isn't the plot or characterization, but the fact that the audience who would enjoy it the most may never become aware that the story exists.
Frenemy of the State [Oni Press]
Rashida Jones is All About Hot Chicks Kicking Ass! [Vanity Fair]
Hope Larson [Official Site]
Girls and Comics Survey Results [Hope Larson]
She Has No Head! - Interview With Hope Larson About Girls & Comics [Comic Book Resources]