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A warm welcome for female comic book fans

Comic Book Guy is a character in The Simpsons who plays to all of the stereotypes of a comic book fan: middle-aged, overweight, super-nerdy and male. Dr Mel Gibson, who researches comics and gender - and herself a lifelong comic fan – is working with several festivals to challenge this stereotype. This includes Thought Bubble, the UK’s largest and most high profile comic and graphic novel festival, which made use of Dr Gibson’s research in developing the festival’s appeal to a female audience.

Gibson is based in the Childhood Studies, within the Faculty of Health and life Sciences at Northumbria University. She specialises in teaching and research relating to children, young people, literature and media with a particular interest in visual literacies. Her research on women and comics contributed to the development of Thought Bubble’s distinctive approach, most evidently in the emphasis of gender-related elements in the programming of its annual festival.

Gibson’s body of research on the roles of women and girls in the world of comics was shared with festival staff, including the festival director, Lisa Wood. The research confirmed what Wood, another woman passionate about comics, suspected about the potential scope for attracting female comic readers to the festival. Growth could be fostered via creating a distinctive tone and marketing of the festival and also by emphasising women creators in the programming.

This led directly to Gibson organising and chairing a regular “Women in Comics” panel for the festival that debated issues of gender and diversity. This has become an increasingly important aspect of the festival, attracting major women comic creators such as Alison Bechdel, Robin Furth and Mary Talbot and with its audience rising from 60 in 2009 to a 250 in 2012. The panel topics have been consistently shaped by Gibson’s research findings, which have been used to form the agendas that are addressed by each of the panels..

Lisa Wood, Director of Thought Bubble, confirms how Dr Gibson’s research and the “Women in Comics” panel has changed the festival: “ The panel has been a distinctive feature of Thought Bubble and that the celebration of female creators has acted as a ‘shop-front’ for the festival, showing visitors and guests that this is a female friendly event.”

 

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