In regards to its treatment of women, Marvel has oscillated between praiseworthy acts and deeply disheartening lapses of late. Ms. Marvel continues to dominate the sales charts but the choice of artist on the new Spider-Woman series left many women skeptical, all the more so when a variant cover by Milo Manara was announced.

Despite their uneven record, the House of Ideas spared no expense for their Women of Marvel panel. The panel was the single most massive that I’ve ever seen, with sixteen women sharing the stage.

Led by Kelly Sue DeConnick, the packed room and crowded stage constituted an all out assault on the erasure of female comic fans. Following a small giveaway to Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel cosplayers, DeConnick called for all the women in the audience who read comics to raise their hands. Seeing the sea of hands, she casually declared the discussion of how to get girls to read comics over. “Girls have always read comics!” She then asked all the women looking to work in comics to stand up, calling upon them to look out for one another and to hunker down and do the work. “The only way out of the woods is through. Be brave, do it. We believe in you!”

I'm not sure that it was terribly effective to set up a 16 woman panel, but it sure sent one hell of a message.

I’m not sure that it was terribly effective to set up a 16 woman panel, but it sure sent one hell of a message.

The awe-inspiring panel was moderated by Jeanine Schafer, Senior Manager of Talent Relations and included, Sana Amanat, editor of such hits as Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye; producer Judy Stephens; artist Stephanie Hans; Erica Henderson, the artist of the newly announced Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; associate editor Ellie Pyle; Katie Kubert, the editor of Wolverine and the X-Men and Cyclops; associate editor Emily Shaw; collections editor Jen Grünwald; novelist Margaret Stohl; co-writer of Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Marguerite Bennett; Marvel social media manager, Ari Cowan; artist Stacey Lee; and captain of the Carol Corps, Kelly SueDeConnick.

Terry Dodson's cover to X-Men #23, the first part of G. Willow Wilson's "The Burning World" arc.

Terry Dodson’s cover to X-Men #23, the first part of G. Willow Wilson’s “The Burning World” arc.

Schafer wasted no time, diving straight into announcements and opening with one of the most exciting. Heavily hyped at launch, the all-women X-Men fell off my pull list some time ago as plot lines grew more and more weighted down and emerging information about the book’s writer made it hard to justify on the basis of supporting an all female cast. Nonetheless, now that the creative team has shifted, I’ve been looking for a story to pull me back in. Marvel couldn’t have done more to pique my interest than to announce G. Willow Wilson’s “The Burning World” arc. After an adventure in space, Wilson plans to go in the exact opposite direction and take the team into the bowels of the earth.

Next up was the announcement of the Women of Marvel variant cover promotion. Over twenty of Marvel’s greatest female characters will grace the covers of the publisher’s books come March. Not only that, but the covers will all be drawn by women and, from what we were shown, they look fantastic.

With truly astonishing energy, Margaret Stohl announced a new Black Widow YA novel, promising that the book would give fans a look into Natasha’s inner life. Black Widow is a little more Wolverine than Cap, said Stohl, and the book will look at what that means for her as a spy, as a person, and as an Avenger. The slide said that the novel would release in spring but Stohl said fall.

Schafer then confirmed recent rumors and the hopes of many, many fans, if the cheering was any indication, by announcing that Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter Nicole Perlman will be launching a Gamora solo book in Spring of 2015. Perlman’s role in bringing the Guardians to the screen was hailed as a step forward for women at Marvel and skyrocketed the franchise to global attention. While her take on all of the Guardians was crisp and lively, many felt that Gamora got the short end of the stick, lacking a single defining moment, like Rocket’s speech, and competing with the main plot rather than working with it. It seems likely that Perlman had more to say about Gamora and hopefully this will allow her to do so, as well as raise the character’s profile even further. Either way, the announcement shows that Marvel is looking for ways to bring the success of their movie mega-franchise to comics.

Francesco Mattina’s cover to Gamora #1

That rounded out the announcements and Schafer opened the floor to questions.

The first questioner was a young woman who wants to work in the comics industry. It was hard to make out the exact question, but her point was clear. Speaking about the prevalence of sexism and misogyny in the industry, the questioner admitted that she sometimes can’t remember why she wants to work in comics before quickly, and somewhat tragically, acknowledging that she wants to because she loves it. “It’s just hard,” she said as she trailed off.

The day before I’d seen a fan, not entirely wrongly, sent back to his seat for admitting that he didn’t really have a question. That moment stuck in my mind. But what made this panel special wasn’t the wealth of experience on the panel or the sheer numbers on the stage, it was what happened next. Without cutting her off, apparently without caring about time, Schafer responded “it is hard.” “Don’t let them win,” she urged her, “don’t let a couple of a-holes ruin your dream!”

DeConnick, harsher without losing the overwhelming sense of compassion, reminded her that the comics industry is hardly unique in its sexism. “I challenge you to find a place where there isn’t sexism.” DeConnick revealed that during the panel another death threat had been made against feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian and encouraged the crowd to report the abusive tweet. This is not an issue that can be solved by avoidance, she told the crowd, “you fight because you have to. Because we need you.”

Stohl, who had worked as a developer for Activision, shed her otherwise unfaltering energy to share an old anecdote. It was not unusual, in those days, for her to walk into a meeting room full of men and one of her colleges to call out “oh good, the stripper’s here!” She said that she hopes that things have improved in the past ten years or so, but was clear that, if not, women would unfortunately have to fight through, just the same.

Through it all there was a warmth and concern in the room. It felt like a hug. One girl who felt afraid had the courage to go up to the mic and, in return, a wall of some of the most talented women in comics and a massive convention room of fans replied ‘we’ve got you’. It was tremendously affecting.

One of the most interesting things about it was the relative lack of fanfare. There was no patting ourselves on the back or even acknowledging it as a special moment, though for me it undoubtedly was. Perhaps that’s just the way it is when that fear is about you every single day, but, regardless, the panel just rolled on to the next question, as if that were a standard moment.

Said question was about the Scarlet Witch and came from a man who clearly adores the character. Laying out his perception of her manifold strengths and the lack of a forum with which to deal with Wanda’s complex and troubled life of the last decade, he asked if there was any chance of a dedicated Scarlet Witch series. Schafer answered that she couldn’t give him any good news, but told him that the newly released “No More Mutants” teaser image would undoubtedly mean big things for Wanda and to stay tuned.

Similar questions about an Invisible Woman book, especially with Fantastic Four ending, were answered in a slightly more straightforward manner, with the panel confirming that, while there are no current plans for one, there are creators actively interested in the idea.

One girl in the tenth grade came to the mic and told the panelists that she felt like she was the only person in her school who read comics and wanted to know if they had any advice on how to get other girls into comics. The panelists didn’t have a single catchall, but they recommended spreading the word about good books or lending them to friends. They also encouraged the questioner to look at what her friends like and try to “find a gateway” for them. The ideas seemed to build off of one another and soon the panelists started to suggest ways of making comics more social, like book clubs.

Schafer also mentioned the Valkyries, a group of women working in comic shops who are becoming, in her words “very powerful”.

The final question was forStohl, from a girl who had been inspired to get into comics by a free demo of the Spider-Man game that she worked on at Activision. Now a few years older, the girl wanted to know ifStohl had any advice for an aspiring writer following her into both comics and gaming. She had a simple prescription, B.I.C., orbutt in chair. The best adviceStohl could offer was to sit down, do the work, and finish. “You’ll think of  something brilliant on the last page,” she promised.

Stephanie Hans’ Women of Marvel variant cover for Thor

Stacey Lee’s Women of Marvel variant cover for Uncanny X-Men