Women make comics. We read them, we draw them, we write them, we publish them, and we celebrate them. But, somehow, we’re still considered a minority – the outsider. My aim with this weekly Wonder Women column is to showcase the talent of the fantastic women in the industry, the work they have done, the doors they have opened; and of course to celebrate the strong, diverse female characters visible in comics. They’re not all busty ladies fighting crime in underwear as a sidekick to their male counterparts. Change is happening.
It’s with this in mind that I wanted my very first Wonder Women column to focus not on one specific woman, but on all of us as a collective: the fans, the creators, the characters. So this week I’m taking a close look at Sequart’s hugely important documentary, She Makes Comics.
“Representation is absolutely vital. We need to celebrate the women who work in comics, and we need to go back and find their stories and bring them to the fore.”
She Makes Comics began as a kickstarter project in early 2014. One year later, and it’s available worldwide. The fact the documentary even received the huge backing to turn it from an idea into an actual thing is a fantastic step in the right direction – people care about comics. Girls care about comics. And women made this documentary happen. Directed by Marissa Stotter, She Makes Comics is a head-first dive into the world of comics from the female perspective. An astounding host of big names in comics chip in with their views and share their experiences, from Ramona Fradon to Becky Cloonan; Nicole Perlman to Karen Berger; Marjorie Liu to G. Willow Wilson. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
The documentary begins by taking us right back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Women have always been involved in comics, whether as creators or consumers, and back then – it wasn’t considered unusual. Indeed, the industry was hugely diverse, with Jackie Ormes being the first African-American female to work in comics, and one of the most popular cartoonists of the time. How times change…
Newspaper strips made comics much more accessible, and attracted young girls and boys to spend their pocket money on comic books. The widespread inclusion of women in comics continued during the 1940s, when men were overseas. For the first time, action heroines were being created: jungle Janes, brave detectives, women who didn’t need saved.
“I thought we were just being honest about women’s issues.”
The 1970s: the rise of Underground Comix. Boundaries were broken as the creators weren’t restricted by the comics code. This was hugely important for comics, but also hugely damaging. Underground comics openly portrayed rape, the torture and mutilation of women, ridiculing women’s appearances – and any woman who questioned the content was deemed to have no sense of humour. In retaliation, Trina Robbins established It Ain’t Me Babe Comic – a spin off from the feminist movement’s magazine of the era, and the first ever completely female-led comic book. Here, the women working on IAMBC had no restrictions: they were real women dealing with real subjects that were effecting women; drawing and writing women from a woman’s perspective.
Perhaps one of the more shocking revelations of the documentary was when Joyce Farmer announced: in 1973, “we were nearly arrested”. Why? Because their honest portrayal of women was seen as too ‘obscene’. I, for one, do not believe women’s perspective on womanhood and jokes about rape and mutilation are quite on the same level of tastelessness and obscenity; but now Crumb et al. are hailed as comics legends, and the Underground women have been cast aside. To me, this speaks volumes.
“Is there any reason this character can’t be female?”
Where would the X-Men be without Chris Claremont’s run in the 1980s? No, seriously – what would have happened if Claremont hadn’t broken the boundaries he did? She Makes Comics highlights the huge significance and impact Claremont’s ground breaking work had on female involvement and readership. The X-Men embody outsiders – those who aren’t included. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising so many women began to read X-Men comics when Claremont held the pen. New, developed female characters reached out to new female readers, long put off by the poor misrepresentation of women in the superhero comics. Claremont opened a new door, inviting everybody in.
She Makes Comics also delves into DC’s progressive and shocking move in hiring Jenette Kahn as chief publisher during an era where women in comics was still relatively unheard of. But Kahn’s leadership allowed DC to flourish, arguing that their books didn’t have to be superheroes. Under her lead came Watchmen and The Dark Knight – two of the most renowned books of the 80s.
Karen Berger was also making an impact in DC at this time. With a strong interest in progressive material, Berger helped nurture and publish Neil Gaiman’s hugely popular Sandman series, opening a whole new world of comics, which proved incredibly popular with female readers in particular. DC then launched their Vertigo imprint, with Berger the first in command. Without Berger, it’s difficult to tell if comics would have had the same progressive history. Would we have Fables? Y: The Last Man? Berger and Vertigo’s significance cannot be underestimated.
“You’ve managed to alienate the one half of the marketplace that likes to shop.”
Having looked back through the ages, She Makes Comics looks at what women are doing now. How they’re coming together to make change. We learn about Heidi McDonald’s establishment of The Friends of Lulu, and the astounding turn out they had at 1994’s SDCC. And, importantly, there’s the focus on the unstoppable growth of fan culture. Since anime, manga, and independent comics have become more accessible, the outreach to different female audiences has been huge. Finally – something to relate to that isn’t all busty supers in tight cat-suits! We see the power of the Carol Corps, and the impact of cosplay – the fact women are dressing up as characters they feel like they want to embody is incredible; and the hard-work put into not only the costume, but fully embracing the character is fantastic. The attitude and the persona: It proves women characters are worth so much more than just their look.
“I’m often asked ‘are you concerned about being pigeon-holed?’ I’m vaguely offended that writing female-led books is ‘other’, that you’re ‘pigeon-holed’.”
But it’s not all celebration. Despite our obviously overwhelming and amazing involvement in comics throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century, we’re still marginalised. She Makes Comics makes a great effort to highlight that this is still an issue.
We’re all aware that ‘fake geek girl’ issues are very real in all areas of female fandom – and women are getting braver at speaking out and standing up for themselves. But threats still happen. Misogynistic comments happen. Women are told they can’t. Jill Thompson remembers being identified at her early cons as “Oh, she’s that girl that wants to draw comics.” Why do we have to fight and justify liking something, or wanting to do or be something? It only alienates new-comers further.
This is where the documentary really takes a close look at Kelly Sue Deconnick . Kelly Sue is a loud and proud feminist, fighting her hardest for equality through comics. And her argument is compelling and clear. A writer of some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed books of the past decade, with a fan base that stretches further than purely female audiences (despite being female led), Kelly Sue’s fighting for something bigger: overall change. And her main argument: what kind of message are we sending to little girls? That she is ‘other’. We all have the right to be included and chase power fantasies. Every little girl flies.
Every time I’ve watched She Makes Comics, I feel motivated. It’s hugely promising to see just how significant an impact girls and women have had on the industry throughout history. It’s incredibly eye-opening to the real history of women in comics, from their successes to struggles. It’s also worrying to see how far we still have to go, how patronizing people can be about the matter. This is still a problem. As Marjorie Liu states, “everyone wants to have their own face reflected.” And this is so true. Why not write and draw stories around real women? Or real women with superpowers? Comics have changed over the years, but there’s still a long way to go.
I’d strongly urge anyone with an interest in comics and equality to watch the documentary. Sequart have made a number of awesome documentaries focusing on creating comics, based on Chris Claremont to Grant Morrison, but I personally believe She Makes Comics is important viewing. A number of packages are available: an instant download (which comes with bonus extras with Kelly Sue and G. Willow Wilson), a hard copy dvd, bundles with t-shirts – everything you need!
You can find out more about the documentary here: sequart.org/movies/6/she-makes-comics/