By Erik Grove
Women like comic books. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because comics are amazing. There’s nothing inherently masculine or feminine about words and pictures telling a story. Being surprised by women liking comics is like being surprised that women like movies or like books or like music. Still, the majority of readers and the overwhelming majority of creators are men. There are a lot of points of view as to why that is and ultimately, there are probably a lot of reasons.
My wife was reading about the Sequart Kickstarter project for She Makes Comics recently and suggested I could write something about women making comics in a future column. It’s an incredibly worthy topic but I had to talk myself into it because, after all, I’m a dude and I wanted to be sure whatever I wrote about added something useful to the dialog and wasn’t just another guy talking about women from a position of condescension. The more I thought about it though, I realized that I really needed to write this column not because I have any great revelatory insights on the topic (well, anymore than my regular revelatory insights) but because I think more people should write about this and talk about it.
The topic of women and comics is still this hot button issue with fans and there are a lot of really valid reasons why that is. There are big, serious issues that need to be confronted. Our comics culture has not been, and still struggles to be, supportive and accepting of all of our fans and creators. That makes me mad and it should make all of you made too. I’m not going to solve for the politics of it here but I am going to do something I hope a lot more people do and not be afraid of the topic entirely. So, in this column I’m going to talk about a very small sample of incredible women who have made comics better for all of us. I’m going to celebrate them and ask that you celebrate them with me. There are far more than Essential 8 Women Working in Comics, but I think this is a good beginning.
The South Carolina House of Representatives recently cut funding for the College at Charleston to punish the school for selecting Alison Bechdel’s comic memoir Fun Home for a summer reading program. Bechdel’s incredible, award-winning, best selling critically acclaimed comic deals with the death of her father and discovery of her sexual identity. It’s a compelling story that goes beyond LGBT issues to do what Bechdel says is the secret subversive goal of her work: “to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.” Having a book banned or restricted by libraries or schools is one thing but to have the state legislature decide that there’s nothing more pressing to deal with than scolding a college for putting your book on their reading list is something else altogether and instantly puts Bechdel, and her work, in rare if unfortunate literary company.
Bechdel is a gifted cartoonist and storyteller and she’s been telling stories that may otherwise go untold for decades. She’s also a savvy critic of media culture having written about and popularized a test for media content now commonly called “The Bechdel Test”. The Bechdel Test suggests that a movie or other media entity (like a comic) passes if the work has at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. When applied to a lot of media it becomes very clear how rare it is for movies or comics to pass it. As a writer and a dude, I try to keep this test in mind when I’m writing. It doesn’t mean that media that fails the test isn’t worthwhile or that media that does pass the test is more worthwhile but it does help, when applied proactively, to ensure that female characters aren’t just background objects to the dominant male characters.
There aren’t a lot of women that have written the big brand superhero comic book characters. Louise Simonson is one of them and she’s a powerhouse. Simonson has worked for Marvel and DC Comics, writing characters including Superman, Spider-Man, Power Pack and the X-Men. Her amazing career in mainstream superhero comics started in editorial in the 70’s and spans over 40 years where she contributed to some of the biggest stories, earned heaps of awards and accolades and blazed the trail for future women creators.
I became a fan of Gail Simone’s work when she was writing You’ll All Be Sorry over at Comic Book Resources and now she’s one of the biggest writers in comics with a large and passionate fanbase. She recently started a hashtag on Twitter: #BoysReadComicsToo which kept me laughing most of the day and also encouraged me to work on this very column (thanks, Gail!). Like Simonson and other trailblazers before her, Simone writes marquee characters and is frequently the only woman in a creative roster dominated by men. She infuses her stories with black humor and with characters from diverse backgrounds and points of view.
Simone is also well-known for coining the term “Women in Refrigerators” in response to the bloody murder (and refrigerator stuffing) of one Green Lantern’s girlfriends by a villain. Simone compiled a list of injuries, murders, rapes and other terrible fates inflicted on female comic characters not to suggest that female characters should be immune to peril or injury but to suggest that creators and publishers should be more cognizant about treating these supporting characters primarily as cheap canon fodder or props to drive male power fantasy driven stories. Like the Bechdel Test, Simone’s Women in Refrigerators conceit has created lively conversation about gender representation in comics in a way that I think has benefitted the whole comics community.
At any given time there’s only a small number of incredibly in-demand superstar superhero comics artists like Sara Pichelli. Pichelli is the co-creator with Brian Michael Bendis of the Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and has moved on to a well regarded run on Guardians of the Galaxy. Tom Brevoort called her one of the next Marvel superstars in 2011 and it seems clear that he was right and why. Pichelli’s art hits all the fundamentals. It’s detailed, bombastic, atmospheric and ultimately just fun. I’ll try not to hold it against her that she’s younger than me and instead hope that it means she’s got many years of great comics work to come.
People that know me (and people that just know about comics) have asked me why I haven’t featured Saga in any of my columns yet. The answer is that I haven’t found an appropriate place for it even though it continues to be one of my favorite comics. I’ll write a lot more about Saga in the future but right here I’m going to write about half of why the book is a must-read – Fiona Staples. Staples is one of the absolute best artists working today and her work on Saga is crazy imaginative, beautiful and five million kinds of other awesome. From the first time I saw her work, I knew that I would pay attention to everything Staples did for the rest of her career. She’s not one of the best female artists working in the industry. She’s one of the very best artists working period.
Heidi MacDonald is one of the biggest names in comics journalism. She’s the founder and editor of The Beat and a self-proclaimed “Pop Culture Maven.” Her opinions are informed and astute, her reporting is solid and her tweets are thoughtful and engaging. In addition to covering the gamut of comic and pop culture news and commentary, MacDonald has written about and given a platform for a lot of women in comics conversations. I’ve included her here because her influence and reputation is well deserved and relevant to the topic and because she’s a journalist and tastemaker I care about.
As I finish this column Lena Dunham is probably still getting ready for hosting Saturday Night Live. Most of you know who Dunham is. She’s the creator, showrunner and lead actress on HBO’s Girls and she’s a well-known media personality. She pals around with Judd Apatow and she’s also going to write Archie. She’s on this list because Lena Dunham writing Archie is one of those big deal things that get a lot of comic book fans to roll their eyes but get a lot of new readers picking up books. Dunham has 1.45 million people that follow her on Twitter that care about what she thinks and what she likes and she likes Archie and if even a very small number of Dunham’s fans give Archie a chance when she writes it, that will still be a huge influx of new, largely female readers. There have been a lot of men and women with fanbases outside of comics that have come into the medium with varying degrees of success. It’s possible Dunham’s time writing in the comic book slums won’t be all that noteworthy but it’s more likely that it will be. There’s a stereotype of comic book fans. That stereotype isn’t usually people like Dunham and if nothing else, her interest in comics might make a small difference in broadening the stereotype.
Modern comics wouldn’t be modern comics without Karen Berger. If they put comic book luminaries on coins and money, Berger should be on the twenty dollar bill. Berger brought crazy British geniuses like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to a mainstream comic book audience and made DC’s Vertigo comics imprint a place for new, daring, mature stories. Her vision helped usher in a new era of comics as a fully realized literary form and changed everything. So much of the glory in comics goes to the names on the front of the cover but, like other incredible male and female editors, Berger fought the battles she had to fight to get those comics out onto the shelves and in doing so guided careers from some of the greatest living comics creators. Beyond Moore and Gaiman, she gave Garth Ennis, Brian K. Vaughn, Grant Morrison, G. Willow Wilson and Brian Azzarello places to tell groundbreaking stories with more talented artists that I can possibly name. Her contribution to comics simply cannot be understated and I am eager to see what steps she takes next.
Sometimes critics will look at art or read a story by a woman and say, “that’s really great for a woman.” This kind of thinking is toxic and it’s the sort of thing I was worried about when I was planning for this column. I picked these 8 because they’re amazing contributors to the medium and they are women. Some of them grapple with issues of sexuality and gender. Some just write or draw cool comics. All are every bit the equal of their male counterparts and there are many, many more I haven’t mentioned here. There are other incredible writers like Kelly Sue Deconnick, Ann Nocenti and Marjorie Liu. There are other gifted artists like Coleen Coover, Becky Cloonan and Alex De Campi, editors like Shelly Bond and Jeanine Schaefer and journalists including Bleeding Cool’s own (and my editor) Hannah Means-Shannon. There are more women making comics, reading comics and loving comics than I know about and that’s incredibly good for the medium and the industry.
Thanks go to the Bleeding Cool forum commenters for their feedback (and occasional frustration). I hang around the comments threads for these columns so if you have something to say, I’ll be there to hear it. Special thanks also this week, and really every week, to my incomparable and singularly spectacular wife. She’s my inspiration, my first audience and my best proof reader.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let’s talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR. Follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website www.erikgrove.com for comic book adjacent absurdly awesome fiction. Comic book commentary and fiction blog writing now available for weddings, birthdays, and bar and bat mitzvahs! Payment will be accepted in the form of paid writing gigs or delicious tacos.