Yasmeen Khan explores a history of women as consumers and creators of comics.
She Makes Comics has an agenda. Ostensibly, it’s about bringing to the fore the fact that women have always been creators and consumers of comics and graphic novels in America, even while this has been largely ignored by the traditional narrative the industry has put forward in the last 40 or so years. But it’s also about the current paradoxical cultural climate. The more you look, the more influential women you find in the comics industry, as creators and editors and publishers, and the more female fans you’ll find; yet there’s a strong discourse being propagated at the moment that’s pushing against the idea that women who read comics are equal as consumers to their male counterparts.
The appearance of She Makes Comics is timely, in the wider cultural context. Recent months have seen an alarming increase in the vitriol thrown at women in the world of gaming, and a lot of attempts to pretend that feminist criticism (in the academic sense) is a call for prejudicial censorship. (If you’re not au fait with the ‘controversy’, this New York Times article provides a concise introduction.) Whilst video games in particular are bearing the brunt of this terrifying toxicity at the moment, it’s arisen from a wider, deep-seated discourse in entertainment culture. For a long time, we’ve been told that there’s a feeling of resentment that ‘fake geek girls’ are trying to edge their way into fandoms that ‘belong’ to men; this definitely extends to hypocritical attempts to exclude female comic readers, and complaints that feminist critique of some comic art styles is trying to ‘spoil the fun’. This has been despite the fact that many, many women have always been involved not only as consumers but producers too – hence the paradoxical cultural dissonance that pushes a narrative at us that’s at odds with what we see actually happening in the world. It’s not just about women participating in modes of entertainment that are traditionally seen as ‘for’ men. It’s about the way this discourse ignores the fact that comics and games are media, not genres; you can tell any kind of story through a comic or a game, and the fact that superheroes are so dominant in comics is in many ways a consequence of censorship. It’s also about the way that women can like superheroes too, anyway.
So She Makes Comics couldn’t have appeared at a better time, really.
Producers Sequart and Respect Films have made a number of documentaries about comic books, including films on Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Chris Claremont. With this history of prioritising the literary, critically praised but still popular side of graphic novels, it’s not surprising that director Marisa Stotter and the team chose to focus on women in comics next, or that their Kickstarter campaign to finish making this film was so successful. (It asked for $41,500 and raised $54,000.) The film opens with a reminder of how wide the term ‘comics’ is. Of course, newspapers were some of the first places to find published comics in America, and those were accessible to anyone – there was no sense that they were ‘for boys’. In the early 20th century, too, many of the comics in newspapers were being drawn by women like Nell Brinkley and Jackie Ormes (the first female African-American creator to be widely published). Archive footage does show Ormes being described as ‘one of the few women cartoonists’, but that’s surely as much about the times as about the profession. The number of women creators grew during World War II, in much the same way as the number of women doing any kind of job did. These women were drawing action heroines including detectives, intrepid reporters, cowgirls, early superheroes like Wonder Woman, and Tarzan-esque ‘jungle girls’. The common theme was the ‘strong’ female character that could look after herself and didn’t need a man to rescue her – the kind of character we now recognise is often equally as one-dimensional as her housewife counterpart, sure, but we need them to have existed then so we could get to where we are now. So where did the balance end? How did we end up with today’s bizarre situation?
The Comics Code Authority was formed in 1954, at a time when comic readership in America was 55% female and the comics medium, naturally, encompassed all sorts of genres; crime, sci-fi, Westerns. Everyone read them because there was something for everyone available, but there was widespread public concern about content. Unlike films. comics can contain anything you can think of and draw – there are no technical restrictions. And there were increasing amounts of gory and sexually sophisticated or suggestive content in comics. The CCA screened and censored comics rigidly, banning “excessive violence” and “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations”. She Makes Comics includes some great pictures from the time – a room full of suited men examines a table of comic book pages, presumable for code violations; a man in a bow tie throws horror comics onto a bonfire, as do a collection of headscarved women and boys in school uniform. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, and it’s bizarre now to think of book-burning as being celebrated even then, but this was the era of post-war McCarthyism. She Makes Comics doesn’t make an explicit link to the politics of today, but the reminder of what can happen when certain kinds of political agendas get pushed in relation to art is apposite nonetheless.
Anyway, it was in the context of the CCA that superhero comics really began to dominate. These kinds of stories were able to fit the values of the code – good triumphing over evil, strongly conventional morality, nothing too grim or upsetting – and the big companies found that they sold. Women were still involved in drawing mainstream comics, and the film features Ramona Fradon, who drew Aquaman and created Metamorpho for DC for many years, and Marie Severin, who coloured, pencilled and inked many titles for Marvel. They were unusual, they were still women working in male-dominated environments, but they were visible.
It’s no wonder that the big two companies left producing any other kind of story to the alternative scene. Unfortunately, reacting against the code did produce some terribly misogynistic stuff, as described by artists Joyce Farmer and Trina Robbins, both of whom decided to do something about this clique that was now shutting them out. What’s sad about listening to Robbins describe how she was told that complaining about rape jokes just meant she had no sense of humour is the fact that this conversation still happens all the time today, over 40 years after the first all-female comics began.
The film moves on to examine the beginnings of ‘fandom’, with the first, tiny San Diego Comic-Con in 1970. Conventions offered something new to audiences – interaction with creators and other fans led to the formation of different kinds of communities. But there was a heavy, 90% male slant to conventions in the early days, and while that has completely changed, there is still a kind of hangover feeling today that all the women who turn up are somehow intruding. Then, there’s cosplay. Wendy Pini, co-creator of the immensely popular Elfquest, entered the comics industry by cosplaying Red Sonja in a skimpy chain-mail bikini, and inspired thousands of others to inhabit their favourite characters. But here’s another of those paradoxes. Cosplaying is reported as hugely positive, a way of making something that you love into your own thing, of having agency within fandom; but images of bevies of ladies in sexy, revealing costumes remind us of a different reason some women might be put-off going to cons. Nevertheless, those who choose cosplaying still have to combat attitudes that belittle it as narcissism and appropriation. Respected male creators like Neil Gaiman and Greg Rucka still have to speak passionately in defence of women going to cons and cosplaying. In the face of this, it’s understandable that the film chooses only to portray the positive side.
We’re taken next into the modern era with interviews with Jenette Kahn and Karen Berger, both highly influential executives at DC. Kahn explains how she saw the medium as being able to contain any kind of story, and this vision led to the start of publication in 1986 of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, two books always cited as a turning point in comics history (along with Maus, which came out the same year). Berger published Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the comics most widely credited with establishing a female comics readership in the modern age, and she describes her taste for dark, interesting stories as the basis of the philosophy of her Vertigo imprint, and the kind of diverse talent it nurtures. Telling their stories from the angle of the femaleness of these publishers is something academic histories of comics pretty much all fail to do, so in this respect, She Makes Comics makes an important contribution.
The culture has taken a backwards step in the last 20 years, though. Female artists were discouraged; women were told that comics weren’t for them. Becky Cloonan was the first female artist to draw for the main Batman series but that did not happen until 2012. Nowadays, we’re still struggling to get out of the kind of Simpsons/The Big Bang Theory narrative of comic shops full of socially inept men making women very unwelcome. She Makes Comics doesn’t really go into how this happened, and given its positive message about women always having been involved and influential as creators and readers, this sudden shift feels like a mystery. But the film is more interested in answers, and it tells us representation is the solution to this new alienation of women.
She Makes Comics covers its history in a remarkably concise way, mainly through interviews and archive footage. There are some dodgy dramatic recreations, which weren’t necessary to tell the story. And there are a few places in the documentary where a little more analysis might not have gone amiss. There’s a little too much certainly about ‘the kinds of stories women want’ and the way women want to see themselves represented, and a little too much lurching between ‘it’s really rare to be a woman in comics!’ and ‘there’s always been loads of women in comics!’ without really going into the reasons both these contradictory statements are actually true.
Too much generalisation is only to be expected when a film attempts to cover a hundred years of history with talking heads in a breezy 70 minutes, and to be fair, plenty of books flat out ignore non-Western graphic literature, while She Makes Comics does at least acknowledge the impact of manga in comics culture. But there’s something uncomfortable about being told that women were attracted to comics with strong romantic themes, or that women liked Chris Claremont’s X-Men run because it privileged character in its stories to the extent that it was more like a soap opera than a superhero story. This is reminiscent of the way people might have talked about ‘women’s film’, films made by men that were designed to appeal to women by concentrating on domesticity and romance. We know it’s more complicated than it appears, that audiences don’t fit into convenient conventional categories. A bit more time talking about this would have helped a lot.
What is great is the inclusion of Gail Simone and others discussing the fact that it’s OK to critique something and still enjoy it. This is something that can’t be said often enough nowadays; not just in relation to art styles but also the kinds of things that happen to female characters. You can say, ‘this is problematic in the current context’ and also ‘it’s really entertaining.’ It sounds ridiculous to have to assert this truism, but these days, it’s denied all the time, in the interests of excluding women’s voices from the conversation altogether by presenting them as censorious.
Despite the current depressing climate, women have been getting on with enjoying comics and games, just as they have always done. But we clearly need as many authoritative sources reminding us of this as we can get at the moment. She Makes Comics is a relentlessly positive antidote to the pervasive despair of recent months, and a reminder that there’s always more stories out there than you know, just waiting to be discovered.