Women in comics – Thoughts from the Cartoon colloquium: Looking at women and cartoons today

The National Library of New Zealand hosted a Cartoon Colloquium focusing on women in cartooning in New Zealand. The topic was expanded to include women in comics, even though the Turnbull Library’s focus is on collecting political editorial cartoons.

I consider myself a comic artist but I can barely name a single female cartoon or comic artist from New Zealand’s history (although I can name a fair handful of contemporaries). I am engaged with ‘women in comics’ as it is often discussed from an American perspective, so I was interested in the differences when focusing on New Zealand creators.

The discussion over the course of the day was varied and thoughtful. Curator Dr Melinda Johnston did an excellent job of shaping the day – giving a balance of critical academic analysis of the history of women in the arts and comics – right through to hearing from contemporary artists working today and the challenges we still face as women making a name for ourselves in New Zealand comics (or international comics).

I won’t go into depth about every speaker that was a part of the day, but I do want to cover a few key topics and parts of talks that really resonated with me.

The talks

Why have there been no great women artists?

The colloquium opened with a great overview of women artists from a feminist art history perspective provided by Dr Barbara Garrie. Using the famous question “Why have there been no great women artists?” to help frame why women may not be as recognised in cartooning and comics as their male contemporaries.

Women have more in common with their contemporary male counterparts than other women – the qualities of an artist artist aren’t defined by gender. This is true in all art as well as comics. The work of women isn’t necessarily softer or presenting a ‘feminine perspective’. Being a woman is something that you learn anyway – it is not a default state of being given to you at birth.

Women are still being overlooked and ignored. Even displays looking at comic art, like the American example “Masters of American Comics” in 2005. All 15 of the chosen ‘Masters of comics’ were men. Women’s work is celebrated but in separate exhibitions like the ‘She draws comics’ exhibition in Vienna in 2002. While this does a good job to draw attention to under represented women artists it doesn’t solve the problem. These women were still all excluded from the ‘masters’ exhibition in 2005. This approach continues to ‘other’ women and women’s work, treating it as a niche rather than as masters of their craft. Even the word master is intensely gendered.

Fandom and Feminism and Capitalism

I loved Robyn Kennealy’s talk around the relationship between fandom, feminism and capitalism. Her talk outlined beautifully how women have created a fan culture outside of the mainstream because mainstream for the most part doesn’t cater to women.

She discussed how historically women who wanted to get into the comics industry were often were given subordinate roles like colourist. The work of these women ends up being key to keeping the likes of Marvel and capitalism as a whole propped up, rather than supporting the women who do the work. She tied this into the fact that throughout history the typically feminine caring roles (teaching, motherhood, nursing) are seen as being worth less and are unpaid or poorly paid in comparison to men’s roles. Capitalism takes full advantage of the fact that people will work on what they love for nothing or next to nothing.

The downside of fan spaces is that by their very nature are unpaid. Working with licensed work means that if the big studios did sniff out that you were making money off their IP there would be a lot of trouble coming your way. Robyn has chosen to work in this space because she wants to create the work she enjoys, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Because women’s work is traditionally unpaid, she worries that contributing yet more unpaid work to the system perpetuates this relationship.

I wonder if the negative way that Marvel/the comics industry react to fans who try and make money from their likenesses is a part of what keeps women out of the industry, since a lot of women shape their work through fan art and fanfiction.

This contrasts with Japan, where fan comics (Doujinshi) are an accepted part of the comics industry. Anime and manga studios view doujinshi as free advertising and do not prosecute. This means the (often female) creators get a start making comics that they can make a living off before moving on to their own titles. There are obviously many cultural differences between the manga industry and the comics industry in the US that shape this gender difference, but in the context of Robyn’s talk I felt like this was a possible contribution.

LGBT in New Zealand Cartoons

Valerie Love gave an excellent talk focusing on the stereotypes of LGBT within New Zealand editorial cartoons. The focus was mainly on cartoons created around the Marriage Equality bill and the earlier Civil Union bill. She walked through five key portrayals of LGBT people in cartoons pointing out both the positive and negative angles. Several of the cartoons were so similar, they even made exactly the same joke. A large proportion of the cartoons were straight people making the jokes and references. Even when the cartoons were presenting a favourable view on LGBT, they weren’t giving any voice to the people affected by the law changes. This possibly reflects that the cartoons are made mostly by straight white males. LGBT voices aren’t present in our cartooning history, only commented on by others.

Don’t scare the boys

Hayley Heartbreak discussed her experience as a teenager being turned down for a comic book job purely because of her gender. Her talk resonated with me a lot. She talked about dealing with obviously gendered comments directed at her or her work, and how she’s developed a style that she loves and is proud of. I liked that she specifically mentioned the comments she receives and some of the ways she handles them while still managing to create really awesome and original work.

Sharon Murdoch

Sharon Murdoch spoke about her work as a political cartoonist. Only 1% of political cartooning collected by the archive this year was by women, and all of those comics were by Sharon Murdoch. She signs her work with only her surname because she fears she won’t be taken seriously if people know she is a woman.

Whenever we see a woman in a cartoon we assume that their presence is a part of the message – there has to be a reason for her to be there. Sharon’s work helps break down these barriers. She features women characters that aren’t there because of their gender and she brings light to issues that her male contemporaries may ignore. While in Dr Barbara Garrie’s talk we heard that there wasn’t any specific feminine quality or view that united ALL women’s work, the discussion around Sharon’s work showed that she personally brings an opinion and style that is different to her male contemporaries.

When asking colleagues about why she thought more women weren’t in political cartooning, one of the responses she received jokingly was that ‘women aren’t funny’. In Sharon’s mind being funny isn’t even an important quality of a political cartoonist, being able to be angry and draw about it is.

Writing and comics and feminism

Sarah Laing’s talk touched on her expression of feminism through her work and trying to weave her way around her editor’s rule of ‘nothing too domestic’. I liked her talking about how people say she ‘draws like a girl’ and the dissection of whether she should take that as an insult or a compliment. I like the way Sarah’s comic work intertwines with her writing, that they seep into each other and aren’t separate things.

The discussion

Something that interested me was the discussion around young women’s work and the hypersexuality that is sometimes displayed there. A few people felt concern that this was women perpetuating the male gaze that is present in the material they absorb.

My perspective is that this is women reclaiming the rights to draw and view their own bodies in a way that they want. Exploring what a woman finds sexy about her own form is something she should be allowed to do without question. Drawing female nudes is also a very socially acceptable way to explore sexuality, since art as a whole is very familiar with nude women. I don’t think that young women draw any more nudity than women of previous generations, and drawing naked women definitely should not be something that only men are allowed to do.

The influence of anime and manga was tossed around as well. If you have never been exposed to it, anime and manga can seem like a thing that brings weird influences to young people and possibly misogynistic or sexual messages. While there are problematic elements that are present in anime, it is no more or less present than in any other media young people absorb.

I’ve always loved comics and cartoons (Tintin and Asterix were a huge presence in my childhood), but the lack of female characters in western comics left my choice for characters to identify with at one per series if I was lucky. And that one would be an oversexed love object the male characters had to save, and then often won as a prize. Looking back on those comics now, they’re peppered with a lot of misogyny.

In contrast most manga feature a wide range of women that are distinct from each other in personality and appearance. They’re also more likely to be given agency within the plot – they get to do things. For me growing up, this was precious. Suddenly there were more characters to identify with. Suddenly being ‘the girl’ wasn’t the character trait.

There are entire genres of manga dedicated to girls. The magical girl genre gives the power to save the world to girls, and they get to do it while wearing cute outfits covered in ribbons and in a non-violent (But still action-packed) way. Manga give girls a voice that they are being constantly denied in western media.

Further thoughts

I see a lot of myself in what was spoken at the colloquium. This in itself is something amazing to me, as it’s not a feeling I am used to. I’ve spent the whole time stewing since attending, and while writing this I was unable to cut much out of it. (I’m sorry it’s so long)

I would have liked if the day brought awareness to other issues rather than just those faced by cisgendered women – especially discussion around transgender issues, race and class (which were mentioned, but not very thoroughly). I think everyone present was aware there was a lot we weren’t covering, and I very much hope that this is the start of a conversation and not the end of one. While I am grateful that I was able to attend a colloquium that addressed my issues and needs, it only makes me more aware of the people who are silenced even more than me.

The internet has been a great equaliser. People of all genders are able to share their work in a way that previously they haven’t been able to, and for almost no cost. It’s easy to safely share things anonymously if you need to, and to connect with people who might like your work in a much more direct way than the old publishing model. For me personally the internet has provided a community I wouldn’t otherwise have which has been crucial to my development as an artist.

The ‘take home’ message was that more women need to speak up about how they make comics, and to work on getting their work out there. While I agree that this is a component, I feel that there are larger issues at play. During the day the names of many feminist zine and comic artists were mentioned and a large number of the younger generation present hadn’t heard of them. There is an issue with preserving the voices of the women who have stood up and spoken before us. Standing up and sharing our work and speaking now, are we in any way guaranteed that our words will be shared and preserved for the following generations?

I think that we all need to work harder at ensuring the voices of women artists get heard. Not just the artists themselves, but all of us in the community. We all need to work together to ensure we have a history to share, and that it is an included part of the default history, not a separate thing.

Knitted Cocoon – Donation print

Knitted-cocoon

I drew this piece as a response to the discussion around rape culture we’ve been having in New Zealand’s mainstream media these last couple of weeks. I wanted to give everyone – especially survivors and those vocally speaking for them – a place to rest against all the hate and violence that seemed to well up. It’s exhausting work, and I am so proud of all the incredible women who have been standing up and speaking out.

I don’t have any money to make donations at the moment, but I would love to be able to put something towards Wellington Rape Crisis. That’s where the idea of selling this print for donations came from.

$15 of each print sold will be donated to Wellington Rape Crisis.

Prints will be laser prints on 300gsm matte paper.

If you would like to donate, you can purchase the print through my Big Cartel store.