What is your stance on women in comics?

This is a slightly-adapted lecture I gave at the Hammer Museum in LA in conjunction with Masters of American Comics, an exhibition of 15 (male) American cartoonists that the Hammer curated along with the MoCA in 2006. I am asked my opinion about “the Women in Comics Question” frequently, and this is a pretty good summary of my thoughts on the subject.

I’m here today to talk about women in comics. In particular, I’m here to address the lack of women comics artists in the show currently hanging in this museum and at the MoCA, “Masters of American Comics.”

This is a new show, but I feel like I’ve been sitting in this particualr chair many times before. The topic of “Women in Comics” has dogged me throughout my professional life. When you’re one of only a handful of possible—let’s call us “expert witnesses”—on a topic, you get called a lot.

The fact is, there never have been that many of us.

I blame the patriarchy.

No, really, I do. Think about it:

Throughout much of the last century, as comics developed as an art form, most women have either had to have a job or have had the time and education to care about art, but not both.

Women who got past that hurdle still had to deal with all the crap men laid on them: men who were their competitors, men who were their would-be-editors, men who were their husbands and fathers. All the “they’re just women’s interest stories” and “draws like a girl” and “emotional” and “shallow” and “weak” and “unreliable” stuff.

And by the time women didn’t have to deal with those first two barriers so intensively, comics that little girls liked had been dying out for years. There were very few left when I was a kid. Fortunately for me, I preferred sci-fi and adventure stories. But most girls like, you know, girlier stuff. This was no conspiracy as far as I can tell. I imagine everyone still wanted to make that money. It was more like the unnatural death of a form of highly commercialized crap that had been flogged on the public for longer than it could sustain. It was hacked to death by hacks. Have you ever actually read those old romance comics Lichtenstein traced? They suck. They’re incredibly boring. No wonder they died out.

Still, by the time I was ready to read comics, in the early 80s, there was very little out there for me. I only just barely managed to expose myself to a critical dose of comics at a young enough age to be infected. And only due to a personality as stubborn and contrary as any you’ve ever encountered, that I stuck it out this long.

I was an angry young woman.

But let’s be clear: It’s not like anyone ever tried to discourage me from making comics. I would have been highly sensitized to that kind of effort, as you might guess from this.

No, quite the contrary.

It’s not my sex that makes it necessary that I be so cussed. It’s comics itself.

Here’s a theory as to why more women aren’t making comics: most women, and I make an exception for myself, of course, are way too smart. Comics are really ridiculously hard. And they pay far far too badly. We could make them if we wanted to, but boy, when you can tell stories in an easier form, why not do it?!

I’m just kidding of course. Except comics really are way too hard. You have to be incredibly stubborn to stick to it. In fact, given my personality, I think one of the main reasons I became a cartoonist is because I’m female. Being a girl who was into comics helped me stand out. I didn’t appear to be a dork, so instead of seeming geeky, it looked contrarian and cool to like comics. And to actually make them, to join that boys’ club, it made me feel tough. At the time my whole self-identity was built around being cool and tough, so comics suited me just fine.

It didn’t take long, however, until my ambition grew beyond just purely impressing my friends, and I started to wish I could join that early-90s pantheon of greats, the Hernandez brothers, Clowes, Bagge, Seth, Chester Brown. It looked like I had a good shot back then; the first issue of my minicomic got a good writeup in the Comics Journal, and there was a lot of buzz about my work. I met a lot of those artists, too. Made friends. I even made a guest appearance as a character in Hate.

But there was a catch. Almost every time I got an invitation to be in an anthology, it was an all-female anthology. If I was interviewed, the first question would be: have you experienced any prejudice as a woman in comics. I started to feel that I would never just be a cartoonist, I’d always be a woman cartoonist.

There were definite upsides to this. I got a lot more attention than I might have otherwise—getting back to the tough, cool, thing. I was interviewed a lot. I got a prominent slot in some comics stores that had a special “women in comics” highlight section. My publisher, Fantagraphics, was supportive, people were interested in me by default, because I stood out. I felt for a long time that the ghettoization was basically a six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other situation.

Here I am a few years later at the San Diego Comicon with Megan Kelso. Spot the all-woman anthology on the table.

But it got boring, and, after a while, verged on offensive, despite the opposite intention. All the college girls celebrating their female solidarity in women’s arts magazines, and all-grrrl anthology publishers were having fun, and feeling empowered. How could I tell them that, six years later, I was sick of it?

Then there were the meant-to-be-complimentary comments I got on how I have such a penetrating, distinctly female point of view, when I like to think I can write male characters just as well as female. Other people, who I think actually had read my comics, would ask about my “choice” to write all female protagonists, when I’d been writing stories about men, too, since the early 90s. I was on a segment of the national radio show Studio 360 a few years ago, paired up with Trina Robbins, where I was introduced as making comics “for and about women”. It was meant as empowering, but of course it halved both my audience and my subject matter.

I had a conversation with a colleague of mine about this, and she agreed that perhaps this ghettoization, which we women cartoonists didn’t choose, certainly, but did sometimes aid and abet, was doing us more harm than good. Or I thought she agreed. A few years later she edited her own all-women anthology and kept it secret from me for months, assuming I’d turn it down, or maybe she just didn’t want to get into it with me.

And how ironic is this? As I sat there working on this talk, the phone rings, and it’s the man who’s putting together a women-in-comics year at a convention I’m attending. He’s just checking in with all the “ladies” to see if we need anything. This is a perfect example of the devil’s bargain I’m talking about. I would never be a guest of this convention this year if I weren’t female, yet I have very little in common with the other women going, and the guy doesn’t even know not to call me a “lady”. It’s like he’s never met a woman before. But he’s very nice, and it’s great they’re doing this. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.

Things are changing: the student population in the cartooning department at the School of Visual Arts, where I teach, is about 1/3 female. Some of my best students have been women, and with the manga explosion (which is to say, with the explosion of widely-available comics that young girls want to read and that foment the desire in them to make comics), this trend will continue, and grow. And I know being a woman in comics was much much harder in the past, and much less likely. I represent a midpoint in the long process of change. My students are nearer the end, though not as near as I’d like to think.

One day, this conversation will seem absolutely silly. And I look forward to that, believe me. I’m tired of talking about it.

But it’s not over yet. A couple of years ago, I was offered the chance to publish in France, in a line called “traits feminins”. I said no. I don’t need to present myself to a new reading public with my sex stamped on my forehead.

The publisher, a very smart man, whom I admire, explained that things are different in France, they’re behind us in their development. This kind of singling-out is still needed. I still said no. Why would I want to define my work as having specifically to do with “feminine traits”? So he offered to publish my work in his non-gendered line. Which I found even weirder. 

So he’s going to have an all-female line, and then another line with men and women? Fine for me, but what does that say about the women in the all-female line?

In the end, I published in France with Delcourt.

Truthfully, I wouldn’t mind the idea that behind the scenes, a publisher would make a special effort to load their list with women. I know things aren’t equal, really. But the minute there’s an “all women” line, we become a special case. I don’t want to be a special case. I don’t want to be one of the best female comics artists. I want to be one of the best comics artists. No special pleading.

The war is won when my sex is not notable at all. I take this kind of responsibility seriously in my own work. I make an effort to include characters of different ethnicities without bringing attention to the fact. I have girls and women doing stuff they are unlikely to have a chance to do in the real world.

There is a stage, of course, where it’s really important to make difference special, to bring attention to it, so that we understand what we’ve been missing or doing unconsciously. But the goal for me is to make difference ordinary. No more all-women this or that. But women in everything, represented fully throughout the comics world.

Which brings to the show:

Women are not in this show. Which is painful. But the question is: why are there no women who crossed the curatorial threshold of the show? I know for a fact that the curators wanted very much to include women, so, why didn’t they?

I can’t answer that question, but I suspect that the answer has to do with a few factors. Most importantly, as I said before, the fact that women have suffered under extraordinary prejudice and oppression (fortunately lessening with time) during the century-long history of comics. For the vast majority of women, the possibility of devoting oneself to art, much less to an art that was seen as somewhat prurient and juvenile, until the last 30 or so years, was just impossible. And I think it must take a large pool of applicants, of people working every day trying to make great comics, to come up with a genius like Gary Panter. Maybe there simply haven’t been enough of us women trying to be great within this art form. That’s just a theory, but I bet it has something to do with it.

Which is not to say that there are no women who made very good comics in the last 100 years. As Trina Robbins has documented in her valuable books, it’s clear that there have been many. But let’s look, then, at the threshold they’d have to cross to be in this show. The curatorial rules of the show, as far as I understand them, are these: the artist must be American, the artist must have made a significant narrative or formal contribution to the history of the art form, oh, and the artist must be a “master”.

There are a few contemporary women who might have been in the running, Carol Tyler and Debbie Drechsler, for example. But Tyler’s only really done one or two great stories, and she’s not a huge innovator. Drechsler’s made some wonderful work, and done some cool things with color, but again, it’s arguable if she can really be called an innovator. And if we can only have 15, would I bump out anyone on this list for Debbie Drechsler, as much as I love her work? No. It just doesn’t stand out far enough from the mold. Julie Doucet could easily join this lineup; she would stand up to comparison with anyone here. But she’s Canadian.

The problem with this show, then, goes back to the curatorial decisions, the rules that the curators set up. What’s the answer? Maybe something like what Art Spiegelman described to me as his original vision for the show: a kind of “timeline” snaking through rooms, with “nodes” around very important artists or schools of comics, that then have pathways leading to artists they influenced, and tracing back connections to earlier work. In an arrangement like this, I see Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr showing up in the network connected to other soap opera strips and adventure strips, and maybe even to Superman—he was, of course, a reporter.

I see Debbie Dreschler connected to Harvey Pekar, who’s connected to Robert Crumb, who’s connected to EC Segar.

The fifteen men in this show did not work in a vacuum. And some of what they absorbed and processed into their own work was created by women. And some of what they created has been absorbed and processed into the work of other women.

This matrix is what I’d have much preferred to see. It would have reflected the richness of the medium much more fully. For example, the one—to me—clear omission in this show is Jaime Hernandez. He fits all the criteria: American, innovator, an undeniable master. And if he were there, you could trace him back to Archie comics and Dennis the Menace and Robert Crumb. And if you traced forward, maybe there’d be a little spot for me on the wall, too.