By Tony Wolf
"There have always been women in comics. There have been women in comics for decades."
– Kelly Sue DeConnick
Women in comics are finally getting the spotlight. But do you know the rich history of female comics creators? The new documentary She Makes Comics by director Marisa Stotter and Respect Films/ Sequart brings us a fascinating, in-depth look into the unsung heroes of the comic book world. She Makes Comics, now available on DVD and via download, is the result of a successfully funded 2014 Kickstarter campaign.
In an interview with Bleeding Cool's Nikolai Fomich, Stotter pointed out:
The trouble with a documentary that tries to span a long period of time is avoiding the "classroom movie syndrome," where you're throwing a lot of facts at the viewer and little of it has any emotional resonance. So we tried to find the middle ground between demonstrating the breadth of women's involvement in comics and highlighting particular women's stories that we felt were representative of the major milestones of comics history.
During the 1950s and 60s, the entirety of comic book readership in the USA was split 55% female, 45% male. The comics industry (those with brains in their heads, at least) has been seeking ever since to reclaim those female readers. While many comic fans are familiar with names like Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, and even Marvel office administrator Flo Steinberg, it's a pretty safe bet that even hardcore fans may not have heard of the first African-American comic artist / cartoonist, Jackie Ormes, who also was one of a tiny handful of professional female illustrators. The documentary also notes that at the time (Ormes worked as a cartoonist from 1937-1956), it was extremely unusual for a woman to even have a job, other than that of a housewife or secretary. (As context, Mad Men viewers will recall the tremendous resistance the character of Peggy Olson encounters to the notion of her having a job.)
As a lifelong comics fan myself, I'd heard of Ramona Fradon, but knew next to nothing about her, other than that she drew a good amount of Aquaman comics in the 60s. (She jokes that, since she lived in an isolated area without a library, "I ended up making up a lot of the fish" in the underwater scenes.) Ms. Fradon also co-created the character Metamorpho, eschewing a traditional costume for the different sections of his body, made up of different textures and elements. She Makes Comics features extensive interviews with Ms. Fradon, as well as luminaries like Wendy Pini (whose independent 80s comic Elfquest was a massive, game-changing success), Trina Robbins, Colleen Doran, Vertigo founder Karen Berger, Shelley Bond, journalist and 'Friends of Lulu' founder Heidi MacDonald, Becky Cloonan, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and many, many more.
The doc, Ms. Stotter's directorial debut (she interned at Respect Films after college), keeps things moving at a good pace while giving us extensive coverage of each person, topic, and time period. We learn that Trina Robbins co-founded It Ain't Me, Babe in 1973 – the first women's liberation feminist magazine in the country. Local community outrage at the extremely frank, often sexual content led to threats of legal action and arrest legal action from local and federal authorizes. Thanks to intervention from the ACLU, the case against the women was dropped. But the foundation for a blunt and uncompromising female voice in comics had been set. Illustrator Joyce Farmer: "We made people uncomfortable. After a while, I didn't mind making people uncomfortable; I ended up thinking that was part of my job." In many ways, the female underground comics movement was a response to the objectification of women that some perceived in the "unchecked male ego / id" of creators like R. Crumb, who often displayed their sexual fantasies on the comic book page.
A section that covers what can essentially be read as the origins of the cosplay movement featuring Wendy and Richard Pini at the 1970 San Diego ComicCon makes for delightful nostalgia, and leads into the larger discussion of cosplay in general, in the modern era. Pini created (by hand) an actual chain mail costume to portray Red Sonja, which had never been done before; the metal involved weighed about 20 pounds. She recalls: "[Sonja] was a really angry character – and I related to that. Being told 'No, you're a girl, you can't do that' or 'no, you're weird [if you want to do that].'" Her repeated performances as Red Sonja at conventions and her enthusiasm for the character led to her being invited by writer Roy Thomas to write an issue of Marvel's Red Sonja comic, which opened up her professional career as a comic book creator. We also get a terrific summary of the founding of Friends of Lulu – provided as a first-person account by Heidi MacDonald herself.
The film takes care to mention a defining moment: Jeanette Kahn being appointed Publisher of DC Comics in 1977. "That was huge," said writer and former VP of DC Comics Paul Levitz. "The mere fact that she was there meant we started to get more women applying for interesting jobs. It said: the possibility exists." Under Jeanette Kahn, DC certainly took more risks, welcoming British writers like Alan Moore and approving genre-redefining projects like iconic 80s classics Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Part of the mix at DC was a young editor named Karen Berger, who soon rose to prominence and was given her own imprint, which we all know now as Vertigo Comics, to build a new publishing wing for the company.
Paul Levitz also notably comments: "If you made a list today of the top dozen important comic book writers of the last 10-15 years, Karen probably developed 90% of them."
Attention is paid to the 'Women In Refrigerators' discussion initiated by fan-favorite Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick (who has a number of fantastic, passionate interviews here, including extended conversations in the DVD extras) emphasizes that she is consistently "wanting comics to stand up a little taller." Another notable quote from DeConnick: "I can teach any man you meet about power fantasies. That is not an inherently masculine trait."I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of several female comics retailers and their perspective on the industry and how to attract (and keep) more female readers. Interviews with Amy Dallen, who works at House of Secrets in Burbank, California, as well as the team of Portlyn and partner Autumn Glading, owners of Brave New World comics in Newhall, California , are engaging and informative. We get some excellent insight into their philosophy and approach to the industry, and to promoting the business they love.
Former DC Comics editor Joan Hilty points out that the landscape is definitely shifting, and for the better: "You're entering into a golden age of breaking into comics if you're female." We do see some comics art featured in the documentary itself, but more emphasis is given to talking heads and historical / archival photos. Some really sharp art is featured in interstitials, to illustrate points made by a speaker (this technique was also used to strong effect in Respect Films' 'The Image Revolution'). . However, a sobering perspective is provided by former DC Comics editor Janelle Asselin, who adds: "I had men reaching out to me almost every day asking for work. And I got one email from a woman in my 3 years at DC. And she was super-talented and I hired her for a 10-page story… but I get kind of sad thinking about all of the women who thought they weren't good enough or didn't want to impose that didn't ever send an email."
Accompanying art by Molly Ostertag and Colleen Doran illustrates certain segments where an interviewee is reminiscing about an experience (a technique used by Respect Films producers Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert in their documentary about the founding of Image Comics, The Image Revolution). I first watched this documentary with a female friend who had almost no experience or familiarity with comics, and she was fascinated and found it very informative. I enjoyed it a great deal, and am glad to say that it can serve as a substantial chronicle of the continuing journey of women in comics – a journey that, thankfully, has a long, exciting road ahead.
Follow director Marisa Stotter at @marisastotter & @SheMakesComics , producer/ editor Patrick Meaney at @patrickmeaney and producer / DP Jordan Rennert at @respectjordan.
Tony Wolf (@tonywolfness) is an actor, voice-over guy, sometime illustrator and rabid pop culture fan in New York City. His autobio webcomic series 'Greenpoint of View' has been featured in Gothamist and New York Magazine's 'Bedford + Bowery.' He can be found lurking about at www.tonywolfactor.com and was the co-host ofwww.theactionroom.com.