#lbf16: Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators?

The Women in Comics session is started with a question: why is this happening? The session looking at the industry and whether it fails to recognise female creators spirals from the Angouleme International Comics Festival, who in their lifetime achievement shortlist for 2016 had no women.

There is a rise in the visibility of comics, from Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Stripped section, to the previous Comics Unmasked exhibit, and current Comix Creatrix, and these kind of discussions are now becoming louder. The panel is made up of Audrey Niffenegger (visual artist and author), Hannah Berry (graphic novelist and illustrator), Corinne Pearlman (Myriad Editions) and Sophie Castille (Mediatoon, in Paris) and chaired by Emma Hayley (SelfMadeHero). We begin with a simple one: have things changed?

“Women creators have always been there.”
When Sophie started, it was comics created and managed by, and made for mainly men. It has definitely changed. Even then, it was for kids, but now it’s for adults too, men and women. When she started, there was no female editors – there are four she knows now. She also did the math: of 1200 creators in the companies she’s worked with, 130 are female, but it was less than half that when she started.

Corinne comes at it from a different point of view, with a focus on the indie sector. In the 1980s there was the first big boom, and big publishers jumped in and got a little burned when they didn’t make the same impact. But “women creators have always been there”, and since the second boom there has remained a healthy indie graphic novel scene.

“I feel the indie sector is healthy,” she says, “but as you start to look up…” Without consciously trying, Myriad’s output has around a 50/50 creator gender split in releases.

For Hannah, having started in 2005, she doesn’t feel it’s changed, though she admits she operates in her own bubble in a sense. She was on a similar panel at Thought Bubble and compared it to teaching a grandma to suck eggs – people there know female creators exist in abundance, but at London Book Fair, events with a wider reach, it remains important to point it out. Marvel and DC are most prominent, but they’re not representative of the industry overall.

“Comics are genderless, it’s a medium.”
But is there a danger in having these panels that can skew opinion? There is a risk of setting ourselves as ‘other’, admits Hannah. “Comics are genderless, it’s a medium.” If you bang the drum too much you can go too far and lose touch with the point, but it should be highlighted with caution.

Audrey comes from another angle. She recalls an art event – there were two galleries that were only women’s work on show. It was a great night by all accounts. Two men were talking and said, “This is really great, but I wish there was something like this for men.” The event, she notes, had a great spirit and is the way to introduce those who don’t work so visibly to new people.

Comix Creatrix is currently showing in London. A question of positive discrimination being needed versus the world shifting organically is raised – which way is the comics world going? “If everyone makes a point of mentoring people, you spread the love,” says Audrey. She says that there needs to be a diversity in interns and those hired. Any time you spot a spark of excellence, help it. It doesn’t hurt to be conscious of it, but to introduce quotas takes away from true achievement.

For young people interested in the industry, it’s hugely important to see people like you doing it. It’s incredibly motivating, says Hannah. When she saw a name of a female creator, it ‘gave her permission’ in a way to create comics because she thought it was then possible for her.

Laydeez Do Comics comes up a few times as a great place to just get together and meet others who do similar, or not so similar work. To share an interest and work in a friendly environment.

Gender is but one issue, as it’s noted that the industry is still very white, and there are many issues that need addressing in that sense. But it’s all changing – even the readership. Comics used to be for men aged 15-75 generally, but that’s shifted and there’s more stories that appeal to broader ranges.

“There was so much permission in what they did.”
The style of comics has evolved over the years – is that down to a new surge of female creators? Well, Audrey suspects it’s less to do with gender as the explosion of punk in the 1970s. “There was so much permission in what they did.” Linda Barry for one would draw roughly, and it was so in your face that it made many realise that you could just do whatever the hell you wanted.

The conversation turns to character portrayal and some interesting looks at the eras and how creators have approached the same subject matter in the years. The dichotomy of nudity in comics is discussed; to some nations it’s shocking, to others it’s normal as thanks to piracy there’s no age limits on what people access content-wise.  From self-publishing to the power to speak up, the industry is put under the spotlight through many fascinating turns. One conclusion drawn: people are now at a place to say that’s not appropriate and challenge things that are mishandled or plain wrong to do.

It seems that the natural place to end is with a recommendation. What titles would they recommend?

Pablo – Julie Birmant
Becoming Unbecoming – Una
Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon
Death of the Artist – Karrie Fransman

More from London Book Fair 2016

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