Did you know female fans read more comics in the 40s and 50s?
Yeah, I didn’t either. This is just one gem of information you’ll find in She Makes Comics, a documentary set for release in 2015, on female comics creators and fans.
Female creators, fans and characters within comics are a growing topic of importance within the comics industry. This documentary highlights the contributions of female creators to the industry, and the important part they play behind the scenes of your favourite comic books.
Director Marisa Stotter answered some questions for me about this timely documentary.
Tell us about how your interest in comics began? What about the medium grabbed you?
I started reading comics around my freshman year of high school, I think. I’d been a gaming geek (thanks to an older brother) since I could mash buttons on a controller, but I wasn’t terribly interested in comics. As a humanities student, I was introduced to Persepolis and Maus, at which point it occurred to me that comics could be great works of literature and tell complex, compelling stories in a way that prose could not. From there, I got into some of the “great”graphic novels like Watchmen, and my interest only continued to deepen.
Who are the female creators that have grabbed your inner fangirl over the years?
Oh, so many. I’d say that Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi were probably my “gateway” to those comics that we might consider more literary. These days, I’m loving what Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick are putting out both with the Big Two and independently. And I’ve been following quite a number of webcomics creators who are quickly gaining in popularity, like Kate Beaton and Kate Leth.
What has your experience been in the comic fandom as a female fan?
The comics fandom is such a vast community with a lot of subsections. My experience has mainly been with the online communities that sprouted on Livejournal and Tumblr a few years ago – which also happen to be heavily female. It’s wonderful to interact with so many intelligent, creative people who want to think critically about comics. The English major in me is always thrilled to join in on these conversations.
If my experiences have been mostly positive, it’s because of the small corner of the fandom in which I’ve been involved. Unfortunately, there is a vocal portion of comics fandom that is unwelcoming to women – or anyone that isn’t a straight, white male, really. I’ve dealt with sexist behavior in the past, and many of my friends and colleagues deal with harassment on a regular basis, online or in real life at a con or comic shop. So I tend to hang out on Tumblr, where there are many other female fans and where respect for your fellow fans is a core value.
Comics fans on Tumblr are spread out all over the place, but if you look through certain tags like the “comics” tag, “webcomics,”and the like, you’re bound to find creators as well as fans to follow. My experiences with Tumblr have been very positive, and most folks are really welcoming to newcomers. Lots of webcomic creators engage with their fans, too, which is really wonderful to see!
When or how did female comic creators and the lack of focus on their work come to your attention as a fan?
For the past few years, there have been a lot of discussions about women in comics rattling around the Internet echo chamber. One that I often see discussed is the lack of representation of women in the business of comics. There is so much focus on the (male-dominated) Marvel and DC superhero genre that the amazing work many women do in the indie and webcomics scenes gets lost in the shuffle. The fact is that there are so many talented women working in comics, and there have been women working in comics for decades. They just don’t often receive the recognition they deserve.
Who are the indie female artists and writers that you enjoy?
Well, to pick just a couple (or else I could go on and on) I’m really enjoying Amy Chu’s Girls Night Out,and on the web I recently got into C. Spike Trotman’s Templar, AZ.
Was there an event or a moment that sparked the idea for the film? Or was it a culmination of years as a fan?
When I started working with Respect Films last summer, I was brainstorming ideas for another comics-focused documentary to follow up The Image Revolution and Chris Claremont’s X-Men. At the time, there was a flurry of press attention surrounding women in the comics industry, but the ideas discussed tended to bounce around the Internet, where you had to really look to find them. I thought that a way to bring these discussions to the fore and get the greater comics community talking about them would be to make a film documenting the storied history of women in comics, educating fans about the significance of women’s contributions to the medium and inspiring new conversations. So I pitched it to my producing partners, and we went from there!
She Makes Comics is a documentary about the storied history of women in comics, from the medium’s inception to the present day. It’s a celebration of women’s contributions to the medium, which are often overlooked. For the first time on film, we’re bringing together creators, editors, scholars, retailers, and fans to tell their own stories and demonstrate that women have always been a part of comics.
Tell us a little about the filming you’ve completed thus far?
We started shooting last fall and have conducted quite a number of interviews since then, which such amazing women as Karen Berger, Joyce Farmer, Jenette Kahn, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and a whole lot more. We’ve traveled around Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast interviewing and shooting footage at comic conventions. I’d say that we have about 70% of what we need to finish the film; we plan to film a bit more this summer and hopefully wind down right after San Diego Comic-Con.
What sort of reactions have you received from people –fans or comics creators (male and female) about the film?
The reactions have been very positive, for the most part. I’ve had a lot of women (and men) approach me to say that they think this project is really important and long overdue – thoughts with which we at Respect Films wholeheartedly agree. We did receive a few messages on Kickstarter to the tune of “what’s the big deal?” but those were few and far between. Mostly, people are excited to see this film, and many of the creators with whom we’ve spoken are eager to tell their stories and see their colleagues represented on film.
What have you learned as a comics fan from the women creators you’ve interviewed?
On a personal level, it’s been really wonderful to hear the stories of women in the industry and realize that I’m not alone as a female fan of comics. Certain patterns emerged from interviewing that validated a lot of what I experienced when I was younger — the “quizzing” by incredulous male fans, the derision of fangirls, the gatekeeping by male fans who feel threatened by us. Almost all women in comics have experienced some form of this, and what’s amazing to me is that so many male fans out there have no idea that this goes on. I hope that documenting these experiences on film will encourage male fans to be more respectful of women and their experiences.
There was a time when comics were read widely by both boys and girls, consumed as as the mass media it was. In the 40s and 50s, the readership of comics was actually about 55% female. At this time, comics was a medium for telling stories in a variety of genres: heroes, horror, mystery, humor, and romance, the latter of which was consumed mostly by women. Things changed in the 50s when the Comics Code required that comics be sanitized, and from then on superheroes became the dominant genre. As superheroes took hold and other genres got less attention, women became less and less interested in reading comics.
What is the Comics Code?
The Comics Code was established in 1954 by the Comic Magazine Association of America as a way for the industry to self-regulate its content. There had been a few senate subcommittee hearings about the supposed link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, sparked by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. It resulted in the industry doing away with much of its violent and suggestive content, and replacing it with more wholesome superheroes.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about female creators?
I think the biggest misunderstanding about comics in general is that it’s all about superheroes, so when the average person imagines women working in comics, they imagine women working at DC and Marvel. While there are many women who have worked or currently work at those two companies, the majority of female creators today are working in the indie and webcomic scenes, where non-superhero genres flourish. I think that the sheer variety that exists in comics is something that people tend to overlook, so it’s assumed that those women who have careers in comics are all employed at the big two.
Do your interviewees believe things will change? Are changing?
There seems to be a cautious optimism about what the future holds. I think that most of our interviewees would agree that things are better for women in comics now than they were, say, 20 years ago, but the recent press about sexual harassment in comics and the countless stories women share about their experiences with sexism can make it seem like there’s no hope. Change is definitely happening, and we see evidence of it in the newly-enacted harassment policies at conventions and even more simply in the the growing female readership of comics. It’s a slow process, but it’s happening.
I think there are a number of things happening. We’re seeing comics becoming far more mainstream than they ever were before. Film and TV adaptations of popular superheroes undoubtedly have brought in a new generation of readers, both male and female alike. And as these readers delve deeper into the world of comics, they’re discovering indie comics and webcomics that have taken over a fairly significant portion of the market. I also think that fandom, once a target of ridicule, is now more widely accepted and even celebrated as a part of popular culture. We’re seeing “professional geeks” like Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, and Chris Hardwick getting a great deal of attention on TV and on the web; The Big Bang Theory, which for better or worse puts geekdom at center stage in front of a primetime viewing audience; and, of course, the behemoth pop culture convention that is San Diego Comic-Con. Not to mention that social media has reinvented the word-of-mouth phenomenon. So I think that all of these factors are contributing to an increased interest in comics across the board, and women who are curious about comics are giving them a try and vocalizing their opinions about them.
Is there a difference between the mainstream publishing companies and independents and the way they treat their female comic creators?
I can’t speak to the way companies treat their creators, but the sense I get is that indie publishers are more open to fresh ideas and new talent in general — and that means that they hire more women as creators who have unique stories to tell. Indie publishers are in the business of finding the next big thing, whereas the mainstream publishers are more interested in continuing the legacy of their established fictional universes. Not that that’s a bad thing, or that mainstream publishers are completely uninterested in hiring women, but I think that the two types of publishers have different approaches. And indie companies seem more naturally inclined to hire people of different backgrounds given their business model.
The most surprising thing that I learned was the fact that women were voracious readers of comics back in the 40s and 50s. Given the lack of attention women in comics receive today, it was definitely a surprise. A frustrating one, too, since the dominant narrative about women in comics is that they are an exception, incidental to the male-dominated readership. There are scholars like Trina Robbins who work hard to change the perception of comics readership, and I hope that She Makes Comics likewise contributes to the education of the comics community.
It’s fabulous that female fans are changing the comics industry but it’s easy to get caught up in the surface changes, the numbers affecting sales, for instance. She Makes Comics is the story you didn’t know, in some ways, of the industry and the important part females have and are playing in it.