Determined to prove that the NZ comics scene is not the typical boys club it’s made out to be, illustrators Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing and Indira Neville put the call out for contributions to an anthology of female comics in New Zealand.
The three editors were inundated with submissions from a diverse range of women, including Stella Corkery, Coco Solid, Beth Ducklingmonster and Susan Te Kahurangi King. The result is Three Words: An anthology of Aotearoa/NZ women’s comics. They hope its release will signal an end to the dominance of what Indira calls ‘competent boy comics’.
The Wireless caught up with Rae and Indira ahead of this weekend’s launch in Auckland.
Tell us about Three Words, and what inspired you to put this anthology together?
Rae Joyce - I can't speak for Sarah and Indira, but several cartoonists I knew were omitted from an anthology that was being marketed as a history of NZ comics. When I read the publication, I saw there were very few women mentioned and felt it was representing the white male POV status quo rather than the reality of comics in NZ. It angered me enough to contact CNZ with an idea for a women's anthology -
I'm interested to promote New Zealand female comics creators and cartoonists - an almost entirely unrepresented group. Adrian Kinnaird's From Earth's End, although giving a wonderful history of male NZ comic creators, omits all but two women in the field, and only one is given their own chapter.
I've been part of numerous online discussions surrounding what a recent blogger termed "the dearth of women" in New Zealand comics. I'd like to be a part of changing this.
Dylan Horrocks edited and published a successful directory of New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels (in which I'm featured along with nine other women), and this was used to promote New Zealanders in the Frankfurt Bookfair. I'm proposing something similar, but with a women only focus, and with a scope wide enough to include underground and indie comics creators, too. A lot of women comics creators self-publish, or publish direct to the web, but unless you already know who they are, there's no easy way to find them. For people overseas, it really does appear as if there are no women making comics in New Zealand.
History has a way of only acknowledging those persons who appear in trade publications, I think women making comics in New Zealand need to be seen to be heard.
Do you think it would be possible to apply for funding for this proposal?
That was back in March 2014. Indira and Sarah got together at Zinefest later that year, had the same idea and contacted me.
Indira Neville: For me the impetus for the book came from a bunch of comics-related events and publications, released over the past five or so years that purported to tell the story of ‘New Zealand comics’ but actually completely failed to do so in any kind of accurate, fair, or compelling way. I consider these events and books to have completely blanded and boyed-out what is actually a multiplicitous and fascinating New Zealand comics scene, reducing it to the clichéd, rags to riches-type story of a few male comic-makers and their own particular type of competent comics.
The following table illustrates the ‘New Zealand comics’ events and books I mean, and the pretty pitiful numbers of women included:
Generally when challenged about the above numbers, when asked “where are the women?” the response from (male) gatekeepers was, “well there just aren’t any”. As someone who’s been making comics in NZ for about twenty-five years I knew this wasn’t true, and I got to feeling quite grumpy about the whole thing, both the lack of women and the prevailing ‘NZ comics as competent boy comics’ narrative.
Where did the Three Words title come from?
IN: We are often asked this and generally each of us gives a completely different answer. My version is that we were brainstorming approaches to the book, trying to find some kind of unifying theme. I mentioned I’d been looking at Gary Panter’s website the day before and he had this thing where you could send him three words (and $200 American!) and he’d draw you a comic.
We adapted this, the idea being that each contributor would contribute ‘three words’ which would then be provided to another contributor to make a new comic from. It was a means of facilitating collaboration and connection, a way to ensure the book had some new comics content, and provided a unifying theme, tying together a really diverse bunch of comic styles and approaches.
How did you find each of the featured artists? What was your editorial process like?
RJ: We each knew some other women comics creators and just asked them and our other comics [for their contacts]. We got together a list of about 60 women in a matter of days.
The editorial process ran along the lines of inclusiveness first: these women have been ignored by other publications, let's include as many as possible.
IN: As I understand it we are both the first published anthology of New Zealand women’s comics AND the first New Zealand comics anthology to pay its contributors. A lot of the editorial-type work came with the managing of the ‘three words’ concept – gathering the words, distributing the words, collecting the comics, but also the time and logistics it takes to liaise and keep 65 different artists and writers and their works engaged, informed and on-track deadline-wise. The business of ‘building a community’ also consumed lots of time, maintaining our social media presence, facilitating discussion, sharing opportunities and works. A very large chunk of Sarah’s time was taken with actually laying out the book.
What needs to be done to bring more visibility to female comic artists in NZ?
RJ: Lots. Firstly, whenever a guy in the comics scene gets an opportunity for visibility, he needs to either hand it over to a woman, if possible, or name check as many women as possible, because all the opportunities are given to a small pool of white males, currently, and one or two token others.
Publishers need to recognise there is a real and lucrative market here - women make and read and will buy comics written by other women. The idea that comics is a male-only market is a fallacy.
Whenever someone in the media wants to run a feature on comics, they should involve as many women creators as possible. Writers Festivals need to make an effort to include women comics creators in their programmes.
What do you think has contributed to a lack of female voices in the comics industry?
RJ: The male domination of the scene and the fact that the forums for the community are zones of misogyny where women avoid and therefore aren't seen or are shouted down.
Do you have any advice for women looking to break into the comic industry? Or to any artist who feels like their voice is not being heard by the wider community due to something they can’t control (gender, race, sexuality etc.)?
RJ: Make your art and make it on your own terms and don't let the invariable negative experiences put you off. Get together with others who aren't being heard and collectively your voices will be louder.
IN: I hope it’s O.K but I want to answer these three questions altogether. First I need to address the term ‘comic industry’. If this term simply means ‘spaces and contexts in which comics are made and explored’ then I don’t think there’s such a problem with the representation of women.
Using this definition, ‘comics industry’ could include for example, the fine arts world where there are plenty of visible and successful women artists with a comic-making history or angle. These include Judy Darragh, Sophie McMillan, Lucy Meyle, Kerry Ann Lee, Claire Harris and Susan Te Kahurangi King. All these women (and others) are in our book (incidently Susan Te Kahurangi King has had Art Speigelman attend her drawing sessions, has a solo show in America, and Gary Panter’s written an essay about her. You could argue she is currently NZ’s most successful comic artist even though she’s not included in any of the events or publications listed above).
Similarly you could consider literary sector as part of the ‘comics industry’. There are novel and poetry writers who also make comics, for example Rae and Sarah, Alex Wild and Raewyn Alexander (and others). Or there’s the music scene, another aspect of the ‘comics industry’ which includes comic-makers Demarnia Lloyd, Rachel Shearer, Bek Coogan, and Coco Solid (and others). And there’s a bunch of other contexts where women comic-makers are visible and achieving. We’ve tried to include as many of these as possible in our book.
My point is that women did and do make comics successfully in all kinds of contexts. The issue is that the term ‘comics industry’ does not generally encompass or acknowledge this. Instead ‘comics industry’ refers to a particular kind of profit-orientated business context, where ‘professional’ comic-makers make a particular type of competent, logical-linear product aimed at attracting a wide and paying audience, and comics ‘success’ is measured on these terms. Recent New Zealand comics narratives have perpetuated this idea, presenting the ‘widespread popularity’ and ‘commercial success’ of narrative comics (or ‘graphic novels’) as self-evident; a motivation and aspiration for all comics and therefore a legitimate means for including and excluding particular works (like those existing in the other contexts just described) and for accepting all the disparities (gender and others) that accompany this.
So my advice would not be for women comic-makers so much as it would be for the ‘NZ comics industry’ to get its shit together.
What part can comics play in amplifying marginalised voices?
RJ: Comics are so direct and easy to absorb that they can be a great tool for disseminating information and initiating positive change. Compare how much faster it is to read a graphic novel compared to a text only novel.
IN: I am uncomfortable talking about the motivations or possibilities of a particular medium for others. I think everyone’s context is different and the world offers an infinite number of channels for expression and amplifying voices, all of which have their own affordances, benefits and challenges. I would not say comics are better or worse than any other thing in this respect.
But while I wouldn’t elevate a particular medium, I would totally encourage anyone and everyone to get involved in some kind of creative making process.
There is a pretty coherent body of research regarding the health and well-being benefits of participation in the arts. If you’re a member of a marginalised group, alongside the benefits of simply making, comes an opportunity for the thing you make to tell a story that perhaps hasn’t been told before, to raise awareness, provoke thought, all that stuff.
Given that depictions of women in mainstream comics are typically negative (skimpy costumes that are not designed for kicking ass, ineffective super powers, etc.), what was it that first encouraged you to give comic illustration a try?
RJ: I actually dislike typical comics, and I don't call my work comics, though clearly some of what I do does fall into what is generally classified as comics. I came at the work first through drawing cartoon strips as a kid - drawing to make people laugh - illustrating the stories and letters I was writing - painting - working as a mural artist - ceramics design - lots of things until my marriage was in crisis and I wanted to communicate with my husband, a chronic stutterer who wouldn't read my poems to him but would look at my drawings.
IN: Superhero comics are not really part of my comics world. I grew up mostly reading British comics (Whizzer and Chips, Buster, later Oink and Viz) and Asterix, and although there are problematic gender depictions within these titles, they are not so blatant as the ones you describe and I didn’t notice them as a child. Instead these comics were (and are) incredibly joyous to me – funny, silly, a bit crude, expressive, loud – and these are the kinds of comics I try and make now, but with a kind of feminist bent (sometimes I HILARIOUSLY describe my work as femiVIZt).
For me the term ‘mainstream comics’ also doesn’t equate with superhero comics, but the kind of competent boy comics I’ve already described. I kind of consider superhero comics quite renegade, and although they are often revolting in their depictions of women, to me they are generally honest and obvious about it. Competent boy comics often have a much creepier and more difficult to decipher faux-feminist, hand-wringing, I’m-flawed-but-I-know-I’m-flawed-so-love-me-anyway sexism that leaves me cold.
I also would never describe myself as being involved in ‘comics illustration’. I make comics; I write and draw them, stick them in the scanner, muck about with them on the computer, print them out and print them out and print them out again, fold the pages and staple them, leave them on the side of the road, sometimes post them on the internet.
What has your experience been, as a woman in the comics industry? Have you ever faced any barriers?
RJ: I've found the industry to be riddled with misogyny and class divisions - patriarchy, basically. The barriers I've faced have been either of the aesthetic kind or social exclusion variety. My art is not "professional" in appearance. There is a particular kind of acceptable comic style which Indira describes as "Competent Boy Comics" and my work isn't it.
Barriers? I'm a working-class woman. The comics scene like the literary scene, is predominantly white and middle-class. What do you think?
IN: Referring to my earlier analysis of the term ‘comics industry’ – my ‘comics industry’ (or comics space / place / context) is a DIY, punk, zine-related scene and I have always felt pretty affirmed and productive here.
I have no chance of ever being part of the competent boy comics ‘NZ comics industry’. I do not share their success criteria. I have friends who are part of this world, they are nice and I talk with them, but generally their comic concerns are not mine and they do not take my comics seriously.
There are also a few mainstream male comic-makers in New Zealand who have just been awful to me, really mean about my work and that sucks. Other than that, the barriers have been those relating the lack of recognition generally for ‘other’ comics voices and approaches, as already described.
What are you working on next?
RJ: Becoming middle-class so that I can get a publisher to reply to an email.
IN: I am pretty much always making comics, it’s just a part of my life. I am making some about my mother and her Scottish family at the moment, dunno what I’ll do with them if anything.
Three Words: An anthology of Aotearoa/NZ women’s comics is published by Beatnik Publishing and will be officially launched with a release party in Auckland this weekend and in Wellington next weekend as part of New Zealand Festival's Writers Week.