This is part of a roundtable on women creators. Please read the previous entries, if you haven’t already – there’s lots of good stuff, as always.
This is a roundtable on women creators in general, but I originally thought it was just about women creators in comics – which seemed like an odd topic. Don’t you think? And indeed that wasn’t quite the topic, but this is a blog that is kind of sort of about comics, so what the hell. And you do see this sort of thing, not infrequently. You know what I mean: “Huh. Women comics creators. Let us discuss their relevance!” It made me realize that I live in a bubble. Because I find it bizarre that people would focus on comics by women as a specific subgenre, as people do in the West. I read comics – shojo and yaoi manga – all the time, lots and lots of them, almost all by women. It’s unusual for me to read comics by men. So the situation with American mainstream comics strikes me as a weird aberration.
There certainly aren’t a lot of women working on mainstream American titles, though, and I have to wonder why. It isn’t that women can’t do it (proof below), or even that women are inherently disinterested in mainstream comics; something’s keeping them out. There have been lively discussions about that topic on this very blog – here is a recent one, and here is more of a classic.
When I thought about women creators in comics (in the West), the first name that came to mind was Jill Thompson. Apparently I was right on the money with that, since her Web site says she is “the most well-known female comic book artist working in the comics industry today.” She has done art for a lot of mainstream titles, including some of my favorites, Sandman and The Invisibles. These are girl-friendly mainstream titles, of course, especially Sandman. She’s also illustrated even more mainstream ones (more tights and capes, fewer girls) – Batman and Spiderman and Wonder Woman. (Do I know which series? No. I find the myriad divisions of Batman and Spiderman and Wonder Woman and the like incredibly confusing, and frankly, I can barely get out of bed and get to work every morning, much less keep track of superheroes. Ignore ’em all and let God sort ’em out, I say.) (I do know who’s DC and who’s Marvel, if that makes anyone feel any better. Although I frequently say Superman when I mean Spiderman, much to the irritation of my son and husband. I do know the difference, I just apparently don’t – care.) (And the names Superman and Spiderman are treated differently, now that I think of it. Like Kmart and Wal-Mart. One has a hyphen and a capital letter in the middle, and one doesn’t. I know this because I am an editor and people get it wrong all the time. Or people used to, when people were writing about Kmart. My easy way of remembering it is that Kmart has nothing and Wal-Mart has everything.) (I don’t actually have any other pointless interjections at this point; I just wanted to throw in another parenthetical comment to show I could do it.) I’ve seen a certain amount of Thompson’s work on those titles, and I don’t especially like any of it. It fits in with the rest of mainstream comics artwork, which is what it’s supposed to do.
Look at this panel, which I chose at random from The Invisibles because I had it at hand. And, huh. What the hell is going on here? This is not exactly the stuff, artistically. Which is pretty much what I always think when I look at mainstream American comics. (This is personal, but I don’t mind sharing it with you: I don’t understand why superhero comics readers are content with art that isn’t that great. The art is at least fifty percent of what’s going on. It should be really good, or why not just read words?)
The thing is, I actually come not to bury Jill Thompson but to praise her. I’m not crazy about her mainstream comic art, but I don’t really like any mainstream American comic art. She’s done some wonderful work, though. Her Scary Godmother books are some of my favorites. They’re actually children’s books and not technically comics. Well, they sort of hang out at the intersection between comics and picture books. The art is wonderful, stylish, and fun. (The storytelling is also very good.) You get the feeling Thompson got to do what she wanted to do here, like she finally got to slip her leash and run.
I wouldn’t know the first panel was drawn by a woman. I’d assume it was done by a man because most of those kinds of comics are. I would definitely assume the second panel was drawn by a woman. That’s because the first one conforms to the expected mainstream American comics look, and the second one is a cute Goth for girls thing. I am a fan of some, but not all, cute Goth for girls things (as in most areas of human endeavor, some are well done and some are lacking). I am also aware that this genre lives in a ghetto, segregated from the other titles in the comics store.
Scary Godmother is a series of four hard-bound books, published in the late ’90s, plus a couple of comic book series and a one-shot or two. It has a distinctive style and is done in watercolors, which is clearly the way for Thompson to go. I say that because her next two projects, Death: At Death’s Door and Dead Boy Detectives, are drawn in a manga-cized version of her Scary Godmother style, but in black and white, and they don’t do much for me.
Those books were followed by Beasts of Burden, which you can read online right here. This title was written by Evan Dorkin and illustrated by Thompson, in a return to watercolors. The art is nice, and (separately, in my opinion), she won an Eisner award for it. (She won one for Scary Godmother, too.) Thompson also has a new series of children’s books about a character called Magic Trixie, and it’s very much in line with Scary Godmother, thematically and artistically. Also painted. The art is lovely.
So, there are a couple of points here. Point the first: Jill Thompson has done some really good stuff, and you might want to hook yourself up with it. Point the second: There aren’t many women creators in mainstream American comics, and the best-known one – who is capable of great things – hasn’t done anything close to her best work in this field. One is tempted to draw conclusions. It suggests, I think, that mainstream comics, with its emphasis on continuity of the visual style rather than on the artistic strengths of the individual creators, doesn’t attract female artists because it doesn’t play to their strengths. Or any artist’s strengths, from the looks of it. I can see why an outsider might shy away from joining this club.