In 2011, inspired by Twitter, graphic novelist Renae de Liz turned to Kickstarter to seek funding for an all-female comics anthology. Womanthology: Heroic triumphed, surpassing its original funding goal within 24 hours. De Liz sought to unite a large number of women, from comic book veterans to complete unknowns, to create “something fun and positive,” hoping that the book would inspire and empower burgeoning cartoonists. Though some criticized the project’s execution, most celebrated Womanthology’s central premise: that women should be provided with a platform for publication in an industry where they have been (and continue to be) marginalized. As IDW editor Mariah Huehner said, “[The issue of women in comics] always seems like this problem that people want to solve.”
People hoping for a quick or easy solution are out of luck. Cartoonist-turned-comics-“herstorian” Trina Robbins notes in Pretty in Ink (2013) that while women have been drawing and writing comics in the U.S. since 1896, they have historically been a minority in the field. Today, sites like Bleeding Cool regularly “gendercrunch” the rosters of Marvel and DC Comics, and the numbers regularly fail to approach gender parity. A 2012 Ladydrawers comic by Anne Elizabeth Moore and Nicole Boyett notes that “even though they’re submitting work at rates equal to men and make up 46% of the creator pool, women, trans and non-binary gender creators are getting much less of it published.” This overt overlooking of non-male creators holds true for comics criticism, too, as Heidi MacDonald pointed out in her recent critique of The Comics Journal.
And yet, for as long as there’s been an American “comic-books boys’ club,” women have demanded they be admitted. Some, like de Liz, have tried to open the gates for others. At The Millions, Andrew Rostan writes of Womanthology: “There is little doubt that all 300 artists were working with an ideal audience in mind — themselves in their youth — working to forge another generation of female creators.”
De Liz herself observed, “People probably label this a feminist book just because it’s a bunch of women are gathering [sic] in one spot. I don’t really mind if they do or not; feminism isn’t a dirty word.”
De Liz is right to link her project to the American feminist movement. Womanthology owes a huge debt to comics borne of nascent second-wave feminism and the burgeoning underground comix movement: It Ain’t Me Babe Comix (1969), the first American comic book created entirely by women, and Wimmen’s Comix (1972- 1993), a long-standing all-female underground comix anthology, which made a point of perpetually including new contributors. (It’s worth noting that Womanthology, It Ain’t Me Babe, and Wimmen’s Comix share an influential contributor –Trina Robbins.) Of these titles and others, sociologist Paul Lopes writes, “This first generation of female comic book rebels unquestionably laid the groundwork for future generations of women artists to intervene and attempt to transform the field of comic books.” Sound familiar?
In the late ‘60s, mainstream comic publishers were in free fall, sapped of their strength in part by the incredibly restrictive 1954 Comics Code Authority, which led to the untimely demise of many comics publishers. As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, a new kind of comic book began to emerge. The underground comix movement of the late 1960s changed the comic field for everyone, but it was of particular importance in integrating women into a highly gender-imbalanced industry. (As Robbins notes, by 1974, at the tail end of the underground comix heyday, only two women remained at mainstream comics publishers.) To put it another way, the underground was like the internet: both offered new mechanisms for the production and distribution of comics, and allowed new creators (female and male) a chance to try their hand at the form. Wimmen’s Comix, like Womanthology, offered a platform for publication for artists who had never considered careers in comics (as well as many who subsequently failed to pursue such careers), featuring roughly 100 contributors over its 20-odd-year run.
Wimmen’s Comix, though seminal, was not necessarily a financial success. Along with other early underground comix by women, it is long out of print (though still for sale on EBay). It’s reasonable to expect that many supporters of or contributors to Womanthology have never seen a copy of Wimmen’s Comix, as it has not yet been collected in its entirety. This is, in fact, part of the issue of women in comics. The work of forging future generations is not difficult for lack of raw material. It is difficult, at least in part, because the work of generations gone by is often lost or hidden, to the detriment of those who would otherwise seek to learn from it.
Much has changed between It Ain’t Me Babe Comix and Womanthology. (Alternative spellings of “women” and “comics” have largely fallen out of style, for one.) And yet modern attempts to solve the “women in comics” problem resemble nothing so much as older strategies, including those of Wimmen’s Comix, that some now deride as passé.
Given that publishers and critics can more easily detect Wonder Woman’s plane than female comics creators, a project like Womanthology, capable of catching the comics gatekeepers with their guard down, seems like a strategic success. Certainly self-publishing, whether it’s a webcomic or a Xeroxed mini, ensures that women’s work gets printed. De Liz’s project further clearly demonstrated the commercial viability of anthologies like Womanthology. In 2012, IDW Publishing announced a five-issue comic book series titled Womanthology: Space!, collected as a hard-cover graphic novel in 2013.
Still, many will argue (or have argued) that women’s-only projects like Womanthology put women at a disadvantage. Comics blogger Rachel Fellman writes of Womanthology, “When I was a teenager, nothing discouraged me more than projects that made a point of supporting women’s artistic efforts. They reinforced the idea that it was an exception for women to make art — and that we needed special help because we rarely did it as well as men.” The fear that publishers may “make up for a lack of general diversity with occasional, themed anthologies,” as Greg Baldin put it at the Los Angeles Review of Books, is real. A single anthology, no matter how many artists it includes, can’t solve a systemic problem.
Solving the issue of women in comics is problematic, to say the least. An equally daunting challenge is to pay proper homage to the heroines and heroes who have sought change. In this and future columns, I will focus on the work of female-identified creators in a particular period of comics history (roughly 1968-1990), to better detail what exactly the problem has been, in the hopes that it will illuminate what it is today.