Questions of “Contemporary Women’s Comics”
Questions of “Contemporary Women’s Comics”
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores how women’s comics form part of the field of contemporary comics in North America to challenge the notion that comics, superheroes, and male readers are firmly interconnected for its humor—and its depiction of exclusion revolving around gender—to work. It argues that women’s comics are not a radical innovation, and instead exist on a historical continuum of women’s comics dating back to the 1930s. Highlighting the complexity of approaching comics creators and readers with the framework of gender, the chapter examines how “contemporary” “contemporary women’s comics” really are, who the “women” are in “contemporary women’s comics,” the material forms of these “contemporary women’s comics,” and how different material forms suggest certain reading communities. It first outlines a genealogy of comics articulating feminist political positions and looks at contemporary women’s comics ranging from photocopied and stapled mini-comics to lavish hardcovers and graphic novels. The chapter then considers a specific feminist subculture, the Riot Grrrl movement, to illustrate the material affiliation between women’s comics and feminism.
In the graphic novel The Sandman: A Game of You (published as an edited collection in 1993), a young female character—provocatively named Barbie—ventures into a comic book store, where the adolescent male inhabitants stop to stare at her. When Barbie brings her purchase to the till she recounts, “There was a big greasy guy behind the counter who seemed really amused that I was like, female, and asking for this comic. He said it wasn’t very collectable. Then he said they didn’t normally see breasts as small as mine in his store, and all these guys laughed.”
To start to appreciate the full meaning of this fictional incident depends upon understanding two related stereotypes surrounding comic texts and readership: first, that comics are dominated by the superhero genre, and women in this genre usually come with unfeasibly distorted anatomical features; second, as a “real” woman and not a fantastically large-breasted character, this female reader is out of place in the masculine realm of the comics store, whose “natural” denizens are the socially inept male readers of superhero comics. The writer of this scene, Neil Gaiman, understands there is dark humor in this unpleasant exchange; unfortunately, much of it is the rueful smirk of recognition. The popular The Sandman series was read by demographic groups askew to the adolescent male readership assumed in A Game of You, but this scene depends upon the assumption that comics, superheroes, and male readers are firmly interlinked for its humor (and its depiction of exclusion pivoting around gender) to work (Sabin 1996, 168).
In showing how women’s comics form part of the field of contemporary North American comics, this chapter challenges such assumptions, and (p.136) equally important, it illustrates that women’s comics are not a radical innovation: they exist on a historical continuum of women’s comics going back to the 1930s. However, this compels greater critical attention rather than finalizing “once and for all” the place of women’s comics in the industry’s history. The three questions structuring this chapter pick at the term “contemporary women’s comics” and indicate the complexity of approaching comics creators and readers with the framework of gender: how “contemporary” are “contemporary women’s comics”? Who are the “women” in “contemporary women’s comics”? What are the material forms of these “contemporary women’s comics” and how do different material forms imply certain reading communities?
The importance of these questions is as follows: they are not only relevant to contemporary women’s comics but they encapsulate tensions in the field of North American comics more generally. This demonstrates the centrality of women’s comics within contemporary comics culture, not as a peripheral presence to be “bolted on” to an understanding of the medium in a fallaciously inclusive gesture. In defining the terms of that centrality we begin to reevaluate our (invisibly male-centered) paradigm for comics history and the constitution of “women’s comics” within that history (see related discussions in art history in Pollock 1988, 8–9). The icons and themes of women’s comics in the early to mid-twentieth century have often been revisited since the 1980s, and a genealogy of comics articulating feminist political positions is outlined in the first section of this chapter.
In the 1970s, the political project of the women’s movement could be discerned in the academic study of other forms of visual culture. John Berger’s theorization of the gendering of spectatorship in Ways of Seeing (1972) was an early move in bringing the insights of feminism into the field of art history, a conjunction that percolated through the decade (Pollock 1988, 1–17). In film studies, Laura Mulvey’s article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), became a foundational text in the critical interrogation of classical narrative cinema as offering a masculine heterosexual gaze that frames women as objects of pleasure and spectacle for the voyeur peeping into the diegesis. Unsurprisingly, the women’s comics of the 1970s were inspired by the same questions of gender, politics, and visual representation—unsurprising because feminism already “regarded ideas, language and images as crucial in shaping women’s (and men’s) lives” (Kuhn 1985, 2). Annette Kuhn cites the demonstrations staged against the Miss America contest in 1968, which feminists protested “on grounds that it promoted an impossible image of ideal womanhood, and was complicit in the widespread idea that all women—not (p.137) only participants in beauty contests—are reducible to a set of bodily attributes” (3).
In the 1990s the marginality of certain women’s comics was identified by certain readers as a sign of liberation from mainstream commercial culture and its dangerous and constrictive construction of feminine identities. The same decade saw changes in the publication, marketing, and reception of comics that placed some female comics creators in central positions of cultural currency and legitimacy. This divergence of opinion on where women’s comics can and should sit in relation to the cultural “mainstream” (however understood) has led to a reconsideration of the notion that feminist comics must angrily challenge the representational traditions of a medium dominated by male creators. The essence of women’s comics as expressive of the women’s movement remains, but as this chapter shows, the nature of that relationship grows in its permutations.
How “Contemporary” Are Contemporary Women’s Comics?
The identification of female comics readers (and their targeting as consumers willing to buy comics) goes back to the 1930s and the invention of the comic book. A unisex readership was assumed for the early comedy and cartoon franchise comics; newspaper strips aimed at girls and women were eventually marketed in their own titles, with Little Orphan Annie and Little Lulu two of the most popular (Sabin 1996, 84–86). The long-running comic book, Archie, featuring the humorous and romantic exploits of American teens, was not only successful among young female readers, but it generated over a dozen spin-offs, and numerous other publishers launched competing titles. The targeted young female readership of these particular humor titles, with their almost unrelenting emphasis on courtship rituals, is discernable in the cut-out fashions and advertisements for dresses they featured. Aimed at a slightly older teenage female readership (although hosting letters seemingly from young housewives), romance comics boomed in the late 1940s, where the thwarted or hard-fought amorous quests of young working-class women filled the pages (89–90).
Female characters were also present in comics genres marketed at male readers, such as the scantily clad white women adventurers epitomized by Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (Wright 2003, 36–39). Following the popularity of superheroes in the very late 1930s, Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston. Her initial period of spectacular sales coincided with (p.138) the entry of female labor into traditionally male jobs in order to permit mass enlistment by men into the armed forces during World War Two. Marston’s emancipatory attitude towards women was compressed into this popular female character: Lillian S. Robinson has observed Marston held an eccentric feminism “marked by a belief in women’s essential moral superiority, combined with a demand for the equality of opportunity that would permit physical strength and social power to become feminine attributes alongside that superiority” (2004, 45). Writing in the American Scholar, Marston bemoaned that the “feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power” (1943–44, 42), and Wonder Woman came with the caption “fighting fearlessly for downtrodden women and children, in a man-made world.” Nonetheless, numerous critics have commented on the exploitative visual language of sexual fetish at work in Wonder Woman: “stories were rife with suggestive sadomasochistic images like bondage, masters and slaves, and men grovelling at the feet of women” (Wright 2003, 21; see also Sabin 1996, 88).
The female underground comix creators of the 1970s and 1980s were inspired by these million-selling comics. That heritage of female characters was evident from the anthology which began the women’s comix movement, It Ain’t Me Babe: Olive Oyl, Little Lulu, Wonder Woman, and Sheena march across the cover with their fists held up militantly. It Ain’t Me Babe was originally an underground feminist magazine from 1970, featuring cartoon covers and comic strips. Later that year, the collective behind the newspaper produced a comix anthology under the same title, subtitled “Women’s Liberation.” In one strip, various female comics characters inferior or peripheral in their original publication contexts (Daisy Duck and Supergirl, for example) rise up against their male counterparts. The potential for women’s liberation that Robinson reads into Wonder Woman was realized by those preexisting female characters appropriated in It Ain’t Me Babe.
This comic was marshaled by one of the artists from the newspaper, Trina Robbins, a founding member of the Wimmen’s Comix Collective in San Francisco in 1972. The anthology they produced, Wimmen’s Comix (1972–1992), featured many influential female creators working into the twenty-first century: Robbins herself, Lee Marrs, Melinda Gebbie, Aline Kominsky, Diane Noomin, and Roberta Gregory. Another women’s comix publishing company—Nanny Goat Productions—produced a series of anthologies, including Tits & Clits (1972–1987) and Abortion Eve (1973). As with the majority of underground comics from this era, these titles depicted countercultural practices (“free love” and illegal drug-taking, for example), frankly represented taboo subject matter (such as abortion), and were distributed and sold at a distance from (p.139) the newsstands (through the mail and in the “head shops” selling psychedelic merchandise and drug paraphernalia) (Robbins 1999, 87–92).
Advancing the militancy of It Ain’t Me Babe, the women on Gebbie’s cover for Wimmen’s Comix #7 (1976) brandish knives and shotguns as a man lies dead beneath them. While Kominsky and Noomin contributed to the early issues of Wimmen’s Comix, Noomin recounts that her last contribution to the anthology for ten years was in 1974. Why?
I think maybe the Wimmin’s Comix Collective took the path that many women’s or political collectives do over the years and became a hot-bed of bickering and power plays. Aline and I found ourselves on one side of a power play and we decided. “Well, fuck you, we’ll do our own comic.” Basically, we felt that our type of humor was self-deprecating and ironic and that what they were pushing for in the name of feminism and political correctness was a sort of self-aggrandizing and idealistic view of women as a super-race. We preferred to have our flaws and show them
Consequently, Kominsky and Noomin started their own title in 1976, Twisted Sisters, whose unselfconscious autobiographical openness (the first issue featured Kominsky’s depiction of herself on the toilet) was shared by the 1990s comics memoirists discussed in section three of this chapter.
Wimmin’s Comix ceased publication with #17 (1992), citing apathy on behalf of retailers towards women’s comix. “What a waste of time and energy. Forget it” (Qtd. in Robbins 1999, 115). However, women’s comics appeared to have entered a new period in the early 1990s, partly a result of an elective affinity with a kindred movement in popular music. The last twenty years of women’s comics exist in dialogue with the history of women’s comics preceding it: for instance, a national organization, Friends of Lulu, formed in the 1990s to “increase female readership of comics” and “promote the work of women in comics” adopted Little Lulu as its mascot. This organization does not espouse the militant, sometimes anti-male sentiment of 1970s women’s comix. Its goal, as expressed on the website, is an “expanded female reader base” contributing to greater comics sales. This particular “women’s movement” in comics is working in the interests of the medium as whole by repositioning it back at the center of North American reading habits: in this instance a residual sense of women’s comics’ marginality coexists with an interpretation of women’s comics as (potentially) a “mainstream” commercial product. (p.140)
Who are The “Women” In Contemporary Women’s Comics?
Scrutinizing the class, ethnicity, and sexuality of the “women” it spoke for, feminism has complicated the assumption that “women” are a monolithic, homogeneous whole (see Rich 1998). This new orthodoxy in the academic feminist movement has generated its own reflexive positions. If the project of women’s emancipation has absorbed the key criticism that the first-wave feminist movement was dominated (politically, at least) by white, middleclass heterosexual women, what (if anything) links localized sites of activism against sexism, misogyny, and the subordinate status of women?
Studying contemporary women’s comics with these issues in mind, for many creators this localization of gender roles underpins their graphic narrative. This is partly because the field of reception in North America has absorbed international successes in women’s comics, notably Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (originally published in France between 2000 and 2003, and now on numerous university reading lists). Satrapi was born in Iran in 1969 and grew up in Tehran (experiences on which Persepolis is based), and currently lives in Paris. She has written for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and her graphic novel Embroideries (2005) visualizes Iranian women’s conversations about their sex lives. In a society where women are pressured to remain chaste until marriage, these conversations include advice on how to fake one’s virginity: social convention and the self-representation of the female body converge in a way neatly illustrating the localized nature of this issue.
In conjunction with Satrapi’s outlining of the self-policing of female sexuality in Iran is her avowed commitment to a universal humanism contesting masculine-orientated cultural codes determining female actions. In the following example Satrapi’s position is questioned by journalist Deborah Solomon who argues the prescriptions of female appearance in Tehran are more heinous than in New York:
Your books denounce Islamic fanaticism, particularly as it curtails the rights of women. Is that your main theme?
Oh, no, not at all. I don’t consider myself as a feminist but more a humanist …
Still, in your work, you are constantly contrasting your love of food, smoking and sensual pleasures with the acts of self-denial demanded by the mullahs, like wearing a chador.
It’s a problem for women no matter the religion or the society. If in Muslim countries they try to cover the woman, in America they try to make them look like a piece of meat. (p.141)
Are you suggesting that veiling and unveiling women are equally reductive? I disagree.
We have to look at ourselves here [the USA] also. Why do all the women get plastic surgery? Why? Why? (Solomon 2007)
For Solomon not all inequalities are equal, but through Satrapi’s humanist lens there can be no prioritizing of female humiliation. This chimes with a universal humanism whereby the degradation of any human being is intolerable, and any strategic targeting of inequality is unethical because it starts from a position of cultural difference where there is only essential humanness. Matching Satrapi’s disinclination to see herself “as a feminist,” in Persepolis her character tries to put into practice the theory of postwar French feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir: if women urinated standing up like men their perception of life would change. “It ran lightly down my left leg. It was a little disgusting.” This unsuccessful experiment in feminist consciousness leads Satrapi to conclude she is not yet liberated. In this instance the bold promises of feminism lose out to the humbling nature of the female body.
Theresa M. Tensuan has argued that, like Satrapi in Persepolis, the American comics creator Lynda Barry in One! Hundred! Demons! (2002) depicts a version of her adolescent self moving from “immaturity” to “maturity,” and consequently readers are able to discern the imposition of a normative framework of social order. Opening up the tensions that lie between the two states, Barry questions the social codes and communal assumptions that engender “limiting” roles, perhaps especially for women (Tensuan 2006, 954). Tensuan considers the short narrative of “Girlness” in One! Hundred! Demons! and its exploration of why Barry was a “tomboy” and not a “very girlish girl.” Barry hypothesizes that the answer lies in environmental influences: “clothes, toys, and hair. The Girlish Girls had a lot of these things. Even their dolls had pretty clothes, teeny toys, and long, combable, fixable hair. If I had these things, would I have been a girlish girl too?”1 This suggests that in Barry’s work the construction of gender lies in the processes of acculturation that often remain invisible, whereas in this (admittedly slender) example from Persepolis, biological determinants are crucial and potentially limiting.
One of the most memorable female comics creators of the contemporary era, Julie Doucet self-published her notorious Dirty Plotte as a mini-comic in 1987 while she studied at art school in Montreal (it would be published full-size by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly). Her choice of title continues the theme of the localization of the experience of gender difference: “plotte” is French slang for “cunt,” and in Dirty Plotte Doucet explains how the word’s meaning is anatomical and offensive—offensive when men in the street use (p.142) it casually to refer to Doucet as a sexual organ to be ogled. Doucet’s character tells the reader, “plotte is a very dirty word … . .” and to use this term in the title of her comic implies that she is unconcerned it will besmirch her propriety. Doucet draws herself in fishnet stockings held up with safety pins, skin covered by plasters and tattoos, with red lipstick and fingernail polish dripping onto her skin.
Instead of seeing the dirtiness of “plotte” as a marker of disrespectability she revels in the unashamed pleasure of slovenliness, offering a “dirty version” of herself in Dirty Plotte. This maneuver disarms the potentially shocking encounter in the street with men who would shout “plotte” in her vicinity to impose their sexual attention on her—she cannot be shocked by the word when she already wears it as a gleeful badge of (dis)honor. If this interpretation of Doucet’s comics abstracts her work into academic theorization, a visceral reading of Dirty Plotte as a rejoinder to domineering masculine sexuality is suggested by the dripping red lipstick and nail polish—and the razor blade Doucet’s character plays with around her neck. As Sabin observes, “Doucet’s fondness for knives, scissors, and razors was guaranteed to provoke recessed testicles in male readers” (1996, 211).
As another approach to feminist comics in affect rather than the politics of female roles, the character of Bitchy Bitch in Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits may fit certain personae advocated by the women’s movement. Everyday life incenses Bitchy to the point of apoplectic rage: one could construct a feminist reading of Bitchy as a character gleefully rejecting the “Angel of the House” type embodying self-sacrifice, deference to male authority figures, and domestic servitude as the model for female behavior, embracing instead its monstrous polar opposite (see Gilbert and Gubar 1979, 76). Scornfully referring to publisher Fantagraphics’s line of Eros erotic comics, Gregory draws (in a Naughty Bits comic published by Fantagraphics) herself opening a comic and being prodded in the eye by a mammary proboscis. She recollects: “Anyhow, back at Porno- I mean Fanta-graphics, I got stuck with workin’ on a lot of that EROS sh … I mean ‘material’ … So. I did what I USUALLY do in this situation … COMICS! … something to make MEN feel as queasy as all this sexist GARBAGE makes WOMEN …” (Rpt. in Robbins 1999, 123). Rather than a feminist celebration of womanhood unrestrained by outdated conventions of meekness, in Gregory’s account it was the sickening experience of being a female comics artist working on the “sexist GARBAGE” of erotic comics that fueled her desire to create a counter-aesthetic. The production of Bitchy Bitch comics is a direct response to facile comics pornography, intended to reverse the gender of the assumed reader, revealing in the (p.143) process the implicit masculine audience of Fantagraphics’s Eros line (and its corollary, the exclusion of women readers). Also at stake are issues of art, alienation, and labor discussed elsewhere in this collection.
Gregory presents herself as the production-line comic-book worker operating under intrusive editorial pressure as regards “material” in the production of commercial texts that Gregory-as-proletarian finds creatively unrewarding and seeks to distance herself from as producer. Writing and drawing Bitchy Bitch is specifically the efforts of a worker in the sex comics industry to redeem the labor that sickens her, efforts that take comic book form in order to address the particularly gendered terms with which this worker understands the degradation of their alienated productivity, shadowing the theoretical position of feminist art history that “art objects” are commodities aimed at specific (perhaps gendered) consumers making meaning in the context of social practices (Pollock 1988, 6–7).
Returning to the question that began this section—is there a shared political agenda across these comics? Satrapi shrugs off being identified as a “feminist,” and further complicating the “women” in contemporary women’s comics, some women’s comics have male creators, such as Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s series Love and Rockets (1981–present). Both Hernandez brothers consider the role of women in their respective societies. Taking an example from Jaime’s story, “House of Raging Women,” the situation of female wrestlers Rena Titañon and Pepper Martinez is an explicit analogy for the degrading manifestations of those gender roles. Pepper comments on the abuse they endure in the ring from male spectators: “Rena’s had to put up with it her whole career. I’m sure she’s heard worse … . All female grapplers are treated shitty, villain or not. I mean, haven’t you ever been walking down the street and a carload of guys drives by and shouts all kinds of stupid, obnoxious shit?” The abuse Rena suffers in the ring is the microcosm of a society where women are under the constant public judgment and surveillance of men.
There does seem to be a recurrent trend of bearing witness and refusing to allow violence, words, and exclusions directed against women to remain invisible. Drawing the experience of these barriers and prohibitions, whether the creators are male or female, may make all of the above “women’s comics,” part of what feminist bell hooks has termed “an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality’” (hooks 1992, 116). It may be overambitious to make too great a claim for the common ground of experience between female workers in the sex comic industry and in the wrestling business, between U.S., Latina, Iranian, and French-Canadian women, but all of these comics visualize how (p.144) women face legal, religious, cultural, and economic barriers because of their gender and sexuality. Many of these comics also celebrate female creativity and the strategies of physical and psychic survival women have fostered. If one is to retain the idea of “women’s comics” and their contribution to the women’s movement, it would have to accommodate the role of these comics in that witnessing process.
Contemporary Women’s Comics? From Mini-Comics to Graphic Novels
Contemporary women’s comics range from photocopied and stapled minicomics to lavish hardcovers. Such varying modes of production have, in certain instances, welded women’s comics to a specific feminist subculture: the Riot Grrrl movement. The Riot Grrrl scene provides a case study of how women’s comics shared a material affiliation with other feminist cultural texts in the 1990s; that material affiliation was understood to have ideological implications for the coherence and self-definition of this version of feminism.
The Riot Grrrl movement began with the arrival of female punk bands Bikini Kill and Bratmobile in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1991. Reacting to a punk scene dominated by an atmosphere of male exclusivity, they first defined themselves as “angry grrrl” bands, which mutated into Riot Grrrl for the title of the pocket-sized fanzine produced by Bratmobile members Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman. The appellation stuck as this permutation of the women’s movement spread out from D.C. in 1991: the fanzine led to a weekly forum for girls, as well as music tours, high school and college networks, Riot Grrrl chapters around the country, and in July 1992 D.C. was host to the Riot Grrrl Convention (Klein 1997, 213–14). In addition to the music, conventions, and meetings, the Riot Grrrl movement was articulated by a network of fanzines and alternative comics, and many female comics creators worked in both: Ariel Bordeaux produced a comic (No Love Lost) and a fanzine (Deep Girl) that typified—in Robbins’s words—“the mildly depressing autobiographical genre so often found in women’s and grrrlz’s zines and comics” (1999, 125–27).
The Riot Grrrl fanzines praised women’s comics such as Dirty Plotte and Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan. An overlap of theme is evident: Doucet’s representation of street harassment discussed above was mirrored in the Riot Grrrl fanzines, punk songs, and discussion groups that discovered ways (p.145) to disarm the “exasperating and degrading” sexual appraisal of women walking in public. Doucet’s imaginative remedy seems to fit the Riot Grrrl refusal to dress conservatively: “We do not want to give up our freedom to walk anywhere or to wear what we like” (Klein 1997, 218). Doucet’s surrealist solution did not make it irrelevant in a community where discussion and inventiveness were seen as components of feminist activism. Klein recalls, “Many girls discussed guerrilla tactics [to retaliate to street harassment], and even if we never carried them out, we felt better for thinking about them” (218).
Riot Grrrl fanzines and comics alike drew on the ethos of the punk music scene where the Do-It-Yourself attitude encouraged non-professional creators to produce texts in small print runs using standard office equipment such as photocopiers. Existing icons (such as Wonder Woman) were appropriated with scant regard for copyright law. The most significant distribution and sales networks for the fanzines and comics were mail order and specialist book and music shops. Many Riot Grrrl bands withheld their interviews from mainstream media channels, protesting “what they saw as a ‘patriarchically [sic] constructed’ commercial” system, instead talking exclusively to their fanzines (Triggs 2000, 34–36).
While Riot Grrrl originated in a popular music subculture, comics played a powerful role in cultivating the sense of a “micro-community of dissent,” to paraphrase Teal Triggs (2000, 35). Like the fanzines, the comics circulated in material forms where, put simply, readers were forced to seek them out—they were not part of an entertainment industry exploiting every opportunity to sell publications to as great an audience as possible to maximize profits. The creators of the fanzines and comics repeatedly express how important it was that they offered a personal perspective on womanhood unqualified by the commercial imperative of avoiding offense and controversy.
British Riot Grrrl fanzine writer Angel wrote, “I see comics as a visual version of what fanzines write. It’s about free expression and personal viewpoints” (Qtd. in Sabin and Triggs 2000, 104). This sense of the “personal” was key: autobiography, memoir and confessional narratives characterized the fanzines and comics, which—with their distribution and reception materially differentiated from “mainstream” comics and women’s magazines—encouraged readers to see themselves as participants in a community of like-minded young women. In this community, readers’ skepticism about the representation of women (for example) would be listened to by those who had similar questions of their own about gender roles in North American (and British) society (and indeed elsewhere in the world). As one fanzine producer (p.146) describes: “The point IS that the zine provides a forum in which to have your ideas put into print and distributed across the country to people who actually give a dam [sic] about what you’re saying” (Qtd. in Triggs 2000, 36).
In the early 1990s, the loosely autobiographical work of Jessica Abel was one (very successful) example of the kind of mini-comics being produced. An avowed feminist, Abel’s covers for Artbabe repeatedly show the character of Artbabe looking straight at the reader. One effect of this is to prevent the reader from thinking they are spying unnoticed on Artbabe’s life as she unknowingly amuses us (and Artbabe does not feature inside the comics that bear her name). As Angel summarizes about the audience for her own fanzines, she writes for girls “who want something to call their own, where they’re not treated as male entertainment slaves” (Qtd. in Sabin and Triggs 2000, 102). Rejecting a feminine identity based on being visualized as an object of pleasure for men to gaze upon (Berger 1972, 47, 51), Artbabe returns the reader’s gaze. The cover of Artbabe #4 (1995, when this title was self-published) features Artbabe flexing an impressive bicep, offering an alluring image because of the strength and autonomy she conveys.
As well as fanzine work, Abel published 50 copies of the first issue of Artbabe, which was self-published as a full-size, professionally printed comic in 1996 and then published by Fantagraphics in 1997. Abel is best known for her graphic novel La Perdida (serialized 2001–2005, published as a collection 2006) (Ishola 2007, 31; see also Robbins 1999, 127–28). Abel’s comics have traversed the spectrum of materiality, and in 1999 Artbabe took the optimal format for mini-comic distribution, the “missive device.” These were comics designed to be sealed and sent in the mail, published by the UK small press company Slab-O-Concrete, saving even the cost of packaging. Artbabe in “Pigskin vs. Paintbrush!” was printed in this format, with Artbabe on the cover looking wryly at the reader, dressed in an American Football uniform, and held aloft by male football players. For postal workers handling this missive device, the cover encapsulates the “straggle-haired” attraction of Artbabe, immersed in life as it unfolds, with a stylized and stylish take on the action—after all, “She puts the “arty” in “Party” (Sabin and Triggs 2000, 26).
It is notable that Abel’s literary credentials are sufficiently established for her to be the subject of an individual “Artist Profile” in a special edition of World Literature Today dedicated to Graphic Literature, published in 2007 by the University of Oklahoma. Discussed elsewhere in this volume, the ascendancy of the graphic novel as a function of the publishing industry has entailed a continuing repackaging of comics writers and artists as creators of literature: Abel’s selected works in her “Artist Profile” lists collections and (p.147) self-contained graphic novels, not self-published comics or missive devices. The fanzines and mini-comics containing her work had a particular material existence (photocopied and stapled) and an informal means of circulation (such as through the mail). For many Riot Grrrl readers, their community was structured through publications defined by similar physical parameters of production and reception. Far from being seen as limitations, these material conditions contributed to the sense that members of the movement belonged to a privileged community where women could express a personal perspective on womanhood. The same material conditions fostered the belief that such perspectives were “truly” individual because they were not solely driven by commercial imperatives. Furthermore, when the comic and fanzine creators located their personal narratives in wider social issues concerning the construction of gender (and how destructive they can be), they believed they would find encouragement within their “micro-community of dissent.”
These material conditions for producing comics worked in synthesis with a grassroots feminist movement, but mini-comics produced in small print runs are less suitable for undergraduate reading lists or bookshop shelves. As a material form suggesting literariness and the extended development of thematic and structural principles, Abel’s graphic novels invoke a different kind of reading experience (unquestionably the convenience of having her earlier work in one place is an incentive for her fans to purchase comics they already own a second time). Her brief “Artist Profile” implies this, repackaging Abel as a feminist novelist (albeit one who works in graphic literature) whose work enjoys sophisticated literary status, where she shares journal space with tributes to Pulitzer Prize-winning writers.
Not least because of continuity of creators, contemporary women’s comics have continued a close connection with the women’s movement. To use its own lexicon, the Riot Grrrl scene claimed its marginality as an alternative to the patriarchal, commercially driven entertainment industry. But exhibits of evidence such as the academic legitimacy of Satrapi and Abel and the organization the Friends of Lulu indicate how women’s comics might (and are willed to) be published and read as works of literature sold to paying customers from more diverse and expanding demographic groups than ever before. If Riot Grrrl’s celebration of marginality was successor to the (sometime) anti-male sensibility of the underground women’s comix, the feminism of the Friends (p.148) of Lulu seems avowedly inclusive and seeking institutional “mainstream” popularity. As discussed above, this need not be watered-down feminism— contemporary women’s comics remain important vehicles of witnessing the roles women are asked to adopt or the specific forms of abuse and restriction they face in localized situations because of their gender. Every term in the phrase “contemporary women’s comics” is unstable, but running throughout is a commitment to visualizing the experiences of women.
A panel from Diane DiMassa’s comic Hothead Paisan (subtitled Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist) provides a structuring analogy. In three separate outbursts, the eponymous character says “FEH” “MUH” “NIST” (Rpt. in Robbins 1999, 141). Like Hothead, the contemporary women’s comics discussed here are part of a rephrasing of feminism, just as the self-identification of third-wave feminism implied that the late twentieth century had not seen the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s achieve its goals of equality between the genders—third-wave feminism elongated and sought to revivify the women’s movement (Klein 1997, 207–8). As Hothead’s phrasing suggests, sometimes refreshing a set of ideas that have become well known means defamiliarizing them, so at first glance one pays particular attention because they do not appear to relate to anything we thought we knew. This investment of attention reveals that these ideas—FEHMUHNISM—were ones we were acclimatized to all along, but spoken now in a different accent. In Julie Doucet’s sleazy French-Canadian surrealism, Bitchy Bitch’s unrestrained rage, and the Hernandez brothers’ empathetic soap operas, contemporary women’s comics offer many accents of feminism to solicit one’s attention.
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(1) . Tensuan links Barry to Alison Bechdel for their shared use of marginal figures to understand how gender and sexuality are formulated under the pressure of social convention (2006, 951). Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), meditates on the suicide of her father, a closet gay, a few months after Alison’s coming out.