Last week, Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collins engaged in a discussion of contemporary comics criticism, that raised several issues on the lack of in depth criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural context for the emerging indie comics scene that I mentioned a few months ago. So I’ll have quite a bit to say about all this.
In the piece, Frank Santoro mentions what he calls “pap pap comics,” an insular world of middle aged men who like their Flash, the way they like their omelets — with a little Wally West. This world in various iterations has been the primary force in comics for a long time—but no longer. With the explosion of micropresses, tumblr and webcomics, its clear that people want a spirit guide to help them get to the other side, but I’m not sure that the current comics culture responds to much more than the crowd-sourcing of “like” and share.”
But before we move on to the new world, I would like to explore segment of the TCJ.com piece that sent the mercury shooting up the most on the Internet Outage-ometer.
In an offhand comment Sean T Collins, wonders about why there aren’t more women indie comics critics. And he does so with this:
The “where are the women critics” question’s an excellent one too, of course. Zainab Akhtar? Sarah Horrocks, to the extent that she writes reviews?
So that’s it. 24 words. Two question marks.
Of course this followed this graph on the “established” critics:
Moreover, when not a lot of writing is being done overall, the idiosyncracies of individual critics start mattering a ton. Rob obviously performs an invaluable service, but he reviews literally everything people send him, so it’s difficult to ascertain his point of view as a critic based on what he chooses to talk about, particularly because he rarely pans anything. Matt basically never wrote about women cartoonists. Comics Comics’ mission of broadening the discussion to genre-indebted work led to a dropoff in discussion of canonical ’90s alt comics and the rise of a lot of criticism by people intelligent and well-read enough to handle that kind of work but who now had the cover to talk about nothing but Heavy Metal and Akira. I’ll never begrudge a critic as great as Joe McCulloch for following his bliss, but I’d love to read more from him on current alt/art comics as opposed to older/obscurantist/untranslated manga, just from a purely selfish perspective. He’s great on the podcast he does with Matt, Chris, and Tucker Stone, but it’s not the same. (Super, super excited to see his review of Fran, on that note.) With me you’ve got a much tougher row to hoe if your work isn’t at least bleak if not overtly horrific; I’ve got a bias toward hard-R work that’s undoubtedly limiting. Nick Gazin is Nick Gazin. The loudest, most argumentative, most in-it-for-the-insults voices — who are invariably the most thin-skinned when criticized, oddly enough, perhaps because they take everything as personally as they make it with the comics they go after — dominate, and that can be a huge turnoff to artists whose personalities don’t mesh with that mode of discourse. That’s always been my problem with Tucker, for example, who has phenomenal taste and is a top-drawer critic outside of his superhero-insult-comedy mode — he’s tough to have a conversation with if you disagree. So is David Brothers, whom in my experience approaches disagreement — over Kickstarter, say — like a debater looking to win. An exception here among the big arguers might be Darryl Ayo; you can feel like you’re banging your head against the wall with him, but he’s never going to block you on Twitter. But he loves argument for argument’s sake, which undermines him; it made him invaluable when decrying faux-edgy racebaiting, because you need someone with the fire to fire back at trolling, but often he’ll hit things he doesn’t like with any weapon to hand, no matter how inapt — he once told me Dan Clowes’s earlier work was less cynical, for example. And so on. We’re a weird group overall, and having more of us would mitigate the weirdness in a necessary way.
460 words on various guys—”a weird group overall”—whose quirks are investigated and biases known.
So just WHY is a Nick Gazin worthy of analysis and a Sarah Horrocks a question mark? What sets Zainab Akhtar’s writing on comics apart from Matt Seneca’s in its quantity or quality that it gets a questions mark instead of an analysis?
I’ve said this a few times before, but it bear repeating, shouting and tattooing.
THE WAY TO BE INCLUSIVE IS TO INCLUDE PEOPLE.
Like, if you think there should be more female critics, maybe engage with the ones who are doing it and don’t just relegate them to a question mark.
Now, I know and like Sean T. Collins and we had a private email conversation about all this. As a stylist, he’s one of the finer writer about comics, and one of the few with a very specific viewpoint about the comics he likes and dislikes. I know Sean is a big admirer of the music critic Matthew Perpetua, and its often struck me that Collins is trying to bring the sensibilities of indie music to indie comics—specifically a more Pitchforkian elevation of the “authentic,” or in Collins’ case, the bleak and horrific. I don’t think this is wholly a waste of time in the abstract, but the general inclusivene nature of the indie comics scene mitigates against it. Oh sure, there is snobbiness and constant after hours trash talking, but it’s kind of hard to get people to band together in a “school” of any kind other than “Study Group” or “Kramers Ergot” and the work in these groups tends to be dissimilar in a way that makes branding it “nowave” or “Ibiza trance” a little harder.
Part of this, as mentioned, is also the change from the well worn highway of the “established canon” of comics from Kirby to Crumb to Ware to a place where the dirt road simply stopped in in middle of a flowery meadow. But the canon won’t go quietly into the night. And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about today. Because if you want to see rigid adherence to a canon that rejects anything that isn’t a straight white man, the place you want to be is the print version of The Comics Journal.
A long time ago I received the new (#302) edition of the Comics Journal and noted that not one page of it was written by a woman. Considering that there were 670 pages, this was quite a definitive shut-out.
Was this just an aberration? A mistake? I decided to dig through the last THREE issues of the Comics Journal, and found not only maybe five pages written by women, but exactly ONE article devoted to female cartoonists.
But even that shocking neglect doesn’t get quite to the level of near-total dismissal of the work of women in comics over the last 20 years evinced in The Comics Journal.
Lets take issue #300 for instance. It is 288 pages long. I took a post-it and stuck it in every time art by a woman was shown. I used four post-its. One was for a report on the 2009 (yes it has been that long since TCK #300) Eisner Awards where Lynda Barry and Jill Thomson were winners. One was for the sole dedicated look at women creators in all of the 1578 pages of these three issues. The gimmick for TCJ #300 was younger creators interviewing older creators, so you have Art Spigelman and Kevin Huizenga, Denny O’Neil and Matt Fraction and so on. Representing the women is Alison Bechdel talking to Danica Novgorodoff. (You could only have women talking to women and men to men so that women could talk about their tampon brands, presumably.) The Bechdel/Novgorodoff piece is also only six pages long. Most of the other pieces average 20 pages. So not only do you have a grand total of two women represented in the whole thing…THEY GET THE DINKIEST PAGE COUNT OF ANYONE.
The last two post-its were for a picture of Marilyn Bethke, an early Journal rabble rouser, in a history of the Journal (And probably the reason you’re reading this, since she was my inspiration to even show that women COULD write for the Journal), and a few panels of Lynda Barry in R. Fiore’s round-up “The Experience of Comics” which goes over Little Orphan Annie, Plastic Man and Crumb, Pekar and the other touchstones of the orthodox pap pap history of comics.
The next two issues of TCJ have switched to a thick, bookshelf format, occasionally published. #301 from 2011 weighs in at 620 pages, and #302 from earlier this year, as mentioned before, at 670. They are handsome books that will always have a place on my shelf but lets look at the spines of these:
As you can see, R. Crumb is so important that he gets not only a 200 page analysis in #301, but an extensive history of his lawyer, Albert Morse, in #302. Joe Sacco is also a double dipper but he is, to be fair, pretty fucking awesome. Al Jaffe, Roy Crane, Jeff Smith, Roy Crane…all fine creators, but this is beginning to look like a driving school in Saudi Arabia.
I did a similar post-it run through with all 1290 page of these two books. In #301 there’s a five page interview with Tim Hensley by Kristy Valenti; it’s the only woman bylined article in all these 1290 pages. It is also, as I mentioned, five pages long.
But surely women cartoonists get covered, you must be saying? Surely after the decade in which manga changed the game, Bechdel, Satrapi and Beaton rewrote the rules and Bell, Barry, Hanawalt, Wertz, Modan, the Davises, Eleanor and Vanessa, Weinstein, Park, Tyler, Gloeckner, Hellen Jo, McNeil, Cloonan, Thompson, Brosgal, Hicks, Larson and so on triumphed and transformed the world of comics from a stinky man cave to a flourishing, universal art form…surely that got some mention?
By my count, the images of and by women in #301 include an ad from Diamond Comics (!!) where a woman gets up early so she can go through her Previews catalog; a panel by Aline Kominsky-Crumb in the aforementioned 200 page Crumb article; the Valenti piece, and (FINALLY) an article by Rob Clough on the Center for Cartoon Studies which discusses distinguished alum Melissa Mendes and co founder Katherine Roy. Mendes gets a picture and art and a discussion and everything.
Perhaps the most perplexing piece in the whole issue however, is Marc Sobel’s “The Decade in Comics” a look back at the Amazing Aughts which states in the section on “literary comics”:
An amazing number of these literary graphic novels were written and drawn by women. These books broadened the diversity of the medium as a whole, and brought a welcome, distinctly female perspective to the male-dominated industry. Many of these books took the form of graphic memoir, including Miss Lasko-Gross’s excellent two-part reflection on childhood, Escape from “Special” and A Mess of Everything, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which enjoyed widespread acclaim and turned the cartoonist into a media celebrity. Carol Tyler’s brilliant You’ll Never Know explored her father’s life and military service while Ann Marie Fleming reconstructed her search for clues about her personal relation to the long-forgotten celebrity magician in The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam.
Well alright then! Between manga and graphic novels, women were a driving force behind some of the decade’s most important developments. And what illustration is used to show the decade as a whole?
Yep, you got it, all potential Hair Club for Men customers.
Issue #302, the one which sparked my “gendercounting” exercise, has a similarl “no grrls allowed!” vibe. Trina Robbins gets mentioned many times in the article on Crumb’s lawyer, since he was also her lawyer. Ruth Krause gets a mention; an ad shows a book about Lynda Barry. A 130-page piece on children’s comics has not a single female voice because, to paraphrase the explanation I heard, Francoise Mouly had better things to do with her time than send emails about Al Hubbard all day, as delightful as it sounds.
The one ladypart invasion comes yet again from Rob Clough in a tribute to Dylan Williams and Sparkplug, because, shockingly, Williams published a bunch of female cartoonists including, Julia Gfrörer, Dunja Jankovic and Katie Skelly.
So what are we left with? 1578 pages of comics scholarship where, literally, the sex life of Robert Crumb’s lawyer gets as much attention as the contributions made by female cartoonists in the last amazing decade of comics. 1578 pages extolling Crumb, Dave Sim and Chester Brown, guys not exactly known for great relations with the opposite sex, and nothing to suggest there is any other viewpoint.
It’s also, 1578 pages of “pap pap” comics, the old familiar route from Krazy Kat to Dick Tracy to EC to Stan and Jack to Neal and Denny to Crumb. An old familiar comfy story that doesn’t need to be questioned.
After I tweeted about the gender imbalance in #302, in an interview, Tom Spurgeon did ask Gary Groth, editor in chief of the magazine, about the matter.
SPURGEON: Do you have any response to the criticism — I think it was Heidi MacDonald that was public with this observation — that this latest issue lacked women writers, cartoonists and even subject matter? I know that Esther Pearl Watson was scheduled but there was a hitch there.
GROTH: Yeah, Esther was supposed to be in it. I have to admit I’m gender-blind when it comes to good writing. And to subject matter.
And then fwoooooosh. That was it. Insider clubby “Oh I hear you tried! Good job!” And then moving on. Gender blind meaning, I suppose 1578 pages of comics criticism that spend, in total 6 pages looking at the work of women cartoonists? Yep, I could say blind is probably the word for it.
Nicole Rudick, an occasional contributor to the online version of The Comics Journal, and editor of The Paris Review later wrote in to comment on this exchange.
I’m a big fan of your interviews — they’re always substantive and insightful — and was eager to read the Gary Groth conversation. In some ways it doesn’t disappoint. It’s nice, for instance, to read a succinct appraisal of what’s missing in some comics; that is, that the cartooning can be great, but if the story doesn’t come together, then it throws off the whole project. I was mightily disappointed, though, by his response to issues of gender disparity in TCJ #302.
Say simply that he’s gender blind when it comes to writing and subject matter strikes me as disingenuous and utterly avoids the issue. And it’s a significant issue given that this is the second iteration of the print TCJ that has omitted women altogether. How is it that a 600-page doorstop can’t make room for women cartoonists? I would have loved to read more on this in the interview. It’s a subject that generally seems to get short shrift.
I hope all’s well with you, and I’m looking forward to your next interview.
How indeed? How has the supposed “last word” in comics scholarship completely ignored the contributions of women to the comics medium for four years?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but in this milieu, it’s easy to see how Horrocks and Akhtar were reduced to question marks.
Now, pulling out my old TCJ message board bingo card, my guess at the explanation for all of this from TCJ’s editors, is that TCJ is covering older established (pap pap) cartoonists and going in depth on them. Sure. But there was an attempt at covering some newer folks like Anders Nillsen, Kevin Huizenga and Tim Hensley, all cartoonists who I love, but I think every one of the women I mentioned above is as accomplished as them. And that doesn’t mean “Oh noes, we must cut out Anders and Kevin and Tim so we can have a woman!” It means…you ADD coverage. And I’ve also heard “Well Kristy Valenti is the assistant editor on this!” and as much as I love and adore Kristy Valenti, and she is one of my favorite writers on comics, my answer to this is…try harder.
And what is the price of all of this? Continuing exclusion. A continuing “Why have there been no great female cartoonists?” that has to be answered over and over and over. A continuing subliminal message that women creators don’t belong with Chester Brown and and Lewis Trondheim and Roy Crane. I know some pap pap adherents just felt a flush of rage when I suggested women were the equals of Roy Crane. Because they think no woman has touched these hallowed icons. I know this because I’ve stood there and argued with them about it.
But you know what? The new audience for comics doesn’t know about the pap pap tradition. They think Alison Bechdel is just as important as R. Crumb. And I think you could make a pretty good argument that she is.
I’d like to think that in the long run this exclusion doesn’t matter, since, well, only a few people read The Comics Journal any more, and thousands of people read tumblr and the web where people who are not white men are able to put their work on display without fear of “gender-blind” gatekeepers. It’s definitely a world without gatekeepers any more, thank God, and I’d rather have the tyranny of crowd sourcing than the tyranny of patronizing, patriarchal privilege; a privilege oblivious to its own sheltered viewpoint.
But heed me well, young women of tumblr, this is how women get forgotten and marginalized. They get left out of history. Over and over and over, and have to prove over and over and over that they belong in discussion. Women cartoonists and women comics critics have as much to say and as much wit to say it as a jackass showboat like Matt Seneca who once burnt and ate a book because he didn’t like it. I’d like to think it’s douchbaggery and prejudice that’s being marginalized when I look at the new world of comics—a world where most cartooning students are female; international influences are more important than Neal Adams or S. Clay Wilson; digital is a fact of life; and, most importantly, creators grew up reading only literary and indie comics, and aren’t still playing out their rejection of Marvel and DC as the Oedipal crisis of their adult lives.
Luckily, Peggy Burns, associate publisher of D&Q, rode to the rescue of everyone with a response to the Santoro/Collins big feminist question mark, to point out:
I know we’re all on the same page here, –more women in all areas of comics is a good thing–and that Sean and Frank are fighting the good fighting and asking and discussing the important questions. As a publicist, however, I would say that my list of VERY influential journalists who regularly write or assign (assign being just as key) comics reviews that happen to be women is pretty solid. I could clearly state as fact that my #1 journalist right now who regularly writes full-length reviews with more frequency than any of the men mentioned in Sean and Frankie’s conversation, is Hillary Brown of PASTE. In fact, she may be my only journalist who regularly writes single-title reviews with any frequency, second to, you know, Rachel Cooke of the Guardian of the UK, perhaps one of the top three newspapers in the world; or two of my most important Canadian journalists – Laura Kane of the Toronto Star and Nathalie Atkinson of the National Post; or Heidi MacDonald in her role at PW, or Francisca Goldsmith in numerous library journals, and these are just the few I can think of while cooking dinner for my family on a Sunday evening.
My own contributions aside—editing a weekly section of comics reviews for ten years—this is a fine list. And to those MEN who wonder “gee how come no women write about comics?” I can only say, will you just get your head out of your ass for ten minutes? You might learn something.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.