By Nancy Powell
If there was one takeaway from Thursday’s CBLDF: She Changed Comics panel, it was the critical role that women play in advocating for the key social and cultural issues in today’s world, and that these women as writers, artists and historians act as the collective voice to challenge the status quo.
Betsy Gomez (She Changed Comics) moderated a roundtable discussion of women who have created and continue to create some of the most important works in comics today. The panelists included Joyce Farmer (Special Exits, Tits & Clits), Caitlin McCabe (She Changed Comics contributor), Thi Bui (The Best We Could Do), and Newberry Honors and Eisner Award-winning writer Jennifer Holm (Babymouse series, Squish).
Gomez started off the hour-long discussion by asking each woman how she came into comics. Farmer read comics with her father and found comics to be an easier medium to communicate ideas than writing. Farmer’s $1 per week allowance allowed her to buy five candy bars and five comics.
McCabe had a more unconventional childhood; she grew up in a family that encouraged the reading controversial materials, including comics, and so enamored was McCable of the medium that she went on to earn a Masters degree in the subject matter. Bui discovered comics at an older age, concentrating mostly on women-written or women-centered comics.
Like Farmer, Holm’s father shared with her and her brothers his love of comic strips, such as Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon, from his youth. “I wanted the girl version of Peter Parker, a teenage version that I could relate to,”
Gomez then asked each of the panelists to share their experience of creating comics. Farmer’s Abortion Eve in 1973 as a way to distribute information about birth control birth control before Planned Parenthood took off. Her anti-Catholic stance on birth control made the comic unsaleable, and the comic was not well received because it did not fit into the underground comics genre. As history would play out, Abortion Eve is being reproduced in full by the University of Pennsylvania and has since increased in relevance as a result of the ongoing debate on women’s reproductive rights.
But Farmer’s first comic, Tits & Clits, found itself on the banned books list after a Laguna Beach, California bookseller, Fahrenheit 451, got in trouble for selling it. Farmer was advised by the ACLU that she could potentially lose everything if she continued to publish the title, and while the suit was thrown out on account of its violating free speech, the effect of that experience was traumatizing. “Censorship damages the creativeness of people who are working,” Farmer said.
Bui’s call to creativity occurred in response to her anger about the incorrect stereotypes of the Vietnamese’s role in the Vietnam War. At the time, she was also trying to figure out her own origins, so The Best We Could Do became as much a project that was personal as it was a historical journey. “Comics were my revenge against Hollywood. I didn’t have a Hollywood budget, but I had pens, and I could draw,” remarked Bui.
On the other end of the spectrum, Holm’s involvement with comics was family business; her brother Matt was an illustrator, which made collaboration easy. “The comics you read as a kid stay with you forever,” recalled Holm, who found plenty of opportunity to become involved in a medium she loved by writing kids comics. “They [publishers] are open to taking risks on graphic novelist and women. It may not be Marvel material, but Scholastic snapped it up. Children’s publishers are willing to take risks, and they really helped the whole movement start.”
McCabe used her scholarship in the genre to advocate for notable, but lesser known, female comic book writers as a contributor to She Changed Comics. “Comics scholarship is really important…how it impacts our lives, how it makes us feel, and how it makes us represent ourselves.”
Gomez’ final question revolved around the issue of censorship, specifically regarding the overrepresentation of women on the censorship lists. Bui felt that people used censorship as a weapon to shut down important voices. McCabe went further to highlight the point that women comic book creators do not represent the status quo, and any challenges to the status quo could scare people. Holm punctuated the point by citing the popularity and performance of bestselling, “questionable” titles co-authored by women, such as This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Farmer ended the discussion by pointing out an obvious fact; that these five women were sitting in a panel and discussing the success of their own careers, a defiant contradiction to naysayers questioning women’s impact on the medium. And each of the panelists confirmed, through personal experience and in their discussion of upcoming projects, that they continue to push the boundaries on important cultural and social issues.