The “She Changed Comics” panel at C2E2 lived up to its name in an unexpected way in literally its last minute, when a fan stood up and fought back tears to thank Lucy Knisley, saying, “You and Raina Telgemeier made me realize I could create my own comics. Thank you.” It was an emotional moment that emphasized what the panelists had been talking about all along: That women are an essential part of the DNA of comics, in the past, the present and the future.
Betsy Gomez of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund moderated the panel, which featured three prominent women in the comics world: Scholar and historian Carol Tilley, associate professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Lucy Knisley, creator of the graphic memoirs “Relish,” “Displacement” and “Something New”; and Janet Lee, the artist for “Return of the Dapper Men” (which is about to return in a new edition from Top Shelf) as well as several Marvel adaptations of Jane Austen novels.
Tilley provided some historical perspective with a list of prominent women creators stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century and then focused on perhaps the most famous female character in superhero comics: Wonder Woman. While William Moulton Marston is credited as the creator of Wonder Woman there were many women involved in the background. Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston suggested that if he were going to create a character, it should be a woman, because there were enough men already in comics. “A lot of her spirit is what you see reflected in the Wonder Woman character,” Tilley said, “that strong, assertive, positive, loving character.” Wonder Woman’s physical characteristics and feats are drawn from Olive Byrne, who lived with the Marstons in a polyamorous relationship; her iconic bracelets were modeled on a pair of bracelets Byrne wore.
Women’s contributions went far beyond inspiration, though. When Marston became ill, in 1945, he hired Joye Murchison to assist him, and she ended up writing many of the scripts. “It was only in the last few years that has she gotten credit for that creative work she had done,” Tilley said. The comic was edited by Dorothy Woolfolk, who also contributed to the development of the character.
“There were two other women who were part of the broader conversation creatively about Wonder Woman,” said Tilley. “One was Josette Frank, who was and advisor for DC/National; she was critical of Wonder Woman. She believed it was too much about S&M and bondage.” On the other hand, Lauretta Bender, who also worked for DC/National defended Wonder Woman against some of these criticisms.
Lee explained her unusual collage technique for creating art: “I’ll take a piece of wood, and I will start layering things give it textures, maybe pages from other books, and then I’ll paint over it so you can’t necessarily see it completely, and then I’ll start cutting out little components.” The result is a multi-layered image that she must then scan on a flatbed scanner—a tricky process, since it is glossy and three-dimensional—before the pages are lettered. While it takes her one to two days to do a typical page, Lee says her technique is easier in some ways than straight drawing, because she can move the pieces around and change the composition on the fly.
Lee showed a piece of art from a work she is pitching at the moment, based on a mermaid story by “Alice in Wonderland” creator L. Frank Baum. “I think a lot of those stories at that time, Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan, they are fantasy, but they are dark, too,” she said. “They are not necessarily the sanitized, Disney, happy fantasy we always see nowadays. I think once upon a time we knew kids liked things to be a little dark, sometimes. We knew that kids liked to be a little scared, sometimes.”
Knisley said she wrote “Relish” because she realized comics were a great way to show people how to cook. “The way I learned to cook was very experiential,” she said, “and I thought comics was this great way to reach out and show the hands performing the tasks and the food there on the plate… Comics also combine this idea of reading while also simultaneously taking in the visuals You’re seeing the food, you’re reading about the food, and you are also remembering what the flavors tasted and smelled like. That’s what I love about comics, that it can bring these multiple levels to the reader.”
“You have found a space in memoir and autobiographical comics,” said Gomez, “but some women have expressed a concern that those are ‘women’s comics,’ that is something that women are pigeonholed into. Have you ever felt that personally?”
“Definitely,” said Knisley. “I remember seven or eight years ago, after my first couple of books came out, people were like ‘Oh, autobio comics!’ Eyeroll!” In fact, she pointed out, there are many types of nonfiction comics that can be construed as autobiographical—memoir, travel, even comics journalism. “What people were generally dismissive about in the way that women did autobiographical comics was that they just weren’t interested in things that women wrote about,” she said. “I think that’s completely ridiculous, and I’m happy to say that I feel like that attitude has tapered off. People are a lot more respectful and understanding of the subtle differences within the medium, and there are a lot of new voices coming into this genre, there are a lot of doors opening for people to express themselves and tell their stories, and I think that there’s a lot more interest in readers trying to open themselves to other people’s lives. That’s what really appeals to me about writing autobiographically, because it creates this connection between the author and the reader and allows for this empathy that is very, very needed right now. I didn’t set out to have this career of writing about women’s issues, but I ended up having this career where I wrote graphic novels that are about cooking and getting married and now having a baby. These are things that plenty of people, male and female, experience, but there’s not a lot of representation of these things in the comics world, because women haven’t traditionally had a voice in the comics world, and women care a great deal about these things. Men do too, but for some reason they are not writing about these things. So I feel very honored and very cool about getting to write about these things from a modern, nerdy, feminist perspective. There’s no weakness in talking about things like having a kid. Every kid comes from multiple people. It’s not just women’s issues to talk about getting married or cooking. Everybody cooks and eats”
The panelists agreed that the future is bright for women in comics. Tilley, who was a judge for the 2016 Eisner Awards, said that while the judges did not set out to deliberately do so, they ended up with 61 nominations going to women — the most so far in Eisner history.
Knisley reflected on her experience at the Center for Cartoon Studies, where she was one of only three women in her class. “Is this what the comics industry is and forever will be—dudes who play video games and draw violent, angry comics, and then three women?” she remembers thinking. She became more hopeful after attending a workshop by Lynda Barry. “She blew everybody away,” Knisley said. “Everyone was just worshiping the ground she walked on. I remember being like, ‘OK, I can work in this industry if there are people like Lynda Barry who are making this happen.” Since then, she has noticed increasing numbers of female students in her comics workshops, including one that was a huge class of girls with only three boys.
“It’s a time right now when comics in general are getting a level of respect they have never gotten before,” said Lee, pointing out that Rep. John Lewis’s graphic memoir, “March,” just won a National Book Award. “I think people are realizing the breadth of what comics can be used to represent that hasn’t been there for a very, very long time. We are finally getting back to that place, and I think with diversity of topics, that lends itself a lot to having a diversity of voices as well.”