Angouleme: The Obstacle Race continues

I was an art student in 1979 when Germaine Greer's The Obstacle Race was published. As it happened, most of the art majors that year were women, and we all read the book and spent late nights in our studios discussing it. Women had been completely absent from our art history courses, and Greer's book opened our eyes to that fact and the reasons behind it — not a lack of talent, but a lack of recognition and encouragement — and often the deliberate placement of obstacles.

That wasn't difficult to believe. The university I attended had only admitted women for five years and limited them to 25 percent of the student body at the time.

In this environment, my fellow art majors figured out one day that one of our professors had never given a woman an A in one of his classes. So we confronted him. He was surprised, and more embarrassed than angry, because he wasn't doing it deliberately. He was a decent guy and never intentionally sexist, and when forced to look at this pattern, he started rethinking the way he did things. After that, women began to receive As in his classes -- not because of any sort of quota system, but because they deserved them. They had deserved them all along, and they had been unjustly denied them in the past.

I've been flashing back to this experience all week as the controversy swirls about the all-male slate of nominees for the Grand Prix d'Angouleme. It's depressing that we're still having this conversation, but it's exhilarating to see how the discussion has changed. In 1979, the male art students had no problem telling us that women could never be great artists; we could be good, passable even, but not great like Michelangelo or Leonardo. In 2016, apart from a few deliberately obtuse Internet commenters, nobody is saying that.

The Angouleme International Comics Festival is a wonderful event. I had the privilege of attending two years ago, and it was an unforgettable experience. It's well run and takes place in a beautiful setting. I met many interesting women and men there — creators, agents, publishers. When I asked the president of Dargaud to recommend some BDs for a new reader, three of the six books he handed me were by women — including Annie Goetzinger's stunning Girl in Dior, later published in English by NBM. While my French is rough and I tend to be a bit oblivious in these matters, I didn't sense any sexism. What I saw was a vigorous industry in which women and men worked side by side toward their common goals.

So my heart broke a little when I read the defensive response by festival executive officer Franck Bondoux to the BD Egalite boycott. And as unpopular as this is, I have to say that he is right about one thing: When it comes to the contemporary comics scene, women are well represented at Angouleme. The nominees for the Fauves, the book awards, include a number of very good works by women creators; Bondoux says it's about 25 percent, and I'll take his word for it. I'd like it to be 50 percent, but we have a lot of young creators whose best book still is in front of them. I'd like to see the juries that select the graphic novels have more women on them as well. BD Egalite released a report on this, and women typically make up 28 percent of the grand juries and 14 percent of the selection committees. These numbers need to go up.

However, if you ever needed evidence that naked sexism still exists, read Bondoux's answers to the press. Marjane Satrapi, he told Telerama, was excluded because she no longer makes comics — and yet Bill Watterson was last year's Grand Prix honoree, although he effectively stopped making comics in 1995. Bondoux also argued that the prize was a lifetime achievement award, and that while it was unfortunate that women were excluded from French comics, well, he can't rewrite history. Yet the nominating committee chose Riad Sattouf, age 37, over Lynda Barry, Rumiko Takahashi, and, yes, Annie Goetzinger -- women who not only have produced a worthy body of work over a long period of time but have in some cases done it within the constraints of a male-dominated industry. Bondoux was holding women creators to different standards than men, and until he was called on it, he probably didn't even realize he was doing it.

The difference between 1979 and now, however, came in the reaction from the rest of the world. Back then, we had a strong group of women who supported each other, but the men refused to take our complaints seriously (except that one professor, who was a genuinely good guy despite his massive blind spot). Today, we have BD Egalite leading the charge — and the men are joining in. Sattouf was one of the first nominees to support the boycott, and he did so very graciously, offering a list of women who could be nominated in his place. The list of boycotters quickly grew to 12, with support from publishers, fans and other creators. The French minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, called the all-male slate of nominees "disturbing." The media has had a field day, but unlike in 1979, they are not calling the women ridiculous; they are calling the men ridiculous for being so blatantly out of touch.

Protests often have value outside of the matter under consideration. In this case, it's the added attention brought to talented women creators worldwide. Fans started posting their favorite works by women creators under the Twitter hashtag #WomenDoBD; check it out for some good reading. Liberation compiled a list of 30 women creators who deserve to be nominated for the Grand Prix (it's in French, but many of the names are familiar to English-language readers). And the controversy brought new attention to "Comics Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics," an exhibit co-curated by critic Paul Gravett that will open this week at the House of Illustration in London.

All this goes to show that Bondoux was wrong. You can, in fact, rewrite comics history, because "history" is as much interpretation as fact, and it reflects the biases of the writers. History gets rewritten all the time as attitudes change and new information comes to light. Back in 1979, Germaine Greer rewrote history by bringing to light the works of long-neglected artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Angellica Kauffman and Sofonisba Anguissola, painters who are now much better known than they were 40 years ago. They have been added to art history, or rather, art history is more complete now.

Just because Bondoux didn't see any women creators doesn't mean they weren't there, and artists like Linda Barry and Rumiko Takahashi have an advantage that Artemisia Gentileschi did not: Their contemporaries won't let them be erased from history as it is being written. The comics world has a lot to be proud of this week.

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