NYCC: Creating Comics with Two X-Chromosomes - Real Talk with Image's Female Creators

Sunday morning's New York Comic Con Creating Comics with Two X-Chromosomes: Real Talk with Image's Female Creators panel saw artist Christine Larsen ("Reading With Pictures," "Kung Fu Panda"), writer Alex de Campi ("Valentine"), artists Amy Reeder ("Batwoman," "Halloween Eve"), Fiona Staples ("Saga"), Ming Doyle ("Mara") and colorist Jordie Bellaire ("Saga") gather to discuss their experiences in an industry traditionally dominated by men. Moderated by Image's PR and marketing director Jennifer De Guzman, the panel covered how a woman might approach scenes differently from a male creator to the general question of what it's like as a woman in the comics industry with plenty of audience questions covering the spaces between. The panel kicked off with de Guzman asking each of the panelists to offer their origin stories on how they got into the comics industry.

"I started doing comics on my own, on the side," Larsen answered, explaining that she kept contributing to anthologies, making the process a pretty natural progression.

"I blame 'ElfQuest,'" de Campi said. "When I was growing up, I read a lot of 'Asterix' and ElfQuest.'" As a kid, her mom would give her 50 cents to run to the store and get a comic to keep her busy, but it also taught the young reader about things beyond the comics page. "The first line of Shakespeare I ever read was punk Storm quoting King Lear," de Campi recalled. Eventually she moved into TV and movies, but got hooked again after a friend passed her a box of comics featuring books like "Preacher" and "2000 AD."

"I got my start through reading manga," Reeder said. One day she happened upon a "Rising Stars of Manga" try-out book and submitted her work. She wound up winning a TokyoPop contract. "For a complete unknown, it was a really awesome deal," she said. "They ignored me, but eventually I got a three volume book deal. I've been really lucky." When Brandon Montclare, the editor she worked with at TokyoPop moved to DC Comics and then Vertigo, they remained in contact, leading to her drawing "Madame Xanadu."

Staples worked on her own comic, "Done To Death," in art college while working at a comic shop. "My sort of break came when the director of the movie 'Trick 'r Treat' [Mike Dougherty] hired me to do the adaptation of his movie. From there, I did work for WildStorm, DC and various other companies." Working on "Saga" is the result of a concerted effort by Staples to move back towards creator-owned books.

"I got into comics after graduating from fine arts school," Doyle said. After finishing school, she didn't know what kind of art she wanted to do and moved back in with parents. "I was trying to stave off existential panic, so I re-watched the entire 'Batman the Animated Series.' I was just watching the cartoons and I was like, 'It would be better if Batman looked like this.'" Doyle then posted the sketches on LiveJournal, garnering attention from Project Rooftop. Once her art appeared there, comic editors started contacting her which led to more and better work.

Bellaire attended art school with Doyle, in fact, along with her boyfriend Declan Shalvey who helped her figure out that she didn't necessarily want to draw comics, but instead got in on the coloring game.

The audience was then encouraged to ask questions when they came to them throughout the panel, inspiring one fan to ask about the recent report of a female artist showing her samples to an editor who told her her anatomy wasn't right, referring her to a "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition." The fan wanted to know if the panelists have had similar run-ins.

"None of us went through the traditional route," Staples pointed out. "We did what we loved and made connections and worked with our friends. We sort of found our own way in. We didn't even bother with that sort of criticism."

"I think we all draw people how we want to," Doyle added. "At this point in my life, if an editor came up to me and said, 'You've got to tone that tummy up,' I'd say, 'Sorry, I'll continue to do my Image books.'"

Bellaire explained that even as a colorist, she's been pressured to boost cleavage levels, but she has refused.

"You have to remember, these are big companies, and if you come in through the direct submission process, if you meet someone who's a dick to you, just wait," de Campi said. As you work on your craft and get better, that person's boss will eventually notice and ask you to work on your project.

Larsen injected that you can't judge an entire company based on one story that seems to only exist on the internet. Aside from that, she said, "It's more interesting to draw people," meaning realistic looking ones instead of cookie cutter models.

Asked if being a woman might alter or influence interactions with fellow creators, collaborators or editors, Larsen responded, "That's never happened with me. I'm approached as an artist, not a female artist, which is what I prefer."

The rest of the panel agreed, which brought up the next topic of whether being a female artist or writer might bring a shift in perspective when it comes to the finished comic.

Staples said that she made her mark on "Saga" by interpreting writer Brian K. Vaughan's direction of making the two main characters attractive in a way that might be different from most. The male lead, Marko, has Asian features, while his wife and fellow ass-kicker Alana sports olive-toned skin and green hair. "Being attractive is very subjective."

"One of the nice things that's different about working with a female artist is there's a lot more attention paid to what younger characters would wear," de Campi stated. Many male artists will make younger characters all look the same, which is a mistake because, if actual young readers see that, they'll know it's fake and will be turned off by the book.

De Campi also related a story where she wrote a scene about a woman who had gained weight over a five year period and was trying on her old, nice clothes only to find that nothing fit. She said that her male artist would just not make the character as big as she wanted.

The topic of body types continued when a mother in the audience praised Staples for the cover of "Saga" #1, which features the aforementioned Alana breastfeeding her baby while still looking heroic.

"I have to give credit to Brian," Staples said. "The concept came from him. He wanted a simple shot of the family, Alana addressing the viewer with her gaze while breastfeeding with a hand on her laser gun and Marko looking away protectively."

Sticking with "Saga," the cover image to the upcoming ninth issue of that book was then revealed, a scene featuring bounty hunters The Will and The Stalk. The shirtless The Will is being embraced from behind by the many-armed The Stalk in a sensuous pose.

"Their pose encapsulates their relationship," Staples said before addressing the next question about interpreting sexiness on the page. "Most of my direction comes from the script. I do whatever I can to get their body language to reflect the dialog," Staples said. "I don't really go in for sexy poses too much, or obvious nudity. I mostly go with facial expressions."

"You need a moment, a very tangible moment," Larsen added, expleining that some moments are more intimate than sexy, which is a big difference.

"I don't know if this is a girl thing or not, but when I try to make something sexy, I try to make it real," Reeder said. "It could still be on different planets, but it still has to be something that could be emotionally feasible where there's actual brain work going on."

De Campi agreed. "I like sexy stuff. When you're writing, [it's good] as long as the female characters are believable and have some sort of agency. For me, sexy women are strong and intelligent and make interesting choices. I like sexy outfits as well, but they have to obey the laws of gravity."

This led into the idea of beauty in comics, highlighted by an image on the projector screen from Doyle's upcoming book "Mara" with Brian Wood. She explained that the image in question is actually a photo shoot, so the intent was to make the character something of an object.

"For that, I was trying to do the objectification," Doyle said. "I found it difficult and it didn't come to me naturally. It was the first time I've tried to just draw a sexy object. It was kind of skeevy, but also interesting.

"When I started in comics, I wanted to do 'Superman' and 'Spider-Man,' but editors and people told me I was too girly or lush," Doyle continued. "I still draw superheroes the way I think they are. Body type is interesting. As long as you vary it, that's wonderful. A lot of artists are guilty of just having a prototype."

"With Eve, the way I designed her made her more expressive than I've had with any character," Reeder said, explaining the process behind the development of her "Halloween Eve" protagonist. "I was very conscious of having attractive females be diverse. It's not a point in the story, but it was more like, if you can have a main character in a story who's not white, then why not?" The decision to make Eve "adorable" was important as it balances out the fact that she can be kind of a jerk in the beginning of the story.

"It's no different than developing men as characters," de Campi said in response to a question concerning the challenges male creators face in developing female characters. "People have to have normal reactions to stuff. Any character has to be as much like a real human being as possible. They all have to make the wrong choices sometimes."

"I try not to default to making them sexy," Staples said of female characters. "When you don't worry about making them sexy, you can consider their age and background, their personality. I make those things top priority when designing them."

The conversation then shifted to working with male collaborators. Reeder noted that, when working with Montclare on "Halloween Eve," he asked her what she liked drawing and he worked that into the story. "For me, conversations in comics are not boring," she said. "I find that stuff very interesting, it's not just talking heads." As such, there are scenes in her comic feturing people talking at length. Reeder also noted that, since it's a writer-dominated field right now, the writers should look out for their artsts when it comes to editors trying to tone down their unique styles.

"I do find when I work with people from superhero comics, they find my pacing very different," de Campi said, explaining that sometimes they're try to remove panels, but she always fights for them to stay in. This has lead to a pair of conflicts, one that she couldn't do much about, but the other started happening early on in the project so, in her words, "I fired his ass." De Campi added that making comics should be fun and that if someone starts making you miserable, fire them and move on.

A male audience member asked about a female-only party that happened at this year's MoCCA, saying he was bummed that he wasn't able to attend. "My problem is with things like MorrisonCon, which didn't have a single female speaker," de Campi said in defense of the MoCCA event. "There's still so much deliberate and accidental misogyny and racism and sexism in comics, when a group of us wants to get together, fuck you -- it's our right."

"I think you should always be all-inclusive to everybody," Larsen said in disagreement. "I don't like elite stuff." She also noted that women have been far more accepted and encouraged in the indie comic scene.

The topic quickly switched to something less contentious: Reeder's artistic run on "Batwoman." "It was actually really hard," the artist said. "There were a lot of characters in there that were lesbian, and I was trying to balance it so each of them had a really distinct character and had varying levels of masculinity and femininity."

De Campi offered very basic, but helpful advice for an audience member asking about being male and writing female characters: "Write them like your daughter or your wife."

"Don't focus on that phrase 'strong female character,'" Doyle added.

The next question revolved around the artistic education of the panelists and whether they recommended it or not. Bellaire said that, while she went to school, plenty of greats are self-taught and a formal art education is not a necessity.

"School can teach you discipline and networking is great," Larsen said. "You're going to meet people you're going to work with professionally for the next ten years." De Campi also encouraged self-taught artists to take a few life drawing and anatomy classes just to round themselves out.

The final question focused on the criticism by some that many women in comics are written with a male voice. Larsen said that kind of thing doesn't bother her, pointing to "Tank Girl," the book the got her into comics, as an example of where it can work. "It depends on what you're into," she said.

"The key is, when portraying women -- it's diversity," Reeder said. "I feel like a lot of women are portrayed like, 'I can do everything just like a man; step back!' I think we're different, and that's awesome. I'd like to see more female characters where they're self-conscious instead of being super-perfect. It's nice if they're powerful despite having problems."

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