If you read this blog at all, you know about Womanthology: Heroic, as our own Kelly Thompson has a story in it, so she talked it up quite a bit (and more power to her, say I). It's published by IDW and costs $50, but it's a fabulous package, to be fair. It's very big, it's over 300 pages long, and it has a lot of extras. It just doesn't have stories in it - it has biographies of the editors; it has a silly and fun comic strip running along the bottom of most of the pages; it has tips for breaking into comics from various professionals sprinkled throughout; it features a few pages drawn by teenagers or younger kids; there's several pages about how to create comics; there's a bunch of interviews with professionals; there are some concise biographical sketches about female comics creators of the past. It's a very cool book to read and page through and appreciate, even if you don't like every single story in the collection. If you want to know a little bit about Tarpé Mills, you can find out about her in this book (and then you can go buy the collection of Miss Fury, which is freakin' excellent).
This is a hard book to review, because it's so packed with stuff and, as an anthology, there's going to be both bad and good stuff. On the whole, the stories in this book are on the weak side, unfortunately, as it seems that the length allotted to the creators really crimps their ability to tell stories. The longest story, I think (without paging through the book to make sure), is six pages long, while almost all of them are four pages or fewer. It's very, very hard to write a good short story in four pages, and many of the writers don't succeed. Many of them try to capture just a brief scene, which is fine if it works, but it's frustrating because it seems like some stories could have been cut and others given a bit more room. There's a lot of pin-ups, too, which I can take or leave, honestly. I imagine that Renae De Liz, who put the project together (or at least came up with the idea), didn't want to turn away contributors, but maybe she should have. (I could be completely wrong and the editors did turn people away, but who knows.) There are 168 contributors to this comic, and again, I wonder if there needs to be that many.
One reason why I wonder if some of the stories could have been longer is because some of the stories are very bad. Not much of the writing is awful, but some of the art is quite amateurish, from the awkward and stiff pencil work to some poorly laid-out pages. This might be a function of the short story format and the artists had to cram a lot in to a small space, but there are still several stories that are actually difficult to read because the layouts are terrible. Even some of the word balloons are in lousy places within a panel, so it's hard to follow in what order they should be read. Lettering is, of course, a wildly underrated skill in comics, and most of the time, it's like referees in sports - if you notice them, they're doing something wrong. The lettering isn't terrible in most of the stories, by any means, but in some of them, it's really bad.
There are several good stories in the book, to be sure. The first story is by Ms. Thompson, and it's not because she's a contributor here that I say it really is one of the best in the book. Kelly has a simple idea that is easily compressed into four pages, and Stephanie Hans is a very good artist, so the story looks absolutely gorgeous. Renae De Liz's story about a girl entering battle as a superheroine for the first time is humorous and clever at subverting some of the superhero stereotypes we take for granted. Ming Doyle's two-page story is slight but beautiful to look at. Anya Martin and Mado Peña's story about evil dolls is weird and quite good. I don't love Rachel Pandich's story about a fire in a 19th-century seamstress factory, but Janet Lee's art is wonderful. In the same way, "Solace" by Jenn Corella isn't great, but Chrissie Zullo is a fine artist, and it's a nice-looking story. Gail Simone has a story about a girl who decides to "improve" her brother's comics, and Jean Kang's charming art is very nice in it. I know we're supposed to think it's cute, but if someone did what Suzi did to my comics, I'd be pissed. Jody Houser has two good artists for her story - Adriana Blake and Fiona Staples, both of whom do a fine job (I mentioned that Staples' backgrounds in this story are better than the ones in Saga, which I imagine is because she doesn't have to draw too many panels in this story, but still). "The New Adventures of Queen Elizabeth I" by Christianne Benedict is a clever and funny one-page story, an example of managing to get a lot of ideas on one page without cluttering everything up. Maura McHugh and Star St. Germain's story about a political prisoner in Hungary is very interesting. Barbara Kesel and Cat Staggs give us "Glimmer," a clever tale about marketing (yes, it's true). Stacie Ponder's strip that runs along the bottom of the pages is quite fun, too. There are, of course, other stories that are pretty good, but those are some of the highlights.
As I mentioned above, the quality of the book isn't necessarily determined by the quality of the every single story. This is a chance to see a lot of women whose work you might not have seen before, and if some of it isn't that good, quite a bit of it is, and so it's a nice checklist of creators to keep an eye out for. Plus, even though the "pros' tips" are pretty self-evident, the parts in the back about how to create a comic page are very cool. It's always fun to read creator interviews and to read about creators in the past you might be unfamiliar with. So while some of the stories don't really work, I can still Recommend Womanthology because the entire package is so strong. I certainly wish all the stories had been excellent, but that's the chance you take with an anthology. What I really like about Womanthology is that the editors recognize that readers probably won't like everything, so they made sure there was a lot to choose from. That's not a bad idea at all.