Women In Comics: Stevenson & Corsetto on Webcomics and the Future

To celebrate Women's History Month, all March long Comic Book Resources has been highlighting female creators across the industry, past and present, who helped make the comic book world what it is today. We end our series with Noelle Stevenson and Danielle Corsetto, two women working in one of the the newest fields of the comics world: webcomics.

Corsetto began her webcomic, "Girls With Slingshots," in 2004, a slice-of-life comedy about alcohol-loving Hazel, her girly best friend Jamie and their diverse group of friends. Garnering praise for her portrayal of gay, bi and lesbian characters and from disability activists for her 2010 storyline about a deaf character's relationship, Corsetto has also worked in print, taking over "The Weekly World News'" comic strip "The New Adventures Of Bat Boy" from creator Peter Bagge.

Stevenson exploded onto the webcomics scene with her Tumblr, Ginger Haze where thousands flocked to see her parodies of pop and geek culture and art work. An illustration student currently in college, Stevenson already has a two graphic novel deal with HarperCollins to publish her ongoing fantasy webcomic "Nimona," the print edition of which is due out winter 2015.

In our conclusion to CBR's Women In Comics Month, Corsetto and Stevenson discuss the perceptions of gender in the webcomics world, the strangely insular nature of the Internet and their hopes (and fears) for the future of female comic creators.

CBR News: Noelle, you're still in college but you already have a two-book graphic novel deal for "Nimona" and you've done a lot of pop-culture comics on your Tumblr, and Danielle you took over from Peter Bagge on "Bat Boy" and now do "Girls With Slingshots" pretty much full time. What was the thing that made you both want to do webcomics? Were you comic book readers as kids?

Danielle Corsetto: I've been reading comic strips since I was a little kid, so I have photos of my grandfather with me on his lap reading me "Beetle Bailey" and "Blondie" and the old comic strips. I didn't have any experience with comic books but I really loved the medium, so I started doing comic strips when I was like eight years-old and just did not stop!

Noelle Stevenson: I grew up with some comic books -- I grew up with some "Spider-Man" and "Tintin" comics and those were the closest to adventure comics that I was reading. But I read a lot of "Calvin And Hobbes" and "The Far Side" and all the newspaper funnies. Webcomics and adventure and graphic novel type comics are fairly new to me, like less than two years old to me. I'd say it was more being really into movies and wanting to make my own movies, but not having the tools to make movies. A comic is kind of the closest thing I can do where I can do it all myself.

Is that where the "Broship of the Rings" comics, which was one of the first comics to bring you wider attention, came from?

Stevenson: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely! I started watching a lot of TV and movies while I was doing my drawing homework because it helps pass the time when you're doing a piece. Sort of to blow off steam I started drawing stuff that was inspired by the movies I was watching, and that was one such thing. And then it all kind of exploded from there.

Corsetto: I started writing really early; I was a really smart kid when I was in preschool, I think I plateaued at about ten. [Laughter] But I fell into writing pretty quickly and I really enjoyed writing. I loved drawing immediately, so I put the two together when I was eight. It's really easy to spend all your time drawing when you don't have that many friends! [Laughter] I spent most of my time drawing during recess and stuff. But I was always working on -- I didn't know it was called an "intellectual property" back then -- but I always had some comic strip I was working on. Even though I'd share it with people it was mostly just for me.

Stevenson: Yeah, I actually did a lot of comics when I was a kid, though I don't know if I actually knew they were comics. I would do lots of stories of little stick figures cleaning things. I thought that was really fun! I'd show a little stick figure cleaning his entire house! [Laughs] This was before I could even write; I started putting words in as soon as I was able. As I got older it became something I'd do to entertain my friends, which is kind of the same thing I do on my Tumblr where you see something and draw something and make fun of it to make your friends laugh.

While people tend to view mainstream comics as male dominated I feel we tend to look at webcomics as being almost women dominated, or at least the biggest names tend to be women -- like Kate Beaton, Raina Telgemeier, etc. What has been your experience as webcomics artists? Is the community more equal, or at least more open-minded when it comes to gender?

Corsetto: I think it has more to do with the Internet being a place where you can hide in your comfy little home and still be able to reach millions and millions of people. The truth of the matter is you don't have to go through a publisher, but I think I've been living in a bubble as I feel I haven't experienced any sexism in my career at all. I was picked up for the "Weekly World News" and that was the only one I did for a publisher. The guy saw me and saw me as a female at a convention; this was back when I would actually try to dress in a way that was like, "Hey, look, I'm cute, I do comics!" [Laughs] And he definitely did not discount me; he came right up to me -- the editor of the "Weekly World News" -- and was like, "Hey, you do this? That's great, we should use you." I've never experienced sexism in the comics world for myself any more so than -- in fact I'd say way less than -- going out to a bar or going out in public.

Stevenson: I've noticed a lot of webcomics star female protagonists, or that the most prominent character in a lot of webcomics is female, even webcomics that are written by men. There's just a lot more female protagonists. I think that people are consuming the media they like from mainstream comics, from movies, from all these other sources and not seeing that as much. So webcomics becomes a place where you can really do that, where you can solve the problem that you see in the media you enjoy the most.

When we talk about gender and the online world it seems like we're always talking about two separate spheres. One is where women and men are doing female-positive webcomics on their own sites or Tumblr and you're not really facing sexism at all from that. But the other sphere exists on those forums, those parts of Reddit and other places where you have real blatant sexism, and that's where you get the "nice guys" or the accusations of "fake geek girls." Does that ever cross over into your world or work?

Corsetto: I never experience it, I just hear about it. I'm like, "Oh, where does that happen?" [Laughs] Then I follow all these links to places I've never been before to find it.

Stevenson: Because I'm on Tumblr and it's all about social justice, that can also be a problem in some ways, you don't really have that many websites where -- if someone says something sexist, you get a mob of people going after them. Like I said, sometimes that can be a problem but it also means feminism is pretty positively received. Every time I interact with another part of the Internet like Reddit or 4Chan where it's not that way I get really freaked out. The Pokeymans Project, which was something where I would draw Pokemon not knowing what they looked like and would draw them from description alone, that went to the front page of Reddit and I got four thousand followers on my Tumblr from that. I went over to the thread that was going on and the title of it was like "Girl draws Pokemon without knowing what they look like," and part of the implication was that I didn't know them because I was a girl. So there were all these comments that were like, "Haha, silly girl doesn't know Pokemon," or "You are faking this to get attention, you actually know what Pokemon look like." Then they found pictures of me and were like, "Wow, look at this girl." I was like, "What? No! Stop it!"

Corsetto: Oh god!

Stevenson: It wasn't that bad, I didn't get harassed, but it was this casual sexism that I'm not exposed to that much.

Noelle, besides the fantasy "Nimona" you do a lot of pop culture comics. Danielle, your comic is more slice-of-life with characters that are feminists, who are gay, bi, lesbian, have alternate sexual preferences and who are deaf or disabled. How do each of you counter that casual sexism? Is that something you put into your webcomics?

Corsetto: I think "Girls With Slingshots" is so blunt because it's mine and I'm terribly blunt. If there are any issues that I think of or that I hear about, these seemingly foreign issues of sexism that I hear about, I try to tackle them in the strip, but in a way that is basically saying, hey these are your friends talking to you, these fictional characters, about something maybe you haven't thought much about or you are in the process of thinking more about. I think I'm one of the few webcartoonists, at least of the webcomics I read, that has an open forum. So there's a blog post down at the bottom and you can comment on and it's really amazing to see. People who read my strip are so open to talking about issues of sexism, about gender identities -- just any issue that has to do with sex and relationships, generally. But they're really civil about it, it's really impressive to watch this thing build. People have such incredible conversations there, I'm happy that I'm helping to spark them. I've actually learned a lot reading the comments section on my own website from people who have different perspectives they can share.

Stevenson: "Nimona" deals with a lot of archetypes in a lot of ways, so there's fantasy archetypes and sci-fi archetypes, both of which are notorious for having a lot of sexism in them. There's nothing overt in the writing, but the protagonist is a girl and she is kind of a girl power fantasy, in a way, because she's a shape shifter. It's the same as when you're reading a "Batman" comic and Batman can do anything -- this character, she can do anything. That was kind of my reason for writing her. With her character I explore a lot of things I would like to see in fantasy, in mainstream comics and sci-fi. When I was designing her character too, I think about cosplaying and costumes. Every time Halloween rolls around I'm like, I have short hair, I don't like to dress sexy, and I end up dressing as boy characters more often than not. I'm like, how come there aren't any girl characters I feel comfortable dressing up as for Halloween? So I think that went into the way I designed her character. I mean yeah, she wears a skirt, she wears pink and stuff, but she's not a sexualized character.

Webcomics is the newest vehicle for sequential art and Noelle, you're the youngest person I've talked to in this series. From your perspectives as women working in a brand new type of comic storytelling and Noelle as a young person, despite the Reddit Pokemon comments and the pockets here and there, do you feel we're moving past the sexism that's plagued women in the creative field, at least in comics?

Corsetto: I think again, just because of the Internet and the nature of being able to be honest about your feelings then hide behind your avatar, I think sexism looks more prevalent now. I love it -- I'm so glad everybody out there with a terrible, terrible opinion can just go ahead and put it out there so we all know it exists and we all know where it is and we can go after it! I think now that people feel more comfortable to express their opinions online, they have this gigantic forum to post their opinions to, we're able to tackle things we didn't have conversations about before because suddenly it's in our faces. You have no choice but to see it because we're on Facebook and Twitter and our friends decide they want to ruin our days by sending links to horrible things on horrible sites we would have never gone to, saying "Oh my god, can you believe this person?" [Laughter] I think it's actually good. I was really appalled, I didn't realize there were such limitations to freedom of speech in other countries; I think England is really strict about curtailing freedom of speech and I think it's a terrible idea to not allow people who are awful to show themselves. I think it's much better to see, "Here are these people, they actually do exist and we do need to continue working on these problems." So I love the Internet for that reason!

Stevenson: I guess being younger I haven't experienced a world without the Internet -- I have, but from the time I've been aware of social issues I've also been on the Internet. So I guess it's hard to say if things are getting better or not. Like Danielle is saying, this stuff is so there it's always open to discussion, but I feel disheartened a lot. I would hope things are getting better but it also seems a long way away. I am heartened by -- is that a word, heartened? [Laughter]

It is now!

Stevenson: I am heartened by the number of female webcomic artists. I go to art school, I'm an illustration major, and my grade is almost entirely female. It's 70/30 ratio overall at my school and illustration is even more so. In this environment I'm not exposed to sexism that often, like in the real world. So when I am I get shocked, I get speechless. If I wanted to be a filmmaker or a mainstream comic artist or video game designer I would have had a much more difficult time. You still see it all the time where you can't have a female protagonist in a video game and there aren't many female directors in Hollywood. Some areas are closer.

Corsetto: I'd agree!

Noelle, you bring up a great point that other media does suffer from a lack of female protagonists and creators. I think your female protagonists fall outside the norm -- Nimona is pretty bloodthirsty and out to do evil and Hazel from "Girls With Slingshots" is kind of boozy and not at all interested in making any attempts to be sexy or feminine. Coming from webcomics where we do see a lot more varied female protagonists, how do we get that to become the norm in other media? I guess I'm asking how do we fix culture, which seems like a very big question for webcomics, but I'll ask it anyhow! [Laughter]

Corsetto: How do you fix everything? [Laughter] I think the most useful weapon we have is our voices, being able to say, when somebody comes out with something that is more mainstream -- I don't really think very much of normal comic books, I'm not a big fan of superheroes -- but when they do come out with a really great, strong female protagonist or if you have something like anything by Joss Whedon or a TV show that has really great female characters, that we ask for more. We make it known we are big fans and we want more of that. But then again, I don't know anything outside of comics, anything about the film or TV industry, so I'm not sure who they listen to. I imagine it's mostly wallets, so maybe we should just buy everything that comes out with a strong female protagonist! [Laughs]

Stevenson: I think also one of the things to fix is just having more women characters. If you have a story with just one female protagonist, one female character and you want her to be feminist then it seems like every character trait you give her is "This is what a feminist is like!" The point of feminism is there isn't one way to be female, so that can only shortchange the character. If she does something bad, if she does something deplorable it's, "Oh, now she's a bad example for our daughters." Women are capable of making terrible mistakes just as much as male characters are; just having a wider variety of characters and saying it's okay if you're girly, it's okay if you're more masculine, if you like to fight, if you're peace-loving, show all the different ways you can be a woman. You can have fun with women who are terrible people and be like, "Yeah, they're a character and they are capable of doing terrible things." Not every character has to be a feminist icon, and it's very difficult to have feminist icons. What does that even mean, really? [Laughs]

To wrap up our talk and our Women In Comics Month I want to ask you a question I've been posing in one form or another to all of the women participating. The conversation of women in comics and women creators and the portrayal of women seems to have taken off in the last couple of years, and more people are talking about it than ever before. As female creators do you think the conversation is helpful? Is it actually changing things, at least from your perspective in webcomics?

Corsetto: I always feel like such a bad feminist because -- I don't have a negative view of those, but I've never really related that well to female characters in, say, Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up, I had no problem relating to the boy characters. I had this actually very sexist attitude that I didn't realize for a long time, where I'd say, "I want to be more like a boy! Boys are awesome!" But now that I realize that is a problem, and I'm very glad that I'm aware of that, I still feel like it does a bit of a disservice to point out gender in the first place. It shouldn't be necessary. I was asked to do jobs in the past where it was very clear to me the only reason I was going to get it was because I could "bring a female perspective!" First of all, I'm the last person you want showing a female perspective! [Laughter] I'm not a good example of what femininity means generally; I've never really identified with that word. But also I'd rather be hired for my talent. I want people to say, "This is a person who is very talented at what they do, she can draw and write, we want to hire her because of that." Everybody has a different perspective they bring. I have a different format I like for my romantic relationships and that gives me a different perspective; there are so many other things than just gender to bringing totally different ideas to what people are writing or drawing. Continuing to focus on gender seems to separate us further and it feels unnecessary. I hope that at some point, ideally, we don't have an issue on gender at all and we focus on people's talents and personalities. If there's one thing I can add to this final question, it's that I'm not the best person to ask because I've been lucky enough to grow up nearly unscathed by sexism. My brother and I were brought up by parents who only treated us like "a boy" and "a girl" when it came to mowing the lawn -- still unfair to my brother, but he was bigger than me! So even though I hear from others that sexism is still a problem, I've been living in this wonderful little bubble where it just doesn't seem to be an issue anymore. I feel like I'm somewhere in the year 2050, looking behind at 2013 and going, "Seriously, isn't sexism already over? Do we even need to talk about this anymore?"

Stevenson: In a perfect world gender wouldn't matter at all, it wouldn't have to be part of the conversation. But we do live in the world we do, and I think it's certain industries more so than others; I'm not in the mainstream comics world but I'm kind of on the edge of that, I do have an interest in Marvel Comics and I have ties to that because of things I've drawn and characters I'm interested in. There are female characters a male writer will approach with the best of intentions, with the intention to make her a feminist character even, and just get it wrong. I don't think you have to be female, of course, to write a female character and there are male writers who write great female characters. I'm so excited for Brian Wood's "X-Men" series that's coming out in May that's a completely female lineup. I'm not too worried about that because I've read Brian Wood's stuff and I think he's good at writing women. It's just sometimes writers would benefit from having women on their creative team, someone to consult. And because the industry is the way it is, gender is important to be talking about. Until that inequality doesn't exist anymore it's not something we can stop talking about.

Corsetto: And before we go Noelle, I was looking at your comics online -- I can't believe you're in college still, your stuff is so good!

Stevenson: Thanks! I have one more semester before I graduate! [Laughter]

Thanks again to Ann Nocenti & Louise Simonson, Trina Robbins & Joyce Farmer, Becky Cloonan & Marjorie Liu and Danielle Corsetto & Noelle Stevenson. This ends Women In Comics Month, but for more gender in comics discussion head over to CSBG's "She Has No Head!" -- and interact with other fans who want to see more diversity in the industry.

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