Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators? Panel at LBF 2016

CA - LBF - WiC - by @nazeli_kk Inclusiveness and representation is very much on the radar of the comic industry right now, yet this panel is not simply the next discussion of this topic as relates to women. Rather it’s been convened in response to ‘the Angouleme controversy’. We’re helpful primed on entrance to the LBF by the Bookseller Daily, which includes Tom Tivnan’s interview with Emma Hayley, MD of Self Made hero, who is chairing the panel.

 

‘A case study in how to balls up a book festival,’ says Tom of January’s Angouleme International Comics Festival (not the LBF!) And it’s a perfectly apt description. Of 30 comic creators on the longlist for Angouleme’s Grand Prix lifetime achievement award not one was a woman. A boycott was roundly called for and supported: Male creators withdrew and it was hardly an appealing prospect for the hurriedly added women creators. It hardly helped that the festival director’s response was “There are not many women in the history of comics”(!) CA _ LBF - WiC - Angouleme

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So Emma chairs the panel which is made up of Myriad Editions MD Corinne Pearlman, Mediatoon International Rights Director Sophie Castille, freelance author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife), and comics creator Hannah Berry (Britten & Brülightly, Adamtine, Livestock (upcoming) – Jonathan Cape).

Despite the pointed relevance of Angouleme, and the unfortunate words of its director, the panel is upbeat. Corinne Pearlman treats us to a much longer term view of the independent comic scene, its down and upturns in the 80’s and 90’s and women within it, but notes the contrast of conventions today, how the male-female mix of creators exhibiting is so much more balanced.

CA - LBF - WiC - Britten and Brulightly Hannah Berry confesses to feeling like she’s working in a bubble – she’s respectfully cautious of her rather better experiences of being published by a major literary publisher like Jonathan Cape – but entirely endorses Corinne’s perspective. She feels such ‘artisanal’ festivals as Thought Bubble and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival show a more even gender split. It’s worth noting however that both were created by women: Tula Lotay and Julie Tait respectively.
What’s apparent is that women are far more prominent on the independent scene. This is perhaps especially true of Anglophone markets because of the skewed perspective of comics being a genre rather than a medium. There are of course plenty of female creators who love and are working within the superhero (more on that later) and science fiction genres which came to dominate the US and UK. But the comic form itself is a medium through which stories of any genre can be told, and comics have been a mainstay of the European publishing scene during a century where the English-speaking market came to understand the form more as juvenile literature.

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Man-heavy industry giants Marvel and DC tend to be a little too much in the public eye, as Corinne notes adding, half-jokingly, that she “must stop mentioning them”. Hannah reinforces this a little later: she was certainly aware of ‘The Big Two’ but found her entrance into the medium through French comics. She also notes how more women creators are coming through online: “There’s no gatekeepers” she says.

So it’s the independent and literary scenes are where female creators, who have stories of other genres to tell, are able to flourish, and it’s at the aforementioned UK festivals where a more healthy picture can be seen; it’s the more general book and comic festivals – especially the longer established ones perhaps, where attention is needed.

Of Myriad Corinne tells us that there are slightly more female creators on the list, but that it’s really the male creators who’ve made it in France. As mentioned already, though it can hardly be overstated, the comic medium is a mainstay of the adult book market on the continent, present in all genres, and always has been (interestingly Sophie Castille points out that American material is actually rather too violent for the French market). So perhaps, given this most recent Angouleme and Corinne’s experiences selling her creators to France, there’s a gender-bias in the longer established scene there; different in nature from Anglophone countries but pronounced regardless.

LE - LAYDEEZ DO COMICS On the more positive note of the UK scene, aside from her own Myriad, Corinne praises the contributions of Julie Tait, Emma Hayley herself, and goes on to credit the influence of Laydeez Do Comics who, via events and groups in several countries and different towns and cities within, have been very influential.

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Emma raises a very pertinent point indeed, that with the progress women have been making in comics, are we heading in a direction where there’s a danger of women’s writing becoming a genre. Hannah Berry absolutely takes the point: ‘It’s a risk’ she agrees.

Neither staying with or departing this concern conversation turns to the current ‘Comix Creatrix’ exhibition at the House of Illustration in King’s Cross which is showcasing 100 pioneering female comic artists (including Hannah and Audrey) from the 1800’s through to the present day. Emma confesses that she went to the opening somewhat ambivalent but found herself feeling a real sense of pride to be a woman once there. The panel expresses a view that publishers tend to be in a comfort zone and reach for the same people, artists in this case. So perhaps, from the gender-based exhibition, female creators will be on a few more professional radars which can only be a positive development. CA - LBF - Comix Creatrix

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Audrey Niffenegger relates how many women comic creators, neither aiming for or defined by the figure art of the superhero world come from a fine art background and this is true of herself. She might best be known as the author of The Time Traveller’s Wife but Audrey, like others, has created a number of Graphic Novels and illustrated fiction besides (not that we’re talking guys here but her fiancé is the also-great Eddie Campbell creator of Bacchus and much more). At the beginning of her career Audrey was involved in women’s art co-ops, and she expresses the importance of mentoring people – fellow female creators – and share the love. She’s not wrong: mentoring can be a deciding factor in a creative career, at the very least in practical terms of where one should focus their efforts, providing direction and support.

Returning to the European stage, Sophie tells us that the French scene was always original and creative and that’s not just nationalistic pride. As I later hear while chatting with and interviewing 2000 AD creator Pat Mills (article to come) it was the example of France he looked to when putting it together and I’ve heard the same said of France at numerous panels now.

CA - LBF - WiC - Lynda Barry 1 But Audrey looks back to underground comics in the 70’s and 80’s and the influence of punk, in particular noting Lynda Barry who’s work prompted the thought in her ‘Oh, you can do that?’ In comics, she realised ‘you could do whatever you wanted. That’s quite possibly, if you choose to take it this way, the most poignant statement of punk’s cultural value.

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(Note: 2016 sees Punk celebrating a 40th anniversary, on June 4th if taken from the legendary Sex Pistols Manchester gig – check out some non-fiction highlights on and around that on our June Book Recommends – there are also Graphic Novel recommends from Myriad, SelfMadeHero and more besides on there as well!)

We’re on to Qs and As. An audience member wants to get even more political and Kate Evans is raised. Kate’s actually on the last Comics Creatrix talk happening in May with Mary and Brian Talbot on Radical Graphic Novels (see our London Events page for more on that and our May Book Recommends for details of Mary and Brian’s also political The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia). Kate’s latest is Red Rosa, a graphic biography of philosopher, writer and political figure Rosa Luxemburg (details on Waterstones). She’s currently documenting the lives of refugees in Calais – apparently she crowdfunded 30,000 comics on her last visit. We’ll be following Kate with no small amount of interest – a creator definitely worth knowing about. CA - LBF - Red Rosa
CBP SMH - Pablo CA - LBF - WiC - Life or Theatre The panel ends with recommendations by the panel of graphic novels by female creators, two of whom were actually in that very room last year. Sophie recommends the graphic biography of Pablo by Julie Birmant and artist Clement Oubrerie (on WS), published by Self Made Hero, while Hannah picks Death of the Artist by Karrie Fransman (I also happened to interview Karrie over a coffee after the panel), praising it for being collaborative and experimental and entirely enjoyable as well.

CBP JC - Death of the Artist

CA - LBF - WiC - Becoming Unbecoming

Audrey Niffenegger’s recommend is Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre? (currently out of print – an opportunity for someone perhaps?) and Corinne’s is the award-winning Becoming Unbecoming by Una.

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CBP - Ms Marvel V2 So is the graphic novel industry failing to recognise female creators? Well it’s certainly failed in the past and, in one sense, the ‘case study in how to balls up a book festival’ that was this year’s Angouleme answers the question before the panel began. Yet while it would of course be wrong to suggest the panellists think all is well and nothing needs changing, there’s a genuine optimism buoyed by the independent and literary scene as particularly evidenced at festivals. Emma certainly believes festival organisers will now be a lot more conscious of the issue and the majority of the last Eisner Award winners were women as she notes.
And, as Emma’s also mentioned, there’s the Ms Marvel phenomenon, G Willow Wilson’s wonderful new superhero who’s a young Muslim woman who’s taken the original Ms Marvel – now Captain Marvel – as a role model. It’s a bestselling and record-breaking series – and is basically just fabulous and one of our regular recommends.

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So I’ve no doubt that France was always original and creative in comics, and representative of all genres rather than any one becoming the overwhelming mainstream – other European countries likewise. But diverse comics from English-speaking countries are perhaps now more than ever gathering pace and the emergence of distinctive female creators and voices is clearly happening. Sure, today literary and indie. But product can create an audience and an audience wants more product – and eventually mainstream publishing will take more note than ever.

Maybe Angouleme was just the final car crash that heralds a change in policy and awareness. And maybe it’s the long overdue turn of Anglophone countries to contribute to the wider comics scene.

It’s hard to imagine that female creators won’t be a leading force in such developments.

 

More from the LBF:

General coverage with links to feature articles – The London Book Fair 2016 [To be released]

A Coffee with Abaddon & Solaris at the London Book Fair…

Women in Comics: Is the Graphic Novel Industry Failing to Recognise Female Creators? Panel at LBF 2016

A Coffee with… Deborah Install at the London Book Fair!

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 1

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 2 [Imminent]

A Coffee with… Pat Mills at the London Book Fair! Part 3 [Imminent]

The Graphic Galaxy: Science Fiction in Comics – A Panel at LBF 2016 [To be released]

A Coffee with Hodder Editor Anne Perry at The London Book Fair!

 

More coverage of the Women in Comics panel (on Publishing Perspectives)

 

Top 2016 Picks of Myriad on Carabas: Will Volley’s The Opportunity (March) and Henny Beaumont’s Hole in the Heart (June)

And there’s two from SelfMadeHero in June as well: INJ Culbard’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth and Nikos Gazidis’s adaptation of Deborah Levy’s Stardust Nation.

You can find Audrey Neffenegger’s titles on Waterstones via this link and Hannah Berry’s here…