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A Comic of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading and Embodying through Comics

By Jeffrey A. Brown and Melissa Loucks

The comics industry has typically been characterized as a masculine domain. The association of comic books with the dominant genre of superheroes, and the persistent stereotype of awkward adolescent male consumers, skews the public perception of the entire medium as simply “fantasies about boys for boys.” The only other medium assumed to be as thoroughly masculine as comic books is the contemporary world of video games. Certainly the comic book industry is, and always has been, dominated by men and masculine themes. Men constitute the majority of writers, artists, editors, letters and colorists. Men also serve as the default characters (the gendering of their names making the importance of their masculinity ridiculously obvious: Superman, Batman, Iron-Man, Spider-Man, etc.), and mainstream comic book stories tend to focus on masculine heroic struggles. And male consumers have historically been the largest demographic for comic books. Even outside of the superhero genre, comics are typically thought of as markedly masculine. The most celebrated and well-known cartoonists are usually male, including such iconic creators as Winsor McCay, Rube Goldberg, Charles M. Schultz, Gary Larson, and Bill Waterson. Likewise, the most lauded alternative and underground cartoonist are men such as Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman, and Daniel Clowes. Given the history of the comics industry and the disproportionate degree of men involved as creators and as featured characters, it is easy to assume the medium is exclusively masculine.

But, as the articles collected here indicate, it would be a terrible mistake to ignore what female comics creators, characters, and consumers can reveal about any number of issues, both personal and cultural. Both within the mainstream comics industry and without, women have made significant contributions, and continue to offer unique and alternative voices. Women like Dalia “Dale” Messick, June Tarpe Mills, Jackie Ormes, Lily Renee, Trina Robbins, and Carol Tyler are but a few of the creators who achieved a great deal of success and helped to shape the development of comics as an expressive medium. Contemporary alternative cartoonists like Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, Jessica Abel, Gabrielle Bell, Vanessa Davis, and Lilli Carre continue to redefine and reinvent the types of stories that can be told through graphic narratives. These female writers and artists embraced comics as an expressive medium where they could explore everything from heroic fantasies to deeply personal autobiographic confessionals. While, at times, they had to struggle against the misogynistic biases of the comics industry and institutionalized sexism, they each presented a way to use the combination of words and pictures to depict an alternative vision of the world and female autonomy.

In recent years, even in the realm of superhero comics published by industry giants DC and Marvel Comics, an unprecedented number of women have become fan favorite writers and artists: for example, Gail Simone, Amanda Connor, Nicola Scott, Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson and Fiona Staples. And while fictional superheroines in comic books may still be outfitted in revealing costumes, they now headline their own stories with far greater success than ever before. Wonder Woman may still be the most iconic and best-selling superheroine, but others like Batgirl, Supergirl, Black Widow and She-Hulk hold their own in retail sales of their self-titled series. Marvel Comics even rebranded one of its many X-Men books as an all-female team without any harm being done to the franchise’s incredible popularity. Importantly, many of these female super characters, whether written/illustrated by women or men, have also broken new ground in a range of representations of women in the last few years in regards to ethnicity and sexuality. For example, DC Comics’ popular Batwoman attracted a flurry of media attention for being the first major lesbian heroine. And when Marvel Comics promoted Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel (a long overdue promotion for Carol Danvers) they paved the way for a new Ms. Marvel to be developed in the unique form of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage shape-shifting girl. While comic book superheroines fight super villains and alien invaders within their stories, they also function as a means to struggle against traditionally limiting and sexist notions of what women are, and what they can become.

The role of female creators, characters, and even consumers of comics has been, by and large, ignored in most discussions of the medium. Still, the historical influence of female comics creators and the ever-increasing presence of modern women writers and artists, as well as changed depictions of feminine characters and a progressively more visible audience of female consumers, means that considering “women in comics” can open up important new avenues to explore. In planning the 2013 University of Florida’s Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, “A Comic of Her Own: Women Writing, Reading, and Embodying through Comics,” we hoped to bring women in comics to the forefront of scholarly discussion.

Through generous support from the Rose and David Dortort Foundation, the UF Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, the UF English Graduate Organization, and others, the conference welcomed scholars and artists from across the nation and around the globe. Presentations covered a wide range of topics addressing women’s roles in comics. From mainstream superheroines in historical and modern comic books, to humorous newspaper strips, to alternative avant garde graphic novels, researchers explored how female characters have been depicted and how their depictions have been used to challenge cultural assumptions. Many of the presenters explored specific female writers and artists working with comics and how they have used the unique properties of the medium to create thought-provoking and entertaining narratives, often dealing with issues that are specifically related to women. Others analyzed how “women in comics” intertwines with concerns about other cultural issues such as sexuality, ethnicity, misogyny, class bias, nations and post-colonialism. And during a Special Guests Roundtable, Jeffrey A. Brown, Leela Corman, Megan Kelso, and Trina Robbins talked process and perspective and debated superheroine mystique.

The essays collected here were inspired by the conference, and they reflect the range and the diverse concerns that are ripe for consideration within the framework of “women in comics.” This issue of ImageTexT begins with one of the most influential women in comics, as Monalesia Earle attends to the comic art of Alison Bechdel and its relationship to other literature. In “Does 21st Century Feminist Fiction Challenge or Uphold Conventional Notions of the Family? A Critique of A Mercy and Fun Home,” Earle evaluates representations of family in the works of Toni Morrison and Alison Bechdel. Christopher Hayton complicates comics studies through social science. His “Evolving Sub-Texts in the Visual Exploitation of the Female Form: Good Girl and Bad Girl Comic Art Pre- and Post-Second Wave Feminism” traces and compares the messages communicated by ostensibly innocent “cheesecake” images with those transmitted by overtly sexual, often violent art. Carolyn Cocca, meanwhile, brings together feminist and disability theories. In “Re-booting Barbara Gordon: Oracle, Batgirl, and Feminist Disability Theories” Cocca analyzes Barbara Gordon as a disruption to cultural assumptions about gendered and disabled bodies. Cara Takakjian and Chris Gavaler take on the issue of progress, each considering the ways in which comics have—or have not—updated their depcitions of women. Takakjian’s “Bound and Dreaming: Female Empowerment through Sado-Masochistic Fantasy in Guido Crepax’s Valentina” examines Crepax’s work as a progressive narrative, not because of the titular character’s overt, masochistic sexuality, but because of her accessible interiority. In “Zombies vs. Superheroes: Resurrecting Gender Formulas in The Walking Dead and The Fantastic Four,” on the other hand, Gavaler considers the perpetuation of stagnant gender values in comics by Stan Lee and Robert Kirkman. And finally, Annamarie O’Brien weighs in on patriarchal anxieties about femininity and motherhood in “‘How Can I Refuse You, Mother Box?!’ Abjection and Objectification of Motherhood in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World,” while Michael Kersulov addresses anxiety of a different kind in “Making Serious Subjects Lighter: Trauma in the Adolescent Autographic” by discussing the results of a comics course in which students both read and created autographic comicss.

These articles are meant to be representative—but by no means exhaustive—of the kinds of conversations that took place during the Comic of Her Own conference. We hope that they will inspire other scholars to continue discussions about what it means to be a woman in comics.

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