‘She Changed Comics’ Honors Trailblazing Women Creators
When you think of women in comics, you might picture characters like Wonder Woman, Black Widow, or Harley Quinn. You probably don’t think of creators like Gail Simone, a writer who coined the term “women in refrigerators” to describe how brutal violence inflicted on female characters is often used as a plot device to advance male characters’ stories.
But female creators, who often face death threats for their work and are more likely than male creators to have their books banned by regulators and shunned by bookstores and libraries, remain largely invisible — despite the fact that they have contributed to some of the most significant shifts in comic book history.
That’s why the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) created She Changed Comics, a book about the female artists and writers who changed the game for women in the comics industry — creators who have pushed the boundaries of acceptability, fought to have their work seen, and changed the definition of a story worth telling.
“Women still don’t have parity in the comics industry,” says Betsy Gomez, editorial director at CBLDF and editor of She Changed Comics. “[But] women have made immense contributions to the comics medium and to free expression, and they should be recognized for their work.”
Set for release in October, the 160-page book will tell the stories of at least 60 women who made significant strides for free expression in the comic book world from the early 20th century to present day. Among those featured will be Rose O’Neill, a women’s suffragist and the artist who created The Kewpies comic strip in 1909 (she was also one of the highest-paid cartoonists of all time, of any gender), and Alison Bechdel, the modern-day feminist hero behind Fun Home and the Bechdel Test.
“These women were the first to explore territory that hadn’t been examined in comics,” says Gomez. “They expanded what comics were capable of, and they held the door open for other women and comics creators. Literally: before a given creator’s work, the line was here, but now it’s over there.”
She Changed Comics started off as a profile series on CBLDF’s Tumblr page last year. Throughout the month of March, Women’s History Month, the group posted different profiles of women working in the industry such as Marjane Satrapi, whose autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, was banned in her native Iran and in some Chicago Public School classrooms. As the Tumblr series gained traction, Gomez says she quickly realized she had stumbled upon a story that needed to be told.
A year later, CBLDF launched a Kickstarter campaign to transform its Tumblr series into the She Changed Comics book. CBLDF likely could have secured the support of a traditional publisher, but decided instead to crowdfund the project because of the strong community of comic book lovers on Kickstarter.
The move paid off: In an astonishing eight hours, CBLDF reached its funding goal of $10,000. Within a month, 1,570 backers had donated $66,741 to the campaign. And in a surprising twist, Image Comics announced in May that it would be publishing and distributing the book, which will help get She Changed Comics into every comic shop and bookstore in the U.S.
Gomez says the Kickstarter campaign gave CBLDF “the ability not only to fund the book’s creation, but to also develop resources that exceed what we’d have been able to do with a traditional publishing relationship.” In addition to the book, CBLDF will be creating digital resources, classroom guides and other materials to support teachers and get She Changed Comics into the hands of students.
To say that the book is much-needed is a tremendous understatement. While works like Fun Home have received critical praise — Bechdel’s memoir was even made into a Tony Award-winning Broadway show — that kind of success by a woman in the industry is an exception, not a rule. Women in comics remain dramatically underrepresented and face a male-dominated culture that can be inhospitable and even downright exclusionary.
Behind the scenes, the picture for women is dismal: male creators still outnumber women by nine to one at DC and Marvel, the two biggest comic book houses in the U.S. And though new women comic book characters have been introduced in higher numbers over the past few years, such as Pakistani-American Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel and Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, who will headline Marvel’s first-ever female-led film in 2018, women still represent just one in four comic book characters.
It’s not that women aren’t reading comics, however. Anecdotally, an estimated 40% of customers in some comic book shops are women, and attendance at comic conventions is split roughly 50–50. The problem is that the industry has long been dominated by white, male stories and white, male creators.
Back in the early 20th century, women often wrote under male or gender-neutral pen names and published their work only in “female-friendly” publications, such as Ladies’ Home Journal. Despite the fact that they were creating, there were no women members of the National Cartoonists Society. That was until 1950, when Hilda Terry, who contributed to William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, became the first woman to be nominated for membership. According to Gomez, some of the organization’s members opposed her admission because they feared they “wouldn’t be able to curse,” but Terry fought back. She was eventually admitted and, says Gomez, she “immediately began nominating her fellow women cartoonists for inclusion.”
The Comics Code, introduced in 1954 by the Comics Magazine Association of America, was also a huge roadblock for the publication and distribution of women’s work. A seal of approval marking books free of any violence, sexual connotation or other material deemed inappropriate, the code worked to censor artists creating outside the lines — especially women. Romance comics, for example, which were favored by female readers, were targeted for censorship by regulators if they depicted sexual relationships outside of marriage.
But some enterprising creators, many of whom are profiled in She Changed Comics, circumvented the code by creating underground comix, tackling topics such as reproductive justice, sexual harassment, feminism, and sexuality.
“At first, the undergrounds were created entirely by men,” says Gomez, “but creators like Trina Robbins [the artist behind It Ain’t Me, Babe, the world’s first women-produced comic strip] saw this lack of diversity and exercised their right to free expression.” Robbins later helped launch Wimmen’s Comix, an anthology-based title that featured only women artists and was published for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992; all of the underground comix featured in its pages are included in a 2015 book by the same name.
The Comics Code eventually lost its power — though it took until 2011 for some major publishing houses to stop printing it on their books’ covers — but that doesn’t mean today’s female creators don’t face challenges to their constitutionally-protected right to free expression. In fact, all but five of the most-challenged comics of the last five years were created or co-created by a woman.
Canadian creator-cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, for example, have had their coming-of-age graphic novel, This One Summer, land repeatedly on banned-book lists, despite the fact that it was the first graphic novel to be awarded a Caldecott Honor prize in 2015. CBLDF reports that This One Summer is among the books that it has been forced to defend most frequently.
Yet Gomez remains hopeful for women’s future in the industry.
“More women are making and enjoying comics than ever, in large part because of the women who came before,” she says. “And today’s women comics creators have more avenues to express themselves. Women have found huge success in nontraditional outlets, such as webcomics and self-publishing, and dominate the success stories coming out from traditional publishing houses.”
By highlighting women working in the industry, She Changed Comics, alongside similar products such as the Kickstarter-funded documentary She Makes Comics and the 2015 Wimmen’s Comix anthology, may just inspire a whole new crop of fierce female creators.
Says Gomez, “[The women profiled in She Changed Comics] are inspirational people who had high aspirations for the medium and worked in a time during which both women and comics faced a lot of adversity. We hope that the next generation is inspired by what they learn . . . pursues and explores [the artists’] work, and continues the conversation with their own creations!”
Lead image: Comic Book Legal Defense Fund