Comics are read by boys and created by overgrown boys. That, at least, is the impression you can get from the average comic-shop shelf, where most of the women depicted are Amazonian superheroines with basketball-sized breasts and handkerchief-sized costumes. But the boys’-club image of the industry isn’t the fault of superhero comics alone. This year, the director of France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival stated, “Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics art. It’s a reality.”
Not so, according to a new exhibition at the House of Illustration in London. “Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics” is a joyous, eye-opening display of colour and black-and-white artwork by female graphic novelists from around the world. The obvious greats are represented: Tove Jansson (“The Moomins”), Posy Simmonds (“Gemma Bovery”, “Tamara Drewe”), Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”). Rising stars are showcased. But the most startling section is in the exhibition’s first small room, which proves that the “creatrix” was alive and well in the golden age of comics.
There is a Pittsburgh Examiner page by Jackie Ormes, the first African-American woman to have a syndicated newspaper strip in the 1930s. Her signature character – also African-American – is Torchy Brown (detail above), who is described in the strip as “a vibrant, alive girl seeking true love and happiness.” When Torchy isn’t romancing an “earnest, handsome young doctor”, she is helping to expose a chemical plant that has been dumping toxic waste into the local water supply. Beat that, Superman.
Then there is the Catwoman-like “Miss Fury”, whose dynamic adventures were drawn by June Tarpé Mills in the 1940s – not that Mills used her first name. “It would have been a major let-down to the kids,” she wrote, “if they found that the author of such virile and awesome characters was a gal.” Half a century later, of course, publishers advised Joanne Rowling that she should adopt the gender-neutral “J.K.”
Best of all are the luscious pages by Lily Renée, who fled with her Viennese-Jewish family to New York in the 1930s, and started drawing for the comics publisher Fiction House in the 1940s. Apparently, Renée had never seen a comic before she applied for the job of drawing them, which could be why she seems to be making up her own rules. Instead of sticking to the standard rows of rectangular panels, her “Werewolf Hunter” layouts are intricate patterns of diamonds and circles. She also uses the daring off-kilter angles and stark lighting of film noir, putting her in the company of the medium’s most revered pioneer, Will Eisner. And, like Eisner, she has no qualms about cheering up adolescent males with pictures of leggy bombshells.
The rooms concentrating on more recent artists are almost as revelatory. I didn’t know, for instance, that Laura Howell was the only female cartoonist ever to have worked on the Beano and Viz. (In the latter magazine, she introduced “Sir Benjamin Britten and his Embittered Bittern”.) Nor had I realised that Audrey Niffenegger, best known as the author of “The Time-Traveller’s Wife”, was such an accomplished draughtswoman.
What would an equivalent survey of 100 male comic creators be like? Judging by the exhibitions I’ve been to, men’s comics tend to be more violent, more pretentious and perhaps not as varied: having been sidelined by the mainstream superhero or action traditions, female writer-artists are quicker to go their own way. The “creatrix” also seems to be better at making sociopolitical points without sacrificing accessibility and fun. For example, Kripa Joshi moved from Nepal to New York, where she self-publishes wordless, buoyantly surreal comics about an alter ego named Miss Moti. A reaction to the typical Barbie-shaped superheroine, Miss Moti could be a descendant of the sturdy figures in Picasso’s “Two Women Running on the Beach”. (In Nepali and Hindi, Joshi explains in an accompanying video, moti means both a plump woman and a pearl.) She isn’t happy about being larger than the svelte Ultrawoman. But when Ultrawoman is being mugged, Miss Moti saves the day by jumping on her attacker and flattening him.
This unmissable exhibition squashes preconceptions just as easily.
Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics House of Illustration, London, to May 15th