Women cartoonists are dominating bestseller lists and sweeping awards, but the going is far from smooth.
Something's moving in the world of comics. Suddenly, there are so many women artists telling powerful stories. And their voices are getting heard in the corridors of this erstwhile boys-only club. The biggest-selling graphic novel this year has been My Favorite Thing is Monsters, a debut for Emil Ferris. Joe Sacco is not the only name in comics journalism; with the brilliant Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq, American cartoonist Sarah Glidden is in hot pursuit. Last year the comics art awards were swept by women. We can go on and on.
Closer home, the first feminist comic strip Suki, by Manjula Padmanabhan, has made a comeback after a long hiatus. Amruta Patil's debut work Kari created a new readership for graphic novels in India; she continues with Adi Parva and Sauptik. Three Indian artists, Padmanabhan, Kaveri Gopalakrishnan, and Reshu Singh, were a part of the worldwide Comics Creatrix exhibition in London last year.
So, are we finally in an era where women dictate terms in comics? "I think some of the strongest work in comics now is coming from women. I don't know if I'd say we were dominating things quite yet!", says Glidden. Yet, she adds, "It's getting to be more equitable in terms of who is getting attention and respect."
The man who created India's first graphic novel River of Stories, Orijit Sen, has a different take on the issue. "I think calling it `the era of women cartoonists' is a bit hyperbolic. Women are beginning to make their presence felt in many different spheres and cartooning is one of them," says Sen.
The Chicago-based Ferris, whose inventive work on social outcasts has wowed critics, says she is uncomfortable calling it an exceptional era of women cartoonists. Because "just as so many great paintings in history spent centuries being labelled 'anonymous' but were actually painted by women, I can imagine that the same might have happened within the history of comics," she says. Like Sen, she feels "we are entering a period of equality in art as well as all human endeavours".
However, women still have a way to go. Last year, the Angouleme International Comics Festival in France did not include a single woman in its list of 30 nominees for what many consider the most prestigious prize in comics, the Grand Prix. Following the outcry, the festival's executive officer denied any discrimination and blamed the lack of qualified women.
This year's festival may be more inclusive but the problems aren't going away. Glidden refers to regular harassment of women, artists included, both in person and online by men, "whether they are men in positions of power in the industry or just Twitter trolls who want to silence their work". Glidden feels this needs to be addressed within the community. "Sexism does not go away just because women start getting more of a voice; sometimes it can get worse," says Glidden.
In India, women cartoonists face a different set of problems. Says Sreejita Biswas, a Bengaluru-based writer-artist who runs an online comics magazine StripTease, "I think we are really misunderstood. People either see us as bra-burning man-haters or they think that we are constantly angry. This could be because of a flawed idea of feminism."
It is also a complicated time to be a creator in India, says Ramya Ramakrishnan, a graphic designer and artist. "On one hand you feel like there was never a better time to draw or write that story, express an opinion; on the other hand, censorship (both self-imposed and imposed by others) is reaching new heights," she says.
Fear of censorship or ridicule did not stop Sreejita from becoming the art director forGaysi Zine, India's first LGBTQ magazine. "The reactions were pretty overwhelming to be honest. I have had parents who were known to be homophobic call me up and thank me for helping them understand their children better. It was amazing to hear these people realise that 'Queer people are just like us! Only queer'."
Glidden thinks their ranks are expanding fast but the attitude towards women cartoonists has to change. "Female cartoonists are often expected to be making 'memoir', not doing hard journalism, so sometimes comics reportage gets classified as personal history instead of more serious work," she says.