They are women who come from different walks of life, put their unique perspectives on the page and succeeded beyond expectations. But what do Peggy Burns (publisher, Drawn & Quarterly), Jennifer Holm (Babymouse, Sunny series), Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Guts) and Claudia Aguirre (Morning In America) share in common? An endearing love for Lynda Barry. At Friday’s “Feminist Comics That Rock,” the four panelists talked with moderator Candace Mack about their personal journeys as comics creators and how the industry has changed for the better.
Mack, an Eisner Awards judge and teen librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, kicked off the discussion with a question on what feminism in comics means to each panelist. Burns took the first crack at it by reflecting on the positive changes she saw at Comic-Con in recent years.
“Comic-Con has radically changed. I feel like I just came back from having kids like five years ago to Comic-Con. It is just so much more female-friendly and wonderful now,” Burns said. “I think it’s because of librarians. I think it’s because of Raina. It think it’s because of Drawn & Quarterly. And the industry has made this entire shift over towards being more progressive towards women, and I think that it’s great. I find it much more enjoyable to hear that.”
Although Telgemeier’s experience differed from Burns, she likewise encountered sexism in how convention organizers perceived her role in comics.
“When I first entered the industry, in the late 1990s, early 2000s, comics was considered a boy’s club. It was considered the medium for men who had never grown up. Everybody put me in as being women in comics panel. And I was like ‘What do you mean? I don’t have any issues with being a woman in comics. This is literally what I am,’” she said. “People are like ‘So do you have any challenges?’ I think the reason I haven’t had any issues was that I was working with a woman/children’s book publisher. The children’s book industry is pretty female-friendly and female-driven and all my editors are either women or gay men so there was never that stumbling block of ‘Well you’re a girl so we don’t know what to do with you.’”
Telgemeier continued, “The big thing that I have encountered in my career is like writing books that are about girls as opposed to for girls, is really an important distinction for me. Will a boy read a book about a girl? Yeah. Will he read a book that’s for girls? No way! So we’re slowly changing the language. We’re slowly changing–actually, i’d like to say quickly–changing the way we’re all out here. We all belong. Not just boys or girls, but non-binary kids as well, so just want it to be open to everybody.”
Aguirre expressed surprise about her role at Comic-Con.
“I wasn’t aware that I could be a normal woman working in comics when I was growing up, so it’s quite a surprise being here and it’s really nice, and it’s because like what Raina said. Witnessing a shift in which kids like me are suddenly seeing other women and being aware that we could do that as a career choice, as a vocation,” Aguirre commented. “In growing up and in seeing us, it’s another way to help us continue to be here. I don’t know, it’s really weird being a Mexican kid growing up and doing comics and suddenly being the one talking about comics. I’m really happy and encouraged.”
When Holm’s turn came up, she reflected on the importance of seeing female representation on the comics page.
“I’m one of five kids, I have four brothers so I grew up in the ’70s reading all my brothers comics—love them—but I didn’t see myself on the page. I know that there are female superheros enjoying a great comeback—Ms. Wonder Woman—but when I was eight years old, I didn’t really resemble her,” Holms said. “I don’t resemble her now, but I always wanted there to be a girl character that I could relate to the way that my brothers could relate to Peter Parker. And it’s been so amazing to watch this industry transform and tell stories about girls.”
Mack then shifted to the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons, due in part to the role the game plays on the Netflix series Stranger Things. In the series, only boys play D&D, even though women like Mack and Holm played D&D. Mack used this observation to pose the next question: whether the feminists that appeared in the panelists’ books were exceptional or “just that way.” All four panelists agreed that feminist characters were just a part of who they were.
“I feel like, for me at least, there is no need to separate the way I express myself the same way men and boys are allowed to,” said Aguirre. “For women, we’re not allowed to do certain things, and comics used to be one of those.”
Telgemeier recalled: “I just remembered I was doing my autobio mini comics and short stories with a personal angle about my girlhood, which was pretty much my tomboyhood. I just remember people picking these minis saying ‘Yeah but who’s gonna read this?’ and wondering ‘Where’s the market for what you’re doing?’ and who was going to pick them up. Scholastic and Graphix didn’t exist yet, manga was kind of happening and I wasn’t sure where I was going to find my audience. I felt extremely fortunate that Scholastic was putting their angle together. We might be able to market these to kids so we’ll see. We’ll take a chance on it. I’m glad they took that chance cuz it worked out well.”
According to Burns, D&Q always published women creators and had always leaned toward a feminist focus. For Holm, the challenge was technical; convincing a traditional publishing firm like Random House to publish a comic that girls would read. Babymouse took two years to sell to Random House, most of which Holm and her brother Matthew spent haggling on printing and coloring schemes (pink) that would attract readers crossing gender lines.
When Mack asked whether the foursome during the “Feminists In Comics That Rock” panel about the changes in feminist comics since they started publishing, Burns noted:
“There’s zero politics now. It’s not a niche. It’s not a clubhouse anymore. No girl here. We’re all doing this.”
What was clear at the end of “Feminist Comics That Rock” was representation has changed in the last ten years. Women have a voice, and they are being integrated into the comics field. Comics publishers are taking the time to listen to female creators. But it’s the beginning of a journey, and there is still a long way to go.