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Today’s Feminist Comics: Why I Don’t Relate

Ms. Magazine n. 1 (January, 1972). Illustration by Murphy Anderson/Jack Adle.

Ms. Magazine n. 1 (January, 1972). Illustration by Murphy Anderson/Jack Adle.

While doing research for an exhibition I co-organized, Our Comics, Ourselves, I came across the first newsstand issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972, the cover depicting a modern Wonder Woman as the embodiment of the new, liberated female. Perfect, I thought. Here’s a solid connection between comics and feminism, two things I care immensely about and that I want to put on display. I thumbed through articles by Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, and Erica Jong, and then halted at an ad for Ebony Magazine that asked, “Ever get the feeling when they’re talking about ‘women’ they’re not talking about you?”

Yes. All the time. And for as long as I remember. (Although this particular ad was specifically targeted toward Black women, the larger point holds true—what is often presented as “women’s experience” excludes large swaths of women.)

Advertisement for Ebony Magazine from Ms. Magazine n. 1 (January, 1972).

Advertisement for Ebony Magazine from Ms. Magazine n. 1 (January, 1972).

My true feelings were outed. Even though I love comics and my politics are feminist, the reality is that I have always had trouble seeing my own experience reflected in “feminist comics.” Admittedly, I’ve bought, read, and written about feminist comics in the direct hope of discovering other versions of myself, experiences that I could relate to, and narratives that might embrace me in a type of membership. In other words, I don’t identify with Wonder Woman and other graphic narratives that explicitly represent women in name or idea, and it makes me wonder, is there something wrong with me, or something wrong with these comics?

I find the feminist underground comix from the 1970s so appealing—the irreverence of the writing and variations in drawing styles are so rich—but they were rooted in events that seem so remote at this point. Many were focused on a woman’s right to her own body—the right to seek and enjoy sexual pleasure without social ostracizing (The Bunch’s Power Pak Comics), the right to obtain a safe and legal abortion (Abortion Eve), and the right to work any job a man could, to live alone, and to fart whenever necessary (The Compleat Fart). These just aren’t my struggles—and thank goodness for that, especially the last one. I was born into a world where women had already fought a solid first round for all of this. (However, it’s clear that another round is now due for abortion access. More on that below.) But, as much as I love the confident draftsmanship and balls-to-the-wall humor of Lee Marrs, the pained confessional stylings of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and the “giving zero fucks” attitude in everything Joyce Farmer ever did, I can’t say that I relate.

Joyce Farmer and Lyn Cheveley, Abortion Eve (Nanny Goat Productions, 1973).

Joyce Farmer and Lyn Cheveley, Abortion Eve (Nanny Goat Productions, 1973).

The ’90s should be my generation of comics, but the times were so heavy with identity politics that, even as an angsty, artsy teenager, I found it all to be off-putting. The comics were either too dark, too gruesome, or too didactic. I’m thinking of Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, or even the short-lived Girltalk. In my recollection, there were too many images of gushing menstrual cycles, too many lessons in vagina anatomy and articulations of sexual abuse, and too many acts of violence—only thinly cloaked in humor—against douche-y men. These comics delivered direct and grating statements about gender politics and injustice. At fifteen, I was unprepared for that kind of intensity. In hindsight, I just wasn’t ready to be politically engaged and that’s precisely what those comics demanded its readers to be. Instead, I wanted to laugh loudly at the funny parts of Janeane Garofalo’s stand-up routine, dance confidently to TLC, and wear enormously baggy jeans at the mall, without having to process that in my own way, these were all statements about feminism, self-protection, and reclaiming the female voice.

 Diane DiMassa, Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist n. 16 (Giant Ass Publishing, 1991).


Diane DiMassa, Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist n. 16 (Giant Ass Publishing, 1991).

Julie Doucet, Dirty Plotte (Drawn & Quarterly, 1991).

Julie Doucet, Dirty Plotte (Drawn & Quarterly, 1991).

Now, just seconds from turning forty, I’m both politicized and angry, and I long for the intensity of those ’90s comics. And I look around at comics written by and about women and they seem so understated. There is still so much to be upset about—Bill Cosby for starters, or why the Angoulême festival refuses to acknowledge that women, too, make comics—yet today’s feminist comics seem much less radical, less angry, less mobilizing compared with those of decades prior. I for one would like to hear from the aggressive and hilarious Diane DiMassas and Joyce Farmers of the 2010s! Where are those attitudes? Buried deep within the metaphors of fantasy comics like Bitch Planet and Monstress? Or in mild-mannered graphic novels and memoirs like Not Funny Ha Ha or Honor Girl?

I don’t mean to call out these works as being substandard in any way. I like them, and I appreciate what they do. But they exemplify a few things I am frustrated with, and that keep me from relating to comics that are classified as “feminist.”

#1: It seems like the permission for a woman to tell her own story comes with the caveat that it should be a light story—not angry or highly opinionated—and above all, humorous. (After all, there’s nothing as off-putting as a woman who takes herself seriously.) Even though personal stories always have embedded political implications, the narrowness of the storytelling doesn’t always acknowledge that. Memoir comics by women tend to be presented as contained experiences, ones that reassure us: “This is just my story. No more, no less.”

Honor Girl is a good example of this—there’s a quietness in the way this intimate story of teenage love unfolds. And although quietness is fine as a function of human behavior, within this book it communicates a passive and isolated experience. In that there’s a failure recognize that individual struggles are, in fact, connected to a much bigger picture. Honor Girl is shaped—whether the narrative acknowledges that or not—by greater factors than the actions of its characters. These factors in general set the stage for the conflicts and motivations that make for good storytelling. In Honor Girl, they lie at the intersection of gender and sexuality, and class status and Southern culture, articulations that are all but overlooked in the story.

#2: There are some major middle-class assumptions about the circumstances surrounding female empowerment and equality.

For example, when Not Funny Ha Ha talks about two experiences of abortion—one medical and in a rural setting, the other surgical and in a city—it misses the obvious acknowledgment that in a lot of parts of the United States women still struggle for access to abortion. Individual states have all sorts of restrictions that make the average abortion narrative a far cry from the book’s account: mandatory 24-hour waiting periods, parental notification, ultrasounds and counseling from anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers whose goals are to dissuade women from having abortions. For many low-income or working-class women, it’s not so easy to take time off of work, which leaves many with the choice between having an abortion and keeping a job. Perhaps most mind-boggling, in South Dakota, doctors today are required to tell abortion patients that they have an increased risk of committing suicide after their abortion, even though there is no evidence to support this.

In the majority of locations across the country, abortion is not at all available in the manner described in Not Funny Ha Ha. Abortion rights are astoundingly still under attack today, and the lack of this acknowledgment makes the book read as less feminist, less political, less about women’s health and rights, and more like an illustrated best-case scenario of abortion from a middle class perspective.

Leah Hayes, Not Funny Ha Ha (Fantagraphics, 2015).

Leah Hayes, Not Funny Ha Ha (Fantagraphics, 2015).

#3: Much of the fantasy or sci-fi feminist comic books I’ve read depict women’s power as though it is just like a man’s power—violent, or sexually hungry and emotionally callous. These female characters read just like male characters, but with full pouty lips, great tits, and sexy outfits. And they develop strength only as a reaction to some trauma or abuse they’ve experienced, so that female strength is tethered to victimhood.

Although as of this writing there are only three issues of Monstress on the shelves and the main character Maiko’s story is still unfolding, it’s clear she has suffered and survived several traumas: a war, the murder of her mother, a stint in slave camp, and a severed left arm. As a character we know her to be powerfully violent, but her physique is beautifully lithe. She is gracefully thin with a face that looks surprisingly like model Brooklyn Decker, and perfectly blown-out hair. Is this what a refugee survivor of war and dismemberment looks like? Although the world of Monstress is a matriarchy, dominated by women, not men—and this is perhaps the reason this comic is considered feminist—the characters’ motivations are in line with classic tropes of power that are just mirrored versions of the patriarchal world we know now. What’s feminist about that?

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress n. 1 (Image Comics, 2015).

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress n. 1 (Image Comics, 2015).

We seem to be experiencing a moment when all it takes for a comic to be classified as “feminist” is a woman author who tells her own story, or when female characters embody male-centric tropes of strength and power. That’s pretty limited criteria. I want better feminist comics than that, and that means demanding more complex and challenging narratives and characters. I don’t want feminist characters to read as “angry women” or “violent women,” but self-aware, articulate women who laugh, fart, and give birth way more often than they roundhouse kick. They should be confident enough to say that though this is my story and experience of the world it is sadly not unique because—let’s face it—we live in a patriarchy that devalues things like women’s health, women’s professional success, and women’s voices that dare say things like, “I was raped.” Feminist comics should poke and provoke more than they do right now. They should confidently point out injustice, and tell hard truths. They should be willing to demand things, and to overstate those demands. To be wrong sometimes.

Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet Book 1: Extraordinary Machine (Image Comics, 2015).

Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet Book 1: Extraordinary Machine (Image Comics, 2015).

It’s okay to be critical of the things you care about, and that’s the permission I’m giving myself to be critical of what are categorically called “feminist comics” these days. It’s nice to see that there are now more comic artists who are women, or more female comic book characters, but we should know that we’re not “losing ground” if we question—for example—when an all-male production team creates an all-female comic book series, like Paper Girls. Or why so-called feminist characters are very often depicted with huge tits and tinier-than-possible waistlines. When “they talk about women” I want to feel like they’re talking about me so that I feel compelled to respond and engage in ways that aren’t as critical as this essay is. Right now, it feels like feminist comics are talking about someone else.

This essay is an expanded and revised version of one included in the exhibition catalog for Our Comics, Ourselves: Identity, Expression and Representation in Comic Art, on display at Interference Archive, January 21-April 17, 2016.


22 Responses to Today’s Feminist Comics: Why I Don’t Relate

  1. AM says:

    I agree with this. I like many of these books, including Monstress, but don’t think they are the feminist salvation that news outlets like Slate and Comics Alliance make it out to be.

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    “I long for the intensity of those ’90s comics”. Word. Great piece. Thanks.

  3. LHJ says:

    Not to digress from this very worthy topic, but I do find that younger alt-comics cartoonists in general are more risk averse and less inclined to throw themselves onto the page in as extreme a manner as the underground/alt cartoonists of yore. There are a number of possible reasons and tangents for this. One of them is that comics have now “arrived” and is attracting A LOT more commercial-minded cartoonists (whether they are aware of it or not), people with less of a chip on their shoulders, less intense emotional engagement with their comics. The examples posted here seem to me like mainstream comics (I haven’t read them, but judging by their cover presentation) and so they would have more commercial obligations than those comics you site from the 70s, 80s, and 90s where commercial obligations was simply not a factor in their creative decisions.

    The Julie Doucets and Diane DiMassas of today are more likely to be found in zines found in the corners of comics stores that carry alt-comics or on disparate, hard to find webcomics sites, unfortunately.

  4. Mark Schilling says:

    Must every female comic book talent be required to create a ‘feminist’ work? Monstress in particular I don’t think was ever intended to be feminist in any meaningful way. That label was attached to it by the culture that surrounds the book. Liu herself has said its more a story relating the experiences of her family during the war, and the dangers they experienced. That it has an all female creative team and a majority female cast might be some kind of statement, but that doesn’t mean the book itself was ever meant to be a feminist work trying to relate some kind of message in relation to feminism.

    You have every right to be annoyed that what you want isn’t being produce, but I think you’re warping the intentions of certain creative teams to satisfy your own sense of irritation at a lack of work that appeals to you.

  5. Larry Dickman says:

    Interesting article.

    A man’s power is “violent, or sexually hungry and emotionally callous”? Is that the only power a man can have? Did the Buddha have power? It just seems a sexist thing to say but maybe unintentionally so.

  6. Brad C says:

    @Mark Schilling,

    I never got the feeling that Monica was stating that all comics by women must be feminist. She seems disappointed in how readily people will slap the term ‘feminist’ on a comic that may or may not have ‘feminism’ as an intention.

    As LHJ says, it’s a losing game to hope that a mainstream focused comic would have the anger that the underground comics did. Perhaps I should assume the same of mainstream media outlets when they declare a work ‘feminist’

    2014 had two comics about historical women’s struggles. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette and Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (done by Peter Bagge).

    I think Lale Westvind’s comics portray women as powerful as something mystic and primeval, which I like.

    However, I can’t think of any that explicitly deal with the injustices of today. Does anyone have some examples?

  7. Hello says:

    I enjoy the article as a call for more provocative voice in the medium, especially works labeled “feminist”, lest it become a meaningless sales tagline promoting work which fails to challenge assumptions (if it hasn’t already). Let’s try harder! However, I believe the gendering of behaviors is problematic and counterproductive, i.e. violence/physical strength/emotional aloofness as masculine trait is both unfair and untrue. These are after all human characteristics, demonstrable by any gender (although violence requires power which historically has been disproportionately dealt to men, let us not confuse historical narrative with absolute truths or the individual’s potential.) It too is a construct of sexism, hurtful and meant to be dismantled (if we seek equality), part of this dismantling will take the form of female protagonists in “traditional male roles/narratives” (and vice versa) An early step towards more nuanced narratives I promise. May every permutation be explored, casting visions of new possibilities for the future!

  8. Max says:

    Regarding these parts:

    “Much of the fantasy or sci-fi feminist comic books I’ve read depict women’s power as though it is just like a man’s power—violent, or sexually hungry and emotionally callous.”

    “Although the world of Monstress is a matriarchy, dominated by women, not men—and this is perhaps the reason this comic is considered feminist—the characters’ motivations are in line with classic tropes of power that are just mirrored versions of the patriarchal world we know now.”

    Call me cynical, but I very much doubt a world where women were in charge would be “better” somehow. How to put this in English…(my third language)

    My read on it is that “violence, sexual hunger and emotional callousness” are seen as man’s power because we live in a male-dominated world. If women were in charge, those attributes would be seen as women’s power.

  9. Frank Santoro says:

    these comments sounds like a bunch of dudes *sighing* —— no wonder there’s little diversity in the comments section of articles such as this –

  10. Lucia says:

    I cannot believe I have come across an article that straight up tells it exactly as it is. Much like the author, I too enjoy the titles that are out there but they are far from the feminist call to arms that some purport to be. It’s a fair remark to make and to an extent, doesn’t have to be seen as a criticism. It just is what it is. For me, as a comics fan and a feminist, I am tentatively optimistic that things ARE getting better, that comic characters don’t have to travel the road of being palatable to the average male gaze (and sentiment) and will be able to stand on their own.

    Plain speak. What I am saying is, while I am all for a character having sexual agency, having to be portrayed as being “sexy” in a visual medium to play ball (maybe literally) is annoying. Just because YOU shake your ass and tits first before some lout yells at you to doesn’t mean you’re getting somewhere to not be viewed as an object. Honestly, all you’re doing is making it easier for those you supposedly are rebelling against and rationalising your efforts as a “YOU GO GIRL” initiative. That’s how I see it, anyway.

    I liked comics in spite of the sexist tripe and art I’ve viewed since I was a young girl and it’s only now as an adult that I’m getting a little pissed off. What I glossed over to get at the story is pretty much in my face and harder to ignore. While I am sure the answer to this is to buy what I enjoy best (money talks), I also believe, as a fan, my voice and opinions are worth being catered to as any other fan, despite my being a woman. It’s getting better, but it’s not fixed yet. Let’s not pretend it is with the influx of newer comics with female protagonists.

    That’s what I took from this article. I appreciate it, particularly because of its perspective. Thank you.

  11. So I am a *sighing dude* :-) Not sure if my gender gets into play, as this is the thought I often have as well when a male creator is attacked by a male reviewer. It is the same thought I had when tcj attacked Robert Crumb’s “Genesis”: not being a theologician, Crumb decided to just literally illustrate what the bible said, and tcj lambasted him for not interpreting, even though that was a conscious artistic decision he had made. The reviewers could have made their own interpreting graphic novel thenselves if they had wanted to. And I am not saying this because the reviewers were male.

    The article leaves me with the question: why doesn’t the author create the comics she would have wanted to read, instead of lamenting the fact that no one else is doing so?

  12. Frank Santoro’s “sighing dudes” comment does bring up a question.

    I understand that women are harassed online, and I strongly believe that that should stop, and every effort should be taken to halt that. And Im hope my comments are not seen as such.

    But if a woman posts a well-written, well thought-through, honest article, are men only allowed to fawn over it? Or could it perhaps be seen as an invitation to discuss the subject in an intelligent and respectful manner, irrespective of sex?

  13. Ha, talk about putting foot in mouth, I found Monica’s online comics, reading “The Adventures of Dorrit Little…” and it is brilliant! So scratch my previous comments, she’s already making great comics! Shows me I should research a little before posting next time!
    Sorry about that!

  14. JFK says:

    Definitely some heavy “dude sigh” in here.

    After coming across this twitter conversation via Comics Workbook, I came back to this article hoping there would be more women in here chiming in and posting more underground names.

    For the author and anyone interested in current underground female artists, here are some that I enjoy immensely:

    Anya Davidson
    Lala Albert
    Lale Westvind
    Julia Gfrorer
    Heather Benjamin
    Lisa Hanawalt
    Jane Mai
    Leslie Stein
    Kate Beaton
    Celine Loup

    This is just off the top of my head right now, while fucking off at work. I hope people will add to the list!

  15. I’ll add a few:

    Katie Skelly – http://www.katieskellycomics.com/

    Gabrielle Bell (obvs) – http://gabriellebell.com/

    Bailey Sharp – http://baileysharp.tumblr.com/search/comics

    Inés Estrada – http://inechi.com/

    Sophie Crumb – http://sophiecrumb.blogspot.co.uk/

    (I’ve got a small-press comic of S. Crumb’s that is quite redolent of Doucet’s ouvre. I guess Sharp and Estrada’s stuff is also in that ziney/punkish sort of arena, too. I’ve not noticed any of these cartoonists being stridently Feminist, but none of them are aiming at success by wearing men’s shoes, so-to-speak.)

    Canonisation is an important Feminist project which doesn’t necessarily demand provocative works. The existing dearth of mainstream recognition for female creators may be the reason why any artistically accomplished non-androcentric works are, to some degree, in support of the betterment of women’s conditions.

    BTW, we shouldn’t confuse reasonable discussion with MRA reactionism. A civilised critical response to an essay isn’t the same as shouting down its author. Reasonable discussion can lead to the author’s viewpoints being clarified and expanded on. It’s an opportunity.
    (Unless publishing this article was an attempt to entice sighing broads, rather than sighing dudes.)

    Another quick thought: asserting maleness as violent is dangerous because many males want to be more male.
    (What did James Joyce do during the war?) Devalorisation of violence is needed, not buck-passing.

  16. “many males want to be more male”

    I meant “many people”.

  17. LHJ says:

    Ha! Although I’m sure that even today many males DO want to be more male. :-)

  18. I didn’t exclude them – of course many males strive for masculinity, and many females strive for femininity – to exemplify the sex you identify as is a cargo-cult strategy for attractiveness and propriety.
    Gender ID is often aspirational, as gendered qualities are socioculturally assigned and not ineluctably hardwired at the moment when genital formation is determined.
    That’s my view, anyway.

  19. Dylan says:

    Hesitant to add yet *another* male voice to this comments section, so I’ll just drop this title here: Ulli Lust’s “Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life.”

  20. Lucia says:

    @JFK

    Thank you for that list.

    @Briany Najar

    Thank you as well, and the links to go with.

  21. Kristine says:

    I agree with the central point that “feminist” is used to describe a lot of stuff that ain’t.

    Adding to the list of people whose comics are:
    Alison Bechdel (and remember, just because something passes the Bechdel test doesn’t automatically mean it is feminist or good, or anything other than “it has women in it; how oddly unusual that is”.)
    Liz Prince
    Liz Suburbia
    Jillian Tamaki
    Mariko Tamaki

  22. Andy says:

    @Brad C

    I think a lot of the comics about “today’s issues” in regards to feminism are the comics sections of sites like Everyday Feminism.

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