Feminism and Comics




Feminism and Comics by Greg Baldino

Sexuality is more than gay and straight, and probably even more than LGBTQIA. Comics are here to help.

January 11th, 2014 reset - +

TWO RECENT COMICS anthologies, The Big Feminist But and Anything That Loves, set out to explore ways in which the feminist and LGBTQX rights movements may have dropped the ball on dismantling sex and gender hierarchies, replacing them instead with hierarchies of authenticity. Neither anthology, though, makes a cohesive central argument. Organizing collections of viewpoints, each critiquing and expounding on other organized collections of viewpoints, quickly becomes a game of herding cats that are trying to herd other cats.

Visually, Anything is the more aesthetically energetic of the two books. Its full-color printing and variety of tones help to draw out the more dramatic works, which range from the erotic to the melancholy. In contrast, Big’s strict black-and-white palette lends a sense of objectivity to its often nonfiction pieces. Stylistically, both books are varied, ranging from the cartoony to the realistic, from the sparse to the baroque. Only Big includes a table of contents, but neither book makes explicit which pieces are intended as strict nonfiction and which are not, leaving an ambiguity that can be frustrating. One example in Big is the story “Asking For It,” a collaboration between the book’s editor, Shannon O’Leary, and illustrator Ric Carrasquillo. Rendered in a stylized expressionism, the story follows a woman being pursued by a man, whom she describes to the police, who then apprehend him as a sexual assailant. When she returns home, however, she confides to her companion the truth: that she is a prostitute and the man an unscrupulous and naive client she was attempting to rip off. The push and pull between her agency and her victimization is ambiguous when read in isolation; within the context of feminist dialogues, the story is too vague and broad in scope to raise questions about either sexual assault or sex work. Is it a true story or a parable? What does it mean for feminism?

In her introduction to Big, O’Leary describes feminism as “a touchy, loaded word that suffers from a serious image problem,” and asks, rhetorically, “does that mean it should just go away? Is it passé? Is there nothing left to fight for?” The suggestion is that the ideas collected under the label “feminism” are not controversial, just the label. This speculation on the semiotic weight accrued by the term over the past hundred-plus years comes before any elaboration on its history or meaning. The reader unfamiliar with the basic ideas and expressions of the subject are going to be lost, especially after Trevor Alixopulos and Vanessa Davis’s opening dramatization of a male/female couple in bed discussing coughing fits. As with “Asking For It,” the point of this two-page comic is either indiscernible or not present. “I can’t stop it,” says the woman in regard to her recurring cough, to which the man replies, “If I could trade places with you, I would.” However sweet the exchange, when taken as metaphor, the moment is devoid of further complexity. The piece is outpaced in clarity by the second offering, a succinct one-panel cartoon by the Los Angeles–based MariNaomi. It offers a basic definition of feminism as “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Why this clear and functional piece wasn’t used to open the anthology is a mystery. 

Another confusing moment occurs early on. The upper right-hand corner of the cover is the tail end of a parade of iconic caricatures of the shifting roles of women in the 20th century, which gather to fill much of the space. Suffragettes are succeeded by flappers and riveters, culminating with a guitar-carrying riot grrrl. Trailing the line-up, incongruously, is an indigenous-appearing woman hunched over with a pack and breast-feeding a child. Are these archetypes to be celebrated or stereotypes to be subverted? Is this to be taken as a “spotter’s guide” to the North American Feminist? Are they historic figures or relevant aspects of ongoing struggles? The parade contains only one marked person of color: a woman with a large Afro making the Black Power salute: intersectional feminism reduced to Angela Davis cosplay.

A reader of Big might infer from its contents that the primary concern of feminism is the social pressure on white women to have babies, as a solid fifth of the pieces are concerned with parenting. In contrast, the subject of racial identity or privilege gets mentioned only once, after 92 pages, in Angie Wang’s two-page “Intersections.” One of the more challenging works, an essay called “Prostitutes: For Teens,” begins to explore the taboos of sex work and teenage sexuality, and representations of both. Yet at six pages, the essay barely scratches the surface of issues of labor, gender, sexuality, and legal adulthood before its conclusion. Two of the more in-depth pieces have male contributors (approximately 30 percent of the collection’s artists and writers are male, their work spread evenly throughout): cartoonist Jeffrey Brown’s memoir compares the ideals of gender equality to the realities of raising a baby boy, while Andrice Arp and Jesse Reklaw address the evolution of cultural mythologies about gender and the complexities of using a gender-biased language to confront gender bias.

O’Leary explains her title in an introduction — “considered through the lens of the disclaimers, ‘I'm not a feminist BUT ...’ [and] ‘I am a feminist BUT...’” — but for all its promises to examine what it means to be a feminist today, very few of the pieces included address contemporary concerns about gender bias or challenge traditional perspectives on feminism.

Christensen’s collection is adequately balanced in contributors’ gender identities, with 18 male and 19 female authors. What constitutes “Beyond ‘Gay’ and ‘Straight’” (the subtitle of Anything) is obviously broad, but for an anthology that aims to explore the territories beyond simple binary identities, it is odd that only one contributor, cartoonist Alex Dahm, identifies as gender-neutral. Dahm’s contribution questions the limitations of binary labels within transgender identification, a welcome prompt toward further discussion of the politics of gender roles. For the rest of the contributors, bisexual and transgender marginalization and erasure are major subjects of concern. They focus primarily on questions of legitimacy. Is bisexuality as real as homosexuality or heterosexuality? What makes a “real” transgender person, hormones or habits? Can you count asexuality as a sexual orientation? And if not, how to make it count at all?

In less than 100 years, LGBTQX rights have moved from an unspoken desire to a matter of hotly debated political discourse. Yet beyond matters strictly homosexual, there remains much left undiscussed in the political realm about the psychological and social mechanics of bisexual, transgender, asexual, gender-neutral, BDSM, pansexual, or polyamorous identities. And the fact that questions of legitimacy tend to be driven by capitalism barely emerges at all.

The primary concern of most pieces in Anything is therefore identity politics, and the majority of these are addressed in the form of essay or memoir strips. Of the few that take on queer issues through fictional drama, Jason Thompson’s “Spartan” is standout for its even-handed exploration. While working for an American manga publisher, the main character attempts to explore and question his identity in the face of conflicting reinforcement again and again from friends, co-workers, and the media. The story — described by the publisher as an excerpt — ends with no solid resolution, but by reflecting themes of ambiguity, the piece works well in the collection. Nick Leonard utilizes a textured, sketchbook style in his autobiographical “I Was Supposed to Be Gay!,” which follows him from childhood to adulthood and explores the psychological effect of marginalization even within marginalized communities. The selections of Erika Moen’s work, reprinted from her autobiographical webcomic Dar!, focus on her shifting and evolving sense of identity, from straight to bisexual to lesbian to queer and married to a man.

Most engaging is Bill Roundy’s exploration of his own attraction to transmen in analytic detail, a piece that raises ideas about the intersection of physical sexuality and psychological identification, yet refrains from eroticizing transgenderism. Rather, Roundy’s point is to legitimize sexual and romantic relations with transmen as authentic homosexual experiences. His F-to-M partners are presented in his view as neither incomplete men, nor women in drag, but as persons who exemplify, through both body and mind, his sexual ideal of a masculine person. 

The strongest essays in both volumes utilize a symbolic style of cartooning, allowing for coordinated use of text and the clarity of infographics. The narrative selections, on the other hand, are served best with more detailed line work, creating a plausible world within which to experiment with and explain concepts across the drama of human existence. (And sometimes not-so-human existences, as with Ashley Cook and Caroline Hobbs’s “Biped,” which explores the cultural divide between bisexuality and homosexuality through the metaphor of amphibian biology.)

One work from Big that utilizes both tendencies is “My Horrible Heroines,” by webcomic artist Shaenon K. Garrity. On the surface, it’s a personal essay about her love for Alice Sheldon, who wrote feminist and ecological science fiction under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. for years before being outed as a woman. Beneath that overtext, Garrity addresses the paradox of seeking inspiration from role models whose lives are laced with tragedy. (Sheldon took her own life and her husband’s in a murder-suicide in 1987.)

The final commonality in both books is that their publication was backed by crowdfunding campaigns (Big brought in 116 percent of its goal while Anything more than tripled its target), and both were subsequently self-published. Arguments about the legitimacy of self-publishing are not new, but the rise of crowdfunding has allowed us to dispel the notion, at least, of what may or may not ever “find” a “market.” This is a particularly pressing question in comics, where crowdfunding campaigns tend to see enormous success, and where traditional publishers remain closed off to reader demand for greater diversity both in content and among creators. Also relevant is the tendency among publishers to make up for a lack of general diversity with occasional, themed anthologies — for contributors of color, say, or women, or queers. Unfortunately, this fails to reflect either reader demand or existing diversity within comics. According to 2012 findings from the Ladydrawers Comics Collective, an organization that tracks and makes comics about diversity in media, only 54 percent of folks interested in working in comics identify as male; 39 percent as female, and seven percent as transgender, genderqueer, or other. Additionally, a full 27 percent identified as something other than heterosexual. In sum, what this means is that if the bulk of the contributors to both these anthologies still make up a minority within comics, it is a very substantial minority indeed. (Of course, the lists of fiscal contributors printed in each stands as proof that these are topics that people want to see discussed in comics.)

Both Anything and Big are significant to our times, despite their limitations. Of the two, Anything will find a more impassioned audience and last longer as a work under discussion; Big, despite individual pieces of merit, is simply not challenging or diverse enough as a collection to stand out, and underrepresents questions of race.

As crowdfunding becomes more and more a viable option for works unlikely to find homes with conventional publishers, it’s growing clear that, with greater attention to quality and relevance of storyline, the crowdfunded anthology could prove that a market exists for a wider array of creators than most believe are even out there. Such projects could, with luck, even thrive.

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Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago

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