These are some thoughts pulled out of a presentation I wrote a long time ago now, on the subject of Signal and what I was thinking when I made it.
Carl Sagan is an old favourite when it comes to science presenters, and people often cite the sense of wonder and awe that he manages to impart in his work, and the way he melded this with a sense of responsibility and moral obligation. He gave you the facts and ideas that leave you in awe, but then he gave them a meaning and made them feel relevant. There’s no better example of this than a particular passage in one of the last pieces he produced “Pale Blue Dot”…
Comics and The Value of Language (Part 1) suggested the controversial idea that we live in a nation of visual illiterates. Since “literacy” consists of reading and writing skills, I proposed that “visual literacy” should consist of both image perception and drawing skills. It’s telling that the only people I’ve encountered who readily agree with this idea are other artists… everyone else is taken aback, and there seem to be two reasons for that:
1) If you can only understand drawing theoretically, how can you fully appreciate how deeply it affects the way you see and understand images?
2) The heavy implication is that non-artists are inadequate creators, and that’s especially annoying to hear if you’re a comics writer who can’t draw.
I’d like to go straight to the heart of the hurt with this follow-up, and discuss how our highly literate, but visually inexperienced culture has created for itself a “literary mode” of storytelling that frames how we discuss comics, which comics we value, and how we reward creators for their efforts. That discussion starts with a simple, but deep-reaching idea…
There is a profound difference between a good script that has been well illustrated and a good comic.
But what do I mean by that? Surely a good script, well illustrated is the definition of a good comic. If the script is good, and the artist draws it well, what else is there to take care of? The only way to answer this is by teasing out the consequences of relying on words when “writing” for a highly visual medium with a series of examples!
At the heart of storytelling for comics lies the relationship between language and image. A comic is defined by that particular mix of the two that makes it a comic. But when you try to pin that relationship down, it gets slippery! Comics can morph from Posy Simmonds’ prose-hybrid Gemma Bovery to “silent” stories like Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man without anyone batting an eyelid.
These two examples lie on opposite ends of a huge storytelling spectrum that sometimes feels too broad for one medium to contain comfortably. When we say “comics”, it really encompasses a lot! Despite this amazing diversity of expression, the idea that comics lack cultural or literary merit is still common, and the lack of public understanding about comics is still startling.
Recently, UK comics seem to be changing – there’s a fresh breeze in the air, a shift in perceptions, an expanding market, regular comics reviews in the broadsheets and a growing and more diverse stable of creators. Perhaps most significantly, Jonathan Cape and SelfMadeHero, along with other companies, have developed a great catalogue of original works by British creators. This growing range of original comics is mostly aimed at thoughtful adults, and is a massive triumph.
These successes are both backed up and boosted by a growing number of UK conventions, and just one trip to Thought Bubble shows a vibrant indie scene full of creators just waiting to be discovered. Almost every table boasts comics of excellent quality, and it’s nigh on impossible to pick up every book that deserves attention.
I think everyone in UK comics can feel this happening, and it’s exciting – there’s a real sense of growing opportunity about the industry. But the reason I’m writing this article in the new year is not to self-congratulate, but to bring up a very sober question…
…what is our potential for growth?
Back in march 2012, I posted an article about Sexism in Comics, in which I polled my local bookshops. What I discovered was that even if you focus exclusively on “indie” publishers, the industry is still heavily dominated by male creators. The indie collection in Blackwells Oxford consisted of 16% female creators, and the collection in Waterstones Oxford just 9%. Similar results came in from other people who polled their local shops. Interestingly though, when I dragged out my pile of self-published comics from conventions over the last few years, I found that it consisted of 49% female creators!
This seemed to suggest something sober, but still hopeful. Only 20 or so years ago, a woman working in the comics industry was a genuine rarity, but since then a small but significant percentage of female creators has appeared on our bookshelves, meaning that it’s now easily possible to list a more than a few well-known female creators. This is a great achievement, but unfortunately it can create the illusion that indie comics have reached a greater state of gender parity than they really have.
Walk into a book store, and what do you see? Thousands of books, all calmly waiting in stock, all neatly categorised, all with a price-tag and a bar-code. It’s a serene vision of publishing, and it’s easy to imagine that every author on the shelves is in a special, equally serene position. They’re professionals, they made it big, they found a publisher, and they’re in the shops! And your entertainment comes from the realms of their misty imagination, directly into your hands.
Suddenly, in stumbles crowd-funding, like some embarrassing drunken uncle.
“I’ll write you a book if you give me some money” it drawls “I’ve been working on this since I was 12, it’s an epic story of…”
Uncomfortably, you shuffle out of the shop, wishing that the internet had never been invented.
I once heard someone call kickstarter a “tax on the imagination”, and I can imagine what sort of thing might have prompted the phrase! They’d just seen an embarrassing project get no funding. A creator who took their money never did anything with it. A project they backed and loved didn’t make the target. A project they had absolutely no respect for and didn’t back got $2,000,000.
It is often said that comics can be a stepping stone to reading, and in many ways it’s true. Comics can be vivid, attractive and easy to read. The interpretation of drawings comes intuitively to most children, especially to those who find large blocks of text off-putting. In many cases “reluctant readers” are simply children that find it easier to learn visually than linguistically. However, this comfortable idea does a disservice to comics, allowing critics to retain the familiar idea that they’re subservient to prose: a step down in terms of literary merit, only worth using as a step up to the “real thing”.
The truth is that comics are nothing more or less than fusion of words and images with which any story of any level of complexity and merit can be told. They have their own rich language with limitless potential, so fully understanding them requires a special hybrid of visual and textual literacy that hasn’t yet entered into education.
“Every time I decline to be part of a Women in Comics panel feels like a tiny victory.” – (on twitter)
I’ve seen this same sentiment from a good number of women working in comics, and talking to Kate Brown, I know that from her perspective it can feel demeaning to be invited to a panel simply on the basis of gender. I don’t know Hope Larson’s specific reasons, but I’m assuming many other people feel the same way. That being said, whenever I see someone decline to be part of a Women in Comics panel on principle, it makes me worry that something important that they might have had to say will go unheard. This is an important discussion after all!
So here’s a very direct call-out to convention organisers everywhere who want to be gender aware:
It’s fantastic to discuss gender representation in comics, and invite women as well as men, this needs to be done. But every time someone stages a “Women in Comics” panel, and every time an organiser lets a creator assume that they’ve been invited just to redress the gender balance, something unfortunate happens. Despite the best of intentions all round, it’s hard for the creator to avoid the conclusion that the convention doesn’t care about their work, only their gender.
The answer to this is very simple: instead of a “Women in Comics” panel populated by women, go for a “Gender Representation in Comics” panel populated by people (of any gender), who have made intelligent and active commentary on the issue! Just like any other panel, the best people to discuss the topic are the ones who are well suited to do so! This way, the discussion can go on, it can be discussed by informed people who want to be discussing it, and no-one is made to feel like a token addition.
If organisers are still worried about equal representation, and they want to make sure that they’re promoting the work of the women in their show, I recognise that there can still be issues. Often, popular panels will focus on popular areas of interest (such as superheroes) that are traditionally dominated by male creators, leaving women less represented in panels than they are on the show floor. The best way to counter-balance this is to take an interest in the work itself, and create new panels that showcase it! Most creators want to talk about their work rather than their gender after all, and that way the male creators whose work also sits in the cracks between popularly discussed genres can be included as well, making conventions more diverse all-round!
I’ve been itching to write some sort of commentary on the recent explosion of discussion about women in comics, but it seems like a subject that needs a careful approach, so this essay has been a long time in the imagining.
To talk about “women in comics” is to cover the experiences of every woman who has ever worked in comics, not something that can be done easily or quickly. Any concise opinion can’t possibly be adequate to the task of speaking for so many people at once. Experiences are unique to each individual and diverse by consequence, so when accusations of prejudice are made, there will always be people to disagree. The debate is often loud, and sometimes aggressive.
There’s also a tendency for people involved to see their own experience as more than just a single snapshot. Social events like conventions and social networks like twitter enhance this effect by providing a huge sense of connection. When combined with the compelling idea that the comics industry is a small one in which “everyone knows everyone”, it’s easy to imagine that your experience, plus everything you hear and everyone you know ads up to a very complete picture. The more connected you are (or feel you are), the stronger this feeling will be. You know what things are like.
People often call the internet a “social space” and refer to what we do on it as “social networking”, but during a conversation on twitter I started thinking that really that’s a pretty inadequate way of looking at what the internet is, does and enables. I decided to call it a “collective stream of consciousness”, which I’m sure isn’t a particularly original thought, and Anna Fitzpatrick responded “twitter is like a can of beans to our collective brain bowels” which sounds much better – hence the title. However, what I’ve been pondering is not just what the internet does to connect us all, but how that relates to making comics (or any art for that matter) for a living.
I’ve been putting comics and art on the internet and using it for “socialising”, or “brain farting”, since I was 16, a good 11 years ago now, and it would be horribly dishonest of me if I didn’t admit that one of the motivators for keeping at it quickly became (and has remained ever since) getting attention and being noticed by people I admire. It’s a real thrill to be acknowledged by someone that matters to me, or to get a compliment from a total stranger, so I’m not at all surprised that I’ve found this aspect of the internet extremely addictive. I’m willing to bet that there are plenty of other artists out there who feel the same too – although it doesn’t seem like many people like talking about it directly.
Just so I don’t sound like a total ego-maniac, I’ll add that my other motivations are creative passion and the desire to tell beautiful and enduring stories… but that’s all by the by.