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Women in Comics: are we failing to recognise female creators?

One of the world’s biggest comic-book festivals, Angoulême, made the headlines earlier this year when it failed to include any women in their 30-strong shortlist for the lifetime achievement award. The Women in Comics Collective Against Sexism called for a boycott of the prize and many prominent nominees demanded their names be removed from the list.

In a statement, the festival attributed this shortcoming to a lack of female artists in comic-book history. At The London Book Fair this week, Hannah Berry (graphic novelist, writer and illustrator), Audrey Niffenegger (visual artist and writer), Corinne Pearlman (Creative Director, Myriad Editions) and Sophie Castille (International Rights Director, Mediation) formed the panel to question, in this ‘golden era for comics and graphic novels’, if this is even true, and examine the state of women in comics today. Here are our top 10 takeaway points.

Have things changed over the last 20 years?

1) Comics were previously created by men, managed by men and read mainly by men. So it has changed. There are now many more genres and markets for this form, and both women and men are creators and readers.

2) You have to consider the American style, Marvel and DC, comics separate to the rest. Indie published comics and graphic novels have increased in popularity over recent years, and there seem to be an equal number of female and male creators in this area, with plenty of women editors.

3) While indie publishers of comics and graphic novels are thriving, bigger publishers often fail to enter the market successfully. Many tried and failed during the big 1980s boom, and they’ve seen little success since the continued increase in popularity since the late 90s.

4) It’s the bigger publishers that seem to employ mainly male editors, publishing the work of male creators.

Are events and exhibitions important?

5) People who are working in comics know that there are women in comics. But exhibitions and industry conferences are important in communicating this to the public and across the industry.

6) All-female events and exhibitions are important for women’s visibility and recognition, but they also risk the creation a women’s sub-genre within the sector. We should be banging the drum for women creators, but with caution – women shouldn’t become the other.

What can be done for women in comics?

7) Help each other. Bring other women up with you, and make the lesser know a bit more known – don’t just go back to the same people when looking for exhibitors and speakers.

8) ‘Spread the love’ – mentor and nurture any talent and excellence you come across.

9) Be purposeful in your approach to women in comics, but be wary of introducing positive discrimination and quotas as this risks overshadowing the achievement of creators and publishers.

10) The comics sector is still very white. It’s not just women that aren’t being represented fairly, there’s a lack of diversity across the sector as a whole. Engage with creators at grass-roots levels, smaller festivals and indie publishers, and change will follow.

Diversity, disability and the industry: Lisa Clark interview

Lisa Clark is Senior Commissioning Editor at Jessica Kingsley Publishers where she commissions mainly in the fields of arts therapies, autism, and nutrition. Here Norah Myers interviews her on diversity, disability and the publishing industry.

1) How would you, as an editor, like to promote diversity, especially with regards to disability?

Disability is a really broad, sometimes controversial term. I’d like to talk mainly about neurological difference and, to a lesser extent, intellectual disability, as these are subjects I work most closely on. I am one of the commissioning editors for JKP’s autism list. Autism is a really interesting subject because it is a spectrum condition, which means it spans people with typical or advanced cognitive abilities right through to people with profound intellectual disabilities. It makes for challenging but very exciting publishing. I have commissioned books for a range of readers – books for professionals to help them work effectively with people with autism; books for parents that are designed as a source of guidance, empathy and support for family life; books for individuals with autism to help them cope with the particular challenges they face; books for children who have autism, to help them to understand themselves and the world; and books for children who don’t have autism to help them understand and appreciate their peers who do. So I feel, as a JKP editor, that this already contributes to the promotion of disability in publishing and I hope to be further involved with this as we stay at the forefront of the field.

2) Tell us about a recent book on disability that you commissioned. Why was it timely and important to you?

I commissioned a graphic book, Something Different About Dad, by Kirsti Evans and John Swogger, a new edition of which publishes this July. Following the story of Sophie and Daniel whose dad, Mark, is on the autism spectrum, the book explores the family’s journey from initial diagnosis to gradual acceptance of the fact that there is ‘something different about Dad’. It is a warm, funny story that helps readers understand the difficulties that someone with autism might experience in everyday life and celebrate the positives aspects of loving someone with autism (in Mark’s case, his loyalty, punctuality, ability to help with homework for hours on end – even his detailed knowledge of car engines that has saved day trips and outings from breakdown disaster!), as well as validating children’s feelings about their parent being different to others.

Our way in to publishing graphic books came when one of our existing authors proposed a comic to explain chronic pain. We realised how much interest there was in the new genre of ‘graphic medicine’ and informational comics more generally. Where comics were once seen as the domain of geek culture, people of all ages and interests are now engaging with the form and they are accepted as sources of serious and authoritative information and experience. JKP’s mission statement is to publish ‘books that make a difference’, both to individuals and society, and we could see that comics had started making a huge difference in terms of raising awareness and making information accessible to a broad range of people. The form is very democratic so information can be conveyed to people who are not traditionally ‘readers’, as well as those who are – it’s obviously a brilliant way to disseminate accurate portrayals of disability and difference.

3) How do you see the presentation of disability in literature evolving in the next couple of years?

In fiction, I would hope to see a great deal more characters with a disability/difference (physical, neurological or intellectual) that just happens to be one aspect of their character and not the focal point of the storyline. It would be great to see more protagonists who just happen to have autism or use a wheelchair to move around.

Thankfully, using tropes such as physical deformity to imply wickedness are now unthinkable, but literature still has quite a long way to go in terms of breaking down stereotypes around disabilities. Even when disability is presented in a seemingly benign way, it can be quite unhelpful. I’m thinking, for example, of characters with intellectual disabilities who are typified almost universally as being gentle giants, asexual and inherently ‘good’. Or take the film, Rain Man – it raised awareness of autism at a time few people had heard about it but, almost 30 years later, it is one of the reasons people wrongly assume that everyone with autism also has savant skills. I would hope that, in time, people with disabilities are reflected much more accurately in literature as multi-dimensional individuals.

4) What is the current market for books about disability and how can the market be expanded?

It’s quite broad, ranging from academics in psychology, psychiatry and disability studies, through to professionals (teachers, occupational therapists, speech-language-therapists, psychologists, health professionals and many more), parents and families of people with disabilities to individuals with disabilities, including children.

5) How can publishing work to positively affect the perception of disability?

In numerous ways: by breaking down stereotypes by giving a voice to real people with disabilities who have been made voiceless by society; by disseminating new research and theory in accessible ways so that incorrect information does not prevail; by accurately portraying the diversity of people with disabilities and featuring characters whose disability is not worthy of comment because it is secondary to other qualities or skills; by sharing information to raise awareness of rare disabilities. The list could go on…

So what makes graphic novels so great?

When I think of graphic novels I think of beautifully complex graphic illustrations, intricately designed artwork full of exuberating colour and detail that takes the reader into a world of vivid adventure. The storyline is just as important, there is no point having amazing visuals and a terrible plot line, these two factors must be succinct in order to be successful.

A graphic novel is similar to comic book, narrated through a sequence of images directing the reader on a journey through actions, dialogue and much needed exposition yet is significantly longer and should be read as a novel with graphic visuals rather than in short episodic segments as one would with a comic book. To read a graphic novel is an experience in itself.

So what makes graphic novels so great?

As a graphic novel enthusiast I regularly visit my local Forbidden Planet in Croydon, wide-eyed and mesmerised by the plethora of graphic literature; like a child in a sweetie shop. Although I am easily amused by the aesthetics of a graphic novel, the storylines are often equipped with witty repartee, catchy phrases and slogans, and usually has an underlining message that reflects the current issues in today’s contemporary society.

Maus   Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus are just two examples of how a graphic novel can examine societal issues through visual interpretations. The great thing about graphic novels is the emotive response and connection between the reader and the novel. You no longer have to use your imagination to create an idea of the mise-en-scene and character profile as a graphic novel illustrates every emotion, struggle and physical changes in the characters.

Yet it is the superhero and supernatural theme of science fiction genre that most readers would identify with graphic novels. The Superhero theme is a class all on its own and bodes well in comic books and graphic novels as artists can really take full advantage of the action, magic and supernatural elements that become lifelike. DC and Marvel have had huge successes turning comic books into films franchises, with requests for graphic novel special editions and even encyclopaedias.  Even film franchises such as Star Wars have converted into graphic novels at the request of popular demand.

I personally prefer Image Comics, Dark Horse and Titan Books as they specialize in publishing graphic novels that aren’t your typical cliché Superhero-Ville storylines and many of the titles published incorporate neo-noir artwork such as Sin City, The Walking Dead and Watchmen.

Sin City  WAtchmen  The Walking Dead

My latest graphic novel read is Saga published by Image Comics, written by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Fiona Staples. Saga is graphic in more ways than one and should be cautioned as an 18 as there are some exceedingly gruesome scenes that may make the weak squeamish. But I guess that is another great thing about graphic novels, the ability to experiment a storyline with artwork.


Unfortunately, many publishers are reluctant to entertain the demand of the graphic novel form, which I believe is a missed opportunity. The cost of creating a graphic novel is a risky investment, managing the quality of paper, colour, print and the use of illustrators, graphic designers and typographers.

Comic Con events are proliferating across the UK, reflecting the increased interest in graphic novels, comic books, manga and anime. One only needs to follow the trending topics on Twitter to see just how influential the graphic novel experience can be.

Here’s a list of the Forbidden Planet’s top 50 graphic novel titles.


India Hosten-HughesIndia Hosten-Hughes is a MA Publishing student at Kingston University. She’s also a blogger, and graphic novel, manga and anime enthusiast. 

Black Francis working on a graphic novel that sounds nuts

Though foundational indie rock heroes Pixies have seemingly been doing everything in their power of late to alienate long-term fans – parting ways with iconic, indispensable bassist Kim Deal in a Welsh branch of Caffè Nero, finding a somewhat agreeable replacement in The Muffs’ Kim Shattuck only to drop her unceremoniously after a couple of months, releasing their first new material in 22 years only for it to turn out pretty depressingly bad – acolytes of their still untouchable brand of weirdo sci-fi surf-rock pop-candy assault may perk up at the news that frontman Black Francis is working on a graphic novel that sounds very him.

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Chuck Palahniuk working on graphic novel Fight Club sequel

If you purposefully avoided any and all news coming out of San Diego’s Comic-Con this past weekend, well, who could blame you, but amongst the attendees in ill-fitting lycra bodysuits and the adverts for adverts for forthcoming Hollywood blockbusters sat the panel of authors “Ode to Nerds”, and on that panel sat Chuck Palahniuk, who dropped a piece of comic book news that may even be of interest to those who don’t know that Spider-Man is hyphenated. Asked by an audience member what he was currently working on, the ever-prolific Palahniuk revealed that, following his soon-to-be-published novel Doomed, another novel, Beautiful You, and a book of short stories, both due for publication in 2014, he plans to release a sequel to his iconic 1996 debut Fight Club – as a graphic novel.

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Amazon launching comics imprint

In its continuing efforts to leave no income stream untapped, especially if other people are already drinking from it, definite potential comic book supervillain Amazon has found an entirely appropriate new means of expanding its plans for world domination: By itself printing the adventures of comic book supervillains, with the launch of its new comic and graphic novel imprint Jet City Comics. In a move akin to Apple deciding it wants iTunes to branch out into vinyl, the imprint will publish in both digital and print formats.

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BookMachine Weekly BookWrap: publishing stories from around the web

On the digital front this week, there were Nine truths about e-book publishing, 5 Career Tips to Survive Publishing’s Digital Shift?, and there was good news for comic fans as Aquafadas Offers Self-Publishers Digital Publishing Tools for graphic novels.

But with the cascade of new epublishing tools, it’s best to remember the  Tortured Language – Discerning Ebook Rights in Ancient Publishing Contracts.

Meanwhile, could editors become brands in themselves, acting as a recommendation engine for readers?

There was also talk of Books, Reading, and Pinterest, The Value of Making Reading Hard, and the role of  The Publisher as Curator.

This week’s big bout was Amazon vs. Big Publishing: 800 lbs vs. 798 lbs.?

And if all that wasn’t enough reading for you, here’s some more of the Best Links for Writers and Publishers, and Your Guide to Literary Tumblrs.

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