Female Comics Creators: The Good, The Bad & The Problematic

I’ve noticed a fair amount of controversy these past few years over the rise of female writers and artists in comic books these days. Some say it’s leading to the gentrification of comics, edging out good stories, characters and creators in favour of bland, oh-so-quirky stories where super-smart female protagonists get to call out Obvious McStrawman on his mean ol’ misogyny. Others point out that the usual male power fantasy has ruled the roost for too long, and it’s time for a wider breadth of genres to flourish by letting new blood into a rather nepotistic industry.

I want to go on record and say that I like to think that I belong more to the second camp than the first – the idea that male comic fans have to play gatekeeper to keep the cooties out of our special club is just plain silly. On the other hand, it’d be just as foolish to pretend that somebody is incapable of writing or drawing a bad comic purely by virtue of their gender.

To help organise my own feelings on the subject, I’ve decided to go over some female-created comics that I feel are being praised less for being good comics and more for being written and/or drawn by women. By the same token, I know all too well that it’s easy to criticise without contributing so I am also going to take the time to suggest comics in a similar vein that are, frankly, a lot better than the ones I’m covering in this blog post.

Power Up! w: Kate Leth, a: Matt Cummings

apparentlytheguyhasacoldallthetime

Kate Leth is a writer/artist who rose to fame with her webcomic Kate or Die!, as well as her work on a guidebook for Locke & Key, as well as licensed titles like Adventure Time and Fraggle Rock.  Her latest original miniseries is about three unlikely people (and a goldfish) who have gained mysterious magic powers that have drawn the attention of evil creatures and… that’s it. Two issues into a six-issue miniseries, and they’ve only just gotten the team together. There’s decompressed storytelling, and then there’s just taking the piss.

The whole thing seems to be selling itself mostly on how quirky the team is (there were a few eyebrows raised over having a bearded construction worker in a skirt) but the whole thing seems rather forced. It doesn’t help that most of the first issue was spent on how the main protagonist is bad at her job and just floats by on life. I certainly don’t have any problem with an unsympathetic protagonist (Serena/Usagi from Sailor Moon is an obvious example here), but I’m not sure these pages were meant to show her as unsympathetic.

On the left, a parodical cheklist on how a certain website is rather lazy when it comes to designing female characters. On the right, the main character of Power Up!, who follows that checklist to the letter.

On the left, a parodical checklist on how a certain website is rather lazy when it comes to designing female characters. On the right, the main character of Power Up!, who follows that checklist to the letter.

Alternatively: DC Comics’ Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld was (probably) the first western “magical girl” comic, being published in 1983; there’s a Showcase Presents trade paperback collecting most of the original series, or you could read the recent take on it in the now-defunct Sword & Sorcery v2, collected in Sword & Sorcery vol 1: Amethyst. If you prefer something a little more indie, you could try to find English translations of W.I.T.C.H. or pick up Dark Horse’s Zodiac Starforce (although to be honest, the first issue has the exact opposite problems as Power Up! – if anything, the pacing of Zodiac Starforce is too quick, trying to cram in a little too much backstory in the time allotted).

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl w: Ryan North, a: Erica Henderson

Note the word

Note the word “variant” in the upper-right corner. This will become relevant later on.

When I first read the GLA: Misassembled miniseries by Dan Slott, I was instantly charmed by Squirrel Girl; a joke character co-created in the early 90’s by novelist Will Murray and the Steve Ditko for a back-up story in a now-defunct Marvel anthology comic, Doreen Green was a chirpy, eager and rather adorable throwback to a simpler time in comics.

This is a cropped image from the aformentioned miniseries. Again, this will be relevant in a little while.

This is a cropped image from the aforementioned miniseries. Again, this will be relevant in a little while.

I wasn’t alone in finding the character rather cute, and there some positive buzz when it was announced that Squirrel Girl would be getting her own ongoing title in 2014. Then we saw the preview of the first issue.

To quote Stuart Ashens,

To quote Stuart Ashens, “There were no more  hurrays”.

I mean, look at that face. Just look at it. I know what you’re thinking: “Well, maybe it was just that one issue! I’m sure Erica Henderson has improved her since then!”

Nope!

Nope!

I could honestly fill the whole blog post with examples of Henderson’s lazy, lazy artwork, but I’m averse to spending any more time looking at something that sloppy. Instead, I will point out that Marvel are charging $3.99 per issue for this.

Alternatively: If you want a female-led book with charming writing and a female artist who’s actually good at her job, check out Bandette by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. If you want a Marvel book with a female C-lister that’s actually good, I suggest Ms. Marvel v3. If you want an all-ages title that is worth $4, IDW’s revamp of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories is pretty darn good.

Fresh Romance w: misc, a: misc

FreshRomance

We’re back to Kate Leth, I’m afraid; she’s one of three writers to contribute to Fresh Romance, an attempt by Rosy Press to revitalise the romance genre in comics that was successfully crowdfunded on KickStarter last year. It may surprise you to know that I actually liked Leth’s story in this title – School Spirit, a modern-day urban fantasy highschool romance where her decompressed pacing is well-suited to an anthology title.

The other stories (Ruined, a historical tale in the style of Jane Austen and The Ruby Equation, another modern romance, this one set in a coffee shop) are also good, although The Ruby Equation feels like it should’ve ended sooner. Really, I wouldn’t be including this title if it weren’t for the fact that they’re charging $4.99 for a 32-page comic. I know indie press comics need to make a profit, but this is $4.99 for a digital-only title.

Alternatively: If you want an anthology comic that can justify asking a sawbuck, Dark Horse Presents v3 is always worth your money, offering 16 more pages than Fresh Romance. If you want a modern romance comic, you could take a look at Marvel’s Secret Wars: Secret Love. If you want a romance comic anthology that’s priced reasonably, then IDW’s WEIRD Love is dated, but hilariously so.

Lumberjanes w: Stevenson & Ellis, a: Allen

lumberjanes

Oh, Lumberjanes… I wanted to like you. I’d read all from so many blogs that you were the greatest thing since sliced bread, that you were a breath of fresh air… and then I read the first nine issues. Pacing that seems padded and rushed, “quirky” dialogue (what the junk!) and characterisation so non-existent that I can barely remember one character’s name (Jo… and I only know that because other characters kept repeating it in one issue). This has gotten so much praise and accolades (two Eisners!) and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

You might think that I’d object to Lumberjanes being optioned for an upcoming movie, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, I welcome the opportunity for Hollywood to condense and refine the solid concepts Ellis & Stevenson created into something that’s worthy of the praise this comic has received.

Alternatively: Now, here’s the problem… there are plenty of all-ages titles that are so much better (Bone, Tiny Titans, the entire Marvel Adventures imprint)… but Lumberjanes has had its success based on the fact that it’s written and drawn by women, with female leads to boot. I had to have a good think on what comics are wholly created by women and suitable for kids; Rachael Smith, while being an excellent comic book creator, has about one book that’s suitable for kids (Flimsy’s Guide to Life), and that’s out of print. Raina Telgemeier has had some great graphic novels, but it seems like they’re more for teenagers (I’ve not read any of them, but I intend to).

Look, I do want more women making comics, I really do. However, I also want talented people in the industry, and it seems like certain female creators are being treated like they’re perfect… and they’re really not. There are talented writers and artists in comics who happen to not have a Y chromosome, but they don’t seem to be getting as much interest, and that needs to change.

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