Interview: Women of BOOM! – Polly Guo
It’s Thursday which brings us a new interview and our 19th “Women of BOOM!” feature, spotlighting the many kick-ass women that work at BOOM!, Archaia and KaBOOM! We’re focusing on everyone, editors, designers, writers, artists, you name it! We’re making sure to include the hard-working folks whose contributions are often overlooked in the process.
BOOM! (and KaBOOM! and Archaia) has given us unprecedented access and the chance to ask questions to their staff, and creative teams, to find out why the publisher is so successful in hiring women and their experiences in the comic industry as women.
Polly Guo is a writer and artist, who has worked on Spera and Marceline and the Scream Queens as well as her own comics Houdini & Holmes and Strongman and Pianist.
Graphic Policy: How did you get involved in the comic book industry?
Polly Guo: I’ve been doing small comic jobs for people since college while working on my own comic Houdini & Holmes. Right now I’m working in animation on StoryCorps, MAD, and the new Mickey Mouse shorts while working on my own comic Strongman and Pianist.
GP: Did you read comics growing up? Do you read them now?
PG: Of course! I love comics. I’ve always really loved shounen manga, horror manga, and some fringe genres, too. Reading Giffen/Dematteis/Maguire’s run on Justice League International in particular really made me want to get into comics. These days I’ll read anything with Chris Samnee, Cory Walker, Nate Bellegarde, Mike Mignola, or Guy Davis attached to it. They RULE!
GP: How did you come to work with BOOM!/Archaia?
PG: I was asked.
GP: How would you describe your job for people?
PG: In comics, it’s been a lot of on spec work, test work, work for hire contracts, and some times no contract at all. Essentially, work for little to no pay.
I used to do way more unpaid work in college, but now I mostly work in animation, and during my time off I work on my own comic Strongman and Pianist instead of having a social life. I figured if I wasn’t going to get paid, I might as well not get paid doing whatever I felt like doing!
PG: Do something other than comics for your money, and then do comics because you love it. I’ve had to turn down multiple graphic novels because I simply could not financially sustain myself on what they were paying me. The story of the self-made comic artist is a myth. Many of the famous comic artists you know are only able to do what they do because they have a breadwinning spouse with a stable job or they were able to work out of their parents’ house for YEARS without paying rent, with few exceptions.
My friend was just saying to me yesterday: it’s like if someone got to the top of Mt. Everest via helicopter and started telling everyone at the bottom that, hey, if they got there with their bare hands and then everyone else could, too.
GP: Did you have a mentor to help you break into the industry?
PG: Nah. Comics has always been something I do for myself.
GP: Do you think women have a more difficult time breaking in and making it in the comic industry, if so why? And if yes, how do you think that can be overcome?
PG: Style has a lot to do with it. A lot of women just don’t draw in what people would deem ‘house style.’ There are obviously exceptions, but for the most part women have a pretty different and varied set of influences that might not fall into a ‘house style’, and that shouldn’t be a bad thing, but it prevents a lotta people from giving women artists the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve heard editors say they don’t hire women because women can’t draw backgrounds and perspective. Even if that were true (it isn’t), if this was any other industry, that’s something you could teach someone to do passably well through a little bit of mentorship or training. Most learning is done on the job in ANY industry. And when introducing diversity into a workforce you always have to reach across the aisle and do a fair share of giving people the benefit of the doubt, which, admittedly, when there’s money to be made and bellies to be filled, is hard to do.
On top of that, it’s simply difficult to get women to reach for these opportunities because everything about the comics industry tells them they aren’t wanted in it (sexist imagery, fake geek girl-ism, white male dominated work environments, seasoned professionals declaring that comics are not for women, etc.).
I once spoke to a major tv network executive (white male) who said that since his youth he understood the failings of the lack of diversity in tv, and he’d go out of his way to connect with women and people of color in the company and request that they submit tv pitches. Only a small handful of the employees he reached out to actually came to pitch. He told me he realized then that offering the opportunity to people is only half the battle.
The people he reached out to had spent their entire lives subtly being told their work was not wanted, in a way he had never personally experienced. And if you tell a certain group of people again and again that they won’t succeed, eventually they’ll stop trying.
GP: We notice that when it comes to women in the comic industry, BOOM!/Archaia has a lot of diversity present. Why do you think have they succeeded when so many other publishers struggle with this?
PG: They go out of their way to reach out to women, which is something that other publishers could learn from. Again, when introducing any diversity into a work force it’s important to reach across the aisle and give people the benefit of the doubt even if they don’t fit the perfect employee profile.
It also shouldn’t be ignored that a big contributor is that the projects are low budget. Low budgets mean more risk taking, and more marginalized groups of people with no other options. Countless of my friends, women and people of color, have taken pay that would be way less than we would normally have taken with hopes of some kind of way to break into the industry because there are no other routes for us. “Hey, this is probably gonna be our only chance to break in, so I should probably give it a shot!”
GP: We’ve heard horror stories concerning women in the industry, have you ever seen or been discriminated/harassed and if so, how did you handle it?
PG: The horror stories are NOT about the overt sexism. If you’re a woman, you deal with overt sexism in your life every single day. It’s the tiny signals in every corner of your life and in the comics industry that say ‘you don’t belong here’ ‘you don’t draw well enough’ ‘your art isn’t what this company wants’ and ‘your art isn’t worth paying a living wage for’ that really get to you.
That is how discrimination works. It’s not someone telling you your ass looks perky- it’s someone telling you your work is a little too ‘childish’, it’s a seasoned professional telling you that you ‘shouldn’t expect to be paid more than $10-20 a page to start out with’, it’s an editor telling you maybe you could try working for $25 a finished page IF ONLY you worked a little faster or that they can’t offer you a contract because ‘that’s just not how we do it in comics.’ Everything adds up.
GP: What advice do you have for women looking to break into the comic book industry?
Don’t take crap or false words of inspiration. Your work is worth fair pay, and most people out there aren’t even willing to give you a living wage.