Review: She Makes Comics

she-makes-comicsAs a literary critic and cultural historian with both feminist and queer-ally persuasions, I am often frustrated by the type of historical revisionism that provides the history of a marginalized group by telling their story as adjunct or incidental to “mainstream” or “normative” history. Such scholarship marginalizes the narratives of oppressed groups in the very attempt to recover their histories.

I was thankfully relieved, then, to enjoy the hour-plus-long documentary She Makes Comics, directed by Marisa Stotter and made by Sequart Organization in association with Respect! Films. This documentary does what very little of comics scholarship (and journalism) has been able to achieve: it narrates the story of women comics creators, editors, and readers through dozens of personal interviews (see a list of interviewees below), incorporating them as central to the history of the comics industry while highlighting individual creators’ push toward greater inclusion and respectability in a medium largely controlled by men.

She Makes Comics begins with an opening montage of interviews in which creators Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chondra Echert, Wendy Pini, Gail Simone, and others speak to the importance of the comics medium for female creators and readers. Particularly powerful is DeConnick’s declaration that “representation in comics is absolutely vital,” followed by the injunction that “we need to celebrate the women who work in comics and who have always worked in comics, and we need to go back and find their stories and bring them to the fore” (00:55-01:07). DeConnick bring an absolute necessity to the project of reclaiming the history of women in comics.

DeConnick’s spirited call drives Stotter’s She Makes Comics as it traverses the editorial bull-pens, creator biographies, convention floors, retail spaces, and four-color universes that make up the world(s) of comics. The documentary begins by establishing the medium’s long history of female readership in comics strips of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, pointing at the same time to the generous number of female comics strip creators, including Jackie Ormes and Nell Brinkley. Trina Robbins reminds us that “nobody at that time thought, ‘Oh how unusual! She draws comics!'” Despite the comparative preponderance of women in comics in the early 20th century, a cultural moment that abounded in strong women heroes and adventurers (and with a 55% female readership!), the “comics crusade” of the early 1950s began by Frederic Wertham resulted in the Comics Code Authority. The CCA significantly reduced the type and quality of comics produced, and the documentary makes the very brief argument that the “sanitization” of comics led to a boom in the masculinity-celebrating superhero genre and a subsequent decline in female readership.

The documentary then tracks the work of Ramona Fradon at DC and of Marie Severin at Marvel in the 1960s, transitioning rather quickly to the misogynist, cliquey underground comix scene of the 1960s and 1970s, where creators such as Trina Robbins and Joyce Farmer carved out a feminist space for comics. As Robbins recalls, “if you wanted to do underground comix [with the male creators] you had to do comics in which women were raped and tortured. You know, horrible things!” But in the pages of feminist comix and zines creators were allowed the freedom to depict women from women’s point of view—points of view that occasionally had legal repercussions.

The remainder of She Makes Comics focuses heavily on the history of women creators in comics from the mid-1970s to the present, owing both to the interviewees’ considerable experiences in the period following the late 1970s and to the growing visibility of female readers and creators. Particular highlights include the description of early comic book conventions and the fan scene, which Paul Levitz describes as 90/10 men/women. Creators and fans like Jill Thompson and Wendy Pini bring their personal fan and creator experiences to bear on this unique moment in comics fandom history. Wendy Pini’s entrance into fandom via her (in)famous Red Sonja cosplaying is historicized and linked directly to her entrance into the comics industry as writer and, later, creator of Elfquest. For those with an interest in cosplay, Pini’s Sonja is marked as the beginning of an opening up of convention competitions to women, and the documentary subsequently details the critical importance of cosplay to fandom, to female fans, and to creators.

The documentary also gives considerable attention to Chris Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men, uniquely noting the considerable influence of Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti as Claremont’s editors on one of the most famous runs in comic book history. Interviews by female fans, creators, editors, and retailers highlight the importance that Claremont’s X-Men saga had to marginalized groups, with a number of interviewees describing the “mutant metaphor” as particularizable to women’s experiences in geek culture.

The documentary also gives attention to particular auteurs such as Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone, as well as the editor Karen Berger, who founded DC’s Vertigo imprint at a fairly young age in the early 1990s. She Makes Comics points especially to the rise of the independent comics scene in the 1990s and its boom in the contemporary moment, especially in the form of Image’s new-found success, as a meter for the rising prominence of women comics creators and a female (but also queer and non-white) comics readership. Anyone who reads Image comics regularly knows that its creators do not shy away from feminist themes even while Wonder Women is avowedly “not feminist.”

She Makes Comics ultimately signifies that a change in the comics industry has occurred, albeit slowly, in favor of greater inclusion and representation of women and other oppressed minorities. Despite this, the documentary comes dangerously close to assuming that all the good that needs doing, has been done, asserting a stance that suggests a triumphant growth of women in comics (or as readers) as a victory over patriarchy. While I do agree that strides have been made, as my articles on Wonder Woman and Neko Case show, I don’t think we can ever be complacent. She Makes Comics reifies “women” as a singular, almost non-intersectional category and in doing so creates a narrative of emerging possibilities for that monolithic category without discussing the many and complex factors that continue to challenge, harangue, and complicate both women’s participation in comics and women’s representation. There is, in fairness, a brief moment in which Marjorie Liu speaks about using her position to empower women of color, though its importance is overshadowed by its anecdotal treatment.

She Makes Comics has very few shortcomings and is ultimately a treasure trove of information that is otherwise spread across thousands of online or print media articles, books, and interviews. Marissa Stotter and her crew, in collaborations with a riot (isn’t that what mainstream media calls a gathering of political dissenters?) of talented creators and fans, have made a unique contribution to the history of women in comics. I challenge academics and journalist, myself included, to heed Kelly Sue DeConnick’s introductory injunction with a critical eye to the politics of representation. If we could get a few books about gender politics in comics that aren’t solely about masculinity, that’d be a start.

Interviewees listed in the order that I happened to write them down (after I realized it would be good to write them all down): Marjorie Liu, Nancy GoldsteinTrina Robbins, Ramona Fradon, Janelle Asselin, Heidi MacDonald, Paul Levitz, Michelle Nolan, Alan Kistler, Karen Green, Ann Nocenti, Chris Claremont, Colleen Doran, Joyce Farmer, Wendy Pini, Jackie Estrada, Jill Thompson, Lauren Bergman, Team Unicorn, Chondra Echert, Jill Pantozzi, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Gail Simone, Colleen Coover, Holly Interlandi, Blair Butler, Louise Simonson, Jenna Busch, Amy Dallen, G. Willow Wilson, Tiffany Smith, Jenette Kahn, Shelly Bond, Karen Berger, Joan of Dark, Brea Grant, Joan Hilty, Lea Hernandez, Christina Blanch, Liz Schiller (former Friends of Lulu Board of Directors member), Andrea Tsurumi, Miss Lasko-Gross, Molly Ostertag, Hope Larson, Amy Chu, Nancy Collins, Ariel Schrag, Raina Telgemeier, Miriam Katin, Felicia Henderson, Carla Speed McNeil, Shannon Watters, Jennifer Cruté, Nicole Perlman, Kate Leth, Portlyn Polston (owner of Brave New World Comics), Autumn Glading (employee of Brave New World Comics), and Zoe Chevat.

You can purchase She Makes Comics on Sequart’s website for as low as $9.99. If you ask me, it’s a fantastic deal.

Sequart Organization provided Graphic Policy with a free copy for review.