The year women broke

If you’re a comics lover, as I am, the biggest story of the year should be—but probably won’t be—that 2006 is the Year of the Woman. Let’s be clear. This isn’t the year that women suddenly started creating notable comics—Marjane Satrapi, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory, Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Roz Chast, Alison Bechdel, Linda Medley, Mary Fleener, Colleen Coover, Ellen Forney, Carol Tyler, Carol Lay, and others have all working for decades. Marjorie “Marge” Henderson Buell created Little Lulu, one of the longest-lasting, most popular, and funniest American strips in 1935, and managed to keep creative control of it throughout her life. (To get an idea of how rare this was before, say, 1970, consider that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had to fight hard, for decades, to receive credit for creating Superman; also note that, as rich as Charles M. Schulz became through Peanuts, he never actually owned the strip outright.)

Women have long worked behind the scenes in the American comics industry. Jenette Kahn was the president and publisher of DC Comics for decades, including during the 1980s superhero revival that saw Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. Diana Schutz was editor-in-chief of Dark Horse Comics (one of the first presses to straddle the fence between the mainstream industry and the underground movement), and also (ironically) served as Dave Sim’s amanuensis for a time.

What’s important about 2006 is that it’s the year that women cartoonists reached critical mass, both in the marketplace and in the press. In terms of critical attention, and mostly fawning at that, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen, Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own, and Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken with Plums were clearly the hits of the year. (Bechdel was interviewed and profiled so often that ¡Journalista! started linking to pieces on her as “yet another Alison Bechdel interview.”) It’s telling that, as with nonfiction prose in the country, it’s the memoir comics that get the most attention. In Fun Home, Bechdel intertwines the story of her closeted father with her own coming-out during college. Marchetto’s comic portrays her (successful) struggle with breast cancer in 2004. Katin’s memoir (the best of the bunch in this paragraph) tells the story of her Jewish mother’s fleeing of Budapest during WWII, one step ahead of the Nazis, and with the Russians looming ahead. Satrapi’s work, although a fiction, takes her uncle’s death as its starting point.

Fiction comics by women weren’t, however, just twiddling their thumbs. Jessica Abel’s La Perdida, Gabrielle Bell’s Lucky, Megan Kelso’s The Squirrel Mother, and Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting were all released to wide acclaim this year. The young-adult world received a small gem in Hope Larson’s Gray Horses, a boldly lined and dreamlike coming-of-age comic.

One of 2006’s most attention-grabbing and best-selling comics—fiction or otherwise—is Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s art/porn/philosophy romp Lost Girls. Moore and Gebbie’s collaboration is telling. Moore is one of the art form’s most popular and respected writers, but it’s Gebbie’s lovely, painterly art that ultimately mesmerizes the reader. The book, a lavishly-produced three-volume set, fused the work of a mainstream writer with a heretofore-underground artist, and was a whopping success for Top Shelf, an independent comics publisher.

But women cartoonists, as evidenced by this year’s attention, are no longer being published solely in the margins, or even by presses specializing only in comics. Chicken with Plums and La Perdida were both published by Pantheon Books (though the latter was originally serialized by Fantagraphics Books, one of the premier alternative comics publishers); Fun Home appeared under Houghton Mifflin’s imprint; Cancer Vixen was published by Knopf. A cynic would argue that the attention to these books came precisely because they weren’t printed by traditional comics presses. Still, women cartoonists have insinuated themselves into the mainstream with a force that hasn’t been seen in previous years.

What’s most cheering about all this is the subtle canonization of women that’s (much belatedly) coalesced in 2006. Drawn & Quarterly published the first volume of Tove Jansson’s Moomin comic strip in September, introducing American readers to the Finnish cartoonist’s gentle, joyous masterpiece. The comic ran from 1954 to 1959, and is so popular throughout Europe and Japan that it’s been the source for several TV shows and books. It’s ridiculous that Jansson hasn’t been known here until now, but it’s heartening that D&Q is willing to give her the complete-run, collector’s treatment accorded to Bill Watterson, Charles M. Schulz, George Herriman, and R. Crumb.

This year also saw the release of a full retrospective of Roz Chast’s cartoons (a perfect Christmas gift for Quiet Bubble, by the way). Even a quick skimming of Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006, basically a catalog, establishes Chast as the preeminent—but thoroughly idiosyncratic—New Yorker cartoonist, male or female, of the last three decades. The canon-making will continue in February 2007, when we see the launch of a Aline Kominsky-Crumb retrospective.

Women cartoonists have drawn in a variety of genres, styles, and venues for some time, but 2006 should register as the perfect storm. Perhaps the next time a museum is setting up a “Masters of American Comics” exhibit, it’ll remember this year as a watershed. Here’s hoping, anyway.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to The year women broke

  1. Nice post. I agree there are some great women out there doing their thing.

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