Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Women Comic Artists
A Discussion and Panel at the Jewish Museum

As previously mentioned, I was very excited about attending this event, as I hadn't seen my "sparring partner" Trina (who's SF-based) since May of '05, and it had probably been longer since I'd last hung with locals like Joan Hilty (who happens to be Robin's current editor) and her wife Nancy Goldstein (aka Nancy in NYC). Working outside Manhattan has really put a crimp in the ol' social life, so I needed stuff like this - an event I couldn't very well miss, in a venue that couldn't be more convenient in terms of commuting as the express bus to and from Museum Mile has its terminus about a block away from our apartment - to remind myself that folks in my generation (as well as those generations before and after) are still active and interesting and fighting the good fight, so maybe in a way I am as well. It's always a good thing to feel somewhat vital as one is approaching one's 49th birthday.

Fortunately my boss never showed up on Thursday so I was able to leave a bit early (clutching both hands on the wheel in the afternoon wind), get home and change, and catch the bus on the half-hour we'd planned, just as the wind died down and it started raining a bit. Even though it was like riding with a student driver (honestly, 35 mph on a relatively traffic-free Major Deegan Expressway?) we made it there with some time to spare, and the student driver even dropped us off at the exact corner of The Jewish Museum so there was minimal walking involved, which my right foot greatly appreciated.

It was barely drizzling by the time we got to 92nd Street, and I had to snap this photo of one of the Jewish Museum's display windows, as my mom collects menorahs and I figured she'd get a kick out of it.

The presentation and discussion panel was supposed to be part of the Jewish Museum's and Newark Museum's ongoing Masters of American Comics exhibit, which as we later learned contains not a single work by women. Hey, after all, you can't call women "masters," can you, and it's way more trouble to change an exhibit name to non-gender-specific than to exclude women!

So, where are all the great women bloggers cartoonists?

Represented by this distinguished panel:

From left to right: Sabrina Jones (whom I hadn't seen since the She Drew Comics! event at MoCCA to which we'd brought a visiting Cat), Trina Robbins (ditto), Joan Hilty, Leela Corman and moderator Laura Hoptman, the senior Curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

After a brief welcome by someone from the Jewish Museum whose name escapes me because I was still in photo mode and wasn't yet taking notes, but who thanked the Weissman family for endowing the program in honor of their parents, Hoptman introduced the panelists, who came to the podium individually to make brief presentations before the actual discussion portion of the evening.

"Show a guy 'cute' and he wheels out irony as self-protection."

Trina led off with a terrific historical overview, as her particular area of expertise is women cartoonists at the beginning of the 20th century. It's amazing how popular women like Rose O'Neill, Grace Drayton and Nell Brinkley were in their day but are practically forgotten now, even though their creations like the Campbell Kids and the Kewpies have long outlived them and are around to this day in the form of valuable collectibles.

That's one of Trina's slides showing O'Neill's Kewpie characters. I'd highly recommend picking up Trina's Century of Women Cartoonists, which has far more illustrations than she was able to show in her slides. She has such a fun way of making all this "herstory" come alive, I abandoned my camera for the rest of the day and started note-taking. She discussed how so many of these women were heavily involved in politics as well through the suffragette movement, how the newspapers followed their every move, and the four coded elements that "women's art" was seen to have which made it easier for men to trivialize and gradually marginalize it (it was "cute" or "pretty" or contained romance or fashion). Trina pointed out a woman who happened to be sitting next to me in the front row, Golden Age artist Lily Renee (Wilhelms) Phillips, for whom she had been searching for a number of years and whose daughter had gotten in touch with Trina and brought them together in time for last year's She Drew Comics! exhibition. Her portion of the evening ended with a mention of Hilda Terry, at which I immediately teared up and got admonished to "stop crying, you'll get me started then I'll never be able to get through this," where "this" was Trina reading aloud Terry's famous letter to the National Cartoonist Society which succeeded in breaking the NCS' gender barrier. It was a fitting segue into the current era and the next speaker.

"Less Derivative of Other Comics Artists"

Sabrina Jones gave props to a, and showed slides of the work of, a dizzying array of contemporary women cartoonists, such as Fly, Katherine Arnoldi, Susan Wilmarth (all of whom were in the audience), Nicole Schulman, Isabella Bannerman and Jennifer Camper, many of whom have worked on educational and activist comics like Prisoners of a Hard Life, Juicy Mother, World War 3 Illustrated, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, Wobblies! , and Prisoners of the War on Drugs. Many of these feature distinctly and uniquely female views, and Sabrina further observed that she believes contemporary women cartoonists tend to be less derivative of other comic artists than do men, that they draw (pun intended) more from life than from the mainstream comics tradition, which I think could well be a side effect of how those comics have by and large excluded women in the last few decades. After all, if the clubhouse and old boys' network keeps giving off the "no girls allowed" signal, why seek to duplicate its structure if one can just more easily learn one's craft through life drawing, museum study, etc.?

"There's been a severe deficit of Nell Brinkley in my life"

Particularly when one's perspective is so personal, such as Leela Corman's. Leela, who I met for the first time this evening and who reminded me a little of a young Bebe Newirth, had a little trouble getting started - as a Mac artist, she found her PC's PowerPoint a bit needlessly intimidating. But once she got going she positively enthralled audience members with a preview of a book she's working on called Unterzachen, about twin sisters in the turn-of-the-last-century Lower East Side, which she later told me would probably be out sometime in '08. She mentioned her minicomic beginnings, including stocking her wares at SohoZat, a name I hadn't heard since I did the same thing with INSIDE JOKE so naturally I was momentarily overcome by a wave of nostalgia. For her part, Leela was fascinated by the rich and largely-unknown "herstory" overview given by Trina, hence the quote above.

"Half the battle is first showing up"

Joan Hilty was the final speaker, excited about being on the same bill as Trina for the first time, as Trina was the teacher for the first drawing class Joan ever took. She had looked frantically for the cartoon she'd produced in that class, which Trina remembered and said she had a copy of, only not on her at the moment. Joan straddles two worlds, in a way, working her day job as an editor at one of the Big Two comic book companies and writing and drawing Bitter Girl on her own time. She had a great perspective on what she called the three different aspects of modern comics - mainstream books, alternatives and strips. Joan sees a definite line between comic strips and sequential art, and believes that, when done well, comics can hold to the highest standards of both fine art and commercial art, it needn't be one or the other. She discussed the gains made in strip artist contracts thanks to efforts by Cathy Guisewite and Lynn Johnston (information on which I can't even find online, talk about unsung heroism!), inroads made by Lynda Barry in the alternative world and Karen Berger in mainstream comics, and announced that DC Universe editorial now has four women editors, the highest number ever. She's very optimistic about comics' future, including marketing to women who love manga and telenovelas, observing "Now everyone wants to get a piece of the Buffy audience." Joan also placed great emphasis on the role of women as mentors, opining that comics mentoring seems to be a very unconscious and natural process for men but women need to push a bit harder to network and educate more easily.

The last part of the presentation consisted of the discussion panel, with Hoptman starting off by asking whether there is such a thing as a "female art style" or "drawing like a guy." Most the panelists didn't think so but I've had recurring disagreements with female artists about this so I think the jury's still out. Leela made a good point about the cultural history of Asian art leading to a separation of art styles by gender, but I don't know that this translates into the American art form. Other topics touched on in the too-brief discussion portion were bizarre breasts, how male artistic preferences tend to be more confrontational, whether the panelists have a specific audience gender in mind when they work, and where the mainstream comics are for girls. That last question was posed by audience member Barbara Slate, who used to write Barbie for Marvel when Trina drew it (and fellow audience member Hildy Mesnick edited it). I didn't get a chance to mention Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, one of my favorite aimed-at-girls Marvel comics, but I was pretty content to soak up the atmosphere. The discussion ended with Leela Corman pleading with the museum world for this to be among the last "Women Comic Artists" panels - if curators actually took a little effort to gender-integrate their exhibitions, there wouldn't, and shouldn't, be a need for continued marginalization of women in this day and age.

After the panel, Robin and I got reacquainted with Trina's significant other, artist Steve Leialoha, currently inking Fables for Vertigo. Steve and Trina were also in town to attend this past weekend's National (alas for Robin's workload and my exhaustion, this was not in our plans this year). I also got to speak briefly with Lily Renee, who mentioned she's going to be a guest at San Diego next year (her first convention appearance ever!), expressed a fair amount of trepidation about the online world, and reminded me that anyone can live a creative life no matter what they did. Here's a photo I snapped of Lily Renee, Barbara, Hildy and Steve.

Perhaps due to my proximity to Lily Renee or the fact that I seemed to know a lot of comics folk, I was approached by Ellen Weissman herself (one of the folks who endowed the panel), and had to confess to her that, despite my pretty shiny shirt, I wasn't anyone of significance, I just wrote about comics, was "married to it" and had a little weblog kinda thingie. But it was cool to be temporarily mistaken for someone important! The last picture I took was of the aforementioned Fly, whose art Sabrina had described as "managing to be whimsical and hardcore at the same time."

I think Fly's smile captures that. I learned, much to my horror, that she'd recently been the victim of an SUV accident, but has made a full recovery and now looks as radiant as ever.

We did get caught in a downpour, on the way to the 3 Guys restaurant/diner on Madison and 96th, where the chatting among panelists and friends meandered from Borat (someone, I think Leela, observed that "The Romanians are suing" would be a great tagline for just about any discussion), the differences between Argentinian and Brazilian and Spanish artists (that was among Joan, Robin and Steve, and qualified as "shop talk" for sure!), whether Sabrina had heard from Peter Kuper in Mexico, and of course Trina's fashion sense. By the time we left for our return bus home it had stopped raining and was after 10 PM, and we made it home in time for me to spend a few minutes on Firesign chat with Dave Ossman, then to Daily Show/Colbert and bed. Not sure I've recovered yet, but part of me doesn't want to, it was a near-perfect evening, very informative and energizing, and like Joan I see only good things ahead for women in comics!