Today brought another round of discussion on Twitter about “the issues women have in comics.” Because I have four daughters who love comics and have attended SDCC since they were five, and because they want to be comic creators, I lamented…
“I’ve always been vexed & annoyed about the treatment of women in the comic biz, but now… having 4 daughters, it flat out pisses me off…”
This set off a chain discussion on how bad it really is in comics for women and girls compared to other industries.
Which lead to this post. Now, in case you haven’t put 2 and 2 together, I’m a straight white American male. While my life has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, I’ve always been acutely aware of the advantages that are present and available to me because of genetics and geolocation. I don’t feel guilty about this fact, but I’ve always felt distinctly uncomfortable when I’ve been in situations where “guys talk shit”. This was true in high school in the 80s when guys would insult other guys by calling them “fag”. It was true when I was in college in the 90s and guys would call a female co-worker a “slutty whore”. It’s still true today.
I’ve been working in comics professionally since 1989. On the positive side, there are more visible female comic creators in this business than anyone thought likely or possible “back in the day”. On the negative side, many still have to put up with the kind of crap that was part and parcel of being one of the scant female creators in comics back in the 80’s.
The other thing I’ve seen over the last 25 years? The thing that remains as true today as it was back then?
You cannot make surface assumptions on who’s “safe” or trustworthy, because it’s frequently not who you’d expect.
In the early 90s, I went to a fairly well known comic creator’s place for a week to join a group of “rookies” in doing a marathon session to help pencil, ink, and color 24 pages in 5 days. The mix was 3 guys and 2 girls (in addition to the aforementioned comic creator).
Said comic creator was “known” for having “progressive” ideas about female creators… that they were just as good as men, that there needed to be more of them in comics, that they needed to not put up with shit from men… and the fact that there were 2 women on the team seemed to reinforce that. As someone who had looked up to this creator for years, it was inspiring to see someone bucking the trend, putting his money (he paid all of us) where his mouth was. As a group, we stayed up making comics most of the 5 days, catnapping for a couple hours, coffee on constantly, loud music, laughter. It made me think, at multiple points, “this is awesome!” The book got done, and the Comic Creator took us to a sauna/spa for drinks and “to unwind”.
I can’t speak for the two women, but I was certainly a bit uncomfortable when we got there and I realized “Oh, we’re all going to be in this hot tub… together… naked?!” Everyone else stripped down without hesitation, hopped in, started drinking and BSing. I convinced myself I was being “uptight”, and stripped down hopped in, grabbed a beer and tried to not feel too self-conscious.
That ended when said comic creator lifted himself out of the hot tub with an erection, and looked back and forth between the two women before asking “OK, who’s gonna help daddy out?”
My reaction was a simple and loud “What the fuck?!? Dude… what the?!?” as I scrambled out of the tub, grabbing at my clothes, determined to get away from this situation as fast as possible. The Comic Creator lowered himself back into the tub, laughing it off saying “it’s a joke, kid lighten up!” insisting I mellow out and get back in the tub. I didn’t. I was too freaked out… I kept feeling like “I’m an idiot, I thought we were a team, that we were all ‘bonding’ over comics, but…”
It was a January in Seattle, I had pulled my clothes on over my wet skin, not even stopping to dry off, and I walked to the bus station (a good 3+ miles) and went home, cold and wet and freaked as hell. The entire 8 hour ride back I beat myself up… “The women didn’t seem bothered by it, why did you get freaked out? You overreacted, you’ll never get another chance to work on…” Those feelings got reinforced when I didn’t get paid for the work. Further compounding the self loathing and confusion was the moment I ran into one of the women a couple years later and her first question was “why did you freak out and run off?”
Now, immediately, I know a huge number of people reading this are thinking “Oh HO! What did Dave do?!” Expecting the worst.
In ’92 Dave was doing a US Tour for Cerebus, and my friend Randy and I were helping him organize the Seattle stop. There ended up being a scheduling conflict, and the majority of the retailers at what was supposed to be a “one day con” bailed in order to go to Vancouver or Olympia for some event where a couple of the newly launched Image creators were appearing. Dave responded by telling us “Let every creator in the area know that they have a table for free, get the word out, fuck having 20 guys selling back issues, let’s just make it about the creators” Dave did that even though it meant he’d eat most of the cost of the ballroom that was being rented for the show.
So the show goes off with a number of local indie creators in attendance. There’s maybe 100-200 people that show up to check it out at most. Not completely a ghost town, but not bustling either. The end result was that Dave and every creator there ended up spending a LOT of time with each person who had something to sign. A lot of original sketches got done. No one was making money, but it was genuinely enjoyable. I was sitting next to Dave when this girl approached with a portfolio under one arm. She was in her early 20s, blonde, and looked like a model. It’s no exaggeration to say that she was stunning. She walked up, and asked Dave, glancing occasionally to me and Randy, “I want to be a comic artist… I love comics, can you tell me what I should do?” Dave and I looked at each other for a moment, expressions blank… knowing all too well what a dozen comic editors would say at that moment… before Dave said to me “Tell her what NOT to do, and I’ll look at her art” She looked puzzled for a minute until I started talking…
“Don’t go to a ‘meeting’ alone in an editor, writer or artist’s hotel room, don’t go out ‘for drinks’ with the just the two of you so you can ‘discuss opportunities’, don’t go over to his house alone so he can ‘show you the proper technique’…” I kept going on, and on, and on as Dave flipped through her portfolio, chiming in with the occasional addition, such as, “Remember it is ‘not the way it gets done’ no matter what any dirty old man tells you.”
After I’d gone on for a while, Dave started critiquing her work. It was OK, definitely in the “beginner” category. The classic stage of “Keep at it for two years and do these kinds of things, and maybe you’ll be ready.” He wasn’t mean about it, he gave very specific, helpful advice, and told her before she left “If you want to make comics, make sure you’re doing it your way.” I don’t know her name, I don’t know if she followed through and stuck with it.
Driving back the next day, Randy… one of the few people who knows about the hot tub story… said to me “You know, everyone thinks that one Comic Creator is such a nice-guy feminist, and Dave is such a sexist misogynist, but…” and I said something like…
“Yeah, but fucking actions tell all.”