Women are not new to comics. To many of you, that probably seems like a pretty obvious statement, but popular culture continually portrays comics as the exclusive domain of men and teenage boys, with the generally presupposition that this is the way it’s always been.
Except it isn’t, and it hasn’t.
Here to kick societal assumptions in the face is She Makes Comics, a crowdfunded documentary with over 1,400 backers that seeks to tell “the untold history of women in comic books, celebrating female creators and fans alike.”
The 110-minute long film follows along the basic history of comics, from their start in newspapers around the turn of the 20th century up until today, but with a particular focus on women’s contributions to the industry. There is no singular narrator, but rather stories are told through a series of interviews with a wide variety of writers, artists, editors, and other comics experts. This does have the unfortunate effect of not always enabling the film to go into greater depth about certain women, especially early cartoonists such as Rose O’Neill and Nell Brinkley. There is, however, a promised mini-doc about Jackie Ormes, one of the first black woman cartoonists, as an extra on the DVD, which should prove to be quite interesting.
Some of the stories that do make it into the film include: How Elfquest creator Wendy Pini broke into comics (hint: it involved cosplay); the time underground cartoonists Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevely were nearly arrested; and a DC staffer’s less-than-encouraging reaction when he found out that a woman, Jenette Kahn, had been promoted to president. There’s also the startling statistic that in the 1950’s and 60’s, comic book readership was split 55% female, 45% male. That’s right – there used to be more girls than boys reading comics!
Female fandom also gets a lot of attention. This makes sense, since, after all, being a fan is almost always the first step toward being a creator. Most of this is centered around highlighting the kinds of comics that women were attracted to, such as X-Men, Sandman, and Elfquest. Particularly interesting was the fact that although both X-Men and Sandman were written by men (Chris Claremont and Neil Gaiman, respectively), they both had female editors who gave valuable input into those books. It’s practically a theme throughout the film, in fact, that when you have more women involved in making comics, you will have more women and girls reading comics, thus allowing for a more robust industry.
There’s also a bit of a digression into Cosplay. I didn’t like this part as much, as it felt like a weird tangent. I know, I said up above that it turns out that Wendy Pini got her start in comics via Cosplay, so it’s not like it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. And it was explicitly stated on the Kickstarter page that part of the raison d’être of the film is to showcase female fans as well as creators, but it just didn’t work for me. It is, after all, called She Makes Comics, so I expected there to be a tighter focus on just that. But this was actually a minor part of the overall film, and I will say that I wouldn’t mind seeing a separate documentary focused solely on Cosplay.
The movie ends on a high note, pointing out that this is a great time for women in comics. It’s incredibly encouraging to the next generation of up and coming creators and definitely made me want to run out and get to work on my own comic. It also left me hungry for more. Although it could have easily been three hours long, the filmmakers were careful to avoid overstaying their welcome and turning it into a dry recitation of facts. They hit the highlights, so that viewers can get an overall picture of the history of women in comics, then look up more details at their leisure.
She Makes Comics should be required viewing for anyone interested in the history of comics. Too often, comics documentaries skip over the contributions that women have made. This movie goes a long way toward leveling that playing field and showing that – yes – women make comics, women read comics, and women love comics. And we always have.
You can order a DVD or digital download of She Makes Comics at SheMakesComics.com.