In the hyper-masculine, aggressive, and dominating world of comic books, a space for female artists is slowly being carved out. In this “old boy’s club” of patriarchal, heteronormative culture, alternative comic creators are pushing against the glass ceiling and a new world of riot girl artists is emerging. What could possibly challenge the structural norm of our pop culture identity more than powerful, self-assured lesbian women? If they can’t shake the foundations on which our very notions of success and power have been built, then who can? Stepping up and challenging the gender stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, comic artists Erika Moen and Alison Bechdel squash the perceived ideal of femininity as being innocent, demure, ladylike, and submissive. Armed with drawing tools, these two women take on the comic book world brazen and bare chested, changing the topography of comic messages one strip at a time.
Erika Moen is the brains behind DAR! A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary, a raw and funny autobiographical webcomic that investigates gender, sexuality, and self-identity. Colouring Outside The Lines, an online zine which features female artists, lists the topics that Moen explores in her work as “gender boundaries and stereotypes, queer culture, elements of love loss and hurt within relationships, issues of homophobia, sexuality, sensuality, masturbation and lesbian sex.” The fact that her comics are based on her real-life experiences and scenarios she’s encountered, makes her work honest and realistic. Moen has admitted that her comics are not for everyone and that some people have been offended by some of the vulgarity of her work. In regards to the audience she reachers with her work, Moen states, “What really draws me to comics [is] you can get people who are already closed to your point of view to read your material.” What Moen is trying to do with her art is to reach those people who may not necessarily share or acknowledge her lifestyle, but are willing to open their minds to the experience and through that, hopefully gain some wider understanding.
Moen’s comic relates the “universally human moments” of her own life with other people’s lives, a great strategy for expanding her readership, as well as helping to make “queer” comics more visible and prevalent in our culture. Comics as a method for social education is an important tool for Moen. She states, “People will read your (unpopular, oppositional, offensive) views if they are conveyed with pictures. Images are a powerful form of communication. I’ve had several experiences with people telling me they are homophobic but after reading my comics they actually sympathized with queers for the first time or better understood the difficulties that queer people go through.” Moen brings up a good point in that many people have wrestled with the debate on whether or not print, art, and media has a social responsibility to the masses. While there is always going to be material out there in which people express their own opinions, the most harmful thing that could be done is to censor those opinions and expressions that belong to people outside the societal normative construct. The honesty in which comics can examine certain topics may be the best platform for normally heavy material, “It would be really useful if more people, and society itself, was more open to externalizing institutional prejudices as a route towards realization, education, understanding, and ultimately changing them.” Moen believes that her art isn’t technically finished until it has reached her audience, channelling her artwork towards activism and education.
Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For, is a revolution in itself. Her work captures the frank, and sometimes confusing, emotions that many of us experience in relationships and in everyday life in general. She addresses many important current topics that other, more mainstream artists concerned with today’s culture tend to avoid, such as hormone replacement therapy, oppression, consumerism, world politics, monogamy, current affairs, stereotypes, and gender assumptions. Beneath the humorous stories and visually pleasing drawings are themes which make you really think. Bechdel uses her alternative lifestyle and experience as a woman and a feminist to challenge people’s beliefs and ideas, as well as the status quo. Her quite radical approach makes numerous social and political references. Even when she’s parodying reality, her drawings of women have moved away from the classical representation of females in both society and in comics. Bechdel’s characters break out of the mold of psychological and aesthetic submission, creating a voice for women who were once voiceless. The dynamic narration and intimacy of Bechdel’s comics join the larger forces of similar women’s experiences, “Women’s writing gives you a vision of their own reality and aesthetic perspective, key sexual and erotic moments, intellectual, existential and ideological yearnings.” Women’s comics have an aesthetic and dialectic all their own, but with a broader, more encompassing audience not solely intended for women readers, “The women writers of the 1970s opened a space for themes that show active femininity in all its dimensions, from their sexual experiences to their most intimate anguish. In their works one can see new codes that men and women learn to decipher.” In this manner, maybe feminist comics can be the vehicle in which we learn new social roles, eventually branching out to men’s comics as inclusive of these properties as well.
Regarding the lesbian narrative in her work, Bechdel says, “I think that it’s a cultural challenge. I’m just trying to ride the wave but I think that the dominant culture is becoming more and more open to other narratives.” So the question of moral responsibility does lie on the conscience of some artists, particularly those artists who have felt under represented and trying hard to make their way in the dominant culture. If alternative comics can open readers up to new experiences, thereby opening their minds to other possibilities instead of a narrowly constructed view, why aren’t they being more widely represented and distributed? Are female and gender neutral characters that unloved in the mainstream that hyper-masculine and patriarchal foundations can’t embrace them? It ultimately comes down to who has the power and if they’re willing to share it. There are obviously the large conglomerate comic companies which are married to the unrealistic body images (of both men and women) they portray and while that may rope in large sums of money, who’s to say the same sort of fame or wealth couldn’t come from a more realistic character. The reason underground comics tend to stay “underground” is largely due to money and power. In the comic world where “sexism is a convention of the genre,” female artists are pushing towards a more fair and balanced approach to real-life depictions of women and men. Not only can we learn about differences within each of us, like race and sexuality, but we can also see people for who they really are and what they really look like. Bechdel’s comics as cultural commentary encompass all of these traits while maintaining characters which are real and appealing while having the “potential [to] open up new and troubled spaces.”
Author Julia Watson puts it all into perspective for us, that opening this new space for comics essentially “reworks this experience in an autobiographical act of retrospective interpretation that is multiply embedded: in the familial network of other lives; in the psychic pull of deep identifications around gender and sexuality; in the commingling of literary and popular identity discourses that intersect in particular ways at a given historical moment; and in the interplay of views on and views of the artist-maker as a self-construction always in process, in the reflexive exchange of hand, eye, and thought.” Embracing female comics can lead us to reflect on contemporary culture by relating to the intertextual references. By contemplating the life narrative of an open, alternative autobiography in comic form, readers can also begin to reconstruct their own life narrative study.
Creating comics that move away from action and technology towards female experiences that deal with society and psychology may help to furnish a new, broader, and more encompassing world perspective. The idea of comic feminism, being the true integration of women in the industry and their subject matter which blatantly opposes the predominantly masculine comic world, can be looked at as a necessary form of respect. The underground comic scene is currently the outlet for many female artists to assert their voice since it allows for more personal and mature themes in a very unapologetic manner. In doing this, the comic underworld is thereby being exposed to a diverse set of readers, with the capacity to reach audiences who wouldn’t normally pick up a comic book, or any book for that matter. Utilizing this genre in order to create an open depiction of sexuality, specifically a space in which to discuss lesbian identity, is crucial for female empowerment.