ELAYNE RIGGS: My life with Lulu
Back when my ex-husband and I were first getting heavily involved in online comics fandom and attending lots of conventions, there weren’t a lot of women con-goers, so we all tended to stand out a bit and more or less gravitate towards one another. As I recall there weren’t a lot of "booth babes" in those days, so the women con-goers consisted mostly of either readers (what we would call "fangirls" today but which term hadn’t even come into vogue by that point) or comics creators’ spouses, with the very occasional industry pro like Colleen Doran and Maggie Thompson and Heidi MacDonald.
As I was an avid reader with professional writing aspirations, I fit the first category but hoped to also fit the last — that I’d wind up in the second as well I could not have foreseen — and as most of the active industry pros seemed to be around my age and I’d already "met" so many of them online, that’s where I hung out.
And that’s where I first heard about a new organization called Friends of Lulu, named in honor of the comics character created by Marge Henderson Buell, which Heidi and a few others had conceived of at the 1993 San Diego convention to address the gaping chasm between women’s status in comics and that of their male colleagues. I’d been an active feminist since college, and the idea of a comics industry group formed to redress injustice and give visibility to the marginalized appealed to me.
At the time, the internal debate amongst the founders was whether to even admit non-professionals; fortunately they decided to open an organizational gathering (and membership) to non-pros, so I attended my first FoL meeting in San Diego in 1994. Now, as many will attest, I don’t have the best memory for specifics, so what follows are mostly general recollections and feelings, supplemented by my collection of FoL member newsletters from Volume 1 #1 (June 1995) through the summer of 2004.
The hot-button topic of that first meeting in ’94 was still a question of member restriction, as a number of attendees vociferously rejected opening up the organization to men, and others argued for the potential solidarity and support that feminist men could provide. In the end, of course, the vote was to embrace open membership, which I think has served the organization well. Plans proceeded apace on things like drawing up the charter, acquiring 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, and other membership concerns. The organization was incorporated on May 25, 1995; a month later, I officially became a member when FoL’s New York chapter was formed.
The New York chapter is the only one still remaining, and it’s still active. At the time of its inception I was working in a lovely historic-landmark building in the East Village with a spectacular loft. As the secretary/office manager I had a key to the house, and asked permission to stay after hours once a month– thus the loft became FoL/NY’s first "clubhouse." And it felt that way; after work I’d traipse across the street to East Village Cheese for the best selection of inexpensive fancy cheese around, then to the grocery store that used to be on the corner to pick up snacks and soda, and lay it all out for the members, and the food spread became our tradition, continuing with our after-meeting dinners at the Round the Clock Café across the street.
I wish I had the words to describe how warm and wonderful those days were. The sense of comradery, of being "all in this together," was palpable. Frustrations were aired and ideas furiously brainstormed. Everyone was so enthusiastic about what could be done to make the industry more inclusive to women, and people were willing to go that extra mile to get stuff accomplished. I was elected chapter secretary in 1996 so I transcribed most of those ideas, but I’m afraid I never kept copies of the minutes (my electronic files go back to 1994 but it’s mostly national stuff); I’m sure they’re somewhere in the chapter files I passed on to my successor after I became — well, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d rather bask in the memories, because by 1997 things had changed.
Kim Yale’s passing ten years ago (oh, how she’d smile at that "blue soda" I used to buy!) also marked my last day at the old job. Two years later I would be amicably divorced and remarried (both my husbands have been FoL members as well) and find myself in a job which began to sap my creative and emotional strength to the point where I had to bid farewell to any writing aspirations. (Still in that job, more draining as ever, still seeking employment elsewhere, but that’s at least two or three columns for another time.) But I still wanted to see women better their standing in the industry, so I stayed as involved with FoL as I could, and was elected to the National Board in 1998. There I served for a year as National Membership Secretary and de facto liaison between National and New York, and I think that’s when the bloom started coming off the rose for me. I would think of Kim to buoy me, and so I made it through the year. Due to cliques and politics, I don’t know that I was ever fully welcomed into the Board, and it often seemed I was accused of not doing more to prevent member attrition, which had started due in some measure to various ideas not executed and promises not kept by the people who’d come before me.
One of my chief frustrations was financial; when I was sent a copy of the budget for 1999, I noticed that monies had been allotted to a few board members’ travel and hotel expenses, something I immediately spoke out against as, in my opinion, a misuse of member funds and trust. I was quickly shot down. This disagreement with Lulu about responsibility and transparency in expenditures, giving the membership a full and public accounting about where the money goes, would only increase for me in the ensuing years. For instance, a few years later I was told that hundreds of dollars from an earmarked fund had been appropriated for other purposes, during a time when Lulu was raising dues! From what I hear all the money was eventually paid back, but it tended to solidify the rep that Lulu had in my mind of financial non-transparency.
This was about the time I developed the concept of small, doable projects. Since FoL volunteers tended to get carried away with ideas that required a lot more time and effort to bring across, then wound up never getting done and tarnishing an organization that seemed to promise much and deliver little, I proposed things that could be carried out by only a few people, or even one. On the national level this included organizing (with Jackie Estrada) the Women Doing Comics list on the website — an idea fought against tooth and nail by some other National Board members at the time, who felt it unnecessary and not in keeping with FoL’s charter.
I never could figure that one out. Making women more visible through a centralized repository of names and links was, to my mind, the very epitomy of what Lulu was about; in fact, we were planning to put out a comprehensive print directory of women pros, but the work turned out too exhaustive and nobody wanted to do it, so that’s what the WDC more or less became.
At the chapter level "small and doable" meant t-shirts that we could wear to the many local conventions we attended; thanks to fortuitous circumstances (my late best friend Leah Adezio, who designed the back of the shirts, also worked at a screen printer at the time) it took us less than two months from inception to distribution.
My involvement with National ended when I sent all my highly-organized membership materials (gone over meticulously with my predecessor Cheryl Harris, an enormous asset to FoL) to my successor who subsequently decided she was too busy to do the job and, come to think of it, to serve on the Board at all, which she had made very clear in her nominating paragraph was never going to be a top priority. The records wound up in the hands of someone also too overwhelmed and blindsided to deal with them properly. But when you let something go you cannot continue to make it your concern. You need to move on.
So I stuck with the people I knew and saw every month, and in 2001 I was elected to the position of New York chapter president. I implemented my "doable projects" mantra, and January 2002 saw the debut of Charlie Boatner’s idea of a "Women in Comics" discussion series. Five years later this series is still going strong, now cosponsored and hosted by MoCCA. We also catalogued and organized our booth inventory so that it could be transported and set up by only one person if necessary.
In the summer of ’02, as I was given the first-ever Lulu Volunteer of the Year award, I realized I was starting to burn out as job pressures mounted, and that I needed to let go and let the "next generation" take over. I submitted the New York chapter’s annual report that August, continued to help publicize the discussion series, and worked on the Women Doing Comics site for at least the next year, hoping someone would take over its maintenance (nobody seems to have; it’s still sitting on the site but now with no author or update notice). And as the national organization inched further away from charter mandates, I found myself liking less of what I saw and decided not to re-up my membership.
In the last couple years we’ve seen that non-transparency of funds continues, as do other Lulu staples like paper trail disorganization, people biting off more than they can chew, ideas that go unexecuted, and politics played out among Board members. Same as it ever was.
But you see, there’s still the memory of Kim Yale, and those wonderful energetic days. And there’s still the ideal of parity and respect for women in comics, which is far from being realized even as our numbers have increased. And no matter who may twist those ideals in pursuit of their own agendas, the concept of an organization that works to help women achieve that parity and respect is still as vital and needed as ever. So this weekend I’ll be working the Friends of Lulu booth at I-CON, getting reacquainted with that much-vaunted next generation.
Elayne Riggs, ComicMix’s news editor, always looks forward to seeing all the friends she met during her Lulu tenure. Come say hi to her this weekend at I-CON. You know where she’ll be.