In the early 1970s, when I was in college, I went to hear Gloria Steinem speak. The modern version of the feminism movement was still in its early stages. My memory of the talk is fuzzy, but I remember her recounting the reaction of men on the left to women’s issues:
“She walks! She talks! She gets down on there belly and slithers like a snake! It’s – a woman who thinks!”
That quote kept coming to my mind while watching She Makes Comics, a terrific new documentary directed by Marisa Stotter. I say “terrific” because it is a thorough overview of women who have worked in the comics industry, from newspaper strips to cosplay costumers. To quote from the promotional material: “Featuring dozens of interviews with such vital figures as Ramona Fradon, Trina Robbins, Joyce Farmer, Karen Berger, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Becky Cloonan, She Makes Comics is the first film to bring together the most influential women of the comics world.”
Unlike a lot of films about comics, this one looks at the entire industry. There are veterans of the early days, like Jackie Ormes and Ramona Fradon. There are the rebel women who rallied against the macho underground comics of the 1960s, like Trina Robbins and Joyce Farmer. There are retailers and cosplayers and journalists and academics. There is Karen Green from Columbia University, my current hero.
And yet, I was unsatisfied.
Maybe I’m too old for this (I say, like a cop in a buddy-cop movie). I’ve been having the conversation about women in comics with women in comics for nearly forty years now. Many of the women with whom I’ve had this conversation are in the movie, like Trina Robbins and Heidi MacDonald.
For most of those long decades, there have been many many many documentaries made that say, in essence, “Oh, look! Women can do this, too!” As an example, just a few years ago, there was The Girls in the Band, about women in jazz. It’s not a radical idea that women can be as creative and independent and talented (and venal and commercial and pretentious) as men.
Rather than an overview, I’d like to see more emphasis placed on people we don’t know as well. The filmmakers know this. In an interview with Stotter in Newsarama, she said:
“As we dove into the research, we found that there were actually far more women cartoonists who were working in the decades prior to the 1950s, enough for us to realize that excluding them entirely would be a disservice to our project’s mission. We broadened our scope a bit to include many of them, and Jackie Ormes is one of them. Her story we found particularly interesting because of her personal life. She was a real star in the black press, enough of one to hobnob with prominent black celebrities of the 30s and 40s, and land on an FBI watch list for associating with alleged communists.
“Her story was so fascinating on numerous levels, and we felt that it wasn’t enough to simply address the fact that she existed. We wanted to expand upon her story and highlight how important her contributions were to elevating depictions of middle class black life at a time when most newspaper images of African Americans were offensive stereotypes and caricatures.”
Please make that movie. And then make a couple dozen more.
This movie is a wonderful introduction to a topic that requires at least a twelve-part mini-series. It would include fans and distributors and teachers and librarians, at the least. It would talk about race and class and gender roles.
And maybe publicists, too. Then I could get interviewed.