Their Voices Are This Film – Review: She Makes Comics

She Makes Comics is a documentary directed by Marisa Stotter, and produced by Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert of Respect! Films. It is also executive produced by Sequart’s Julian Darius and Mike Phillips and comics librarian Karen Green of Columbia University.

It’s hard to review a documentary. I think it’s even more difficult review a documentary that you like. In the interests of full disclosure, I backed the She Makes Comics Kickstarter. I even wrote about it twice here on GEEKPR0N and promoted it before I knew what film I was going to see. I was utterly fascinated with the concept of a documentary that focuses on not only the past, but the present history of women in comics: as creators, publishers, and fans.

Unlike other documentaries I’ve seen, the interviewers aren’t present. There is no presence of a single interlocutor or a primary voice. In fact, there are several voices that create the narrative of She Makes Comics: both in terms of the film’s structure and the history of women in comics. What I found fascinating was how each figure interviewed not only seemed to bring a particular topic or issue, but they interlapped with each other, and sometimes talked about one another in each cut, and even attempted to give a voice to the women in the comics industry who had long since passed. While the first and middle part of the film focused particularly on creators and historians and women who are, and were, in the industry, this gradually gives way to a multitude of newer and more contemporary presences in comics.

Also She Makes Comics was edited extremely well. Sequences with interviewed figured were accompanied by cuts of these creators interacting with their fans, of cosplayers at conventions, of segments of historical filming and popular cultural scenes, and even dramatic re-enactments. I do feel that the section about a woman feeling uncomfortable in a comics store, while definitely a valid experience, was overwrought and could have been portrayed much more realistically: though the discussion about it made up for that somewhat jarring, almost kitsch portrayal.

There were different section in this documentary, though the segues to each were so smooth and organic that it takes more than one viewing to identify where the topic begins to shift. Roughly speaking, She Makes Comics starts with the history of women on comics, the formation of Comic Cons and women trying to find a place in them, a powerful section on X-Men and its inspiration on female creators and fans, women in comics publishing positions, difficulties dealing with the insular chauvinism and misogynist mentality of “all-boys clubs” shops, the advent of groups supporting women in comics, some insights into the creative processes of the female artists that make comics, the treatment of female characters in comics in relation to their male counterparts, the importance of discussion of sexism and an emphasis on diversity in the comics medium, the importance of Internet communities, the acceptance of the graphic novel in mainstream culture but women still not being taken seriously in that field, the cultural difficulties of women pitching comics ideas in the industry, the creation of female comics spaces, a section focusing on harassment, and a final segment ending off with a focus on female-led or created comics and geekdom.

As you can see, this covers a lot of territory though by no means is it exhaustive: and these places definitely interlap. There were many things of note, but here are some of the few that stood out for me. The earlier history portion of the film particularly focuses on Jackie Ormes: the first female African-American cartoonist who will actually be getting her own mini-documentary by the creators of She Makes Comics due to them meeting their Kickstarter goals.

Jackie Ormes: creator of the Torchy Brown strip and the single-panel cartoon Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger.

Jackie Ormes: creator of the Torchy Brown strip and the single-panel cartoon Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.

There was mention of the fact that there were more women creating comics when men went off to war and how female readership began to decrease after the Comics Code was enforced and superhero comics were supported over other genres. It was interesting to learn about the Marvel and EC comics artist Marie Severin in addition to Ormes, though I would have liked a little more information on Miss Fury creator Tarpe Mills.

The discussion of Comic Cons and cosplay is really timely, however, based on the recent flak the latter has been getting from some industry artist. Wendy Pini hits home the fact that, as a cosplaying pioneer — specifically of Red Sonja — she managed to create the persona for herself necessary to make her art, get into the industry, and essentially become completely independent with Elfquest.

Wendy Pini and so many others after her identify so much with their cosplay and fandom that they create works and spaces for others.

Wendy Pini and so many others after her identify so much with their cosplay and fandom that they create works and spaces for others.

She is an interesting parallel to Gail Simone who got into comics through her critical work in Women in Refrigerators: analysing how dead or traumatized female characters were used to advance male plots and eventually making nuanced female heroes herself. Both creators got into the industry in different ways through geek culture and their insights and I just thought it was truly awesome to have that reminder that fandom and criticism can lead to creation.

Some male figures in comics were also interviewed such as Chris Claremont, Paul Levitz, and Richard Pini: but the focus was on them in relation to their female influences, employees, and creative partners. Certainly, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, both editors of Claremont’s X-Men run, influenced his work considerably: a series many of us have related to as marginalized geeks and nerds in our time. And Nocenti’s anecdote about initially thinking she was tapped to help write porn was rather hilarious. Karen Berger was also interviewed and her comment about liking “psychological stories and weird shit” as inspiration for what she helped to promote and publish in her Vertigo imprint made me smile as well.

Even though queer creators in comics were mentioned in the same place as online spaces, I feel there wasn’t as much focus on them. In addition, there were a few creators I was hoping to see such as Alison Bechdel and Aline Kominsky-Crumb that didn’t make it into the film: though the former was mentioned. Carla Speed-McNeil and Hope Larson made brief appearances, which was nice to see.

According to Kelly Sue DeConnick, there is even a rocket scientist in the ranks of those who idolize Carol Danvers and what she represents to them.

According to Kelly Sue DeConnick in She Makes Comics, there is even a rocket scientist in the ranks of those who idolize Carol Danvers and what she represents to them.

But there were two things She Makes Comics truly did for me. The first is that it introduced me to all-female fan groups like the Carol Corps, organizations that support women reading and making comics such as the Friends of Lulu, and even spaces like the Brave New World Comics Geek Boutique that challenge the very form of what a comics store is. And I want to read Marjorie Liu, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. They are not talked enough nearly enough in mainstream comics geekdom, even now, and while I was curious about them before, I’m definitely inspired to look at Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel, Ms. MarvelPretty Deadly, and others now.

I feel as though, even and especially if, you are a comics aficionado you will learn a lot from She Makes Comics. And if you are completely new, this is even better for you: for while it doesn’t give you everything, it is an excellent starting point into some works with different perspectives and interesting stories.  I would definitely like to think that She Makes Comics hits home the fact that not only have women contributed to comics and geekdom, but they still do and they will.

Wendy Pini at one point shared an anecdote about a young woman who, despite her skill, didn’t have the confidence to acknowledge her art work as good: and even had difficulty presenting it to her without urging. Janelle Asselin, former editor at DC, mentions that she had very few women give her pitches. I hope that this documentary — and other works and groups and people of similar spirit — help to change this climate and culture, and make something as multifaceted as the film I had the privilege to finally see.

She Makes Comics is now available in both digital and DVD form.

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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