Women in Comics in Cambridge

This past Sunday saw a conference on Women in Comics at Murray Edwards College here in Cambridge. Organised jointly by the college and the particularly strong contingent of comics scholars at the University of Glasgow, it presented a full day’s programming of papers and artists’ talks to go along with an already planned exhibition by organiser and artist Sarah Lightman.

The main draw, certainly, were the artists’ talks. Melinda Gebbie spoke passionately about her career in comics and her work on Lost Girls in particular. Although it’s been described earlier by several of the female pioneers in the American underground, it was still compelling to hear her thoughts on being a woman in the boy’s club environment that dominated that otherwise quintessentially progressive movement in comics. Another interesting detail, missed by me in earlier interviews, was her emphatic reluctance to use live models for her work — she very funnily provided an anecdote of Paul Mavrides posing for her, commenting “Now I know how the girls in Hustler must feel” — because she found it an unpleasantly objectifying exercise. While a perfectly respectable point of view, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that using models might have helped the somewhat off-putting, amorphous modelling in as supremely physical a work as Lost Girls.

Finally, it was intriguing to hear her thoughts on art as a particularly powerful memorial. Lamenting the fact that her parents had left little of themselves behind except a mystery, she touchingly emphasised this as perhaps her most important motivation for creating art. This impressed the other main artist guest at the conference, Dominique Goblet, who in partial conversation with the excellent Paul Gravett provided an intense, compelling end to the day, talking about her art and the motivations behind it.

Her concerns proved remarkably similar to Gebbie’s, in that her work invariably deals with expressing truths about life — her own and that of her collaborators: her boyfriend Guy-Marc Hinant, who contributed writing to her two-pronged comics masterpiece, Souvenir d’une journée parfaite (2001) and Faire semblant d’est mentir (2007), and her daughter Nikita, with whom she has exchanged weekly portraits for ten years for a project that will see publication next year. It promises to be an astounding work, mapping not only their individual development as artists, but as people (Nikita was seven when they started), as well as their understanding of each other. Goblet also talked about fiction as autobiography, a strategy she employs to great effect in Souvenir, where the imagined life of a person whose name she has seen on a funerary plaque becomes a vehicle for her own feelings and experiences.

The academic papers were more of a mixed bag. Two sessions ran concurrently, so I necessarily can only speak to the half I attended, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. Laurence Grove, University of Glasgow, provided an interesting overview of girl’s comics in France in the 1950s — including a stack of real comics passed around to the audience — offering a rare glimpse of just how much work has disappeared from memory due to loss of interest and the lack of institutional consolidation in comics. But he provided little in the way of analysis. Cartoonist Nicola Streeten talked about a couple of autobiographical comics that had inspired her own work, and offered some good observations, but it was ultimately a rather lightweight affair travelling well-trod ground for people familiar with the graphic novel as a phenomenon.

Catriona McCleod, University of Glasgow, gave a feminist reading of Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella (1962) and Bilal’s La Femme piège (1986), using Laura Mulvey’s great but also somewhat overexposed, analysis of the male gaze and narrative pleasure. Perfectly fine, but somewhat sophomoric. The primary virtue was its exposure of the rather embarassing exploitation aspect of Bilal’s much revered work. Rikke Platz Cortsen, University of Copenhagen, presented a number of contemporary female Swedish cartoonists, most notably Nina Hemmingsson and Sara Graner, whose work trades in feminist social satire. She provided a loose theoretical framework that could have benefited from more work, but otherwise an interesting presentation. Lastly, Ann Miller, University of Leicester, gave the most academically solid paper I attended — a reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis that focused on her appropriation of Western high art tropes to serve a Middle-Eastern narrative in a traditionally pop cultural form. It was evidently part of a larger talk and Miller hadn’t bothered compensating for this fact, which gave it a disjunctive, slightly lazy feel. A pity.

In summary, the artists were much better communicators than the academics, and their talks, though partly improvised, were more coherent and compelling. This was slightly depressing, since academics, at least in the humanities, should be expected to be able to communicate clearly their ideas. But I cannot help but feel that the problems evident at the conference are symptomatic of the still fledgling field that is comics scholarship. There seems evidently still to be a reluctance to present a unapologetically academic paper, even at a conference designed for that purpose, for fear of losing the audience, and the general mediocrity of comics scholarship that partly results from this, appears to make people less ambitious in the first place.

While this may seem a very negative assessment, I should emphasise that it was nevertheless a pleasure to attend the conference, and great to hear that Lightman hopes to make it a returning event, and further has plans to found a journal on women in comics. It has long been evident that gender representation in comics is embarrassingly behind the curve, even in these progressive times, and that we are all the poorer for it.

The papers given at the conference will soon be uploaded to the official website and Sarah Lightman’s exhibition at Murray Edwards College runs till November 14. Go see it if you can! Image from Goblet and Nikita’s portraiture project, Dix.

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