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Comic Relief

Hope Nicholson is passionate about comic books, and she’s made a career out of being the kind of fangirl who loves comics from the 1930s as much as those published online today. Nicholson is a writer, editor, publisher, and producer dedicated to “creating spaces for stories to be told.” Her company, Bedside Press, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, focuses on 1940s Canadian comic reprints as well as creating new stories through anthologies and books on specific themes that revolve around geek girls and science fiction.

One popular project spearheaded by Nicholson and funded through Kickstarter is Secret Loves of Geek Girls. This anthology of love and dating has stories told in both comic and prose form, including a set of comics by prolific writer and fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood. This spring, Nicholson’s new book, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, a collection of female comic book characters from the 1930s through 2010, will be released.

Nicholson has spent many years studying gender representation in comics, especially Canadian comics. In her years of being immersed in the medium, the biggest thing she’s noticed, she says, is that “The things people say and the assumptions that people make about comics are wrong.” People often ask why more women are into comics more today than ever before, for example. That’s actually inaccurate, she explains, because at the beginning, comics were nongendered. In the 1940s, women and men read them equally.

“If you look at the letter pages and contest pages of early comics, you’ll see that just as many girls were involved as guys,” Nicholson says. Superhero comics were popular, and Superman and Wonder Woman were enjoyed by both genders. Archie was very popular with boys and girls. Anything humor based or that was an animal-based comic was pervasive across the whole spectrum. Casper and Richie Rich are examples of characters that were also beloved.

Then publishers started to gender the comics. The boys had war stories while romance tales targeted girls. The distribution remained even, just segregated. It remained this way for a while, but the rise of the direct market in the 1970s took comic books out of the hands of many girls. This was when comic book publishers began selling directly to comic book and hobby stores. Publishers were losing money from newsstand distribution, where any child might see a comic book on the rack, so they began cutting back until it became rare to see even one on the newsstand. If you wanted a comic book, you had to brave a comic book store. “When you put comics into these places where there’s a gatekeeper to get in, where you may feel uncomfortable, then the amount of readership of women drops off drastically,” Nicholson says.

For a young woman looking for comics today, though, things have changed. There’s been a resurgence thanks to online web comics. This is why people believe more women are reading comics than ever before. Nicholson is very interested in web comics. “Their reach is similar to the comics of the forties,” she explains, “possibly even more female skewed.” Take comics out of the comic book store, make them accessible to anyone with a computer, and you will see how many female readers are out there clamoring for good stories.

A number of these stories are geared toward mature readers—young women who like their humor real and inclusive. Maybe you’ve seen Girls With Slingshots, Danielle Corsetto‘s slice of life comic, or Gisèle Lagacé and Dave Lumsdon’s Ménage à 3, a four-panel gag strip with an R rating that bills itself as an “HBO-style” romantic comedy. These comics, with their focus on friendship, relationships, and sexuality, have large followings that are thrilled to read stories without the constraint or censorship of a big publishing house. Corsetto especially has been praised for the diversity of characters in Girls With Slingshots.

A Slow Go for Print While the web is open and accepting to female creators, the print comic industry is slow to change and still largely male. Still, even print comics seem to be making a comeback among women. With the rise of superhero- and comic-based movies and television, they’re more accessible to everyone. And now that comics are once again accessible, you can find trade paperbacks and collectors editions. You don’t have to go into the comic book store, which brings down the barrier to entry or, as Nicholson puts it, “people guarding comics for themselves.”

Of course, by and large, the superhero industry is still fairly dated, still geared toward teen male readers. Some companies are starting to resist that urge, and Nicholson is pleased to see that comics are getting better at increasing diversity representation. “Having characters who are queer and of different ethnicities and backgrounds is something that has come about in the last decade,” she says, pointing out the Ms. Marvel series by Marvel as an example. It’s a series that features Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime. It’s hugely popular—so popular, Nicholson says, that each time it’s released in trade it shoots to the top of the comic bestseller list.

All of this means that there are great choices out there for the next generation of readers. There are comics geared towards “girlie, fun, sparkly stuff ” like Superhero Girl Universe by DC Comics or Jem and the Holograms by IDW Publishing. Then there are comics for girls who like action, adventure, and epic journeys. Take Lumberjanes, a girl-power, something-for-ever yone comic that follows a group of girls at Lumberjanes Scout Camp. American cartoonist and comic book historian Trina Robbins has been a big inspiration to Nicholson, and they’ve collaborated on different projects. Robbins, the first woman to draw Wonder Woman and a staunch advocate for female comic book artists and characters, has written much about the role of women in the comic industry, including the book Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013. “Having her bring to life all these facts and statistics that really resisted what people thought women’s role in the comic book industry really were was something huge when I was reading it,” Nicholson says. “It made me so proud of the women who’ve been in comics since the very beginnings.”

This article first appeared in IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine December 2017.

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