Saturday morning last April at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s annual convention — “MoCCA Fest” for short — I watched a tall man buckled into a canvas straitjacket. He began to gyrate violently and fell to the floor. Writhing, his shoulders eventually eclipsed his head. Triumph.
Moments later, cartoonist and aspiring escape artist Sean Von Gorman returned to his table next to mine. He began babbling, talking to no one in particular and then to me. Von Gorman asked my name. With great enthusiasm, he replied, “Nice name, I have a wife named Jackie,” then he shook my pal’s hand, saying, “Nice name, I don’t have a wife named Jonathan.”
Von Gorman explained that he had been practicing the bit with the straitjacket for months. It was a plug for his recent comic book about the magician Harry Houdini. He had recently handcuffed himself outside Forbidden Planet in New York City until every copy of his self-published book SECRET ADVENTURES OF HOUDINI had vanished.
A stranger approached Von Gorman’s table, and I made my exit to stroll around the MoCCA Fest venue. A glitter tablecloth caught my eye at the end of Aisle F. On top of the sparkly fabric, a holographic poster decked out in more glitter had the words “Eat Shit” printed in hot pink script. I don’t recall a placard for the artist’s name. There were no introductions, no foofaraw.
I picked up a photocopied zine made with cheap color markers and a loose hand. The story graphically detailed the perils of making out after having recently consuming hot sauce. In a low, husky voice the zine’s author, a brunette wearing a black facemask draped over her neck, said, “I hope there are a lot of boners at this table.” The mid-20s boy next to me erupted into hiccups of laughter and shrieked, “You got your first one!”
I came to MoCCA Fest because my friends had rented a table to sell their comics. Under a pseudonym, I made my first zine: a modest booklet about cats. I don’t identify myself as a comic book artist, but I was curious to find out what kind of girl does. I gathered from my first hours at MoCCA Fest that there were many different voices, but I was most attracted to the more subdued, unsung heroes amidst the hubbub inside the 69th Regiment Armory Building.
One hundred years ago, the same building hosted one of the most influential events in American art history: the 1913 Armory. Roughly 1,250 paintings, sculptures and decorative works by over 300 European and American artists, of whom only 50 were women, caused a fuss. Questions were raised — not about the show’s participants, but about the quality of the work being displayed.
MoCCA Fest, with its hefty table fee that can exceed $400, consistently draws a spectrum of work. The festival, which began in 2002, had over 4,000 attendees this spring. A representative from MoCCA Fest reported that female participants are increasing each year; about half of this year’s 400 participants were female. Graphic novels, zines, comic books, posters, patches and various other goods were being sold. Styles ranged from tween vampire to sci-fi fantasy and Marvel-inspired comic heroes. Over the past decade, this festival for cartoon and comic arts has become an unwieldy vessel for anything broadly relating to comics, illustration, cartoons and the associated subculture.
Scott McCloud’s 1993 book Understanding Comics — itself a comic book about the history of the genre — defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” By this account, comics have been around for centuries. This loose definition houses stained glass windows illustrating Bible passages as well as embroidery and tapestries such as the Bayeux Tapestry, technically not a tapestry, but a very long, embroidered linen cloth from the 11th century created by female artisans.
Similar to the unknown identities of the female artisans who created the Bayeux Tapestry, contemporary female comic book artists are largely unrecognized and underrepresented. Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman are cartooning superstars, but Tarpe Mills, creator of the first major female action heroine, Miss Fury, and Rose O'Neill, the first (known) woman to make a comic back in 1896, are obscure figures within the history of comics. In 2005 and 2006, the travelling exhibition “Masters of Comics,” curated by John Carlin and Brian Walker with help from Spiegelman, stopped at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of California’s Hammer Museum. It included 15 comic book masters; all were male.
Artist and herstorian (sic) Trina Robbins has made a career championing the cause of women in comics. Robbins, who in her 70s still speaks wildly in exclamation points, was incensed that women were faring so poorly compared to their male colleagues during the early underground comics scene in the 1970s. Women were excluded from comic history book anthologies; even the prestigious 1982 Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics — “the SMITHSONIAN, mind you!” said Robbins — does not include a single female cartoonist.
Blockbuster films that illustrate female comic superheroes similarly cower in the shadows of their male counterparts. Iron Man, Batman and Superman star in their own eponymous movies. (Their names also denote their gender.) This past summer’s shortlist of flicks included Iron Man 3, Man of Steel and The Wolverine. The 2004 flop Catwoman and 1979 XXX flick Superwoman (also known as Ms. Magnificent) notwithstanding, female superheroes like the Black Widow await their Hollywood debuts. Male superheroes live in the limelight, but the leading ladies of mainstream comics are cast as supporting characters.
At MoCCA Fest, I discovered Strong Female Protagonist, a zine. SFP’s joint collaborators, Molly Ostertag and Brennan Mulligan met in pre-adolescence at a live action role playing camp in upstate New York called “The Wayfinder Experience.” Their mutual love of all things nerdy — including Lord of the Rings and, of course, L.A.R.P.ing — inspired their artistic union. Mulligan, whose mother is the graphic novelist Elaine Lee, is the writer and Ostertag illustrates the series.
Mulligan explained that the title of SFP was inspired by a photograph he saw of a middle-aged Libyan woman firing a celebratory round from an AK-47 into the air. It was the height of the Arab Spring, and Gaddafi’s forces had recently abandoned Benghazi in 2011. “It was such a striking photograph,” Mulligan explained, “not least of which because she looked intense, self-possessed and, for lack of a better word, strong.”
The image made Mulligan think about how the word “strong” is used: A strong man has physical strength, whereas the strength of a woman is more abstract. Together Ostertag and Mulligan decided to create a female character for a comic book that would rebel against these unspoken strictures. They wanted to create a character that would upend the dominant depiction of strength as superficial and masculine.
“Male-centric stories cover a lot of the human experience,” said Ostertag, “but half of us are women, and there are some stories that need a woman at the heart of them to be told properly.”
Enter Alison Green, protagonist of Strong Female Protagonist, formerly known as Mega Girl. Green is an all-powerful superhuman who retires from facing super villains to focus on local politics. Green’s agenda to save the world remains steadfast as it shifts shape. In lieu of fighting crime, the untraditional heroine gets a college education, attends Occupy protests and volunteers at a local fire department. Green’s strength is more than skin deep.
Another participant at this year’s MoCCA Fest, Finnish comic artist Kaisa Leka depicts an unconventional hero in her autobiographical graphic novel, I am Not These Feet. The book, published in 2003, is a first-hand account of how Leka’s deformed feet were replaced with prosthesis. At 23, Leka pressed her doctor for a treatment for her congenital malformations. Short of pain management, no other options were offered so Leka proposed amputation. Surgery was the only solution — albeit a drastic and imperfect measure — that could alleviate her suffering.
The novel is also imperfect. Today Leka has an author’s antipathy to the diaristic text, her first major work. During her recovery at the hospital, Leka wrote in a sketchbook. She later organized her notes into the short black and white graphic novel in which most of the characters, including Leka, are mice. The only character who is not a mouse is Leka’s boyfriend, represented as a duck. The uniform characters and crude drawing style do not distract from the narrative. Crossed out words and misspellings convey a sense of the author’s state of mind and age.
The night before her surgery, Leka clips her toenails for the last time. On the following pages, the same panel is duplicated as medical professionals, family members and friends all interrogate Leka. Loved ones were unaware of the severity of Leka’s pain, and they feared that Leka would regret the irreversible surgery. Nonetheless, Leka stood her ground, resolved to seek an end to her chronic pain by any means.
Leka’s decision to become less able-bodied was brave. Her story is emboldened because she is complicit to her physical disability. Had she remained captive to her pain, her character would have been colored as passive and meek. “It's very important for people to be able to read books like this where the main character, the hero, isn't a healthy white (straight) man as in most fiction,” explained Leka. Like Alison Green, Leka’s greatest strength is invisible to the naked eye.
In 1894, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, a performer in Coney Island, New York, fell in love with a magician. As a married woman, Rahner joined her husband, “Harry Handcuff Houdini,” on stage as his assistant. After Houdini died in 1926, Bess opened a tea house in New York and took center stage again as a vaudeville performer. Her signature act involved freezing a man in ice. Had Bess Houdini never married Harry, it’s unlikely that we would know her name.
Today, as female comic book artists and characters gain traction, audiences and fans are introduced to a greater cast of characters with nuance and surprising strengths. Alison Green is superhero whose brawn is outmatched by her benevolence. Leka puts a proactive punch on physical disability. Both are illustrations of unlimited internal strength.
From the Caped Crusader to Cutie Honey, comic book heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Earlier this month, Marvel Comics announced a new hero named Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim girl who lives in Jersey City. Seems mainstream comics are mimicking what underground comic artists have long understood: Heroes gain strength with diversity.
In 1993, comic book historian Scott McCloud wrote, “Today the possibilities for comic are — as they always have been — endless.” A decade later, the potential of strong female protagonists in comics are likewise immeasurable.
Jacquelyn Gleisner is a visual artist and writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been published in print and for several online publications, including the United States Embassy of Finland’s blog, Beat of America, Art21 and Wow/Huh. She has exhibited her work in the United States and Europe, and at this year’s MoCCA Fest under the pseudonym Kitty Leeks. Follow her on Twitter: @asincereelkjig
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