Following his 'brief history' of women in comics, Rob Vollmar launches an exploration of the modern trends of female creators, taking a lead from literary theorist Elaine Showalter to examine the 'Feminine' paradigm.
10 February 2003

As the chain-of-transmission that tethered "woman as creator" to "woman as reader" was severed in the 1950s, at the beginning of comics' often unmentioned Dark Age, resulting in a "gender"-ational diaspora that alienated participants at both ends, the few works that did somehow overcome the enormous resistance to their mere presence must be measured by interval, the distance in months and sometimes years from which they lie, one to another.

It has been said, though, that Art, like Nature, abhors a vacuum, and the Sequential branch of the family appeared to be no exception as the Direct Market flowered by the early 1980s, bringing an unprecedented variety of product into the hands of hobbyists. It goes without saying that the greatest majority of this fresh blood came bearing one standard or another of the predominantly male status quo.

With time, though, and what seemed like ever more money flowing in and out of comics, more and more women began to make an impact within the industry, whether as a comics creator or in more administrative roles, which should not be ignored for their impact on the audiences they served. Within a decade, women's comics, as a critical term, would be hard pressed to find a banner wide enough to philosophically and aesthetically explain the differences in style and approach to encompass every woman making them - a condition which, gratefully, continues until the present day.

Unlike the three decades which preceded them, a reconsideration of women in comics from the 1980s to the present is perhaps not one best delineated by the mere passage of time but, instead, by more appropriate and critically rigorous standards.

'More and more women began to make an impact within the industry.' Literary theorist Elaine Showalter, in her landmark essay A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN (1977) takes a not unrelated question (the one of how to evaluate the progression of women writing prose or poetry) to task. She begins by noting that all literary subcultures, whether precipitated by gender, race, or national identity, undergo a similar process in differentiating their contribution from the parent - and in some cases, oppressive - culture that spawned them, resulting in three identifiable phases.

"First,' she writes, "there is a prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalisation of its standards of art and its views on social roles. Second, there is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and the advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity. An appropriate terminology for women writers is to call these stages, Feminine, Feminist, and Female [16]."

There is always a temptation, given a set of gradating qualifiers, to perceive them only as points on a continuum marked by the passage of time. This linear application of Showalter's theorem, one that she herself utilises against the timeline of women's writing, would then yield a model in which the Feminine stage reaches from the 1900s to the 1960s, the Feminist stage taking over from the 60s until the 80s, and the Female stage holding from the 80s to the present day.

Notice the similarities and synchronicities between this model and the one more familiar to many comics fans that substitutes the words, Golden Age, Silver Age and Bronze (or Modern) Age in the place of Showalter's gender specific terms. The aforementioned temptation lies in that this model makes a kind of sense, easily mistakable for the whole truth. It is both descriptive and deceptive.

'A number of women entered the industry as editors during the 1980s.' It also, upon closer consideration, creates an indefensible paradigm where the artist must be forever perceived as becoming more female or risk being labelled as regressive in her work. Showalter's essay was often refuted by less moderate feminist critics of the time (who probably didn't like being paradigmatically demoted to yesterday's news) as being unduly patriarchal in its focus on hierarchy and ranking - a criticism that's hard to ignore when her theories are only considered for their linear applications and used as a rating system to judge the womanliness of a work.

A more egalitarian use of Showalter's theory might be, instead, to see the three phases of women making comics as voices that co-exist within the tradition and can surface at any time within a given author's work, with a general trend towards the emergent female voice as time passes.

As comics moved into the 1980s, all three streams were present, their critical identity best delineated by the audience that the individual authors were addressing and the visual and storytelling precedents that they referenced in their work.

Showalter defines the Feminine voice as "a prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalisation of its standards of art and its views on social roles". The dominant tradition spoken of here would not be merely superheroes but the idea of comics as a primarily-action-oriented medium that conveniently encompasses the former for this discussion.

Wendy Pini, artist and co-author of ELFQUEST discussed in some depth in last month's Minority Report, was, even through the 1980s, one of the only women actually drawing anything that could be considered a mainstream comic. However, a number of women entered the industry as editors at Marvel and DC during the 1980s that would eventually become writers of the material they shepherded to print. Creators like Ann Nocenti, Barbara Kesel, Louise Simonson were generally accepted by readers as suitable for traditional superhero material after proving themselves as capable editors of material that was without a doubt being produced for if not only read by an exclusively male audience.

'What separates the Feminine from the Feminist is the awareness of protest.' One noted editor, Cat Yronwode, is not remembered for her contribution as a writer of comics but as co-founder and principal editor for Eclipse Comics, one of Marvel and DC's largest independent competitors during the 1980s. While not all Eclipse comics were exactly a bastion of gender-sensitivity, Yronwode's editorial presence, both pagan and unambiguously female in its voice, was a welcome breath of fresh air and had a home-grown sincerity to it when she addressed the reader directly on the inside front cover of any given Eclipse Comic.

With a tradition of women writing mainstream comics that extends backwards now nearly 20 years, it is perhaps a little surprising that there are still relatively few women working in this branch of comics. A handful of writers, Devin Grayson and Gail Simone among their numbers, have emerged in recent years to compliment their dwindling numbers, with Amanda Conner as one of the few women freelancing as a penciller in the mainstream. Without discounting their important contributions to the form, I think it is safe to say that, at least for the present, that there may be something in the super-soil that is preventing women from taking root there.

What separates the Feminine from the Feminist, according to Showalter's criteria, is the awareness of protest in the work, a wilful declaration of differentiation from that which has come before. While it would be gross oversimplification to say there was no difference between the superhero works written by women and men, it is exceptionally difficult to identify what those differences might be without ascribing them to some nebulous X-factor with a fancy name that boils down to "woman writing".

As we conclude our look at the Feminine paradigm in women producing comics, it is important to recall that the purpose in exploring these archetypes is not to raise one phase above the next as privileged. A closer examination of any the works I mentioned above would surely yield threads of the phases to follow that are crucial to the continued evolution of every generation of writers and artists who will read them and wonder if they too could make comics someday.

Their very presence is a sign that we're all doing something right.

Next month's column looks at the schism that occurred in the underground around "the female problem" during the 1980s, and explores Showalter's concept of the Feminist as it applies to women making comics during this period.

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