Rob Vollmar concludes his application of Elaine Showalter's three phases of women's writing to the comics world, with a look at the female voice in modern comics, and the debate surrounding the creation of
21 April 2003

In the first two instalments of The Mirror Crack'd, we explored the first two phases of women making comics, the feminine and the feminist, according to criteria presented by literary critic Elaine Showalter in her landmark essay "A Literature Of Their Own".

As we move into a look at the third, it is worth noting again that the field of women making comics today, whether as writers, artists, or editors, contains elements of all three of these voices, though the feminine is the most rare. It is tempting, when utilising a linear model, to describe a continuum of activity; to assign value-based judgments to the poles, or perceive a progression from primitivism towards progressivism.

It is my belief that the vibrancy of the community (in this case, the community of women in the comics industry) is intrinsically bound in the diversity of the voices within it - three strands of singular accomplishment that, when woven together, produce a lasting tapestry of achievement that can not be discounted within the greater tradition of storytelling through graphic narrative. However, the distinctions that separate one phase from the next create certain tensions in their wake that distort this holistic awareness and often pit one generation, whether ideological or physical, against the next.

Showalter describes the third voice, classified as female, as characterised by, "a phase of self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity" [16]. Taken at face value, this would appear to be in concord with the pro-woman stance of the feminist phase, yet, implicit in these criteria are the catalysts for a revolution in style that seeks the person in the woman, the individual in the archetype. Like the underground boys' club mentality that women's comics originally developed in opposition to, so did the often separatist ideals of feminist comics become the status quo that then became the bar for transcendence, by whatever means necessary.

'The field of women making comics today contains elements of all three voices.' There is credible evidence that the first works to exhibit characteristics of the female phase of writing were penned by cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and her career is also supportive of the idea that individuals can make contributions to the development of more than one phase concurrently, perhaps even within the context of a single work. In her identity as a feminist comix artist, Kominsky-Crumb edited and contributed to important all-woman anthologies like WIMMEN'S COMIX and, more recently, TWISTED SISTERS.

Ironically, though, it was her relationship with her husband, underground patriarch Robert Crumb, that opened up the possibility for a woman to be read by the entire underground scene as opposed to just its feminist branch. In 1974, the duo published ALINE & BOB'S DIRTY LAUNDRY, featuring their complementing views on the unique life that they shared. The frank, autobiographical content was charged with difficult questions about identity, sex, and family that plagued an entire generation as they made the transition out of young adulthood and into more demanding roles.

The juxtaposition of their radically different approaches to graphic storytelling was exactly the catalyst that underground comix needed to break out of the stagnating models that had both propelled them into the public eye and limited their potential as the era that produced them came to a close.

While the dialogue between men and women in comics, finally given a form in Bob and Aline's neurotic banter, was still charged with a lot of resentment and confusion, it was a conversation that was finally being had. The effect was immediate and unmistakable as more and more women were met by venues like ARCADE and later RAW, and Crumb's own WEIRDO, which were interested in publishing their work.

It is important to recognise that being published along side male cartoonists was not pivotal to the development of the female voice because it somehow legitimised their work. In fact, women working out of the feminine phase of comics, like Ramona Fradon or even Devin Grayson, did and do so in almost exclusively male-dominated environments while changing very little about the status quo that reigns there.

The shift that grew out of these first inter-gender collaborations was, instead, precipitated by the then radical idea that a person's work should be judged by its quality instead of the gender of its creator. This environment, in turn, fostered the, "turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition" that was essential to the development of the female phase by taking the first steps towards the de-stigmatisation of gender in at least that sector of comics.

'DIRTY LAUNDRY was the catalyst that underground comix needed.' This subtle difference in the way the women viewed themselves, either, from the feminist voice, as a woman who makes comics, or, from the female voice, as cartoonists that happened to be women, is still today the primary dividing line between the two camps. Phoebe Gloeckner (DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL), who got her start in the late 1970s, made this observation in a recent interview:

"In cartoons and comics, female cartoonists are kind of segregated. There are anthologies of female cartoonists; there are histories written about female cartoonists. There are no histories written about men cartoonists. There's a big show now, called 'Great Women Cartoonists'. And it's bullshit! It drives me crazy! I wish it was kind of sex-blind when it comes to someone's work. But it's not. It's always like you feel like a token." (The full interview is at, but requires a paid subscription.)

Bearing in mind that she was speaking in broad terms for a non-comics specific audience, there are still several criticisms of the feminist voice implicit in her statement. The first one, "female cartoonists are kind of segregated" was more true when Gloeckner first began publishing than it is today. This also says nothing of the fact that this segregation was a self-preservation mechanism for the separatist feminists who had been otherwise excluded from making or reading suitable comics as an intentional act of rebelling against the dual patriarchy (mainstream, underground) that oppressed them in a very real way.

There is no disputing, either, the fact that, even today, there are still all-woman anthologies though it is telling that the historical books about female cartoonists as a group (mostly written by Trina Robbins) now drastically outnumber them. A recent debate on the Comics Journal message board over the establishment of, a webcomic site, offered similar insights on this abyss that still exists between the feminist and female phases.

The thread begins with the web-anthology-to-be's administrator, Joey Manley, soliciting for contributors on a "new 'sister' site for Modern Tales - featuring only the work of women cartoonists". The first debater into the fray is cartoonist Carol Lay, a contemporary of Gloeckner's, who suggests that, "the broads should be able to fight in the same ring as the boys because the defining qualities in cartooning are individual, not those of a gender. [A]nd, true, a lot of us have contributed to books such as Twisted Sisters or Wimmen's Comix, but as more women enter this field the need for promotional gimmicks has lessened. Why put up an unnecessary barrier?"

Manley, perhaps not expecting a negative reaction at the idea of showcasing talented women cartoonists, clarifies the function of the website as, "a place for comics by women to assert an identity and a presence on their own, independently of other comics", and tellingly offers "feminist bookstores and women's magazines" as valid cultural analogues to the proposed site.

'Segregation was a self-preservation mechanism for the separatist feminists.' Lay responds by insisting that, "what you're talking about is niche marketing, not a themed anthology. [G]ender is not a theme. [A]utobiography, mystery, science fiction, literary, etc. are good reasons to group disparate creators together, but doing so by gender is regressive."

At this point, the site's editor-in-chief and principal designer, Lea Hernandez (TEXAS STEAMPUNK TRILOGY, RUMBLE GIRLS) steps in to defend, suggesting that critics could, "[c]all it segregation if you like, I call it focus. Focus like the magazines BUST, BITCH and VENUS. Focus like Lilith Fair. Focus like the comics/pop culture webzine Sequential Tart".

Girlamatic contributor and long-time self-publisher Donna Barr (DESERT PEACH, STINZ) takes Lay's insistence that women would be better served by avoiding gender separatism to task more directly; "'In a ring with the boys.' That's the word for it. A nice little controlled perfect we're-all-the-same, we're-all-all-right ring fence enclosure, like the boys have been running for years. A ring through your nose. A ring around your neck. We all play by our rules. It's our football. No girls allowed. You draw like a girl. Don't think for yourself or try a new style or say scary things, cuz it might touch on the little tender soft shrinking testicles."

It is obvious that these issues of sovereignty and separatism that serve as the boundary between the feminist and female phases of comics are highly charged ones. To the female phase, the feminist need for separatism is an anachronism that threatens their identity as an assimilated yet vital portion of a non-gender specific tradition.

For the feminists, the female phase fails to see the continuing gender-bias of the comics industry for what it is and weakens the potential of the women's comics movement as a financial and social entity with the act of placing the cartoonist before the woman. The final value, then, in utilizing Showalter's theory to consider women making comics is that it shows us that both the feminist and female phases play a vital role in maintaining and improving upon women's collective presence in the industry.

It is no revelation that the Direct Market is still geared towards the masculine, if not, as some suspect, openly opposed to a feminine presence there. The feminists then serve as the first line of defence against a hostile boundary, as their buffer state, the feminine, barely exists in contemporary comics. They are a constant reminder that women had once been banned from comics by the powers-that-be and that only through solidarity were they able to regain a foothold as both creators and readers.

The female phase in comics is without a doubt the dominant voice after two generational cycles of individuation and introspection within this new less gender-polarised paradigm. In its role as the progressive voice, this paradigm seeks to differentiate itself not from the patriarchal oppressor culture, which is inarguably muted though still present in modern alternative comics circles in comparison to the Underground days, but from the stigma of ever having been excluded in the first place. There is no real way to predict the future, whether the two streams will someday merge into a single entity to be reckoned with or continue the process of fractionalising until there is truly no consensus to be had about women producing comics.

Regardless, this is a unique time in the course of things to sit back and appreciate the difference that a mere thirty years of women reinventing themselves in comics has made, along with the toil and dedication required to rejoin a severed tether that otherwise stretched back to the turn of the century when women first began drawing comic strips for newspapers.

With more comics being made and read by women in the West every year, we can only hope that every facet of women creating comics over the years will be made available to the public, to consider for themselves what victories were gained and what all was sacrificed in the effort. is now up and running and, in its current incarnation, features both male and female cartoonists.

This concludes the Minority Report segment on women in comics, though future topics will, of course, feature them when applicable as it continues an in-depth look at minority voices in comics.

This column will be on hiatus for a few months while I gather materials and complete work on non-criticism related projects. I genuinely appreciate the informative and largely supportive e-mails and links that many readers have provided for Minority Report during its first few months at Ninth Art, and I hope to see you all back here in the fall.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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