Review: She Makes Comics

At Comicazi Book Club last week, we had a new member stop by (we LOVE new members, so if you’re local to Somerville, MA – come sees us!), and we were discussing other books we’d read recently. Elfquest came up as an example of a rare book so massive we needed to break it up into two meetings – since we’d read volume one of the “Complete” edition, it was 720 pages of story. At the mention of the book, Honorary Lady Bill mentioned that he’d recently watched a documentary on Netflix that had featured Elfquest creator Wendy Pini, albeit more for her groundbreaking Red Sonja cosplay than for her comics. A documentary about women making comics? And me without a post? It was a match made in heaven. The Toyman and I sat down and watched the other night – what did we think?

The film, She Makes Comics, was released in 2014 and is a survey of the contributions women have made to American comics from the earliest days of the medium in the 1900s to the present, and is mostly presented in a talking heads format – interviews with living artists, writers, editors, publishers, retailers, fans, and historians – with some occasional archive photos of older women. The experts represented overall are wonderful. There are names you probably know – Trina Robbins, Gail Simone, Marjorie Liu, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Louise Simonson, among them, and some who, despite being equally important in the world of comics, I personally learned for the first time watching this. How did I not know about Felicia Henderson, who started out as a writer for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, co-produced Moesha, and left television to write for DC? Such an oversight suggests why films like this are so vital.

The best parts of the film, for me, were the conversations with some of the older women – they have a deep knowledge of the history, of course, since they were there for so much of it, but they’re also just incredibly charismatic and funny. Ramona Fradon, creator of Metamorpho, was discussing her art process for Aquaman – in the absence of the internet or a good research library in her town, “ended up making up a lot of the fish.” Jenette Kahn described becoming the first woman publisher for DC as “it was so over my head I had to say yes!” It’s wonderful to actually be able to watch and hear them speaking about their expertise, because the incredible force, determination, and senses of humor that allowed them to break through the glass ceiling in the 60’s and 70’s, still shines through today.

There are occasional men sprinkled throughout as well to help round out the context – Chris Claremont crediting Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson for all of the best ideas in Uncanny X-Men is profoundly touching – but women stay appropriately front and center.

What worked a bit less well for me was the way that fandom was worked in. For starters, while I think that it’s incredibly important and topical to talk about the changing status of female comics fans throughout the years, it slightly overloaded an already rich, powerful movie. Some context around the fact that in the 50’s, female readers actually outnumbered male readers (55%-45%) is useful, but the attempt to explain why that changed felt a bit rushed and contradictory. There are also little dramatizations – such as a woman walking into a stereotypical comic shop and feeling marginalized – that are frankly a bit hokey and over-simplify some of the problems with direct market culture. I’d prefer to have seen a bit more of the women who do actually MAKE comics and see a sequel about the fans, honestly.

In spite of that caveat, however, I did feel that She Makes Comics was a great introduction to the history and future of women in comics, and helps make the argument that women have been integral to comics as we know them today. It’s well worth a watch if you have any interest in the subject. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. If you’ve seen it, tell me what you think in the comments!

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