Greg Baldino knows his comics. He knows them so well that he even bedazzled and enthralled this writer’s comic centric sensibilities. This past week he moderated a panel at Columbia College entitled Beyond the Panel: Chicago Women in Comics. The feature showcased a trio of diverse, Chicago centric comic personalities. This included Audrey Niffenegger of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame, but also a versatile graphic novelist in her own right. Niffenegger recent release of The Night Bookmobile was trumpeted during the panel.
Jill Thompson was the second comic creator present and the most recognizable talent for fans of mainstream American comic books. Thompson’s work has appeared all across the Big Two’s, Marvel and DC, publishing catalogue. Her most widely known work hails from her stint as artist on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. She also has several acclaimed independent projects, such as the children’s comic Scary Godmother.
The final panelist was webcomic creator C. Spike Trotman. Her webcomic Templar, Arizona, a slice of life set in an alternate, surrealistic Arizona, has won numerous awards and accolades since its debut in 2005.
My first impression about the event stemmed from its title. This event, inferring from its label, would seem to rotate around the notion of women in comics, isolating and secluding them from the rest of comics’ deep pool of talent. This trio of creators was, presumably, intended to speak about the trials and tribulations of making it in a male dominated industry and catering to a predominantly male audience. Perhaps each talent would offer up horror stories of discrimination and blatant sexism. Maybe even evidence of oppression that’d work the crowd up in to a frenzy of righteous indignation over these grievances.
This panel included none of that.
At the event’s opening address, Baldino put a kibosh on discussion about women’s perceived marginalization in comics. The night’s emphasis was to be on comics, the creativity and artistic spirit behind them, and not issues of gender equality. He cited two reasons for this approach.
The first is that a panel playing up the discrimination and exploitation angles would be needlessly dull with very little discussion given to the actual comics. A dialogue of that nature is another entity for an entirely different time and place. The second reason is that the panelists are all successful artists and not down trodden hard luck cases. This panel would not be the stuff of day-time television. In Baldino’s words “those three creators are not examples of marginalization at all.”
Niffenegger began by speaking of her experiences with comics. Initially, her introduction began with a simple query. She was asked if she’d like to venture into the medium. For her, the experience was a very practical one. She did it for a job. However, throughout the discussions, it was clear she viewed comics far more than a source of income. Her enthusiasm was apparent. Her comics’ immersion, along with her repertoire of other interests and achievements, is quite impressive.
Thompson followed with her devout dedication towards the medium. She, too, was asked how she got into the field. Thompson answered this question with one of her own. Saying she has been asked before ‘why do comics’, indicating that she has received this question quite often with varying levels of distain evidenced by the questioners, her response was a simple ‘why not do comics’. The accomplished artist revealed that the medium is in sync with her thought process. She envisions her stories as sequential panels first and foremost.
Finally, when the question was fielded to Trotman, the writer/artist proclaimed her first experience with comics was in the form of Excalibur, a middling X-men comic born during the explosive, reckless increase in that franchise’s popularity. Trotman explained that she lost interest in the medium due to the convoluted crossovers and continuity that begrudged budget conscious fans. Never the less, she returned to comics after a best friend of hers dragged her to a comic shop. Reluctantly she picked up a graphic novel which surprisingly rekindled a spark and she then dove back in to the medium where she now works.
Diversity seemed to be the true commonality between each creator. Niffenegger represented the tendency for cross creativity between mediums. Such behavior is exhibited by talents such as J. Michael Straczynski, Brad Meltzer and Joss Whedon, successful writers before they turned to the world of comics.
Niffenegger brings with her a range of outside sensibilities that fuse, enrich and further the expansion of comic books in an atmosphere of medium crosspollination. Thompson is that of the lifelong fan. Growing up with comics, her natural talents and abilities, combined with her drive, resulted in a natural progression from comic follower to comic professional. Trotman is that of the convert. She initially was driven from comics only to return move fervent in her dedication and with a distinct, fresh creative voice.
This diversity, existing with Chicago’s comic community, is an essential factor in the furthering of the medium. What stood out is that while the panel was labeled Chicago Women in Comics, lumping women together as if they were some monolithic bloc, this event resulted in a showcasing of diversity that was quite striking.
Popular perceptions of comic book aficionados lack this diversity. Often comic fans are viewed as unpopular, insular and reclusive loners, clinging to adolescent fantasies of spandex clad man-children. This outlook is propagated by various sources, ranging from humorous characters, such as The Comic Book guy from The Simpsons to the less than flattering coverage of comic book conventions by mainstream media sources to stereotypes perpetrated and reinforced through childhood bullying and schoolyard shenanigans.
The Night Bookmobile
In the course of this evening at Columbia College, after listening to the panelists and speaking with Greg Baldino, I learned too that comics were far more diverse than I ever envisioned. However, this diversity is the lifeblood of the medium that readers should begin to appreciate and embrace. There is far more, a multiverse more even, out there than capes and tights. When asking about the genesis of the night, Greg commented “what would have really been groundbreaking is if we had just called it Chicago Comic Creators and not even made any overt reference that our three presenters were women.” I can understand his regret about the labeling.
The vast spectrum of diversity brings new life to a medium that thrives on innovation and creativity. Exciting readers, both the old guard reading since adolescence and waves of new readers freshly brought in to the medium, keep comics afloat. Limiting oneself to just a particular comic genre, similar to if the panel was limited to just discussing gender equality and women’s oppression or spotlighting work by women for women, is living in a closed system. To very roughly paraphrase one of the laws of thermodynamics, living in a closed system does not assure continual, eternal function. External inputs are needed to maintain function over time. Being insular can only lead to a shrinking of the medium.
Diversity, creativity, fresh inputs and open dialogue are essential to the continuation of comics as, paraphrasing Greg’s wordage, not a genre or a medium but a culture. My time with Greg and the three Chicago talents opened my eyes to this important adage. If this diversity exists within Chicago, just one comic enclave out of many, imagine the potential for the culture if this spectrum is revealed to more readers. The possibilities for growth are endless and the possibility for enlightenment is readily apparent. I, for one, have had a touch of this enlightening.
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