Shortly after the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, Trish Durkin, writing in The New York Observer lamented the Democrats’ seeming inability to appeal to women beyond the single issue of abortion rights. Succinctly summing up the shortsightedness of the Democratic Party leadership, she wrote, “Women are not ovaries with feet.”
Mainstream — read “superhero” — comics, while not in straits quite so dire as the Democrats, have long had a similar demographic problem: Women, the prevailing wisdom goes, just aren’t reading comics. Every once in a while this blanket assessment, sets off a period of hand-wringing, a litany of explanation, rationalization, etc., and concludes with the problem being passed on to the boys in marketing, whose solution usually involves some sort of Barbie co-branding exercise. This strategy makes the Democratic “ovaries with feet” approach seem remarkably nuanced; its success at changing the face of comic fandom makes the Democrats look like the Mongol hordes storming across Asia.
So put all that aside for a moment, and let’s move into a different mindset, one offering narrative possibilities beyond the binary opposition of “creeping-thong sex-object superheroine” vs. Lacy McShops-a-lot. Assume for a moment that women, like men, are capable of appreciating more subtlety, more complexity, more nuance and less predictability in stories and characters. It’s no coincidence that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a baroque meta-story that wound through the dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears of characters as diverse as mythological kings and suburban housewives, was one of the most popular ever among women. Just as a hypothesis, then, suppose that women come to comics for the same reason as men: to experience a good story.
This is the approach editor Megan Kelso took when assembling Scheherazade: Comics About Love, Treachery, Mothers and Monsters: Taking Queen Scheherazade of Thousand and One Nights, a woman who “kicked ass with her storytelling chops,” as her model, Kelso has assembled a group of talented, young female creators and let them simply tell stories.
The result is a good short story collection. The best among these tales are familiar and strange; like old photographs of a relative you never met, they conjure a feeling of connectedness beyond what’s on the page. Many of the tales take place in the gauzy realm of childhood and fairy tales, or are ethereal glimpses of another’s life. Yet as elliptical as they often feel, each story has its own power, its own voice in the chorus.
Within that chorus we hear the story of a high school girl trying to fit in with her classmates; the story of a fisherman who one day finds a magic genie in his net; and the story of a dog and the robot best friend he builds. A strange bird-eating creature smashes his way through the forest in search of food; a girl bails her boyfriend out of jail after he goes wild on an acid trip. Of course, summarizing collapses the facets of these gem-like tales, but it offers some idea of their variety. It would be cliche to say this book has something for everyone, but it’s certainly not the “chick-lit, ovaries with feet” slog that some might expect. These are stories, first and foremost — stories that happen to be written by women.
Scheherazade works best as a well to be dipped into occasionally; binge on it and the stories become diluted, losing their narrative impact. Most of them are the ephemeral kind of story you imagine vanishing like dew in the morning sun, but they stay with the reader. They remind us that instead of asking, “Where are all the women in comics?” we should remember that they are already here, with stories all their own.