Robot 6

Angouleme: The Obstacle Race continues

"The Obstacle Race," by Germaine Greer

“The Obstacle Race,” by Germaine Greer

I was an art student in 1979 when Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race was published. As it happened, most of the art majors that year were women, and we all read the book and spent late nights in our studios discussing it. Women had been completely absent from our art history courses, and Greer’s book opened our eyes to that fact and the reasons behind it — not a lack of talent, but a lack of recognition and encouragement — and often the deliberate placement of obstacles.

That wasn’t difficult to believe. The university I attended had only admitted women for five years and limited them to 25 percent of the student body at the time.

In this environment, my fellow art majors figured out one day that one of our professors had never given a woman an A in one of his classes. So we confronted him. He was surprised, and more embarrassed than angry, because he wasn’t doing it deliberately. He was a decent guy and never intentionally sexist, and when forced to look at this pattern, he started rethinking the way he did things. After that, women began to receive As in his classes — not because of any sort of quota system, but because they deserved them. They had deserved them all along, and they had been unjustly denied them in the past.

I’ve been flashing back to this experience all week as the controversy swirls about the all-male slate of nominees for the Grand Prix d’Angouleme. It’s depressing that we’re still having this conversation, but it’s exhilarating to see how the discussion has changed. In 1979, the male art students had no problem telling us that women could never be great artists; we could be good, passable even, but not great like Michelangelo or Leonardo. In 2016, apart from a few deliberately obtuse Internet commenters, nobody is saying that.

The Angouleme International Comics Festival is a wonderful event. I had the privilege of attending two years ago, and it was an unforgettable experience. It’s well run and takes place in a beautiful setting. I met many interesting women and men there — creators, agents, publishers. When I asked the president of Dargaud to recommend some BDs for a new reader, three of the six books he handed me were by women — including Annie Goetzinger’s stunning Girl in Dior, later published in English by NBM. While my French is rough and I tend to be a bit oblivious in these matters, I didn’t sense any sexism. What I saw was a vigorous industry in which women and men worked side by side toward their common goals.

So my heart broke a little when I read the defensive response by festival executive officer Franck Bondoux to the BD Egalite boycott. And as unpopular as this is, I have to say that he is right about one thing: When it comes to the contemporary comics scene, women are well represented at Angouleme. The nominees for the Fauves, the book awards, include a number of very good works by women creators; Bondoux says it’s about 25 percent, and I’ll take his word for it. I’d like it to be 50 percent, but we have a lot of young creators whose best book still is in front of them. I’d like to see the juries that select the graphic novels have more women on them as well. BD Egalite released a report on this, and women typically make up 28 percent of the grand juries and 14 percent of the selection committees. These numbers need to go up.

However, if you ever needed evidence that naked sexism still exists, read Bondoux’s answers to the press. Marjane Satrapi, he told Telerama, was excluded because she no longer makes comics — and yet Bill Watterson was last year’s Grand Prix honoree, although he effectively stopped making comics in 1995. Bondoux also argued that the prize was a lifetime achievement award, and that while it was unfortunate that women were excluded from French comics, well, he can’t rewrite history. Yet the nominating committee chose Riad Sattouf, age 37, over Lynda Barry, Rumiko Takahashi, and, yes, Annie Goetzinger — women who not only have produced a worthy body of work over a long period of time but have in some cases done it within the constraints of a male-dominated industry. Bondoux was holding women creators to different standards than men, and until he was called on it, he probably didn’t even realize he was doing it.

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The difference between 1979 and now, however, came in the reaction from the rest of the world. Back then, we had a strong group of women who supported each other, but the men refused to take our complaints seriously (except that one professor, who was a genuinely good guy despite his massive blind spot). Today, we have BD Egalite leading the charge — and the men are joining in. Sattouf was one of the first nominees to support the boycott, and he did so very graciously, offering a list of women who could be nominated in his place. The list of boycotters quickly grew to 12, with support from publishers, fans and other creators. The French minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, called the all-male slate of nominees “disturbing.” The media has had a field day, but unlike in 1979, they are not calling the women ridiculous; they are calling the men ridiculous for being so blatantly out of touch.

Protests often have value outside of the matter under consideration. In this case, it’s the added attention brought to talented women creators worldwide. Fans started posting their favorite works by women creators under the Twitter hashtag #WomenDoBD; check it out for some good reading. Liberation compiled a list of 30 women creators who deserve to be nominated for the Grand Prix (it’s in French, but many of the names are familiar to English-language readers). And the controversy brought new attention to “Comics Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics,” an exhibit co-curated by critic Paul Gravett that will open this week at the House of Illustration in London.

All this goes to show that Bondoux was wrong. You can, in fact, rewrite comics history, because “history” is as much interpretation as fact, and it reflects the biases of the writers. History gets rewritten all the time as attitudes change and new information comes to light. Back in 1979, Germaine Greer rewrote history by bringing to light the works of long-neglected artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Angellica Kauffman and Sofonisba Anguissola, painters who are now much better known than they were 40 years ago. They have been added to art history, or rather, art history is more complete now.

Just because Bondoux didn’t see any women creators doesn’t mean they weren’t there, and artists like Linda Barry and Rumiko Takahashi have an advantage that Artemisia Gentileschi did not: Their contemporaries won’t let them be erased from history as it is being written. The comics world has a lot to be proud of this week.

Comments

16 Comments

Thanks for writing this. I wanted to express my approval before the barrel of monkeys breaks loose in this comment thread

WHO
GIVES
A
F–K?
Are the comics good? Do you like what you read? Then what does it matter who made them or how many awards they have? This gender politics bull is everywhere and it’s strangling entertainment. Let’s all agree to read what we like and praise people who deserve it based on the quality of their output.

Sorry, Nick, but that doesn’t follow the narrative. ;)

“I’d like it to be 50 percent”
Statistics like this are always interesting to me, especially when talking about modern comics and how we need things to be more equal (which I agree with, there’s a long way to go).
But are we starting with an equal pool, where half of all applicants are women, and half of the industry is woman? That would be WONDERFUL if it was, but if that’s not the case, then statistically speaking, how is it fair to reach that number when the pool isn’t at that level yet? (It’s tough for me to articulate, but I hope I’m not coming across as negative or aggressive, I’m just trying to contextualize the situation with numbers)
For example, if there are 100 men who apply for 10 jobs, and there are 15 woman who also apply, statistically the talent will lie with the greater number so unfortunately we won’t get an even 5 and 5. But we don’t know that initial number yet are quick to yell “that’s not equal” only looking at the result. It sort of may apply here, if the industry is dominated by men, then awards like this still can never truly be representative until the industry levels out.

I really enjoyed this article. It was thoughtful and full of really good information such as how history is fluid and new information is always being discovered much like lesser popularized creators.

Thank you for writing this.

I think the way the ’50 percent goal’ was listed indicates a recognition that you need 50% of the creators to be women first before 50% of the winners of any award would be.

How any awards for lifetime comics achievement can be missing Rumiko Takahashi unless it excludes manga blows my mind.

“But are we starting with an equal pool, where half of all applicants are women, and half of the industry is woman?”

We pretty much are, yeah.

Love all of this. Thank you.

dumb puff piece

January 8, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Just because women creators weren’t seen doesn’t mean they weren’t there, and just because they are there doesn’t mean any or all of them were good enough to be awarded over those that are good enough, that they have a penis is irrelevant to the output.

If 2 people apply for the same job and have equal qualifications, but one filled in the minority race/religion part at the end that is ‘just for statistics but will have no affect on the outcome’ bullshit, that person gets an unfair advantage.

It’s rewarding for the wrong reason.

Nick is mis understood here… he’s just saying a good comic is a good comic the grand prix shouldn’t put us in this position but since it did now awards matter even less than gender.

Women have produced some of the best work in the medium and are winning all of the other major awards in comics. The Grand Prix did not reflect this reality, so it was rightly mocked. If it wants to be taken seriously it needs to read more comics, including ones by women. Right now it has no credibility left.

Every little bit counts in the change from what was/is to what will be to make sure things are more “fair” and “equal”.

That professor in 1979, to the stumbling attempts of the Angoulême FIDB board to rectify the Grand Prix are markers that underline just how entrenched sexism is in different industries; and slowly, and inevitably(?) changes are made– thanks largely through people who grew up in that unfair what-was. (And thankfully, fewer familiar to the established complain at these changes… however loudly they voice them.)

Lynda Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comics” was a revelation growing up reading Frank Miller and Claremont/Byrne’s comicbooks, leading to the other strips in the classified section of the READER— and an expansion of just what “comics” can be. It was much an expansion as discovering that Science Fiction can be more than the basic Asimov-Bradbury/Bester-Clarke or STAR WARS that I was familiar with. This “boy” slowly found women artists and writers rounding out the comics and SF entertainment I pursued…

Unfortunately, the comics world can be filled with knuckle-dwellers to the established and familiar, as much as SF fandom with their MRAs. But they are met with, and countered by resistance.

Angoulême will learn from this mistake.

(Thanks for writing this, Brigid.)

This sexism in comics argument is out of control. Yes some women read and create comics but percentage wise it still won’t isn’t of equal proportion. It would be like me as an Sudanese complaining that no Sudanese creators were nominated.
Quality always rises to the top no one cares where it or who it comes from as long as it is quality. Comics have proven that time and again – that is why an amazing female artist of diverse background named Fiona Staples has become one of the top artists in the business.

“In 2016, apart from a few deliberately obtuse Internet commenters…”

You guys who keep saying idiotic stuff about how “gender doesn’t matter” and “no one cares who makes something as long as it’s good” and “this gender stuff is out of control” know she’s talking about you, yes? Because you couldn’t possibly have read the piece, understood it, or have basic knowledge of art/comics history to keep saying such goofy things.

Oh, and Red Pepper? Yeah, actually, there are that many women making comics right now. You can get the actual data from publishers and summits with the Direct Market and book publishers. On the Googles. Women make up just shy of 50% of the people reading comics. Unless you think “comics” means “superhero books” which has less parity in terms of creators and readers. But since “comics” doesn’t mean the genre of superhero, you’d still be so wrong it’s kind of entertaining. Although mostly it’s tired and annoying anyone keeps trying to perpetuate a complete fiction.

The whole point of this piece is that women’s work has been historically judged as less than and erased from art history. Which still impacts how it is judged now and what works and by whom are judged “worthy” of awards and considered “good”. Y’all can yell all you want about how it “doesn’t matter” because “only good work gets recognized” but “good” is subjective and has some massive, ingrained, biases attached. If you don’t value the work of half the population for HUNDREDS of years, if ANYTHING it produces is considered “less than” by default, then it’s incredibly stupid to argue that what is viewed as “good” is not highly subjective.

To sum up: your opinions are not facts and exist in the same nonsense “reality” as Bandoux’s regressive, sexist, notions. Have fun there!

@Nick: In what way is “gender politics bull” “strangling entertainment”? Entertainment seems pretty good right now, to me. I’m seeing some of the best comics right now that I’ve ever seen, as well as some of the best TV.

@dumb puff piece: Well, there are three possible interpretations of your premise.

1. It’s *just a crazy coincidence* that every single nominee is male, and it has nothing to do with gender.

2. It’s *not* a coincidence; men are just naturally better at making comics.

3. There are *so many more* men making comics than women that the women just naturally don’t make a dent in the awards.

Other commenters have already pointed out that #3 is not true, and that we’re pretty close to parity between men producing comics and women producing comics.

So tell me — which claim are you making, #1 or #2?

To Thad and Mariah – if women creators make up equal share where are they? Give me genuine facts. Just saying there is equal number doesn’t make it so. It is like the number of men in childcare right now. From personal experience I know 1 male and 9 female. The reverse is true of comic creators.

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