In 1971, Linda Nochlin’s article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was published in the magazine ArtNews. This is an important turning point for art history because those on the margins of art creation were brought to center stage, and a new realm of art history was created. In this essay, Nochlin explores the reasons for why women have not achieved the same acclaim in the art world as men. While one can think back through history and find examples such as Vigee-Lebrun or Rosa Bonheur (who coincidentally dressed like a man in order to paint), they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Nochlin argues that this has to do with restricted access to education and societal expectations. With this in mind are there new restrictions in place that cause the following question to emerge: WHY HAVE THERE BEEN NO GREAT WOMEN COMIC BOOK ARTISTS?(Nochlin, 1971)
In 2005 there was a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art titled Masters of American Comics. The 15 masters, selected by independent curators John Carlin and Brian Walker with input from Art Spiegelman, included Lyonel Feininger (“The Kin-der-Kids”), George Herriman (“Krazy Kat”), Winsor McCay (“Little Nemo”), Milton Caniff (“Steve Canyon”), Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”), Jack Kirby (“Fantastic Four,” “X-Men”), Harvey Kurtzman (MAD), R. Crumb, Spiegelman (Maus), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth), and Gary Panter (“Jimbo”). Obviously absent was any representation of women. Are women just not as good at comic art as men? Are they incapable of experiencing comics in the same way as men? Are they just less visual, as science suggests? These are important questions worth considering.
One argument is that women prefer comics with more dialogue that are true to life; according to this argument, the fantasy of sci-fi and superheroes are not appealing to women. I would argue that this is a cop out. In an attempt to try to make excuses for the lack of women artists in comics, one can dismiss female contributors easily by stating that they are not as interested in the typical plots and characters of comics. Contemporary comics have dealt with serious issues and have in fact blended fantasy with reality.
Real Life in Fantasy
Artist Trina Robbins, worked on the comic Wonder Woman beginning in 1986. In fact, The Legend of Wonder Woman was written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Robbins. In this series, there was special attention paid to the character’s Golden Age roots. During the mid-nities, Robbins spoke out against Mike Deodato‘s sexualized Wonder Woman. She called Deodato’s version a “barely clothed hypersexual pinup.” She collaborated on the comic Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story which dealt with the serious issue of spousal abuse. Such issues can be addressed in a way that is less connected to real life and in a way make them much more palatable (Wikipedia).
Secret Wars: The Cultural Paradigm
I would like to argue that in part there is a cultural paradigm that discourages girls and women from getting involved in comic readership. Many times parents become overly concerned about the violence that is inherent to superhero comics and play. Pre-school girls actually engage in superhero play all be it without as much roughness as their male counterparts. The fantasy aspect of superhero play can be empowering to young girls. Through the transference of superhero powers girls can feel as though they can do things that they might not otherwise feel they could have the ability to do. This requires a teacher and parent who are willing to discuss aspects of violence with children and inquire about the positive aspects of such play.
What Other than a comic book nerd parent, you will rarely find a parent giving girls a Superman, Captain America, Hulk, or Batman figure. In the education world, this is what we call the hidden curriculum. We enforce certain values by the context in which we present information. There is a cultural schema that is maintained to keep boys and girls separate. Boy’s emerge from the pre-school years straight from the Bat cave. Instead, we relegate girls to the pink aisle. A place of domestication and kitchen utensils. Heck, go to McDonald’s (not that you would want to) and the first thing that they will ask you after taking your order for a happy meal is boy toy or girl toy. Huh? Should there be such divisions?
Elite Squad: No Girls Allowed
Comic book elitism is not a new thing. In fact, the inaccuracies of this article will most surely be pointed out. However, it is intimidating to enter an all boys’ club. One has to wonder if the elitism prevents women from entering the superhero genre. Claims such as, “I have never met a woman that knew as much as a man about comics have been made.” Yet one needs to look at the larger cultural context to understand why this might be the case.
Instead of focusing on the lack of knowledge (however, I am sure there are many women who know far more about comics than I do) we should be sharing that knowledge collaboratively. Instead of making this an all boy’s club, I propose that we make it a comics club. The Internet has given us a fantastic model for this practice. Think about gift culture or open source culture. Everyone benefits when knowledge is freely shared and not controlled by an elite group. In this vein of thought, I have posted a video below of a panel presented on the Secret History of Women in Comics.
In contemporary times the elitism of comics has begun to break down. Pia Guerra’s artwork in Y the Last Man has done wonders for women comic book artists. So what are your thoughts? Why have there been no great women comic book artists? Or have there been?