This article was originally going to be about sexism in the comics industry. It’s no secret that the comics scene has done a notoriously poor job recognizing women creators and readers, particularly in America’s superhero-choked testosterone-fest. This was no clearer than at this year’s Angouleme Grand Prix, a sort of Cannes Palme d’Or for the comics world, when none of a whopping 20 creators nominated were women. This resulted in a major fracas among smarter members of the community, resulting in boycotts from attendees and nominees alike and the hashtag #womendoBD (short for bandes desinees, the French word for comics), predating #OscarsSoWhite’s highlighting of award show prejudice by over a month. However, when I described the premise of my article exploring this heady topic to my peers, I generally got the same response: Are there even that many major cartoonists who are women? Isn’t it a boy’s club, after all?
This extraordinarily common assumption is also an incorrect one. While American publishers have often failed to highlight the accomplishments of women cartoonists, there have always been — especially outside of the superhero assembly line — numerous influential, impressive women who have pushed comics as a medium to its greatest potential. Indeed, in the age of bestselling memoirs such as Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and the waves of massively popular shojo manga by and for girls flooding bookshelves throughout the ’00s (not to mention the recent success of film adaptations of Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color and Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl), it is impossible to say that women are not creating major, universally beloved comics. And yet this perceived absence of women remains.
In an attempt to put this wrongheaded notion to rest, I’ve put together a list of a few of my favorite women working in comics today. It’s not by any standard a complete list, but it is one that highlights artists who make and have made truly great and lasting contributions to the form. These are not only some of the best women in comics, but some of the best cartoonists out there, period.
JULIE DOUCET (My New York Diary, My Most Secret Desire)
One of the leading figures of the ‘90s autobiographical comics boom, Julie Doucet’s stories are searing, hilarious and confrontational all at once. Serializing her work in the brilliantly titled solo anthology Dirty Plotte (plotte being a French slang term for female genitalia), Doucet was one of the first artists to really put everything on the line, depicting herself and all manner of bodily discomforts in memoir vignettes and dream journals that celebrate all the dirty little things we try to forget about daily life, shifting from English to French as seamlessly as her shifts from humor to discomfort. The degree of honesty in her work is as refreshing as it is startling — in one memorable string of dream stories, Doucet imagines what her life would be like if she had a penis, in illustrations that are playful yet aggressive, brash yet vulnerable. Her memoir My New York Diary, depicting her tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend and substance abuse, is an all time classic, taking the reader on a tour-de-force travelogue of experiences both mundane and harrowing, reading like a Mad magazine parody of real life. Her art is gloriously grungy, splotches of black accenting harsh lines, packed with information and impact. Later autobio cartoonists such as Chester Brown cite Doucet as a major influence, yet to my mind the energy of her work still towers above the rest.
MOTO HAGIO (A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Heart of Thomas)
The ’70s saw the first wave of major female cartoonists working in Japan, often referred to as the “Year 24 Group,” creating popular, daring works for a (mostly) female readership that soon became popular nationwide — series such as Ryoko Ideka’s Rose of Versailles and Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra are still widely read. These were cartoonists creating lush, engaging and innovative work for a general readership, a key moment in comics history. The best storyteller of the Year 24 Group is undoubtedly Moto Hagio, who to this day crafts beautiful, intelligent and emotionally honest tales of difficult feelings and people who dare to transcend traditional gender roles. In science fiction stories such as A, A Prime and A Drunken Dream, Hagio spans generations crafting stories of memory and gender in a post-human identity — the space-exploration queer romance short X + Y features perhaps the first non-binary character in a shojo manga. In the gay boarding school melodrama Heart of Thomas, Hagio depicts the kind of intense, tender emotions and experiences usually associated with women in a narrative centered on men, revealing these feelings to be universal. All of these stories are told in gorgeous, full-page compositions that overwhelm the reader in the work’s beauty and passion. But what’s really special about Hagio is that her comics are popular, appealing melodramas — this is a cartoonist crafting the kind of intimate, literary stories that we tend to label “alternative” for a mass, young readership, entertaining and engaging the reader at whatever level they are ready for. In a way, this is comics at its most perfect, stories that will deeply affect just about anyone.
KYOKO OKAZAKI (Helter Skelter, Pink)
The ’80s was a decade in which comics specifically for an adult readership began receiving widespread exposure, and the Japanese comics scene was no exception. In this climate of older, more sophisticated readership, the new genre/demographic of Josei manga rose out of shojo, stories and artists addressing an audience of adult women with adult concerns. Many of these comics can be dismissed as little better than Harlequin-style paperback romances, but a number of truly impressive artists emerged from this scene, none better than the great Kyoko Okazaki. Okazaki tells stories about women at the outskirts of the fashion world, negotiating relationships, self-image and commerce. The alternately fluffy and brutal rom-com Pink charts frenzied bubble-economy consumerism through the misadventures of unlikely protagonist Yumi, a sex worker with a pet alligator. Her masterpiece, Helter Skelter, is a bonafide body-horror fashion freak-out, a fractured narrative of an impossibly beautiful fashion model Ririko’s grotesque evolution through plastic surgery and her splintering sense of self. Okazaki is a consummate artist, elegant, minimal lines accented through bold, downright impressionistic screentone patterns. Okazaki’s comics grip the reader from start to finish and demand to be read over and over again.
EMILY CARROLL (Through the Woods, Out of Skin)
The last decade has seen the rise of webcomics as a powerful subsection of the comics world, and I cannot think of a better webcartoonist than Emily Carroll. Posting impressive short stories to her personal website (emcarroll.com), Carroll tells moody, dark fairy tale horror stories in the mode of the Brothers Grimm, lushly illustrated tales of fear and superstition. Carroll’s stories tend to be less about individual moments of shock, and more about evoking the sensation of creeping dread and superstition. The mood of her work is intensified by her formal playfulness — many of her comics are presented in a downward scrolling progression, giving the reader a sense that they are traveling deeper into a secret truth, or a nightmare. Carroll is far from the first webcartoonist to use this scrolling format, but she is perhaps the first to really accomplish something evocative with it, particularly in the modern classic His Face All Red and the quiet, desperate parable Out of Skin. However, some of Carroll’s best comics have appeared on the printed page, as in Through the Woods, a collection of stories new and old illustrated in ambitious, color-drenched pages — an homage to Goodnight Moon late in the book is particularly unforgettable. Carrol’s comics are the kind of stuff that make me want to read more comics, and her work is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a little scare.
MICKEY ZACCHILI (Venom Comic, RAV)
Perhaps the best artist of self-published zines active today, Mickey Zacchili’s comics are dense, scribbly things that at first glance might seem unreadable but are in fact extraordinarily communicative. Springy, animated forms dance across Zacchili’s page, the furious motion of the lines guiding the reader’s eye naturally through the action and antics. Zacchili’s stories are a dense soup of ’90s anime, Fort Thunder art comics, Image comics and all the things we thought were cool when we were twelve. Her jam comics with Michael Deforge and Patrick Kyle are particularly well regarded, picking a single topic and just running with it — titles have included Jumping Comic, Smartphone Comic and Pixar’s Cars Comic. Zacchili worked in a similar vein alone in the recent Venom Comic, a furiously drawn bootleg love letter to the Spider-Man villain that reads like a frantic celebration of what comics can be. However, Zacchili’s masterpiece is the ongoing series RAV, a surreal biker romance epic that combines tough-guy posturing with millennial anxiety, bluntly hilarious dialogue and powerful imagery. Zacchili’s comics are self-published in beautiful risographed pamphlets, the sort of thing you can’t find in stores often unless you find a really cool store. However, most of her work is available for purchase on her website, mickeyz.org, where she also sells patches and clothing displaying the same impressive wit found in her cartooning. Her packages usually come with a half dozen of her trademark “cool dog” stickers, and a whole lot of joy for new readers.
ELEANOR DAVIS (How to be Happy, Flop on Top)
One of the most diverse and exciting talents of our time, Eleanor Davis is a true cartoonist, a dynamic artist and an earnest storyteller. Working professionally as a freelance illustrator (you may have seen her work on a number of Google’s day-long themed logos), Davis’ art has a lighter-than-air, perfect sort of quality, expressive lines and colors creating bulbous figures that exude a sense of humanity, physicality and warmth. Her stories run a whole gamut of subject matter, from the quixotic modern biblical fable In Our Eden to the charming children’s book Flop on Top to the porn-industry romance of her recent Frontier story BDSM, but throughout her varied work Davis always manages to bring her stories to a moment where people are find real human connection with each other, this sublime sense of really knowing someone else. Much of Davis’ work has been collected in a book titled How to be Happy, a phrase that seems to encapsulate the whole of her varied oeuvre — these are comics about that struggle to be happy, the droll impossibility of an easy path to happiness, and the extraordinary beauty of those brief wonderful moments when we really are fulfilled.
Nathan Chazan is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.