Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A (better) IDEA: Awesome Comics, For Girls. (And Boys)

 Jinty, issue from 23 April 1977. "THE ROBOT WHO CRIED". Come ON.
Again, all images are (c) 2012 their respective publishers and creators, and are included here merley to provide examples of style and tone.

Yesterday I wrote a long blog post outlining an idea for how I think the classic British Girls' Comic could be updated in a way that would be interesting, exciting and relevant for young readers today. I was kind of throwing the idea out there as a way to gauge interest, both from readers and creators, and the response on both fronts has been amazing already (oh my goodness, some of the people who've been in touch...), and has only strengthened my conviction that there's the potential to do something really awesome here.

I covered a lot of ground in that post, and a lot of it I felt really solid on - the kind of creative approach I think would work, the need for strong editing, and some of the particulars of how it could work financially and logistically. (If you didn't, I'd urge you to go back and read the original post before proceeding, just to give context to the following.)

The Baby-Sitters Club, graphic novel adaptation by Raina Telgemeier.

Anyway, there was one area I felt less than 100% solid on, and admitted as much, and that related to the fairly fundamental and somewhat problematic issue of it being labelled as "A Girls' Comic" or "A Comic For Girls". As I mentioned, I'm uneasy about any kind of arbitrarily imposed gender segregation in comics, as well as in toys and media in general, specifically media aimed at children. I remember a couple of years ago seeing a photo someone posted of the kids 'comic' section in Tescos; a mess of plastic-bagged plastic-tat-distribution-mechanisms split down the middle into a bright pink "Girls' Zone" and a blue "Boys' Zone". Just the sight of it made me feel sad, and angry, and faintly nauseous. And a couple of bits of feedback I spotted to yesterday's post had me horrified that some had thought that that was what I was suggesting. I mean, I really don't even know how to respond to that, other than to say: please refer to every comic I have ever drawn, ever. And at the risk of turning this again into an extended advertisement for the Phoenix: the way that fine publication approaches this issue, presenting stories and features purposefully and proudly aimed equally at girls AND boys, is something that I'm incredibly proud of, and something I really work hard at in my own contributions. 

All that being said, and with the understanding that what I'm proposing would not be in any way intended as a further contribution to the pile of pink princessy putrescence that passes for so much of media targeted at girls; that it would be a funky, diverse and awesome character-focussed comic taking in a broad range of subject matter and interests: is there still a problem? Is there a problem that's just unavoidable, inherent to any conversation that uses the phrase "...for Girls"?

You know what, turns out there is. And it was brilliantly put in this post by Lauren O'Farrell and Sarah Leavesey, over at the Fleece Station blog. Both Lauren and Sarah make some excellent points, and I'd really encourage you to go and read the whole thing, but Sarah puts the issue best in summing up:


What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that labelling a comic as ‘for girls’ is such a great plan. I think the idea comes from a really well intentioned place because I think comics can still be an enormously male oriented space. But labelling stuff ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ is actually really divisive. In saying ‘this is a comic for girls’ you effectively say ‘this is not for you’ to others who might be interested. And you also say to girls ‘all this other stuff, over here, that’s not really something you’ll be interested in.’

It's a fair point, and one I wholeheartedly agree with. I think it's worth just backtracking a second and describing why, aware of this, I was using phrases like "Girls' comics" in the first place; and also perhaps some of the reasons why the idea of reviving them creates so much enthusiasm and excitement amongst other readers and creators.

The term "Girls' Comic" immediately harkens back to the publishing history of titles like Jinty, Tammy, Bunty, Misty, etc etc - as previously discussed, and again, please go and read this brilliant post by Jacqueline Rayner on the subject if you haven't already. And those comics were, unequivocally, Girls' Comics - that is absolutely how they were conceived and marketed at the time, so we can use the term accurately there at least. Now, I can entirely understand why one might have felt left cold by such comics, or by the perceived notions of femininity they represented. (I myself had little to no interest in comics about football or war or other such traditional 'boy' stuff as a child. I mention this not to suggest the cases are equivalent, as after all I had plenty of comics about transforming robots and farting pigs and such to keep me busy while still firmly in 'boy space', but merely as a point of comparison). However, I think by simply dismissing those Girls' Comics you do them - and the many readers who loved them, a disservice. I think it's inarguable that a lot of girls (and boys) DID enjoy them; enjoyed the greater focus on emotion and character, the stories featuring girl protagonists, the greater focus on real-world settings that reflected the readers' own lives, the stories relfecting a wide range of interests - sport, family, friendship, mystery and intrigue), the beautiful artwork and brilliant stories. And this is really just my point: that kids who'd really respond to material like that - girls AND boys, can't keep repeating that enough - should get comics too.

The War at Ellesmere, (c) 2012 by the brilliant Faith Erin Hicks

So those are the strengths of the material itself; but the other thing is the potency, or clarity of the phrase "Girls Comic" itself. You say that, and immediately people know what you're talking about; it's got that link to the past, and it makes for a nice, marketable hook. You say "a new, updated Girl's Comic", or "it's like Jinty, or Misty, but relevant for today's kids", and people immediately know what you're talking about. It's a problematic phrase but a convenient shorthand, an attention-catching idea to get people talking. I've struggled to find a way to express the idea in a more accurate way without going on for a page and a half of prevarication and qualification; "it's a comic that deals with areas of subject matter or narrative approaches that may traditionally be perceived as 'feminine' when applying retrogressive normative gender identities" doesn't quite trip off the tongue in the same way.

(Sidenote: I'm doing my best here, honest I am. I reached a point in discussing this stuff yesterday where I was groping around for an example of what I was trying to get at and ended up at "y'know... sort of like Mo-Bot High", and came to the worrying realisation that this whole discussion has very likely come out of me sublimating just how much I want to make more Mo-Bot High. A classic British Girls' School Story, but with Giant Robots. I really, really want to make more Mo-Bot High, you guys.)

 
A reader of awesome comics.

So the question is: do the problems with the phrase "Girls' Comic" outweigh the convenient shorthand it provides? And I think there's a pretty compelling case that they do. The last thing I was intending to propose was a project that would in any way worsen the already-dire sitation of gender stereotyping and cultural segregation that Tescos and their ilk seem so keen on inflicting on our children. If the term itself is divisive, or ends up alienating or excluding the very people you'd want reading the comic: then you'd probably try and find a better term.

Misty, (c) 2012 Egmont UK. Apparently featuring a Faustian tale of demonic show-jumping, and DEAR GOD HOW COULD YOU NOT WANT TO READ THAT?
In discussing the issue with Sarah and Lauren on twitter (where Sarah is @UndercoverOwl and Lauren is @deadlyknitshade) I suggested 'YA comic' instead, and I think it works as an alternative, although if anyone has any better suggestions I'd be really interested to hear them. You lose that potency of the term "Girls' Comic" as a hook, but you know what? Maybe it points the way towards one that's even better. "It's like a Girls' Comic, but for boys too."...now that is starting to sound interesting. Something that, just like the Phoenix, is aimed at all children. The point of distinction - the thing that makes This Idea not The Phoenix - isn't one of gender but of age to some extent - pitching maybe just a couple of years older (with the understanding that all kids are different, and read at different ages, and that I know plenty of 30somethings and older who adore their weekly fiery avian comics fix) - and of approach. Can't we dream of having more than one awesome comic? Isn't there room for the Phoenix to get a cool older sister?

 
 Murder She Writes, (c) 2012 by John Allison. On another sidenote, this comic is insanely brilliant and you should all go and buy it immediately.

Anyway, I think there's the seed of something potentially really exciting there. UK YA Comics. Girls' Comics, For Boys. Awesome Comics, for Everyone. I feel like this puts the idea on much more solid ground, and I'd be really interested to hear what others make of it. As I mentioned yesterday, this is not a thing I am proposing to take on myself any time soon, for all the aforementioned reasons of workload and happiness where I am, but I'm making notes and taking names and I look forward to having a lot of very interesting discussions about it all when the time comes.

And lastly: you know what's been brilliant? Both Lauren and Sarah kind of calling me out, but doing so so eloquently, so passionately, and so politely - and in a way that focussed on the strengths of the approach taken by the Phoenix and indeed by Pirates of Pangaea. It's a confusing thing to have one's own work kind of thrown in one's face as an example of A Better Way of Doing Things. Confusing, but rather wonderful.

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As before, I'm really interested to hear from comics readers and creators who might be interested in the kind of thing I'm talking about here. The discussion is ongoing on twitter on the #awesomenewcomic hashtag, or please feel free to drop me a line privately at neill@neillcameron.com, or indeed add your comments to the discussion on yesterday's blog post.


And seriously: subscribe to the Phoenix. You know how great the Phoenix is? The Phoenix is so great that it had, in an early issue, a story by Adam Murphy about a princess who was wearing pink and it was THE BEST THING YOU GUYS. Seriously, it was funny, and clever, and brilliant. Go subscribe.

5 comments:

  1. Whizzer and Chips
    Jocks and Geordies
    Boys and Girls
    Them and Us

    Posted this on Twitter, earlier, soz, but:

    Why can't the "Boys" Comic and the "Girls" Comic be the Same Comic? That way, the Beryls can have their MudMan and the JDs can have their Misty. Letting the reader decide for themselves, without all that genderboxing

    Artists and characters could be "captured" or "defect" from one side to the other. There could even be a chaste unspoken Bogie and Bacall-style antagocrush between the leads (frowned upon by their comrades, natch). Flip covers, rotations, whatever.

    "Them and Us." A comic for us...so get it before they do.

    (Cheers for the link to the TFS piece: puts it brilliantly)

    //\Oo/\\

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  2. More top sensible-brain things here. (Also: I know that awesome comics reader! Tis a small world indeed.)

    I do acutely see the issue with segregation-land. I'm one of the team behind the Girls Heart Books website, which is a daily blog from authors of generally fairly commercial 'books for girls' 8-14 - the sort that quite often have covers festooned in sparkles that make many of us feel a bit queasy and keen to write a letter to our MP. For me (can't speak for the other authors, lots of whom might very well disagree) that site is trying to counteract some of that queasy feeling by celebrating the quality of the content, and the diversity within what gets lumped together as 'girls' books', as well as giving girls who read (whatever they read) a sense of belonging to a legitimate community. But I do worry that by trying to champion something specific, we're perpetuating those insidious divisions. Declaring 'it's a thing made for us, yay!' is so important, but it's impossible to say without it also saying 'it's not for you'.

    What we're really talking about here, it seems to me, is 'stories about girls' as much as we are an assumed reader. We need stories about girls to be perceived as for both boys and girls, because stories about girls are awesome.

    Thank you for the links, and hooray for calm intelligent debate about such potential-for-stupid stuff. 'UKYA Comics' sounds brilliant to me.

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  3. Yes! Thank you Neill. I wasn't part of the debate yesterday, but I read Lauren's blog post and it left me really confounded... I *wanted* to agree about the not-labelling, but there was something holding me back in my mind saying "No, I REALLY MEANT Girls' Comics when I replied to Neill's post yesterday. I really want more GIRLS'COMICS." There was a something I got from Bunty and Mandy et al that I just didn't get from the funny comics I loved, like Buster and Beano and Oink, and that's what doesn't seem to be out there anymore. You've got to the heart of what I realised when I had a long, hard think about how to square that particular circle - it's the *values* of girls' comics. Drama. Nail-biting cliff-hangers. Emotions and relations. Tension and excitement. And no shyness about female protagonists. Something a bit beefier, a bit deeper, that requires more committment for a cathartic payoff weeks down the line. Yes, like the serialised strips in the Phoenix and the DFC. Absolutely like that. But in my ideal little fantasy world, something that can keep girls reading comics for longer. There's lots of fuss about hooking in reluctant young male readers with comics, but what about the older girls, who think they've grown out of comics as soon as they reach year 7? I'd like to see something that can keep them on board. But not necessarily labelled as such;)

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  4. I have nominated your blog for a Liebster Award. See www.thespyandthestoryteller.wordpress.com! Please answer the 5 questions at the bottom of the post and nominate your fave 5 blogs. Or something.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I first read a Bunty at the age of about 13 or 14 - when I was already well into my still-ongoing 200AD addiction - because a well-intentioned relative heard I was into comics and handed over her old Bunty annuals, which were older than me. I really regretted the attitude I had had to it when I was younger. You are right, some of the stories in it were excellent, and the art was great. I can still recall the details of a couple of the stories now, especially one about an oak tree that was bound in spirit to a girl/woman and a girl whose parents worked on Lifeboats and used to help them...

    Anyway, I digress. The content of Bunty (and presumably the others) might have been fabulous, but I would never have got to read it at the target age because it was labelled "for girls". As a reasonably intelligent female, I had worked out by the age of about 3 that anything labelled "for girls" was going to be rubbish - less interesting and pinkified versions of "normal" stuff. Given that this is still the case with everything from razors to DIY tools, I honestly think that labelling anything "for girls" is going to alienate a fair proportion of the market you are aiming at (intelligent young females) straight away, because that sort of girl works out VERY young that "for girls" means lower quality. It might not have done in the case of Bunty, but it does in pretty much everything else.

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