[Oh man, second to last page!!!!!11 Anyway, a couple of things. One, I did a (hopefully amusing) post on being a Homeschooled Feral Child for the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog. I am proud to be published on a blog for something my parents have actually heard of! Two, I did a rather in-depth interview with Wired's Geek Dad blog, and specifically went into my reasoning for why some of the Friends With Boys plotlines aren't tied up in a neat little bow. If that's something you're interested in find out more about, read away!
And onward! Today we have a wonderful guest blog post by super-librarian Robin Brenner. Robin is the founder of No Flying, No Tights, a graphic novel review site that also seeks to educate non-comic readers about the art form. When I was first starting out reading comics and looking for recommendations, No Flying No Tights was one of the helpful sites that pointed me towards my kind of comics. I'm really thrilled to have Robin contributing to the blog, and I loved what she had to say about kids and comics, girls and comics, and the future of comics, which I agree is bright indeed. So please Read More to find out what Robin has to say! /Faith out.]
In the comics world, especially of late, there have been a lot of conversations (and arguments, and unfortunately vicious commenting) concerning female readers of comics, female characters in comics, and female creators. From using humor to critique the ridiculousness of the only roles women seem to fill in media (thanks to Kate Beaton and her webcomics cohorts) to questioning the lack of female characters, let alone protagonists, in animated films (thanks to novelist & comics author Shannon Hale, who has made highlighting this gap a mission of sorts), there’s a lot to get you down about girls connections to and exclusions from the world of comics, cartoons, and animation. These conversations are necessary and important, but I decided with this guest post to look at the things that will give hope rather than frustrate.
When you live in a world of blog posts, twitter discussions, and pop culture critique like I do (as a professional teen and comics librarian, it’s definitely part of my job), it’s easy to get mired in all of the down sides. You develop tunnel vision, seeing only the walls and glass ceilings and bouncing off the more irritating boundaries. This is especially true when positive steps seem to be able to be counted on one hand. Comics can be diverse and vibrant and inspiring, but they also get hemmed in by lingering prejudices, conscious and unconscious biases, and hurtful heckling by a few rotten apples.
Thus, I wanted to focus on the items that brighten my day-to-day comics life and remind me why girls and women are as important to the evolution of comics as any other group. I want to look at why our young readers can give us hope that change is coming, however slowly.
If you consider the general flow of comics discussion, the majority of those tweeting, blogging, and commentating on comics have been adults who have been fans for at least a decade. It helps to remember that while fans come from all age ranges, the young fans are the ones who are going to change what comics we read, how comics are created, and expand our definitions of what comics are.
I talk to teenagers every day in my library. Here, I’m happy to report, we have a relatively giant comics section tailored for their needs. These teens have not been raised with superhero comics. These are kids who started with Calvin and Hobbes and the Bone series and moved on to a steady diet of Japanese manga and stand-alone titles. Many have encountered superheroes, but through television and films. It was only later that they realized there were ongoing comics series to explore. (For example, I just had one eighth grader tell me he snapped up our battered old collection of Static Shock because he’d loved the TV show.) Most of these teens don’t find their comics in comics stores, but on bookstore and library shelves. They read them for hours, ensconced in comfy chairs. Their favorites are book-books, not 32-page comic books, and many are published by book publishers like First Second (who is releasing Friends with Boys on February 28th). This has led to a major shift toward even more book publishers getting into the medium. To teens, comics have always arrived as hardcovers and paperbacks. Even more of them follow webcomics online; newspaper funnies barely register. Their touchstones for animation are not Disney, but Hayao Miyazaki’s steady stream of animated adventures (notable as well for featuring far more girl protagonists than US animation companies) and the constantly referenced and beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
To these readers, comics are not a niche medium, or a juvenile indulgence to be outgrown. This is the generation that has honed its visual literacy with comics, video games, television, films, and the internet, and the way they read is vastly different than previous generations that limited reading that “counted” to prose. To today’s teens, comics are just another way to get stories and they are not going to give up the medium as they grow up. Their tastes may change, and they may go through phases of interest, but their love of the format isn’t waning.
These girls and guys also don’t put books down because the a lead character isn’t a mirror. These are the teens of both genders that devoured The Hunger Games without caring one whit that the lead character is a girl or that there’s a romantic triangle in the mix. What they care about is an engaging story, and the stereotype that girls will read about both guys and girls while guys will only read about guys just isn’t true (if it ever was.)
The argument that comics are a man’s medium and that’s it’s okay for the medium to stay that way just doesn’t compute — since when have comics only been for guys? Both guys and girls camp out in the graphic novel section and read. They count women in their list of favorite creators including Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Shannon Hale (Rapunzel’s Revenge), Svetlana Chmakova (Nightschool), Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist), Bisco Hatori (Ouran High School Host Club), and Yana Toboso (Black Butler). They do, however, want more books like the ones they enjoy and that’s when they feel stumped by what’s available — for them it’s not a truth inherent to the industry that women aren’t as visible as either characters or creators, but a challenge they want to take on.
Just wait until these teens start taking up the creative reins themselves. So many of them are becoming creators. With the rise of social art sites like deviantart and tumblr alongside the visibility and accessibility of professional comics creators, more and more young fans are putting pen to paper. The distance between being a reader and a creator is dwindling fast. Guides like Adventures in Cartooning and Drawing Words and Writing Pictures show young readers the nuts and bolts of comics creation, and off they go. What they create has been influenced by everything they’ve read, and I cannot wait to see the professional work I know they will someday launch.
So, while those of us can feel bitter and defensive about the state of comics by and for women and girls, the good news is that change will come, and these teens are raring to go.
[Robin Brenner is a Reference/Teen Librarian at the Brookline (MA) Public Library. She was the Chair of the ALA/YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee in 2008, was a judge for the 2007 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, and has covered graphic novels, manga and anime for Library Journal, School Library Journal, VOYA, and GraphicNovelReporter.com. Robin gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime all across the country. Her guide Understanding Manga and Anime was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award. She is the editor-in-chief of No Flying No Tights, a graphic novel review site. Brenner is a contributor to EarlyWord.com and for the group blog Good Comics for Kids hosted at School Library Journal.]