A few years ago, Jean Kang responded to a tweet looking for women willing to collaborate on a comics anthology. The Culver City-based artist had been making comics on her own time, in addition to her day job in animation, and was seeking a new challenge. She submitted without expectations and her work was accepted for "Womanthology: Heroic." Before it was even released, the book, which features over 150 female writers and artists, became an independent comic sensation. Today, Kang continues to work the group's table in the artist alley at San Diego Comic-Con.
"Womanthology" counters any wrong-headed belief that comics is a game for the boys. Inside the anthology, there are stories of heroism and fantastic adventures, but those ideas are conveyed in many different ways. "We have all these things, but we're telling it from our point of view. We're showing it in a way that we like," says Kang. Since the book's release, Kang has moved on to other projects, both in comics and animation, but she remains immensely proud of her work. "Womanthology" is something special.
In 2011, "Womanthology: Heroic" turned up on Kickstarter with a goal of $25,000 to cover production costs for a massive comic book that would, ultimately, earn proceeds for charities. They earned the support of industry stars, like Steve Niles and Neil Gaiman, who donated rewards to the campaign, and raised over $100,000. Some of the best known women in comics, like Gail Simone ("Birds of Prey") and Fiona Staples ("Saga"), committed to working on the book. Since then, the artists and writers behind "Womanthology" have made the rounds on the comic book convention circuit. They have spoke on panels and set up tables to sell and sign their work. They also released a follow-up, "Womanthology: Space." In late 2013, they announced that sales have raised $50,000 to benefit various global charities.
Recently, at at Comic-Con, Brianne Drouhard, who contributed a pin-up illustration to "Womanthology: Space," was at the table. She too is based in Los Angeles and, like Kang, works in animation. Drouhard doesn't consider herself a professional comic book artist. However, she did create her own comic, "Harpy Gee" -- a play on RPG, short for role-playing game -- about the adventures of a young, female elf. The comic is based on an old pitch for a cartoon series and normally runs on the website Dumm, but she had hard copies for sale at the booth. Also at the booth is her fan art depicting various DC characters who are princesses. "I don't sell fan art online and I don't sell a lot of fan art at conventions," she says. However, Drouhard mentions, she brought it to a convention in Seattle, where it was an in-demand item. "I had so many parents and girls coming by just to buy that because the DC booth didn't have any."
It's a telling statement about women, girls and comics. Female characters exist, just like female comic book creators exist, and they've been a part of comics for a long time. So often, though, the contributions of women are ignored. Walk through the artist alley of any convention and you'll see a lot of women selling their works at tables. At some events -- like that cater to fans of Japanese cartoons and comics, known as anime and manga -- the artist alley is overwhelmingly female. Some self-publish in print. Others work online. Some have deals with independent publishers. You'll even see artists who have worked for the biggest companies in the game. However, when you get to the more mainstream comics, you might notice fewer women. Frequently, this is also where you'll see the least amount of diversity of characters. Kang mentions "the big two," which are DC and Marvel. "It is a male fantasy that we see in major comics that are now being turned into movies and TV shows," says Kang. "When people think of comics, they think of big, buff superheroes, scantily clad ladies, aliens, monsters and things like that."
There's a feminist movement emerging in the comic book world and its importance cannot be understated. "Womanthology" is part of that. The books' popularity stems from more than just the big names who contributed it. In 2011, and even today, the comic book world needed a voluminous space for female creators. It's not just about women in the industry, as those who I interviewed frequently noted. Readers and creators alike are calling out for more diverse characters across the spectrum of the medium-- more LGBT representation, more people of color. "What would it mean if this art form suddenly started to clean up its act and cater to everyone? What stories could be told? Who might we affect? What changes might be wrought?" says Tess Fowler, creator of the webcomic "The Rascals." "This isn't just funny books anymore. This is revolution."
This revolution goes far beyond what appears on the pages of comic books. Recently, the harassment, including sexual harassment, of women in the comic book scene has become a hot topic. After talking to a handful of insiders, the general consensus is that there may not necessarily be more instances of harassment so much as there are more women willing to talk about their experiences publicly. MariNaomi, who wrote and illustrated the autobiographical comic "Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22," was on a convention panel when a fellow comics creator made inappropriate comments about her. She documented the incident for XOJane. "And then of course, talking about it got me harassed even more," she says in an email. (For the record, the accused, who was given an alias in MariNaomi's article, did come forward and apologize.)
Online personal stories can bring out armies of trolls. Undoubtedly, this is a problem that reaches far wider than the comic book world. Yet, it is ironic that such misogyny would occur so frequently within a community that prides itself on being outside of mainstream culture. There is a call for those with the biggest platforms to stand up and address the situation.
"People in positions of visibility and power need to set the tone for the community, both online and in real life," responds Casey Gilly, a staff writer for Comic Book Resources. "Don't accept harassing language on message boards. If someone is harassing people in a community you moderate, show zero tolerance. When you see harassment online, report it. Report it again. Report it until it stops. Advocate for people who are being harassed. Listen to them, respect them and ask them what they need -- be part of the solution. "
Are there solutions for increasing diversity in the comics world? Certainly, "Womanthology" is part of that. Independent and alternative-minded comic book publishers have long featured stories with diverse casts made by both female and male creators. Gilly points to Image Comics as a supplier of "incredible titles with authentic diversity." Manga and anime feature a wealth of stories involving well-rounded female character. Many titles -- "Sailor Moon," "Ranma 1/2" and "Revolutionary Girl Utena" amongst them -- have become highly influential amongst audiences in the U.S.
Shing Yin Khor, whose credits include the historical fiction comic "Marie and Jeanne" and the sci-fi series "Center for Otherworld Science," points to the social network Tumblr as a center of activity for emerging comics artists. "There is this insanely talented group of young people that were raised on the internet, exposed to more progressive thought, whose major cultural touchstones are manga and anime and fanfiction," she says in an email. "It's kind of wonderful to see these people develop their storytelling chops - telling woman friendly stories for them is so natural and simple and so baked into their blood, rather than coming from that point of desperation that I felt when I first started writing - like I had to tell my stories, because no one else would."