She Makes Comics (2014, 70:46)
Director: Marisa Stotter
Director Of Photography, Jordan Rennert
Creative Consultant, Karen Green, in association with Respect! Films
She Makes Comics, a documentary telling the story of women in comics, in both the mainstream industry as well as via independent publishers, is a film that I’ve been interested in seeing ever since I heard about the efforts of the production team to raise capital via a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, back in March. Director Marisa Stotter has put together an incredibly positive documentary which doesn’t just beat the drum to encourage more women to make comics, it proudly exclaims that women have been an integral part of the medium since the very beginning.
After a very brief montage introduction, we launch straight into the narrative, rattling through overviews of such pioneers as Nell Brinkley, the creator of the Brinkley Girl and known nationally as the ‘Queen Of Comics’; Jackie Ormes (the African-American creator of characters such as Torchy Brown, Candy, Patty-Jo, and Ginger, who became an established force in comic strips in the 30’s and 40’s, a remarkable boast not only for her gender but also for her race, at that time); Ramona Fredon, artist for DC Comics during the 50’s and 60’s, known for her work on Aquaman and Metamorpho; and Marie Severin – weaving the micro-biographies of these incredible women woven through the history of comics from the turn of the century comic strips, to the attack on comics during the age of the Comics Code, to the rise of individualism and women’s liberation in America of the 1970’s, to the stratospheric boom of comics and graphic novels in the 1980’s and 90’s.
If I have any gripes about this polished and incredibly well-produced documentary, I would say that the edit of the piece is at a breakneck speed: at 70 minutes, the pace of the film is very deliberate and is always consciously thinking of the viewing audience. “We’d always wanted to keep the film around 80 minutes”, says Stomer, “but we found through the editing process that we could make the narrative more efficient, even, than that. When doing a film like this that surveys a large span of history, there’s a concern about dragging on for too long.”
This pacing actually gives the piece a sense that every person you see contributing on screen, that everyone’s contribution is there for a reason, that the topic of women in comics doesn’t deserve dwelling on filler or distraction. You come away from the documentary feeling that you have been in the company of incredibly talented and informed people that not only know and embrace the long history of women in comics but are also enthusiastic and excited about what the voice of women can continue to provide to the art form.
A couple of highlights for me are the examination of cosplayers in con culture, something which has been a touchstone for controversy in recent years and is handled in a very positive note here; the ‘Friends Of Lulu’ movement of the 1990’s, spearheaded by The Beat journalist Heidi MacDonald (somebody who shows up several times in the documentary as both interviewee and subject, obviously filmed in different locations, which is just a little distracting – you keep wondering if Heidi has multiple personalties!); the change in comic retail to provide a safe environment for both woman and men (something that is long overdue, even for us blokes! We want comics shops that don’t smell of Doritos and stale sweat, too, ladies!), and the touching on – briefly – of G. Willow Wilson, the writer of the groundbreaking run of Ms. Marvel, whose current incarnation is a teenage Muslim girl which is, by any stretch of the imagination, a quantum leap in cultural perception in comics.
It’s also great to see a look into the biographies of personal heroes Jenette Khan, legendary former DC publisher, and Karen Berger, DC editor (and principle player in the ‘British Invasion’ of American comics by a raft of UK creative talent, back in the mid-80’s), and their deep, literary contribution to the contemporary comic book. “If you made a list today of the top dozen important comic book writers of the last ten or fifteen years, Karen probably developed ninety percent of them – that’s outrageous!”, says former DC Comics president, Paul Levitz. This is a list that includes Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman and many more so, hell yeah, amen to that.
Stotter has drawn together pretty much every major female player in comics from across the decades – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Gail Simone, Becky Cloonan, Lea Hernandez, Amy Chu, Hope Larson, Wendy Peni, Shelly Bond, Amy Dallen… the list goes on and on! – all of which happen to be very educated of the history of women in comics. There are one or two omissions to the interview roster but, believe me, they are very few and far between. “We were very fortunate in that most of the people we contacted were interested in speaking with us, ” says Stotter, “but there are a few that ‘got away’. We were unable to speak with Fiona Staples, who is understandably very busy. I also would’ve loved to have interviewed Alison Bechdel, who is a personal hero.”
What I find interesting about the documentary, and maybe just a little frustrating, is, while adequately tackling the uphill struggle of breaking into the ‘boys club’ of comics, it doesn’t come out and fully address the out-right abuse and harassment that woman have had to face from both behind closed doors but also directly to their faces on almost a daily basis: in industry boardrooms, in art studios, at comic book shops and at comic conventions. I asked Stomer, was this a deliberate choice of approach? Marisa Stotter: “She Makes Comics was always meant to celebrate women’s contributions to comics, and to that end I felt that it was important to address the issues of harassment in the industry but not dwell on them. They are extremely important issues that warrant a great deal of discussion, but I did not want such discussion to derail the film’s main point: that women have always been a part of the comics world. We did speak with some of the women (and men) at the forefront of […] change, including The Mary Sue‘s editor-in-chief Jill Pantozzi. It’s so great that conventions are adopting new policies aimed at protecting cosplayers and attendees, and we did try to convey that things are changing for the better — and so quickly that it’s hard to keep up!”
I wouldn’t say that the film is the definitive story of women in comics – a longer running time would’ve been more appreciated, allowing the documentary time to breathe and expand on topics that are flashed through. One quote that could accurately sum up the tone of the documentary comes from comics journalist, Jenna Busch: “I remember, when I started going to Comic-Cons, there was no line for the ladies room… and now there is! The only drawback to women being in the geek world!” She Makes Comics deliberately shies away from a confrontational stance that a more aggressive feminist clarion call may have made and, instead of attacking an establishment for keeping women out, takes a step back and says that the door is already ajar: it just takes those with talent, determination and drive to have the confidence to walk through it. ‘Get more women in comics’? As this affirming and positive documentary reminds us, they’ve always been the lifeblood of comics, from the very beginning. And there’s many more women on the way, gods willing.
SHE MAKES COMICS is available today on digital download at sequart.com and is also available to purchase as a DVD, which, if you get your order in now, should arrive just in time for Christmas: an ideal present for the comics lover – of either gender – in your life. Head here to get your copy today: http://sequart.org/movies/6/she-makes-comics/