Interview with Alexa of Ladies Making Comics

Ladies Making Great Comics

Ladies in the Big Two, small press, and at the box office–and how to get more.

Megan Purdy

Ladies Making Comics covers the latest and greatest of female comics creators and their works. It’s run by Alexa, who is a tireless promoter of female creators. We talked about the genesis of the blog, the importance of spotlighting female creators, and you know, the future of the industry. Also porn.

How did Ladies Making Comics come to be? How did you transition from consuming comics and being an active fan of them, to trying to educate other fans about women working in comics?

Ladies Making Comics came about almost by accident.  When all of my fandom-friends were starting Tumblrs about their favorite superheroes and comics, I thought “hey, that sounds like fun!” But by the time I got around to starting one, it seemed a little redundant to start yet another superhero-themed Tumblr.  So I cast my mind about for other things I was digging about comics those days, and it struck me that many of my favorite creators were women!  (Also, Marvel’s Girl Comics had just come out the summer before, and seeing so many diverse talents all in one series probably had something to do with cementing that fact in my mind).  And thus I had my theme!

I’ve always been pretty cognizant of the women working in comics– their names always seemed to stick out among the credits!  Aside from their relative rarity in the medium, there were two really potent, personal reasons for that.  First, I was about 16 when I started reading comic books and an avid YA prose reader– a field dominated by women.  Most of the books I read were by women and, possibly due to the self-absorbed nature of adolescence, I felt like books by women were more “mine” than those by men (though I later found out one of my favorite female-named YA novelists of that time was a man writing under a pseudonym!  Whoops!)  Secondly, my first comic shop was, well, a real “Android’s Dungeon”.  I never saw any other women or girls there for the longest time when I first started shopping there.  The atmosphere was also pretty off-putting– it was in the garage half of an old mechanic’s shop, and the front had been turned into storage so you had to go down a long corridor to actually get to the comics– I used to half-joke to my friends that it felt like a “rape factory.” (Later, I got to know the guys that worked there and even worked there myself one summer so I have very warm feelings about it now, but it was a pretty rough start to my comics-reading career.)  So I think I was drawn to the women creators, as well as the female characters, as a kind of lifeline to my comfort zone– a Paradise Island in my mind, if you will! Later, the first professional comics creators I ever met were Becky Cloonan and Christine Norrie, which also made an impression on me.

This had all been underpinning my evolution as a comics fan, so by the time I’d registered the name “ladiesmakingcomics” on Tumblr, I realized that I actually had a lot to say on the topic!

Ladies Making Comics has a Wikia and an Amazon store. I think it’s safe to say that you’ve gone above and beyond to translate fannishness into sales for creators you admire. Why did you choose to focus so much on the creation and business of comics, rather than just blog about comics you love?

Deep down, I’m really just another aspiring comics writer.  While this has never been externalized outside of a few scripts I’m not particularly proud of, it has given me a sense of kinship with creators.  I’m also a member of Boston Comics Roundtable, a group of local creators who get together to talk shop, find collaborators, publish anthologies, and put on indie comics events.  I started going in college to meet artists on the off-chance I ever wrote anything I thought was decent enough to publish, but it also gave me a lot of insight into the comics making process and respect for those who do it.  A big reason why I started to push for actual sales for creators is because I know so many talented people who work one or two other jobs and try to fit comics in on the edges and that breaks my heart.  Also, there’s the whole “voting with your dollars” thing– I didn’t want to just put my money where my mouth is, I wanted to put everyone else’s money where my mouth is! Plus, the few bucks a month I get from affiliate link sales pays for the domain name and the weekly featured post– everybody wins!

You cover more small press comics, than you do comics by the Big Two. Is this simply a consequence of fewer women working at Marvel and DC? Or is there something more going on here? Does small press offer more opportunities to do different kinds of stories about women?

On one level it is just a consequence of fewer women working at the Big Two certainly, though back when I started the blog–before the New 52 and before Marvel streamlined their output to focus mostly on their movie characters– there tended to be more women popping up on minis and one-shots.  I came to know Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jen van Meter, Marjorie Liu, and Kathryn Immonen’s work largely because of the one-shots and minis they did.  And of course there was Gail Simone and Nicola Scott doing their thing with Birds of Prey and Secret Six.  Plus DC was still putting a lot of faith into Vertigo, where I first encountered the likes of G. Willow Wilson, Amy Reeder, and Pia Guerra.

When Marvel first announced they were cutting back on “extraneous books” (like the Nick Spencer/Becky Cloonan Victor Von Doom mini they cancelled the week before it was supposed to come out) I was immediately filled with dread because there was a huge overlap between “extraneous books” and “books with female talent on them”.  Likewise when DC announced the New 52 and every woman but Gail Simone and the editors disappeared for a while (and even some of the editors got lost in the shuffle), it was a huge step back for female creators in general at the Big Two, all within about a six-month stretch.  There’s been some progress since then, of course.  At DC, Nicola Scott came back on Earth-2, fill-ins and replacements by Adriana Melo, Alitha Martinez, and Ann Nocenti, and Amanda Conner on Silk Spectre.  Marvel kept Marjorie Liu on as the X-23 and now Astonishing X-Men, Sara Pichelli on Ultimate Spider-Man, Emma Rios on various Spider-books and the upcoming Dr. Strange: Season One, and of course Kelly Sue DeConnick’s amazing Captain Marvel debut (which actually had me tearing up by the end!)  However, we also saw Amy Reeder getting booted prematurely from Batwoman, Vertigo has become almost a non-entity, and remarkable creators like G. Willow Wilson have no comics projects on the horizon (everyone read her new novel Alif the Unseen!)

However, the small press revival that’s been the talk of comics blogs for months now has greatly benefited women creators.  Because yes, women have had more of a place in small press for some time.  In addition, the feminist comics blogosphere–which not only includes women-focused blogs, but also major sites like ComicsAlliance (under Laura Hudson) and The Beat (under Heidi MacDonald)– as well as major projects like Womanthology, female creators are almost becoming “fashionable”.  And of course the gender balance is much better in webcomics– which has benefited all of its creators, but women especially.  And absolutely the diversity of story and subject matter in both small press and webcomics has a lot to do with their success.  Who could have predicted that a comic of history and literature jokes, a fat pony, and mystery-solving teens would be one of the most popular comics of its time?  Webcomics allowed Kate Beaton to bypass the market forces that would have almost certainly prevented her work from reaching its audience. Of course, the growing diversity of voices in comics has almost rendered the “women in comics” conversation moot!  But there’s always room for a little camaraderie and sisterhood, which is why I tend to focus on just bringing attention to works by women and not taking an “activist” stance too much on my blog.  If the Big Two don’t want to hire more women, that’s their business–as stupid a business decision I might think it is in the long run, women creators are having their voices heard elsewhere.  The only thing that really bothers me about the lack of women at the Big Two is that means fewer women creators actually making a living at comics.  Marvel and DC aren’t the only way for creators to make a living, of course, but they’re certainly a major source of revenue.

You also run Ladies Making ComiXXX, a blog about erotic comics by women. (I love the variety of content you feature there, by the way). You’ve said that what you’re looking for there, are porn comics with a “woman’s touch,” or, I suppose, the female gaze. What’s different/special about porn written and drawn by women?

At its core, I think it’s less hindered by the tropes and baggage of male-created porn, which comes largely from porn films.  I get the sense that when men decide to make a porn comic, they make a comics version of porn flicks.  When women decide to make a porn comic, they make a comic about sex, which is a lot more varied and interesting.  Men do make comics about sex too, but there’s more of a division between men’s “porn comics” and men’s “sex comics”; such a division is practically non-existent in women’s comics.  There’s also more fluidity across the sexual and gender spectrum. Straight women will make lesbian porn and gay porn as easily as straight porn,  whereas men tend to stick to their own orientation (with a smattering of “girl-on-girl” from straight males, which serves the straight male gaze and is distinct from lesbian porn).  That’s not even getting into the queer women making porn– it’s a veritable smorgasbord of sex!

Market Monday is a feature where you plug some of the latest releases by women. You cover an impressive variety of material. Does that reflect your personal reading tastes? Is it part of your blog ethos–to educate fans about material they might not have encountered?

Market Monday covers everything on the Diamond Distributors shipping list each week that I can ascertain has female talent on it, and it actually probably influences my reading more than reflects it!  It educates me as much as it does my readers!  I especially try to use the “Promote” feature on Tumblr (where for $2 Tumblr will make a post bigger and point a giant red arrow at it on my followers’ dashboards) to bring attention to one creator-owned graphic novel a week (though I did use it recently to promote Captain Marvel instead).  There have been a number of times where I’ve discovered a comic that I had never heard of otherwise and picked it up due to Market Monday (for example, Knightingail with art by Tina Francisco).  I do try to make discoveries and pass them on to my readers–and usually that means finding stuff I like, so there can a bias towards my own personal tastes–but most discoveries I make tend to come more from Artist’s Alleys and small press conventions (for example, Houdini & Holmes by Polly Guo, and Azteca by Enrica Jang and Jhazmine Ruiz– two of my favorite convention discoveries)

Corollary–who are some of your favourite creators? Both all-time and currently working? What makes you really connect with a writer or artist’s work?

Oh boy, you don’t know what you just got yourself into!  I have pretty eclectic tastes art-wise; as long as everyone’s proportional I’m satisfied– other than that it’s a lot harder to describe what connects with me, besides just art I find beautiful in one way or another.  It also helps if the art complements the tone of the story as well.  Writing-wise, my English major roots start to show and I get turned on by things like allusions and foreshadowing and whatnot, but the characters almost always are the core of it for me.  One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules of writing was that every character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water, and I find that to be pretty true– when I’m not enjoying a story, I can stop and think “What does Character A want? Character B?” etc, and usually I find that I don’t know the answer and I can stop reading without feeling bad.

So, with that in mind, here is a limited list of the creators (men and women) I connect to:

Writers: Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, G. Willow Wilson, Jen Van Meter, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, Garth Ennis, Ed Brubaker, and Warren Ellis

Artists: Colleen Doran, Jill Thompson, Amanda Conner, Amy Reeder, Emma Rios, Ming Doyle, Lily Renée (a Golden Age artist and classy lady to this day!), Steranko, David Mack, Cliff Chiang, Francis Manapul, and Wally Wood

Cartoonists: Kate Beaton, Shary Flenniken, Carla Speed McNeil, Linda Medley, Pat Moodian, Trina Robbins, Tove Jansson, Lise Myhre, Craig Thompson, Charles Schulz, and George Herriman

One of the reasons there are so few female-headlined comics at the big two, and no female superheroes in the multiplex, is that these projects “don’t sell”. As someone who pays a lot of attention to female-lead projects, and projects about girls and women, what’s your take on the saleability of women as the creators and subjects of comics?

It’s bullshit that female creators and/or female protagonists don’t sell, and you can see that by looking at novels like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and even Twilight and Fifty Shades (we’re talking about sales, of course), as well as the success of the few films (like Bridesmaids) that don’t reduce women to their romantic interests.  Not to mention the Resident Evil franchise, which is on its fifth film with two female protagonists and has made $675 million worldwide.  You’ve just got to have faith in the projects on their own merits and get the right people to put on the job– I joked on my blog a few weeks ago how Warner Brothers passed on Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman because it was too mythological and took place in WWII, while Marvel made Thor, Captain America, and hired Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers– the total worldwide gross of all of those movies is $2.3 billion.  If the Catwoman movie had borne even the slightest resemblance to Ed Brubaker’s comics, that movie would have been much better and probably more successful.  But studios just trip themselves up over projects just because they have female leads.  The comics industry has the added hurdle of a much tinier market that the publishers are much less willing to take risks on, but you look at the comics that have had great mainstream success, you find Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

I also think that companies should take more advantage of the fact that some characters (like Batman and Spider-Man) will simply always sell, and that should be a proving ground for more new creators and characters.  Batwoman got her own book because Greg Rucka really championed her and DC ran her first arc in Detective Comics.  Steve Wacker and Kelly Sue DeConnick are really pushing for Captain Marvel’s success and debuted her in Avenging Spider-Man the week before her solo series started.  These were both excellent publishing decisions, and should be the rule rather than the exception.

What’s next for Ladies Making Comics? Do you have any projects in the works, or expansions planned? 

It seems like every time I start thinking about that in depth, I end up writing a business plan for a hypothetical multimedia conglomerate!  But I have been working on getting a Zazzle store up and running, starting with public domain Golden Age art by the likes of Lily Renée, Valerie Barclay, Alberta Tewks, and Janice Valleau, and any classic underground cartoonists that I can get a hold of who will give me permission (so far, I’ve got Trina Robbins’s OK!)  There’s a lot of Photoshop clean-up involved there, so it’s moving much slower than I’d like, but them’s the breaks.  I’m also organizing a workshop for a Girl Scout event in Boston in January, which will have a little history, a little theory, and a little creation (with a little help from some artist friends).

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.