Girls, Comics, and ComicBookGrrrls
With one foot in blogland and one in professional byline journalism Laura Sneddon is blazing her way to where to action is.
If, like me, you’ve followed her interviews with Stan Lee, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison in the Independent’s Arts & Entertainment section you might be impressed by her determination to bring comics to the general public; if you’ve been into her branch of that certain book-selling chain you may be impressed by her determination to bring comics to the general public. If you live outside our little British Island, maybe you know her from ComicBookGrrrl or her Comic Studies articles at Comic Book Resources. You might be familiar with her fuckyeahfrankquitely Tumblr.
I sent her some questions, and she took the bus-riding time to Glasgow Comic Con to answer’em.
Your newspaper work has mostly been interviewing the very famousest of famous comics creators; Moore, Lee, Morrison. Are there any creators with lower profiles you’re raring to get a word with? Which female creators, living or dead, would you most love to introduce to the Sunday Newspaper Review audience?
Comics are still very much on the fringe as far as most mainstream press outlets are concerned and it’s quite difficult to get interviews with even the most famous comic creators out there. I’ve had to do a lot of legwork to convince publishers that these people are as successful as they are, because they’re not as visible in these circles as the latest bestselling novelist, or Booker Prize winner. The average person on the street has heard of Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling but not many names from comics – unless you include the movie stars that play the characters!
I’d love to interview some of the creators that I think really deserve to have more people know about their work, from more indie creators like Karrie Fransman and Kate Brown to really quite big comic names like Warren Ellis and Frank Quitely. I’d love to see a magazine like SciFi Now or SFX really champion comics with a regular interview slot and recommended titles. Particularly as “graphic novels”, ie the more literary comics that often now come out from book publishers alongside the trade paperbacks from comics publishers, are showing really strong sales in book shops across the UK.
I think those genre magazines in particular are great as they appeal to the more niche market that is already interested in comics, as well as those that are into sci-fi, fantasy and horror shows like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Supernatural and the big superhero films. Those kind of interests are becoming more and more mainstream and comics can do the same. Comic creators are definitely worthy of more column space!
How did you come to be in a position of talking with these ultra-level creators? Who hooked you up; what led to you being the person to get the interview? How much grind do newbies need to expect to put in before they can be on your level, racing you for interviews and coverage?
It’s a horrible answer I know, but I actually kind of fell into it. I work (now part-time only) in a bookshop in the UK, and I saw that last year there was an upcoming title that was relevant to my interests: Supergods by Grant Morrison. As a bookseller you can often request advance copies of any book that you think you’d like to really get behind. At the same time I’d already started freelancing earlier that year and had written a few pieces for websites as well as starting my own website to act as a portfolio of my work. On my comicbookgrrrl website I began publishing a few more feminist articles about comics including a series called Women in Comics which was about the history of women (and sexism!) in comics. That was phenomenally popular, it really took me by surprise. I was being retweeted by people like Warren Ellis and Gail Simone – I was gobsmacked!
When I requested the proof of Supergods I mentioned my website and the PR person who was then at the publisher and looking after that particular title was really enthusiastic about my interest in it. I asked whether Grant might be interested in doing an interview for my website, and that we could maybe do a giveaway of a signed book to help promote it. We did that, and he seemed to like my questions and what not – I met him not long after at a signing to get my own book signed and the one to give away and he was just really lovely and encouraging about my writing aspirations.
I decided I would pitch a big interview with Grant around the various papers and see if anyone bit.
What resulted was a lot of, not rejection, but just being completely ignored. This is actually a really important thing to know – I often hear that pitching is about rejection, but it’s the ignoring that is the worst bit. You’re shooting off these messages of hope and optimism into this great black abyss of disinterest. Especially in the current climate where a lot of publications aren’t keen on freelancers and prefer to use in house staff. The rules, as I understood them, were to start with the smaller papers and get your foot in the door. So I decided to ignore that and tried everybody. Out of goodness knows how many pitches I sent out, I got one rejection and one interested editor. That editor was the one I’ve now done quite a few interviews and reviews for, and she’s been absolutely wonderful – really supportive and encouraging. We did the Grant Morrison interview there and she actually turned it into a whole big comics special which was fantastic.
I put up an uncut version on my site which is something I try and do with everything where the rights allow it, because print interviews have to be quite short and I like to show those who are interested the full context, and also because the interviewee has devoted all that time I think it’s good to share as much as possible.
Everything followed on from that. I try and make friends with publishers, not to be fake but because at the end of the day we have the same goal: to promote comics and their creators. I write critically about comics on the subject of women, but overall I really want to encourage more people to read and create comics. It’s a brilliant medium that is still rather misrepresented in the mainstream.
But basically, it’s all thanks to Grant Morrison!
Would you take the same route into comics blogging and creator interviewing that you did, if you were starting now? What would you do differently?
I don’t think I’d change much really as I seem to have accidentally pinballed up the path of least resistance. I started writing maybe a little later than most people who want to go into journalism – I’d been out of university around 5 years when I began – and I think that probably helped a bit in terms of my self-confidence and attitude. I don’t get shy about pitching and I love talking to anyone about comics and women in the media, so I didn’t have any reservations about aiming high. Not that I expected them to hit!
If anything I would tell myself not to worry so much about the reaction. When I write pieces on my own site, or for other sites, I am always waiting for it to be torn to shreds. I’m genuinely thrilled when my work goes down well because I always have this expectation that people won’t be that interested, or that I’ve really misjudged things. I get my fair share of sexist harassment online of course, that’s pretty standard for a woman writer but I try and keep on top of that. One positive comment is worth a hundred bad ones, and thankfully the ratio is a lot better than that anyway.
I also worry too much about what my subject will think of my piece. I am not a terribly cynical person – when I interview someone or review their work, I want to share them and how great they are with the world. But sometimes even the best intentions aren’t enough, particularly when you don’t get to pick your own headlines, or you get edited, or something just doesn’t occur to you, and interviewees (or their publishers) being miffed at you is not uncommon. It’s water off a duck’s back to a seasoned journalist but I can’t turn my emotions off there, particularly when my intentions are to achieve the opposite. If the subject isn’t happy with a piece then I’m not happy with it either, and it’s still something I find very stressful about this line of work.
How do people – readers, prospective journalists, serious comics bloggers – get into YOUR contacts book?
I’m probably notoriously crap at responding to emails in a timely manner, but they do all get answered! I’m at uni as well, doing my MLitt in Comic Studies at the moment, and going on to do a PhD about women in comics, and I work part time in a bookshop on top of all my writing work. I’m always ridiculously busy.
But I’m also always happy to talk to people. I use Twitter a lot, quite often in bursts of activity when I’m between deadlines. I’ve got to know a lot of people through twitter, and actually twitter is also a pretty vital part of my work when it comes to self-promoting and making contacts. People I talk to a lot then tend to get added on Facebook as well which is a bit more of a daily thing for me.
Oh, and I add everyone on Twitter so you can ask me to DM me my e-mail address there if you like, or use the form on my website. You can tell if I don’t have as much work on though, because I’ll start tweeting random topic prompts like “Batman = capitalism; Superman = socialism. Discuss!”. Either that or I’m on a long bus ride to an event somewhere.
Do you feel you have an obligation to be “professional” vs “real” when talking with the greats? How do you think they see you?
To a certain extent I’m always kind of professional in most things I do because I’m a fairly outgoing friendly person which means I don’t really have a professional “mode” as such. I’m just me when I’m talking with creators, and I try and chat about what they’re interested in and ask some things that I’m interested in that maybe they don’t get asked about as often.
I think the most important thing to do is actually just listen. Which sounds simple but I hear a lot of interviews where the interviewer is in such a rush to get their questions out that they just start talking as soon as there is a pause. That’s not an interview, that’s an interrogation! I’m just happy to listen to these talented people talk as much as they like while I steer the conversation at times while letting it flow where it will at other points.
One thing I don’t do is ask for stuff to get signed when I’m there to interview them. That feels kinda weird. That’s probably just me though and I still queue at signings elsewhere, and actually still tend to get a little tongue-tied when I’m at an event as a fan.
Your tumblr fan efforts show that at least a couple of the creators you talk to are personal… if not heroes, then artists of note. How do you stay objective? Do they ever disappoint you? Do you, or would you, go after interviews with non-heroes, and if you did or do – would you take a different approach in your questioning? How would it differ?
I think I definitely run the risk of being disappointed by a personal hero but it hasn’t happened yet! I think nowadays, with so many people on twitter, you can get a little glimpse of what a person is really like. Twitter has caused me a great deal of disappointment in that regard. Grant Morrison is my favourite comics writer and meeting him at first was a bit nerve wracking. But he was just so lovely to chat with. Being Scottish, which is a titchy wee country, and knowing that a writer like Grant, or an artist like Frank Quitely is from the same place is really grounding somehow. A lot of the people in the comics industry are just so down to earth, and they’re used to being interviewed of course which always helps.
I’ve interviewed people who aren’t such daunting figures to me and my approach isn’t that different. I tend to get nervous about actually getting to these things on time or getting the phone number right – I’m fine once I’ve started. If it’s a hero of mine then there’s a lot more squeeing afterwards, I’m sure that never wears off!
And my secret weapon is that I do a ton of research. I like to be over-prepared, particularly as comics are my area of study and interest anyway and it’s a brilliant excuse to buy more comics.
Do you feel you’re a comics journalist for the mainstream press, or do you feel like you’re comics press? Both in reality, and in your ideal image of yourself.
Actually, sort of in between. I like doing mainstream press because I feel like that’s where the message needs to be right now, to encourage people who currently aren’t interested in comics to get in there because there’s something for everyone. And to encourage would-be creators as well. I enjoy doing comics press because there’s less to explain, I can just jump right into a topic and know that my readers know who the publishers are and, for example, who Stan Lee is!
I do miss not doing more small press work and working with smaller profile names. I’d love to do more of that on my website but it tends to come down to the issue of time and how little of it I have to spare. The piece I did in Comic Heroes on women in comics was brilliant fun and I’d love to do more of that, and I’m delighted with my work in SciFi Now as that allows me to know that the audience will know some of the basics, but it’s still reaching a lot of non-comics fans. I think that’s my ideal really, and it lets me move around a little bit in non-comics waters as well which can be refreshing.
Do you think your, for want of a better word, alternative aesthetic is a help or a hindrance as a lady in comicsland? How do you think it intersects with everything else about being you, doing what you do?
Hah, I like this question! So, I have purple and pink short hair and some piercings, and I tend to wear kinda punk clothes and lashings of eyeliner. Comics fandom has a lot of alternative friendly people in it so I don’t stand out too much, though I’m told I’m easily recognisable – I hope that’s a good thing! As a journalist I seem to stand out. It’s cool in a way as it makes me more memorable perhaps.
As a woman overall it’s a little different, and I think the creators in particular don’t really factor that in at all. If anything, the publishers I’ve spoken to are maybe more interested in talking to me because of that. Possibly because it is harder to be a female fan of comics in some respects so I stand out. Maybe it’s a mark of commitment – I still get hassle from people about me reading comics because “they’re not for me”, get ogled in comics shops, and have shop assistants try to help my boyfriend who has zero interest in comics and is just being dragged around by me. And in some respects there are a lot of shut doors because I’m a woman… but the people I work for, and those I work for regularly in particular, none of them care that I have boobs. It’s just about my writing, which I appreciate.
I got a spate of hate on my website at one point for daring to point out that I was a woman. The default assumption online is that you are a guy unless you make it obvious you aren’t. The fact that I’m female has great relevance to some of my work that focuses on sexism in the media, because my viewpoint is shaped by my lack of privilege in that area. The sexist slurs I received more or less proved my point, which was amusing in a rather depressing way.
Do you feel a responsibility of representation to anyone but yourself, as you go about your business as a female in male-dominated pop culture? Do you approach your public conduct as someone with a standard to bear, or as only yourself?
Definitely not, I’m always keen to point out that my views are my own and that others may vary. Obviously I’m a very left-wing feminist, but I would never presume to speak for anyone else even if they share some of my views. The patriarchy is such a horribly insidious thing, and it affects us all differently. I hope to get people to see things from my point of view and to consider what I say but throwing around absolutes can get dicey. I’m not hinting here at ridiculous things like “misandry”, but nuanced issues like internalised misogyny and the very fact that feminism as a term has become synonymous with straight white middle class women at the expense of everyone else. Intersectionality is often shunted into the gutters.
Diversity and equality are both values I’m interested in, and I ask questions and write pieces that focus solely on them and they slip into larger work in one way or another. But I’m not here to represent women because women aren’t a faceless monolith. If I can get more people interested in comics and in creating comics then so much the better, and part of that is getting the industry (as distinct from the medium) to be more self-aware of under-represented groups.
You blog as “comicbookgrrrl” – is the aggression in that title a) imagined, b) reflective of your personality or c) something you felt you needed as a female comics blogger? Or, I suppose, d) all of the above.
Originally I wanted a website that would act more as a portfolio of my work elsewhere, which is still its primary purpose really. It was only later I figured I could use it for the stuff that didn’t really fit in the places I was finding work. I hate trying to pick website names – everything is taken already! The idea of “comicbookgrrrl” came about because of the well known stereotype of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons which is amazingly still what a lot of non-comic readers think most comic fans are like. I was dealing with a lot of weird reactions back then at work in the bookshop when people would ask for advice on comics and the person that they were told was best suited to help them appeared and was rather obviously not a guy. “You?! You… read these?”, was a particularly memorable one as he looked like he’d just been presented with a comic reading chihuahua rather than a woman who knew her Ellis from her Ennis.
The “grrr” is directly inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement of the 80s, and that Tank Girl attitude of “don’t fuck with me.” I’m a pretty laid back person (when I’m not swearing at pixels that won’t die) but I’d been on the internet long enough to know that writing about women in [insert subject here] was akin to painting a giant target on myself that screamed “Girl! Girl on the internet!!”. Thankfully the response I’ve got has been overwhelmingly positive, but I do encounter people who state I’m obviously attention speaking for openly declaring I’m not the default anonymous male internet persona, or that by putting a fairly vague photo of myself on my site I’m “prostituting” myself. The internet is full of charmers!
So in a way I guess the “grrrl” is slightly aggressive but in more of a defensive resigned sort of way. It’s more about the Riot Grrrls and my love of the anarchic Tank Girl.
You’ve tangled with or faced counter-commentary from other outspoken female fans over some of your opinions stated on comicbookgrrrl – the DC heroes breast cancer self- checking posters spring to mind. Does this trouble you? How different is it to debate with people “on the same side” related to people who think you’re taking sexism too seriously?
I’ve had some women openly disagree with me which is fine honestly, as long as it doesn’t get personal. I can’t speak for everyone after all. It’s a bit tricky when it comes down to the idea of me taking sexism too seriously or making women look bad or that kind of thing as it’s a difficult one to approach. We live in a patriarchy and the default is to accept that and make the best of it. Keep your head down, be one of the boys, laugh along with the jokes. I’d reckon most of us have done that at what time or another, either when we were younger or were just tired of it all.
I’ve also had some more underhanded stuff punted my way which is a bit more annoying but I try to ignore that kind of drama.
Within “feminism” as well there are a lot of differing views, and the term carries an awful lot of baggage. The history of feminism as a concept is dominated by women with more privilege than others, and that’s still true today. Then there are those who think I don’t go far enough, or that I’m hypocritical for enjoying comics like Catwoman or for having male writers as my favourites. When there is so much stacked against women as a group it’s kind of frustrating to see internal fighting, but I think it’s important to keep the focus where it should be rather than dealing out blame to other women.
I think it’s a problem but I can’t dictate how people should feel about these issues. I do think that when we speak up about these topics that it isn’t going to negatively impact anyone. I want to encourage more women to get into comics, as readers and creators, and for more of everyone to enjoy comics. If you don’t agree with my viewpoints then really, does it matter? I want to see the comics medium flourish, not try and sabotage it.
You’ve been taking a comic book study course recently, studying books as well as learning to write them. Has this affected the way you think about interviewing creators? How?
Learning more about the art process and the history of artists in the medium definitely has. I wasn’t as tuned in to the art previously, other than appreciating it visually. The MLitt in Comic Studies at Dundee University looked at the history of comics across various cultures, as well as in-depth study of autobiographical comics, and a module on creating comics. We had some fantastic guest speakers including Frank Quitely, Cam Kennedy, Colin MacNeil, Gill Hatcher, Jim Devlin and Alan Grant. Seeing how these creators work is incredible and the difference in their various approaches is really interesting.
Mostly I feel like now I can keep up a little better when speaking to the comic greats who know the entire history of the medium!
How do you think the comic book industry could benefit by becoming truly mainstream? It’s a big question, but – how might that affect communication in general?
I guess there are two different ways of looking at that – are the superheroes where the industry is and are they then mainstream because of the movies and their place in pop culture, or are the graphic novels that go straight to bookshops the industry and have they gone mainstream because of their high street presence? For the former, I think that to go truly mainstream you’d have to take out the direct market. Kids go to see Spidey at the cinema and then can’t find a comic when they hit the shops. Comic shops are hard to find in a lot of places, and have this reputation as being for adults. Sure there are the TPBs in bookshops but they are expensive when you’re on a pocket money budget. I find it amazing that I can hear about a great comic that came out two months ago and not be able to look it up on Amazon or get it on my high street. As a bookseller, that’s really bizarre.
I’d hope that if that did happen, and DC and Marvel started seeing a profit from their single issue comics, that we’d see more creative control for the writers and artists themselves. New characters, new worlds, new genres. Ideas rather than franchises. Decent pay for the creators!
Digital perhaps opens a door into that as well, but to have a large impact with your stories, the big comics publishers are still where it’s at. Newspaper headlines care about DC and Marvel doing outrageous things (because yeah, having a gay Green Lantern or black Spider-Man is still seen as outrageous because it makes for good headlines, argh) so if you can get in there and push the boundaries, it creates bigger ripples.
For the indie graphic novel scene, that’s starting to break into the mainstream properly now I think with big book publishers seeing this huge potential market spread out in front of them. That’s letting more creators get their ideas out there, and graphic novels as a whole (including superhero trade collections etc) are very strong performers right now.
But there’s still this big gap that I can see – babies and toddlers love picture books which is a huge market all in itself, and some of those titles are very similar to some of the more experimental comics. So kids grow up with a fondness for that but then there are very few titles to keep them entertained. Books like Owly and Bone are few and far between and not often very visible. Comic shops have an adult reputation and certainly most superhero comics are for teens. The audience just disappears and the industry hopes they’ll come back of their own volition.
Comics are incredibly important for children as they help them learn to read, and more importantly, learn to love reading. Sure you get those comic magazines attached to a giant lump of plastic in newsagents, but that’s not the same as having comic books for all ages easily available on Amazon and in book shops. Comics have the power to be deceptively simple and inviting looking while imparting incredibly complex ideas that words alone can struggle to convey. The invention of the mechanical reproduction of images during the Industrial Revolution scared the crap out of the bourgeois elite because now, suddenly, even the illiterate working classes could easily access and understand political information and ideas, propaganda and calls to arms.
As a medium, it’s unkillable, but the industry could certainly do more to help itself out.
Journalistic comics. DO these have a particular interest to you, or do they come no higher than or even lower than narrative comics? Both in reading, and creating.
It really depends on the individual title. I have a bit of a short attention span sometimes so if someone presents me with interesting information in comic form then I’m instantly on board with reading that. Personally I think journalistic or documentary comics are quite hard to do well, and I often find myself frustrated when I read them, wishing that the writer would butt out of the story and let it tell itself. One that is done very well is Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco which succeeds in telling absolutely horrific stories from a terrible time in history and making it clear how dangerously easily the events began. As a comic it is far more powerful than even the best history book could manage, and I do think that documentary comics like that, and biographical comics like Maus, should have a very important part to play in schools and education.
Generally I prefer narrative comics though. For one they are pure escapism so a lot less depressing! And the ability to create and shape worlds that exist in the imagination of anyone who reads them is mind blowing. I wrote a short comic for my course and I’m itching to write more… though with an actual artist this time! I did the art for my own comic and it was okay but I’d be much happier having someone else interpret my words.
And I should add that Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, which stars a gonzo journalist named Spider Jersualem, is one of my biggest influences.
What’s the gender ratio of the people you deal with comicswise, in your newspaper dealings and in your blog comments? What makes it noticeable?
In the publications I’ve worked for it’s been mostly men, when I talk to publishers it’s fairly even, when I talk to people in the industry or in it’s periphery it’s mostly men, in academia it’s fairly even I think, and in the comments it’s also fairly even. Men leave more comments – not including the horrible comments – while women tend to e-mail me more.
The press in general does seem quite male dominated and in some quarters it’s a bit of an old boys club. I think that’s fairly well known to be honest, but it’s not at all the case for the places I’ve worked for.
I get a lot of guys on Twitter telling me they’ve read an article of mine and found it really thought provoking or that it made them re-evaluate some opinions and that’s something I really wasn’t expecting. I do try and keep my writing as well balanced as possible because I want people to read to the end rather than getting angry or defensive. I don’t censor myself by any means but I like to write complete pieces with no loose threads to pull on if possible.
Again: Thank you!!
No worries! It’s nice to be on the receiving end of an interview because I never really sit and assess my thoughts on these things myself. It still feels a bit weird but hey, I learned stuff so I approve!
Find Laura on Twitter.