Women Who Shaped Me: An Interview with my Mom and Comic Artist Cynthia Martin

A-Force #01, Bennett and Wilson, cover by Cheung . Marvel Comics, 2015

When I was 14, my mother began training me to drink coffee. She would warm up a mug that was mostly milk and put a little coffee in it. Over time we adjusted the ratios until I ditched the milk entirely, and I still drink my coffee black—just like her. I love telling this story to explain how serious my family is about coffee, but I recently realized that it’s a perfect analogy for how she introduced me to geekdom: first a few Terry Pratchett novels, then some Buffy and Xena, and eventually taking eight-year-old me to my first science fiction convention. I was raised geek.

I cannot talk about my geeky childhood without talking about feminism. My mother always bought me books—and eventually comics—as gifts, and she chose them not just for the quality of story but also for the strong, nuanced female protagonists. Attending conventions wasn’t just an opportunity to meet beloved authors; it was also an opportunity to gain inspiration from successful female writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Jane Yolen. At 19 I received the ultimate gift: her friend and graphic artist, Cynthia Martin, took me to San Diego Comic Con.

Experiencing SDCC itself wasn’t as important as spending time with Cynthia, her friend and professional illustrator Astrid, and the other artists and creators within Cynthia’s circle. Listening to them talk shop, tearing apart the negative aspects of con culture, and even just sitting on the beach eating burgers gave me a taste of how varied and enormous the world of comics was and how complicated it could be for women. Without that trip, the books my mother and I read together and her encouragement and lack of judgement when I started writing anime fanfiction, I wouldn’t be here, talking about feminist comics and queer zines.

In honor of Women’s History month, I sat down with my mom (whose name is Marion) and Cynthia to talk about the connections between geekdom and feminism, generation gaps, and what being a geek means to them.

Give me a rundown of what kinds of geeky or nerdy things you both really like.

Cynthia: I like Doctor Who, I like the X-Men, I especially love the Avengers, and I like the Marvel Universe films very much. I think they’ve done a fantastic job. My secret celebrity crush is Scarlett Johannson, and I recently saw Chris Evans in Snowpiercer. It was amazing!

I’m really into nature right now and the National Parks and stuff. The geeky things that I love are Mark Ruffalo playing The Hulk, Scarlett Johannson, obviously Robert Downey Jr. I’m just loving how well they’ve done with the Marvel Universe in Marvel Pictures, which is distinct from Marvel Comics.

Image from http://www.tombakerofficial.com/
The fourth doctor, Tom Baker.

Marion: I’m not nearly as into the comic book universe as she is, obviously, but I’m a long, long time Doctor Who fan. I started watching it when the fourth doctor was in original shows, not syndication. Back to the Tom Baker era, and he is probably still my favorite doctor; there is just something magical about him.

I started watching Doctor Who because I was reading a lot of science fiction. I read a lot of what is now considered classic science fiction and fantasy [which] was new stuff back then. It’s kind of hard to go back to those books now, because they are very dated. There were very few female science fiction writers or fantasy writers. One of them was Andre Norton, who wrote under a male name for obvious reasons. Women at that point were writing under men’s names, and people who weren’t from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds were anglicizing their names. Asimov had to fight to just use his name, and if had been longer and more Russian-Jewish than it was, it probably wouldn’t have made it.

That’s changed an awful lot over the years. You talk about older geeks and younger geeks; when you’re an older geek or an older feminist there are people who say, “Well this is bad and this is bad,” and it’s all true. But, we remember when it was so much worse. In a way, we tend to be more optimistic because we can see how much has already been done.

It’s very frustrating. We are not where I wanted us to be, but at least things did get done. The ideas we had frequently weren’t ambitious enough. They often lacked certain insight, because… [we couldn’t] even envision things that can be done. There’s a lot of cultural baggage that has been wiped away even during the course of your lifetime. Some of that I didn’t even recognize as cultural baggage, because I was so steeped in the culture itself.

A lot of this is wrapped up with LGBT issues. I remember very early on there was a lot of conflict over that in geekdom and every place else. I remember going on a march one time, and there was a gay rights group behind us, and several people got kind of snippy about that. “They’re gonna hurt the feminist cause.” What I see happening when I go back and look at the old things I used to love is just how dated they’ve become. They show me how far we’ve come.

There were also bits and pieces there that helped us get where we are. A lot of Ursula LeGuin and Andre Norton stuff did, and some of the stuff by men may seem very full of male privilege, which it was, but given the context of the time some of it was quite progressive—it just hadn’t progressed to the point where you can even recognize it as such any more.

Interview with the Vampire book cover. Image from amazon.com.Cynthia: In San Francisco in the ’80s, [Trina Robbins] gave me this dog-eared, shitty paperback, and she said, “You have to read this.” It was Interview with a Vampire by Anne [Rice], when it was still just a cult book. She [Trina Robbins] was my feminist mentor when I lived in San Francisco. Trina Robbins was amazing [at turning other women into geeks]. We had totally different drawing styles, and a lot of her thing seemed superficial to me. She was obsessed with fashion, which I was like, why? But she has done more in her own quiet way to historicize women in comics and to turn women on to the stuff that is really good [and] done by women than almost anybody else I ever met.

Marion: I’m trying to think of someone who mentored me, and I don’t think I ever had a face-to-face mentor, not in the early years. I had to find everything in books.

What about later on, even taking me to conventions as a kid, and meeting Lois McMaster Bujold?

Marion: I was gonna mention her—God, this is my favorite writer at this point, in the science fiction world. She’s just an amazing writer, and wonderful person. Just the idea that a woman had so many of those damn tie pins they give out for Hugo awards and little Nebula pins, that she had someone turn them into a necklace. Taking such an idea of masculine privilege—I mean just the idea that you would design an award and make it a tie pin says so much about the assumptions—and then to have this constellation of them available to her to do that!

At the same time, you still have this really horrible attitude that exists in the science fiction book community. Connie Willis was onstage at Worldcon one year, and she was sexually harassed by Harlan Ellison, who has gotta be the biggest picture of male privilege in the science fiction world. You’ve got this world where women are achieving success and recognition, but yet this kind of thing can still happen.

That’s the industry. In terms of genre and the books themselves, what have you been really excited or disappointed to see?

Ethan of Athos book cover. Image from amazon.com.Marion: It used to be that when you saw a strong woman protagonist [it] was unusual, and now there’s a lot of normalization there. LGBT issues used to be unusual. You could get a lot of attention just by bringing them in; the quality of the book didn’t really matter. I remember Johanna Russ’ The Female Man was huge. I read it, and I didn’t think it was all that good a book, but the concept that somebody would actually do that was such a big deal. Left Hand of Darkness is an Ursula LeGuin book that I much prefer to Female Man. Female Man was just too much of a polemic. I like it when the point is made, but the story is still the most important thing. I think if it fits into the story it has even more of an effect than if you’re constantly beating someone over the head with, oh, this is a feminist novel.

Lois McMaster Bujold does that great. I read Ethan of Athos which, in a way, is dated now, but it’s really good that it’s dated because it’s [about] a planet where there are only men and these men have to raise babies. All of a sudden, taking care of children is this big huge important job; society gets behind it, and you can’t have a kid unless you pass all these tests. Being an obstetrician—there’s mechanical wombs—is such a high-class job on this planet. If you take women out of the equation, all of a sudden the real cost of raising children gets factored into the economy. All of that stuff gets inputted into the story as little sidelines. The story is really about this guy who’s trying to go out and purchase more ovarian cultures so that they can have more babies. He’s getting chased around by these crazy secret agents from this other world.

Cynthia: I think that the ascendency of shite like the vampire novels—City of Bones, Twilight novels—all of this stuff that denigrates women, it’s so rapey, and it sexualizes our subjugation. When I was a kid there was a woman who wrote a book called The Total Woman.

Dad (Jozef): Marabel Morgan.

Cynthia: Marabel Morgan! These are the utterly bound women who finally find sexual fulfillment, and they think that no other women know how to reach orgasm at all.

Marion: Their big problem is that they think [orgasm from BDSM] is some behavior they didn’t carry throughout their whole life, rather than a sexual kink.

Cynthia: It doesn’t even go that far, they think this is God’s blessing on their subjugation when it is simply a release from all inhibition. It’s just games with adults, it’s fine to do that in real life. I find that Twilight series, City of Bones and all of these fucked up things that are based on Twilight are heinous.

How do you feel about the same idea in terms of comics?

Cynthia: Women are still being forced to draw women in sexually ready poses. Their asses stuck up in the air like baboons. About five, six, seven years ago, when I was doing fanfiction, I did a fake Avengers comic where all the guys were gathered around, but there was Spider-woman, with her ass up in the air, and I put a guy’s face on [her]. It was a big deal, and I guess a couple years ago another woman did it who was much more media savvy. But women are consistently sold in comics, even if they are strong. They’re masturbation fodder, and they’re always in sexually ready poses. This is ridiculous to me. We’ve got a long way to go.

Bimbos of the Death Sun book cover. Image from goodreads.com.In terms of satisfaction and wholeness, as an adult I’ve found that the Civil War arc of The Avengers was really good. I often try to read indie comics and stuff like that, but I don’t have a lot of time, since I’ve been studying medicine. I know that it’s bullshit to say, oh, I think Marvel did really well with their gigantic multi-billion-dollar-making films, but I really care about these characters, and I think that they chose directors who did very well. They saved comic books by that first Spider-man movie because they went back to the characters; they took it back. Everything was dying.

Marion: There’s a way to manipulate the comic book genre. The writing can go one way toward strong women, while the art can keep going the opposite direction toward completely sexualizing women and undermining the actual story.

There is [also] the idea of cover art. There’s a book that’s a mystery story written about fandom at science fiction cons where somebody gets murdered. It was a hard science novel, but the publisher retitled it Bimbos of the Death Sun and put a woman with big boobs on the cover. It didn’t change the content of the book, and once you get past the covers, you’re back into the writer’s vision. There is that advantage. I studiously avoid best sellers.

In terms of personal identity, what does being a geek mean to you?

Cynthia: It took me a while to figure it out, but I’m asexual, and when I was younger I just wanted to be normal because I came from such a horrific background. In terms of being a nerd, as a child, I always identified with the male protagonist because that was the hero, right? It’s kind of hard for me to understand people who are always struggling to find someone to have sex with, but it’s never been a problem finding people to identify with. I just identified with the protagonist; I want to be a hero and I want to save lives. It’s extremely satisfying now that I found it.

Marion: Going back to this time when there wasn’t even that much science fiction out there, it was very male-oriented. I remember the first things that I ever wrote were what I would now call fanfic, and I was rewriting stories to take the male protagonists and make them female protagonists. I was doing that by about eight or nine years old.

I went through a phase in college when I was very embarrassed [about being a geek], so I was curious if that was something that was ever a problem for either of you?

Cynthia: I was an abused kid who was abandoned by my parents when I was 15. All through my life, I’ve always drawn pictures and people have treated me like royalty, in the roughest circumstances. [Seeing Star Wars] gave me a reason to live. I was abandoned, in with these rough kids, and all I was was a nerd and a ballet dancer. I was in hell, but then [my childhood friend] took me to see Star Wars. That saved my sanity. I guess I got to pay it back by drawing a Star Wars comic later in life, which I couldn’t believe; it was just such a circle. Being a nerd has always been a better thing for me. Bad kids used to not beat me up when I let them know, strategically, that I could draw. I know that if I’m ever on the prison planet, and I let people know that I can make the great tattoos, I will survive, I will be the overlord.

Society doesn’t reward artists with money, but [it does] level them up in societal acceptance. I’ve been in the houses of billionaires who liked my comic book work. They consider us magical. If you have the art, you are magic. I only fell into comics because it was the only thing I knew how to do. I went through hell, and then I was just discovered.

How does liking geeky stuff influence other parts of your life, like work, hobbies, friends, parenting?

Marion: I have had very few friends who I didn’t find through books or some other kind of fandom. That’s kind of been it. There were a few people I worked with and stuff. Obviously I had a wonderful family, but I was just the kid who read books all the time and didn’t really have friends. When I did find them it was through books. I remember thinking, when I was a little kid, that the only way I knew that there were people who could actually be my friends out there was that somebody else was reading these books and definitely they were writing them. If I could just find those people, maybe I could have real friends.

What is your #1 favorite thing to watch, read or listen to right now?

Cynthia: Nonfiction. Disasters. The Lusitania.

Marion: I’ve been reading political stuff mostly, and picked up a couple novels by all time favorite authors. That’s it.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.