"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Friday, November 08, 2013

Fantagraphics Conversation: Why Are So Few Women Being Publsihed in 2014?

I really like comic books. I really like independent publishers. I really like gender equality. These three things kinda don't go together sometimes. Comic books have historically had a gender equity problem, both in terms of the creator-side of things, and on the side of the buying public. This is not a new truism.  It's one of the reasons that we want and need great sites like The Mary Sue and Women Write About Comics.  Things are sloooowly getting better: I can now buy several mainstream comic books written or drawn by women every week, something that just wasn't happening 20 years ago.  

Fantagraphic Books is a fantastic publisher of comic books. They're having some financial difficulties, as many (many!) independent publishers are, and they came up with a great way to have their fans support their upcoming publishing season with a Kickstarter that allows folks to basically pre-order a book, with lots of bells and whistles attached (signed copies!).  It sucks that they have to do things this way, but it's great that it looks like they'll almost certainly make their goal.  Go check out their Kickstarter and support them.

Having said all of that:  It looks like only 4 or so of the over 30 books they are publishing in 2014 are created by women. (This could be off by a few, as I'm just going by first names.)  I would feel much more motivated to support them as an independent publisher if their roster reflected more diversity than that. Luckily, Kickstarter allows one to email a project creator, so I did: 
Love this idea, but why so few women creators? Makes it harder to shell out support $$ (though I'll still preorder some on Amazon) when editorial choices around gender are out of touch with your readership...
Fantagraphics publishes a lot of fantastically odd stuff that wouldn't otherwise get published, and I suspect (though I don't know) that more women read their books than read the more "mainstream" comics.  I think their creators should better reflect that. Also, I like to read books made by women, and when there are only four to choose from in an upcoming season of publishing by Fantagraphics, that's not much of a choice (though, let's be honest, the four they are publishing are AWESOME).  

Gary Groth from Fantagraphics responded with a surprisingly boilerplate response that one might hear from Marvel or DC (or The New York Times) when called out on it:

We appreciate your support but the season was created based on the work we have lined up as well as the books people have submitted to us. Please don't discount the amazing work of Eleanor Davis, Ester Pearl Watson, Carol Swain and Joyce Farmer who have work in this season (which is half of our publishing year). All four in this season are veteran Fantagraphics cartoonists with several books out from us, meanwhile a few of the men are new to the publishing world like Lane Milburn and Conor Stechschutle. Fantagraphics also has many women in editorial and managerial positions who influence the season as well make sure we are printing the comics you want to read created by the best cartoonists in the world.
We are publishing these books based on the quality of the work, not the gender of the creator. We would publish amazing comics like those of Eleanor Davis if she was an inanimate object.
This ticks off all of the boxes regarding what amount to excuses for not getting more women on the creators' roster:
"Hey, we have published women in the past!" --Check
"Hey, we are publishing four books by women this year! They've all worked for us in the past! -- Check 
"We're publishing cool stuff by men who wouldn't otherwise be published, maybe!" -- Check
"We employ women as editors!" -- Check
"We're genderblind! We just publish the best stuff. Who knows why men do comics better than men!" -- Check
I know it's difficult. You have to make a shift in thinking when trying to diversify as a publisher, or as an editor. You have to do some footwork to encourage a more diverse pool of people to submit stuff. And for a small publishing house that is already struggling, that's a lot to ask.  But geez, if we can't get more diversity out of independent publishers, where should we try to get it?

Jen Vaughn, a cartoonist who also (at least) blogs for Fantagraphics also had a response:
As a working female cartoonist, I probably know more than you do about this particular issue than you do unless Jeff is progressive name.
There is now a list of many, many, many cartoonists we've published on the front page. Feel free to look through all those and if you see some female names you don't recognize, check out their artwork and comics!
As always we appreciate the debate, let me know if you have any other questions.
-Jen Vaughn
In a way, this is more of the same, but with the "added value" of having come from a working female cartoonist.  Unfortunately, it doesn't answer my question at all--it's just a variation of the "but we DO publish SOME women" response, and I responded with that in mind:
Hi Jen--
It's great that Fantagraphics has published women, and is publishing women (yay!). That doesn't explain why only 4 out of over 30 books coming out in 2014 are by women. It's basically saying (and Gary echoed this in his reply to me) "Hey, we publish the best comics, no matter who they are by. Looks like dudes just submit better stuff!" -- which is the kind of cop-out reply that we've heard from Marvel, DC and, well, The New York Times book review (so, ok, you're not alone).
In your experience, and I do value that, of course(!), why would a publishing company publish mostly books by men in a year?
 Again, I love Fantagraphics. I'm happy they're likely going to make their Kickstarter goal easily. I also think that having the female to male creator ratio so low is crappy, and avoidable. Perhaps not easily avoidable, but avoidable. Editorial staffs in all kinds of publishing are slowly making these changes, or at least becoming aware of them. I want Fantagraphics to be held to the same standard--I'll support y'all more the more diversity in gender you have on your roster each year.

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