By Jarrod Jones. If you’re looking for an example of how far comics have come in terms of equal representation, look no further than Hope Nicholson’s The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen.
Of course, by “equal representation” I don’t just mean between men and women. Comics aren’t so binary as that anymore, and the industry as a whole has only grown more diverse and rich over the generations with voices that represent our entire spectrum: race, gender, religion, sexual orientation… there’s room for everyone here.
That change is easy to take for granted, and that’s where Sisterhood comes in. In these pages, Nicholson takes care to remind us that there’s a hierarchy to consider as well, and that no matter how many gains have been made, there are still plenty of ceilings left to smash through.
“We have come a long way,” Nicholson writes in her introduction. “We’ve gone from having 90 percent of comics created by white men to a thriving industry of comics in all sorts of formats created by all sorts of people. And that’s changing the characters we grow up with and love dearly — for the better. […] But along with all these advances, I fear we may be forgetting our history.”
Hope Nicholson will be the first to tell you that we’re aren’t there yet. This week, I speak with the prolific editor and writer about representation in comics, how progress is rarely a linear path, and yes, Witchblade.
1. ‘The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen’ serves as a splendid chronicle of women characters in comics: always sincere, rightfully critical and, at times, truly inspiring. You begin by summing up the perplexing developments of Lois Lane and Wonder Woman with razor-sharp accuracy: here are two characters who began with considerable agency and ended up going starry-eyed over Superman at one point or another. Was that your intention, to show where we’re going as an industry by pointing out where we’ve been?
Hope Nicholson: I suppose I just wanted to have an even-handed view of the industry as a whole. It’s easy to be nostalgic, and it’s easy to say “we’re the best we’ve ever been”, and neither is quite true. Progress isn’t a linear path, it’s a lot of ups and downs, and I just wanted everyone to explore the historical journey with me.
2. This book features some serious deep cuts — Torchy Brown was an eye-popping character find for me, I’m ashamed to admit. What went into your research? Did you have access to publisher archives? Did you seek out private collectors?
HN: In terms of research, most of it was from the source material itself, reading comics, either digital or physical, and then also analyzing data. Data itself can lie and be misread, but if you go in and look at the numbers you can at least see some general truths. What publishers disappear, what comics had the most issues/lengthiest runs, which genres come to prominence and then fade. It can be harder to find some of the source material, but in 80% of the cases you can find content if you look and ask. A lot of the rest came from general knowledge of the comics industry that I’ve absorbed over the years.
I wouldn’t lie that a lot of my “general knowledge” likely came a lot from Trina Robbins’ research as well! She’s definitely paved the ground and set the scene for feminist comics research.
3. Speaking of Torchy Brown, her creator, Jackie Ormes, is but one of a precious few female creators of color featured in the book. It definitely wasn’t a surprise to see so many white male creators in this context, sadly, but how heartening is it to see women of color join the industry in larger numbers in the last twenty years?
HP: Oh, it’s fantastic; that’s definitely where we are seeing a significant push in terms of diversity. This could still be much better, in terms of content by the Big Two, and definitely in terms of Indigenous content and creators as well. But in the last decade that’s been the biggest, and most welcome, change to the industry is the inclusion of more creators who are not white.
That’s the thing though, right? There’s always been creators who weren’t white making things, but they had no access to distribution. Now we have small press, we have Kickstarters, we have social media, they don’t need a big publisher to survive and thrive.
4. Your approach to female characters from the mid-to-late Eighties and throughout the Nineties is one of the more honest I’ve ever seen published. I’ve engaged in plenty of grousing about characters like Silk Spectre and Witchblade over the years, and to see someone tackle both characters the way you did was very cathartic. When you’re evaluating problematic characters, do you think it’s damaging to attempt to reconcile them as being “a product of their time” or do you think it’s necessary to call out these issues as they arise?
HN: Nothing is a product of its time. If in the 1940s there were black and queer comics creators, that comics were tackling social issues, I certainly won’t give the 1990s a pass! At the same time it’s easy to say that characters are completely bad, and I don’t think Silk Spectre and Witchblade are without value either; if they were they wouldn’t be in the book — I had to cut out Panda from Body Bags for that reason, I just couldn’t say anything kind about it.
I tried to approach characters and analyze why other people liked them and what they offered, but be honest about the negative effects they had on readership too. I grew into comics when T&A comics were at their peak. I was lucky enough to find content like Mars, Elfquest, West Coast Avengers, Dazzler, that was a lot less ‘bad girl’ inspired, but for many young girls they grew attached to comics like Gen-13, like Witchblade. Tini Howard speaks of her love for Witchblade in the book, and I think I felt if I respected Tini, it gave me a new way to look at Witchblade!
For Watchmen, I felt that the way Alan Moore handled sexual assault was in some ways better than other comics. It wasn’t glossed over, it wasn’t portrayed as a mid-alley attack. It showcased some real complexity in the case of what women’s reactions are to attack, and how personal it is. I don’t think it was handled well, and I’ve discussed this a bit before. It was a tiny baby step in a discussion that needs more care than it provided.
5. I’m astounded by the book’s strikingly Chip Kidd-esque minimal design — it’s sleek, but it’s structured too, which lets the eyes hungrily take in all the information on its pages. How did you put together this book? Was this design set from the start, or did it evolve over time?
HN: Oh that’s all thanks to our designer Timothy O’Donnell. He’s a star. I just gave him folders and folders of reference images, and they all took care of it over at Quirk. I have no head for layout or design aesthetics, so I let them go wild and I was beyond thrilled with the result.
In terms of content, I am kind of fastidious about numbers and getting a bit of everything, so I did have a structure for myself: “ten characters for each decade, one big character for each decade, characters in each major genre, characters from different publishers, a history overview for each decade that discusses sales, distribution, fans, creators, and content”. That evolved as the book was being researched too, and I figured out more what I wanted to talk about.
6. One thing I noticed was your inclusion of Maggie Chascarillo from Jaime Hernandez’s ‘Love and Rockets’, but you did not include a female character from Gilberto’s world of Palomar. Was there a reason to exclude characters like Luba or Fritz? Gilberto has always had an… interesting approach to women.
HN: Well, it’s no secret I prefer Jaime to Gilbert in terms of stories, but I did like Palomar too. It lost me as a reader after time, but there’s no reason I wouldn’t feature one of the characters. Perhaps in a future book!
7. You illustrate a brilliant point with your Icon pieces: that certain characters serve a grander purpose by showing how too often female characters are “just extensions of the men in their lives”, even if it wasn’t exactly the intention of the creator, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Silk Spectre. That sentiment lends itself marvelously to a thought you have about Ramona Flowers later on, that “every girl wants to be a Ramona Flowers, but it doesn’t seem like many guys want to be Scott Pilgrim.” Do you think that people’s reactions to characters like Ramona Flowers are in a way a response to the “girlfriend” stock characters that have populated comic books for generations?
HN: Even in a dearth of comics goodness, women will read and find and absorb comics, and make it into their own. That’s always been what separates a fanboy from a fangirl, to be very, very broad. Fanboys are known for analyzing facts and statistics, for collecting items. Fangirls take the content and transform it — into cosplay, into fanfiction. I think women like Ramona Flowers because she looked cool. And she could skate through time and space, that was pretty neat. Sometimes, it’s okay to like characters because they’re neat.
8. One of the things you wrote that really struck me was your Icon piece on Wonder Woman: “… Diana has the added pressure to be everything. And as a result, she becomes nothing.” Where do you think the pressure for Wonder Woman to be a perfect feminist icon comes from? Is it because she’s the most visible female hero — or is it because of something far more ingrained in her character?
HN: Definitely it’s because she’s the most visible and known female hero, and the first to just be written so boldly in her beliefs and her strengths that she’s been cemented into everyone’s mind. I think Superman has a similar type of pressure, to be such a perfect example of masculinity that he becomes very bland. These characters are the backbone of our comic stories, so we hold on to them very, very tightly. Maybe we don’t need to though. Maybe we can let them go.
Like any fan has ever been able to do that!
9. I especially love that the book’s final icon, the character who represents our present age, is Kamala Khan. Do you feel that she represents the entire purpose behind ‘Sisterhood’ — that Kamala Khan is representative of all the progress that’s been made in comics?
HN: No, not really. I’d say that Check, Please! is a better example, but unfortunately it’s a comic that doesn’t have a female lead so I couldn’t feature it! Marvel is still very limited in what it does. Very slow to change. Our future, in terms of seeing progress, is in the bookstores. It’s online.
I’m not sure what place Marvel and DC Comics have in the world; they certainly still sell very well, though, and every so often there is a gem like Ms. Marvel. But she’s still a factory creation, and that’s limiting.
10. You work incredibly hard at projects that include a vast array of creative voices. What’s next for you?
HN: The next big project that isn’t out yet is Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, an anthology of new gothic romance stories that I’ll be Kickstarting through my publishing company Bedside Press in July. I discovered the gothic romance comic genre while doing research for this book and even though I hate horror, it obsessed me. I can’t wait to showcase new stories in an old genre!