Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Angouleme… and Those Awards

I was going to tackle the Oscars and the lack of inclusion of any but white nominees for the major awards… I don’t know why I didn’t get around to it, except that time moves on apace, and others attacked the topic with relish. I rather wish I had got some thoughts down, though.

I did write about the Hugos in 2014 when they were controversial for two reasons. A Twitter campaign by women caused the resignation of Jonathan Ross as presenter, and the inclusion of Vox Day as a nominee caused an uproar because of his unsavoury stances on race and gender.

The World Fantasy Awards also came under attack for using the effigy of HP Lovecraft as their award. The once beloved genre writer’s racism is currently coming under intense scrutiny. A new design for the award will be unveiled for 2016.

Public opinion and that of interest groups has become increasingly easy to hear, thanks to social media. The Twitterverse lights up brightly and instantly whenever a wrong is perceived to have been done. On the whole, I’m tempted to think that’s a good thing, particularly when the problem being highlighted is one of social injustice.

Last week saw the return of the annual Angouleme Comics Festival, it was the 43rd, and it included one of the best known and most respected Comics Awards in the World.

Nominations were announced some time ago, and that’s when the problems began. Of the original thirty nominees, none were women creators.

The Angouleme Awards are inclusive in so far as they cover all serial art, internationally. We’re not just talking about American comics of the type we’re all familiar with, and we’re including graphic novels and not just ephemeral monthlies. The French take their comics very seriously. Comics are not just passing entertainment.

Daniel Clowes, Joann Sfar and Riad Sattouf from a report in the Guardian
When the list of nominees was made public, several great creators decided to withdraw their names from it. They objected to the lack of representation of women. They wanted women creators that they knew well and admired to be included. They made a stand, and it was admirable. I applaud them.

Taking the Grand Prix, the lifetime achievement award as a benchmark, women have rarely been recognised in the Angouleme Awards. In 43 years, the Grand Prix has been won by only one woman, the French artist Florence Cestac.

When asked to comment on the lack of inclusion of women for this year's awards, a representative had this to say:

The concept of the grand prix is to reward an author for their whole oeuvre. When you look at the prize list, you can see the artists on it have a certain maturity and a certain age. Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics art. It’s a reality. If you go to the Louvre, you’ll equally find very few women artists.

It’s a bald statement, and, on the surface, an unpleasant one. It’s easy to say that the Grand Prix wasn’t the only prize on offer, and that there were, in fact, no women nominated in any of the other nine categories either.

The men who resigned their nominations pointed out that there are great women working in comics, and The Women in Comics Collective Against Sexism agreed, pointing at the inevitable glass ceiling as the barrier to their success.

And therein lies the problem.

The representative for the Awards made a bald statement and he was vilified for it, but wasn’t it the truth?

Women are writing and drawing great comics, now. They’re using the medium for their own ends, to write and draw the stories they want to put into the World, their stories. It’s a niche market in a  niche medium. The audience is small, and, for the most part it’s other women. Women creators in comics are very much on the fringes. They’ve found a place for themselves out of necessity, not from choice. They’ve done it because much of the mainstream closes its doors on them. The men who see these women’s work see it because they want to, because they’re interested in every avenue down which the medium can lead a creator. That’s why some of the most recognised creators in the World know these women creators and why they wanted to stand by them. It’s why the rest of us don’t recognise these women’s names and don’t know their work.

The women are not at fault, and the awards system is not entirely at fault… The exception is of course that Angouleme could decide to create an award or awards exclusively for women creators, celebrating their very particular contribution to the art and broadening and strengthening the audience for women creators and their work, by shining a spotlight on them. These awards might influence the industry and open more doors for women.

The industry is most at fault in all of this. In the west, the industry is most broadly represented by mainstream American comics, by superheroes, by the big two, by DC Comics and by Marvel. They still produce male-centric comics, largely written and drawn by men, edited and published by men, and aimed at men and boys. There are women creators writing and drawing for the big two, but when they manage to get a foot in the door, they invariably write and draw for women characters. They are shoved into corners, boxed, labeled and limited.

It is no coincidence that the Best Series Award at Angouleme went to G Willow Wilson for Ms Marvel vol 1. Wilson’s name was not on the original list. It was added in a second round of nominations when the hue and cry went up because there were no women on the list. She was an afterthought. Wilson has been much praised for her work on Ms Marvel. It doesn’t surprise anyone that a woman writer is writing a woman character… It certainly doesn’t surprise me. 

Wilson has worked hard on Ms Marvel, and it’s a pretty decent comic. I read a couple of issues, and I thought she was doing a good job. She’s a popular writer and has the awards to prove it. Giving an award to Ms Wilson was also a safe move, politically, and there are lots of reasons for that: She’s in mainstream comics so people already know her name; she’s won awards before so there’s no question that she’s deserving; and she hits all the political hot buttons, because she’s a woman writing a woman character, and she’s a muslim writing a young muslim character in an American comic book.

Is that cynical of me? Perhaps it is. The point is that, unlike male creators, women creators in mainstream comics must have an angle, a selling point, or why would anyone buy their books?

Gail Simone is one of the most famous names among women creators in mainstream comics. She’s best known for writing Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman and Lara Croft. She’s a woman writer, writing women characters, because that’s what girls do.

Both of these creators are proven writers. They've shown that they know what they're doing and they clearly love their work. I say let them spread their wings. Let's see what they can do when working with a full cast of characters, and not just the sectors that happen to bisect with their gender.

I’ve written one or two comic strips in my time as part of my output for various licenses. I wouldn’t call myself a comic book writer. From a creative point of view, it’s something I'd love to do more of. I’ve got ideas for comics written in my notebooks. There are one or two artists that I’d love to work with. I also know the mainstream comics industry, and as an industry it doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for me. The older I get and the more I work in the industries that I work in the less appeal they hold for me. The fight doesn’t get any easier when you’re a woman working in male dominated industries, and I’ve always worked in them.

We shoe-horn ourselves in any way that we can. We compromise when we have to, we pick our battles and we lose the majority of them, we are patronised and talked over, our ideas are appropriated if they are heard at all, and when we have proved just how good we really are we are labeled and boxed and given a selling point, because we’re considered useless without those things.

We have different working lives from those of our male counterparts. Those problems are invisible to most men, and they’re not the fault of the convention organisers or of the awards committees. They run very deep, deeper than any but the women can see.

We talk about them all the time between ourselves, but when we try to talk about them to men there is such a chasm between us that there is little hope for understanding. So, we do what we can, and most of what we can do is find small slivers of space in hostile environments and we make little pockets of space on the fringes of those environments. We are outliers. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

There will be men reading this who will gainsay me. They’ll call me a failure, say I’m not good enough, and that if I was I could compete with any man in my field. There are men who will condemn this blog as the whining of a nobody, and those who will call me a nag or a feminazi.

I’ve heard it all before, and yet here I am again. It’s exhausting, but I can’t stop and I won’t stop, because I might not be the best in my field, but there are women creators out there who are the equals of their male counterparts, and if it’s useless for me to throw an elbow for myself, I can at least throw one for them.

I want women in all walks of life to have equal career opportunities with men, but I think that it’s particularly critical in the arts. Art reflects life, and life art. Art holds a mirror up to society, and all the time that women are only a small percentage of those contributing effectively to the arts, that reflection is incomplete or distorted. We do not see a true picture of ourselves when the picture is drawn almost exclusively by men. Life reflects art, the patriarchy is reinforced, and a vicious cycle is perpetuated.

Women have carved a separate niche, writing and illustrating comics outside of the mainstream that has been the preserve of men. They’re using the medium for their own ends and doing a great job of it, but ‘the industry’ still isn’t finding enough room for them. It’s wonderful that well-known men in comics, the artists that are lauded and praised see these women and recognise their talents. Artists are generally very good at being gender and race blind. If only that were true of the publishing industry. It’s a pity the women don't have a wider audience, a broader scope or a bigger window onto the World in which to display their wares. If they did, perhaps, they would earn some plaudits of their own. 

1 comment:

  1. "It’s easy to say that the Grand Prix wasn’t the only prize on offer, and that there were, in fact, no women nominated in any of the other nine categories either."
    Nope. There was women in the other categories, like Willow Wilson for Ms Marvel. It was nominated from the start.