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Comic Review: Womanthology: Heroic/Womanthology: Space

womanthology coverI’ve been struggling with Womanthology lately. After my rapturous review of issue #5 of Space, I went back and read the volume that started it all — Womanthology: Heroic – and found it a rambling, lopsided project, a book of fluctuating quality which seemed to struggle to define itself. Relatively few of the artists drew with professional skill. The subject matter was repetitive. There were a lot of self-conscious subversions seemingly aimed at very young readers — stories about true heroism being defined by friendship or compassion, about creating a distinctly female model of success, about ignoring messages from magazines or boys, about leaving abusers, about not being a damsel in distress. Stories, in short, about confidence. 

It’s true that confidence is a thing many women lack and need. I think that its erosion, its exhaustion, is at the center of most problems we face. My problem with Heroic is not one of theory, but of approach. It takes bone-cracking emotional labor for women to maintain faith in ourselves, and it’s difficult to honestly portray that labor in four or five pages. The result is a general subtext that confidence is a matter of choosing to be confident, and an anthology whose intentions overshadow its content.

Who, I wondered, was Heroic for? Was it for adult comics fans — and, if so, why the tutorials and the encouraging youthful protagonists? Was it for young girls — and if so, why did it want to present women doing comics as an exceptional act?

Because when I was a teenager, nothing discouraged me more than projects that made a point of supporting women’s artistic efforts. They reinforced the idea that it was an exception for women to make art — and that we needed special help because we rarely did it as well as men. I should admit here that I was a very misogynistic kid, very stuck on the literary canon as the only indicator of quality, and the absence of women from that canon could only mean one thing to me. I was already too far gone for the kind of support that was being offered. These forces start working on us early.

And yet even then, I assumed that women in comics weren’t rare or exceptional. I grew up during the first American manga boom (as did many of Heroic‘s contributors, judging from their styles). My friends and I read CLAMP, Naoko Takeuchi, Rumiko Takahashi, Yuu Watase. All of these artists had their flaws and limitations, but all of them were women, and they wrote stories with no didactic intent whatsoever. As a result, we learned a lot from them. We admired Haruka’s butch heroism, Fuu’s nerdy approach to combat; from Nuriko, we learned that gender isn’t simply a matter of one’s body (and also that, sometimes, you don’t have to accept the writer’s explanation of why things are). The simple presence of female artists in our lives kept us going and growing, whether we recognized it or not, and I suppose I’ll always see something redundant — even damaging — in an effort to throw together female artists as a category rather than allowing readers to discover them without preconceptions.

I realize that female artists tend to disappear, and sometimes a category is better than nothing.  And I realize that Heroic is shooting for something a little beyond presence. Its theme is no accident: superheroes are the one comics genre in which women still have almost no voice, and for a woman to say “I want to write a superhero story” is to say “I won’t stay in the safe places; I want it all.”

I’m not a superhero fan myself and have no wish to break into that world, but I can still feel some of the impact of this choice. And in light of it, it’s inevitable that Heroic struggles for self-definition. It’s trying to imagine what a female-led superhero mainstream would look like (at least, what it would look like in an American context). I still don’t think it would be the best book to hand a teenager — or at least, not the teenager I was — but I do find it admirable, even though I rarely find it encouraging.

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So where do we go from here? To Space. And Space is much better than Heroic, although in retrospect issue #5 was something of womanthology spacean anomaly. The series has drastically raised its standards: not artists who will be good in a few years, but artists who are good now. The subject matter is much more diverse, the styles more varied, and the production even more lush — if that’s humanly possible — than Heroic‘s.

The stories in Space sometimes share Heroic‘s approach, but they’ve refined it. Blair Butler and Alicia Fernandez’ story about Valentina Tereshkova could easily have been a simple reach-for-the-stars parable, but instead it’s a cuttingly bittersweet depiction of a historical moment which was a giant step for a woman, but no giant leap for womankind. Jody Houser, Sally Thompson, and Kathryn Layna’s “Trinkets” makes excellent use of the two artists’ different styles to wittily combine childish dreams and mature adventure. Not all of the stories are as well-written as these, although these days, I’m starting to doubt my own judgement of whether a comic is well-written. Increasingly, I can’t tell if the story is slight or if it’s just overwhelmed by an art style that’s mismatched — too glossy or too gritty, making blood or saccharine out of something which otherwise might have lived on the page.

Space‘s diversity of storytelling is both a strength and a setback. There’s gory horror and gory humor, some contemplative tales of the supernatural, a high-camp ’40s pastiche drawn by the dependably excellent Ming Doyle, and a one-off about two little girls building a cardboard spaceship which won me over even though — based on my take on Heroic‘s kid-centered material — I obviously have no heart. The variety is a pleasure, but I also found myself wishing for more cohesion. It wasn’t so much a genre thing as a maturity thing. Space is an anthology where a gentle G and a hard PG-13 can sit side by side, and this tends to make good stories suffer by juxtaposition — the calm and the violence almost mocking each other.

Will I keep following Womanthology? With enthusiasm, and I think it’s worth the effort. In sustained flashes, the series is becoming a real showcase for rising indie talent, and sometimes for established artists who want to experiment or show new range. If I struggle with its mission, if I disagree with its curation choices, this comes only from my passion for comics and for women’s stories. It’s not easy for any of us to decide how to tell these stories, but they need expression if we are to be our best selves.

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