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A New Documentary Lays Bare the Gender Bias in Comics

Production still from Comics Undressed's Kickstarter video
Production still from Comics Undressed’s Kickstarter video (all images via Kickstarter promo unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — Any reader of comic books knows that accruing a diverse array of volumes is no easy feat. The first four comics on my bookshelves include Allison Bechdel’s 2006 autobiographical “tragicomic” Fun Home, Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomingsabout a man named Ben Tanaka dealing with questions about race and relationships, the nine-story collection Caricature by Daniel Clowes, and Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, a journalistic account of events during the Suez War that is at times hard to read. Without even realizing it, I am included in a demographic identified by a Janelle Asselin poll that found that only 38% of the readership and 39% of comics creators are female. Why is it that comics continue to be read mostly as a white, heterosexual, and masculine medium when that’s clearly, totally, not at all the case?

For the answers to this, we turn to the Ladydrawers Comics Collective (AKA “The Ladydrawers”), which describes itself as “an unofficial affiliated group of women, men, transcoder, and non-binary gender folk who research, perform, and publish comics and texts about how economics, race, sexuality and gender impact the comics industry, other media, and our culture at large,” according to the collective’s website. Their forthcoming documentary Comics Undressed, directed and produced by Fran Syass and Lindsey Smith, addresses the economic, gender-based, and racial representation in the comics industry recently surpassed its $15,000 Kickstarter goal by a sweet margin of $602.

"Comics Undressed" Director/Producer Fran Syass and Assistant Director/Producer Lindsay Smith
“Comics Undressed” Director/Producer Fran Syass and Assistant Director/Producer Lindsey Smith

“I’ve been with the Ladydrawers since it was an offered class at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” says Comics Undressed Director/Producer Fran Syass, a Chicago-based experimental filmmaker and artist, and a recent MFA graduate who is also the co-founder of film group Psychopomp Productions. “Around that time, my concerns over race, gender, and they way certain identities are understood and treated in our society was beginning to take shape in me. Rather than being confused and angry, I wanted to find a way to channel my concerns into facts and cohesive arguments.”

Says Comics Undressed Assistant Director and Producer Lindsey Smith: “I think there is this really strange back and for between the comic industry and Hollywood right now that is reinforcing sentiments like comics aren’t for women.”

From this modicum of an idea, Comics Undressed started revealing itself as what it will soon become — a documentary film that is smart, political, and actively working toward cultural change. Pull up those drawers, ladies not-ladies and gents not-gents! Or just unbuckle your belt, and get comfortable however you see fit. There aren’t any boxes to check at the door.

“Male-identified creators get published 19% more frequently than female-identified creators despite similar submission rates,” says Anne Elizabeth Moore, a writer, editor, and artist who is known for her subversive book Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity. “Self-identified women in comics make 27 cents for every dollar a self-identified male creator makes, while self-identified trans and non-binary creators make 3.5 cents on average.”

Interview with Chicago comics creator Lyra Hill for "Comics Undressed"
Interview with Chicago comics creator Lyra Hill for “Comics Undressed”

In popular culture at large, and not just in the space of comics, the stories told are predominantly from a white perspective. Take the example of Piper, the blonde-hair, blue-eyed protagonist of the hit Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. Creator Jenji Kohan told NPR that Piper was her “trojan horse,” allowing her to be able to tell stories about black and Latina women. Yet why couldn’t a black character be the protagonist? Why has it taken the smart web series Awkward Black Girl, which features stories told from the point of view of a young black female protagonist, so long to get its own HBO premiere.

“The behind-the-scenes work of creators of color and women and trans folk doing this work, under capitalism, given that we know exactly how hard it is — that’s part of the deal here, too,” says Moore. “So Awkward Black Girl getting an HBO premiere, that’s great. Jenji Kohan using one of her several shots at storytelling to wedge in a few tales of women of color (and I’ve seen the show, and I like it, but we can’t pretend there’s some great radical racial justice work going on there) between lots of stories about a sexy blonde — this isn’t change. Occasional exceptions to patriarchy and, let’s face it, white supremacy have always been allowed. Change will come when Issa Rae [of Awkward Black Girl] doesn’t have to work her ass off running (and funding) a web video series for several years to get a shot at an HBO series; she just needs to be offered the same opportunities David Simon gets regularly.”

It is for this reason that Comics Undressed feels not just of the moment, but very much part of an ongoing conversation around media justice and the stories that are allowed to be told. Ladydrawers’ Comics Undressed will also use the statistical information about the bro-focused nature of comics and, ultimately, work toward changing those race, class and gender-biased dynamics.

“The framework of media justice hasn’t ever really been applied to comics before, so we’re sort of working through that a bit,” says Moore. “But what’s important to keep in mind — and this applies to our comics too — is that we’re not just pointing the camera at something interesting.”

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