The panel originally included Denise Mina, Rhianna Pratchett, Kate Brown,Gill Hatcher, and Penny Sharp.
Mina opened up the discussion by asserting that all-woman panels which only spoke to an audience of women were counter-productive: "Gender is an issue for men as well." Ariadne, hosting, agreed and called out to a man in the audience to step up and broaden out the discussion. The Walking Dead’s Charlie Adlard (despite having paid good money for his ticket), gamely stepped onto the stage. The first thing he volunteered was that there were no women at all in the company he works for, except for possibly one of the PRs. Adlard's proffered explanation for this was that the UK comics industry is closely associated with the American model, obsessed with superhero stories, and the genre itself is sexist.
Mina described graphic fiction as a narrative form which is 'so rich and underused' in terms of genres. The overwhelming message from the discussion was that people should be broadening out the kinds of stories we tell. The comics industry as a whole might be shrinking, but there are genres and stories that have yet to be explored and exploited - not just artistically but commercially. There's a market for more diverse graphic fiction. Women from their thirties to their sixties tell Mina that they'd love to read comics, but don't know how to find the comics they want to read. At the other end of the scale, an audience member told us that a bookshop was unable to recommend a suitable comic for her teenaged daughter.
What is remarkable is that titles like Jinty closed with sales figures that were amazing by today's standards and today are thwarted by WH Smith’s demand that every comic come with a free toy. It’s a practice which devalues the comic itself, leading to the demise of real quality. So while there is a sad lack of graphic fiction for some age groups, these same gaping holes in the comic market are full of potential.
When it comes to self- publishing, the panel agreed that things are much more equal, with stalls at conventions like Thought Bubble showing a fairly even gender split.
In discussing Nelson, Brown commented that although around a third of the creators of this 'exquisite corpse' were women, the narrative arc and the publication were still controlled by men (although brilliantly so). Hatcher, who runs Team Girl, said she didn’t think of herself as a publisher, but as the head of a collective, and she didn’t mediate or edit the content. As a whole, women seem to be creators and facilitators, rather than editors and controllers.
So is there hope for an age where we can have, in Mina's words, "no more nut-smuggling zeppelins"?
Pratchett said the portrayal of women in games has come on a lot in recent years, and agreed with Brown’s suggestion that it’s now better than it is in comics. The key to this, Pratchett told us, was in the coverage that gaming has been given. Broad, quality coverage of games, creators, and news stories helps to diversify the medium.
Mina claimed that, “My generation's feminism fucked things up. As soon as you start defining gender, you're excluding people.” Pratchett agreed, telling us, "I think about being a writer because that is my choice. I don't think about being a woman because that's not a choice."
So why do we still need to have this discussion? Are women in comics panels still necessary? Are we being tokenistic, or ghetto-ising women to their own detriment?
We think the need for discussion is very pertinent at this stage in the history of graphic fiction. But if we host this kind of panel again, we're insisting it be called, at the very least, 'Gender and Comics' and have representation from all gender identities.
We want to talk about all kinds of groups that should be making comics, and have their stories told through the graphic medium. We want the industry to be diverse, not divisive.
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