Webcomics: the Female Geekdom
Comic books have long been a province of male geekdom. From Frank Miller’s tortured noir heroes to R. Crumb’s psychedelic underground scribblings, the canonical writers, artists, and producers of American comics have historically been men.
But there are other kinds comics out there, and other stories being told. While the Internet has long been touted as a democratizing force for media makers, it has become a successful publishing platform for cartoonists and writers from all backgrounds. Webcomics offer what comics historian Scott McCloud has dubbed the "infinite canvas." Though comics have been published online since the mid-1980s using early subscription services such as CompuServe, in the last five or six years the number of female webcomic producers has grown exponentially. Artists are no longer limited by syndicates, newspapers’ editorial pages, or the boys club typically associated with comics. With the Internet, artists can convey an image how they want to, using any idea, for as long as they need to tell the story.
Webcomic artists have developed small industries that support their work full time. From merchandising to self-publishing, companies like TopatoCo and Cafepress that offer user-designed, on-demand stock have been a vital part of creating business models for cartoonist entrepreneurs.
Danielle Corsetto, creator of Girls with Slingshots, says that her business model is "very similar to Saturday morning cartoons. My comic is a short advertisement for the merchandise." Corsetto sells books, t-shirts, and original art from the comic. She also offers desktop backgrounds for people that donate to keep the comic going.
It’s important that artists invest smartly, however. Spike, creator of Templar, AZ, only began producing merchandise when her audience began requesting it. "There’s a lot of skepticism, but people want to support the artist," Spike says. "If you have a quality audience that likes what you do and wants to see you keep doing it, they’ll throw a couple of bucks at you once in a while."
But when asked what her business model was, Spike laughed and said "Fuck you, that’s my business model! I do it myself. I’ve got a decent level of sales ability and take pride in doing it myself. I expect four figures online sales per month and four figures in sales for conventions. … I don’t have an MBA. I just run a business.”
Erika Moen, creator of DAR, argues that it’s easier than ever for a diversity of artists to gain recognition in comics. "Of all the creative fields you can go into, webcomics is totally neutral about gender," Moen says. "It’s your work, speaking for itself, on the Internet. People read my work because they follow my life. It’s a very level playing ground."
But the Internet also fosters a supportive community of other artists who share tips, tricks, and trade secrets with one another. The support and connectedness of this online community is perhaps to thank for the diversity of webcomic artists. Lucy Knisley, author of French Milk, says that the community is "so close knit and everyone is really good at communicating." There’s an overwhelming sense of solidarity for other artists, many of whom seem to work 24/7 to produce content.
The audiences of webcomics become a kind of community as well. Kate Beaton, creator of Hark! A Vagrant, discussed the benefits of the online platform. "When you’re an online author, you take down a barrier that can be in a book or magazine," she says. "There’s a discourse there that doesn’t really exist in print. [Publishing online] creates a sense of knowing and community around a piece of work because of access to the author and access to the readers."
That community is largely dependent on word of mouth. The artists in this article have never purchased advertising to promote their work, instead relying on links from other artists and promoting their work at conventions. Corsetto says that these communities are the "beauty of Internet. You can just pass URLs through a social network and spread the word. My marketing strategy is to always update on time and be consistently good. If you have enough people who are interested, they’ll spread word and you’ll have a business."
In a world that is still, in many ways, associated with male superheroes and buxom femme fatales, it’s good to know that there are other comics out there with dedicated audiences that are helping to see them though.
Campus Progress highlights five up-and-coming women who are making brilliant, pithy, wholly unique web comics—and making a living doing it (maybe supported by a little freelance work on the side).
The Historical Satirist
Kate Beaton’s comics feature a prestigious roster of characters, including Jane Austen, Napoleon, and Teddy Roosevelt. But when filtered through Beaton’s modern sensibilities and exuberant pencil work, historical figures become slang-wielding, swaggering imps that often break down social mores. A recent post featured the Bronte sisters ogling men in the street, while another series of comics was dedicated to Nicola Tesla’s swooning female fans.
Beaton, who studied history at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, says that her particular brand of humor isn’t unique: "A lot of people who study history find humor in situations and conversations" and apply them to modern situations. Beaton’s just got the knack for drawing it out.
Danielle Corsetto says Girls with Slingshots is "Like Kevin Smith writing an episode of Sex and the City." Corsetto updates GWS five days a week, and it has the feel of an old newspaper strip (a few panels and a punchline), but with a much more mature angle. The comic’s protagonists, Jamie and Hazel, are twenty-somethings living in a college town, interacting with a diverse cast of friends, all dealing with relationships, sexuality and gender roles. The strip also features a talking cactus.
GWS will reach its 1,000th strip in 2010, and Corsetto plans to release a hardcover compilation of the entire strip to celebrate.
Knisley approaches webcomics a little differently than the other women comic artists featured here. She broke into the field in print first, with French Milk, an illustrated travel journal. Knisley’s work is primarily comprised of short musings on life and food, illustrated with gorgeous textures and clean lines. She’s also a multi-media artist, and published her own songs, animated videos and puppet shows on LucyKnisley.com. "I went to art school and learned skills that I don’t want to lose," Knisley says. "The art-making process is really compulsive. It really helps my comics process to branch out and do other stuff."
Knisley is at work on her second book, Relish, a full-color graphic memoir about food. Her work has been featured on BoingBoing and other sites.
Erika Moen began DAR, a bio-comic about her struggles with art and identity, six years ago. When asked why she chose a biographical format, Moen says, "I think my stories are important because they’re unimportant. I talk a lot about regular people that you can relate to."
And DAR is just that. Moen’s work is her life, presented through the filter of illustration. Sometimes her comic is messy, and it’s often NSFW, but her work is always refreshing to see because Moen is honest about her struggle to actually live the life she wants. Moen has decided to end DAR this December, she says, "I’m emotionally and creatively ready to move on." It’s worth reading from the very beginning to watch her evolve as an artist.
Templar, Arizona is a story that Spike has "been wanting to tell since I was 12 or 13. Everyone has their magnum opus. [This is] my big deal project." Templar is a fictional city and the webcomic is a sprawling love letter to a bizarre alternate reality and all of its social subsets. There are the Nile Revivalists, who are trying to resurrect the ways of ancient Egypt; Sincerists, who always tell the truth; and Jakeskins, a sort of mafia/religious cult hybrid. Protagonist Ben Kowalski, a runaway teen and aspiring writer, is the main character that ties all of Templar’s dissonant elements together.
Spike is also fundraising to publish Poorcraft, a graphic manual for living thriftily in cities and suburbs.
Erin Polgreen is senior program associate at The Media Consortium. Follow her on Twitter.