Our dispatches from the Laydeez doing comics that attended the 2017 Angoulême Comic Arts Festival.
Awards ceremonies are a regular feature in almost every industry there is. Sometimes long, often predictable, they can be used to represent a lot of things. But whether it signifies a marker of quality, the celebration of a career well spent, the end result in a political campaign between brands, or an advertising opportunity for a new service, industry awards all send a blanket message about the allocation of power within their domain.
This weekend, four female-led comics communities united at the Angoulême International Comics Festival 2017 to actively work against the tilt in power that they have observed marginalising women throughout the industry.
This “International Girl Gang”, made up of Ladies’ Night Anthology from the US, Femicomix Finland, and the UK’s own Comic Book Slumber Party and Laydeez Do Comics, arranged several events over the course of the festival, with the aim of sharing and building a united “feminist agenda” to tackle industry inequality.
“The goal of the International Girl Gang was to show that women actually have a diverse range of styles and interests,” says writer and publishing professional Lauren Burke, editor of the Ladies’ Night Anthology. “Our stall had something for everyone – books on magic and serial killers, sex and slice-of-life, mental health and dogs in space.”
Graphic Facilitator, Cartoonist and PhD Candidate, Pen Mendonça of Laydeez Do Comics agrees that the first step in balancing the scales requires the physical presence of more women.
“For me its all about inclusion,” she says. “Being open to diverse voices, perspectives and challenges, always asking: who else needs to be part of these conversations?”
A little background
The comics industry has several annual awards ceremonies that claim to honour the best and most significant work by the best and most influential creators. The Angoulême International Comics Festival, held every January in the French commune from which it takes its name, hosts one of most prestigious in the world. As well as the several prizes in cartooning and comics creation awarded among a pool of nominees, the ceremony rewards one creator with its Grand Prix for lifetime achievement. This person then goes on to head the prize jury of the following year’s festival as its president.
A problem that might be noticeable already in this summary is that, often, people gravitate towards those who are most like themselves. This is why there is an “old boy’s club” in industries like the media, politics and the judiciary system and is the reason that there have been greater calls for diversity in board rooms in recent years. The fact that only one woman (Florence Cestac) has ever won the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême could, in part, be caused by the fact that only one woman has ever won the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême. And so on.
Of course, women’s chances are greatly reduced when none is nominated in the first place. In 2016, protest group BD Égalité (or Women in Comics Collective Against Sexism) called for the industry to Boycott the Angoulême festival when it was revealed that 100 percent of its 30 award nominees were male.
The boycott was taken up by a newsworthy amount of people, including several of the male nominees for the Angoulême awards, who asked for their names to be removed from the list. The festival’s officials released a statement, essentially saying that they love women – some of their best friends are women – but that, sadly, “the festival cannot revise the history of comics.”
A feminist invasion
“It has been heralded by some as a golden era for graphic novels,” Emma Hayley, Managing Director and Publisher at SelfMadeHero told an audience of comics professionals at the 2016 London Book Fair last April. “However, recent events have led us to question whether the graphic novel industry is failing to recognise the importance of female creators.”
Chairing a “women in comics” panel put together in response to the events of Angoulême Festival 2016, Hayley questioned if it was time to introduce positive discrimination within comics publishing to ensure that women were represented at all levels of the industry.
Keen to make amends this year after the protests of 2016, Angoulême officials took on the responsibility of this implementation, changing the nominations process to make the awards more accessible to women by ensuring that there would be an equal number of men and women on the prize committee.
The organisers also made room for the influx of women’s comics groups that wanted to make their presence, and their range of work, felt within that male-dominated arena. Megan Byrd, editor-in-chief of the Ladies’ Night Anthology, approves of these amendments, saying:
“Women in the industry have so little control over who is nominated and who wins awards. The only way this will change is if we are vocal every time the nominations overwhelmingly feature white men.
“As a community, we have to keep pointing this out… It is not enough to hope that the people making mistakes will suddenly recognise them and correct it on their own.
“I was happy to see that the Angoulême festival took steps to help change their nomination process this year, and that would not have happened without the loud criticism that followed last year’s events.”
While several members of the International Girl Gang reported feeling “inspired” by the positive experiences their union promotes, Laydeez Do Comics co-founder Sarah Lightman reminds us that the battle for equality isn’t over yet.
“I was so inspired,” she says. “…to meet so many women comics artists from USA, France and Finland, who wanted to challenge patriarchal control and behaviour in the area of comics both at Angoulême and elsewhere.
“[But] I was also introduced to the term “green washing” which is about making superficial changes. The authorities at Angoulême want to be seen to be including more women, but are still a very male dominated, sexist and patriarchal set up. They are looking for superficial and easily achieved solutions to make them look better than they did last year.”
Lightman tells us that, although they were allocated space for their “Sexism in Comics” panel, the organisers “seriously underestimated” the amount of people who would want to attend. Unable to fit the majority of visitors into the small room they were given, the Laydeez had to do some creative reshuffling to run two shorter seminars instead of one.
“We had to translate everything which took up so much time and we couldn’t really get into a discussion and work on solutions” she continues. “Meanwhile, the Committee of Angoulême are congratulating themselves that they dealt with sexism by even giving us a panel at all!”
We contacted the Angoulême Festival for a comment but have yet to receive a response.
Despite an imperfect system, the International Girl Gang are ultimately taking away positive memories of the experience, reporting that the most significant changes they see are happening when women in the industry are supporting each other.
“In order to consider myself a feminist comics creator,” says Megan Byrd. “It requires promoting the work of other women as well as my own. It means recognising my own privilege, believing and vocally supporting women-identifying creators when they speak up about harassment and discrimination they face.”
“We had lovely women from the Twin City Committee who hosted families and set up a lot of the opportunities,” adds Sarah Lightman. “These older women from Angoulême were very committed to improving the representation of women in the festival and were wonderful to work with.”
The weekend has also presented further ideas for improving the experience for everyone at awards and festivals. Hanna Pirita, comics artist and member of Femicomix thinks that translators to help speakers present in both French and English would be a useful resource.
“In France you always get more visibility if your programmes and discussions are in French,” she says. “[But] I think the best things we created during the Angoulême festival were networks. Having like-minded friends all over the world is a powerful tool to combat bigotry!”
Pen Mendonça takes this one step further with the reminder that removing the “old boy’s clubs” begins with looking beyond our own experience.
“What next?” she says. “We need to work with children from all backgrounds, to support young women, particularly as they leave education, to connect with those in countries and communities not currently represented, and to encourage more research and collaboration in this area.
“For me a key gap in both comics feminism and comics scholarship is around motherhood (including single and non-motherhood), particularly as for so many, it is becoming a mother that highlights significant inequality. In 2014 Tracey Emin said, ‘There are good artists that have children, they are called men’, we need a culture of inclusion and respect, where we everyone is able to thrive and be heard.”