“The graphic novel is a man’s world, by and large,” wrote Charles McGrath in a New York Times Magazine cover story in 2004. He was right — in a way. Most successful graphic artists and writers were men, and the comic’s industry was and remains exceedingly male-dominated. From R. Crumb, one of the most celebrated comics artists of all time, and his often violent depiction of women, rendered as grotesque, over-accentuated commodities, to the hypersexualized, bra-breaking breasts and quivering thighs of superhero comics, most female bodies in graphic form are enough to make Barbie look realistic.
So what happens when women draw their own bodies in a medium that has represented them so poorly? While graphic books published by men each year still outnumber those by women, the exclusionary landscape of American comics has been called into question. From blockbuster successes like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, to rising indie artists and vibrant online communities, female cartoonists are producing some of the most exciting work in the genre. Here, 23 successful graphic artists share their illustrations and discuss how women are reshaping a form that has marginalized them nearly since its inception.
“It’s challenging to be part of an industry where it’s still a novelty that women are cartoonists… Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the media they consume.” —Nicole J Georges
“Comics has been the perfect medium for capturing discomfort that is very real but isn’t visible to others… It’s been part of a very emotional process of accepting what my body has been through in pursuit of imagined perfection, and in survival and recovery from abuse.” —Katie Green
“I look forward to the time when honest depictions of women’s bodies are a normal thing to look at, instead of some kind of statement.” —Anya Ulinich
“I’ve had this attitude ingrained in me forever that if I want to be taken seriously, I should keep my body as covered as possible, even — or especially — in my work.” —Gabrielle Bell
“I want to see women’s bodies portrayed in a non-gratuitous, nonobjectified, honest way… I think it’s important to see women in comics who are not commodities or sex objects, but complex humans with their own desires, hungers, lust, and love.” —Danica Novgorodoff
“What bothers me about women’s bodies I see in many comics is that they seem so removed from the woman herself. Their primary function is to be on display for the reader… This is bad not just from a ‘that’s sexist’ standpoint, but from a storytelling one as well.” —Ariel Schrag
“When you draw, you have to forget what the object you’re drawing is supposed to look like, and just concentrate on depicting it as you’re really seeing it. And looking hard, studying a face, a body, makes you appreciate it, love it.” —Vanessa Davis
“We need women’s bodies in our stories, having sex and getting our periods and eating food and doing whatever bodies do, so that the things our bodies do are normalized and present — so that boys don’t grow up thinking women are gross or whores or pigs or any other horrible epithet.” —Lucy Knisley
“I love any excuse to look at naked bodies in a nonsexual context.” —Liana Finck
“It’s challenging to be any kind of female in this world, and it’s challenging to be any kind of cartoonist… Women need to create comics or our realities will be erased, ignored, or distorted.” —Jennifer Camper
“When you stop being a cute young 21-year-old grateful for any opportunities that may come her way and become a cranky 31-year-old professional with a lot of options, being a female is less of an asset. I feel like I’m constantly having to prove my skills as an artist and writer, and that I have to fight harder than male artists and writers to be taken seriously.” —Hope Larson
“I just accept the fact that whenever there is a desire or need or urge to draw a naked woman and it is good art, it has a place.” —Miriam Katin
“You are asking a middle-aged female if an industry, which traditionally supports and advances the ethos of primarily young white males, has presented challenges to her in the almost 40 years she’s been producing comics. Where do I start?” —C. Tyler
“I started drawing myself when I was 16 or 17. I felt like there was a real power in being honest and raw on the page.” —Liz Prince
“Women’s voices, LGBT voices, and the voices of people of color are all needed in any art form if we want to explore the true possibilities of that art form. Diversity is strength.” —Jessica Abel
“I wanted to depict my bipolar moods in a visceral way — for myself and for the reader — so I drew myself loopy, stark, realistic, cartoony, abstracted, in ink, pencil, polished, sketchy… Embodying and externalizing my feelings in the self-portraits, when I really nailed them, was truly cathartic.” —Ellen Forney
“I’m just trying to draw people in a humane, mostly unsentimental way that reflects the tone of my stories. I find it hard to draw people ‘pretty’ for the most part. I like all the lumps and bumps.” —Lauren Weinstein
“The images I see in superhero comics are fetishistic, cruel-looking, and not at all sexy… I feel empowered drawing women in my work because I draw them as they actually look.” —Mary Fleener
“When I draw nudity, for the most part, I’m trying to make it commonplace, nothing out of the ordinary.” —Erika Moen
“At their best, autobiographical stories allow us to experience empathy for others and perhaps learn something new about ourselves. If that’s empowering young female creators to talk openly about their lives (sexual and otherwise), great. If that’s opening a window for dialogue about the female experience in the context of a largely white, male-dominated field? Also great.” —Lucy Bellwood
“In my early comics, all of my girl characters were super idealized and cute — they looked how I wished I could look.” —Megan Kelso
“I like to have fun with conventional images of what ‘beautiful’ and ‘feminine’ mean to this culture… I think many women have a lot of ambiguity about their self image.” —Roberta Gregory
“There are so few opportunities to see non-heterosexual and female-centered depictions of sex… As a gay person, I know firsthand the despair that comes from believing you’re the only one, of not being able to imagine having a sex life — because you haven’t seen it.” —A.K. Summers
Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator. She is the marketing and publicity director for Sarabande Books and has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Program. She is currently at work on a graphic memoir about aftermath and abandoned places and an anthology of essays from twentysomething perspectives with writer Lucas Mann. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.
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