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How the biggest new comic-arts festival reflects better representation for women

"Pajama Diaries," by Terri Libenson. (by Terri Libenson/King Features)
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One of the biggest debut events in comics unfurls on the West Coast this weekend, and although only about one-fifth of its 100-plus featured guest cartoonists are women, that is still a far better ratio of representation than you’ll find on your typical newspaper comics page. (The Washington Post, for example, runs only two women among its 54 named creators.)

So just what shift in thinking is behind this improved representation?

Well first, consider the history: The National Cartoonist Society (NCS) Fest in Huntington Beach, Calif., is hosted by an organization that for decades was largely anchored by male-dominated comic-strip syndicates. In more recent years, though, the NCS has been actively attracting more graphic novelists, webcomic creators and the next generation of illustrators — industry areas that some female artists say are providing more opportunities for them than what was traditionally offered by syndication.

One NCS Fest special guest who is smack in the middle of such change is Terri Libenson, the syndicated comic-strip creator (“Pajama Diaries”) turned graphic novelist (the new “Just Jaime”) — an artist who represents how some female cartoonists are gravitating toward the most inviting areas within publishing.

“There is a huge shift toward more female cartoonists online and in the graphic-novel arena — and that’s pretty great,” Libenson says. “It’s a large, talented pool [of women]. I hope that trend continues.”

The festival’s programmers spotlight that trend. The special guests over the next three days will include not only such established cartoonists as Hilary Price (“Rhymes With Orange”) and Cathy Guisewite (“Cathy”) and such rising syndicated talents as Maria Scrivan (“Half Full”) and Dana Claire Simpson (“Phoebe and Her Unicorn”), but also Bay Area webcomic creator Shaenon Garrity (“Narbonic”), French graphic novelist Pénélope Bagieu (“Brazen”) and Canadian artist Julie Rocheleau (“La Fille Invisible”).

Even the group’s biggest honor signals a shift.

Longtime alt-weekly cartoonist Lynda Barry — as well as Price — are among the five creators nominated for the Reuben Award, the NCS “cartoonist of the year” honor that will be presented Saturday evening. The other nominees are Brian Bassett (“Red and Rover”), Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”) and Mark Tatulli (“Lio” and “Heart of the City”).

After decades of the Reuben Award almost always being handed to a man — symptomatic of the field’s “lopsided representation,” Price says — recent recipients include New Yorker cartoonist/graphic novelist Roz Chast and Washington Post political cartoonist Ann Telnaes.

In her foreword for a “Nancy” book due out this fall, Price writes: “As a young cartoonist, where do you go where the real estate is cheap and plentiful?

“Hello, Internet. That’s where you’ll find the new generation of female cartoonists. Heck, that’s where you find the new generation of all cartoonists.”

Syndicates are certainly taking note of that. Two young online creators who have recently migrated to the pages of mainstream newspaper comic strips are Olivia Jaimes, the breakout star who took over “Nancy” a year ago, and Maritsa Patrinos, a Washington-area-sprung talent who has just joined the rotating roster of “Six Chix” cartoonists. Both women were recruited by syndicate editors who discovered their work online.

“Honestly, I just didn't know that there were [syndication] openings like this until they approached me,” Patrinos says.

Patrinos, who previously worked at BuzzFeed and Marvel, says her perception had been that comic-strip syndication was largely a stagnant field — that “all these jobs are taken by people who have been doing it for 30 years, and they're like pillars of the strip industry.”

Libenson confirms that larger reality: “Syndicates aren't taking on as many new features overall” as they once did. Yet, she says, King Features — which distributes “Pajama Diaries” and “Six Chix” — has championed some female cartoonists over the past decade. And King Features executives tell The Post that they are looking to align themselves with more rising female creators as part of a larger mission to develop diverse voices.

Jaimes, who is distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication, says that a foremost issue is not one of talent, but of economic models — rising cartoonists will gather where there are healthy revenue streams.

“There are unbelievable numbers of enormously talented women, queer people and people of color making comics online,” Jaimes says. “They don’t need to get into comics; they’re already there, and killing it. What they need is to get paid.”

Patrinos says she didn’t realize that newspapers or syndicates would even be receptive to her “specific type of Internet humor.” Yet she and Jaimes are proof that such comic sensibilities can sometimes translate to syndication — and that newspaper readers have an appetite for such voices.

“We’re looking for good content. Where that content is coming from changes,” says Shena Wolf, Jaimes’s editor at Andrews McMeel.

“Some of it is stuff we find online. Sometimes it’s submissions that are sent in. We’re always actively scouting, and being mindful to look for content outside the traditional channels,” says Wolf, who has also developed to syndication such strips as “Phoebe and Her Unicorn,” “Breaking Cat News” by Georgia Dunn” and “Wallace the Brave” by Will Henry.

“All kinds of people are making webcomics, and what I’m trying to do is make sure that we’re looking for content that reflects new viewpoints,” she says, “and not just things that look the way comics have looked in the past.”

Read more:

2017 Reubens: Lynda Barry and Ann Telnaes win top honors

A Q&A with French graphic novelist Penelope Bagieu