THERE HAS BEEN a bit of controversy since Tuesday surrounding the International Comics Festival in Angoulême, France. The controversy was that the list of 30 nominations for the esteemed Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême honor — the annual festival’s lifetime achievement award — did not include even one woman. In protest, nine of this year’s nominees removed themselves from the list.
A very prestigious prize, the award includes the honor of being president of the festival, and of mounting an exhibition of your work the following year. And in the 43-year history of the festival, only one woman, Florence Cestac, has ever won the award.
Now, I must preface that I have not attended Angoulême, and am not an expert on that particular event. But I have been invited to many other cartoon festivals in France as a guest, and can testify that the French are very passionate and supportive of cartoons and comics. Their passion for the art form is wonderful, and I cherish the French people’s love for cartoons.
Now, in 2010, I wrote a history of women cartoonists at the New Yorker, and in the process learned about many women cartoonists and comic artists over the course of the past century. And it seems to me there are a number of women whose body of work should be recognized by the festival. To name just a few: Claire Bretécher, who was among the French cartoonists I grew up reading, influenced many young cartoonists of my generation and beyond; my American colleagues Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel; and Israeli artist Rutu Modan. There are others.
The festival organizers argue that historically, there have not been many women in cartooning, so to find a woman with a body of work to recognize, they contend, is difficult. Questioned by Le Monde, the festival’s Franck Bondoux said: “The concept of the Grand Prix is to reward an author for their whole oeuvre. When you look at the prize list, you can see the artists on it have a certain maturity and a certain age. Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics art. It’s a reality. If you go to the Louvre, you’ll equally find very few women artists.”
That argument betrays the lack of understanding of what history has done to women creators — be it in such areas as comics, art or literature. Women were long practicing these creative arts without being recognized. “Greatness” has tended to be recognized as male. Some of it has to do with content not being considered worthy of an award, particularly if the content is about “women’s issues,” whatever that may be. But what women write and draw about, of course, is as valid and “important” as anything. And women draw about everything. Art by women naturally is as universal as art by men.
So why have not more women entered this field? My understanding is that there is no one answer. In past years, humor was thought to be un-ladylike, and women were not encouraged to be funny. Humor can be aggressive and hurtful, and women were not inclined to enter for fear of being divisive. And the vast majority of editors have been men. Some simply did not want to publish women, or they didn’t see the value in their work—in some cases, perhaps because it was about what women knew best, domestic issues and relationships. And by and large, — with exceptions — women were excluded from the collaborative comics studios.
It takes effort to find good work that is being created, and it is not always the obvious artists who are doing the best work, but are instead the names already on everyone’s lips. Then we, as a society, repeat the same biases, over and over again. It’s time to interrupt that trend.
In 2013, I was guest speaker at the Small Press Expo in suburban Washington, and this annual comics festival bestows an award, called the Ignatz Prize. As emcee of that year’s Ignatz ceremony, my job was to choose and introduce presenters for each category. I chose to bring nine women cartoonists to be presenters for the nine categories. It was easy to find nine women who are gifted cartoonists.
The industry is changing, and it is an encouraging indicator of change that my nine male colleagues withdrew their names from the festival’s nomination list — and that many male colleagues, alongside their female colleagues, stood together in strong support of boycotting the event if women finalists weren’t included.