Comics have been a part of our universe for more then a century. As a medium, comics were always on the margins of categories such as "art" and "entertainment", but that's part of their charm and freedom. Anyway, who cares about these categories nowadays?
But it's not as though all comics are good. There will be always a lot to complain about what's being produced on the international comics scene. There's huge diversity--many different genres and formats and styles--but the greatest part of it is still mediocre.
One of the objections to popular comics is that they are obviously and almost exclusively created for boys. Most of the "drama" of the commercially-oriented adventure and superhero comics, for example, is based on plots where good guys are fighting with bad guys. Poor, poor little bad guys! No matter whether the combat is by fist, pistol, nuclear weapon, or clashes of mutants --in each and every one of these stories the bad guys are bound to lose. This simplistic formula was obviously created to fit the presumed preferences of young males who are the predominant readers of comic books. As a formula, it's not only simplistic, but also unrealistic. For a start, it's not that easy to define "good" and "bad" in real life. Above all, this is a pretty dull cliche, and that's why American underground comics authors from the 60's, for example, tried so hard to escape the limitations imposed by mainstream comics.
Among the solutions for this situation is to point more attention to comics created by the female artists. That's not so difficult any more because today there are more women in the comics scene then ever before. Women cartoonists, obviously, have their own points of view and a different sensibility. These are vital as well as refreshing . Some theoreticians point to the importance of attracting female readers to comics as a way of expanding and bringing changes to an already too specialized comics market.
On the other hand, it's important to say that some female artists do not agree with sexual labeling. One of the reasons for this may be that it's just another way of putting labels on art and creating artificial "categories," which is way too limiting, of course. I had a chance to meet Maaike Hartjes, a Dutch cartoonist and editor of an anthology of comics by women called Old Cake Comics. Maaike's work on that anthology was very well received, but she later tried to avoid submitting her works to women's
anthologies because she felt that it could tie her forever to gender determination. Maaike's comics are drawn in a simple and yet communicative style that puts an emphasis on her ( for the most part) diary-like autobiographical stories.
Speaking of the new European scene, it's interesting to note a large number of
women among the young cartoonists in Finland. I asked one of them, Kati Rapia, for an explanation. "About half of the comic authors in Finland are girls," said Kati. "Maybe this could be explained by the fact that girls make up a majority of students in art schools and universities in Finland. Also, perhaps there was enough space in Finland for the development of comics that are different from the usual adventure comics drawn for boys. It's hard to tell. It seemed as though every female cartoonist has influenced at least two others to start creating comics. There used to be a Finnish
anthology dedicated to women's comics, but there is no need for it anymore because our female authors are publishing just as often as the men." It's important to mention that perhaps two of the internationally best known Finish artists are animator Camilla Mickwitz and cartoonist Tove Jansson (author of a classic comics series called Mumin).
One of the problems of European artists (male or female) is that they are rarely translated and introduced outside their local scene.
Personally, if I had to pick two female artists with the richest graphic style to emerge on the new European scene, I would point to two Italians - Francesca Ghermandi and Gabriella Giandelli. Giandelli's style is elegant and kind of rough at the same time. Her stories are slow paced, poetic urban-life visions with drawings that have a "primitive" (in a best meaning of the word!) touch to them. Francesca Ghermandi became known outside Italy by publishing in US anthologies like Rubber Blanket and Zero Zero, but she definitely deserves more attention. In her rather "cartoony" stories, Ghermandi depicts highly styled, surreal city landscapes and interiors inhabited by deviant yet almost Disneyesque characters.
To truly know itself, Europe will, obviously, have to build a web of information and provide more translations of comics in a variety of local languages. Currently, European publishers still prefer to import, or publish translations of North American comics. This is perhaps obvious because the US and Canada have a long and rich tradition in the field of art/alternative comics. Among the most influential names on this scene are authors like Julie Doucet, a French Canadian who mixes autobiography and fantasy in a very expressive way. Her comics range from painfully detailed personal
confessions to illustrations of dream sequences, and phantasmagoric stories
starring Julie Doucet's self -portrait. These stories should be considered modern classics if such exist! They explain why Julie Doucet is among the authors whose work is most widely translated and reprinted in many countries...
Another author who delved even deeper in presenting nonsensical and dream-like scenes is Renee French. By not relaying on autobiography, she was able to produce weird stories that were often free of explicit "action", but leave deeply disturbing impression. Her Grit Bath series, published by Fantagraphics Books, collects everyday horror minimalist comic stories - bizarre and interesting.
An author who has found a different challenge is Donna Barr. She created a very provocative story frame by placing the hero of her Desert Peach stories in North Africa during the Second World War. The hero is a gay German Army officer, the fictional brother of the famous Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Even though this sounds like it might at least make a lot of people a bit nervous, Donna told me that she didn't really have much problem with readers who found her work offensive. "The only people who would find my work offensive were those who haven't read my books," said Donna. "When I speak to them, I try to give them a free sample. After they read my comic, they
would usually stop complaining". Just by reading the letter pages, it's not difficult to see that Donna Barr's comics have attracted a pretty diverse readership, rather different from the demographics of the usual alternative comics fans. "The only characteristic of my readers," continues Donna, "is that they are not determined by race, age or nationality, but most of them are educated people.".
But are the readers of today already more open for new and different comics? Well, the times are changing, and we can say at least that comics by women cartoonists are no longer a novelty. That's not so bad, for a start....