Thursday, 29 October 2009

A personal account of the Women in Comics Conference.

Women in Comics Conference
25th October, 2009

The day started with our arrival at New Hall in Cambridge. By the entrance was a lovely lady called Amanda Rigler, who I’ve been in contact with over e-mail previously, concerning women in comics. Me and Ellen received our little name tags and were shown to the morning coffee reception before the talks commenced.

Ellen on the left. Me on the right.

I’m a very shy person (believe it or not), so when I was confronted by the sight of confident, professional comic-book creators and enthusiasts, I preferred sketching and observing them from a distance, rather than conversing with them myself.

After the coffee reception was over, the talks began! Sadly, I found out that the speakers had been split into two different rooms, so I wasn’t able to attend all talks. In the end I chose the ones that were most relevant to my dissertation (which focuses on the –content- and style of Graphic Novels created by women), and got ready for a day of inspirational ladies (and two men!).

The first one to take to the ‘stage’ was Asia Alfasi, a Libyan-British manga artist, and even though I’m not a big fan of manga myself (I find the mainstream style much too constricted), Asia, as a person and artist was very fascinating and unique! She is currently working on an Autobiographical Graphic Novel about her upbringing with the different cultures meshing together (Muslim, British, Scottish etc), also talking about her choice of wearing the hijab (headscarf). It was a very personal and optimistic talk, which I enjoyed a lot.

After Asia came Sarah Zaidan who spoke about her post-doctoral study ‘Miss Meta: Analysing the Female Superhero Through Time’. She showed the evolution of superhero-physique and discussed what triggered the changes. I figured this talk to be very interesting for people who are into superheroes, but I’m not one of them, so I found myself sketching Sarah herself and her choice of clothing for the day. She has a bold style with strong reds which makes her look like a character out of a comic book.

The final morning-talk was held by Sarah McIntyre who spoke about her experiences within the Picture Book industry and how comics are sneaking into this genre. Even though picture books tend to be for children and I want to do graphic novels for a more adult audience, I found this talk very inspirational. The reason being her slideshow of different comic-book and picture-book pages, where you could see the colour, composition and stylistic choices made by the artists. Most impressive were the silent narratives. It takes a lot of work to make a story flow without words in a comic.

When the three first speakers were done, a short panel discussion took place, which I found was mainly dominated by Sarah Zaidan.

And then, Lunch break! We were all offered food and drinks in the conference hall, so me and Ellen grabbed as much as we could and sat down on the floor in a corner again to eat and draw. I doodled people while munching on some lovely ham-sandwiches.

That is orange juice in the wine glasses. Not wee.

Lunch-break over, it was time for the long awaited talk by Melinda Gebbie, the artist of Lost Girls, an erotic Graphic Novel that has been in the making for 16(!) years together with Alan Moore. I didn’t really know what to expect. My initial thoughts were simply: Erotic Graphic Novel? Ooo. Alan Moore? Ooo.

Melinda turned out to be quite a character, with a strong attitude, but what made me really lean forward in my seat and allow my jaw to drop slightly, was when she expressed her views on traditionally made artwork versus digital.

‘I come from a background of doing everything by hand.’

My ears perked up. She continued to speak about her experiences with computers.

‘I don’t know how they work. I don’t know how to relate to them.’

… And then explained why she did Lost Girls entirely by hand.

‘It’s a loving, stroking, hands on meditation which you could only do with your hands, because it’s a part of your body which goes directly onto this beautiful paper… And then you’ve got the originals forever.’

She spoke of the importance of physically layering the artwork with your own hands, onto paper in front of you, not on a computer screen with a plastic tablet.

At this point, I was in love. Perhaps even going slightly lesbian.

‘You must never be hindered by what other people think.’

She continued speaking about the current obsession of making things as quickly as possible, and also how the road of a narrative illustrator is a long and lonely path, but with great riches at the end.

‘You are the one who makes gold, out of shit, frankly.’


This talk was the highlight of my day. I even forgot my dull aching back, which wanted to constantly remind me that I’m female and not pregnant.

When Melinda was done, she sat down in the front row with me and El. I was starstruck and hated my shyness.

The afternoon split sessions of talks commenced. I chose the room which focused on Autobiography. At this point, someone had taken my pencil(!) and I was forced to sketch with a pen. This is a serious offense in my book.

First lady to step up was Kate Evans, a political cartoonist who has a history of crazy protests. She’s lived in a tree house. She’s been to a protest rally in a pink samba outfit… In short, she’s a little bit nutty, in a good way of course!

After her came a duo. Namely Woodrow Phoenix and Corinne Pearlman. They wanted to discuss whether Autobiography is a trap. Whether is makes us lazy, not bothering to create something, but simply using our everyday lives as material. Corinne also showed some images relating to her jewish background. I had a fleeting thought of creating an atheist comic.

These two talks were very useful for my dissertation, but I found myself still thinking about what Melinda had been saying earlier and feeling a little buzz in my tummy.

A panel discussion commenced, but I wasn’t able to draw all three of them before it was time to break for tea (curse you, slow pen!).

Kate Evans on the left. Corinne Pearlman on the right. Not enough time to draw Woodrow Phoenix. :(

Both me and El were exhausted at this point, but we really didn’t want to miss the last talk of the day. It was going to be a conversation between Dominique Goblet and Paul Gravett.

I am personally a big fan of Paul after having a tutorial with him at University last year and then being invited to the Bristol Comica event (which ultimately lead me to Insomnia Publications). I see him as the person who helped me get to where I am now. He was the one who told me to come to the Comic Con and bring my drawings with me to show to people. Something I wasn’t very confident in doing.

It’s hard to find anyone more optimistic, encouraging, knowledgeable and friendly than Paul Gravett. His way of conversing with people makes them feel completely at ease and seemingly happy to open up. It made me remember his chat with Kevin O’Neil at the Bristol Comic Con, which was a pure joy to watch.

But back to the conference talk!

Dominique Goblet is a French painter of complex narrative. She has the ability to switch between styles seemingly effortlessly. I personally liked her more detailed and lifelike drawings. She’s brave enough to challenge the boundaries of comics and fine art, asking things like: ‘What IS a comic?’ and also inviting the audience to think about ‘the truthfulness of autobiography’. Are the creators making some of the stuff up? Are they exaggerating? Leaving some important bits out? Twisting it? You need to approach Autobiographical Graphic Novels with care.

And so the conference ended with the gathered offered to join the speakers at a local pub to continue the discussions. I had to catch a coach back to London and El had to get to the train station, so we didn’t join the others at the pub. At this point I was also feeling utterly exhausted and in need of some paracetamol, so the thought of socializing made me want to hide in a corner somewhere.

Today I regret not taking time to join them at the pub. Just about as much as I also regret not approaching Melinda and simply telling her she’s awesome, and not poking Paul Gravett to see if he remembers me at all.

But all in all, it was a pretty damn cool conference, and I will be sure to attend any future ones.

/Jennie Gyllblad


  1. Bring moar pencils.

  2. I actually feel like I have to come in the defense of manga here.

    There is a WIDE selection of styles out there other than the generic huge eyes/tiny mouths one.
    I mainly read manga because of the story behind them, just like most of the comic books I read that are not manga, as well. Manga is just another comic book style like any other, it's just there to potrait what the artist had in mind for the readers.
    To say it all looks alike I think is a little ignorant.

    As for being non pregnant, you should problaby be thankful for that. If you were pregnant you would miss out on most of the speakings as you would have to go and pee every 5 minutes of sitting there.

  3. This is a fab account - you rock Jen :-)

  4. I was expecting a response concerning the manga statement, hence why I wrote 'mainstream' to hopefully avoid being misunderstood. I've had countless discussions with people (both manga artists, other illustrators and people who simply enjoy reading comics/manga) about the styles. The latest one with Ellen in a comic book shop in London about a week ago.

    We spoke about the lack of visible 'alternative' manga. The stuff you see on the shelves here tends to be the mainstream style which I personally find constricted, a bit like the western super hero style that can be seen in lots of comics as well.

    I want to see the stories and artwork that stands out :) That's what interests me. And a lot of comics -don't- stand out to me. Maybe I'm picky. Maybe I'm ignorant, as you say. But that's my honest opinion.

  5. Eee! Thanks Anjee and Pearl :D

    Hoeya - I only had one pencil that was my favourite SPECIAL pencil of doom... And it got taken away from me :(

    But as soon as I got back to Bristol, I went out and bought two new pencils. One will be a backup.

  6. Well, it's always going to be like that though. Unfortunately the mainstream is always going to be mainstream for a reason. The demand and money.
    You have to actually look for the stuff that appeals to you and it might cost a little bit more than mainstream.
    Whether it's manga or western comics. That we both agree on.
    About the demand and money, you should understand that point. Remember a couple of hundred years back when both you and I were rabid fangirls of random characters from manga/games/animes and we were shipping them hard, scouting the entire intarwebs for pictures and whatnot.
    It's really all a clever salepoint, make appealing characters for people to fall in love with.
    Demand and money.

  7. Yes. Hence why I do look for other things to inspire me :)

  8. I'm quite curious about the 'mainstream' manga style you're talking about here, because some popular ones, like Fullmetal Alchemist or Deathnote (overrated, but the artist is amazing), do have a nice not-so-generic style.

    On the issue of constriction, I blame Shounen Jump. Because a) their stories never end, b) they have to churn out work every week, and c) overrated. Just take a look at HunterxHunter, the artist basically gave up halfway, and his drawings were just scribbles (quite avant-garde actually)...

  9. Here's my valuable contributions to the deep discussion above. (or not) I don't particularly think the content of the wine glasses needed clarifying. There's only so many things it could have been, and pee, not being one of them.. although it might explain why im looking at you so bizarrely. anyways. enjoyed reading your write up GARH! :D

  10. Pearl, I'm happy to go to Forbidden planet with you (when I'm not dying from flu) and show you what I mean.

    And maybe you can show me something I haven't seen yet, since I think you are more up to date on the subject than I am. :D

    I hate to be a bore, but Full Metal Alchemist isn't really my cup of tea either. I'm talking art-wise here. Also, just so I won't get murdered in my sleep, I must reiterate that just because I don't like something, doesn't mean I think it's -bad-. It's simply not my cuppa.

    GARH (thanks for reading it El!)

  11. Out of curiosity, since I know it used to be your cup of tea. Saying you're just going to dismiss the stories because the art is not your cup of tea anymore?
    I agree with Pearl on shounen jump, it never ends because money talks, the artist get bored with his own story and craps out on his/hers own project. However, there are so many short stories that are really nice in ALL kinds genres. Saying manga is constricted is silly. If anything, I think western comics needs to break out of constriction, like you said, alot of super heros or just anything magical/unnatural in all. I've never seen a western comic without any magical/mythological/mythisism involved in it (magic, super powers, anhtromorphs/demons etc). I've never seen a western comic dealing with just a sales man trying to get by? or just a short love story. It would be wonderful if there were more of that kind, but like earlier, money talks and so far comics are still considered PG, more for kids and teens. Not trying to attack you, but the comment in your first post seemed unfair towards eastern style comics, while they have a wider variety of styles and stories/genres. They are even considered for adults in alot of cases (without being all about the XXX).

  12. Read Posy Simmonds. <3

    Fantastic stuff. And contains simple normal people doing simple normal stuff. 'just getting by', as you put it.

    And don't worry, I don't feel attacked :) Don't see a reason to be.

    I've become very picky with graphic novels ever since I started seriously going into the subject. It takes a lot to make me 'stick with' a book. The artwork -and- the story needs to go hand in hand and be of a certain quality/style for me to like it.

    Off the top of my head, Here's some work that I love:

    Shaun Tan - The Arrival
    Will Eisner - A Contract with God
    Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean - Violent Cases
    Dave McKean (and some dude I cant remember right now) - Arkham Asylum.
    Posy Simmonds - Gemma Bovary
    Posy Simmonds - Tamara Drewe

  13. I had a chat with Melinda Gebbie during the coffee session, completely unaware of who she was. She was incredibly fun and easy to talk to. It's a pity that sometimes our awe of others gets in the way of us just enjoying their company. Hey-ho...

    Love these ink and watercolour sketches of the day.

  14. You did! Oh lucky you. :D

    I think I just need to give myself a little slap and at least -try- to converse with people, but I just got so star struck. Sigh!

    Thanks for having a look! :D

  15. But I made my point just there! You see, I've no idea who that person is. I've never heard of those comics (except Arkham Asylum, but that's because of super powers, batman etc).
    You have to look hard, far and wide to find anything of the like in western comics and they are most likely to cost you more than regular/mainstream etc.
    Money talks etc.

  16. Feel free to recommend any alternative manga that you think I might like :)

  17. Hi Jennie

    These are such beautiful drawings, and really great write up of the day. I'm passing the link on to Amanda, and I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

    all best

  18. Hi Sarah!

    (I hope I got the names right..!)

    Please do let me know in the future if there are any other similar events planned. It was fantastic!

  19. Its really a great work you have done here. I really like this post. Keep it up.