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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I was going to include “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in the title of this post, or, more cutely, “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive,” meaning that any anthology should be both, making the adjectives redundant. But having now edited an actual anthology, I know I’m not the person who gets to evaluate the success of those aspirations. I also thought about beginning the title with “How to Edit,” but again, now knowing the challenges of the task, I feel less certain about offering advice than just reporting my efforts.

Bloomsbury published Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology at the end of January 2021. When I accepted the assignment of writing the textbook, the last word in the title seemed like an afterthought—one I could maybe avoid since the other textbooks in the creative writing series were words-only (Short-Form, Nature Writing, Poetry) and reproducing multi-page comics is a very different (and expensive) animal. Fortunately, my editor said no, I really did have to include an anthology. So I wrote in the proposal: “Based on permissions and availability, selections will be made from the following master list.”

Brainstorming that dream list was easy enough—though narrowing to black and white art didn’t narrow the field as much as I’d expected. The first version included sixty titles. If you add them up (which I just did again) you’ll find 35 men. Which means I flunked my first test: at least half of the authors need to be woman-identified or nonbinary. That’s a pretty minimal requirement, and I think I blew it because I wanted to include several early artists in a field that was so male-dominated for decades. The second half of the list includes more women, but that’s not by chance. Instead of traveling to research libraries, I used my university leave fund to expand my personal library, prioritizing works by women to offset the industry’s gender imbalance. I continued that practice when selecting new releases to review at (I averaged about two reviews a month for close to three years). As a result, whenever I am writing an article or chapter, the odds of my choosing an example by a female artist increase significantly based on how many are literally in arm’s reach of my desk.

There are other oddities about that original list. Picasso? I wanted his Bull series—part of my hope of showing that comics (or at least sequenced images) are already widespread in fine arts. I wanted two paintings from Glenn Ligon’s 1989 series How It Feels to be Colored Me for the same reason—while also demonstrating the hybrid nature of words as images. There are other non-comics comics artists in there too, but once I moved from thought experiment to the tasks of actually editing (researching copyrights, contacting owners, negotiating prices, issuing contracts, acquiring usable scans, keeping within my publisher’s budget, etc.), many of my thought bubbles burst.

Though photographer Elizabeth Bick rode to my fine-arts rescue, I was surprised by the number of traditional comics publishers who do not answer permissions queries. Some do respond, but only after you make many attempts, a process that includes researching company websites for employees with likely-sounding job titles to leave messages. I got to know more than one phone receptionist by first name.

I decided early on to forego Marvel and DC. I’d had mixed results with them both when requesting image rights for illustrations in my previous books. I might have cut them anyway, since they hardly need additional attention—though I was sad when I realized that meant no Howard Cruse (Stuck Rubber Baby made my second list). I cut Frank Miller’s Sin City even before it became clear that no amount of effort would ever compel anyone working at Dark Horse to return my messages. Ditto for First Second (there’s an adaption of a Thomas Hardy poem from a Word War I poetry comics anthology I still long to have). The creators of the photo-comics poetry website The Softer World stopped making new strips a couple years ago, but I still thought they would have responded (I even tried Twitter that time).

My biggest disappointment was Kyle Baker (my second list was significantly better than my first list). I did manage eventually to correspond with an artist named Kyle Baker, but he informed that, alas, he was not that Kyle Baker (though his website is sincerely impressive). I also discovered that Baker’s company name, Quality Jollity, is now owned by a sex toy website (I keep typing and then deleting a follow-up detail about that).

Also, it turns out Random House owns half the planet. I spent a lot of time at their “permissions portal,” discovering just how many imprints redirect there (Pantheon, Penguin, Schocken). They do not, however, continue to hold the rights for The Best of American Splendor and could offer no help tracking down Harvey Pekar. NBM informed me both that they no longer held the rights for Veronique Tanaka’s Metronome, and that there’s no such person as Veronique Tanaka. One Google search later and I learned that Bryan Talbot had taken the name of a Japanese woman as a pseudonym (I decided I didn’t need Metronome after all). Princeton University Press uses, which is a nightmare website if you’re trying to forward password-protected contract links to your London editor from rural Virginia.

There are so many more: IDW, Penn State, New York Review, Koyama, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly—those last three I leaned on most heavily, in part because I’d fallen for them while writing all those reviews, but also because they all (eventually) responded to my queries and so filled the gaps when others didn’t.

Of my original list of sixty works, seventeen made it into the eventual anthology. That’s a good thing, because the final table of contents is significantly better than my first I-really-don’t-want-to-have-to-do-this-anyway list. It’s still far far from perfect, but I will await others’ opinions about whether it is also “Feminist” and/or “Inclusive” in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other angles of differences. My failings are at least hard-earned.

The Anthology includes:

Jessica Abel, from La Perdida

Yvan Alagabé, “Postscriptum”

Lynda Barry, “Ernie Pook’s Vague Childhood Memories”

Alison Bechdel, from The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

Elizabeth Bick, “Street Ballet IV, New York, NY” and “Street Ballet XIII, Houston, TX”

Michael Comeau, from Winter Cosmos

Leela Corman, from Unterzakhn

Marcelo D’Salete, from Angola Janga

Eleanor Davis, “Darling, I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You”

Aminder Dhaliwal, from Woman World

Marguierite Dabaie, “Naji al-Ali”

Max Ernst, “First Visible Poem” (1934)

Inés Estrada, from Alienation

Liana Finck, from Passing for Human

Renée French, from micrographica

GG, from I’m Not Here

John Hankiewicz, “Lot C (Some Time Later)”

Jamie Hernandez, “How to Kill a … by Isabel Ruebens”

William Hogarth, Gin Lane and Beer Street (1751)

Gareth A. Hopkins and Erik Blagsvedt, from Found Forest Floor

R. Kikuo Johnson, from Night Fisher

Miriam Katin, from We Are On Our Own

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, from March: Book 2

Miriam Libicki, from Jobnik!

Sarah Lightman, from The Book of Sarah

Daishu Ma, from Leaf

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, from Alack Sinner

Sylvia Nickerson, from Creation

Thomas Ott, “The Hook”

Kristen Radtke, from Imagine Wanting Only This

Keiler Roberts, from Chlorine Gardens

Gina Siciliano, from I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi

Fiona Smyth, from Somnambulance

Marjane Satrapi, from Persepolis

Jillian Tamaki, from SuperMutant Magic Academy

Craig Thompson, from Blankets

Seth Tobocman, “The Paranoid Truth”

Adrian Tomine, “Drop” and “Unfaded”

C. C. Tsai and Zhuangi, from The Way of Nature

Felix Vallotton, Intimités (1898)

[If you’re interested in buying a copy, the Bloomsbury site offers slightly lower prices (including a PDF) than at Amazon (though Amazon is worth a glance for the preview of the first 33 pages). If you’re thinking you might want to teach from it, the Bloomsbury site also lets you “Request exam/desk copy.” Also, if you are interested in writing a book review, contact: (if you’re in North America) or (if you’re anywhere else on the planet) to request a review copy.]

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