Stereotypes, superheroines and femmes fatales galore

The portrayal of women in comics was celebrated at a recent conference. Matthew Reisz reports

November 25, 2010

Everything from William Blake to Wonder Woman, memoirs of mental illness to teenage fan mags, was up for debate in the second Women in Comics conference last week.

Chaired by Sarah Lightman, an artist and curator who is working on a PhD at the University of Glasgow, the event brought together established academics, doctoral students and figures from the comic industry from around the world.

Mervi Miettinen, who is studying for a PhD at the University of Tampere in Finland, explored how women had "no place in the male universe of the superhero".

In the 1950s, DC Comics' official editorial policy declared that "the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities."

Superboy and even Krypto the Superdog appeared on the scene well before Supergirl, Ms Miettinen said, and it was easy to point to a depressing number of cases where female characters were "depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator".

Maureen Burdock, an artist based in New Mexico, described how she had subverted the genre in her on-going F Word Project: Five Feminist Fables for the 21st Century, in which a range of unexpected superheroines come to the rescue of victims of domestic violence, child abuse and honour killings.

Others celebrated the role of comics in campaigns to encourage teenage girls to use contraception ("Your condom or mine?") or looked back to female figures such as Tootsie Sloper, the demure daughter of Ally Sloper, a drunken, bullying lech who became a popular anti-hero in Victorian comics.

Teal Triggs, professor of graphic design at the London College of Communication, drew extensively on her own collection of fanzines to explore the series of comics starring Katy Keene, "America's queen of pin-ups and fashions", which started in 1945 and were revived in the 1980s and again in 2005.

Helen Iball, who teaches in the School of English at the University of Leeds, considered a series of drawings by performance artist Bobby Baker - including an image of herself dressed as a huge frozen pea - produced over an 11-year span in which Ms Baker described herself as "periodically barking mad".

The Women in Comics conference, which took place in Leeds, was co-sponsored by the universities of Glasgow and Chichester.

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