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“Ladydrawers” Creates Big Picture of Cartoon Bias

A new collective is producing a steady stream of comic strips about their own findings of gender bias. Topics range from the male domination at Marvel to female creators using male-sounding names.

Part of the Series

Ladydrawers, the year-old comic strip focused on the male domination of its own medium, doesn’t care how you interpret its name or pronounce it.

Whether to emphasize underthings or artists all depends on “what seems funniest” says Anne Elizabeth Moore, the Chicago-based founder of the collective of feminist comic-creators that predates the strip.

What the collective does care about is making an art form out of researching and publishing findings that others might write or talk about.

As one aspect of their double-meaning name suggests, they draw about it.

In June 2011, the first Ladydrawers strip appeared in the online publication TruthOut. The impetus was to provide a reaction to the attention-getting 2010 media-monitoring project called The Count, which tabulated and displayed the male-female gaps in a few “thought leader” journals and literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s.

The strip responded to those findings and in a progression of frames turned the focus on its more permanent theme: how the comics business marginalizes female talent. A sampling of Marvel Comics’ creators, for instance, were shown to be “88 percent dudes,” a figure that rose even higher to 90 percent for independent (or indie) comics.

Since then, the loose-knit group of creators has produced over 20 strips, interviewed prominent women in the field and created an ongoing portrait of discrimination out of ongoing research and data gathering.

Not only are the major comics publishers printing more work by male creators, men are getting solicited, accepted and paid at a higher rate, says Moore, who has been researching gender issues in her field for a decade. “It’s not even like the system has gone wrong; this is what the system is,” she says.

Conversations about sexism, even numbers showing dismal women’s representation, inevitably lead to skeptics saying that women don’t like to make comics as much or they aren’t as good or aren’t submitting enough, says Moore.

Researching Their Retort

Ladydrawers’ members wanted hard numbers to build their retorts. Once creators produce the data they publish their results in cartoon style.

In their first strip, artist “Marinaomi” and Moore wrote “comics have grown into a legitimate – and big money – business.”

Some creators, such as Alison Bechdel, author of the new graphic memoir “Are You My Mother?” (and subject of a Ladydrawers interview), are getting considerable acclaim in conventional media.

But, as the Ladydrawers founders wrote, such successes are the exceptions: “More often than not, it’s the female-identified creators who aren’t being encouraged to submit work, aren’t being sought out and aren’t getting books turned into big movie deals.”

The Ladydrawer collective numbers between 50-75 and trade off authorship as they quantify, critique and mock a range of topics.

Rachel N. Swanson, a member, recently blogged about Ladydrawers’ structure. She called it “a spidery collection of research done by students, strips by established comics artists, anthologies by lesser known creators and, of course, all of the above in partnership with Anne Elizabeth Moore.”

One strip looked at the rates at which companies publish comic creators by gender. Another exposed the prevalence of scantily clad cartoon characters. Transgender comic creators and female comic creators who use gender-neutral or male-sounding names is the subject of another line of Ladydrawers’ research.

Most recently, in a widely-circulated edition of the strip called “Who Gets The Pie?,” creators looked at the rate of submissions and acceptances by gender in a given pool.

Thinking Gender Politics

Moore began thinking about gender politics from her perch as an editor of a comics journal and later as an editor for the “Best American Comics” series, an annual anthology published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

She read far and wide and noticed that while the names of those who were getting published in vaunted venues were mostly male, the proportion of total work coming across her desk was not.

The cultural context was different, too.

“I saw that women artists’ work got talked about differently than male artists did,” she says. As one curator told her, female artists were praised as being talented “for women” but lacked a sufficient body of published work to rank among “the greats.” To amass such a body of work, however, these female creators would have to contend with a biased industry and hurdles, with the reality. It was a Catch-22.

Moore began to think about collecting more data and talking to more people publicly about the issue. She raised the issue with her class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was teaching.

“Things got crazy,” Moore says, describing 15 male and female students sitting around a table bouncing ideas around. They were eager to put their rolodexes of comic creators at the service of numbers-based information that might actually make a difference.

Collective member Nicole Boyett started out as a student in Moore’s class. She says the collective began with class members undertaking research projects in their free time, volunteers from outside of academia and professional cartoonists who came in to talk to the students.

“All of those people have each other’s contact information and now if they have an idea, we can all just get down to work,” Boyett says.

Community Building Experience

As the collective dug into the research, members found it helped to bond them together. “It’s community-building, finding facts to confirm things you’ve experienced,” Boyett adds.

Moore’s gender-focused class at the art institute is called Ladydrawers but the collective has spread beyond it. “At this point, about 50-75 people identify under this name, participate on Tumblr, blog or are involved directly,” she says, including men and transgender artists.

The collective has attracted fans and also alerted publishers to gender disparities and a new crop of comic creators outside the male mainstream. The artists have been labeled an “Internet crush” by bloggers at the feminist online pop-culture magazine Bitch and interviewed on National Public Radio.

Creators hope to produce a print-bound compilation of their comics and research called “Just the Facts: The Ladydrawers Big Book of Stats” for which they’ve launched a crowdfunding IndieGoGo project that will last through the summer.

And they want to expand their work. They hope to tackle the topics of gender, race and class in global pop culture. They want to help other art creators quantify their experience of discrimination.

They’re aware of the risks, says Moore. But she says members are willing to put themselves and their careers on the line to hold their business accountable.

“For a long time it’s really been based on my research and my set of queries,” says Moore. But thanks to the energy behind Ladydrawers, “people are going to step into leadership roles and start conducting their own avenues of research.”

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