The Best of the Brightest...and Still One of Many (by Kate Kasenow, katekaz.blogspot.com)

I. INTRODUCTION

Friday the 13th is an auspicious day for the first occasion to speak my mind in 2012…I’m tempting all the probabilities here. Though believe me, I wish I had written this sooner, for today’s essay’s topic came into my mind while I was waiting for my flight to take off from San Francisco just before New Year’s.  However, two immediate bits of writing had to be taken care of first due to deadlines.  (Though isn’t it wonderful to have deadlines?)

One was a series of essays for a major scholarship I’m applying for. The less said about them, the better.  Once those were complete, I got back into the rhythm of my new manuscript, the book Stephen Christy has been not-so-subtly asking me about for three years and change.  I’m going at just the clip I wanted, but even better, my work is being pushed to a whole new dimension of truth…I’ve been reading Gogol lately, and his ability to capture the complexity and emotion behind even the most inconsequential-seeming moments in the big picture is helping spur me on.  So are the recent accolades being heaped on my colleagues at Archaia; I need to play like Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, and BOTH Mannings just to stay at the company standard.  But when you really care about what you’re doing, this is a piece of cake…and I have so much I care about lined up for 2012.

Because 2011 ended on exactly the high note I’d been hoping for.  USA Today named An Elegy for Amelia Johnson as one of their best graphic novels of the year (http://www.usatoday.com/life/comics/story/2011-12-16/best-graphic-novels-2011/52007490/1).  I was deliriously happy for Dave and Kate, while for myself I was shocked that a novice like me was sharing space on this list with Kate Beaton, Randall Mueller, and Craig Thompson…and I knew that as proud as I am of my first novel (more than of any other thing I’ve accomplished in my life) I knew that over the year I had grown as a writer and could produce even better books than Amelia.  Most of all, it cemented a feeling which had been growing since San Diego, that my new peers accepted me as one of the community, a creative equal, which was all I’d dreamed of.

In short, 2011 finished so wonderfully that I was immensely looking forward to 2012 and more writing, more signings, more conventions, even more writing, more back and forth with Archaia, more reunions with new friends, and..writing every single damn day.  Then, in the week after Christmas, a chain of events happened which put a damper on things and which I want to address here…

II. MAIN IDEA

This is my most sincere wish for my life in comics in 2012. Not big sales or new books or a movie deal.  Those are immaterial compared to what hasn’t left my mind for a few weeks.

It started with one of my adopted hometown’s newspapers, the Chicago RedEye, producing an article on their favorite eleven Geek Girls of the year (http://blogs.redeyechicago.com/geek-to-me/2011/12/27/top-11-geek-girls-of-2011/).  As a lucky attendee of the Geek Girl Network party in New York, I can first say the title is a badge of honor, and I got a kick out of seeing people on the list whom I actually know.  I chat with them at conventions, read their blogs, follow them on twitter.  And I thought the piece did a great job capturing their personalities as much as a personality can be captured in a paragraph or two and revealing the full spectrum of nerdiness we celebrate at the conventions and such.

Not everyone was of the same opinion, and a critique sprouted up.  Mainly, that these women were playing up their pulchritude in a manner unbecoming of the “true” geek girl type, and this was dishonest, unrepresentative, insulting, etc.  Or to put it bluntly, nerdy females shouldn’t be sexy, and vice versa.

Coincidentally, a few days later Kevin Smith revealed the details of a reality show he had created for the venerable AMC, the first program of that nature in network history.  The show, Comic Book Men, follows the lives of comics devotees at Smith’s store.  The title alone prompted challenges to Smith–Why no Comic Book Women?–and his answer that he was saving the women as an arc for the second season after introducing everyone in the first season was not satisfying.  But even less satisfying, no, appalling, were the virulent reactions some people made to the women who had pushed against Smith to begin with.

What really bothered me about these events was they weren’t isolated.  2011 was the first year I dove deeply into the world of comics/sci-fi/fantasy news and conversation, and this trope was a running thread throughout everything I witnessed.  I saw it in the debate over the redesigns of female characters in the DC Universe.  I saw it in the maelstrom talkbacks surrounding the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at San Diego.  I even saw it when suggestions and requests were voiced that publishers promote female comic characters and market to a female audience.  Even the most lighthearted comments in this vein, along the “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” line we use when discussing our fantasy scenarios over a beer, provoked cold responses.

As someone who falls more and more in love with the world of comics and graphic novels and conventions, I am sad that the so much chatter goes on trying to define a place or a role for Geek Girls to fit into, no, to be circumscribed into as if they were different.

I am even sadder that I have been guilty of participating in the circumscribing.

When I was being interviewed by various media outlets in the time of Amelia‘s release, a question which always came up was “Who is the audience for this book?” and my invariable answer was “teenage girls.” Moreover, I was very quick to say it.

Why? Because I had written a book with no elements of fantasy, sci-fi, or action, a book which had weight but wasn’t heavy in its themes, a book in which women dominated the story and the central male figure is, for all his bravado, there primarily to learn from the women.  I thought a female audience would be the one audience to eat this book up, based on assuming what that audience wanted was something different from what the male audience wanted.  Keep in mind that I entered comics thinking that they were a bastion for stories of superheroes and aliens and people with swords, all the standard sci-fi and fantasy tropes.

I disabused myself of this reductive attitude as soon as one, I found that MALE readers were more frequently admitting to tearing up over my story and two, I gave myself and my conception a much-needed bit of analysis and realized that part of why I myself loved interviews and conversations with the early female interviewers and critics was that they invariably reminded me of the women in my own life…women I never had in mind in thinking of the potential reception of Amelia.

My mother was the one who told me I should read Tolkien and took me to see Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Rings, the one with whom I shared all the Harry Potter books.  She’s read The Hunger Games in their entirety and I still haven’t.  And her new hero is Lisbeth Salander.

My best female friend has watched more sci-fi TV than I ever have, writes fantasy novels on the side, and has bookshelves which are a sight to see.  Some of the most influential fiction I’ve read recently was read at her prodding.

And my ex-girlfriend…she had seen three entire Star Trek series.  She kept a MirrorMask poster on the wall.  And I visited her childhood home once and found about five or six entire bookcases overflowing with paper, almost all of it fantasy or sci-fi.  A big part of the reason why I loved her.

Knowing that comics have such strong ties to sci-fi and fantasy, why would I assume that a female comics audience would be any different in their tastes after this personal experience? The flaw with that reasoning, something else I have marvelously learned, is that comics transcend genres.  Comics and graphic narrative are vehicles to tell stories as serious and ambitious as any literary masterwork, and have great untapped potential for non-fiction and, I believe, the highest arts we see in museums.

If comics are really about everything, then the question becomes, why do we need to differentiate between men and women?  An all-encompassing medium has in the end an all-encompassing audience, and the gender distinction should fly out the window.

However, go to any convention and the predominant genres of comics and other media are still fantasy, sci-fi, and action tinged with fantasy and sci-fi.  So I want to stay with those genres as I push this argument further.

Some works possess intricate philosophies and elaborate moral systems behind their storytelling, and some are pure escapist fare.  But no matter which part of that field the work lies on, it, and all its brothers and sisters, creates a new world.  Even the most realistic science-fiction imagines a world at least slightly different from our own, and by extension, new—it isn’t OUR Earth and OUR universe.

New worlds are important.

A few months ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize lecture, and this passage reminded me not only why I write, but also why I read.

We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better.

 

We write and we read because we can imagine something different and something better for how the world is ordered.  It is our expression of a right to dream, a right to think.  To consume fantasy and science-fiction, to love them, to dare to create them, is to live a life in which these rights flourish.

Criticizing and dismissing women who love fantasy and sci-fi is akin to wanting to take this right away from them.  And my sad gender has for so long denied and removed rights from women who had to fight to get them back: suffrage, property, control over their own bodies.  Why do we want to take away the power to imagine and to innovate?

(And aren’t we the intruders here if people still want to push the gender card?  You could argue, and I would, that sci-fi was invented by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley at age 19 with Frankenstein. But that’s a debate for another day…right now it’s one more morsel of food for thought.)

To the point from the RedEye article: the sniping from both women and men over the nerdy v. sexy dialectic is irritating at best and horribly hurtful and offensive at worst.  Some people develop physical attributes which others find pleasing.  Some don’t.  Why should a random genetic lottery determine what your interests are?  Why can’t a woman with a body like Jennifer Lawrence’s be a science-loving nerd? (Answer: no reason.  Case file: Hedy Lamarr.)  And for that matter, I look nothing like Scott McCloud, who looks nothing like Chad Michael Murray, who looks nothing like Neil Gaiman, who looks nothing like Alan Moore, and nobody seems to question how all of us can love comics and genre.

Moreover, women spouting this vindictive against other women is unfathomable to me.  Most of them claim to have feminist motivation.  To quote my hero Clive James, “feminism is a demand for justice, not an ideology.”  It becomes an ideology when everyone who believes in the concept is pigeonholed into a particular pattern of thinking from which deviation is not allowed.  Saying that some women should not be allowed to look attractive, should concentrate on “more serious” affairs and demonstrate an “appropriate” attitude towards their passions, is nothing but unjust.

It’s the mind that matters, and as I’ve said before and will say again, intelligence and creativity are incredibly alluring qualities.  Every woman I’ve ever cared for possesses them in spades, and they say more about any woman, about any PERSON, then a body.

Finally, after this year of observing these events one after the other, and of learning from and repenting my own erroneous attitudes, I have reached a point where I cannot tolerate intolerance even casually expressed anymore.  Because this year has also allowed me to meet so many intelligent, witty, dedicated, and amazingly passionate women, be they critics, columnists, writers, artists, editors, some of the most mentally imposing scholars I’ve ever known, and above all my indescribable, beyond definition creative partner Kate.  Personally, I feel so enriched by the acquaintances.  Beyond me, they are altering the face of this ever-changing medium and altering it far, far for the better.

My wish for the graphic narrative world in 2012 is that this debate stops.  STOPS.  Not because we all ignore it, but because we agree it never should have started in the first place.  That this world of OUR creation is a world which welcomes everyone, the only qualification being that you have a vision, a thought, a way to express yourself.

I know that this year, at my signing tables, I will be doing my best to not look at others and see men and women.  I will do my best to write and imagine my audience not as men and women.

I will do my best to only recognize them as fellow dreamers.

III. NO, THAT WAS ALREADY THE CONCLUSION, I WAS MAKING SURE YOU WERE PAYING ATTENTION