Ah! Nana: The Forgotten French Feminist Comics Magazine by Catriona MacLeod

16 Sep

The process of female integration into French-language comic strip (or bande dessinée) creation in the twentieth century was slow, with women linked to this domain much more likely to inhabit the role of illustrator for children’s books. In the late 1970s, however, as Claire Bretécher and Annie Goetzinger made their mark as pioneering but exceptional female creators in the Francophone medium, a new publication appeared with the potential to expedite the slow inclusion of women artists into the bande dessinée by providing an unprecedented vehicle both for semi-established and previously unpublished female creators to present their work. The journal Ah! Nana did not fulfil this potential, however, and after falling foul of strict censorship laws and the restrictive economic sanctions that accompanied them, folded after only nine issues.

Ah! Nana was certainly short-lived, producing its first issue in October 1976 and its last in September 1978, however, as the only journal in French history created entirely by women featuring regular bandes dessinées – although male artists were occasionally invited to contribute – it constitutes an innovative experiment in the development of the adult Francophone BD. In spite of this, it has, like so many other female-led artistic endeavours, been largely ignored in chronologies and encyclopaedias of the Francophone medium. Patrick Gaumer’s 2004 Larousse de la BD does not mention it at all, whilst the 2003 BD Guide devotes one short paragraph of its 1525 pages to the journal, simply noting its creation by women, the name of its editor Janique Dionnet [1], and the fact that it was eventually censored.

Outside of Franco-Belgian comics scholarship, Ah! Nana has been very rarely remembered, due, no doubt, to its short life-span and publication solely in French. However, despite these restrictive facts, this ill-fated journal played its part in the international publicising of American female artists like Trina Robbins and Shary Flenniken, and contributed to the continuing relational dialogue between French and American comic art. These reasons suggest that at least the name of Ah! Nana should be allowed its place not only in the history books of the Francophone medium, but also in the continually emerging international commemoration of women’s historical contribution to the wider field of comic art.

The short article which follows is intended as an introduction to this French feminist comics magazine for those who do not know it, and will hopefully act as a gentle nudge to those who do, not to forget it.

Ah! Nana 1976-1978

The first issue of Ah! Nana was published in October 1976 and featured sixty-six pages of bandes dessinées, culturally-focused articles and reviews, and occasional short stories. Its first editorial described the conception of this new publication in the following way:

‘Several female artists, colourists and journalists were complaining to each other about having to incorporate male fantasies disguised as essential features of publishing into our work. We decided to act, sketching out the idea of a journal…’[2]

The first two issues of Ah! Nana contained articles and strips on widely-varying subject matter, with the sole commonality their creation by women writers and artists. From the third issue onwards, however, themes were introduced to each publication attributing a common thread to at least part of its content. Beginning with the provoking title of ‘Nazism Today’ in issue three, these themes moved on to discuss ‘Old-Fashioned Fashion’ and ‘Men’ in the following publications, before developing more sexualised and provocative content in the last four issues with ‘Sex and Little Girls’, ‘Cruel France’ (which focused largely on sado-masochism), ‘Homosexuality, Transsexuality’ and, finally, ‘Incest’.[3]

Whilst these themes added a certain amount of consistency to the textual elements of Ah! Nana, with articles, opinion pieces and reviews loosely based on each issue’s chosen subject, the bande dessinée content of the journal was much more varied. Presenting itself from the first editorial as a very ‘cosmopolitan’ publication, which would feature female artists from the United States to Italy and, of course, France (Issue 1, 3), the ethos of Ah! Nana seemed to be the inclusion of as many women artists as possible, as it concluded the inaugural message to its readership with a call to female artistic arms: ‘Ladies, we await you’.[4]

Throughout the nine issues of the journal, Ah! Nana certainly featured strips by scores of artists, with an integrated mix of (relatively) established names such as Trina Robbins, Shary Flenniken, Florence Cestac and Nicole Claveloux and less well-known or previously unpublished women artists such as Chantal Montellier [5], Aline Isserman or Cecilia Capuana. While most of the former are still recognisable names from the bande dessinée industry, of the latter category, several names which appeared only once or twice have since fallen into obscurity and little to no information is available concerning their contributions to the journal or later work.

As to be expected in a publication hosting such a diverse international company of artists, the styles of the bandes dessinées present in Ah! Nana varied widely. One generalised difference was evident between the work by American artists and that of their European counterparts. Trina Robbins, Shary Flenniken, Sharon Rudhal and Mary Kay Brown were the four artists that made up the US contribution to the journal. All had links with the American underground comics movement, which influenced both their rounded, cartoony styles and the distinct mix apparent in their strips of classic comic gags and – particularly in the case of Robbins, the most regularly-appearing of the four US contributors – nudity and explicitly sexual scenes. It should be noted that the work of all four artists that appeared in Ah! Nana was originally intended for an American audience, as each submitted translated material to the journal that had already been published in the US (Delaborde 2005, 29).

Bandes dessinées provided by European artists were very different from those drawn by their American colleagues. Most were created specifically for Ah! Nana, and despite adhering to no fixed style or theme, contained common traits that set them squarely within the context of the contemporary Francophone adult BD vogue, led in the late 1970s by sci-fi bande dessinée publication Métal Hurlant. In contrast to the US-imported strips, these bandes dessinées were much less likely to have a linear narrative and often combined realistically-drawn characters and surroundings with fantastical, surrealist or science-fiction themes.

It should be noted that, although the journal boasted an impressive array of female artists from two major comics markets, the bande dessinée content of Ah! Nana was not overwhelmingly feminist. While the textual aspect of the publication generally displayed a focus on women’s issues and the contemporary feminist movement, its comic art, whilst sporadically feminist to the point of militancy, was disparately-themed and as wide-ranging as its collection of artists. Only one strip series appeared consistently throughout each of the issues – Chantal Montellier’s Andy Gang – and although humorous and socially satirical, it rarely featured female characters. This lack of feminist focus perhaps indicates one reason why Ah! Nana is not readily remembered within the growing narrative of female comics history. However, while the ensemble of the bande dessinée in this journal could not boast a strongly feminist theme, a collection of individual strips promoting the contemporary women’s movement exist throughout the magazine’s print-run, and thus constitute some of the first examples of feminist bandes dessinées in the history of the French-language medium.

The censorship of Ah! Nana in August 1978 – which alongside its accompanying economic sanctions caused the journal to fold after only nine issues – meant that this pioneering publication was unable to fulfil its potential. No successful base from which female artists could launch their careers within an overwhelmingly male-dominated medium was created, and, as noted above, many of the artists who featured within the pages of Ah! Nana before its collapse disappeared from the industry after it folded and were quickly forgotten. However, despite its disappointingly short life, Ah! Nana was – and remains – a pioneer. A publication which actively promoted female comic artists had never existed before in France, and has never existed since. And despite the lack of coherence between the strips it featured, its collection of sequential art-work from France, Italy and the United States (amongst other countries) made it an innovator in the promotion of international female comic art. In spite of its short life and its short-comings, it surely deserves to be remembered. Comic scholars, Ah! Nana awaits you…

Works Cited

Delaborde, B. (2005). Le magazine Ah! Nana (1976-1978). Memoire de recherche . Universite Marc Bloch – Strasbourg II.

Catriona MacLeod is currently a lecturer in French Studies at the University of London Institute in Paris and is in the process of completing her PhD which examines the representation of women in French-language comic strips. She is an active member of the ‘Women in Comics’ group, and has forthcoming articles appearing in journals French Contemporary Civilisation and L’Esprit Créateur, respectively entitled ‘(Post)-Colonial Persistence — The Presence of the “Black Venus” in the Work of Warnauts and Raives’ and ‘L’Eugénisme pour les enfants: Heroes, Villains and Racial Purity in Le Téméraire’.

[1] – An interesting point to note is that the writer of the BD Guide article chose to cite the editor-in-chief using her married name, which never appeared in any issue of Ah! Nana, the latter always using her maiden name of Janic Guillerez in the pages of, and in reference to, the journal.

[2] – Translated from the original French: ‘Elles étaient quelques dessinatrices, coloristes et journalistes à se plaindre réciproquement de devoir assumer les phantasmes masculins déguisés en règle d’or de la presse. Nous passâmes aux actes, esquissant une idée de journal…’ (Ah! Nana 1, 3).

[3] – The titles of these themed issues in their original French were, in order – ‘Nazisme aujourd’hui’, ‘La Mode démodée’, ‘Hommes’, ‘Le Sexe et les petites filles’, ‘La France cruelle’, ‘Homosexualité, Transexualité’, ‘L’Inceste’.

[4] – Translated from the original French:’ Mesdames, nous vous attendons’ (ibid).

[5] – Although Chantal Montellier is now arguably the most prolific female artist in Francophone bande dessinée history, at the time of Ah! Nana’s creation, she had published very little. Her Andy Gang strip, which would later be made into two albums published by the Humanoïdes Associés was originally created for Ah! Nana (Delaborde 2005, 31).


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4 responses to “Ah! Nana: The Forgotten French Feminist Comics Magazine by Catriona MacLeod

  1. Trina Robbins

    2011/09/16 at 18:30

    Thanks for remembering Ah! Nana! It was an amazing magazine.



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