by Morgan Podraza
During the weekend of 28–29 February 2020, scholars from France, Belgium, the United States and the United Kingdom came together for “Drawing Gender: Women and French-language Comics,” a symposium presented and sponsored by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in partnership with the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University. Framed by the events surrounding the 2016 Angoulême International Comics Festival in which the nominations for the Grand Prix included all men and happening in coordination with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum’s exhibit “Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art,” the symposium was dedicated to the representation of and contributions by women in comics within the Francophone world. Thus, central discussions during the symposium were concerned with not only bringing the work of women to the foreground but also calling attention to the ways that women’s experiences and identities are conveyed through such work. Importantly, these conversations also highlighted and engaged with artists and works that expanded beyond the boundaries of any one identity—including a range of languages; nationalities; sexual and gender identities; and social and cultural backgrounds—in order to further emphasize the incredible contributions of creators who have not been historically canonized.
Symposium events started Friday night with an evocative keynote by Montreal-based French artist Julie Delporte. Delporte spoke about her most recent book, Moi aussi je voulais l’emporter [This Woman’s Work]. She opened with a discussion of how the feminine is often dismissed and obscured—pointing to the French-language example of how “the masculine takes precedence” in grammar—and the resulting lack of women role models that she had as a child. Finding the work of Tove Jansson, the Swedish-speaking Finnish creator of the Moomins, changed everything for her, and it was this discovery that sparked her desire to create a book about Jansson, whether fiction or non-fiction. The resulting graphic memoir is informed by Delporte’s research into the life, writings, and art of Jansson as well as her own reflections on and questions about the connections between gender, sexuality, art and experience. In the absence of role models that she felt drawn towards, Delporte explained that she “curated [her] own collection of women [she] liked, gathering them together” so that their stories and works could be shared with readers. Delporte closed by stating that “the book is not just about [her]” but rather This Woman’s Work is also about the larger effects of meeting and engaging with like-minded women.
Saturday started with brief welcoming remarks from the symposium organizer, Margaret Flinn, who called to mind the long tradition of the obfuscation of women’s work in comics. Though this troubling history can be disheartening, Flinn described the way that the work being done now to recover the names and contributions of women—including this very symposium—is a sign of the change occurring both within scholarship and throughout popular discourse.
The first panel of the day, “Representations: Women in and of History,” featured contributions by Véronique Bragard (Université Catholique de Louvain), Isabelle Delorme (Sciences Po Paris) and Jacques Dürrenmatt (Sorbonne Université, Paris). Together these presentations asked questions about intersections of history, individual experience and problems of representation. Through Émilie Plateau’s biography Noire: La Vie méconnue de Claudette Colvin [Colored: The Unsung Life of Claudette Colvin], Bragard examined the relationship between the individual and the collective in practices of resistance while highlighting how Colored brought Claudette Colvin’s previously obscured position within the Civil Rights Movement to the foreground. An emphasis on the processes of researching, writing and drawing another person’s life story were similarly central to Delorme’s examination of the biographical works of Catherine Muller and Jean-Louis Bocquet, including Kiki de Montparnasse, Olympe de Gouges and Joséphine Baker [Josephine Baker]. Using the creators’ attention to historical details as well as the particulars of each subject’s connections to other artists, Delorme argued for the importance of correctly depicting both inconspicuous and obvious details when representing the achievements and experiences of women in history. Looking back to the history of caricature, Dürrenmatt’s analysis of how artists such as Rodolphe Töpffer, Gustave Doré and Cham used the genre to draw women underscored the ways that style and genre shape readers’ perceptions of both individuals and larger groups of people. Through a wide range of contexts, these presentations made clear the capacity of comics to shape and influence the larger historical narratives about women and their roles in historical, social and cultural movements.
Jennifer Howell (Illinois State University) and Alexandra Gueydan-Turdek (Swarthmore College) shifted away from the work of European creators in the second panel, “Engaged Francophone Feminists in North Africa and the Middle East.” Focusing on the work of activists and the revolutionary capacities of comics, both Howell and Gueydan-Turdek analyzed works that promote education, conversations and language that allow for representations of and discussions about sex, sexuality and gendered violence. Zainab Fasiki’s Hshouma and Leila Slimani’s Sexe et mensonges: La Vie sexuelle au Maroc [Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World] and Paroles d’honneur formed the corpus for Howell’s analysis of activism in comics created by women in Morocco, and the Samandal Collective in Beirut as well as the individual works of Lena Merhej; Abir Gasmi and Nora Habaieb; and Nour Hifaoui Fakhoury were the focus of Gueydan-Turdek’s discussion of art and activism in the Arab world. Though in different ways, both Howell and Gueydan-Turdek argued for the need to recognize feminisms, rather than a single monolithic conception of feminism, across different social, cultural, historical and linguistic contexts.
The panel “Bodies, Experiences and Locations” continued to consider representations of women’s experience with presentations by Michelle Bumatay (Florida State University), Armelle Blin-Rolland (Bangor University) and Catriona Macleod (University of London in Paris). Analysing quartets of women in Marguerite Abouet’s Aya de Yopougon [Aya of Yop City] and Elyon’s La Vie d’Ébène Duta [The Diary of Ebene Duta], Bumatay examined how representations of women, sexuality and urban life create community among readers and cartoonists alike by celebrating the diverse experiences and identities of African women. Moving away from the urban, Blin-Rolland turned to comics created by Breton women to discuss the body’s relationship to the forest in Roland Michon and Laëtitia Rouxel’s Brigande! Marion du Faouët: Vie, amours et mort, the coast in Delphine Le Lay and Alexis Horellou’s Plogoff, and the country in Christelle Le Guen’s Anjela. Through these varying landscapes, Blin-Rolland argued that Breton comics can challenge seemingly natural binaries that separate the human from the environment as well as gendered divisions of labour, parenthood and revolution. The failure of binaries to account for the nuances of lived reality were also a significant part of Macleod’s presentation about women’s experiences of abortion in Tonino Benacquista and Florence Cestac’s Des salopes et des anges; Désirée and Alain Frappier’s Le Choix; and Aude Mermilliod and Martin Winckler’s Il fallait que je vous le dise. Macleod argued that these comics, as historical and personal narratives of abortion, expand conceptions about who has abortions as well as when and under what conditions while also providing insight into the systems that seek to regulate women’s bodies within the pro-choice/pro-life divide. While the works discussed on this panel were incredibly diverse, these presentations challenged stereotypes and expectations about women’s bodies as well as their relationships with other women and their surroundings.
In the last panel of the day, “Industry and Audience Histories,” presentations by Jessica Kohn (Université Paris 3), Sylvain Lesage (Université de Lille) and Benoît Crucifix (University of Ghent) moved women from the margins of comics history to the centre. Hierarchies of comics production and publication venues were destabilized in Kohn’s presentation about women cartoonists working for unconventional and, thus, understudied publications, such as Catholic periodicals. Kohn argued that the deconstruction of both individual stories—specifically those of the male-genius cartoonist—and perceptions about legitimate media allows for the history of the cartooning profession to be re-written through women in ways that allow scholars to better interrogate and understand that history as a system of labour. Focusing in on a particular node within the larger system, Lesage focused on the erasure of women colourists as a result of historical conceptions of comics authorship in addition to gender inequalities within the industry. Using the Hergé studio as an example, Lesage argued for the necessary recognition of colourists’ role in comics production to not only provide equal pay and industry opportunities but also to better understand comics as a laboratory of multiple authorship. Crucifix further reinforced the possibilities that arise from an approach to comics history that foregrounds women’s contributions with his analysis of Nicole Claveloux’s work in Okapi and Ah ! Nana. Crucifix considered how Claveloux, through her simultaneous creation of content for children and adults, complicates the relationships between seemingly oppositional audiences and cultivates new avenues for collective readership among these audiences. Overall, the presentations in the final panel revealed the many ways in which focusing on women’s labour and production allows for a richer and more nuanced understanding of comics as a medium and as a network of relations.
The symposium ended with a roundtable designed to promote conversation and synthesis across the four panels. Together, Jared Gardner (Ohio State University), Michal Raizen (Ohio Wesleyan University), Frederick Luis Aldama (Ohio State University) and Lucille Toth (Ohio State University at Newark) engaged attendees, presenters, and organizers with panel-specific questions as well as larger questions about concepts ranging from methodologies to global feminisms to colonial histories. In the final statements closing the symposium, participants were encouraged to continue their fruitful collaborations across both geographic and institutional lines.
Conference presenters will be among a group of scholars contributing to an edited volume on the topic of women and French-language comics that will be published by the Ohio State University Press in the Studies in Comics and Cartoons series.
(top, from left) Alexandra Gueydan-Turek, Jennifer Howell, Jenny Robb, Caitlin McGurk, Jessica Kohn, Sylvain Lesage and Benoît Crucifix; (bottom, from left) Michelle Bumatay, Kirby Childress, Isabelle Delorme, Margaret Flinn, Isabelle Choquet, Catriona Macleod, Lucille Toth, Armelle Blin-Rolland, Jacques Dürrenmatt and Morgan Podraza.
Morgan Podraza is a PhD student in the Department of English at the Ohio State University. Her current research explores the ways in which comics incorporate other media forms and histories—ranging from read-along records to paper toys to GIFs—as well as the material relationships between people and media objects. She has contributed work on comics to Women Write About Comics and The Middle Spaces.