Long before Scarlet Witch, Batgirl or even Wonder Woman, women were shaping the comics business.
“She Makes Comics,” a feature-length documentary that had its premiere at last month’s Long Beach Comic Expo, traces the enduring impact women have had on the industry.
Chances are its deeper than many remember. While increasing diversity in pop culture, and comics in particular, is an of-the-moment issue — no less than three panels at this weekend’s WonderCon will explore the subject — women have been a guiding force in the modern comics industry since at least the early 20th century. “She Makes Comics” contains the footage to prove it.
The film goes behind the scenes and features interviews with dozens of influential industry figures, ranging from comics pioneer Joyce Farmer, Comic-Con International organizer Jackie Estrada, comic book editor Janelle Asselin and founding editor of DC’s edgy imprint Vertigo Karen Berger. It also touches on popular characters in comics as well as the burgeoning cosplay movement.
Hero Complex spoke with the film’s director, L.A.-based filmmaker Marisa Stotter. She was joined by producer Patrick Meaney, a documentarian whose other work has focused on comics creators Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis. The two are currently collaborating on a feature-length documentary about cosplay.
Hero Complex: What was something that you learned in making the film?
Marisa Stotter: I didn’t quite know how far the rabbit hole goes, in terms of women’s involvement in comics. I knew that it went back pretty far, but I didn’t know about any of the women at the turn of the century who were national superstars. I had no idea about them and they’ve sort of been glossed over or all but forgotten at this point.
That was fascinating to me, that even as the medium was starting up, there were women right there. We say a lot that there is this assumption that women have just gotten into comics over this past decade, but clearly that’s not true. I hope that this film, if nothing else, changes some people’s minds about the history that they know and educates them on the truth of the matter.
HC: For you, Patrick, you’ve done other documentaries dealing with the comics industry. What was different about this one?
Patrick Meaney: I think the biggest difference was that the other stuff to some degree had a single protagonist. It was a person’s story.
This was challenging, and we discussed things like, ‘What is the story and how do we tell it?’ Do you focus a lot on negative feelings and controversy or do you focus more on celebrating it? And how much can you celebrate it without feeling like you’re ignoring the bad stuff?
It’s hard to tell a story and keep momentum going — you don’t want to do it like a checklist. Oh, we did Karen Burger, now we have to do Gail Simone. You want it to flow. In some ways it’s better cause you always have something new coming. With Grant Morrison, after 80 minutes, you’re like “OK. Yeah. It’s Grant Morrison.” But here you can get a whole cast of characters to tell something different.
HC: And within that cast, there are a lot of names and figures that could be used. How do you even choose?
MS: It’s true that there are some many more women that we can talk to and fit into a feature-length film. But we really strove to get a representative sample from each period of time and to try to speak to women who were particularly influential, like Karen Burger.
PM: Most of the people that we wanted to talk to, we got to talk to. They really wanted to be involved and were generous with their time. But in any of these movies, you can go on forever.
HC: While popular creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick (above) might have been accessible, where did you get some of the archived newsreel material of the artists?
MS: That we got through the publisher of the biography of Jackie Ormes. That newsreel was amazing. To find that even in the ’30s there was an interest in female creators, it’s kind of a hard pill to swallow that things sort of went downhill. You would think that over time it would’ve gotten better, but it seems to have gone the other way in some ways.
HC: The film is available on shemakescomics.com, but how do you plan to reach a more specified audience? Comic-Con plans?
PM: We submitted to the Comic-Con Film Festival and we’re hoping to screen there. It’s hard to get the right deal out of a Netflix or Hulu or some of the niche outfits out there. The cool thing about the Internet is that if you want to see it, if you want to buy it, you can.
MS: We’re also bringing it to a number of conventions all over the place. I think Denver …
PM: France, Argentina, even one in Yugoslavia.
HC: So, “She Makes Comics II” could be females in comics worldwide?
MS: For this film we had to narrow our focus to North American comics. Every country that has its own comics industry has its own unique history of women in comics, and certainly, if you looked at Japan, for example, female comics creators are revered and well-known, which is contrary to this narrative. I think it would be interesting to take a look at comics from all over the world, but I think our next focus is going to be on cosplay.
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