Back in business school I learned that there are many different styles of leadership. A good leader has several different styles at his or her fingertips and employs them based on the particular situations at hand. But this week I’d like to focus on two people who lead in a manner that’s generally not easily recognized. They lead, and in doing so contribute to their community and help build character by getting out of the way.
Brave New World Comics is a California based store run by two engaging and effervescent women named Portlyn Polston and Autumn Glading. Like most comic shop owners, they are energetic entrepreneurs who work hard to keep their customers happy, attract new shoppers and have a little fun along the way. One thing that sets them apart is their commitment to fanning the flames of geek-focusd interest in women and girls. But as you’ll see, it’s much more than that.
At their comic store, they don’t have a “Girl’s Section.” When I asked, they laughed at me and explained how absurd it would be to create some sort of cordoned off area, painted pink, with girly things for sale. In fact, they couldn’t even come up with specific product that would be ‘more appropriate for girls.’ Instead, their strategy is to create a clean, well-lit, open space were everyone feels comfortable. Then they just let consumers find what they want. Oh sure, they offer suggestions and guidance, but that’s based on the individual. In fact, they joke that their favorite thing to sell is the last thing they sold. “We don’t have an agenda,” says Portlyn. “Girls can read anything.”
In addition to running the store, they plan some very creative activities. Geek Girls Night is a quarterly get-together designed to encourage women of all ages to fly their Geek Flag. And there aren’t a lot of rules or guidelines about what constitutes a geek passion. It can be comics or Doctor Who or steampunk or Alice-in-Wonderland. The explained that one girl attended who only liked Michael Jackson. But she was deep into it. The group chewed on that for a bit, nodded, and then agreed, “That’s fine.”
These events often include a trivia contest and a panel. And at the panels, given the spirit of the events, the questions are entirely freewheeling. Several groups attend, including, but not limited to, cosplay groups, writing groups and girls doing-live-action video games. I’m still not sure what that means. Furthermore, Autumn and Portlyn devilishly boast they are “really good” at getting vendors and publishers to contribute “good stuff.”
Their Geek Girls Society is kind of like the Girl Scouts for only the coolest and nerdiest girls. It’s an after school program designed for girls 8 to 16, and is meant to be a place where can girls can enjoy their own geeky pursuits and be exposed to the geeky passions of others. Respect is the watchword here. The organization’s mantra stresses that whatever you like is great, and whatever anybody else likes is great too.
The ‘mean girl’ phenomenon isn’t limited to girls in middle school. It often starts earlier and lasts way too long into adulthood. And one could argue that it’s not only about girls, either. At the Geek Girls Society, their foundational thinking is one of respect and non-judgmentalism. Is that a real word? If not, it should be soon, as it’s imbedded into the DNA of this outstanding group. Autumn explained, “We teach them that you don’t have to hate. Every event is about respecting.”
Portlyn and Autumn talked about their personal passions, and how when they were younger, they were unaware that other young girls liked the geeky things they did. There was no internet when back then, so they struggled to like what they liked, and keep liking it. They wanted to combat the unfortunate natural way of things, as young girls grow up and then eschew the things they like for fear that their peers or society will label them or look down upon them. That’s where the Geek Girl Society comes in – a place where girls can enjoy their passions, and keep on enjoying them.
New York Times columnist Nickolas Kristof often talks about how the best way to end poverty, especially in regions of extreme economic distress, is to give a girl a book and teach a girl to read. In the local environs of Brave New World Comics, it’s not that dire, but they are applying many of the same principles to helping girls build positive self-esteem and contributing their community.
How far comic shops have come. Back in the 70’s, so many of those early comic shops seemed to be just one-step above the local head shop in the retail pecking order, resolutely shaking a metaphorical fist at their local communities screaming, “Leave us alone! This is our thing and we don’t want anything to do with the establishment!” Now we have stores like this one, where two women make a living selling stuff, and satisfy a sense of purpose by not only contributing to the local community, but leading. They’re helping others fly by giving them a little bit of runway. More proof of the incredible influence of Geek Culture and the local comic shop.
For more on Brave New World and the Geek Girls Society, please visit their site.
– Kelly Sue DeConnickWomen in comics are finally getting the spotlight. But do you know the rich history of female comics creators? The new documentary She Makes Comics by director Marisa Stotter and Respect Films/ Sequart brings us a fascinating, in-depth look into the unsung heroes of the comic book world. She Makes Comics, now available on DVD and via download, is the result of a successfully funded 2014 Kickstarter campaign.In an interview with Bleeding Cool’s Nikolai Fomich, Stotter pointed out:
The trouble with a documentary that tries to span a long period of time is avoiding the “classroom movie syndrome,” where you’re throwing a lot of facts at the viewer and little of it has any emotional resonance. So we tried to find the middle ground between demonstrating the breadth of women’s involvement in comics and highlighting particular women’s stories that we felt were representative of the major milestones of comics history.
During the 1950s and 60s, the entirety of comic book readership in the USA was split 55% female, 45% male. The comics industry (those with brains in their heads, at least) has been seeking ever since to reclaim those female readers. While many comic fans are familiar with names like Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, and even Marvel office administrator Flo Steinberg, it’s a pretty safe bet that even hardcore fans may not have heard of the first African-American comic artist / cartoonist, Jackie Ormes, who also was one of a tiny handful of professional female illustrators. The documentary also notes that at the time (Ormes worked as a cartoonist from 1937-1956), it was extremely unusual for a woman to even have a job, other than that of a housewife or secretary. (As context, Mad Men viewers will recall the tremendous resistance the character of Peggy Olson encounters to the notion of her having a job.)
As a lifelong comics fan myself, I’d heard of Ramona Fradon, but knew next to nothing about her, other than that she drew a good amount of Aquaman comics in the 60s. (She jokes that, since she lived in an isolated area without a library, “I ended up making up a lot of the fish” in the underwater scenes.) Ms. Fradon also co-created the character Metamorpho, eschewing a traditional costume for the different sections of his body, made up of different textures and elements. She Makes Comics features extensive interviews with Ms. Fradon, as well as luminaries like Wendy Pini (whose independent 80s comicElfquest was a massive, game-changing success), Trina Robbins, Colleen Doran, Vertigo founder Karen Berger, Shelley Bond, journalist and ‘Friends of Lulu’ founderHeidi MacDonald, Becky Cloonan, G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and many, many more.
The doc, Ms. Stotter’s directorial debut (she interned at Respect Films after college), keeps things moving at a good pace while giving us extensive coverage of each person, topic, and time period. We learn that Trina Robbins co-founded It Ain’t Me, Babe in 1973 – the first women’s liberation feminist magazine in the country. Local community outrage at the extremely frank, often sexual content led to threats of legal action and arrest legal action from local and federal authorizes. Thanks to intervention from the ACLU, the case against the women was dropped. But the foundation for a blunt and uncompromising female voice in comics had been set. Illustrator Joyce Farmer: “We made people uncomfortable. After a while, I didn’t mind making people uncomfortable; I ended up thinking that was part of my job.” In many ways, the female underground comics movement was a response to the objectification of women that some perceived in the “unchecked male ego / id” of creators like R. Crumb, who often displayed their sexual fantasies on the comic book page.
A section that covers what can essentially be read as the origins of the cosplay movement featuring Wendy and Richard Pini at the 1970 San Diego ComicCon makes for delightful nostalgia, and leads into the larger discussion of cosplay in general, in the modern era. Pini created (by hand) an actual chain mail costume to portray Red Sonja, which had never been done before; the metal involved weighed about 20 pounds. She recalls: “[Sonja] was a really angry character – and I related to that. Being told ‘No, you’re a girl, you can’t do that’ or ‘no, you’re weird [if you want to do that].’” Her repeated performances as Red Sonja at conventions and her enthusiasm for the character led to her being invited by writer Roy Thomas to write an issue of Marvel’s Red Sonja comic, which opened up her professional career as a comic book creator. We also get a terrific summary of the founding of Friends of Lulu – provided as a first-person account by Heidi MacDonald herself.
The film takes care to mention a defining moment: Jeanette Kahn being appointed Publisher of DC Comics in 1977. “That was huge,” said writer and former VP of DC ComicsPaul Levitz. “
The mere fact that she was there meant we started to get more women applying for interesting jobs. It said: the possibility exists.” Under Jeanette Kahn, DC certainly took more risks, welcoming British writers like Alan Moore and approving genre-redefining projects like iconic 80s classics Batman: The Dark Knight Returnsand Watchmen. Part of the mix at DC was a young editor named Karen Berger, who soon rose to prominence and was given her own imprint, which we all know now as Vertigo Comics, to build a new publishing wing for the company.
Paul Levitz also notably comments: “If you made a list today of the top dozen important comic book writers of the last 10-15 years, Karen probably developed 90% of them.”
Former DC Comics editor Joan Hilty points out that the landscape is definitely shifting, and for the better: “You’re entering into a golden age of breaking into comics if you’re female.” We do see some comics art featured in the documentary itself, but more emphasis is given to talking heads and historical / archival photos. Some really sharp art is featured in interstitials, to illustrate points made by a speaker (this technique was also used to strong effect in Respect Films’ ‘The Image Revolution’). . However, a sobering perspective is provided by former DC Comics editor Janelle Asselin, who adds: “I had men reaching out to me almost every day asking for work. And I got one email from a woman in my 3 years at DC. And she was super-talented and I hired her for a 10-page story… but I get kind of sad thinking about all of the women who thought they weren’t good enough or didn’t want to impose that didn’t ever send an email.”
Accompanying art by Molly Ostertag and Colleen Doran illustrates certain segments where an interviewee is reminiscing about an experience (a technique used by Respect Films producers Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennert in their documentary about the founding of Image Comics, The Image Revolution). I first watched this documentary with a female friend who had almost no experience or familiarity with comics, and she was fascinated and found it very informative. I enjoyed it a great deal, and am glad to say that it can serve as a substantial chronicle of the continuing journey of women in comics – a journey that, thankfully, has a long, exciting road ahead.
Follow director Marisa Stotter at @marisastotter & @SheMakesComics , producer/ editor Patrick Meaney at @patrickmeaney and producer / DP Jordan Rennert at@respectjordan.
Tony Wolf (@tonywolfness) is an actor, voice-over guy, sometime illustrator and rabid pop culture fan in New York City. His autobio webcomic series ‘Greenpoint of View’ has been featured in Gothamist and New York Magazine’s ‘Bedford + Bowery.’ He can be found lurking about at www.tonywolfactor.com and was the co-host ofwww.theactionroom.com.
Attention is paid to the ‘Women In Refrigerators’ discussion initiated by fan-favorite Gail Simone, and Kelly Sue DeConnick (who has a number of fantastic, passionate interviews here, including extended conversations in the DVD extras) emphasizes that she is consistently “wanting comics to stand up a little taller.” Another notable quote from DeConnick: “I can teach any man you meet about power fantasies. That is not an inherently masculine trait.”I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of several female comics retailers and their perspective on the industry and how to attract (and keep) more female readers. Interviews with Amy Dallen, who works at House of Secrets in Burbank, California, as well as the team of Portlyn and partner Autumn Glading, owners of Brave New World comics in Newhall, California , are engaging and informative. We get some excellent insight into their philosophy and approach to the industry, and to promoting the business they love.