House of Illustration, London
5 February – 15 May 2016
by MK PALOMAR
The Comix Creatrix exhibition at the House of Illustration is groundbreaking. Women have most likely been making graphic images since they realised sticks could leave a mark in mud – “Bear in cave – move on quickly” may have been an early example – so it’s safe to say this ground has been trodden for a very long time, but here lies the double whammy of gender and discipline. A female making comics has to navigate these two old chestnuts because our society’s preference for considering the male presupposes that other genders (there are more than two) are of less importance, and the discipline of making comics/graphic novels has generally been regarded as light entertainment in comparison with blokes chipping stones or spreading coloured oil on to canvas (excuse me – did my objectivity just slip?).
And so, despite the fact that I wish we were in a time when there didn’t need to be an exhibition of women making comics, I’d like to send a round of applause up to Olivia Ahmad and Paul Gravett, the two curators who have produced a really interesting and informative show, and ask them, please, to produce a catalogue documenting this important gathering of works, so others can research what has so studiously been brought together, pick up the baton and move forward from here.
Let’s go back to the second of those chestnuts, the hierarchy of discipline in relation to the seriousness with which the work is considered. We all know William Hogarth’s pictures, which captured the social and political condition of the country in the 1700s, and then George Cruikshank’s images, which did the same in the 1800s – and we know today that these images are perceived as a reading of the condition of that time and those people in that place. But most of us have not heard of Hogarth’s contemporary, Mary Darly (whose image Corporal Perpendicular, 1775, begins this exhibition). Darly was “among the first professional caricaturists in England. In 1762 she published the first manual on drawing caricature at her shop near Leicester Square.”1
Satirical imagery not only takes a reading of what is, but also layers on to that reading the human response to what is, so why, today, from a fine art point of view, are comics and their makers largely dismissed as insignificant? Elitist attitudes frequently mask a deep-rooted fear of change, but to quote the marvellous, and sadly recently deceased, geographer Doreen Massey, “The mountains move at the rate our fingernails grow,”2 nothing is ever fixed – nothing can stay still, and this applies not only to our physical environments but also to those ideas and images that are put into the environment, and to the reception of those ideas and images.
At the opening of Comix Creatrix, just when I was hoping to reveal that this genre is not restricted to narrow boundaries, a large wall text tells us what we are looking at: “The art of comics is a distinct form of illustration. Comics use illustration to convey a story, an idea, information or even something abstract. Whether accompanied by text or not – these images are not only to be looked at, they are to be read.” I beg your pardon, but isn’t it true to say, we all read every kind of image we see. So let’s enjoy how rich and unfixed this genre can be, beginning with the work of Charlotte Salomon. Shortly before Salomon’s appalling early death in Auschwitz at the age of 26, she hid her paintings depicting life for a young Jew under Hitler.3,4 Salomon’s glowing, brightly coloured paintings positioned in this Comix Creatrix exhibition challenge the fixture of the wall text. Salomon’s works do tell her own story, but in them are all kinds of things also going on. The imagery in Salomon’s paintings is reminiscent of Andrzej Jackowski’s painting series The Beekeeper’s Son (1991 winner of the John Moores Painting Prize), in which a number of possible things are going on. The point being that these works by Salomon (paintings, comics, drawings, graphic stories, whatever you choose to call them – I say they are all of these) are neither fixed to a singular reading, nor are they defined by a narrow discipline.
Next to Salomon’s work are images by Tove Jansson. Generally categorised as a children’s illustrator, Jansson trained as a painter. Her rendering and imaginative skills are clearly revealed in her sketches for Moomin (1952-54). Fresh, sure and sparely composed, they beautifully describe form and space with the lightness of line. I could go on to describe other images in this exhibition – made in a “myriad” of styles (Myriad is also the name of one of this medium’s champion contemporary publishers), depicting autobiographical narratives, fictional horror, misery memoir, children’s fairytale, you name it – all manner of imagery and narrative are here – but two reviews in the Guardian have already eloquently documented how interesting and important this exhibition is, The not-so-secret history of comics drawn by women by Laurenn McCubbin5 and Comix Creatrix: where women artists and stories are the big draw by Tola Onanuga.6 So, instead, I’d like to take the opportunity of interviewing three participants of the Comix Creatrix exhibition, Sarah Lightman, Nicola Streeten and Rachael House, whose experience and practice contributes an informed insight into those chestnuts I touched on earlier, and their ideas will layer an additional narrative on to this important collection of her stories.
It is important to note that in 2009 Lightman and Streeten founded Laydeez do Comics, a “graphic novel forum with a focus on comic works based on life narrative”. Attending monthly meetings of Laydeez do Comics is like being at an unclub for interested creators and thinkers – or as Julie Davis wrote in her 2013 text Art Animal, a women’s art magazine: “Laydeez do Comics is like a combination between a book club and a series of TED talks.” It is also important to note that Streeten and Lightman are both completing PhDs centred in different ways around the graphic novel. The reputation of light entertainment held by comics and graphic novels hides considerable and serious research that now underpins contemporary practice exploring this discipline.
MK Palomar: Sarah Lightman, your work in the Comix Creatrix exhibition, Works on the Book of Sarah, explains how your siblings all have religious texts bearing their name, but your name – Sarah – has none, so in 1995 you began The Book of Sarah. This is a genre you’ve been working in for more than two decades. Can you tell us when and why you set up Laydeez do Comics with Nicola Streeten?
Sarah Lightman: It was in 2009. We wanted a space to discuss autobiographical comics and there wasn’t anywhere. We wanted to create a forum that was both intelligent and supportive; none of that knocking down they do at art school! We wanted LdC to be run by women but open to everyone. We think cake is very important as a way to make everyone feel welcome and at home. London is a big city, and people aren’t always friendly. In LdC, the work presented is often very personal and tender, and we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable. And we also do The Question, which means everyone in the audience must introduce themselves and feel valued, and also personally invested in the event.
We’re still surprised about how well LdC has done, with all the branches around the world. You don’t get paid for running a branch of LDC, but you get a real feeling of creating a community. And also it puts women in control on the comics scene which is, I am afraid, still often run by men.
MK: What are your views on the exhibition?
SL: Comix Creatrix is a great show. It takes a lot of skill to exhibit so much work whilst also ensuring it is a pleasure to view. There is great respect for the artworks and it is wonderful to have early comics and contemporary works in one show. Nicola and I did not curate it and I wasn’t involved in choosing work. I am full of respect for Olivia and Paul and all the work they have done. I do wish there was a printed catalogue as I believe it would be a well-needed resource. I am delighted to be in the show.
I do worry, though. I worry that there will continue to be mainstream comics shows, not comics shows about women, but about comics in general, that do not have gender parity. I can still see comics shows and panels that have a predominantly (white) male lineup, even when the events and shows are set up by women.
MKP: How would you describe your practice?
SL: I think of myself as an artist who is making a graphic novel. I feel very happy and comfortable in the world of comics. I feel my projects, exhibitions and publications have made a significant contribution to the world of comics, and as a creator I am excited to publish my graphic novel, The Book of Sarah (Myriad Editions, 2017). I also make animation films and larger drawings, as well as pages the size on show in Comix Creatrix.
In Comix Creatrix, I’ve loved seeing so many artists’ original works, especially the beautifully painted originals of Hannah Berry and Audrey Niffenegger. The art in these works is just wonderful and has been very inspiring and I am looking forward to making more painted stories and paintings in the next few years.
MKP: Nicola Streeten, can you talk to us about your experience of setting up Laydeez do Comics with Sarah?
Nicola Streeten: When Sarah and I were at the Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in 2009, we were inspired to set up Laydeez do Comics. Baker’s show was curated in such a way that suddenly you’d be lost because of the physical direction the exhibition led you – such beautiful drawings about something very personal (yet broadly experienced), and she was making them public. Setting up LdC was also about needing somewhere to be safe – the first space we found was a rag factory off Brick Lane [in east London]. The owner had the chairs and we brought a projector and a kettle – he was doing up the building. The space wasn’t an institution and it wasn’t corporate, and it was the same building where Tracey Emin had had her studio – so it had a nice provenance. After there, we went to Foyles bookshop … and later Gosh Comics.
For the first few meetings, it was just people who knew us – one thing that’s really good about Sarah is [she’s so encouraging]. She said, if no one comes it doesn’t matter, we can talk to each other about our work. The other important thing about my friendship with Sarah is that the people whose work we talked about when we met were artists like Marcus Coates and Phyllida Barlow. Whereas mainstream comics come from a tradition of fandom, we were not familiar with the traditional superhero and fantasy-based comics that inform comics readers, our knowledge was of fine art.
Sarah and I told each other, when it’s boring for us we’ll stop, but it never is. It’s always inspiring to hear other people talking about their work. Laydeez do Comics is attracting practitioners who work with stories that resonate with something in our lives, whether it’s illness or breastfeeding or adolescent friendships.
MKP: Can you talk to us about the development of your practice?
NS: I did an access course, then a year foundation – I wanted to do textiles – I had a studio and was painting and sloshing around – my husband is John Plowman a Goldsmiths-trained artist – so I’ve been very immersed in the contemporary conceptual art world and project-managed visual art projects with Beacon Art Project, the visual arts organisation we set up together.
For me, the idea is the starting point – that is the thing. I returned to drawing after Billy died (Nicola and John’s first child, Billy, died in 1995). I had a style of drawing that had been in my sketchbook on Foundation – I would have never have shown it to anyone then – a friend had a card design company and asked me to do some designs for her. I made a series called The A to Zs: the first one was the A-Z of Babies. It did very well so I went on to do 80 designs in the series. Then I had samples to send to publishers and through that I got editorial illustration work. John had his studio practice – we were working out our grief at the time. That was how my work with comics began because the illustration style I developed lent itself well to comics, combining text with image and a cartoon drawing style.
[When Streeten’s first graphic novel, Billy, Me & You, was published in 2011, it was the third book of that genre published by Myriad Editions. Since then, Myriad has published around 25 more graphic novels, indicating how fast this medium is growing in popularity. Streeten’s second book, Hymn, is now in development with Myriad].
MKP: Can you talk to us about your PhD?
NS: My research is a cultural history of feminist cartoons and comics since 1970, looking particularly at the role humour plays. I started by looking at Spare Rib in the 70s and it’s full of cartoons. So I want to know why feminism is generally understood as being humourless. We tend to assume that trivia is lesser than something serious – but actually trivia and humour are liberating. Most autobiographical graphic novels whose stories are based on a trauma are also funny. Yet they are presented as stories of women’s pain – positioning the woman as a victim – the comedy and humour element is often ignored and therefore devalued, it’s perceived as unimportant when actually it’s liberating and rises above [pain and victimisation].
MKP: Rachael House, you have two pieces of work in this exhibition, My Zines a Failure made in 1999, and A Reminder for Pride, made 16 years later in 2015. Can you talk to us about your practice?
Rachael House: I make stuff and I make stuff happen. I used to separate my drawing of comics from my fine art practice, now I see them as interwoven. If I go to a college and talk about my work, I include comics. I had an exhibition at Cafe Gallery Projects [in Southwark Park, London] in 2012. It was the Queen’s diamond jubilee. I had drawn a comic strip about why I didn’t want to celebrate the occasion, yet at the same time I wanted to mark it. So I developed a project in which I invited people to make a flotilla – that came out of the comic strip that I’d drawn. I made a zine documenting an emotional residency. I also interviewed myself for my MA reflective journal in a comic strip. I also make work as campaign.
I’ve got an exhibition at Cambridge University at New Hall. The show is curated by Eliza Gluckman (curator of New Hall Women’s Art Collection). Gluckman was very keen to show my banners, pennants, a large piñata and my comic strips all together. Much of my work is participatory or socially engaged and uses humour – comics are not on their own in not being taken seriously as a genre. Humour and socially engaged works are genres that are also sometimes not taken seriously in the contemporary art context.
Some people make complicated works. I don’t. I pare back and keep the drawing and the words simple. I don’t think comics necessarily need to be pared down. I do that to work out how I think about things. I think through making comics. I try and pinpoint things in a way that comics – words and pictures – can, by saying two different things at the same time simultaneously.
1. Dames, documentary and dissent: 200 years of women in comics – gallery, Guardian, 5 February 2016.
2. For Space by Doreen Massey, published by Sage Publications, 2005. Massey presented at the symposium Lost in Space: Topographies, Geographies, Ecologies (investigating the relationships between art, place and time), 24 February 2006, organised by Stour Valley Arts, venue Canterbury Cathedral. The idea of fixity and nostalgia was also addressed at the symposium Hide 2, 28 October 2006, at The Field Station, Gunpowder Park, London, and on Sean Street’s BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour, Not What It Used to Be – England and Nostalgia, 18 February 2006.
3. A Voice in the Darkness by Gaby Wood, the Guardian Weekend, 3 October 1998.
4. Life? Or Theatre?: The work of Charlotte Salomon, The Royal Academy of Arts, 22 October 1998 to 7 January 1999).
5. The not-so-secret history of comics drawn by women by Laurenn McCubbin, the Guardian, 10 January 2016.
6. Comix Creatrix: where women artists and stories are the big draw by Tola Onanuga, the Guardian, 29 January 2016.