International Women’s Day: Celebrating real life heroes through comic books

David Barnett looks at a pioneering new project that aims to tell the inspiring stories of women who have shaped the world in comic book form 

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On the night of the US Presidential Election, Shelly Bond had just returned from a comics convention in the UK to her home in Los Angeles. The news that Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton to the White House gradually permeated her jet-lagged doze. “We sleep with the TV on so while I was enjoying a fitful slumber I was rudely awakened from my haze by what I believed was a Black Mirror version of the news,” she says, referencing Charlie Brooker’s series of nightmarish alternate-reality dramas. “I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears. Clearly, it was a devastating missed opportunity for women.”

The next night Bond was at LA’s El Rey Theatre to watch a solo performance by Moloko frontwoman Roisin Murphy. An antidote to the incoming Trump presidency, for sure – “There's no magic quite like a seeing a singer/performance artist whose music is at once beautiful and bombastic” – but also a moment of catalyst for Bond, who looked around and saw the “crush of the enraptured crowd”. She says: “That, ultimately, sold me on bringing Femme Magnifique to life.”

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Kat Blaque is a transgender blogger and YouTuber, whose story will be told in the comic anthology

Femme Magnifique is a forthcoming graphic anthology that celebrates the lives of real women – as the tagline goes, “Comic-book stories that celebrate women who crack ceilings, take names, and change the game. ”

Bond certainly has the chops to pull off the project; until just about a year ago, she was the vice president and executive editor of DC comics’ Vertigo imprint, which put out titles that were more edgy, ground-breaking and cutting edge than the company’s usual superhero fare. A company restructuring meant she parted with the company after 23 years. Last weekend, the news broke that Bond was heading up a brand-new imprint, Black Crown, for US comic publisher IDW Entertainment, but in the meantime she’d been pondering Femme Magnifique. She says, “The idea was simmering for a while but crystallised in early November thanks to the US presidential election and that Roisin Murphy gig. I couldn't wait to put out a call-to-arms within the comic book community, to turn the onslaught of anger about the Trump election results into positivity, so we could become a fortress of knowledge and change. ”

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Pauline Ganucheau does lettering for Zodiac Starforce, a comic series about an elite group of teenage girls with magical powers sworn to protect the universe

As well as the editing experience, Bond also has a stuffed contacts book, which means that Femme Magnifique’s collection of three-page stories are being put together right now by some of the biggest names in the comics world – and beyond. There are names that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who follows comics – Kelly Sue DeConnick, writer of Captain Marvel and Bitch Planet; Gail Simone, whose credits include Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Red Sonja; Gilbert Hernandez, creator of the legendary Palomar stories for cult comics magazine Love & Rockets; Cecil Castellucci, who is writing current hit Shade the Changing Girl; Brian Stelfreeze, who illustrates Marvel’s Black Panther, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. But there are also names with a more mainstream recognisability who are contributing to Femme Magnifique. Journalist and activist Laurie Penny, Steven T Seagle, who created the insanely popular Cartoon Network animated show Ben 10, My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way (who currently curates his own comics imprint for DC, Young Animal).

And there are complete unknowns in the comics world… myself among them. I’m teaming up with UK artist Rachael Stott, who works on Titan Comics’ Dr Who titles, to tell the story of Margery Booth. Booth was born in Wigan, like I was, and had a trajectory that saw her rise from humble working class beginnings to become an opera singer feted in Covent Garden and beyond. Remarkable enough, but that’s only half the story. Married to a German, Margery Booth was also feted in Berlin, and performed for Hitler at a birthday celebration in 1933. Trusted by the Nazis, she began spying for Britain and her testimony led directly to the apprehending and execution of Lord Haw-Haw among others. It was an honour to be invited to work for Bond on Femme Magnifique for me, as it was for seasoned comic writer Kieron Gillen, who has written Darth Vader, the X-Men and his ongoing series with artist collaborator Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine. Gillen says, “When Shelly dropped me a line, I was both surprised and honoured to be asked to write anything. I've been shaped by these heroines, and having a chance to put that into a comic is obviously pretty magical.”

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Ballet dancer Lauren Moyer has been on stage as part of Berks Ballet and will help tell the story of Misty Copeland

Booth and Gillen’s subject matter, yet to be revealed, are just two of the many stories which will appear in Femme Magnifique, ranging from Jane Fonda to Hillary Clinton, astronaut Sally Ride to Nina Simone, Hedy Lamarr to Joan of Arc. Bond says, “It’s nothing short of a celebration of women, dreamers, achievers, glass ceiling crackers, fearless innovators of our history. ”

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Comic book artist Rori! embarked on a project last year drawing 100 heroic women in 100 days

New York novelist Alisa Kwitney and British artist Jamie Coe are tackling Margaret Hamilton, who was head of the team that developed the in-flight software for NASA’s Apollo moon missions in the 1960s. Kwitney says, “Back then, many scientists were dismissive of the work Hamilton and her team were doing, so she invented the term ‘software engineer’ to describe the programs she was inventing to guide spaceships to the moon and back. In the Mad Men era, testosterone-driven atmosphere of the time, she used her wry sense of humour to disarm her detractors. When she became pregnant, her bosses told her she had to leave her job. She ignored them, and brought her young daughter to work with her. At age eighty, she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves. ”

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Tess Fowler, known for her work on comic book series Rat Queens, will be both the subject of a comic in this anthology, as well as an artist on the project

The fantasy novelist Ursula K Le Guin is the subject of the story written by Robin Furth, co-author of Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, among others, with art by Devaki Neogi, who is based in Bangalore, India. Furth is an American living in the UK, and she says, “Le Guin’s writing is perfect for Femme Magnifique because gender is such an important topic in her work. Le Guin was born in 1929, and over the course of her life she has witnessed tremendous social upheaval, both good and bad. But one of the subjects she returns to over and over is what it means to be a human being, whether male or female. When she published the first Earthsea book in the late 1960s, the women’s movement was just getting underway. “Le Guin’s vision is unique in its poetry and its breadth, and she constantly makes us question what it means to be human and what it means to be humane. The protagonists of her novels are from many different races and she constantly examines issues of gender equality (or inequality), and the horrors of power abuse. Le Guin's alien societies and imaginary cultures are actually mirrors of ours, and she uses them to critique the modern world. ”

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Marguerite Sauvage is a Sydney-based illustrator who has worked on DC Bombshells

Femme Magnifique has been financed through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Its initial target of $40,000 (£33,000) has been well and truly passed and now stands at around $65,000; Bond and her team are now pushing pledges on to the stretch goals which will unlock more stories, extra pages and upgrading of the book to hardcover. But why is it important to tell these stories? According to Furth: “In every culture women have made amazing contributions to literature, the sciences, politics, and the arts. But too often their tales are omitted from history books. Femme Magnifique is telling some of these women’s stories. ”

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Paige Braddock created comic strip ‘Jane’s World’ so that women, and particularly lesbians, would have a character they could relate to

And Brian Miller of Hi-Fi Colour Design, who along with wife Kirsty has been co-curating the Kickstarter campaign with Bond and who will do much of the colouring and design layout of the final book, adds, “The election result came as a shock. I didn’t know what it would mean for my friends in the LGBT community and for women’s rights, but like many I was concerned. Frustration and anger weren't the answer and I was wondering how I could use my talents to effect change in a positive way. When Kristy and I spoke with Shelly we knew Femme Magnifique could be the voice of positivity for women who are feeling threatened or oppressed by the incoming administration. ” Jamie Coe, who is illustrating the Margaret Hamilton story, says, “Hopefully Femme Magnifique will put the spotlight on some of the incredible real women throughout history, so that they can inspire the next generation. ”

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Artist Laura Allred has worked on a number of popular comics, including Wonder Woman, It Girl!, and Captain America

There’s still a little over a week to pledge to the Kickstarter campaign and push Femme Magnifique past its stretch goals. Then the hard work starts in getting the book ready for publication towards the end of 2017… pretty much a year on from Shelly Bond watching with mounting horror the US presidential election results stack up in favour of Donald Trump. Can a comic book change the world? Well, why not? We live in a time when women’s stories that have been suppressed for years are finally emerging into the spotlight, a la Hidden Figures, the movie about the African-American women who were central to NASA launching a man into orbit for the first time, but also when women’s rights, especially under the Trump administration, have never seemed more under threat in recent years. The characters in these stories might not pull on garish costumes and masks like in other comics, but if their stories inspire, influence and ignite the women and girls who read them, perhaps they can not only change the world, but save it.  

To secure a copy of Femme Magnifique visit Kickstarter before 16 March, when the fundraising campaign ends 

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