The strip girls

It's not only boys in anoraks who like comics. Fiona Rattray meets a hip new generation of female cartoonists
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The Independent Online

Here stands Wonder Woman. Resplendent in starry hot pants, red shoes and busty basque, she's a teenager's wet dream. And here comes a suitor: "Wonder Woman - when are you going to marry me?" he pleads. And quick as a flash she replies: "I've told you a dozen times darling! When I'm no longer needed to battle crime and injustice!" The whole thing sounds like a scene from a feminist postcard. In fact it's from an original 1960 edition of DC Comics' Wonder Woman strip.

Here stands Wonder Woman. Resplendent in starry hot pants, red shoes and busty basque, she's a teenager's wet dream. And here comes a suitor: "Wonder Woman - when are you going to marry me?" he pleads. And quick as a flash she replies: "I've told you a dozen times darling! When I'm no longer needed to battle crime and injustice!" The whole thing sounds like a scene from a feminist postcard. In fact it's from an original 1960 edition of DC Comics' Wonder Woman strip.

But Wonder Woman is an exception. Think of a comic character, and depending on your age you'll probably think of Spiderman or Superman, Judge Dredd or Sid the Sexist. Maybe, if you're really trendy, you'll thing of some ultra-cool Manga character. If your tastes are a little more fruity you might pick Robert Crumb, the cult US comic artist. On the whole women and comics just don't go together - unless it's a pneumatic blonde whose clothes keep falling off - because most comics are drawn by men, read by men, and even collected by men. Visit any vintage comic store and the place will be stacked full of the things - wrapped in cellophane to stop the drool from the mouths of collectors from damaging the pages. If they resemble anything at all it's a hard-core porn store. And whatever it is these people are looking for, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's not a copy of Bunty.

Delve a little deeper though, and you'll find that there are women working in comics: women who don't necessarily want to work for big companies (where they invariably end up as colourists or letterers, putting the finishing touches to some souped-up stud making *!?*! noises all over the place); women who, all over the world, are quietly drawing, publishing and reading a wealth of comic art that offers a richly varied and alternative take on the whole macho-fixated comic discipline.

Brighton-based GirlFrenzy magazine is at the forefront of this movement and epitomises the new popularity of women cartoonists. Its latest issue, a millennial annual, has nearly sold out and is about to be reprinted. Edited by Brighton-based graphic designer Erica Smith, 36, the mag features a mix of comic strips and articles - all of them by women.

"Part of the reason for starting GirlFrenzy was that I wanted to make a magazine for women that I wanted to read," says Smith. "I found Cosmo hypocritical - the articles were always so at odds with the ads - and feminist magazines a bit dour."

Carol Seatory, 32, was working as a graphic designer and illustrator, producing her own mini-books like Smalls - a funny look at the dos and don'ts of underwear ("What bigger nightmare than wearing white knickers to a disco?") - when by chance she came across a copy of GirlFrenzy in a Brighton bookshop.

"Until then, I'd always associated comic art with boys in bedsits," says Seatory. After reading GirlFrenzy she was inspired to try the medium herself. Her work, which has since been published by GirlFrenzy, is clever and funny, concentrating on the foibles of everyday life. One strip looks at the perils of retail therapy, another at the addictive powers of television. It's also visually striking and highly original - using a cut-out paper technique rather than the usual drawing.

Brighton is something of a magnet when it comes to comic artists. As well as GirlFrenzy and its independent publishing company, Slab-o-concrete, the town boasts some famous names from the world of newspaper cartoons - among them Steve Bell and Chris Riddell. There are so many comic artists in the area that they have their own organisation - Comic County - which organises regular exhibitions and events. The influential Victorian cartoonist Aubrey Beardsley was born here and Brighton University is the only college in the country which has a course in sequential illustration.

Gathered around a table in a Brighton restaurant, five of the local GirlFrenzy artists - including Smith and Seatory - are discussing one of the strips in the latest issue. Written and drawn by Scottish artist Cinders McLeod, it is entitled "Why are there no women cartoonists?" It's a kind of lament (and occasional rant) expressed in charming, almost cutesy drawings, full of answers to the question. Much of it is funny and there is truth in what McLeod says - although a lot of it could be applied to pretty much any career - but by the end you do feel like telling her, "Shut up - you can draw OK? Now stop moaning and get on with it."

The GirlFrenzy artists obviously have some sympathy with McLeod, but you don't get the impression that this a confidence-free zone full of women who feel they've been shafted in a man's world. OK, so none of them makes a living out of their comic work and they all supplement their income with work in other related fields but that, they tell you, is their choice. "This way I can choose who I work for - it's about having control and integrity and I'm not prepared to get fucked over by some big corporation," says Myf Harvey, 31.

Working under various names - among them Tristram Puppy and Myfanwy Tristram - Harvey produces stories which suggest that comics might be a great way of dealing with difficult issues. In "Holly Girl in Sapling Town", published by Canadian magazine OH, a young girl struggles with her sexuality in a fictional small town. The characters are strong, the observations accurate. It's the kind of story you can't put down.

"For me it's a good medium for talking about serious subjects," says Harvey, "subjects I'd never dream of writing a prose piece or making a piece of art about." And it's true, looking at this work, that comic art has a lightness of touch that can wrap a velvet glove around a particularly vicious punch.

In the hands of Lorna Miller, this technique takes on another dimension. Miller, 27, uses a wide variety of styles - including a parody of the style of Jack Kirby, a US comic giant. In her first book, Witch (also published by Slab-o-concrete), Miller turns her talented drawing skills to the serious subjects of post-Wall Berlin and the struggle for Lithuanian independence.

Meanwhile, another of the Brighton posse, 50-year-old Corinne Pearlman, took the Stephen Lawrence case as a subject for one of her recent pieces. Pearlman also does a lot of work using comic art in education. Published by the Family Planning Association, 4 Girls presents the salient facts about puberty, sexuality and reproduction to a young female audience in a sympathetic and often amusing way. In one illustration Pearlman presents the shapes, colours and sizes of various young women's bodies in the type of tender and celebratory style that no embarrassing photoshoot, and arguably no male artist, could ever do.

All this might make it sound that everything in the Brighton comic garden is lovely but despite all the fighting talk around the table there have been setbacks. Lorna Miller, for one, was outraged to be told by one of her tutors on her drawing and painting degree course to beware the "danger of going into cartoon art". On another occasion she was told by a leading women's magazine, to whom she'd sent a copy of Witch for review, that both the art director and the editor loved her work, but that their readers were only interested in trash novels. Which just goes to show, that more often than not, women are their own worst enemies.

In fact what you get from talking to them is less of a sense of agenda about redressing the balance between men and women cartoonists than an infectious enthusiasm for the discipline itself. It's the work that they love and it's that that keeps them going. Ask them to list their influences and they list as many men as women. Tastes range from Peter Bagge, founder of HATE comic, Deadline's Philip Bond to Robert Crumb. The latter comes as something as a surprise: Crumb after all is the master of offence and about as un-PC as you can get. Yet almost all the women profess admiration for the American artist. In other words, it doesn't much matter if it's male or female humour, so long as it's good. *

GirlFrenzy night at The Sanctuary Café, Brunswick Street East, Hove on Monday 12 June at 8pm (tel: 01273 770002 for details).

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