She Makes Comics is a new documentary about the history of female creators and fans have who shaped the comic book scene. Featuring interviews with a diverse array people including writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and former editor of DC Comics Jenette Kahn, the film gives a comprehensive overview of the accomplishments of women in the comics industry. More broadly, the film portrays comics as an evolving art form that has reflected, responded to, and influenced popular and political culture through the past 50 years.
The film debuted online in December, and is available for download from Sequart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to comics research and literacy. It will also be shown at several comic conventions and film festivals this year.
Marisa Stotter is the director of She Makes Comics, a self-described feminist and geek who moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry in 2013. After She Makes Comics was released last month, we talked on the phone about her experience directing a film for the first time, her hope that more people begin to participate in comic culture, and the importance of celebrating women’s achievements in the comics scene. Watch the trailer below.
SAMANTHA MALDONADO: How did you come up with the idea to do a documentary about women in comics?
MARISA STOTTER: I’ve been a geek my whole life and I’ve loved comics since my freshman year of high school. It’s hard to explain, but there’s sort of this assumption that the comics world is like this male-only space and that any women that like comics, or any women that create comics, are just sort of incidental or exceptions. But over the years, in digging deeper and deeper into the comics world, I discovered that there have been women creating comics for many decades. There hasn’t been as much of an appreciation for what women have done to the medium for a number of different reasons. A lot of these concerns have been voiced online in the past year in particular, and as someone who’s been following a lot of these, I felt that now was a really good time to bring these discussions out into the mainstream, rather than sort of rattle round the Internet echo chamber where everyone is angry. I thought it would be more productive to present this stuff to maybe a newer audience who isn’t as familiar with what’s going on.
I felt like there was a really diverse array of people represented in the documentary—age, race, all sorts.
Yeah, that was definitely a concern of mine because the comics world is often seen as sort of this domain for straight white males, and the truth is there is such a great diversity of people creating comics and reading comics—people from different backgrounds, people of color, women, the queer community. We did the best we could to represent the entirety of the comics world and not just focus on any particular type of person.
One of the things that struck me was how tightly edited the documentary was, and so even with a diverse group of people informing the work, there seemed to be a cohesive and coherent singular narrative about the history of women in comics and the comics world generally. How did you come up with that narrative? Did you encounter details that were conflicting?
It’s an interesting process because when we started out, everything was very broad and we weren’t quite sure what specific direction we were going to go in. So when we started our first interviews, we asked dozens of questions and covered every single base we could think of because we weren’t sure what direction to go in. As we conducted more and more interviews, we started to notice common threads in people’s stories and similar things that made the narrative start to show itself. That was a matter of refining our research and interview technique in order to zero in on what we felt was in the narrative. Certainly the editing process is where it all comes together. We watched the footage over and over and over again, and we started to notice what everything had in common and what the trajectory looked like, as we go chronologically, in terms of people’s stories being told. We started out without an agenda—we didn’t want that to be the case because we wanted to maintain an open mind. There were plenty of times when we were steered in a direction that we never thought we would go in, but it just seemed that the interviews and the story itself pushed in that direction. It was sort of an ongoing process, but I’d say the bulk of that took place in the editing.
What’s an example of how you were pushed in a direction you didn’t expect?
When we were interviewing Wendy Pini, we knew all about the creation of Elfquest which was a really important moment in independent comics, and we knew that she had made a name for herself initially as a Red Sonja cosplayer. But it wasn’t until we actually sat down to do the interview with her that we realized just how significant the Red Sonja cosplay thing was as way for women to become part of fandom in a way they were previously not involved. So we thought that was really a very significant thing and so we opted to dedicate some time to focus on Wendy’s Red Sonja years and how important that was in the grander scheme of comics culture. That was something very interesting we weren’t quite expecting at first, but it ended up being a worthwhile detour and fleshed out the story in a way we couldn’t have done otherwise.
Leaping off that, you were saying that cosplay was a way for female fans to be involved visibly in the comics scene. To me, that contrasts the way in which comic shops have been and are a typically uncomfortable space for women.
Cosplay is something that women made their own from the very beginning. It was something they were very comfortable with and the greater comics community was happy to have them involved in it. And you could dissect that for many different ways, but that seems to be the case, whereas the direct market stores came around at a time when comics were very heavily dominated by superhero comics, which, for a variety of reasons, women weren’t as interested in. And so they became these default male spaces, and when women would go into them, they would feel alienated, or at least feel very conscious of the fact that they were in a place where they didn’t necessarily belong. One thing that was very interesting to us throughout the interview process was that pretty much everyone we interviewed has had the experience of going into a comic shop and being ignored or feeling like the employees were condescending. I certainly have had those experiences as well, and since most of the women we interviewed have also had these experiences, it made me realize it wasn’t just me, it was a common experience and one that I felt then was worth addressing in the film because it’s something that women uniquely experience as comic fans. I think it’s much better now, that the days of that kind of comic shop are waning, but the fact that this is a shared experience that so many women have in common was kind of disconcerting, and we wanted to explore that.
One of the things that stuck out for me in the documentary was how these comic shop experiences were represented by a guy sort of pantomiming harassment as the women you interviewed described their experiences. I read a review that criticized that part of the movie by calling it overbearing, although I found it funny. What were your stylistic choices regarding that part?
That was always intended to be this hyperbolic dramatization. It was meant to be funny because otherwise it would’ve just been depressing, to have a situation where women are clearly being made uncomfortable. We wanted to take it to an extreme of the stereotype [of a comic shop guy] for comic relief. We found it funny and a lot of women that have seen the film that they have found it to be very funny. They understand the hyperbole in it. Interestingly, a lot of the guys I’ve talked to who I have seen the movie either didn’t get it or felt like it was too much. Maybe there’s just a different level of understanding. Maybe the women who have experienced this can look at it and say, “I know this is an exaggeration, but it really captures the essence of what I’ve experienced.” Men who’ve never experienced that kind of gender discrimination have no basis for it, so maybe they feel like it’s too much, and I understand that, but it’s interesting to see the different kinds of reactions from different viewers.
For sure. In that vein, how do you see this documentary functioning politically? How is it informed by your politics?
When I was first drawing up the pitch for this film, I was thinking of doing something that was more focused on the issues of harassment and discrimination that women have faced in comics, but I decided after thinking about it a lot that I wanted to contribute something that was uplifting and had a more inspiring message. I didn’t want people to come away thinking, “It sucks to be a woman in comics, I shouldn’t even try, I have an interest in reading comics but now I’m not going to try at all.” I wanted it to be inspiring. To me the biggest compliment is hearing from viewers that immediately after the film was over, they went to their desk and starting drawing.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned over the course of making this film? I’m interested in details, facts, and information about the comics world, but also about producing and directing a film?
The most surprising thing I learned about the subject I was researching was probably that the comics readership in the fifties was originally female. That seemed so contrary to every assumption and stereotype about who was reads comics, but it sort of makes sense when you think about the kinds of comics that were being published at the time, the different genres, the variety, and certainly the prevalence of romance comics. It makes sense that women were interested in comics at the time, even more so than boys. But hearing that statistic, I had to do a double-take, like wait, what? That was very cool and gratifying to know that there was, there is this rich history of women reading comics before the modern interest.
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