I have been looking forward to this book – an anthology of Kiwi women’s comics – for a long time. At the last Writers Week in 2014, which I also reviewed here, I attended a panel discussion on NZ comics. From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird had just come out, and the way it ignored comics by women was staggering. Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand Women’s Comics is in part a response to this sexism, as well as being a celebration of some extraordinary Kiwi artists.
This event – the Three Words Wellington book launch at Meow – attracted a notably different demographic from the rest of Writers Week, where the audiences have been largely white middle-aged women. Meow was packed with all kinds of people; lots of different genders, ages, races, hair colours, and clothing styles (including several very cool hats). Several people had brought their children. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial.
As per established best practice for a book launch, there was plenty to eat and drink and not too many speeches. Editors Sarah Laing and Indira Neville spoke about how Three Words had come to be. Neville, who describes herself as “a NZ comics granny”, made the important point that “the NZ women’s comics community is suddenly visible but is not new … this book is part of a process that stretches back decades and represents something that lots of women have been working towards for a really, really long time. No one can ever say again that women just don’t make comics.” She introduced the next speaker Robyn Kenealy as “the goddess of the comics community”.
Kenealy said she had reached burn-out with being asked ‘the women comics question’. She never sat down to be a woman cartoonist and, at first, didn’t want to talk about it. Then she started to ask why women are the exception, before finally “getting bummed out” and stopping talking about it at all.
Being bummed out is putting it lightly. I am a member of the NZ Comics group on Facebook and have witnessed the abuse heaped on women who have dared to suggest that the comics community has a problem with sexism, or any other prejudice. It was frightening. Kenealy was one of those who always spoke up, always tried to establish a civil and productive dialogue, was always approachable and responsive. If any headway has been made in addressing sexism in New Zealand comics, it is due to her and people like her.
It’s hard work, though. Kenealy quoted the song Bread and Roses: “hearts starve as well as bodies”. Prejudice “has a material cost and also a very real emotional cost”, but “the Three Words project gave me hope that might not always be the case”. Kenealy said that the great thing about Three Words is that “artists who have been working for ages are finally recognised a little bit, and artists who wouldn’t previously have felt that they had the right to stand up and call themselves cartoonists are coming forward too.”
As with any anthology, Kenealy anticipates criticism: “Nothing can be done in comics without intense nerd shit-fights”. But, she says, “I apologise for my previous cynicism. This has now officially been replaced with tentative optimism.”
This optimism seemed to be shared by the dozens of people who had turned up to cheer the book on. I ended up staying longer than I had anticipated, chatting to all kinds of interesting people (Mallory Ortberg showed up! Not that I dared approach her) and getting my copy of Three Words signed by lots of the artists. Politics aside, it’s also a beautiful book full of a wide range of excellent and strange homegrown artwork and storytelling. Highly recommended.
Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage