Like any good millennial, I’ve read some comics. At university, I studied Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, and I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series with Dave McKean’s glorious covers. I have Alan Moore’s Watchmen on my book shelf, as well as Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville. I’ve even read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. But this is a fairly small sampling of what comics today has to offer. The anthology Three Words showed me that the world of comics is more diverse, more stylistically varied, more wildly idiosyncratic and more weird and wonderful than I had ever anticipated.
It also includes a lot more women. Did you notice that the comic artists I previously mentioned were all men? Though I do know of some female creators of comics (Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel), it looks to the uninitiated like men outnumber their female counterparts in comics by quite a lot. But it only looks that way. One of the striking things about Three Words is the sheer number of female artists who either came out of the woodwork or picked up a pencil for the first time (in a long time or in some cases at all) in order to contribute to this anthology of comics by women. Three Words shows that it’s not that there aren’t female makers of comics—it’s that they haven’t been visible. Space has not previously been made for them to spread their wings.
Some of the comics explicitly address just this issue (Indira Neville’s work, for example, which wraps up its rather pointed message in a style of cartoon you might see in the School Journal). Other comics don’t specifically comment on this but nevertheless couldn’t have been written by anyone except a woman, like Zoë Colling’s spot-on ‘boob envy’ comic. And some don’t seem to draw attention to gender at all – they’re just bloody good. Marina Williams’ “10 Things People Shouldn’t Overhear You Say In Work” is very giggle-worthy, as is Elsie Joliffe’s work.
I was also struck by the sheer breadth of styles I encountered in this collection. Though some looked stylistically mainstream, others were more DIY, and still others were like paintings or collages. One (by Sarah Lund) was made using cut paper to create the elements in each frame. Some were inked, some painted, some were riotous with colour, some black and white. What also impressed me was the storytelling these artists were able to achieve in such a short space. Though some of the comics were focused more on transmitting a single concept, tone or idea, those that were more story-driven repeatedly managed to encapsulate so much in so little.
Typically for an anthology, there were some comics I liked more than others. Some I found alienating; some I just didn’t ‘get’. In addition, the ‘three words’ conceit, where one comic writer supplied three words for another comic writer to interpret into a three panel strip (ala Chinese whispers), was also interesting and fun once I got my head around the layout chosen to present the strips. I initially got a little confused, trying to figure out which comic was supposed to be the three-panel strip, seeing as the first of these strips didn’t have panels per se. Perhaps a sign of my unfamiliarity with the genre, and if a second anthology is planned, perhaps the possibility of comparative newbie readers like myself can be taken into account.
Though Three Words was intended to create a space for women comic artists to be published, it could also be considered a place for potential (women) comic artists to gain familiarity with the scene, and, perhaps, inspiration to pick up their pencils too.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics
Ed. Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing and Indira Neville
Published by Beatnik Publishing