Book Review: Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa / NZ Women’s Comics, edited by Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing & Indira Neville

cv_three_wordsLike 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
ISBN 9780994120502

Launch of Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics

three wordsI 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

Three Words
Beatnik Publishing 

ISBN 9780994120502

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