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

Blog for Three Words


Comics and Roses – a review of two events, Monday 10 March

Comicsville, featuring Adrian Kinnaird, Dylan Horrocks, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy

My first Writers Week event today (Monday) was Comicsville, a panel discussion at the Hannah Playhouse on New Zealand comics. It was chaired by Dylan Horrocks and featured Adrian Kinnaird, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy; cartoonists all. I also spotted Alison Bechdel in the audience, and later saw that she had tweeted a drawing she’d done of Horrocks.

As with Sunday’s session with Bechdel, it was slightly pp_robyn_kenealystrange to have a discussion about comics without having any of them on display, but conversation was lively nonetheless. I was particularly glad to be continuing my trend of discovering interesting female authors: today’s ‘find’ is Kenealy (right). Deeply involved in the fan community, she spoke intelligently and with academic insight about the place of fan-fiction and the nature of self-publishing, very hot topics in the publishing world today. Normally, being drawn to an intriguing new author, I would immediately go and buy the book, but she said very openly that she is not trying to make money from comics and only self-publishes, mostly online. You can find her work here and here.
The book that was available for sale, though, is the new and very colourful From Earth’s End by Kinnaird (left). It’s a history of New Zealand comics and a snapshot of Kiwi cartoonists today. Flicking through my copy, I was immediately struck by the dearth of women: apart from Kenealy, apparently we pretty much just have Sarah Laing, and that’s about it. Surely that can’t be right? What about Li Chen, for example? (Closer study reveals that Chen is mentioned on page 88, but is not one of the thirty cartoonists with their own dedicated chapter.)

Being a word geek, I was particularly interested to learn from Horrocks that ‘graphic’ comes from a word meaning both to draw and to write; and that comics in te reo Maori are pakiwaituhi, which similarly indicates a story both drawn and written. This came up after a very lively discussion of the term ‘graphic novel’, which apparently has become a posh, literary term for comics generally – a rather back-handed compliment, as it implies comics need euphemising.

Overall, I left feeling that New Zealand comics are in an interesting and fruitful state, with digital publishing reaching new audiences unbounded by geography or paper distribution. Lots to look forward to.

A Rosie Glow, featuring Graeme Simsion (with a little bit of Catton comparison)

My third Writers Weekpp_graeme_simsion event today (Monday) was A Rosie Glow; Lynn Freeman in conversation with Graeme Simsion, author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Rosie Project. Unlike previous sessions, this felt very much like a standard author talk pitched explicitly towards increasing book sales.

And indeed Simsion admitted that, since publication, his life has become one long publicity tour – full credit to him for still seeming engaged and genuinely pleased to talk to fans. The fact that this was the second time that Freeman had interviewed him on this topic, though, unfortunately intensified the feeling of stale, recycled material.

It was perhaps a rather cruel and unusual act of scheduling to put Simsion’s talk on the Embassy Theatre stage immediately before Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary New Zealand Book Council lecture (entitled “Paradox and change in fiction”). In many ways, Simsion’s and Catton’s lives could be seen as parallel: they are both relatively new Australasian authors who have rapidly become life-changingly famous and, based on the success of one novel, are both now able to be full-time professional writers. But of course they are very different people.

Simsion spoke a lot about his protagonist, Don Tillman, and how he has a Twitter account in which he tweets in Tillman’s voice, and how there is a Tillman sequel planned. Catton didn’t mention The Luminaries or any of her characters at all, and instead spoke with calm but ferocious intelligence about huge ideas, ranging from the way fiction requires both ingenuity and insight in order to succeed, to the nature of space and time in narrative.

Simsion appeared happy to basically keep writing the same book until its popularity ran out – and, indeed, since it obviously ain’t broke, this is a perfectly cromulent strategy. Catton displayed a dizzying intellectual ravenousness that seemed to eat up subjects ranging widely within her chosen field of literature and beyond. When a member of the audience asked when she plans to publish a book of essays, she responded simply “soon”.

Once again I have ended a day of Writers Week events inspired and buzzing. Bring on tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ