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May 6, 2007

 

 

By Christa Babson-Thomas

 

 

Several hundred eager comic book and science fiction fans line up outside Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. Inside the glass and cross-hatched steel structure, which reflects the afternoon sun, Rashida Lewis sits at a whitetop table, in a four-walled booth ensconced in violet fabric.

 

Pen in hand, she’s escaping into her own ink and paper world, serenely sketching the shoulders of one of her female characters for her vivid comic book, “Sand Storm.”

 

As her chandelier earrings sway, a man wearing thick glasses leans toward her. His smirk recalls another cartoon character: Mr. Magoo.

 

“Way too few black ladies in comics, don’t you think?” he shouts in her face. “Do you know of any others besides yourself?” Lewis is startled by the outburst, but her patient smile suggests such comments are nothing new. “Sometimes,” says Lewis, after the man moved on without buying a copy of her comic, “you just have to smile and laugh things off.”

 

Assertive women comic book authors and artists have recently been pushing into industry events like this one. They’re hoping to win new customers by showcasing their work and trying to gain a foothold in the comics industry, which since the 1930s has been dominated by men. This was the New York Comic Con – the country’s second-largest industry event. But in an environment where superheroes reign, women artists and fans are still in the super minority.

 

The vibe is unabashedly masculine: Popular brands like Marvel and DC Comics occupy immense booth space on the exhibition floor; 15-foot banners flaunting ink-splashed superheroes are draped from the ceiling. Even in Artist’s Alley, a nook upstairs where Lewis and other female artists like Mary-Kate “MK” Reed have set up shop, most booths are occupied by men.

 

Lewis, 30, a married mother of three boys, is a self-published comic book artist and president of her own company, Newave Comics. She braces herself for the sexist remarks, hotel room invitations and groping she says have marked her past convention visits. But the experience of having her work denigrated is most cutting of all.

 

“I’ve even had people pick up my book and drop it on the floor,” she said.

 

At 16, Lewis read her first X-Men comic, and knew one day she wanted to create her own. She grew up in Newark, NJ, where she dreamed of being an artist and a doctor.

“Everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “Why can’t I do both?”

 

Lewis’s struggle as an African-American woman in the patriarchal comic book industry rivals that of her signature character, Anumari, who in Lewis’ book “Sand Storm” assumes the ancient Egyptian throne.

 

“Creating her character was a way for me to visualize what was happening in my own life,” Lewis said. In “Sand Storm,” Anumari faces criticism and prejudice from her male advisors, as Lewis said she has in the real world of comic book retail.

 

But Lewis says conventions sometimes bring positive experiences. Some fathers approach her with their aspiring-illustrator daughters. “It pushes me to do more,” Lewis says, “because I want to see more girls here.”

 

On the cover of “Sand Storm,” Anumari, with short bluish-black hair and a curvy, athletic figure, wields a sword. Although Anumari’s combat uniform is a gold, bikini-like ensemble, Lewis, who models Anumari after herself, fights her battles differently.

 

“I definitely believe I am a feminist,” she said. “My characters aren’t shallow and for me, that’s where the line is drawn.”

 

Other women comics artists are reluctant to describe their books, or even their world views as “feminist,” because they fear it will hurt their careers. For Gail Simone, who writes for the DC Comics book, “Birds of Prey,” a series about a group of women superheroes, hearing a question about feminism gave her pause. “I would say I’m an equalist,” she said diplomatically, as she signed autographs.

 

Male comic book artists used to draw overtly sexy female characters, with large breasts and small personalities. Trina Robbins, self-proclaimed “writer and herstorian,” traces the development of women characters and their creators in her book From Girls to Grrrlz.

 

The 1940s brought “Torchy,” a woman fitting every blonde joke and Playboy pin-up. In the 1950s, wholesome, sock-hopping girls like Betty and Veronica competed for the love of Archie. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s inspired female characters with attitude and political power. Recently, Japanese manga — comics featuring cutesy female characters targeted to girls — has flooded the American market.

 

“Many people, especially mainstream superhero fan-boys, don’t seem to be aware of the manga revolution, which has, after a 30-year drought, finally brought girls comics they like to read,” Robbins said in an email interview. “For older teens and women, there are more indie, small press or self-published comics by women than ever before. For women in comics, the field has really improved.”

 

Since 1997, Friends of Lulu — named for a spunky female character created by Marjorie Henderson Buell in 1935 — has served as a place for women comic book writers, artists, and readers to network.

 

MK Reed, 26, creator of several comic books and Friends of Lulu’s volunteer anthology editor, remembers that, in second grade, there were few comic characters she could identify with. Manga has encouraged more American women comics artists. “Now,” said Reed, “you can’t go into a comic book store without tripping over kids reading manga.”

 

At the convention, popular graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s booth has been vacant all afternoon. An irritated fan complained to Reed about her absence. “There are other women in comics you know,” Reed said.

 

“No,” he said, turning away, “there are only two.”

Reed rose angrily, with clenched hands and eyes of fire. But her detractor had disappeared into the crowd of men.

 

 

Women who write comics struggle for recognition in a macho field. Rashida Lewis self-publishes Sand Storm, about a heroine of ancient Egypt who battles sexist traitors to ascend the throne. Photo by Rashida Lewis

 

 

The audience for comics is heavily male. Here, attendees wait to enter the annual Comic Con, the comic industry’s second largest convention, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Photo by Christa Babson-Thomas

 

 

 

 

Comic book author Rashida Lewis writes and self-publishes Sand Storm, her comic about a heroine of ancient Egypt who battles sexist traitors to ascend the throne. Photo by Christa Babson-Thomas.

 

Christa Babson-Thomas is a journalism student at New York University. She can be reached at cbt225@nyu.edu

 

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