Shannon O’Leary and The Big Feminist BUT
So many of us have a big feminist ‘BUT’: a qualifier or condition that accompanies our identification with feminism. Writer and graphic novelist Shannon O’Leary and her co-editor Joan Reilly were intimately familiar with many of these ‘BUTs’, which inspired them to commission an anthology of comics that satirize, celebrate, and explore issues in contemporary feminism. From stories about gender, sexuality, motherhood and sexual freedom to rape, relationships, and careers, The Big Feminist BUT boldly puts an illustrated face on 21st century feminism. O’Leary discusses the compilation, the 4th wave, and her graphic novel Fortune’s Bitch below.
Are you a feminist? Do you have a “Big Feminist BUT”?
Yes, I am a feminist. When I first started working with my co-editor, Joan Reilly, on The Big Feminist BUT, I had no “buts” whatsoever about feminism. The phrases we reference as inspirations for the stories explored in the book, “I’m not a feminist but…” or “I am a feminist but…” didn’t really apply to me. It’s always been a no brainer to me that the rights of women should be equal to those of men in every way. I was way more interested in checking out other peoples’ “buts!”
But (haha) since the book was released a couple months ago, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with the current state of feminism. This is due in part to the release of the book, partly due to the recent Harley Quinn naked suicide debate, and partly due to the great Miley Cyrus Twerk Off Debate of 2013. Those events and the discussions they’ve prompted have influenced my recent thoughts on the matter.
For the most part, people have responded really positively to the book – which is something I’m truly grateful for. But it’s been a curious thing to see how often people seem to be projecting ideas, attitudes and rules of form onto it. While I’m glad that it seems to be making people think and don’t mind when people critique the comics or the art we selected, when I see folks critiquing it from a feminist perspective, I’ve found it a challenge to process. It seems like there’s a lot of online and offline feminist chatter that surrounds the issue of who’s a good feminist and who’s a bad feminist and what’s “right” feminism or “wrong” feminism. Although I strongly doubt that I’ll ever stop identifying as a feminist, I guess you could say that my ideas about what that means are in flux right now.
The anthology opens with a dedication “to the 4th wave.” How do you define the 4th wave of feminism?
As far as I know, no one has actually defined or declared the emergence of 4th Wave Feminism yet. When Joan and I were trying to figure out who we wanted to dedicate this book to, we were both inspired to look forward and consider what sociological and political shifts will occur as a result of the ideas and actions of later generations of feminists (we both fall solidly in the Generation X/3rd Wave feminist generational cohort). I’ll be excited when it is defined though. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, when the 4th Wave of modern feminism is defined, that it will be considered to have started to emerge right around now, give or take a few years in either direction.
In the introduction to the collection, you draw a parallel between historically ambivalent feelings towards feminism and towards comic culture in American society. It seems doubly difficult to be a woman in comics. What has been your personal experience? How have you seen women’s roles and opportunities develop over the years?
To be clear, I intended to draw a parallel between American society’s historically ambivalent feelings towards the medium of comics and the feminist movement. But it is interesting to consider the parallels with comic book culture as well. There is a long history of comics not being taken seriously as an art form and feminism not being taken seriously as a movement. That’s where I meant to draw the parallel.
Anne Elizabeth Moore is a far better authority than I am on the challenges of being a woman in comics. She breaks down facts and figures in a really stark way with a series of comics illustrated by a variety of talented cartoonists at Truthout.org. They aren’t pretty – not the comics, the statistics. Statistically speaking, men get more financial opportunities than women at every level in the industry.
I hope that’s slowly changing. I do see evidence of that at publishers like Drawn and Quarterly who feature an incredible roster of female cartoonists including Kate Beaton, Mimi Pond, Vanessa Davis, Gabrielle Bell and Rutu Modan. I think that’s a direct result of Peggy Burns being such an instrumental editorial force at D&Q. Also one of the best selling comic books of the year was drawn by a woman – Fiona Staples, the artist on the multiple Eisner award winning Image Comic series, Saga. Overall, however, comics could definitely stand to be more welcoming to more diverse perspectives.
“Prostitutes: For Teens” by Jen Wang
How were all of the comics chosen for the anthology? Was there a call for this particular topic or did you look into work that already existed or commission new works?
We began by asking cartoonists whose work we liked if they wanted to explore any feelings they might have around the disclaimers I mentioned above and moved forward from there. While we did look for certain topics, we approached putting the book together like we were improvising on a recipe. The only thing we tried to consciously do was flip the traditional gender balance of a comics anthology (which tends to be about 80% male and 20% female) – we were going for about 60% women contributors and 40% male contributor and wound up with about 70% women and 30% men.
While some of the work in the book has appeared in other places, as far as I can remember, all of the comics were commissioned specifically for the book. So even though stories such as “Manifestation” by Gabrielle Bell and Lilith by Ron Rege Jr. were first published in other collections, they were originally created for The Big Feminist BUT. It just took us a lot longer than expected to get this book together! (All total it took five years from book idea to actual book…)
What inspired your “Asking For It” story?
My hope in writing and storyboarding that story with cartoonist, Ric Carasquillo, was to have readers sympathize with a character who is assaulted while engaging in an activity that most people would consider reckless behavior. I also hope that it has people reconsider the idea of what a person could possibly do to “ask for it” when it comes to sexual or physical assault.
Can you discuss a few of your favorite selections and why you chose them in particular?
That is a tough one! It’s hard for me to play favorites with the stories we selected. Jeffrey Brown’s “Doesn’t this baby understand we’re trying to redefine gender roles?” is a good one. He seemed to be really trying to understand why childhood is so much of a greater burden on mothers than it is on fathers. I also love Dylan Williams’ piece, “In the Dead of Night,” for personal reasons. Dylan passed away from cancer in 2011 and he was very excited about creating a comic that addressed feminist issues. His story calls to mind criticisms of how mainstream conversations about feminism tend to occur between upper middle class white women.
Listen to me! I’m only mentioning the dudes! I’m such a bad feminist ;) I also love Angie Wang’s comic, “Intersections.” That was a nice surprise. We didn’t expect her to tackle the topic of intersectionality in feminism. Plus we were lucky to get her when we did! She is a storyboarder on the new Cartoon Network show, “Steven Universe” so her time has become more limited. I also like MariNaomi’s one pager, “Feminist, adj.” because it’s so iconic. She is an old friend so I was glad she did something that was such a great fit. Actually, come to think of it, that is the one contribution that wasn’t commissioned specifically for the book. She posted it on Facebook one day and I happened to see it. We were lucky to nab it for the book.
Fortune’s Bitch is your graphic novel about a “young, drug addled, urbanite cum stripper in San Francisco whose search for meaning in the seemingly random becomes a compulsion that consumes.” What was your inspiration for this slut-positive tale?
I am always interested in narratives that examine the choices women make about their sexuality thoughtfully as opposed to pejoratively but I wouldn’t say that it’s a slut positive tale! It’s a pretty sad story about a young lady looking for meaning in playing cards she finds on the street while in the throws of an epic meth binge. That she is a stripper is kind of incidental but it’s not something I would say that the main character, Carrie, feels positive about. She’s pretty lost and looking for answers outside of herself.
Do you consider yourself a slut?
Yes. I think it’s safe to say that I’m a slut in theory and have been one in practice as well. I’m also a one man woman with a boyfriend who appreciates being with a woman of some (ahem) experience with great stories to tell.
What are some of your favorite sluts and/or feminist characters in graphic novels?
Definitely the Silk Spectre from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. She’s at the top of the list. For that matter, her mom, Sally Jupiter, is another favorite character. They both strike me as women who use their sexuality when it suits them but are also pretty smart broads to boot. Plus they’re complex and imperfect but strong. Along those same lines I also like Sadie Browning from David Lapham’s Vertigo series, Young Liars. And Maggie and Hopey from the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockers. Agh! Listen to me going on about dudes setting their male comics gaze on female characters again! I really am a bad feminist.
I recently enjoyed Ellen Forney‘s Marbles. That’s an autobiographical book about a character that exhibits some slutty tendencies. But it’s primarily a compassionate un-voyeur-istic look at mental illness that I couldn’t put down.
Who are some of your favorite feminist artists creating graphic novels today? Are there any feminist icons in your field that inspired you or your work starting out?
Anything by the German cartoonist (and Big Feminist BUT contributor) Ulli Lust catches my eye. I’m looking forward to cartoonist and animation storyboarder, Hellen Jo, finishing the 2nd issue of Jin & Jan. Gabrielle Bell is another artist (and Big Feminist BUT contributor) who’s work I always look forward to. And my co-editor, Joan Reilly, is also a great cartoonist. I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s going to do next.
As far as inspirations go, the two that come to mind are Francoise Mouly, the art editor for The New Yorker and Karen Berger, who served as Executive Editor of the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics for about 20 years. They’re both role models of mine.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on something I can’t announce quite yet! Stay tuned to my twitter feed @shannonsplanet for news about that and riveting discussions about what I had for lunch.