Chicks Dig Comics is the newest in the line of “Chicks Dig” books published by Mad Norwegian Press, following the Hugo-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords. This volume is edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis; it collects over thirty pieces of short work about women’s relationships with comics, from interviews to critical essays to personal statements. There’s even an essay on adapting superhero fashions for daily wear from a geek fashionista.
The strength of the book comes from its variety — comics professionals, fans, fiction writers, critics, feminist theorists, and sometimes all of the above at once are contributors — and the range of topics and styles of writing in the book make for a quick, entertaining read, though one that is occasionally uneven. There’s sometimes a bit of a jangle in the brain between one piece and the next, when they don’t connect in tone or style.
I was amused and intrigued by the prevalence of the X-Men in so many of the book’s essays; in particular, the two essays lauding, respectively, Emma Frost and Jean Grey were in well-balanced and delightful conflict. It does make sense to me that so many women found their way to comics through various incarnations of the X-Men — it was the comic explicitly focused on Otherness, usually with the largest group of women involved out of all of the big houses’ series. (And queer girls, as Sigrid Ellis talks about in her essay!)
However, because there are so many pieces in this book, I’ll only be focusing on a few of the best – though, they do cover the spread of the sorts of things that Thomas and Ellis included.
“Nineteen Panels about Me and Comics” by Sara Ryan is one of my favorite essays in the book, partially because she comes at comics from the angle of a person who “can’t name all the members of the X-Men” but “can tell you Mo had a string of unfortunate rebounds after Harriet” (from Dykes to Watch Out For). And also partially because of her manner of addressing both personal history and political significance in comics — charting the evolution of queer feminist identity via comics, in some ways. She also delves more deeply into actual issues of intention, audience, and gender in mainstream comics. One of my favorite sections in the essay is when she hands a male coworker Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. He says it wasn’t designed with him in mind, and she writes, “That might have been the first time I thought about how many of the other comics I’d recently been reading arguably had been. Designed for him, I mean.” This is a crunchy, thought-provoking essay written in a playful manner. I loved it.
“Kitty Queer” by Sigrid Ellis is another essay that deals with queer identity and comics — this time from the point of view of someone who certainly could name all the members of the X-Men. Ellis talks about the strange days of Chris Claremont’s X-Men, when it was still forbidden to write about queer characters, but he was finding ways to work in eroticism and love between women despite the ban. Her own position on this is complicated: she talks about how long it took her to realize that her feelings for other women, much like Kitty Pryde’s, might not be heterosexual — because they had been masked so thoroughly as friendship that it was hard to separate them out and develop a sense of identity. So, the good and the bad, mixed together; it’s a complicated, lovely essay.
“An Interview with Greg Rucka” is one of the most explicitly feminist pieces in the book, which I find interesting. I also appreciate that Rucka is highly aware of his position as a man speaking on feminist issues, and constantly checks his privilege — especially when asked questions like, “Do you have any advice for female creators trying to get their start in the industry?” His interview is possibly the most astute, in-depth, and nuanced exploration in the book of working in the comics industry while trying to write women, queer folks, and people who are traditionally not present. He talks about both the negatives and the positives, and is remarkably honest about his feelings on writing women and being a person who “female-identifies.” I read this interview twice. (Also, his run on Batwoman is one of the only big-house titles I’ve read in years, and I loved seeing him talk about it.)
Delia Sherman’s personal essay “From Pogo to Girl Genius” is another favorite of mine, because it, too, deals with a different angle on the book’s subject — in this case the “funny papers,” and growing up at a time when mainstream commentators thought that comics would rot kids’ brains and make them delinquents. Sherman’s essay details the growth of a comic reader, with fits and starts over years, from Pogo through ElfQuest through contemporary French books. This portrait of a young woman’s love of comics, waxing and waning over the years into adulthood, is a moving, intimate read.
“I am Sisyphus, and I am Happy” by Kelly Thompson is another feminist piece, and one that deals explicitly with the constant uphill battle of feminist comics commentary — hence the title. Of course, the title is also referencing Camus’s ideas about Sisyphus; namely, that we must imagine him happy and satisfied. Thompson writes the “She Has No Head!” column, and in this essay discusses the path she took to end up writing feminist criticism of comics, as well as the struggle to keep pushing and pushing against such a large body of sexist, patriarchal work. Her opinion that change is slowly happening is what drives the celebration of comics from a woman’s standpoint in this essay; there’s a lot of ground to cover, but in the end the essay has a positive outlook on the work that can be done if we just keep pushing the boulder up the damn hill.
Elizabeth Bear’s critical essay on Warren Ellis’s “peculiar, bleak, indomitable humanism,” “You’re on the Global Frequency,” deals with Fell and Global Frequency, two of Ellis’s lesser-known comics — but really, it’s indicative of his entire body of work. Bear discusses that bleak humanism as it appears in Fell, in a place like Snowtown, and in Global Frequency, where a sort of social collective saves the world in the ways that they can. She quotes, in the end, one of my favorite scenes from Global Frequency: when the young Indian girl says to her father about Sita Patel, “Daddy, look. Spider-Man’s a girl. And she’s just like us.” There’s a real resonance to that line, particularly when quoted in a book like Chicks Dig Comics, and I was thrilled to read an essay that engaged with the thematic resonance that rings through Ellis’s body of work. (I would like to read a whole book on this subject, actually.)
Overall, I enjoyed Chicks Dig Comics, though I was left wanting more; few of the pieces have the room to get deeply into their topic, and many echo each other in shape and theme, leaving some ground unexplored. In particular, I was surprised that so few contributors talked about the manga fandom of the 90’s/early 00’s, which was remarkably full of girls and women.
However, this is not to say that I didn’t appreciate the book! As a queer, female-bodied comics nerd, I found many of these pieces fabulously comforting and rewarding. I would recommend the book as a pleasant read for anyone who has been the “unicorn” or faced derision for their comic-book passions. It’s a celebration of being a nerd while being a woman, an often hazardous and ridiculed proposition. That celebration feels pretty great.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.