Matriarchy rules in a fictional Arab state. The head of state rules with an iron fist, men are degraded to sex objects by women on the street, hit on badly and are also exposed to the arbitrariness of their fellow citizens elsewhere. Unless they have a strong protector.
Scenes from the political comic satire “Tu ne sais pas qui est ma mère?” by the Beirut artist Tracy Chahwan. The work by the artist, who was born in 1992 and has not yet been published in German, is one of the discoveries that experienced comic readers have also made in the traveling exhibition “Role models. Feminism in Comics and Illustration”.
It was originally planned for the 19th International Comic Salon 2020, which will only take place digitally due to the pandemic. After three stations in Munich, Berlin and Schwarzenbach, the show with the puny title can now be seen where it started: at the Comic Salon 2022, which will take place for the 20th time from June 16th to 19th.
The exhibition brings together works by 30 female comic artists who can be described as feminist in the broadest sense and reflects to what extent they served as models for other artists and what their formative influences were in turn
These include pioneers of the art form, such as Julie Doucet from Canada, whose ruthlessly autobiographical works have influenced many other illustrators, or AnkeFeuchtenberger from Germany, who is represented with a portrait gallery of her female role models.
There are international bestselling authors such as Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) and Liv Strömquist (“The Origin of the World”), who was a guest at the Comic Salon this year, and whose works deal with gender roles. There are also successful local illustrators such as Ulli Lust, Barbara Yelin and Katja Klengel.
In addition, you can discover many a draftsman who is hardly known in this country. In addition to Tracy Chahwan, there is, for example, the Swedish manga artist Natalia Batista, who was inspired by classics such as “Sailor Moon”. In her fantasy series “Sword Princess Amaltea” she questions role models that have been introduced, for example by making the princesses strong and rescuing the princes from emergencies.
Or the Croatian Helena Janecic, who Ulli Lust names as her role model and whose protagonists talk about female lust while visiting sex shops and in other everyday scenes.
The central gems of the exhibition are the many original drawings. Rarely can the individual strokes of comic creators be viewed as directly as here. Two large hand-inked pages from Alison Bechdel’s internationally successful autobiography “Fun Home” show her enormous technical sovereignty and impress with a filigree style that is not so clearly recognizable in the book editions of her works.
Julie Doucet’s panels, filled almost to the last millimeter, convey an intensive work process that goes well with her autobiographical works, which tell of some obsessions.
And a page by Pia Guerra from her sci-fi comic Y – The Last Man, co-created with screenwriter Brian K. Vaughan, looks more alive in the brushed black-and-white original and has more finely accented lines than the later for the publication on the computer colored pages is the case.
The insights into the artistic creative process, which are conveyed, for example, by the sketches for Aminder Dhaliwal’s successful satirical strip “Woman World”, which tells of a world without men, are also fascinating.
And Judith Vanistendael’s ink sketches for her graphic novel “Penelope’s Two Lives”, in which the protagonist has to choose between her family and her work, give an idea of the technical challenges and possibilities of the watercolor technique for the comic.
The curators – the journalist Lilian Pithan and the translator Katharina Erben – have placed a large focus on female artists, who have been playing an increasingly important role in the German scene for several years. Among them Aisha Franz, who deals with female self-empowerment in the science fiction story “Shit is real”.
Or Ulli Lust, whose memories of her punk youth were celebrated internationally with the title “Today is the last day of the rest of your life”. Lust is represented here with the little-known short story Lulu and the Shame, about how she learned as a child not to name or touch her vulva.
With Barbara Yelin, Birgit Weye, and Lisa Frühbeis, three artists are also represented who have also worked for the Tagesspiegel for several years and in the Sunday supplement told about strong women and female perspectives or humorously broken down feminist discourses into their everyday life. Frühbeis’ Tagesspiegel strips collected under the title “Busengewunder” were awarded several art and comic prizes in the past year.
The exhibition is structured by eight well-chosen topic groups. In addition to information about the artists shown, text panels also provide the public with a few categories that can be used to classify the works in feminist discourses.
This ranges from the deconstruction of classic role models in the chapter “Gender Reverse” to the importance of networks under the title “Girls’ Clubs” to dealing with female body images under the title “Body
The exhibition also wants to question how role models are installed, as the curators write in the summary of some of their key questions: “How is it that comic artists of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have been honored while women in rarely appear in this gallery of ancestors? What are the implications of role models being mostly male?”
It is true that female artists are more strongly represented in the comic scene than ever before. “But if you ask about influential illustrators, they mostly mention contemporaries. The formative influence that comic artists have had on the development of the medium right from the start does not always seem conscious.”
Naturally, such an exhibition, which brings together 30 selected artists, can only convey a section of the subject area. Some pioneers of the art form are missing, regions that are particularly important internationally for comics, such as Japan, are only touched upon.
But completeness is not the goal here. Rather, the show is intended to convey in an exemplary manner how important female illustrators have become in an art form that has long been male-dominated and how they have enriched comics with often specifically female and feminist content and forms of representation. The exhibition succeeds in this across the board.