Jewel of Denial: Race & Gender Adventures in New Zealand Comics

On the weekend I attended what might have been one of the most overdue, electric and realest panels I have witnessed in a long time. And in terms of comics… well it was probably the first panel I have related to in my adult life working within the medium. It was part of Comic Fest, a cool event at Wellington Library that moved away from Comic Convention er…conventions and focused on a lot of the local unsung obscuros that are thanklessly keeping the game progressively humming.

I saw two panels. The first was dubbed The Future of Comics, it was all men which was side-eye worthy (soz babe no women in the future) BUT I got to hear from Matt Emery from Pikitia Press, someone I hassled to be in Mana Magazine for a Māori comics feature. On the panel Matt talked about his experience as a self-taught artist and modest comic publisher based in Melbourne. When he casually talked about Māori comic content and identity in his work I realised I was feral starved to hear about these things from a fellow knowing voice. (If you are brown and into comics in this country you often have your history, language and aesthetics looped back to you through an authoritative white dude filter, for real. For those who think I’m exaggerating look Jack Nicholson you can’t handle that truth, but I’ll come back to it).

Anyway Matt moderated the killer panel I saw the next day and even when he was teased and given constructive hell, for me he was the ideal person for the job because it meant I would have a Māori person (!) publicly talking to women (!) about comics (!). A lot of people don’t realise ‘choosing’ between your race and gender battles isn’t a hellish ‘Sophie’s Choice’ scenario for women of colour… um it’s not actually possible, we’re not problematic 3-piece suits that adjust to political temperature – shit don’t work like that. People who walk in multiple marginalised worlds are geared up to be disappointed or disappoint their lucky mono-struggle peers most of the time. The cross-sections of such plights (or academically speaking ‘intersectionality’) matters, so I appreciated the dual visibility is what I’m saying. Being myself comfortably in the comic community is kind of a troubled goal of mine, not that I have a choice lol.

So the talk was with the editors of Three Words. There was cartoonist Sarah Laing, award winning graphic poet Rae Joyce, and comics maker, editor and general genius Indira Neville (who had me in stitches after the panel, she should have her own TV show). Basically Three Words is an upcoming New Zealand comic anthology featuring all women and gender diverse artists. Although there have been all-woman comic collections before, this will be the biggest and the first of it’s kind in Aotearoa boasting 65 artists from across the land from all levels of the medium. When I was first approached to be in the book I was stoked as all-hell but I had no idea that by joining the project and wildcard Facebook group, I was also going to witness the real talk and exciting shit that I had been subconsciously waiting for. Until now I thought comics had disheartened me, but I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. This book and the sense of community it’s building is a big deal.

The trio discussed the genesis and work behind assembling of Three Words and here are some of the things I learnt.

Here are the percentages of women featured in the five largest recent comic anthologies in New Zealand and guess what, the numbers are pathetic

I think when 15% looks like the earnest good guy, you have a serious proportion problem (I wonder what the cultural ratios of those included were too *knowing look*). One of the editors of these collections has responded with the old ‘lack of female artists’ schtick, someone else has said ‘women artists often fail to meet the industry standard’. *Clears throat* so how did the editors of Three Words find 65 artists with very little trouble and with dozens more who couldn’t be in it? And why alongside the punk and proudly untrained artists are there artists featured that would make Stan Lee’s mouth drop? Also who makes those industry standards that y’all are so passionately adhering to? *Beyonce voice* who runs the comic world? Men.

Don’t believe me? Well back in 2007/2008 I was a young buck-ette in a New Zealand comics documentary called The Comics Show. My lo-fi comic with Pritika Lal ‘This Is Not a Comic’ and other work we were both doing within the genre was noted because we were two mixed South Auckland girls and gasp we actually talked about it. This doco was my first taste of realising the space was bleak for women, we came from zine world which was a bit more democratic. I learnt quickly that although I’m noooowhere neeeear a mainstream artist, my music (and my annoying penchant for speaking my mind) made me a trillion times more visible then the countless other female illustrators toiling away in a hilariously undercover art-form and I had to do something about it. While the (talented) men in the doco were plentiful, Robyn Knealy, Pritika and I were left to represent the female comic beast with our knees buckling. (Warning I’m a total f**king dork in this trailer but whatever I’ll take one for the team just so I can prove my point lol, I find it speaks ratio volumes).

Amid all my other arm wrestles, battling for more diversity in New Zealand comics was damn harsh. Pritika and I got nominated for Best New Comic at the National Eric Awards one year but somewhat predictably we didn’t win (Pritika is a genius but my drawing skills were um… still in development lol she basically had to be my art school). We were among the only women at the ceremony and apart from our Samoan bro Mat Hunkin sitting behind us, we were definitely among the only non-Pakeha people there. I was excited to be acknowledged but I guess I just found the whole thing a bit buzzy. In music there’s a bit more melting pot chaos I guess.

Frustrated I almost got an all-girl anthology with my good friend Mitch Marks off the ground (and Indira was cool enough to acknowledge those who have editorially fallen and failed during the panel lol) but the task turned into an intimidating monster on us. I did start an open newspaper called Fight the Fight with mostly multicultural critics and political hot heads in it, looking back I can see this was a knee-jerk reaction to how suffocated I felt. I somehow wrangled Chris Knox into doing a comic submission (which is ridiculous cos I was basically a hack jerk toddler). I felt he understood the mangled cultural spirit in which I worked (he was also a national treasure who told people to get fucked so of course I looked up to him lol). Knox told me in Fight the Fight emails to keep going and I should be proud of myself. He wore his FTF t-shirt everywhere which makes me emo because he actually knew what I was trying to do. But ‘doing something about it’ is hard man. I decided in between rap bullshit and trying to get my writing off the ground, I couldn’t take the sexist racist comics pressure on my own too. I eventually took a break from comics only really working on my zine Philosoflygirl and the odd scribble for people, I just felt like I didn’t belong in it apart from the odd outburst. Apart from a blindsidingly surreal turn with my Hook Ups comic-strip, this is where I’ve quietly been mentally parked for about five years. Comics-wise I was on my own buzz, on my own being the operative words and as much as I hate to admit it….I couldn’t take it.

I think maybe this is why I am so deeply proud of Three Words and what they are doing! Aside from fighting destructive comparison, conformity and perfectionism within the art-form which is so important, they remind me that I do belong and I always did – it was a representational ruse! They have pushed for inclusion of people from all parts of the identity and artistic spectrum. I also admire them because I know how hard it is to keep your chin up in an art-form world renowned for it’s white male know-it-alls (worst blog-post everrr). Rap is the same in some ways, you get shit from dudes who weirdly think you creatively thriving independently of them is a cloaked insult or a threat. It isn’t, sometimes it’s just a perfectly reasonable time to share your voice – which for women and queer people and POC in New Zealand comics is looking like it might be now thank Jah.

And somewhat timely, I recently did a comic for the ‘Between Wind & Water’ art publication that was put out by a South Auckland art collective I love (Ema Tavola, Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake and Luisa Tora). It was my first comic for 2015 and it’s a vague drawn representation of a talk I gave on Polynesian futurism and how the marginalised must speak for ourselves. Funny that. Seems fitting to share a slice of it.

I have a full blown comic coming out later this year called Foodcore, my first ‘grown-up style’ comic which has rendered me a neurotic cliche so wish me luck. And with that I should probably leave you with the podcast of the talk! There are so many zingers and factoids and truth bombs and TENSE MOMENTS but be sure to listen til the end, someone stood up and delivered a korero that had everyone in tears. Support this book when it comes out in a few months! New Zealand comics are dead, long live Aotearoa comics! Lol xx

#comicfest2015 New Zealand Women’s Comics with the editors of Three Words – podcast by Wellington City Libraries on Mixcloud

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