Comics as a medium are often looked over when broad and general conceptions of ‘media’ are considered. They have a checkered history, rising and falling out of public scrutiny and debate. However, as with most creative outlets, those driven to use such outlets persist despite the throes of fashion. What can critical attention address for those expressing themselves with comics? With little written about comics beyond its own culture’s horn-tooting, it’s a little hard to specify. Comics’ financially successful market is a niche, cult-like one at best. In comparison to the critical attention for other mediums, comics are marginalised: relegated to a ‘low’ art form and sometimes banned outright. The recognition for comic-makers’ participation in any public debate would be considerably slim. The comic environment that my chosen comic-makers hail from isn’t one of a mainstream, populist agenda or position. More likely is that it’s a position set in opposition and contrast to mainstream populism. This posits a stranger challenge than if one were to enter a discourse on ‘normal’, more accessible comics. My chosen comic-makers, Mandy Ord and Amber Carvan, are both also women. Addressing this in addition to a task of contextualizing their place in the comics’ schema is if not challenging, interesting. The occasions when a comic title spills out of its margin position within media-space are rare, when that comic is also created by women would be incredible. Yet this is a paper that attempts to put critical attention toward the comics of two female comic-makers in an academic context, outside of comics’ own culture.
McCloud’s (1993 pp.7-9) careful definition of comics, as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” opens consideration of comics quite far. Although including ancient examples of cave paintings and hieroglyphs, comics as a readily accessible form have been born out of the development of print technology beginning the late nineteenth century and flourishing in the twentieth. However, developing with this infant medium were reductive public perceptions that limited its potential. According to McCloud’s definition for example, highlight a separation between comics and cartoons. The brevity of a cartoon compared to the longer comic places them in an easier accessible but reduced form for mainstream news print audiences. These forums for comics prove challenging for major and subtler works to operate in ‘strips’. So the single picture cartoon isn’t juxtaposed with another and can thus fail to meet McCloud’s definition (ibid. pp.20-21). Also, Federick Wertham’s popular 1955 damnation of the medium ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ led to legislation retarding the development of mature minded comics. This seriously hampered the comic industry in America, and obliterated it in Australia, that had already been thwarted by cheaply imported American product since World War two (Finnane, 1998). “The underlying assumption that comics and kids were inextricably linked” continues even today (McCloud, 2000 p. 83). The failure of this perception to account for the potential of comics is well demonstrated by this strip of Tom Tomorrow’s political series ‘This Modern World’.
After some comic-format fan mail to the Doug Anthony All Stars in high school, Mandy Ord’s work in comics began more formally in Canberra’s ANU Art School in the mid 90s. There with fellow artists the Sticky comics group formed and members gathered in each others houses to make (doodle) comics. She began self publishing ‘Wilnot’, collecting her various short comics with the occasional Sticky Comics moniker attached. With a very inky style of art and grotesque characters, Wilnot surprises with its intelligence and good intentions. Her character “Little Dick-Eyes” a great example of this; a little hunchbacked midget fellow with a copious indication of Tourette’s syndrome is a charmingly sweet guy who eventually finds his calling working for an adult phone line.
Also around this time Mandy collaborated with Kirrily Schell to edit and be the two most prolific contributors to ‘Fruity Murmurs’, an anthology featuring a collection of all women artists. Funded by their student association, it celebrated all sounds improper for a ‘lady’ to make burps and farts and swear words, and featuring pieces entitled ‘Adventures of the Pubic Hare’ and ‘Tash Eats an Old Kangaroo’. ‘Fruity Murmurs’ simultaneously confronted the safe, stereotypical notions of comics and women. This also provided an excellent forum for women comic-makers in the area to try their hand at the form.
Amber Carvan started drawing comics in 1995, gave up and started again when she moved to Melbourne in 1997, self publishing ‘Big Smoke’ (Schroeder, 2003). Aiming to chronicle her life in the big city her collections of autobiographical shorts suited the Melbourne comic crowd to a tea. With an I-can’t-draw modesty, the simplicity of her artwork evoked a depth for Big Smoke readers to find. Insightful stories of a more philosophical nature displayed the depth in both the author and reader’s evoked imaginations.
Always modest about her own work, but with a strong appreciation for comics, Amber with her partner, Richard, produced ‘Milk Bar’. Probably the most comprehensive documentation of the Melbourne independent ‘small’ press to date, ‘Milk Bar’ featured articles, interviews and reviews by the communities of self publishing Australians. Not restricted to comics, ‘Milk Bar’ included discussion of the text based self published zeens as well, a healthy balance of the two. Professionally printed and at over 100 pages, the thoroughness of the tome gave its subjects a hearty dose of encouraging criticism. It provoked a sequel the following year, ‘Milk Bar/Racing Car’ that continued the coverage, this time coming closer to 150 pages.
Although the occasional ‘Big Smoke’ still appeared in this time, Amber became much more involved with the government sponsored Loud and Noise youth arts and media festivals of the next few years. Working again to further the recognition of her small press compadrés, in 2001 with Noise Amber edited and produced ‘How Comics Can Change the World’. This collection devoted itself to energising women into becoming comic makers, featuring works by all women creators (some first timers), interviews about each piece and about comics, and a few text articles here and there by women writers. Importantly ‘How Comics Can Change the World’ also addressed the reductive public perceptions of comics; that comics were for kids and male kids at that. Although comics have had a relatively marginal share of media-space, it is no less affected by a history of dominating patriarchal culture.
“Comics for girls produced during the early 1950s sold in the millions and outnumbered every other kind of comic book. The romance and career girl adventures of the comic heroines littered the bedrooms of girls across the world.”
States Katy Stevens, in her article in the collection, ‘Comics are for Boys (Not)’ (p. 8). However, these comics were usually produced by men and perpetuated patriarchal gender norms (Robbins, 1999, pp.81-83). ‘How Comics Can Change the World’ confronted the ‘boys only’ comic culture of readership and representation. Reiterating that comics weren’t merely for boys and weren’t merely of the men-in-tights crime-fighting (with Barbie-esque woman-as-object on their arm) variety. McCloud (2000) argues the (largely American) industry still perpetuating this stereotype is limiting its sustainability in the remainder of this century and a necessary reinvigoration of the medium will be through the diversity offered by comics by women, ethnic and sub cultures, and divergent genres. “How Comics Can Change the World’ was an affirmative bastion for that argument.
Amber produced another Noise work that year, ‘True Tales of Love and Hate’ a collection of art, writing and comics by young Australians that was published online for the festival and then anthologised in print. Tackling issues of identity and domestic violence. As intended by the Noise festival and similar to ‘Fruity Murmurs’, this work proved a successful forum for people trying new forms of expression. Unlike the ‘Fruity Murmurs’ project, these festival publications had federal funding with wide distribution.
‘Brick Dog’ marked Mandy and Amber’s first project as a duo. Although Amber’s stuff appeared in Mandy’s ‘Pantry’ project and Mandy’s stuff appeared in Amber (and Richard’s) ‘Milk Bar’ project, this collaborative effort was without the creative input of the rest of their community. Made possible by a grant from the Literature Board at the Australia Council for the Arts, Amber and Mandy spent a good portion of a year swapping sketchbooks and making comics for each other. One of the more reluctant comic makers teamed up with one the more adventurous doubly aided by their complimentary abilities as instigators and talent shepherds for others.
‘Brick Dog’ features corresponding stories by each author, the influences of each on the other begin to seep into the panels. Amber reflects on the project and discusses her relationship to Mandy. Mandy in response makes a tribute to Amber, even adopting the simple line style of Amber when representing her. (Amber depicts Mandy with two eyes in her own style, although emphasising one as bigger than the other.)
Apart from the creative partnership, a significant difference ‘Brick Dog’ has to the previous efforts of the two is that it’s not self published. Federally funded like the Noise projects but published by Pluto Press and distributed throughout Australia in major retail book stores. Opening the publication to critical scrutiny in fields of literature, ‘Brick Dog’ goes where no Australian comic born out of the 90s small press has gone, and it’s by two women. Although Australian women cartoonists, like Kaz Cooke and Judy Horacek have had collections on shelves for years, they share the space with larger amounts of male cartoonists. And as suggested elsewhere, their works aren’t necessarily comics by definition, and would be on different book shelves altogether.
An Australian comic industry that perpetuated patriarchal culture as well as stereotypes about the comic form died in the middle of the twentieth century. Changing technology towards the later decades of that century enabled a second wave of Australian comics. Self publishers that were on occasion deliberately challenging comics’ stereotypes or were so far removed from the sensibilities of the stereotypical comic they challenged them inadvertently. Publications championing the form like ‘Milk Bar’ and ‘How Comics Can Change the World’ (And the previously unmentioned ‘Silent Army’ a 100 page comic anthology published by a Melbourne youth arts organisation) have pushed non-stereotypical comics out of their marginalized critical place. Considering the contrasts to patriarchal norms small press comics conceivably determine themselves by, it’s little surprise that when the self publishers work hit the big presses, the work is authored by women.
To finally address the question relating to advantages and disadvantages for women expressing themselves through comics, or any group excluded by patriarchal and overly assertive cultural notions. What I wanted to stress by addressing two relatively successful women comic makers is that in a contemporary Australian place, comic-makers have a fairly advantageous position compared to those of other times and places. Not many anthologies produced here today with the intention of addressing Australian comics would do so and exclude women. While there may still be more men producing comics in Australia, those represented outside of comics’ media-margin place is respectfully equal to women. This was not the case in the past. Or in America, where the strength of the industry has seen traditionally patriarchal comics, with all their stereotypes, prevail past Wertham’s moral panic into now; chances of equal representation would not be as good. So it still is the case there. America has a significant amount of independent publishers presenting work by women and minority groups, in genres that don’t involve men-in-tights fighting crime. Although criticism outside of the margins pays attention to the better selling superhero material and the independent publishers continue the tradition of underground comics, that Robbins identified as male dominated.
“Sadly, most of the male underground cartoonists understood as little about the new woman’s movement as the newspapers did, and reacted to what they perceived a s threat by drawing comix filled with graphic violence directed mostly at women. People – especially women people – who criticized this misogyny were not especially welcome in this alternative version of the old boy’s club, and were not invited into the comix being produced (1999, p.85).”
Although somewhat prompted by a boom of mainstream American titles in the early 90s, having no tradition of independent comics in Australia supports the notion that the comic makers of the mid 90s offer a radical break from the Australian industry of the 40s, 50s and 60s. An Australian woman comic-maker would not have to fight the stereotypes about comics as nearly as hard as an American comic-maker would need to in America.
If the sexual discrimination of these types of Australian comics published is as reduced as I like to argue, the disadvantages would really be in the marginalisation a woman comic-maker would face, not as a woman, but as a comic-maker. ‘Brick Dog’ is still but one title in book stores of thousands, and it needed government support to get it there. There may be more stereotypes to battle in the States, but at least one can share shelf space with other women comic-makers.
McCloud poses an argument for the advantages of comics themselves, citing McLuhan’s declaration that two forms of communication would be those that would command the attention of twentieth century audiences, television and comics (1993, p.59). Television harnesses the power that images have to convey information in ways that words can seem inadequate for, as do comics. However given the collaborative, elaborate structures of red tape and technology one must face in order to communicate with the television medium, comics allow those who use them to communicate powerfully without half the fuss.
“Today, comics is one of the very few forms of mass communication in which individual voices still have a chance to be heard (ibid. p.197).”
Depending where one’s from, one must face and overcome disadvantages of book shelf space and stereotypes, but anyone with the impulse to make comics can do so because it’s as basic as pen on paper.
PICTURE SOURCES CRICA. 2003
T. Tomorrow, This Modern World first published 29/4/1998 available online:
M. Ord. ‘Little Dickeyes: At the Shops’ in Wilnot, no. 3, Sticky Comics, 1995-97 ACT.
One of Ord’s cartoons for The Australian, appearing in a supplement called ‘Orbit’. Available online:
M. Ord, unpublished personal correspondence, April 2000.
A. Carvan, untitled piece from Big Smoke, no. 7, 1999, Nth. Fitzroy.
A. Carvan, ‘The Lost and Found’ in Brick Dog and Other Stories, Pluto Press, 2002, pp. 34-44.
M. Ord, ‘I Freed it from the Plastic and Built it a Nest in a Cardboard Box’ in Brick Dog and Other Stories, Pluto Press, 2002, p. 48
REFERENCES CIRCA 2003
The Australian – Famous Aussie newspaper that I don’t read that apparently published some cartoons by Mandy.
Bentley P. & Stone, M. 1998 ‘Comic Book Chronology’ in Bonzer: Australian Comics 1900s -1990s, ed. A. Sheill, Elgua Media, Redhill South, Victoria.
Carvan, A. 1999 Big Smoke, no. 7, A. Carvan, North Fitzroy, Victoria.
Carvan, A. (ed.) 2001, How Comics Can Change the World, Noise & Commonwealth Government’s Partnerships against Domestic Violence Initiative
Carvan, A. 2001 True Tales of Love and Hate, Noise & Commonwealth Government’s Partnerships against Domestic Violence Initiative
Carvan, A. & Ord, M. 2002 Brick Dog and Other Stories, Pluto Press, Annandale, New South Wales.
Carvan, A. & Vogt, R. 1998 Milk Bar: An Australian Journal of Small Press, Milk Bar, North Fitzroy, Victoria.
Carvan, A. & Vogt, R. 1999 Milk Bar/Racing Car, Milk Bar, North Fitzroy, Victoria.
Finnane, M. 1998 ‘A Moral Miasma? Comics and Censorship in the 1950s’ in Bonzer: Australian Comics 1900s -1990s, ed. A. Sheill, Elgua Media, Redhill South, Victoria.
McCloud, S. 1993 Understanding Comics, Paradox Press/DC Comics, New York.
McCloud, S. 2000 Reinventing Comics, Paradox Press//DC Comics, New York.
Ord, M. 1995-1998, Wilnot, nos. 2-5, Sticky Comics, Canberra
Ord, M. (ed.) 1998, Pantry, Sticky Comics, Canberra
Ord. M. 1999, The Side of the Road, Ord, Brunswick South, Victoria
Ord, M. 1999, Wilnot, no. 7, Ord, Brunswick South, Victoria
Ord. M. 2000, unpublished personal correspondence
Ord, M. & Schell, K. (eds.) 1995, Fruity Murmurs, no. 1, Graphic Investigation Workshop, Canberra
Ord, M. & Schell, K. (eds.) 1995, Fruity Murmurs, no. 2, Sticky Comics, Canberra
Robbins, T. 1999, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Comics from Teens to Zines, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Schroeder, D. 2003, Amber Chloe Carvan: No Wild Stallions, available online: http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/s
Silent Army, 2002 eds. M. Fikaris, K. Mangan & G. Mackay, Express Media, Melbourne.
Stevens, K. 2001, ‘Comics are for Boys (Not)’ in How Comics Can Change the World, A. Carvan (ed.) Noise, Commonwealth Government.
Tomorrow, T. 1998 This Modern World first published 29/4/1998 available online:
Weeks J, 2002 Ord Bits available online: http://www.qdcomic.com/artists/ord2.h
Wertham, F. 1955, Seduction of the Innocent, Museum Press, London