Meet the Ladies of Comicazi: four women on a mission to make sure all people, especially women, have the ability to read, produce and discuss comics. They’re a small but mighty collective of geek culture fans, using the power of blogging to spread the message of the graphic world to both the masses and the marginalized. Operating out of Comicazi HQ, they lead events like a monthly book club, screenings of everything from Batman to Bob’s Burgers and an evening called Drink and Draw, a collaborative event for all visual art types that started as a networking get-together for local comic artists. With their powers combined, they aim to wipe the floor with the stereotypes women face in the comic world.
Female comic book characters have traditionally been treated as plot devices. Rather than being real people with complex inner worlds, they are merely objects whose position or obliteration drives the story forward. The trope was so common that in 1999 a comics fan devoted a website to a list of female characters who had been “depowered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.”
The medium is much kinder to its female characters nowadays, but it’s still not perfect. Sure, there are more lead female characters than there once were, and the industry has embraced the idea that women actually read comics, but there’s still a ways to go before the comic world achieves real equality.
“[Not] all women who like comics are going to enjoy the same thing,” bristles Sara Franks-Allen, recalling a recent media suggestion that women in comics are having a great year. It’s true Marvel’s female Thor was far outselling her male counterpart earlier this year, and both Marvel and DC have granted their minor female characters (see: Spider-Gwen, A-Force, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel) independent story arcs. Indie comics starring female protagonists, like “Rat Queens,” a female-centric adventure fantasy series, have also garnered critical acclaim and impressive sales. But having a handful of leading ladies does not necessarily mean publishers are meeting the needs of their femme readers.
“It’s just a phase that characters of any unrepresented group go through when they’re introduced into the canon,” says Franks-Allen. “Everyone who’s writing them is afraid to put in major flaws or anything that would make them fully rounded characters because they could be seen as saying that about all people of that race or gender or sexuality or whatever, even though that’s not the case.”
For the Ladies, it’s not just about sticking a woman at the center of your story. While Franks-Allen admits that she’s huge on “The Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl” and Valerie Sacchetti digs the revamped “Jem and the Holograms,” what they value more than the gender of a story’s hero are emotionally complex characters navigating detailed storylines. If comics are written or illustrated by women, that’s even better.
The Ladies don’t just want to bring female-driven comics to embedded comic book fans, they also want to create a space where even the most inexperienced reader can find something to love. And they’ve certainly rooted themselves within a store and city where that belief can thrive. Long before the ladies became The Ladies, they were already going to Comicazi. Franks-Allen says that she was the first woman to walk through their door after they opened, having supported the owners when they worked at another store, and McGrath is married to one of the owners. Even with their degree of familiarity, they insist it’s a great place to get your feet wet.
“No one at Comicazi is going to make fun of you for not being familiar with the background of a particular comic book character. In fact, they’re all excited to tell you things and answer your questions,” says Sachetti. “And I would know. I’m into manga. When I come in to request they order some weird Japanese book that isn’t in the store, they find it for me, and then whoever is working at the counter wants to hear all about it.”
Beyond the store, the group finds the city at large a great place for women to draw or write comics.
“Somerville in general has always supported the arts and has had a really strong artistic community really woven into the fabric of the city,” says McGrath. “But there’s also sort of critical mass thing, where the more people who are out there in that community and talking about it, it’s going to engender a bigger and better community. [It feels] like there are women doing these things, so they’re supporting each other.”
“I grew up in Savannah,” Franks-Allen adds, “and while we had comic book stores around, we definitely didn’t have a place that was firing on all cylinders like Comicazi.”
Looking to the future, the Ladies have several aspirations for the next year of collaboration. Sachetti says she’d love to devote more of her professional time to coordinating events for fans of comics in Somerville. When asked what she’d like to see the Ladies pull off in the next few years, McGrath emphatically said, “Lady Con,” and the Ladies around her murmured and nodded. In McGrath’s mind, a Lady Con would resemble Boston’s Comic Con (which this year runs from July 31 to August 2) with panels and meet-and-greets with female writers and illustrators.
“I’d love to put together a showcase of women creators,” McGrath says wistfully.
Until then, the Ladies of Comicazi will continue their crusade more quietly, chipping away at what’s wrong with the comic world through community, collaboration and conversation.
Emily Gaudette is a freelance writer and an editor at Beutler Ink. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Hopkins contributed reporting.