I might have grown up to be a left-handed scientist, but my kindergarten teacher firmly believed that all children ought to write with their right hands and my parents firmly believed that only boys liked to play with chemistry kits. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who asked for video games and got more dolls instead. There’s now an anthology dedicated to women telling their stories of being pushed out of traditionally male medium; Chicks Dig Comics was published this year by Mad Norwegian Press. It’s my favorite kind of book – mostly a collection of brief autobiographical sketches by women (and a few men) in the comic industry. The writers are varied and fascinating, notably including Sigrid Ellis, whose introductory blurb states that she is “a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and comics…an air traffic controller…[who] lives with her partner…her partner’s other partner…and a host of pets both vertebrate and invertebrate.” Anika Milik is less in the comics industry than in the cosplay industry: she writes about her devotion to dressing as comic heroes and posts tips on her website.
Some of the contributors grew up recycling bottles for comic money, others found comics just a few years ago. For her part, Delia Sherman writes that, when she was growing up in the ’50s, a Dr. Wertham widely published a purportedly scientific study that comics (particularly those involving superheroes) “encourage[d] children to become sadists, racists, homosexuals, and/or juvenile delinquents.” Needless to say, comics were not permitted in Delia’s house.
As alarming as a suggestion that Wertham’s study was scientific is, it’s perhaps more alarming that homosexuality was grouped with sadism and racism as a negative consequence. Sigrid Ellis reports that homosexuality was actually in the DSM – the manual of psychiatric disorders – until 1986. Homosexuality was still considered a mental illness twenty-five years ago. This is pertinent because many contributors to the book report apparent (but not explicitly stated) homosexual relationships in comic books from that time and prior to it, which was strictly against the policies of the big comic book companies, likely because of the “mental illness” status.
The other (perhaps too obvious) major social theme of the book is feminism. I generally don’t consider myself a feminist. I actually picked up this book in the comic book store because I have this fantasy that I could make my own comics and I wanted to read about how others got into the genre. I don’t think the feminism is too heavy-handed here, though. The number of voices represented allows a balance between “sexy outfits on female characters are just fine, thanks” and “no female character should ever be represented with big boobs ever.” The contributors almost unanimously report drastic improvement in the participation of women in all aspects of the comic industry and even suggest that women (cosplayers, particularly) seem to outnumber men at some conventions.
It’s a really smart book and I don’t think you have to be a woman or even in love with comic books to enjoy it. If you like to learn about other people like I do, you should definitely pick it up.