Girls Who Make Art: Q&A with Comic Book Artists Dawn Griffin & Kari Smith
Illustration by Sabrina Carrizo Sztainbok
In an industry that is predominantly male-dominated by people like Stan Lee, Alan Moore, and Neal Adams, artists like Dawn Griffin and Kari L. Smith help give female comic book artists the much needed credit they deserve. This past Wizard World Comic Con I was introduced to comic book artists Dawn Griffin who has created series like Zorphbert and Fred and Abby’s Adventures, and I was also introduced to Kari L. Smith, creator of the Plume comic series. I got the chance to ask them some questions about their experience in the comic book industry as women and here is what they had to say:
What was it like for you as a comic book artist growing up surrounded by classic comics such as Marvel and DC that are written mostly by men?
Kari: Honestly, growing up and studying my idols, who were mostly men, I never once thought ‘I couldn’t do that because I’m female.’ My family was always very supportive of my goals in life; my parents never once gave me the ‘get a real job’ speech and I am super thankful for that. Nor did my gender deter my progress, or at least, to my recollection.
Dawn: To be honest, I didn't read typical superhero comics. I fell in love with comic strips and the "funny pages" first, it's how I learned to read. I was weaned on Peanuts, Fox Trot. Calvin & Hobbes is what convinced me becoming a cartoonist was what I was most passionate about. Regardless, whether it's traditional comic books or comic strips, both are male-dominated industries. I also loved "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston, so having that courageous female role model was important-- it was because of her that the first gay character graced the funny pages. I think upbringing is very important as well. My parents were always very supportive of my aspirations, and they raised me to think independently and be self-sufficient, so I never saw myself as being "less than" or having to "overcome big hurdles because of my gender". I may have searched out more female artists, but I don't think I heavily focused on being the oddball or the underdog. Cartoonists, after all, are underdogs anyway, male or female... as it's a dying and struggling field. It's possible if I was striving to work for DC or Marvel that I would have noticed the gender disparity more, but since I wasn't, it was more about the overall struggle to make a living drawing funny cartoons.
What are some of your favorite comic books created by a female comic book artist?
Kari: Absolutely loved the manga Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. Also, a fan of Gail Simone, who is a writer for Deadpool.
Dawn: In my childhood, I adored "For Better or For Worse", as mentioned. It was gutsy and heartwarming, and broke the mold, showing the characters grow up and deal with more serious issues. More recently, I've become a fan of Danielle Corsetto known for "Girls with Slingshots", best-seller award-winner Raina Telgemeier of "Smile", "Drama" and more, Fiona Staples of "Saga", and the entire clan that works on "Lumberjanes". Others to mention: Faith Erin Hicks, Kate Beaton, Katie Cook.
Do you feel it’s easier for your male counterparts to get their work appreciated?
Kari: If it is, I don’t see it. I am surrounded by a wealth of talented ladies, and their numbers are growing. Ashley Witter, Jen Bartel, Elizabeth Torque, Jill Thompson. I am also surrounded by some great guys, those who have never once treated female artists any differently than their fellow males.
Dawn: The disparity there is shrinking, for sure. If I have to say yes or no, I'd say yes, but only slightly. In the end, the cream rises to the top... especially now with the internet and more comic publishers being open to new styles and demographics, For instance, I focus on kids and young-adult content, and there's a boom in that demographic right now. I mean, Scholastic now has a graphic novel division. The "old boys club" still seems to exist in the traditional areas: DC and Marvel superhero comics, which are still heavily geared towards male teenagers and up. So, while I can see other women struggle to enter this specific area, I think in the changing industry there are now plenty of other doors women can use to enter the field. For me, I'm looking for other doors as I was never the traditional comic-book-style artist.
Could you tell me about a situation related to your job in which you felt neglected just for the fact that you are a woman?
Kari: Mind you, I’ve only been on the scene for 4 years, so there’s only one moment that I can remember. A guy walked up to my table, pointed to my comic and said “Your husband draw that?” I said, “No. I did.” He then asked, “Did he write it?” I responded, “No. I did.” Ever so charming, he exclaimed, “So, you did all of it?!” And I replied rather dryly, “Believe it or not, yes.” He then proceeded to tell me how much he loved when women were drawn all ‘soft and curvy’. I can say, quite confidently, he was a special case.
Dawn: I'll give you a little story I often relay. It doesn't happen often, but it happens. When working a comic con, I'm often a one-woman show. Some other artists may have an assistant there to talk to customers and take money, etc. Often, it's a male artist with a female assistant, possibly cosplaying. It seems many con-goers are used to this dynamic. So, on rare occasion, I'll have someone approach my booth and ask "when is HE coming back?"... and then I have to have that awkward moment where I explain that I'm the artist, and there is "he" to "come back". It's embarrassing for them, usually. But that's the assumption, the stigma. I don't think they mean anything by it, really. It would be nice to not have it happen, for both of us, of course. Being an independent (mostly) artist, and doing a lot of freelance illustration, I have had only good experiences and haven't noticed a ton of sexism. However, friends who are more immersed in "the old boys club" shall we say, I hear the stories. It's just not prevalent in my particular experience.
How do you think the comics industry will be like in ten years? Do you think more women will be working on it?
Kari: For sure, in ten years more women will be on the scene. We’re growing in numbers, paving the way for the newcomers. Hell, we’ve already tipped the ratio in the video game scene, so we’re coming for you boys!
Dawn: Without a doubt, yes! It may not be perfectly 50/50, but I think the gender disparity will continue to shrink. Comics and movies/TV are getting so intertwined lately, I think they'll continue to ride this wave, working as partners. Movies inspiring fans to read comics, and vice versa. The total digital takeover may be coming, for right now it does seem like comic fans are clinging to their REAL, physical books still.... that nostalgia factor looms.
Classic comics such as superheroes and many manga series still depict men as strong and powerful heroes, while women are usually kept in the background. What could we do to change this situation?
Kari: We as writers and artists need to create more well-rounded characters. Vulnerable, flawed characters who fail, but still pull themselves back up and try. We don’t need anymore high-heeled, femme fatales; we’re missing the mark on what makes a woman tough. And we don’t need more clean-shaven, muscled men; we’re missing the mark on masculinity. We need characters who we can find pieces of ourselves in and to fall in love with.
Dawn: Social change is slow, and businesses don't adapt quickly, as keeping the long-standing profit rolling in is a priority. So, until the demand is there for female heroes with actual depth who don't rely on a man to save them, the tried-and-true recipes will remain the standard. Good news: I think we're hitting that demand now. Just look at this new generation of girls, reading graphic novels like "LumberJanes" or "Ms. Marvel". Look at the Disney "princess" movie they adore-- featuring two sisters who don't need men to save them, but instead save themselves. We are paving the way RIGHT NOW for an exciting future of "superhero equality", and that goes even beyond gender, wherein there are comic books for many more demographics than the 14+ white male group. And maybe along with this movement will come a day when *gasp* .... boys can enjoy comics about girls, too!
What’s your advice for young girls who want to become professional comic book artists?
Kari: For those young female artists, I tell them to work hard and strive to improve. If you want it, go get it, don’t let anyone belittle you because of your gender. Turn “no’s" into opportunities, and shut up those nay-sayers by proving them wrong.
Dawn: As with almost any profession, practice practice practice. I know, it's boring and cliched. But it's true. A friend in the comic field put it very simply: "Do it like you would do it anyway.", and this stuck with me. It can have a couple different meanings, too. Do it like you would even if you won the lottery. Do it like you would if you couldn't have fame or fortune. The only way you can create something truly fantastic, is if your heart is fully in it, if you are utilizing your passion and inspiration. If you are just looking for praise, money, or popularity... it won't reflect well on your final product.
I have one more bit of advice that has stayed with me all these years; it came from an illustration professor who once told me I drew like I was fearless. I tried hard to impress him each class, perfecting my technique so I would achieve a positive critique. I finally managed to do this with one piece, and I had an internet celebration; I thought "Oh good, now I can coast the rest of the semester since I figured out what he likes!" He must have read my mind. He slammed his hands down on my desk, startling me. He said, "DON'T GET COMFORTABLE. I want to see something completely different next week.. a new take on your style." It really threw me. But this is what an artist is: ever-evolving, never-coasting, and always looking to improve. Keep yourself on your toes. It's a life-long marathon, not a race to find a comfortable plateau. Once you accept that you'll never achieve perfection, it can free you of that burden.... but help focus you on artistic growth. After all, no one started out a pro.... and no pro believes they are as good as they can get!
Special thanks to Wizard World Comic Con for allowing Mimp Mag to be part of Cleveland’s 2017 event.