We Shall Fight Until We Win

We Shall Fight Until We Win: a Century of Pioneering Political Women,
Edited by Laura Jones, Heather McDaid & Sha Nazir,
404 Ink / BHP Comics

Two small Indy Scottish publishers, BHP Comics (who are also behind the Glasgow Comic Con and the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival) teamed up with 404 Ink to create this anthology of “pioneering political women”, We Shall Fight Until We Win, which marks the century since (some) women got the vote in the UK with an all-woman creator team (nicely diverse line up too in terms of age, orientation, ethnic background, all encouraging to see) with short pieces on women from different decades across that century.

It’s a very interesting read, some tales being several pages, others being but a single page, and I admire the fact that they decided this would not take the route of only picking subjects most can admire, it also takes in subjects such as Margaret Thatcher because, even for those who loathed that very divisive politician the book cannot ignore that she was the first woman prime minister and the effect she had on changing politics in the UK, for good or ill, and while I personally cannot stand her I think it was indeed important that an anthology of this nature acknowledged her.

The range of subjects is as wide as the backrounds of the creators here, some well-known – Emmeline Pankhurst, Nicola Sturgeon, Dianne Abbot – while others may only be familiar to those who have an interest in specific parts of history. That’s a good thing, of course, because it means even if you consider yourself fairly well-versed in history there is a good chance you are still going to find out about a remarkable person you hadn’t heard of before. I like that aspect of these kinds of works, it is no bad thing, regardless of age, to be exposed to new people and ideas and events.

I’m not going to go through each individual chapter and creators, but I must mention a few that stood out for me personally. I liked Kathryn Briggs and Heather McDaid’s The Glasgow Girls right from the first page; I loved the style, infused with touches of Mackintosh and Art Noveau, and the title, riffing on the famous Glasgow Boys art movement. While most of the entries here opt to highlight a particular individual, this one has a warm, cooperative, social, community feel to it, celebrating a group of young women – school girls at the time – who saw immigrant families being settled into their local neighbourhoods in and around Glasgow, many of whom had fled terrible circumstances.

The children of these refugee families would attend local schools and they became part of the community, so when the seemingly eternally short-sighted and cold-hearted Kafkaeque monster of the Home Office opted to eject some from the country, placing entire families (including children) into detention, these young girls acted, they organised, they protested, they whipped up support, they stood up for their friends, and by god they made a difference. I was very touched by this particular story, partly because it showed the power of good will, well directed, but also because it chimed with an element of Scottish identity which is dear to many of us, that “we’re aw Jock Tamson’s Bairns” (essentially meaning we’re all the same, regardless) and that no matter where you came from, when you live here with us, you are one of us. Which is not to say we don’t have bigotry and racism in Scotland, sadly we do have that ignorant hatred too, but there is a song social and community strand to the national identity that still wants to embrace that inclusivity and standing by one another, and it was wonderful to see such young women taking that lesson and applying it to help others.

Jenny Bloomfield and Grace Wilson’s Life and Times of Mhairi Black, the very young, working class woman who became an SNP MP and brought her blunt, no nonsense approach to the stuffy, rule-obsessed House of Commons and showed it what she thought of their arcane rituals and customs (she was there to represent her electorate and didn’t give a damn about the games and rituals older MPs played by, much to their ire), had me smiling as it summed up this firecracker. Hannah Berry told of a woman I hadn’t heard of, Jayaben Desai, who stood up not just against misogyny and racism but the simple exploitation more than a few uncaring company’s have used on their workers over the years, organising together, as a union, to fight for their rights, something that affects all of us.

Hari Conner and Durre Shahwar’s story of Noor Inayat Khan was remarkable, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, who volunteered to serve in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) during WWII, then trained by SOE and parachuted behind into Occupied Europe as a wireless operator, risking life and torture by the Gestapo to help liberate it from the Nazis, and paying the ulimtate price. I could read a whole book on that unbelievably brave woman, who was executed in the hell of Dachau, her last word reportedly a defiant “Liberte!”

I think the one that most emotionally affected me was Sabeena Akhtar and Erin Aniker’s The 60%. Like The Glasgow Girls this wasn’t about an individual, in fact this time not even about a small group, it was about, well, about most women. Not the ones in the history and politics texts who are remembered for their deeds and thoughts which changed the world, but for all the other women who didn’t have the “privilege to fight and franchise”, the mothers, aunt, the working women who then went home from that work to raise children and look after husbands. Your mother, my mother, our aunts, sisters and others who changed the world in other ways while raising us, carnig for us, teaching us, setting an example while nurturing us. I think that particular story is pretty universal “and though you haven’t read their names, I’d wager you know their faces.” Of course we know their faces, they are our own family and friends.

I was lucky enough to hear BHP’s Sha Nazir and Heather Palmer, and 404 Ink’s Lauren Jones (see below) discuss the project on the opening day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival (my report on some of the comics and SF events from this summer’s festival is here), and it was fascinating to listen to how they went about this collaboration between the two Indy publishers (404’s first forary in comics). Not just in terms of embracing creators from a diverse number of backgrounds (something BHP has a strong ethos about, to their credit), but also from the production side – much of this work from new talent and established creators like Hannah Berry and Denise Mina (and our old chum and former FP blog reviewer Nicola Love, who I must give a shout out to) was solicited and completed and edited within two or three months.

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(Heather Palmer, Sha Nazir and Lauren Jones signing after their Edinburgh book fest talk, pic from my Flickr)

If these were two big publishers cooperating they would still be working out a legal document before they had started at that point! But being small and nimble BHP and 404 could push ahead quickly on that deal and the actual project to have it ready in a remarkably swift time period. I’m also heartened by hearing that copies have been going out to many school libraries in Scotland, and after chairing an event later at the festival with Sha Nazir several school librarians came over to chat about the book and other titles BHP had, and to note down other suggestions for graphic works they could use to help kids learn about complex subjects. It’s nice to know that this will be read in many of our schools.

250 Years of Women in Brit Comics – The Inking Woman

The Inking Woman,

Edited by Nicola Streeten and Cath Tate,

Myriad Editions

Comics and cartooning have often been labelled something of a boy’s club, both in terms of creators and most of the readership, and that’s a criticism that is not without some fairly solid truth behind it; in fact it’s still, even now in 2018, a subject of much debate. We’ve certainly seen change though, quite a lot of change, even just in the last couple of decades, and especially in the realm of Indy comics, small press and zines (the mainstream, while improving, is, as is often the case, lagging further behind). And while the larger visibility of female comickers in the last few decades is very welcome, they didn’t spring out of nowhere, like their male counterparts most of them have been inspired by those who went before them, and that’s one of the things Inking Woman does, and does very well, illuminates a side of British comics history that hasn’t been well served, and by doing so places those creators in a more understandable context, from pioneers like Mary Darly in the late 1700s or Marie Duval in the Victorian era (Marie is the subject of another recent, and much recommended Myriad release) through cartoons in Suffragette publications to the 1960s underground scene, the 70s and 80s rise of women’s liberation, the Rrrriot Girls of the 90s, the contemporary small press and zine scene and many points in between.

In fact that placing of cartoonists and comickers into some historical context is evident right from the beginning, and I am pleased to say not just historical but cultural and societal context (for example, the rowing women’s lib movement of the 70s leading to more cooperatives creating publications, which in turn provides both material and a space for women comickers to show their work, those comic works feeding back into the growing social and commercial groups by women, aimed at women). In her introduction co-editor Nicola Streeten mentions the likes of Jacky Fleming and Ros Aquith’s work that she read in her teens as powering her own ambitions in her comics work later on. I’d like to think that somewhere there is a teenage girl who will read Inking Woman and it will inspire her, to let her know she can create her own comics works too, and perhaps in a decade she’ll be citing Nicola and Cath’s work here as one of the starting points that got her going.

The book takes the form of entries on a multitude of women comickers from the 1770s to the present day, interspersed with chapters explaining some of the history and changing cultural elements throughout that period, such as the rise of the women’s Suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, the rise of feminism in the 70s, the influences of other parts of our ever-changing culture, such as Punk, with its DIY ethos (an influence I think you can still see strongly in the modern small press scene), the expansion of women-lead publishing like Virago or the Women’s Press, Cath Tate with her own publishing, discovering new and existing talents and reproducing their work.

Between those sections on the changing culture and history we have so many entries with brief biographical notes and a quick recap of the work of those women – in a rather nice touch more than a few of those entries contain quotes from the creator in question, talking about their own work or what it was like trying to establish themselves as a female creator, in their own words. Understandably there is much more material from the second half of the twentith century to today, and especially on the creators of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s, there simply being more creators working then. And as the authors note themselves, much of this is still living history, the woman comickers from that explosion in the 70s still with us to share that history, and many of them still actively drawing away. And as you move closer to the present you find many names that will be familiar to you – a lot of those creators have featured here on the blog, on Down the Tubes, on Broken Frontier. You’ve read some of those reviews, you’ve seen some of those creators at conventions like Caption and Thought Bubble, and, increasingly, at literary festivals, and chances are you’ve bought some of their comics from them.

The book doesn’t shy away from discussing how difficult it has been to fight through a very male-dominated industry and society, or from commenting on other elements of diversity, such as much of the earlier work in particular coming from women who, while still having to fight sexism, did start from a much more privileged area of society (a criticism often aimed at the 70s and 80s feminist movement, for example, that it came predominantly from a well-educated, white, middle-class perspective that didn’t take in the experiences of working class women, or of women of colour, or LGBT people – but these things are always, hopefully, evolving and learning to be more inclusive and diverse).

But overall this is a very positive, in fact I would say optimistic book, especially as it moves closer to the contemporary era – the number of creators increases, they are more and more coming from different backgrounds, tackling all sorts of subjects from social issues to bringing Shakespeare to a modern audience , from using comics to openly and honestly explore their experiences, from encountering racism to dealing with illness or the loss of a loved one to out and out humour and satire. As the book moves into those later sections it felt as if it was, a bit like the comics community itself, gathering pace, growing in confidence and numbers and mutual support, in fact it felt rather joyful, and it isn’t hard to feel that enthusiasm and delight and want to share in it.

This is a wonderfully warm look at an important part of British comics history, it is also a history of the challenges of gender, class and more and how they can be overcome, of how the medium is part of that society and that societal change as well as reflecting it, or sometimes even leading the vanguard demanding that change, placing those changes and the changes still to come into a larger context of pioneers and inspirational creators in turn inspiring new generations to realise they are free to create, to say something. The discussion of the rise of small-press friendly cons and other events, co-operatives like Team Girl Comics or the Strumpet/Whores of Mensa also sends a positive message, something I must admit I love about our comics community, the amount of mutual support and encouragement.

Flipping through the various individual entries on creators will likely bring cries of recognition at some of the names while also, hopefully, bringing creators who are new to the reader’s attention. I think many readers will come away from this not just with a more informed perspective on the history of Brit comics, but with a list of creators whose work they really want to read. And to return to what I said earlier, who knows, perhaps some young girl will be reading this and it will be the spark to her creative outlets and in ten years perhaps we’ll be reviewing one of her comics. I really like that idea.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Trumpenfuher

Hugely amused to see that the crowds for the massive women’s marches in Washington (and all round the world, including Berlin, London and my own beloved Edinburgh) vastly outnumbered the crowds the day before for the inauguration of Trump. And then Trump, after ordering the gagging of the park ranger’s twitter feed which estimates crowd sizes, had his new White House press spokeperson Spicer, in one of his first briefings to the international press, tell them they were all liars and that the inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. Then stalk off before the world media could ask him why every news agency around the entire globe said otherwise. Mind you it is a common problem for sad, elderly, insecure white men to worry that their inauguration was a lot smaller than a cool, younger black man’s…

I await Spicer holding future press conferences where he reminds us that War Is Peace, Oceania and Eurasia have always been at war and that the White House Press Office was now being renamed The Ministry of Truth. I would like to try and be constructive and positive here, but there is now real way of getting round the fact these people are lying scumbags, with their “post fact” politics, who cannot accept actual reality or even the lightest criticism without a rabid response of nonsense and counter accusations. Somewhere in Hell the ghost of Goebbels is laughing his Nazi arse off – defeated in war by the heroic sacrifice of so many British, Americans, Canadians, French, Norwegian, Polish and others only to find several decades later their modern ilk grabbing power in Brexit Britain, Trump America, Erdogan’s Turkey, marching again in upcoming elections in Germany, France, even the long lovingly tolerant Netherlands. Those who gave all in the 30s and 40 to crush the evil of fascism must look at what is happening our modern democracies and wonder why they sacrificed so much. We need a modern version of the International Brigade.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”” George Orwell, 1984.

Probably one of the books Trump would like banned, just as he tries to remove funding for independent broadcasting like NPR and PBS in the US because, like most such ego-maniacs who spin their own version of reality, he is terrified of actual facts and truth and learning and reading, the pillars which underlie those faculties critical to democratic society, thought, consideration, learning, toleration and the ability to criticise. They are terrified of real journalists who check sources and facts, of teachers, of librarians, of educated people capable of considering reports and thinking for themselves. And they should be. We don’t carry guns. We carry sharper weapons within.

Meanwhile, do not surrender to despair as the Black Shirts march again, instead think of the Marseille singing scene in Casablanca, filmed in the middle of WWII when the outcome was far from certain, a defiant chorus declaring that in the long run the good guys would triumph. And also to all the women (and men) of all classes, creeds and walks of life who marched on Saturday, more power to you, sisters and brothers. We’re going to need that unity and strength, and we need to remind these people who have seized power that we too have a voice and we too have power. And that we remember the sacrifices of those who came before us to protect those freedoms, and by god we will not allow anyone to take them from us.

Women in Comics – Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz in Edinburgh

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Last week I was lucky enough to catch a busy talk in Edinburgh’s Central Library, Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz. Heather Middleton from the Glasgow Women’s Library and also a member of Glasgow-based all-female collective Team Girl Comic. Heather was giving a talk on the history of women in comics and while there is no way to fit all of that history into one talk Heather made a very fine attempt to give the audience a good overview that would put that female history of comics into some context that even audience members who weren’t very well versed in the medium (it was a mixed crowd of those with an interest in comics and those more interested in literature and gender studies) could get a decent handle on it and for those of us who do have some knowledge of comics history I can say from my own experience that Heather flagged some works I was familiar with but also managed to bring up some I hadn’t heard of before.

One of the first works Heather brought up was the famous very early comics work Ally Sloper, often credited to Victorian writer/artist Charles H Ross. I had some vague knowledge of the strip – I’d certainly heard of it and Ally himself is a pretty distinctive comics creation, very iconic (no wonder he expanded out into his own comic and was one of the early comics characters to rake in money through widescale merchandising too, such was his popularity). However I had no idea that Ross’ wife, French woman Emilie de Tessier, usually working under the pen name Marie Duval, worked on the strip inking then taking over the art duties fully for many years. And the reason I didn’t know that, Heather explained, is because she has been largely airbrushed out of the Ally Sloper story, right back during the height of Ally’s success, with things going as far as removing her initials from the artwork for collected editions in later years. A women comics creator was pretty unusual in the Victorian era, a woman comics artist who was behind a hugely successful creation that was a pop cultural icon was even more unusual. And yet she was effectively painted out of her own story…

Heather touched on other creators, contemporaries of the likes of George Herriman in the 1910s and 20s but who rarely seem to have achieved the same level of historical fame (or indeed beautifully produced modern archive edition collections that have become such a nice feature of the quality end of comics publishing today) and then the wartime creators, the women who, just like the women who relieved men from the factories by leaving their traditional roles as homemakers to to replace the male works, took over some of the load on strips during the war, including traditionally male strips such as adventure tales. Naturally most were expected to either return to being housewives or, if remaining in comics, to go back to working on more ‘womanly’ strips such as romance tales when the men came home.

Heather brought the history of women in comics up to date with some of the female creators of the Underground Comix days, contemporaries of Crumb et al and how even in those days when there was supposedly a move to equality many of those women found themselves in rampantly sexist situations, treated by the male cartoonists as the ‘little ladies’, often treated condescendingly leading to some setting up their own collectives and working on their own stuff (including the likes of Melinda Gebbie) and even then they could run into patriarchal walls with printers sometimes refusing to print their work for them, claiming it to be ‘obscene’ (some of the same printers happily printed male-based underground comix featuring giant phalluses but they deemed a scene of child birth in a woman-created comic to be beyond the pale, something echoed years later in a male-created comic, Marvelman/Miracleman, where some fans were outspoken about the inclusion of a birth scene but had no problem with the preceding violent scenes).

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(Heather during her talk in Central Library, pics from my Flickr)

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We came to the modern day with contemporary female comics creators, including the self-published creators and the collectives such as Team Girl Comic (who I saw flying the small press comics flag at Hi-Ex just recently), which Heather herself is a part of. And that brings me to a related topic – Team Girl Comic is running a Kickstarter to raise funds to help publish issue 5, so please do consider giving them some support (and of course, spread the word about the fundraiser).

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(Team Girl Comic at Hi-Ex in March)

And on another related note Heather told us that the Glasgow Women’s Library, like many libraries, is very open to the comics medium and indeed they actively encourage donations of relevant work by female creators or female oriented works, including those from the small press, self published scene. I know plenty of such creators read the blog regularly, so when you are next publishing some of your work why not consider donating a copy to be archived at the Glasgow Women’s Library, where it will be looked after and made available for reading and for research. I think it would be terrific if the female creators in our excellent small press community supported that initiative.

(cover design for Team Girl Comic #5 by Colleen Campbell)

This event report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

The War Cry

Every Wednesday I’d see this wee, old Salvation Army lady in the doorway of Jenner’s department store on Princes Street, right across from the Scott Monument. She was there every week, winter or summer, hail, rain or shine. Back when Jenner’s still had a doorman (complete with livery and top hat) I’d often see him chatting to her. I don’t know why, but it always made me happy to see her there every week as I passed by on the bus to work. A couple of years ago I got a quick photo shooting from the top deck of the bus as it was waiting to move off. Just as I clicked the shutter a young woman walked into the frame and I actually liked the result: the old lady and the young, the old lady in her uniform doing her bit of duty, the hip young thing in shades, trendy clothes, ciggy dangling from her hands headphones on, away in her own world, the contrast between them appealed to me, even though it was the simple result of her walking by just as I took the shot, so I can’t claim I was trying to do anything clever here with my pic:

Salvation Army lady at Jenners close-up

Sadly I haven’t seen the Sally Army lady for a couple of months now. I keep looking every Wednesday when I pass on the way to work but she hasn’t been there, so it looks like she has had to stop doing it now – I don’t know if her age or health has meant she had to stop after all these years, but I do hope she is alright. I was used to seeing here there every week and I have to confess I found it almost comforting that this old lady would be there each week with the War Cry, there was something touching about it and it always made me smile to see her at her post. She was one of the little fixtures in my map of the city.

Riding on the beach

I’m usually more inclined to motorbikes than horses as a mode of transport (I think horses are beautiful creatures, but I prefer a mode of transport without a mind of its own), but riding along on the surfline on a sunny beach does look wonderful.

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