11. January 2016

An industry that is now increasingly addressing female-oriented themes too: American Alison Bechdel and Berliner-by-choice Ulli Lust are two women in the male-dominated world of comics. A double portrait.

By Katharina Cichosch

Comics – a man’s world? Yes and no: naturally the genre is traditionally associated with violence and action, i.e. with attributes still primarily considered masculine. The illustrators of the large comic series from Marvel and DC, but also the cartoons from Disney for example, have been for decades primarily men. And the representation of female figures in the pictures themselves revealed, and continues to reveal, a whole host of stereotypes – whereby there is even something rather ironically broken about their radical idealisation.

It remains a question of perspective: figures like Wonderwoman or Jessica Jones – currently available as a Netflix series – are indeed generally scantily clad and an unmistakable manifestation of male fantasies, but at the same time they are still superheroes (and Batman, Spiderman, etc. are hardly less muscularly toned or physically idealised). And in spite of the male dominance, the medium of comics offered a platform to female illustrators very early on – in the USA such history goes back to the late 19th century, albeit with a different kind of illustration to that we would associate with comics today.

Wonder Woman via cartoonfatness.wikia.com

Comics have always represented both sides of the coin: commerce and subculture, punk rock and Mickey Mouse. It is perhaps this tension that explains the self-empowerment of an illustrator duo such as Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevely, who in their fight against male-defined stereotypes in the comic genre have chosen precisely this platform as a battleground. The “Tits & Clits Comix” were a radical feminist challenge to this man’s world and perhaps the first visible indications of a reinterpretation, which stemmed originally from the underground side.

The typical black humour

The tradition of feminist “queer comics” is also evident in the works of Alison Bechdel, but with a much more personal approach:Since 1983 the American artist, who was born in 1960, has illustrated small everyday stories that she titled “Dykes to watch out for”.Taking her own life as a starting point, Bechdel gradually developed an entire troop of characters who attempt to implement their vision of an alternative way of life in an unnamed medium-sized city somewhere in the USA.At the same time, the individual stories hover somewhere between political engagement and soap opera, the noble ideals are all too often bogged down in banalities – and Alison Bechdel’s alter-ego is herself the greatest critic.

Alison Bechdel, Dykes To Watch Out For [detail], #1

“Dykes to watch out for” was published regularly in printed form for over 25 years, eventually appearing as a complete collection in a book. It is from Bechdel that we also get the now renowned “Bechdel Test”, which examines whether at least two named f characters in a film have a conversation about something other than a man (incidentally, a lot of films do not fulfil this criteria). The typical black humour with which Alison Bechdel acts as storyteller, commenting on the sometimes infuriating political severity of her characters, runs through her own body of work like a common thread: With “Fun Home” in 2006 she incorporated the personal story of her father and his hidden homosexuality, as well as her own upbringing as the daughter of an undertaker somewhere in Nowhere, USA. The book was a bestseller and was named “Best Book of the Year” by Time Magazine – quite a revelation, even given that the so-called “graphic novel” (which differs from the “classic” comic in that the focus is on the narration) was the subject of much hype at the time. In 2014 the German translation of “Are You My Mother?”, Bechdel’s second large comic novel, was published.

Alison Bechdel, Dykes To Watch Out For [detail], #527

“Of course I am familiar with Alison Bechdel’s work”, explains Ulli Lust. The Beliner-by-choice, who was born in Vienna in 1967, is one of the best known German-speaking female comic artists, who landed a surprise success in 2009 with the publication of her almost 470-page comic book “Today is the last day of the rest of your life”. Indeed Lust believes it is graphic novels, and works generally thought to come under this label, that are more strongly female-oriented than the classic formats – and the male-dominated industry doesn’t appear to be fazed by the development: “I am delighted that women’s themes are finally being tackled, so I’ve never felt trivialised by this. My male colleagues have been happy to see such growth.”

Drama, euphoria and disappointment

Lust says her work comes close to Bechdel’s way of storytelling,but cites other illustrators as influences:those of Simplicissimus, for example, or the early “Prince Valiant” comics, which were translated into German as “Prinz Eisenherz” and found their way into her father’s newspaper during her childhood.The prince with the striking hairstyle, Donald Duck and the adventures of the collie dog Bessy represented Lust’s first encounters with comics, the continuation of which she awaited longingly, but at the time she was not allowed to buy the colourful publications.Ulli Lust was particularly intrigued by certain scenes:one time when the cowboy has had enough of fighting, he sits down to draw the landscape and the animals – albeit merely as a dramatic ruse:“Sadly his artistic ambitions were presented as merely a relaxation exercise and were never part of the action.”

Ulli Lust, "Today is the last day of the rest of your life", detail

In her own works, Ulli Lust takes a different route: she avoids scenes or viewpoints that are supposed to be merely of a symbolic nature. “Today is the last day of the rest of your life” is brimming with an intensity that means every picture, every sentence appears to have a particular meaning – even if this only becomes clear later on, once the reader has finished the story of a punk girl’s summer in the Italy of the 1980s and has been left somewhat speechless as a result. So they never appear excessively momentous. Innocence and drama, euphoria and disappointment are closely intertwined, and the issue of the sexes also arises: you could quite understand if the young protagonist never wanted anything to do with the opposite sex again. And although a conciliatory happy ending looks rather different, Ulli Lust nevertheless manages to bring this ridiculously good story to, well, an end.

Ulli Lust, "Today is the last day of the rest of your life", cover