August 2, 2012

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Womanthology Heroic

Written and Illustrated by Various Creators
IDW

The time is 2010.  The context is several notable incidents where the contributions/interest from women in superhero-themed comics are challenged, often without thought to the fact that "comics" means a lot more than Marvel/DC.  The result is an overwhelming level of support for an anthology project designed by Renae De Liz that quickly took on a life of its own and reached its goal in near-record time.

I was a supporter of the project at the time, and wrote a bit about the controversy surrounding the book when the funding goal was met and exceeded.  I, like others, waited patiently for the book to arrive, and I had high hopes for it.

The results, frankly, were not quite what I had expected, and I think part of that was due to the book being conflated with the ongoing debate about women in (superhero) comics.  Womanthology rose in prominence partly as an answer to those who attacked the ability of "girls" to play with the big boys.  As such, it felt to me, at least, like it needed to put its best writing and artistic foot forward.  If the response to "woman can't make comics" was a whole book of women making comics, then it needed to be the best damned comics that the editors could find.

Unfortunately, Womanthology is not that book.

If you separated Womanthology from comic politics and just looked at it on its own merits, the book would probably fall into the category of "good but not amazing" anthologies.  I've read dozens of such books, prepared to take the good with the bad.  Reading an anthology with over 150 contributors is going to lead to some uneven quality and storytelling.  Even something as good as Flight has entries that miss the mark, and I often read mini-comic anthologies where at least one contributor probably should have been edited out.

The trouble here is that, perhaps unfairly I admit, I wanted Womanthology to show the best and the brightest.  Instead, it shows anyone willing to join in that was willing to volunteer for the project.  (This was another huge bugaboo--none of the creators were paid, even when the goals for the book were smashed.)  Because you are dealing with those who are willing to donate their time and effort, some of that time and effort is just not up publication level on this scale.  What I can easily manage in a $3 mini-comic (or even a $10 anthology), I'm not just satisfied with in an oversized hardcover that lists at $60.  The large scope and scale of the work magnifies every flaw, like watching Hank Pym grow to Giant Man height.

This could have been mitigated by changing the arrangement of the contributions.  If the editors really felt like those who were giving it a good try should be included, despite quality issues, then an "up and coming" section would have contextualized them and softened the impact of art that in certain cases just wasn't ready to publish.  When you place that art right up against the likes of Stephanie Buscema and Fiona Staples, you're doing a disservice to the reader, the book, and frankly, those artists who aren't yet ready for the big time.  It might be a blow to the ego, but an editor's job isn't to coddle--it's to encourage and improve the creator.  In a few cases, volunteers or not, some of these entries should have been rejected.

If I am editing "Baltimore Comics, Hon" and producing it at a Kinko's, it's okay if I let in the guy or gal whose figures look two-dimensional, though even in that case, I'd probably try to look elsewhere.  If I am producing it for Top Shelf, that person needs to be told to re-work their material or try again later, when they've improved their craft.  I'm not saying that person's work does not deserve a chance--what I am saying is that if you are making a deluxe hardcover coming from a major publisher, the art inside should look like something that publisher (or its peers) would accept.  In too many instances, that's just not the case.  In a book that gives advice about rejection or editing, there seems to have been a reluctance to do either.  (I realize this is solely my opinion and I have no knowledge either way.)

Womanthology also suffers from another problem that exacerbates the issues with the art.  It is designed to evoke a manga tankobon, and does a miserable job of it.  There's a sub-story that appears and disappears from page to page, with no rhyme or reason.  Sub-stories are traditionally included at the *end* of a manga, where this one belonged.  Creator credits with headshots sometimes take the comic's place, but they aren't always easily associated with a piece of art, making it maddening for me to try and figure out who did what.  In other cases, pro-tips are given or stories are told.  In the mangas I've read, this is a tactic used to fill space on a page where there is room in a story that's a minimum of twenty pages long.  Here it's at the bottom of every single page, making a horrible distraction, especially when you consider most of these entries are quick hits that only last a few pages.  What do I do--stop reading the short story to learn about how to take rejection or bypass it so I can find out if the character saves the day?  I never did have the answer to that, and sort of alternated between the two options..

Despite being a showcase for creators, the book does a bad job of making them easy to find or recognize.  There is no index or table of contents, so you can't go to your favorite creator, a mortal flaw in any anthology.  I mentioned above the issue with accurate labeling on the page.  Certain creators do duty on more than one issue, and it would be nice to know which ones share the same colorist, for example, without having to flip back and forth.

Having said a lot of negative things about the book, I do want to highlight a few strengths.  I loved the inclusion of a children's section, which was properly placed in its own area within the book.  Some of those young ladies have a bright future and the words of encouragement given to them (as well as this publication) are going to be a big boost for them.  Also, the how-to section, edited by Rachel Deering (who also letters a good chunk of the book, which became almost immediately obvious over the course of the stories), provided great advice and tips.  I have no particular interest in being a comics creator, but I read the section carefully because they were written so well and in an engaging manner.

With so many creators involved, it's hard to fairly discuss them all.  Generally speaking, if the creator has experience, such as Barbara Kesel or Dani Jones, the work is quite good, even if their partner is inexperienced.  In cases where the creative team is completely (or nearly) raw, the problems show.  As with any anthology, I found some new favorites to seek out, but there were not as many this time as I'd normally look for.  Your mileage will vary in this regard, but I'd put the good-bad ratio at about 50-50, which is on the low side.

I won't lie--I was disappointed by Womanthology.  It has a lot of problems, and they just sink the project's noble aim--to gain more exposure for the great female creators who are out there.  As an anthology, it holds up okay, but not great.  There are a lot of good stories, but the ratio of "that was cool" to "not for me" was not the best I've seen and definitely disappointed me for the price point of the book.  At no point do I want anyone to leave this review thinking that I hated the work or feel that the intentions of De Liz and her editing team were anything but noble.  I just think their reach exceeded their grasp and decisions were made that ultimately harmed the project to a point where I could not recommend telling someone who is not a hard-core comics reader to buy the book.

You can't give a confusing, uneven anthology to a casual reader or to someone who might be trying non-superhero comics for the first time.  They'll come away discouraged and might never look to books by someone such as Alex de Campi or Hope Larson, for fear it might be too similar to those stories they didn't like here.  Ultimately, Womanthology shows that breaking the barrier for female creators is not easy, and one  book like this one isn't going to do the job.  It might be unfair to say that was the book's aim, but it sure felt like it.  Read this if you are a fan of anthologies and like looking for new talents.  But if you're out to try and change the comics world, this isn't the place for it.  WE, as readers, writers, artists, and and reviewers, need to take that on our backs and do it.  A heroic job, but one that I feel is a must if comics are to thrive into the 21st century.