Let’s cut to the chase. Wizard wasn’t exactly known for it’s progressive views on women. Take a gander at a random sampling of some covers (like the one for this very issue!) or ponder some of the sophomoric jokes scattered throughout every issue and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I mean, they had a monthly column where they would pick out the “Babe of the Month” and write about how sexy the drawing was. Man, the ’90s was a fucking weird and embarrassing decade.
But it was also a time when there were a lot of female cartoonists entering the field, especially in the “alternative” side of things. I tried my best to feature some of them in “Palmer’s Picks“—including this month’s interview subject Megan Kelso—even though I’m pretty sure they would be repulsed by the rest of the magazine. I can only hope that Kelso’s comp copies of Wizard #64 featured the Spider-Man variant and not the skin-tastic Angela cover.
As far as opportunities for women in comics, things have definitely improved in the two decades since I wrote this column. Kelso is a good example of this: she was one of a handful of cartoonists—and the first woman—to score a weekly comic in the “Funny Pages” section of The New York Times Magazine with her “Watergate Sue” story that began in 2007. There are also a lot more women creating comics today, in both the mainstream and independent circles, and they are are not just relegated to the sidelines—one of the best-selling cartoonists in America right now is none other than Raina Telgemeier.
It’s interesting to note that Kelso’s comic Girlhero and the four others I chose to pick for this month’s “Recommended Reading” section (SpiderBaby Comix, Espers, The Age of Heroes, and Castle Waiting) were all self-published. The comic book market was in rough shape in 1996, so it was definitely not a good time for an intrepid creator to go it alone. Kelso ended her series after the sixth issue was released later in ’96, and many of her subsequent graphic novels were published by Fantagraphics. Steve Bissette and James Hudnall both stopped their self-publishing ventures in 1997. Linda Medley‘s publishing situation got a lot more complicated as time when on. The short version is that it didn’t work out, and then it did…and then it didn’t again. I’ll cover the whole situation in more detail when I get to the full “Palmer’s Picks” about her comic book Castle Waiting in Wizard #67.
Just A Girl
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Odds are, when you ask most cartoonists in the industry if they were comic book fans as kids, they’ll tell you they grew up on a steady diet of comics and not much else. That’s not the case with Girlhero creator Megan Kelso. Her first big exposure to comics, aside from the occasional Archie at a slumber party as a child, was when a college boyfriend gave her a copy of Love & Rockets.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” the 28-year-old Kelso remembers. “I had always been torn between whether I wanted to be an artist or whether I wanted to do something with writing. But with comics I saw that you could tell stories using both, and there was no choice to be made. I had a ‘Wow! I could do this!’ feeling, especially when I read stuff by Peter Bagge (Hate, Neat Stuff) and others who didn’t necessarily draw in a traditional, realistic way.”
Perhaps it’s Kelso’s lack of immersion in comic books that makes her work so fresh and distinctive. With so many comics on the racks full of stiff art and boring panel layouts, Girlhero stands out due to Kelso’s attention to how each page is composed of panels that work together as a whole. Because she is unfamiliar with the traditional conventions of comics, Kelso is also able to come up with innovative uses for panel borders, sound effects, word balloons and other cartooning devices that most artists take for granted.
Kelso also realizes another way in which her unfamiliarity with the particulars of comics makes her work unique. The continuing story in Girlhero is “Bottlecap,” a tale about three superpowered female characters on the run from an evil corporation. “When I started ‘Bottlecap,’ I was completely clueless that in the alternative world of comics, superheroes are just anathema—everyone hates them and abhors them and looks down on them. I was doing comics in a vacuum, so it was a while before I realized that I had picked the stupidest subject ever for my comic.”
Despite the initial response, Kelso decided to continue “Bottlecap.” Having started the story in the first issue of Girlhero in the summer of 1993, the Seattle-based Kelso is set to complete the tale with the forthcoming sixth issue of her comic. “I stuck with it because I realized there was more going on in the story than superheroes, so that became less and less of the focus,” she says. “The later episodes have tinges of it, but it’s not the main thing that’s going on. A lot of cartoonists start off with these grandiose epics and get bogged down. That definitely happened to me, but I have just been really stubborn and decided to stick it out.”
Even though she’s chosen to complete “Bottlecap,” Kelso hopes that readers pay closer attention to the self-contained stories that make up the other half of Girlhero. Unlike “Bottlecap,” these short stories are mostly grounded in reality, with occasional touches of fantasy. But just because her short stories are realistic doesn’t necessarily mean they’re completely autobiographical. “A lot of times they have some sort of autobiographical kernel,” Kelso reveals. “Often times it’s not even something that happened to me, it’s something that didn’t happen to me or I try to imagine something that would happen to me. There’s this tiny little seed and then I just embellish it a lot with stuff that probably never happened.”
One of Kelso’s short stories, “The Married Man” (a tale from Girlhero #4 about a janitor named Liz who falls for a married man), offers a curious mix of autobiography and fantasy. “In my day job I’m a janitor,” Kelso reveals. “My janitorial job is a bit different from what I depicted in the story, so even that part is not totally autobiographical. Anyway, I developed this ridiculous crush on a married guy.”
In Kelso’s comic story, Liz pursues her interest in the married man, but Kelso’s own story is a bit different. “The crush was totally unrequited. I don’t think he even knew I had a crush on him, but I gave it tremendous amounts of energy and thought: Could I ever do something like that—get involved with someone who’s married? It was a ridiculous question, because he never even knew I had a crush on him. I was so obsessed that I really thought through the entire relationship. The story came from the fact that I had spent so much time and energy thinking about this stupid thing and thought, ‘God, I should do a story about this. I’ve already planned it all out.'”
“The Married Man,” like Kelso’s other short stories, is a carefully planned and nicely executed story, but there’s one aspect of Girlhero that Kelso hasn’t planned in detail. She’s fairly certain that she’s going to abandon self-publishing and find a publisher for her work, but she’s not sure if she’ll start a brand-new comic or just continue to plug ahead with Girlhero. In the past, Kelso has been the recipient of a grant from Xeric, the foundation created by TMNT’s Peter Laird for fledgling self-publishers.
While the future of her comic is uncertain, you can rest assured that it doesn’t look like Kelso will have a shortage of ideas for stories, no matter where they appear. “I’ve never really sat around and thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do? What story am I going to do next?’ That hasn’t happened yet, and I really hope it never does.”
Tom Palmer Jr. grew up with comics around all the time. His parents once used copies of Brother Power, The Geek to diaper him when they ran out of Pampers.
FYI: Girlhero is self-published through High Drive Publications, and the sixth (and possibly final) issue should be out around the beginning of December. Write to High Drive Publications,
4505 University Way NE, Box 536, Seattle, WA 98105 for a $3 sample issue or for information on back issues and other items (like posters and T-shirts). Kelso also plans to put together a book collection of her short stories from Girlhero and anthologies like Action Girl Comics and Dark Horse Presents in the near future.
Megan Kelso’s Recommended Reading
“Here are some people whose work I really love that deserve more recognition: Jennifer Daydreamer, a mini-comic by Jennifer Daydreamer herself. Jen has a beautiful sense of line and composition, and her stories are like dysfunctional fairy tales. Silly Daddy by self-publishing sensation Joe Chiappetta, one of the few guys in comics doing mature autobiographical stories. Mojo Action Companion Unit by Marc Bell, who specializes in wacky industrial machinery and improbable hot rod cars, as well as some semi-autobiographical stories. The Catbox Room by Lisa Maslowe, a burgeoning new mini-comic talent and an excellent storyteller. Gabby Gamboa, who is concentrating on doing short stories in anthologies like Duplex Planet, Murder Can Be Fun and Top Shelf.”
Castle Waiting: Not many comics come around with a debut as delightful and beautifully executed as Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (Justice League, Doom Patrol). Castle Waiting: The Curse of Brambly Hedge, an introductory graphic novel, is out in stores now, and a regular series is set to begin in February. You’ll be sorry if you miss this wonderful comic. Write to Olio,
PO Box 1012, Petaluma, CA 94953-1012.
SpiderBaby Comix: This new series collects stories by Stephen R. Bissette before he became famous for his work on Tyrant. Each issue features classic stories like “Cell Food” and “The Tell-Tale Fart,” as well as extensive historical notes and a few surprises. Look for the first issue of SpiderBaby Comix in November, or write to SpiderBaby Grafix and Publications,
PO Box 442, Wilmington, VT 05363.
Espers and The Age of Heroes: Writer James D. Hudnall (The Psycho, Hardcase) has revived his science fiction/espionage thriller Espers with new artist Greg Horn and started The Age of Heroes, a fantasy comic, with artist John Ridgway. Both of these bi-monthly comics have terrific art and well crafted stories. Pick up either one (or both) of these books if you’re looking for a satisfying read. Contact Halloween Comics,
16350 Ventura Blvd., Suite 351, Encino, CA 91436 for more info.