Ideally, the critic in any art form evaluates a work based on the quality of its content alone. Realistically, this is almost never the case; personal prejudices and the sociopolitical atmosphere easily work their way into reviews. The pitfall the critic must avoid is letting such concerns dominate the review in place of honest discussion of aesthetic and thematic worth. In the literary world, it is easy to dodge this trap with some works, the new middlebrow best-seller for instance, but harder for others, especially ambitious projects which arise out of a specific cultural moment. Womanthology: Heroic is such a book.
First, the timing of Womanthology, the first in a planned series spearheaded by Renae De Liz, could not have been more apt. 2012 has already sadly been marked by political warfare against women’s civil and reproductive rights, and those on the attack show no sign of easing up. Into this environment, De Liz and her editorial team offer 300 pages filled with short comics all written and drawn by women. Thematically, the focus is on the heroism and strength within all women. And the closing chapters are devoted to instruction and advice on creating comics and making it in the industry.
Second, Womanthology in many ways is a signpost for the ongoing evolution of comics over the past several decades. The comics world was for many years comprised of the superhero titles of DC and Marvel, two dominant, fraternal, meticulously run businesses, and a few other publishers for profitable niches. The key word in that sentence was “fraternal,” for the vast majority of creators working in the majors were men. Today, as any walk through one of the conventions will reveal, there are independent companies, digital distributors, and other channels all willing to take on stories from any genre, many of which would have once been considered not commercially viable by publishers. Moreover, the business model of creator-owned work, in which writers and artists have full rights to their material as opposed to the total ownership DC and Marvel have over their properties, made comics less oligarchic and more accessible to aspirants.
This shift, one which, far from over, is still breaking new ground, has allowed female artists to proliferate as never before. It is fitting that this rise is marked by a hardcover coffee-table-sized book under the imprint of independent comics giant IDW. And it becomes more fitting considering how the book features a varied spectrum of talent, from established Eisner winners to rising stars whose work has made its greatest impact on the Internet. And even more fitting when one considers how the proceeds from the $30 price tag, still a relative bargain for a title of this size, are earmarked for charitable institutions. This is not only a generous action, but also a savvy one that perpetuates the ideal of creation for the sheer joy of creating apart from profit, an idea in firm accordance with the book’s “anyone and any woman can do this” spirit.
These factors should not be overlooked, but simultaneously they run the risk of making Womanthology feel like a grand-scale project laden with significance that dares you to dislike it no matter how dubious its quality. Overlooking the trappings leads to one key question: Is the book any good?
A thorough discussion of graphic narrative must consider the art, the writing, and how they serve each other. And to begin with, the art is uniformly terrific. Reflecting the diversity of talent, Womanthology, already established as an all-female artistic project, doubles as a sampler of the full spectrum of possibilities within comics art. There are certainly many pages of traditional pen and ink art in the DC and Marvel modes, all of it technically accomplished and frequently lovely, but it sits side by side with a variety of styles. To name just three, a flip through the pages reveals the ornate hand-drawn Victoriana of Janet K. Lee, the elaborate digital creations of Lois Van Baarle, and the endearing black-and-white near-stick figures of Stacie Ponder (whose extended episode from her web comic RPG runs along the bottom border for the book’s duration and provides a witty counterpoint to the sometimes weighty main material).
The stories that the art tells are a different matter. Arguably, there has never been an anthology which one could count as a 100 percent success, as the personal tastes of the editor will not match those of every reader, and with 300 pages and 150 artists, there are a few misses scattered among the hits.
This is partly due to the book’s format, which favors the art in mixing stories with a maximum six-page length and single-page illustrations akin to paintings, putting less of a premium on the words. Some stories suffer because they feel incomplete, a larger narrative forced by necessity into a compressed space. At the same time, the interaction between words and pictures in comics, among its many advantages, allows for storytelling and theme to be conveyed through image as much as word. A number of the writers tell stories so unsubtle in their meaning that the panels have nothing to show, with the overall effect one more pedantic than artistic.
That the hits are far greater in number is a credit to De Liz and her editors Laura Morley, Jessica Hickman, Mariah McCourt, Bonnie Burton, Suzannah Rowntree, and Nicole Falk. The theme of “heroic” can be conveyed with so many different tones — inspiring, dramatic, humorous — that the book never becomes monotonous. And in choosing stories, the editorial team effectively switches back and forth between perfectly-realized miniatures which tell a complete tale in two to six pages (“Margarite and Leopold,” “The Little Stranger,” “Warrior,” and “Lost Treasure,” to name just four), and others that read like the enticing first installments of continuing series, leaving the reader pleasantly craving more (an untitled story from De Liz herself, “The Dream Weaver,” “Glimmer”).
Criticism of Womanthology: Heroic must end with a full-circle return to the aspects beyond content. For the artistic quality comes from a double motivation on the part of the artists involved: to have fun, and to create a book with a positive, timeless message. Much of the art and stories depict heroism not as part of a high fantasy or super-powered realm, but as a quality any individual can demonstrate every day to affect genuine change. Further, this message comes via a book celebrating the shape of graphic narrative to come from a vibrant sector of its community. There is little doubt that all 300 artists were working with an ideal audience in mind — themselves in their youth — working to forge another generation of female creators. This combination of fine aesthetics and noble aims makes the Womanthology a work of female empowerment more relatable and moving than any psychology or parenting text. It’s a book to be given as a gift for decades to come, as long as the period when the two majors ruled the comics world…by which time this specific need for a Womanthology may hopefully have passed.