Review: Three Words
Title: Three Words: An Anthology of Aotearoa/NZ Women’s Comics
Editors: Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing, Indira Neville
Softcover: 264 pages
Publisher: Beatnik Publishing
Review by Amy Louise Maynard
“Women in Aoteroa New Zealand make comics. They make slick professional comics and homemade crafty ones. Some are conventionally attractive and some are beautifully ugly. Some have logical linear narratives and some are cerebral visual leaping swirls. There are big proud comics and small humble ones, widely distributed comics and one-offs, comics that are deep and meaningful and some that are light and silly. There are physical, emotional and intellectual comics, intentional and accidental comics, happy, sad, funny, angry, scary, confusing and wondrous comics…”
I found this anthology extraordinary difficult to write about. I wrote – then scrapped – a long-read review wherein I filtered the themes of the anthology through my perspective as a woman in comics. The first draft ruminated upon the concepts of authenticity in subcultures, how physical and social spaces are formed through peer networks, and how these spaces can in turn be hostile to those who are not seen to be engaging in what could be considered ‘authentic’ practice. Whether it’s the creation, circulation or evaluation of comics, there are prevailing ideas about the ‘right’ ways in which these beliefs and practices are performed.
But what about being the right gender? Although you’d have to be a completely backwards troglodyte to believe that women don’t have a place in comics or haven’t influenced comics’ history, it doesn’t mean that women always feel welcome in comics spaces that are dominated by men, whether through actions taken against a woman on an individual level, or actions taken against women on a systematic level.
In the opening editorials by Laing, Joyce and Neville, they speak about their reasons for creating Three Words. Laing and Neville wanted to create a contemporary piece of art where women could showcase their varied ideas. Three Words also functions as a historical artefact, a record of how much women have and continue to contribute to New Zealand comics. But the editorial which stood out to me the most was by Joyce, in which she brought to the fore an issue which women can find hard to acknowledge, and men may not know about, or pretend not to notice.
Namely, that women apologise more than men. Rather than being a trivial issue, it is one which represents the unnecessary doubts which plague women – am I good enough? Should I be here? Do I deserve to let my presence be felt? What will happen if I make ‘trouble’?
The creation of Three Words was not without its trials – according to the concluding essays, there had been some men who had been angry about the project. This anger stemmed from what they perceived to be discrimination, and there was also the denial by men, and unfortunately some women, that women were frequently being shunted off to the side in New Zealand comics spaces.
This isn’t about supposed ‘discrimination’ – seriously, guys – nor is it about a problem which is specific to New Zealand comics. The problem of women doubting their abilities or presence in comics spaces, their authenticity and authority as creators, is something which is endemic in the global comics industry. To quote Robyn E. Kenealy:
“Oh, good. Women are organising something for women artists because women are being ignored in comics history, again, and men are going to argue about it, again, and this argument will go forever, and when the sun literally burns the Earth to a cinder, a few dudes will still be standing on that cinder yelling about how unfair it is that anyone’s challenged them.”
The essays which conclude the anthology, by Kenealy, Boyask, Sapphira, Yoshioka, and Joyce, are essential reading. For women, for men, for non-binaries, for those who are familiar with and interested in comics, and those who are only beginning to explore comics culture. As well as gender, it also covers important points about race and sexuality – those that are seen in comics spaces as Other.
The fact that these editorials and essays are so powerful and the work in Three Words is so diverse means that I consider to the ‘gimmick’ theme, the three words of the title, to be redundant. The concept was to have the contributors give each other three words, and they would then have to create an illustration, strip, or comics story based on said words. Some of the contributors who refused to play along, such as Rosemary McLeod, Sophie McMillan, and Anna Crichton, benefited from the lack of restraint. If a contributor did play along, most artists would scrunch their ‘three words’ comic in a strip or illustration on their bio page, and some were so printed so small that they were hard to read anyway. So, the ‘three words’ gimmick, whilst it may be a fun game to play at a pub drink n’ draw, wasn’t necessary. The work stands alone as an impressive tome filled with women who decided to carve out their own space, with a variety of original illustrations, strips, and comics.
The second reason why this comic was difficult to write about was because with all the comics being so different from each other, how to summarise the book as a whole? It’s nearly impossible to do with most anthologies, particularly one such as this, as it’s such a mixed bag. There are longform comics, short strips, silent comics, black and white comics, and comics with gloss and colour. As for my own personal critical preferences, I’ve always been an advocate for comics not being judged as ‘good’ simply because X creator has been working longer than Y creator, and I’m not bothered by style as long as a good story can be told. Three of my favourite stories in the anthology were all incredibly different in terms of style and subject.
The first, by Claire Harris, is an autobiographical vignette about a childhood friendship, told through the ways in which the two girls would mess around with their Barbie dolls, turning them into punks and car crash victims. Harris has beautiful strong black linework, and she told a funny and moving story through a few key images and sparse sentences.
The second, by Maiangi Waitai, concerned residents of ‘a small town somewhere’ who are obsessed with smoking countless ciggies – of the herbal and regular variety – and sexing each other. The appeal of Waitai’s comic is the deliberately rough artwork; it’s shaky, it’s scribbled, and it looks like it was drawn with cheap textas bought from a two dollar shop. It’s a defiant middle finger to the idea that comics should be ‘professional’ to be ‘good’. I loved it. I’d rather read a full comic about this ragtag bunch of slutty stoners then pick up any of DC’s latest offerings.
Finally, there is Alie McPherson. Another black and white autobiographical piece – and full disclosure, autobio is my favourite comics genre – it once again transports the reader back in time to the author’s childhood. However instead of punk Barbies, McPherson tells the story about a rather perverted runner at the beach. I liked how the story took an unexpected turn, and McPherson’s illustrations are charming. Which I know is a weird thing to say about a comic about a beach pervert, but look, just read it, okay?
Other standouts include Mary Tamblyn, Indira Neville, Lauren ‘Ralphi’ Marriott, Zoe Colling, Celia Allison, Erin Fae, Jem Yoshioka, Marina Williams, Rachel Shearer, Rosemary McLeod, ‘The Rabbid’, Anna Crichton, Sharon Murdoch, Mengzhu Fou, Linda Lew, Pritika Lal, Rachel Benefield, Miriam Harris, Sophie Oiseau, Elsie Joliffe, Dawn Tuffery, and Debra Boyask.
Although there were a couple of comics which didn’t suit my tastes – I’m not a fan of anything which has a flimsy narrative or is cutesy n’ twee – the majority of comics were funny, raw, self-aware, unabashedly original, and the best conveyed defiance and anger without resorting to the usual machismo bullshit that appears so often in comics. Why wallow in gratuitous and dreary nastiness when you can cut to the bone simply with some sharp and unpleasant truths?
There is so much that I could say about women, comics, and discrimination on an individual and systematic level. And I did say it, in the blistering review/essay prior to writing this more focused review, which I may publish at some point as I had some pretty great references to The Big Lebowski in there. Overall, the most important thing that I can say is – buy this book. Read this book. Take in the editorials, the essays, the stories, the biographies. Learn more about New Zealand comics, women in comics, and how ideologies revolving around authority, authenticity and the Other have shaped comics culture. Reflect upon your beliefs and practice.
So those are my own three words: Buy. This. Book.
Three Words can be found at the Beatnik online store.