Visiting Thought Bubble, a large comics convention held annually in Leeds, for the first time earlier this month, I was struck by the wonderful diversity of both the guests and audience. While larger conventions have struggled to move past male-dominated guest lists, Thought Bubble presents a much truer picture of the whole of the British comics community.
It is perhaps all the more disappointing then that there was some surrounding wrought by the first British Comic Awards, held at Thought Bubble. The BCAs were designed to celebrate the vitality British comics (and fill a gap left by the Eagle awards, which, despite being UK-based, increasingly focus on American comics). The first ceremony was held at this year's Thought Bubble, and throughout the weekend grumbles were heard about the male dominated shortlist.
Across the nominations for four awards, the balance was thirteen men to three women, a stark contrast from the demographics of the crowd outside. While one award was won by a woman – the fantastic Josceline Fenton won Emerging Talent for her work on Hemlock – further concerns about gender disparity and committee bias have been raised since, leading to one committee member stepping down and an unfortunate Twitterstorm that brought the awards to the attention of the general public.
Speaking to the Forbidden Planet International Blog, Philippa Rice, creator of the popular webcomic My Cardboard Life, talked about her disappointment regarding the lack of diversity within the shortlist:
I noticed it when [the British Comic Awards] first released the nominations but it wasn’t until they tweeted a picture of the stack of books they were sending out to the judges it really hit properly: eleven books and literally just one by a woman. If you’re going to make a point out of having only four awards, have as many different people as possible – don’t duplicate. They’ve nominated three women in total and one across two different categories. I can’t believe they had that list and didn’t think it looks unfair – especially where some people had been nominated twice. It’s not like there aren’t woman who have had books out. Karrie Fransman, Mary Talbot, Simone Lia have all had very good, very popular, very acclaimed books this year.
Alongside the Costa-nominated Dotter of her Father's Eye by Mary and Bryan Talbot, both Fransman's The House That Groaned and Lia's Please God, Find Me A Husband! were lavished by praise from the broadsheet critics. And while US superhero comics are known for their lack of female creators, the UK has made great leaps in the last ten years: groups like Laydeez Do Comics, Women in Comics, Europe, and Team Girl Comic celebrate the work of women at all levels within the industry, and the smaller comic festivals frequently boast a 50/50 gender split.
One committee member, Adam Cadwell, assuming that Rice was requesting that men be excluded in favour of women hinted that the forthcoming discussion would not be fruitful – after all, considering more female creators doesn't mean men have to step aside.
Shortly after, another committee member, Matthew Sheret, accused Rice of using "manipulative" phrasing, and said that she should have talked with him privately rather than speaking out about her concerns in public.
The whole discussion ended in Rice apologising profusely for offering her opinion when asked in an interview, with many onlookers absolutely livid at how she had been effectively silenced.
In a year where the comics community has already been rocked by the recurring drama of “fake geek girls” – a small but vocal group of men panicking about women who attend comic conventions who may or may not be able to pass an exam on X-Men continuity – it is troubling to see anyone speaking out about sexism or perceived sexism being silenced. When it is a woman attempting to speak out, the context of the ongoing struggle against casual sexism within the comics industry gives the issue even greater weight, regardless of the original intentions.
When I spoke to Sheret, he expressed regret for his reaction on Twitter:
I took what Philippa said personally. In retrospect I shouldn't have, but at the time I was pretty upset she hadn't come to me to say anything about it because I consider her a friend…
Thing is, Philippa's comments were, largely, spot on. The panel needs more diversity… It will have it over time… And of course this stuff should be in the open, it's hugely important that the BCAs gets the balance right.
To be clear, there are indeed women sitting on both the BCA committee and the judging panel. The judging panel has four men and two women, while the committee is made up of five men and two women. Currently, the public nominates titles for consideration, the committee then picks the short list, and the judges choose the winners. This process is closed, leading to accusations of sexism and favouritism that cannot be properly answered.
One person who spoke in favour of Rice in the ensuing Twitter debate was Howard Hardiman, author of the critically acclaimed The Lengths. Speaking out about the importance of acknowledging structural prejudices in comics as an industry, he voiced the worry that the selected nature of the shortlists combined with an ignorance of privilege put non-male/white/abled/straight creators at a disadvantage. When I spoke to Hardiman on Thursday, he summed up the situation wonderfully:
I completely applaud the BCA's spirit and approach, but I think it's inevitable that when a group of friends decide to react to previous awards which were losing all credibility, they'll look first to the work they're familiar with, and that's most likely to be that made by those most similar to themselves. I don't think the nominating or the judging panel were guilty of any wilful bias, but I do think it's important to be mindful of the notion that one of the fundamental signs of privilege is that you're not aware of your privilege.
I think that people who are straight, white, non-disabled, men or of any other advantaged group should always try to be mindful of that and not be affronted if people without those advantages find that there are barriers to being heard, whether that's in the nomination process passing over some absolutely phenomenal titles by women or other marginalised voices or in raising concerns about those omissions.
I'm very glad that we're having this discussion; I think it's long overdue, and it comes from a perspective of celebration rather than criticism, so the message isn't 'Your privilege bias is showing!' but 'You might have inadvertently missed out on some absolutely cracking and innovative work here!'
Rice also suggested that having fellow creators on the committee and judging panel could potentially be unfair, with several nominees having completed work in the past for anthologies edited by committee members, and even some of the nominated works containing work by committee members. As a result, one committee member, Dan Berry has stepped down, stating that
[Rice] makes a good point. I don’t think that creators should be on the committee, especially if people think that they may have biases based on their own work, the publishers they work with and the other creators that they are friends with.
Asking Berry for further comment, he told me:
The space I vacate on the committee should be filled by someone who can help address the balance in the coming year and help solve the problems and the perceptions of bias surrounding the awards.
Indeed the current makeup of the committee has detracted from the very real praise that the winners of the BCAs deserve. The Best Book prize went to Nelson, a wonderful collaboration between 54 top UK comic creators, where each artist tells one year of one woman's life. It is a worthy winner, yet the fact remains that two of the artists are also on the committee. Given that two more of the committee are publishers themselves, with one of their anthologies also containing work from other BCA winners, things start to look a little blurry.
The argument has been made that this is a necessary result of including anthologies, but Rice tells me,
They are trying to make points that the UK comics industry is very small and everyone's in these anthologies, but my point is that that isn't actually true, the stuff that they've overlooked is the stuff that isn't in that little circle of anthologies, Karrie Fransman, Nicola Streeten, Simone Lia, Mary Talbot etc.
The issue of merit is important, because often when gender disparity rears its ugly head, the defence argue that merit was judged above all else (the implication being that the absence of women is simply because their work was not as good). Hardiman's comments that committees will be more drawn to work that they are familiar with, or they feel is more presentable to the public, is key.
This may well absolutely not be the case, but with a lack of transparency and other creators left feeling mystified by the process, there is a real sense that this is a problem that could and should have been avoided. Indeed, a welcoming of criticism as well as praise would have gone a long way towards soothing ruffled feathers, and ensuring that no underprivileged group felt unfairly discriminated against.
Asked to comment on the situation, Adam Cadwell made the following statement on behalf of the BCA committee:
The British Comic Awards were set up to celebrate and promote the best in British comics from the last year… Representing the diversity of creators in the UK wasn't our main aim. We chose books based on merit alone, we chose the books we each thought were the best regardless of the gender, race, religion or sexual persuasion of the author and we think that was a fair way to do it.
There has been criticism that the committee wasn't made up of men and women equally. We would have liked for this to be the case but back when we were asking people to commit large amounts of their free time to an idea it wasn't possible… We are hoping with our first year accomplished it will be an easier task to get more people involved and have an even number of men and women on the Committee…
We admit the Awards weren't perfect this year but we think they were a good and positive thing for the entire industry and can only help to elevate the status of the art form in this country. We hope to get better and better at doing this and opinions outside of the Committee are vital.
Rice rightly worries about the fact that "UK comics are getting a reputation for being a 'boys club' and that is true within a small circle of UK comics," and states that, "outside of that club there are lots of women making comics, and they're not unworthy of merit! Outside of the 'UK COMICS SCENE' circle we're getting great reviews, lots of happy readers and making a living from comics."
Thought Bubble remains a wonderfully welcoming comics festival. Yet the quiet upset that has spilled out around the BCAs is indicative of a community worried it cannot criticise an organisation that seeks to celebrate their work.
Last but not least, Lisa Wood, director of the Thought Bubble festival, expressed concern that the pro-woman festival itself and the issues raised were being overshadowed by the war of words:
Philippa and I chatted about this before the FP interview… With the current climate I think it is very easy to see situations like this in a certain light. The point I tried to get across to Philippa is that, as I see it, her perception of the situation is absolutely not the case as it stands. I want discussion about this topic, I welcome it, I'm a feminist, and I have constantly worked in a male dominated environments. I set Thought Bubble up to attempt to change this, that was one of my core aims…
And, I suppose, I keep putting myself in the shoes of the male BCA committee members, I know them, not one of them is a sexist, so for them, and I guess me, to be accused of this, even in an indirect manner, is upsetting, and, moreover, demoralising. What I'm trying to say is, that I understand why Matt got upset on twitter, it shouldn't be personal for him but it is, he's very upset by it…
Yes, lets talk about all these issues facing the industry openly, lets discuss the under-representation of women in comics, I need this, I want this, but to use the BCA to do this, I don't think the focus is right.