Where were all the women at the British Comic Awards?

The first British Comics Awards were hugely successful – except for their less-than-perfect gender balance, writes Laura Sneddon.

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.

The winners of the British comics awards. Josceline Fenton, 2nd right, was the only woman.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser