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

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era