The brave new world of comic-book heroines


The comic-book and cartooning world has always had a ‘blokes in black T-shirts’ element, but now Irish female artists are increasingly coming to the fore

AT A TIME when there are repeated declarations about the death of the novel, visual narratives – from comics to graphic novels – appear to be thriving. For a country as small as Ireland, it’s understandably a niche scene, but slowly, it’s starting to find its feet.

One consequence of this is the emergence of women in an industry that has traditionally been dominated by men, to the point of cliche and stereotype (hello, comic-book guy from The Simpsons).

This month saw the publication of Róisín Dubh, a graphic novel by writer Maura McHugh with art by Stephen Daly and Stephen Byrne. A photographer, film-maker and short-story writer, McHugh was always a comic fan. Having “always admired comics as an art form”, counting several comic-book writers as influences, she decided to go for it.

“Where I grew up, there wasn’t a big comic-book culture. No one said it outright, but I had a strong feeling that comic books like 2000AD were not for girls, so I would sneak my brothers’ copies.” The story of Róisín Dubhconcerns an 18-year-old heroine in 1899, who wants to be an actress, but is forced to avenge her parents’ deaths at the hands of Abhartach, an evil spirit released after 1,400 years in the ground.

For McHugh, it was important that Róisín was a complex character, but also that she was female. While comic book characters have not always been exclusively male – Catwoman, X-Men’s Phoenix, Gail from Sin City, Tank Girl – male characters dominate. “Culturally, the hero’s journey is the one that dominates all media and it’s not just a problem particular to comic books, but it’s most obvious in the superhero titles. Even when there are women superheroes, they are often sidekicks or perceived as an adjunct to a man, but thankfully this is changing.”

Rob Curley, who owns Sub City and Atomic Diner Comics worked with Maura on the story of Róisín Dubh. Through his shop, Curley sees the role of women – both as consumers and comic creators – slowly changing.

“It’s a niche sector, and women within it are a very small percentage, but they tend to do well in independent, small-press publishing. In the 17 years Sub City has been open, we’ve always had lots of female customers,” says Curley.

The consumers have always been there, but what about Irish women actually creating, drawing and writing comics?

Comics writer and artist Patrick Brown cites women publishing comic strips in Ireland as far back as the 1950s (Marion King in this newspaper, right up to Eliza Bielewicz’s recent strips for the Polski Herald), but agrees that small-press publishing provided a big platform for many women writers. “In the 1980s, Hilary Robinson worked on the Ximocanthology and went on to write for 2000AD, but in recent years digital printing has made professional publication, including full-scale graphic novels, far more accessible. There is Leonie O’Moore and Felicity McCall’s work, but small-press terms gave us Maeve Clancy, Deirdre Ruane, Anna Fitzpatrick and Sinéad Lynch, as well as Irish Manga collective Zenpop – and most of their artists are women.”

The marriage of comics and subject matter is often divided along gender lines. Assumptions are made: women don’t like drawing superheroes; only girls like Manga. Both are the biggest sellers here in terms of genre, but themes have diversified from that.

Cliodhna Lyons’s work has been inspired by everything from first World War military cemeteries to consumerism. After a childhood of comic-book consumption and studying animation, Lyons completed a BFA in cartooning at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York. On that course, the recent intake was 50/50 male and female, and in the coming years, it is expected women will overtake men as applicants. Lyons remembers attending Con Éire, a convention organised by Sub City, and seeing a table of self-published comics.

“It seemed an alien idea to me, to put it out there yourself, but that’s how to do it. It’s also very important to draw for yourself, and not just to emulate big comic-book names or trends. It’s how I would know Maeve Clancy and Katie Blackwood’s work anywhere.”

Based in London, Lyons thinks the Irish scene is slightly behind. Over there, she regularly attends “Laydeez Do Comics”, a monthly gathering of London-based female comic-book writers and artists. For the past five years, she has also helped organise Dublin’s 24-Hour Comic Day. She believes what excites most comic-book enthusiasts is the medium; the unique way of telling a story that a comic allows.

Deirdre de Barra returned to drawing in 2008 after a gap of nearly two decades. “Comics get looked down on for a lot of reasons, but people don’t get how much effort goes into them. When I’m working on something, I can draw for 12 to 14 hours a day.”

De Barra has also noticed an increase in female involvement, even if she is wary of things being gendered. “Comics always had a ‘blokes in black T-shirts’ element, but now comics have such a broad scope and something like Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis was a real ‘whoa moment’ for girl comic artists.”

Leeann Hamilton, an animator who became interested in Manga, has also seen the gap narrow through running workshops for teenagers and giving talks on Manga. “Women in comics are a rare breed, but those workshop audiences were 100 per cent girls.”

Hamilton stresses that it’s important to write what you love and not for an audience. Her Finn Fish, a re-telling of the Salmon of Knowledge legend, has sold out.

Writers or artists, men or women, everyone interviewed is hopeful that there will be more Irish women in comics in the future. McHugh – who is working on another female character, Jennifer Wilde, with Rob Curley – says it’s important to find a community and network. “Do it: write it, draw it, make it, publish it. Your voices, your vision and your stories are important. Never be embarrassed about working in comic books, and ignore anyone who puts it down as a medium. If they do, they are not acquainted with its history or artistic diversity.”

Róisín Dubh

For information on the Irish comics scene, see