I’ve often been told I resemble a cartoon. I have the kind of wide, open eyes that remind men of manga characters, and which, it follows, mean I’m constantly presumed to be younger than I am. Innocent, naive; the opposite of complex. But if to be cartoonish is to be a comic-book heroine, it also has the potential to be empowering: a female figure in a comic strip, especially one drawn by a woman, can be life-driven, nuanced, and utterly in charge of her own story. This is a potential not lost on Miuccia Prada, a comic-book fan, feminist and arch-heroine capable of throwing concepts of such clarity and velocity under your nose that they feel like a superhuman blast out of nowhere.
If Mrs Prada did have a special power, it might be telepathy. She has a rare talent for taking the pulse of the times, for responding to audiences’ innermost desires with a vision that sticks – a result, perhaps, of her tendency to absorb aspects of visual culture that venture on pop, and repurpose them as clothes. We’ve had 1950s hotrods for SS12, jazz-infused bananas for SS11 and now, for SS18, images of comicbook heroines as drawn by female artists. But the illustrated women who lined the walls, and stared defiantly from clothes and bags and shoes, weren’t lifted from the fantastical realms of mainstream comics. Instead, as the designer said after the show, the eight artists whose work she selected were those who adhered to “the human side, the simple side, the underestimated side of women… women who were real, more normal, maybe not beautiful, not superheroes”. In other words, “Wonder Woman, no; Angela Davis, yes.”
The coterie of cartoonists featured established names who have broken into the man-caves of Marvel/DC, alongside artists more used to the feedback of online communities and underground zine fairs. Trina Robbins, a comic-book artist-turned-herstorian, was the first woman to draw Wonder Woman; Joëlle Jones, Fiona Staples, and Emma Rios flirted with the mainstream only to find success with their original, indie creations; while internet-raised Stellar Leuna and Brigid Elva, the latter of whom has contributed an original comic for these pages, are firmly allied with the self-publishing scene. Perhaps most touching was how the combination of styles and experience levels brought together different generations of feminism, movements that are too often forced to oppose one another; to dig their heels in on opposite sides of what is, after all, a shared fence to climb.
It would be short-sighted to underestimate the familiarity factor: the most powerful illustrations dared you to see yourself in Stellar Leuna’s bobbed girl with devil horns, or in Emma Rios’ enigmatic cyberpunk playing a handheld video game. (As if you were ever as cool as these illustrated femmes!) These are the kinds of characters who have always empowered those inquisitive girls that encounter them, who have reified their everyday frustrations with wit and sharp edges and ink. But it was a bold activist spirit that reverberated most strongly in this room of women drawing women, women wearing women; a regal illustration by Trina Robbins of Angela Davis appeared many times over, the most explicit nod to the ‘combative militancy’ that Mrs Prada would state as her intent post-show. Here is a designer who has previously decreed she wants “to inspire women to struggle”, after all.
The collection also brought Prada’s politics down to the level of the acutely personal – to the specificity of that girl turning the page, or the woman holding her pen and brush. Creating something out of blankness, filling in the gaps. Haven’t women always drawn themselves, after all? She wears clothes, she self-invents, she endures: as the first look of the show posted on social media declared, “She lives”.
Accompanied by Brigid Elva’s comic strip, we brought together five of the artists who contributed to the show, each from different corners of the world. It’s a conversation that reveals the diversity of comic-book art: while their voices chimed in unison for the Prada collection, these are artists it would be best advised not to paint with the same brush.
How did the collaboration with Prada come about for each of you?
Joëlle Jones: I just got a random email out of nowhere asking to see more of my stuff and that was from Prada.
Brigid Elva: I was convinced it was spam to begin with because obviously getting an email from Prada, I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ (laughs)
Trina Robbins: It never occurred to me that Mrs Prada would be interested in comics. And using comics in their line… What? Are you kidding? I was like, ‘Are you sure you want mine?’ They said, ‘Yes, these are brilliant!’ As a comic artist and a feminist, it was amazing
“I didn’t really have any female role models (in comics). It was a boys’ club; I didn’t fit in at all” – Trina Robbins
In terms of what they picked from your archives, what do you think it was about those characters that attracted Mrs Prada?
Stellar Leuna: The femme fatale illustration (of mine) that Prada used was created at 2am after I had finished another drawing for my art exhibition three years ago. I was about to go to bed but suddenly had this very vivid image in my mind, and I drew it immediately because I knew if I went to bed I would forget it. It wasn’t planned at all.
Emma Rios: Mine is an old character that I initially used before becoming a professional. I used her for everything in life – social networks or whatever – as a kind of alter ego. (She’s) a super-90s tomboy, a street-fighter with a lot of scars on her body: I wanted to depict a kind of strength without showing it too much physically. I never expected when I drew her for the first time that it would be part of a Prada collection!
TR: It was lovely for (Mrs Prada) to use the Angela Davis one. In the original context, I had that made for the back cover of the very first all-female comic book, called It Ain’t Me Babe, (which) came out of Berkeley in 1970. The idea was you’d put this in your window to announce that if Angela Davis just happened to be passing by on the lam from the FBI she could knock on your door and you could give her refuge. Terribly romantic notion! I mean, I absolutely idolised Angela Davis. Running from the FBI, my God! She was such a comic-book character.
How much did you all know about Prada?
TR: Everybody knows Prada! They’re incredible, I love their stuff. But how could I touch it?
JJ: I have a terrible bag habit. They did James Jean for another collection. He’s one of my favourite artists, I was so excited. I saved up for months to get that bag.
TR: I was on the bus and a woman had that James Jean handbag. I said, ‘That’s a Prada handbag’ and she said ‘Shhhh!’ Because you never know if somebody on the bus might grab it. Which hadn’t occurred to me!
BE: I read this quote from Mrs Prada once which I thought was interesting. It was something about fashion being about the everyday, and the everyday being the political stage of our freedoms. From what I know of Prada’s collections that vibe always comes through quite strongly. I suppose it’s something comics can do too, especially underground comics. You know, because they’re about as unglamorous and everyday as it gets, (with) all these struggles and frustrations that play out. It’s interesting to think that there are those commonalities between fashion and comics.
As a group, you represent cartoonists known from the mainstream sphere of Marvel and DC, as well as those self-publishing on a more underground level. What’s your sense of the relationship between these two worlds?
BE: To be honest, the Marvel/DC side of things is a mystery to me. I grew up on things that would've been separated into artist, writer, inker. Like the Buffy series, Batman, Gotham, all that stuff. But with self-publishing, I’m so used to the idea of having agency and complete ownership of the work.
JJ: I came to underground comics a bit later. But I definitely always saw myself being able to draw for the superheroes I grew up with. I saw these other people doing it and, well, it happens that they were all men. But I didn’t see that as an impediment, I just assumed I could do it as much as they (could).
Trina, you started out on a more DIY level, and then became a very prominent cartoonist via Marvel/DC.
TR: Actually, when I moved to the Lower East Side in the 60s, I had a boutique – I was making clothes. So I’ve kind of gone from fashion to fashion, isn’t that weird? My boutique was called Broccoli and I had a big cutting table and sewing machine and I sat there making minidresses out of old lace and velvet and psychedelic fabrics.
You’ve gone full circle! When did you start focusing on comics?
TR: It wasn’t until pop art became big and Batman was on television that I thought, ‘Oh! That’s what I want to do. I want to do comics.’ Around that time I was hanging out with the staff of the East Village Other, an underground paper in the Lower East Side. I just started drawing comics and they published them. Simple as that, really.
When did you begin to notice a shift in representation of female artists in the mainstream comic world?
TR: Not until the 21st century. I didn’t really have any female role models (prior to that). It was a boys’ club; I didn’t fit in it at all. And my style didn’t fit. Because you pointed at Robert Crumb and those guys; they had their own style. And what they were doing was extremely misogynist. But the word sexism didn’t exist! I mean, think of it. A word didn’t exist! They just got away with it. I would object and I would say, ‘This isn’t funny, depicting the rape and torture and murder of women is not funny.’ And they’d say, ‘You have no sense of humour.’
BE: Certainly, (Daniel) Clowes and (Charles) Burns were really heavy in my first impressions of this stuff. I read it and loved the characters because many of them were women. But I had an epiphany when I was doing illustration (at university)… These women I loved were all drawn by men. It was like, ‘Oh, God! They’re puppets!’ Visually, that style was so entrenched in me. But as a teen girl reading middle-aged men writing as teen girls, there was just something that didn’t quite match up there.
SL: It’s definitely an issue I’ve thought about. Especially being Asian and a woman and constantly being told my work reminds people of work done by white men. I try to not focus on it so much, though, because it doesn’t really matter what the gender of a person is. Clowes, Crumb etc are all amazing artists and completely deserving of the recognition they have.
“I’m making the work for other women. When I create these characters, it’s not with that (male gaze) in mind” – Brigid Elva
BE: But comics have definitely come further than that now. (When) you hear stuff Clowes says now he comes across like a grumpy old man. It’s like, ‘Fucking hell!' Maybe it is time to just tear down those old… I mean, I’ve definitely done things that are very derivative of them before, but people are doing far more interesting things now. And I think let’s definitely go forward with that.
JJ: When I first got into comics, it was really typical that I would be the only woman in the room – and that was in 2006. You get used to being the token “I didn’t really have any female role models (in comics). It was a boys’ club; I didn’t fit in at all” Trina Robbins girl in all the conversations – you know, 138 139 the one female character they’d bring up I’d always get stuck with, instead of being trusted with bigger male characters. But now there are so many other women in the room. It’s changed a lot.
There’s also a complicated history around how the female body has been represented in comic strips. Whether heroine or victim, that kind of hypersexualisaton shapes realworld perceptions. Do you feel the weight of that heritage?
JJ: When I was younger and, you know, awkward, I looked to these women as something I wanted to grow up to be. I wanted to grow up powerful, sexy and strong. Later, when I drew sexy women, I wanted to do it in a way where they controlled their own sexuality as opposed to the characters around them owning it. Especially in fantasy stories, where everybody is very fit and attractive: I like to make it part of their power.
BE: One of the problems is people sexualising your characters for you. (Like) comic dads who view work in a sphere of their own sexuality – which might be just as much to do with Marvel/DC, or even artists like Crumb that have some visual link with what I’m doing. That’s something I’ve really had to try and twist away from. By redrawing and breathing a bit of life back into these characters with Prada, in a way I’m reclaiming them back from that, which is quite empowering.
Trina, you also famously drew Wonder Woman, who has been a somewhat polarising figure for feminists. Why do you love the character?
TR: I adore Wonder Woman! I can’t say I’m her biggest fan because that’s probably Gloria Steinem, but I love her. She’s an Amazon. She’s not like other superheroes. Only recently did they give her the power to fly. And I personally don’t like that. I prefer the original Wonder Woman, who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, and run faster than a car or a train. It was all due to her Amazon training. The idea was that anyone could become like Wonder Woman, if they trained. To a certain degree, that’s true. I mean, look at Olympic stars; they’re practically superheroes.
SL: I haven’t really read much of the Wonder Woman comics but from what I’ve heard there are a lot of bondage or erotic themes within the stories as a result of the creator William Moulton Marston’s interests in it? We also need to remember that Wonder Woman was created by a man in the 1940s, so it’s not at all surprising that the character could be problematic!
TR: Well, you know, the trouble is of course that she’s really just a comic-book character. So unfortunately, she changes depending on who is writing her and who is drawing her. The original Wonder Woman was wonderful! But she’s been taken over by various artists and writers, most of them male. And I believe most of them really didn’t like her. I think they did things to disempower her, like in the late 60s when they took away her costume and put her in that white Emma Peel catsuit. She used karate. She really wasn’t wonderful then.
SL: I like her, though. I think that she represents a diverse range of women. Not in her appearance, but in the way she can be tough and badass but also loving and gentle. She fights with love, justice and reasoning. There isn’t a single male superhero who does this that I can think of off the top of my head. They just use brute strength. She’s a unique superhero on many levels.
TR: I loved the movie. I’ve seen it twice.
ER: I didn’t (love it). I understand the icon, and how important it is for children. But, on the other hand, (I feel) like they should have risked more. I think this feeling of feminism is stolen by capitalism sometimes. It tricks us.
BE: It’s just one of those things, isn’t it? It’s not as though you’re the first person to this struggle. Every generation almost feels like it has to start over.
TR: You know, I did stuff for National Lampoon and they were marvellous! It was sexist, but it was so funny, if you know what I mean… Like, they asked me to illustrate one piece called ‘What women look like without their clothes on’ and it was all these different kinds of women. They had me pigeonholed as someone who likes to draw pretty girls! Because I do. And I had a ball working for them. And, of course, they certainly paid more than the underground.
”(Wonder Woman) fights with love, justice and reasoning. There isn’t a single male superhero who does this” — Stellar Leuna
JJ: I get some flak for over-sexualising characters and pushing things too far. I think in one of my issues I have my main character strangling a stripper to death. The big joke was the movement of the nipple tassles as she was getting strangled. I got so many people angry about it and I was like, ‘Well, it’s making me laugh.’ And of course the whole point is there’s this beautiful femme fatale, and they don’t just lounge around on plush sofas and think bad thoughts. They’re getting their hands dirty and doing all of these awful things. I’m fascinated by beautiful people being ugly inside.
BE: There was a comic called Hothead Paisan (by Diane DiMassa) which was amazing. I’ve got this really dog-eared copy from childhood, when most of it was lost on me. It’s about this homicidal lesbian terrorist character. And she’s just on a fucking rampage all the time. Reading back now I can see, writing comics, the need to vent out those frustrations. Her just walking down the street in combat mode – with all these feelings, you just sort of end up carrying them with you, until you offload them in one way or another.
One interesting aspect of the Prada show was noticing how clothes already had an important role to play in the illustrations.
BE: In the act of drawing a figure, the clothes are as much a part of them (as anything else).
TR: That’s one way that you can tell if something was drawn by a woman or by a man. The women really pay attention to the clothing that their characters wear, whereas men will just stick her in something very short and very tight. I’ve always loved clothes. In the early 70s I used to get in a lot of trouble with women because I liked to wear bright red lipstick and long skirts, and you weren’t supposed to! I was supposed to be very grim and not wear any make-up, and wear overalls. If you love yourself you want to decorate yourself. It’s like if you love your home you put up lace curtains. You know what I mean?
SL: I think that’s bullshit. Women can be sexy and fashionable and still be feminist.
BE: Certainly, I feel like I’m making the work for other women. When I create these characters, it’s not with that (male gaze) in mind. TR: I feel like it’s not even for other women. It’s for yourself. When I drew Wonder Woman, I did it for me. Just like I dress for me.