When it comes to feminist art, the work of feminist illustrators may not be the first that comes to mind. Indeed, more imposing oeuvres, such as Judy Chicago’s mammoth installation, The Dinner Party, or Frida Kahlo’s visceral surrealist canvasses, may loom larger in feminism’s collective cultural memory.
But what of the arguably less lauded medium of the comic book or graphic novel page? Feminist illustrators have been at work since the 1970s, redefining representations of women in a popular cultural arena that remains, to this day, largely dominated by men.
In this article, we look at three pioneering feminist illustrators of the 20th century, as well as three contemporary illustrators engaging with feminism through their drawings.
Feminist Illustrators: Then
We begin our list with Joyce Farmer, an artist who came of age during the 1960s, a decade of huge societal change with regards to sexuality, morality, and civil rights. California, where Farmer was born and has lived throughout her life, was where the countercultural movement began in 1967 and, just five years later, Farmer was to make her own mark on the sexual politics of her chosen medium: comics.
Joyce Farmer's Notable Illustrations
Addressing a need for alternative voices in the comic book space, particularly when it came to the representation of women, Farmer co-founded Tits & Clits with Lyn Chevely in 1972. As its title immediately suggests, Tits & Clits was a provocative underground comics anthology that humorously depicted topics and scenarios around female sexuality.
Tits & Clits faced legal action in the form of a pornography investigation in 1973, but ultimately survived to go on being published for fifteen years, usually in small print runs of ten to twenty thousand copies. Undeterred by this and unafraid of courting controversy, Farmer and Chevely also published Abortion Eve, a semi-educational cartoon on abortion, in 1973.
Farmer’s contributions to feminism via the comic book industry are made all the more poignant considering that she never made any profit from her activities in the 1970s and 1980s.
On the other side of the Pacific, Naoko Takeuchi, one of Japan’s most illustrious manga artists, was born in 1967 – incidentally, the same year the countercultural movement began in the United States.
Naoko Takeuchi's Notable Illustrations
Takeuchi is best known for her magnum opus, Sailor Moon, a manga ran from 1991 to 1997 and spawned a global media franchise that endures to this day, encompassing anime, merchandise, film and even video games.
Sailor Moon centres around a group of ten teenage girls who have the ability to transform into Sailor Guardians (magical alter-egos) in order to fight evil. Their resourcefulness, otherworldly power, combined with their aspirational beauty, imbued the Sailor Guardians with an empowering feminine aura that appealed to millions of young girls around the world in the 1990s. Sailor Moon helped popularise the concept of the female superhero in Asia by showcasing strong female characters fulfilling traditionally male roles (i.e., displaying power, saving the day) as well as traditionally feminine traits, both physically and emotionally.
Alison Bechdel is the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip that ran for an incredible 25 years, rendering it something of an institution in the realm of lesbian representation.
For readers of feminist cultural theory, the name Bechdel should already be familiar in the form of the “Bechdel Test”, which measures the quality of female representation in popular fiction. The test – which famously asks if a film has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man – originated in a 1985 comic strip of Dykes to Watch Out For.
Written and illustrated by Bechdel, the comic strip followed a group of lesbian friends whose lives intersected at Madwimmin Bookstore, a feminist bookstore threatened by gentrification in the area.
During its quarter-of-a-century run from 1983 to 2008, Dykes to Watch Out For developed its characters in real time as they navigated urban and social change. While Bechdel has since published other acclaimed works, notably her graphic novel memoirs, her legacy will likely be forever tied to Dykes for its pioneering work as an early and long-running commentary on lesbianism in America.
Feminist Illustrators: Now
Hailing from Hong Kong, Little Thunder is a millennial illustrator who has gained prominence in the international scene for her whimsical and semi-autobiographical drawings that depict everything from the mundane to the psychedelic.
A recurring theme in Little Thunder’s work is her celebration of the female form, most notably in her 2018 book, The Blister Exists, which contains over 1,000 illustrations of different pole dancing poses (she practices the sport herself). In other surrealist drawings, women as large as buildings pose languidly across the urban cityscape of Hong Kong, represented with what could best be described as a female gaze – sensuous but not sexualised.
Little Thunder's Most Recent Feminist Illustrations
A recent triptych uploaded to her Instagram (which has amassed a whopping 903,000 followers at the time of writing) depicts a subversive reimagining of the aftermath of a sexual assault. In the first slide, we see a teenager’s face, her eyes filled with fear; in the second slide, we witness a male perpetrator “flashing” his victim from her point-of-view; and in the third slide, an enraged octopus bursts forth from the girl, seemingly ready to fight back.
Joëlle Jones is the creator of a comic book series that leaves little to the imagination with regards to its intrinsic feminism: Lady Killer. The series, which was published from 2015-2016 to critical acclaim, followed the life of Josie Schuller, a suburban 1950s housewife by day and mafia assassin by night.
The rampant misogyny of the 1950s rears its head often in Lady Killer and is satisfyingly met with Josie’s professional wrath, as she expertly carries out hits on sexist men in a trope-defying and disturbingly empowering tale.
A film adaptation of Lady Killer is reportedly in development by Netflix, but in the meantime, Joëlle Jones has been keeping busy with publishing comics of iconic female superheroes, from Catwoman, to Wonder Girl and Supergirl.
Picking up further down the line from where Sailor Moon left off, the work of Q Hayashida represents a refreshing take on the illustration of powerful women in manga. Unlike her female contemporaries in the seinen (youth) manga scene who focus on more traditionally feminine plotlines and aesthetics, Hayashida embraces other staples of Japanese fiction: violence, gore, and body horror.
While the Sailor Guardians of Sailor Moon are drawn with Barbie-like proportions (slender figures with long legs taking up two-thirds of their total height), the women of Q Hayashida’s Dorohedoro are incredibly strong, sporting muscular physiques that often outperform their male counterparts.
The character of Noi best encapsulates Hayashida’s dual feminine and masculine character design: at over two metres tall, Noi towers over her male partner-in-crime and love interest, Shin. Broad-shouldered and extremely buff, Noi’s choice of dress fittingly alternates between a tracksuit and black leather fetish attire that showcases her large bust.
An iconic series that ran from 2000-2018, Dorohedoro’s recent anime adaptation, available on Netflix, continues to bring Hayashida’s gender-bending aesthetic to new audiences.
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All Images: McGill Library/Unsplash
Writer | Mengzy
Mengzy is a DJ/producer, radio presenter, freelance writer and final-year PhD candidate in Musicology based in Hong Kong. A regular on the regional underground and festival circuit, she has established herself both as a radio personality and as a co-founder of Wonton Bass. Mengzy writes cultural analysis and commentary on a wide range of topics, including music, film, gaming, and design. Follow her on Instagram @djmengzy