Monstrous Women: A new female and non-binary comics anthology seeks to redefine monsters

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Nov 8, 2017

Monsters have fascinated audience for decades. From Frankenstein to Nessie to The Wolfman, monster stories continue to intrigue audiences around the world. This month, monster master Guillermo del Toro's latest movie The Shape of Water will hit theaters, continuing the fascination with "otherness" and what cannot be understood.

Alison O'Toole, the lead editor of upcoming indie comic book Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women, has been fascinated with monsters most of her life. But she didn't see her experience as a woman reflected in the stories she saw.

"I was annoyed at women’s limited roles in monster movies: love interest, victim, maybe a sexy monster hunter," O'Toole. said "Even if they get to be monsters, they’re usually sexualized for a straight male gaze. Non-binary monsters fare even worse."

That's where Wayward Sisters comes in. The 220-page anthology, which will be published by TO Comix Press, features 25 stories from 38 female-identifying and gender-nonconforming creators.

O'Toole asked M. Blankier to join the project as the assistant editor.

"Her vision for Wayward Sisters has been so clear since the beginning," said Blankier, who is also the writer of "Low Tide." "I wholeheartedly support everything [O'Toole] dreams of accomplishing with the project, so I consider myself lucky to be able to participate at all!"

"Skin Deep" by Elodie Chen

One of the contributors to the anthology is writer and artist Elodie Chen. After seeing the call for pitches on Tumblr, Chen pitched "Skin Deep." "I was immediately drawn to the idea of subverting the “monster” image, especially in relation to typical portrayals of femininity," said Chen. "I was interested in the opportunity to write a protagonist who is allowed, even invited, to be messy and disagree with how the world relates to her."

When it came to choosing stories for the anthology, O'Toole knew she wanted to find new and different stories.

"Monsters are ripe for metaphor, and not every single story required a metaphorical reading," said O'Toole. "But that was definitely something we sought out, using monsters in a way that didn’t feel like ground that had been tread many times before."

Blankier agrees that having the anthology centered around stories about monsters also gives a unique ability for creators to challenge stereotypes and "develop new definitions of womanhood, and new understandings of deviations from that womanhood" and encourage "complex analysis" that many times these characters aren't given.

"Monstrous women and genderless characters in Wayward Sisters vary so widely," said Blankier. "Even the differing tones of these stories, like the contrast between "Best Boo," a kids' ghost story, and "White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant," a thoroughly NSFW body horror story, demonstrate just how much vitality the typical "monster" can have."

"Love And Fury" by Aimee Lin & Sam Beck

Aimee Lim, writer of “Love and Fury,” is another contributor to the project and also saw this as an opportunity to bring new perspectives to the genre which has typically been so full of cultural commentary.

"I remember thinking about how monsters that represent male fears of female sexuality (you know, the sexy lady monsters that seduce hapless men in order to steal their 'essence' or whatever) are so much more common than the other way around," Lim writes. "That seems a little backwards when you consider that, historically and today, women generally have much more to fear when it comes to sex and men. Opening up any genre to traditionally underrepresented perspectives allows for more interesting perspectives, but I think monster stories are especially potent for that reason."

O'Toole says that part of her vision in creating the anthology was not only the opportunity to see the types of monster stories she has been looking for but also to give female and non-binary creators the opportunities to tell their own stories. Not just because their stories deserve to be told (which, obviously they do), but also because as a whole, everyone benefits from different perspectives.

"Creator diversity also leads to storytelling diversity," says O'Toole. "Letting only one kind of person tell stories is limiting, especially in genres where anything is possible. People with different life experiences bring different perspectives to storytelling, and the media landscape is richer for it."

While the mainstream comics industry has been (slowly) addressing representation and diversity amongst stories and creators, many creators still find the independent world and websites such as Patreon and Kickstarter the best (or only) way to tell their stories the way they want.

Janice Liu, writer and artist of "The Wife's Shadow" says the success of the Wayward Sister's Kickstarter campaign (which quickly surpassed the original goal), shows there's an audience for these stories.

"The Wife's Shadow" by Janice Liu

"Having a whole anthology like this, that centres non-male voices, is so great - and the success of the Kickstarter has been so encouraging because it shows that people want to hear our stories."

Social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite have brought awareness to the lack of representation in film. #OwnVoices has done similar to the book publishing industry. And recently #VisibleWomen sought to highlight the talents of women and non-binary creators in comics. Lim says campaigns like these aren't just about awareness, but can actually make a tangible difference within the industry.

"I know a lot of diverse authors were able to get their agents because of #DVPit, which is a Twitter novel pitching event for writers from traditionally marginalized identities. So these grassroots community efforts are definitely helping a lot of talented people who might have a harder time getting their work seen otherwise, though there's still a lot of progress to be made to change the industry at large."

However, the onus should be on those in positions of power to seek out diverse voices--not on the creators themselves. Blankier says these social media campaigns put more responsibility on those gatekeepers who can no longer claim they just don't know about those creators.

"Campaigns like #VisibleWomen and #OwnVoices cultivate a sense of awareness of the many, many qualified people who deserve equal opportunities but are held back by traditional gatekeepers, and these campaigns also engender a sense of responsibility in those gatekeepers to do right by creators and stories."

Social media campaigns, crowd-funding, and even just a group of creators coming together to participate in an anthology also has another benefit, says Lui. 

"Often creators will retweet each others' work and just share in that sense of "we're in this together", and it feels really supportive and great."

Support these creators and their stories by checking out their Kickstarter to stay updated on the latest with Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women.