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Mikki Kendall wrote the women's rights history book you wish you had in school
Before Mikki Kendall created her graphic novel Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists, she was widely known for her feminist editorials in publications like Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. Growing up a die-hard geek on the South Side of Chicago, Kendall is no stranger to comics and loved everything from Archie to X-Men. In fact, before she wrote her first book, Hood Feminism, she had contributed to The Princeless Charity Series (Action Lab) with Jeremy Whitley, an essay in Bitch Planet (Image) for Kelly Sue DeConnick, and she contributed to Swords of Sorrow (Dynamite) with Gail Simone.
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is, in many ways, a culmination of Kendall's work and interests. The new graphic novel, which she created alongside artist A. D'Amico, colorist Shari Shankhamma, and letterist Erica Shultz, was quite the undertaking. It's one part history book, one part Women's Rights primer, offering a rare intersectional and bold look at the struggles and triumphs of women's rights throughout the world. As inclusive as it is broad, Kendall takes readers on a journey from Ancient Sumer to the present day, following a group of students on a class trip through history, with the help of a time-travel device and an A.I. with a penchant for sarcasm. Together, they provide a motley Greek chorus that anchors the reader against the backdrop of information and artwork.
The book is not just informative but entertaining, dispelling myths like the existence of Valkyries (nope, they're not real), uncovering facts like how a woman designed the world's oldest learning institution (Al Quaraouiyine University in Fez, Morocco), and highlighting events that are rarely included in women's history (like the trans women who helped ignite Stonewall). Kendall was adamant that each woman profiled had actually done something to progress the Women's Rights Movement. For instance, she's previously pointed to Margaret Thatcher, for whom Kendall says she's found no real evidence of helping to push forward the rights of women while Thatcher was prime minister of England.
SYFY WIRE talked with Kendall about how she put together this intense and in-depth project, what it was like working on Hood Feminism at the same time, and what other comic book stories she would love to write.
Last month, you released another book called Hood Feminism. How does that book relate to this one? What was it like writing both books at once?
Both are about feminism and feminist history, but while Hood Feminism is a rigorous critique, Amazons is more of a look at how we got here and why we need to understand that every community and culture that has contributed to women's rights has different needs because of their unique histories. Writing two books at the same time was a weird experience because even though the topics are related, the tone is so different that sometimes it felt like my brain was crowded.
With such a massive amount of information, how did you narrow the subject matter down to these historical figures?
This was around six months of research, but I broke it up into manageable chunks so that I would look at a time period, write that chapter's rough draft, then move on to another time period. It's too much to digest in one research period, and I wanted to keep things straight in my own head.
I tried to choose figures who were documented visually in some way, as well as those where I could trace their impact through time. I knew going in that I could not expect to cover every single person that had, so this was never meant to be considered a comprehensive history so much as a good place to start learning.
There are a number of easter eggs hidden in the artwork; can you share some of your favorites? Did you or your artist come up with them?
We both came up with them; some of my favorites include a certain character usually found with a golden lasso, and some friends in key crowd scenes. It's one of those books where the fact that we both grew up on comics and Where's Waldo really came to life.
Many people think that feminism started with the women's suffrage movement. But your book dispels that myth. What other myths were you excited to debunk? What was the most surprising fact you uncovered during your research?
I wanted to get rid of the idea that feminism was the province of any one group or time period. Women have contributed to every society in history, and I wanted to make that clear in an easy-to-digest format. The most surprising thing for me was probably the realization that women's names are regularly erased from their work for petty reasons. You would think these gaps in our history are the result of some kind of organized conspiracy, but really it's just that misogyny makes people so irrational they default to erasure.
You've mentioned that the history of women's rights isn't linear. Did that make your research difficult?
It wasn't so much that the research was more difficult as it was more frustrating to see the exact same patterns playing out over and over. There comes a point when you realize that many “golden” ages collapse because of disease or natural disaster and somehow women (whether they are leaders or simply present) get blamed for it, and then their rights are under attack and no one ever seems to be willing to admit that sometimes bad things just happen until women have won back those rights again. I started wanting a time machine so I could go back and explain it!
Besides the research, how would you compare the experience of creating this graphic novel with your previous work on Swords of Sorrow or Princeless?
This was by far the most work I have ever done on a single graphic project, and this was my first time really being the lead on a big project, so it was really stressful. But I was so glad that I had such an amazing team. I could ask questions or for advice without worrying that anyone expected me to know what I was doing at every step.
What was the most important theme you wanted to convey through this book?
That we all have to work together for a better future. It's not going to be easy, but we can't leave anyone out if we want that bright shiny world where everyone has access to opportunity and we're in healthy societies. It's hard to work together when you think that you're the only one working hard enough or in the right way. Realistically, we all have to do some of the work for people who are not just like us if we want to make things better. And we have to understand that there is no single right way to fight for equality and equity.
Of all of the women's stories that you shared in the book, do you have a favorite?
There's no way I could pick a single favorite! I loved learning about everyone from Pharaoh Hatshepsut to Queen Seondeok to Ruby Bridges. I'm a big history nerd, and finding new people to study is my jam. Learning labor history and more about disability and AIDS activism was probably my favorite part simply because those were areas where I didn't focus in the past.
So many women leaders were erased from history, I'm sure there's no way you were able to share them all with us. Will there be a second edition coming with more information?
Maybe? I shifted from this right into working on Hood Feminism and another project, so I haven't had time to really plan my next big nonfiction graphic project yet.
If you get a chance to write an existing female character in a comic, who would you choose?
Probably Storm, but I would write her less focused on other people's needs and more focused on her own. Storm's a great character who often gets less focus than she deserves.