Lisa Mandel
“There’s no such thing as women’s comics”

She is one of 25 feminist artists (including one man) featured in the exhibition Une BD si je veux, quand je veux (“A Comic If I Like, When I Like”) held in April in Nantes. Since her 2014 cult parody Les hommes et la BD (“Men and Comics”), Lisa Mandel and her Collective of Female Comics Creators Against Sexism have been staking out a place for women in the world of comics. Their goal: to see to it that women authors are no longer reduced to their gender, but treated as equals. An uphill battle – and long overdue.

By Claire Darfeuille

In the world of French-language comics, there was a first wave before the deluge of #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc outrage. Since 2015, indignant women authors of comics have been denouncing sexism on the blog of the Collective of Female Comics Creators Against Sexism, an association started up by Lisa Mandel. She rounded up thirty-odd women for an event that has since achieved cult status: Les hommes et la BD (“Men and Comics”). They reversed traditional gender roles to parody questions routinely asked of women, like “Do you have any children?” or “Do you mind being among the 90 per cent of comic book authors who are men?”

Against sexist preconceptions about comics by women

“Some of the surprised audience were appalled, some were thrilled,” recalls Lisa Mandel. “So we thought about where to go from there, and that’s how the movement got started.” They drew up a charter, signed by the 250 women authors in the comic books collective, to fight against sexist preconceptions about comic books made by women und for more feminism in the world of comics, in which women are growing more numerous: 27 per cent, according to a 2016 study on professional comics.

From the outset, reports of garden-variety sexism piled up on the blog: 70 posts all told, ranging from male chauvinist jokes cracked by tipsy colleagues after dinner to utterly unacceptable acts of violence, which place the world of word balloons in a less likable light. “It must have been very hard for the pioneers,” observes Mandel. She herself has wanted to draw comics ever since she was four and a half years old, even though many people warned her against choosing a profession in which you supposedly “can’t get a look-in”.

Her influences: Florence Cestac, Chantal Montellier & Claire Brétecher

Lisa Mandel was born in 1977 and, long before she could read, was already adding laughing mouths to the face of little Mafalda. “I was convinced that the artist, Quino, had forgotten it,” she remembers with a grin. Then she delved into Gaston, Tintin and other classics, before the onset of her heavy metal phase in the ’80s. She was influenced by Reiser, Wolinski and Cabu, though also by Florence Cestac, Chantal Montellier, and Claire Brétecher – “who was the only one known to the general public at the time,” she points out.

Whilst illustrating books for teenagers, she never lost sight of her goal: comics. As the only woman on the editorial staff of Tchô magazine, she asked the artistic director for the go-ahead to create a female counterpart to Zep’s famous figure Titeuf. The upshot was Nini Patalo, “a little girl in a crazy world, accompanied by a goose and a defrosted caveman,” as she describes it. She gained prominence in the realist comics segment through her blog Libre comme un poney sauvage, and continued in this vein in her reports on psychiatric hospitals (HP), in her Sociorama series (together with sociologist Yasmine Bouagga) as well as her remarkable coverage of the so-called “Calais Jungle” refugee encampment, which first came out in Le Monde and then as a book.

In 2009 she and cartoonist Tanxxx won the Prix Artémisia “for a graphic narrative by a woman” for their album Esthétique et filatures. “At first it struck me as a consolation prize, but it is a way to draw attention to work by women authors. I don’t think there is such a thing as a female imagination or a female style of drawing, but I am for positive discrimination in order to establish a balance.”

A balance we’re still far from achieving, as the mini-scandal at the Angoulême Festival in 2016 made clear: not a single woman among the 30 nominees for the Golden Wildcat, the prize for best album. The women authors’ collective would not stand for such blatant disregard and called for a boycott of the festival. They got the support of a small group of male authors, who withdrew from the selection in protest, thereby making waves in the media and the public. And it was high time, for in the festival’s 43-year history only a single woman has been nominated for the Wildcat. “If women were as visible at the conventions as men, that would be a good start. The goal is parity,” Mandel stresses, adding that parity already exists in art schools, which admit equal numbers of boys and girls.

“Emotions aren’t gendered”

Like many of her women colleagues, Mandel rejects the label “women’s comics”: “Emotions aren’t gendered,” she says. So if, for instance, there’s a single mom among the characters in her Mifa family, a strip that appeared in the morning edition of Le Monde for a year, “it’s simply because I grew up with this family model,” she explains. The mother is unflappable, doesn’t get worked up about anything, hence a far cry from sexist clichés, as are Mandel’s other characters. Whether it’s the two girls in Princesse aime princesse (a book for teens, Gallimard BD), the lesbian superheroines Francisse and Lisa in Super Rainbow (Casterman) or the women in her Kifik Kifak column about Lebanon – Lisa Mandel provides fresh, liberating role models. She employs her pen to emancipate women through humour and fighting against stereotypes. Down with pigeonholes! Speaking of which: just recently, she got worked up on her Facebook page about a book for teenagers that amounts to “a mass of damaging sexist clichés for kids in the throes of puberty, presenting them with the ideal of a narrow-minded, straitjacketed, reactionary image of women” – which really says it all.  

More on this subject

  • in the book Je me défends du sexisme (Albin Michel Jeunesse) by Emmanuelle Piquet and Lisa Mandel, which came out in March
  • on the blog Auriculaire, where female comics creators can speak their minds: “No, women don’t make comics for girls, they make comics.”
  • at the exhibition Une BD si je veux quand je veux at the Maison Fumetti in Nantes from 3 February to 14 April – featuring works by 25 major authors of feminist comics from Ecuador to Russia, including Joris Bas, Alison Bechdel, Catel, Jacky Flemming, Ulli Lust et al.