Letter About 3 Women (In Comics)

Posted: Saturday, April 1, 2000
By: Rachel Hartman

Cover of Letter About 3 Women (In Comics)

Step Into My Mind: 3 Women, 3 Worlds

People say it's hard to meet women at comic conventions. I've never had that problem myself, but then, I AM a woman and I'd be willing to bet that makes a difference. We spot each other across the sea of fanboys, row over to say hi, send comics in bottles bobbing over to each other's tables. The last convention I went to I was on a panel about women in comics and was pleased and astonished to find that there was a woman on the panel I didn't know. Our world is a small one.

That being said, I'd like to point you in the direction of three women who you may have overlooked in the backwater of the Small Press area, three women who are doing comics which rank among my favorites: Tara Tallan (Galaxion), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), and Pam Bliss (B-36). What intrigues me most about their work is not simply their storytelling or artistic skills, although all three excel in these areas, but rather the care they have taken in building intricate and detailed worlds.

Comics is a medium with lots of potential for worldbuilding. The
cartoonist can, with a few brush strokes, create a level of detail which would require pages of description in a prose work, and which would be utterly tedious to read. However carefully the novelist words her descriptions, the reader will envision the scene throught the filter of his experience. The cartoonist, however, gets to decide exactly what will be included in her world. Even if the reader doesn't consciously notice specific details the first time through, they are still present and are still influencing one's perception of the scene. The medium presents a tremendous opportunity to create a world which is more than just a place
for the action to occur. One can make a world which reflects the
preoccupations and conflicts of the characters.

Tara Tallan's Galaxion is probably the most straightforward example.
Galaxion is a classic space opera, in the tradition of Star Trek, where exploration and pioneering drive the plot, but the real drama lies in the interaction between characters. Humanity has just taken its first tentative steps toward hyperspace travel, but as the crew of the Galaxion finds out, they have bitten off more than they are prepared to chew. As Aria puts it in the very first issue, "Are we going to be able to face whatever we find?"

Most of the action so far has taken place on the Galaxion, although more and more is happening one the surface of the mysteriously earth-like planet they've found. I want to focus on the ship itself: inside, it's everything a starship should be. Tallan uses clean, authoritative lines to convey that this is a ship in good order. There are no dangling tubes or wires, but conversely it doesn't give the feeling of coldness or sterility. It's a rational, humane ship, and one sees her people behaving (for the most part) reasonably within it. The Galaxion crew follow strict protocols on the ground, shy away from even the unnecessary killing of animals, and look to reason to solve their problems.

The outside of the ship, however... well, I don't want to ruin a fun
surprise for those of you who haven't read it, but let me just say the
Galaxion has an unusual shape. A glorious, impossible, romantic shape. There's a strong romantic current in other physical details as well, from Aria's bookshelves piled high with Copernicus, L'Engle, and Dr. Seuss, to Fusella's assortment of off-duty outfits, to Zandarin's drawing of a fantastic spaceship.

With its dual rational and romantic aspects, the Galaxion is a floating representation of a central conflict facing most of the characters in one form or another: how does one reconcile these two frequently opposing impulses within oneself? How, for example, does one spend one's days in uniform and yet still retain some individuality and humanity? Drawing, sarcasm, and silly hats are all put forth as answers. How does a captain make a rational decision when her long lost husband is put forth as bait? That one has yet to be answered. I only hope she can find some of the balance achieved by her marvellous ship.

The world of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder is as complex as her plotlines. "Sin Eater," the first Finder story arc, takes place in the domed city of Anvard, "Cynosure of the North." If you're like me, and have to look up the word "cynosure," you'll find that one of it's definitions is "center of attraction or attention." Yup, that's Anvard. Like any real city, there's always more going on than you can catch the first time through. She takes us to street parties, the Painwright Gallery, the market, the police station, traffic jams, the Anvard Self-Guided Walking Tour, the hospital. One begins to recognize members of the different clans on sight, begins not to be disturbed by animal-headed people or men with breasts singing bawdy songs on parade floats. If you can say one thing for sure about McNeil's world, it's that it's FULL.

What does this mean for the story? The plot of "Sin Eater," as I've
already indicated, is convoluted but definitely worth the trouble. What intrigues me is the degree to which the city itself becomes a character in the story. Jaeger Ayers, the Finder of the title, does not live in Anvard on any permanent basis. In fact, he can't stand Anvard, claiming it makes him crazy. Throughout the story he struggles with the city, works to transcend its dehumanizing effects. He goes the wrong way in traffic. He dives into the river, which is so polluted it burns his hair off. In issue 9, which is one of my favorites, he takes a small boy (who may also be a finder) on an excursion over the rooftops of the city, walking on wires and peering down at people whose "ruts are so deep they can't see
out of 'em anymore." He is determined to keep from being swallowed by the city.

Indeed, the story itself is almost swallowed. Almost. Her two subsequent stories, "Mystery Date" and "King of Cats," have done a much cleaner job of keeping her world (which is still intricate and fascinating) in its place. But "Sin Eater" is still a compelling read, having some of the same morbid pull as the city itself.

Lastly, I bring you to the world of Pam Bliss, where jackalopes sport and play in what she has called "an Indiana of the mind." Now I know what you're thinking -- Indiana just doesn't have the exotic appeal of a starship or a domed city, but I think for that reason B-36 is a very important example of good worldbuilding. I mean, if you're doing science fiction or fantasy, of course you have to build your world because you're starting from scratch. But to start with Indiana and end with something entirely your own, well! That takes considerable skill as well.

B-36 is an anthology title, housing many different stories under one roof, most notably "Those Kids," "The Travelling Travelall," and "Radiation Man." The first is a series of adventures involving a group of six friends, the second is a time-travel series, and the third is, well, essentially a group of hilarious non-sequiturs describing Radiation Man and what he does. All take place in some form of Indiana.

In Pam Bliss's Indiana, the first thing you'll notice are the critters. There are bugs, eagles, Welsh Corgis, dinosaurs, jackelopes, lizards, spiders, bison, sasquatch... and that's just off the top of my head. She doesn't just draw foliage, she draws real, identifiable plants. There are rocks with faces, totem poles, a whole wealth of concrete detail, some of which is central to the action, some of which is not. Bliss's Indiana is busy and so are her characters -- all six of "Those Kids" are abundantly blessed with curiosity and an appetite for science. Her world reminds the reader of what it was like to be a kid, full of undiscovered wonders that
one need only turn over a leaf or stone to see.

This "Indiana of the mind" is also quite a spacious place. In addition to the multifarious small(ish) fauna mentioned above, giant aircraft such as the eponymous B-36 and wooly mammoths also occasionally make an appearance. There are cornfields, just like in regular Indiana except that the corn itself occasionally behaves strangely. Most of the action takes place on Dr. Petrov's farm, or in the fictional small town of Kekionga, and while this world is full of busy nature, there's still a lot of elbow room for the human characters. Almost anything can be accomodated, from everyday time travel to phantom airships. And like this wonderful, welcoming Indiana, you will find that the minds of Bliss's characters are always open to new ideas, and that there is room in her books, thanks to the anthology format, for any story she wishes to tell.

Beauty is in the details. I would say that all three of these works
contain a loving attention to detail, and that the cartoonists have taken great care in constructing worlds which do more than just house their characters. In some cases, the world almost is a character, while in others it lends a flavor which may not be directly apparent at first.

I hope my exploration here will foster some discussion about the worldbuilding strategies taken by other artists, as well as foster some interest in the works I've examined. I've included contact addresses below, but all three make regular appearances at conventions throughout the year, particularly at The Expo (SPX), the Mid-Ohio-Con, and Motor City. I hope you will cross the sea of fanboys and seek these artists out. Some fascinating worlds await you.

Tara Tallan's Galaxion
Helikon Comics,
178 Jarvis St. #1102
Toronto, ON M5B 2K7

Carla Speed McNeil's Finder
Lightspeed Press
P.O. Box 448
Annapolis Junction, MD 20701

Pam Bliss's B-36
Paradise Valley Comics
P.O. Box 304,
Valparaiso, IN 43684

If you have a comment or question about Small Press then feel free to contact me