Comics are often derided for their inaccurate depiction of women; and it is frequently with good reason. From their lack of prominence as characters to their physical proportions; the world of comics, in all of its alternate forms and universes, infrequently seems to understand how half of the words population participates in day-to-day life. Mainstream comic’s tight knit patriarchy has loosened from where it was ten years ago, and depending on the title, author and artist, you might even find mainstream female titles with substantive depths (see Greg Rucka’s turn at writing Wonder Woman). Comic Con, now more than ever before, has a stronger female attendance. There are more female creators, though perhaps not enough, which are well respected. Yet, with these improvements, there is still something missing.
How women interact with each other, in that unique group dynamic, is part of what is often overlooked in the world of comics but hugely important in the regular lives of women. Two recent books, Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet and Wet Moon Volume 6: Yesterday’s Gone by Ross Campbell, are incredibly compelling and honest depictions of female group friendships and social structures.
Abouet’s book, a compilation of her three previous titles, tells the story of Aya, a young woman from the Ivory Coast in the late 1970’s, living in the urban area of Yop City. This period is a time Abouet describes as the “Ivorian miracle”(1). It was a time of great prosperity and mobility for the middle class within the Ivory Coast. The book describes the life of Aya, as well as her friends, family and surroundings in rich detail that make this slice of history feel extremely immediate. Aya is smart and level-headed and often finds herself as peacekeeper, dealmaker and confidant, and therefore is the readers through line for all the drama that is happening in the quartier.
Campbell’s world is the more recent United States, where goth/punk art students study in the south. Wet Moon is Cleo’s story, an earnest young woman figuring out her life and loves with help from a group of likeminded girls, many of which are also attending the regional art school. Cleo and her friends are in the first phase of their independent lives, and we see glimpses of their families and hear stories of how they have developed into the strong young women that they are.
Both books are limited arc multi-volumes that are mid way through their stories. There is plenty of drama: personal, familial, and societal. Aya and Cleo and their friends are about the same age, and while they are occupying different aspects of the globe and time periods, each book provides really strong, relatable depictions of what it is like to have a group of girlfriends to depend on. Cleo’s best friend Trilby has been found after a horrible attack, and the core group of girlfriends are there to be strong for Cleo and for Trilby who is in a coma. Aya’s girlfriend Adjoua gives birth to a son whose paternity is questioned. Through the weddings, discussions, and resolutions about the child’s father, it is Aya and her girlfriends that are always there taking care of the baby.
In both books there is a lot of time spent just hanging out: in private spaces, living rooms, bedrooms, rendezvous’. Girls talk about their feelings, have frank discussions about each other’s partners, and join in conversations about the uncertainty of the future. The women are there for each other physically and emotionally supporting each other. Mara, in several panels, is shown as the one on which Cleo and the other girls lean on while at the bedside of Trilby. Aya takes on her own type of toughness when telling her best friend Bintou that her boyfriend is a sham, knowing that fights of this nature between friends can have long lasting effects.
These women are not heroines with a path of right and wrong that is clear-cut to the correct future. They have doubts, about themselves, families, and what is yet to come. They often don’t know what to say, or perhaps how to say it. In a panel of Wet Moon, Audrey and Mara sit on a curb after just finding out about Trilby’s attack. Audrey says, “I wanna say somthin’ but I don’t know what…” “Talk to me Mara…” To which Mara leans on her in the following panel and replies “Got nothin’ to say. Jus’ gotta wait.” Aya and her girlfriends take on practical applications of feminism while they discuss on repeated occasions where the line is for what their expectations are for their partners: must you expect that they will cheat, or take on another wife, or even just provide financial support for your family. The women are charting their own territory, and they are doing it together.
In both books the conversational tone is absolutely spot on. The exchanges are sometimes broken partial thoughts, which only a friend can fill in, or full of sarcasm in a way on someone who is close can dish out. Both Abouet and Campbell have great capabilities in their ability to craft dialogue that is so believable that the reader feels as if they’ve had the conversation before. And perhaps they have, with a different friend, in a different place, but the concerns are same, and the language provides immediate and deep connections with the characters.
The women’s appearances too are also a huge factor in the realness of the books. Wet Moon, also drawn by Campbell, is full of round women with stylized hair and awkward body positions. They are easily every goth art student that has ever existed. Cleo’s hair falls out and then comes back in white from stress, which is one of the first things that Trilby, Cleo’s best friend mentions when they see her for the first time after her coma. Aya, illustrated by Clément Oubrerie is full of different women, in style and hair, and body, pulling from the rich traditions of the Ivory Coast. There are tensions between Bintou and Aya during the later part of the book, because Bintou feels that Aya has undermined their friendship by spending too much time on the hair of the family’s nanny. Both books are full of women of color that barely make it to print, or screen, or any mass media in general.
It is unfortunate that these books do not have a bigger following. In a perfect world they would be placed in the front of the comic book store along side the individual issues of Witchblade and Wonder Woman, allowing a bit more options in how the comics that are being published relate to readers lives. Wet Moon and Aya’s graceful depiction of female friendship in late teen life is so rich, that they are easy and natural read for anyone, but an especially important real counterpoint to the often media hyped troupes of women at that age: the vixen, the mean girl, the Disney tween star. While people that fill the roles of those stereotypes do exist, it is more often that most young women are along the lines of Cleo and Aya, women who are constantly trying to find strength to push forward in a constantly evolving world, and do it bit by bit with the help of their girlfriends.
1. From a reprint of the article “Drawing on the Universal in Africa: An Interview with Maguerite Abouet” by Angela Ajayi, included in the current edition of Aya: Life in Yop City
Aya: Life in Yop City
written by Marguerite Abouet, Illustrated by Clément Oubrerie
Published by Drawn and Quarterly (2012)
Wet Moon Volume 6: Yesterday’s Gone
by Ross Campbell
Published by Oni Press (2102)