Comics Collectives as Feminist Practice

by: , March 30, 2023

© Photo by Daria Tumanova.

The history of comics-making is overwhelmingly hierarchical and male-dominated. Though patterns certainly vary from country to country, a consistent set of processes emerge regardless of geography. Historically, comics production has been divided into multiple sequential stages, executed by a series of creators performing specific tasks, not unlike an assembly line. The individuals at the ‘front’ of the creative process (editors, writers, and pencillers) receive more prestige and creative control than those, such as inkers, letterers, and colourists, at the latter end of the process (Gabilliet 2010: 111 & Cadrette 2016: 99). While this limited creative and professional control for almost all labourers within the system, it was particularly limiting for women, who, if they were offered employment (depending on geography, this ranged from very few to almost none), tended to serve in the least prestigious roles in the assembly line, as inkers, letterers, or in clerical roles (Robbins 2013: 110). The exclusion or subordination of women in this traditional model of comics-making has proven stubbornly true throughout the comics-making world. Despite the significant accomplishments of individual female creators both inside and outside this system, women remain largely excluded even today (Hanley 2018).

In the global history of comics production, alternatives to this dominant labor structure have been rare. Fortunately, rare is not the same as non-existent. Though uncommon and often short-lived, comics collectives have emerged in different countries and at different time periods to offer an alternative to mainstream forms of comics production. Though the term collective suggests an egalitarian approach, it does not guarantee that a group labelling themselves a collective truly challenges existing hierarchies, nor is there a single way to perform collective comics-making. Nonetheless, the term suggests an alternative and hopefully intentional approach to comics production that hopefully provides its participants with different opportunities than they might otherwise find.

This essay will examine two particularly long-lived and influential comics collectives: the Wimmen’s Comix Collective, which published in the United States from 1972 to 1992; and Actus Tragicus (also referred to as Actus or Actus Books), which published in Israel from 1995 to 2009. Though different from each other in important ways, these two groups of comic artists offer us the opportunity to explore how feminist and egalitarian comics production exist, and how they might influence the comics world beyond just the material they produce.

Traditional Comics-Making as Restrictive Hierarchy

To fully understand the place of these comics collectives and others like them, it helps us to first review other approaches to comics-making, beginning with what is by far the most common, the assembly-line system. Popular imaginaries of comics production have served to normalise and reinforce how this explicitly hierarchical and male system operates. Padmini Ray Murray has documented how production historically worked at Marvel Comics, the most visible and popular American publisher: ‘The workflow model that originally prevailed at Marvel from its inception in the ‘30 s to the 1980s was based on the ‘bullpen’ model that followed a Fordist assembly line logic as, where the editor would establish a storyline and then the staff of writers, pencillers, letterers, colourists and inkers would execute the comic’ (339). Marvel not only followed this system but promoted it in its self-mythologizing Marvel Bullpen Bulletin; written by editor Stan Lee, the Bulletin appeared inside Marvel’s comics themselves, purporting to offer a genial insider look at the day-to-day workings of the Marvel office. As Murray shows, the Bulletin ignored the work of freelancers who contributed much of the labor, and fostered a vision of a male-oriented workplace in which each person in the assembly line knew their place. DC Comics, typically the second most popular publisher, followed a similar model (which facilitated a relatively seamless transfer of talent and labor between the two companies, despite some storytelling differences). As a result, most aspiring comics artists would have envisioned a comics career as part of a mostly male (and white) world which concentrated creative control at the top of the workplace ladder. The goal for an aspiring comics creator would be to work one’s way up the hierarchical system to the relatively prestigious (but still limited) position of writer or penciler; most women and/or artists of colour were denied even the opportunity to step onto the ladder.

Though distant in geography and artistic style from the United States, Japan’s enormous manga industry has long operated along broadly similar lines, albeit with its own variations. Once seen as the province of individual artist-creators, the exploding demand for manga in the 1960s shifted the mangaka to a ‘professional collaborator within an industrial organisation, reflecting the complexity of a production system which included, among other things, the division of labor between script and artwork’ (Saika 2010: 103). In place of the Marvel Bullpen in a Manhattan office building, the manga world had its own archetypes of comics labor, such as the Tokiwa-sō apartment building in the Toshima section of Tokyo. This two-story wooden building became the live-work space for numerous manga artists from the 1950s until it was demolished in 1982. Tokiwa-sō served as a kind of residential factory, in which aspiring artists lived alongside prominent mangaka, helping to meet the weekly publishing demand for manga by serving as uncredited assistants until their skills allowed them to become full artists in their own right. Despite its modesty (Tokiwa-sō lacked hot water and provided one small communal kitchen for all the residents), the building is so significant in the imaginary of manga culture that in 2020 it was rebuilt as a museum, faithful to the original design down to the toilet and mold stains on the bedroom walls (Toshima City 2022).1

Museum recreations notwithstanding, comics labor in almost all national traditions remains typified by meager pay, little creative autonomy, and significant editorial and publishing gatekeeping. This fact has kept power structures in place, preventing greater diversity in the comics world—notably, for the purposes of this essay, in regards to egalitarian and feminist approaches to comics-making. Variations on the dominant model of comics production exist, but, I would argue, these mostly take the form of accommodations to the existing system rather than serving as transformative alternatives.

Self-publishing, for example, has often been seen as a way to produce comics that might not appeal to a mass audience or to a corporate publisher, and thus can give stories and artists an outlet they might never find otherwise. Self-publishing, in which the creator or creators bypass publishing houses and perform nearly all steps of production, from conception to printing and distribution, keeps creative control (as well as the financial burden of publishing) in the hands of the artists. Many female comics artists, certainly, have turned to self-publishing to start their careers or to pursue material that represented a departure from their already-recognised work. Jessica Abel’s Artbabe (1992-99) and Miriam Libicki’s jobnik! (self-published first as individual issues and then, in 2008, as a collected edition) are but two examples of self-published series that helped female artists establish long-running careers in comics. In a very different vein, pioneering cartoonist Hilda Terry, creator of the strip Teena and the first woman admitted to the National Cartoonists League, self-published Does God Eat Us? (1989), long after her cartooning career was over, in order to explore questions of Jewish identity that could never have been part of her comic strip success of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The book received little notice, however, and is long out of print.

As an industry-changing model, however, self-publishing’s effect has been limited. Looking at the work of self-published comics artist John Porcellino (King-Cat) as one example, Paddy Johnston offers a somewhat paradoxical reading. Johnston argues that Porcellino’s ‘influence is felt far and wide throughout Anglo-American comics’ as a model of an alternative cartoonist. At the same time, however, Johnston states that Porcellino ‘flies largely under the radar,’ known only to the subset of audiences interested in the margins of American comics (2016: 146). This paradox stems from the challenges self-published artists typically face in marketing and distributing their work widely enough to become well known to audiences, as well as the tremendous labor and financial investment required to self-publish successfully—a heavier burden than most self-published artists can maintain for long periods of time. While exceptions to this pattern exist, they are unfortunately rare.

In fact, the ultimate goal of most self-published artists is to join the mainstream comics industry rather than challenge it. This is true for both traditional genre comics artists and more literary or alternative ones. One of the most notable self-published superhero series, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows how this pattern persists despite self-published success. TMNT (as it is often called) began in 1984 as a small, black-and-white print run self-published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird under the name Mirage Studios, based in Northampton, Massachusetts. TMNT enjoyed enormous success by almost any standard, leading to a multimedia franchise that included monthly comics, weekly comics strips, collected editions, toys, films, television series, and video games. But its model of comics self-publishing remained fragile. Ryan Cadrette writes that TMNT’s creators Eastman and Laird ‘invested a great deal into reworking and redistributing the capital of the comics form but continue to rely on extant systems of distribution, selling their comics in the same shops that carried superhero titles by Marvel and DC. As a result, when the health of the mainstream industry began to falter the health of the Pioneer Valley comics scene felt the effects in very noticeable ways’ (2016: 106). In the mid-1990s, TMNT comics faltered, as did other self-publishing outfits that had emerged in the same area. Ultimately, to continue their characters’ stories, the creators sought out mainstream comics publishers, first Image Comics and currently IDW Publishing, with writing and art done by new writers and artists.

In a similar vein, many self-published comics artists have found staying power for their work only in partnership with mainstream publishers. This is true for literary comics as well as traditional genres such as superheroes. For many artists who start as self-publishers, ‘graduating’ to standard publishing is the true mark of success both artistically and financially. In 2005, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly published King Cat Classix, a collection of much of John Porcellino’s self-published work. Working with Drawn & Quarterly, Porcellino has said, allows him to create his work in an environment much more conducive to selling books and earning money from his art (Cadrette 155). Jessica Abel’s Artbabe was ultimately reissued in collected editions by Fantagraphics, and her subsequent work has been published by a variety of publishers, including comics publisher Super Genius and the major American publishing house Pantheon Books. Miriam Libicki too has had a book published by Fantagraphics (Toward a Hot Jew, 2016), and no longer self-publishes jobnik!

Publications like these remind us that the larger world of comics production has evolved in certain ways from the work-for-hire, assembly line system that characterised comics industries in most nations. But at the same time, these evolutions have not, except at the margins, made comics production more feminist or more egalitarian. The most significant shift of the last forty years is the growth of the graphic novel (using the term loosely here), i.e., toward publishing comics as books, rather than just in magazine form or in newspapers. This has created unprecedented opportunity in particular for female authors; most prominent female comics artists, from Alison Bechdel to Marjane Satrapi to Nora Krug, are best known for their book-length work. This form of comics production follows the literary publishing model, rather than the traditional comics publishing model: an editor acquires a book-length work, either for a publisher that specialises in comics (such as the aforementioned Fantagraphics) or for a publisher with a comics imprint or dedicated list (such as Simon and Schuster, publisher of Krug’s Belonging).

As important as this model, still relatively new in the history of comics, has been for many female comics artists (as well as for diversity of stories and artists more broadly), it retains some of the limitations of the older magazine model. The primary one is gatekeeping. As much as magazine publishing does, literary book publishing centres power in the hands of the editor and in the editor’s superiors in the corporate structure. Like traditional comics publishing, book publishing has struggled to open its power structure to a diverse set of decision-makers in these positions (Valdes 2022), and documentation of book publishing in the United States, for example, shows that opportunities remain very limited for women and non-binary writers of colour (So & Wezerek 2020). Regardless of individual success stories, literary gatekeepers, whatever their individual tastes, ultimately answer to the whims of the commercial market to guide their decision-making and provide opportunity to individual comics artists. With the opening of the book market to comics, the opportunities for comics have become greater than before, but these opportunities remain fickle. What happens if it seems that feminist comics won’t sell? (Or queer comics, or…)

Comics Collectives as Response & Intervention

Feminist comics collectives, both in the US and abroad, emerged as a way to produce comics that were not dependent on male gatekeeping or the male buying market. The Wimmen’s Comix Collective, for example, is both a product of, and a critical response to, the alternative comix scene that flourished in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Largely centred around San Francisco, the alternative comix movement (with the ‘x’ suggesting the often X-rated content of these works) provided opportunities for its creators to liberate themselves from both the assembly-line system of mainstream comics and the limitations on sexual and other explicit content that these comics published. As with many cultural and political revolutionary movements, however, liberation was largely available only to men. Many American female comics creators, inspired by the larger feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, had been drawn to alternative comix because of their exclusion from mainstream industry and because of the comix world’s emphasis on self-storytelling in innovative, often risky ways. Instead, they found that ‘[u]nfortunately, the predominantly male comix world did not accept women as equal artistic partners. What is more, many comix in pursuit of breaking taboo extensively focused on the representation of sex, including sexual violence against women, with Robert Crumb’s pornographic visions being just one prominent example’ (Olsza 2020: 24). Wimmen’s Comix #1, published in 1972 in San Francisco, came out of this exclusion. In content, Wimmen’s Comix shared similarities with other comics and cartoon publications inspired by the 1970s feminist movement. These included, among others, It Ain’t Me, Babe, and Tits & Clits (both US), Women’s Bulletin (Sweden), and Emma (Germany). The Wimmen’s Comix series is not unique in its use of collective process. Margaretha Olsza observes that most 1970s women’s comix functioned either as ‘collectives or creative “joint-ventures,”’ and that this was a conscious feminist response to traditional comics-making, and to traditional media practices in general (28). She writes, ‘[t]he notions of the creative and editorial collective, as well as the business strategies of independent printing and distribution, correspond to the notions of sisterhood and the critique of patriarchal capitalism’ (2020: 30). In other words, it was not enough just to create feminist content; the labor and production practices of the comics industry had to shift in order for a comic to be truly feminist. In this context, Wimmen’s Comix provides a useful example because of its longevity—which allows us to observe its process over time—and because of the ways in which it made its process visible to readers.

Wimmen’s Comix was established as a collective with a rotating editorship and ten initial participants (Olsza 2020: 29). The first issue establishes a number of practices that would mostly persist over the series’ seventeen issues, spread over twenty years. (The irregular publishing schedule, and occasional hiatuses, including one of eight years, are common features of alternative media, but Wimmen’s Comix far outlasted most similar publications; It Ain’t Me, Babe, by contrast, published only one issue, though some of the same artists joined together to launch Wimmen’s Comix two years later.) The practice of a rotating editorship stayed consistent over the length of the series, with more than twenty different people serving as editors or assistant editors across the seventeen issues. Sometimes the term ‘editor’ or ‘assistant editor’ appears in the front matter, sometimes the editors are identifiable because their names appear below a particular issue’s editors’ letter, with no title. These practices de-emphasise the sense of hierarchy and reinforce that no one participant has greater official control over the overall series than another.

The textual and visual strategies used to present contributors also encourage a sense of equality among the participants. Contributors are presented in a simple list in the front matter, with no distinction between new participants or more regular ones. Contrast this with a more typical magazine, which includes a masthead with a distinct hierarchy, oftentimes not just for editors and staff, but for regular contributors, who might be listed as contributing editors, staff writers, or other titles. There is also no distinction between longer contributions and shorter ones (shorter ones were often used to incorporate new artists). No story was labeled a ‘feature’ as it might in a mainstream magazine, and there was no distinction between the main stories and the ‘back-of-the-book’ shorter features often used in mainstream comic books for less popular characters or lesser-known writers and artists.

The first issue’s front matter includes a group portrait of the initial ten participants sitting together informally in a big room; Olsza points out that a similar group portrait style was used for It Ain’t Me, Babe (2020: 29), which features some of the same contributors. In Wimmen’s Comix #1, the portrait is itself a collaborative exercise, with each women drawing her own face. (Those familiar with the self-representation styles of Trina Robbins or Aline Kominsky-Crumb—Aline Kominsky here—will recognise their self-portraits immediately.) By creating a group portrait that still featured self-representation, ‘the artists formed a collective but also maintained their individual voice and style,’ Olsza writes (2020: 29). Thus the group portrait mirrored some of the larger goals of the series itself.

This last point, however, points to a possible tension within collective comics-making. The example of Wimmen’s Comix suggests that collective production can further egalitarian practices, but how do collective practices affect the development and empowerment of individual voices within the collective?

Wimmen’s Comix was a feminist publication motivated by the exclusion of women from other comics spaces. Therefore, it is probably no surprise that encouraging women artists—not just the initial members of the collective, but new artists as well—was a visible part of the Wimmen’s Comix discourse. Unlike most comics, Wimmen’s Comix openly invited submissions for future issues (‘Send xeroxes of artwork’) (1972). Just as importantly, perhaps, Wimmen’s Comix felt accessible, literally presenting friendly faces in the group portrait in the front matter of the first issue, rather than the faceless (male) editors of the typical comic. This strategy proved successful: more than 100 different contributors participated over the course of the series, many of them in short pieces of two to three pages aimed to serve as entry points for less experienced artists (Galvan 2017: 26, 31). Wimmen’s Comix supported the development of women artists in quality as well as quantity. Leah Misemer writes that ‘the serial publication structure enabled both a print version of mentorship, with published comics serving as models for what comics about women could be, and an editorial one through a revise and resubmit system’ (2019: 9). Misemer alerts us to the fact that successful mentorship of women or other underrepresented artists requires multiple levels of sustained intentionality and effort. While making submitting feel accessible is an important start, the participants in Wimmen’s Comix followed that by mentoring aspiring contributors through active feedback on their submissions. While other editors in the comics world provide varying levels of feedback, typically to contributors who have made it past the gatekeeping stage, with the Wimmen’s Comix Collective we see the power of sustained, intentional mentoring of women artists, often from the status of never-before-published to that of Wimmen’s Comix contributor.

Encouraging new artists meant that Wimmen’s Comix had to accommodate growing pains among its contributors; quality varied, even in the eyes of the collective editorship, but uplifting women comics artists meant that some rawer or less fully conceived contributions were still included. Trina Robbins writes, ‘[t]he first few issues were uneven. Many of the women who submitted work to us had never drawn a comic before, and it showed. But we were more interested in giving women a voice than in how professionally they could pencil and ink’ (2016: ix). Robbins notes that the quality of the issues improved as the series continued; less committed artists did not continue to submit, and as the series became more well known, it was able to draw from a larger pool of contributors.

This devotion to mentorship and support helped Wimmen’s Comix publish a diverse range of stories over its lifespan—a level of variety in stories and voices, in fact, that exceeded some of the other discourse spaces of the feminist movement of at that time. Misemer writes, ‘Wimmen’s Comix provided a space for diversity and dialogue that overcame the major critiques of the lack of diversity in women’s liberation, which numerous historians suggest led to the downfall of the movement’ (2019: 11). Misemer adds, however, that while the pages of Wimmen’s Comix depicted a diversity of women and their experiences, there were few artists of colour involved in the creation of those pages (2019: 14). And Misemer observes another potential trade-off in the focus on developing new voices: ‘Unlike creators of continuous comics series who often stick around for more than one issue, the anthology format provided less room for individual growth over time’ (2019: 14). While several artists contributed to multiple issues, Wimmen’s Comix served more often as a potential launching pad for women artists than as a sustained space for developing craft or characters.

Margaret Galvan provides a closer look at the level and depth of participation of individual contributors over the course of the series. She documents 100 different contributors over the 17 issues of Wimmen’s Comix, suggesting that the Collective’s strategies of de-emphasizing hierarchy and increasing accessibility were remarkably successful (2017: 26). And if we see the Collective’s goal as affecting the larger comics landscape beyond Wimmen’s Comix, the contributor’s list takes on a new importance. Looking at the entire twenty-year run, Wimmen’s Comix reads like a Who’s Who of important North American women comics artists, with prominent names such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, Joyce Farmer, Julie Doucet, Carol Tyler, and others. Not all of these names got their start in Wimmen’s Comix, but there is little doubt that the series accelerated and amplified the careers of a number of artists who represent some of the most powerful feminist comics work.

The Wimmen’s Comix Collective was a fluid entity, with the core participants who edited and published the series shifting quite a bit over time. The informality of the collective meant that the series could adapt to these changes, though funding challenges and incorporation of new participants led to an irregular publishing schedule. Considering that Wimmen’s Comix was never a money-making venture as well as the loose association of the collective itself, the series’ longevity is remarkable. The dedication to the collective mission (even as the collective members changed) was clearly an important factor; important, too, was the continued participation of Trina Robbins, a founding member, and an outspoken and visible feminist comics artist and scholar for whom there are few parallels. Robbins’ presence both held the collective together over time and, in Galvan’s assessment, may have inadvertently worked against the collective’s goal of avoiding hierarchy. Galvan writes, ‘[p]aradoxically, Robbins’ leadership transforms her into the token, exceptional female artist, whose presence unwittingly obscures other female underground creators’ (2017: 26). Robbins’ example suggests, perhaps, that even in a well-functioning collective, there will always be a first-among-equals.

The Egalitarian Promise of Actus Tragicus

Or will there? The example of the Israeli comics collective Actus Tragicus reminds us of the idiosyncrasy of collective arts production—that is, no two collectives operate quite the same way. Unlike traditional assembly-line comics production, which is designed to be replicable for scale, limiting variation in the interest of maintaining efficiency and hierarchies, comics collectives are products of particular circumstances, cultural contexts, and artistic goals. Thus while Wimmen’s Comix and Actus Tragicus both defined themselves as collectives, their differences show the expansiveness of that term.

Actus Tragicus was founded in 1995 by Rutu Modan and Yirmi Pinkus, two graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Studying under the Belgian-born artist Michel Kichka, Modan and Pinkus were part of the first generation of Israelis to learn comic-making in a formal setting. Though they experimented with a couple of different participants very early on, within its first year the collective coalesced into five members. These three women (Rutu Modan, Batia Kolton, and Mira Friedmann) and two men (Yirmi Pinkus and Itzik Rennert), all Bezalel graduates, would work together in a remarkably stable arrangement for Actus’s twelve active years of publishing.

While the Wimmen’s Comix Collective was explicitly inspired by the feminist movement and the growth of feminist media (Olsza 2020: 25), Actus, coming two decades and twelve thousand kilometers away, was born of very different circumstances. The artists of the Wimmen’s Comix Collective had been excluded from the alternative comix scene; like others in feminist media of the time, they responded to that exclusion and inhospitableness by creating new media with greater inclusivity and access. In that context, collective work was seen as both a necessary source of emotional support and as a political response to male-dominated systems of production. The Actus artists, on the other hand, were responding to what they saw as a lack of comics infrastructure altogether, and by creating a collective they created a mutually supportive structure for their own work.

The Actus artists did not see their decision as explicitly political; in fact, they saw themselves as fundamentally different from the political cartoonists who had long dominated Israeli comics. They sought a way to create narratively and artistically sophisticated comics like the Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées and the American comix they had encountered at Bezalel, and for which there was little to no precedent in Israel (Haworth 2019: 34). Thus, much of Actus’s collective work was built around creating that infrastructure and developing successful methods of production, distribution and marketing for the kinds of comics they wanted to create—ones for which there was no existing audience or distribution method in Israel. To do so, they pursued a method very different from the hierarchical, assembly-line model that dominates most comics production. Though they were each responsible for writing and illustrating their own contributions to each Actus volume, the five members shared almost completely equally in all other aspects necessary to produce their volumes and get them into readers’ hands—everything from book design to printing to marketing to taking turns hosting meetings of the group in their various apartments. In keeping with this egalitarian process, the Actus volumes themselves downplay any sense of hierarchy. There is no editor listed for any volume, no masthead, no assignment of roles visible to a reader. Most Actus volumes are simply anthologies with one contribution of approximately the same length by each of the five artists (with later volumes including occasional guest artists from Israel or abroad). Though the Actus members would freely speak about their collective process in interviews, the volumes themselves seem designed to downplay any discourse about process and purpose, and present the individual stories in as egalitarian a way as possible.

Wimmen’s Comix foregrounded its political goals in a way that Actus did not. It would be remiss to say, however, that there are no political elements to Actus’s work. These tend to be implicit rather than explicit, however. First of all, though co-founder Yirmi Pinkus was most immediately inspired by collaborative comics work in which he had participated in Germany, collective production has a much more resonant history in Israel—land of the kibbutz and other strong socialist founding institutions—than most other countries with comics traditions. Though much has changed in Israel’s economy since Actus’s founding in the mid-1990s, at that time, creating a work model around egalitarian ideals and shared labor was very much in keeping with Israeli cultural norms (Haworth 2019: 39). Even in that context, however, working collectively represented a departure from the typical processes of Israeli media, which tended toward traditional norms of hierarchy, even when they occurred in the more socialist context of Israeli politics and culture.

Early on, the Actus artists avoided stories that could be read as political. In a such a politically-charged space as Israel, the Actus members were particularly keen to establish their identities as comics artists, rather than as political commentators (Haworth 2019: 44). At the same time, as a collective of three women and two gay men, Actus comics were unlikely to ever conform to the hyper-masculine ideals that have long been fundamental to Israeli culture (Reingold 2021: 4). The Actus volumes are full of stories that challenge Israeli gender norms. Notable stories in this mode include Rutu Modan’s ‘The Homecoming’ (2002), which depicts a woman resisting expectations around mourning a husband killed during military service; Batia Kolton’s ‘Summer Story’ (2007), which examines a teenage girl’s adolescent body image; and Yirmi Pinkus’s story of a gay male couple in ‘8 to 10’ (2007).

Rather than being overtly part of Actus’s mission, however, these stories emerged from the members’ development as individual artists; in fact, individual artistic development formed the core goal of their collective work. Working collectively enabled the group to surmount many of the practical challenges of producing a high-quality anthology, but assisting each other creatively remained a key focus as well. The five Actus members regularly showed each other their work in development, made suggestions, and spurred each other on to grow as artists; their collective functioned as a peer critique group born of mutual trust and long-time support, rather than a traditional editor-contributor model of feedback based on hierarchy and editorial and financial control (Haworth 2019: 40). The demands of designing each volume so that they allowed each contribution to shine, while still feeling like a unified, collective endeavor, also forced the members to develop their artistic skills. Sometimes the collectivity is thematic, as in Jetlag (1998), with each artist illustrating a short story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret, or in How to Love (2006), in which each story features a non-traditional look at loving relationships. Other times the collectivity is formal, as in Happy End (2002), in which each artist is constrained to use only full-page panels.

Ultimately, Wimmen’s Comix was a political and artistic endeavor that the participants made work on a practical level; Actus, on the other hand, was a practical effort that grew into an artistically influential series both in Israel and abroad. Actus most immediately inspired another Israeli collective, Dimona Comix, which did not last as long as Actus but published several well-received anthologies that furthered the new Israeli comics style that Actus had pioneered. The Actus artists extended their collaborative work to include non-Israelis, particularly in Cargo: Comics Journalism: Israel-Germany (2005), in which three Israeli artists and three German artists explore the politically and culturally fraught spaces of each other’s countries. Though not an Actus volume, the Israeli collective approach is present in Cargo, both in some of the contributors (Modan and Pinkus from Actus, Guy Morad and German-born Jan Feindt from Dimona Comix) and its design: six individual stories (three from Israelis in Germany; three from Germans in Israel), presented alternatingly; much like in an Actus volume, each story stands on its own but contributes, without any sense of hierarchy, to the discourse space of the book as a whole.

Actus’s influence is most keenly felt, however, in ways that dovetail with the collective’s original goals of developing the careers of its members and of furthering comics in Israel. All five Actus artists remain active in comics in Israel, and one, Rutu Modan, has established a substantial international reputation, winning two Eisner Awards for best graphic novel and receiving a retrospective exhibition at Angoulême International Comics Festival. Actus-style comics are now the predominant style in Israel; they are taught at art schools such as Bezalel and Shenkar, and are sold in mainstream Israeli bookstores—a far cry from when the Actus collective had to rent space in Tel Aviv for one-night book sale parties.

The influence of Wimmen’s Comix is likewise substantial. As documented earlier, the series is distinguished by the diversity and quality of its contributors, and a number of individual contributions to the series are seen as landmark stories in feminist comics history. These include Trina Robbins’ ‘Sandy Comes Out’, from issue #1, considered the first lesbian coming-out story in comics history; Lora Fountain’s depiction of an illegal abortion in ‘A Teenage Abortion’, also from issue #1; and Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s complex depiction of a woman’s self-image in her ‘Goldie’ comics, which stretched across multiple issues (Misemer 2019: 9). In 2016, Fantagraphics, one of North America’s leading comics publishers, issued The Complete Wimmen’s Comix in a prestige hardcover format, another sign of the series’ historical value.

Comics collectives remain a rarity in the larger world of comics production, but when they appear, they seem to have an outsized ability to lower barriers for women artists and provide opportunities within a landscape that continues to be hierarchical and often misogynistic. When they do form, it is often as an intentional response to exclusion and lack of infrastructure for women artists. Recent collectives of note include the Ladydrawers Comics Collective, based in Chicago, which combined comics with research about race, sexuality, gender, and economics in the comics industry (Ladydrawers 2017); and the transnational Chicks on Comics, founded in 2008 ‘with the aim of establishing a dialogue between comic book artists living in different parts of the world’ (Gandolfo and Turnes 2020: 4). These recent efforts are distinguished by their ability to use the internet to publish internationally and connect artists across borders. Within the larger world of feminist media, comics collectives remain of interest because of their ability to provide an alternative to a comics world that remains stubbornly male-dominated.



  1. The gender division between professional and amateur manga further demonstrates how the manga industry limits participation and diversity. While professional manga is overwhelmingly produced by men, amateur manga production, which lacks the same gatekeeping, is dominated by women. In the 1970s, as professional manga focused even more or mass audiences and stories became less diverse, dojinshi (small-scale printed runs of amateur manga) emerged, becoming a huge sub-industry by the 1990s. According to Sharon Kinsella’s study in 1998, manga aimed at women and girls represented less than 10% of the professional market and is produced almost exclusively by men; by contrast, female artists represented 65% of amateur creators. Amateur manga typically subverts dominant cultural mores, and features homoerotic content, androgynous or non-binary characters, and little emphasis on traditional narrative. (Kinsella 1998: 300)


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