I love that title, don't you? It's just like the sort of thing Alison Bechdel might have come up with herself (her strip features a pretentious academic called Sydney) but for anyone worried I'll be heading off into the hegemonic dysphasia of the sub/dominant memes and themes in graphic/sequential representations of womens' experientials, forget about it. It was the perfecly traditional and familiar intro, slideshow and question-and-answer session beloved of comics (and academic) conventions the world over.
First up, Alison Bechdel, fighting a temperamental slide projector: Sometimes, she says, I feel like Sheherezade, trying to pique and keep the interest of my readers through the long progress of my long -- literally drawn out -- strip and then we're onto how the politics live in and through the personal life of the characters in her strips. She's always been uncompromising on the political agenda, and pulls out old panels from the archives (one featuring Mo's head redrawn and stuck over an earlier, presumably not quite apoplectic enough, version) to illustrate the point; when people commented that it was didactic, she says, I took it as a compliment. But she's well aware of how much the soap-opera aspect matters to people, too; she plays, she says, a sort of a zero-sum game between the story and the politics, respecting the importance of paying justice to the texture of the characters' lives while not losing sight of the need to criticise and question current American culture, whether through providing a political "soundtrack" to the personal action (she shows us some slides where clever political satire is included as background details on television and radio) or through the characters living through them (we switch abruptly to Sydney, having just discovered she's been diagnosed with breast cancer). Sometimes, she says, flicking through a few more densely-detailed, rich and multi-layered panels, I worry that I'm asking too much of the reader. But her favourite stories (and she pulls some out of the archive to show us) are where the domestic microcosm synchs with the political macrocosm, and to do that you need to think in complex multilayers, while never losing sight of the individuals that live at the heart of the story. She finished, and we all clapped mighty hard.
Next came Kate Evans, protester and cartoonist, who switches between comic books that tell the bad news about the ravages of climate change (sorry for not cheering you up here) to more personal stories of her experiences at Greenham Common (it was a long time ago -- you can see I wasn't much bothered by whether people could read my writing) and the Newbury Bypass demos (from drinking tea and camping out to the sad aftermath, illustrated by a cartoon called "you can still see the tree in your mind"), to political cartoons for the Guardian about World bank demos (we had the idea of wearing bikinis for this one, but you can't see mine because I'm driving the van). She had as much to say about the culture of protest as cartooning -- a bit like being a nun except with a lot more sex and crap cider, she says -- although to her, the two are completely entwined, and from writing strips about being at Greenham with her mother, she is now writing stuff about taking her dughter to demos, and at the same time also writing/illustrating educational books, about breast-feeding, among other things. The work and the life step in tandem, and the comics are reportage and personal history, a political wake-up call and a record of what she was wearing, who she was hanging out with and what really happened.
Next installment: Kate Charlesworth, Suzy Varty and an illuminating question and answer session!