Three Words: An anthology of Aotearoa/NZ women’s comics. Edited by Rae Joyce, Sarah Laing and Indira Neville, Auckland: Beatnik
Three Words is a book that started as a protest but ended as a manifest victory. That might sound a little verbose, but there is nothing like a complaint against lack of representation shown to be so colourfully, vibrantly, expressively, empirically true! We know that women remain underrepresented, but to be given such evidence is both chastening and heartening. This book was conceived when an earlier anthology of Aotearoa/NZ comics failed to do justice to the history and contemporary abundance of women’s creativity, but what is so exciting about this book is that the editors could have made it larger or set back the cut off day for submissions because more and more high quality work kept coming their way. This anthology, then, is the sum of what they collected within a specific time frame, which means there is even more out there.
As soon as I found out about the project I looked forward to seeing the result. As the publication date came closer I anticipated doing a review. When it arrived, a quick flick through these amazing pages confirmed that I really ought to write something about it. But when I sat down and actually read it I began to think a review would be impossible because I wanted to say something about the first cartoonist, and I wanted to talk about the second cartoonist. The third was definitely worth a few words, as was the fourth. Oh my god, I’ll have to include the fifth. And the sixth And the SEVENTH! Anyway, you can see where this is going. So, given there is nothing in this book that I would pass over, I’ll have to take a different approach.
One aspect I especially like about this book is the sense it is a collective project. It is not simple an anthology that brings together individual cartoonists that have been overlooked by the NZ comics mainstream, it feels like a joint project that extends beyond the pages. This effect was created from an approach to constructing the book that lead to its title. Each contributor was asked to send three words (Phenomena // Unbalance // Wilderness, or Lily // Writing // River) to another contributor around which they would create a comic strip to be included alongside their biographical information that introduced 3 pages (separate or continuous) that were representative of their past or present work. This is a fantastic approach as it ensures all the contributors are speaking with each other; it adds to the “liveness” or event-like quality of the book; and the words act like sutures or stitches that tie and weave all the different contributions together. The book consequently has a textile quality. It becomes a tapestry.
Although the book is a wonderful example of what happens when women speak and act together it also transcends identity politics. Yes, this is a book by and about women, but to treat it as such also does the book a great disservice because this is also–I would even say primarily–a book about comics. It is a book about what comics are and what they can be. It is testimony to an incredibly plastic medium that relies on the co-presence of images (which also includes words because every word in a comic has a pictorial function whether or not it is explicitly acknowledged) to create poems, stories, statements, patterns, and a myriad of visual affects. So while this is an anthology of Aotearoa/NZ women’s comics it is also a book that introduces the medium and at the same time interrogates its boundaries and limits. It is therefore an excellent book for teaching comics and for trying to get students to think about a range of theories that seek to define what comics are. What I’m saying is that this book shouldn’t be listed under gender, but comics. If you teach comics, as I do, it shouldn’t appear on the reading list for the week or two when identity politics or gender are discussed, it should be in the list of general introductory material to the genre.
Ultimately, this book is about police work. The detective side of that doesn’t appear to have been all that difficult. All editorial work is onerous, but finding the creators doesn’t appear to have been all that difficult. The book is clearly overflowing with talent. The constabulary aspect is much more interesting, though, because the book clearly demonstrates how the good order of an area of comics creativity is maintained. That good order is produced by moving the unwanted material to the margins and ensuring those margins don’t interrupt the peace of the kingdom (sorry, I’m getting carried away with the metaphors, but the comics police are laughable). The book shows how this police function works both in terms of gender and genre. The book breaks with this order and introduces a little bit of liberatory disruption, but the police ought not be worried, because, in truth, there is absolutely nothing in this book that doesn’t deserve its place.
Three Words is available from Beatnik. You get a lot of book for $50!
Work shown is by Suzanne Claessen, Jessica Dew, Emma Blackett, Miranda Burton, Judy Darragh, Pritika Lal, Sally Bollinger, and Raewyn Alexander