Thursday, 1 April 2010

Review: Funny Girls, Cartooning for equality

Funny girls is a great little companion book to an exhibition of the same name curated by Diane Atkinson. Published by Penguin this set me back a mere 1p (minus post and packaging) and I can safely say it was worth it. The book is a short yet sweet (and by no means complete) history of the women's movement and the struggle for equality told with great wit and simplicity through the medium of cartoons. It encompasses some classic moments and members of British cartooning from Punch magazine and beyond such as Giles, Ronald Searle, and Osbert Lancaster. There are anti-suffragette cartoons playing on irrational fears and stereotypes (such as the breakdown of the family unit and the 'ugly feminist') and of course there is the iconic moment Emiline Pankhurst slapped a police officer. It's the sympathetic cartoons by the more switched on members of the male cartooning establishment that stand out for me. Some of these cartoonists even go as far as to use a female pseudonym such as Vicky or take on the maiden name of the cartoonists mother . These cartoons usually do a great job of making the men in question, and the male institutions, look pompous, absurd, obsolete, and ripe with double standards, therefore removing part of the power they have over women, at least momentarily.
Of course cartooning isn't the final solution and the question of whether it can change peoples minds is tackled by each artist in the book which is a nice way of making things flow. However when the female cartoonists started to get hold of the pen they did so with bite and they did so with style. Although some of them took to mimicking the great gag cartoonists of The New Yorker (albeit with much better, more modern, more relevant punchlines) some of these artists display a sparing use of line that adds to the humour and the impact of the story. Despite criticism that cartoons are stereotypes and are not an imaginative art form I feel that when the 'less is more' approach is properly utilised, we are left to fill in the gaps of the picture and form an appropriate emotional and critical response. One such artist in this book who manages this pretty well is Jacky Fleming who sums up the mood of an entire picture with limited lines. These gappy, sparse, and 'erratic' lines are similar in some ways to the Roberta Gregory's infamous Bitchy Bitch comics which has a constant trace of anger throughout. It's easy to see that these artists have a lot to be angry about but they don't let themselves be entirely defined by this anger and tend to use humour as a weapon too. This book has thankfully filled in a slight gap in my knowledge to do with UK female comic artists as before this the only one I really knew well was the brilliant Posy Simmonds (who of course is well represented in this book). It also is a great resource book giving you names of artists of considerable influence to go explore. As someone who likes to devour his social history through cartoons and as a feminist this book is an absolute essential addition to my collection. Covers everything from The Great Double Standard to the juggling of home life and work life. A great find!

(click on pictures to enlarge and read captions)

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