Q&A: Winnipeg comic book publisher pushes back against female stereotypes

Manitoba is celebrating the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage this week, but gender equality in comic books is still in its infancy, Winnipeg publisher Hope Nicholson says.

'These characters made me feel uncomfortable,' Hope Nicholson says of comics she read while growing up

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls features a wide variety of female characters. (Courtesy of Hope Nicholson)

Manitoba is celebrating the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage this week, but gender equality in comic books is just starting to wham its way through, Winnipeg publisher Hope Nicholson says. 

She recently released The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, a compilation of comics, illustrated stories and prose about dating, love, romance and sex.

Publisher Hope Nicholson says gender equality in comic books is still in its infancy. (Courtesy of Hope Nicholson)
She and her partner Rachel Richey are also behind the 2014 release of Nelvana of the Northern Lights,  a complete anthology of Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the North, who's dubbed Canada's first superheroine. 

But growing up, Nicholson didn't have access to realistic female characters like those in the comics she now publishes with her company, Bedside Press.

Nicholson spoke about comic book equality with CBC host Marcy Markusa on Information Radio on Wednesday. 

Marcy Markusa: What were the stereotypes in some of the early books that you read?

Hope Nicholson: In the '90s when I grew up reading comics was a lot of "bad girl" comics — a  bunch of women with these anatomically incorrect figures who were trying to kill things but always in a way that managed to show off both their chest and their butt. It was very strange to read. I liked the adventure of it, I liked the fact that they had these amazing plots, good and evil, but these characters made me feel uncomfortable, and I wasn't sure why until I saw comics that were better representations of women, and I realized not all comics had to be like that.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights is a complete anthology of Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the North. (Courtesy of Hope Nicholson)
Why was it important for you to see yourself reflected in comics?

I think if I didn't have that obsession with comic books that kept me reading until I found the things I liked, I might have given up on them early. Comics can be this amazing medium for finding ways to connect to people in very real ways. If there's the chance to wipe away a whole medium and isolate it from the entire female gender, that's very upsetting. It's important for me to have good female representation and varied female representation. You can have good superheroes and girls who can kick butt, but you also need characters who can be vulnerable, characters who can showcase real emotions.

Margaret Atwood created this comic in The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (Courtesy of Hope Nicholson)
What was it like for you to put together your latest project, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls?

It was a great project. Visually, there are girls of very different sizes and women of many different ages. Our youngest contributor is 16 years old and our oldest contributor is 76 years old. There are women who are semi-sexual, which means that they don't have much sexual interest for other people, and women who are queer, lesbian and transgender. There are also women of different ethnicities and backgrounds. It was really important for me to showcase the fact that everyone comes from these different areas, but through fandom, comic books and geekery, we share common experiences.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights has been dubbed Canada's first superheroine. (Courtesy of Hope Nicholson)
What have the contributors told you about the role of women in the comic book industry?

I don't think there's anyone who hasn't experienced prejudice because of our gender, whether it's whispers or more up front, like getting harassed on social media or, as is often the case, at conventions.

There are a lot of avenues now where we're able to make it despite the industry. I don't know if the comic book industry is very different than other industries. I've heard a lot of stories from women in the law industry, in the comedy industry, in film, media and television where they come across the exact same pushbacks.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.