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Photo Essay

Girls Who Bite, Draw and Fly

Huh? New superhero comics, female style.

By Lisa Weaver and Shane Dingman 28 Dec 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Lisa Weaver is a full-time copy editor at Chatelaine magazine and sometime freelance writer.

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Willow Dawson's superhero is clumsy. She gets angry about things that happen in her community, and then she levitates, but can't fly. She catches the bad guys by mistake. [Editor's note: check out a sneak preview of Willow Dawson and Emily Pohl-Weary's upcoming comic Violet Miranda in the gallery.]

"I'm not really big on superheroes," admits Dawson, the 30-year-old comic artist behind "Levitation Girl in Good Afternoon America!" which she created for Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, a superhero-themed anthology. "To me, they're not real. I like to find the superhero in all of us, the ability to do good and help out in the world."

In this way, Dawson is something of a superhero herself. Along with writer Sarrah Young, she created Mother May I, a comic about date rape, which raised money for the Toronto Child Abuse Centre. She also contributed a comic called "Small" to the anthology Drawing the Line, which benefited cancer research.

Drawing back

"I invested a large chunk of myself in that," Dawson says. The short piece chronicles her own troubles with life-threatening childhood asthma and being on medication that nearly destroyed her kidneys. Doctors told Dawson's parents she wouldn't live past her teens.

She was able to control her asthma with holistic treatments, but the illness had a distinct impact on her upbringing. What's there to do all day when you can't run and play like other kids? Lots of drawing. Dawson says she was a very quiet child, and having a mother with a penchant for harsh words didn't make it any easier. "But that will all come out in the book," she laughs, referring to the autobiographical comic she's starting this summer.

Born in Vancouver, Dawson was exposed to art at an early age -- paint, markers, sculpture, metals, wood, clay -- by her father, Clif, a multimedia artist. Dawson incorporates all these elements into her work, sometimes sculpting a piece, photographing it, then painting over the photo to create an illustration. "Each medium has a different message," she says. "I even tried carving in stone for a while. It's hard on the hands!"

Violet Miranda

It's natural that Dawson is still finding and refining her artistic style, as she still has one year to go in her illustration diploma at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto. But she's already got some great projects in hand -- the first issue of Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate was published in March, and she'll tackle the second edition of the four-comic series this summer. Dawson collaborated with writer Emily Pohl-Weary on the comic, bringing to life Pohl-Weary's story about two girls who live on an isolated island and battle a gang of pirates.

"The story comes first," Dawson says of working in a team. "Emily has imagined it, so I have to try and translate that. It's kind of like a puzzle." Whatever the answer, Dawson has drawn two tough characters who will become pirates themselves in a coming issue.

Strong women are evident in most of Dawson's work, but we're not talking about muscle. "Strong in mind, emotional strength," she explains. "Someone who will take the blows but not fall down and stay down. They'll always pick themselves up and move forward and learn something from that."

'The small girl can win'

Dawson's own life reflects this philosophy. When she moved to Toronto for school, she didn't know anyone. Her uninspiring part-time job wasn't helping, so she applied for a position at the Silver Snail (a comic book store on Toronto's Queen Street). There she met fellow artists and comic enthusiasts, who helped her feel at home in the city and further develop her art.

Dawson has simple advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career in comics: just believe in yourself. "I always wanted to do something artistic but never believed I could make something off of it to survive," she says. Through her comics, Dawson has proven you don't have to be the typical muscle-bound superhero -- even the small girl can win in the end.

Pia Guerra

There's a pervasive myth among retrograde comic book fan-boys that women don't know how to draw comics. Just ask Pia Guerra, penciller on the critically-acclaimed DC Vertigo book Y–The Last Man. One of the first things she was told was that she drew like a chick. "After several years it got really tiring," says Guerra. "It just can't be possible that all women have this universal style."

Intelligent, tangent-prone and strikingly open, Guerra, 33, has only one question for young women interested in breaking into comics: "You say you're ready, but are you six years ready?" By her count, this is how long it takes to build up enough credit and contacts to break into the industry. "You really have to stand out," says Guerra. "You have to hone your style so that it doesn't look like every other style you are competing against."

Drawing on walls

Guerra has been drawing since she was four years old: "My mom tells everyone that she found a stick figure on the wall one day and almost got mad, and then decided that it was art." When more "art" covered the wall, her mom decided to introduce young Pia to sketchpads and pencils.

When she was 10, her cousin left the January, 1980, issue of The Uncanny X-men (No. 129) in their Toronto home — Guerra traded in soap operas, her first love, for comics. Fascinated by the marriage of sequential storytelling and drawing, she began experimenting with the style.

Still, she didn't want to be an artist. "I met a lot of artists growing up and I knew it could be a very flaky career," she says. Her musician father had moved the family 40 times during his career. Born in New Jersey, Guerra lived in Toronto, Barcelona, Seattle and Vancouver (where she has settled). Her parents divorced, her father was erratic with child support and her mom found it tough to make ends meet.

Comic school convention convert

After high school in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Guerra was sick of being poor. "I wanted to be practical, I wanted to maybe start medicine and get a house, family, all of it." But soon after starting college in Surrey, B.C., she burned out. She felt four more years of school would drive her insane.

Guerra attended her first comic convention after high school graduation in 1990, in San Diego, where she was first introduced to the "draws like a chick" bias. She remembers spending many hours in rowdy pubs with comic pros shouting advice to her. She attended more and more conventions during her break from school. "I have to admit, one of the things I love about this industry is that I go to a lot of these [conventions] and there's never a line-up for the women's bathroom," she says. "There are as many people as at a stadium concert, but no women!"

Guerra took on odd jobs such as setting fireworks, security monitoring, and warehouse stints while building up a resumé of short-lived comic assignments. It didn't help that she was starting out in the early '90s, when slumping sales nearly destroyed the industry. Some of the old guard at Marvel, many of whom had been around since the glory days of the '60s and '70s, had difficulty taking Guerra seriously. They called her "cute" and the stigma carried over into the industry's social scene. Guerra recalls often being "one of the boys" unless their girlfriends and wives were around.

'Struck gold'

By the time a friendly editor at DC Vertigo declared, "I will find you some damn work if it's the last thing I do," it was 1999. After several tryouts, Guerra struck gold with Brian K. Vaughan's story about a plague that wipes out every man on the planet, save one: Yorick Brown, the Y in Y–The Last Man. Vaughan, one of comicdom's most talked-about writers, launched Y in 2001, a few weeks after September 11.

Despite the times, the darkly comic tale caught on. Now up to the mid-30s of a 60-issue run, Guerra draws four out of every five issues. New Line Pictures has even optioned the story for a film. But for Guerra, the best thing is that she has a job doing the thing she loves. She won't say how much she makes, but entry-level artists get about $3,000 per completed issue, and with the royalties she's getting from the collected graphic novels, Guerra says she has enough for bills, a bit left over and a little more for her current hobby: meticulously constructing a giant three-storey doll house.

Lisa Weaver is a full-time copy editor at Chatelaine magazine and sometime freelance writer. She wrote the section on Willow Dawson.

Shane Dingman is an associate editor at FQ magazine. He was a comic-book fanatic long before it was cool to be one. He wrote the section on Pia Guerra.

Willow Dawson is the illustrator working on Violet Miranda, Girl Pirate (written by Emily Pohl-Weary). She has contributed comics to Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks and Drawing the Line. Willow self-publishes her own zine Not Yer Princess.

Award-winning author and girl pirate Emily Pohl-Weary's books include Iron-on Constellations, A Girl Like Sugar, and Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (with Merril). She's also the editor of Kiss Machine magazine and the anthology Girls Who Bite Back.

These stories (but not the gallery) originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Shameless.

Violet Miranda, Girl Pirate is copyright Emily Pohl-Weary and Willow Dawson, 2004. All rights reserved. It's available at Kiss Machine. Small is copyright Willow Dawson, 2003. All rights reserved. This issue will hit newsstands in the new year.  [Tyee]

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