Feminist graphic novel book club. It’s a bit niche, right?
When I mention to people that I run Paper Girls, the responses usually fall into either genuine but surprised enthusiasm, or polite bemusement. The book club meets monthly to discuss comics and graphic novels featuring well-rounded and interesting female characters.
So far we’ve covered Ms Marvel, Rat Queens, Y The Last Man, Bitch Planet and our namesake, Paper Girls. I’m not afraid of running out of books anytime soon, with the very long list including Giant Days, DC Bombshells, Nimona, Persepolis and Monstress.
We’re an informal and friendly group, open to men and women, seasoned readers and people entirely new to comics. We’ve been running for nearly six months now and have a lovely core group of members, along with some new faces at each meet up.
My love of comics started with reading Bunty when I was young. I read each issue without fail, as well as buying a new Picture Story Library one-off Bunty or Mandy story each time my Dad took me to WHSmith in Stretford Arndale, back in the days before it became a sad “Mall” that even the McDonalds left. At the time, I just ate up every story, but looking back I think what appealed to me was that these stories were actually about girls – not in relation to anyone else, these were their own stories.
The characters were just dealing with the biggest issue currently in their lives, whether that was solving a supernatural mystery, rehoming the stray kittens they’d found in the back garden, trying to fit in at a new school or keeping themselves out of a Victorian workhouse (there were a surprisingly large number of Bunty stories set in Victorian times). I drifted away from comics over the years, but every now and then, I would rediscover a pile of my Picture Library books and enjoy a nostalgic reread. It would be hard to call them objectively good, but they stuck with me.
Over the last few years, I started delving into the world of comics and graphic novels again. This reached its peak during a period of depression last year, when reading prose, my usual escapism, had become too difficult for me. Comic books and graphic novels hit the top of my reading list and I was going through more than ever before. And that’s how I found myself sitting on my friend Holly’s sofa, trying to convince her to read Bitch Planet.
“It’s Orange is the New Black! In space! In a future dystopia! But really it’s just modern day society! And it’s got retro art! And women of different races and body types!”
I remember my friend being reasonably surprised at the overt feminism of a comic. I’d suggested other books to her before, including Y The Last Man and Saga, which she’d read and enjoyed but hadn’t ignited a great passion for the medium, much to my Brian K Vaughan-loving confusion. Bitch Planet was different though. Having read it, Holly couldn’t wait to talk about it at length. Somewhere in the middle of our ranting and raving over it, she uttered the words, “You should start a book club for this.”
It seemed a fun but ridiculous idea at first. Who would even turn up? It was too weird and niche. The idea stayed with me though, bubbling away on a back burner in my brain. What sort of people would actually turn up? Probably people I would get along with – if you enjoy talking about both feminism and comic books, you’re probably my kind of person.
I checked with a couple of friends, including Holly and my sister Sarah, that if I set up a book club they would come to the first meeting. The last thing I wanted was to be sat alone in a bar, clutching a copy of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and desperately hoping someone would show up to discuss kicking butts and eating nuts. With reassurances that there would be at least a handful of people I already knew, I decided to go ahead and set it up.
What to call it though? Feminist Graphic Novel Book Club is accurate but a bit of a mouthful. I thought it would be useful to have a shorter version for quick reference.
Meeting up with a friend, for a drink and to lend her a comic, we spent a while attempting a decent pun but failing: The Book Club of Halo Jones? Y The Last Woman? Nothing seemed quite right.
Then I actually looked directly at the book I was lending to my friend – Paper Girls. A tale of four scrappy teenage girls who banded together in strange circumstances. One that reminded me a little of the Bunty comics I’d grown up on. Ah, so simple and so obvious. Sorted. I had no idea that a few months later I’d be organising a skype Q & A session between Paper Girls’ artist Cliff Chiang in New York and a dozen excited book club attendees in a bar in Manchester.
I’ve been thrilled by the positive response to Paper Girls Book Club. If 2016 was anything (and it was many, many horrible things), it was the year we remembered that feminism was still super important. It’s important we keep talking about it because, while it may seem trivial, the representation of women in media matters.
So I’m glad that once a month, I get to spend time in good company discussing women and their stories. I’m looking forward to the many discussions still to come.
Please check out our Meet Up page here and I hope to see you at a future book club!
Founder, Paper Girls: Feminist Graphic Novel Book Club