The Girly Comic is a small-press comics magazine edited by Selina Lock, which she started for the sake of female creators and readers. The English-speaking comics industry has a lot of men in it and its output has a propensity towards guns, violence, superheroes and no real interest in women except as walking coat hangers for their bosoms.
The Girly Comic isn't about flowers, butterflies and pink, mind you. Anyone can read it, or even be a contributor. The rules are: (a) a female protagonist, and (b) Selina has to think it's a good story. Furthermore, being small-press and unpaid, these strips are short (drawing comics takes a LONG TIME) and wildly unpredictable in subject matter and style.
The results are eclectic and interesting. I was impressed. I'd been expecting something between "okay" and "pretty good", but to my surprise it turned out to be a good deal better than that and to include some remarkable work. You see, the usual comics standbys of violence, superheroics and so on are a bit of a crutch. It's relatively easy to churn out action nonsense, whereas actual creativity is required to make something that's only a few pages long and yet will pass the Bechdel test and be fun to read.
Mind you, in this context even Bechdel is hardly a fair test. Not all the stories here even have dialogue! I reckon about a third of the seventy stories here pass Bechdel, which just goes to show that that needn't mean much because some of the best and funniest strips here (e.g. Lee Kennedy) are operating on levels that Bechdel isn't capable of processing.
Overall, there's a lot here. Seventy stories will inevitably create density, but on the other hand they're super-short, so you're always starting something new and there's no time to be disappointed by anything. My favourites tended to be the funny ones, because humour is a good fit for super-short comic strips, but by the same coin I'd often find myself being impressed by the serious stories that managed to work in their handful of pages despite not having the instant audience connection of humour. There's even strong content here if you look for it (child abuse, anorexia, drugs, prostitution) and it never feels cheap or exploitative, instead being taken seriously in a story that giving the issue the focus it deserves.
Whatever you can think of, there's likely to be an example of it here. Even the less strong stories aren't really bad, but merely lack a satisfactory conclusion and so feel as if they're waiting for a punchline or a second episode. There are quite a few like that, actually, but it's not a crippling problem.
Stuff particularly worth talking about:
1. Lee Kennedy, my favourite discovery in the book. She's been creating alternative comics for decades. She tells first-person reminiscences, about anything from her 1950s childhood and amazing freaks she used to know (riveting) to the peculiar things that have got into her head over the years, e.g. the Toilet Werewolf. Almost all her stories made me laugh. I could spend years hunting down her work. Here she does: My Life As A Goddess, Stupid Songs In My Head All Day, I'm A Futureless Fantasising Old Fool, Catholic Comics, My Dead and Me, Busy Night, Pirates!, Moon Dance, Spanish Boy, Indian Bones, Gettin' Hit, I Wanna Be A Zombie and Toilet Fear. (There's also Strays, in which she's doing a script by Mags Halliday.)
2. Other comedy. Surreal School Stories richly lives up to its title, despite being nothing but schoolgirls chatting against a wall. There's a Dave Sim influence, as acknowledged by the name-drop of Freedonia and Lord Julius. I Want My Own Gimp! is silly in a great way, Sylvia's Path is a bite-sized sitcom (with three episodes, the best being The Party) and My Poison Pen Pal made my eyes bug out of my head. I was laughing like an idiot.
3. The variety. There's some far-out material here. My favourite of these strips is My Little Princesses, which is simply someone with lots of pet rats telling us why rats are great. It's educational. I have no idea where Spon came from, but it's adorable. Two different stories take Native American mythology literally. Do Not Feed The Bear = eh? You've got creepy stuff like The Witches Place and the rather nonplussing Granny Goes To Bingo. That's certainly different. If nothing else, I adore the idea of a strip called that.
4. The artwork. There's some cool stuff in here, including from established professionals like John Stokes (!) and Simon Fraser. The sheer breadth of styles is interesting, from the charm of Toby Ford to the way the font being used for the lettering makes Seasons look so ravishing. Obviously you'll sometimes be cutting the artists a little slack, but the overall quality level is bloody high and everyone's work is worth a look.
A few specific stories:
5. Seasons, which I've already praised for its visuals. The art's actually quite crude, but in a bold way that doesn't apologise and the lettering makes it look great. I'd never seen font choice make such a difference to a comic strip before. As for the storyline, though, it's clearly set on Earth after a Dalek invasion. We never actually see the pepperpots, but they talk in Dalek font and say things like, "You will not be exterminated. You are more useful alive." There's also a borrowing of "Tasembeker" from Revelation of the Daleks. That was fun, but more importantly it's also a strong story that creates an entire strange world immediately and makes it fascinating, in a way that could fit right into Jim Mortimore's similar post-invasion freakazoid Earth in The Sword of Forever. It's proper SF. (This is written by Sarah Hadley, who's written some rather good stories for Doctor Who fanthologies.)
6. Oddcases, which also stands out for its lovely art. The fact that it's not conventionally inked helps. It's a serious series about psychic investigators with two episodes: The Skulls, which I really liked, and The Phantom Kittens, which I loved and thought was beautiful.
7. Star-Crossed Bother, which is one of several stories to take an unconventional look at superheroes. This one's the loopiest. It's a parody, but just as often it's simply surreal. Sometimes it's funny, e.g. Taurus's China Shop, but it will have confused readers who've never heard of the Antony Gormley statue in Birmingham called the Iron Man. No, that's not the Marvel superhero. Easy mistake to make. The same sculptor also made the Angel of the North, which comes alive here too.
I was really impressed by this book. It's more varied and imaginative than any other single comics anthology I can think of. (I'm not nearly as steeped in comics as some, admittedly, but you'd have to go a long way to beat this for eclecticism.) The hit rate isn't 100%, but its comparative misses are still readable and interesting, while its hits can be brilliant. Besides, there are so many quirky, fun and/or startling little stories in here that I'd love to go through one by one, except that then I'd be writing a review longer than the original book. Creative Differences, Angela Death, A Fairy Tale Ending (which reminded me of Memories of Matsuko
), Chaos Campus, Twinkle Toes, There Was A Divorce, Juniper Crescent...