Books

Manga artist draws on history for tales of politically powerful women

by Michael Taylor

Reuters

A feminist manga-style artist says she plans to use characters based on an Egyptian pharaoh and a Chinese empress to bring more female empowerment to the male-dominated world of comic books.

Queenie Chan is working on a series of nonfictional biographies aimed at children titled “Women Who Were Kings,” which will be rendered in manga form, the comic book genre that originated in Japan.

“I’m doing a series of biographies on a bunch of queens from all over the world and from many different cultures who achieved political power on parity with what we expect from kings — hence the title,” Chan says.

The first completed story focused on Hatshepsut, a female Egyptian pharaoh, and the next will be on Wu Zetian, the first and only female Chinese empress, she says by telephone from her home in Sydney.

Manga developed its modern meaning — to describe a whole genre of Japanese animated art — at the beginning of the 1900s when artists in Japan were influenced by imports of political comic strips from the United States and Britain.

Modern manga grew in popularity in Japan after World War II and then spread overseas, with millions of copies of magazines sold each year, pulling in about $3.8 billion in 2017, according to the Research Institute for Publications.

The genre is afforded unrivalled freedom in Japan and covers a variety of themes from horror, romance and same-sex relationships to comedy and pornography, but female empowerment isn’t tackled as much as some people might like.

“It isn’t unusual for women to be making manga, but it is unusual to have the theme,” says Paul Gravett, an expert who has written books on the subject and curated international manga exhibitions.

“Women’s position in Japanese society hasn’t had the big push of feminism that we’ve seen in many other countries,” he says.

Manga-style artists outside of Japan are also quite rare, as the industry is dominated globally by male-dominated comics produced by American publishers such as Marvel and DC.

As a child, Chan used to read pirated manga comics from newsstands in Hong Kong, where she was born, and returned to the medium as a teenager in Australia.

Chan purposefully puts powerful female leads in her comics, and the characters in her first published work, “The Dreaming,” were nearly all women.

“In terms of projecting women as powerful, there are many different kinds of power,” she says. “(The kinds) of power that women are frequently depicted as lacking — because there just aren’t any representations of that in popular media — are political, economic and military power.”

Chan has also published a three-book series titled “Fable Kingdom,” which is a fairytale-inspired story with a powerful female lead.

“In our society, when we talk about the lack of female representation in boardrooms or politics, it is important for people to have representations of women who can fill that role,” Chan says. “You can’t be what you can’t see. I’m just letting people know that these things exist and have for a long time.”

For more information, visit www.queeniechan.com.