Girl Power: Willow Dawson on No Girls Allowed
The bold and vibrant No Girls Allowed is an irreverent, educational look at how girls and women have had to sometimes hide their own gender to get ahead in history. Despite the fact that they had to hide their femininity, they still serve as excellent role models for girls today. Here, artist Willow Dawson explains the reasons and philosophies behind the book.
How did you and writer Susan Hughes meet, and what brought this project about?
No Girls Allowed was Susan's idea. She was researching girl spies and discovered a whole bunch of really interesting stories about women throughout the ages disguised as men. Kids Can Press brought us together at the beginning of the art process to meet and discuss how this book could be rendered sequentially.
Both you and Susan live in Toronto. What’s the comics scene like there?
It's fantastic! Really warm and inspiring and supportive. There are so many wonderfully talented people in this city, it freaks me out sometimes (in a good way!). I share a studio with four stellar cartoonists and we have weekly Wednesday gatherings with our other friends and colleagues from the greater comics community. There's also a particularly fantastic store here called the Beguiling, who put on a yearly show called the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which in my opinion is the best comicon in all the land. Hands down. They've also done a lot of work to bring comics and graphic novels into schools and the library system. I have a huge geek crush on that store. They are amazing.
What will you be doing at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival this year?
Well, I'll mostly be hanging out at my table meeting people, selling books and art prints. I'll also be participating in two panel discussions (one about the role of research in comics, the other about mini-comics as art) and will be drawing and signing at the Owl Kids booth. I'll also have two new short comics out (a two-pager about bad guys in Sequential with the supercool Mariko Tamaki, the other a one pager that will be published in Fiona Smyth's The Wilding). It's going to be a ton of fun. I can't wait!
There are a lot of ways people could analyze this book in our society, especially in an academic setting. How do you think the book would be received in a women’s studies course, for example?
As far as I know, it's been received very well in women's studies classes, probably because there are many starting points for discussion. What I most liked about the book is that Susan specifically chose to include women from different economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, so it's not just a whole bunch of white women in, say, North America or Britain. I also love the fact that we get a small window into the shifting power dynamics between men and women throughout the ages and across the globe. It's not preachy in any way. It's factual and historical, while at the same time giving us a bit of a story. And, you know, I really love the fact that stories of women taking control of their lives, even if it meant dressing as someone else, as a boy, are finally getting into elementary school curriculum.
How do you personally view its subject matter? How do you relate to it?
I grew up with very liberal parents, so there were never any boundaries in terms of what I could or couldn't do as a girl. My earliest memories include playing in sandboxes, making mudpies, collecting bugs, building strange contraptions out of wood and clay… My dad built two big wooden swords for my first "boyfriend" and me in grade one. (That's how I won his heart, sword fighting in my backyard. That, and love letters written in my best cursive on Hello Kitty paper.) It wasn't until I started dating and eventually had my first job that I personally experienced any kind of inequality between the sexes. I think my upbringing put me at an advantage over other girls who may have been more accepting and subsequently frustrated by the status quo. There's a lot of strength that's blossomed out of the kind of freedoms I enjoyed then. That's what I hope this book will do for young girls and boys today. Remind them that anything is possible.
Which of the stories in the book did you most identify with?
I identify with each of the girls for different reasons. But the most powerful story for me was that of Ellen Craft. There is no doubt what she did was extraordinarily brave. Not only for the risks she assumed escaping her and her husband’s slave "owners" but for all the work they did after with abolitionists in the States and Britain. She's a real hero to me, not that the other girls in the book aren't, but I cried quite a bit while working on her story. I was blown away by her courage and determination. I still am.
How did you make sure you properly illustrated the book, getting the look and feel of each time period correct?
Hours and hours of research. Fortunately, I have a wonderful editor at Kids Can Press who helped me find a lot of very specific reference material. Hatshepsut's story was the most difficult to recreate visually because most of her artifacts, buildings, and carvings were destroyed after she disappeared. I had to make up a lot of things based on reference material we collected from the closest pre- and post-dynasties and, of course, what we could find from hers.
Your bio states that your “primary method of illustration is ink and acrylic on cardboard.” Can you describe this process a little bit?
I use those materials for my art prints and most of my color illustrations. I trace my drawing onto the cardboard, then go over the lines in ink. I fill in the spaces with acrylic paint, adding little details here and there where I think they're appropriate. I'm really attracted to flat graphic art, but not too flat. I love seeing some brushstrokes and cardboard peeking through. Some people ask me why I bother painting when I could accomplish the same thing on the computer in less time, but there is something very beautiful about the mechanics of it. I love the way paper feels and I love the way the paint flows out of the bristles of a brush. It's the same reason I ink all my comics by hand. I just love the satisfaction of making a beautiful, smooth line appear on paper.
Do you two have more of these gender-bending stories to tell?
I hope to work with Susan again sometime in the future. She's an absolute joy to be around. I find her very inspiring and I love her ideas. As for the immediate future, I'm sure we both have more stories like these to tell. I'd also like to tell some stories about amazing boys…but we might have to wait.
What’s the reaction been to the book so far?
We've gotten a lot of great feedback from both boys and girls. A lot of adults still seem to assume the book is not for boys, though, which makes me very sad and I spend a lot of time trying to convince them why that's really not the case. The boys I've met who have read it seem to really like it. I think they appreciate the fact that the overall tone isn't "girly" and it doesn't make any general, sweeping statements that men are bad, which I think is a message boys get from a lot of other media…. I did include fighting scenes where people are being speared and other things I thought boys might appreciate, as I hope many girls will too.
What are you working on next?
Well, I just finished a new graphic novel for Kids Can Press called Lila and Ecco's Do-It-Yourself Comics Club, which will be out in the fall, I believe. It's the story of two best friends who learn how to make comics together. I've started work on another graphic novel, but I can't actually reveal the details until the publisher gives me the go-ahead to do so. So, more on that soon!