Monsters aren’t a Halloween gimmick at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For the Banana Slugs–the school’s nickname–they’re about that life. In 2019, the school founded a Center for Monster Studies, the only such program of its kind in America.
The UC Santa Cruz Center for Monster Studies is a scholarly center devoted to investigating the many definitions of monsters and monstrosity throughout history and culture. The interdisciplinary Center is a growing hub for research, creative work, and teaching that posits monsters as a unique site for analyzing geopolitics, popular culture, scientific discovery, technology, and understandings of the human.
UC Santa Cruz welcomes the public to its monster mash this fall with its annual Festival of Monsters October 13 through 15, 2023, and a special exhibition, “Werewolf Hunters, Jungle Queens, and Space Commandos: The Lost Worlds of Women Comic Artists,” October 13, 2023, through January 21, 2024, at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History–no tuition required.
The festival explores the ways monsters and tropes of monstrosity both preserve and resist forms of social and cultural injustice while the exhibition highlights pioneering women comic book artists at the MAH.
“It turns out that UCSC, and the University of California more widely, has many faculty members across all different disciplines who research monsters, and we are working to make the Center for Monster Studies a hub for all of our scholarship, teaching, art, and public outreach,” Renée Fox, an Associate Professor at the university involved with the Center for Monster Studies, told Forbes.com. “The Center builds its programming on the premise that monsters are essential to the fabric of human culture. We see the endeavor to understand monstrosity as an endeavor to understand ourselves and the world we live in; when people see themselves mirrored in the monsters around them, they develop a profound sense of empathy.”
Fox teaches courses at UCSC including “The Vampire in Literature and Popular Culture.”
No one ever said monsters weren’t cool, but scholarly?
“Monster Theory holds that monsters are never ‘simple,’ but that they are always cultural products that can be read, or read against, to uncover important messages about the anxieties and hopes of the individuals and societies that create and maintain them,” Center for Monster Studies founder and co-Director Michael Chemers told Forbes.com. “The monster is always a manifestation of the way a culture sees itself and represents its others.”
“Werewolf Hunters, Jungle Queens, and Space Commandos”
Beginning with the 1940s, this exhibition explores how American women comics artists used monsters to explore the histories and futures of the U.S. as its racial, gendered, and national politics shifted throughout the 20th century. Fox and Chemers co-curated the show.
“American comics have roots in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century,” Chemers explained. “As comics grew in popularity during and immediately following WWII, they became especially conducive to American nationalist propaganda, skillfully creating monsters and creatures that were racially and culturally reminiscent of the U.S.’s wartime enemies. So, we see, for example, in the exemplary work of artist Lily Renée, who was a Jewish refugee from Austria, a race of invading aliens called the Volta who wear recognizable German military uniforms and helmets, pursuing heroic earthlings across a blasted wasteland of a planet filled with horrifying mutated beasts.”
As the market for comic books boomed in the 1940s, talented women artists with formal training in the fine arts and illustration joined the comics industry and began to make their mark on this male-dominated sphere. Sometimes, anonymously.
“Up until the 1950s, women artists were widely prevalent, but often publishing under pseudonyms,” Fox said. “In the 1960s, as the effects of the women’s liberation movement began to be widely felt in the U.S., more women began creating comics under their own names. The first comic book to be produced entirely by women was It Ain’t Me Babe, which was spearheaded by the legendary Trina Robbins.”
Chemers reminds that all the obstacles visited upon women in other industries were replicated in comics from family obligations and access to education and advanced training, to patriarchal prejudices about women’s abilities, and conservative social expectations.
Working within the often gendered and racially biased conventions of the comics medium, artists like Renée, Robbins, Fran Hopper, Marcia Snyder, and Jill Elgin pushed against the industry’s confining frames (both literal and figurative), creating aliens, unexpected octopuses, hybrid beasts, and other monstrous bogeymen that laid the groundwork for women to make—and be—monsters throughout the mainstream comics of the 20th century.
“Women creators of monster comics have been wildly successful at creating all manner of horrific, grotesque, and impressive monstrous entities, from dragons and werewolves to scary mermaids and aliens, but particular women have made highly significant contributions that have changed the way comics are seen today,” Fox explained. “At the very beginning of the ‘Incredible Hulk’ comics series, the legendary Marie Severin was called in to re-draw the face of the Hulk character after a male artist’s sketch had been described as, ‘too fierce.’ Severin created a Hulk with a particularly thoughtful expression, which is the model for the modern Hulk. Severin was also responsible for re-imagining the way the Hulk transformed, explicitly showing the stages of his transformation from human to monster.”
Researching “Werewolf Hunters, Jungle Queens, and Space Commandos” revealed surprises even for the experts.
“When we began this project, we expected to discover that monsters drawn by women were very different–that they’d represent clear feminist resistance to the patriarchy, or would render women with particular strength, savvy, and leadership skills,” Chemers said. “This is often true in the last several decades, but in comics from the earlier part of the 20th century, women artists were often drawing exactly the same monsters, for exactly the same male-dominated plots as their male counterparts. If you look closely, though, you can see instances of some feminist resistance. Renée will often draw her woman characters extending beyond individual panels and crossing the gutters on a page, while her male characters usually stay confined. Whether this kind of formal choice shows women breaking boundaries or critiques the ways in which women are so often confined, artistic choices like this are important ways that women even in the first half of the 20th century used their art to make political points.”
The exhibition does explore how monsters and monstrosity, on occasion, were tools for women comics artists to negotiate questions of power, exclusion, censorship, and identity.
“In comics as in almost any other artistic medium, monsters both reflect and help produce our understanding of what it means to be human,” Fox said. “In late 20th- and early 21st-century comics monsters are ways for artists to represent the complexities of race, LGBTQIA+ identity, and the AIDS crisis, to consider the disastrous ramifications of climate change, and to critique global and imperial atrocities that have led to the refugee catastrophe.”
Monster Theory at work.
“Mainstream comics in the last several decades have had more women characters, more women monsters, and more plotlines focused on women and nonbinary characters than ever before, and women artists have driven this expansion of the genre towards his much-needed inclusivity,” Chemers adds.
Today, women make up about 30% of the workforce of comic book artists according to Fox, earning roughly 92 cents on the dollar compared to men. This percentage marks a slight improvement since 2011, when only about 25% of the workforce were women.
Items on view in the show are primarily taken from the collection of Jim Gunderson who has been collecting original comics art and comics drawn, inked and colored by women artists for decades. It begins with pulp magazine covers from the 1930s and stretches until the present day. The exhibition pairs, when possible, the original art of women artists with the finished comic book product.