We haven't seen much of Manya's romantic life. Is this a deliberate mechanism for keeping open the question of her sexuality? Or an intentional decision to counter the traditional media role of women, who is defined by her partner (or lack thereof)?
BENKA: When I started writing Manya eight years ago I was embroiled in a winning combination of bad jobs and bad relationships. Manya was an escape place for me during that period. Somewhere to explore ideas and feelings outside of an Other or workplace. I never thought too much about the details of her job or creating a relationship for her. I wanted to distance myself from both.
Over the years, as I've written more Manya books, I have more consciously committed myself to presenting a female character who is truly independent. I appreciate that readers identify with the character and want to embrace her as a familiar. Kris and I regularly receive mail from young men who want to date Manya (Kris is really good about ever so gently reminding them that that's, well, impossible because she's, well, not real...) and from young women seeking our acknowledgement that Manya is gay, as they suspected.
It makes sense to me that when we relate to a character we want to understand why in simple terms. And that when we like a character we want to own part of it or at least feel like we could. But there's something else operating when people express an interest in knowing when Manya's going to get into a relationship. It's this cultural imperative that a woman must be partnered to be whole. And also that gender is the primary definition of someone's identity.
While it's true that gender is a part of identity; being in a relationship can add meaning to life; and it's possible to maintain a version of independence while being in a relationship, exploring these issues in a direct way is not a priority for me.
I think popular culture provides loads of examples of and information about gender issues and women as Other or in relation to an Other. But what's really lacking are narratives about or by women who operate outside of these boxes. May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude can only go so far.
I'm not trying to keep open the question of her sexuality. I'm not trying to question it at all.
DRESEN: We get asked about Manya's sexual orientation all of the time. People are curious because we have never dealt with that issue in regards to her character. In fact, Jen and I have never discussed what Manya's sexuality is. And I hope we never do. I can understand how the people who read it are curious, particularly if they feel that they identify strongly with her. But my attitude is this: if you think she's straight, she is. If you think she's gay, she is. Hell, if you think she's bi, she is. Manya is about being female and what it is to be an independent woman today. Let Cathy worry about getting a man. Society should just get over the fact that not all women want to be part of a socially acceptable relationship. Feh. Oh, I'm sorry. Was I being bitter again?
What does "feminism" mean to you? Is Manya feminist, as a character or a body of work?
BENKA: Feminism is the radical notion that women can ride bicycles without fish. Isn't that how it goes? We'll have to ask Gloria [Steinem].
I think feminism is simply the belief that women and men are equal, or in contemporary terms: You Go Girl!. And that sharing in this belief, as in any, requires practice; living in a way that works towards actualizing this idea.
I believe that Manya does this in her own little way as a character and body of work.
DRESEN: Feminism to me is doing whatever the hell you want with your life without ever considering whether your gender role "allows" you to do that. And by having two women writing and drawing and publishing (with help from honorary girl Toby) a book about a woman who is doing whatever the hell she wants with her life in a medium that is overwhelmingly male and definitely anti-feminist, well then it is definitely feminist.
Who reads Manya? What kind of reader response do you get?
DRESEN: Surprisingly, the audience for Manya is pretty much equal gender-wise. Judging from the mail we get and who we see at conventions, we attract women in their late teens to early twenties, most of whom have just taken their first women's studies class in college and use the word "patriarchy" too liberally in their everyday conversation. On the male side, we mostly get men who are in their mid-to-late thirties who would be fanboys except that they have jobs, homes, and are married. This isn't a slam! They're all very sweet and we love that they're reading what we do. Jen and Toby and I are always amazed at this far ranging demographic, though. Man, who are we going to get to advertise in our books with that spectrum?
Generally, our reader response is overwhelmingly positive. People seem genuinely touched and moved by what we're doing. And that's amazing and still a bit unreal to me. We received some very moving letters after falling came out. And people still go ape over My Name. I recently received a letter from a woman who read Bitter in the most recent Manya book. She went on and on how it reflected her emotions about recently having the courage to leave a bad relationship. That blew me away. But it is cool to see that readers do react emotionally to Manya.
BENKA: As you know, demographically speaking, more males than females read comix (an interesting fact to pursue at some point). So we definitely have a lot of guys who dig the books. I think Kris has shared anecdotes about boys giving Manya books to their girlfriends... But because Manya is a book about a cool gal, we have lots of cool gal readers too. They're like, hey boy, I'm into comix too, check it out. This makes us happy.
Our readership is wonderfully diverse. All ages, sexes, gay, straight... you name it. A little bit country, a little rock 'n roll.
The comix community is notoriously unfriendly to female creators, at least when they try to move outside the restrictive box of low-circulation "girly" material. What kind of response have Manya and Max & Lily had?
DRESEN: The comix community, as far as we can tell, loves Manya and Max & Lily. But I think because of our skill level and presentation, our books don't come off as being "girly." Guys can read this and not look like they're perusing a chick book. Women can be seen clutching it and it doesn't look like they posses fanboy wank material. We aren't doing sticky-sweet stories of love and angst. They're not passé autobio, gross, juvenile humor, or boring sex and violence romps either. So I think we get a bit of respect for that. We get a lot of positive response to the poetic nature of the writing and the design of the books. Stuff that most small-pressers and self-publishers seem to be oblivious to.
BENKA: Kris is way more tapped in to the comix community than I am, but my sense is that the community has been incredibly supportive and affirming of our attempts to produce a different kind of book. We've received positive reviews in the Comics Journal, Fan Magazine and were invited to appear on the Canadian TV show, "The Anti-Gravity Room." We've had great feedback from retailers and distributors, the Friends of Lulu gals, and other artists and writers we've met at conventions. Maybe they're all talking smack behind our backs, but it doesn't seem like it.