It’s easy to consider scripty, hand-rendered lettering and gentle color-pencil illustrations as sort of wishy-washy, maybe a little twee. “Girly,” even, if we’re to revert to gendering certain aesthetics. Julie Delporte’s new graphic novel, This Woman’s Work, however, is absolutely none of the above. It’s incredibly powerful, often very sad, and always thoughtful, drawing on artistic and cinematic traditions to question and rail against the historic (and contemporary) maligning of women. “Why even bother writing this book?” the author asks near its start. “…an emotional, sensitive work, feminine, ladylike.” She’s being wry here; the very act of making this book is defiant.
The book, published by Drawn & Quarterly, acts as a journal of sorts, non-linearly tracing Delporte’s relationships, creative blocks, trips to various cities, childhood sexual trauma, and more. While most of these things are intensely personal, through her images and words she makes all of them feel poignantly universal. “I feel like I’m carrying the weight of an old family story,” she writes, hinting at a relative’s sexual assault on her. “But really it’s the story of all women.”
Delporte first started on the book around four years ago during a residency in Helsinki. Her initial plan was to create a sort of semi-fictional biopic of her heroine, the author Tove Jansson. “I’ve always loved the Moomins’ books, and I was noticing that Tove Jansson was becoming more and more popular outside of Finland,” says Delporte. Her idea shifted to something increasingly dream-like, featuring an anthropologist from Canada who goes to Finland to study Moomins “in the wild,” as it were.
However, as time went on, neither of these approaches quite sat properly with Delporte, who until a couple of years ago was still combining working as an artist with a job as a bookseller. “There was a point where I felt like I didn’t know what the book was about any more,” she says. “Then suddenly it all came together—my story and Tove Jansson’s story. I realized she was the first woman I could really identify with.”
“For me, it’s a surprise that I can be myself and be as complicated and truthful as I want to be, and still have success. That’s maybe something that artists don’t allow themselves.”
She adds: “I think the idea of making a book on Tove was maybe me thinking about what a ‘good book’ was, and thinking too much about what the reader might like and what would sell. I never thought the book I did [in the end] would work, but it did. A lot of people have really related to it. For me, it’s a surprise that I can be myself and be as complicated and truthful as I want to be, and still have success. That’s maybe something that artists don’t allow themselves.”
That realization in finding someone she could identify with was partly due to the fact that the two women share a career and a multidisciplinary approach—Delporte works across various visual artforms as well as poetry and essays; Jansson worked across novels and paintings, as well as the kids’ books she’s best known for—and partly down to a lack of female role models when it comes to prominent figures in the field of comics and graphic novels. “There are so few women,” says Delporte, who adds she was inspired by Jansson’s output, and her deep connection to the natural landscape of Finland. “I read at some point she was going to camp alone. It made me realize that actually I can do that too.”
The book touches on that historical (and contemporary) gender imbalance: one page starkly presents data that shows that in 2011 in Canada, the average earnings of women artists in the visual arts were $13,681, compared to $21,180 for their male counterparts. Due to, we can surmise, female-heavy unpaid labor (childcare, household chores, etc.) as well as a gender pay gap that forces women to take on multiple jobs, men also manage to clock up an extra 4.2 hours of studio practice per week compared to women. It’s little surprise then that we have so few female comics role models, even in 2019.
Throughout the book, we see a wrestling with the profound, inherited unfairness of simply being born female. “How old was I when I started feeling cheated simply by being a girl?”, she writes. “I wanted so badly not to be a girl.” Instead, as a child, she wanted to be a “wolf or a dolphin.” As the protagonist grows older in the book, she wants simply to be a woman who has the time and space—like her male counterparts—to make art. Jansson looms large: the author seems to admire that she never married, had male and female partners, and never compromised her art and the space she needed to make it for another.
To our protagonist, Jansson’s approach is deeply aspirational. Indeed, most of us can relate to the idea of being “tired of admiring men.” This is a book not just about being a woman, or being an artist, but about the universal ideas of longing and rejection and yearning. One segment shows waiting for a man who’s promised to show up until 1am, when it feels like your “insides are being ripped out,” and you “start saying things just to make the person reject me to keep it from hurting too much.”
“I was always angry with all of my boyfriends about [the fact] that I’m a woman. I don’t want to be a man, but I want to be a woman who isn’t within the patriarchy.”
Other than the dream sequences, the book is entirely autobiographical; and for Delporte, its creation was something of a catharsis. “It was about discovering all this trouble with my identity, and it was a feeling that actually maybe I’m not crazy… the things that it’s about are things that so many women have experienced, just the normal way of being for women.
“I was always angry with all of my boyfriends about [the fact] that I’m a woman. I don’t want to be a man, but I want to be a woman who isn’t within the patriarchy. So the book felt light for me. Even when it talks about things that are much heavier in my life, like sexual trauma from my childhood, it does it in a light way.”
As well as touching on problems universal to women, This Woman’s Work also offers reassurance around the “work” part too, showing the difficulties around those times when you simply don’t enjoy your medium any more. “When did drawing stop feeling good?” our protagonist ponders, at one point. “It’s always up and down, and something I have to fight with—finding the joy when I draw or make art,” says Delporte. “But it’s normal for a project to change a lot, and have those moments when you find yourself doing nothing.” The non-linear structure of the book, which is based around certain places or dreams, rather than a navigable temporal trajectory, reflects that falling in and out of love with a project, and also reflects ideas around grief and trauma. “Time becomes upside down in grief and trauma,” says Delporte. “Even when you think you’re overcoming it, it never really goes. Time changes and suddenly three months later it comes back, you’re right in it again.”
Towards the end of the book, we start to feel a certain (almost) sense of a resolution. The book itself is finished—Delporte, as both author and protagonist, has completed the project, and seems to be making peace with the idea of being herself, a female person. “I’m starting to fall in love with the idea of being a woman,” Delporte tells me. “That really happened to me.”