Women of Comicazi return with second Somerville summit
About five or six years ago, four friends came together for a summer mini-golf tournament. Later on they got to playing around in close proximity to busts of various comic book characters on a shelf, imagining ridiculous melodramas with statues of Batman and company.
Somehow, out of that came the idea that perhaps other people might find their brand of collaborative fun interesting, and so they started a blog: Ladies of Comicazi.
The store Comicazi has been part of Somerville for almost 17 years now, first opening its doors in 2000 in the original Highland Avenue location before moving up the street to the current spot in 2006. Now just off Davis Square in a recently expanded space, the shop is crammed with the usual paraphernalia that accompanies a comic destination—tall racks, long cardboard boxes stuffed with older issues, toys and figurines still in their original packaging, packs of collectible cards, and obscure board games piled to the ceilings. For the past couple of months, there’s also been a little stack of fliers by the register advertising “the return of” a small convention: “LadiesCon 2017!”
A spinoff of the aforementioned Comicazi blog, LadiesCon began in 2016 as a small, independent comics convention by ladies, for ladies. The four women from that mini-golf tournament—Sara Franks-Allen, sisters Valerie and Elise Sacchetti, and Erin McGrath—pulled together vendors, artists, and panelists and crammed them into a donated venue on Elm Street, in a small office that had just been used for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and was now, for obvious reasons, empty.
Last year’s LadiesCon was an incredible success for a tiny independent con run by a group of friends. Approximately 500 people filed through that tiny office space and swelled for panels down the street at Comicazi. The tickets were free, as they are again this year; the con itself is financed mostly by fundraising and donations, with a little bit tossed in out of pocket from the organizers. Comicazi holds events year-round, from trivia and viewing parties to crafting lessons, and charges a small fee, as well as running raffles. The money from those events goes toward the con.
“This year is kind of amazing,” says Valerie Sacchetti. “We just put up the fliers and we told the vendors from last year that we were doing it again, and we have now twice as many vendors as last year.” There is, in fact, a waiting list for vendors now, all hoping to get into an even bigger space, as LadiesCon will be held at the Armory on Highland Avenue in Somerville this year.
Handling the increased responsibilities are the same friends who make up goofy Batman stories together. McGrath is married to one of the owners of Comicazi, and all of the women have been longtime customers of the store. This time around, Franks-Allen is handling the panels, while Valerie Sacchetti is in charge of guest relations and vendors, Elise Sacchetti is doing promotions, and McGrath deals with the venue and volunteers.
“I think that part of why Comicazi is so successful also is this idea of community,” says McGrath. The ladies don’t seem particularly fazed that their con has doubled in size from one year to the next; from attending those Comicazi events, they understand the lure of a shared interest and “of people getting together because they like the same thing and getting to talk about it and enjoy it.”
According to the team behind LadiesCon, part of the enthusiastic response has been because theirs is a con led by women who want to promote and invite other women. There are plenty of stories of women feeling unwelcome at cons and in comic shops, where the focus is often exclusively on men, both as subject and as consumer.
Elise Sacchetti recounts not wanting to return to some shops where she said she didn’t feel wanted, while Franks-Allen pointed out that many women and girls turn to the internet for comics to avoid having to go to shops. And it’s not just comics; there’s currently a very real push-pull in the arena of geeky interests, as more and more non-straight, non-white, non-male-identified people try to join the conversation, either as fans, critics, or content creators. (For an example, just look at the abuse that women like Anita Sarkeesian have faced for attempting to discuss feminist issues in video games.)
People like to see themselves reflected in how their culture expresses itself creatively, and the hunger for diverse stories has been growing for as long as stories about straight white men have dominated shelves. And movie screens. And airwaves. LadiesCon is part of an effort to balance the scales and create a place where men are not the default. “Choosing to focus on women is not about excluding other people,” Valerie Sacchetti says. “As individuals that have been on that sort of end of things, feeling excluded, we don’t want to do that to other people … It’s just about we’re changing the focus over to women.”
“Some people are really hungry for that sort of safe space environment or something that’s more focused on women and pop culture and comics,” says Franks-Allen. “And some people just want to go and have a good time regardless of what the specific focus is.”
To that end, LadiesCon has done its best to try and pull in a diverse range of vendors and panelists, allowing attendees to see more than a majority of straight white men reflecting back at them.
“Let’s make sure that we’re balancing who we bring in, in that we’re not just grabbing all the first people who said yes, because those might be all the white males because they’re comfortable in a con sphere,” Elise Sacchetti says. “It was about patience … and taking care to use welcoming and inclusive language when answering questions and soliciting vendors.”
Those at LadiesCon this year include local artists Ming Doyle and Joe Quinones. Doyle has drawn for Constantine and Batgirl, as well as titles like The Kitchen and Mara. Quinones has drawn for Captain Marvel and the current run of America, among others. Elise Sacchetti said she’s most excited for a panel featuring female voice artists from the podcast Hadron Gospel Hour, while McGrath says she is looking forward to seeing Gwenda Bond, who writes a Lois Lane novel series, conduct a romance comics panel. There’s a panel on women in gaming and, of course, a panel to discuss Wonder Woman, especially relevant in light of the recent release and success of the feature film. Among the expanded vendor list are all kinds of comics—from horror to romance to all ages—as well as crafters who work in mediums from yarn to pipe cleaner, and a tabletop gaming session for women and girls.
“I think a lot of people have this idea that women are sort of new to the scene with comics,” Valerie Sacchetti says. “But nothing could be farther from the truth. Women have been reading comics: romance comics, Archie comics, just maybe not [the comics people think of when] people think of Marvel and DC. They’ve been reading comics just as long as men have.”
“I think coming to Comicazi and feeling way more welcomed and free to explore has really formed the way that I was able to stay with something I was interested in and also broaden my horizons a lot,” Elise Sacchetti says. “I hope that as comic shops become more welcoming to women, people have that comfort to explore.”