Miss Anthology teaches the power of comics

Fueled by a Precipice Fund grant, Miss Anthology puts storytelling in the hands of diverse teens

By HANNAH KRAFCIK

Sequential art has a magical quality that is difficult to describe. The most beloved American comics seem to pique the imagination in particular way, with a perfect mix of narrative and imagery that keeps the comic book reader coming back and the graphic novella lover hungry for more. But for Melanie Stevens, one of the founders of the Miss Anthology project, there is far more potency to sequential art-making than meets the eye.

Stevens is originally from Atlanta, and she’s currently finishing her MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. This winter, she and her collaborators Emily Lewis and Mack Carlisle were awarded a grant via Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund to kick off Miss Anthology, a project that will enable racially and economically diverse female and genderqueer youth, ages 13-18, to create their own stories through sequential art (aka comics). Miss Anthology will offer a series of comic-making workshops, followed by the publication of an anthology of graphic work this fall.

I sat down with Stevens in early March to discuss Miss Anthology. She has a background in graphic novels and comics, a field she turned to when she could not afford art supplies and did not have access to an art studio space. The DIY nature of comics offered her a way to make narrative work and share it online, avoiding a slew of gatekeepers.

“It is something that you can literally create on your own from start to finish—you don’t really need anyone’s permission—and then you can put it out there on the internet,” Stevens said. “I just think that’s such a powerful tool that not enough people know about.” Now, through Miss Anthology, she will be sharing this practice with other young female and genderqueer artists.

“WaterShed”, Intro, 2017, by Melanie Stevens

“WaterShed”, page 1, 2017, by Melanie Steven

Conceptually, the Miss Anthology project is not only tied to Stevens’ life experience but also her thesis research at PNCA. “I’m dealing with narrative and how narratives regarding African Americans in mass media have become sites of brutality and erasure and violence,” she shared as context. Part of her thesis research involves examining how narratives function to uphold society’s power structures, and so, for Stevens, the Miss Anthology developed as a means of “empowering voices who don’t necessarily get opportunities to tell their stories.”

Stevens recalled the damaging effects of mainstream media narratives in her own coming of age. “Not seeing myself in the work that I was interested in was frustrating because I felt like I had to extract meaning,” she said. “In a way, it sets up this odd hierarchy, e.g. Why isn’t my experience or my culture being reflected? Does that mean it’s not as valuable? Does it mean that people don’t care?”

Enter, Miss Anthology.

Knowing that youth continue to face similar struggles in the wake of mainstream media, Stevens cooked up the concept for Miss Anthology and proposed it to Lewis, another Portland-based artist who makes comic work. Carlisle joined the collaboration to help with the vital role of outreach, leveraging her unique voice as a genderqueer artist, educator, and veteran of the Portland Public School System. The trio pitched their project to PICA’s Precipice Fund and were awarded a grant of $4,500 to execute their vision this calendar year.

The team has developed every aspect of Miss Anthology’s workshops with heightened sensitivity to the needs of their target demographic. Thanks to partnerships with Portland Community College Cascade and Marrow PDX (which operates a teen education space in St. Johns intended “to empower teens to take ownership over their education, and to foster a community of youth who are visually, socially and culturally literate”), all workshops are taught in spaces where students can return, either as teens or college students. Additionally, each workshop is lead by female or genderqueer artist. “We want the students to see reflections of themselves or a possibility of what they can be,” Stevens noted.

Melanie Stevens, Mack Carlisle, and Emily Lewis/Photo by Ruben Marufo

Ranging from “Comic Origins” to “Post-production,” Miss Anthology’s workshops have been curated to function as a one-offs or as part of a consecutive series, so that participants have the agency to pick what best suit their needs and interests. Stevens relates this approach back to her own artistry: “It’s not necessarily about having access to the most expensive materials or the best products, but knowing how to use what’s available to you in order to make the things that you need,” she said. “I think that’s a really important practice.”

However, Stevens and her collaborators are aware that this artistic practice does require some resources, and their overarching goal is to connect participating female and genderqueer youth to tools for making work in the future. Miss Anthology plans to supply workshop participants with materials that they can use and take home, and the project will direct participants toward the Rockwood Makerspace—part of the Multnomah County Library system that is free to youth in grades 6-12.

Miss Anthology’s collaborators also found a wealth of support from local community institutions, including such stores as BLICK and SCRAP, which have donated supplies, and C3:Initiative, a St. Johns nonprofit where Miss Anthology is currently in residence. Stevens excitedly reported that, thanks to C3’s support, they will also be able to print the final anthology in color as opposed to black and white. This addition of color will underscore the diversity of narratives and perspectives of each contributing young artist.

Presentation is key. “One of my favorite things about comics is the way that they are presented,” Stevens explained. “They look and feel so accessible and so friendly. There’s an allusion to cartoon to them that draws people in.”

Sequential art has the capacity to frame social and political subjects and ignite dialogue through a means that is at once subversive—”a trojan horse,” as Stevens said—and also truly earnest. We see this phenomenon in the compelling work of artists like Portland-based Joe Sacco and his comics journalism approach in Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza.

And, although the mainstream comics industry is still dominated by the white, cisgendered, male experience, different narratives and voices are finding their way in. This year Marvel comics debuted the first solo series starring America Chavez, a Latin-American LGBTQ teenager, written by Gabby Rivera, an LGBTQ Latina novelist. Miss Anthology’s organizers and educators are hoping to inspire this generation of youth to develop their own voices, stories, and representation in the years to come and give them the insight into the work that involves.

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