When one thinks about comic books, images of muscle-bound heroes, supernatural villains and busty damsels-in-distress are among the expected visual tropes that come to mind. In the graphic novels of artist Maureen Burdock, however, battles between men bent on destroying the world and the adventures of those who fight to defend it are replaced with stories of women who overcome real-life issues of sexual violence, domestic abuse and murder, among others. In the brightly colored world of comics, themes drawn so directly from the world around us are a rare encounter and, most certainly, those of gendered violence have yet to find their way into the hyper-masculine spaces of the graphic novel. Burdock has created a compelling alternative, however, in her series of comic books entitled The F Word Project: Five Feminist Fables for the 21st Century. These women are both victims and their own heroes in their encounters with various forms of gender-based violence.
Born in Germany in 1970, Burdock emigrated to the U.S. with her mother at the age of seven. The two fled to escape domestic violence but Maureen continued to endure various forms of abuse and, from an early age, used art as a way to navigate these painful experiences. While she was working in New Mexico, Burdock was introduced to the world of comic books by members of Seis Cinco Seis Comics Collective. When asked why she turned to this particular medium, Burdock replied that she wanted to “make work that is accessible to a broad public and can be disseminated in venues including-but also beyond-galleries and museums. … The juxtaposition between images and text,” she continues, “can also be particularly potent and evocative.”
Burdock began work on The F Word Project in 2006 and, thus far, three of the five books have been completed: Maisa and the Bad Muslim Girls, Marta and the Missing, and Mona and the Little Smile. Each tells the story of a woman facing the threat of violence who, through bravery, intellect, and the use of a bit of magic, is able to defeat the evil characters and dark forces perpetrating that violence. Burdock has described her superheroines as “extraordinary/ordinary women” whose “bodies are not idealized or sexualized.” It is important to the artist that these women defy the usual stereotypes not only of comic book lore but within society more broadly. They manage this by refusing to be victims and, instead, they take control over their own bodies and destinies. They also provide a much needed forum in which the difficult issues of the femicides in Juarez, child molestation and honor killings can each be grappled with. “Far from depicting victims or people being defined by their unfortunate circumstances,” Burdock explains, “my stories are snapshots of powerful women in motion. Real women and men who I collaborate with to create these stories are my inspiration.”
This mission to create dialogue, community building, and awareness constitute the “F” in The F Word Project as, according to the artist, being a feminist simply means believing in equality and in creating coalitions that help to ”combat inequality, colonialism, the military industrial complex, et cetera.” Creating the possibility for healing and collectivity, according to Burdock, takes both recognizing that men are also affected by gendered violence and that “galvanizing communities to act in solidarity means overcoming gender binaries as well as other phobias and generalizations.” So far, Burdock’s goal to reach as diverse an audience as possible seems to be within reach as the novellas have already been exhibited in thirteen cities internationally and the books themselves have been used in several universities as part of gender studies classes. Although it would seem that the art world is far from accepting comic books as a form of “high art,” Burdock makes it clear that she “cares more about making work that LIVES, moves, affects people than making work that tickles reviewer’s fancies or looks mysteriously and compellingly incomprehensible in the fetishized white cube environment.”
Burdock is currently working on the final two books of the series, the next of which will address the subject of female genital mutilation. Although the topics Burdock chooses to address are dark and at times very difficult to face, her beautiful illustrations and courageous narratives manage to bring hope and even humor to these terrible realities. As she describes, “None of the women in my fables are ‘fixed’ within the context of the problems they face. Instead, they galvanize their families and communities to collaboratively create change. These stories are hopeful and the heroines actively shape and reform their communities with their intelligence, humor, kindness, and with a bit of magical realism.”
Maureen Burdock currently resides in Berkeley, California where she is a student at California College of the Arts in San Francisco working on completing MA degrees in visual and critical studies as well as studio art. She is also the founding director of the first US/San Francisco chapter of the London-based comics forum Laydeez do Comics, the first women-led graphic novel forum in the UK. Burdock also continues an independent freelance illustration practice and can be contacted via her website. Her her work is also included in the feminist art database of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
If you want to make a difference on these issues, follow the links below to purchase Maureen’s art and support her career, or to donate time or money to three organizations that are engaged in combatting violence against women.