More than anything, Melanie Stevens simply hoped she could get more kids to draw.
"I joke with a lot of my friends and my Miss Anthology cohort that the main reason I started this is, I just wanted to give free art supplies to kids," says Stevens, who co-founded Miss Anthology with Emily Lewis and Mack Carlisle, a comics education and publication program that is also run by artist Jay Olinger and Jenny Blenk of Dark Horse. "And that's still one of my favorite parts."
But there was more to her mission than simply handing out colored pencils and sheets of paper. Stevens is seeking to help others lend a voice to the speech bubbles commonly authored by white, cisgender men who've long controlled the arcs of illustrated stories from Archie to the X-Men. Two years ago, that objective led her to co-launch Miss Anthology, which provides free, hands-on workshops that teach writing, coloring and layout to anyone between the ages of 9 and 18 who is female, genderqueer or LGBTQIA+.
Stevens has recruited instructors who are not only designers, illustrators and authors; they also reflect the students' demographics. "We think it's important to see that model of success," she says.
Sessions are held twice a year to coincide with Portland Public Schools' summer and winter breaks, and the end-of-year exhibition is an impressively professional-looking collection of submitted sequential art. After each term, Miss Anthology publishes a compilation of the students' work. Not many teenage illustrators get to say they've been published. Fewer still have their work sharing comics store space with big dogs like Marvel and DC.
"It's great to publish their work in this thing that exists out in the world that proves that these stories have life," Stevens says. "They're here—they've always been here—and you're going to listen to them."
Stevens discovered comics relatively late in life. It wasn't until college when she started reading Preacher, a societal-norm-skewering series that debuted in the mid-'90s about the possessed titular character from small-town Texas roaming the country looking for God. It was graphic, over the top and sometimes gruesome. And Stevens was hooked. She also found that making her own comics was a great creative outlet when she didn't have the budget to continue painting.
"That's the thing that drew me to comics over a decade ago," Stevens says. "They are like these amazing allegories that you can tell epic stories with. You don't have any overhead—you just need a piece of paper and a pencil, and you can tell these amazingly beautiful stories."
That does not mean creating comics is simple, though. "I mean, basically plotting out a narrative comic is akin to creating a movie," Stevens says. "You have to storyboard it, you have to thumbnail it, you have to figure out what's happening not only in the panels but between the panels because it's sequential."
Yet third-graders are picking up on this process and putting out a product six weeks later through Miss Anthology.
While the medium's audience has certainly grown more diverse in the past two decades, the industry could be doing a lot more to encourage variety among its creators' lived experiences. Stevens adds that gathering statistics on gender, race and ethnicity in the field is frustratingly difficult, which may further hamper efforts to analyze and discuss the fact that white men are still making comics for white men. The most recent numbers she found showed that at least 85 percent of authors and illustrators in comics were Caucasian.
Stevens says most Miss Anthology students ask practical questions, like how to get published. But a few have been curious about underlying issues within the comics industry, like the harassment of creators from marginalized groups—the kind demonstrated by the recent social media outburst dubbed Comicsgate, in which internet trolls argue that mainstream comic-book content is undergoing a so-called "forced diversification."
"There are stories being told that are blatantly violent toward those communities," says Stevens. "People are pushing back because the audience, a lot of the readers are people of color, they're LGBTQIA people, they're female, and they're saying this is not OK, especially since we're buying at least half of these books."
Even though a large segment of the tropes in comics seems to be stuck in a rut—protagonists have been sporting muscle-clinging suits and capes at least since the debut of Superman in 1938—there's actually something freeing about the genre. You can be anything in comics, whether it's a protagonist who's a mutant, an animal or a ghost. The only limit is the author's imagination, which Miss Anthology students have plenty of. Stevens recalls some notable pieces: One hero was a female scientist-explorer; non-binary characters were featured in another series. At this summer's workshop, felines were all the rage.
"A lot of the students liked cats," Stevens says. "It was actually shocking. Superhero? Not so much, which is OK by me."
The polished volume of student projects that's slated to come out in December belies the behind-the-scenes work to secure space for the workshops along with the patchwork of grants to pay for materials and instructors. Those are the less-colorful details about teaching that Stevens admits she wasn't prepared for. Miss Anthology is always on the move, often at the last minute.
Stevens was about to throw in the towel, for instance, after a Kickstarter campaign to fund this year's anthology grew sluggish. She was working on contingency plans to make sure all students still got their work published when a last-minute boost on social media helped the group surpass its goal of $5,370. The second edition will be available to purchase online, at festivals and in neighborhood comics shops, where the next young artist may just pick it up and find inspiration.
Ultimately, Stevens and her colleagues are helping to ensure that young artists are empowered in their chosen medium, no matter what obstacles they face.
"That's the big push for Miss Anthology," says Stevens, "giving these kids the tools to believe their stories matter just as much and that they have a right to the same platforms, the same models or recognition, for telling these stories."
SEE IT: Miss Anthology is available online at missanthology.wordpress.com.