Grab Back Comics gives a voice to survivors of sexual assault

Grab Back Comics is a site that collects and publishes comics about sexual assault, harassment, advocacy, and consent education. It’s produced, edited, written, and curated by a Seattle cartoonist who uses the pseudonym “Erma Blood.” In person, Blood is thoughtful and eloquent. When the conversation turns to abuse stories, she’s always quick to turn the focus to survivors — what they need, what they feel, how to help. In less than an hour, the immense reserves of compassion and consideration she’s poured into the topic becomes apparent.

As the Trump-inspired name suggests, the idea for Grab Back Comics “came to me after the election,” Blood says. To celebrate her first wedding anniversary, “I went away on a trip with my wife and it was very sweet. But my experience of the coverage of sexual assaults and harassment during the election had really taken a toll.” She couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that a man who had openly bragged about his history as an abuser was about to become the most powerful human in the world. “It felt like it really shut me down. I just didn't feel like I was engaging in the way that I wanted to,” Blood says.

She knew from her own experiences that she wasn’t alone: “a lot of people are really suffering. And I wasn't sure what I could do, but I felt as though I needed to do something.” As corny as it sounds, the idea of Grab Back Comics came to her in a dream during that anniversary trip. Once she got back, she started work on building it in Wordpress. “It's pretty close to the way I imagined,” Blood says.

The first order of business was to seek out work that already existed. “I'm trained as a research scientist, and so this work of digging in and finding details and looking for more is familiar ground,” Blood explains. And once she started releasing Grab Back Comics into the world, “some comics friends of mine asked if they could contribute.” It’s been growing nonstop ever since.

Blood sees the site as a continuation of a Northwest tradition, born from “my own roots in riot grrrl and in punk rock and making independent fanzines when I was a teenager.” She learned as a young artist in the 1990s to “crystallize” her “anger and discomfort into something creative.” Her voice on the site is absolutely in that spirit of empathy and rage: — “very direct, very feminist, very no-nonsense, and at the same time, very supportive of people who are having a hard time, who are suffering from our current political climate.”

Just a handful of months in, the site is already a tremendous resource, collecting everything from Namibian comics that provide resources for survivors to “bro to bro” guides explaining consent to a 1984 Marvel Comic that discusses Spider-Man’s history as a survivor of sexual abuse. Blood also reviews books on the topic and interviews cartoonists. As you’d expect from someone who works in research, the site is fastidiously tagged so users can find first-person accounts, work relating specifically to date rape drugs or incest, and comics produced for public health campaigns.

The need for a site like Grab Back Comics is obvious. Just in terms of the amount of preexisting work it catalogues, it’s clear that artists have been working on this wavelength for decades. Why does Blood think that comics are such a useful medium for this kind of work? “With comics we can integrate more than one type of voice and perspective — a graphic voice, a written voice. We can integrate scenery and backgrounds and set moods that, I think, can be more richly rendered than in written narratives when they're done really well.”

Blood has been surprised by some of her findings. “I learned that there is a pretty impressive movement in India around sexual assault and child sexual abuse, particularly, by relatives,” she says. “Of all of the international comics I found, there seems to be a lot of energy in India around those topics. It's something that I'd like to learn more about.” She’s also happy to find that the work has become more inclusive: “conversations around all of these topics of consent and sexual assault and child abuse have expanded to include all genders” in the decades that they’ve been around, she says. When comics about assault first appeared, they tended to “focus very heavily on women, and particularly on middle-class white women, and that's really changed over time.”

Blood is looking for submissions to an upcoming print Grab Back Comics anthology. Between now and May 21st, cartoonists should submit their work relating to the whole array of experiences, from consent to abuse to recovery, to grab.back.comics[at] Blood will assemble those submissions into a minicomic which she’ll then distribute at the Comics and Medicine Conference, which is happening in Seattle this June, and at the Short Run Comix & Art Festival in November.

If you have a question about the anthology, you should get in touch with Blood. She’s also interested in connecting writers with artists, too. “Artists have told me they don't have a story to tell, and other people I know have told me they don't want to draw their own story. So I'm starting to try to link up artists with people who have stories,” she says.

For Blood, this journey has been inspiring. When I ask what themes she’s encountered in all the work she’s collected, she doesn’t hesitate. “I consistently am finding with all of these stories that there's so much bravery and honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable in order to create connection.” Grab Back Comics honors that spirit, and expands the connection to a whole new audience of readers.