Women Who Conquered the Comic Book World

[This article is excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly. See the full article here.]

The day after she returned from the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con International, comics icon Trina Robbins sits down with me outside at a café just around the corner from her home in San Francisco’s Castro District.

As both a comics creator and historian, Robbins is particularly interested in the unknown history of female cartoonists and the ways they were celebrated and thwarted throughout the last century. Late last year, Robbins published a Fantagraphics book called Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013, and now the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco is presenting an exhibition of Robbins’ personal collection based on the book.

The subject is particularly relevant given that new comic-book-based movies are hitting the big screen every few months, yet not a single one has revolved around a female hero. Marvel has taken bold steps by making a Pakistani American teen the new Ms. Marvel, in a comic-book series written by a woman, and turning Thor into a woman in its upcoming revamp of the series. At the same time, the major publisher raised feminist ire with a sexualized variant cover of its new Spider-Woman series. If a woman had drawn Spider-Woman instead of a man, it’s unlikely she would have sacrificed the hero’s comfort and mobility in favor of an erotic pose.

Robbins knows something about the glass ceiling for women cartoonists because she first hit it herself in the early 1970s, when she tried to join the male-dominated “underground comix” movement based in San Francisco. After the men cartoonists shut her out, Robbins joined forces with other women cartoonists to create their own women’s-lib comic books. She went on to become a well-respected mainstream comic artist and writer, as well as a feminist comics critic who’s written myriad nonfiction books on the subject of great women cartoonists and the powerful female characters they created. Naturally, Robbins has spent some time hunting down the original cartoons from the women who paved the way for her career, and as luck would have it, she found the very first comic strip ever drawn by a woman, “The Old Subscriber Calls” by Rose O’Neill, practically in her backyard. Pointing across Church Street, Robbins tells me,

I found that comic in one of those houses, possibly the green one. They were having a garage sale on the steps of the house, and they had two or three issues of Truth magazine. I bought up all the copies of Truth, and brought them home. What should I find but a comic by Rose O’Neill from 1896. That’s really kind of cosmic, isn’t it, that it was right around the corner from my house.

Single-panel cartoons for adults, with text printed underneath the drawing, began to appear in publications in the mid-19th century, but to narrow her focus Robbins starts Pretty in Ink with the early days of multiple-panel “comic strips.” The first, “Hogan’s Alley,” a strip by Richard F. Outcault about the slums of New York City, debuted in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper New York World in 1895 and introduced the United States to the Yellow Kid, a bald orphan in oversized pajamas.

Just a year later, 20-year-old O’Neill sold the comic strip that Robbins found to Truth. The talented young artist had been living in the care of nuns at New York’s Sisters of St. Regis since she moved to New York City at age 18, and already she was regularly selling illustrations to magazines and newspapers. For O’Neill, the comic strip was the next obvious step. Soon after her strip appeared, O’Neill became the first female staff artist for the humor magazine Puck, where she created many single-panel cartoons.

Another young feminist named Nell Brinkley arrived in Manhattan in 1907, and once again turned the tides in comic strips. While an illustrator named Charles Dana Gibson popularized a genre known as “pretty-girl art” with his aristocratic Gibson Girls in the late 1800s, Brinkley took it a step further. She started out at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American, producing lush illustrations that featured stunning curly-haired working-class women and ran with commentary below. Quickly, her Brinkley Girls were all the rage. Robbins says,

The Gibson Girls are stationary; they sit on the beach in their cute, ancient swim costumes, smiling like Mona Lisa, and the men just all flock around them. Nell Brinkley’s women are extremely active. They surf, sled and ski, with hair flying in the wind. A favorite subject for Gibson was showing these beautiful society girls being married off to ugly old counts and dukes. Brinkley’s women never let people marry them off to nobility. They fell in love. It was a whole new generation. She didn’t create the New Woman, but she mirrored her.

After the war, Brinkley pioneered the flapper cartoon, but unfortunately, she didn’t write the text, which turned her women into empty-headed party girls saying “boo boop bi doop.” But Nell Brinkley opened the door, Robbins says:

Slightly younger artists like Ethel Hays and Virginia Huget drew all these cute flapper strips. The move away from old-fashioned kids in comics signified the ’20s. These women were so proud of who they were. The flapper movement was incredibly revolutionary. They got the vote. Think of it! They threw away their corsets! Women had always worn corsets. Suddenly, no corsets, just straight up-and-down dresses with knee-length skirts! Skirts had not been at the knee since ancient Sparta! Think of how amazingly revolutionary that was. They chopped off their hair! I don’t think that women had had short hair since the Empire period. And makeup! Up until then, only loose women wore lip rouge. Suddenly, perfectly nice girls, college girls, were wearing dark lipstick.

Quickly, the funny pages were filled with stylish, wise-cracking young women. Among the most famous flapper cartoonists are Ethel Hays, who created “Ethel,” “Flapper Fanny, and “Marianne,” and Gladys Parker, who took over “Flapper Fanny” and created the long-running “Mopsy” strip. But Robbins’ favorite is the less-well-known Virginia Huget, who created “Campus Capers” and “Babs in Society.”

“She wrote them herself, so there’s more to the story than, say, the Nell Brinkley flapper comics,” Robbins says. “Babs works in a department store until some obscure rich uncle dies and leaves her a fortune, including his mansion. She’s this working-class girl who suddenly enters society, and she puts them in their place.”

After the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, flappers were edged out by less-glamorous characters. In Pretty in Ink, Robbins characterizes Depression cartoons as “poor-but-happy American households; upbeat unflappable orphans; and plucky working girls out to earn a living rather than merely have a good time.” Perhaps the most archetypal Depression comic is Martha Orr’s “Apple Mary,” about a big-hearted matriarch who sold apples on the street, which later was renamed “Mary Worth’s Family.” Says Robbins:

In the Depression, life was a little more serious because people were poor. You had strips about girls who had careers because they had to support their families, and these strips weren’t just created by women. ‘Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner’ was by a man named Martin Branner.

Toward the end of the ’30s, the political climate in America had changed. With the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany, war was on the horizon, and Americans were volunteering to fight the fascists. Who could defeat such a seemingly insurmountable evil? The first issue of the groundbreaking omnibus series Action Comics, published by Detective Comics, Inc. (later DC Comics), in June 1938, featured a new kind of hero, an alien with superhuman powers, wearing a caped costume typical of daredevils of the day. Superman fought bullies, oppressors and dictators, in stories that alluded to Hitler and the Nazis but never mentioned them by name.

This book launched the era that became known as the Golden Age of Comic Books. Suddenly, comics were all about action and adventure, whether it be new superheroes or plucky humans taking on baddies in the big city or foreign lands. In 1939, a woman named Tarpe (née June) Mills drew a story called “Daredevil Barry Finn” for the “Amazing Mystery Funnies” book about a daredevil’s plan to foil Hitler and Mussolini. After that, she continued to create characters like the Purple Zombie, Devil’s Dust and the Cat Man for comic books.

In 1940, the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate reluctantly accepted an action-adventure comic strip, by a woman about a woman, called “Brenda Starr, Reporter.” Even though Dale Messick, like Tarpe Mills, had changed her name from Dalia so it sounded more masculine, her status as a woman created obstacles for her. While the strip was a hit with readers and ran right up until 2011, Messick was subjected to an endless stream of vitriol from men in the field.

Says Robbins,

Up until then, nobody had resented the other women cartoonists, but she was getting into men’s territory, the action strip. Before Dale Messick, woman cartoonists all stuck with domestic situations, pretty girls, cute kids, that kind of thing. She was intruding on men’s territory, and they resented it. As the result, men in the industry were not particularly complimentary about her art, and she felt very neglected by them. In 1971, the National Cartoonists Society gave prizefighter Jack Dempsey a ‘sports personality of the year’ award. And Dale Messick was quoted as saying, ‘I see where they’re honoring Jack Dempsey. They never honored me for anything, but they honor Jack Dempsey.’

In April 1941, Tarpe Mills introduced the world to the first major female action heroine, Miss Fury, in a syndicated comic strip. In it, a debutante named Marla Drake inherits a suit of panther skin that had once been an African witch doctor’s ceremonial robe, which she wears to a costume party. On the way to the event, she stops an escaped killer, and thus begins her days as a costumed crime fighter. Drake rarely wears the panther suit, however, as Mills preferred to draw her in fabulous and revealing ’40s fashions in stories akin to film noir. And Miss Fury, too, takes off to confront Nazis in secret enclaves around the world. “She just starts out almost immediately fighting Nazis even though we weren’t at war with the Nazis yet,” Robbins says.

Miss Fury paved the way for dozens of comic book heroines like her, mostly drawn and written by men, including Phantom Lady, Miss Masque and Spider Widow. The most famous was Wonder Woman, conceived as a proto-feminist character by a psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who wanted to teach girls to stand up for themselves. Still, it would be 45 years before a woman would have any input into the stories and art for Wonder Woman, who debuted in December 1941, right around the time the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II.

At that time, many of the young men who were drawing and writing comic books enlisted to fight in the war. Robbins explains,

As in every other industry, the guys are gone, and the women take their place. Women did things they’d never done before, including driving commercial trucks and buses, working in all the factories that are making planes and drawing action comics for comic books. Almost invariably, they drew these beautiful, confident, fabulous action heroines who could handle anything. They rescue the guy and remain beautiful at the same time.

The publishing company Fiction House hired the most women in the ’40s. They published six themed titles—“Jumbo,” “Jungle,” “Fight,” “Wings,” “Rangers,” and “Planet”—with sensational stories starring powerful and gorgeous female characters.

Says Robbins,

Fiction House is my favorite Golden Age comic publisher, if not just my favorite comic publisher, period. The two best women who worked for them were Fran Hopper and Lily Renée. Between them, they had Mysta of the Moon, whom I just love. She’s this beautiful woman who lives on the moon with her trusty robot, and her superpower is that she possesses all the knowledge of the universe. Fran and Lily both drew a character named Jane Martin who was an army nurse turned aviatrix, who fought the Nazis and flew planes.

With the defeat of Hitler in 1945, the popularity of war heroes and superheroes in comic books waned, as titles about crime, horror and love took off. When male cartoonists returned to their jobs, the women who were working by contract were simply not rehired.

“All those great women that they drew also disappeared,” Robbins says. “For instance, Jane Martin, who was the flying nurse, became a journalist and photographer after the war. No more flying.”

Robbins had a special treat at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, when she got an email from the son of Lily Renée, who said the venerated Golden Age comic artist was visiting him in San Diego and wanted to attend the convention. Renée, who is in her 90s, joined Robbins, who wrote Renée’s biography for a graphic novel, at the Fantagraphics booth for a signing. “People who know her were just thrilled,” Robbins says. “There aren’t a whole lot of the great Golden Age cartoonists left.”

Robbins says that things are looking better for women cartoonists now than they have in 100 years:

Superhero comics are not going to go away. There’s always going to be a constantly revolving reader group of 12-year-old boys. But now there’s something else, made by people who want to go beyond 12-year-old boys. There’s something for girls, something for women, something for men who are interested in topics besides guys punching each other out. Really, at last, what’s happened is we’re back to comics for everyone, which is how it started, isn’t it? We’ve come full circle.

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Opening photo: In 1946 and 1947, Janice Valleau drew Toni Gayle, a fashion model and detective, for “Young King Cole” comics. (Via “Pretty in Ink”)



Lisa Hix, an associate editor at CollectorsWeekly.com, has worked for Yahoo!, Flavorpill, KQED online and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her work also appeared at Bitch, Jezebel, Bust and Glamour. Find her on Twitter at @lisahix.