Pretty in ink
September 16, 2014 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Women Who Conquered the Comics World
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.
posted by Room 641-A (18 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I thoroughly recommend all of Robbins' books, my only quibble with them is that they are not long enough or detailed enough. I always end up wanting more of these women and their work.

The takeaway is inevitable; if you think there is any field in which women have not contributed significantly, chances are they have only been left out of the history books, and you need to look again.
posted by emjaybee at 4:39 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Robbins is a complicated case. She's not wrong when she calls underground comix a boy's club. Some of the male cartoonists of the era were unapologetically sexist, and even a really excellent female cartoonist would have a hard time getting respected there.

But the thing is, Robbins was never a first-rank talent. Gender aside, she simply did not have the chops or the sensibility to fit with that crowd. I think somebody like Aline Kominsky or Shary Flenniken is much more instructive if you want to look at sexism in the undergrounds. Both women faced some stupid, piggy attitudes, but they pushed through because they were strong, because they were really talented, and because they were raucous ladies who didn't shy away from nasty, gross-out humor. They were naturals for the underground, and unlike Robbins they never would have exalted a woman artist who drew cute, mainstream stuff over somebody like Crumb. They didn't get pissed off about Crumb's big ass comics, they created their own dirty sex comics from a female perspective.

I respect a lot of what Robbins has done. At the same time, when underground cartoonists roll their eyes at the mention of her name, I get where they're coming from. For all the excesses of the undergrounds, those people were doing revolutionary stuff. Robbins wasn't doing anything in their league, and I get the feeling she spent more time scolding than drawing. When she broke with the scene, it was probably best for everybody.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 6:46 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

This article isn't really about Robbins' career, as much as it's about the history of women in comics in general. Robbins does highlight artists like Kominsky in her work, and those doing really revolutionary stuff.
posted by emjaybee at 7:00 PM on September 16, 2014

Thank you for the link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:26 PM on September 16, 2014

But the thing is, Robbins was never a first-rank talent.

Thank you, UH. And, sorry, MJB, but the problem with Robbins being the source (or, often, the author) for these "history of women in comics" articles and books is that she always inflates her place in comix history, usually at the expense of other, better-known and/or more influential artists. Mary Fleener gets a very brief mention, and none of Krystine Kryttre, the late Dori Seda, or Roberta Gregory; she brings up an early and obscure artist, Grace Gebbie, but not Melinda Gebbie, who was working in the undergrounds well before she collaborated with (and married) Alan Moore. Many of the comments to this article bring up people that she could have mentioned at least in passing, rather than filling up space with her own very stiff art and old pics from the sixties of hanging out with Donovan.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:14 PM on September 16, 2014

I must admit, I didn't finish the article. I've read enough of Robbins' historical stuff over the years that I made some assumptions that turned out to be false in this case. Had I read to the end, I would have seen that the article does get into more modern, edgy stuff. Previously I've seen her really hype women artists from the early days of comics, and she has been really critical and dismissive of artists I admire for reasons I just could not click with at all. So I'm familiar with what she does, but in this case I'll cop to leaping before I'd fully looked. I had a little Trina Robbins rant all ready to go, but I uncorked it in the wrong context.

FWIW, I've always kind of liked her style and we share a strong affection for hyper-girly art of days gone by. I wasn't saying she had no talent, and I do appreciate all she's done to bring attention to the work of neglected female artists.

Basically I've had a spectacularly shitty year and my teeth hurt again and I think I need another freaking root canal. I am a big nasty bitch-face right now. Sorry.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 9:34 PM on September 16, 2014

Welp, I'm sorry about your teeth, but I still think that you were right about her not being a first-rank talent.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:47 PM on September 16, 2014

So do I! But that's why her case is so complicated. She was right that the underground cartoonists treated her and other women like crap, but she also wasn't up to snuff to be part of their gang. If the men had treated her better, or if she was a truly great, unfairly neglected artist, I'd feel like I had a better handle on who the bad guys were in that fight.

She was right that Crumb depicted some horrible acts against women. At the same time, he was a trailblazer doing brave and truly revelatory stuff, and if Crumb had listened to Robbins he never would've produced a lot of his amazing, lasting work. Robbins has been both venerated and vilified, and I think she's earned some of both.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:24 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well as a lifetime-but-still pretty casual fan of comics I appreciate the debate and extra context you all have added.

I hope you feel better soon, Ursula Hitler.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:35 PM on September 16, 2014

Oh lord, so do I. Teef greef beyond beleef!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:08 AM on September 17, 2014

Yeah, Trina Robbins is a self promoter and that's a cardinal sin in a woman.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:32 AM on September 17, 2014

Really, Martin? You really think that's what I'm trying to say here?
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:52 AM on September 17, 2014

UH, I hope this accidental, but the way this discussion has gone feels like this: despite the legions of bad-to-eh-to-mediocre male comic artists out there (is Robbins worse than Liefeld? Or all the dudes who show up on the Escher Girls blog?), a woman must be as good as the best male artists just to be allowed to comment on the treatment of women comic artists. Which seems like not only a double standard, but to be missing the point entirely.

Like I said, Robbins' quality of work is not really at issue, and even if she's not at Crumb level, which is not a thing I believe she ever claimed to be, she was a working artist in the industry and knew a lot of the major players during the time in question. There may be a more qualified person out there to write this history down, but so far, I have not seen them do so.

So, the first Robbins book I read was this one, and the bits she included about Wimmin's Comix were amazing, and included work that was both raw and unschooled (great stories by people who had no artistic training, some of which developed a working style, like Lynda Barry) and artistically accomplished (like Linda Medley, who is still working and whose Castle Waiting is extremely well-written and drawn).

Barry has gotten lots of attention after years of obscurity; artists like Medley still don't get the attention they deserve. There are still far too few women artists in the comics industry. Aside from Robbins, no one seems to have done much to preserve the history of women in comics at all.

To find out about modern women artists, I recommended checking out Comics Alliance's recurring Hire This Woman feature.
posted by emjaybee at 7:06 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a terrific article and brought up all sorts of fascinating stuff (at least for those of us not already steeped in the subject, and I presume we're the main intended audience), like this:
Even though women had been drawing and writing cartoons since the 1890s, when the National Cartoonist Society formed in 1946, women were excluded from joining, the stated reason being that the men felt they wouldn’t be able to swear in the presence of ladies. In 1949, “Teena” creator Hilda Terry sent the NCS a letter stating, “We must humbly request that you either alter your title to the National Men Cartoonists Society … or discontinue whatever rule or practice you have which bars otherwise qualified women cartoonists.” And she signed it from “The Committee for Women Cartoonists.”

The following year, Terry’s husband, a magazine cartoonist named Gregory D’Alessio, nominated both her and “New Yorker” cartoonist Barbara Shermund, and they were blackballed. But immediately after the vote, a loud debate broke out, and successful artists Al Capp, the creator of “Li’l Abner,” and Milton Caniff, the creator of “Steve Canyon,” argued forcefully for letting women join. The group held a re-vote, and this time, the women were approved. As soon as Terry got into the group, she nominated Gladys Parker and Tarpe Mills to the group.
That makes me respect Capp and Caniff a lot. And this is a great one-paragraph summary of a situation we all know about:
“Women didn’t even want to go in those comic-book stores,” she says. “They were terrible places, like porn stores. You would get to the threshold and look in, and there would be all these boys—ages 12 to 40, but the 40-year-olds were really still 12—just standing around, looking at comics. It was very unwelcoming for women. So the comic-book store owners could say, ‘Girls don’t read comics,’ because girls didn’t read the comics they stocked. But in the past, girls had read so many comics. Girls had gobbled up Nell Brinkley and saved her stuff and put it in scrapbooks. Girls loved ‘Brenda Starr’ and would copy it. As a kid, I loved ‘Patsy Walker,’ ‘Millie the Model,’ and ‘Katy Keene.’ Girls did read comics. But at that point, there were no comics in comic-book stores that girls wanted to read.”
Thanks for posting it; I just wish we had avoided the pointless derail about whether Robbins was "a first-rank talent."

> And, sorry, MJB, but the problem with Robbins being the source (or, often, the author) for these "history of women in comics" articles and books is that she always inflates her place in comix history, usually at the expense of other, better-known and/or more influential artists.

Did you actually read the article? Yeah, she includes a picture of herself (horrors!), but it's almost entirely about history that doesn't involve her. I gather you have some prior resentment about her, but it would have been nice not to clutter up the thread with it.
posted by languagehat at 8:46 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just saw on Twitter that cartoonist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For) won a MacArthur grant. Badass.
posted by emjaybee at 9:02 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just wish we had avoided the pointless derail about whether Robbins was "a first-rank talent."

Classy! I did apologize, and at some length.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:45 PM on September 17, 2014

> I did apologize, and at some length.

So you did, and I appreciated it greatly. I just said I wished we had avoided the derail, as you presumably do as well. It wasn't meant as an attack.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on September 18, 2014

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