No Kidding: Women Gypped in Comics

By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, June 26, 1994

TRINA ROBBINS has been working as a cartoonist for more than a quarter of the century she celebrates in her new book, "A Century of Women Cartoonists." She was one of the pioneers of the underground comix movement, publishing her first comic strip in an underground newspaper in 1966.

"When my comic was published in the East Village Other," she said in a recent interview, "they didn't call them underground comics yet. They didn't have a name. . . . I called them `Hip Comics' for want of a better term. Eventually, they were called `underground' comics (usually spelled `comix' to further differentiate them from typical super-hero fare), because in the beginning they ran in underground newspapers."

In the early days of the undergrounds, many of the images were sexist and even misogynistic, portraying women as sex objects and victims of brutal violence. Partly as an answer to the male domination of the genre, Robbins helped found the Wimmen's Comix Collective, which began publishing an ongoing comic book by and for women. Although somewhat sporadic, it still continues.

These days, about the only comics work Robbins does is for Marvel's licensed "Barbie" comic - which some might see as the very antithesis of everything her earlier career established. But Robbins defends the comic book.

"The doll, God help us, really is a blond bimbo, and I have to say I do not own a Barbie doll - I'm proud to say that. But the comics really . . . I'm one of three writers, and all three writers are feminists, we're all women, and we do the best we can.

" `Barbie' has won special awards from a parent's organization that is not affiliated with any commercial group. They give awards to publications that really are good for kids. We do damned good stories in `Barbie.' I'm currently inking one that's written by another woman - I think it's Lisa Trusiani - which is about an old man who doesn't want to admit he's hard of hearing and how after he's almost run over he goes and gets a hearing aid, and come spring, he can hear the birds chirping again, and he's happier that he did it. Really good, simple stories. I did one on anorexia. It's amazing what you can do with a character like Barbie."

Most important for Robbins is the fact that the book is read by young girls.

"There's nothing else for girls. Believe me, if I could be doing my own comics for girls, I would be doing it and not `Barbie.' But `Barbie' is all there is for girls right now. That's it for girls. I'm happy to be working on something that is nonviolent, that gives a positive image, that can actually say something."

For the most part, Robbins is disenchanted with the medium she has worked in most of her adult life.

"I think it's disgraceful. I think it is ghastly. And the fact is I'm just waiting . . . The government is getting after television because of the violence, the government is getting after video games because of the violence, the government is saying, `You police yourselves or we're going to have to step in.' I am waiting for the government to become aware of what is going on in comics today and say the same things to the comics industry. Because they are more violent than they have ever been. They are terrifying, they're so violent. And the sexism that goes along with that is unbelievable."

After a pause, Robbins quickly pointed out that she feels uncomfortable in the censorship corner.

"I sound like some kind of crazy, right-wing person, I know that, and I'm not, believe me. I campaigned furiously for Bill Clinton. I'm to the left of Bill Clinton. And yet, mothers are not aware of what their 9-year-old sons are reading . . . It's just really nasty, nasty stuff."

So Robbins has turned to writing books, such as "A Century of Women Cartoonists," which grew out of her own hobby of collecting strips and original art by women cartoonists and her awareness of the short shift women have been giving in previous histories.

"Most of the books about comics have been written by men. And they have not mentioned these wonderful, wonderful, incredibly successful women. They just haven't. They've ignored them."

Writing the book "was kind of like treasure hunting and archaeology and peeling onions," said Robbins. "I got my information everywhere."

Many of the early women cartoonists, like Grace Drayton (the creator of the Campbell Soup Kids), also did paper dolls, so books on dolls and paper dolls became valuable sources. There were also fortuitous accidents.

"A friend of mine who is a cartoonist was selling some stock, and he told the stockbroker he was a cartoonist, and the stockbroker said, `Oh, my mother used to be a cartoonist!' And my friend was good enough to get the woman's name and address and give it to me, and I wrote her, and that was Chris Lyttle, the only woman who worked for Western Publications in the '50s, and the only other woman besides Marge Henderson to draw `Little Lulu.' "

A big help to her was Bill Blackbeard and his San Francisco Academy of Comic Art.

"That man is a national treasure for people who are really concerned with researching comics," she said. "His academy is basically a building filled from floor to ceiling with mostly bound volumes of old, old newspapers, dating back to the last century, and the comics in them. He doesn't specialize in comic books as much as he does in newspapers . . . He was very enthusiastic about what I was doing, and helped me enormously."

She was also helped by an art dealer named Tom Horvitz, who, among other finds, provided Robbins with early unsold strips by `Brenda Starr' creator Dale Messick.

"He found them purely by accident. Someone had them all. At some point in the '50s, somebody saw them at her house and said, `This is nice.' And she, not thinking that they were really important, said, `Oh, you want it? Take the whole bunch.' And years later, in the early '90s, they contacted Tom and said, "I have all this stuff by Dale Messick. Is it worth anything?"

Thanks to Horvitz and others like him, Robbins has what she believes is the largest collection of comics by women, either in comic book form or in originals, in the United States. Much of the art reprinted in the book is from her own collection.

Having set the record straight about the contributions of women to the medium, Robbins has turned her sights on a new medium, interactive software. Her CD-ROM adventure for girls, "Hollywood High: The Secret of the Tiki," came out late last year, and Robbins is already working on the sequel.

"It's what I've wanted to do in comics and was not able to do in comics. It's an adventure for girls put out by a company that is smart enough to know that 52 percent of the video market is female, and that's a large potential buyership. And there really isn't anything like it in comics."

She wrote and drew the cartoon adventure herself, and it was animated on computer. The two protagonists are 14-year-old students of Hawaii High, one native, one just moved from New York.

"They meet and make friends, and the girl from New York learns all about Hawaii in the course of the adventure, which involves a stolen tiki that they find and that they try to bring back, and in the course of doing that they discover an ancient Hawaiian burial and have to deal with two thieves who are bad guys, but kind of wacky bad guys, and wind up on the slopes of a volcano, surrounded by flowing lava, and meet mysterious creatures like the ghostly kahuna who is guardian of the burial cave . . . I won't tell you any more."

So if a hundred years from now, someone writes a history of interactive computer adventures, Trina Robbins will be among the pioneers, just as the women were in the first chapter of her book who were being published at the same time as "The Yellow Kid."

And nobody better forget it.