A Fresh Look at Comics

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

A Century of Women Cartoonists
By Trina Robbins

DID YOU KNOW that the Campbell Kids were designed by a woman? In fact, Grace Drayton was "the uncontested Queen of Cute" in the early part of the century, according to this book. Her distinctive, apple-cheeked cherubs were already familiar to thousands of readers of the funny pages before she began drawing ads for Campbell's Soup.

Or how about Nell Brinkley? If you know something of the history of comics and popular illustration, you've probably heard of the "Gibson Girl." But in her day the "Brinkley Girl" was just as famous, and the old Biograph film studio even had a starlet billed as "The Radiant Nell Brinkley Girl of the Follies."

Dale Messick, who admits to being influenced by Brinkley, is familiar to any comics historian as the creator of "Brenda Starr," but before reading this book I had never heard of Tarpe Mills or her feature, "Miss Fury." This strip ran in newspapers 11 years, and at its height was reprinted in comic books that sold over a million copies a month! Today, if a comic sells half that many copies, it's wildly successful.

Trina Robbins has done a tremendous service by rediscovering all these women, and getting their stories out. Many of them were tremendously popular in their day, but have been forgotten. Others worked in obscurity throughout their careers. But all of them have one thing in common: they were working in what was largely perceived as a man's career. Tarpe Mills, for instance, was born "June," and Dale Messick changed her name from Dalia. They found that editors were more likely to buy strips from cartoonists with sexually ambiguous names than clearly female ones.

Nor were editors the only problem. When Hilda Terry's cartoon, "Teena" (the first of many teen-girl strips) had been running for 10 years, her husband - and fellow cartoonist - proposed her for membership in the National Cartoonists Society, still in 1951 an all-male body. She was blackballed, because her presence would inhibit the men from being able to curse at meetings.

Milton Caniff and Al Capp, among others, objected strenuously, and eventually another vote was held and Terry was admitted. Years later, after her strip had ended and she was making a new career animating baseball stars for stadium scoreboards, she even got an award from the NCS.

Robbins carries the history through the present day, including her own emergence as a cartoonist with the 60s underground newspaper The East Village Other. As part of various feminist collectives, Robbins was involved in the publication of the first all-woman comic book, "It Ain't Me, Babe," in 1970. Another comic she was involved with, "Wimmen's Comix," is still publishing on an occasional schedule (although the "men" has been removed from the name and it is now "Wimmin's Comix"). Robbins is also one of many women who contribute to Marvel's "Barbie" comic book.

Lynn Johnston, Nicole Hollander and Cathy Guisewite are of course familiar to Post-Dispatch readers, and they are represented here. The last chapter, however, really just spatters the names of recent cartoonists without dwelling much on their work. We all know these ladies, after all, and the real purpose of the book is to inform us about those we don't know. Only Johnston, because of the recent controversy involving her homosexual character, really gets discussed in any detail.

Altogether, though, this is a fascinating book. Nearly every page informed me of something I didn't know before, which is quite rare for me with books on comics history. Robbins makes it obvious that previous historians have had a male bias that has blinded them to important and dazzling work by 100 years of wonderful women cartoonists.