Trina Robbins — feminist Underground Comix creator, writer, artist, publisher, editor and more — has had a wide and storied career spanning nearly every part of the comic book industry. But outside her creative contributions, students of comics and pop culture know her as the preeminent scholar on women in graphic media, from comic strips to comic books, from the dawn of the Golden Age to the end of the Modern.
Now the woman who literally wrote the book (and then some) on female comics creators is back with what she calls her “definitive” history of women creators: “Pretty In Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013,” out this winter from Fantagraphics Books.
In anticipation of Robbins “final” book on the subject, CBR spoke with industry veteran about her research-ready text, including the myths surrounding women creators, the contemporary comics landscape and the engrossing yet complicated history of women in comics.
CBR News: “Pretty In Ink” is due out in December, and for those who are interested in the history of comics, you’re one of the major experts in the history of women in comics. You’ve written so much about the subject, what made you want to go back and revisit it for “Pretty In Ink?”
Trina Robbins: To be honest, Gary Groth asked me to, so that made it really easy. I wasn’t happy with my last book; I had terrible editors, there are typos in the book that are horrific, there’s even one I caught and I told them about it and they still didn’t make the change! When it came out I wanted to hide, I thought people would think I’m an idiot for stating it! No one has called me an idiot yet for that book, but this is my chance to fix all the terrible mistakes in the last book. [Laughs] Also I have much more information.
I have to say this is my final and definitive history of women cartoonists; I’m not going to do anymore. But I have found more cartoonists — at last, I’ve found a Native American woman who was in the WACs — the Women’s Army Corps — in the Second World War, and drew a strip for the WAC newspaper. She was later a very well known artist who did paintings and murals, but during the war she drew this strip called “G.I. Gertie” that was just lovely. She’s in the book and I’m totally delighted to put her in and much more information about other people, women like Fran Hopper and Lily Renee. With help from other people I rediscovered these women and was able to talk to them and find out what they did, much more information — and lots more photos of the artists themselves.
In the past, your books have focused on everything from superhero comics to cartoon strips to other forms of illustration. You’re calling “Pretty in Ink” your most comprehensive and final work. Is this looking at women working in graphic media across the board?
No, I restricted it to comics, which of course includes graphic novels, and the only time I put in single-panel cartoons is if these women were also comic artists. It’s not a book about single-panel cartoons, it’s not a book about political cartoons, it’s just comics — although I do have — I believe her name is Jen Sorensen — a political cartoonist who’s funny as all get out because she does her cartoons in comic form.
For so much of the history of entertainment media, you’ve had women who wrote under pseudonyms or male names to get things published. Going back and digging through the history, how do you even start to try to unearth female creators when there was little attention paid to them or possibly hiding their identity under a different name?
The fact is that that’s not really true. Some women did change their names, but not the majority of them at all. It’s funny, it’s a myth that people think women had such a hard time they had to give themselves male names in order to sell their strips. Well, no. Some of them changed their names: June Tarpe Mills removed the June and called herself Tarpe Mills and said in an interview before she drew “Miss Fury” that she felt the boys who read it would not like it if these exciting and virile — she used the word virile! — heroes were drawn by a woman. But of course once she started doing “Miss Fury” there were newspaper articles about her, everybody knew who she was and they knew it was a woman, and they even knew she looked like the character she drew. There’s even one newspaper article from the New York Daily News titled “Meet The Real Miss Fury: It’s All Done With Mirrors!” It was no secret.
Dale Messick loved to tell the story of how when she was Dalia Messick, the name she was born with, the editors rejected her strip. She finally changed it to Dale and sold her strip, but the fact is, though this is the story she loved to tell, it wasn’t really true. I’m in possession of a lot of her early unsold strips, the ones that got rejected — and they’re wonderful, by the way, and some of them are printed in the book — but only the very first strip she ever did probably right out of high school in 1926 was signed Dalia Messick. All the others were signed Dale Messick and they were rejected anyway. The fact is, when she brought in what was to become “Brenda Starr” it was signed Dale Messick but the publisher rejected it anyway because he was a sexist pig and he didn’t want to print women! Luckily, his Girl Friday saw the strip and thought it had huge possibilities and worked with Dale Messick so she finally sold the strip. But it had nothing to do with the name change; they knew damn well she was a woman, so this is a myth.
Why do you think it’s such a prevalent myth? Why does the idea persist that women’s involvement in comics was contingent on them hiding their gender?
Well, the women not being involved in comics is one usually stated by men who have not read any of my books, and who are clueless anyway! The one about women having to change their names, a lot of feminists — and I’m a serious feminist, I’m sure you know that! — just want to think the worst of any industry, thinking women had a hard time automatically. Truth is, women didn’t have a hard time selling comics until after the Second World War. Up until then and through the Second World War, there were lots of women drawing comics. The 1950s changed everything. The guys had come home from war and they wanted their old jobs back, and women were universally — in any employment — sent back to the kitchen. The message that subliminally went down was that you had to get married and have kids.
That’s also when the Comics Code came in full force, and that explicitly spells out pretty restrictive rules, like how comics weren’t allowed to show people defying authority and you had to show happily married nuclear families to emphasize the “sanctity of marriage.”
Yeah — if you read the [romance] comics, its not really a coincidence that they started in the late ’40s and flourished throughout the ’50s, because the message of the love comics was a post-war message. It says that if you’re a woman no matter what you do, no matter who you are, the only way you will find true happiness is if you find the right man, get married, settle down and raise a family, because that is what they wanted women to do.
We’re talking about World War II now, but break down the timeline for us. Where does the history chronicled in “Pretty In Ink” start and end? How much attention is paid to the comic book creators of today versus those at the very beginning?
Well it’s a history so most of the book is about past women up through the ’70s, but then there’s a chapter called “21st Century Foxes” that’s about the women today, because there’s so many of them. Even though it’s a history you have to include them; there are more women drawing comics today than ever before, and of course that’s because of graphic novels.
Looking back through the history of women in comics you really do have this modern day explosion of women on the graphic novel side.
It really is an explosion, isn’t it? I mean I’ve heard some of the guys in it say women have taken over the field.
It’s interesting because that feeling somewhat extends into web comics too, especially as women top the NY bestseller charts with their published collections, like Kate Beaton.
As you looked back through comics history, how do you feel the role of women has changed since throughout history?
It’s wonderful. As I said, things got really bad for women after the Second World War and remained bad for them for how many, thirty years when there was nothing but superheroes aimed at boys? Publishers and editors could safely say girls don’t read comics because there were no comics they published that girls liked to read, so of course girls didn’t read comics! But then along came Manga, which proved that if there are comics girls like to read, girls will read comics, and then of course there’s the explosion in graphic novels. It’s really wonderful that finally we’ve gotten out from under the boot of superhero comics. I hear women and fans complain all the time about the way DC is treating its heroines and I just want to say, “Look beyond Marvel and DC! Look beyond superhero comics!” There’s good stuff coming out and graphic novels — let them keep doing their books for little boys!
But that conversation does seem like it’s changing things at Marvel and DC as titles like “Captain Marvel” get published and more female-run and female-starring books hit the stands.
I think Marvel is doing more than DC, yes.
Writing this book, was there anything that surprised you or was there any new information you unearthed?
There’s one major mistake — in all of my earlier books I had included an artist named Jean Moore, very early 20th century, not even the ’10s, and I discovered that Jean Mohr was a man named Gene. I don’t know why he pretended to be a woman and signed with a female name, but he did. But he is not in this book!
You mentioned this is your last history book — why did you decide that this is your last, and why did you want to move away from documenting the history of women in comics?
I’m not really moving away from documenting women in comics; I’ve been working on a collection of the Golden Age comics of Lily Renee who is an amazing woman, I’ve written a little about her and I did a graphic novel for young readers about her. I’ve been working on putting together a collection of her work, so it’s just that I want to now deal with single women. I want to move on. I’d like to do a book on Gladys Parker, if no one gets around to it and I get there first. Meanwhile there’s all sorts of people doing this — finally! I’m not alone anymore! There’s a wonderful book on Jackie Ormes, the first African-American woman cartoonist written by Nancy Goldstein. It’s a fabulous book. I’m told there is some publisher working on a collection of Ethel Hays; as you already know I’ve done Nell Brinkley and the next collected series is coming out probably also in December.
Are there other historians you want to point out to people who are bringing women’s contributions of comics to light, or other collections that you think are absolutely essential for those interested in the history of women in comics?
I just mentioned Nancy Goldstein and this book apparently in the works that’s a collection of Ethel Hays and I’m writing a new introduction to that one. I also wrote the introduction to a very nice collection of “Brenda Starr” strips published by Hermes Press. So other people are finally doing it, and these collections are great!
Similarly, its clear from your many books on the subject you have a lot of love for these early creators. Do you have a favorite creator or a favorite era in comics that inspires you?
I don’t know if I have a favorite genre. I have people who are my favorites, not just one. Early Grace Drayton strips are really hilarious, she was so funny — the earliest one I could find was from 1903 and it’s so funny and cute! Of course, I think of Nell Brinkley whose work is just so exquisite, and Ethel Hays who came after her and personifies the art deco flapper strip. I think about the ’40s and I’m such a fan of Lily Renee and a big fan of Fran Hopper who worked for the same company that Lily Renee did, Fiction House, which during the war employed more women than any of the other publishing companies, which makes then my favorite Golden Age publisher. I guess those are my favorites!
To wrap up, is there anything else readers should know about “Pretty In Ink?”
It really is the definitive book — I’ve got more information in this book, I’ve corrected a lot of misinformation. Sometimes people say, “I’m doing research and I have your first book, ‘Women And The Comics'” and I go, “Oh no!” It wasn’t our fault, but there was no information at that point, none to be had, and this was before computers. I’d then say, “Keep that as a curiosity but don’t base your research on it.” But everyone can base their research on this book — plus there are tons of pictures and I’m really happy putting in all the photos of the artists so you can connect the face with the work.
“Pretty In Ink” is out December 2013.
EDITOR: An earlier version of this story mentioned the works of Gladys Barker instead of Gladys Parker and Grace Draper rather than Grace Drayton. CBR News apologized for the mistake.