Women In Comics: Farmer & Robbins on Abortion, Anger and Underground Comix

To celebrate Women's History Month, all March long Comic Book Resources is highlighting female creators across the industry, past and present, who helped make the comic book world what it is today. Looking back to the 1970s, we catch up with two of the leading female voices of the underground comix movement: Joyce Farmer and Trina Robbins.

While the '70s saw mainstream superhero comics struggling to understand counterculture and reinventing their heroes for older, college-bound audiences, a whole new type of alternative, small-press comic scene was emerging. Pushing the boundaries by focusing on drug culture, free love, politics and contemporary issues underground comix gave rise to artist/writers like Robert Crumb ("Zap Comix"), Art Spiegelman ("Maus"), Aline Kominsky-Crumb ("Twisted Sisters"). Melinda Gebbie ("Lost Girls") and Harvey Pekar ("American Splendor").

With the movement's epicenter in San Francisco, underground comix also produced America's first feminist comics as Robbins and Farmer (based out of Laguna Beach, CA) paved the way, creating all-female anthologies "Wimmen's Comix" and "Tits & Clits Comix" that concentrated on women's rights, women creators and female sexuality.

Speaking with CBR News about their experiences in the underground, Robbins and Farmer shed light on the violent misogyny of the time, their struggles to be accepted as female creators and the dismal state of reproductive rights in the modern day.

CBR News: Let's set the stage by talking about the comix of the 1960s and 1970s. As female writers and artists, what was it like being part of the underground at that time? Was there a feminist comics scene?

Joyce Farmer: I think this is really Trina's question to answer, we did not have to deal with it!

Trina Robbins: [Laughs] You guys were isolated, really.

Farmer: Heavily isolated and ignorant; if we were in the feminist movement at all we were in our own little island here.

Robbins: First of all, there was no feminist movement in comics. I guess with "Wimmen's Comix" that could be considered feminist, but there sure was nothing before that. Well, that's not true, because there was "It Ain't Me, Babe Comix," which was a decidedly, but not purposefully, feminist comic in 1970, at which time there were only two women in San Francisco drawing comics -- and they were me and Willy Mendes.

In that case, what was it like being part of the larger Underground Comix movement?

Robbins: Horrendous! How's that? It was horrendous because we were simply not accepted by the underground comix community, which were all guys. They were incredibly threatened by my feminism and they hated the fact that I dared criticize the absolutely violent misogyny in underground comix. I'm not talking about simple sexism, I'm talking about violent [comics] where women are raped and murdered and their body parts are scattered across the landscape and then the whole thing is considered funny. It was horrific stuff and I had the nerve to criticize it so I was really persona non grata in the comix community.

Farmer: When we were doing "Tits & Clits" and our friends saw us drawing it and working it out, the guys were not undone, they weren't politically connected at all, but they saw what we were doing and they thought it was the weirdest thing they ever saw. The whole town of Laguna was supposed to be, at least at that time, very hippie-oriented, liberal, people were reading Joel Beck and different things, so there was an awareness. But you really caught the brunt of it, and when Lyn and I saw the comics with what you had been describing I was horrified.

Was that reaction to "Zap" and the other male-dominated comix what pushed you to start your own books, "Wimmen's Comix" and "Tit's N Clits Comix?"

Farmer: The whole reason we did "Tits & Clits" was because ["Tits & Clits" co-creator] Lyn [Chevely] was offended by "Zap" comix. I can't remember a story in "Zap" that wasn't misogynist one way or another. We decided to do a get-even series and then we decided that we couldn't make up these get-even stories, we were not into cutting off men's peckers in order to put it in print and get famous. We just couldn't do that kind of violence! So we ended up doing a different kind of violence it turned out, although we didn't think so at the time, which was dealing with menstrual blood and mentioning menstruation and birth control and things men didn't seem to think about at all at that time, but was a particular burden to women because we were supposed to not only get off and have a great time with sex but we also had to be quietly responsible to ensure there was no repercussions. This was a big deal and we did a lot of stuff on that, and that offended plenty of people, I can tell you! Trina, your turn! [Laughter]

Robbins: In my case I had been drawing comics since 1966 in New York, I had been drawing comics for the "East Village Other." I just thought of myself as a cartoonist. It wasn't until about 1969 that I discovered feminism; I don't think there really was much of a feminist movement before that. But I came to San Francisco and I discovered I was shut out of the boys clubs. Also, as I said, my criticisms of the violent misogyny didn't go down too well. I remember a couple of guys saying, "There's Trina, better hide the knives," I mean, just ridiculous! The reason that I did "It Ain't Me, Babe" was simply because I needed to do a comic. The guys were not inviting me into their books. I'm talking about 1970, pre-"Wimmen's Comix." Then somebody showed me a copy of "It Ain't Me Babe" the women's liberation newspaper and I later learned it was the first women's liberation newspaper in the country. I got very excited, I joined their staff doing comix on the back page. Ron Turner was a brand new publisher, he ran Last Gasp, and he had just put out one book -- and that one book was a classic example of how we were shut out. Ron didn't know anything about who were cartoonists and who weren't; he had some money and he decided to form a publishing company. His first comic was about ecology. I could have done a great job on ecology, but instead he called Gary Arlington who ran a local comic book store that carried underground and asked Gary to please contact underground cartoonists for him so he could do the book. Needless to say, Gary called all the guys and did not call me. Then I heard the next book [Ron] was going to put out was going to be about women's liberation. At that point I had already put together an entire comic with the "It Ain't Me, Babe" people, so all I had to do was call Ron and say, "I hear you want to do a women's liberation comic." I keep using the term "women's liberation" but that's what we called it in those days! [Laughs] So I did and he came right over with a check for a thousand dollars, which in those days was a lot of money! Its not like I had any idea of "getting back" at the men, I just needed to put out a woman's book. I was a feminist, so that made it a feminist book.

Farmer: I think we became feminists as we realized the extent of the disdain and economic punishment we were being handed. Lyn and I had certainly run into that in our private lives, although not necessarily in the comix community. But what you're saying about Ron is very interesting, because Ron had an open mind. We can have a whole lot of criticism about Ron in other ways, we can make a whole book of it that, but the point is for men in the -- what would you call it? They weren't hippies, they weren't yippies, they were just guys out there, usually with long hair and an attitude, but they were willing to listen. "Tits & Clits" was our friends in Laguna who were amazed at what we were doing. The were saying, "Whoa, where is this coming from?" Then we would say, "Well there's 'Zap,' and we want to have our say." Now [comix publisher] Bob Rita was just the opposite. I don't know what Trina's experience with Bob Rita was, but once we got "Tits & Clits" Lyn took copies up to San Francisco and she went to the various publishers, which at that time was Rip Off Press, Bob Rita and Ron Turner. Bob Rita was so dismissive that it was shocking, Lyn still tells the story.

Robbins: I'd like to hear it because actually [comix publishers] Don Schenker and Bob Rita, who together were the Print Mint, were very positive about me. The reason I had put together ["Wimmen's Comix"] was because I had spoken with them and they said yes, they would be interested in a women's liberation book. So I put it together, but I gave it to Ron because he came over with a thousand dollars! Don had been much more open than Bob, and he said, "Why did you give that book to Ron?" I said, "He came over with a check for a thousand dollars!" [Laughs]

Once you began working on your own comics, how were you received by rest of the underground comix creators and readers at the time?

Robbins: "Wimmen's Comix" happened two years after "It Ain't Me, Babe," so for me it really started with "It Ain't Me, Babe." I immediately started getting fan mail from women, and also from guys who'd say, "My old lady really hates comics but she loves your comics, those are the only ones she'll read." I said, "My god," because I was all alone there. I'd save those letters, I'd answer them, I'd put them up on the wall -- they were my inspiration.

Farmer: Exactly. We went through some of that, and of course we had that rather famous [underground newspaper] "Los Angeles Free Press" guy who said a vagina is only for putting something in, not for anything to come out of. A letter like that told Lyn and I that we were on the right track for sure, because we were offending the right group of people.

Robbins: Yes!

Farmer: These were people who had no comprehension of who women were at all, except as somebody to poke. [Laughs]

At that time we were also getting the first feminist publications and magazines, like "Ms. Magazine." Had you gotten a chance to talk to other feminists about what you were doing with your comics, or try to tie into "Ms." or some of the other feminist publications going on?

Robbins: It's funny, "Ms." wouldn't publish our ads. We dealt with sexuality in an open way, and god, Joyce and Lyn dealt with sexuality even more than we did, that's what they're books were all about! I think that the women at "Ms." were a little off put by that and they didn't want to carry our ads. But I had actually met Gloria Steinem shortly after "Ms." was formed. I went down to the offices to see if I could find some work there; I met her and she actually hugged me! She had seen my comics and asked me to do a comic for "Ms." But it never went further than that. I sent in a comic and I got an answer saying, "Phone me, because we like it but we really need to make some changes." But she was never there when I phoned and I finally got a kill fee from them.

Farmer: The thing is, "Ms. Magazine" was being formed at a time when it was a very pioneering thing to do as a magazine. They had to survive financially and the culture at that time was not open yet to discussing sexuality, and certainly not women's sexuality. It was just barely beginning with "Playboy," and "Hustler" came out in '73, "Ms." came out in '72. "Ms." had plenty of prose regarding sexuality but doing it visually, it hits you more in the gut. I think "Ms." thought they had to be more careful. I had heard rumors, I didn't know you had met her and she had hugged you, but I heard rumors that Gloria Steinem liked the various women's comics, but I had gotten the idea we were too far -- not Left or Right but too far out there for a publisher on a new magazine that was struggling and didn't want to make any mistakes.

Talking about explicit female sexuality, I understand "Tits & Clits" had a pornography charges leveled against it at one point.

Farmer: Lyn used to own a bookstore in Laguna Beach just before we started the comic. In fact, that was why she had any money to contribute to the printing of the first issue, she sold the bookstore to a college professor from Riverside and his wife, who was a former nun. A district attorney here in Orange County decided to prosecute us for pornography, that it would be easy because the writers, artists, publisher and booksellers were all in one county so they could make two or three arrests and get us all. This would be a big feather in the cap of this district attorney, who turned out to be A) female and a colleague of a friend of mine and B) her husband was a professor at Cal State Fullerton in English and a self-styled "expert in pornography."

Robbins: Wow.

Farmer: So the whole thing was a tight, neat package; they started by arresting the bookstore owner for pornography. The lucky thing was the investigating officer bought the last copy of "Tits & Clits," so when they came back to arrest the bookstore owner there wasn't any evidence on the shelf! So they made the arrest but their case was immediately screwed up. Then they put this college professor and his pregnant wife, his former nun pregnant wife, in jail overnight. When I heard about the arrest I had called the ACLU right away but I couldn't get through to anybody; nobody was interested because, again, I was dealing with all men. It was sex, it was female sex, and, "We aren't that interested, this has nothing to do with fee speech." You get the picture. Later I guess the lawyer for the couple or the free clinic I was working at, somebody called the ACLU and got them involved. The ACLU took over and made the District Attorney so embarrassed that the case was dropped a year later. There was not an issue of selling to minors, it was an issue of having it on the shelves of this bookstore that was radical anyway; the ACLU was a little slow in getting, but once there got there they were on it. But I had a full year of being frightened, and all my sympathy goes to those people who have actually been arrested. It is hell.

Robbins: That was the year instead of doing "Tits & Clits" you changed the name to "Pandora's Box?"

Farmer: Yes, and we also did "Abortion Eve" earlier in the year. It was a pro-abortion comic and it was published in May or so of 1970. People had been giving us a lot of flak that "Tits & Clits" was too out there and we couldn't get reviews and we disgusted a whole lot of people that we used such a pejorative for women. Feminists were disgusted we used a pejorative, men were interested but a little afraid of the next step. The book was selling like mad but we weren't getting editorial approval or review approval.

Robbins: On this side of California, you should know that we thought you were absolutely outrageous and we were delighted! I think we had put together the first issue of "Wimmen's Comix," I know you guys made it to the newsstand two weeks before us, and one of the women came to a meeting and said, "Look! Look what they're doing in Southern California!"

Farmer: Did you love it or did you hate it?

Robbins: Oh, we loved it! It was so outrageous what you had done, and the title!

Farmer: [Laughs] The title I felt -- I was an Art Center school student in advertising -- and you had to have a reason to pick it off a newsstand to look at it. If you haven't picked it up, there's no way you can take it to the cash register and buy it. I knew this thoroughly, but within days [comics journalist] Clay Geerdes contacted us by postcard: "Who are you? What are you doing?" Of course we wrote back and we developed a friendship with Clay. He wasn't well liked in the community --

Robbins: Including by me.

Farmer: ...but he was all we had, and he did introduce us to everybody, or at least we learned where the parties were! [Laughs] I don't know how I feel about Clay in retrospect. He liked to hang-on and he liked where the action was, but he didn't contribute very much. He did put people together -- and Trina, I have to say this about you, you have put more people together than anybody else in the comix community, and I thank you for this!

Robbins: I'm glad, you're welcome!

You mentioned "Abortion Eve" -- with the current spat of legislation targeting reproductive rights (access to birth control, attacks on Planned Parenthood, etc.) have you thought of republishing the comic? Is it still relevant to women today?

Farmer: We feel that way, but it's very dated. I went through it the other day and I'm pretty much aghast at how I wrote the accent of the black woman and different things. If it were to be re-issued it would have to be redone. I'm not against it but I'm not hearing from anybody that there's a need for it.

Robbins: Boy, is there a need for it! In 1989 the Supreme Court passed the Webster [V. Reproductive Health Services] decision, which put abortion decisions in the hands of individual states, and we're now seeing the result of that. I co-published with Liz Schiller of "Oakland NOW!" a NOW benefit book called "Choices." Already there was something up on the web where people had "rediscovered" it, some woman found it in a used bookstore or something, and said "This should really be republished!" I say, "anytime!" It was the Webster decision that put us in the state we are now where literally the States are making abortion all but impossible.

Farmer: Especially in more isolated states where women, especially poor women, have a much harder time getting away for a day or two. The thing about "Abortion Eve" was it was a how-to manual on how to figure out if you're the sort of person who will want one or not want one. I call it pro-choice because it is pro choice, in that you can make your choice either way. Trina, I haven't read "Choices," what is it talking about?

Robbins: It's talking about choices -- a lot of people did stories about possible terrible futures in which abortion is illegal, I did a story, based on fact, about a teenage couple in 1963 where they couldn't get an abortion so they committed suicide, it was a real story. The end result of all the stories is that we need to have legal abortion.

Farmer: Mine was showing the emotional ramifications of facing the issue. I think there's a time and a place for all of this, and it should happen, but somebody needs to come forward.

Robbins: Everybody's standing back and saying, "Yes, this is a good idea," but what I read from the newspaper on a daily basis abortion is in real danger. It's being pecked to death. It's not illegal but its being made impractical to get one.

Farmer: You use a great term when you say its being pecked to death. That is exactly it.

Joyce, recently you wrote and illustrated "Special Exits" which was published by Fantagraphics and Trina, you're still involved in comics and have written numerous histories of women in comics. From your perspectives, is the modern comics industry less sexist and more inclusive to women?

Robbins: It's definitely more inclusive, there's more women drawing comics than ever before! The mainstream continues to be very male dominated, and that makes sense because the mainstream is all superheroes and that's aimed at boys. It's going to be male dominated. But the salvation is graphic novels. There are so many women drawing comics, and what they're drawing is graphic novels because it doesn't have to be a big-necked, muscular guy in tights.

Farmer: I completely agree with Trina. I do get annoyed in a minor way at young women having some in somewhere with some publishing company that they get a one hundred or two hundred page full-color graphic novel on their teenage and early twenties angst -- but then, I'm not twenty years old anymore!

Robbins: Most comic book memoirs are so annoying -- not yours, Joyce! [Laughter]

Farmer: I think though we might have aged ourselves out of that particular market!

You bring up an interesting point, though, because while we're seeing a lot of personal stories from women in graphic novel form, we're not seeing books that are as radically political as the ones from the 1970s. Why don't we have the equivalent of a "Tits & Clits" in the modern day?

Farmer: The issues have kind of been done. We still have abortion, but what else is there out there? Seriously, what else grabs you and makes you want to talk about it?

In some ways the women's rights issues of today are retreads of the women's rights issues of the 1970s, like birth control access and abortion and equal pay.

Farmer: It's all old news. There is an issue out there that is not being dealt with too much in graphic novels, though, and that's Honor Killings.

Robbins: Yes! The treatment of women in Islamic nations --

Farmer: It's not just Islam, it's in Greece, I see it when I'm there. It's a cultural thing, I have to stand in defense of Islam; at this point it happens in Islamic countries a lot, but it's cultural throughout the Mediterranean, and god knows India. Making this public is important -- write about it!

Looking back at the 1970s, how influential do you ultimately think the underground feminist comix were and how influential do you think they've been on comics and women in comics?

Robbins: A lot of women who are now very well known started at "Wimmen's Comix" because we were there and we were open, unlike the men. We were open to submissions from everyone. They made their start at "Wimmen's Comix" and I do believe "Wimmen's Comix" opened the door for all the women who are publishing now.

Farmer: I think you're right Trina, I've noticed this very strongly and I'm very happy about this. On a broader level we also brought in new talent to "Tits & Clits," but the other thing that's happened is that as I walk around all these conferences and things people have me go to, I realize "Tits & Clits" is utterly famous among a lot of people who were alive in the '70s. Feedback I never heard in the '70s I'm getting now. I was talking to an artist and he started describing the one issue he saw in somebody's garage, describing exactly one of the best covers, the one where the woman says, "What are you using for birth control?" He's sitting there, it's 2012, and this guy is giving a complete description of something he had seen 40 years before. I am so happy this went out there in all these little ways we can't see. I'm sure "Wimmen's Comix" did the same. It completely soaked into the culture so we're all living and breathing it now without even knowing it.

Robbins: Yes, absolutely!

CBR's Women In Comics Month continues next week as writer Marjorie Liu and artist Becky Cloonan discuss the current state of female creators in mainstream comics -- and read the first installment with Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson here.

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