Women have been involved in cartoons and comics from their beginning, although much of their work has languished in the greater story of graphic narratives. And it’s not for the reasons you might think. They weren’t hiding behind pseudonyms or being cut out of the field; it’s that later when the history was chronicled, their names just weren’t included.
Trina Robbins, an influential comics creator herself particularly in the underground comix of the 1970s and 80s, has dedicated herself as a historian of this overlooked story. The research culminated in Pretty In Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 published last December by Fantagraphics. (Part of her collection is also currently on view in an exhibition on women cartoonists at the ToonSeum in Pittsburgh.)
Pretty in Ink starts in 1896 with a then-teenager Rose O’Neill publishing the earliest known work by a woman cartoonist with Truth Magazine, and crawls all the way ahead to the present-day resurgence of women working in graphic novels, through the rocky post-World War II opportunities where women in all fields faced a loss of work. As Robbins writes:
“Today, although as a whole the industry is still male-dominated, more women are drawing comics than ever before and there are more venues for them to see their work in print. In the 1950s, when the comics industry hit an all-time low, there was no place for women to go. Today, because of graphic novels, there’s no place for aspiring women cartoonists to go but forward.”
The book itself is engrossing as a compendium of such a diverse collection of crisply printed comics, from the art nouveau beauties of Nell Brinkley’s work to the 1940s panther skin-garbed Miss Fury created by Tarpe Mills — who predated Wonder Woman as the first female superhero (who herself wouldn’t be drawn by a woman until four decades after she appeared). Like the majority of the artists, despite changing her name from June to Tarpe, it was no secret Mills was a woman. Features were regularly run on the artist that showed she “bore a startling resemblance to her protagonist,” and the comics even featured Mills’ own Persian cat.
Even Dale Messick who loved to tell the story of changing her name from Dalia to get published is proved in Robbins’ book to have been a very public figure as the creator of the first female action heroine — Brenda Starr in the 1940s. And her work was as daring as her male contemporaries if not more so:
“Messick’s heroine, whose looks were based on film star Rita Hayworth, parachuted from planes, joined girl gangs, escaped from kidnappers, almost froze to death on snow-covered slopes, and got marooned on desert islands.”
So why have their histories almost vanished from comic history? Robbins even notes that early 20th century artist Marjorie Organ, who was at the time the only woman on the New York Journal‘s art staff and thrived with her strip on two beautiful sisters and their always failing suitor Reggie, has faded into her husband painter Robert Henri’s art. His portrait of her — “O in Black With a Scarf” — is in San Francisco’s deYoung Museum of Art “where it is admired by visitors who have no idea who she was.”
After World War II, the industry was dominated by muscled male superheroes, and almost completely aimed at boys. It took an underground movement of alternative comics to bring back women to the forefront through independent publishing and importantly graphic novels that brought the art form out of its funny pages obscurity. Robbins’ book moves at a whiplash speed through all of this, as it’s a lot of ground to cover in a heavily illustrated 179 pages, and sometimes the narrative between the artists blurs in its details, but overall it is an essential addition to the history of cartoons and comics in the 20th century in North America.
Pretty In Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 by Trina Robbins is available from Fantagraphics.