PRETTY IN INK and TRINA ROBBINS: SHE WAS UNSTOPPABLE
Trina Robbins was a crucial part of America’s first wave of underground comix, and now she’s gone back to the first wave of comic strips ever with her painstakingly researched Pretty In Ink, a definitive history of North American women cartoonists that includes the first comic strip by a woman ever. (Which Robbins discovered for a few dollars at a yard sale a short walk from her house.) She speaks now about what’s changed and why it’s never changing back. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
How long have you been working on this? You cover more than a hundred years of women cartoonists.
It’s almost a lifetime project! I wrote my first history of women cartoonists in 1985—I co-wrote it with Catherine Yronwode, and there’s a whole story just about that one. They were published by Eclipse, and the book had just come out and they’d sent advance copies to the stores and me. And it was stored in the Eclipse basement and along came the great Guerneville flood of 1985, and everything in the basement was turned into papier mache! And that was the end of that book. But that book—this was before the days of the internet and research was very hard to do. A lot of our information simply turned out to be wrong. There was this organization of fans—illustration fans from the early 20th century in Los Angeles—who’d published these little magazines, and that’s where we got our info on Nell Brinkley. Everything we knew about Nell Brinkley was from these magazines, and it turned out their info was absolutely wrong! They even got her hair color wrong! So a lot of the information in the first one was really faulty. By the second book, I’d got more info—that was 1996 and it was still the early days of the internet. There was only so much you could do—so many people you couldn’t reach. So finally in 1999 I did one and I was very excited cuz at last there was much more info! But it was my worst book—my editor put typos all over the book! She was so concerned with ‘We gotta get this book out on time!’ and she sent me the galleys, and I caught all these typos but she never changed them. So I got the book and saw the typos and I wanted to dig a hole and die—people were gonna think it was my fault! And finally Gary Groth of Fantagraphics asked me to do this book—my final and definitive history of women cartoonists. The galleys are beautiful! When Fantagraphics does a book, there are no typos! And I have so much more info. I found a Native American woman cartoonist—Eva Mirabal. I found so many new women and I found photos of so many. I just think it’s so great to be able to attach a face to the art. The book is stuffed with photos of these women.
What was the detective work like? You have some artists who are extremely obscure, others who used fake names—
Actually that’s a common belief that simply isn’t true—that women had to give themselves male names to succeed. Very few of them did. Dale Messick [who created the long-running comic about Brenda Starr, famed reporter] loved to talk about that. It was her favorite subject. How she was born Dalia and had to change her name. But in the book, I have a lot of her early comics that didn’t sell—the ones she did before Brenda Starr, and only the very first one which was probably done just out of high school is signed Dalia. All the others are Dale, and she still didn’t sell them! It had nothing to do with changing her name. There was a dealer who sells original comics, and he had all these early Dale Messicks and most people were not interested cuz it wasn’t published and it wasn’t Brenda Starr. But he knew of course that I was the person who should get them—and I did! I have the largest archive of original art by early 20th-century women cartoonists. It’s not a wall of filing cabinets—it’s about three filing cabinets. A lot of it is always out. It’s like a travelling exhibit. Bits and pieces are always on exhibit somewhere. It’s been shown all over Europe—Portugal and Spain, Germany and Austria. Japan. And here! It’s gone everywhere.
Why do you call this the definitive version? What’s finally been defined?
As far as I can see, the story is now told completely and correctly. This book contains the very first comic—as far as I know, and it’s generally recognized that I’m right!—that is the very first comic strip by a woman. Rose O’Neill in 1896. She was 14 when she won a prize in a political cartoon contest, and the judges absolutely couldn’t believe this little girl had drawn this, so they had her draw something in front of them to prove she’d done it. She drew this comic strip later in 1896.
How were you able to pinpoint that? And how did you dig up that particular comic?
That is cosmic—some of my discoveries were simply cosmic! I was at a garage sale right around the corner from where I live and they had three copies of Truth magazine from the 1890s. I knew that Grace Drayton had done a cover for Truth—the first thing she’d sold. So I snapped them up and brought them home. No Grace Drayton, but the Rose O’Neill comic! That’s just cosmic!
Who are some of the artists in Pretty In Ink that people should explore more on their own?
You have to start with Nell Brinkley. Her stuff is simply gorgeous, and she was a superstar and then forgotten—poof! In my dictionary, I looked up ‘Gibson girls’ and that’s in, but ‘Brinkley girls’ is not. You think it could have anything to do with the fact she’s female and he’s male? You go, ‘Nahhh…’ but you know … so I’d start with Nell and then I’d go on to Lily Renée and Fran Hopper—beautiful action heroines! Beautiful women in fabulous 40s clothes who are totally in control—not being rescued! They do the rescuing! And of course Dale Messick. She related to her character. She turned herself INTO her character—she was unstoppable!
I love her quote about working while pregnant: ‘Throw up, draw Brenda. Throw up, draw Brenda.’
I love it! She drew Brenda Starr daily and Sunday from 1941 til I believe she retired in 1979. Do the math—I don’t want to! She’s the link between everything. Her big inspiration was Nell Brinkley.
Where were the revelations for you in this history?
Really uncovering all these women. That’s the whole reason I did the book to start with—the first book. The belief at the time was that women had not drawn comics and I knew that was nonsense! Here’s a good one—Fran Hopper, who was one of the artists who drew for Fiction House, my favorite Golden Age company, during the second World War when they were hiring all these women. I also had early copies of Patsy Walker by Timely—which later became Marvel—and I looked at them and thought, ‘That sure looks like Fran Hopper.’ I didn’t know if she was dead or alive and the odds were she was no longer with us, but a wonderful woman who I thank in the book found the obituary of Fran Hopper’s husband online. It talked about who he was survived by, including his wife and his sons, one of whom was a doctor, and I figured you can’t find everyone online but you can usually find a doctor. And sure enough—
This is some Brenda Starr-style reporting.
Or Nancy Drew! So I found the son and called the clinic where he worked and he called back very excited, and Fran was indeed alive in a retirement home in New Jersey. That summer I was going to New York for a whole other reason, so I took the whole day to go to her retirement home in the middle of nowhere. Fran was a lovely, wonderful woman and I had photocopies of those Patsy Walkers and I said, ‘Did you draw this?’ And she looked at it and said, ‘Yes!’ So I was able to add that information to the book!
Was Fiction House the first publisher to have a roster of superheroines?
There had been superheroines before—Wonder Woman started in 1941, and Miss Fury who is in the book beat Wonder Woman to the punch by a couple weeks or a month. That makes her really the first costumed action heroine! And of course it’s not an accident that Miss Fury was drawn by a woman. This is what women relate to. I think it was very much her fantasy—she even put her own cat in the strip! I think when women draw … of course women can draw action strips, too, but when they draw action strips they have heroines cuz this is what they relate to. This is their fantasy!
There’s such a back-and-forth in this history. Like in the 40s while men are at war, women are able to move into comics in places like Fiction House—but then they’re pushed out when the men come back, and anyone who stayed on is the first fired when comics become controversial in the 50s. Where do you think we are now?
Right now it’s great! And it’s not gonna go back. More women are drawing comics than ever before, and what they’re drawing for the most part are graphic novels—which have saved the industry as far as I’m concerned. Mainstream comics are nothing but overmuscled guys punching each other out or women with breasts bigger than their head. But in graphic novels, which are published by genuine book publishers and can be sold in bookstores and found in libraries, people are telling real stories.
You say that in the book: ‘Real stories are what comics are made for.’ Why? Especially since they started out so fantastically—Little Nemo is an actual dreamscape. What makes you say the core of the form is for real stories?
It is! If a picture is worth a thousand words, and then you add the words, too, you have the perfect method of communication! Nothing communicates better than the combination of a picture and words. There’s always been incredible possibility—you can tell wonderful stories, but the possibility wasn’t realized for some many years. And at last it’s realized! Women in general are not fond of superhero comics. God, does it get old! And now at last women have an outlet—graphic novels! They have these awards at San Diego Comicon—the Eisners, which are the Oscars of comics. I was there this past July and I got inducted into the Will Eisner comics hall of fame, which was really cool! But there were so many women getting Eisners for the first time ever, and they were all for graphic novels and some were even self-published, and they’re all so GOOD! The photo is wonderful of all us women—what’s really cute and we didn’t do it on purpose is cuz it was summer we were all bare-legged in skirts or shorts and we all have our legs crossed and we look like a bunch of geeky chorus girls! Rockettes!
Why is this happening now? In the book, Dale Messick is kept from working by one editor who had a ‘bad experience’ with one unnamed ‘woman cartoonist.’ How do women break through those kinds of situations now?
What changed is graphic novels, really. I picked two things I think we owe that to. One is Sailor Moon, which was the first manga to come to the U.S., and the other is Maus. Yes, there were graphic novels before Maus, but Maus was the first of importance where people sat up and took notice. It was a cross-over. I feel very optimistic! The graphic novel is really the wave of the future.
What happens in the culture when women can produce their own comics the way they want them to be?
For one thing girls and women are reading comics now—the graphic novels. And guys too! There are wonderful graphic novels by men. I don’t only read women, I promise you that! And people besides 12-year-old boys and 30-year-old men who are really still 12-year-old boys are now reading comics. Mainstream comics are a boy’s field—there’s a few women who managed to break in but mostly it’s a boy’s field, drawn by younger men and a few older men, too. And I don’t really think they necessarily wanna change it. They’ve got their continuous ever-replacing audience. 12-year-old boys who grow up, and other boys replace them—a steady stream of young men to read the comics. They’re very insulated.
They’re immune to change?
They don’t have to!
Does that situation happen anywhere else?
I hope not!
What were the last big disappointments in the history of women in comics? That final issue of Wimmin’s Comix—with the ME WORRY cover—is brutal.
Yes—Caryn Leschen was really good! She gave me the title of this book! That was probably the last big disappointment. We were doing something stores weren’t ready for yet. Well, when I talk big disappointments—in the 80s, I managed to convince Jim Shooter, who was an editor at Marvel then, to have me do a six-part series for teenage girls. For young girls but about teenage girls, mirrored on Patsy Walker and the teen comics that were such a hit in the 40s and 50s. It was called Meet Misty and young girls loved it! My editor would send me manila envelopes every month stuffed with letters from young girls who’d say things like, ‘I never read comics before, but I love Meet Misty cuz it’s for me!’ Some letters were TO Misty, which was very sweet! But the book folded after six issues cuz stores were not carrying it. It was exactly what Caryn says about Wimmin’s Comix. I’d go in the comic stores and see Archie but no Misty, and I’d say, ‘Where’s Meet Misty?’ ‘We sold out.’ At first I thought how exciting! But then I found out they’d only ordered two copies!
So could the culture be reprogrammed by fixing the bottlenecks in distribution?
Oh yes, distribution. Or finding better distribution. With graphic novels, you don’t have to be sold in a comic store. You can be in a bookstore or a library. And librarians and teachers love graphic novels! They know a kid who won’t read a book will read a comic.
Who were the artists that led you to comics in the first place?
I read Patsy Walker and all the teen comics. I loved teen comics. I wasn’t a teenager, I was like ten years old. But little girls love teenage girls just like little boys love teenage boys. So I read all of those and when I ran out of them and I’d still get my allowance, I’d go to the comic store—well, it was the corner candy store with a little spinner rack that said HEY KIDS! COMICS!—and I’d get whatever had a heroine. I loved Wonder Woman! Or Mary Marvel! She was great—she wasn’t even a woman but a GIRL! And that meant maybe if I said magic words like she did, I could get superpowers!
So this is really powerful—it can really affect your life.
Of course it can! I think it’s nice if art can tell you something besides entertaining you, but nothing is wrong with just being entertained! During the Depression, they made some of the best movies! Life was so miserable, people just needed to go to a movie and be taken away. And what could be a more wonderful thing to do then to make people feel better? Not every comic book or movie needs to say, ‘To the barricades, comrades!’
Why were so many early women cartoonists not just outspoken feminists but kind of total badasses? Like Rose O’Neill—
When she brought the lover home from Paris?
And the reporters just could not believe her—they wrote that it was just a joke.
Artists—let’s face it—are always progressive. Well, I guess there is the occasional one who is not. As much as I love Norman Rockwell, I know he was not progressive. But in general, artists tend to be bohemian, tend to be political progressives. And certainly any intelligent woman was a suffragette in those days.
If you recruited someone from this book to work with you, who would it be?
Can I use dead people? I’d love to write something and have it illustrated by Nell Brinkley. Too bad there are no time machines! I’m still waiting for jetpacks, actually!