Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Pretty in Ink: Looking at Women's Contributions to Comics

Pauline Loth's Miss America 1945
“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 comic 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.” – Trina Robbins, Pretty in Ink (2013)
 While I realize we just finished Women's History month, that's no reason to stop looking at women's contributions. Below is a review/ summary of Trina Robbin's Pretty in Ink.

Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 by Trina Robbins discusses the lives, times, struggles, and contributions of women in the world of cartoons and comics.   [For high school and older.]
Pretty in Ink by cartoonist and comic historian, Trina Robbins, explores 117 years of women’s contributions of female cartoon creators and artists. Not only does Robbins discuss the lives of these women, but she puts them and their contributions in the context of their times. Pretty in Ink is a history of women cartoonists and of the cartoon/comic industry as a whole. Robbins has researched and relayed the stories behind the comics and cartoons, along with some samples of their gems.
Pretty in Ink relates the role of women in the history of comics in eight chapters:
Trina Robbins Pretty in Ink 2013
  • The Queens of Cute
  • The Pursuit of Flappiness
  • Depression Babies and Babes
  • Blonde Bombers and Girl Commandos
  • Back to the Kitchen
  • Chicks and Womyn
  • See You in the Funny Pages
  • Postscript: 21st Century Foxes
Below is a brief summary (with little time or room to mention all the awesome women who've paved the way for others while giving women a cultural voice):

Chapter 1: “The Queens of Cute” is devoted to the first women creators or artists of comics. For the most part, women from 1895-1920’s created comics with cute cherubic kids who got into trouble (i.e. Kewpies, and The Turrble Tales of Kaptin Kiddo) or they were creating/writing about suffrage and love (i.e., Flora Flirt). To help make ends meet, many of these women were also drawing for corporate advertising for companies such as Campbell (i.e. the Campbell Soup Kids, Jello, and Ivory Soap).

Rose O'Neill's Kewpies

Nell Brinkley's February 13,1927 The Fortunes of Flossie Sunday page
 Chapter 2: “The Pursuit of Flappiness" takes us from the 1920’s Flappers to The Great Depression. These were the days and times of pretty girls and flappers. Nell Brinkley set the style and stage during the 1920’s with her “Brinkley Girls” whose fashionable clothes and flamboyant hair inspired controversy and fan mail. [Robbins notes that Florenz Ziegfeld made his fortune glorifying Brinkley Girls in his Ziegfeld Follies.] Robbins, continues, however, noting that while Brinkely created the penultimate female, her daily panels provided sharp commentary of women’s roles and rights of her time, “squeezing” in important comments on suffrage, working women, and women in sports. In this chapter, however, Brinkley is just the starting point. Robbins then discusses the other women contributors of this era and their valuable contributions to comics.

Chapter 3: “Depression Babies and Babes" takes us from roaring parties to depression.  Robbins notes that while the average heroine of the 1920’s had been a pretty girl, often a “co-ed” with nothing on her mind but boys, the 1930’s plunged America into a The Great Depression and brought us “The Depression strip”  (i.e. Apple Mary by Martha Orr).

Robbins notes,
“This type of strip featured unglamorous protagonists dealing with real problems: poor but happy American households; upbeat unflappable orphans; plucky working girls (i.e. Brenda Starr by Dale Messick) out to earn a living rather than merely having a good time.” (p. 51).

Image from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/d5/Applemary341029.jpg/660px-Applemary341029.jpg

Chapter 4: “Blonde Bombers and Girl Commandos" reflects America in 1940’s – a country teetering on the brink of war. Robbins notes that movies, pulp fiction and the new medium of comic books all echoed the action-oriented themes of war.  While earlier comics had been about cute animals and kids and pretty girls out to have fun in a carefree world, women were now more involved men’s world – both in the story content and in their production. Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, for example, paved the way with a Rita Hayworth-like reporter who parachuted from planes, joined girl gangs, escaped from kidnappers, almost froze to death in snow-covered slopes, and got marooned on desert islands.  Other comics followed with female spies, female commandos and undercover agents soon followed. 

Brenda Starr: Reporter by Dale Messick - image from http://ic.pics.livejournal.com/peur_evol/17297328/155781/155781_original.jpg
Robbins notes, however, that while other comics had women as foils for the hero to rescue, only the Fiction House comics had women in charge.  Fiction House, started in 1936 by Jerry Iger and Will Eisner was also the company that hired more women cartoonists than any of the others. It was also one of the only publishers who had women writing the stories.
As America entered the war, women assumed men's places at work as the men went off to fight. Robbins notes that while few women drew the costumed heroes that had been popular since Superman in 1938, most exceeded at and drew female figures. Typical wartime heroine titles were “Yankee Girl” (drawn by Ann Brewster), or “Blonde Bomber” and “Girl Commandos” (drawn by Jill Eglin and later Barbara Hall). Furthermore, women were able to work under their own names.  The only times pseudonyms were used was when drawing and/or creating action strips.  Those were male domains.

Chapter 5: “Back to the Kitchen" relates what happened to women and the industry after the war. The returning men assumed the production of the superhero /action comics while the women developed children’s action comics, teen comics, and love comics. Robbins notes that teen and romance comics continued to employ women throughout the 1950’s, but slowly the number of women in the field dropped, with many of the female artists moving into illustrating children’s books. Robbins pegs the recession in the comics market during the 1950’s to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent  which (falsely) claimed that comics were responsible for juvenile delinquency. DC and Marvel, the two major comic book publishers to survive the comic book depression began gearing themselves toward superheroes and the young male market. Female-oriented comic books were being slowly phased out.

by Trina Robbins
Chapter 6: “Chicks and Womyn" relates what the female comic book artists and creators did to survive – they like most of the comic book industry went underground, developing the Comix market. Robbins notes that the early comix were psychedelic, focusing on design rather than story. The women’s underground comics of the (later) 1970’s dealt with political and social issues from the female perspective.
By the 1970’s the only way for women to produce comic books was on their own, and so many women, including Robbins created their own anthologies.  The late 1970’s saw the beginning of a boom in self publishing and small press black-and-white comics. It also saw the rising of comic book specialty stores.
Chapter 7: “See You in the Funny Pages" during the 1980’s and 1990’s attempts at producing comics for women and girls were scattered and mostly all failed because the comic book stores either didn’t carry them or the ordered too few and failed to reorder when their few copies sold out.  These comic book stores became bastions for the young male market the major comic book publishers were courting. In 1993, Robbins notes that “Friends of Lulu” – a group of the comic industry’s women began to create and distribute their own media in “zines” (magazines) with mixed success. Women creating comic strips, however, met with more success as many were self-syndicated.
Chapter 8: 21st Century Foxes" relays the successes and disappointments of the 21st Century (so far).  In terms of the disappointments, Robbins notes that women creators/artists/inkers are still significantly underrepresented in the major publishing houses. She notes, for example that in 2011, as DC opened their new line of comics, The New 52, only 1% of the new line creators were women, and 12% of their canceled strips were done by women. On the positive side, with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Maus, the graphic novel became a more accepted art and literary form. Now there was much more than simply superhero stories out there.  There were graphic stories and graphic memoires. And, women were creating their own graphic novels and memoires for adults, teens and kids. Finally, webcomics, which are mostly creator owned have also give women a stronger voice in the industry.  It is on this upbeat note that Robbins ends her history with the hope of even greater access to women’s stories and women’s work in the future.

Amanda Conner and Laura Martin's cover for the collected Girl Comics, by Marvel

I have only recently entered the world of comics and graphic novels (aside from the awesome Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts) and found Robbin's history fascinating and illuminating. I hope those of you visiting, will leave your own memories and accounts of women in comics in the comments below. In the meantime, I have listed a few lesson suggestions for teachers, and as always, thank you for your visit.

Lesson Suggestions for Pretty in Ink:
  • Use this book as a reference to a particular period of American history from 1896 to the present. Look at the comics Robbins selects and analyze/discuss how the reflect the period in which they were written.
  • Selecting various periods of American history (1896-present) compare/analyze/discuss women’s roles in comics versus other industries at that particular time. 
  • Select comics done by men versus comics done by women of a particular tie period.  How do the differ in content, in style, in language?
  • Use this book to discuss the course of American publishing.  How has it changed?  Where is it going today?
  • Reading through Pretty in Ink one gets a very definite perspective on history.  Discuss this perspective and how it influences one’s understanding of the eras involved. Are there other perspectives?


  1. WAY COOL! Once upon a time, we at FantaCo published some of her work. She's a great artist.

  2. Wow! Very interesting to know this piece of history.I was fortunately educated to be free and become what I wanted to become. My daughters have done the same. One of them is an engineer, the Australian one is a car mechanic, a mother of four and now working as a librarian in the Cooktown library. Thanks for your post.
    Have a great week.
    Wil, ABCW Team.

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