Women and the Comics

Women and the Comics cover

Trina Robbins keeps writing books about the contributions of women to comics, filling in gaps in the more familiar history with lots of fascinating stories of under-appreciated creators. Yet these books keep going out of print. Male conspiracy? Or just bad luck with publishers?

Her first book on the topic, Women and the Comics, was co-written with Cat Yronwode (Editor-in-Chief of Eclipse Comics, who published this volume in 1985) and intended in part as a response to Maurice Horn’s Women in the Comics. Robbins, in her introduction, describes that book as consisting of

nothing but pictures of sexy female characters in comics, as undressed as possible. On the last page was an extremely small — and misleading, and incorrect — listing of women cartoonists.

Women and the Comics cover

So this book clearly has a political purpose in mind, but I don’t see anything wrong with demonstrating that women create, and have done in every era, comics. (Not that Robbins doesn’t have her own biases; it wasn’t until Yronwode came on as co-writer that Robbins was willing to include women who’d written comics as well as those who drew.) At the time of the writing, the authors kept bumping into male artists who didn’t know of many, if any, female cartoonists. While the problem isn’t so bad today, it’s awfully nice to have a reference volume, brief as it is, capturing so much of this diverse work.

This is a giant junk drawer of a survey book, arranged by era. Sometimes, it’s little more than an index, listing the names of artists and their comic strips. With over 500 creators cited in some form in only 128 pages, it couldn’t be much more. As evidence that there are women cartoonists, it amply does its job. It’s unfortunate that all of the art is reproduced in black and white, no color. Some of the vibrancy and impact of the work is lost. Also, many of the pictures are illustrations or single panels (including fashion drawings and paper dolls) instead of full comics.

Certain women get more biographical information included, or unusual tidbits dropped in, including Robbins, written about in the third person in the chapter on underground comix. Much of the book covers newspaper strips, with additional chapters on undergrounds, the women who worked in the comic book shops of the 1940s, and non-American work, in which manga gets two half-pages of text, a quarter-page reproduction, and two full-page illustrations; the term “manga” is never used.

The last chapter will be most recognizable to the casual comic fan, since that’s where the contributions of women to relatively modern superhero comics are discussed. After starting with Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon, many other women who worked for Marvel and DC are lightly covered. There is some discussion of the sexist and female-unfriendly policies of the companies, both in terms of those working for them and the products they produce, as well as stories of women working under the names of their husbands. The chapter goes on to cover independent publishers of the time as well as comic strips.

Although the book is now over 20 years old, as a historical retrospective, it provides useful pointers to where more research can be done.

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