Consciousness Raising

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Name three women cartoonists who worked from 1900 to 1950. Okay, just name one. Couldn't do it? Neither could I until reading a new, invaluable book, "The Great Women Cartoonists," ($24.95; Watson-Guptill Publications; 150 pp.; softcover), by Trina Robbins. Concentrating mostly on comicstrip and comicbook artists of the last century, Robbins uncovers the secret herstory that got left out from all the other millennial surveys.

Though the title may lead you to expect an encyclopedic format, Robbins chooses instead to work chronologically, with each chapter equaling approximately one decade. As such, it becomes a kind of social anthropology of women's societal roles as reflected through the comics. Chapter one, covering the turn of the century to 1920, profiles the work of Rose O'Neill and Grace Drayton, both of whom specialized in drawing cherubic, adorable children getting into cute, domestic scrapes. Drayton's pioneering style lives on today in the form of the Campbell's soup kids, whom she created almost 100 years ago.

Nell Brinkley, who became a national sensation for her depiction of lushly-curled 1920's women, returns from relative obscurity thanks to Robbins. Brinkley became popular enough to warrant a licensing deal for hair products, and inspire a "Nell Brinkley" girl in the Ziegfeld Follies. Lushly illustrated, the book makes a convincing case for her, and other's, influence on the genre. After the care-free "flapper" strips of the 1920s, depression-era women cartoonists depicted mostly dimple-cheeked urchins, and their grannies, including "Mary Worth," created by Dale Conner.

The book makes it clear that like the rest of America's workplace, WWII allowed many more women into jobs previously held by men. Adventure newspaper strips in particular saw an influx of women pioneers. Tarpe Mill's sexy, cat-suited "Miss Fury" strip stands out, as does Dale Messick's still-enduring "Brenda Starr." As a bonus, Robbins has dug up Messick's unpublished, earlier strip proposals. Robbins super-sleuthing has even uncovered Jackie Ormes, apparently the first African-American woman with a syndicated comicstrip, "Torchy Brown," that ran sporadically from the 1930s to the 1950s in black-owned newspapers.

Lily Renée's 1946 cover for 'Fight Comics'

Like other American women after the war many of the cartoonists lost their jobs, just barely managing to find work in the burgeoning romance comicbook genre. By the late 1960s, inspired by, but excluded from, the all-male "underground" scene, women-centric comix began appearing simultaneously with the likes of "Ms." magazine. Finally, the last chapter provides an excellent primer on current women-created books, though it stops short of being a critical survey.

Robbins, whose own career began when she started doing comix in the 1960s, has an old-school feminism approach to her subject. She makes no bones about getting political, calling out big-name publishers and syndicates for their history of sexist hiring practices, including many personal accounts by the artists of humiliating interviews at such places. She also chastises current mainstream publishers Marvel and DC for their total lack of outreach to girl readers because, she says, of their circular logic about girls not reading comics.

It sure is tough. I feel genuinely bad for women who want buy comix and have to go into those horrifying comicbook stores hawking all that garish adolescent male art-swill. (I shop online to avoid them all.) There can be no doubt that part of comix' continuing marginalization has to do with past and continued alienation of half the creative force and half the consumer force. Trina Robbins "The Great Women Cartoonists" makes a tremendous contribution to rediscovering a fading history, with hopes of changing the future.