In July of 1975, artists Barbara Brown and Becky Wilson sent a letter to a number of cartoonists asking them to contribute four-page comics to an upcoming comic book based around women in history “to cash in on the Bi-Centennial.” Their purpose in publishing this special issue of Wimmen's Comix, the co-editors explained, was to produce “an international collection of the best woman artists-cartoonists in print today” as well as to highlight women whose work had not yet made it into print. The stories they received featured women, real and fictional, who broke all kinds of barriers.
Today, the release of Fantagraphics' new 728-page anthology The Complete Wimmen's Comix means that the best female cartoonists of four decades ago are once again in print. Now, rather than trying to break into the comic book industry, the women of underground comix are being enshrined for their role in changing it.
Wimmen’s Comix was first published serially starting in 1972 and put out issues all the way to 1992. Over those twenty years, Wimmen's Comix served as a platform for several generations of cartoonists who happened to be women: a way to connect and be connected to a larger community of creators. Scholars like sociologist Paul Lopes have called Wimmen's Comix and similar titles a “feminist intervention” into a male-dominated industry.
The women behind Wimmen's Comix hoped to get more women into drawing and writing comics. But they also just wanted a place to publish their boundary-pushing work when no one else would. An editorial note in Wimmen's Comix #2 explains:
“Wimmen's Comix is intended to give support and encouragement to aspiring women cartoonists across the country. We have no desire to be an exclusive, divisive, or female chauvinist group… We do hope that publication of high quality beginning work will give our wimmen artists a chance to be seen, and a foothold in 'the industry' based on their talents of mind, hand, and eye, rather than the more traditionally requested parts of their anatomy.”
All in all, Wimmen's Comix featured the work of over 100 women in its 17 issues. The sheer volume of work that they produced is staggering, filling over 700 pages in the hefty new collection. Nonetheless, many of these women have been—and still are—missing from comics history. Some made only a few forays into the form. Others have lapsed into obscurity due to their use of pseudonyms or maiden names. Many have been simply overlooked and under-appreciated by comics critics of the time and today. When the CEO of the prestigious comics festival Angouleme told reporters earlier this year, “Unfortunately there are few women in the history of comics,” he, like so many comics industry professionals before him, ignored the facts.
Collected, their work is a testimony to the continual existence of women in the comic book industry, a refutation of the idea that comics are or were solely the domain of boys and men. Yet it is also evidence that even women who produce significant work risk being forgotten, that their work can slip into illegibility. Reading The Complete Wimmen's Comix, as cartoonist Alison Bechdel puts it in her blurb for the book, the “freakiest history lesson ever.”
That history lesson goes something like this:
In the early days, American comic books were largely produced for and by men and boys. Though certain genres—notably fashion and romance comics—were intended for female readers and thus more likely to be created by women, women nonetheless constituted a distinct minority in the field. But beginning in the late '60s, a new kind of comic book had begun to appear: underground comix.
Comix-with-an-'x' first appeared on the pages of underground newspapers like the East Village Other and Mad Magazine-inspired college satire magazines before taking on a life—and form—of their own. They were, in many ways, an act of defiance against the restrictive Comics Code Authority of the 1950s. The Code, first adopted by comics publishers to allay parents' fears that violent, gory, and racy comic books were turning their children into juvenile delinquents, severely curbed the content of mainstream comic books. Glorifying crime, inciting lust, and condoning evil were all strictly forbidden.
Underground cartoonists didn't just fail to adhere to the Code. They openly defied it.
Like the counterculture that spawned them, comix were defined by their rebelliousness. Sociologist Clinton Sanders argued in 1975 that comix “function[ed] to promote social change by mocking that which is held sacred and [providing] a medium for bringing socially disapproved topics to the public consciousness.”
Irreverant, imaginative, and occasionally inscrutable, underground comix radically re-imagined what comic books could be and how they could be made. Whereas mainstream comic books were produced by teams of writers, pencillers, inkers, letterers, and colorists, underground cartoonists did it all themselves, retaining complete creative control of their work. The looseness and informality of the underground allowed inexperienced cartoonists the chance to try their hand at the form. Towards the end of the decade, dozens of would-be cartoonists flocked to the Bay Area, to take part in the burgeoning underground comix scene there.
Comics creator Trina Robbins, seen here in 2015, edited The Complete Wimmen's Comix collection. Photo courtesy of Robbins.
One of them was Trina Robbins. Although women like Nancy Kalish and Kay Rudin had been involved in underground comix since as early as 1965, as Robbins and Catherine Yronwode later documented in their 1984 book Women and the Comics, female underground cartoonists were initially few and far between. Robbins, who had published some early work in the comix tabloids Gothic Blimp Worksand Yellow Dog, was one of the few.
Yet on arriving in San Francisco, as she relays in her introduction to The Complete Wimmen's Comix, she found the so-called Mecca of underground comix to be an exclusive boys' club. Unable to get her work published in the underground, she joined the staff of the feminist newspaper It Ain't Me Babe and began drawing comics for them.
Trina Robbins' cover art for the fourth issue of It Ain't Me Babe, published in March of 1970. Image courtesy of Schlesinger Library.
Hoping to create a comic book of her own, one that would welcome women rather than rejecting them, Robbins put out a call for fellow female cartoonists in It Ain't Me Babe. The resulting comic, It Ain't Me Babe Comix, serves as a secondary introduction to the collected Wimmen's Comix.
From “Breaking Out,” the collectively written central story of It Ain't Me Babe Comix (1970).
It Ain't Me Babe Comix was published in 1970 by the underground comix publisher Last Gasp Eco Funnies. Two years later, after the book had been reprinted, Last Gasp expressed interest in publishing another women's liberation comic. Together with Robbins, Last Gasp employees Patricia Moodian and Terre Richards convened a meeting. The group they assembled appears on the inside cover of Wimmen's Comix #1.
While male underground comix artists like R. Crumb have garnered mainstream praise in the past few years, the women of Wimmen's Comix have largely been overlooked. That means most readers will probably not have encountered Wimmen's Comix before this collection. For new readers, navigating the work of so many artists can be overwhelming. In theory, anyone could pick up The Complete Wimmen's Comix and find a story they enjoy. In practice, finding anything in the cacophony of comics presents a problem. There's simply too much to choose from. The sheer variety of graphic styles is slightly mind-boggling. The group's choice to consistently include new artists of variant skill levels adds to this confusion. Some cartoonists appear only once, for a single page, never to be seen again. It’s exciting—and long overdue—for many of these cartoonists to finally appear in a book that can serve as a lasting canon. But it's also disappointing to realize that some of these cartoonists never had the support to create canons of their own.
The stories included in The Complete Wimmen's Comix are as diverse as its roster of contributors. Certainly, certain subjects recur: autobiographical tales of drugs, sex, and rock and roll intermingle with goddess-warrior-alien fantasies. Though later issues of Wimmen's Comix hue more closely to editorial themes, like the “Men” issue, earlier issues are much looser.
The Complete Wimmen's Comix is a definitive text. Yet as a text it resists definition. It is the collected works of a women's collective, an anthology of anthologies. The characteristics of Wimmen's Comix which make challenging to comprehend are those which initially made it revolutionary: inventiveness, creativity, and a disregard for the rules of culture writ large.
Want to learn more about the history of women in comics? Check out our podcast on the topic below.
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