Wonder Women: On Page and Off
In January 2014, the ToonSeum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, joined the crusade with its Wonder Women: On Page and Off exhibit. Curated by Kathleen Adam of the Women’s Museum of California and featuring artwork from Trina Robbins’ historical collection, the exhibit contained over fifty pieces of original art that showcased the long, influential history that women have crafted within the comic arts, and is quite possibly the largest exhibit of its kind ever open to the public.
The ToonSeum is one of only three museums in the country that cater to the comic and cartoon arts—which includes animation as well as graphic illustrations—and Wonder Women reflects the ToonSeum’s ongoing mission as not only a museum but a leading advocate of a medium that has influenced contemporary society for well over 100 years.
In the early pages of her book Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 (Fantagraphics, 2013), Trina Robbins provides evidence that women artists were creating comic strips and being published in newspapers within a year of Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, considered by many to be the world’s first comic strip. In 1896, for instance, Rose O’Neill had a comic of her own published in Truth Magazine, effectively establishing O’Neill as not only the first woman cartoonist but the leading female artist of her time period when she later launched The Kewpies in 1909.
Although no artwork of Rose O’Neill appeared on the walls of the ToonSeum, one of the most influential female cartoonists to follow was represented, as well as the major theme that dominated her work in the 1920s.
“If one person can be said to have set the style for the majority of women cartoonist during the 1920s, that person was Nell Brinkley,” Trina Robbins explains in Pretty in Ink. “As early as 1908, the glamorous creatures she created were inspiring controversy and fan mail. After a critical letter asking, ‘Is there any good reason why a woman’s head should be portrayed as weather-beaten moss instead of human hair?’ the Los Angeles Examiner felt compelled to defend their young artist by stating that Brinkley herself possessed the kind of hair she drew. The article went on to compare her art to Raphael, Michelangelo, Boucher, Titian, Botticelli and Da Vinci.”
Nell Brinkley’s “Brinkley Girls” were a precursor to the flapper girls of the 1920s that, in addition to their feminine beauty, were both fun-loving and independently spirited. Brinkley’s success paved the way for a flurry of additional “flapper girl” comics, many of which were also on display at the ToonSeum, including works from the equally influential Fay King, the “art-deco” stylings of Ethel Hayes and Flapper Fanny, and the drawings of Virginia Kraussman, who took over the artistic duties on another Hayes-created comic strip, Annibelle, in 1936.
Within the pages of Pretty in Ink, Trina Robbins remembers when an 86-year-old Dale Messick attended an exhibit at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum and stopped to examine an original illustration by Nell Brinkley. “Her eyes shone like the starry orbs of her creation as she studied the delicate pen work on the ruffles, lace and windblown hair of the elegantly drawn ‘Brinkley Girl,’” Robbins writes, citing Brinkley as having been Messick’s greatest influence.
For those unaware, Dale Messick is the mastermind behind Brenda Starr, arguably one of the most popular and significant female comic strips ever created. Messick herself, meanwhile, is considered the “Dean of Women Cartoonists” because of her significant contributions to the comic arts.
Brenda Starr was not the first comic strip created by Dalia Messick—who used the pseudonym “Dale” to masquerade the fact that she was a woman—and the Wonder Women exhibit at the ToonSeum also contained original panels from Mimi the Mermaid, an early creation that Messick was unable to sell into syndication, and The Stugglettes, which was later reimagined as the short-lived Streamline Babies.
Messick had learned from the rejections and cancellations of the past by the time Brenda Starr first appeared in 1940. The resulting adventures of the red-headed newspaper reporter quickly became one of the “top ten” daily comic strips in the United States, appearing in over 250 publications during its peak years of the 1950s. Dale Messick and Brenda Starr paved the way for numerous other women artists and female characters during the decade, including the first costume-wearing heroine Miss Fury by Tarpé Mills.
It wasn’t just comic strips, however, as women were also beginning to play a role in the relatively new comic book medium as well. Jill Elgin, for instance, created Girl Commandos for Harvey Comics and went on to illustrate another Harvey publication, the Nazi-fighting masked-crusader known as Black Cat. Fiction House, the comic arts studio co-created by the legendary Will Eisner, likewise employed a number of female artists, including Ann Brewster, Fran Hopper, Lily Renée and Marcia Snyder. While at Fiction House, these women illustrated such female-themed characters and comics as Camilla: Queen of the Jungle, Glory Forbes and Gale Allen and Her All Girl Squadron.
The 1950s saw a decline in the comic book medium as sales dropped, so-called moral crusaders attempted to link the medium to a rise in juvenile delinquency, and a self-instituted “Comics Code” began to regulate content. As men once again started to dominate the workforce in post-war America, meanwhile, many women artists turned to illustrating children’s books as an alternative form of employment.
The 1960s, on the other hand, offered new opportunities with the advent of underground comix—Trina Robbins herself began her career with the East Village Other in New York and It Ain’t Me, Babe in San Francisco—while the rise of self-publishing and the Internet during the 1990s and beyond likewise removed any remaining barriers between the male and female genders.
Although created by a male psychologist and primarily written and drawn by men for over seventy years, no exhibit named “Wonder Women” would be complete without the most famous female superhero of all time, and the ToonSeum included plenty of artwork showcasing the mythical Wonder Woman. The Amazon Princess was also the subject of a 2013 documentary entitled Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. “Regardless of what’s happened with her character, regardless of what stories are told about her, she is a symbol of female power,” Pop Culture historian Jennifer Stuller explains in the film.
It is a sentiment shared by Trina Robbins, who also appears in Wonder Women! “There’s always this big deal about the bondage in Wonder Woman,” she says of the often cited plot device contained within the early comic book narratives. “And she is indeed often chained up. But she’s chained up so that you can see her breaking her chains. If you look at the comics of the 40s, women are always tied up and chained. That’s so that the hero can rescue them. But she rescues herself.”
As the Wonder Women: On Page and Off exhibit illustrated, hundreds of female artists have broken their own chains to find success in the male-dominated medium of the comic arts since the dawn of the Twentieth Century. From Marjorie “Marge” Henderson Buell, who created Little Lulu in 1935, and Lynn Johnston, who premiered For Better or For Worse in 1978, to DC Comics’ artist Ramona Fradon and Marie Severin of Marvel, each has left their own indelible mark on the industry as much as any male counterpart.
It may have been a long road filled with struggles and obstacles, but the journey that these “women of wonder” travelled can still be followed within the books of Trina Robbins and on the walls of institutions like the ToonSeum, as well as comic book stores and newspapers across the country.