The late 1960's were a revolutionary time. The hippie generation advocated peace, pot and free pussy. Radical protesting for equal rights was reflected in the tumultuous eras popular media, with comic books being a prime example. Underground comix, sold out of head shops, provided "adults only" uncensored entertainment and nonconforming artists a medium where their own twisted visions could come to life. Only a handful of women contributed to these comix, and one of the first was Trina Robbins.
Ms. Robbins has become an authority on women and the comics. The feminist cartoonist was a guest at the recent Portland Comic Book Show, promoting her new book, The Great Women Superheroes, a follow-up to her acclaimed work A Century of Women Cartoonists. Your perverted journalist jizzed upon meeting the youthful and schoolgirl-like Robbins; a smiling pixie with frizzie blonde locks and big round glasses. The tiny elfling sported a short one-piece, dark grey dress and teasing black leggings. She looked like a teenager, loafing in a pair of silver Doc Martins. Her high-pitched voice squealed as she breathlessly told me, You simply must buy my book!
Trina grew up in 1950's New York City; a well-read youngster who orgasmed regularly reading the exploits of every newspaper strip heroine she could find, from Invisible Scarlet ONeil to Moon Girl. I never did like boy comics, Trina remembered. I started copying cereal boxes, the art on them. My parents were very liberated and, thankfully, they let me be an artist!
The first underground newspaper the impressionable girl saw was the counterculture tabloid, East Village Other in 1965. An abstract comic strip titled Gentles Tripout grabbed Trinas attention, more so when she learned that Nancy Kalish, a woman cartoonist, was responsible for it. One year later Robbins own work was being published in the Other, and subsequently in the papers comic supplement. While whipping the inserts color separations into shape, Trina featured a character named Panthea, a displaced half-lady/half-lioness who embodied Robbins surfacing feminist philosophy.
By the end of `69, the rebellious artist found herself in the thick of San Franciscos underground community. The Womens Liberation Movement inspired college chicks to set their bras on fire, and feminist comix artists shockingly learned that they had virtually no say in what was essentially a boys only field. Lee Marrs, another woman artist who came upon the scene, would later gripe, They were all buddies, they didnt even let us in. The kinky undergrounds that artists Robert Crumb (Fritz the Cat) and S. Clay Wilson visualized included all sorts of sexual promiscuity open to feminist criticism. For instance, Crumb once depicted the fuck/rape of an overly-voluptuous, big-breasted girl, whose head was conspicuously missing.
In 1970 Trina pissed on this males only mentality with her own response, the politically charged It Aint Me Babe, the first comic book crafted entirely by women. Openly dedicated to womens lib, establishment comic heroines including Wonder Woman and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle angrily burst forth from the cover, unmistakably drawn by Robbins in her clean and glamorous 1940's art style. Babe sold well enough to spur its publisher to regularly issue an all-woman comix title in November of 1972, the controversial Wimmens Comix, of which Trina was a contributing editor/artist. Tits and Clits was another regular all-female title which was published only a few weeks before Wimmens #1. A sisterly support group of cartoonists developed between the two feminist comix, providing encouragement to many women creators. Roberta Gregory, creator of Bitchy Bitch, became the first published lesbian comic artist, introduced in Wimmens. Lee Marrs, creator of Pudge, Girl Blimp, was a prolific auteur, as was Melinda Gebbie, whose disturbing, dark lines mirrored uncomfortable sexual subjects. Robbins also stood out, her fantasy-type illos sharply blurred by taboo political themes.
After a feminist wave of comix like Dynamite Damsels and Wet Satin came and went, and after Trina and underground artist Kim Dietch decided to parent baby girl Casey, the initial subversiveness of the comix faded away, and male-oriented adult comics rode in on the upstart New Wave and Alternative trends of the Reagan decade, shitting on once-important titles like Wimmens. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, even as sexist illustrators like Richard Corben and Howard Chaykin painted impossibly-stacked babes in Heavy Metal and Star*Reach during the 80's, women such as Robbins and Marrs were also being printed in the same sexy science fiction anthologies. Since fantasy has connections with romantic fiction, its possible that the SF magazines appealed equally to a woman creators mind.
Since then, Robbins has co-authored her first book, Women and the Comics, with Cat Yronwode. Trinas new tome, The Great Women Superheroes, tackles the rich history of the newsprint heroines that have fought crime in the comics, a narrative packed with over 200 black and white illustrations. In discussing the volume with Robbins, its clear that there will be many surprises. Wonder Woman was not the first superheroine, spits Trina. The Woman in Red, a newspaper serial, actually featured the first costumed adventuress. Pointing accusingly to a sample page, her mouth curls. I hate peoples lips being colored in by a reader!
The next superheroine chronologically was Miss Fury, a newspaper strip created in the early 1940's that was also collected as a comic book. Fury was the creation of beautiful ex-fashion model Tarpe (Tarr-pah) Mills. The talented woman wrote and illustrated the dramatic adventures of the Brazilian heiress, Marla Drake, who used the supernatural powers of a black panther skin to combat evil. She combines the drama and suspense of an excellent World War II movie with intriguing characterization and a chic, dashing style that is feminine without being weak or `cutesy, Trina gushed about Tarpe, an unfortunately common fault with many women cartoonists.... I find in her a long lost sister. Ruthless villainess Erica Von Kampf cast an intimidating film noir image, her blonde bangs cut in a triangular shape to conceal a swastika branded on her forehead. Trina would love to have seen Marlene Dietrich play the movie role of the sadistic Erica.
It was late in 1941 that the greatest superheroine brazenly premiered her patriotic eagle-emblazoned brassiere and star-spangled skirt in All-Star Comics #8. A wet dream sprung from the imagination of psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman is the longest lasting of the costumed superladies. The world of mythological Amazons and surrealistic plotlines was uniquely tailored to little girls sensibilities. The art of Harry G. Peter was incredibly fantastical, raved Robbins, and one can see hints of the Peter style in her drawings. Trina laughs about the proliferation of bondage scenarios that critics point to in the Amazing Amazons early wartime stories. "In case you havent noticed, people are always tied up in comics! In fact, Steve Trevor was probably tied up or kidnapped more times than Wonder Woman. Trevor was her male Lois Lane.
Robbins research reveals that the four-color 40's introduced a host of costumed females, freedom fighting femmes like Mary Marvel, Sun Girl, the Blonde Phantom, and Black Cat. Some of these nostalgic heroines of yesteryear have been accused by feminists of having been exploited by their perverted male creators, who frequently flaunted the healthy gals perfectly-formed breasts in what became known as headlight shots. Trina defends artist Matt Bakers scandalously-clad Phantom Lady as a prim and proper English lady compared to todays bad girls. And I just love Bakers great costumes!
The 80's brought back good girl art in force, but Trina has observed that women do not go to fan shops, and its easy to see why. With so many comic covers with images of women with basketball breasts and high heel shoes, whod want to? The bad girls of the 1990's such as the murderous Barb Wire and the masochistic Lady Death reign supreme over Comic Book Land, a trend that actually has drawn a significant female readership. Ms. Robbins seems awkwardly at odds with the times when she protests, "Women would like other women better if they wore clothes. (Shes obviously never been to Fetish Night.) She charges that established icons like Wonder Woman and Catwoman have been anatomically altered to suit an adolescent fanboys masturbation fantasies, and that modern comics blood-soaked tales are in danger of Christian right wing censorship.
Not that Trina Robbins is totally negative about the current state of superwomen. Alternative creations like Cutey Bunny and handicapped heroines such as DCs Oracle are a few examples that she feels send a positive message to women.
Robbins is a serious artist with an idealistic girls heart, a woman who not only made history as a feminist cartoonist, but has preserved the history of her forgotten predecessors with her investigative writings. I overheard a last question being directed towards Trina at the show: Whos your favorite 90's superheroine? A pause, then a giggle-punctuated response The Tick! With that, the lovely bespectacled raconteur was on her way to catch a plane for Frisco, to join her beloved cat, Pinkerton St. Underfoot.