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Birds of a Feather Ink Together: Women’s Collectives, Self-Expression and Women’s Under-ground Comix in 1970s U.S

Surangama Datta, University of Bristol

In ‘Breaking Out’, a 1970 feminist rewriting of popular female comic characters, Little Lulu storms out of the boys’ club she is excluded from to create one of her own. Readers familiar with the original Little Lulu comics would be aware of Tubby and Iggy’s club which the girls are forbidden from entering. However, in this feminist retelling, a vexed Lulu no longer tries to fit in, and marches out to ‘do my own thing!’(The Complete Wimmen’s Comix Volume 1 : 22)1. First published in It Ain’t Me, Babe: Women’s Liberation in 1970, the very first all-women comic book, Lulu’s vexation is a telling one. It mirrors an awareness amongst women’s comics artists of their alienation within the field of comics, and a drive to reinvent what it meant to be a woman drawing comics in a male dominated industry. If Lulu sets out to create her own club, so do they.

This shift in consciousness leads to a massive boom in women’s comics production. The 1970s is lush with its all-women titles:  It Ain’t Me, Babe: Women’s Liberation (1970), Girl Fight comics (1971), Tits ’n’ Clits (1972-1987), Abortion Eve (1973), Wimmen’s Comix (1972-1992), Twisted Sister (1976-1994), Wet Satin: Women’s Erotic Fantasies (1976-78), Pudge, Girl Blimp (1975) and Dynamite Damsels (1976), among many others. With women and their lived realities as the subject of their art, collectively, these early texts begin to challenge comics conventions, with a sense of sisterhood and community at the heart of these productions. Within comics production, the boys’ club consisted of male creators, audiences and content. Often, women would appear as romance heroines or superhero sidekicks in comics produced within the mainstream industry. The more progressive underground comix movement, meanwhile, with creators such as Robert Crumb at its forefront, came to misunderstand feminist politics, thus producing images of violence against women not infrequently. Women’s ‘comix’, then, developed as a foil to this. Artists such as Trina Robbins, Lee Marrs, Michelle Brand, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, among many others, came to form a collective that would produce some very interesting all-women comic books, collaboratively.

This leads to some pertinent questions: How did the idea of community manifest within the space of women’s comix? And how did this new fiction, and the way it was produced, address the question of alienation, or the otherness of women in comics?

Anthologies and/as Collaborative Spaces

Some of the earliest feminist comic books in the history of North American graphic literature exist in the form of all-women anthologies produced during the 1970s Underground Comix movement. These new titles reflected an ideological orientation towards female solidarity and a new-found emphasis on women’s collectives and support groups. The form itself is a reflection of this. Trina Robbins edits the very first women’s comix anthology, It Ain’t Me, Babe: Women’s Liberation published in San Francisco in July, 1970. Inspired by a feminist newspaper of the same name, and drawing ideas from the parallel second-wave feminist movement that was taking the country by storm, a group of women come together to create something unheard of until then: comic art that would, at long last, cater to female readership without being a conventional romance comic. As she reminisces in ‘Babes and Women’, an introduction to The Complete Wimmen’s Comix Volume 1,I grew strong enough, with the moral support of the Babe staff, to attempt something new: an all-woman comic book’ (Robbins: viii). It was certainly a daring idea at the time. Not only was this type of venture unheard of but creators would have to break through solidified comics conventions, and general misogyny within popular culture, to carve out their own artistic space. It Ain’t Me, Babe: Women’s Liberation met with surprising success, however, with its first print selling twenty thousand copies within the first year, thus becoming the comic-book equivalent of Lulu’s club.

One of the most significant interventions of such a collective endeavour was that it introduced a model of artistic production that championed an egalitarian, non-hierarchical space — an alternative to formal, masculinist spaces. In other words, not only was the creative process made to challenge alienation at work by providing moral support, it encouraged more egalitarian working conditions. They refused, for instance, to follow any hierarchy during the process of creation. As Trina Robbins highlights in ‘Babes and Women’:

 

From the beginning, the Wimmen’s Comix Collective really was a collective. We had a rotating editorship, so that no one person could be a dictator. By 1977, the book had two co-editors working together on each issue. Our core group of Bay Area women went through all the comics submissions together and gave our opinions.

(Robbins: ix)

 

This doing away with hierarchy was a conscious move which attempted to remove the last traces of masculinist modes of production. By creating artistic safe-spaces, collectives such as these were attempting to forge alternate spaces that were conducive to women’s creativity. As signified by the inclusion of children in an editorial image, these took into account the lived realities of its artists, including motherhood. Moreover, in order not to discourage aspiring creators from coming forward, the initial issues of Wimmen’s Comix also included works by first-timers, as Robbins notes in her account (ibid.). This makes for an interesting aesthetic experience with early comics documenting works by amateur artists. Feminist comics spaces, then, were emerging as a counter space to cultural productions that had thus far relied on supremacy and exclusion.

The alienation of working within masculinist structures is poignantly captured by Lee Marrs’s ‘All In a Day’s Work’, appearing in Wimmen’s Comix #1. In this chaotic, open-panel comic, Marrs depicts the daily sexism of the conventional workspace. With its busy, chaotic, collage-like layout, the strip juxtaposes image after image of the character’s frustrating everyday life – futile job search, dismissal, rejection, sexual harassment, and unequal pay. The chaotic layout of the strip, along with images of a distressed protagonist, captures the frustrations generated by such a mode of production. By the last few panels the protagonist (a depiction of Marrs herself) throws her hands up in the air in complete agony and screams ‘I can’t stand it! I quit!’ (49). She turns to working from home as an alternative. However, the comic closes with the suggestion that working alone leads to further alienation, and a sense of emptiness. The closing panel depicts the artist working alone in an intimidatingly large, empty room that engulfs her as she squeaks “HELP!” (50) from one tiny corner.

Collaborations came to be seen as the antithesis to such an experience. The Wimmen’s Comix Collective is a case in point. The sense of community manifested in two broad ways: one, through its alternate creative model where artists would work together within one single room, hold meetings, discuss relevant political and artistic issues that the putting together of these books involved — reminiscent of women’s liberation support groups of the 1970s — and two, through their inclusion of comic strips by various women that would mean a diversity in art styles and content. Prior to the creation of all-women anthologies, the comics industry was an alienating space for women. In the 1950s-60s, the only comic titles that women could work for, if at all, were the romance genre that were highly conventional and that propagated normative gender relations, as Trina Robbins points out in Great Women Cartoonists. Since comics was a male-dominated industry, women would have to adhere to predefined conventions. Often, this meant a stifling of individual artistic calibre, a limiting space with little artistic possibility for females, and a total disregard for the lived realities of artists, including maternity.

With the emergence of anthologies and collectives, then, came the lucrative alternative of a supportive network of fellow artists that would challenge this alienating mode of production. Robbins’s jubilant ‘I grew strong enough, with the moral support of the Babe staff’ (‘Babes and Women’: viii), quoted earlier, poignantly stresses this aspect. This jubilation of finally being able to collaborate is captured through some of the editorial images that prefaced these anthologies. For example,  the first issue of San Francisco-based Wimmen’s Comix (1972) opens with an image depicting the Wimmen’s Comix Collective lounging together in a room, working and collaborating peacefully. The image shows a roomful of contributors, some happily in discussion, some calmly creating art. The overall sense of the picture is candid, relaxed and informal. It also depicts children and animals playing around to emphasise this informality and inclusion. This is in stark contrast to Marrs’s comic strip. The space of women’s collectives, in other words, was projected as unassuming yet productive, serious yet candid.

Individual Voices, Internal Conflicts

Despite the egalitarian possibilities that collaboration promised, however, there were certainly conflicts amongst creators regarding what it meant to be a feminist comic artist. The most well-known instance is the tension between Aline Kominsky Crumb and the collective. Owing partly to her romantic relationship with the controversial Robert Crumb, and to her art that depicted female sexual desire in its non-idealised, complex forms, Kominsky Crumb’s work opens up debates within the collective around the very idea of what it meant to look, and act, like a (feminist) woman. Her nuanced expression of desire through her Goldie comics appearing in the first issues of Wimmen’s Comix, for instance, destabilise potentially normative feminist constructions by ‘putting sexual psyche on the page’ (Chute: 29) and depicting it through ‘hyperexaggerated impressionism’2, (ibid.). Goldie is a neurotic character who struggles with self-acceptance. If the majority of comics in early anthologies like It Ain’t Me, Babe and Wimmen’s Comix projected somewhat idealised images of women as goddesses or as rebellious warriors, or at least as strong and independent, it is no surprise that Kominsky Crumb’s bold depictions of fetishes, open expressions of desire for men, and her self-depreciating humour, received much feminist backlash. Claiming that ‘her feminist consciousness hadn’t been raised’ (as quoted in Chute: 230), contemporaries considered her works potentially sexist. Indeed, Sharon Rudahl, editor of the third issue of Wimmen’s Comix, refused to publish her comic altogether in that particular issue. Eventually, owing to these conflicts, Kominsky Crumb, along with some other artists such as Diane Noomin, create their own anthologies of ‘bad girl art’. This tension between the collective imagination, and individual expression is an interesting one that merits its own discussion.

Despite these tensions, however, the 1970s women’s comix collective and their art remain significant and groundbreaking within the larger comics industry. The vision of a non-hierarchical space remains valuable within contemporary discussions of artists and community, and as a collective they shift the way we envision women and comics, and women in comics. The closing panel of ‘Breaking Out’ depicts Lulu in her newly-formed club, smiling triumphantly, as iconic male characters like Archie, Jughead, Tubby and Iggy curiously peep in.

 

Notes

[1] Carole, ‘Breaking Out’, in The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, ed. by Trina Robbins (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2016), pp. 20-23.

[2] Hillary Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010)

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