Erasing the Establishment: ‘Wimmen’s Comix’ Gets Its Due

Petunia Pig is tired of Porky’s crap — that disrespectful hog never wants to hear about her day and still expects her to keep quiet and cook dinner.

In a less anthropomorphic world, Betty and Veronica kick Archie to the curb, lose their bras, and begin protesting nuclear war outside Riverdale High. Even Supergirl is tired of this B.S.; she doesn’t need to stay at home “for her safety” while Superman gets credit for saving the world. She’s no dainty Lois Lane.

The story of famous cartoon characters joining the feminist rebellion might not seem radical today, but in 1970, it was a defiant and self-reflective statement against an arts scene dominated by men — even in the comix underground. (And in an era that, fairly or unfairly, is remembered as being ultra-serious and even humorless, their fantastical and funny approach allowed readers to take home a feminist message without being too serious.)
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This story, “Breaking Out,” appeared in the one-off It Ain’t Me Babe, a comic produced and drawn entirely by women. Two years later, its creators would co-found Wimmen’s Comix, an all-female underground publication that would run 18 issues over 20 years. And Fantagraphics, a Seattle publisher of alternative comics, recently released a two-volume anthology.

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix is 728 pages of fantastical, honest, and groovy graphic art drawn by more than 30 contributors, including some famous names: Tony Award-winner Alison Bechdel (whose eponymous test is the benchmark for gender equality in media), Aline Kominsky (later R. Crumb’s wife, muse, and collaborator), and Phoebe Gloeckner (whose semi-autobiographical book Diary of a Teenage Girl was recently made into a movie with Kristen Wiig).

The artists in Wimmen’s told stories about women for women. They explored topics such as sex, gender equality, divorce, and queerness. Many of the pages feature exaggerated bodies to complement personal stories of adolescent anxiety. Others show strong female leads saving the world from otherwise incapable men. The comics also feature a good deal of role reversal, where “liberated women” become sexual aggressors in a satirical look at male-female relationships. And Wimmen’s has the distinction of featuring the first out lesbian character in comics, in “Sandy Comes Out.” (Sandy doesn’t appear much, but her story focuses on her confronting her own internalized fears and prejudices.)

“Comics gave us freedom. There were all sorts of subject matter that, it turned out, hadn’t been seen or heard before,” said Lee Marrs, a regular Wimmen’s contributor whose story on sexism in the workplace also appeared in It Ain’t Me Babe. “In comic work in the past, there were things that were hinted at but never really said. In the underground, you can say anything, so it was kind of like covering new ground.”

The anthology’s release has been a long time coming, says Fantagraphics designer Keeli McCarthy. Women are taking a bigger role in the comics world, both in the number of female-identified artists creating the work and the number of women consuming it. According to Graphic Policy, which measures comic-fan demographics in the U.S. using Facebook likes, women account for 43.59 percent of the 39 million comics fans on the social media website. Since November 2012, the percentage of female comic fans has risen about 10 percent. And among 32 comics publishers surveyed by the same site in 2016, six have a majority of female followers.

Fantagraphics also released an anthology of San Francisco’s underground Zap Comix a year ago.

Wimmen’s Comix is tied pretty intrinsically to the Zap story. This felt like a great way to show that this is a really, really important part of the underground comics,” McCarthy says, adding that the anthology is a link between women past and present. “These women are clearly just writing about what they’re going through, and what women are going through today. Sure there’s a lot of fantasy stuff and silly comics stuff, but at the end of the day it’s women writing about their lives. There’s a thread created.”lee marrs all in a days work wc1

The revolutionary, psychedelic culture of the ’60 and ’70s is also pretty far-out, drawing people not only to fashion and music of the time, but the visual arts.

“A lot of the people who will be reading this are people who were not born when we got together in 1972,” saysIt Ain’t Me Babe and Wimmen’s co-creator Trina Robbins. “If you live long enough you’re history. I’m really glad that I experienced the ’60s and ’70s. It was amazing.”

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix also holds up a mirror to the Bay Area’s rapidly changing demographics, where many of the artists and “weirdos” that make the region unique are being pushed out. The ’60s and ’70s brought a similarly massive wave of immigration to the City by the Bay, but Marrs claims the draw and attitude of newcomers was different.

“In the middle and late ’60s, a lot of people came to San Francisco to be free, whatever they thought ‘free’ was. Even now, it’s still a place where new forms are tried out,” Marrs says. “And so, I think both the people who were living here and the folks who came here from someplace else really wanted to explore their creativity, whatever it manifested itself as. And there was a reinforcement of this — there were places you could sing or play where all kinds of forms would find a manifestation.”

The lack of money paid to artists — who then lived in a much more affordable city — was secondary to the feeling of power that came with creative expression. Marrs says empowered artists would feed off each other to create a wider range, or perhaps weirder range, of subject matter. The exact role of illustrators in influencing the culture at large is up for debate, but this wild, unabated, and unabashed expression helped give them the courage to tackle taboo topics.

Robbins had been hustling as a comic artist since the mid-1960s, but hit a wall in San Francisco’s often sexist underground comics scene, then dominated by poster artists like Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Wes Wilson. Spurred by the psychedelic music and politically charged atmosphere of the time, a smallish group of artists — led by Kominksy’s husband R. Crumb — had created subversive and occasionally grotesque comic art that stood in contrast to straight comics.

Crumb’s Zap Comix No. 1 was released in 1968. An alternative visual representation to the mainstream — perhaps even an alternative to the alternative — it was perverse, socially aware, and intellectual, depending on whom you asked. While Crumb eventually opened Zap to artists such as Victor Sheldon, Spain Rodriguez, and Clay Wilson, women were conspicuously absent from the storytelling process and the larger comics scene.

“It was really a boys club,” says Robbins. “They weren’t interested in me. One reason may certainly be because I was a girl, and the other reason was because I objected to the misogyny in a lot of the comics they were producing,” she says, nodding to Crumb’s style, which featured impossibly voluptuous women and explicit sex, all through a sort of grotesque gaze. Asked if readers weren’t able to suspend their disbelief — as it were — she added, “I don’t think you can say that something is so out-there that it isn’t real. I think that feminists agreed with me, but the guys didn’t want to hear it.”

So Robbins and her friend and colleague Barbara “Willy” Mendez struck out on their own, creating about half of It Ain’t Me Babe themselves and leaning on friends for the rest. It Aint’ Me Babe was published with stories on teenage abortion, poverty, coming out and politics, alongside a note requesting other contributors. The comic sold in head shops and women’s bookstores, allowing the radical message to greet feminists and artists across the country. By 1972, Robbins, Mendez, and six other women created the Wimmen’s Comix Collective and were pouring over manila envelopes filled with Xeroxed submissions.

“The appeal of Wimmen’s Comix is it’s super-creative free speech. It has balls,” says “Hurricane” Nancy Bolton, whom Robbins recruited to contribute to It Ain’t Me Babe. “I was in the Bay Area for the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival. It was a magical experience, and Wimmen’s Comix fit right into that magic.”feature-8-1b529acac5318663

Wimmen’s Comix had a rotating editorship — later, two editors would work on each issue — and a variety of themes, including revolution, the American bicentennial, disastrous relationships, and kvetching. Rather than focus on sourcing the best artists, the Collective wanted to give voice to new artists and encourage expression. As a result, early issues have a wide range of styles and technical ability, as well as many one-off contributors.

“One of the greatest things about going through Wimmen’s Comix was just seeing the process of these women developing as artists and storytellers. And seeing different trends throughout the ’70s, through the ’90s,” McCarthy says. “Volume 1 obviously has a psychedelic influence and really great cross-hatching — which was really big at that point — also a lot of pop graphics. In the ’90s, there was a lot of really wonderful covers that … draw on the technological developments” like cellphones and personal computers. feature-4-e8277a2397ffd50a

While many issues were in black and white with color covers, some feature brightly colored stories. 1987’s WC No. 12 was done entirely in 3D. (It might strike some people as a little dated, but that could also add to the cool factor.)

Lisa Lyons contributed one story to It Ain’t Me Babe, a short tale about a garden based off her time living on Alcatraz and Telegraph avenues in Oakland during the late ’60s. The story describes two women: one who lovingly tends a small garden in the ghetto, and a rich woman whose lush large garden is tended by other people. After the revolution, the poor woman takes over the larger garden.

“I look at it now, and I was doing the 1 percent versus the poor back then,” Lyons said. “The cartoon seems very current to me today, but I was sort of embarrassed with the comic back then because it was so different than everyone else’s.”

As a working artist on the East Coast, Marr said she felt sidelined by sexist policies and people who told her that girls can’t draw. “This was the first time in my life I had been in a room with as many people — forget women — who were interested in doing comic book stories. So I was thrilled.”

Wimmen’s Comix provided an important counterpoint to the “mainstream” or academic women’s liberation movement— although none of the artists interviewed for this piece would consider the feminist movement mainstream in the early ’70s. In spite of stories that tackle heavy subject matter, comics as an art could be considered inherently lighter-hearted and thus an easier entry point to a complex and important equality movement.

A closer read of Joyce Farmer’s “Equal Rites!” story (WC No. 6, 1975) from the bicentennial issue shows how lighthearted fantasy was used to explore feminist issues. A coven of witches holds an annual séance with “herb gatherers, masters of abortion,” only to get busted by the cops. After tricking the fuzz into thinking the séance is a birthday bonfire, they continue their tradition wholeheartedly.

While the story affirms the sort of pagan spirituality sometimes associated with feminism, it also pokes fun. After the women are reborn as coven members, they pray. Some for women to run the world, others for things presumably done by men — for bald tires to hold on for a few more weeks, for an IUD to never fall out (as most gynecologists were men in the ’70s) — while one prays that another of the witches will come home with her.

Other stories, such as Phoebe Gloeckner’s intricately drawn “Magda Meets the Little Men in the Woods” (WCNo. 14, 1989) digs into the psychology of raising girls to find happiness in relationships, and in only three pages.Phoebe Glockner 1989

Both ahyperbolic and a realistic depiction of how girls are taught to view their adult aspirations, its story focuses on Little Magda as she encounters a series of men whom she’ll marry. Each is abusive, manipulative, or otherwise treats her poorly, and after she kicks them all to the curb, Magda runs to her mother, who soothes her fears of growing up by saying that one day she’ll meet a nice man, have babies, and live happily ever after. (Magda is rightfully terrified at this picture of growing up.)

Looking back, Wimmen’s Comix is mostly straight and cisgender, though Robbins says that was never a conscious choice. There are a good number of queer characters in the anthology, and some writers may not have been cis women. Because so many submissions came in envelopes from artists who used pen names, it’s also possible that Wimmen’sfeatured gender-nonconforming cartoonists.

Wimmen’s Comix wasn’t the only feminist comic on the scene. In Southern California, Tits & Clits, co-created by Joyce Farmer, explored female sexuality and reacted to the way male comic arts depicted women as “objects to be fucked or to be destroyed,” as Robbins says. Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin would split from Wimmen’s in 1976 to start Twisted Sisters, an underground comic that focused more on autobiography (and which was also featured in the film Diary of a Teenage Girl).

“I can’t say that we have a special way of thinking, that we’re so much more creative or whatever, because New York is pretty damn good,” Robbins says of the strong West Coast comics scene. “But it didn’t come from New York” — although many West Coast artists hailed from back East — “it came from California.”

Although the feminist movement was gaining steam, and California’s enlightened attitude permeated popular culture, Wimmen’s Comix still faced sexism and criticism. Robbins cited a letter from a feminist who didn’t like the inclusion of the word “men” in the comic’s title — in the final issue, the Collective changed the spelling to Wimmin’s — and there were yet others who just didn’t take comics seriously. In a particularly hurtful example, feminist magazine Ms. refused to run Wimmen’s ads.

In the anthology’s introduction, Robbins theorized that Ms. — which positioned itself as an umbrella feminist publication co-founded by Gloria Steinem, who was a purported fan of comics — was afraid of getting busted for promoting pornography following a 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave individual towns and cities authority over the definition of obscenity.

“Two California shop owners were arrested for selling copies of Joyce Farmer’s and Lyn Chevely’s Tits & Clits,” Robbins wrote in the anthology. “That ruling also led to the beginning of the end for underground comix, as many head shops, afraid of getting busted, simply stopped carrying the books.”

If head and comic shops weren’t afraid of being busted, many stores wouldn’t restock Wimmen’s Comix once it sold out.

“Most of the people who have comic book stores are fans of comic books and whatever sort of comic books they’re a fan of, that’s what they’ll sell. Very few offer a broad range of subject matters,” says Marrs. “They would buy a token five women’s comics and when they’d sell out quickly, they wouldn’t get any more. They just weren’t interested in dealing with that clientele.”

In 1992, Wimmen’s fell prey to the same issues as most underground comics — lack of money-making distribution, an industry emphasis on superhero comics, and general target audience of men under age 30 — and stopped publishing. Many Wimmen’s contributors and Collective members kept making art: Robbins continues to make comics in San Francisco; Marrs went on to make the popular Pudge, Girl Blimp comic and still draws and teaches locally; Lyons is a political cartoonist on the East Coast; and “Hurricane” Nancy has a YouTube channel for her work called Krazi Kartoon.

“It was very sad to see [Wimmen’s Comix] go, but we had no alternative. I think that many of us were on to other projects; it wasn’t that it was the only thing we had,” Robbins says.

While the feminist underground-comics scene remains unknown to many, Wimmen’s Comix had an undeniable impact on today’s prolific independent comics community. The Hernandez brothers, authors of the acclaimed Love and Rockets series, which focuses on the often intertwining lives of Latina women, were likely influenced by Wimmen’s. There are also more female voices in comics and more women who aren’t relegated to just writing female stories because of the Collective’s pioneering work.

“I think for so many women with a visual artistry bent, their first understanding of the world and themselves is through pen and paper, through mark-making, the act of journaling, and having your own small book,” McCarthy says. “I think making comics is such an incredible way for women to get a grip on who they are and what their story is.”

The internet has also played a large role in changing the conversation around women in comics. Online groups and social media have made the idea of any single place being an underground-comics mecca less necessary, and have simultaneously increased communication among artists in disparate places. Additionally, reboots of Marvel comics such as Jessica Jones and Daredevil that stream on Netflix have ushered in a new wave of comics fans — people who don’t necessarily have to set foot in a comic shop.

Marrs expects the anthology will be both “accepted more and critiqued more” for its content and style. And she’s not far off base — universities in Oregon, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois offer online or in-person courses on comic history or comic art. Locally, California College of the Arts offers a master’s program in comics. In New Jersey, The Kubert School has a three-year intensive program on cartooning.

Regardless, the history of Wimmen’s Comix provides an important link between female artists past and present that might otherwise go unacknowledged.

“Most of the histories of comics have been written by men and they don’t even see the women; it’s like they’re wearing blinders,” Robbins says of women cartoonists, whose history goes back to the golden age of comics in the late ’30s to early ’50s with artists such as Lily Renée and even further with Nell Brinkley, a New York illustrator and cartoonist who created “the Brinkley Girl” around 1913 in response to staid Gibson Girl drawings from late in the prior century.

“Women things, female-oriented things are all too often considered by the scholars in whatever art form as trivial. It is their opinion that makes the canons,” Robbins says.

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