Celebrating "Wimmen's Comix"
An exhibit in San Francisco shows how Bay Area cartoonists made history 40 years ago.
Comics, with their combination of words and pictures, are the ideal method of communication, according to cartoonist Trina Robbins.
Robbins did an early all women comic book in 1970, a one-shot, It Ain’t Me, Babe, hoping to open up the field for women, but two years later, that hadn’t happened. So she and a group of Bay Area cartoonists started Wimmen’s Comix, with 18 issues published between 1972 and 1992. A show at the San Francisco Public Library through February 7 celebrates the 40th anniversary of Wimmen’s Comix.
Robbins marvels at how long the comic lasted and how it opened doors for women artists.
“My God, forty years ago, ten of us met at Patti Moodian’s house and formed a comic that lasted twenty years,” she said about the anniversary show.
Robbins says it was her male contemporaries who made it hard for women to break in.
“They didn’t want anything to do with us, so they didn’t ask women to be involved,” she said. “Very few people did books by themselves, so a guy would call his buddies and say, ‘Would you do six pages or eight pages?’ They never called us.”
But publishers, knowing they would sell, were perfectly happy to put out comics by women, Robbins says. It was Ron Turner of Last Gasp Publishing in San Francisco who published Wimmen’s Comix.
“Kudos to Ron Turner for taking it on,” said Teresa Richards, who worked for Last Gasp as a production assistant. Richards, also a filmmaker, drew for Wimmen’s Comix, and curated the anniversary show at the San Francisco Library.
“He agreed there were now opportunities for women writers and artists,” Richards said about Turner. “Ms. magazine had just started, and we were riding the feminist tide.”
Wimmen’s Comix left half the issue open for new contributors and had a rotating editor.
“Some of us came from a background of working on underground newspapers, so there was a political thread that ran through our work,” Richards said. “We didn’t want somebody to be the leader or the boss. We wanted it to be a collective.”
That was important, Robbins agreed. Since there were only two other women cartoonists getting published beside herself, giving women a chance to break in was part of the mission of the comic.
“We had been excluded, so we didn’t want to exclude,” she said. “We opened it up to anyone as long as they were female. And we got some things that were dismal, and we didn’t publish them, and we did publish some stuff that wasn’t great because you have to start somewhere.”
Robbins helped her get her start, says Nancy Husari, cartoonist and City College of San Francisco teacher of English as a second language. In the late 1980s, when Husari was looking to break into the field, she called Robbins after finding her name in the phone book.
“She said come on over and bring your cartoons, so I went to her house, and she gave me a very careful critique and encouragement,” Husari said. That support led to her being part of the last issue of Wimmen’s Comix, and the cartoon she did for it, “Gyno-cops,” hangs in the anniversary show.
Robbins also offered support to Samantha Meier, a writer and editor on gender issues at PolicyMic. When starting work on her Harvard thesis, Twisted Sisters: Women's Comix and Cultural Action, Meier noticed that Robbins’ name kept coming up and contacted her through her website. She got an email back 10 minutes later.
Meier’s own fascination with comics came from her hatred of the Cathy strip.
“She was always stressing out about her weight and her boyfriend or not having a boyfriend, and I thought growing up this was what my life would be,” Meier said.
This led to Meier thinking about becoming a cartoonist herself so she could “create a character for thirteen-year-old girls who didn’t suck.” That didn’t happen, but she became a huge fan of the underground comics of the 1960s and 70s, and knew she wanted to explore that further for her thesis. When she found Wimmen’s Comix, she was hooked, she says. Now working on turning her thesis into a book, Meier flew out to attend the opening of the show in San Francisco.
“I think it’s helpful in raising the profile of these artists, who are well known in comic circles, but not as well known in other circles,” she said. “The library wants to assemble a full run of the comic, which is hugely important for researchers.”
Richards says that’s why she put all the work into getting the show together – so these cartoonists and what they did to open doors for others wouldn’t be forgotten.
“We wanted to see a community of women artists emerge from this,” she said. “We thought of it as a kernel of something. We wanted this to be an umbrella that would grow out. And that’s what happened.”
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