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Storming the Clubhouse

The Hidden History of Woman Comics

Comic books have always been a boys' club. From the bulging muscles of Marvel superheroes to the hyper-sexualized women of R. Crumb, the overwhelming odor of adolescent male fantasy has permeated the form. In my ignorance of the comic world, I had no idea what to expect from an exhibition of female comic artists as I entered "She Draws Comics: Great Woman Cartoonists", currently showing at the Cartoon Art Museum. My reluctance to engage with comics has had a lot to do with the feeling that I could never "get" it; comics seemed to be in a wholly different language, created for boys by boys. What, I wondered, could be in it for me?

With ninety years of comic art by over 60 female artists, the show is a whole universe of cartoon art gone under my radar. Taken primarily from the private collection of curator and female comic pioneer Trina Robbins, the exhibition has been touring Europe for the past two years. Broken down into a series of chronologically ordered segments, Robbins' show begins with "Queens of Cute," introducing women's first forays into comic art, from the turn of the century to the 1930s. Specializing in depictions of idealized children, artists such as R.F. Outcault and Grace Draydon staked out the territory of precious humor.

Work done during World War II, when the number of women artists tripled, shows comic art mapping out American pop culture. Strips like Marcia Snyder's "Jungle Comics," are loaded with cultural coding and packed with race and gender play. Her animal-print clad heroine is pitted between a friendly savage and a threatening savage, unable to defeat one barbarous man without the aid of the other. When the war was over and men came back to the workplace, women were once again sent away from the drawing boards.

Comics continued to reflect society's fears in words and pictured designed to appeal to the masses. Women were no longer the brazen, physically mature femme fatales like Glory Forbes, (Fran Hopper,1946). Instead, women drew themselves into teen and romance strips, returning to the domestic and personal spheres. They balanced banal stories with lush images, displaying their extraordinary technique even while stifled by limited literal value.

Then, just as the narrow vision of a women's work in mainstream comic art seemed unshakeable, underground commix blew the field open. A particularly striking example of the new form came from Lee Marrs, in the "Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Blimp Girl #3". Drawn in marker instead of the traditional pen-and-ink boards of the newspaper and genre comics, Marrs' work is incredibly detailed and colorful. Pudge girl sits on her bed, boobs popping out, piles of food containers, wrappers and take out menus surrounding her while pervy men stare at her through the windows. Gone are the idealized faces and carefully paced stories; comics are now freed to be grotesque and twisted, mirroring the suddenly rebellious nature of youth culture in the 1960s.

The outsider voice best represented in this exhibit (and perhaps in the catalog of comics as a whole) is that of gay women. Lesbian culture, as depicted by cartoonists such as Alison Bechdal and Ariel Schrag, is perfectly suited to the nature of cartoon art. By merging language and imagery, these cartoons seek to represent a world in shorthand, where the audience's understanding of the joke or the situation has to be grounded in their understanding of the world represented. Given the confines of creating these worlds, it is no surprise that explicitly self-referential works abound in this collection. One striking example of just how inside the jokes can get is Ramona Fradon's "Wonder Woman Annual #2", where Trina Robbins shows Wonder Woman her drawing for that issue, sending up both the mainstream and underground comics in one fell swoop.

Even as I was enthralled by the boldness and beauty of these artists' drawings, without being given a context for the images, I often felt like I was missing most of the larger picture. Many panels gave bite-size chunks of longer strips, making me hungry for the end of the story. No provenance for the drawings were given, leaving me with no idea of the form of the finished work. Comic art hinges on reduction, creating worlds within the space of a panel; these female artists speak to their audience and to each other by using shorthand references and visual allusions. This exhibit acts as a primer of the history of womens work in cartoons, leaving one ready to dig deeper into the works, ready to get in on the joke.

She Draws Comics: Great Women Cartoonists runs through June 8th. The Cartoon Art Museum is located on 655 Mission Street in San Francisco. They are open daily from 11 am - 5 pm, and are closed on Mondays. Admission Prices range from $6 for adults, $4 for students & seniors, and $2 for children ages 6 - 12. The museum is FREE for Children age 5 & below. For more information, call: 415-CARTOON, or visit their website at: cartoonart.org.