Visual Culture
The Irreverent, Feminist Comic Book That Fought Chauvinism
Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

The history of comics—like all popular art forms—is littered with chauvinism.
From the 1930s, superhero strips were the standard. The likes of Superman and Captain America recounted tales of hulking men who performed the impossible, while panic-stricken, unnaturally curvaceous ladies waited to be saved. (Wonder Woman was a welcome exception, if scantily clad and created by a guy.) The misogyny extended beyond the pages of comic books, too. Most successful cartoonists were male, while the few women artists often adopted gender-obscuring pseudonyms (as late as the 1940s, June Tarpé Mills became Tarpé Mills and Lily Renée made work as L. Renée).
But by the early 1970s, as the Women’s Liberation movement took hold across America, a group of female cartoonists in San Francisco decided they’d had enough. Facing sexism and a dearth of professional opportunities in their testosterone-saturated field, these women decided to create their own opportunities. They launched the first all-women underground comic books: raw, honest, raunchy, and very funny stories about, and by, women.
While the Bay Area had become a mecca for equal rights and liberal activism in the 1960s, the underground cartoon scene remained woefully patriarchal even through the ’70s. “It was such a boys’ club,” cartoonist and comics historian Trina Robbins tells me by phone from San Francisco. “We were not invited in.”
Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Looking back, Robbins remembers a closed-door community where male cartoonists like , Gilbert Shelton, and didn’t just exclude their female counterparts from male-dominated underground comix books (a genre that existed outside of mainstream comics culture, and explored R-rated topics like free love and psychedelic drugs). The stories they wrote also routinely objectified women, often in violent terms.
Shelton, for his part, once contributed a piece called “Wonder Warthog Breaks Up The Muthalode Smut Ring” to one of Crumb’s famed underground comix books, Zap #4 (1969). In it, a woman named Lois Lamebrain makes fun of Wonder Warthog’s penis size. Her punishment? Death by violent sex.
These weren’t comics that appealed to Robbins and her female cohort. “We wanted to tell our own stories,” Robbins remembers. “And the guys weren’t publishing us, so we said, ‘Let’s do it ourselves!’”
Robbins led the charge. By the early 1970s, she’d begun contributing cartoons to a radical feminist newspaper,  It Ain’t Me Babe, based in the liberal mecca of Berkeley, California. “Belinda Berkeley” was her first strip for the publication; it recounted the daily struggles of a young woman working hard in a thankless office job in order to support her deadbeat novelist husband (who happens to specialize in pornography). Eventually, Belinda becomes liberated—and her husband, bitter.
While Robbins relished having a regular comic strip with a message she supported, the series was also limiting (and unpaid). She wanted to do something bigger—and in tandem with other female cartoonists—so she decided to produce the very first all-women comic book.
With the support of the newspaper, It Ain’t Me Babe Comix was released in 1970, uniting the work of Barbara “Willy” Mendes, Michele Brand, Nancy Kalish, Lisa Lyons, and Meredith Kurtzman. Its cover, created by Robbins, was something of a battle cry. On it, popular cartoon characters—from Olive Oyl and Little Lulu to Wonder Woman and Mary Marvel—march (and fly) together with raised fists. They, too, were breaking free from their cliched roles as sidekicks and sexpots.
Other all-women anthologies followed. Robbins and Mendes joined forces for All Girl Thrills, a book full of the exploits of goddesses and heroines. As Mendes remembers, as least one of their male peers was not a fan. Don Donahue, an underground comix publisher involved in Crumb’s Zap, “said [it] was the worst thing he ever saw,” Mendes explained in the 2002 book Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963–1975, the definitive historical record of the scene that spawned All Girl Thrills.
Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Despite less-than-positive responses from their male peers, the female cartoonists forged on, joining forces in the Wimmen’s Comix Collective, something between a support group and a girls-only creative club. By 1972, it’d become a full-blown, all-women comic book by the same name.
The publication’s mission rang loud and very clear in a statement included in its second issue. Wimmen’s Comix would offer female cartoonists “a foothold in the industry based on their talents of mind, hand and eye, rather than the more traditionally requested parts of their anatomy.” To boot, it would also “provide good comic entertainment for all.”
Indeed, the issues that followed, and the comics embedded in them, were exceedingly funny. “It became a forum to talk about women’s issues, women’s lives,” Robbins remembers. “Abortion, female pleasure. These were topics that we wanted to talk about— topics that no guy would have touched with a 10-foot pole.”
In Goldie, for instance, cartoonist (who later married Crumb) unspools her autobiography across brutally honest, mordantly funny strips. In “Goldie Gets By,” feeling lonely and horny, Kominsky’s protagonist Goldie decides to go back to see her past lover: “I’ll go visit my ex…he’s usually hot for some nookie from me. It’s sick, but what the hell!”
When she sees him, however, she remembers why she left. “You were pure and thin when you lived with me!” the husband exclaims. “Sure I was real thin, you Nazi asshole,” Goldie retorts. “I was eating speed and washing the floor four times a day.”
Other comics explored teenage abortion, coming out as a lesbian, and sexual harassment in the office. Lee Marrs’s All in a Day’s Work, penned in 1972, still feels especially relevant in our current #MeToo moment of reckoning. Across just a single page, the protagonist dodges an obstacle course of entitled, oversexed, grabby bosses who sing a chorus of “Now, don’t be coy” in her ear.
From 1972 until 1992, the collective produced 17 issues of Wimmen’s Comix. During its run, women cartoonists from around the country submitted work and were able to see it published, often for the first time. It was both a network and a launchpad for female comic artists. It also paved the way for a comics and graphic novel industry that increasingly let women join in—and tell their own stories about their own lives. Of course, they do still face instances of deeply ingrained sexism. In 2016, the Angoulême comics festival in France (the Oscars of the cartoon world) nominated zero women to its lifetime achievement award shortlist. In a sign of moderate progress, a number of male nominees pulled out in protest—and Angoulême added several women to the list.
Robbins acknowledges there’s still a long road ahead—but also that they’ve made significant headway since the ’70s. “All I wanted when I was doing comics was for people to know that there were so many women drawing comics—and that there could be more,” Robbins remembers, estimating that women artists now make up around half the market. “I never dreamed it would get this good.”
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.