On this final day of Women’s History Month, we bring together all 23 of our biographical profiles featuring women who changed free expression in comics from the Pre-Code era through the present day. We only have room for creator photos here, but you can find examples of their work in the daily posts that ran on our Tumblr. Enjoy!
Banned & Challenged Creators
Anyone who’s read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir Persepolis is already familiar with the key events of her early life. Growing up in Tehran during the turmoil surrounding the Islamic Revolution, Satrapi experienced abrupt changes that curtailed the secular lifestyle she and her intellectual parents had enjoyed prior to 1979. Always rebellious and bluntly inquisitive, she began to act out even more in school and in public after her favorite uncle was killed in prison. For her own safety, Satrapi’s parents sent her alone to attend high school in Austria when she was 14, in 1984. She returned to Iran at 18 and obtained a Master’s degree in visual communication from Tehran’s School of Fine Arts, but found the prospect of remaining in the country under the repressive regime untenable. In 1994 she moved to Strasbourg, France, where she continued to study art, and on to Paris three years later.
Satrapi often regaled her friends in France with stories of her surreal childhood, and they in turn introduced her to comics including art spiegelman’s Maus. She had been dabbling in children’s picture books without success, but spiegelman’s work proved that illustrated books could treat more serious subjects. Satrapi decided to try her hand at a graphic novel memoir, and produced Persepolis in four volumes between 2000 and 2003. They met with immediate critical and popular acclaim in France, and were translated and collected into two volumes for the U.S. market in 2003 and 2004. In 2007 she co-wrote and directed the animated movie based on the comics, which tied for the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, won two French Césars, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
While it’s hardly surprising that both the books and movie have been banned in Iran, Persepolis has also seen more than its fair share of trouble in U.S. schools, where parents and administrators have objected to profanities and depictions of torture. Most spectacularly, Chicago Public Schools officials made a confused attempt in March 2013 to remove the book from all classrooms due to “graphic language and content that is inappropriate for children.” They allowed it to remain in AP classes for 11th and 12th graders, but now require 8th-10th grade teachers to undergo extra training before they can use it in class. The book remains banned in 7th grade CPS classrooms. In 2014 there were two more school challenges to Persepolis in quick succession: one in the Three Rivers School District in Oregon, and another in Illinois in the Ball-Chatham district, where a review committee unanimously decided that it would not be removed from classrooms.
–Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Alison Bechdel grew up in the small town of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, the daughter of high school English teachers. Her family also owned and lived in the local funeral home, which her father Bruce meticulously restored in his spare time. When Bechdel reached young adulthood and realized she was a lesbian, her mother informed her of a fact that made many puzzle pieces from her childhood fall into place: Bruce was also gay and may have had liaisons with underage students. Just a few weeks after Bechdel told her parents of her sexuality, Bruce was struck and killed by a car while restoring another house. His death was ruled an accident.
Bechdel began her now-legendary comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1983 at the urging of friends who were amused by the cartoon doodles that adorned the margins of her letters. Within a few years the strip, which explored the various archetypes of lesbian subculture, was syndicated in alternative publications across the country and regularly collected into book volumes. A Dykes to Watch Out For strip also established what has come to be known as the Bechdel Test for gauging the meaningful character development of women in movies and other pop culture.
Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, which recounts her complicated relationship with her father, met with widespread critical praise and mainstream success—which also led to it being challenged in at least three instances. In 2006 it was temporarily removed from the public library in Marshall, Missouri after a patron said it was pornographic, but the book returned to shelves after the library drafted a collection development policy to protect controversial material that was also critically acclaimed and/or in demand. Two years later a challenge at the University of Utah was also shut down when the English department and the university affirmed that the single student who objected to the book had been reasonably accommodated with an alternate assignment.
In 2014, Fun Home faced a greater challenge in South Carolina, where some state legislators proposed punitive budget cuts against the College of Charleston because it incorporated the book into a voluntary summer reading program for incoming freshman. After months of debate, the legislature eventually reached an unsatisfactory but highly ironic “compromise”: the college would have the funding restored, but would be required to use it only for teaching about historic documents including the Constitution. Meanwhile, Bechdel’s talent was recognized and supported with a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” also awarded in 2014.
–Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Phoebe Gloeckner grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which many know as the birthplace of underground comix. As a child, Gloeckner met several of the artists behind the irreverent — and frequently banned — underground comix. But Gloeckner didn’t set out to be a comic book artist. She originally studied medical illustration, establishing herself as an artist of internal human anatomy.
Gloeckner’s comics work was sporadic until 1998, when she released her first stand-alone graphic collection, A Child’s Life and Other Stories. In 2002, she released The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which combines prose and illustration to continue to story of some of the characters from A Child’s Life. While Gloeckner is reticent to describe just how closely the books correlate to her own life, many consider them semi-autobiographical. Through a series of interconnected strips, A Child’s Life conveys the loss of innocence that comes with emotional and physical abuse during childhood. The artwork is dynamic and heavily influenced by the undergrounds, and Gloeckner incorporates medical illustrations to evocative and sometimes shocking effect.
Gloeckner’s highly acclaimed work includes themes of coming of age and sexual awaking and contains references to sex, drugs, and STIs, so it is intended for mature audiences. But in 2004, A Child’s Life was removed from public library shelves in Stockton, California, after an 11-year-old boy in the community checked out the book. Upon discovering graphic content in the book, the boy’s mother reproduced images from it and leafleted the community with them in protest of what she considered unacceptable material in the Stockton public library. Library director Nicky Stanke believed the book worthy of inclusion in the library’s collection, but then mayor Gary Podesto disagreed, calling the book “a how-to book for pedophiles” and demanding that the city council exert more control over the library’s collection. In response, CBLDF joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association to create guidelines for librarians about handling graphic novels intended for adult audiences.
–Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
When it comes to autobiographical comics, few creators are as precocious as Ariel Schrag. Before Schrag had even finished high school, Slave Labor Graphics had released three volumes of her High School Comic Chronicles series. Her ambitious and confessional work has been widely praised, drawing comparisons to notables such as Alison Bechdel, Judy Blume, and R. Crumb. Her work honestly confronts coming of age, sexual awakening, and sexual identity, often with sharp and mesmerizing humor.
Schrag hasn’t limited herself to graphic novels. She’s written for television, most notably for the Showtime series The L Word; provided articles and illustrations for periodicals around the country; been the featured subject of a documentary; and edited comics anthologies. It was this last role that brought her to the attention of would-be censors: In late 2011, CBLDF joined the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom in writing a letter to the superintendent of the Dixfield, Maine, school system in order to prevent the removal of the anthology Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age from library shelves. Schrag edited Stuck in the Middle, and it includes contributions from acclaimed graphic novelists Daniel Clowes, Dash Shaw, Gabrielle Bell, Lauren Weinstein, and more. The book received praise from Booklist, the New York Times, and Publishers Weekly, and it was selected for New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list in 2008.
Ultimately, the school board voted to leave the book on library shelves with the caveat that students must have parental permission to check out the book. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein expressed his concerns over the Dixfield decision: “While we’re pleased to see the book retained in the library’s collection, we’re very disappointed that it is retained with restrictions.”
–Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
Wendy Pini discovered comic books as a teenager in the 1960s, devouring them alongside science fiction and fantasy novels. Pini was undeterred by the fact that, as a woman, she wasn’t necessarily the target market for the comics and books she read. She soon began drawing her own illustrations, drawing inspiration from the fantasy and science fiction she read (she also drew the ire of at least one high school art teacher who tried to discourage Wendy’s fascination with the fantastic). Pini also embraced fandom, becoming a fixture at fantasy and sci-fi conventions, where she was well-known for intricate cosplay.
During the early 1970s, the largely self-taught Pini illustrated covers for DC and Mavel as well as science fiction and fantasy magazines such as Galaxy, Galileo, and Worlds of If. In 1978, Pini, alongside her husband Richard, launched what has become one of the longest-running independent comics series: Elfquest. In Elfquest, Pini created a diverse cast of characters and frequently addressed contemporary social issues through her stories and illustrations. Pini’s artwork in Elfquest is inspired in part by Japanese manga and looked nothing like the work that dominated comics at the time the series launched. Her characters were more androgynous, and the artwork was notably feminine and sensual. When Elfquest debuted in Fantasy Quarterly #1, it became an instant hit especially among female comics fans. Now in its 37th year, the series has a loyal and broad fanbase and is considered by many a touchstone of independent comics.
Elfquest often depicts issues and events that aren’t commonly subjects of the comics medium. An issue in the Elfquest: New Blood series, published in the early 1990s, included panels that focused on childbirth. The imagery included partial nudity, but the event was tastefully illustrated and conveyed as life-affirming. Unfortunately, someone in West Virginia didn’t agree. In 1999, a social worker gave a neighborhood boy a copy of the comic, and the boy’s grandfather contacted authorities after a verbal confrontation with the social worker. Dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and arrested for distributing obscene materials to a minor, the social worker contacted CBLDF for assistance. The comic came nowhere near failing the Miller test for obscenity, so CBLDF legal counsel Burton Joseph was able to get the charges dismissed.
–Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
Jillian and Mariko Tamaki
Canadian cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki both came to graphic novels somewhat unconventionally: Jillian started out (and continues) as a freelance illustrator for books and periodicals including the New York Times, Esquire and the New Yorker, while Mariko cut her teeth in the performance art and comedy scenes of Montreal and Toronto. Growing up on opposite sides of the country—Jillian in Calgary and Mariko in Toronto—they both evinced a rebellious streak in their teen years. Mariko in particular experienced alienation from her peers as “a weird, freaky, gothy kid” at an elite private boarding school, while Jillian attended public school and says she and her friends were also “disaffected, kinda gothy – they called us ‘the dirties’ in high school.”
Both cousins were well-established in their creative careers before they struck upon the idea of collaborating. Mariko was offered the chance to publish some of her stage monologues in comic form, as part of a zine series that Jillian says aimed “to pair people who had never written a comic and people who had never drawn a comic.” Mariko naturally thought of her illustrator cousin, and together they produced a 24-page comic which would later expand into the 2008 graphic novel Skim. Loosely inspired by Mariko’s boarding school misfit experience, it became the first graphic novel nominated for a prestigious Governor General’s Award—but only in the “text” category, which prompted several comics creators to issue an open letter arguing that neither the text nor the illustrations are meant to stand alone in this format, and both Tamakis should have been nominated.
Although the selective nomination put both Jillian and Mariko in an awkward public situation, it apparently didn’t harm their collaborative relationship. In 2013 they issued This One Summer, a coming-of-age story of adolescent friends Rose and Windy. This time the book was nominated for Governor General’s Awards for both text and illustration, and won in the illustration category. It also broke another barrier in the U.S., where it was the first graphic novel to make the shortlist for the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal. It was also shortlisted for ALA’s Printz Award for Young Adult literature, which previously went to Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese in 2007. The Caldecott Honor has led to some rather unexpected backlash, however, as adults who think of that award as the domain of purely innocent picture books blame This One Summer for being other than they expected. Since the honor was announced last month, CBLDF has been confidentially involved in monitoring challenges to the book in various communities—which is why we put together a resource for teachers and librarians who may need to defend its presence in their collections or curricula.
—Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Growing up in San Francisco, Raina Telgemeier was an avid fan of newspaper comics from an early age. She particularly enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse, and passed many hours in childhood creating her own strips and mini-comics. After she graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2002 with a B.F.A. in illustration, Scholastic offered her the opportunity to take on another childhood favorite: Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series. Telgemeier adapted four of the books as graphic novels, introducing them to a new generation of readers.
With her 2010 graphic novel Smile, Telgemeier moved into the realm of memoir, chronicling the painful period after she knocked out her front teeth as a young teen and had to undergo several rounds of oral surgery and orthodontia. To make matters worse, Telgemeier’s gap-toothed smile and later mouthful of braces came in for mockery from those she thought were her friends. Sisters, the 2014 sequel to Smile, delves into Telgemeier’s initial rivalry with her younger sister Amara and their later rapprochement as their parents’ marriage began to dissolve.
In between the two memoirs in 2012, Telgemeier produced the fictionalized graphic novel Drama, which recounts the joys and tribulations of a middle school theater troupe. Although most readers of all ages found it to be just as endearing and authentic as Telgemeier’s other books, a small but vocal minority have objected to the inclusion of two gay characters, one of whom shares a chaste on-stage kiss with another boy. Negative online reader reviews have accused Telgemeier of literally hiding an agenda inside brightly-colored, tween-friendly covers, but in an interview with TeenReads she said that while she and her editors at Scholastic were very careful to make the book age-appropriate, they never considered omitting the gay characters because “finding your identity, whether gay or straight, is a huge part of middle school.”
—Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Melinda Gebbie began her career as a fine artist but found a home among the underground comix creators in her birthplace of San Francisco, California. Her first comics work was published in the seminal all-womenunderground comix anthology Wimmen’s Comix, and she published her first solo work in 1977 with the release of Fresca Zizis. The brightly colored, dreamy, and explicit images that graced the 36 pages of Fresca Zizis would eventually catch the eye of UK censors when Knockabout Comics imported 400 copies of the book in 1985. The books were seized by UK customs for pornographic images, and despite Gebbie’s eloquent defense of the book during the subsequent obscenity trial, British authorities ruled that the copies should be confiscated and burned. Possession of the comic remains a crime in the UK today.
A brush with UK censors didn’t stop Gebbie from continuing her groundbreaking work. She is best known to many for her labor of love, Lost Girls. Alongside writer Alan Moore, Gebbie sought to create a piece of literate erotica that focused on three central characters: Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz), Wendy Darling (Peter Pan), and Alice Fairchild (Alice in Wonderland). Gebbie and Moore set their story against tumultuous events contemporary with the adult versions of the characters, including the release of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the start of World War I. Gebbie’s artwork is lush and sensuous, and Gebbie has attributed the 16 years she spent on the three-volume series with expanding her own artistic sensibility and skill.
Many expected that Lost Girls would meet with immediate controversy upon its release, but the book has actually met with little resistance in the United States. While some retailers refuse to carry the book, and it has met resistance in foreign markets (most notably, the UK and New Zealand), Gebbie’s sensitive, colorful, and painterly artwork can be credited in no small part for keeping the work from being labeled obscene.
Gebbie’s work and subject matter may not appeal to everyone, but Gebbie has always sought to depict female sexuality in a positive manner, sometimes to the derision and even overt hostility of male colleagues. During a 2013 talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, she described some of her opponents: “They were some of the most backward guys in terms of their fears and belief systems, and their sexism. They were classically untrained in the consciousness of appreciating women.” She works to overcome this attitude with her art, and she takes an equally strong stance against censorship, even for material that she doesn’t like, telling Edinburgh attendees, “I don’t think the imagination should ever be policed because it’s in the imagination landscape that we work out some of these crucial issues before we have to act them out on the world stage.”
—Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
Nell Brinkley, often credited as the “Queen of Comics” during her time, was not only one of the pioneering women at the turn of the century who helped shape the fledgling comics industry itself with her innovative and unique style, but with her fresh, young voice she would also usher in a new era for women both on and off the page to openly and freely express themselves.
Born in Denver in 1886, Nell Brinkley had a professional career that spanned almost four decades and included illustration work in some of the most popular publications of the time including the Evening Journal, Harper’s Magazine, and The American Weekly. She was also the creator of original comic strips like The Fortunes of Flossie, Romances of Gloriette, and The Adventures of Prudence Prim that depicted the fantastic one-page adventures of several women protagonists. In a time when women illustrators were few and far between, Brinkley time and time again created works and characters that spoke to and fueled an American public growing into its new century.
It was her most iconic and lasting creation, the “Brinkley Girl,” though, with her bouncy curls, organic disposition, and careless, whimsical air that would inspire generations of young women and comics creators for years to come. Along with becoming a national symbol synonymous with the Roaring ‘20s, the “Brinkley Girl” would also become an icon that would incite nation-wide controversy from New York to Los Angeles.
What made Brinkley such a unique and contentious figure in the early 1900s was her strong sense of ambition, style, and class that imbued her works. At the age of twenty, Brinkley represented a voice that spoke of the possibilities of freedom for women both on the editorial page and in society at large. In a time when the women’s suffrage movement was in full force, Brinkley’s work instilled women with a sense of pride and confidence in themselves. It would be this sense of mystique, confidence, and pose infused throughout all of Brinkley’s works that future comics creators like Dale Messick, the creator of the popular 1940s comic Brenda Starr, and Marie Severin of EC Comics would pick up on and use as inspiration for their own works.
In a time when people critiqued the strange and atypical characters that she was creating—what we would recognize and celebrate as strong female characters today—Brinkley kept on creating, seemingly unfazed by the controversy. Furthermore, even if one person wrote a letter to their local paper asking if there was “any good reason why a woman’s head should be portrayed as weather-beaten moss instead of human hair,” others defended and immortalized Brinkley’s influence by publishing tributes to the creator:
The sweetest, neetest, fleetest maid—the leader in her class,
Give me the stylish, smilish, wilish, dashing Brinkley Lass.
These contemporary plaudits testify to the influence and impact that Brinkley held for women creators and women citizens.
—Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Zelda Jackson Ormes, better known as Jackie, was the first African American woman to make a living as a cartoonist. Between 1937 and 1955, her strips were syndicated extensively nationwide in the black press, featuring black women front and center in roles and social situations they were never accorded in the mainstream media of the day. Ormes got her start in journalism while she was still in high school reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier, which had a nationwide distribution. She relished the excitement of the news business, later telling an interviewer that she “had a great career running around town looking into everything the law would allow, and writing about it.”
In 1937 Ormes tried her hand at cartooning with her first strip, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem. Through the heroine Torchy, a southern transplant to New York who became a performer at the Cotton Club, Ormes was able to address not only racism and prejudice, but also women’s careers and other issues she felt strongly about. She later described herself as “antiwar [and] anti-everything-that’s-smelly.” Although Torchy Brown initially appeared only in the Pittsburgh Courier, before long the strip was syndicated in 14 more black papers across the country.
In 1940 Ormes brought Torchy Brown to an end and briefly moved with her husband to his small hometown of Salem, Ohio, but she was unhappy there and they soon moved again to Chicago. There Ormes got a reporting job with the Chicago Defender, and by the mid-1940s she had conceived of another comic strip, the single-panel Candy. In 1946 she started another single-panel strip, Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which featured the acerbic little girl Patty Jo and her fashion-plate older sister Ginger. Through the voice of Patty Jo, Ormes again commented on issues of the day such as racism, sexism, the military-industrial complex, and McCarthyism. In 1948 she also licensed a Patty Jo doll, which was the first nationally distributed black doll and remains a highly-sought-after collector’s item to this day.
In 1950 a national syndicate persuaded Ormes to bring back Torchy Brown for a new strip, Torchy in Heartbeats. Initially, however, the syndicate only wanted her to provide the art to match a male writer’s storylines. This did not work out well, as Ormes said she constantly had to remind the writer that the character she created “was no moonstruck crybaby, and that she wouldn’t perish between heartbreaks. I have never liked dreamy little women who can’t hold their own.” Eventually Ormes again gained full creative control over the strip, which ran until 1955 when papers like the Courier and the Defender cut their comics sections to give more space to news coverage of the growing Civil Rights movement. Ormes switched to fine art painting until she also had to give that up due to rheumatoid arthritis. She died in 1985, but in recent years she has finally begun to be recognized in the comics industry as a groundbreaking creator.
–Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Tarpé Mills, a pseudonym adopted by June Mills in order to conceal her gender to help sell her comics, is the creator of the first major costumed female protagonist in the contemporary comics industry—Miss Fury.
Debuting as a dedicated newspaper comic strip in April 1941 called Black Fury, Miss Fury as she would later be known represented not only a fantastically empowered female character the likes of which the industry had never seen before, but unlike other women characters of the time she was imbued with a complexity and sense of feminine strength that only her creator could capture. Unlike William Moulton Marston’s one-dimensional character Wonder Woman who would appear in comics a few months later, Mills’ Miss Fury was complex both physically and mentally—traits that an ambitious Tarpé Mills herself possessed as a young women seeking work in an industry dominated by men.
Although Mills used her pen name to gain access into the industry, she was quickly be able to hold her own alongside other prominent female creators of the time like Dale Messick (Brenda Starr) and Hilda Terry (Teena). She was included in editorial coverage as a woman creator paving the way for other young women to pursue work in the comics industry. Her comic creations were women characters for women readers; and not just your stereotypical war-time romance and nurse comics that were coming out at the time. Her characters were timely, stylish, have more realistic female figures, and exude an typical confidence and strength.
Although Miss Fury remains Tarpé Mills’ most notable work—a character that has been drawn and redrawn numerous times from the 1940s to today by both men and women—she continued working in the comics industry until her death in 1988. Throughout her career she never sacrificed the strong female protagonist to the sexy, one-dimensional vixens of the time. And though the times initially forced her to adopt a pseudonym to hide her gender from biased readers and publishers, in the end June Mills was able to stand strong as one of the first female creators that paved the way for future women creators to work in the “superhero” genre.
–Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Shary Flenniken grew up in a deeply conservative military household, but came of age at Vietnam protests where she found an artistic calling that would place her at the epicenter of two of the most subversive humor institutions in comics history.
Born in 1950 at the height of the baby boom, Flenniken’s early life followed her father’s career as a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy to Alaska, Panama, and Seattle. She pursued formal art education at a commercial art school in Seattle, training to produce advertisements and other commercial graphics. At an anti-war demonstration, Flenniken was drafted to produce artwork for an underground newspaper that included “cartoons advocating freedom of choice and hitchhiking.” In 1970 she met cartoonists Ted Richards, Dan O’Neill, and future husband Bobby London at the Sky River Rock Festival outside of Portland, Oregon, where she was producing the festival’s mimeographed newsletter. During the festival, they produced the four-page comic Sky River Funnies.
In 1971, Flenniken moved to San Francisco where she lived in a warehouse with Richards, London, O’Neill, and Gary Hallgren. The group would be immortalized as the Air Pirates, the notorious San Francisco underground comix collective whose antics led to a protracted legal battle with Disney that changed the face of parody law in the United States. Flenniken didn’t contribute to Air Pirates Funnies, the comic book that led to the confrontation with Disney, instead developing her own strip Trots and Bonnie.
The biography on Flenniken’s website recalls:
The real attraction of the Air Pirates odyssey was the salon atmosphere in the series of warehouses occupied by the group. The cartoonists taught and learned from each other almost constantly. There was little food or sleep. They discussed politics and pen points with equal seriousness. They traveled in a protective pack when they went out to forage for meals or a place to take a shower. O’Neill introduced Improvisational Theater exercises that he adapted for writing comic pages. These were emotional, mind-bending tests of the artist’s ability to relinquish their ego in order to participate in a team project. Not all passed.
The lessons were not always easy to swallow. One primary edict holds true today… “Develop a character and build your comic strip around its characters.” Shary’s long-running Trots and Bonnie comic strip was a result of that directive, born from memories of growing up in the saccharine Seattle suburb called Magnolia with her dog, Bonnie.
Trots and Bonnie found a home in National Lampoon, where it would appear from 1972 until 1990. Emulating the style of golden age strip cartoonists including Clare Briggs and H.T. Webster, Trots and Bonnie simultaneously skewered and explored sexuality, politics, and the counter-culture. The juxtaposition of a charming line style that evoked the innocence of an earlier era with frank, often explicit subject matter reflecting the sexually liberal culture of the 1970s allowed Flenniken to address taboo subjects with a great deal of empathy. Flenniken went on to become an editor of Lampoon from 1979 – 1981 under P.J. O’Rourke, where she covered the 1980 Democratic and Republican national conventions and recruited a variety of artists to the magazine including Mimi Pond and Rick Geary. She also co-wrote the screenplay for National Lampoon Goes To The Movies.
Flenniken’s professional practice placed her in competitive, male-dominated counter-culture institutions where she developed a uniquely impactful voice and visual style, while paving the way for others to follow. She successfully made the transition from underground comix to the mainstream distribution of Lampoon and through her work pushed back at much of the institutional sexism that pervaded both milieus. Speaking to Robert Boyd at The Comics Journal she said:
Mostly I want to be understood, for them to get what I’m saying. But I’ll settle for any reaction. It was a big deal for me to draw naked men with their penises showing in Lampoon. I wanted to put [Michelangelo’s] David on the cover, with girls making fun of his little weenie. I wanted an equal time thing because what men don’t seem to realize is that we all have the same reaction to seeing someone of our sex naked. It makes us nervous. We compare our bodies to the ones in the picture. It’s made women totally nuts.
Flenniken currently lives in Seattle, Washington where she provides freelance illustration for outlets including Mad, Details, and Graphic Classics.
Trina Robbins is without a doubt one of the most influential and prolific women creators of the comics (or comix) industry. Coming to San Francisco in the 1970s, she fell quickly under the spell of the city’s youth counterculture and free atmosphere, which fueled her desire to create what would become some of the most iconic comics about women in history.
In a time when the only way to truly and freely express oneself in comics came from working in channels outside of the regulatory confines of the Comics Code, Robbins dominated those arenas and quickly became a star of the underground comix movement. With a career spanning over three decades and still going, she is one of the founding members of the longest running all-women comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix, produced the first-ever all-women comic It Ain’t Me, Babe, and contributed to numerous other iconic underground comix. Robbins has worked with everyone from Robert Crumb in the underground, to Vampirella at Warren Publishing in the late 1960s, to DC’s Wonder Woman in the 1980s. Robbins’ name is synonymous with female strength and empowerment, and it is her unique voice and approach to freedom of speech and expression that has inspired entire generations of women creators.
More than a fantastic creative voice, though, Trina Robbins has also become one of the industry’s strongest activists, advocates, and archivists of the complex role that women creators have played in comics since their inception. She has edited comics about AIDS, being pro-choice, and countless other issues, using the medium to spread awareness and educate society.
Out of her work as an advocate for contemporary issues has sprung one of her most ambitious and amazing roles as an icon in comics. Robbins has not only written comics, but contributed to numerous anthologies and historical books about comics and specifically the role that women have played in the industry. Robbins describes herself as not only a writer, but a “herstorian.” From The Brinkley Girls, to From Girls to Grrlz, to the biography of Lily Renee, Lily Renee, Escape Artist, Robbins has opened the door for a new generation of comics fans and readers to enjoy and celebrate the fantastically rich history that women have in this industry by collecting materials and presenting viewpoints that have never been seen before.
Her work as a comics creator, an educator, and an advocate is a true inspiration. Coming out of a period in American comics history restricted by mandated regulation and explicit censorship brought about by the Code, Trina Robbins has always stood up for free speech and expression by producing the works that she wanted to produce. She dominated the underground, brought a new flavor to the mainstream, and is now giving the comics industry a whole new perspective on its history.
—Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Born in 1951 and encouraged from an early age to follow her father’s example as an artist, Seda pursued formal art education at Illinois State University where she achieved a B.A. in art for painting and ceramics. Her ceramic works reveal the wry and ribald wit that would characterize her later comics, especially Vibrator with 3 Attachments, which the composer Bob Davis describes as:
“Loaf-like, pink and almost two feet long, the vibrator itself was made from slabs of clay … It lay on its back with a silver post thrust into the air waiting for attachments. Dori made three. She would gleefully show them to people in the following order: first a silver, lustrous disc, such as you’d use to relieve an ache in your shoulder. Next there was a pink penis with flocked lace trim. That usually opened a few eyes. But my favorite was number three, a grey, curly poodle’s head with a glazed grin and a big, wet, pink tongue hanging out. The most captivating element of this piece was not the attachments, however. Protruding from the vibrator with grins as satisfied as the dog’s, were the heads of six cats. I always imagined that their presence had something to do with the way cats purr and vibrators hum…”
After college, Seda moved to San Francisco where she became a fixture in the Mission District art and bar scenes. With Davis as her partner-in-crime, Seda hung out at drag events, made elaborate costumes, sold hand-crafts including “mock-Arabian Nights” slippers, did illustration work, and exhibited acrylic paintings. In 1979 she went to work at Last Gasp, the venerable underground publisher and distributor, starting as a janitor and moving up to bookkeeper. Seda kept night hours, in part due to her own nocturnal rhythms, and in part to mitigate the jealously she felt when interacting with the cartoonists that came through and thought of her solely as “the bookkeeper.” Seda’s fortunes changed when R. Crumb accepted her 1977 story “Bloods in Space” for Weirdo #2. Crumb encouraged Seda, providing her with a regular berth in the anthology from 1982 until 1985.
Seda found her calling in comics. Her largely autobiographical work portrays the rude, sleazy, anything-goes sexuality of pre-AIDS San Francisco with equal parts bleak humor and cheerful enjoyment. Seda’s art stands in opposition to a cultural context that included the Meese Commission on Pornography, and Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin‘s efforts in the anti-pornography movement. Her work depicts sexuality in a way that emphasizes feminine pleasure, power, and above all else, agency. These qualities, in the context of her irreverent and explicit drawings, contributed to her 1986 solo title Lonely Nights Comics being banned in the UK. Perhaps this brush with censorship is in part responsible for the political themes that emerged in her later stories. Her 1987 story “How Cops ‘Pick Up’ Girls” is a righteous protest against the sexual harassment and abuse of power she experienced at the hands of the SFPD that also manages to pull off a wicked punchline at the expense of her arresting officers. That same year also produced “Door of Deception, or The Right to Lie,” a collaboration with Carla Abbots exposing the tactics of anti-abortion pregnancy clinics, and “The Do-Nothing Decade,” a powerful meditation on political apathy.
Seda suffered from the respiratory disease silicosis, whose symptoms were made worse by her heavy smoking and hard living. She contracted a virulent strain of flu in the winter of 1988, dying of respiratory failure on February 25th at the warehouse she shared with Don Donahue. Seda’s mother inherited the literary rights to her work, and sought to suppress it on moral grounds. A 1987 letter written six days after her 36th birthday on lavender writing paper with the letterhead “Dori Seda – Cartoonist” saved that work from oblivion. The cartoonist Leslie Sternbergh recalls:
“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN,” the letter begins. “This is sort of a contract and sort of a will (although I don’t plan on dying soon.)” … What a thing for Dori to’ve said, even in jest, all the worse in retrospect. The text continues. … She makes one point clearly, and several times reiterates it – that Don [Donahue] should have her artwork. … This odd contract was at her insistence witnessed by her friends Krystine Kryttre and Dan O’Neill. For whatever reasons, she wanted a legal document.
At the 1990 San Diego Comic-Con, with the assistance of Last Gasp founder Ron Turner and attorney Mitch Berger, the process of filing that letter as Seda’s will was set in motion. In 1991 Donahue took ownership of Seda’s work, protecting her legacy. Last Gasp published Dori Stories, the definitive anthology of her art and life, in 1999.
—Executive Director Charles Brownstein
Lee Marrs, who would become one of the first and most outspoken women creators of the underground comix movement, got her start working in the comics industry as a part-time assistant on the strips Little Orphan Annie and Hi & Lois. Although this was her beginning in the industry, her entrepreneurial drive ultimately led her to San Francisco in 1971 where she worked alongside other underground legends like Trina Robbins. Her passionate approach to comics and desire to create works that spoke to all kinds of women became a major inspiration for other women creators to get involved in the comics scene.
In a time when mainstream comics were still being heavily regulated and censored by the Code, the fledgling underground scene was really the only place where creators could express themselves freely and produce the books that they wanted. Although it was still heavily perceived as the proverbial “boy-club,” this didn’t stop Marrs. Instead of trying to be exclusively included in their comix, Marrs made her own. The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp was born and would run from 1973 to 1978—an incredible run for an independently created work.
Not a creator to be held back for any reason, Marrs would also contribute to other underground anthologies like Gay Comix, Star*Reach, and Heavy Metal. Her insistent drive would later lead her to becoming one of the founding members of the longest running all-women comix anthologies, Wimmen’s Comix.
Her unique voice geared towards women’s empowerment, strength, and free speech is what not only made Marrs a shining beacon in the underground, but also a power figure later in the mainstream, and ultimately an Emmy Award-winning art director of her own company, Lee Marrs Artwork. She worked for men like Joe Orlando and Tex Blaisdell, and did work on some of the most popular mainstream books including House of Secrets, Wonder Woman, and Zatanna, but first and foremost she was her own creator and business woman.
–Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Roberta Gregory grew up surrounded by comic books, and started drawing her own comics at a very young age. The 1970s found her both entering college in her native Southern California and encountering the feminist movement. As she used art and a sense of humor to explore the movement, Gregory soon found a home for her work in the influential all-women underground anthology Wimmen’s Comix and her own Dynamite Damsels series. In her own words, Gregory “was happy to be living proof that feminists did have a sense of humor, but I was really just writing and drawing the sorts of stories that I would love to read, if someone else was doing them.” Because no one was making the stories Gregory wanted to read, she felt obligated to make them herself.
Gregory continued to publish in Wimmen’s Comix into the 1980s, and her stories also appeared in nearly every issue of the Gay Comix anthology. During this period, she also started work on Winging It, an ambitious and intricate graphic novel that used dark humor to explore the relationship between a suicidal woman and a fallen angel, and Sheila and the Unicorn, a comic strip about the unrequited love between a unicorn and a human being. Toward the end of the decade, Gregory relocated to Seattle and began working with Fantagraphics Books.
In 1991, Gregory’s launched Naughty Bits and with it the character for which she is best known: Bitchy Bitch. Many related to the character, a short-tempered profanity-spewing middle-aged everywoman who doesn’t hold back when it comes to voicing her frustrations with modern life. Bitchy appeared in 40 issues of Naughty Bits, which drew to a close in 2004, but Gregory has more adventures planned for the character.
Gregory uses frequently dark humor to explore the modern world from a feminist perspective, and her groundbreaking work garners a broad spectrum of reactions, from veneration to outright rejection. Gregory refuses to bow to pressure from those who oppose her work, and welcomes the negative feedback. In her own words:
I am not writing for everyone. You may absolutely hate something that I have written but you may love something else. Don’t be afraid to let me know something is not your “cup of tea,” (as long as you enjoy something else of mine). Believe me, I am used to it by now!
–Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
Underground to Alternative
Lynda Barry is one of contemporary independent comics’ most celebrated creators, known not only for her strip work in alternative weeklies from the ’70s to the ’90s, but also for her incredible biographical and autobiographical works that capture highly interpersonal and introspective aspects of her life in a way that the comics industry hasn’t seen before. A pioneer of the biographical and experimental comics form, Barry opened the door for many of the themes and styles that have taken over independent comics today.
Born Linda Jean Barry in Wisconsin in 1956, she moved with her family to Seattle, Washington shortly thereafter and spent most of her childhood there, exposed to a world of urban diversity and culture. As a young adult growing up in a time and place where the booming underground comix movement of San Francisco was just a stone’s throw away but had been in full-swing for at least a decade, the comics scene in the Pacific Northwest began changing to accommodate a more contemporary young society—a society of young intellectuals and bohemians who were searching for a new way to look at their complicated, emotionally conflicted modern world. Mixing the free press of the underground with the accessibility of a broader educated readership, alternative press—specifically alternative weeklies—was born and Lynda Barry was at the forefront of this movement representing not only the voice of men and women both, but importantly herself—a giant step that would in later years bloom into a whole genre in and of itself in the comics industry.
With her comic Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Barry was able to reach out to a new comics reader who was looking for more complex and challenging works than those that were being written for the everyday newspaper. Running for two decades and syndicated across North America in various alternative weeklies, in juxtaposition to the underground comics which remained fairly isolated to a particular community and its creators, Barry’s work and voice reached all sorts of people and places while allowing her the ability to freely express herself in a new and growing form.
As her popularity grew and the alternative weekly scene and comics changed, Barry would further grow with it, becoming not only a comics creator, but an illustrator, writer, playwright, and teacher. Using the comics form, she experimented with collage and illustration as a means to get her voice and story across. If that meant adapting her illustrated novel The Good Times are Killing Me into an off-Broadway play, so be it. It was the drive to express herself and her creativity that allowed Barry’s works to permeate a variety of audiences and ultimately act as inspiration for other contemporary comics creators.
In 2009 Barry won the prestigious Eisner Award and R.R. Donnelly Award for her graphic novel What It Is. A memoir, a graphic novel, a piece of literature, and an instructional workbook for a new generation of creators to find and express themselves through the comics medium, What It Is represents explicitly who Barry is in the motley world of comics today—a creator, an educator, and an inspiration for an industry in motion and change.
—Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Julie Doucet grew up in Montreal, where she attended an all-girls Catholic high school and later obtained a degree in printing arts from Université du Québec à Montréal. In the late 1980s she began working with experimental comics, including her fanzine Dirty Plotte which was originally self-published but was picked up by Drawn & Quarterly in 1991. That series, says D+Q on its Julie Doucet page, “changed the landscape of alternative cartooning, offering a frank, funny, and sometimes shocking melange of dreams, diaries, and stories.”
The 1990s were literally dynamic years for Doucet, as she moved from Montreal to New York to Seattle to Berlin and finally back to Montreal in 1998. Her time in New York, she says drily on her website, “didn’t go too well” and was chronicled in My New York Diary in 1999. During those years Drawn & Quarterly also published two collections of her strips which had originally appeared in alt-weeklies and other periodicals. After returning to her hometown, she ended Dirty Plotte and started a new strip about life in Montreal called The Madame Paul Affair, which was published in collective form in 2000.
After that, Doucet declared that she was done with the comics format—too much work for not enough money, she says—and has since thrown herself into an astounding variety of other artforms including silkscreen printmaking, collage poetry, animation, and papier-mâché sculpture, all tinged with the same wry humor and bustling energy that fans know from her earlier work. She still lives in Montreal, where she now publishes her own work through her press Le Pantalitaire and is deeply involved in the arts community, often exhibiting locally as well as internationally.
—Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Carol Lay grew up in Orange County, California during the 1950s, a time and place where she says “the normality was mind-numbing.” She was able to step outside the mundane somewhat through TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but didn’t fully escape it until she attended UCLA, where she “discovered Frank Zappa and Zap Comix in the first week.” Lay had a wide variety of interests but majored in Fine Arts, although she was already frustrated with the field before she finished her degree. After college she created some parodic pastiches of well-known paintings (“The Persistence of Kat Klocks,” for instance), but was drawn to the practical discipline of commercial art. She worked in ad design for a few years until she hit upon the idea of creating comics, which she says suited her “skills and interests in drawing, storytelling, logic, and complex puzzle solving.”
Lay got her start in the industry through lettering, then took on various jobs at independent and mainstream comics publishers including DC, Marvel, Hanna-Barbera, and Western Publishing. Meanwhile she also continued in commercial art and illustration for Mattel, and drew storyboards for both live-action and animated films. She was also able to express her more surreal sensibilities through her own independent comic Good Girls, a parody of romance comics that features an heiress who was adopted by an African tribe as an infant and received drastic facial modifications.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Lay found her niche with her strip Story Minute, which later became Way Lay and appeared on Salon.com as well as in several other U.S. and international periodicals. These strips featured complete slice-of-life short stories economically packed into a page or half-page of panels, featuring characters who often wore sheepish sideways grins. Lay also delved into journalism and memoir via comics, as when she illustrated her experiences at Burning Man and the pinup convention Glamourcon. In 2008 she published a pragmatic and honest graphic memoir of her weight loss called The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude. In January 2015 Lay launched a new online strip, Lay Lines, which mixes new content with newly-colored versions of her older work. She also recently crowdfunded a new book, Murderville #1: A Farewell to Armories, in which “a semi-retired mobster and his family face down a sexy villain on a quaint Maine island.”
—Contributing Editor Maren Williams
San Francisco in the 1960s and ’70s was the place to be if you were a cartoonist looking to break away from the regulations imposed on the comics industry by the Comics Code and find a public space to freely express yourself. The underground comix movement was in full force and a truly unique voice full of spit and spunk emerged from this band of creators in Aline Kominsky-Crumb.
Born Aline Goldsmith, Kominsky-Crumb was one of the expatriates of New York and mainstream comics who migrated to San Francisco to find a new arena for their works. Alongside Trina Robbins, Lee Marrs, and a handful of other women, Kominsky-Crumb would become a founder and contributor to the longest running all-women comix anthology, Wimmen’s Comix. Like most underground creators her gritty art and unabashedly honest narrative style complemented her equally honest approach to life. Kominsky-Crumb utilized the comics form to test social boundaries, push buttons, and get in readers’ faces. It is her free and unrestrained voice and style that made her not only one of the most prominent creators in the underground, but also one of the most influential creators for the future alternative and independent comics scenes.
When she wasn’t contributing to Wimmen’s Comix, a publication by women for women, she was contributing to other underground anthologies including Robert Crumb’s Weirdo which reached a whole other kind of reader. When she wasn’t doing work for other people’s books she was making her own. Together with Diane Noomin she created Twisted Sisters, which took the underground in a whole new direction for women creators and women readers. Unlike Wimmen’s Comix whose central theme was the empowerment of women, Twisted Sisters showed women as they were with all of their mortal flaws and desires. In a University of Florida conference in 2003 Noomin recalled, “Basically, we felt that our type of humor was self-deprecating and ironic and that what they were pushing for in the name of feminism and political correctness was a sort of self-aggrandizing and idealistic view of women as a super-race. We preferred to have our flaws and show them.”
Featuring gritty art, gritty stories, and gritty women, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work in the underground truly was work for a whole other kind of woman. Not to be held back by any kind of boundary—gender, ethnic, social, and so on—Kominsky-Crumb has not only worked with many of the industry’s greats, but has accumulated a portfolio that could be the poster child for freedom of expression. Her unabashed approach to comics, and ultimately freedom of speech as well, is what has made Kominsky-Crumb a leading and highly influential voice for a whole new generation of creator.
—Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe
Sue Coe grew up next to a slaughterhouse, a circumstance that has had a profound impact on her career as an artist. In witnessing the horrors of factory farming, Coe decided that her work should bring to light the atrocities in the world around us. Her stark and sobering work isn’t just limited to farms — Coe has used art to address the horrors of apartheid, systemic racism, HIV, war, and terrorism.
Born in 1951 in England, Coe moved to the United States in 1972. Her highly political work has been featured in The New York Times, The Nation, Entertainment Weekly, The Progressive, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Artforum, and several other publications. Coe uses various media, including paint, collage, drawing, and more, but she considers herself more a journalist than an artist. She uses her artwork to address social issues, often juxtaposing victims and perpetrators in evocative and impactful ways, conveying dreadful events in a way that cannot be ignored by the viewer.
Because Coe’s work is so powerful, it has occasionally run afoul of censors. “The Rape of Rosa Velez,” which depicts the gang rape of a woman on a pool table, has been attacked on a few occasions. When Coe drew it for an assignment for Boston Magazine, the publication cropped the final image, removing much of the artwork’s impact in doing so. In 1984, British censors shut down a portion of an exhibition at Ferens Gallery in the UK for displaying the piece.
Regardless of the attempts to censor her, Coe continues to create work that makes a statement, and she does extensive research for her pieces. For Dead Meat (1996), which collects many of her pieces about factory farms and slaughterhouses, Coe visited stockyards, meatpacking plants, dairies, and chicken farms. The same research has influenced the pieces in her subsequent publications Sheep of Fools (2005) and Cruel (2012). Coe remains adamant that artwork should be used to address the cruelty of the world around us.
–Editorial Director Betsy Gomez
Claire Bretécher grew up in Nantes, France, but left for Paris as soon as she reached adulthood. Although her background was in Fine Arts, she abandoned that pursuit upon finding that comics—her first love—were “persona non grata” in highbrow art. After a few years contributing illustrations to various magazines, she made her big break into the industry by drawing the René Goscinny-authored series Facteur Rhésus in 1963. Throughout the rest of the 1960s—years of particularly dramatic social upheaval in France—she contributed mostly to three comic magazines that were then in their heyday: Spirou, Pilote, and Tintin (which prominently featured Hergé’s boy reporter but also included other series).
In 1969 Bretécher created one of her most well-known characters: Cellulite, a quasi-medieval princess and acerbic feminist. A few years later Bretécher was one of the founders of the adult-oriented comic magazine L’Echo des Savanes, but she left in 1973 for a regular spot in the news weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, where she set about dissecting French society in a comic that became known as La Page des Frustrés. There she gained admirers such as the cultural critic Roland Barthes, who dubbed her “the best sociologist of the year” in 1976. Around the same time National Lampoon also collected some of her works into an English-language edition, and a review in The Comics Journal called Bretécher’s work “probably the most palatable gallic import since champagne.”
In the 1980s Bretécher self-published several albums, including a controversially irreverent comic biography of Saint Theresa of Avila. Then in 1988 she created another character that became a well-loved French icon: Agrippine, the quintessentially dissatisfied teenager and rebellious daughter of aging leftists. Through Cellulite and Agrippine, Bretécher lovingly skewered what she considered to be the excesses of two causes she nonetheless believed in: feminism and the leftist movement that flowered in May 1968 but leaves its mark on French society to this day. Bretécher has retired from comics, but her enduring influence is evident in France and beyond—from the licensed Agrippine merchandise that proliferates in European novelty shops, to the asteroid that received her name in 2006.
—Contributing Editor Maren Williams
Carol Swain was born in London in 1962, but spent most of her younger life in a remote village in Wales. Wales is a frequent setting in Swain’s work, which embraces themes of alienation, absurdity, grief, skepticism, discovery, faith, hope, and epiphany. Trained as a painter, Swain’s charcoal and pencil-based comics and graphic novels have been highly acclaimed by various publications, including Time, Time Out, Publishers Weekly, and more.
Swain’s bibliography is almost as spare as her artwork, making each new book she publishes a rare treat for readers. Her foray into comics began in 1989 with her self-published Way Out Strips, and she released a short graphic novel, Invasion of the Mind Sappers, in 1996. In 2004, Swain released Foodboy, an acclaimed study of friendship and how the bonds among friends are tested by adolescence and time. Crossing the Empty Quarter (2009) collects more than 30 short stories from throughout Swain’s career, which range from slight portraits to visually epic poems, a testament to Swain’s dynamic storytelling skill. In 2009, Swain released Giraffes in My Hair, a study of misspent youth during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, written by her partner Bruce Palley. Finally, late last year, Swain released Gast, an absurdist murder mystery that centers on a lonely girl and a cast of talking animals.
Swain’s work is restrained, with a lyricism that can be difficult to define verbally but feels at once intimately familiar to the reader. Swain employs regimented panel layouts, and the format lends a finished quality to any story she creates, as if each panel emerged fully formed as a note in a much larger symphony. The appeal of her stories can come as much from the spaces that aren’t filled, both visually and conceptually, enabling the reader to engage personally with any story Swain commits to the page.
—Editorial Director Betsy Gomez