Sex, Drugs, and Equal Pay: Wimmen's Comix Get Their Due

From the cover of the Last Gasp one-shot "It Aint Me Babe," by Trina Robbins

Underground comics enjoyed a golden age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the heady, weed-scented thrum of San Francisco was its heartbeat. R. Crumb’s gleefully filthy Zap Comix premiered in 1968 with a sensibility that worshiped free love, satire and irreverence, and cartoonists like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ Gilbert Shelton decided to move west to join in on the fun.

Trina Robbins, then a young cartoonist who’d already established herself in New York while drawing comics for underground newspapers, had no sense that her path should be any different when she arrived in the Bay Area in 1970.

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Trina Robbins at home in San Francisco.

“It was all so new and exciting. San Francisco was the mecca of the new underground comics scene,” recalls Robbins, now 77, during an interview at the artwork-filled Duboce Triangle home where she’s lived since 1975. “Unfortunately, when I got here, I discovered that the underground comics scene was a boys’ club.”

Her male contemporaries were polite in person, she says, but never quite invited her to their parties -- let alone asked her to collaborate on books with them. “It was ‘no girls allowed.’ I had to do something.”

So Robbins rounded up every female artist she could find in the Bay Area, and together, they threw their own damn party.

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It Ain’t Me, Babe, published in July of 1970 by Ron Turner's Last Gasp imprint, was the first collection of comics entirely by women -- some of them women who had never drawn professionally before.

Nearly 50 years later, that pioneering 50-cent comic book full of stories about women, for women -- a comic book that helped upend the myth that “girls don’t like comics,” after it sold 40,000 copies in three printings -- serves as the perfect kickoff to The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, a hefty new two-volume, full-color tome published in January by Fantagraphics.

The women of Wimmen's Comix at a gallery show of their work in 1975, with Last Gasp publisher Ron Turner.
The women of Wimmen's Comix at a gallery show of their work in 1975, with Last Gasp publisher Ron Turner.

The anthology contains all 17 issues of Wimmen’s Comix, a serialized collection of comics that grew out of It Ain’t Me, Babe and ran from 1972 to 1992, with a group of 10 women artists in the Bay Area taking turns as editor. Most of these issues have been out of print for decades, so this anthology will actually give them a second life.

Robbins, who penned the book's introduction, will appear at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco this Tuesday, April 12 alongside fellow founding artists Lee Marrs, Sharon Rudahl, Caryn Leschen and Kay Rudin to discuss the book, their work, and its impact.

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“We dealt with topics the guys would never, ever deal with,” says Robbins, pointing to first-person stories about back-alley abortions, domestic violence, and equal pay at work. Of course, the women characters of Wimmen’s Comix have their share of happily casual sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as well. Conspicuously absent: the preposterously proportioned, overly sexualized and ornamental women so often found in comics by men.

“In the early ‘70s, many of the guys’ comics were very misogynistic,” says Robbins. “When I would criticize [their comics] depicting rape as funny, they'd say 'Oh, you just don't have a sense of humor.' So much of our [inspiration] was just saying, ‘Women have to have a voice.’ We have to be able to speak out if we want things to improve.”

Lee Marrs
Lee Marrs

Founding artist Lee Marrs would become well-known for her character and series Pudge, Girl Blimp -- in which our protagonist is an awkward, overweight teenage runaway from the Midwest who lands in San Francisco and begins experimenting with drugs, sex, and commune life. Marrs often drew her happily gorging on food.

"You could draw anything you wanted, you could write anything you wanted. It was a liberating experience -- underground comics seemed wonderful," says Marrs,  whom Robbins introduced to the underground scene around 1971. "The fact that there was absolutely no money in it wasn't really clear yet."

"All In a Day's Work," by Lee Marrs.
"All In a Day's Work," by Lee Marrs.

Originally a political cartoonist who aspired to work for a major newspaper, Marrs found fairly soon after college that not one editor would return her calls. She did graphics work instead, and helped found Berkeley's independent journalism organization the Alternative Feature Service. But "there were just no women political cartoonists in the United States," recalls Marrs, now 70, adding that she chalks her freelance successes in that arena up to "having an ambisexual name."

With Wimmen's Comix, there were no cliques, no unspoken rules: Each issue had a loose theme (Outlaws, The Occult, Disastrous Relationships -- even a 3-D edition.) In each issue, roughly half the book was reserved for any woman who wanted in; the collective solicited contributions on the back page. And every month the editors would meet at someone's house to sift through the submissions.

"It was a lot of work," recalls Marrs. "But Wimmen's Comix meetings were also where I was introduced to getting stoned [from] brownies. Those made the meetings go really quickly."

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Of course, the collective had barely published three issues before they started getting pushback -- from all sides. Alongside commentary from the comics’ creators, the anthology contains excerpts of brutally hilarious hate mail the women received at their P.O. box in Berkeley.

“Dear FBI,” begins one letter. “You can’t fool us. Who are you kidding? We see thru your trying to undermine the women’s/Lesbian Movement. We expose you for the dirty filthy infiltrators you are.” There were those in the women’s lib movement who were angry at the spelling of “Wimmen,” Robbins explains -- they wanted the word “men” out of it entirely. (That particular letter was signed “Moonbeam, Labyris [and] Sparkling Star.”)

Self-portraits of the founding members of Wimmen's Comix, as appeared in issue #1.
Self-portraits of the founding members of Wimmen's Comix, as they appeared in issue #1.

Then there were more concrete hurdles, like the 1973 Supreme Court obscenity ruling that left some booksellers fearful of comics that could be interpreted as pornography, and led Ms. Magazine to reject Wimmen’s Comix bid for ad space entirely.

In short, the anthology is more than a snapshot of a marginalized community demanding acknowledgment. It’s documentation of a dynamic, often messy movement -- missteps, growing pains and all.

The lack of diversity among editors and contributors, for example, is tough to ignore in 2016. “It was all straight, white women,” admits Robbins matter-of-factly. While the submissions became distinctly more professional with each passing year, their creators were still by and large homogenous.

“We were called hetero-sexists because we didn’t have any lesbians...until Roberta Gregory sent something in 1974," says Robbins, recalling that milestone issue.

"But, " she insists, "we just never got any submissions from women of color.” Edna Jundis, a Filipina woman whose work appeared in a handful of issues and drew one cover, was the lone exception Robbins could recall.

Wimmen's Comix cover art by Edna Jundis.
Wimmen's Comix cover art by Edna Jundis.

As comics grew into the mainstream as an art form over the course of the '90s and early aughts, so did female artists' representation in the field.

After a second wave of editors took the lead, later editions of Wimmen's Comix featured work by a young Lynda Barry; Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir Fun Home is currently a smash-hit Broadway show touted as the first mainstream musical about a lesbian; and Phoebe Gloeckner, whose semi-autobiographical novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl was made into a critically acclaimed film last year.

Long before 'Fun Home,' Alison Bechdel penned the strip 'Dykes to Watch Out For.'
Long before 'Fun Home,' Alison Bechdel penned the strip 'Dykes to Watch Out For.'

Then, of course, there are the young women artists still on their way up -- women who frequently contact Trina Robbins and Lee Marrs via email and Facebook, who travel to meet them at comics conventions.

"It's been really inspiring over the years," says Marrs. "To hear that they’ve been inspired to actually do this work by things they saw us do first -- it really gives you a lift on the low days, when you’re thinking about the presidential campaigns and whatnot."

"Men," by Carol Tyler
"Men," by Carol Tyler

And on days like the one earlier this year, when the Angoulême International Comics Festival announced its 30 nominees for the grand prize, the highest honor in comics, and not one of them was a woman? (Festival CEO Franck Bondoux said, by way of explanation, that "there are few women in the history of comics art.")

"Unbelievable nonsense. It's like they're wearing blinders. The Angoulême guys are Neanderthals," says Robbins. "Actually, Neanderthals do have some intelligence. They're dinosaurs."

And, like dinosaurs, she points out, the old men currently in charge of that prize won't be around forever. Unfortunately, neither will she. "I don't know if I'll live to see a day when they're all gone and I'm cackling, still surviving."

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In the meantime: From her blog to the books she's penned about other comics pioneers, Robbins has devoted her life to celebrating the talented and successful women in her field -- loudly. There are just so many, says the artist, adding that she hopes this anthology will be studied in university classrooms long after she's gone.

And if anyone had told Trina Robbins what the next 45 years would bring, on that day in 1970 when she got fed up with the boys' club and decided to call a bunch of girls up instead?

"I would be stunned."

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Artists Trina Robbins, Sharon Rudahl, Lee Marrs, Caryn Leschen, and Kay Rudin will discuss The Complete Wimmen's Comix at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco this Tuesday, April 12 at 7:30 pm. Details here

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