Crossing the Lines

Women Comic Strippers

The close-up is of a mottled beard, flecked with feathers and vomit, with small bird parts dripping from the hairy nest. Penny Moran Van Horn's scratch-board story "A Bird in the Beard" ends with the perfect panel of the fowl-strewn Casanova cocking a drunken eyebrow, spewing, "So... you wanna spend the night, babe?" This work of Austin artist Van Horn and 13 others appear in an enthralling primer to modern female comic art Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art edited by Diane Noomin. This coffee-table compendium of femme-penned pieces caused quite a buzz in the comics scene, as well as in feminist academic circles. It also made waves: "A fellow [male] artist saw my work in Twisted Sisters at the Museum of Modern Art's bookstore and said, `The spotlight is only on you because you women are in the minority,'" Van Horn rolls her eyes. "C'mon, those guys have had an open mike for the past millennium! [Men] have had the spotlight for so long; even if it is because we are women, I can't see how shifting the focus should get anybody's feathers wet...."

Artists and comic book aficionados consider Twisted Sisters a sign of the changing body of comic art culture - a body that has taken on a decidedly female form. The book heralded a veritable renaissance of women artists on the "alternative" comic planet, albeit as an exception to the norm. In spite of this minority status, and at the point marking the 100th anniversary of the 1895 creation of the comic strip, the alternative publishing market has seen an increase in the number of women's self-authored titles. According to Tammy Watson, marketing director for Fantagraphics Books, a forerunner in independent comic distribution, "It's not just because the independents are choosing to publish more women. There's been a definite increase in self-publishing, with women bringing their own titles into comic book stores. There's also been an increase in compilation comics featuring many women artists, so an audience will be exposed to six to 10 artists at once."

Another important volume, 1993's A Century of Women Cartoonists by Trina Robbins, reveals that over the last 100 years, both alternative and mainstream comic strips have been thoroughly populated with female artists who are often left out of historical accounts. As the book illustrates, this is not the only time female artists have basked in attention under the lights. At the turn of the century, Rose O'Neill reaped obscene rewards with her creation - the Kewpies. A decade later, Grace Dayton enjoyed a similar success with the immortal Campbell's Soup Kids. In 1940, Dale Messick introduced Brenda Starr, Reporter and set the tone for women-created, women-targeted romance/comedy/drama strips.

The years are littered with women artists. The Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties saw a greater acceptance of wild women artists in mass-market publications. The Sixties underground comix revolution was highlighted by a largely male emergence of vanguards like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Zippy, and Mr. Natural, while the Seventies was a ripe scene for stripping sisters. It was an era characterized by a spirit of open-mindedness; many new female artists called this scene "home." National Lampoon offered some audiences their first exposure to distaff artists in the works of Shary Flenniken's elegantly penned Trots and Bonnie and of the wacky world of M.K. Brown, much the way alternative newsweeklies and syndication would open doors for Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdal, Marian Henley, and Nicole Hollander in the Eighties.

Roberta Gregory, the grande dame of sequential art, asserts, "There was a movement in comics which coincided with the early women's movement. Wimmen's Comix came out in 1971. The foundation [included titles like] Girl Fight, It Ain't Me Babe, Pandora's Box, and Tits and Clits," all fairly well-distributed at the time.

Gregory was not only the first woman to self-publish and distribute her own solo comic book - 1976's Dynamite Damsels - but is currently riding a small crest of fame with Fantagraphics' Naughty Bits. Naughty Bits follows the exploits of one of modern comics' most ventilatory yet venial characters, Bitchy Bitch. Gregory is reaping positive attention for her negative little Bitchy: The subject of not only a play (yes, a play) but also a compilation called A Bitch Is Born, Bitchy is a fave among the Nineties grrrl set, yet ironically is a struggling secretary in her forties. Bitchy represents her author's staying power in the long, slow revolution.

Was this modern explosion of female talent lit by hippies? "I think it has a lot to do with Trina Robbins, me, Diane Noomin, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb sticking it out," asserts Gregory of her Seventies contemporaries who are still active today. "There were a lot of women artists at the time; [many] were just discouraged by the diminishing returns and dropped out. Hopefully this time, there'll be enough psychic feedback and financial support for the current artists to continue. [Today] there're more titles, more media carrying comics, and more self-publishing."

Gregory indicates one of the main differences in comic distribution - then and now. "In the early Seventies, we had the head shops. When I was first discovering women in comics, every town had a head shop where you could wander past a big display of underground comics. Comics were produced in larger numbers then: I printed 10,000 copies of Dynamite Damsels. That was considered a solid press run, as opposed to the average today of maybe 3,000. In 1971, Tits and Clits sold 40,000-60,000," by today's standards a huge hit.

Gregory's statistics are revealing in light of current industry standards. "[Today] there are more outlets for publication but no reliable distribution, no guarantee that you'll get into people's hands." In today's independent comic-publishers market, according to Matt Counts in Fantagraphics' accounting department, 3,000 issues sold constitutes a solid press run, while their biggest sellers "Love & Rockets, Hate, and Eightball all sell around 35,000 per issue." Counts is quick to note, however, that some of the biggest sellers took years to get to that level. There is no comprehensive accounting, however, for the pool of self-publishers which acts as a feeder to the burgeoning independent market. Tammy Watson attests, "Eventually some of these [self-publishing] artists will be picked up by the indies if they want to be."

Does an increase in the number of women publishing translate into employment opportunities for women in mainstream comics? In the world of the "major" comic book publishers (like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Archie), 35,000 is a selling figure that would lead to reassessing the financial feasiblility of a title. A healthy press run is in the 50,000-60,000 range, with big hits like X-Men tasting the sweet success of sales figures approaching 300,000. According to Marie Javins, an editor at Marvel Comics, the career potential in the corporate comic industry is higher today for women. "Jeanette Kahn was editor-in-chief at DC Comics up until recently. And look at Karen Berger: She single-handedly developed a new aesthetic in mainstream comics with DC's Vertigo line." Vertigo produces Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living, and Shade the Changing Man, a line Javins describes as "alienated, college comix for the hipster set, for the most part written and drawn by men but with an editorial staff of mostly women.

"In 1978, Marvel had nine editors, one of which was a woman; today women comprise nine out of 30 positions in editorial." Javins believes it to be similar at their competitors DC. The ratio in the art departments, however, differ from editorial. "I can only name three inkers. Now, colorists are a different story: Colorists are the bass players of comics," Javins laughs. "It's a skill that can be readily picked up by someone eager to join the fun, but it's also a bit of a ghetto for women."

Ellen Forney was never a main- stream comic reader as a kid. Now, at 27, she has her own luscious comic book called Tomato, distributed by Starhead Comix in Washington. Her influences are indie comics and the Twisted Sisters anthology. "Not until recently have I even paid attention to the mainstream scene. What's amazing is the difference in pay." Forney's art is bold, sexy, confrontational - words not often assigned to mainstream comics. Although Forney sees an increased demand for women's art, she laments that "a lot of doors are closed - like most mainstream anthologies and magazines that publish comics. [So, for me] Tomato is important, it's a wonderful outlet but at the same time, makes me no money - literally no money," she emphasizes. It's a shame, because Forney's smooth, brush-stroked style is as compelling as her wit. "Publishing one illustration in Mademoiselle pays 25 times more than my comic strip [7 in '75, for Seattle's music bi-weekly, The Rocket ]. It's a weird toss-up." Ultimately, her heart is in her independence: "I realize that's where my passion is."

Austinites Penny Van Horn and Jeanette Moreno find themselves in similar circumstances - both create for themselves, yet aspire to earn a living in the field. The two women have illustrated for The Austin Chronicle and along with Bernadette Noll had regular strips in The Daily Texan, and all three contribute to the Austin American-Statesman's Thursday insert XL ent. Interestingly, Moreno and Noll credit Van Horn as a major influence. All three desire more contact with other women in the field. Van Horn and Moreno participate in a semi-regular meeting of local comic artists to draw and exchange ideas. But as one of the only two women in the group, Van Horn sadly confesses, "If Jeanette's not there - it's no fun."

Reflecting upon the "boys' club" reputation earned by the comics industry, Marvel editor Javins doesn't feel that, in 1995, the mainstream publishers are particularly sexist, but concedes that the kids who grow up drawing superheroes mostly grow up to be men. As a result, it's more likely that men will populate the artist/author positions. Since hit comics almost exclusively feature action heroes, they contribute to this vicious cycle. Despite the cycle, the phenomenon of growing ranks of great female artists on the indie scene poses the question: Would enticing young girls into the audience deliver female artists in the industry later? Javins offers, "Barbie is [Marvel's] proud failure; we can't seem to sell that thing!" Barbie sells on the average 32,000 per issue.

That's it? That's Marvel's sole stab at developing a girl market?

Moreno, whose French Dressing comic strip illustrates the tribulations and joys of childhood in the Rio Grande Valley, has some opinions about this. I asked her: Are strips and books targeted for girls and young women the way to engage developing artists? The subject spun 180 degrees, like a Twist Barbie. "Barbie! " Moreno scoffs, "She can't even get angry! There's a whole list of emotions she can't have; she can't be angry, confused, sad.... She's smiling all the time! What does that tell little girls?? Stop whining?"

Back in the Marvel universe, Javins sighs. "Our market is geared to 12-year-old boys; we struggle to reach girls." What if the company offered less vapid subject matter than a 2-D version of a 3-D toy? "Hey, girls like ponies!" Javins then dismounts her defensive to admit, "We don't have any facts to support who reads what. We don't have any gender research."

While the independent, underground market caters mostly to adults, the major publishers have the kiddie market sewn up. Javins confirms this: "Let's put it this way: Marvel circulates different titles to comic book stores to basically the same audience - we have the 12-year-old boys. You can't drag most girls into a comic store because it's the realm of the boys." Javins' defeatism is sad but realistic. "We stick with Barbie because it makes new money from a totally different audience. Ideally, Marvel would like to diversify its girl market, but if we can't sell Barbie, how can we sell other titles geared to girls? It's pretty discouraging."

But is it hopeless? The face of the underground has certainly lit up due to the increase of women contributors. Mass-market analysts always seem to take their best cues from the underground and other realms - like college newspapers and alternative newsweeklies. Maxine creator Marian Henley's success was a result of publishing first in The Dallas Observer and The Austin Chronicle. Henley's syndication is now national print requests are possibly a better paying venue than syndication," she states. Indeed, Glamour and Ms. reprinted works of hers that originally appeared in the alternative press for substantially higher return, so much so that Henley virtually lives off royalties. "I could live on it... but god help me!" she laughs.

For the four women profiled in the sidebar below, college newspapers were the path, specifically UT's The Daily Texan. Divya Srinivasan, the creator of The Texan's Sexually Repressed Girl and Pupae,has syndicated her strips to eight college newspapers around the country. Her art is fresh, innocent, and innovative. She even has a children's fairy tale in the works, complete with a fairy queen, squirrels, and a cute teen-idol elf [see sidebar]. It's hard to imagine that young girls would find this less engaging than say, Barbie's excursion to the modeling agency on My Little Pony. So, perhaps the answer is to get 'em while they're young - or more precisely, develop a youth market which includes the tastes, the styles, and the whims of young girls. Perhaps this development will alter the gene pool of comic creators and ensure that opportunities are present across the board.

Increasingly, women are establishing chapters in comics history. With each page turn, young girls are finding more and more positive role models, inspiring them to explore this accessible form of self-expression and communication. Current titles, such as Sarah Dyer's Action Girl (see "Reading List" sidebar) seem to bridge the gap between kids' titles and full-on, adult-themed comix, with storylines appealing to high school-aged, hipster girls as well as to mature women. Perhaps, if mainstream comic publishers are keeping an ear to the ground, they will detect the rumblings of change. This once exclusive boys' club is currently enjoying a more open and playful membership.

But, until the changes really sink in, Van Horn is bummed that there aren't more women creating, exchanging, and sharing ideas for comics, especially locally. She's interested in community, like most artists, and is eager to get the word out: "Consider this an open call to all women artists!"

The comics and fine art of Penny Van Horn, Jeanette Moreno, Bernadette Noll, and Divya Srinivasan can be seen at ForRay's Cafe and Espresso Bar, 2801 S. First, 441-3647. Divya Srinivasan's paintings are also currently on display at Amy's Ice Cream on Sixth Street.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Kate X Messer
LBJ Library at 50: All the Cake
LBJ Library at 50: All the Cake
Getting some free cake on LBJ's birthday is a rich tradition

Aug. 26, 2021

The Gay Place: It's Aliiive!
It's Aliiive!
You can't keep a Gay Place down; just ask Sarah Marloff

Jan. 20, 2016

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle