Taking 50 years of female comic book fun seriously.

Aug 11, 1999 at 12:00 am

If you think comic books have yellowed and cracked into antiquated photo albums of ink-splotched men in tights crammed between the baseball card holders and pogs ’n’ slammers at some hobby shop, scratch your temple and think again. While their mainstream commercial success has declined in the past four decades, comic books have managed to trace a colorful and varied history. And they didn’t always cater to teenage boys.

Actually, from the early ’40s to the ’60s, comic buyers were mostly young girls who devoured fashionably hyped tales of adventure and romance. Their bright-eyed heroines were journalists, nurses and sexy students – with a few cowgirls and a teen Miss America (1945) in pumps and stockings thrown in just for good measure. Girl readers joined fan clubs, took beauty advice and snipped paper dolls from their favorite comics, which were interactive in an old-fashioned way.

Some of the characters in girls’ comics had modeling and acting careers, like Millie the Model and the jungle queen Hedy De Vine, who both appeared inside the covers of Timely Comics – later the Marvel Comics Group – in the late ’40s. Unfortunately, most of these shapely characters were doomed to give up their glamorous lives to start a family with some guy in a checkered sport coat named Chip.

Even comic icons Betty and Veronica wasted too much of their youth hanging out at that soda shop competing for waffle-headed heartthrob Archie’s affection. These scenarios left readers more than a few pages short of a strong female role model. Of course, most of those comics were written, edited and illustrated by men, like the famous and enduring Marvel editor, Stan Lee. Miss America was one of very few girls’ comics that were created by women at the time.

In her book, From Girls to Grrrlz, author and illustrator Trina Robbins doesn’t set out to prove that those old sexist comics are bad. Instead, she shows that every picture tells a story. Even the pen-and-ink Betty Page-ish characters, such as Suzie and Torchy, who posed in the pages of comic books in the ’40s and ’50s, are a part of women’s history, if only the comic book version.

Robbins revisits the early years of comic books, a history postered with illustrated pinups, blithe Miss Patsy Walkers, wholesome Little Lulus and other characters who endorsed weak female stereotypes as much as they pushed the restricting boundaries of girlhood. But little did they know that – in a chronologically ordered narrative like this one – they could begin vividly documenting the women’s movement in America almost as much as they entertained.

Inside a pink cover decorated with polka-dot portholes for a sampling of illustrated girl faces, Robbins arranges a series of striking comic book images that best define strides made in girls’ comics, from the most awkward to the most forward-thinking and self-assured.

The innocent mischief-makers and daydreaming bombshell clichés eventually made way for the bell-bottoms and peace signs of the ’60s and ’70s. Comics were still sexy, but in a budding feminist way. Girls, and women who were also readers, could finally read a fantasy that took them to a place outside the male gaze.

Unfortunately, this chance for evolution happened during a time when comics were eclipsed by the increasingly popular moving images on TV and film. Most of the old comic books, even the good ones, died out. But even without the dumb blonde protagonists, the spirit of the comic book continued to thrive and change, if only in relative obscurity.

In the decades that followed, comics tuned in to feminism and turned their attitude volume all the way up. Women authored a majority of these comics filled with dykes and bitches who snarled and roared their way through page after page.

In her reflection on comics of the ’80s and ’90s, Robbins opens up subcultures of female comic book fans who were inspired by the unabashed approach to controversial topics penned in wildly unique, almost reckless styles of illustration. Sometimes they were angry; sometimes they were parodies of the days of comic book beauties and paper dolls. But the first rule for subject matter was "anything goes."

Girls’ comics became women’s (womyn’s or wimmin’s) comics (now comix) dealing with abortion, lesbianism, rape, child molestation, eating disorders and AIDS with an anarchic abandon. There was Bitchy Bitch, the star of Naughty Bits (1991), a gangly combination of Gloria Steinem and Cruella de Vil. She sported a slinky dress, a nasty smirk and one skull earring.

The era also ushered in the Riot Grrrl in all her growling, illustratable splendor. Bitchy shared a distinctly marked territory with Riot Grrrl zines. But there were other titles to be reckoned with: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, Real Girl, Wimmin’s Comix, Slutburger, Twisted Sisters and Girl Jock. The latter was Robbins’ own, and it even came with paper dolls.

Robbins is thorough, informative and, most importantly, expertly informed on the subject of her book. She handles a long history with an authoritative voice and narrative ease, as if she had been looking over Pauline Loth’s shoulder while she drew Miss America for the first time in 1945.

Even if you’re not a fan of girls’ comics – or wimmin’s comix – From Girls to Grrrlz gets inside a relatively obscure piece of feminist culture. It documents an evolution from sketched stereotypes to women creating characters that were passionately imagined and, perhaps, more real than themselves.