Redrawing the History of Wimmen’s Comix

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum Acquires Original Works from Wimmen’s Cartoonists

Caryn Leschen, c/o Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Scott Jonas Collection.

Comics by women have a hard time breaking into comics history. Strip queens Edwina Dumm, Jackie Ormes and Rose O’Neill footnote the newspaper legacies of Winsor McCay and George Herriman. The Wimmen’s Comix movement during the 1970s underground too often serves as an apologetic corrective for R. Crumb and company’s misogyny, racism and homophobia. And, it seems, women cartoonists all but evacuate the comics scene at the critical moment in 1980s when Art Spiegelman starts to spin comics into literature in his Raw magazine, which infamously serialized Maus and a Lynda Barry strip or two.

In his recent analysis of how comics grew up into the graphic novel, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, Christopher Pizzino halts on a sketch by Spiegelman in which Spiegelman envisions himself walking a tightrope between pillars Crumb, whose name is stylized in paunchy, unruly lettering (that includes at least one nipple and one yonic slit), and Saul Steinberg, whose literary-minded doodles and covers defined the style of The New Yorker for six decades. It is Spiegelman’s teeter-totter at such great heights – between “the dirty vulgarity of Crumb and the respectable, and exceptional, legitimacy of Steinberg” – that captivates Pizzino and shapes his understanding of just what happens to comics during the growing-pain moments of the 1980s and 1990s from which they emerge Graphic Novels in the mid-2000s. And into that gap between Spiegelman and Crumb (and Steinberg and Frank Miller and Watchmen and…) over two decades of women’s work in comics has fallen and continues to fall.

Phoebe Gloeckner, c/o Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Scott Jonas Collection.

With Fantagraphics’ publication of The Complete Wimmen’s Comix early last year – the second volume of which harbors the huge body of vibrant work by women cartoonists published from 1980 to 1992 – Trina Robbins recalls that the struggles Wimmen’s Comix faced during the rise of Raw and the boom in indie/alternative publishing were “not with our publishers.” Retailers wouldn’t stock the comic or restock issues when they had sold out. In their editor’s letter for Wimmen’s Comix #12 – “Breathtaking Bombshells Battle the Bratwurst” – co-editors Angela Bocage and Rebecka Wright recount rolling through comic book shops and pleading with store owners to restock their sold-out issues of Wimmen’s Comix, only to be met with a wriggle worthy of a Marvel CEO: a tacit, “No one buys that title.” Even with Fantagraphics’s beautiful doorstopper of a book making the Wimmen’s canon available to all, comics history, as its being written in academia and beyond, is still not buying into the longevity and impact of Wimmen’s Comix or its contingent comics—slotting Wimmen’s Comix alongside the faded undergrounds in the late 1970s, instead of uttering the title in the same sentence as Raw or Eightball.

A collection of original artworks by women cartoonists from the 1980s and 90s recently donated to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (BICLM), however, is poised to help researchers, scholars, comics artists and historians connect the missing dots between the undergrounds of the 70s and the alternative comics of the 80s into the 2000s. The BICLM already houses material such as originals of Lynda Barry’s “Modern Romance” strip, letters and artwork by Trina Robbins, and you can walk into their museum galleries right now to gaze at Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s infamous Twisted Sisters cover, pulled straight from her sketchbook, the original of her first page of the game-changing “Goldie,” and a brilliant painting from 1985 titled “I’ll Kill You.”

Even more recently, the BICLM acquired a personal collection from Annie Koyama of Koyama Press that includes originals from more cotemporary women cartoonists such as Lisa Hanawalt, Katie Skelly, Eleanor Davis and Gabrielle Bell. But, perhaps, it is their most recent acquisition of 113 pieces of original artworks from the likes of Dori Seda, Roberta Gregory, Phoebe Gloeckner, Dame Darcy, Mary Fleener, Carol Lay, and many more women that will help researchers, scholars and comics historians bridge the gap between the heyday of Wimmen’s Comix as an underground enterprise in the 1970s and the alternative and indie comics boom in the 1990s that shaped what we know as the graphic novel today. As its holdings of women cartoonists’ work only continues to grow, the Billy Ireland is quickly becoming the place to conduct research about or just simply to learn the history of women making comics.

Donated by Scott Jonas, whose previous donations to the library have included original pieces from Doonesbury and Bloom County, Jonas “walked away with a decision to start gradually sending [the BICLM] his collection” after visiting the Billy Ireland’s Calvin & Hobbes exhibition several years ago, according to Caitlin McGurk, Associate Curator for the BICLM and Assistant Professor for University Libraries at The Ohio State University. Jonas developed a deep affinity for independent and syndicated cartooning that mixed editorials with the daily strip during the late 1980s and early 90s, watching the worlds of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Matt Groening’s Life in Hell intersected with local strips published by the free Colorado Daily newspaper, his favorites including Hans Bjordahl’s Where the Buffalo Roam and Holley Irvine’s Ozone Patrol.

“As the Persian Gulf War broke out,” Jonas recalled, “the Where the Buffalo Roam characters started a comics page war by invading the neighboring strips. This mostly involved the 4-5 local strips, but over time the syndicated strips were dragged into the war…I vividly remember Mike Doonesbury collapsed in a pool of blood, while JJ sobbed over his body. It was a shocking and powerful experience.”

As Jonas continued to seek out strips where real life bled into the comics page, he came across Carol Lay’s Story Minutes, as well as work by Nina Paley and, “something just clicked.”

Carol Lay, c/o Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Scott Jonas Collection.

Though his most recent donation to the BICLM is just a small chunk of a much larger body of editorial and political cartooning that make up the Scott Jonas Collection, it nevertheless curates a vibrant body of essential works from key figures in the later years of the Wimmen’s Comix movement. From the mundane made fantastic, as a Lynda Barry watercolor recounts the discourse surrounding “America’s Most Unbearable Roommates: Cat Girl,” to Carol Lay’s punchy musings on changing travel regulations and comics censorship in her 2000s-era “Story Minutes,” to the autobiographical knockouts: Phoebe Gloeckner, Mary Fleener, Dori Seda and Leslie Sternbergh Alexander, the collection doesn’t tell a one note story of personal being political that is so often pinned to the Wimmen’s 70s moment, but presses strange chords that twist and vibrate the traditional strands of comics history. In her 2001 strip, “Dream On,” for instance, Carol Lay gives readers dreams within rarebit fiend dreams as Lay awakes from a nightmare in with George W. Bush soothes himself from his own nightmare by planning to “gut the bill of rights.” As she stumbles towards her drawing table, Lay is stopped by a couple of Matrix-esque Men in Black, who inform her that, “Criticizing the president makes you a friend of the terrorists!” and bemoans eating that rarebit before bed.

Donna Barr reflects on “San Diego and Twenty-Five Years of Underground Comics” in her 1992 strip, “The More Things Change,” in which she tries to hock an old edition of her underground comic “Desert Peach” to a conservative square who doesn’t want to reach Barr’s comic because “I wouldn’t want my friends to think I wasn’t politically correct.” And in Leslie Sternbergh Alexander’s 1992 “…There’s A Way, or ‘My Dinner With Olga,’” Sternbergh sits on Seda’s grave for an uncanny picnic with the late Seda’s mother, Olga. Sternberg desperately tries to convince Olga to allow Seda’s work to be reprinted, crying that the “Undergrounds are proof that in America y’can say anything you like!…Don’t you agree with freedom of speech?” Olga, resistant to allowing the late Seda’s canon sexually liberated cartooning – “smut!” – to circulate widely after her death responds: “Not like that!! Half the people who read that stuff will die of AIDS!!!…Dori enjoyed her recognition while she was alive, and now she’s dead. Dori was ours.” Luckily, Sternbergh finds a legal loophole that allows her to begin the process of reprinting Seda’s work posthumously. And even luckier for patrons of the BICLM, Jonas was able to locate Seda’s 1986 originals from her story “Ecstasy,” which are included in the collection.

Leslie Sternbergh Alexander, c/o Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Scott Jonas Collection.

Seda’s presence in the BICLM archives, in fact, “is actually emotionally overwhelming for me,” said McGurk. “It’s so important for works like this to be preserved for the long haul, and in an archive like BICLM where researchers, fans, and other cartoonists looking for inspiration can enjoy them equally…That’s the kind of impact this work has, and a reflection of the importance of making it available. Personally, I’d give anything to just be able to have a drink with Dori and watch her draw. I guess seeing the original work by these amazing women in person just allows me to feel that much closer to them.”

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