At its gallery-est, “Pretty in Ink” — an exhibit at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum by comics artist, writer and renowned historian Trina Robbins — is an array of illustration styles, including art deco, film noir and childlike cartoon aesthetics, that amasses works ranging from large, hard-lined comic pages to playful drawings done in colored pencil.
At its museum exhibit-est, “Pretty” preserves and displays original photographs of the artists themselves, giving presence to their lasting work. Original draft sketches, 2-inch-by-1-inch comic pages and outside comic work like songbooks and advertisements also comprise the physical repertoire of these female artists.
At its comic book-est, though, “Pretty” is the storyline of working women whose primary superpower is adapting to the time to maintain an audience in a male-centric occupation. According to Robbins’ 30-plus years of research, more women than men worked in the comics industry in the 20th century.
The exhibit derives its name from Robbins’ latest art history book, which is subtitled “North American Women Cartoonists: 1896-2013.” Though the novel spans a century, the exhibit itself focuses only on the 1940s. After most of the men in comics left their jobs to fight in World War II, women “drew beautiful, courageous women who didn’t need to be rescued by men: girl detectives, girl reporters, counterspies, and jungle Queens.”
Take “Miss Fury,” for example, the first-ever costumed action heroine, who debuted six months before Wonder Woman and garnered a million readers. It’s illustrated and authored by June Tarpe Mills, and a 1944 promotional sheet on display reads “100% of the MEN; 90% of the WOMEN; (And Why Not?) Voted for MISS FURY!” A topless Miss Fury poses beside the statistic with the speech bubble: “Say Mr. Editor, Have you got time to look at me for a few minutes?” It seems female comic artists critiqued the gender norms of their profession — if editors had time to objectify cartoon women, then they had time to read their stories, too.
Progressing from “Fury” in the gallery is “Flapper Fanny,” brought to fame by Ethel Hays. “Fanny” was a hit comic banking on the classic, exuberant 1920s flapper image. After the ‘40s, flappers were outdated, and the series was renamed “Mopsy.” At the same time, women who stopped drawing flappers found work in representing the new “girl of the times” — the American teenager, drawn by Dorothy Hughes as a figure more relatable than a crime fighter to audiences.
Valerie Barclay’s “Intimate Love” portrays a 1940s film-noir-styled blonde woman rethinking her apprehensions about marriage. The page largely displays the woman’s face, and her thought bubbles are the center of the narrative. In “Intimate Love” and the rest of the exhibit, Robbins purposely chooses panels and pages of comic works where women visually dominate the page.
According to the placards accompanying the pieces, when fighting female characters went out of vogue in the late ‘40s, women found a place in romance comics. Unfortunately, after World War II ended and men returned to their jobs, women were deprived of significant comic work.
But if there’s anything this exhibit shows, it’s that female cartoonists adapted to every shifting trend of their time, finding new work to capitalize on and new characters to represent. From flappers to teenagers, fighters to romantics, the work of these artists exemplifies survival in the male-centric industry. No matter the era, there will always be women in the readership to illustrate for. These female protagonists who led their own adventures and the brave artists who inked them to life rightfully hold a place in comics history.
“Pretty in Ink” is on display at the Cartoon Art Museum until Aug. 24. Trina Robbins’ art history book of the same name is available in print from Fantagraphics Books.