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Erasing the Establishment: Wimmen's Comix Gets Its Due 

Wednesday, Jul 6 2016
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Petunia Pig is tired of Porky's crap — that disrespectful hog never wants to hear about her day and still expects her to keep quiet and cook dinner.

In a less anthropomorphic world, Betty and Veronica kick Archie to the curb, lose their bras, and begin protesting nuclear war outside Riverdale High. Even Supergirl is tired of this B.S.; she doesn't need to stay at home "for her safety" while Superman gets credit for saving the world. She's no dainty Lois Lane.

The story of famous cartoon characters joining the feminist rebellion might not seem radical today, but in 1970, it was a defiant and self-reflective statement against an arts scene dominated by men — even in the comix underground. (And in an era that, fairly or unfairly, is remembered as being ultra-serious and even humorless, their fantastical and funny approach allowed readers to take home a feminist message without being too serious.)

This story, "Breaking Out," appeared in the one-off It Ain't Me Babe, a comic produced and drawn entirely by women. Two years later, its creators would co-found Wimmen's Comix, an all-female underground publication that would run 18 issues over 20 years. And Fantagraphics, a Seattle publisher of alternative comics, recently released a two-volume anthology.

The Complete Wimmen's Comix is 728 pages of fantastical, honest, and groovy graphic art drawn by more than 30 contributors, including some famous names: Tony Award-winner Alison Bechdel (whose eponymous test is the benchmark for gender equality in media), Aline Kominsky (later R. Crumb's wife, muse, and collaborator), and Phoebe Gloeckner (whose semi-autobiographical book Diary of a Teenage Girl was recently made into a movie with Kristen Wiig).

The artists in Wimmen's told stories about women for women. They explored topics such as sex, gender equality, divorce, and queerness. Many of the pages feature exaggerated bodies to complement personal stories of adolescent anxiety. Others show strong female leads saving the world from otherwise incapable men. The comics also feature a good deal of role reversal, where "liberated women" become sexual aggressors in a satirical look at male-female relationships. And Wimmen's has the distinction of featuring the first out lesbian character in comics, in "Sandy Comes Out." (Sandy doesn't appear much, but her story focuses on her confronting her own internalized fears and prejudices.)

"Comics gave us freedom. There were all sorts of subject matter that, it turned out, hadn't been seen or heard before," said Lee Marrs, a regular Wimmen's contributor whose story on sexism in the workplace also appeared in It Ain't Me Babe. "In comic work in the past, there were things that were hinted at but never really said. In the underground, you can say anything, so it was kind of like covering new ground."

The anthology's release has been a long time coming, says Fantagraphics designer Keeli McCarthy. Women are taking a bigger role in the comics world, both in the number of female-identified artists creating the work and the number of women consuming it. According to Graphic Policy, which measures comic-fan demographics in the U.S. using Facebook likes, women account for 43.59 percent of the 39 million comics fans on the social media website. Since November 2012, the percentage of female comic fans has risen about 10 percent. And among 32 comics publishers surveyed by the same site in 2016, six have a majority of female followers.

Fantagraphics also released an anthology of San Francisco's underground Zap Comix a year ago.

"Wimmen's Comix is tied pretty intrinsically to the Zap story. This felt like a great way to show that this is a really, really important part of the underground comics," McCarthy says, adding that the anthology is a link between women past and present. "These women are clearly just writing about what they're going through, and what women are going through today. Sure there's a lot of fantasy stuff and silly comics stuff, but at the end of the day it's women writing about their lives. There's a thread created."

The revolutionary, psychedelic culture of the '60 and '70s is also pretty far-out, drawing people not only to fashion and music of the time, but the visual arts.

"A lot of the people who will be reading this are people who were not born when we got together in 1972," says It Ain't Me Babe and Wimmen's co-creator Trina Robbins. "If you live long enough you're history. I'm really glad that I experienced the '60s and '70s. It was amazing."

The Complete Wimmen's Comix also holds up a mirror to the Bay Area's rapidly changing demographics, where many of the artists and "weirdos" that make the region unique are being pushed out. The '60s and '70s brought a similarly massive wave of immigration to the City by the Bay, but Marrs claims the draw and attitude of newcomers was different.

"In the middle and late '60s, a lot of people came to San Francisco to be free, whatever they thought 'free' was. Even now, it's still a place where new forms are tried out," Marrs says. "And so, I think both the people who were living here and the folks who came here from someplace else really wanted to explore their creativity, whatever it manifested itself as. And there was a reinforcement of this — there were places you could sing or play where all kinds of forms would find a manifestation."

The lack of money paid to artists — who then lived in a much more affordable city — was secondary to the feeling of power that came with creative expression. Marrs says empowered artists would feed off each other to create a wider range, or perhaps weirder range, of subject matter. The exact role of illustrators in influencing the culture at large is up for debate, but this wild, unabated, and unabashed expression helped give them the courage to tackle taboo topics.

Robbins had been hustling as a comic artist since the mid-1960s, but hit a wall in San Francisco's often sexist underground comics scene, then dominated by poster artists like Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Bonnie MacLean, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Wes Wilson. Spurred by the psychedelic music and politically charged atmosphere of the time, a smallish group of artists — led by Kominksy's husband R. Crumb — had created subversive and occasionally grotesque comic art that stood in contrast to straight comics.

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Jessica Lipsky

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