"UNFORTUNATELY there are few women in the history of comics. That's the reality." That was the fallacy used by Franck Bondoux, organizer of French comics festival Angouleme, to retroactively justify the lack of female nominees for the fest's lifetime achievement award. His notion belied not just an oversimplification of an industry—maybe ladies draw today, but not in olden times!—but a deep ignorance of history and culture.
Bondoux's assumptions are just one reason why The Complete Wimmen's Comix (Fantagraphics) couldn't come sooner. In the 1960s and '70s, female comics artists were turning out pages alongside R. Crumb and Robert Williams, but were alienated by sexism, both on the page and within the culture of underground comics. Wimmen's Comix was their response—a collectively run feminist alternative comic that ran from 1970 through 1992, in one form or another, with more than 100 contributors.
The new release, edited by Trina Robbins, features all 18 issues from front cover to back. Recurring themes are sexual harassment in the workplace (and liberal hippie spaces); female sexual desire (demonstrating a noticeable difference in how the naked female form is depicted when a man isn't drawing it); and social double standards. Several comics recount illegal abortions. There's rich variation in form and style, from artsy exercises to gag comics, autobiography to sci-fi (and a little too much fantasy for my taste...). While some comics veer into feminist clichés (earth goddesses, female utopias), any unapologetic "man-hating" is nothing compared to the sexualized violence toward women that appeared ad nauseam in Zap and Weirdo.
In the inaugural 1970 issue, a one-off called It Ain't Me Babe, almost every story has a cringe-worthy moment of cultural appropriation or ethnic othering, proving that despite their frustration with the "boys' club" of underground comics, feminist creators had inclusion issues of their own. The best comic in that issue is the one reflected on the cover—female characters from across cartooning (Little Lulu, Betty and Veronica, Supergirl) join forces to protest their sexist environment. It's a simple premise but it's successful: When 1950s soap-opera strip star Juliet Jones casually drops, "Let's take that acid we've been saving and commune with the moon," you get a sense of what this is really all about—women reimagining themselves with all the racy, absurd, and corny trappings that men in comics had.
There's a gap between issues seven and eight, jumping from 1976 to 1983. The spirit is still there (as are some of the same contributors), but the later comics express more sophistication in content and form, with a creeping cynicism precipitated by Reagan-era post-feminism. Many comics capture the consumerism, corporate culture, and alienation of the '80s with stories that eerily resonate today. A 1984 Sharon Rudahl single-page story succinctly shows the hypocrisy of white feminism: A privileged businesswoman who "has it all" is oblivious to how her Latina housekeeper struggles to make ends meet.
While not the definitive book on alternative feminist comics—Wimmen's Comix was just one title of several—the collection is a goldmine for comics or feminist archivists and astutely collects the anxieties of an era. And at two hefty volumes, feminist comics can finally take up the shelf space they deserve (usually they get one paragraph in the intro to alt-comics anthologies).
Wimmen's Comix folded due to distribution problems—stores created the self-fulfilling prophecy that women didn't buy comics... so why carry comics for women? If you, like Bondoux, assumed women weren't present in comics history, the collection will be eye-opening not just in its content, but how it casts a light on why you were so ill-informed in the first place.
The Complete Wimmen's Comix