In 1970 San Francisco, birthplace of the undergound comix movement, the comix scene was more than merely a Boys Club. In part reacting against the repressive mainstream Comics Code, in part following the hippie dogma to “let it all hang out,”1 definitely influenced by the misogynist comix of counter culture hero Robert Crumb, in most San Francisco comix circles it was almost de rigeur for male underground cartoonists to include violence against women in their comix, and to portray this violence as humor. To these guys, and to their many male readers, graphic rape scenes were boffo, beheaded women had them rolling in the aisles.
Women who thought panels of rape, torture and murder were not funny were often told by men that they simply had no sense of humor. To many male underground cartoonists, criticism of Crumb was heresy. Such attitudes did not help get the only two women underground cartoonists in San Francisco invited into most of the guys’ books.2
This was the situation to which I responded in 1970 by joining the staff of It Ain’t Me, Babe, one of the first Women’s Liberation newspapers in the country, and with their moral support, putting together the very first all-woman comic book, It Ain’t Me, Babe comics. It wasn’t easy finding women cartoonists in 1970. Willy Mendes, the only other San Francisco woman cartoonist, contributed an eight-page story and the back cover. I contributed two stories and the front cover. Socialist cartoonist Lisa Lyons contributed some beautifully drawn pages about the revolution, and the It Ain’t Me, Babe newspaper staff produced a collectively written-and-drawn comic in which Petunia Pig, Little Lulu, Betty and Veronica join Supergirl in a consciousness-raising group.
By 1972, I had already published my own comic book, Girl Fight, and together with Mendes, put together All Girl Thrills, while Mendes had published her own book, Illuminations. It Ain’t Me, Babe, the book that started it all, had done well enough that publisher Ron Turner, of Last Gasp, wanted to publish a second book. However, I had been dissatisfied with the quality of It Ain’t Me, Babe3, and didn’t want to produce another issue.4
Patti Moodian, working at Last Gasp, learned of Turner’s desire to publish a Women’s Liberation title, and called together nine other women (the “founding mothers”) for a meeting at her house. Of the original founding mothers, Lee Marrs was the most experienced, having assisted newspaper cartoonist Tex Blaisdell on his strip, Little Orphan Annie, and contributed gags to Mort Walker’s strip, Hi and Lois. In 1971, along with Mal Warwick, she had formed the Alternative Features Syndicate (AFS) to distribute news, features and comics to college and underground papers. She was already working on her first solo book, Pudge, Girl Blimp, which would not see print for another two years.5
Another founding mother, Sharon Rudahl, had drawn political comics for the Madison, Wisconsin underground paper, Takeover, and was now living in the San Francisco Good Times commune, and working on their underground paper.
Perhaps because of our political backgrounds or perhaps simply because we were women, the Women’s Comix Collective’s methods differed from those of the male underground from the start. In a 1979 interview in Cultural Correspondence magazine, founding mother Terre Richards says:
We…decided that…we would function as a collective, a term rather loosely used in those days to mean there would be no leader or editor, but instead a rotating editorship, with everyone contributing their energy to the paperwork and general supportiveness of the group.6
It took us three meetings to settle on a name. While coming up with such bizarre suggestions as “Queen Kong,” we kept repeating, “What shall we call this women’s comic?’ Finally we realized that we had known its name all along, and thus, with a small spelling change, was born Wimmen’s Comix.7
From the first issue, we drew8 on our own personal experiences, and those of other women. We tackled subjects that the guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole; subjects such as abortion, lesbianism, menstruation, and childhood sexual abuse. Aline Kominsky produced what was probably the first autobiographical comic, a subject that is still in vogue today among women cartoonists; I drew the first comic about a lesbian.
In a strange case of California synchronicity, although the founding mothers didn’t know it at the time, two Southern California women, Joyce Farmer and Lynn Chevely (under the pseudonym “Chin Lively”) were reacting to the sexism they found in male-oriented underground comix by producing their own title, Tits & Clits.9 Although Wimmen’s Comix is generally thought to be the first women’s underground title, Farmer’s and Chevely’s book actually arrived on newsstands two months before Wimmen’s.
The first few issues of Wimmen’s were uneven, as so many contributors had much to learn about drawing comics. I sometimes despaired that the book would remain a kind of lady’s auxiliary, because many contributors were wives or girlfriends of male cartoonists, but as cream rises to the top, less talented contributors dropped out and better artists emerged. Highly regarded cartoonists Melinda Gebbie (Lost Girls) and Roberta Gregory (Naughty Bits) both drew their first comics for Wimmen’s, in 1973 and 1974 respectively. In later issues, Wimmen’s published work by Phoebe Gloeckner, Shary Flenniken, Dori Seda, Krystine Kryttre, and Lynda Barry. Farmer and Chevely contributed to our books, and we contributed to theirs.
It was not always smooth sailing. Lesbians accused us of heterosexism.10 We were criticized for being an all-white group, but during the entire twenty year run of Wimmen’s, we never received one submission from an African-American woman cartoonist.11 MS magazine refused to accept our ads. In 1973 we received hate mail, accusing us of being F.B.I. informants, or, as the letter writer put it, “crewcut she-pricks.” Of course there were fights. Because of disagreements with the editors, I dropped out of two issues, but I always returned for the next issue.
Our libertarian publisher didn’t make judgments, but at a certain point we started feeling uncomfortable about being included with such comics as Horny Biker Sluts, and we looked for a new publisher. In fact, we went through two new publishers, each one selling fewer and fewer numbers, before we decided to call it quits.
Wimmen’s Comix had sold well back in the days of head shops, but the head shops closed and the only place to find comics was comicbook stores, owned or managed by superhero fans who preferred to sell superhero comics to other superhero fans, and who understocked, or simply didn’t carry, “chick books.” Caryn Leschen, editor of the last issue, expressed our feelings when she wrote in her editorial:
The print run was too small and all the stores, as usual, will sell out, but they won’t reorder because “Women don’t buy comics.” Bullshit. How did they sell out in the first place?
Wimmen’s Comix finally folded in 1992. By this time, there were more women creating comics than ever before. They self-published or were published by small presses. They were already beginning to put up their comics on websites on the internet. Wimmen’s Comix opened the door for them all, and the door is still open.
(Copyright Trina Robbins; permission is granted to be printed in Poland. This is a slightly revised version of an essay that appeared in the catalogue of an underground comix exhibit in the U.S.A.)
1. Thus demonstrating their hostility to women.
2. There were exceptions. Denis Kitchen, publisher of Krupp Comix, invited me into two anthologies in 1970 and 1971, to my eternal gratitude.
3. In my anger at the male cartoonists, I had wanted to produce a comic book that was better than anything produced by the guys, and It Ain’t Me, Babe had not met my too-high expectations.
4. Interestingly, the comix publishers themselves did not hesitate to print the work of talented women cartoonists. Publishers such as San Francisco’s Print Mint and Last Gasp, and the midwest’s Krupp, published the few talented early women cartoonists who were working during that period. This was why I was able to find a publisher for It Ain’t Me, Babe, why Willy Mendes and I had no trouble selling our books to the Print Mint, and why Wimmens found a ready publisher in Last Gasp.
5. Despite her extensive experience in the world of comics, Marrs faced the same rejection in the underground that other women did. In a 1993 interview with me, Marrs said, about the San Francisco scene, “…it was kind of like a boy’s club…a closed club…All the underground comics consisted of friends printing friends. They were all buddies, they didn’t even let us in.”
6. For the twenty years of its existence, Wimmen’s Comix remained a collective.
7. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the politically correct way to spell “women” was to drop the word “men” from the title, as in “womyn.” Thus, we were sometimes accused by hard-core feminists of bad spelling.
8. Pun intended.
9. Perhaps one day some comics historian will figure out why the formative underground women’s comix movement was confined to the state of California. What were the women doing in New York?
10. We weren’t. No lesbian had submitted a comic to us until Roberta Gregory sent us her comic, “A Modern Romance,” in 1974. We loved it, and we snapped it up.
11. The cover of Wimmens’s #2 was drawn by a Filipina artist, Edna Jundis.