An online collection showcases iconic female comic writers, from the 19th century to today.

As with many industries, male authors have dominated the comic book scene since the first popular titles appeared in the 1930s, often known as the ‘Golden Age’.

The success of these creators helped the industry to flourish, pushing comic books into mainstream thinking: but it also hid a wealth of female talent in the process.

Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back is a group exhibition of over 50 female writers who have impacted how we read comics today. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a real-world gallery is temporarily out of the question, but an online version is available – divided into two sections: the history of female cartoonists, and those that grace the modern comic world.

Trina Robbins jointly curates the exhibition; she’s one of the leading figures in the underground comix movement that flourished in the US and the UK back in the 1960s and ‘70s. The gallery displays around 80 works from her private collection, with the likes of Rosie O’Neill⁠⁠—the creator of the Kewpie cartoons, which led to the famous Kewpie dolls⁠—and Nell Brinkley, the woman behind Brinkley Girl.

Robbins tries to shine a light on the female artists who didn’t receive recognition at the time. The women who tried to keep people’s spirits up during tough periods, like during World Wars when they took over from male writers who were away fighting.

There’s even the story of a Jewish refugee, Lily Reneé, who tells of her plight when escaping the Nazis, yet still managed to produce cartoons at the height of such a crisis.

A boom in creativity

The explosion of creativity that the world experienced in the 1960s is the subject of many art and literary works, particularly through the pop art of Andy Warhol, and the likes of Harper Lee and Maya Angelou in literature The exhibition attempts to convey this movement through the works of female cartoonists of that time, a time when women could finally publish content under their own name.

It led to the wave of women artists in the 1970s who touched mainstream thinking and focussed on comics aimed specifically at female readers: Barbara Mendes and Jewlie Goodvibes being prominent examples.

The exhibition also displays work from the Wonder Woman series; a franchise now so universal that fans can fill their wardrobe with the super heroine’s branded clothing or even try out their slots strategy on a Wonder Woman casino game. The focus here is on how important those writers’ contributions were, whether it be Robbins and Ramona Fradon’s powerful illustrations of the character or the inspiration the series gave to female comic book fans of that era.

A contemporary outlook

The second part of the expositions will show how 20 contemporary artists built upon the foundations laid by their predecessors.

Fans are treated to two aspects of this modern collection. First, new work from established authors such as Hot Comb writer Ebony Flower and Lee Marrs will show their takes on modern society. This will be backed up by new kids on the block, like Afua Richardson, best known as the illustrator behind Marvel’s Black Panther World of Wakanda.

One of the objectives is to show comic history in a unique light: one that includes women and minorities; something that hasn’t been covered extensively in the past. The success of zine culture and activism has helped bring this about, with the exhibition attempting to be part of the catalyst for future progress.

The future of comic books post-COVID

But what next for the women comic artists of the world? The harsh impact of the COVID-19 crisis has already threatened the very survival of comic books: with production and distribution halted and many small retailers dropping into the red.

There is a danger of the comic world splitting into two tiers: the super companies, such as Marvel and DC Comics, carrying on relatively unscathed, and their smaller cousins who will struggle to survive. While there have been charitable acts from the major players, the financial cost of the crisis will hit minor artists hard, both male or female.

There’s a hope that the giants of the industry recognise the invaluable contribution of smaller artists. After all, they often supply the ideas and the work that leads to multi-billion-dollar movies and merchandise: without these, the well of creativity will be much more shallow, and comic fans will see a huge decline in the quality of comic art.

One solution could be that the powerful studios see minor artists as a strategic investment, and provide them with funds to continue to operate independently and contribute creatively. Contributing to the comic cause could see long-term benefits in the future and the livelihood of the artists mentioned in the Women in Comics exhibition might well depend on it.


featured image: Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash