Here are three new books to check out that explore the role of women in comics.
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Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013
By Trina Robbins, Fantagraphics, 180 pages, $29.99
Trina Robbins stands out from the talented feminist underground cartoonists that emerged in the '70s partly for her forays into mainstream comics but more for her scholarship. As the cartooning world's premiere HERstorian, she has published a dozen books about women in comics, and her latest oversized, lushly illustrated offering is the most beautiful of the bunch. "Pretty in Ink" is encyclopedic in scope, if not scale, as Robbins summarizes lengthy careers with poetic succinctness (while quietly arguing for full-length biographies). Robbins recounts the early days when funny pages welcomed women (if they could copy Rose O'Neill's cute Kewpies or Nell Brinkley's glamorous flappers); the modern era when multiple platforms allow artists like Marjane Satrapi and Joyce Farmer bold freedoms; and the darker decades in between. Though the hundreds of artists included have diverse styles, trends reoccur. Activism emerged far before the '60s, as suffrage pleas found their way into seemingly apolitical comics. Female artists frequently flexed fashion sense, referencing contemporary couture or creating stylish original designs while their male contemporaries put molls and girlfriends in generic frocks. And a less triumphant trend: Women cartoonists spent most of the 20th century re-branding themselves as Dale, Tarpe, Marty and Odin, hiding their sex from editors and readers. Thus, in addition to a stunning collection of dynamic artwork and a comprehensive cultural history, "Pretty in Ink" inadvertently functions as a gender-neutral baby-name book.
The Art of Ramona Fradon
Edited by Robert Greenberger, Dynamite, 152 pages, $22.99
While this deluxe compendium offers Ramona Fradon the respect Trina Robbins wants women cartoonists to receive, don't show Fradon's book-length interview (conducted by Howard Chaykin) to little girls with big comics dreams. Admitting she did it for the money, the money stank and that she was happy to quit to raise her child, Fradon expresses little passion for comics. But passion and talent are different, and the stunning archival reproductions here argue compellingly that Fradon had the perfect skill set for her era. After the horror comics backlash of 1954 and before Marvel's 1960s breakthrough, the surviving superheroes sidestepped violence for silliness, as gorillas and giant plants replaced Nazis and gun-toting gangsters. Few artists could make visual sense of this absurdity while maintaining superhero comics' default "realistic" style. But looking at Fradon's lengthy run of Aquaman (and her surreal design of Metamorpho), it's clear she had a special gift for capturing whimsy without sacrificing dignity. The book gloriously features full-length story reprints and lengthy excerpts, including some Brenda Starr newspaper comics from the '80s after Fradon picked up her pen again. While I'd prefer more archival material, numerous recent sketches are included, which make two important points. The first is that Fradon can seriously still draw. The second is comic-making ain't the best retirement plan: Fradon does these commissions because her publishers and syndicate never set up pensions.
Wonder Woman Unbound
By Tim Hanley, Chicago Review, 304 pages, $18.95
Presenting an overview of the greatest superheroine is challenging, because unlike her Super and Bat colleagues, Wonder Woman rarely lived up to potential. As a symbol she appeals to fans like Robbins and Gloria Steinem, but after peaking during World War II, Wonder Woman has been a second-class super-citizen, suffering through decades of campy, degrading turns as a secretary, lovestruck Mod and Mexican restaurant worker. She was created by behavioral psychologist William Marston, ostensibly to empower girls, but covertly to prepare boys for a future matriarchy that was part of Marston's worldview (which included bondage obsessions and a ménage-a-trois homelife). Floridly rendered by H.G. Peter from 1941 until Marston's 1947 death, Wonder Woman (spurning Steve Trevor, escaping elaborate torture devices, citing Sappho) was one-of-a-kind. Occasionally "Wonder Woman Unbound" made me question the field of comics studies, not because the findings aren't fascinating, but out of sympathy for Hanley, whose methodology involves analyzing every panel, caption and letter-to-the-editor, determining statistics like overall-bondage-panel-per-issue percentage (41 percent in Wonder Woman #4). Thus, the author luxuriated in six years of genre-redefining comics, then endured 66 years of insipid tales less culturally relevant than Bazooka Joe: "When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in December of 1955," the author points out, "Wonder Woman was playing baseball with a gorilla." But Hanley survived his ordeal, just as Wonder Woman survived the disrespect of the industry to remain an inspiration for female fans, artists and would-be-superheroes — not to mention helping a few burgeoning S&M enthusiasts along the way.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.