• Michael Dooley

Sax, Dope, and Trina Robbins: the Making of a Graphic Novel

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Cartoonist Trina Robbins wants money for Dope… and soon. So her fans have been fixing her up on Kickstarter. After all, that comics version she did of British pulp mystery novelist Sax Rohmer’s neglected 1919 crime novel has been out of print since the early-1980s. And the separate installments haven’t been assembled into a graphic novel… yet.

Trina Robbins is unquestionably the “first” lady of comics. As the first famous female underground comix cartoonist, she created the very first comic book with all-women contributors, It Ain’t Me, Babe. She was the first woman to draw Wonder Woman for DC. She designed Vampirella’s first costume. She’s the first comics historian to write nearly a dozen smart, informed, and easily accessible books that focus on women and comics. (She’s also got a 200-page collection of comics stories by Lily Renée, one of the many under-recognized women creators she’s brought to the forefront, that’s free to download at her website, here). You’ll find more about her own vast and varied career in my Print interview from a few years back, “Trina Robbins on Comics Heroines, Feminism, and Lacy Underthings,” here.

During the 1980s, in the midst of all her pioneering, Trina was also working on a pet passion project, Dope. It’s packed with adventure and intrigue, and recalls Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. When I asked her what attracted her to this particular work by Rohmer she replied, “I love anything old, and Dope read almost like a silent movie. Really, I’m amazed they never filmed it. Colorful characters, wonderful villains, blood and thunder plot, opium dens; what’s there not to love? And for us feminists, there’s even a strong woman character. A doctor, no less!” Trina’s also quite proud of this particular story: “I think my art hit a peak in the ’80s. I was at my best as an artist, penciling and inking, and I thoroughly researched the period. Everything the characters wear is authentic, taken from old 1919 magazines. Research, and making things authentic, is part of the fun.” The story was first serialized through Eclipse, an independent comics publisher [the images shown here are from those editions]. And now, the new It’s Alive! imprint is graphic novel-izing it.

Since the concluding chapters of the original story were in color, I checked with It’s Alive! publisher Drew Ford about the decision to go all-b&w. “Trina originally created the story in black and white. It has a film noir feel to it. When Eclipse went from a black-and-white magazine to a monthly color comic book, Trina was faced with either continuing the story to its conclusion in color or never finishing it. Of course, she chose the first option. So now that we’re finally collecting the entire story in its own book, Trina asked that we remove the colors from those last chapters so that readers could experience it in its entirety as she originally intended.”

Columbia University’s Adjunct Curator for Comics Karen Green was among the first Kickstarter contributors. When I asked about it she replied, “Gosh, why am I packing Dope? Three reasons: Trina Robbins has been so busy writing the history of women in comics that people might forget how talented a cartoonist she is herself, so anything that gives us a chance to see more of her own work is a great idea. Dope is an example of a work that was published in a short-lived venue, and might not have gotten the kind of audience it deserved, so this reprint will allow her to take advantage of a comics audience larger and in many ways more sophisticated than that of Eclipse. And finally, this is a little-known work by Sax Rohmer, far better known for his Fu Manchu novels. So there’s a trifecta of little-knowns here that are getting the opportunity to come to light. But mostly I’m backing it because it just looks gorgeous. Have you seen the art? All those beautiful heavy blacks, feathered into the whites. Who wouldn’t want to read that?”

Having just hit enough Kickstarter pledges to guarantee its release, It’s Alive! has gone into stretch goal upgrades and bonuses. So now that you’ve had a taste, you have until Friday to score, here.

Another Trina story, published just prior to her Dope run. “Chris Browne wrote this with Playboy in mind but Playboy rejected it, and Eclipse said, “Send us a page.” And there it was, so…”

Trina Robbins on the far left at last month’s San Diego Comic-Con panel on her latest book, “The Complete Wimmen’s Comix,” with Terre Richards, Sharon Rudahl, Rebecka Wright, Barbara “Willy” Mendes (thumbs up), Lee Marrs (jazz hands), Joan Hilty, and Mary Fleener.

#feminism #comicbooks #art #SaxRohmer #interview #noir #KarenGreen #comicbookhistorian #comics #LilyRenée #graphicnovel #TrinaRobbins #illustration #historian #books #crime #kickstarter #MiltonCaniff #cartoons #TerryandthePirates #MaryFleener #inspiration #WonderWoman

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About Michael Dooley Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.View all posts by Michael Dooley →