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Beyond Comic-Con: The Wonder Women of Comics

One of the most significant comics events during San Diego Comic-Con this week isn’t even part of the official program. It’s the “Wonder Women: On and Off Paper” exhibition, and it’s at the Women’s Museum, an intimate space that’s separate and away from the mammoth Convention Center.

Mary Fleener, 1995

The show chronicles a century of progress, progress in how women depict women in comics, and in how they’ve persevered to overcome countless obstacles and achieve recognition and respect. The curator, Museum Art and Programs Director Kathleen Adam, tells the story through original works: sketches, edits, finished art, and even rejected material.

Its narrative begins in 1914, with a Dimples Sunday color newspaper page by Grace Drayton, who created the Campbell’s soup kids and was an early advocate of women’s rights. Moving to the Roaring ‘Twenties, the single-panel series Flapper Fanny Says starred an independent, self-assured, wisecracking dame. Fanny was rendered in sleek, elegant deco style by Ethel Hays, who went on to become a successful childrens’ book illustrator.

Flapper Fanny by Ethel Hays, 1927 “If you don’t believe fish is a brain food, try opening a can of sardines.”

Flapper Fanny by Ethel Hays, 1927 “A flapper’s diary is just a scrap book.”

With a heavy workload, Hays always made sure she passed along her overflow to other women, women such as Virginia Krausmann. The stylistically versatile Krausmann took over strips by several creators, including Dorothy Urfer’s Annibelle in the mid 1930s.

Annibelle by Virginia Krausmann, 1936

Greeting card illustrator Dalia Messick changed her first name to the more gender-neutral “Dale” when she submitted proposed strips such as Mimi the Mermaid to the syndicates. She eventually found success in 1940 with the brave and adventurous Brenda Starr, Reporter.

Mimi the Mermaid by Dale Messick, early 1930s

Brenda became immensely popular as World War II increased the number of women in the American workforce. And after Messick retired in 1980, she continued to sketch layout guides for her successor, Ramona Fradon. Continuing under various other artists and writers, the strip had a total run of 70 years.

Brenda Starr concept page by Dale Messick, 1982

1941 saw the debut of Teena, the first of many bobby-soxer cartoons drawn by women in the 1940s and ‘50s. Creator Hilda Terry’s line art had a fluidity and finesse that far surpassed the pallid Archie comics. “Wonder Women” details how Terry broke down the National Cartoonists Society’s prohibition against women to become its first female member. She’d also move on to a career in digital animation.

Teena by Hilda Terry, 1955

Struggles continued even through the so-called “liberated” late 1960s. Trina Robbins was foremost among the females who rose to underground comix prominence despite resistance from entrenched, chauvinistic male artists. Robbins has since become the preeminent historian of women’s comics; here’s my illustrated interview with her, in which we cover comics heroines, feminism, and lacy underthings.

Most of the art on display – which also includes Nell Brinkley’s lush Brinkley Girls newspaper strip and Lily Renée’s Nazi-fighting Senorita Rio among other gems – comes from Robbins’s personal collection. Her soon-to-be-released “Pretty in Ink: American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013” promises to be a thoroughly comprehensive documentation of what has been a largely under-credited component of the medium’s heritage.

Contemporary pioneers in cartooning are now paving the way for the next generation, and they’re also well represented in the show. They include “cubismo” artist Mary Fleener, Bongo Comics writer-artist Carol Lay, and Mimi Pond, who’s also written for The Simpsons.

Robbins, Fleener, Lay, and Brenda Starr’s Fradon will engage in a two-hour panel session at the Women’s Museum this Thursday evening. They’ll discuss their industry experiences, their struggles and successes, and their innovative artworks. It’s open to all, with or without a Comic-Con admission badge. You’ll find more info here.

About the venue: for nearly 20 years, the Women’s Museum of California has been featuring displays, workshops, lectures, performances, and other educational and cultural events. It also maintains a speakers’ bureau and an extensive archive of documents, posters, books, and other artifacts important to women’s histories. Its tagline is “preserving the past, inspiring the future.” Which is exactly what “Wonder Women” accomplishes.

This is the second of a two-part feature on the hidden happenings of Comic-Con week. For the first, I interviewed Kathleen McClancy and Joyce Havstad from the Comics Arts Conference about how the medium can be used to gain insight and inspiration. You can read it here.

Twisted Sisters by Carol Lay, 1994

Why I Love Lucy by Mimi Pond, 2011

Fleener by Mary Fleener, 1996

Angel Love by Barbara Slate, 1986

installation photo by Melissa Williams, 2013

Additional Resource: Did You Miss HOW Design Live? Or, do you want to get the scoop on some of the sessions you didn’t get a chance to see? Check out the HOW Design Live ONLINE Event, July 17-19th!

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