pretty in ink

I love history and studying the past. My first college degree was an English and History combination, and I seriously considered doing a history MA afterwards, but my love of English triumphed and I pursued a MA in that subject instead.

So, I tend to continue to read a lot of history, which is pretty much a necessity for research for stories, but it’s also a pleasure. Reading about people’s lives in the past reminds me how vibrant individual people were, and how even ‘ordinary’ people could achieve extraordinary goals. There is a tendency among some depictions of the past (film is the worst for this) to portray people as rather incurious or unphilosophical about their lives. In fact, people have always thought deeply, striven for independence, and attempted to change their lives for the better. They have always pondered the essential questions of life, and have often felt trapped by circumstances (just as we do today). I’m constantly in awe of our trail-blazing ancestors who battled against much more difficult situations to achieve their dreams.

As a writer it’s very important to remember this about characters: every single one has an inner life that matters to him or her, no matter who they are or what they do.

This is particularly true for women, who generally have had a much harder time achieving their aspirations, and worse still, history seems to have a habit of forgetting their hard-won battles.

There is a lazy depiction of women that creeps into some fiction and non-fiction where they are primarily assigned the role of mother or wife, when even the smallest amount of research reveals that women – in every age – have wanted more than those occupations (and I’m not belittling either, by the way, merely pointing out it wasn’t the sum total of what women in the past wanted).

Pretty in Pink

That is why I bought Trina Robbins‘ latest book, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013. I’ve previously read and enjoyed Trina’s From Girls to Grrlz : A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines, and her gorgeous hardback, The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913-1940. Both of those books gave me an appreciation of the continuous contribution women have made to comic book history from its genesis. It’s thanks to Trina’s continued research and publication of her findings that we now understand this so clearly.

Her new book, published in a large-format from Fantagraphics, is stuffed full of marvellous reproductions of women’s cartoons, illustrations, and comic book strips for over a hundred years. It also contains new information about women comic book artists that Trina has discovered since her last book on the subject.

It’s both inspiring and enjoyable to read this volume. The sheer number of women who have been working in the field – some of whom where superstars in their day – is truly eye-opening. There is a pervasive myth in the business that women have only been offering a contribution for the last few decades, which is wildly inaccurate.

From its inception as an art form women have 1) Read Comics and 2) Written and Drawn Comics. The fact that some people still seem to struggle with this concept is what baffles me!

The only problem with this book is that there isn’t enough space to flesh out the details of some of the women’s lives and work. This is understandable since it’s an overview of the industry, but it also proves how many fascinating women Trina discusses in the text. And the last chapter, ’21st Century Foxes’, can only scratch the surface of the huge number of women comic book creators who are influencing the scene at the moment.

I’m exceedingly thankful that Trina Robbins has taken so much time and care to examine this aspect of comic book history, and to remind us that women have always loved comics, and their voices are part of what makes it so vital today.