PITTSBURGH – It took a war to let the country’s female comic book artists break character.
A new exhibit at Pittsburgh’s Toonseum is celebrating the history of female comic artists, including those who began laying the groundwork 100 years ago and the female artists of the 1940s, when World War II sent many male artists overseas.
“Wonder Women, On Page and Off” includes originals by Nell Brinkley, who created masterful, wispy drawings of curly-haired working girls starting in about 1907.
But Joe Wos, director of the Toonseum, notes that even the successful female artists faced a type of glass ceiling at first. Some were able to break in to the competitive industry, but the characters and stories were mostly related to fashion and women’s experiences.
“Men’s comics, they could write about whatever they wanted. They could write about being a little girl, about being an iguana, or a Viking,” Wos said.
That started to change at the beginning of World War II, when men went off to fight and women filled the void at home, in comics and in other industries, Wos said.
The exhibit features original panels from Jill Elgin’s “Girl Commandos,” a 1940s series that chronicled the adventures of four young women who fight against the Axis powers.
“You begin to see women in the heroic roles,” Wos noted. But after the war ended, women had to struggle to gain acceptance again.
Pittsburgh resident Cindy Washington visited the exhibit Friday and said she was struck by how female artists had drawn such powerful female characters in the 1940s.
These characters weren’t “just waiting for someone to come and help – they were very active” in taking control of situations, Washington said.
The show features a satirical 1949 letter from Hilda Terry, the creator of the comic strip “Teena,” to the National Cartoonists Society, which didn’t admit women at the time. Terry suggested that the group change its name to the National Men’s Cartoonists Society, setting off a passionate debate. Her letter reads, in part:
“Gentlemen: While we are, individually, in complete sympathy with your wish to convene unhampered by the presence of women, and while we would, individually, like to continue, as far as we are concerned, the indulgence of your masculine whim, we find that the cost of your stag privilege is stagnation for us, professionally.”
The next year, the bylaws were changed, and Terry became one of the first female members.
The exhibit was created from the collection of Trina Robbins, a writer, artist, and author of “Pretty in Ink,” a history of female comic artists. Robbins said by phone from her home in California that despite the breakthroughs of the 1940s, as time went on, more and more comic books began to be dominated by male superheroes, who she found to be a “total bore.” By the end of the 1960s, the few remaining mainstream comic strips involving romance and teenage girls were dying off, and women looked for other ways to express themselves.
But instead of fading away, a new generation took matters into their own hands. “You have this rise of, “If we can’t find someone to print our work, we’ll do it ourselves,”’ Wos said.
The underground comic movement that began in the 1960s led to female artists openly addressing sexuality and discrimination and helped lay the groundwork for graphic novels, which are flourishing today.
“So that’s the hope of the future, really,” Robbins said, of new storytelling forms.
The exhibit runs until March 30.