Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Julie Davis0
Review: The 40th Anniversary of Wimmen’s Comix
To read the story behind the groundbreaking comics anthology Wimmen’s Comix is to be reminded of feminism’s past, and how much has (or in some cases, hasn’t) changed. In the early 1970s, while Zap and Weirdo kept on truckin’ with their counterculture stories about drugs, violence and the sexual revolution, female artists were feeling shut out. Even in the progressive circle of underground comics, publishers weren’t terribly interested in women’s side of the story. A group of female cartoonists, all San Francisco Bay Area locals, finally changed that equation for good.
It wasn’t the first comic book produced entirely by women — that would have been the 1970 publication, It Ain’t Me, Babe by Trina Robbins, also one of Wimmen’s Comix‘s founding mothers — but it made a difference by making the encouragement and publication of new female artists part of its mission statement. The editors rotated, so no one person would be able to impose a house style, and approximately half of every issue was kept open to new contributors.
The artists featured in the first issue were Patricia Moodian, who drew the cover and also edited the issue, Aline Kominsky, Lee Marrs, Diane Noomin, Michelle Brand, Lora Fountain, Shelby Sampson, Trina Robbins and Janet Wolfe Stanley. These and future contributors to the magazine are like a Who’s Who of women in comics: Roberta Gregory, Dori Seda, Mary Fleener, Carol Lay, Phoebe Gloeckner and Melinda Gebbe are just a few of the over 100 contributors that eventually filled the anthology’s pages. The collective published 18 issues between 1972 and 1992 through a series of publishers before splitting ranks to work on other projects.
With Wimmen’s Comix celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the San Francisco Public Library mounted a modest exhibition of original artwork from throughout the anthology’s run, as well as an opening reception featuring several of the magazine’s founders on Saturday November 10.
The pieces on display range from Lara Fountain’s 1973 strip “Movin’ to the Country” from Issue #2 to Nancy Husari’s “Gyno Cops,” published in Issue #17 in 1992. The content of most of the strips involves women’s daily lives, from romantic troubles —Roberta Gregory’s “Guaranteed Get-Over-It Kit” (Issue #14) proposes a service for women suffering from bad breakups that includes appropriate amounts of comfort food and the support of sympathetic women who will remind you that he was a loser anyway — to domestic problems of laundry management (“Sock Song” by Shelley Sampson, from Issue #5, 1975) and relationships (“People With Whom it is Well Worthwhile Cultivating a Warm, Personal Relationship” by Sharon Rudahl, also Issue #14).
The lives of famous female historical figures are featured as well, from the first woman to run for president (“Victoria the Woodhull” by Michelle Brand and Mary Skrenes, Issue #6, 1975) to Barbie (“Barbie at 30” by Katherine Lemieux, Issue #14, 1989). The 4-page story “Moonshine Mama” by Lee Marrs (1976) is a particular standout, comparing the lives of a backwoods, moonshine-brewing grandmother with her modern urban grandchild; both generations pity each other’s hard life and congratulate themselves on having a more enlightened view of existence.
While the original artwork on display is well worth seeing, the space offered by the venue, the San Francisco Library’s Main building, is something of a mixed blessing. The exhibit occupies the sparse wall space flanking the 4th floor elevator lobby, and continues through a series of display cases and narrow support columns between worktables and book stacks. However, the artworks are well promoted by large banners and a standing lighted sign that confronts all new arrivals exiting from the elevators, as well as helpful placards smoothly guiding viewers from one piece to the next.
Although it’s nice to dream of this exhibit occupying a larger, more formal gallery space, perhaps having the voices of these artists jostling for attention among the ordinary citizens using the library is more appropriate to the original intent of Wimmen’s Comix. If these women’s works reach an audience who would never have seen or heard of them otherwise, then that keeps with the progressive spirit behind these comics’ creations. A lot has changed for comics in 40 years, mostly thanks to these particular women and their willingness to assert that their own ideas and inner lives were as worthy of artistic exploration as the issues being raised by men. And that’s something worth looking back on, and celebrating.
The 40th Anniversary of Wimmen’s Comix is on display until February 7, 2013 at the Art, Music and Recreation Center of the San Francisco Main Library, 4th Floor, 100 Larkin (at Grove). The library is also looking to complete its collection of the magazine’s run; if you have issues to donate, contact the San Francisco Library at sfpl.org for more information.