Rob Vollmar considers the feminist voice, the second of Elaine Showalter's three phases of women's writing, as it applies to comics, tracking the changes from WIMMEN'S COMIX to NAUGHTY BITS and beyond.
10 March 2003

In last month's instalment of Minority Report, we began an examination of the theories of critic Elaine Showalter regarding the three phases of women's writing, namely, the feminine, the feminist, and the female, in relation to phenomena of women creating comics. Having completed our look at the first phase, we can now begin a discussion of the second, which Showalter described as being characterised by, "a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for autonomy [16]."

To contextualize our potential feminists, then, we must, first, understand fully the "standards and values" that are perceived as being oppressive in the first place. Particular to the medium of comics, I see two differing sets of standards that might be worthy of investigation, both misogynist in their application but for very different reasons.

The first generation of women making post-Code comics beginning in the 1970s emerged not as a phenomenon of the mainstream but of the underground, a reaction to the reaction. The necessity of anthologies like WIMMEN'S COMIX was born first out of disillusionment with the male dominated underground, which seemed content to spend its new found freedoms on unfettered expressions of the dysfunctional male id at play.

'Women seeking to make comics had two dominant patriarchal traditions to repel.' Yet, some artists, Trina Robbins, in particular, seemed to be trying to reach back beyond Wertham's abyss into the past, when women had reached out to larger audiences in less confrontational ways. The cover of IT AIN'T ME, BABE, which can also be contextualised as part of the counter-culture by the Bob Dylan reference in the title, features a drawing by Robbins of largely forgotten heroines of the past that had more in common with Superman than Mr Natural.

It was this same impulse, I believe, that shaped Wendy Pini's visual design on ELFQUEST, though her perspective, informed as it was about the success of shoujo manga in Japan and the potential it represented, was very different, and as a result, took the mainstream's (as represented by superhero comics) grasp over the Direct Market audience to task much more effectively.

So, women seeking to make comics of their own had, in fact, two dominant patriarchal traditions to repel; the first, and more dominant of the two, a mainstream tradition that had cast them off as both readers and creators in the 1950s, and the second, an underground tradition with which they shared a disdain for the superficial artifice of a comics medium intended only for children, but in which they were allowed few roles beyond, in the best case scenarios, that of a behind-the-scenes co-ordinator and, in the worst, a starring role as sex objects within the openly misogynistic and often brutal stories themselves.

Returning to Showalter's description of the feminist voice, her second criteria describes "an advocacy of minority rights and values (16)" which, as I read it, implies not only the rights and values of the minority in question (which is a trick question, since women are, by the numbers, actually a majority) but of all minority groups, or, at the very least, the common space held by all those disenfranchised by the homogeneity of the oppressor culture.

'There are still works on the market today that are feminist in tone.' It was no accident then that the lesbian comics community emerged from within the Women's anthology movement first before moving into more diverse venues once it had gained its footing. Lesbianism was seen, in some circles, as the ultimate extension of Feminism as a philosophy, and these homogeneously female environments, despite Dr Marsten's posthumous protestations, proved, in many cases, to be homo-erogenous as well. For lesbian and bisexual cartoonists, they represented a starting point in comics for frank discussions about sexuality that still approximated a more balanced and believable vision of reality than the works of Robert Crumb or S Clay Wilson had the decade before.

The last of Showalter's criteria, "a demand for autonomy", ironically was made manifest in the initial refusal by the underground elite to share their venues with genuinely talented women cartoonists, thus precipitating the necessity for an all-woman anthology in the first place. Within just a few years of WIMMEN'S COMIX though, a second wave of underground-influenced cartoonists appeared, spearheaded by creators like Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, and Matt Groenig, who resisted earlier trends of utilising comix as an extended, personal burlesque and aspired to something more lofty and, perhaps, more artistic.

This more elevated discourse in the comics form, typified by magazines like ARCADE (1975) and, later, the more successful RAW, created an environment where women, in particular, were actually invited to participate according to their merits. While artists like Robbins and Roberta Gregory had developed their skills in woman-only collectives, women such as Phoebe Gloeckner, Carol Lay, Lynda Barry and Dori Seda had choices (if not many) regarding where they published their work.

'Lesbianism was seen in some circles as the ultimate extension of Feminism.' Did this gender diversity effect their autonomy? In the sense that they were no longer working in gender homogenous environments, certainly the autonomy of women, as a unified force, had been weakened, but not the autonomy of the individual woman, who still controlled her work and the venues in which it was published.

Unlike the feminine voice, I believe that there is still a number of works and artists in the market today that could be considered, even by Showalter's criteria, markedly feminist in tone. Though it launched in 1993, Roberta Gregory's NAUGHTY BITS is probably as close to the tone of the old-school wymyn's anthologies as we are likely to see again. Issues 1-18 in particular involve an often humorous but chilling look at becoming a woman during the late 1960s and 70s that is too generalised to be called autobiography and too specified to be considered mere fiction.

Not all modern feminists in comics are held-over from the first generation. Elisabeth Watasin's CHARM SCHOOL, which is as charming as the title suggests, presents a world where lesbian vampires and witches live free of the influences of patriarchy, illustrated and informed by an immaculately rendered line that seeks no craft apologists. Watasin herself got her first break as a cartoonist in ACTION GIRL, the last of the women-only anthologies, edited by fellow cartoonist Sarah Dyer, which has also helped in the development and presentation of other rising talents like Jessica Abel (ARTBABE), Megan Kelso (ARTICHOKE TALES), and Jennifer Sorensen (SLOWPOKE).

Next month, we'll take a look at the last phase of women's writing, the female, and wrap up our survey of women in comics as we assess the present comics landscape and the opportunities it represents for a woman making and reading comics today.

For further information, read Elaine Showalter's A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN: BRITISH WOMEN NOVELISTS FROM BRONTE TO LESSING (London, Virago 1978).

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