A little over a year ago, I dragged my exhausted body, fresh off of my first (and last) college all-nighter and fueled by adrenaline and caffeine, to the Sociology department in William James Hall to turn in my senior thesis five minutes before the deadline. The 156-page document I turned in its regulation black binder had been roughly seven months in the making, after I first emailed comics “herstorian” Trina Robbins to ask if she would be willing to talk to me about Wimmen’s Comix, and if she was still in touch with any of the other contributors to the anthology. Tomorrow, I will go to Gainesville, Florida, to A Comic Of Her Own, to discuss what came of the 23 interviews with women in the underground comix movement and other background research I’ve done since then.
Even before I considered it as a thesis topic, I’d been curious about Wimmen’s Comix since the summer of 2011, if not well before. One of the few sociological tomes on comics, Paul Lopes’ Demanding Respect: The Evolution of the American Comic Book, described Wimmen’s Comix (and Tits & Clits, an underground comic out of Laguna Beach) as follows: “Strongly influenced by the beginnings of the feminist movement at the time, female underground artists fought back at the misogyny in the comix movement … Women underground artists as self-identified feminists in the seventies, while like all underground artists pushing the envelope, presented a more coherent politics in their intervention into the underground comix movement. They focused on feminist political positions related to sexism, homophobia, physical abuse, and abortion. Like other underground artists, their politics were up front and, so to speak, in your face.”
“This first generation of female comic book rebels unquestionably laid the groundwork for future generations of women artists to intervene and attempt to transform the field of comic books,” concluded Lopes.
Since reading that description — and all of the issues of Wimmen’s Comix and Tits & Clits themselves — I had turned it over and over in my mind, and pondered it each time I did an interview. If these comix were feminist, what made them feminist? Was it that they were created by women, especially in a time when that was uncommon? Was it that they were created by feminists? Was the way in which they were created feminist? Was their topic matter feminist? And if they weren’t feminist, what were they?
What I discovered was that the characterization of women’s underground comix as a “feminist intervention” told only part of the story. Even my thesis, which drew upon original interviews with many of the artists, as well as a great deal of background research, tells only part of the story, and I’m working how and when I can to tell the rest of it.
But if you happen to be in Florida tomorrow, be sure to drop by the panel I’m presenting on, ‘Women Underground.” Expect updates after the conference!
Above: First panel of “I Had a Teenage Abortion” from Wimmen’s Comix #1 (1972). Moodian, Patricia, ed. Berkeley, CA: Last Gasp.
When the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix was published in late 1972, Roe v. Wade was not yet the law of the land. Abortion was illegal in 30 of 50 states, and legal only in certain circumstances, like rape or incest, in all others. While young women today purportedly don’t realize the significance of a symbolic coat hanger, before Roe thousands of women suffered and died after undergoing dangerous illegal abortions. Lora Fountain’s first story in Wimmen’s Comix — the artist appears in only two editions of the anthology — tells the story of an unhappily pregnant teenager forced to scrounge up $300 in cash to pay for her back-alley abortion, during which she is given nothing for the pain except a swig from a bottle of gin. When she goes to seek medical assistance for severe complications after the procedure, the doctor threatens to call the cops.Though Fountain’s next contribution to Wimmen’s Comix, “Movin’ to the Country” (1973), tackled a far less controversial topic, she also edited a comic book dedicated solely to sex education — Facts O’ Life Sex Education Funnies (1972).
These comics, in addition to Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli’s Abortion Eve (1973), have been cited by scholars as revolutionary for their handling of sexual health issues that women (and men) had only just begun to discuss publicly. Sociologist Paul Lopes writes, “Women underground artists as self-identified feminists in the seventies, while like all underground comix artists pushing the envelope of acceptable conventional norms, presented a more coherent politics in their intervention in the underground comix movement. They focused on feminist political positions related to sexism, homophobia, physical abuse, and abortion. Like other underground comix artists, their politics were up front and, so to speak, in your face,”
Today, Lora Fountain lives in Paris, France, where she is a literary agent with Agence Littéraire Lora Fountain & Associates representing adult and children’s fiction and graphic novels. She recently visited New York with fellow underground cartoonist and WC contributor Aline Kominsky-Crumb, to promote the Crumbs’ new book Drawn Together. (Fountain is the Crumbs’ agent.) I spoke with her via email to ask about her contributions to Wimmen’s Comix, and her involvement with underground comix more generally.
Samantha Meier (SM): How did you get involved in underground comix generally? Had you ever done comix before?
Lora Fountain (LF): My mother was an artist, and I drew a lot when I was a child, but I never did comics. I didn’t have many comics, but I read them at the drugstore in our small town or at friends’ homes, and the Sunday comics were a favorite of mine. In September 1970, I met Gilbert Shelton whose comics I’d been reading in the LA Free Press. We moved in together a couple of months later. Through Gilbert I met Robert Crumb in the spring of 1971.
SM: How did you meet the other people from Wimmen’s Comix, and get involved?
LF: Gilbert and I moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1971, after I finished at UCLA, and at that time, there was a very active underground comics scene in the Bay Area. Gilbert already knew most of the male artists, as well as Trina Robbins. I met Aline Kominsky at a party soon afterwards, and then Diane Noomin moved to San Francisco a year or so later. Just about everyone was at all the same parties, so we all got to know each other socially. I can’t really remember [how I got involved with WC], but I was happy to be asked to participate in the first issue.
It sounded like fun and a good way to show the male cartoonists that there were a lot of talented women artists around, too.
I was only in the first few issues of Wimmen’s Comix. I realized fairly quickly that writing and drawing comics wasn’t my strong point, and I began doing video instead and co-founded a bilingual women’s video collective called Video Compañía. I later made a documentary about medical malpractice insurance and two educational videos about pregnancy and childbirth in Spanish and another in English with a black family. (All the videos at the time were of white families only).
SM: What would you say was the goal or purpose of Wimmen’s Comix?
LF: To provide a place where women artists could get their work published, which wasn’t really possible in the men’s comics.
SM: What was the structure of the “Wimmen’s Comix collective” like? Did you attend meetings, and what were they like?
LF: I don’t think it was particularly structured. We were all trying to be free spirits and do our own thing, so I don’t remember the meetings being all that organized. My main memory is of sitting around in someone’s living room talking about what stories each of us wanted to do. You’ve seen the illustration with everyone’s self-portraits. That’s pretty much what it was like.
SM: Can you tell me about Facts O’ Life Funnies? How did you end up being the editor for that comic, and what made you want to do that?
LF: I got the idea for a sex education comic when I was working at a number of clinics in Los Angeles. There really weren’t any interesting educational materials for young people, so I went to the National Sex Forum at the Glide Foundation and convinced them to give me a grant to develop a sex education comic.Then I talked Gilbert, Robert, Shary Flenniken, Terre and Ted Richards and a bunch of other cartoonists into doing stories. The fact that they all got paid up front made them pretty easy to convince.
That first printing was 25,000 copies, and they sold out almost immediately, so there was a second printing of 100,000 copies. I got interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, and AP picked up the story. I was working at SF General Hospital at the time, and the mail room was inundated for a few weeks!
There was a little hate mail, but most was positive.
SM: Were you involved in the women’s movement at that time, or later?
LF: I was fairly active politically while I was at UCLA and worked as a volunteer sex education counselor at the LA Free Clinic and the Venice Youth Clinic. I was also involved in the anti-war movement and the early ecology action groups.
I was pretty involved in the abortion rights movement and worked at an illegal abortion clinic in Santa Monica that was set up to challenge the California abortion laws. It was illegal, but not secret and was mentioned in an article about the abortion laws across the U.S. in Newsweek (or TIME, I forget which). This was in the spring and summer of 1970. The clinic eventually was closed down by the police, but I was lucky enough not to be there at the time and didn’t get arrested. (That was because a crew from CBC-TV from Toronto was interviewing one of the founders at my apartment when the bust happened.)
SM: Did you consider Wimmen’s Comix to be political?
LF: I think it was only political in the sense that it was a forum for women artists to get their work in print.
My research is featured in a great post by Emily Wilson at the Women’s Media Center blog!
Robbins also offered support to Samantha Meier, a writer and editor on gender issues at PolicyMic. When starting work on her Harvard thesis, Twisted Sisters: Women’s Comix and Cultural Action, Meier noticed that Robbins’ name kept coming up and contacted her through her website. She got an email back 10 minutes later.
Meier’s own fascination with comics came from her hatred of the Cathy strip.
“She was always stressing out about her weight and her boyfriend or not having a boyfriend, and I thought growing up this was what my life would be,” Meier said.
This led to Meier thinking about becoming a cartoonist herself so she could “create a character for thirteen-year-old girls who didn’t suck.” That didn’t happen, but she became a huge fan of the underground comics of the 1960s and 70s, and knew she wanted to explore that further for her thesis. When she found Wimmen’s Comix, she was hooked, she says. Now working on turning her thesis into a book, Meier flew out to attend the opening of the show in San Francisco.
“I think it’s helpful in raising the profile of these artists, who are well known in comic circles, but not as well known in other circles,” she said. “The library wants to assemble a full run of the comic, which is hugely important for researchers.”
Read the rest of the article here. For the record, my love/hate relationship with Cathy didn’t inspire me to become a cartoonist (and I admire Cathy Guisewite for having an incredibly long career in the world of syndicated comic strips), but it did cause me to never want to read the word “AAAAAAACK!” again.
All 17 issues of Wimmen’s Comix are on display now at the San Francisco Public Library, along with original artwork from the comic books, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the seminal anthology.
The show will be up through February 7, 2013. For more information on the show, visit the library’s website here.
The illustrated introduction to the senior thesis that started it all.