Radical Romance: That Brinkley Girl

Those curls! Those explosions of curls often outsized even the heads of Nell Brinkley’s (1886-1944) famous “Brinkley Girls” of the 1910s and 1920s. They had a life of their own, dense with insanely, finely penned line detail. In some of Brinkley’s full pagers of the 1910s, those curls could own the page, become part of the character’s expression, somehow embody the heady fantasies in which “Brinkley Girls” usually engaged. It was a visual signature so recognizable and appealing they launched Brinkley-endorsed hair products with her name attached.

But those Brinkley curls were more than a cartoonist’s signature. They embodied important aspects of Nell Brinkley’s art and contribution to comics and pop culture that critics miss… when they pay attention at all. For, even though she was called the “Queen of Comics” in her day, Nell Brinkley has been poorly served by subsequent comics history. She doesn’t appear in many anthologies, and I have heard some question whether her work even qualifies as comics. Thankfully, Trina Robbins has maintained her reputation and memory in a book devoted to the many iterations of the “Brinkley Girls” and more recently by devoting 50 pages to reprinting her work in the magnificent The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age. I can only speculate how the overwhelmingly male field of comics history may not appreciate, let alone value, the hyper-romanticism of Brinkley’s work. I believe she deserves to be included among the pantheon of greats. In many ways, Brinkley extended into the emotional realm the principles of caricature and fantasy that McCay had practiced in Nemo and screwball cartoonists like Milt Gross brought into the physical slapstick realm. They were over-the-top, eccentric and implausible, and unapologetically so. Her artistic command of the full Sunday comics page, her use of line, color, expression and fantasy rival anything the better-known pioneers put to paper. The cartoon aesthetic established by McCay, Opper, Gross and Herriman allowed artists and readers to defy logic, bend propriety, bruise conventions, rearrange physics, ignore plausibility. Indeed her 1910 fantasy image for the New York Evening Journal, “The Chorus Girl and the Lobster,” showed how well she could mimic the rarebit fiend hallucinations of Winsor McCay. But across the rest of her career, Brinkley channeled the latitude cartooning allows into realms of emotion, gender roles, social relations, romance.

Born in Colorado, Nell’s early artistic talent found its way into children’s books and illustrations in the major state newspapers. Hearst lured her to New York in 1907 where her effusively curly heroines, quickly dubbed “Brinkley Girls,” were a major hit. They were featured in songs, theatrical revues and even licensed hair curling products. While Brinkley did many spot illustrations and even famously covered a scandalous murder trial, her most enduring work took the peculiar form of the graphic short story. Running across a dozen or more weekly episodes, these finite “Romantic Series” included the wartime “Golden Eyes” ( a fiancé follows her betrothed to the front lines), “Kathleen and the Great Secret” (a couple involved in corporate espionage), “Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages” (a romance projected by crystal ball into past historic eras), “The Adventures of Prudence Prim” (a farm girl comes to the big city), “Dimples’ Day Dream” (heroine fantasizing adventure, fame and career success).

Golden Eyes was a full-page single image and text serial across late 1918 and early 1919. It tells the patriotic wartime tale of Golden Eyes, her dog Uncle Same and her man Bill when he (Bill, that is) leaves to fight as the US entered the European war “Over There.” But it is also where Brinkley weaves a socio-political fantasy for the women who were left to serve and support from home by putting Golden Eyes and Uncle Sam into the intrigue and muck of the war. Girl and pooch dash off toward the front, get captured by the enemy, cold cock a rapacious Hun with a champagne bottle and even crawl through the mud of the barren No Man’s Land among WWI trenches. And she looks impeccable and stylish doing it.

And that is no small thing. Golden Eyes’ has a seemingly endless wardrobe of brightly colored ruffled and layered gowns, high heels, and tightly tailored uniforms in which she could model alluring style ideas to her loyal followers while also saving the world for democracy. It is too easy to dismiss such fancy, because Therin lies the appeal and cultural power of Brinkley’s work. She uses the improbabilities of cartoon world to make the personal political, to overlay romance and patriotism. It imagines Golden Eyes and her readers out of the helplessness and fear of being “Over Here” and fantasizing power and effectiveness in the world.

And this is the alluring dance she does throughout the teens, 20’s and 30s, blending the personal and political, letting her heroines assert themselves into a man’s world within the safe context of fantasy or eventual domestication into marriage. But assert herself she does. 

What Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” was to pre-WWI America, an attempt to visualize an “ideal” American womanhood, the “Brinkley Girl” was to the 1910s and post-WWI culture. And the contrast between the two archetypes are as stark as the eras that each idealized. Popularized in the 1890s, The Gibson Girl generalized and abstracted the white middle class woman as curvy and fully corseted but far from subservient. Gibson often depicted them as independent and well-educated, always striving for both self and social improvement. She often took on progressive causes, like Women’s Suffrage, but never seems fully poised to step into a man’s world. She embodied many of the social changes for women that were in the air without challenging the status quo. Visually, Gibson depicts her as composed and aloof, a robust hourglass figure topped by a massive pompadour, often with half-closed eyes that gave a sense of control and remove. The Gibson “girl” was very much a self-contained woman in control.

The Brinkley Girl was dramatically different.  Brinkley was revising the archetype quite self-consciously. As she describes one early character, “Frank and strong, and happy and good, just a girl — an American girl such as many of you know — a strange young combination of peacock and saint, little girl and sapient woman, athlete and romantic baby, changing as the winds — and as unchanging.” It would be a mistake to reduce Brinkley’s romantic heroines to Flapper era party-girls, although she loved to draw Gatsby-style gala scenes. She was capturing in her heroines a sense of expression and independence that was radically different from Gibson’s idea and as explosive as their signature head of hair. Just as she was replacing the upswept pompadour with coronas of unruly curls, bodices with sequins, feathers and flowing gowns, Brinkley was liberating the feminine personality. That explosion of curls was also an explosion of self-expression, a notably more passionate and performative assertion into the world. Part of the fantasy she crafted so effectively in her art was indeed letting women have it all. 

And so the journey could get wondrous and weird hallucinations, conflations and juxtapositions. Golden Eye decided to pursue her love for Billy to war torn France, where she could at once help win the war and win her man. She is accompanied by their patriotic dog Uncle Sam and the visual symbol of love, a cherub. Having a fashionable woman with seemingly endless wardrobe changes traipsing through the ruins of Europe’s front lines leads to surreal scenes. In one week we find her deep in the French trenches, in a spotless white dress amidst the dark outlines of muddy fields and scorched trees. The Betty and Billy series used a crystal ball device to project these two lovers into every imaginable era of world history. From pre-historic jungles to Egypt, Babylon and Old Virginia. 

Brinkley worked unapologetically in a mode of high fantasy, but of a self-conscious kind. And that was what makes her work so glorious. She called attention to the fantasizing of her heroines and seemed to celebrate the radical leaps from reality she and they were taking. There was nothing frivolous about these daydreams. In fact, one of her 20’s characters, Dimples, spends the entire series resisting her lover’s pleas to marry him in favor of her daydreams of having a range of careers, including become the first woman President. Her romantic serials almost always resolved these adventures in the marriage of our heroine, but Brinkley made the journey more compelling and important than the final, if inevitable, nuptial.

Visually, Brinkley built her fantasies carefully. In the first serials, the stories were told in each Sunday episode by a single evocative full page scene with accompanying text. In the stories of the 1920s this format evolved into something closer to but not quite like a comic strip, with five or six numbered vignettes and blurbs advancing the story. Brinkley never resorted to speech balloons or even firm panel outlines. Instead, her vignettes floated on the page without definite borders in a dreamlike motif.  

In all of these formats, Brinkley invented a visual style that was at once ethereal and precise. She was famous for a thin and heavily detailed pen line that echoed Art Nouveau. She used this line work to build incredibly rich environments, whether the stone walls of Montezuma or the crowd scenes at a flapper party. The scrolling stonework or the floral arrangements, or the face of a desert camel – all had a density of realistic attention. Compared to the simpler line work of contemporaries in the Sunday section like Herriman, King, or even fellow nouveau stylist McManus, Brinkley’s art was downright Baroque. And yet she also colored this line work with a watercolor wash that bathed the scenes in mood just as it ran across the careful penwork. The effect was uniquely dreamlike, vivid in detail but unreal. 

Comics historians often cite the ways in which early innovators like McCay or Feininger used the full Sunday page to experiment with color and format, but Brinkley in her own way was bringing this spirit into the post-WWI newspaper in these remarkable flights of fantasy. While it is true that Sterrit, Herriman and King did  continue to innovate in their Sunday formats especially, no one was working with color, mood and detail as richly as Brinkley.

Also unique to Brinkley’s palette were her primary colors of emotion and expression. She focused on the expressive face in ways that other cartoonists couldn’t within the constraints of panels and balloons. She registered on her characters’ faces those heightened moments of shock, joy, envy, snobbery, ardor and more. There is an emotional intensity to Brinkley’s work that is working at the same high volume as the fantasy. To be sure, she was working in a genre of romance that traded in intense emotion, but she was visualizing these inner feelings on the faces that dominated her page. Indeed you could say that emotional moments were the driving force of her Sunday pages. While most comic artists were using sequential drawing to drive story progression, a slapstick gag or physical action, Brinkley’s sequence of vignettes are illustrating the emotional peaks of a story that is really being told in a linear way in the text. Was anyone else in the comics section working to surface such a full range of emotion and inner worlds? One has to look to the silent screen for this kind of singular focus on expression and visualizing personality. 

In Brinkley we see the ties between self-expression and the increasing materialism of modern consumer culture. Her heroines are generally affluent, soaked in the largesse of high fashion, travel, lavish parties. By the late 20s she had become adept at visually swooning over luxe objects, from shiny limos to ornate nightclubs. But Brinkley always seemed to insist on the substance of the surface. She never trivialized the fashion and multiple wardrobe changes of her characters, but instead made them outward expressions of some inner emotion, identity, mood. Her lush use of color, detail, texture lends an erotic quality to all of her work, whether it is depicting an embrace of lovers or a gleaming auto. She seems to be in love with the material world and her art is struggling to lend some sense of depth and authentic emotion to this world of abundance that modern consumer culture had made available, at least to some.

And yet, Brinkley is determined to immerse her heroines in adventure and escape from domesticity. The theme throughout her art, culminating in the 1930s in her final great series celebrating pioneering and accomplished real life women of the sort she foreshadowed and fantasized about in her 10s and 20s strips. Ultimately, Nell Brinkley was a feminist working within the tropes and genres available to her and her audiences in an unmistakably patriarchal America. Brinkley allowed her readers to have it both ways, to pursue the goal of romance and marriage while also engaging the adventure and career identity with which modern American seemed to tease women as possible, if not preferable. 

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