Why don’t we hear more of the marvelously talented, witty, prolific American cartoonist Gladys Parker (1908-1966)? She was the mother of the long running strip and comic book character Mopsy. More than that, Parker was among the better-known cartoonists of the day, in part because she was also a fashion designer to both the general public as well as Hollywood stars. Meanwhile, Parker was a frequent item in the celebrity gossip columns of the 1940s as she dated a noted boxer and character actor.
Why don’t we know more about Gladys Parker? Well, obviously for the same reasons we don’t know more about Nell Brinkley or Ethel Hays or Jackie Ormes, despite the high quality of their work and substantial public profile in their own day? Not only has the comics field itself been overwhelmingly male dominated, but its history has been written almost entirely by men. And yet, as I myself encounter these overlooked artists as I make my way through comics history, I am struck by their singular visions, how different their aesthetic and social perspective were from their male brethren. To miss these women in our history of the medium is to narrow our understanding of the rich creative range the comic strip reached in the last century. Brinkley used color, facial and emotional expression, line, the contours of the Sunday comics page in ways no other artist did in the 1910s and 1920s. Ormes’ racial satire was sharp and blunt at a time when American needed it desperately. And Parker brought the feminine wit of Hollywood romantic comedy into the comics page and merged the aesthetics of fashion with those of the comic strip into a drawing style that was unlike any other on the comics page.
But thank God for Trina Robbins, the former underground cartoonist who has single-handedly ensured that women cartoonists get the place in the medium’s history they deserve. Her Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013, Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the early 20th Century and Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age are indispensable. And her new and long-promised Gladys Parker: A Life in Comics, A Passion for Fashion (Hermes Press) is every bit as revelatory as the others. In a book that is as much a welcome reprint sampling Parker’s career of work as a biography, Robbins makes a strong case for her as a major talent.
Born in Tonawanda, NY in 1908, she had an early passion for fashion design and spent a few months at a New York design school before moving into newspaper comics during the late stages of the 20s flapper craze. She soon had her own strip, Gay and Her Gang, which depicted a witty, single and stylish women and her urban circle of jazz-era friends. It had a brief run but led to her taking over from Ethel Hays the one-panel Flapper Fanny Says in 1920.
In Fanny we see Parker’s talents coalesce. Like Brinkley and Hays before her, Parker makes what her characters wear part of the point and the visual appeal of the strip. But also like these other artists, she makes clothing and style legitimate expressions of character in ways no male cartoonist considered. There may be a tendency for male culture, perhaps male comics historians, to dismiss women cartoonists focus on fashion as somehow frivolous, as if the comic strip was just an excuse for showing off new frocks. But this misses too much of how artists like Brinkley and Parker broadened the palette of the cartoon arts.
Consider the radical lack of fashion sense in most male-drawn comics where protagonists were recognizable in part because they looked precisely the same, wore much the same clothing, every day…for decades. Consider Popeye’s signature sailor suit, Dick Tracy’s black suit and fedora, Jiggs’ spats, ore even the ensembles of Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullens or The Gumps. Aside from occasional shifts in patterns among some women characters, vacation wear or seasonal topcoats, the comic strip generally ignores fashion.
But for Parker fashion was a site both for self-expression, independence and just an endless source of visual play. In Flapper Fanny, Parker asserts her character through her clothing, calls attention to the style, married to verbal wit, as an assertion of feminine identity, power and control in a social space where she often is denied other sources of expression. The sample above may be her most explicit statement of that idea – “A girl can wear cap and bells and still be nobody’s fool.” It is a simple sentiment made powerful visually. Parker loved eccentric fashion design, and was known for it in Hollywood and the press. And here she turns what might be seen as a silly costume into a visual assertiveness. Fanny literally controls the frame, strikes a domineering and challenging pose, and casts an expression that dares an off stage viewer to smirk or chortle. Surely there is a book to be done about how women cartoonists like Parker, Brinkley, Ormes and others used wit and fashion to locate pockets of power for female audiences in the patriarchy.
Robbins opens this book with a fascinating observation about women cartoonists in relation to their male fellows that is worth quoting in full. “In mid-20th century American comics, it seemed that women cartoonists had a way of putting themselves into their comics — not so the men. Milton Caniff didn’t look like his protagonists Terry and Pat Ryan, nor did Chester Gould in any way resemble Dick Tracy. But Tarpe Mills was the splitting image of her character, Miss Fury, and if Dale Messick didn’t look like Brenda Starr, she forced the resemblance by dying her own hair bright orange and dressing, like her character, in fashions to die for. Over at Fiction House, the comics publisher that hired more women than any others, beautiful brunette Lily Renee could easily have passed for her heroine, beautiful brunette Senorita Rio, and Fran Hopper, with her shoulder-length blonde pageboy hair style, gave all her heroines shoulder-length blonde pageboys. But none looked more like her creation than Gladys Parker, creator of Mopsy for 27 years.”
This is a striking difference between so many comics made by women and those made by men. The identification between author and character, and so between audience and comic strip is in such stark contrast to men-made strips. I would love to see those idea treated more fully, but it leaves tantalizing hints. Is modern heroic adventure and its hyper-masculine fantasizing so obviously removed from the real male world that we don’t even bother trying to connect hero with either its author or audience so explicitly? Is one of the distinctions of comics crafted by women that they actually work differently from most male-authored strips? They connect with their audiences in a more direct and explicit way? I’m not sure myself, but I find Robbins’ insight important.
Parker’s own cartoon style was striking in its use of design tropes. Her lines were thin and clean. She favored geometric shapes and had a great sense of symmetry to her panels. Her characters often expressed sentiment through dramatic poses, much like a runway model. Not coincidentally, she was a master of the pantomime cartoon. Many of her Sunday Mopsy strips were wordless, where panel progression, design and expression told the whole story. Her devotion to basic geometric shapes and sequencing recalls Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy and Anderson’s Henry.
Parker didn’t just bring fashion to cartooning but brought her cartoonist’s wit to fashion as well. As she launched her most famous creation, Mopsy, in the mid-1930s, Parker also opened a design studio, created a clothing line and did custom designs for Hollywood stars. Many of them were, well, a bit cartoonish. She loved eccentric geometric shapes, bulbous sleeves, massive bows and shoulders, thick piping. And she could even be satirical. In one design, a slinky, skin-tight gown has two male handprints on the waistline.
All of which is to say that Gladys Parker was a singular talent in the world of cartooning. She cut across the worlds of comic strips, fashion, feminism, Hollywood, and even the gossip pages with an ease that few of her male counterparts did or could. Trina Robbin’s book is an exceptionally well done tribute to her skills and the breadth of her presence on the American scene at mid-century. The restorations of her strips is excellent. And the book includes many examples of original art that reveal the fineness of her line work and compositions. This one is not to be missed.