I have called Trina Robbins a national treasure more than once in these pages, and she just keeps impressing me with her championing women cartoonists. Her latest and long-awaited Gladys Parker: A Life in Comics is one of the truly indispensable reprints of the last year. Parker was a fiercely independent fashion designer and artist, one of the most famous cartoonists of the 30s and 40s, and best remembers for her Mopsy strips and comic books. Like Nell Brinkley before her, Parker insisted that fashion was anything but frivolous. It was part of the artistic landscape of modern America and an important vehicle for self-expression among modern women who were constrained and limited in so many other ways.
Robbins’ book not only gives Parker the biography she deserves, but packages its generous reprinting of her work in one of the best-designed books on comics this year. More of Parker and her work in my homage earlier this year.
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.