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.
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.
Trina Robbins is an under appreciated national treasure, alas, for some of the same reasons the cartoonists she presents here have been overlooked by too many comics histories. For the most part, cartooning was a man’s game in the 20th Century, and so has been the writing of its history. Except for Trina. Robbins was among the only female artists in an underground comics movement famous for its misogynist art. Her Pretty in Ink history of women in the field remains the major work, because she has waged a lonely battle for including this talented minority of comic artists.
But Pretty in Ink had to cover so much ground, we didn’t get to dwell deeply into any artist or group. With The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists in the Jazz Age, however, she gets the chance to reprint satisfying helpings of Nell Brinkley (fully 50 pages!), Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays, Fay King and Virginia Huget. Since this is more a history in reprints than a history with reprints, Robbins shows more than tells. But she shows so much about how these women helped define the post-WWI era, or at least mass media’s aspirational version of it. Their focus on social interactions and fashion come through as expressions of feminine power and personality.
With a third of the book devoted to Brinkley, we get to see the most famous of female cartoonists evolve beyond the Gibson style into an Art Nouveaux and then Deco fine line work and precision. Robbins bookends the book with Brinkley’s changing views of American women, the artist’s criticisms of the very flighty flapper she celebrated in the 20s, and the active, engaged professional women she depicted in the 1930s.
But along the way, Robbins gives us revealing samples across the careers of many women who continue to be overlooked by conventional comics histories. Edith Stevens’ Us Girls series blended fashion, biting wit and social observation in a series that was pithier and more insightful than many of the observational strips we continue to reprint elsewhere.
Robbins also focuses in on Ethel Hays, who channeled both Brinkley and John Held to chronicle the 20s and 30s in striking full page, richly colored Sundays that overwhelm the eye with color, a great sense of body angles and attitude. Like many of women in this book, she found creative ways to weave fashion styles, romantic advice, social commentary and a bit of cheesecake.
Hays’s “We Moderns” piece at the top of this entry is a great example of the creative richness and thoughtfulness we miss when, like their editors at the time, we consign women cartoonists of the day to the “fashion” artists bucket. Indeed, Hays, Brinkley and Huget not only paid attention to clothing, hair and even body styles, but they wove these concerns in with larger social, personal and aesthetic ideas. In “We Moderns” Hays actually brings these threads together in a startling visual think piece. She links the “angles” of modern fashion with architecture, clothing, dance, personal politics and even her own Deco-infused art style. Nell Brinkley was adept at using her characters’ clothing as instruments of drama, personality, reaction. They exploded from the page as effectively as her signature facial expressions – signals of inner-feeling. These artists didn’t just depict the visual styles and fashions of the inter-war years. They showed a rare understanding of why they mattered.
Fay King was perhaps the most socially engaged of the group, and her strips highlighted trends like women becoming more involved newspaper readers. Meanwhile Virginia Huget bridged the 20s and 30s with aspirational tableaux that romanticized college life and affluence. I also appreciated the inclusion of the wonderful Annabelle strips by Dorothy Urfer. This is a visually rich and wry look at sexual politics. It left me wanting mor.
And the reproduction/resotration work in Flapper Queens is superb, bringing forward the rich color and detail that made these images so absorbing in their time. Comics historians love to gush over the ways in which McCay, Feininger, King and the usual suspects among the kings of comics made innovative use of the full Sunday page, especially in the first decade of comic strip history. But the oversized, beautifully colored reproductions in this book show how artists like Brinkley, Hays and Huget especially burst from the Sundays of the 20s and 30s with dazzling uses of layout, splash images and narrative progression that rival and exceed many of their male peers.
Which brings me to the historical importance of Robbins’s Flapper Queens. Reviving these artists truly expands our understanding of comics history and especially the ways in which these very talented artists and social observers related to the surrounding culture between the World Wars. To overlook them is to miss some of the most striking art the comics were producing during this era. More to the point, these artists had a wry, sly and nuanced take on the politics of domestic relations. This book shouldn’t just “fill a gap” in comics history. It should make us broaden and reconsider the cultural work the comics were doing in American minds in the last century.
This is hands down my pick as the one indispensable addition to comic strip history in the last year.