Talking Comics Herstory with Isabella F. McFarlin, Daughter of Barbara Hall

black_cat_-1During Women’s History Month we ran numerous articles highlighting many female creators who have made an impact on the comics industry that we dubbed Comics Herstory.

One of those creators was Barbara Hall, who became a prominent cartoonist during World War II and eventually went on to co-found a “hippie communue.” Hall drew the comic series Black Cat, the strip Girl Commandos, and created the Blonde Bomber.

Well, the internet is a cool tool because that article caught the attention of Isabella F. McFarlin, Hall’s daughter. Isabella was kind enough to answer my questions about her mother, what she remembers about her career in comics, and what exactly is the commune.

Graphic Policy: Your mother was Barbara Hall who either worked on or created some classic character. Growing up, how aware were you of her work?

Isabella F. McFarlin: When young, perhaps not that aware. She did read us Krazy Kat (she was from the same area in Arizona) and entertained  us with her swift, comic-like drawings of all kinds of things. Later on, I learned that she had been a cartoonist for Harvey, and said she had drawn The Black Cat. (This was brief, but she invented Honey Blake, I believe, and worked quite a while on Girl Commandoes).  The story was that she had drawn several pages of work– I think she penciled but did not ink– and showed them to my father. He said an artist as great as she ought to become a painter and not waste her ability on tawdry comics. Immediately she tore up the pages (worth about $300, a fortune in 1940s New York) and tossed them. Irving was horrified! He said “I didn’t mean right NOW!”  They were barely getting enough money to eat.  To the later irritation of my friends in comics, especially Trina Robbins, she gave up her cartooning to become a fine arts painter. As Jackson Pollock was the star of the day and my mother drew in Rennaisance-like figurative beauty, her art never got the attention her comics did.

GP: What are your thoughts of her place in comic history, especially being one of the early female pioneers in the industry?

IFM: I’m proud that she was involved in it and wish she’d had a chance, or given herself a chance, to do more of it. Of course, I am from the group of people who made comics a real art form (I think the way Art S., Robert Crumb and others think. I see comics as a true art, when well done. I know of no one who did a better job in her time than she!

GP: Looking at your Twitter account, it’s clear you’re politically active. Was that something instill in you by your mother? With the characters she created like the Blonde Bomber, I’d think she was a feminist based on who they are.

IFM: My mother believed women had a lot of energy and power, but she was a traditionalist in that she thought that my father, a writer and playwright whose work was admired by Shaw, Orson Welles and others, was even a greater artist than she. (I just published a chapter of my memoir on this subject at Blogcritics.org under the name Ladybelle Fiske, “The Battle of the Fountainhead.” It’s the story of a day in our lives when that topic came up, re Ayn Rand.)

My father, though, thought that “all the great artists of the future will be women.”  Yes, we were  very passionate about radical politics, but we had to hide out for a long time so my brother and I woulde not be sent to school. My parents believed, with William Blake, that schools were “dark Satanic mills that grind men’s souls to dust” and that kids should not be forced to go to any school they didn’t want to attend. So we were rather quiet till I was older. The 60s came along, with “a generation that was enlightened,” and many of them wanted to come to Vermont to learn art from my mother and philosophy, writing and psychology from my father.

GP: Were there comic creators you remember meeting growing up?

IFM: No– my mother had left that scene behind her when she became a painter in tempera and pastel, but she was pleased when the underground comics artists discovered her all over again.

GP: She went on to found the Quarry Hill Creative Center. Can you tell us what an “alternative living community” is?

IFM: No one has ever been able to nail down exactly what QH is. In the late 40s and 50s it was meant to be “a paradise for Souls,” as my parents called the relatively few unconventional people they met then.

GP: Sounds really interesting! Thanks so much for answering my question.