Category Archives: Comics Herstory

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 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.

Comics Herstory: Dale Messick

brendamessickDale Messick was born Dalia Messick in South Bend, Indiana. She grew up with a love of art and after moving to New York City to pursue a career, was hired to draw greeting cards.

After some time, Messick decided to pursue a career in drawing comics. She assembled a portfolio of short comic strips and created a number of characters such as Mimi the Mermaid, Peg and Pudy, Streamline Babies, Struglettes, and Weegee, but none were picked up for publication. Messick then determined that she would be better served if people thought she was a male writer, and started going by her nickname, Dale.

After a strip about female pirates was rejected, Messick created her most famous strip, Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1940. As a character, Brenda Starr became representative of what many women couldn’t have: an exciting job that allowed Starr to support herself and travel to all corners of the world. Her name came from a 1930s debutante and her appearance from Rita Hayworth. She was fully a modern woman, dressing in the latest fashions and engaging in torrid romances. Messick gave particular focus to keeping Starr’s appearance and wardrobe updated to suit popular fashion.

Brenda Starr was picked up by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate and, at the height of its publication, appeared in around 250 newspapers nationally. It was published as a daily strip. Messick retired from drawing in 1980, when artist Ramona Fradon took over. Messick continued to write and illustrate other strips. None reached the critical success of Brenda Starr, which was revolutionary in its depiction of women as career driven and adventure loving people. Despite its popularity, film and television adaptations of the comic have been unsuccessful.

In 1995, Brenda Starr was one of 20 comics honored on a series of stamps called Comic Strip Classics. Messick was awarded the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Cartoonists Society in 1997. In 2001, Dale Messick and Marie Severin the first two women to be inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame, and are two of only five women to be awarded this honor.

Messick continued to draw cartoons into her nineties before her death at the age of 98 in 2005.

Comics Herstory: Ramona Fradon

5607-2050-6129-1-aquamanRamona Fradon’s comics career began in 1950 after she graduated from Parsons School of Design. She is one of the most notable artists of the Silver Age, and has created and helped shape a number of characters in DC’s lineup.

Fradon was hired by DC following her graduation, and began working on Shining Knight. Shortly after, she became a regular artist on Aquaman. She gave life to Topo, Aquaman’s intelligent octopus sidekick, and was a co-creator of Aqualad. Aquaman was a signature character for Fradon, whose graceful art fit the character well. She worked on Aquaman for a full decade, from 1951 to 1961. During this time, Fradon and Marvel artist Marie Severin were the only women drawing superhero comics for a mainstream publisher.

superfriends37After taking a break in the 1960s to raise her daughter, Fradon returned to co-create the DC character Metamorpho, whose powers stemmed from his ability to control elements. She drew the first several issues of Metamorpho before taking another leave. Fradon returned full-time in the 1970s, again drawing for DC. Once back at DC, Fradon worked on several issues of Plastic Man and House of Secrets. She also penciled most of the run of Super Friends, a successful tie-in comic to the animated television show.

Throughout the 1980s, Fradon moved from comic books to strips, and penciled Brenda Starr after the strip’s creator, Dale (Dalia) Messick, retired in 1980. Fradon drew Brenda Starr until her own retirement in 1995, citing women’s interest as the reason for the strip’s longevity and popularity. Since her retirement, Fradon has still worked in illustration and has contributed to a number of anthologies. According to Catskill Comics, she is still accepting commissions at age 89. She is also set to be a guest at San Diego Comic Con this year.

Ramona Fradon’s contributions to comics are undeniable. Her art is iconic, and defined the classic Aquaman. She humanized these larger-than-life beings, giving them expressive faces and bodies that portrayed recognizable emotions and expressions. Her talent was and is still widely recognized, and she was the third woman to be inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame with her inclusion in 2006.

Listen to Graphic Policy Radio Talk Women in Comics on Demand

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March is Women’s History Month and we’re wrapping it up by discussing women in comics! Graphic Policy Radio‘s regular hosts Elana and Brett are joined by site contributor Madison Butler to talk about female comic creators, female characters, and comics you should be checking out!

Madison Butler is a writer for Graphic Policy and Geek Girl Gang. She spends much of her free time reading comics and the rest of it writing about them. She also enjoys crafts and pretends to enjoy running and can be found on Twitter at @madisonrbutler.

Comics Herstory: Trina Robbins

250px-wimmenscomix1Trina Robbins is a comic creator and historian who was instrumental in bringing women into the underground comix scene. Throughout the 1950s, Robbins did illustration work for various science fiction magazines. In 1969, she designed Vampirella’s costume.

Robbins became increasingly involved in the underground comix scene. After working for the feminist newspaper It Ain’t Me, Babe, Robbins went on to establish the all-women comic one-shot, It Ain’t Me, Babe Comix. This is the first instance of a comic being published involving only women. The separation between men and women’s comics during this time was due to the sexism present in the comics being produced by male writers, and Robbins made a point to call out the sexist stories that were being published at the time.

Another outlet for women to create underground comix was the anthology Wimmen’s Comix, which aimed to promote female creators. Robbins was heavily involved in Wimmen’s Comix, and contributed to the first issue. Her comic “Sandy Comes Out” was the first comic to ever feature an out lesbian. She was involved with the anthology for twenty years.

Throughout the 1980s, Robbins worked for mainstream publications such as Playboy, National Lampoon, and Marvel. During this time she also began to document the history of women comic creators. She has published a number of books on the topic, including Women and the Comics, A Century of Women Cartoonists, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines, The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons from 1913–1940, and Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013. Her nonfiction work has been nominated for several awards, including both Eisner and Harvey Awards.

In 2013, Robbins was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame. Robbins was only the fourth woman to be inducted, and her inclusion is rightful. Her work, while largely out of the mainstream, was instrumental in shaping the direction of feminist comics and making comics accessible and enjoyable for women. Her nonfiction work is important in preserving the oft-overlooked legacy of women in comics.

Comics Herstory: Marjorie Liu

northstar-and-kyle-jinadus-wedding-2Marjorie Liu is a lawyer-turned-writer who has written a number of fiction novels as well as comics.

Liu began her career in comics writing tie-in novels for Marvel. After the publication of X-Men: Dark Mirror in 2005, Liu wrote several other series for Marvel. She is most known for her work on X-Men titles, including NYX: No Way Home, Dark Wolverine, X-23, and Astonishing X-Men. She also wrote Black Widow: The Name of the Rose. Liu brings depth to each character she writes, and has established their personalities as well as their stories.

Astonishing X-Men received national attention, as part of the story included Northstar marrying Kyle Jinadu. This was the first gay marriage in mainstream comics, though Midnighter and Apollo had married in Wildstorm’s The Authority several years earlier. Astonishing X-Men was subsequently nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic Book.

Currently, Liu is writing Monstress, a hit series from Image. The story is about Maika, an monstress-v1tp_cvrArcanic girl determined to escape capture and seek revenge for her mother’s murder. The main characters, all women, offer nuanced depictions of women–each is a flawed character in an equally flawed world. Set in an alternative version of 1920s Asia, Monstress explores themes of racism, war, and slavery and exemplifies a vast amount of worldbuilding not usually present in comics. Even though only four issues have been published, Monstress is already bending the comic genre by blending manga and Western comics into something that’s like nothing else in the market.

In addition to writing for comics, Liu has written more than 19 novels, most notably the Hunter Kiss and Dirk & Steele series, which respectively fall into the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres. She has also written a number of short works that were published in various anthologies. In film, Liu wrote the story for the 2014 animated Marvel movie Avengers Confidential: Black Widow and Punisher, which forced Black Widow and Punisher to work together to prevent a global takeover by terrorist group Leviathan.

Liu is another skilled writer who is versatile across multiple genres, and her work is an example of how comics can be used to teach or make a larger point. She currently teaches comic writing at MIT.

Comics Herstory: G. Willow Wilson

51lgrm5dxol-_sy344_bo1204203200_By now, almost everyone with an interest in comics has at least heard of Ms. Marvel, the iconic and groundbreaking book about Muslim superhero Kamala Khan.

G. Willow Wilson spent time living in Egypt in her twenties, and this influenced much of her work. In 2007, Vertigo published her first graphic novel, titled Cairo, about six characters whose stories intertwine as they search for a stolen hookah. While in Egypt, she worked as a journalist, writing for Cairo Magazine, The Atlantic, The National Post, and The New York Times Magazine. Her series Air, also published by Vertigo, launched in 2008. While Air debuted to generally positive reviews, it was canceled after 24 issues.

Aside from comics, Wilson has also written a memoir called The Butterfly Mosque, which was released in 2010. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen, won best novel in the 2013 World Fantasy Awards. She has been nominated for several awards in comics, including both Harvey and Eisner Awards, and has also won a number of awards for different genres.

ms-marvel-5-goodPart of what makes Wilson such a prolific writer is the way in which she treats Kamala as a character. Much of this has been said before, but Ms. Marvel invited an audience into comics that has had little chance to see themselves represented. The heart of the story is a teenage girl, a category of women that is often met with derision in the world of comics. Instead of giving readers a laugh at her expense, however, Wilson created a character whose enthusiasm and interests are dorky and typical of a teenage girl, but who is never the butt of jokes by her family and friends. Kamala’s faith is incorporated into the book, and as the first Muslim superhero to have her own title, it’s clear that Ms. Marvel isn’t just diversity for diversity’s sake–her story is her own, and it is an important story with tons of heart.

Almost everyone can relate to Kamala in some way, whether it’s in fangirling over Wolverine or in wanting to become a better person or because she represents a demographic that is rarely included in Western comics. Wilson’s work is widely celebrated, and rightly so, because it is a credit to the comics community.

Comics Herstory: Ariel Schrag

awkwarddefinition_medAriel Schrag broke into comics at an incredibly young age with the publication of her book, Awkward. The comic detailed her freshman year of high school, and Schrag sold copies of the comic to friends and family before it was published as a graphic novel. In the following years, Schrag would make a comic after each year of high school. Awkward was reprinted by Simon & Schuster with Definition, Schrag’s sophomore year comic, as Awkward and Definition. These were followed by Potential and Likewise.

The books deal with the usual high school challenges, but are also laden with a more existential anxiety as Schrag chronicles her crushes, love of science, and concert-going. Each story is an honest account of her life, chronicling the year with humor. Because it was written near the same time the events happened, this series is a different and unique sort of autobiographical comic. Many graphic memoirs are a retelling of youth from an adult’s perspective, and while writing at the time of living the memoir, so to speak, doesn’t guarantee a completely honest narrative, it is an important and different narrative.

She has been selected and nominated for a number of awards, including the American Library Association Rainbow List, an Eisner Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age.

One of the central themes is also Schrag’s sexuality, as she came out as bisexual and then as a lesbian. As an adult Schrag wrote for seasons of The L Word and How to Make it in America. She still writes comics, both webcomics and print and, according to her website, is working on an anthology featuring her own work that will be a mix of old and new comics. She has written comics for a number of publications, including the New York Times. Her first novel, Adam, debuted in 2014. Potential has also been optioned for film and will be produced by Killer Films (which also produced Carol). Schrag has written the screenplay, and as a versatile writer, she is one to watch.

Comics Herstory: Rachel Pollack

gender_2Rachel Pollack is a versatile writer who is most known in the comics world for her writing on Doom Patrol, published by Vertigo in the 1990s. Outside of comics, Pollack writes science fiction, nonfiction, short fiction, and essays. She is an expert in reading tarot, and has published several books on the subject.

In Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol, she introduced a number of LGBT+ identifying characters and explored topics like menstruation, the generation gap, and sexual identity. Pollack was one of the first to write these kinds of themes and characters for a mainstream company. She also created Coagula, a transgender woman and lesbian who was one of the first transgender characters in comics and is still one of only a few trans superheroines. Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol ended with the book’s cancellation two years after she began writing it. She has said that her work on Doom Patrol remains one of her favorite projects.

In addition to Doom Patrol, Pollack also penned eleven issues of New Gods in 1995. Since her work in comics, Pollack has written numerous books about Tarot. She has collaborated with author Neil Gaiman, helping to create a Vertigo Tarot Deck. The deck featured cards drawn by Sandman cover artist Dean McKean. Gaiman wrote an introduction for the book that accompanied the set, the rest of which was authored by Pollack.

vertigo tarotMany of Pollack’s works are inspired by her experiences as a trans woman, and she has also drawn inspiration from many real-life people. One example of this is Coagula, whose real name Kate Godwin comes from author/actress Kate Bornstein and activist Chelsea Godwin. Pollack is Jewish, and writes many Jewish characters. Themes of spirituality are also present in many of her books, and she also writes extensively about the connection between transgender identities and spirituality. Pollack has taught tarot for much of her adult life, and most recently taught creative writing at Goddard College. Though her writing in comics is now considered something of a cult hit, Pollack was one of the first to write the subjects she did, opening doors for future characters, writers, and stories.

Edit 3/28/16: Rachel Pollack was also the first transgender woman to write comics for a mainstream publisher, which was a significant step for transgender writers and artists in comics.

Comics Herstory: Ruth Roche

68As an author and editor in the 1940s, Ruth Roche was a well-rounded woman. After moving to New York, she started as a writer at the Eisner & Iger Studio and was the business partner of Jerry Iger, a founder of the studio.

Eisner & Iger was a comics packager, meaning that they produced comics for publishers. The studio largely serviced companies entering the newly profitable comics market by creating comics on demand. They also produced their own comic strips. They also ran the Phoenix Features Syndicate. Throughout the Studio’s period of operation, many celebrated creators found a start, including Jack Kirby.

Like many female writers at the time, Roche was rarely credited by name for the books she scripted. However, she is recognized as the writer of Phantom Lady, Senorita Rio, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, Kaanga, Camilla, Ellery Queen, Brenda Starr, Aggie Mack, and Flamingo, a newspaper strip. Like many comics during that time, much of Roche’s writing was violent. She is thought to have scripted a horror comic as part of Haunted Thrills, initially titled “Out of the Grave,” a story that was later edited to conform to the Comics Code and reissued under the title “Fair Exchange” in the late 1950s. Also controversial was Phantom Lady, which featured heroine Sandra Knight running around in what was essentially a swimsuit and is an example of the “good girl art” that was prevalent at the time. Phantom Lady was denounced for its corrupt morals, having featured Knight tied up and in different situations that could be construed in sexual manner.

After Will Eisner left Eisner & Iger, Roche became Iger’s partner. Once a partner, Roche was named executive manager and editor of the company’s books. Roche also edited a variety of romance magazines under different pen names. She also edited Classic Illustrated comics.

Though Roche, like so many others, is largely uncredited for her contributions to comics, she was at the forefront of their presence in American media. Eisner & Iger was one of the first packagers, and it’s no small thing that she wrote, edited, and eventually became the head of the company.

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