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From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zinesby Trina Robbins
Chapter One: Girl's Comics
WALK into any comic-book store. A giant cutout of a superhero stands in the window, muscles bulging improbably, a grimace on his lantern-jawed face. Inside, the store is jam-packed with young males, some not so young. You'll have to look hard to find a girl. The boys are reading and buying comic books with covers that feature costumed and caped guys similar to the one in the window, or even more improbably breasted women attired in little besides thong bikinis and spike-heeled, thigh-high boots. If you're of the female persuasion, odds are you take one look at the scene before you, shrug, and decide you'd really rather read a novel.
It was not always thus.
Once there was a time when more girls than boys read comics, a time when comics for girls sold in the millions, outnumbering every other kind of comic book.
And it all started with Archie.
By 1941, the fledgling comic-book industry had been booming since 1938, when two teenage boys from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created Superman. Kids and adults had been reading comic strips in their daily and Sunday papers since the beginning of the century, but there was a distinct advantage to getting your comic story complete, between two covers. In those days, before television, comics provided a less expensive alternative to movies?they only cost a dime!?and they were disposable. You could roll up a comic book and stash it in your back pocket; better yet, you could conceal it inyour loose-leaf notebook and read it beneath your desk during math class. But comic books, inundated with caped and costumed superheroes, served as entertainment for boys. Little existed in the way of comics aimed toward girls.
This, at least, was the situation in 1941 when John Goldwater, publisher of Pep comics, called two teenage boys, Joe Edwards and Bob Montana, into his office and asked them to design a new kind of comic character for him.
MLJ Publications, named for partners Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John Goldwater, had been publishing Pep, and other comics, for a year. Already these publications, with names like The Shield, The Comet, The Rocket, The Black Hood, and Fireball, had featured their share of superheroes, but the partners wanted something different. As Goldwater put it, "Why does every book have to be Superman?"
Along with editor Harry Shorten, Edwards and Montana set to work, bouncing ideas between them. What they came up with, Edwards remembers, was what, being young, they knew best: "chasing girls and not having enough money." The result was definitely not Superman.
Archie Andrews, his pal Jughead, and a wistful blond named Betty made their debut in issue no. 22 of Pep, dated December 1941, and for the next seventeen years, teen comics ruled the roost.
Montana and Edwards took their characters from real life. Another MLJ artist, Harry Lucy, had been dating a girl with a sister named Betty, so they used her name. They based Veronica on the gorgeous daughter of a rich man in Montana's hometown, Haverhill, Massachusetts. Much of Archie, in fact, came from Haverhill, including Archie's hangout, Pop's Choklit Shop. Pop's was based on an ice cream parlor called the Chocolate Shop, where Montana himself used to hang out doodling on napkins. Haverhill became Archie's hometown, Riverdale.
December 1941, the date of Archie's birth, was also the month that America went to war. Archie was barely launched when first Montana, and then Edwards, got drafted. Goldwater and Shorten kept the strip afloat with artists like Bill Vigoda, Samm Schwartz, and Harry Sable, all drawing in what we recognize today as the "Archie style," so that by the time Montana and Edwards returned in 1945, the redheaded teenager with waffle marks on his head had become a runaway success. He had been starring in his own book, Archie, since 1942, and also had a nationwide newspaper strip and weekly radio show to his credit. In 1946, MLJ Publications renamed themselves after their most famous character, becoming Archie Publications.
Archie's success was a case of the right teenager at the right time. Superhero comics, which dominated the market during the war, had been steadily losing their audience. Perhaps the returning GIs, who had made up a large part of the comic-reading market, were now more interested in buying homes on the GI Bill and raising families, or perhaps the general public was tired of violence after almost five years of war. Whatever the reason, soon after the war DC Comics' superhero line was reduced by more than half, and other companies followed suit. The departing superheroes left a gap on the newsstands that was quickly filled by horror comics, westerns, cartoon animals,"Crime Does Not Pay" titles?and teen comics aimed at girls. The new genres succeeded admirably, and the size of the comics industry doubled between 1946 and 1949. By the late 1940s, one in three periodicals sold in America was a comic book.
The concept of teenagers was still pretty new when Archie came along. In the last century and before, there had been no teenagers as we now know them. At the age of sixteen, typical boys were already working hard, and girls were married and raising families. It's important to remember that people didn't live all that long in those days, so if you were going to die of old age at fifty, you needed to start having babies at sixteen. Only during the twenties, when the country caught its collective breath after the First World War, did Americans have the leisure to experience teenhood. The first teen comic strips, like "Harold Teen" and "Etta Kett," appeared in newspapers in the twenties, followed in the thirties by a spate of teen movies starring the likes of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Deanna Durbin. The new teenagers jitterbugged and lindied to swing music played by big bands and swooned to the songs of Frank Sinatra. By the year of Archie's origin, the teenager had become an established part of the American landscape, and Archie's subtitle was "America's Typical Teenager."
Betty's rival, Veronica, had to wait for four more issues of Pep before she showed up, completing the eternal triangle. For more than half a century, Betty has loved Archie, who loves Veronica, who loves herself. Today the original copy of Pep no. 22 in good condition sells for more than fifteen hundred dollars.
Archie's sarcastic pal Jughead was next to get his own book, in 1949, and a year later Archie's girls, Betty and Veronica, got to fight over Archie in their own comic book. Betty and Veronica eventually became the best-selling title in the Archie comics line.
Through its roughly sixty-year life span, all of Archie's best friends have at one time or another starred in their own titles. Aside from Betty and Veronica, Betty can boast of Betty and Me, Betty's Diary, and just plain Betty, while Veronica, for all her dough, has had only one solo book, called?what else??Veronica. Some of Jughead's titles were pretty strange. Besides Jughead's Jokes, the skinny guy with the funny hat starred in Jughead's Diner and Jughead's Time Police. Even Archie's snide rich rival, Reggie, had Reggie, Reggie and Me, and Reggie's Wise Guy Jokes to call his own.
The majority of Archie readers were girls, ages six to thirteen. Demographics from within the past twenty-five years show that 60 percent of Archie readers are female and 40 percent male, and although there are no statistics from the earlier days, ads for feminine items like charm bracelets, handbags, belts, and even girdles?perhaps for the readers' mothers??that ran in the Archie comic books of the 1940s and 1950s reflect the typical reader's gender.
While Joe Edwards and Bob Montana served in the army, new MLJ comic characters had joined Archie on the newsstands. Two dumb blonds, an Archie clone named Wilbur and a girl named Suzie, appeared in Laugh Comix in the summer of 1944, and within the year both had their own comics. Wilbur was exactly like Archie?obviously the publishers reasoned that if one wacky teenage boy was a hit, two would be even better?with all the same characters under new names. Wilbur, like Archie, sported waffle marks on his head, only his Jughead was a red-haired woman-hater named Red. He even had blond and brunette girlfriends fighting over him. The two girls, Linda and Laurie, were named after Harry Shorten's daughters.
While Linda, Laurie, Betty, and Veronica were hardly role models for young girls, wasting as much time and energy as they did fighting over boys, at least they were bright, perky teenagers.
Suzie wasn't so great. She dressed up in nylons and high heels, and was definitely out of high school, but she couldn't hold a job. Her funny-looking boyfriend, Ferdie, was even dumber. But Suzie was a looker, and her comic book featured paper dolls and pinups of her posing in bathing suits or cute costumes.
Suzie, however, was positively wholesome compared to Torchy, published by Quality Comics in 1949 and 1950. Artists Bill Ward and Gill Fox put Torchy and her roommate, Tess, in six-inch spikes and nylons with seams down the back, and clingy dresses that exposed lots of cleavage. Like Suzie, Torchy was always looking for work, though she should have been able to earn a good living posing for pinups, Betty Page style. The "dumb blond" character was an unfortunate comic-book theme that kept popping up during the 1940s and 1950s, and is mercifully gone today.
Katy Keene, on the other hand, who made her first appearance in issue no. 5 of Wilbur comics, was a Betty Page look-alike, but the resemblance ended there. Katy Keene was no bimbo and she had a good job?she was a movie star. She also got her own comic book to star in by 1949. Bill Woggon drew her in a different style from the other comics in the Archie line, bestowing her with enormous eyes framed by thick, long lashes. Katy's comic books included puzzles, games, coloring pages, and even rebuses. along with short, simple, pleasant stories. But what endeared Katy to her many fans?and there was an active Katy Keene fan club?were the paper dolls in each issue. Paper dolls in comics were nothing new; even newspaper strips like "Blondie" had featured paper dolls as early as the 1920s. And reader-designed paper dolls had also been done before. But Woggon took the concept of reader participation to dizzying heights. Along with the many paper dolls in his comics, he added pinups and even horses, cars, and rocket ships designed by readers, and included photos of his young fans. In those pre-computer days, Katy Keene comics were as close as one could get to an interactive comic book. Woggon cheerfully credited fans' designs for Katy's poses, gag and story ideas, and even poetry. His relationship to his readers was up close and personal, and his comics often included photos of himself, sometimes wearing a cowboy outfit, folksy messages from him to his fans, and coupons for paper dolls that readers could clip out and send, along with a dime, to his "Woggon Wheels Ranch" address in Santa Barbara, California. The Katy Keene paper dolls represented all the supporting characters of the comic, including Katy's boyfriends, prizefighter KO Kelly and rich guy Randy Van Ronson. The paper doll designs often reflected each character's idiosyncrasies. Katy's movie star friend, Lucki Red, for instance, wore four-leaf-clover outfits or dresses decorated with a lucky seven, while Katy's little sister, Sis, the "Candy Kid," donned candy-cane dresses. Bertha, Katy's pleasingly plump friend, was fond of both cooking and eating, and usually had apron designs for her paper doll wardrobes.
At their peak in the 1950s, Katy Keene comics spawned their own mini-industry, with almost as many titles as the Archie comics: Katy Keene Fashion Book Magazine, Katy Keene Holiday Fun, Katy Keene Pinup Parade, Katy Keene Annual, Katy Keene Spectacular, Katy Keene Charm, Katy Keene Glamour, and Katy Keene 3-D. Among the many readers cutting out the paper dolls and mailing in clothing designs during this period were fashion designers Betsey Johnson, Willi Smith, Calvin Klein, and Anna Sui; illustrator Mel Odom; and Barbie artist Barb Rausch. So many little girls, and quite a few boys, cut out the paper doll and pinup pages of their favorite comic book that uncut copies of Katy Keene are scarce today, and buying one will set you back an arm and a leg.
Katy fought with her rich blond rival, Gloria Grandbilt, sometimes over juicy roles in movies, sometimes over boyfriends like rich boy Randy Van Ronson or boxer KO Kelly, until she was canceled in 1961. But more than twenty years later, in 1983, pressure from her still active fan club inspired Archie Publications to come out with a four-issue reprint book, and then six more years of original Katy Keene comics. From 1984 until 1990, Katy's new regular artist was John Lucas, who had been a Katy Keene fan back in the late 1950s. John's father had worried about his seven-year-old son reading a "girl's comic," but the many rocket-tailfinned car designs sent in by boy fans and the photos of Woggon in a cowboy outfit reassured him.
A redhead named Ginger made her debut in the pages of Suzie comics in 1945, and graduated to her own title (subtitled "America's Typical Teen-age Girl") in 1951. Drawn by George Frese with wide cute-as-a-button eyes and an animated expression, Ginger was absolutely adorable. Frese further enlivened the comic by peppering it with speed lines, flying sweat drops, and little hearts popping up in the air around Ginger's head. The book's pages are in constant motion.
Ginger had a habit of falling in love with her various high school teachers, but she could and did take charge when necessary. In a story from the first issue, "The Bear Facts," she talks her father, Mr. Snapp, into taking her along on a hunting trip with his boss, B. J., but when B. J. aims his rifle at a rabbit, she pushes it aside. Ginger lectures him, while her father cowers: "You ought to be ashamed!! How do you know but that poor little thing might have been a mama bunny? Shame!" The two men make Ginger promise to mind her own business, but when they take aim at a Bambi-like deer, she frightens it off, shouting, "I hope you miss! I hope you miss!," and then tells them, "I think it's shameful the way you men have to try to shoot the head off of every poor animal you see!" But when a gigantic bear attacks the hunting party, the men run for cover, and Ginger fights the bear off by whacking it on its nose with the butt of a rifle. She is compassionate enough to care about small, helpless creatures, but brave and resourceful enough to defend herself against a real threat.
Sadly, Ginger only lasted three years; in 1954, she was replaced by a much younger girl named Li'l Jinx, created by Joe Edwards after Harry Shorten suggested he come up with a little girl character. During the war, Edwards had drawn a strip called "Private Jinx" for the army papers, so he took that name for his mischievous new character, basing her adventures on those of his own kids. Li'l Jinx fared better than Ginger, lasting well into the 1970s.
Li'l Jinx was only one of many cute little girl characters in comics, usually with the word Little or Li'l before their names. Harvey Comics published three of them, starting with Little Audrey in 1952, followed by Little Dot in 1953, and Little Lotta in 1955. Each girl had an obsession: Little Dot with polka dots, and Little Lotta was obsessed with food?there was a lotta Little Lotta. By the sixties, all three little girls could be seen on Sunday morning television in the form of animated cartoons. Their books lasted until the mid-1970s, and were all brought back again in 1992.
The queen?or princess?of all the "little" characters was Little Lulu, whose comic books started in 1945. The smart little moppet (that was her name: Lulu Moppet!) was the brainchild of Marge Henderson Buell, who drew her for the Saturday Evening Post from 1935 through 1944. Although Henderson Buell retained the rights to her corkscrew-curled creation until 1971, she never drew the comic books. These were mostly the work of the brilliant and talented John Stanley, with help from Irving Tripp and Arnold Drake. Although Lulu was already a clever kid in her early Saturday Evening Post cartoons, Stanley fleshed the character out further and added story lines that continued from issue to issue. One was the theme of Lulu's tubby little friend, Tubby, who disguised himself as a detective called The Spider and stopped at nothing in his attempts to prove that Lulu's father, the mild-mannered Mr. Moppet, was a master criminal. Others were tales within tales, created when Lulu made up stories to tell Alvin, the little boy she baby-sat. The heroine of Lulu's stories was always Lulu herself, playing the part of a poor little orphan with patches on her dress. The "poor little girl" had a way of getting lost in the forest while picking "beebleberries" and running afoul of Witch Hazel, who constantly cackled ("cackle, and, in later issues, the witch's niece, Little Itch, who cickled ("cickle cickle!").
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