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Regarding Anne Cleveland...
posted May 19, 2006
 

Here's what is easily accessible about the artist Anne Thorburn Cleveland, information you can pick up after about 10-12 minutes of work. Anne Cleveland was born in 1916 and graduated from Vassar in 1937. She was known as an accomplished artist and cartoonist while on campus, as was her eventual, frequent collaborator Jean Anderson, a 1933 graduate of the same school. Cleveland gained some small notoriety as a student for depicting instances of growing college unrest at women's schools in the 1930s. It's unclear how Anderson and Cleveland split duties or even if they did; I think when you see Cleveland signing the art that is sometimes credited to Anderson that means it's possible there was essentially a writer/artist relationship between the two.

After graduating, Cleveland did a handful cartoon books with Anderson related directly to Vassar (including a book for the 100-year anniversary). The work for which she's probably best known outside of the Vassar on-campus bookstore is the humorous guide for living in post-War Japan, It's Better With Your Shoes Off. She also did illustrations for a number of humor books, and both wrote and illustrated a book or two, including one children's book. Her bibliography looks roughly like this:

Vassar (w/Jean Anderson) (1938)
A Home of Your Own and How to Ruin It (w/Henrietta Sperry Ripperger) (1940)
Weeds Are More Fun (w/Priscilla Hovey Wright) (1941)
Vassar: A Second Glance (w/Jean Anderson) (1942)
Vassar Women: An Informal Study (w/Agnes Rogers and Jean Anderson) (1940)
How To Do Practically Anything (w/Jack Goodman and Alan Green) (1942)
Everything Correlates (w/Jean Anderson) (1946)
It's Better With Your Shoes Off (w/Jean Anderson) (1955)
The Parent From Zero to Ten (1957)
But I Wouldn't Want To Live There (w/Heather Jimenez) (1958)
The Educated Woman in Cartoon and Caption (w/Jean Anderson) (1960)
Straw in My Camel's Hair (w/Naida Buckingham and Ingrid Etter) (1961)
The Life-Savers (1962)

I know that the early '60s saw greatly decreased demand for book and magazine illustration -- it was a factor in driving some of those artists towards children's books, for example, which it seems Cleveland tried. In the end, without a big client like the New Yorker or a runaway bestseller, I'm not surprised there isn't a lot more out there on Cleveland. I can find no official notice of death for her (or, for that matter, Jean Anderson). She may have passed away in 2000. I should have more information within 24 hours, and will make Cleveland the next subject of CR's "The Comics Registry."

*****

The reason Anne Cleveland comes up is because of a mini-essay at Heidi MacDonald's site "The Beat," in support of re-publishing her keynote speech celebrating the "SHE DRAWS COMICS: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists" exhibit opening of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. I don't find Cleveland's symbolic status as a lost cartoonist, or, really, anything else in the essay, very compelling. Here are some reasons why.

First of all, there are a couple of things MacDonald says with which I flatly disagree. If you'll indulge me:

1. "I don't always agree with Trina Robbins, but you have to admit, she is the only serious comics scholar who has ever had any interest whatsoever in finding woman who drew comics before the 'fandom era.'"

I don't think that's true. Two counter-examples that spring right to mind: Rick Marschall has been a champion of Jackie Ormes' work, RC Harvey has written about the 1950s gag cartoonist and illustrator Betty Swords.

2. "Or isn't Lynda Barry, who, for my money, is one of the five best writers ever in comics ever, anywhere, any place, but whose comics are never, ever mentioned in any surveys?"

I also don't think this is true. It takes about 30 seconds to discover Barry was on the Comics Journal Top 100 list for her long-running strip, "Ernie Pook's Comeek." Barry's last major book won an Eisner, made the Time.comix top ten list that year, and the Comics Journal's best-of list for that year. The book previous to that made the Journal's best-of list, too, I think. (If what MacDonald meant to say was Barry wasn't included in the Masters exhibit or the Nadel book -- the survey in which ends in 1969, anyway -- then she should say so.)

Beyond just wanting to correct what I think are incorrect notions, I think both statements reveal a tendency to exaggerate. That Art Spiegelman and Brian Walker or whomever thinks there are 15-20 cartoonists better than the best women cartoonists in history, or that Dan Nadel wasn't as intrigued by an unknown female cartoonist visionary as he was a collection of males in putting together Art Out of Time, those things just aren't sufficient cause for warning an entire generation of cartoonists:

"But if any of you girls are reading this, I have a word of advice -- you've got to take yourself and what you have to say to the world very seriously, because no one else will."

Now, I'm all for artists taking themselves seriously. In fact, I would never presume female cartoonists don't to the point they need to be specifically warned. But when I look around, I see plenty of people that take female cartoonists seriously. Here's a short list I wrote in about ten minutes.

image* Fantagraphics Books has built the bulk of its promotional push at this year's Book Expo America weekend around one artist – Linda Medley, and her accomplished comic Castle Waiting. They are not making a big deal of this, nor should they.

* The unfairly maligned Dan Nadel published the Paper Rad book Paper Rad, BJ and Da Dogs. Paper Rad includes the artist Jessica Ciocci. That book was well reviewed, and indicates Nadel knows a visionary when he sees one.

* Carol Tyler's Late Bloomer appeared on my top 10 list for 2005, and at the time I declared it's as good as anything Fantagraphics ever published in its 30-year history. I believe Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson is on the record saying roughly the same thing.

* "Minnie's 3rd Love" is widely considered one of the great half-dozen short stories in comics history. Phoebe Gloeckner is widely admired by her peers and thoroughly written about by writers who cover the field whenever she produces new work.

* The first deal between Scholastic and a cartoonist taking on one of their properties -- one of the sweetest deals out there if you think of Scholastic's reputation in terms of getting stuff over -- went to a female cartoonist.

* Two of the most vital arts-comics publishers can boast of important releases by female cartoonists -- The Ticking by Renee French (Top Shelf); We Are On Our Own by Mriam Katin (Drawn and Quarterly).

* There is no cartoonist more universally admired in comic strips right now than Lynn Johnston.

* There is no editorial cartoonist more admired by her peers in the sense of someone that takes brave public stands and fights through an amazing amount of public fire than Signe Wilkinson.

* Next to Brad Meltzer, who was aided by going up a rank or two in prose author sales status parallel to his comics writing gig, Gail Simone is as close to anything resembling a breakout star to come out of DC's Infinite Crisis-related efforts.

* As grumpy a critic as exists, Gary Groth, believes Megan Kelso to be either the finest cartoonist of her generation or in the top two or three.

* Nadia Katz-Wise, co-publisher and public voice of Typocrat Press, has her second book under consideration for an Eisner Award this year. She's been interviewed on my site.

* The biggest new comics star of the last five years is Marjane Satrapi, a cartoonist you could see show up on Oprah's couch and not think it remarkable in any way. She's even serving on a panel at Cannes this weekend.

I believe there are plenty of female cartoonists and comics-related folk that are given fair consideration, whose work is taken absolutely seriously. Is their work taken seriously because they're women? Probably not. That's not how most publishers, judges, critics and historians approach an art form, and it's not how businessmen approach commercial entertainment. There is definitely a place for gender inquiry, just as there's a place for an examination and/or critique of a medium and its culture based on the color of cartoonist's skin. That's why we have exhibits like this weekend's, and several such-focused books and magazine articles over the years. Those things are great; I like being forced to reconsider my take on Rose O'Neill, for example. But it's one thing to suggest that we could all stand to open our minds to be challenged and another to suggest that because there's a lack of proportional response in someone else's act of artistic inquiry that there's something dishonest or incomplete about that act. This is doubly true when we find out that arguing specifics -- "this artist should be included and not that one" -- frequently proves to be untenable.

Admitting you can't make a case based on specific examples seems to me to invalidate any complaint made by broad generalizing. Comics is a tough art form in which to gain recognition, period. Most comics fans don't remember Peggy Bacon or Alice Harvey -- or Anne Cleveland! -- but by and large they don't remember Alfred Frueh or Chon Day, either. In the end, if anyone has a specific interest in making sure female cartoonists or comics folk are recognized and taken seriously, then recognize them; take them seriously, and pay attention to those areas where this already takes place. Nadia Katz-Wise answers e-mails as promptly as Chris Pitzer. I imagine Gail Simone is as happy to have her work dissected as Ed Brubaker. It's not too late to interview Carol Tyler.

I'm no great expert on commercial comics, but I know the art form of comics well enough to suggest the last way on earth the excellent female cartoonists out there and in the medium's past should receive their due is at the expense of excellent male cartoonists, let alone where a legitimate act of inquiry that this time hasn't led them to where we, specifically, suggest they should go. Let's drop the criticism via vague, massively qualified generalities and get right down to it -- who is being ignored? What is so great about them? Why makes this cartoonist more worthy of study than that one? I'm happy to publish anyone who wants to go down to "She Draws" and mix it up vis-a-vis the suite of artists in Masters of American Comics. Let's get to it.

And if we must have one thing at the expense of another, let's carve a space for a greater appreciation of female cartoonists out of the frivolous nonsense, the industry gossip, the action figures and the comics-related movie deals. If there really aren't enough female cartoonists profiled in Comics Art, or featured in art shows, or supported by publishers, let's encourage each other to go profile/feature/support some, or do it ourselves, not just cross our arms and look disdainful that someone dropped a ball with which they probably never considered playing. Scorched earth criticism when poorly applied kills a lot of flowers that could end up in the garden.