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A Short Interview With Trina Robbins
posted June 28, 2009
 

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Trina Robbins is one of the icons of the underground comix generation, a cartoonist and creative person always pushing forward in ways that have influenced and inspired her peers and admirers. She has become in the decades since an equally valuable advocate for the recognition of great female cartoonists. Her latest book in that vein is The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons 1913-1940, which was released in March of this year by Fantagraphics. While many have long been aware of the general attractiveness of Brinkley's work, Robbins' book forces us to look at her art in a way -- and at a size -- where some of the specifics of Brinkley's appeal and the basis for her popularity become more apparent, such as the sweep of her page design and the enthusiastic way many moments, even ordinary ones, are rendered. Robbins' book also asks for a reconsideration of Brinkley's writing when she was allowed to pursue this element on her own, and paints an overall picture of a fiercely independent cartoonist who learned over the years to work within a system to great reward without ever becoming dominated by it. It's really great to have The Brinkley Girls, and I was pleased when Robbins agreed to answer some questions about it. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Trina, what was the genesis of this specific project? Was this something you wanted to do, or was this presented to you as a potential project? Why a book with such a heavy focus on Brinkley's serials rather than a straight-up art book, or do you feel it plays both those roles?

TRINA ROBBINS: Wanted to do! I've wanted to do this for years! Although my MacFarland book stands up as a good biography, there's no way from just reading that book that anyone can know just how gorgeous Nell's work was. As for the focus on her serials, I love her serials, and I'm so glad the book is a large enough size to read them. Anyway, her illustrated stories are her art!

SPURGEON: Was all the material drawn from your own collection? I'm particularly fascinated by the fan art and where you found that. Did you go to any outside collections on this one?

ROBBINS: Most of it is from my own collection, and some very nice collectors lent me the rest. Isn't that great about the fan art? One day I was waiting on line at the post office and some guy whose name I have forgotten asked me if I was Trina Robbins, introduced himself, and told me that since he knew I was interested in early women cartoonists he had some art he'd like to give me. And it turned out to be that fan art! If he reads this or sees my book, I hope he'll get in touch with me, because there's a big thank you and a book waiting for him.

SPURGEON: You said in an interview that you first saw this work through Bill Blackbeard. Why do you think Bill presented you with this work? What was your initial connection with what Brinkley was doing, and has that changed at all in terms of emphasis in the years since?

ROBBINS: Bill is a very sweet guy and he had some doubles, and he knew enough about me, even in 1970, to know I'd like to have them. The trouble was, seeing Nell's work out of context, all I could tell was that she drew gorgeously, but I didn't know what she said! I didn't know she wrote these great serials, or her daily panels/commentary, much of which was quite feminist.

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SPURGEON: Newspapermen like Steve Duin and myself can't help but see this book and shake our heads in wonder that this splendid-looking material used to appear in weekly newspaper supplements. Did you give any thought to the massive contrast between then and now while assembling The Brinkley Girls? Do you think there's a lesson to be learned here about papers abandoning something that was once very successful about them, or the state of newspapers generally?

ROBBINS: Newspapers have definitely gone downhill. The SF Chronicle is pathetic these days and in danger of folding, and I don't think we can chalk it all up to the economy. After all, during the Great Depression the papers were at their best. A big mistake was downgrading the comics so that they are run so small one can barely read them, and eliminating continued adventure strips, so all that's left is three panels and a gag.

SPURGEON: I notice that some of the masthead material suggest appearances in papers between the coasts. Was there any difference as to how her work was received by people in different parts of the country? Was there a certain social class to whom she appealed? I assume and I take it from your work that she appealed to women and girl readers.

ROBBINS: She was nationally syndicated, so her work appeared everywhere. Hearst's papers appealed to the middle class and the working class, so I'm guessing Nell was not read by the Vanderbilts. Yes, women and girls were her greatest fans and collectors.

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SPURGEON: I may be wrong about this, but you seem much more fond of the first section than the other two -- not so much from a technical standpoint but perhaps in terms of the qualities that come out through the drawings and the kind of stories being told. Is that a fair assessment? What is it about the first section's stories that you find particularly memorable or laudatory?

ROBBINS: You're right! I have no problem with the art -- Nell's art was always great -- but her earnest and feminist serials are such fun to read, while those flapper comics, written by Carolyn Wells, are so negative! After writing about brave and beautiful women, she suddenly was illustrating comics about air-headed flappers. But she returned to her feminism, when she wrote those great Heroines of Today.

SPURGEON: I'm having a hard time reconciling the initial biographical portrait you provide, of this young cartoonist and artist who's willing to return home if she's forced onto the comics page, with her making changes in the art to keep up with a popular style. What is your take on her making these changes later on in her career? Does it surprise you as well? Was it just professional survival? A desire to sustain a certain kind of popularity? Do you think she was self-critical in terms of her art?

ROBBINS: Nell was a great artist, but she also knew what side her bread was buttered on, and I think that when she had to change with the times, she was willing to make that change. Remember, at the same time she was doing some very feminist, even political, stuff in her daily panels.

SPURGEON: I thought it was interesting how you spoke of Brinkley's genuine interest in women and how that drove a lot of her illustration/reportage. Was that a common attitude among certain newspaper people at the time, this idea of really looking at what women were doing and then bringing to that to the newspaper page, or was she rare in that regard?

ROBBINS: Us women are usually interested in women. I don't think the male journalists were writing about women in quite the same way that Nell did.

SPURGEON: As you mention, the shift from Brinkley's admittedly pedestrian prose to Carolyn Wells' doggerel is almost painful to read -- do you know if there was any reaction from the readers either way?

ROBBINS: Alas, I don't! I only know my -- and your -- reaction.

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SPURGEON: I think highly of designer Adam Grano's work... was there any back and forth between the two of you on the project or did you find common ground quickly? In general, Fantagraphics has shifted to doing more and more art books... are you happy with the way The Brinkley Girls turned out?

ROBBINS: Adam Grano is wonderful, and I am deliriously happy with the book! This is the first time I have opened one of my new books without becoming horrified at a typo or a caption misplaced or a caption-less illo! When I found a couple of errors in the galleys, they went out of their way to correct them, whereas other publishers might have (Indeed, have!) said, "Sorry, there's no time."

SPURGEON: I was reading a blurb for the Cartoon Art Museum show done in conjunction with this book and it talked about the need to rediscover history through figures such as Brinkley. You've been an advocate for women in comics for years and years now. How do you think female cartoonists both past and present have fared in this latest resurgence of comics art?

ROBBINS: How are we doing? We could be doing better, but I'm not complaining. On one hand, there are more women creating comics than ever -- ever! -- before, but on the other hand we still see male editors hiring their drinking buddies.

SPURGEON: Speaking of your Cartoon Art Museum show, what is it like seeing these works as originals? Is there a quality to the originals that maybe doesn't come all the way through in the reproductions?

ROBBINS: It's great to study Nell's work close-up. She used such delicate, fine lines, that even with the great repro methods used in newspapers in those days, something was bound to be lost in the printing process.

imageSPURGEON: Trina, you're also a well-known, key figure of the underground comix movement. I've been thinking recently of the legacy of that era and those comics. Are you happy with the way those comics are perceived today? Sometimes I think people have kind of put them out of mind. Is there anything you wish more people knew or valued more about that generation of comics makers?

ROBBINS: Well, there is a very good exhibit of underground comics going on right now at the Chazen Museum of Art, and a book from the exhibit, Underground Classics. But looking back at the underground scene, which I've done for quite a while now, I feel like I never really fit in.

SPURGEON: How do you mean? Do you mean in the sense of what you were doing with your art was different than the bulk of the material? Is this a recent realization, and if so, how did it come about?

ROBBINS: Well, yeah. I mean, I tended to do stories, sci fi often, rather than tales of sex and drugs. That plus the fact that I was a woman writing and drawing from a woman's perspective, and most everyone else was a guy (look at the book, Underground Classics!), and I really was not accepted by most of the guys. Yes, there were exceptions (Thank you, Denis Kitchen, for inviting me into your books back in '71!), but they were the minority. It wasn't until Wimmen's Comix came along, and even that had to run for a quite few issues, before I felt I had found a place to fit in.

SPURGEON: I think of you for your advocacy of Rose O'Neill and Nell Brinkley, Trina -- are there artists that you feel are in their class that you simply haven't had the time or the number of opportunities to advocate on their behalf? If there's a historian out there looking for a subject, where would you direct them?

ROBBINS: There's a woman who's just come out with a book on Rose O'Neill, and another woman working on a book about Fanny Y. Cory. But surprisingly, there's nothing out there about Grace Drayton -- I couldn't even find a Wikipedia page! And she needs a book of her own!

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SPURGEON: There's a real exuberance to the art in Brinkley's earlier serials that almost made me laugh out loud because of the energy -- she's really drawing the heck out of those scenes, all the lines everywhere. Did people respond to that element of her work, do you think?

ROBBINS: At the opening of Nell's exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum, I heard people commenting on all those little lines, and at least one of them used that very word: exuberance.

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SPURGEON: What in Brinkley's work do you think people respond to now? I take it by approaching the book this way through such a concentration on the work itself you feel that people may react to reading these pages -- what's there for the modern reader? Do you perceive a sensibility common to manga directed at a female audience, perhaps in the decorative elements or the way plots are constructed?

ROBBINS: What Nell's work and manga -- especially shojo manga -- have in common is they're both so damned pretty! And yes, girls and women like pretty, and all too often male critics and art historians have scorned pretty (they call it "draws like a girl") and have though it trivial and unimportant (not important, like, say, war and people fighting each other). I think that this is why Nell has been forgotten, because the mostly male comics and art historians have not written about her. Look at all the great women cartoonists who were left out of that "American Masters" show -- they all drew "pretty!"

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SPURGEON: You made a fascinating point in a recent interview that maybe some North American attempts to connect with a female audience have lacked elements you find in Brinkley.

ROBBINS: Are there North American comics that reach out to this kind of audience that you think work well? There must be some, but I think they're probably indies or non-superhero graphic novels.

SPURGEON: What's next for you, Trina?

ROBBINS: My next book that will come out in the Fall is something completely different. It's a history of the Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs, most of them in San Francisco's Chinatown. You know, when you watch those old movies from the 30s and 40s, there's often a scene in a nightclub, everyone's glamorous and some woman in an evening gown is singing while a big band plays? That's what the Chinese nightclubs were like, from 1937 to 1964, except that all the entertainers were Asian. The book is an oral history, with interviews with 22 retired entertainers, the oldest being 97 (and one woman, a singer, I'm sorry to say has already passed away). There are 200 illustrations, photos of gorgeous Asian women with pompadour hairstyles and dark lipstick, dancing in evening gowns or fishnet tights, and handsome Asian men with their hair slicked back, crooning or tap dancing in tuxedos, as well as great art deco menu covers and ads. The book is titled Forbidden City: the Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs. I've also just finished an updated, rewritten and revised, full-color history of superheroines, titled The Great American Superheroines, and that should be out in 2010.

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* cover to and images from The Brinkley Girls, provided by Fantagraphics; tiny sample of underground comix work from one of the various indexes of such material

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* The Brinkley Girls: The Best Of Nell Brinkley's Cartoons From 1913-1940, edited By Trina Robbins, hardcover, 136 pages, 2009, $29.99

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