Cartoon Exhibits Put Gender History on Display

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A major retrospective exhibit on female cartoonists was scheduled to close in September. But its New York stay has been extended to coincide with a new museum exhibit of cartoon masters that excludes women.

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Dale Messick, creator of "Brenda Starr, Reporter," credited Brinkley as her greatest influence. Messick's comic strips, according to the museum exhibit, were rejected for years until she changed her name from Dalia to Dale.

Brenda Starr Paves the Way

"Brenda Starr," the only adventure strip starring a woman and drawn by a woman, debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1940 and led the way for future action heroines. Messick--who named her daughter Starr--drew "Brenda Starr" for 40 years and retired in 1980. The strip survives today, drawn by June Brigman and written by Mary Schmich.

In the 1940 war years, Barbara Hall created "Black Cat," the first female comic book superhero. "Torchy Brown," by Jackie Ormes, the first black woman to have her own syndicated comic strip, appeared in 15 black U.S. newspapers. Her "PattyJo" in the late 1940s was the first black heroine doll.

Since 1946, only two women have received the Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society, now based in Winter Park, Fla. The award is named for Rube Goldberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.

Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or For Worse," the syndicated strip based on her family since 1979, became the first Reuben winner in 1985. Cathy Guisewite, whose single career woman "Cathy" cartoon premiered in 1976, became the second female winner in 1992.

'Six Chix' Hit Syndication

The comic strip character "Sylvia," created by Nicole Hollander in the 1970s, came to embody the silliness and dilemmas facing women caught in the sweeping changes of that era, as it routinely mocked gender bias. The syndicated strip runs in 80 newspapers and Hollander has published 16 books of her cartoons, as well as being honored by the Library of Congress. ("Sylvia" is featured on the Women's eNews Web site.) The latest syndicated cartoon strips by women include "Six Chix," which features the work of six female cartoonists on alternating days. Hilary Price, creator of "Rhymes with Orange," was the youngest woman, at 25, to have a syndicated daily comic strip in 1995.

"The Pajama Diaries" by Terri Libenson debuted in many newspapers this year and portrays a multitasking suburban mother like herself.

Today 22 of the 215 comics distributed by the seven largest newspaper syndicates are created or co-created by women, up from five in the early 1990s. The subject matter is mainly autobiographical about work and family issues.

Only three female editorial cartoonists have drawn for, or been distributed by, major syndicates over the last decade: Signe Wilkinson; Ann Telnaes, who draws a weekly cartoon for Women's eNews; and Etta Hulme.

Two women have won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning since 1922. Wilkinson was the first in 1992; Telnaes was the second, in 2001.

Liza Donnelly, author of "Funny Ladies," a history of female cartoonists at the New Yorker, is one of eight female cartoonists currently drawing for the magazine. Roz Chast has published more than 800 cartoons in the magazine since 1978.

Stay tooned.

Beverly Wettenstein is a New York-based journalist and women's historian. She speaks nationally on "A Woman's Place in the 21st Century," is founder of the "Women in History and Making History Today--365-Days-A-Year" database and is writing her third edition of "A Woman's Book of Days."

For more information:

Museum of Cartoon and Contemporary Art

The Jewish Museum

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