(WOMENSENEWS)–Trina Robbins, a cartoonist, author and pop historian of women in comics, has a good sense of humor.

But she didn’t think it was funny when she learned that a major museum exhibition of cartoonists spanning the 20th century included no women.

Over a year ago, Robbins was planning "100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists," an exhibit that opened in May at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in New York City and was originally scheduled to close in September.

Coincidentally, the "Masters of American Comics" exhibit, organized by the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, ran November 2005 through March 2006. That exhibit features 14 of "the most innovative and influential American comic artists."

When Robbins discovered that exhibit was all male she complained; the Hammer Museum later invited her to give a talk.

"The fact is that the comic strip and comic book fields have been dominated by men," says Brian Walker, an independent scholar and co-curator of the "masters" exhibit. "We welcome the debate that this exhibit has generated and hope that future exhibits will have a broader range of artists."

Robbins meanwhile, defends the female-only limits of her own show, which features 50 artists and 100 artworks. "We are not so much excluding men as we are including women who are usually excluded," says Robbins.

"The majority of female comic book cartoonists working today are self-published, on the Web, in zines or books from small presses because mainstream comic books are focused on boys," Robbins says.

Exhibit Run Extended

The all-female cartoonist exhibit has been extended until Nov. 6 to overlap with the all-male "masters" exhibit, which is opening on Sept. 15–at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Newark Museum in New Jersey–and running through Jan. 28, 2007.

Both museums will offer programs with female cartoonists and Robbins will speak at the Jewish Museum on Nov. 16.

In the meantime, the extended stay of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art exhibit gives visitors more time to mull over the major milestones for female cartoonists, whose story begins in the early 1900s when their work first began appearing on Sunday newspaper pages and in women’s magazines.

Rose O’Neill, who created cupid-like creatures that she called "Kewpies," was one of the pioneers. Until the 1920s her Kewpies appeared as cartoon characters in women’s magazines and her Kewpie dolls are still manufactured and collected today.

Grace Drayton’s cherubic urchins also emerged in the early 1900s, appearing in comics, magazines, children’s books and as paper dolls. In 1905, her apple-cheeked Campbell Soup Kids appeared in the company’s first marketing campaigns. Nell Brinkley inaugurated a new school of glamour art to capture the 1920s "New Woman," the flapper-influenced feminine ideal that emerged with the proliferation of the mass media. Her signature Brinkley Girls, with a mound of stylish curly hair, were accompanied by commentary on working women, suffrage and women in sports.

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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