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Pretty Persuasion:
Going for the Girl Market

by Carol Cooper

If you passed Trina Robbins on the street, chances are you wouldn't suspect she was the foremost pop historian of women in comics. Nor would you peg her as the author of Go Girl!, an offbeat superhero comic book aimed at adolescent girls. Today most comic books featuring female protagonists are written by men and depend heavily on the fetishized sex and violence that give television hits like Xena and Buffy a certain cross-gender appeal. But Robbins--whose last major mainstream effort was a Wonder Woman comic about domestic violence--is fighting to prove the commercial viability of comic books that neither burlesque nor hyper-sexualize their female characters.

Petite, blond, and dainty as a grown-up Goldilocks, Robbins betrays none of the inner fire and steely resolve that have kept her active (and radically activist) in the comics industry since the mid 1960s. From humble origins as a Cooper Union art school dropout doing free cartoons for the East Village Other, she relocated in '69 to San Francisco, where she rose to prominence by using cartoons in the emerging feminist press to articulate the many concerns of second-wave feminism--from abortion to coming out. It wasn't long before Robbins attracted an ambitious coterie of like-minded cartoonists (including Lisa Lyons, Michele Brand, Lee Marrs, and Aline Kominsky) determined to publish their view of the world, in vivid juxtaposition to the work of macho male artists from R. Crumb to S. Clay Wilson, who'd already put San Francisco's comix underground on the map.

After years of creating comics herself, Robbins used her insider's point of view to write important reference books like A Century of Women Cartoonists (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), The Great Women Super Heroes (Kitchen Sink Press, 1996), and From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics From Teens to Zines (Chronicle Books, 1999). But being a feminist, a self-made entrepreneur, and the working single parent of a daughter born in 1970, she retains a critical stance toward a comics industry that clumsily perpetuates smirking sexism, institutionalized racism, and cynical marketing strategies to the general detriment of the art form.

Right now comic book sales are at the lowest they've been in half a century. By failing to attract a young female readership (which is massively targeted in Japan, both by print comics and animated TV programs like Sailor Moon), U.S. comics companies have narrowed their potential audience to an alarming micro-demographic that grows increasingly cynical and selective about what it will buy. Robbins believes that more women reading and creating comics (as was common during the 1940s) could change all that, which is one of several reasons Robbins teamed up with artist Anne Timmons to create Go Girl!

When they met at the 1996 San Diego Comic Con, Timmons couldn't get work because she drew clean, "pretty," modestly proportioned characters rather than the dark, steroidal, hyper-sexualized types then in fashion. But as the '90s wore on, animated TV shows like Batman and Superman began to feature cutesily drawn teen sidekicks with spunk, like Batgirl and Supergirl. Timmons and Robbins decided they could coattail on the popularity of these adolescent heroines by creating a more realistic teen heroine of their own. With Go Girl! they offer us a lower-middle-class mother-daughter team coping with the fact that being a super-powered female crime fighter neither makes you rich nor endears you to the average male love object.

The black-and-white art of Go Girl! reveals Timmons's unique sense of perspective. Elaborate backgrounds frame a static form of portraiture that slows the action down just enough to evoke the dreamy, still-evolving mind-set of our pubescent lead character. In a kitchen scene where the daughter asks her mom why she retired her powerful alter ego, the mother replies while chopping raw chicken, "Your Dad was kinda threatened by having a wife who could fly."

Published by Image Comics (a company that has done its fair share of what Robbins refers to as "big-boob books" over the years), Go Girl! is one of several recent titles that depart from contemporary comicdom's redundant repertoire of male power fantasies. That and the fact that Go Girl! is aimed at a slightly younger audience than most Image fare have made the nation's typically male-oriented comic book stores wary of ordering it. Conventional wisdom says that young girls no longer buy comics. Robbins says that the average comic book store seldom stocks titles that young girls (and their parents) would find appealing. Sadly, both statements are true. Many girls have bought into the stereotype--reinforced by excessively lurid cover art--that comic books are an entertainment specifically designed for geeky boys. Frightened retailers, seeing shrinking sales and dependent upon a distribution monopoly with restrictive return policies, won't order new or unproven titles. In Manhattan, only Jim Hanley's Universe on 33rd Street keeps ample copies of Go Girl! in stock.

Unlike adult-oriented comic books by female creators like Julie Doucet, Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory, or Diane DiMassa, there is no prurient or gleefully perverse appeal to Go Girl! The forthright innocence of its content sets it apart even from the similarly childish Sailor Moon books, which have always encouraged older fans to speculate about the sexual orientation of certain Sailor Scouts.

Robbins herself is far from certain that Go Girl! will survive, because she's been down this road before with other teen-girl series. In 1986 she created six issues of a comic book called Meet Misty (Marvel) and the following year did eight issues of the realistic California Girls (Eclipse). Despite positive mail from readers, national retailers weren't ordering the books in sufficient quantities to make them as cost effective as the then increasingly violent and fetishistic superhero books.

In 1993 during the San Diego comic book convention, a group of women comics professionals decided some serious networking was in order. They formed the nonprofit advocacy group "Friends of Lulu," in the spirit of Little Lulu, the vintage-comic heroine who never gave up trying to crash the boys' club. Over the past seven years Lulu has set up info booths at regional comics conventions, worked to pair aspiring writers and artists who want to collaborate on projects, and established hyperlinked Web sites like www.friends-lulu.org to publicize and promote the work of women in comics. In 1997 the group held the first annual Lulu conference in California, and challenged the male-dominated Eisner Awards by hosting the first annual Lulu Awards that same year.

It's an uphill battle. In the current environment, even subsistence jobs at comics companies are hard to get, and the resultant pressure to shut up and conform keeps most female editors, inkers, colorists, and pencilers quietly cranking out whatever content their male bosses think will sell. But that evasive girl market with its many diverse desires is still out there, waiting to be tapped. Trina Robbins, a current editor of Lulu's newsletter, remains a believer. If Go Girl! doesn't make it, she'll still be there to cheer or enable the next creative team going over the wall of industry indifference to bring girl-friendly material to the masses. And thereby hangs a truly heroic tale.

Published in: Village Voice, 9 January 2001