Introduction: Challenging Forms and Rhetoric
On the cover of the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, a larger-than-life Wonder Woman works to simultaneously tackle domestic and international issues while uncertainly striding forward under the affirmative text: “Wonder Woman for President” (Anderson 1972). While Ms. embraced Wonder Woman as a role model, the feminist movement did not so easily support the comics medium that Wonder Woman called home. In fact, a cover of Ms. in the following year pinpoints the problem behind this tense relationship. A visual homage to Roy Lichtenstein, the cover shows a bespectacled man in profile asking: “Q. Do you know the women’s movement has no sense of humor?” while a blue-haired woman blankly gazes forward, replying, “A. No … But hum a few bars and I’ll fake it!” (Severin 1973). The woman’s obliviousness that this isn’t a popular song to be sung becomes the joke, but the charge and challenge remains, spoken directly under the magazine’s masthead. This cover, created by Marie Severin, one of the few prominent female artists in mainstream comics, identifies the struggle that kept women’s independent comics off the shelves of women’s bookstores and out of the pages of feminist magazines like Ms. Through close readings of two underground comics produced by women, Lee Marrs’s The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp (1973–77) and Roberta Gregory’s Dynamite Damsels (1976), this essay will consider how these comics visualize and interrogate feminist forms while theorizing new possibilities for women engaging their politics through their bodies.
These comics were part of a lively domain of independent comics produced by women in the 1970s in coordination with the larger countercultural [End Page 203] underground comics movement. Two long-running feminist series emerged out of this space: Wimmen’s Comix (1972–91) and Tits & Clits (1972–87). While Marrs and Gregory were contributors to both series, their involvement with the Wimmen’s Comix collective across the run of the series more clearly demonstrates the depth of their participation. Marrs was not only a founding member of the collective but was also an editor of Wimmen’s Comix #2 and one of the most prolific contributors to the series (Marrs 1973b). Gregory was notably the first openly lesbian contributor, depicting same-sex attraction in her first comic in the series “A Modern Romance,” which appeared in Wimmen’s Comix #4 (Gregory 1974). Outside of these safe spaces for women’s content, the larger underground comics scene was known for its frequent misogyny. Prominent underground female cartoonist Trina Robbins, self-appointed herstorian of the movement, claims that “it was almost de rigueur for male underground cartoonists to include violence against women in their comix, and to portray this violence as humor” (2009, 31). Working in the same medium, these women’s comics challenge misogyny as form by producing a range of liberated women’s bodies on the page. In so doing, these works also push back against the limitations of feminist discourse in the 1970s, particularly with their open focus and embrace of many forms of sexuality.
Couching their political critiques in this visual, often humorously irreverent form won these comics few fans among the women’s movement. In an interview in The Comics Journal, Robbins opined: “It’s really weird the way leftists and militant feminists don’t seem to like comix. I think they’re so hung up on their own intellect that somehow it isn’t any good to them unless it’s a sixteen-page tract of gray words” (1980, 54). Here, Robbins identifies genre tunnel vision where only text in a certain form passes ideological muster. In a separate interview, Marrs expands on the practical consequences of that prejudice: “But we got totally rejected by the women’s movement, for the most part … Not just that Ms. magazine wouldn’t run us, but bookstores across the country wouldn’t carry us, because we did not have a heavy, traditional, feminist political line” (1979, 24). Marrs equates these concrete examples with rejection, for they foreclose the ability of the collective to reach a broader feminist audience despite their varied attempts to...