Serial Critique:The Counterpublic of Wimmen's Comix
Despite the prevalence of the serial anthology format in underground comics, current scholarly approaches tend to focus on single authors or individual comics. In the case of Wimmen's Comix, a series written by and for women, the serial anthology format provided important opportunities for dialogue through and across difference. This article presents an analysis of these dialogic possibilities through the lens of what I call the "correspondence zone," which refers to the public dialogic spaces enabled by serial publication where readers build solidarity. My analysis of the correspondence zone in Wimmen's Comix demonstrates two seemingly paradoxical aspects of seriality: while the unification of stories within the same series suggests solidarity, the diversity of multiple stories published across multiple issues encourages discussion of difference. Though the broader feminist movement has been critiqued for its homogeneity, the case study of Roberta Gregory creating a comic that responds to a published comic by Trina Robbins demonstrates how the serial anthology provided a space for lesbian critique of feminism without undermining solidarity. By providing a framework for discussing the multiple types of public dialogue presented throughout comics, the correspondence zone methodology enhances our understanding of how readers, particularly marginalized readers, have deployed the cultural, political, and ethical potential of comics to form publics and counterpublics.
underground comics, feminism, seriality, anthology, lesbian identity, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory, critique
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What happens is somebody sees a comic and goes, 'Oh, that's cool! That's what I want to do.' And then they do a comic. And then there are three comics, and someone else sees it, and draws a comic. That's the way it works. It grows. And suddenly you have a community. In the first issue of Wimmen's Comix in 1972, there were ten women, all of us in San Francisco. But as soon as that book came out we started getting submissions from women all over the country. They saw the book and said, 'Oh look! Women can draw comics. This is a comic I relate to.' And they sent us stuff.—Trina Robbins
Wimmen's Comix was a serial anthology of cartoons for and by women started in 1972 in direct response to the misogyny of underground comix created by men. Excluded from series such as Zap Comix and Arcade, and repulsed by the objectification of women in those anthologies, as well as by the way mainstream media represented women as objects with little agency, the women of Wimmen's Comix deployed the sexualized visual idiom of underground comix, but subverted it by using it to depict aspects of women's lives that were normally deemed taboo, such as masturbation and sexual assault. In the pages of Wimmen's Comix, women readers and creators formed what Michael Warner calls a counterpublic: through references to the sexualized representations of women in broader culture, they "[maintained] at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of . . . the cultural horizon against which they [marked] themselves," and through the "concatenation of texts over time" enabled by serial publication structure, they built a sense of solidarity.1 Published by San Francisco-based Last Gasp, the series still falls under the classification of underground comix, representing a counterpublic from within that community. To facilitate its position against misogynist representations of women in the underground and in mainstream media, such as newspapers and television, the series tapped into the techniques and ideas of the broader women's liberation movement. In its approach, the series drew especially from the wide arena of feminist print culture in which it was enmeshed to inform, for example, the anthology format of the series or the decision to form a collective (called the Wimmen's Comix Collective) that made judgments related to publication. Like other feminist print publications, Wimmen's Comix aimed to help women achieve equality in a misogynist society, specifically the male-dominated field of cartooning, and the serial publication format facilitated this goal.
Though many critics have attributed the failure of women's liberation to the lack of diversity within the movement, the anthology format of Wimmen's Comix, along with its serial publication structure, allowed the series to promote diversity while creating unity. As the epigraph from Trina Robbins, founder and author of the series and its most visible spokesperson indicates, women readers related to the women's experiences they saw depicted in published issues of the series, and, as they took up pens themselves, the community spread out of San Francisco and across the country. The published stories served as models that showed potential women cartoonists that comics could depict women's experience. At the same time, the accretion of the variety of styles and genres included in the serial anthology format made a space for diversity that women of color feminism and [End Page 7] lesbian feminism argued was lacking in the women's liberation movement more broadly. Through a revise and resubmit structure made possible by serial publication, the authors took action by increasing the number of women cartoonists in the male dominated sphere of underground comix, building a counterpublic of women authors. Women authors used the multiple layers of the comics form to capture the diversity of women's experiences, and the serial publication structure created what I call "correspondence zones," meaning public dialogic spaces where readers moved to write—or in this case, draw—form a sense of community and engage in world-making. The correspondence zones of Wimmen's Comix, which take the form of comics responding to comics published in previous issues of the series, brought to the fore a productive dialogue within feminism that centered on difference, rather than ignoring it in the name of building solidarity. While, in the case of Wimmen's Comix, the correspondence zone reveals this diversity within feminism, the correspondence zone has broader applications as a new methodology for comics scholars that captures the potential energies of serial publication we miss when we narrow our focus to single authors, single issues, trades, or the graphic novel. As a number of comics scholars have suggested through their analysis of reader letters, the dialogue enabled by the gaps in space and time created by serial publication is ingrained in the history of American comics.2 Therefore, the methods I use here that place authors, contributions, and issues in dialogue with one another have serious import for our understanding of comics culture. While the correspondence zone is a feature of all serial media that establishes a dialogue between participants, the aesthetics of comics—their ability to represent a dominant idea and the counterpublic's critique of that idea on the same page, often in the same panel—makes the comics medium particularly suited for counterpublics.
I complement the printed dialogue within Wimmen's Comix with information about the revise and resubmit system editors used to fulfill their activist mission that I gleaned in my own dialogues with the authors and editors of the series. I conducted the interviews throughout the winter of 2014 and spring of 2015, asking questions about the editorial process, including how the rotating editors selected their contributors and why these women turned to comics as the form for expressing their feminist messages. These interviews provided insight into how the editors used a revise and resubmit system to teach women to improve their cartooning craft. Including the women's own words furthers my own feminist project of allowing these women, often ignored in histories of underground comix, to speak for themselves about their work. The interviews provide a more complete picture of how and why this print form fits within the larger feminist movement.
In what follows, I begin by theorizing the correspondence zone concept I have developed. Enabled by the serial publication structure, the correspondence zone allows diversity to be a catalyst for the solidarity building crucial to the feminist movement. I use this discussion to place Wimmen's Comix in the context of the two cultures to which it appealed: that of underground comix and that of women's liberation. The case study of Roberta Gregory responding to Trina Robbins's lesbian coming out story by writing her own coming out story demonstrates how the serial anthology format encouraged these women [End Page 8] to build solidarity through and across difference. I place Robbins's "Sandy Comes Out" comic in dialogue with Gregory's "A Modern Romance," the comic she published three issues later, to demonstrate the correspondence zone methodology in action. The women turned to comics as a transgressive medium to represent women's experience, which was deemed similarly taboo. While Gregory's comic presents a critique of Robbins's, Gregory would not have published her comic if she had not seen Robbins's published comic. These women formed a sense of solidarity through a shared opposition to both mainstream media and male underground cartoonists, as they subverted the hyper-sexualized images of women in these realms to depict women's experience from a woman's perspective. As this case suggests and as my interviews support, the serial publication structure enabled both a print version of mentorship, with published comics serving as models for what comics about women could be, and an editorial one through a revise and resubmit system. The dialogue that occurred through both these forms of mentorship used the future looking nature of serial publication, the fact that another issue is expected, to solidify the collective into a counterpublic, as women built a sense of solidarity through their status as women in the male dominated field of cartooning. My analysis of this correspondence zone demonstrates two seemingly paradoxical aspects of seriality: the diversity of multiple stories published across multiple issues encourages discussion of difference, while the unification of stories within the same series suggests solidarity. Together, these aspects of Wimmen's Comix suggest what comics scholars have to gain from paying attention to comics as serial texts.
FEMINIST CORRESPONDENCE ZONES
The story of how Gregory came to publish in Wimmen's Comix captures some of the opportunities provided by the serial anthologies that formed a key, though seldom discussed, part of underground comix history. In issue 1 of Wimmen's Comix, Robbins published the first lesbian coming out story in comics. When Roberta Gregory discussed how she decided to submit her work to Wimmen's Comix she said that
seeing the variety of stories made me think I could get my own weird stuff published and people would read it. I remember seeing the first couple of issues and Trina had her 'Sandy Comes Out' story. And I thought, 'Well, she's telling about her lesbian friend. That means I could tell a lesbian story.3
In this case, Gregory saw a printed story that indicated to her that she could publish a similar story. Because another issue in the series was forthcoming and because the anthology format allowed for the inclusion of multiple authors, she could publish that story. Current scholarly approaches to comics more broadly and underground comix in particular tend to focus on single authors, relying primarily on collected editions of shorter comics or on long form comics produced by a single author. Yet the serial anthology format, which allowed for a division of labor and resources that enabled people who might not have the [End Page 9] time or resources to publish a graphic novel to publish shorter stories, was prevalent in the underground comix scene. Indeed, many of the most popular titles, from Zap to Slow Death to Arcade, by key underground publishers, such as Last Gasp and Kitchen Sink Press, were anthologies, described on their respective Wikipedia pages as "comics magazines" and listed alongside the number of issues and how long they ran.4 The anthology format encapsulated the collective spirit of the counterculture by featuring a variety of voices both within the same cover and throughout the series run. Using the correspondence zone concept described in more detail below as a lens recaptures this serial anthology format and considers how that format was vital for community building within the counterculture, particularly for the women who found themselves excluded from many other underground comix publications.5
The correspondence zone provides a methodology for reading serial texts that encourages scholars to consider how individual elements of the series respond to one another in the service of creating public discourse. The term "correspondence" captures the dialogic nature of the space, as well as the fact that, in many serial media, from nineteenth century serial novels to modern day comics, some of that dialogue occurs in spaces where reader letters are printed for all to see. While there are many kinds of public reader response, from YouTube comments to letters to the editor, only when readers begin to respond to one another, or to refer to themselves as a community, does a correspondence zone develop. Readers become creators as they produce the content that constitutes these interactions with one another, and the study of the correspondence zone recovers their labor, which often falls outside the frame of scholarly study when we fail to consider seriality. The term "zone," which marks a delimited, but changeable space, highlights the multiple possibilities for dialogue created within the serial form. Readers place themselves in dialogue with each other, with authors, or with the comic, while the issues can be viewed as responding to one another or to previous reader requests. The aesthetics of the comics form, often characterized by a multiplicity of panels, pages, text boxes, speech bubbles, images, page spreads, etc., may even mobilize the medium's unique tension between sequentiality and simultaneity to deploy the correspondence zone within a single issue. Panels that position two opposing viewpoints, such as those of straight feminism and those of lesbian feminism, may, for example, be viewed as a correspondence zone. I consider all forms of the correspondence zone as spaces, albeit virtual, print-based ones because, just as a physical space might, the comic provides a location to which readers continually turn where discussion enhances commonality without flattening diversity amongst members of the community. In that space, readers build a sense of community through dialogue that often captures the labor of marginalized readers, such as the counterpublic of women discussed here, and paying attention to it is often an act of recovery.
In the case of Wimmen's Comix, women of all different backgrounds band together to strive for equality. The serial anthology format provides room for multiple stories within issues that might be placed in dialogue, as well as stories across issues that respond to one another, such as Gregory deciding to publish a comic in response to Robbins. In focusing [End Page 10] on comics creators as first readers of published comics and then creators of their own comics, I use this version of the correspondence zone to highlight how all contributions to the correspondence zone are examples of reader labor, since some may find cartooning a more convincing form of labor than, say, writing and posting a YouTube comment. While I consider both of these acts of composition to require labor, I hope that my discussion of the correspondence zone here establishes the opportunities inherent in serial publication structure that both cartoonists and internet commenters take advantage of. By using the same lens to view both digital and print serial texts, I establish a link between these seemingly disparate spheres of public—and published—discourse.
The correspondence zone lens on the serial anthology reveals how Wimmen's Comix provided a space for diversity and dialogue that overcame the major critiques of the lack of diversity in women's liberation, which numerous historians suggest led to the downfall of the movement.6 In an effort to present a united front achieved by not judging other women, the movement ended up with a lack of dialogue as women were urged to "repudiate all economic, racial, educational, or status privileges that divide us from other women."7 For example, in her response to the Miss America protest of 1968, one of the first social actions of the feminist movement, Carol Hanisch critiqued the "egotistic individualism," of the participants, linking it with an "anti-womanism" that emerged as a result of a "spirit of every woman 'do her own thing.'"8 As a result of this view, women focused on their sameness rather than their difference. Women of color and lesbians spoke out against this homogeneity, stressing how their experiences differed from those of the white middle class straight women who made up most of the movement.9 Daphne, an anonymous participant in Anita Shreve's retrospective study of consciousness raising, discusses how when she came out as a lesbian to her group, "no one said a word. Not one word. Not then, not ever. It was the weirdest thing. It was as if I were the invisible woman."10 This testimony mentions her fellow feminists' silence concerning issues of identity, its refusal to address how being a lesbian might affect her experience, as making her feel "invisible." In striving to create a sense of solidarity by ignoring the diversity of women's experience, straight, middle-class, white women continued to replicate forms of oppression against women of color and lesbians, as well as against working-class women, immigrant women, and women with disabilities. In their critiques of this homogeneity, women of color and lesbians want feminists to acknowledge that intersectional identity is constantly in flux, forming and reforming depending on the situation and context. As Margaret Galvan has suggested in her analysis of comics' visual representation of diversity, I argue that comics served a vital function in calling attention to diversity within the 1970s feminist movement.11 I suggest that they do so not just through their representations of diverse bodies but also through the dialogue the serial publication structure promotes, a dialogue that mobilizes comics' unique combination of text and image to stress unity and difference simultaneously while concurrently contributing to the activist mission of increasing the number of women cartoonists. Through its anthology format, Wimmen's Comix allows critique in individual stories without sacrificing the solidarity suggested by the unified series, providing a space [End Page 11] for making these other facets of identity, such as lesbian experience, visible within the context of other feminist concerns.
Anthologies as a form, such as Sisterhood is Powerful and This Bridge Called My Back, were central to the print culture of the women's liberation movement, with the former establishing the breadth of issues facing women and the latter representing a growing movement of women of color feminism.12 Pulled from authors with a wide range of identities, editors saw the mere publication of these anthologies as "an action," that defined the collective concerns of the movement.13 The trilogy that began with Notes From the First Year and was later published as a collection entitled Radical Feminism even took advantage of the call and response nature of serial publication to have authors respond to one another across installments.14 At the same time, in magazines like Ms. and off our backs readers could take advantage of serial publication structure to write in letters about the articles they read and then could find those letters printed in subsequent issues of the magazine. Wimmen's Comix was enmeshed in this complex network of feminist media, and drew on some of their techniques of production and publication to produce the serial anthology, such as the publication collective, which off our backs also used. The comic book series deserves attention for the way it mobilized serial publication structure to turn readers into comics creators as part of an activist mission to increase the number of women cartoonists working in a male dominated industry. As the collective members, visualized by the list of titles in the anthology stretched across issues, responded to one another, they became a counterpublic, formed in opposition to how misogynist mainstream media, such as newspapers and television, and other underground cartoonists portrayed women. The serial publication structure allowed for critique within that counterpublic, as readers took up the pen and created comics in response to those they read.
The lack of need for one coherent traditional narrative provides room in Wimmen's Comix for the dissent and critique that characterize lesbian and woman of color feminism more broadly. Viewing the series through the lens of the correspondence zone captures this critique without undermining the solidarity of the feminist project the women were trying to accomplish. In the case of these women cartoonists, there is an allegiance to feminism, defined as a commitment to obtaining equal rights for women. The various authors demonstrate their allegiance by employing a mixture of realistic and fantasy genres to not only reflect the often surreal world as it is, but also to consider what the world could be. In these instances, they combine the future gesturing inherent within serial publication—the anticipation and expectation that there will be another issue in the series—with the world-making possibilities of fantasy comics. Yet in addition to providing a picture of women that coheres within the same series (these are all feminists), the multiplicity of issues within the serial publication format and the various stories between individual issue covers made possible by the anthology also provides room for the shifting allegiances of intersectional identity (their perspectives on feminism differ).
The iconic similarity between some of Robbins's and Gregory's images serves to highlight this interplay between solidarity and difference. Each comic features two key moments [End Page 12] where the character reckons with her budding sexuality, one alone looking in the mirror and the other embracing that new identity by going to a lesbian bar. While the use of similar iconography reflects how Robbins inspired Gregory to join the ranks of women comics creators, the differences in panel composition during those moments of similarity encapsulate Gregory's critique of straight feminism. Robbins's Sandy looks at herself in the mirror and grounds her coming out in a feminist activist impulse, saying "you must find a positive alternative to the dehumanizing nuclear family . . . some way to smash phallic imperialism," a statement that intertwines her sexuality with political ideals.15 Sandy's coming out happens all at once, as she recalls her first crush on a girl and decides to explore her new sexuality by convincing her women's group to go to a gay bar called Ruby's. The panel where the women's group enters the bar depicts two women with long hair kissing in close up, two women with very short hair scowling at each other across the bar, and several silhouettes in the background showing women holding each other close (see Figure 1). In the very back of the image, we see Sandy and her women's group enter, contrasting white against the shadow and cross-hatching that characterizes the images of the women in the bar. The women entering the scene are clearly spectators as one exclaims, "Far out!" The coloring and the act of looking emphasizes their separateness from the scene they are encountering.16 This spectatorship matches the third person point of view of the story and mimics the differences between the narrator, depicted with curly hair in light tones, and Sandy, who has dark hair styled in braided pigtails. Sandy's story is told from the outside, rather than engaging with the character's inner psychology as Gregory does.
Gregory's Anne has a more difficult time coming to terms with her sexuality, but she ultimately ends up more integrated into the lesbian community. As with Sandy, Anne's [End Page 13] moment of realization comes as she looks in the mirror, but she represses her sexuality rather than deciding to explore it. Gregory depicts Anne's confusion, using thought bubbles to make her thoughts and feelings visible. Instead of remembering a crush from when she was little and deciding to explore her possible lesbian feelings as Sandy does, Anne represses the thought that she "never did care much for guys" with "No. I musn't say things like that!"17 When she confronts herself in the mirror, Anne cries and decides to try to lose her virginity in what she considers a "normal," meaning heterosexual, way by going on a date with a boy who is "always kind of looking at [her] funny."18 The motivation for the date with the boy stems from a desire to conform, and not from sexual attraction, and Gregory depicts this conflict in Anne's thought bubbles, helping the reader see the point of view of the character. Unlike Sandy's quick decision and action, Anne's coming out is more of a progression and involves a number of struggles with heterosexism that prevent her from accepting her sexuality.
After the date with the boy goes badly and following a scene of sexual union, Gregory includes a panel of Anne and her new lover Jane going to a lesbian bar, just as Robbins depicts Sandy going to a lesbian bar, but Gregory depicts the lesbian bar as a place of belonging. While Sandy and her women's group appear as separated spectators of the shadowy scene, Jane and Anne appear amongst the women (see Figure 2). Only their respective speech and thought bubbles differentiate them from the rest of the group, where women are shown just talking to one another. The voyeurism of Robbins's comic, enhanced by the presence of the narrator, continually frames same sex love as transgressive, as something to be gawked at like the kissing silhouettes in the lesbian bar. There is nothing that can be viewed as salacious about Gregory's scene depicting Anne's experience in a lesbian bar. Instead, Anne thinks that, "I'm among people with whom I belong for the first time in my life," emphasizing the sense of community the image shows with the use of "among" and "belong."19 As these analyses indicate, the similarities that demonstrate Gregory approaching Robbins as a model only serve to highlight the differences between Robbins's and Gregory's points of view. Robbins, a straight woman, was able to publish her story without being silenced, and the story written by Gregory, who identifies as bisexual, differs in its approach to representing lesbian identity, yet because of the anthology format that allowed for the representation of a variety of voices, both appear within the same series.
This is not to say that the Wimmen's Comix series presents a utopic space. While the series may have featured representations of women of color, for example, until its end in 1992, there were very few authors who were women of color. In some ways, we might say that the series struggled with the transition from envisioning a different world to actually building such a space. Part of the problem was that, unlike creators of continuous comics series who often stick around for more than one issue, the anthology format provided less room for individual growth over time. In a sense, then, the mission of increasing the number of women cartoonists paradoxically conflicted with the loftier feminist goal of helping all women achieve equality. While the former goal ensured a variety within the issues that enables the critique I discuss here, in an attempt to mentor more and more women, [End Page 14] there was less room for individual development that might signal a change in perspective brought about by published stories. The lack of evidence of this kind of growth within the comic series or its editorial practices does not necessarily preclude growth in the lives of readers, however, and the diverse representation alone causes us to question the validity of some of the critiques of women's liberation as homogenous. By visualizing a variety of women's experiences, these women used the comics form to defy expectations of what both women and comics could be.
These women turned to the comics medium in particular to create a counterpublic because they saw it as a space of transgression. My author interviews support the link between comics and transgression that several scholars have noted,20 especially because these women grew up during the Comics Code crackdown of the 1950s, which as Carol Tilley has discussed, loomed large in mainstream media.21 Joyce Farmer highlights how the Code created this perception in discussing how she borrowed comics "about WWII and a lot of stuff that was later banned" from a friend's older brother because she "found them scary, but intriguing."22 As is often the case with censorship, the forbidden aspect of these comics only increased their appeal for Farmer. While conversations around the Code focused on comic books, newspaper strips, accessible to anyone who got the newspaper, were also spaces of transgression. Sharon Rudahl was drawn to newspaper strips because "a lot of them referenced political or social issues" not mentioned in the "cautious" front part of the paper.23 For example, Terre Richards was drawn to Al Capp's L'il Abner [End Page 15] because Dogpatch was "a mythical world where people lived a different way," including "Sadie Hawkins Day where the women got to chase the guys, and, if you caught the guy, you got to marry the guy . . . As girls, we were taught that you have to wait until a boy asks you out. You never asserted yourself or initiated romance in real life, but [in Dogpatch] that was actually allowed."24 From a creator's perspective, Lee Marrs highlighted how, as a kid growing up in conservative Alabama, she took advantage of comics' ability to "get around the rules using humor" because "people are conveniently disarmed" by drawings, a statement that links the transgressive content some of the women associated with published comics to suggest that comics as a drawn form lends itself towards expressing transgressive ideas.25 These claims capture a number of different genres, from war comic books to newspaper comics, and situate comics as spaces where creators could push the boundaries of what was allowed in mainstream media.
As Richards's description of Sadie Hawkins Day in L'il Abner highlights, the perception of comics as a transgressive medium made them seem an ideal space for the exploration of subjects related to women's experience, which were seen as similarly taboo. As a result, in underground comix by women, we not only see how women's experience is germane to comics because of their formal qualities as Hillary Chute suggests, but also how the perceptions of the comics medium guided women creators' storytelling choices.26 Underground comics by women explored all sorts of taboo subjects, such as abortion in Lyn Chevely and Joyce Farmer's Abortion Eve, masturbation in Aline Kominsky-Crumb's comics, and lesbian experience in Roberta Gregory's Dynamite Damsels.27 Though there were other spaces such as feminist magazines and small press books devoted to depicting women's experiences, Terre Richards highlighted how the authors of Wimmen's Comix saw comics specifically as an opportunity to make women's experience visible:
[W]omen were not getting the whole story of what women's experience was like . . . There was nowhere where women could read that or see it . . . Who else was telling stories about women embarrassed about the way they didn't fit the standard of perfection and beauty? Or telling stories about some really tough issues like domestic violence and rape? We knew we were breaking ground when we were telling these stories . . . and we thought that these were our lives, so there must be other women like us.28
Richards points out that Wimmen's Comix filled gaps surrounding women's issues in other media and, through her use of the verb "see," highlights how comics use their visual qualities to envision that experience, confronting the reader, often using the sexualized visual vocabulary that earned underground comix their 'x.' As mention of subjects like domestic violence and rape in Richards's description suggests, depicting the variety of women's experience meant broaching taboo, often explicit subjects; and underground comix, with their preoccupations with explicit material, provided an ideal space for making women's experience visible. At the same time, by refusing the objectification of women present in underground comix by men, these women pushed back on both mainstream and misogynist [End Page 16] underground representations of gender, using that hyper-sexualization in ways that would often be deemed as crass or raw, rather than sexy.
Charles Hatfield has pointed out how underground cartoonists referenced the tropes of commercial comics, such as characters or genres, in order to subvert them, and the women use this subversion alongside the hyper-sexual visual idiom to accomplish feminist goals.29 Throughout its run, Wimmen's Comix includes multiple examples of the science fiction, adventure, and crime genres, all of which feature women protagonists. Both Robbins and Gregory also wrote in genres common to commercial comics, and a closer examination of their contributions demonstrates how they used the tropes of the genres they referenced in order to subvert them. In reframing the gag narrative genre and the romance genre respectively, these women deployed the techniques of the normally misogynist culture of underground comix for feminist ends.
In her quest to prove that feminists could have a sense of humor, Robbins chose the gag narrative genre, where a story culminates in a funny situation and a punchline. She uses the tension between text and image on the comics page to suggest humor can be a mode of feminist critique. The opening, which shows "the artist" looking out at the reader and holding a board where she has drawn the title "Sandy Comes Out" as it appears on the first page of the comic, combines with the claim that this is a "true life comic" that "really happened to my friend Sandy" to provide authority over the story, while at the same time distancing the narrator from the experience depicted.30 This distance is necessary for her to execute the final joke (see Figure 3). A full-page panel shows Sandy in her "San Francisco gay/hippie commune."31 She is naked in bed with another woman as various scenes that Robbins frames as semi-transgressive occur in the rooms surrounding her including a man in a dress, two men hugging, and two women practicing the unladylike sport of karate. Along the top of the panel, we see a tangle of human limbs and faces in ecstasy, lending an orgiastic air to the scene. The narrator appears in reporter mode, fully clothed with her notebook perched on her lap and her hand ready to take down Sandy's answer. She asks Sandy, "Do you agree with Ti-Grace Atkinson when she says that feminism is the concept, lesbianism the ideal?" a very reporter-like question that echoes Sandy's activist energy in the mirror scene at the beginning of the story.32 The speech bubble with this question occupies the center of the panel, drawing the reader's eye and making Sandy's response even more surprising. Sandy seems to have abandoned her ideals as she slurs her speech to the narrator in saying, "Lissen, couldja come back another time?"33 As this reading shows, the author uses the framing of the story and the depicted narrator to distance herself from her subject. The reader is a spectator, as much as the narrator is. In the final panel, the reader continues to feel that sense of voyeurism as it shows what Robbins frames as debauchery in the gay/hippie commune. At the same time, the author separates herself from this debauchery by appearing as the fully clothed narrator, the only non-transgressive body in the space who closes the frame of the story with her serious question. That question, centered on the page, demonstrates Robbins deploying a key feature of the gag genre, the punchline, for feminist ends. Robbins also suggests, by mocking Ti-Grace Atkinson [End Page 17] in a punchline that mobilizes the tension between the feminist words and Sandy's sleepy reply given in a state of undress, that not only can women have a sense of humor, but that they can use that humor as a mode of critique. Yet this is just one perspective on lesbian sexuality from a straight cartoonist.
When Gregory decided to publish her own comic in response to Robbins, she chose to redefine the romance genre with her lesbian love story, deploying the genre's preoccupation with thought bubbles to depict what it feels like to be in the closet, where one's thoughts and actions conflict, as well as what it feels like to be lesbian in a heterosexist society, where one's thoughts and feelings are rejected. In discussing her choice, she stated: [End Page 18] "There were always these stories where some woman goes off and meets the wrong guy and regrets it, and then she meets the perfect person and they fall in love. And I thought, 'Why don't I do this from a lesbian point of view?'"34 Her framing of this statement with "there were always these stories" and her use of "romance" in the title suggest a prevalence of these heterosexist narratives, while her choice to "do this from a lesbian point of view" highlights the lack of that perspective in the romance genre. By framing the first part of the comic as an uncomfortable heterosexual romance that Anne chooses because, as we see in the mirror scene, she has internalized societal expectations, Gregory subverts the romance genre and its heterosexist assumptions. While Anne and the boy who "looks at her funny" are on their date, Gregory uses thought bubbles to depict both the boy's thoughts and Anne's thoughts. From the very beginning, Anne and the boy (we never know his name) fail to be on the same page as Anne overdresses for their date to the movies. The panel showing them at the movies depicts their thoughts conflicting while the image shows the boy making sexual advances. The boy thinks, "I'm glad I asked her out after all," while Anne thinks, "I wish he'd stop feeling me," as the boy leers at Anne and Anne returns a scowl.35 Without the thought bubble, we would have been able to see the conflict, but the way the two bubbles divide the panel down the middle and draw our eyes to the collision of the bodies of the two characters, as well as the content those bubbles provide, enhances understanding of the conflict Anne is experiencing as she attempts heterosexual romance. Thinking about the comic at the level of the page (as opposed to as a series of panels) draws our eyes down to the panel below this one, where we see Anne kissing the boy, despite the fact that, as her thought bubble says, "I wish I wouldn't keep seeing Jane [the woman she has a crush on] whenever I close my eyes."36 This panel stacking highlights how the heterosexual romance is actually conflict, rather than the expected love or fellow feeling.
Gregory draws attention to how being lesbian and closeted results in a conflict between what one thinks and how one acts. She emphasizes this disjunct through Anne's thought bubbles juxtaposed with the images of the date, which could have come out of a romance comic. Boy meets girl, they go to the movies, drive somewhere secluded, and start becoming intimate. The visual track conflicts strongly with Anne's thoughts as shown in the thought bubbles. Unsurprisingly, as the boy gets more aggressive, Anne gets more worried until she shouts "No!" and the boy pushes her out of the car to walk home.37 This experience causes Anne to develop a fear of heterosexual advances as she thinks about running and hiding from any boys who might stop to pick her up. This conflict, represented by the conflict between text and image, provides the twist in the story from heterosexual romance narrative to the lesbian romance narrative. While romance novels and romance comics were mainly about heterosexual love, Gregory uses this narration to spin that tradition on its head. Anne must escape a heterosexual relationship in favor of an idealized lesbian relationship with Jane, and that lesbian relationship is the modern romance of the title.
Gregory uses mainly speech bubbles to depict Anne's interactions with Jane, the woman who becomes her lover, which signals an openness between the two that is lacking in the contradictory speech and thought bubbles that characterize the heterosexual [End Page 19] romance. The openness of the speech bubbles is enhanced by Gregory's depiction of the sexual encounter, which also enacts a "coming out" of the comic at the same time Anne is coming out. No longer closeted, Anne and Jane are shown having sex over several panels, with full frontal shots of both figures included in the sequence.38 The characters' nudity, accompanied by the somewhat graphic depiction of lesbian sex, highlights the openness of this relationship. The comic itself comes out of the closet at this moment, as we move from the conflict of the earlier panels, through the coming out moment, and onto this depiction of lesbian sexuality. While the heterosexual union depicted in romance comics was always coded and clothed because of obscenity concerns, Gregory takes advantage of the freedom available to underground comix authors to show uncoded and unclothed sex. Obscenity concerns, like romance stories, are representations of societal expectations, so Gregory's work both demonstrates, through her depiction of her characters, and performs, through its structure, a reworking of those expectations.
BUILDING A COUNTERPUBLIC
Through the diversity of voices encapsulated by Robbins's and Gregory's comics, a diversity enabled by the serial anthology format, women built a sense of solidarity and enacted their feminist mission of increasing the number of women cartoonists. Serial publication structure allowed for a sort of mentorship in print that complemented the mentorship editors provided as a part of the revise and resubmit system. This mentorship, which featured dialogue between editors and creators formed through their shared identity as women cartoonists who stood in opposition to the mainstream and to male underground cartoonists, turned a collective into a counterpublic. The editors of the series position women as a counterpublic in the mission statement printed on the inside cover of the second issue, stating that they "[hoped] that publication of high quality beginning work [would] give our wimmen artists a chance to be seen, and a foothold in 'the industry' based on their talents of mind, hand, and eye, rather than the more traditionally requested parts of their anatomy."39 This statement identifies the action of the group as increasing the number of women cartoonists in the male dominated field of comics, acknowledging their outsider status, and using it to build a new community. A quote from Terre Richards captures how the system worked:
We alternated editors and made it our mission to make 50% of the book open to new contributors. We were willing to work with submissions from new women artists when their work wasn't ready for publishing. There might be a problem with the lettering style, or the comic wasn't drawn to the right ratio format. We would write letters back and say, 'We like your ideas, but this is the format. You might want to try working on your comic balloons. Look at the way some of them are drawn. They shouldn't take up more than a quarter of the panel.' We were trying to teach people how to make a comic. There were women who would redraw it and resubmit it and then it would be published in future issues.40 [End Page 20]
This statement highlights how the editors trained the women in the craft of cartooning, providing them with the skills necessary to enter the male-dominated field. At the same time, the anthology format, which allowed for many short stories, proved more inviting for beginning authors than trying to publish a full-length comic on their own did. Lee Marrs and Roberta Gregory, both frequent contributors to Wimmen's Comix, went on to publish graphic novels, and both credited the anthology with providing them their start.41 Together, the anthology format and the revise and resubmit system worked towards the authors' activist mission of increasing the number of women cartoonists in the male-dominated underground, a theme that ran as an undercurrent with all the authors.
In writing for women like themselves over a period of time, taking advantage of their new freedom to depict previously taboo examples of women's experience, the authors of Wimmen's Comix formed their own counterpublic that stood against misogynistic depictions of women in both the mainstream media and the work of the men of the underground, and that counterpublic managed to capitalize on the diversity of voices—via the multiplicity of the serial anthology—to build solidarity—via all the works appearing in the same series. As I have discussed elsewhere, Wimmen's Comix Issue 6, the "Special Bicentennial Issue" co-edited by Becky Wilson and Barb Brown, made space for discussing how facets of identity other than gender, such as race and sexuality, might affect woman's experience, a space denied women in much of the solidarity building of the women's liberation movement.42 The publication of these stories together constitutes an act of world-making as the authors draw on a genealogy of past feminist media to project a more diverse form of feminism into the future. This is collaborative world-making, but a different kind of collaborative world making than we might see when contributors aim to tell a single coherent narrative. Instead, the anthology format allows for consideration, critique, dissent, disagreement, reframing, and other kinds of deliberation to remain visible as the authors envision the world they want to project into the future of the series.
The moments of direct engagement with feminism in Gregory's "A Modern Romance" demonstrate how the anthology allows for solidarity building through critique. Gregory's comic went through the revise and resubmit system and, as Gregory's first publication, it increased the number of women cartoonists. Yet the way its unhappy ending mirrors its beginning accomplishes the goal of feminist solidarity through critique as Gregory represents both the feminist views she is critiquing and the lesbian critique of those views within the same panel. We first meet Anne's eventual lover Jane as the speaker for an event for the Women's Student Union, which Anne associates with "the idea of women's lib," where we learn that "the union was strongly divided" in their opinions of Jane as a lesbian feminist. Here, Anne's emerging sexuality, indicated by her audible heartbeat and the birds and hearts that circle her head, separates her, as the women around her think "what a dyke" and "she's the type that gives feminists a bad name."43 Towards the end of the story after Anne comes out, the thoughts of the other feminists present during this first encounter become voices rejecting Anne's sexuality. Speech bubbles saying "it's disgusting," and "those people scare me" squeeze Anne into the side of the panel as she thinks [End Page 21] "now I know what Jane meant by all the years of shit."44 Gregory uses the multiplicity of the comics form, here, to depict the critiqued views and the critique together in the same panel in a way that emphasizes the oppressive nature of dominant views for lesbian individuals within feminism.
In the final panel, this overwhelming criticism from the feminist community to which Anne belongs causes the lesbian couple to turn their backs on society and head behind closed doors, essentially recloseting them (see Figure 4). The panel shows Jane and Anne from behind through a doorway as they talk to one another. In the foreground, we see women looking at them as they walk away. The doorway makes a frame within the frame, calling our attention to the way doors cut off being able to see. At the same time, we are reminded of all of the spectators in Robbins's story, as we see similar figures depicted here. As some romance comics would, the story ends with a quote about love from literature, another form of media responsible for perpetuating the heterosexism Gregory critiques. In this case, William Blake has the last word with an exhortation to "children of the future age reading this indignant page," or to readers. The quote mentions that "in a former time, love! Sweet love was thought a crime!" The story ends with a recloseting because lesbian love is still "thought a crime," and not accepted by society.45
Instead of downplaying the tension between the broader feminist movement and lesbian feminists, Gregory uses the aesthetics of the comics form to dramatize that tension, confronting the reader with the heterosexism of the broader movement. Rather than diversity threatening the activist project of increasing the number of women cartoonists, the dialogue actually uses diversity to further the mission as Gregory sees Robbins's comic and [End Page 22] decides to draw her own in response. Through their comics, each author envisions a world and when the two are published within the same series, readers of that series might envision a world where straight feminists and lesbians can coexist without the prejudice that reclosets Gregory's characters. Together the two present a dialogue between a heterosexual and lesbian feminist that is integral to our understanding of lesbian experience within the feminist movement.
All of the authors and editors of Wimmen's Comix drew on serial texts' ability to think of the present in the context of the future to envision—and enact—a different kind of world. The revise and resubmit system allowed for the building of a counterpublic, making the vision of a world with women cartoonists a reality. This system mobilized the way published issues can serve as models, as well as the time between issues, to create that community through an editorial practice that valued diversity. As they welcomed more women in to publish, the editors painted a diverse picture of feminism, representing different kinds of women, including women of color and lesbians, within a single issue. The way that genres become more prevalent over time suggests further mentorships in print like the one between Robbins and Gregory. For example, we can trace a lineage of stories characterized by attention to a surreal inner psychology beginning with Michele Brand's "There I Was" in the first issue and extending through Diane Noomin's "Home Agin" (issue 2), to Melinda Gebbie's disturbing eroticism in "Sea Cucumber" (issue 3) and "My Kitty Loves to Do the ChaChaCha" (issue 5), and Cathy Millet's contributions to issue 5.46 Each writer capitalizes on using previously published comics as models to develop her own voice and own perspective, thereby creating variety within the series. We can see this evolution of variety in tracking the popularization of historical adaptations, a genre that could itself be seen as an offshoot of the autobiography common in early issues. The first historical adaptations, Robbins's "Julia Pastrana: The Ugliest Woman in the World" and Sharon Rudahl's "Die Bubbeh" appear in issue 5, and are immediately followed by an issue with only historical adaptations.47 Perhaps based on the inclusion of Shelby Sampson's "She Never Lost Spirit" in issue 6, which adapts a newspaper obituary, we begin to see comics "inspired by a true story" that are often adaptations of newspaper stories or headlines, such as Heather Green's "Corruption's Gleam" (issue 7) and Virginia Lombard and Dori Seda's "Virginia's Story" (issue 8).48 Putting these comics in dialogue with one another as I do with Robbins and Gregory could reveal additional critiques within feminism, representing the experiences of sex workers, historical figures, and other female creators alongside one another. When read as complete issues or as a series, rather than as individual stories, these comics envision a world of diverse feminisms.
Such realizations should remind us that a counterpublic can accommodate dissent without undermining its solidarity. Disagreement does not have to mean the "every woman for herself" mentality that Hanisch feared. Indeed, by overcoming some of the exclusionary tactics that homogenized feminism in the 1970s, these comics overcome the short-comings [End Page 23] of women's liberation. Rather than making lesbian identity invisible as Daphne mentions in describing her consciousness raising group's response to her coming out, the multiplicity of the serial comics form enables an exploration of how the identities of lesbianism and feminism intersect. By listening to the critique from within the movement, we can mobilize the world building potential of comics: each story possesses potential energy that could be mobilized by subsequent stories, while critique presents us with what is in the interest of suggesting what could be. This kind of critique, visualized on the page so that it confronts the reader, can strengthen movements, encouraging them to be more inclusive through an individualized response to difference.
While the correspondence zone methodology reveals solidarity built through diversity in the case of Wimmen's Comix, putting other contributions from the serial anthologies so prevalent in underground comix in dialogue with one another could potentially reveal other conversations and critiques that reframe our understanding of the counterculture from which they emerged. Moreover, given that serial publication is a feature of comics in each of the three major comics cultures (France, Japan, America), the methodology has broader applications. By allowing us to think through the multiple types of public dialogue presented throughout comics, whether represented within the comic or contained in letter columns and comments sections, whether found across issues or within the same anthology, the correspondence zone methodology could enhance our understanding of how readers, particularly marginalized readers, have deployed the cultural, political, and ethical potential of comics to form publics and counterpublics. [End Page 24]
Leah Misemer is Assistant Director of the Communication Center and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research centers on how marginalized audiences have historically used comics to form communities of solidarity. You can find her work in Composition Studies and Forum for World Literature Studies, as well as in several edited collections.
. I would like to thank the many readers of this piece, but especially Nick Miller, Biz Nidjam, and Darcy Mullen.
1. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 119.
2. Jared Gardner, Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 60; Ian Gordon, Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 116–42; Carol J. Tilley, "Children and the Comics: Young Readers Take on the Critics," in Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent Since 1865, eds. James L. Baughman, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and James P. Danky (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 161–79; Ramzi Fawaz, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 94–124.
3. Roberta Gregory, personal interview, January 2015.
4. Wikipedia contributors, "Zap Comix," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zap_Comix; Wikipedia contributors, "Slow Death, "Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_Death; Wikipedia contributors, "Arcade," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcade_(comics_magazine).
5. Trina Robbins, Last Girl Standing (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2017), 77.
6. For scholarship critiques of homogeneity in women's liberation, see Carla Kaplan, Erotics of Talk: Women's Writing and Feminist Paradigms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) 27; Debra Michals, "From 'Consciousness Expansion' to 'Consciousness Raising,'" in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s, eds. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York/London: Routledge, 2002), 57; and Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 10.
7. Redstockings, "Redstocking Manifesto," in Redstockings: First Literature List and a Sampling of its Materials (Gainesville, FL: Archives for Action, 1968), 8.
8. Carol Hanisch, "What Can be Learned: A Critique of our Miss America Protest," in Redstockings: First Literature List and a Sampling of its Materials (Gainesville, FL: Archives for Action, 1968), 9.
9. For women of color critique, see Eleanor Holmes Norton, "For Sadie and Maude," in sisterhood is powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), 355 and Francis M. Beal "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female," sisterhood is powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), 342–50. For lesbian critique, see Martha Shelley, "Notes of a Radical Lesbian," in sisterhood is powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), 309 and Gene Damon "The Least of These: The Minority Whose Screams Haven't Yet Been Heard," in sisterhood is powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Random House, 1970), 299–304.
10. Anita Shreve, Women Together, Women Alone: The Legacy of the Consciousness: Raising Movement (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), 91–92.
11. Margaret Galvan. "Feminism Underground: The Comics Rhetoric of Lee Marrs and Roberta Gregory," Women's Studies Quarterly 43.3 (2015): 203–22.
12. Robin Morgan, ed. sisterhood is powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement (New York: Random House, 1970); Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Persephone Press, 1981).
13. Robin Morgan, introduction to sisterhood is powerful. xv.
14. Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, Anita Rapone, Radical Feminism (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1975).
15. Trina Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," Wimmen's Comix 1 (1972), 54. All page numbers are for reference in Trina Robbins, ed. The Complete Wimmen's Comix (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2016).
16. Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," 55.
17. Roberta Gregory, "A Modern Romance," Wimmen's Comix 4 (1974), 164.
18. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 164.
19. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 167.
20. For scholarship on the link between comics and transgression, see Christopher Pizzino, Arrested Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016).
21. Tilley, "Children and the Comics," 161–79.
22. Joyce Farmer personal interview, February 2015; While Farmer is normally associated primarily with Tits & Clits, her work also appeared in Wimmen's Comix.
23. Sharon Rudahl, personal interview, November 2014.
24. Terre Richards, personal interview, December 2014.
25. Lee Marrs, personal interview, January 2015.
26. Hillary Chute. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
27. Lyn Chevely and Joyce Sutton, Abortion Eve (Laguna Beach, CA: Nanny Goat Productions, 1973); Aline Kominsky-Crumb, "Goldie: A Neurotic Woman," Wimmen's Comix 1 (1972); Roberta Gregory, Dynamite Damsels (Long Beach, CA: Self-published, 1976).
28. Terre Richards, personal interview, December 2014.
29. Charles Hatfield, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 18.
30. Trina Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," 54.
31. Trina Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," 56.
32. Trina Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," 56.
33. Trina Robbins, "Sandy Comes Out," 56.
34. Roberta Gregory, personal interview, January 2015.
35. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 165.
36. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 165.
37. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 165.
38. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 166–67.
39. Lee Marrs, ed. Wimmen's Comix 2 (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1973), 74.
40. Terre Richards, personal interview, December 2014.
41. Lee Marrs, personal interview, January 2015; Roberta Gregory, personal interview, January 2015.
42. Leah Misemer "Hands Across the Ocean: A 1970s Network of French and American Women Cartoonists," in Comics Studies Here and Now (New York: Routledge, 2018).
43. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 164.
44. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 167.
45. Gregory, "A Modern Romance," 167.
46. Michele Brand "There I Was," Wimmen's Comix 1 (1972), 57–59; Diane Noomin "Home Agin," Wimmen's Comix 2 (1973), 82–84; Melinda Gebbie (as Clothilde), "Sea Cucumber," Wimmen's Comix 3(1973), 117– 20; Melinda Gebbie (as Clothilde), "My Kitty Loves to Do the ChaChaCha," Wimmen's Comix 5 (1974), 197–200; Cathy Millet, "Where Have You Been Little Pig?," "My . . . Pff!! Parents," and "Hey! Looks Like Micheline's got herself a customer," Wimmen's Comix 5 (1974), 196, 203, 210.
47. Trina Robbins, "Julia Pastrana: The Ugliest Woman in the World," Wimmen's Comix 5 (1974), 183–85; Sharon Rudahl, "Die Bubbeh," Wimmen's Comix 5 (1974), 204–07.
48. Shelby Sampson, "She Never Lost Spirit," Wimmen's Comix 6 (1975), 250; Heather Green, "Corruption's Gleam," Wimmen's Comix 7 (1976); Virginia Lombard and Dori Seda, "Virginia's Story," Wimmen's Comix 8 (1983), 302–04.