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  • Funny Girls: Guffaws, Guts, and Gender in Classic American Comics by Michelle Ann Abate
  • Zsófia Anna Tóth (bio)
Funny Girls: Guffaws, Guts, and Gender in Classic American Comics. By Michelle Ann Abate. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. 201 pp.

In Funny Girls, Michelle Ann Abate considers early American comics, specifically those that have a female protagonist, and tries to prove that even though the world of comics seems to be male dominated, these female-centered comics carved out a distinctive place for themselves in American culture. According to Abate, there is not much research on early American comics that have a female protagonist, and the study of these works can help in understanding the current upsurge in female participation in the world of comics, as characters, writers, and consumers. She also adds that women and girls have always been consumers of such products in much greater numbers than it has commonly been believed, while the characters have also become popular and lucrative in the entertainment business and have left an imprint on the American imagination. Abate bases her argument—that female protagonists in American comics have a unique and significant presence as well as influence—on an extended analysis of Little Orphan Annie, Nancy, Little Lulu, Little Audrey, and Li'l Tomboy and more brief analyses of Little Annie Rooney, The Adventures of Patsy, Little Iodine, Little Mary Mixup, Little Dot, Little Lotta and Li'l Jinx.

The examination of these comics centers on how their humor derives from the unconventional feminine behavior of the lead characters, who are usually preschoolers or at least preadolescent and who are able get away with behavior that does not comply with society's expectations with respect to women and, by extension, girls precisely because they are children. [End Page 239] Even though Abate supplies a wider sociocultural, historical, and political context for the comics in question, her central point is that the humor arises from the discrepancy between the expectation and the contrasting reality of the behavior of these young girls, namely, that they behave and speak in conventionally masculine ways despite an impeccable feminine appearance.

According to Abate, the influence of "the cadre of fun, feisty, and formidable female protagonists" (170) of the early twentieth century proved to be much more far reaching and long lasting than anticipated when these iconic funny girls made their stand in the funny papers. Although the analysis of these funny girls is quite thorough and the cultural-historical background is revealing, there is rather little on the humorous aspects of these comics and almost no theoretical argument about the methodology or examples of humor. Still, this book can be of great use to scholars who specialize in comics and those who are interested in the gender politics or the significant cultural/intellectual trends of the first half of the twentieth century.

In the introduction, Abate claims that even though "the tradition of Funny Girls" is a long-overlooked one, these preadolescent female characters "are rich and compelling subjects in their own right," combining "feistiness, feminism, and, of course, fun" (7). In her view, they wield tremendous power as they question the status quo, challenge social manners and codes of proper conduct, and, most importantly, redefine gender roles. They are what Abate terms "exemplars of female independence, agency, and autonomy" by being "outspoken, daring, and mischievous" (7). In chapter 1, the author shows how Little Orphan Annie turned her spunky girl character into an "American myth," becoming one of "the nation's most beloved, recognizable, and enduring characters" (15). What makes her stories funny is that she dares to talk back and fight back, thereby countering the orphan girl tradition in American literature by being sassy, scrappy, and unrepentant. Annie is "proactive and assertive" (30); she does not need protection and she stands up for herself and others who are weak, so her behavior is iconoclastic in its revolt against traditional gender roles. What is even more interesting is that her openly conservative male creator not only does not punish her for all this but even rewards her. Ironically, Abate argues, Annie's self-reliance and independence, which are reflected in her...