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Art Review: Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Art Review: Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon ArtLadies First: A Century of Women's Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art is on display through May 3 - Photo by Jeff Regensburger
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It’s no coincidence that Ladies First opens with a series of political cartoons promoting women’s suffrage. After all, this year marks the centennial of the ratification and adoption of the 19th Amendment. One can imagine no better way for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum to celebrate that milestone than by highlighting the contributions women have made to the medium of cartoons.

As curators Caitlin McGurk and Rachel Miller make clear, this exhibition is as much about innovation as representation. The point here is not only that women are (and have always been) active in the field, but also that they’ve moved the medium forward in surprising and creative ways. Further, these contributions occurred in an environment that was often biased against (if not outright hostile towards) women. To prove the point, Ladies First presents a number of artists who effectively advanced their careers by adopting male pseudonyms.

Given that cartoons, particularly political cartoons, had the capacity to reach wide audiences and shape public opinion, it’s no surprise that women’s voices weren’t always included. As Alice Sheppard points out in Cartooning for Suffrage; “The role of the political cartoonist is judged masculine because it wielded power and served as a privileged vantage point from which to explore and ridicule… Further, political cartoonist Rayma Suprani observed in her recent TEDWomen 2019 Talk, “A political cartoon is a barometer of freedom.”

Aline Kominsky-Crumb | Goldie: A Neurotic Woman (detail)| Wommin’s Comix, No. 1 |1972 |Ink on paper

Not surprisingly, those opposed to suffrage used their privileged vantage point to publish cartoons depicting suffragists as hostile and rampaging harpies. One of the first tasks of the pro-suffrage cartoonists then was to re-frame suffragists as intelligent, everyday women with reasonable demands. To that point, the political cartoons in Ladies First present textbook examples on how to use the power of images to seize the narrative and reshape the conversation.

Looking beyond these political cartoons, we see examples of innovation in both form and content. Rose O’Neil’s Kewpie cartoons promoted a progressive agenda while supporting a merchandising juggernaut that served to further increase O’Neil’s influence. Jackie Ormes’ single-panel Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger cartoons from the 1940s and ’50s pushed back against racist stereotypes by presenting a pair of African American sisters as stylish, smart and outspoken. The popularity of the cartoon afforded Ormes the opportunity to market a Patty-Jo doll; a toy noted for its upscale wardrobe and positive depiction of young African American women.

Similarly, innovations in storytelling abound. Whether it’s the real-time aging that characters experience in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse, the everyday trials and travails of Cathy Guisewhite’s Cathy, or the provocative narratives featured in anthologies like Twisted Sisters and Wimmin’s Comix, it’s clear that the scope of storytelling – both in terms of what could be told and how – was broadening.

Jackie Ormes | Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger (single panel cartoon) | Pittsburgh Courier | 1947 | Ink and Zipatone on paper

Women feature prominently in the rise of the modern graphic novel. Carol Tyler’s short story The Hannah Story (originally published in Drawn and Quarterly), foreshadows much of what has made this format so compelling. Told in the first person, Tyler presents an intimate family story; deftly illustrating the emotional range that comics could include while focusing on the rich interior lives of the characters. It’s hard to imagine works like Alison Bechdel’s Fun House, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or even Jerry Craft’s Newbery Award-winning New Kid without the foundation that Tyler and others had laid. 

Taken together, these voices, these stories, and the way they’re told, represent perhaps the greatest innovation present in Ladies First. Through this collection of wide-ranging artists spanning a century of creativity, we see women expanding the narrative, pushing the limits of what can be told and how. With a compelling combination of honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, humor and anger, the women of Ladies First expand the genre. They make it bigger. They make it better.

Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art is on view through May 3, 2020 at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, 1813 N. High St. For more information, visit cartoons.osu.edu.

Carol Tyler | The Hannah Story (detail) | Originally published in Drawn and Quarterly | 1995 | Ink, watercolor and pencil on paper
Blanche Ames | Women’s suffrage cartoon | October 23, 1915
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