Trina Robbins Essay - Critical Essays

Robbins, Trina


Trina Robbins 1938–

American cartoonist and editor.

Robbins's cartoon stories express her positive feelings about the feminist movement. When she has used her work to vent her anger at a male-dominated society, her cartoons have been somewhat violent.

For years Robbins was a creator of strictly underground comics (those that, in her words, cannot get published anywhere else). Robbins's strips are finally appearing in such magazines as Playboy, National Lampoon, and High Times. Her cartoons are now being recognized by many critics as valid statements about today's culture. Robbins believes her work has suffered from the negative reputation of underground comics for violence, sexism, and sexual explicitness. She feels her work is just the opposite: her violence is clean and usually in the form of self-defense, her heroines are beautiful because beauty appeals to her artist's eye, and sex, as she depicts it, is loving and natural.

Some critics feel her cartoons display a negative attitude toward men, but Robbins charges these critics with reading too much into the actions depicted. She asserts that the sense of her work is exactly what she writes and draws, without all of the connotations present in so many underground publications. Robbins once said that she wanted to draw pictures that tell stories, and she has attempted through her comics to tell the story of woman's freedom from male oppression.

Les Daniels

[Trina Robbins] has gained a reputation as the foremost female creator of underground comics. She had some success in Gothic Blimp Works with Panthea, a creature half lady and half lion who was transported from Africa with painful results. The somewhat submerged concern for feminist principles which this series suggested was to emerge in 1970, when Trina became the principal contributor to It Ain't Me Babe, the first comic book devoted exclusively to Women's Liberation. The cover, which featured renderings of Sheena, Wonder Woman, and Mary Marvel, suggested how much comic book fantasies have done to provide images suitable to a new view of women and her place in the world. (p. 176)

Les Daniels, "Underground Comics," in his Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (copyright © 1971 by Les Daniels and Mad Peck Studios; reprinted by permission of the publisher, E. P. Dutton, Inc.), Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971, pp. 165-80.∗

Lynne Bronstein

R. Crumb may have fantasies of voyages down sewer pipes and S. Clay Wilson may draw visions of lesbian pirate battles, but neither of them would have ever thought up the legend of Speed Queen. She is a creation of Trina Robbins, an underground comicperson who happens to be female. Like most of the women who draw freaky funnies, she's concerned with the problems of being female—and the result is the hip, 70's an-swer to Wonder Woman—the adventures of an assortment of gutsy, tall and Trina-faced heroines who don't take no shit from any mere male!….

Subject matter in the women's comix ranges from sexuality problems like pregnancy and lesbianism to women trying to educate men in new lifestyles to the speculative fantasies of Trina, whose women (the astronaut Speed Queen, the black hooker Fox, Amazons, feminists and lesbians) are all tall, beautiful, articulate and heroic. They are the much-needed fantasy women who transcend their roles to achieve success.

Lynne Bronstein, "Female Underground Comix," in The L.A. Star, 1972.∗

Nick Chinn

I've always enjoyed Trina Robbins' artwork and style. It is a happy medium polished overground art and on the other side of the spectrum, those trashy, poorly-drawn comix I can't stand to look at….

[Scarlett Pilgrim follows] Scarlett, a San Francisco "working girl," and an older, retired hooker named Dollface, who both get involved as pawns in some C.I.A. derring-do in a Middle-East-type foreign country, getting tangled in a political revolution. For entertainment, Scarlett finds herself in the bedsheets of every important governmental or guerrilla leader in the fictional country Bahraq.

The story line is both light-hearted while overdramatic, fastmoving, and poking fun at international politics and the C.I.A. It's a lot of fun reading.

The book climaxes with Scarlett and Dollface double-crossing the C.I.A., and ends with a letter telling Scarlett that her cousin is coming to stay with her for awhile … unfortunately the family doesn't know anything about Scarlett's occupation, a situation setting up the next Scarlett Pilgrim book. I can't wait.

Nick Chinn, "Reviews: 'Scarlett Pilgrim'," in The Heroine's Showcase (© 1978 The Comics Heroine's Fan Club), No. 14, Summer, 1978, p. 33.

Ronald Levitt Lanyi

Trina Robbins [is] one of the most challenging writers and lyrical draftsmen now active in underground comics…. (p. 737)

Trina's stories often involve strong, independent and very attractive women who are set upon but ultimately victorious over viciously hostile men. In "Speed Queen Among the Freudians," for instance, which appeared in the first issue of Girl Fight, a solitary woman space traveller, upon arriving on Freuda, a planet inhabited solely by white men who worship a giant black phallus, is instantly seized for landing her "phallic craft next to our monument to the Great Maleness" and thrown in a dungeon "for the heresy of penis envy."… At the last moment she breaks free of her captors, grabs a ray gun and shoots it out with them while taking cover behind the giant black phallus. This her adversaries inadvertently shoot down, which causes them to see her through eyes suddenly cleared and cry happily, "Mommy! Mommy!" The story concludes with Speed Queen back in her space craft, leaning back in her seat and dangling the white key to Freuda over her crossed knees, which are covered by exceptionally long black boots. (p. 739)

[Robbins: What] I always wanted to do was draw pictures that told stories, and that's comics. I think of it as the ideal method of communication. More than that, I think of it as what I want to do more than anything else, draw pictures that tell stories. I mean, it's heaven for me. (p. 740)

[Lanyi: To] succeed in the male-dominated underground comics medium, didn't you at first and don't you still have to conform in some ways, some rules of the game, such as that sex and violence should be presented in an open and undisciplined manner? (p. 741)

[R.: As] far as I'm concerned, the underground is still a place where I can print something I can't print anywhere else. But I don't want to stay underground. I think the underground is a drag. It doesn't pay enough, and it has a lousy reputation. It's got a reputation for sex and dope and violence, and my stories aren't really sex and dope and violence stories. And so here I am: Because I do underground comics, I share the reputation I don't really deserve.

As far as sex is concerned, I never show the act. I'm very proud of the fact that not on any of my books have I ever had to put "For Adults Only." Because there's nothing in those books that a kid can't see. The only time I've ever shown penetration is in Wet Satin because that's what it's for. That's a different trip….

[L.: To] succeed in the field, didn't you and don't you still have to deal in explicit violence?

R: I've never shown that kind of violence; I've never shown graphic, hideous violence.

L: Fox's knifing of two men in her story in the first issue of Girl Fight?

R: Knifing isn't graphic, hideous violence. My knifing is always nice and clean. I never show guts. I never show dismemberment. No one's ever had a head chopped off or a limb chopped off or been disemboweled. When I say "violence," I mean the violence the men show. My stories are no more violent than a good Alfred Hitchcock movie. There's no yucky stuff. (p. 742)

L: Your work seems strongly indebted to those overground comic books of the '40s that featured heroines like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, [Senorita Ria, Nyoka, Jann of the Jungle, Torchy Todd, Phantom Lady, and Rulah, Jungle Goddess]. (p. 743)

[L: What] I want to get at is this: Although the central message in your stories is unmistakably feminist, you invariably people those stories with cartoon cheesecake types similar to the ones just mentioned. Many feminists … consider such types a betrayal of or at least a hindrance to the movement. Why don't you?

R: Because I like beautiful people. I'm very visual….

L: The beautiful women you draw are also very sexy. It's that which could be found offensive, that the image of woman is as man's plaything.

R: No, that's where you're wrong. That's a terrible misconception that people seem to have, that sexism goes with sex. They think it's sexist for a woman to be attractive. And that's not true. I'm an artist; I'm visual. Things feed my eyes. They actually make my eyes feel good. I like beauty, and there's nothing sexist about beauty. (p. 744)

L: Unlike the '40s works I mentioned a moment ago, your own tales of cartoon cheesecake are often structured on challenging ideas that have some currency among feminists and feminist sympathizers. "Speed Queen Among the Freudians," for instance, seems to be based on the idea that phallic superiority and the covetousness of "castrated" females are notions that operate in male minds only, where they serve as fragile defenses against an ever-threatening awareness of female biological and spiritual superiority. (pp. 744-45)

[L: Although] there is this intellectual difference between your own works and most of the '40s overgrounds for girls and women, attitudinally there is considerable similarity. Would you agree that attitudinally much of your work says what, say, the cover of issue eight of All Top Comics [November] said: Rulah, her beautifully black and coiffured mane cascading down to her bare shoulders, is in her skimpy, two-piece giraffe skin and winking bewitchingly at the reader. Then one notices not only that she is straddling a cleanly severed log that is somehow floating in air but that in each hand she is holding a rope that extends just below the log; from the end of each rope swings a small; surly and securely-bound black man.

R: No. As I said, the Rulah comics were really the most twisted and violent and sick of that whole bunch…. I don't think that at all! It has nothing to do with what I say.

L: Remember, I'm not talking about the intellectual statement per se but the attitudes behind it. Here's another indication of that attitude as expressed by Gershon Legman in Love and Death: A Study in Censorship: "Reading and dreaming … [women] fiercely delight in tales of triumphant bitchery, in which the immemorial tables are reversed, in which woman is master, and man the slave; in which man, the murderer is murdered."

R: I don't completely disagree with that. I think that whenever the tables are turned, whenever there's a revolution and the oppressed group rises up from under, they have to go through a period of getting their revenge. (p. 745)

L: Then you're talking about an attitudinal similarity with the Rulah cover.


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Bill Sherman

It took me a couple of years after I first discovered her (San Francisco Comix Book #2, "The Tiger's Revenge") to appreciate Trina Robbins's comix work. For a long time I ignored it. It wasn't the relative crudity of her artwork—at that time a lot of comix artists were crude—but something else: her working with comics material I thought at the time I'd outgrown. Trina's Golden Age tributes, comix consciousness meshed with comics style, seemed alien to me, too simultaneously close to childhood….

There was the matter of her feminism, too. "If you're taking it personally it probably was meant for you," she wrote of her sex satires in Girl Fight #2, and for a time her evocations of Amazons...

(The entire section is 219 words.)