Ronald Levitt Lanyi

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2726

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

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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.

R: Well, no, there's the tables turned and then there's just plain—you know, that Rulah cover sounds real sick, phallic and violent. Two little black men dangling on ropes and everything. I mean, I'd never go that far.

L: You "Speed Queen Among the Freudians" story, as I recall, concludes with something which is symbolically similar: Speed Queen is dangling the small, white, obviously phallic-shaped key to Freuda over her long black boots.

R: Oh no, I don't think of that key to Freuda as a phallic shape at all. Sorry to disappoint you. What I had to say in there was that with their own guns they destroyed their phallic image. They shot it down themselves. Shooting at her, they missed and shot it down. And then she leaves after they've presented her with the key to Freuda. She leaves and says, "Well, it's a nice place, but I wouldn't want to live there."

L: Of course "there" is an exclusively masculine society, and the key which she is dangling is a symbol of that masculinity.

R: I'm just really sorry, but I didn't think of it as phallic. My only phallic symbol was the obvious one, which they shot down. I was just trying to do a traditional key, really. I mean, what can I tell you?

L: Okay.

R: I mean, Speed Queen didn't want to castrate them; they wanted to clitoradectomize her. I've never had castrating women, never. They never do anything nasty to men. (pp. 745-46)

L: In "Sacrifice in the Temple" in the first issue of Girl Fight you seemed to be registering an at least subconscious awareness that displays of aggressiveness greater than women are supposed to make may be too challenging to the male ego: Two women archeologists discover a well-endowed, nearly naked young man in an ancient temple and revive him from his sleep of thousands of years. The leader, relinquishing her hold on his loincloth in order to take him by the hand, says, "Come on, handsome,… [we] have things to discuss in my tent!" But as soon as she gets him into the light of day, he disintegrates.

R: Oh no, it wasn't because of her aggressiveness. It was because of something about the air down there that had kept him so perfectly preserved until the sunlight hit him. I mean, that's an old rip. That's been done in so many science fiction and horror stories.

L: Sure, but what she was going to do is try to lay him. And so it seemed that that's what you were saying through the device of disintegration, that the male ego crumbles—

R: Oh no, I wasn't saying that. I was simply using the old rip of the sunlight making him crumble. That's what happens in Lost Horizons: When they leave the mountain, she turns into dust. So I just used that rip; that's all. See, you're reading far too much meaning into my work. Well, it's charming—you and Gershon Legman. He also read meaning into everything. But it's like Freud saying that sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar, you know? (p. 747)

[L: You] indicated that as far as your own comics are concerned, there is nothing of a sexual nature in them, with a few exceptions, that a child should be prevented from seeing. But what about, say, the explicit lesbian lovemaking that sometimes appears in your work? According to current cultural standards, isn't that pornographic, deviant, and unsuitable for children?

R: I always show sex as a beautiful thing. I never show it along with violence and hostility toward the other person, except when Fox is being raped and she knifes the guy to protect herself. That's self-defense…. Explicit sex is never horrible and never bad. (pp. 747-48)

L: Let's go back to female homosexuality in your work. In an article entitled "Not for Lesbians Only," Charlotte Bunch spoke of lesbian-feminism as "a political critique of the institution and ideology of heterosexuality as a cornerstone of male supremacy." Would such a critique lie behind your depiction of "sister/lovers," as you call them in one of your stories? (p. 749)

[R: I'm] not putting down heterosexuality or saying that heterosexuality represents male dominance.

L: What about "Fox," your story of a black heroine?… Her only satisfying sexual experience in the story is with a white woman; their scene occurs under a large poster bearing the women's liberation symbol.

R: Well, there I just felt that it would be nice and pleasant and revolutionary to have some lesbian scenes, that's all. Because nobody else was doing them; certainly the men weren't about to do them. The men were really horrified by lesbians and terribly threatened by them and at that point felt that all feminists were dykes. I thought it was a pleasant change from the sex scenes that men always show, basically. I thought it would be nice to have women making love to women, because I think that's very pretty. But I really haven't done that for a while either. That was a reaction. You know, a lot of things I've done have been reactions to what was going on around me. These days my comics are terribly heterosexual.

L: So you weren't at all considering your lesbian work as a reaction against "heterosexuality as a cornerstone of male supremacy?"

R: No, I think that lesbians may feel that way, but in my work I didn't feel that way. That wasn't my reaction. Back then, when I did those comics, I was still a new feminist, and most new feminists, women who become feminists and start exploring the world of feminism, get turned on to the fact that their sisters can be attractive. And some of them either become lesbians or flirt with the idea of lesbianism. And I was more like one of the ones who flirted with lesbianism…. What you do is explore all those facets of yourself that have never come out before. Because you've been only living by, as I said before, male standards. So one of the facets is love of other women, because we're all bisexual inside. So all these things come out, you know? You try them all out and think about them. And you get to what you really prefer…. My anger was another thing I tried out. My anger had never been allowed to come out before, so I tried it out. It was fun. If you don't try these things out, they stay inside. (pp. 749-50)

L: In panel three [of "Visit with the Artist in Her Own Studio"] you have your cartoon image to say to male readers: "I admit to a lot of genuine hostility! I'll start liking you better when you start liking women better!" In the lower right hand corner of that panel, the one preceeding it, and two succeeding it, you indicate your outside-the-picture daughter calling to take her to the bathroom, but instead of placing her call in conventional word balloons, you place it in something I've never seen before in comics. For those four panels the lines that should be coming together to form the lower right hand corner instead arch northwesterly and form a phallic shape that grows larger with each panel. You probably intended this inventive use of formal content to be an indicator of annoying insistence, but what it seems to indicate on a deeper symbolic level is that to some degree, either consciously or subconsciously, you associate problems of a non-male origin with maleness. Thus you imply that the hostility toward men you referred to in panel three and which has been a basis for a large amount of your work does not always proceed from a realistic base. (p. 750)

[R: You] see phallic shapes everywhere! What's happening is that that's reality intruding into my word balloon, pushing its way into the balloon, so that finally the fantasy balloon pops. And there I am in reality….

[R:] The balloon is fantasy, and when she finally pops it, there I am in reality in patched jeans. I'm not wearing all those nifty outfits, and I don't have people handing me joints and champagne. It's all fantasy. The reality is that I'm a mother with a child who wants to go to the bathroom. It has nothing to do with phallic symbols….

R: I mean, I hate to disappoint you, but none of these heavy meanings are in there. Really, it's just what's there. It's just what I say and just what's there and that's all. I can't believe what you're reading into this!…

L: I may be a riot, but my job is to explore facets, to find sense, right?

R: You're finding sense. The sense is in what I say! The sense is in exactly what I put there. (p. 752)

[R: I] have been in darkness, and I've had to fight my way out of it. I've had to fight against all the stereotypes that I truly believed in, all the things in a male-dominated culture that were told me that I accepted. The fact that I dislike authority so much now is because I used to accept authority so readily in the past. I accepted all those things that I was told and had to fight my way out of that. I had to fight my way into realities, into understanding myself and understanding my sisters: that we're people. And understanding men too: that you're people. None of us are cliches. We're all multitudes. We're all masses of contradictions. (p. 753)

Ronald Levitt Lanyi, "Trina, Queen of the Underground Cartoonists: An Interview," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1979 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. XII, No. 4, Spring, 1979, pp. 737-54.

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