Insight on Cartoonists: Trina Robbins

An interview with cartoonist Trina Robbins

Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner both played Robin Hood (though not at the same time), and Al Jolson sang about the “Red, red Robin” doing its “bob, bob bobbin’along.”  Now it’s time to meet another Robbins (Trina Robbins, that is) whose work deserves (if not a song or a movie remake), then the respectful appreciation of art and social culture patrons both.

Cartoon by Trina RobbinsI ‘met’ (as it were) Ms Robbins though an extraordinarily well-written article in the  San Francisco Chronicle by Jessica Zack under the caption “Brave Women who Defied the Culture.”  I was intrigued when I read Trina’s contribution:

“I was an artist and hippie in the ‘60s,’ and was one of a small number of underground cartoonists on the Lower East side in New York.  I noticed this misogyny creeping into the scene.  The male cartoonist humiliated women, drew them being raped and tortured, and I didn’t think it was funny.  They said, ‘Oh you have no sense of humor.’

“In 1969, I read something in an underground newspaper about how guys think we’re good enough to have their babies and wash their socks and make their brown rice, but they won’t let us talk in political movement meetings.  They won’t take us seriously.  That may have been the first time I heard the term ‘womens liberation.’ That usually meant sexually liberated, that you’d sleep with the guy (laugh).  So that was the big light bulb moment for me.”  (SF Chronicle, January 30, 2015)

Using that ancient tool called a telephone directory, I contacted Trina Robbins, who now lives in San Francisco, and answered her own phone (!), responding beautifully to my questions.  Let me share her thoughts with you.

By her own admission, this gifted artist wants to make one thing specifically clear:

“I no longer draw.  I am a full time writer of books and comics and a ‘herstorian’ and have been so for over 20 years now.  Also, when I did draw, I did not draw ‘cartoons’ – I drew comics.

“Now, my most satisfying artistic experience is usually my latest project or product.  I have two books coming out this fall that I edited: Babes in Arms is a collection of the comics of Four
Golden Age women cartoonists who drew comics during the war, and their heroines were beautiful courageous women who fought the Axis and who didn’t need to get rescued  by some guy.

“The other collection is a two-volume boxed set of the complete Wimmen’s Comix and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe.’ Babe, 1970, was the very first ever all-woman comic book.  Wimmens, 1972-1992, was the first and longest-running all-woman comics anthology.  So it will be very satisfying to finally see them when they come out.

“I also just finished writing the script script for a Scholastic graphic novel for young teens, the story of Mulan, and it should see print in the spring.  Trouble is, when I write for Scholastic’s educational comics line, I don’t get to  have any say about the artist, so if the art turns out good, it will be satisfying, but if it’s bad art, well…you know.  I am also working on my memoir, which is hard and only sometimes satisfying.”

Not everyone has had support from an early age, but Trina Robbins was apparently blessed with it.  “My family was very encouraging.  Nobody ever said, I couldn’t be an artist, that I had to marry and have kids.  Mom was a teacher and brought home reams of paper and pencils, and I would fold each sheet in half, thereby making four pages on which to draw a comic.”

Trina’s heartwarming look back on her childhood also includes her father, “taking me to museums all the time, especially the Brooklyn Museum,” and, “Bike riding with my big sister and getting lost.”  She recalls her sister as her role model whom she adored.  “I wanted to be just like her!  She bit her nails, so I bit mine.  She was afraid of dogs, so I was too. Of course, now I love dogs!”

Trina also had two high school teachers whom she’ll “never forget: Mrs. Wittner, my freshman math teacher who made algebra so interesting that I actually got a A. The only A I ever got in math. Then there was my beloved French teacher, Miss Jones, who was just — beloved.”

Some of her friends and teachers, “might not be too surprised as to how I turned out and what I’ve been doing.  But at a 50th Class Reunion at least two classmates remembered that I had been so ‘perky.’ That amazed me because I’d always thought of myself as the class geek.’

As with most folks, Trina has had her share of ‘the lows.’  “In about 1985 when DC comics gave me the job of drawing a four-part Wonder Woman mini-series, I didn’t yet have enough faith in myself to write it, so it was written by someone else although co-plotted by me.  Today I would write it myself.”  And in the ‘90’s, “there was  a definite low point for me.  Many of the venues for which I’d been working disappeared, and I felt like I was a has-been and that nobody wanted  me anymore.  That was when I simply lost the ability to draw.”  Clearly on her way back now as both writer and editor, she is proof of the gift of resiliency and patience.

And she is well-tuned to the times too.  Though she has had “no run-ins with editors,” Robbins tells us that writing for Scholastic, she has had to be careful.  “For instance, in my Mulan script I had her shooting geese.  The editor reminded me that they don’t show violence or cruelty to animals in those books, and of course it made perfect sense.  Hardly censorship though!”

Trina’s suggestion to young artists is to consider,” Comics, not cartooning.  I want you to draw, to write, to read books and comics and not to give up without a fight.”

As for the omnipresent Internet, Trina Robbins considers it, “a matter of personal preference.  I just don’t like to read comics on my computer screen, I like everything about paper: the texture, the smell, the turning pages.”  That certainly explains her enthusiasm for, “Graphic novels?  I write ‘em, and most women in the industry write’ em.  That’s why  there are so many women drawing comics today,  more than ever. Before, if you wanted to create comics, it was either superheroes or the underground, and most women are not interested in writing, drawing or reading about overly muscled guys with big chins and thick necks beating each other up.  Now we can tell our stories in graphic novels and they are carried in bookstores and libraries, which means we can bypass the dread comic book store.”

Looking back at a time well before the internet, Trina responded to our question about her youthful favorites with: “Oh gosh, Matt Baker, who drew beautiful women: jungle girls and sci fi heroines and such for Fiction House comics, which specialized in comics starring beautiful strong heroines. Wally Wood who also drew beautiful women for ED comics. And yes they are still great.”

In our Q’ing and A’ing, her reply to our inquiry about where she finds inspiration was brief but telling:  “For writing,  I read all the time, always have.  Books will never run dry.”  (And we suspect, neither will Trina.

As for her own favorite piece of work, she says, “I like my six-part graphic novel for kids, The Chicagoland Detective Agency and still think it’s funny.  I love the one romance I’ve written, ‘A Match Made in Heaven,’ about a teenage girl who falls in love with an angel, and when I reread it, I still cry at the end.”

Appraising the work of current female artists, Trina says the younger women today who are drawing graphic novels are so talented.  “They draw better than I ever did, so it’s a good thing I became a writer.”

Indulging in a bit of fantasizing, she says that if she could go back in time to meet anyone at all, “I  would love to have lunch with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, although I suspect Gertrude would spend the entire time talking about herself.”  And would she want to be anyone other than Trina Robbins, “I wouldn’t want to anyone but me, but 40 years younger.  Even 30 would be nice.”

When asked to sum up her life, Trina says: “I’ve had a pretty good life. There were ups and downs (there always are), and sometimes it was an uphill fight.  But my entire life has been a learning experience and it’s mostly come out all right.  I have a good reputation in my field, people know me and my work, I own my house in San Francisco, I’ve had great cats, and even when they were stupid or mean,  I still loved them.  My daughter seems to have forgiven me for being a terrible mother and I have a fabulous granddaughter and even like my son-in-law.  I have a great partner,  even though sometimes he drives me up the wall, and I know that sometimes I drive him up the wall.  I’m pretty proud of my body of work.  I know that when I leave this earth at 150, I will at least get an obit in the Chronicle, but I’d like to get one in the NY Times too.”

The winged Robin might have had the red breast, but Trina Robbins is clearly among the best read.  Enjoy!

Stanford Chandler
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