As women and families across the country march today in support of equality and fundamental rights, I'd like to share this interview I did with Trina Robbins a while back. And as I gear up for another annual writers festival, I find the whole story timely! It's been a super busy time here in the Spy Vibe lair. I'm co-running another writers festival and the past couple of weeks have been filled with planning, meetings, and preparing materials and presentations. The goal of the festival is to bring in writers from across disciplines into the classrooms so that every English class is exposed to writers and their craft. Kids get to hear about careers, process, and hopefully experience sparks that will inspire their own journeys of expression. The big event for me was running an all-school assembly that focussed on comics and writer/artists who bring elements of activism to their work. Cartoonist Nomi Kane talked about her work at the Charles Schulz Studio and making her own political cartoons. And Trina Robbins gave us an overview of how Wonder Woman has reflected society and gender roles over the decades and she talked about some of the stories she's written- most notably The Once and Future Story about domestic violence. In celebration of the event, here is a lengthy interview I once did with Trina. She touches on many of our favorite characters, so I hope you will enjoy! Trina Robbins is a writer, historian, editor, activist, and artist. Making her start in the underground comix scene, she has written for notable characters like Honey West, T.H.E. Cat, The Phantom, Captain Midnight, and Wonder Woman. She has also published extensively about the history of women cartoonists and recently compiled two volumes of the classic adventure strip Miss Fury for IDW. Her graphic novels for young readers include Lily Renee: Escape Artist, Bessie Coleman: Daring Stunt Pilot, Hedy Lamar and a Secret Communication System, and the Chicagoland Detective Agency series. Her most recent works are Pretty Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013, Babes in Arms, and The Complete Wimmen's Comix. She was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2013. Trina and I contributed to a recent documentary film called Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines and graciously made time to chat with me about some of the great lady spies and detectives, about reading Pulps as a kid, and about how changing gender roles have been reflected in pop culture.
When it came time for you to write Honey West for Moonstone, what were some of the character elements or story conventions you wanted to make sure to include?
The Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers came to the US in March 1966 and the earlier episodes, starring Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, aired later in the US. Did you follow the show?
Speaking of fashion and strong independent women, I put together a 'fashion show' yesterday to spotlight catsuits. In the introduction to this promo collage I wrote, "Before this style became hyper-sexualized with exaggerated physicality and shiny latex, it was the original design for cool athletic lady detectives, jewel thieves, and spies. From a time when women in pop culture could be erotic by being strong, characters didn't have to play the card of sexual availability- too often, as Gloria Steinem has pointed out, the only game in town for women to claim power. Figures like Irma Vepp (Les Vampires/1915), Miss Fury (1940s), Cathy Gale (The Avengers/1964), Mrs Peel (The Avengers/1965), Honey West (1965), Marianne Faithful (Girl On a Motorcycle/1968)), and Catwoman (1966) below show us a far more nuanced possibility. Lady Spy Vibers never settle for less!"
I completely agree with you! It breaks my heart to see what these gorillas have done to the wonderful Miss Fury. No, she is not “holding up” in these badly written and badly drawn new books, and my Miss Fury and the REAL Miss Fury will always be the original Tarpe Mills’ Miss Fury. Trina, what do you think male writers usually get wrong when they try to write strong heroines?
It isn’t so much the writer as the artist. How can a woman be strong and in control when her back is broken or in real life the weight of her breasts would make her fall forward onto her face? And let’s not talk about running in high heels!
To illustrate our points, here is a collage I put together of some of the new Miss Fury comic covers. With apologies to some readers, these are quite grotesque. Dynamite produces many variant covers, not all as offensive as this, but the overall design and vibe is consistent. This is the image of an independent action heroine? It makes me sad for any boy or girl who sees these images of this heroine and has to struggle to reconcile the message being communicated. I guess I prefer my heroes and heroines to be role models.
Trina contributed an appreciation to the Brenda Starr collection below by Hermes Press. Hermes has also published collections of The Phantom, Roy Rogers, Buck Rogers, Terry and Pirates, Johnny Hazard, and many Gold Key comic reprint editions.
Here are some images you might enjoy from the Pulps and early comics. Talk about strong independent heroines!
Tell me about your series Chicagoland Detective Agency. Are you bringing in elements from the Pulps to new readers?
Looking at a character really marketed to girls, were you able to bring new depth to Matell’s BARBIE when you wrote a comic for Marvel in the 90s?
Well, of course one of the most interesting (out of many!) is the story of Lily Renee, who drew gorgeous adventure strips, most starring beautiful heroines, for Fiction House comics during WWII. Her life was right out of a comic book. She was a Jewish teenager in Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis marched in, and she escaped to England the following year, had many adventures, finally winding up in NY, drawing for Fiction House. My favorite of her strips is Senorita Rio, about a Brazilian actress and nightclub entertainer who was really a spy for the secret service. So I wrote a graphic novel about her, called Lily Renee, Escape artist. Check it out, it’s aimed at kids but grownups like it too.
In your praise for Lily Renee, you’ve mentioned Fiction House was turning out great material in the 1940s that included “jungle girls, girl reporters and aviatrixes and girl detectives and girl spies.” Were these reoccurring characters? Who were those cool ladies?
We’ve talked about many of the great female action figures, from Emma Peel to Honey West and Miss Fury. If you could invite one of these characters to lunch, who would it be?
Lastly, if you were an international spy or diabolical mastermind, what would your secret lair be?