March 18, 2014


Trina Robbins is a celebrated writer, historian, activist, and cartoonist. 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 cartoonist 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 work is Pretty Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013. 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 have been catching up after the Sacramento Wizard Comic Con. She is leaving tomorrow to curate a show at the Toonseum, but 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.

Welcome Trina! I recently interviewed Win Scott Eckert about Honey West, so I'd like to start with that character. Honey West debuted in September 1965. What are some of your early impressions of the show? Had you read any of the Fickling novels?

I had not read the novels until just before I started writing the comics, but I loved the TV show. It was a bit campy, just like the Batman show was campy, with all sorts of gadgets, but that was the current style of adventure shows at the time. What impressed me was that for a change, it was a woman fighting the bad guys, and of course Anne Francis was superb. To me, she is Honey West.

It seemed that most of the female roles in detective stories were reserved for femme fatales, two-timers, and ancillary characters like secretaries. In what ways was Honey West different?

She was the crime fighter, the mystery solver. Despite having a very annoying partner who kept trying to tell her not to do all that stuff, Honey was in control.  She didn’t need to be rescued by some guy.

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?

I liked the idea that the TV show came from the mid-1960s, and I decided to keep it retro, so for my Honey, it’s any time between 1964 and 1966.  I also loved Bruce the ocelot, who in my opinion was the co-star of the show, along with Honey.  I dumped the aunt and the boring partner, but kept the cop, Lt Mark Storm, so there could be some unrelieved sexual tension.  He’s really in love with her, but he’s old fashioned and believes a woman should not be a detective.  She might love him too, if only he would enter the 20th century.  Later, when I paired Honey with T.H.E. Cat, he joined the cop as potential love interest.

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?

Of course! I adored them!

Cathy Gale and Emma Peel really set the tone in the early 1960s for strong female action stars (in leather) who were also renowned scholars and scientists. Together with Honey West (and Barbara Bain on Mission Impossible), what did these role models offer girls in the 1960s?

First of all, the fashionista in me loved the cat suits. Other than that, they sure opened up the field for girls. Instead of having to choose between secretary, nurse, teacher, and stewardess, I could be a sexy private eye!

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!" 

Many female characters during the 1960s were still stuck in post-war suburban stories about housewives and winning (and keeping) husbands. Even Wonder Woman lost her powers to manage a clothing store and get missions from a man. Why do you think characters like Emma Peel were so rare? In terms of liberation, was the 60s expectation of “free love” really just about men maintaining power?

Characters like Emma Peel were indeed rare (and English!), but they were the early manifestations of a trend that would come into its own with the women’s liberation movement of the late 60s and 70s. Interesting you should bring up the 60s expectation of “free love.” That had a lot to do with the Pill. It meant women could finally be sexually active without fear of pregnancy, and that was a good thing, but unfortunately for a lot of hippy men, it meant they didn’t have to take any responsibility in a relationship. You see it in so many of the songs that were popular then: “I love you, but babe, I gotta ramble.” I believe “free love” was a major cause of the women’s liberation movement: I can sleep with you and have your babies and cook the brown rice, but I can’t ask for any commitment from you, because you “gotta ramble.”

It seems like birth control in the 1920s, entering the workforce in the 1940s, and the pill in the 1960s -leading to feminism in the 1970s- are benchmarks for powerful female characters in pop culture. Each period seems to be followed by backlash and reinforcement of male dominance. Where do you think our society is in the spectrum right now?

There are always forces that would like to send women back to the kitchen, and keep them barefoot and pregnant. That will never change. But as long as smart people are willing to fight back, we will never go back. And very slowly, things do change. I remember back-alley abortions, nylon stockings, looking for work in the “Women” section of the want ads (and of course men doing the same job made more money). But the ERA has still not been passed! 

Amazing the Equal Rights Amendment failed to receive ratification in 1982Lindsay Wagner said she didn’t want to portray the Bionic Woman as a “man in a skirt.” What do you think she meant? Is pop culture filled with female characters based on a male template of behavior?

Yes! All too often in mainstream superhero comics the female characters are ultra violent and bloodthirsty, not to mention being oversexed. These are male fantasies.

What was your impression of the Barbarella movie? I’ve only seen a bit of the original comic, which looks interesting.

I loved it! Jane Fonda was at her most Bardot-esque. But I fear if I watched it today it might seem dated.

During the spy boom in the mid-1960s, there were a few films that tried to spotlight strong female characters: Fathom, Modesty Blaise, and Deadlier Than the Male. Did these movies stand out for you?

I’m afraid the only one I remember is Modesty Blaise, which as you’ve probably guessed, was great. Obviously, before I ever heard the term “women’s liberation,” I was attracted to Honey, Emma, Modesty, the women who were beautiful and powerful and in control of their own lives.

Looking back into your research into comic history, tell us something about the Miss Fury comic strip. I’ve just ordered the two volumes from IDW and they really look amazing- that cat suit is cool! What is the essence of her character? Is she an Emma Peel or Honey West of the 1940s?

Yes, speaking of cat suits! Unlike Emma or Honey, who chose their lives and roles, Marla Drake (Miss Fury) kinda found her role as a crime fighter accidentally, when she decided to wear her explorer uncle’s panther skin to a costume party. This set off a chain of events that lasted almost 10 years, during which Marla discovered just how strong she was. She grew from a rich and pretty society girl into a woman who was a crack shot, who could hold her own in a catfight, who could shinny up buildings and ropes when she needed to, and who could fly a plane!

Was Miss Fury ever adapted into a radio show or serial?

No. Too bad!

We both have a love for fashion, and you once put together a cool book about paper dolls from the comics. Did you discover these when you were little?

I always loved paper dolls, used to draw my own, and read Katy Keene comics.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized there had been paper dolls in the newspaper strips.  Tell me about your love for fashion!

I'm especially into Space-Age fashion by Cardin, Courreges, and Rabanne. You know, those playful mini dresses, space visors, boots, and PVC coats. So Fun! And the trim lines and geometric patterns in Mod fashion is great! I'm also into Flappers and Fred Astaire movies. I'll include some of my fashion post links down below. Was there a Miss Fury paper doll with cat suit? I could only find other outfits on-line.

No cat suits, though, but great high fashion wartime outfits. There were also Baroness Erica Von Kampf paperdolls.  

I’ve read Miss Fury’s costume somehow took a psychic toll on her when she used its power. How was that established in the strip? Isn’t it unusual for a heroic character to experience this instant-karma as payment/sacrifice to their good deeds? The only equivalent that comes to mind is the Wiccan idea that every spell comes back to you threefold.

No no, you have it wrong! The panther skin was a gift from her uncle, a famous explorer, and it had belonged to a witch doctor and came with a curse on it for whoever wore it.

Interesting! Miss Fury has been brought back in new comics by Dynamite: Miss Fury, Masks, and Noir. My first impression, which is typical when faced with modern versions of ladies in catsuits, is why do they have to make her hyper-sexualized and physically exaggerated in a shiny tight suit? As Gloria Steinem wrote in an open letter to Miley Cyrus, it perpetuates sexual availability-as-power as the only game in town. That aside, do you think Miss Fury is holding up in the new books?

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. 

Another classic strip I look forward to reading is Phantom Lady. Her 'ray' seems like a cool gadget. What is the vibe of that comic? How does it compare to Miss Fury?

I like Phantom Lady, and Matt Baker could draw beautiful girls better than anybody!  The stories were simpler because they were only 6 to 8 pages long in comic book format, whereas Tarpe Mills had almost 10 years to develop her characters and her storyline.

Are there other detective or spy comics you would recommend with female leads?

Well, I’m particularly fond of the 1940s and 1950s Brenda Starr strips. She’s not a detective or a spy, but girl reporters can wind up in some harrowing situations! Brenda is forever having adventures, and she gets herself out of trouble most of the time.

Lois Lane has been described as more heroic than Superman because she dives into danger in pursuit of the truth, knowing she is mortal.

Lois has become a stronger character today, but in the early days of Superman, she was an annoying pain in the neck who always had to be rescued by Superman. 

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.

I’ve heard that you were a big Sci-Fi fan as a kid. Were there ways to connect with other fans then? And did you ever “Cosplay” your favorite characters?

I had 2 best friends David, who was 14, and Marty who was 15. Just like with superhero comics, there weren’t yet many girls reading Sci-Fi. We used to hang out in David’s finished basement, making up stories and talking about books we had read. There was no cosplay yet!

Did you listen to radio shows as a kid? I love listening to them now, truly the “theater of the mind.” It seems that shows made the experiences more interactive by keeping up the suspense from episode to episode, and by marketing things like decoder rings.

I definitely listened to radio shows: Captain Midnight, Superman, and Tom Mix.  Loved them!

Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all-time. Were you mostly a Sci-Fi reader, or did you also get into mysteries?

I loved Agatha Christie and Ngaio March, got all their books out of the library when I was in high school.

Did you collect pulps or comics growing up? What were some of your favorite titles?

OMG, yes! Before I went to high school, I read almost all comics books with girl or women heroines, like Wonder Woman, Mary Marvel, or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. When I hit high school, my schoolteacher mother told me that now I was a teenager and comics were kid stuff, and she talked me into giving my collection away to the neighborhood kids. But then I discovered science fiction, and soon was reading all the sci-fi pulp mags like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, etc. They featured letter columns, so I sent a letter to one of them, which they printed, saying I was a 14 year old girl who would like to meet other kids who read Sci-Fi, and that’s how I met David and Marty.

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?

The themes in my series for young readers are all supernatural: I have mad scientists, mummies, aliens, werewolves, ghosts, and witches. It’s not necessarily pulpy; just fun.

Speaking of Pulps, you have written The Phantom for one of Moonstone’s anthologies. Did you follow Lee Falk’s strips as a kid?

It was fun writing my Phantom story in the style of a Depression era pulp mag.  But no, I didn’t follow The Phantom. I don’t even know what newspaper ran it.

Are there other Pulp characters you would enjoy writing?

I’ve already written Captain Midnight, and I also wrote a Honey West short story that hasn’t come out yet. I dunno.  I’m open.

Comic books have a natural rhythm of suspense because they are serialized like those penny dreadfuls and cliffhangers of the past. Is writing different for you when working in a complete graphic novel form?

I enjoy writing both. I like graphic novels where I have the space to tell an entire story, but I have been enjoying writing my 2-part Honey Wests in which part 1 ends with a cliffhanger.

You have compiled some amazing artwork for projects like Miss Fury. Do you collect vintage comic books, strips, or original artwork? Does collecting play a part in the process of writing your books?

Of course I collect vintage comic books and original art! I have the largest collection in the world of comic art by early 20th Century women cartoonists. Currently, parts of my collection are being exhibited at Toonseum in Pittsburgh, the main branch of the SF public library in San Francisco, and soon to go up on exhibit at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum (April 27th).

I’m a huge fan of Richard Sala. His books are filled with strong women and fun elements from old mystery/adventure comics and serials. In one of my interviews wit him, he even shared some photos he got as a kid from Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers). Have you had a chance to follow Richard’s work?

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t read Richard Sala’s comics, but now I know that I must.

Check out “Peculia” and “The Chuckling Whatsit” (above) by Richard. His work tends to have an Emma Peel meets macabre mystery vibe! Now, we must look briefly at Wonder Woman. Below is a page from your Legends of Wonder Woman series for DC. You also famously wrote the Once and Future Story, where Wonder Woman takes on domestic violence. 

It was such a pleasure to contribute to the new Wonder Woman documentary with you. I hope everyone sees it! I think it could be a step for some people toward seeing the dominant male paradigm and what it means for female role models. What was important for you to address or cover when you wrote your various Wonder Woman comics?

I really just wanted to tell a good story with the Wonder Woman I loved, who was much closer to the original Golden Age Wonder Woman than what DC had been printing at the time.

Maybe I get my sense of Wonder Woman from Lynda Carter’s TV portrayal, but her essence seems to about honor, justice, and compassion.

Just like Anne Francis WAS Honey West, Lynda Carter WAS Wonder Woman!  All us feminists watched her show. I remember speaking about the new show with my dentist who was a woman (still a rarity then) and we were laughing and agreeing that we both loved it. She said, “Then why are we laughing?” I thought maybe it was a combination of us being so happy about the show, but also a little embarrassed that we grown women were so excited about a comic character.

Below are some press images from Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Trina is featured in the film, along with Gloria Steinem and Lynda Carter (pictured here).

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?

Those Barbie comics were pretty amazing. Drawn by 4 women whom I used to call “the Barbie Four” (Mary Wilshire, Anna Maria Cool, Amanda Conner, and Barb Rausch), written by 3 women, of which I was one, and also inker, and with a woman editor, Hildy Mesnick. And the stories were never of the “Oh, let’s go shopping!” or “Math is hard” variety. Of course the stories were simple, it was for little girls, but we tackled subjects like deafness, anorexia, other serious stuff, all the while making our stories fun to read. Mattel was a pain in the neck, because they had to approve all the scripts, and they were clueless suits. So once I proposed a story in which Skipper dreamed she was a pirate queen, and they rejected it, saying “little girls don’t care about pirates”!!! Oh, yeah? Another time I proposed a story where Barbie and her friends have a fashion show to benefit endangered species. And they said “No politics”!!! Endangered species is politics?!? So I had to change it to a fashion show to benefit the zoo.

Speaking of little girls, I ran into Denis Kitchen and his daughter Alexa many years back at a NCS dinner when I was writing my Mort Walker book. Alexa was making these cute buttons with her comics, and has since published Drawing Comics is Easy! (Except When it’s Hard). Did you get to see this cute book?

I haven’t seen it. It’s now on my list of books to check out.

It's really cute- and helpful! My cartooning students like it. Congrats on your new book, Pretty in Ink. My readers are interested in mysteries, detectives, and espionage, though I’d hope they are curious to read many genres. What are some highlights in the book that may appeal? You have uncovered some real life stories, too, that sound interesting.

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?

Yes, these were recurring characters, and during the war, most of them were drawn by women. Fran Hopper drew Glory Forbes, a girl detective; Mysta of the Moon, a goddess-like woman who lived on the moon, Jane Martin, a Nazi-fighting aviatrix/nurse, and Camilla, a jungle queen. Marcia Snyder also drew Camilla, and probably others but I don’t know which they were. Lily Renee drew Senorita Rio, along with Jane Martin, and other comics like Werewolf Hunter (see below) and Lost World.

Lilly did “Werewolf Hunter” under the pseudonym Armand Broussard. From what I’ve seen on-line, it looks like the scope of the stories included supernatural and anti-Nazi themes?

All the comics were credited to house pseudonyms, but the artists also signed their work, so although Werewolf Hunter says it’s by Armand Broussard, it’s signed “L. Renee.” Yes, these were stories of the supernatural, and often the evil forces are thinly disguised Nazis.

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?

What I’d really like to do is go to lunch with Tarpe Mills (pictured below)!

Lastly, if you were an international spy or diabolical mastermind, what would your secret lair be?

A nice little house close to the water in Hawaii.

Thank you, Trina. It’s a great pleasure chatting with you! Have fun at the Toonseum exhibit and comic convention this week. Related posts below. Check out my Spring Sale on eBay here. My website here and Mort Walker [Beetle Bailey] book here. Readers might be interested in my new novel about a female Japanese spy and Raymond Benson's Black Stiletto series. 

Related posts: Catsuits, Spy Vibe's image archives on Pinterst here, Batman '66 Interview, Cold War ComicsWin Scott Eckert Honey West InterviewShane Glines InterviewWilliam Maynard Fu Manchu InterviewRichard Sala InterviewMod Tales InterviewKinky BootsPeeling Off the TrenchcoatsMods to Moongirls, Batman '66 and Andy WarholSpies: the World Around UsMan From UNCLE pagesSix Million Dollar Man records and toysSHIELD Artist EditionsSolar and Bionic Man Return. 

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