Mystic novelist Doris Lessing interspersed her autobiographies with news clippings and thought-snippets that she’d saved from the years she was writing about. It’s not something you see very often in personal biography; history books are preferred when pulling in contextual ‘fact’. Instead Lessing supplies us with flavors of 60’s London (such as “in cinemas and theatres we stood up for the national anthem”). There’s something so evocative about how she pulls on that shared current of her time. Some of ‘the times’ get culturally hardened and recorded in history books, but lots of it doesn’t.
In a similar vein, singer Ian Svenonius notes the transient attitudes of the Then-and-Now, using The Velvet Underground as an example ,
“…groups that failed in their own era despite catchy tunes, cool shades, turtlenecks and solid connections might have ‘felt’ bad to their audience…conversely, groups which might have felt ‘right’ at the time (the Grateful Dead, Grand Funk, Free etc) may seem confusing to listeners of a later era who are not privy to the pheromones said groups were releasing at their concerts.”
Reading the two-volume release of The Complete Wimmen’s Comix made me think about those sort of cultural assumptions and blank spots. The first volume in particular feels like a powerful raw gust of real comics history. The pretty pink and black covers (with inset blue, bruise-like half moons) kicks off with Trina Robbin’s anthology It Aint Me, Babe (1970) and then the complete run of Wimmen’s Comix. I’ve read individual issues before and was somewhat ambivalent. Getting to read the whole gamut is a much different experience, especially the aforementioned first volume (1970-1985).
The second volume contains a lot of great stuff too (and more of the artists I’d cite as direct influences on my own work such as Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner and Alison Bechdel) but the first volume stands out. It seems more experimental, wilder and much less conventional. I wouldn’t have name checked any of these artists in the 70’s/early 80’s as personal influences but this book has made me look with fresh eyes. There’s bold storytelling, some crazy comics layouts and lewd, unapologetically sexy content. It’s in stark relief to the relative lack of risk-taking I permit myself. (And yeah, I’m going to keep thinking about that one).
Another aspect that occurs to me is that volume one is essentially my mother’s generation making those comics (I was born in ’75) which makes the lack of respect for cultural niceties and cartooning norms seem even more punk rock and revelatory, as well as being somewhat nostalgic. It reminds me of looking though my aunt’s closet in the early 1980’s and finding all her old platform shoes and boots. My childish trespassing got me yelled at after the event, but I’m glad to own that childhood memory of trying on and walking around in those beautiful and weird, too-big-for-me ‘space’ shoes.
It’s not just surface and style though, the content is a match to the macho mores of its time. I’m old enough to remember the casual chauvinism of early 80’s primetime TV shows, as much as I remember seeing housewives with black eyes in the supermarket on Saturday mornings. Though, I was in 1980’s Northern England and not 1970’s San Francisco – yet it’s close enough to spark that consciousness. It’s kind of the thrust these feminist cartoonists were aiming at I think.
This volume has also made me re-evaluate Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work. I found her book Need More Love a little tiresome in tone but reading her juxtaposed with other women artists in this context is such an enjoyable experience. Set amongst her generational peers it’s easier to see the frank humor and flippant skill in her work. She’s so great!
A lot of the comics here do miss their mark artistically but it’s not important overall. There was enough I found exciting (and fun!) in these volumes to remind me of the direct power of comics in print – a single cartoonist to a single reader through ink and paper, sharing the highs and degradations of the female experience. This is a big, beautiful, door-opening book and I’m really glad it’s out there.