At Large  November 15, 2019  Anna Claire Mauney

The Real-Life Wonder Woman of Comics Herstory

Courtesy of Trina Robbins

Trina Robbins, Cover of The Legend of Wonder Woman. No. 1, DC Comics, 1986.

Trina Robbins doesn’t want you to call her an icon or to refer to her simply as the first woman to draw Wonder Woman. To her, that’s another way of saying, “I have no idea what the hell she does.” Spoiler alert—Robbins does a lot.

Courtesy of Trina Robbins. Photo by Jessica Christian.

Trina Robbins in 2017.

In her memoir, Last Girl Standing, the 81-year-old says she intends to drop dead at her computer. In the last decade alone, Trina has published eleven books, mostly on the history of women in comics. By this time next year, it will be thirteen. Gladys Parker: A Life in Comics, A Passion for Fashion, will be out this winter, and The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age, will follow in summer.

But it’s understandable why people are so eager to talk about her previous careers as a boutique owner and cartoonist. In the 1960s, she ran a boutique called Broccoli that dressed rock stars like Mama Cass and Donovan. She sewed in exchange for the EVO, an underground newspaper, publishing her comics-style advertisements called the Broccolistrip. Through this, she got involved in the underground comics scene, though she was turned off by the lack of respect and opportunity for women. In the 70s, she edited and drew the cover for the first all-female underground comic, It Ain’t Me Babe. She also helped launch Wimmen’s Comix, the first and longest-lasting all-women comics anthology. In the 80s, she became the first woman to draw Wonder Woman. And yes, she is the Trina of Joni Mitchell’s song, Ladies of the Canyon.

Courtesy of Trina Robbins.

Trina Robbins, Cover of Wimmen's Comix Presents Disastrous Relationships, Rip Off Press, 1989.

Today, she’s much more focused on her writing. If you couldn’t already tell, she’s the primary herstorian of comics. But for her, it’s about more than just comics. It’s about unsung women. And, it’s about fashion. 

The two are inextricably linked in her mind and, apparently, in the minds of the women she historicizes. “I've always found it interesting that women who drew comics paid much more attention to the clothes than men,” she reflects, adding, “There are exceptions, but for me it's almost a sign.” Another sign is the inclusion of paper dolls in many comics written by women. “It's not always exactly, there are exceptions. But for so many of them it's code.”

Courtesy of Trina Robbins.

Trina Robbins, paper doll page from Meet Misty, No. 6, Marvel Star Comics, 1986.

Trina featured paper dolls in a few of her own comics, like Meet Misty and California Girls. She says Katy Keene, a comic drawn by Bill Woggon, was her big inspiration. “As I said, there are exceptions. He was a guy, Bill.” But, she continues, “the thing about [Katy Keen] was that the readers sent in designs for the clothes... and he would dress Katy in some outfit that a reader had sent in and he would give credit.” 

A unique look at fashion through the ages is something Trina feels the art world stands to gain from delving into comics history. The concept of reader-submitted designs, and the kind of representation it facilitated, is certainly part of that. Where else are clothing designs submitted by legions of young readers featured? 

This speaks to the power of representation and opportunity—cornerstones of Trina’s career and the careers of the women she’s written about.

Courtesy of Trina Robbins.

Trina Robbins, page from The Legend of Wonder Woman, No. 3, DC Comics, 1986.

When asked if she brought anything uniquely female or ‘Trina’ to Wonder Woman, she responds, “I don't know what I brought into it, except of course, the little girl in me.” For so many cartoonists and fans, this would have been the ultimate dream. And yet, Trina speaks about it casually. Perhaps that’s because she’s seen many other cartoonists do the same thing.

Courtesy of Trina Robbins.

Gladys Parker: A Life in Comics, A Passion for Fashion, by Trina Robbins, Hermes Press, 2019.

“I’ve said this so many times, the artist can play god,” she explains. “Lily Renee wanted to have adventures so she drew a comic in which [Senorita Rio], who just happened to look exactly like her, had adventures in Brazil.” Trina lists several other examples with ease. Tarpe Mills looked like Miss Furry, Dale Messick made herself look like Brenda Starr and Gladys Parker’s resemblance to Mopsy is emphasized on the cover of Trina’s upcoming book. “I wanted an adventure with Wonder Woman and, voila,” she concludes. 

Trina has had an enormous impact on the comics industry. The proof is in the current state of the field, which has changed enormously—that much, she can see clearly. “It's to a point where I never even dreamed it would get this wonderful,” she says, sounding a bit amused. At the end of the day, Trina just doesn’t want you to forget that she’s still standing. In her own words, “I’m a living human being who writes great books, if I do say so myself.”

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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