When Trina Robbins was around 11 or 12 years old, her mother, a schoolteacher, would bring home reams of paper and lots of number-two pencils. After carefully folding the sheets in half (and diligently gnawing away at the pencils' erasers) Robbins would draw herself four-page comics. She remembers one that was inspired by her fascination with the "goddess" behind green goddess dressing. "Why," she remembers her heroine exclaiming upon discovering the goddess's temple, "she's green!"
As an adult, Robbins barreled through the world of comics when it was at its most masculine and misogynist: she created It Ain't Me, Babe Comix, the first all-women comic book. She started the anthology Wimmen's Comix, which ran for 20 years. She was Wonder Woman's first cartoonist. She designed Vampirella. More recently, she has been writing histories—or rather, herstories—devoted to women cartoonists. Now she comes to lecture at the Art Institute on Wednesday, March 15, and at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on Thursday, March 16.
Robbins lost interest in comics as a high school student when her mother, who insisted on giving up her daughter's comics collection, said, "You're a teenager now—comics are kids' stuff." So Trina grew up, grew into the rock scene in LA, designed clothes for her fellow rockers, and wrote articles for the LA Free Press.
And suddenly, she says, "Hippies were interested in comics!" Robbins started reading comics again, especially enjoying the mystical Doctor Strange and Thor. She tried to draw a few of her own, "but all I could think of at the time were buff superhero comics," she says. "And I just am not a superhero artist."
But one fateful day in 1966, someone handed Robbins a copy of the Lower East Side's underground paper, the East Village Other. "And it blew my mind, to use the expression of the time," she says. "It had comics in it—hippie comics! These comics were about my lifestyle, not about guys in skintight underwear, big chins, and thick necks punching each other out." She was particularly enamored with one psychedelic comic, Gentle's Trip Out, signed by someone named "Panzika" (aka underground-comics artist Nancy Burton). "I saw that, and I thought, 'This is what I want to do,' " Robbins says. "Two years later, I found out that Panzika was a woman. Cool, huh? My inspiration to finally draw comics was a woman!"
While she was reading comics strictly as a fan, "It never occurred me to think, 'Gosh, where are the women?' " Robbins says. "It really wasn't until I started drawing comics myself that I finally noticed that the guys had their own club." In the tiny world of underground comics, she remembers being excluded from participating in exhibitions, contributing to comic books, and socializing at parties. "I remember beginning to think, 'Oh, I'm the only woman here," Robbins says. "They're all guys, and they don't like me. Maybe they don't like women. Maybe they don't really believe I'm a cartoonist because I'm a girl.' This might sound silly, but that was when I really knew that I was a woman and they were men."
"It wasn't that the guys would say, 'Go away, we don't want you,' " Robbins clarifies. "Rather they would just ignore me." But she held on to her gnawed number-two pencil. "I simply did not stop," she says. "I didn't stop because it seemed like they wanted me to stop. I didn't stop because it seemed like they would be happier if I had not existed."
Robbins found a respite in underground papers, particularly the new women's liberation newspaper, It Ain't Me, Babe. "Of course, it came out of Berkeley," she says. Robbins started drawing for them after a fruitful meeting during a be-in at Golden Gate Park. "Because I was drawing for It Ain't Me, Babe, I felt braver: I had them now. It wasn't just me."
Robbins didn't stop, and she's more prolific than ever: she has four books coming out this year. "I have a strong Judeo-Christian work ethic, she says, "but even for me four books is a bit silly." The new releases include her memoir Last Girl Standing; A Minyen Yidn, a collaboration between 12 different cartoonists in an adaptation inspired by her father's Yiddish short stories, each one a snapshot of the Belarusian village he grew up in; and Babes in Arms (Hermes), a prose work in she which celebrates four women who drew comics during World War II.
"My God, feminism is strong!" Robbins says. "We have Donald Trump to thank for that, don't we? It's because of you, Donald, that I have this cute little pussy hat." Robbins went to the March on Washington, grinning in a sea of cute hats and Wonder Woman protest signs. "Only women would say, 'Let's have a big protest march and all wear cute, pink hats!' " she says. "All those women at the march were so wonderful. And we are: we're all strong and wonderful and all over the country now, because of Donald Trump!" v