Underground comics, like so many of the 1960s counterculture’s anti-institutions, started as a boys club. But the field didn’t stay that way for long. The all-women “It Ain’t Me, Babe” was published in 1970, followed in 1972 by “Wimmen’s Comix,” which persevered for two decades. One of the central figures in this India-ink insurrection was Trina Robbins, whose work is included in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center’s gallery. The retrospective doesn’t cover every aspect of women’s comics, but among the 18 participants are several of the early-’70s prime movers, including Diane Noomin, Sharon Rudahl and Aline Kominsky-Crumb (who married one of Robbins’s macho nemeses, R. Crumb).
The traveling exhibition features mostly American, British and Canadian cartoonists, although there are also a few Israelis. The work tends to be personal and wordy, sometimes emphasizing sincerity over dexterity. But there’s a significant range of attitudes and techniques: The seldom-confessional Robbins is a skilled artist, and a more versatile one than can be demonstrated with a single-page tale. (She’s represented by “Big Sister,” a chronicle of the dubious wisdom imparted by her sibling during their childhood.) Sarah Lightman draws with great detail (and in pencil), while the work of Racheli Rottner, whose sparse dialogue is in Hebrew, is easily understood because she’s such a keen visual storyteller.
For many of these artists, autobiography is not just important but essential. “I reveal parts of myself in graphic novel form because when I don’t, I get really depressed,” writes Ariel Schrag. Narrative becomes self-healing in Noomin’s account of her miscarriages and Laurie Sandell’s telling of her father as “an impostor.” Some of the publications sampled here address larger issues: Sarah Glidden is represented by part of “How to Understand Israel in 60 Days.” But there are no superheroes, extraterrestrials or epic quests. For these cartoonists, family history and self-definition are adventure enough.
Unlike the women of “Graphic Details,” local cartoonist Rafer Roberts depicts visions, fantasies and hallucinations. The comics pages displayed in “Fever Dreams of Organic Machines,” at VisArts Rockville’s Common Ground Gallery, draw on Disney, psychedelia, cheesy sci-fi and Marvel Comics (especially Jack Kirby, the artist who helped create most of the company’s franchise characters during the 1960s). One of Roberts’s recurring characters is Nightmare the Rat, who resembles a demonic version of a certain well-known mouse, and several episodes portray adventures in the Kitty Kat Galaxy, home to “Nekko IX.” (“Neko” is Japanese for “cat.”) There’s also a poster in which the top half of Abraham Lincoln’s head is a squid.
Roberts sometimes uses gray washes and even color, but his work is distinguished by clean lines and strong use of black. It’s meant for print, not gallery walls. So perhaps the best thing about this show is that it offers copies of “The End of the World” issue of Magic Bullet, a semiannual D.C. comics tabloid. There, Nightmare the Rat (and Roberts) rubs whiskers with lots of kindred souls, each awaiting Armageddon, but with varying degrees of dread or amusement.