In From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines (Chronicle, $17.95), veteran comic artist and writer Trina Robbins aims to create a record of women in comics and in the comics industry, but in the process she has also written an amusing look at the development of this country's mores for the last 50 years.
In the '50s, comics for girls tended to be hokey romances, simple melodramas with story lines that generally followed one of two patterns. On the one hand, there were stories of the good girls, who always ended up married to their dream guys. And then there were comics about those . . . other girls, who tended to make life-altering mistakes after being led astray by some rake -- who always seemed to have a pencil moustache, for some reason -- in comic stories with telling titles such as "My Tarnished Reputation" or "The Haunting Past!"
These comics became extinct in the '60s only to be replaced by another flavor of women's interest comics that have aged just as awkwardly. The late '60s and early '70s saw fitful attempts to connect to a shrinking female audience with such hard-hitting tales as "How Can I Love a Member of the Establishment?" Check out this introduction to a character known as "Space Girl," from a psychedelic comic called "Mod Love": "The go go wonder of Paris, that's Space Girl . . . Love? Forget it, baby, not for her -- she's the hippest girl in the world."
These days, comics aimed at women follow a very different couple of formats -- there are the angry, feminist comics such as Roberta Gregory's "Bitchy Bitch" character, a woman who explodes and kicks patriarchal-oppressing butt every few panels or so. And then there are autobiographical stories such as Jessica Abel's "Artbabe" (and Julie Doucet's "My New York Diary," reviewed below) which are slow-moving stories in which women hang out with their friends and talk about relationships. Let's check back with each other in a generation to see if these genres age more gracefully than their predecessors.
Robbins's tour of women's comics is chiefly a chronicle of who wrote what and who published what over the years, so it's possible to come away from the book with no idea if there's actually any really good stuff by and about women being published right now or not. Judging by Jule Doucet's latest graphic novel, My New York Diary (Drawn & Quarterly Publications, $24.95), there is.
Doucet's work could be described as the female equivalent of Peter Bagge's "Hate" comic -- a popular series about twentysomethings going on thirtysomethings living in boho conditions (or with their parents), dating from the same pool and constantly squabbling with each other. Doucet's latest, nonfiction piece follows a year or two from her young days as an art student in Montreal, studying with the rejects of the school and living with a philosophy student who was convinced that the world was going to end any minute.
Finally, she moves to New York City to live with a pen pal who falls in love with her and immediately becomes her boyfriend. Together, they sit around a dreadful apartment in Washington Heights playing board games and doing drugs as she grinds away at her comics and waits for her career to gain momentum. It does, and when she starts getting assignments and job offers from the Village Voice and the New York Daily Press, her boyfriend becomes increasingly clingy and paranoid, until she finally has to escape.
Charles Burns, whose pulp detective stories based on a private eye named El Borbah (Fantagraphics Books, $24.95) have just been republished in hardcover, makes a brief cameo appearance in Doucet's New York Diary. Though Burns appears in only two panels of the story, at a party thrown by Raw magazine, he comes across as both affable and nuts. Judging from his distinctive comics, that's probably an accurate depiction.
El Borbah is a cynical detective like any other, although he differs from the rest of the pack because he weighs 400 pounds and wears only a wrestler's tights and mask. Like any good pulp detective, El Borbah likes to crack wise as he cracks skulls: "You know the part of your face that's in the middle?" he threatens one suspect, "Well, I'm going to have to move it over to the side unless you come clean with me." Burns's world is sinister and menacing but darkly hilarious at the same time. In one case, a rebellious kid runs away from home to join a robot gang; in another, aging toughs have had their heads sewn on to the bodies of 1-year-old baby clones, and are causing trouble on El Borbah's turf from a miniature club in town called Doll House (where the motto is "Big drinks for little people").
These stories were last published together a decade or so ago under the title Hard-Boiled Defective Stories ("True hard-boiled pulp, but somehow . . . defective"). That's as accurate a summary of these comics as anybody is likely to come up with.
For a real, honest-to-goodness mystery story in comic form, Greg Rucka's and Steve Lieber's Whiteout (Oni Press, $10.95) is an engaging whodunit. Rucka is more known for writing potboilers, and his experience in thriller writing is obvious throughout this graphic novel, a murder mystery that takes place at the South Pole, of all places.
A series of murders has been taking place at the McMurdo base in Antarctica, where there are only a very finite number of suspects, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko is leading the investigation. One of the few women on the base, she's also got problems from her own past to deal with.
The dialogue and the back stories in this one were not created from the same template that so many mainstream comics seem to be churned from. There are enough details worked in about life on the Ice, as the residents call it, to make Marshall Stetko and her friend, British secret agent Lily Sharpe, come to life -- Rucka either did his homework about Antarctica or spent time figuring how to fudge it convincingly. The slight weakness of this novel comes from the same direction as its strengths, however: Parts of it read like an abridged adaptation of a book, and the author builds his two protagonists at the expense of bringing the rest of the characters into focus.
French comic artist Andre Juillard, on the other hand, seems to have a natural mastery of the rhythm needed to bring serious fiction to the graphic novel format. His new book, After the Rain (ComicsLit, $12.95), is very loosely connected to his previous book, The Blue Notebook, and presents themes similar to those found in that moody love story.
Tristan Milea and Abel Mias are inseparable friends, so close that they both dated from the same pair of twins back when they were in high school together. They've grown up now, but they've now both fallen madly in love with the same woman. Abel's a slightly tubby middle school teacher, and Tristan's a successful artist, so it's probably wise that Juillard didn't try to pin suspense in this story on who wins the girl's affection.
Things aren't so simple as to which fella gets the gal, though. This is France, so the woman is already married to someone else anyway. And this is, after all, a comic book, so it turns out that the husband is a dangerous gangster.
The gangster's wife, Clara, does fall for Tristan, but the couple is forced to leave town together and go into hiding to protect their lives. Tristan's friend Abel knows none of this, but when he runs across a photo in a gallery window taken by Victor Sanchez, the lovelorn photographer from Juillard's previous graphic novel, he is able to put together enough clues to track him down, an act which has some nasty consequences. Juillard has a gift for exploring the equations of human relationships and how they change as various cards are dealt and secrets revealed. There are a few loose ends at the end of this graphic novel, though -- hopefully, there is more of this story to come.
Mike Musgrove is on the staff of the Post's Fast Forward section.