Tackling a body of works published in a form fundamentally different from its original iteration – like the newly released two-volume hardcover, The Complete Wimmen’s Comix – can feel a bit daunting. The collection, which comes in at 700 pages, opens with a brief introduction by Trina Robbins followed by one issue of the forerunning It Ain’t Me Babe (as Robbins describes it, “the first-ever all-woman comic book”) and seventeen issues of Wimmen’s Comix. It includes, too, a pair of 3-D glasses, required for reading 3-D Issue #12, first published in 1987 (“during a revival of interest in 3-D comics,” according to the editor’s notes) and reprinted here in its intended format as well as in no-frills 2-D, for less adventurous readers.
Anthologies are generally inspired, if not by a desire to fill in missing gaps, then by an eagerness to see what happens when a group of people, brought together by some common theme, interest, or cause, is showcased together. The collective of women who formed and created Wimmen’s Comix seemed to be driven by both inclinations: an aspiration to provide what Robbins has called a “safe space” for women creators, and a genuine curiosity, a wish to see what could come of a space dominated by women’s perspectives and driven by their experiences. In turn, individual artists and writers are often attracted by the freedom of the anthology, the opportunity to produce a piece of limited length that nonetheless has the potential, alongside other works, to deliver something broader than itself. At the same time, anthologies, by their very configurations, can also feel constricting for these very creators, whose visions might be narrowed by editors’ tastes and networks even as the format seems to promise amplitude and breadth.
The product, as seen in The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, can be mixed, though in this case it is the very unevenness of the resultant collection that makes this publication worthy of its new, reprinted form. Reading through the eighteen issues, which span twenty-two years in all, including a notable seven year gap between issues seven and eight, one gets the sense of a somewhat diverse body of women trying to navigate individual artistic modes, to find their voices and styles, while continually bumping up against what it means to be published in a venue that, by its very name, suggests marginality and difference. This collection is as much a historical document as anything else, tracing late-twentieth century representations of women’s issues – health, relationships, sexuality – as they are shaped by the times. In the first eight issues, for example, around the wake of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, we get a number of sometimes pedantic, sometimes more artful accounts pivoting around women choosing to get legal or illegal abortions, and experiencing the consequences; following Stonewall and the early LGBT movement, we get stories of coming out, romances blossoming and sexual explorations thriving alongside newfound political consciousnesses, activist stirrings. In these issues, we also see early works by women who would come to dominate parts of the landscape of contemporary comics – short pieces by Diane Noomin, Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Joyce Farmer, Lee Mars, and Sharon Rudahl (the list, as you might imagine, goes on).
There is a decided shift in tone starting with issue eight and on, as each of these individual publications seems to generally cohere more expertly around a theme announced on the cover (some of these include: “women at work,” “fashion confidential,” “disastrous relationships,” and “me worry”). The artwork, too, feels more consistently skillful, perhaps because by this time, as one imagines, being a cartoonist, let alone being a woman cartoonist, had come to seem like less of a peculiarity and more of an ambition. Some of these newer issues, like Wimmen’s Comix #15, Little Girls, edited by Phoebe Gloeckner and Angela Bocage, present with an inspiring cornucopia of talent and artistry, the pieces productively speaking to one another to formulate a greater whole.
Of note, Carol Tyler opens this issue with a four panel insert, immediately and succinctly plunging readers into the amazing creative machinery of teenagers; Diane Noomin presents us with “Coming of Age in Canarsie” and Aline Kominsky-Crumb with “Nose Job,” two powerfully condensed stories of what it means to grow up, fast; Julie Doucet offers an untitled and also brief glimpse into the world of girls, in her own unmistakable esoteric-yet-comedic fashion; and Alison Bechdel includes a powerful autobiographical piece on an unexpected, damaging encounter. This issue reflects the very best of what can happen when women are given safe spaces of their own, to play, reflect on, and convey perspectives that speak to one another, the individual stories standing for something greater, expanding outward.
There are absences apparent in this sizeable collection, and particular stand-outs include, for example, the limited representations of women-identified people of color, those from around the globe, and transwomen. As with any anthology or collective, and as with any archive or canon, the omissions are as telling as what’s contained within.