The latest book by Trina Robbins of comics “herstory” (as she likes to say) has a title full of promise—The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age. If only the book was actually something more than nominally about this select group of lively, important cartoonists, as its title states. More precisely, the book could be subtitled, Jazz Age Comics and Cartoons by Women Cartoonists. For, between the stylish blue-and-peach covers there are only ten or so pages of lightly researched text on the artists and the rest is art. But what art it is!
Nell Brinkley’s head-spinning four-color concoctions of frothy female magic are the berries, and The Flapper Queens delivers a generous sampling of these; worth the price of the book alone. A single Brinkley tearsheet, if you can find one, costs more than this book, which has 54 of these beauties, presented large enough to be easily read and savored. Best of all, they are restored to jewel-like perfection.
Consider just one effervescent page from her 1925 Adventures of Prudence Prim series. Brinkley’s singular flowing layouts and caressing lines capture the very essence of sexual infatuation. As the tomato named Pru goes barneymugging with a guy who is the frog’s eyebrows (told in rhyming text by Carolyn Wells, another groundbreaking woman creative who worked in newspapers as well as becoming a prolific mystery novelist and who goes without mention from Robbins in her book), she ends up playing in the ocean, clad in a fantastic red and black swimsuit decorated with a goldfish corset. Her bathing cap is an exquisite trifle, a crown of goldfishes swimming across her tight blonde waves of permed curls. The climactic panel shows Pru and her hunky handsome companion in a warm, erotic ocean as the water spews across their mid-sections. They’ve become something elemental, both human and fish. It’s one of the sexiest images I’ve ever seen in comics.
In addition to a hefty Brinkley section, there are also generous portions of comics by Ethel Hays and Virginia Huget. Around these three pillars sit smaller groupings of comics by Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, and the delightful Fay King. There’s also a brief selection of Annibelle strips by Dorothy Urfer and (and Virginia Kraussman, who drew the strip after Urfer) as well as a couple of color Flapper Fanny strips by Gladys Parker (Robbins has a forthcoming book on Parker, due to be released this summer).
In particular, the Ethel Hays section is a revelation. Her color Sunday pages rank with, and at times surpass, Brinkley’s – and that is saying something. Hays’s penwork is not as lavish as Brinkley’s, but her sense of design and gift for using the medium of comics to convey ideas is extraordinary. It is entirely right that one of Hays’s lithe bathing beauties adorns the gracefully designed, foil-stamped cover of Flapper Queens (love how the U strokes her ankle).
Sadly, the editing and production of this book make me grumpy. In particular, the lack of dates and identifying information in art captions is an egregious omission. In cases where dates are visible in the art itself, it is possible to discern the annoying fact that some pages are printed out of chronological sequence. A Fay King daily strip is printed twice, appearing on two different pages. Aside from this sort of sloppiness, the book’s structure lacks intelligence, being a rather randomly arranged portfolio without narrative. But, where it counts most in a book of this sort, namely the art reproduction, the book delivers and how: the dimensions are a good size for reprinting older newspaper full-page comics (roughly 13x10 in.), the art is perfectly restored and printed, and the overall design is spacious and elegant.
I love this concept for a book. The vampish, stylish young women flappers of the 1920s-30s were culturally and historically significant and so were the savvy, gifted women who cartooned them. These artists broke into the almost exclusively male-populated newspaper cartoonist profession and changed it in ways that are still being felt today. (Yes, there was Grace Dayton, Kate Carew, and a scant few other pre-Jazz Age woman cartoonists we know about, but I would estimate that prior to the 1920s, the ratio of women to men syndicated cartoonists would have been well below 1 to 100). As Trina’s book demonstrates, cartoonists like Nell Brinkley and Ethel Hays helped define and shape the flapper type as surely as Charles Dana Gibson gave form in an earlier era to the society debutante profile that came to be known as the “Gibson girl.”
The careers of these pioneering cartoonists, and their struggles to balance responsibilities as professional artists and as wives and mothers are fascinating to study. Turns out, a woman’s path into cartooning was a little different than the typical routes men took, as in the case of Ethel Hays who developed her cartooning skills during World War One as part of a group of Red Cross volunteers tasked with cheering up and teaching recovering wounded soldiers. Hays taught art and, when she saw soldiers were interested in cartooning, she enrolled in the Landon correspondence course to learn the trade, eventually impressing a newspaper editor, who offered her a staff cartoonist position. Puzzlingly, none of this essential information, even in the briefest of forms, is in The Flapper Queens. You will, however, find this story (and a stunning photo of Hays conducting her Red Cross art lessons during WWI) in Trina's 2013 volume, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013. In fact, Flapper Queens works best as a deluxe color supplement to “The Pursuit of Flappiness,” the 18-page chapter in the trade paper Pretty in Ink, which is limited to black and white reproductions.
With The Flapper Queens, the question remains: who were these determined cartoonists, the ones who took down the “No Girls Allowed” sign on the cigar-smoke-filled, panty-draped cartoonist's clubhouse and how did they do it? Unfortunately, you won’t find this out in this volume.
But that’s okay. I have no doubt the full “herstory” of America’s Jazz Age women cartoonists shall be written someday and Trina—herself a notable part of America’s lineage of wimmen cartoonists and the author of a long line of books about women cartoonists well worth one's time to seek out—has helped show us the way. It's the cat's pajamas.
Paul C. Tumey is the author of Screwball! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny.