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Trailblazing Comics Icon Trina Robbins Dies At Age 85 Print-ready version

by Rob Salkowitz
April 10, 2024

Artist Trina Robbins who did the first ever all-woman comic book is one of the local women who ... SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Trina Robbins, a groundbreaking cartoonist who expanded the visibility of women in comics through her art, writing, scholarship and advocacy over a career that spanned more than six decades, died today at age 85 following a stroke that left her hospitalized earlier this year.

Robbins, who was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2013, was originally active in comics and science fiction fandom, then became one of the first women in the underground comix movement in the 1960s. Her unapologetically feminist take on politics and pop culture stood out among peers like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, and the experience left her a lifelong critic of the "boys club" misogyny she perceived in such work.

Prior to her work in comics, Robbins achieved early success as a boutique owner in New York's East Village in the 1960s, helping to codify the counterculture aesthetic with designs for figures like Donovan, Mama Cass and David Crosby. In 1969, she designed the iconic costume for the horror-fantasy heroine Vampirella.

Relocating from New York to the Bay Area in 1970, she spearheaded the first all-women comic book, It Ain't Me, Babe with collaborator Willy Mendes, and later produced the first explicitly lesbian-themed comic story, "Sandy Comes Out," in Wimmen's Comix #1. She also became a fixture in the West Coast cultural scene of the time, and is name-checked in the Joni Mitchell song "Ladies of the Canyon."

"Trina was a very supportive colleague and friend, ever since my work first appeared in Wimmen's Comix in the mid-1970s," said cartoonist Roberta Gregory. "I couldn't help but be inspired by her artistry, drive and energy, and her tireless passion to bring visibility to deserving women, past and present. Although she leaves an enormous legacy of work, personally she will be missed by so many; no convention nor trip to her San Francisco hometown was complete without a visit and pep talk from Trina!"

By signing up, you agree to receive this newsletter, other updates about Forbes and its affiliates' offerings, our Terms of Service (including resolving disputes on an individual basis via arbitration), and you acknowledge our Privacy Statement. Forbes is protected by reCAPTCHA, and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Robbins continued to work as an artist and writer of comics, producing a stylish adaptation of Sax Rohmer's Dope among other projects, and worked with publishers like DC, Marvel and Eclipse to create work that would appeal to girls and young women. In 1986, she became the first woman artist to draw Wonder Woman in her own comic book.

In 2017, Robbins collaborated with an assortment of contemporary cartoonists on A Minyen Yidn: A Bunch of Jewish Stuff, adapting some of the old folk tales told to her by her father, Max Perlman. She also found time to write books for children, translate romance manga, and contribute to various projects and fundraisers aligned with her interests, most recently Won't Back Down, an anthology to benefit Planned Parenthood.

Along with her creative career, Robbins began to branch out as a scholar and historian of the medium, producing a series of books shedding light on the underreported history of women in comics. Her work includes Women and the Comics, A Century of Women Cartoonists, The Great Women Superheroes, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines, and more recent works focusing on the female cartoonists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

One of her most consequential legacies is her impact on the rising generation of scholars influenced by her feminist approach to comics studies. "Everyone knows Trina changed comics in big ways," said Sydney Heifler, a comic book historian and doctoral candidate at Ohio State University who worked with and befriended Robbins in recent years. "She also made sure to put women cartoonists and comics artists and women's comics in the history books, which I'm forever grateful for. As a historian, her herstory work has been invaluable to me. She was always an incredible friend and mentor to me in comics and I have many opportunities thanks to her. She changed my life. I know she's done the same for others."

Throughout her career, she tried to get the American comics industry to recognize the value of female customers, especially in the comic store direct market. In 1993, she cofounded the group "Friends of Lulu" to help educate publishers and retailers on how to expand the comics audience. She was a regular guest on comics panels, documentaries and discussions, and was frequently a critic of the male centricity of the medium and its scholarship. She was particularly outspoken on Robert Crumb, whose work she considered deeply misogynistic and disturbing, but the vast majority of her scholarship focused on emphasizing the positive contributions of women to the art and business.

Part of this involved bringing forgotten work to light in her books, including Pretty In Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896 - 2013 and Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age (both published by Fantagraphics Books) In later years, Robbins was involved in gallery exhibits and other showcases for the work of female cartoonists.

"Trina's willingness to share her voluminous collection of comic art by women cartoonists of the past with museums and galleries worldwide has inspired generations of women and girls to make comics of their own, which I think is her continuing gift to us," said Kim Munson, who co-curated several exhibits with Robbins and is editing an anthology called Conversations with Trina Robbins for University Press of Mississippi. "Trina, my friend and mentor, was fierce and opinionated, yet she was a sweetheart and showed a childlike glee in so many things, I've read about a hundred interviews with her over the past 6 months. I've been astounded by her honesty, resilience, talent, and creativity. She did not give up. Trina broke down a lot of doors for women, but most of her friends will just miss her kindness and her sense of humor."

Her memoir, Last Girl Standing (2013), offered some anecdotes from her eventful and colorful life. She is survived by her longtime life partner, comic book artist Steve Leialoha, and daughter Casey.

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