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solid writing
exceptional art
historical bonus 4
total score 8
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Only Printing / March 1978 / 36 pages / Arts Lab Press
I have always been a strong supporter, proponent and fan of women cartoonists, as their disproportionately low presence in the field makes each one of them ever more valuable. For that matter, I am a fan of all women creators, whether they toil in fine art, writing, music or cinema. As a man, I recognize my own gender's strengths and shortcomings, and I am always interested in seeing and hearing what women think about themselves, men, and life in general. For most of my life, I have been the strongest male feminist I know, beginning with my admittedly primitive support of the Equal Rights Amendment as a teenager in the '70s. Perhaps my feminism is why some of my past acquaintances erroneously thought I was gay. I'm not gay, but I am not insulted by the presumption, unless it comes from someone who is homophobic. To them, I say good luck dealing with the next 50 years. And fuck you for being a homophobe.

Based on what I just wrote, it may seem ironic that I have evolved into a huge fan of underground comics, given the profuse number of misogynists and chauvinists who worked within its domain. But in my mind, underground comics were about eliminating all barriers to creative expression within cartooning, including those that prevented women (and openly gay people, for that matter) from participating. Not that there weren't women cartoonists before the underground movement, as there were plenty, but they mostly worked for minor titles and not one pre-70s female artist or writer is listed in typical top 100 comic book artists lists or top 125 comic book writers lists. There were certainly no comic books that offered women an opportunity for unfettered autobiographical expression, but of course that was the case for men as well until Robert Crumb and Justin Green came along.

It may be true, as Trina Robbins put it, that the upper echelon of undergrounds was a "closed boys club," but it's also true that the organic environment created by the revolution empowered women cartoonists like never before. There were just enough forward-thinking men in the field (e.g., Max Scherr, Ron Turner) to give women cartoonists an opportunity to publish their creations, and more importantly, the women banded together on their own and forced the doors of opportunity open for themselves. Only in underground comics could this uprising have succeeded, and it led to groundbreaking all-women-created titles like It Ain't Me Babe, All Girl Thrills, Come Out Comix, Wimmen's Comix, Twisted Sisters, and Tits 'n Clits. These comics paved the road for an enormous influx of women cartoonists into the field, and I am delighted by their presence.

This long preamble may seem out of place for a 1978 British underground like Heroine, but it's appropriate in context with the comic book's content. Heroine was the first women-driven comic book from Britain and features nearly all British women artists (American Trina Robbins is the exception) and one male artist, Borin Van Loon (who adroitly examines the sexual stereotyping of females in comic books). Another man, Tim Rayner, scripted a four-page story for Meg Amsden.

Heroine opens with an unremarkable Amelia-Earhart-type tale of a female astronaut followed by a few pages of nicely illustrated comics that are neither bad nor exceptional, leading up to "Tree" by Trina Robbins. Like all of Trina's art, the brushwork is sharp and elegant (is it blasphemy to suggest that she was influential to Charles Burns?), and like most of Trina's stories, the female lead is intelligent and self-assured. Sylvia, the protagonist in "Tree," lives in the backwoods where her most intimate friend is a young tree, which she sings to and also works beneath its boughs. (Sylvia's utter lack of need for male companionship is reflective of the uber-feminist catchphrase "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," which is quoted and exquisitely rendered in the one-page comic immediately preceding "Tree.")

One day two fiendish men come along, get drunk and carve "fuck" into the bark of Sylvia's tree and proceed to rape her. The men fall into a beer-soaked sleep under the tree, which gives Sylvia the chance to slay them both with an ax. She buries their bloodied bodies near the tree, which reaps the benefits of the rich compost and grows very large and healthy. "Tree" is not the first Trina comic to portray a woman extracting revenge for male offensives, but it's one of the most powerful due to its straightforward (yet non-gratuitous) presentation.

Borin Van Loon follows "Tree" with the three-page "Intellectual Bull Comix," in which three attractive young women characters temporarily step out of their stereotypical comic book roles to discuss the objectification of their bodies for male consumers. The story is brilliantly conceived and executed, and I only wish that Van Loon, an adventurous artist and author, had given us several more pages in the same vein.

"The Plight of the Artiste" by Kate Walker provides four "Dear Abby" type questions from young women artists directed to advice columnist Kate Shrew, a wily and witty graduate from the school of hard knocks. Walker utilizes an abstruse illustration style that plays well with Kate Shrew's paradoxical replies to her simple-minded inquirers.

In "Michael Scott, The Magician," we are presented the first chapter in a story that involves a 20th-century woman who receives a book about 13th-century European history and sends the book (through some sort of time machine) to a young man who lived seven centuries ago. The young man discovers he is featured in the book as a famous historical figure, but he has yet to accomplish any of the actions that the book says will cause his fame. The first chapter ends there, and was apparently reprinted in the Irish comic Ximoc #6 in 1982, but I don't know if the entire story is completed there. I would certainly like to learn more....

The remainder of Heroine provides four one-pagers and one two-page strip, all of which include interesting perspectives on women battling sexist expectations and/or living in a modern world. One of the beguiling aspects of this book is how a handful of feminist underground comics have informed and influenced women cartoonists, even an ocean away from the hotbed of feminist comics. It's still only 1978, but the groundbreaking work of women comic creators like Trina Robbins, Aline Kominsky, Diane Noomin, Lee Marrs, Barbara "Willy" Mendes and Sharon Rudahl from just a few years earlier has already had a profound impact on women cartoonists.

Which is one reason why this particular review is so long. British-born or not, Heroine seems like a stylistic milestone in women's comics, with a more polished look to the illustrations and a more sardonic and sophisticated sense of humor (especially from the British women) than previously seen in feminist comics. Heroine feels like a bridge from the old feminist underground to the upcoming wave of women creators in alternative comics (e.g., Dori Seda, Julie Doucet, Mary Fleener, Carol Lay, Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner, Krystine Kryttre, et al).

I may find similar milestones in other comics as I continue reviewing underground comics for this site, and if so I may adjust this review accordingly. But to me, Twisted Sisters (1975), which is the most recent major predecessor to Heroine that I can recall off the top of my head, seems more like a continuation of the original form of women's underground comics than a new stylistic milestone. I'll have to keep hunting to find a comic like Heroine that was published prior to 1978 before I change my mind about the historical significance of Heroine. I'm certain I won't find one of European origin, though, so in some sense the landmark status of Heroine will remain forevermore. At least in my obsessive little world.
It is currently unknown how many copies of this comic book were printed. It has not been reprinted.
Any discussion of the historical importance of Heroine must include its origins.
Ar:Zak (which appears on the front cover) is an imprint of Arts Lab Press, which is itself an offshoot of the Birmingham Arts Laboratory (or Arts Lab). The Arts Lab was an experimental artist collective based in Birmingham, England from 1968 to 1982. It supported cutting-edge creativity within numerous art forms, including theater, music, performance art, novels, and photography. In 1974, Hunt Emerson took control of their printing press and led the collective into comic art under the Ar:Zak imprint, starting with Emerson's own Large Cow Comix.
Within a couple years, despite not having the full support of its parent organization, Arts Lab Press had grown into the largest publisher of original alternative comic art in the United Kingdom, which led them to hosting two comic-book conventions in Birmingham and London during the summers of 1976 and '77. The conventions were branded with the unappetizing acronym KAK (Konvention of Alternative Komix), but its repellant name shouldn't diminish its place in history!
Most of the attendees at these conventions were male cartoonists, so the discussions leaned toward issues concerning distribution and financing. However, a vocal minority of attendees were women cartoonists, led by Suzy Varty, and they confronted the male cartoonists with charges of sexism in British comics. Not just Arts Lab Press comics, but all cartooning targeted at a male audience.
The flagship comic-book title at Arts Lab Press at the time was Streetcomix, which reported on the controversy in its fourth issue with a special article about the 1977 KAK. Remarkably, the article states that the male cartoonists didn't even try to debate the women's point and admitted that "We live in a sexist culture, and the sad fact is that all men's attitudes to women are pretty fucked up."
Suzy Varty had already put out a formal announcement, publicized in the previous issue of Streetcomix, that she was putting together an all-women's comic. Heroine was published by Arts Lab Press March 1978, the same month that Streetcomix #5 came out. There's no doubt that the controversy at the comic conventions led to Heroine becoming a reality, and that there were plenty of men at Arts Lab Press who were sympathetic to the women feeling objectified and victimized.
Of course, the pattern of this feminist uprising was old hat in America, where there were already well-established women's comics, but Heroine did seem to mark a new milestone, not only in women's voices infiltrating British comics, but male voices actually cheering them on. So bravo to the women, bravo to the men, and bravo to Hunt Emerson and Arts Lab Press. Heroine didn't solve the world's problems with sexism, but it was a measurable step in the right direction by both genders.
Suzy Varty - 1, 4-7, 12, 24, 30-31, 36
Sue Ash - 2
Lyn Foulkes - 8 (art), 34
Fran Landsman - 8 (poem)
Julia Wakefield - 9-11
Trina Robbins - 13-16
Borin Van Loon - 17-19
Kate Walker - 20-23
Meg Amsden - 25-28 (art)
Tim Rayner - 25-28 (script)
Judy Watson - 29, 33
Paula Williams - 32