I.T.C.H.: When did you first encounter Nell Brinkley?
Trina Robbins: The first Brinkley pages I ever saw were very kindly given to me by Bill Blackbeard, and though they obviously were very beautiful, I saw them out of context, so I didn’t “get it.” If you see Nell out of context, all you see is beautiful art, but the writing that goes with it is necessary in order to really understand what she was doing. Then, when cat yronwode and I co-wrote the first book on women in comics, Women and the Comics, I still had very little to go on about Nell. The biggest piece of information I had came from a Los Angeles group of illustration fans, and that information later turned out to be absolutely faulty!
I.T.C.H.: What kind of a woman was she?
TR: The research I’ve done uncovers a woman whose outlook was as romantic as her writings. She seems to have been sheltered quite a bit from harsh reality by her mother, who managed everything for her. At the same time, she handled her extreme deadlines very well, and seems to have been politically aware. For instance, she was passionately angry about the mistreatment of the WWI vets during the Depression, and she also often expressed her admiration of Eleanor Roosevelt in her daily panels.
I.T.C.H.: Can you tell us a little about her working conditions?
TR: Nell had a carriage house behind her New Rochelle, NY, house, which she turned into a studio. From there she turned out her daily panels and Sunday pages, and often also her movie or stage reviews–a LOT of work! In order to meet her deadlines, she had worked out a system: as soon as she finished a page, she would roll it up and give it to her chauffeur, who would drive it to the train station in time to meet the train to NY. He would pass the art to the conductor through the train window, and when the train arrived at Grand Central station, there’d be a man from the Hearst syndicate waiting for it, to take it to the Hearst offices by deadline.
I.T.C.H.: How was her work received in her lifetime?
TR: Nell was a superstar! She had at least 3 popular songs written about her and her “Brinkley Girls,” when she traveled, newspaper reporters would be at the train station or later at her hotel room to interview her about how she liked their city, although usually the questions were simple stuff like “How do you like San Francisco girls,” to which she would of course answer, “They’re very pretty.” People, especially young women, collected and cut out her art and pasted it into scrapbooks, and little girls would cut out and color her black and white daily pages. Her fans, mostly female, also copied her art, and an obituary about her said that she had more copyists than any other artist except Charles Dana Gibson.
I.T.C.H.: If you wanted readers to know one thing about Nell Brinkley, what would it be?
T-R: Nell drew “like a girl.” My experience and research has shown me that for the most part contemporary male comics historians, scholars, and “experts” interpret pretty art as code for unimportant, trivial, “female.” The world of comics criticism needs to open up to a non male-centric way of looking at comic art, and I think that will only happen when more women enter into that world.