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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Very Pretty! Trina Robbins and Nell Brinkley



Fantagraphics’ The Brinkley Girls: The Best of Nell Brinkley’s Cartoons From 1913-1940 is seductive and spell-binding, a siren call of exploding color and really, really pretty girls.  I know, because my copy was stolen before I paid for it.  A woman stalked me in the bookstore and took it as soon as I set it down to hide in the bathroom.  Comics artist and ground-breaking herstorian Trina Robbins, editor of this phenomenal collection, took a few moments to explain to I.T.C.H. how these gorgeous women of style came to life on Hearst’s pages for almost 30 years.

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!



The Brinkley Girls from Fantagraphics


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.



Pretty Girls


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.



Golden Eyes


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.



Fortunes of Flossie


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.


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2 Responses to “Very Pretty! Trina Robbins and Nell Brinkley”

  1. Carol Pisoni Says:

    I love Nell Brinkley’s art as I loved Brenda Starr in my childhood. I have T. Robbins book, Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century, but would like to get ahold of more of her drawings. Any suggestions about whom to contact?
    Carol Pisoni

  2. It’s International Women’s Day | Dr. Sheila Addison Says:

    [...] to the still-remembered “Gibson Girl.”  What I loved about her drawing was the lavish detail given to the clothing and hair, details often thought of by male readers and illustrators as irrelevant and girly (like all femme [...]

I.T.C.H is looking forward to your thoughts. Please, no flame. Thanks!