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Women In Comics: Rose O'Neill to Ramona Fradon, new exhibition celebrates works of female cartoonists

History entails that many of the best comic content that exists to date was created by female cartoonists, who haven't gotten the credit that they deserve
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The world of comics, typically, has been dominated by men who've risen to great prominence through their work. A fact that's usually overlooked is that there are male illustrators, but there are women who've contributed to the comic industry with their artistic talents and might as well and have been pioneers, to say the least. Women haven't got the credit that they deserve, even in the art world, no matter how passionate and celebrated their works have come to be.

The gender disparities have pushed men to the forefront, forcing female artists and illustrators' works to become devalued qualitatively.

However, New York-based Society of Illustrators is here to change that, with their new group exhibition dedicated to 50 unsung female cartoonists, chronicled from the late 20th century to the present day. Women In Comics: Looking Forward and Back features work from women illustrators including plus-size superheroes, queer graphic novels, wartime romances, and even flapper-era cartoons, all of which elude your usual superhero format. Among the artists spotlighted in the exhibition, here are a select few who revolutionized the art world with their illustrations. 

Rose O'Neill

Rose O'Neill (Wikimedia Commons)

A self-trained artist, Rose O'Neill was an illustrator, writer, and suffragist and among the first women to build a successful career as a magazine and book illustrator. She jump-started her career in 1893 at the age of 19 and become the best-known and highest-paid female commercial illustrator in the US with her cartoon, 'Kewpie', which on a widely-known character until Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse came into the picture. Besides drawing cartoons, she also wrote novels and poetry.

O'Neill's Kewpies first appeared as character drawings in a women's magazine in December 1909.  Both children and women took to Kewpies, making them instantly popular. In 1913, the Kewpie was patented into a doll and sold all over the world along with a myriad of either Kewpie merchandise like fabrics, trinkets, and tableware. 

Nell Brinkley

Nell Brinkley (Wikimedia Commons)

Nell Brinkley was yet another comic artist who never formally trained in the arts but became an accomplished illustrator by the time she was 16. Her natural talent for drawing and growing reputation as a cartoonist earned her the nickname "Queen of Comics," and it's stuck throughout her career spanning nearly four decades. She was also known for writing charming captions that often accompanied her stories and reporting when she worked at the Evening Journal, Cosmopolitan (magazine), Good Housekeeping, and even Harper's Magazine.

Brinkley created the iconic 'Brinkley girl', a stylish character of a working girl, who appeared in her comics and even went on to become a popular symbol in songs, films, and theatre.

Lily Renée

Lily Renée (Wikimedia Commons)

Lily Renée is a Jewish Refugee who fled war-stricken Vienna during the Nazi Occupation in the 1940s. She wrote a book chronicling her experience titled, 'Lily Renée, Escape Artist From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer.' She moved to New York from England after her escape and in 1942, found work as an illustrator at Fiction House, on well-know comics as the supernatural 'Werewolf Hunter', gutsy aviatrix 'Jane Martin' and the glamourous sleuth 'Senorita Rio'.

Renée defined a new era of comic illustrators known as the Golden Age.  She currently lives in New York City and will be turning 99, this May.  

Dale Messick

Dale Messick (Wikimedia Commons)

Dale Messick (real name was Dalia Messick) was a comic strip artist and creator of 'Brenda Starr' which gained recognition during the 1950s and ran in 250 different newspapers. She began her career, working at a greeting card company and subsequently went on to assemble a portfolio of comic samples, but didn't initially find success. In 1940, she created the character 'Brenda Starr' the namesake of a debutante from the 1930s, and based her appearance off of actress, Rita Hayworth.

Messick wanted to produce a comic strip starring a female in the lead and decided that Brenda Starr would be a reporter, allowing the character to travel and experience adventures that were more fanciful than those most reporters go through in real life. 

Tarpé Mills

Tarpé Mills (Wikimedia Commons)

Tarpé Mills was the pseudonym of June Mills was among one of the first major female comic artists of her time. Her best-known work to date is her action comic strip, 'Miss Fury', the first female action hero created by a woman, which was published only 6 months before DC came out with Wonder Woman in 1941.  The character was made in Mills' own likeness, and she paid utmost attention to detail adorning the heroine in glamorous outfits.

Marvel Comics' predecessor Timely Comics reprinted her comic strips as a book from 1942 to 1946. 'Miss Fury' ran until 1952 when Mills retired from the comic industry. However, she returned in 1971 with 'Our Love Story for Marvel Comics.'

Ramona Fradon

Ramona Fradon (Wikimedia Commons)

Ramona Fradon was an illustrator and inker for comic giants, DC Comics. Her most well-known work is her contribution to the character 'Aquaman'. She was also the co-creator of 'Metamorpho.' Fradon began her career in 1950 and is also widely regarded as one of the first female illustrators to establish herself in the comic book world. In the mid-1960s, Fradon left DC Comics to raise her daughter but returned in 1972, where she went on to create 'Plastic Man', 'Freedom Fighters', and 'Super Friends' (which penciled for almost its entire run).

During this time she also worked for Marvel Comics but left after working on a fill-in issue for 'Fantastic Four', and a never-published fifth issue of 'The Cat'. in 1980 after Dale Mesick retired from comic illustration, Fradon took over drawing Brenda Starr until she retired in 1995.

The Society of Illustrators exhibit is divided into two parts: the history of female illustrators, dating back to the early 20th century, and contemporary comics from the 1970s to the present. Due to the pandemic, the society is closed to the public, however, the society's website shows a selection of curated comic strips which will be on display until 24 October, and will soon include a video tour.