By Darcel Rockett
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new book gives readers a glimpse of the female factor behind comic strips, political cartoons and art for magazines and newspapers.
“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves …
Standin’ on their own two feet and ringin’ on their own bells.”
The Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin were on to something when that anthem came out in the 1980s, but then again, “women who become illustrators and cartoonists represent a special breed of artist and form a self-selected sisterhood”, that’s per the Library of Congress book “Drawn to Purpose: American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists.”
The book by Martha Kennedy, curator of popular and applied graphic art at the Library of Congress, gives readers a glimpse of the female factor behind comic strips, political cartoons and art for magazines and newspapers over a 150-year span, presenting a look at the trailblazing artists of the late 19th century into the 21st century.
“We have a critical mass of this kind of art here in this collection and it’s really worth celebrating,” Kennedy said. “We did intend it to be a resource for people that we hope will be excited about doing more research and more in-depth study of these amazing women artists in these fields.”
The book tracks their progress as well as the societal pressures that kept all but the more resilient women from advancing in the male-dominated field of illustrations.
By looking at the spectrum of artistic achievements of women, we learn of careers that we may not have known, such as that of Rose Cecil O’Neill and her Kewpies creations, and women who forged their own paths where there wasn’t one, such as Jackie Ormes, the first African-American cartoonist syndicated in black newspapers (including the Chicago Defender), and Barbara Brandon-Croft, the first black female cartoonist to have a syndicated strip in the mainstream media (“Where I’m Coming From”).
“Drawn to Purpose” recounts stories of issues that women are still fighting today, like pay equity. When Helen Hokinson, a native of Mendota, Ill., and well-known New Yorker cartoonist in the early 20th century, found out fellow artist Peter Arno was paid more than she was, “she promptly refused to submit any more cartoons until founding editor Harold Ross rectified the situation. He did.”
“There is still work that needs to be done,” Kennedy said. “I think women have to keep doing that, standing up for being treated equally for their work and being recognized for the merit of their work.”
Brandon-Croft spoke with the Tribune about making history as a “social cartoonist.” The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Do you think it was about time a book like this was written?
A: Of course it’s about time, all of it is about time. There’s so much stuff that still needs to come out. As artists of any kind, we are taking in what we see, we’re interpreting, observing what we see and then recording our observations, so to put it in a timeline and look at it, that’s a real jewel for generations to come, to understand what our lives were like. I am so thrilled to be in that company and in the book. That means a lot to me.
Q: What was it like being the first nationally syndicated African-American female cartoonist?
A: I am thrilled to be the first … proud, but still dismayed that in 1991, there was still time for me to be the first black something. Isn’t that crazy? We’re so far along and we’re still not that far along, it’s just stunning. The other part of that is for a long time … I felt like I was breaking down the door, but also clogging the door, taking up the space in the door that nobody could get through because I was already there. But let’s be real. I’ve been gone for more than a decade, and there hasn’t been another one that they let in. And there are black women out there doing this.
Q: Advice for cartoonists, illustrators, and artists trying to break into the industry?
A: It’s hard for me to say. The world is so different from when I was trying to make it happen. As an artist, you’re only going to get better by doing, so just keep doing it, and be true to yourself. Do you, come up with your own thing and keep working on it. You’ll get better, the longer you work on it. And when you find someone out there doing it, it doesn’t hurt to buy that person’s comic book. Support each other, that’s a big thing.
A variety of artists will be at C2E2 for the three-day event, April 6-8 at Chicago’s McCormick Place; www.c2e2.com. “Drawn to Purpose” has an exhibit at the Library of Congress that is free to the public until Oct. 20.