A new exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum highlights women who pushed cartoon art forward in the last 100-plus years

A century ago, visual artists played a huge role in the way people and movements were perceived. Before TV and movies, the way a person or an idea was represented pictorially in newspapers and periodicals propagated certain ideas and downplayed others. And in the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, men were drawing highly offensive cartoons that depicted suffragettes as loud-mouthed blowhards in bloomers who wanted to put men in cages.

That conception of a suffragette permeated popular culture, which made even other women recoil from the movement. Then Nina Allender came along. As the official cartoonist of periodical The Suffragist, Allender depicted the women of the movement as young, stylish and savvy.

“She’s considered the person who helped most to rebrand the image of the suffragette and show that it could be any woman and every woman, and that you weren't this — what they called then — ‘unsexed woman,’” said Caitlin McGurk, who, along with Rachel Miller, curated a new exhibition at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum titled “Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art,” which opens on Saturday, Nov. 2, and runs through May 3, 2020.

Next year marks the hundredth anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in America, which seemed like perfect timing for an exhibition that displayed not just groundbreaking women cartoonists during the suffrage movement, but female artists who made major contributions to comics in the last 100 years.

“There's this huge, longstanding stigma in the comics world where there's an assumption that it’s a male art form: ‘Comics are only made by men and only read by boys.’ And the reality is, there have been women participating in and making huge strides in comics and cartoon art since the beginning of comics in the United States,” McGurk said. “So we wanted to take a moment to highlight some of those women, but in no way is this show a survey of women who make comics generally. We didn't want it to be a show that was just like, ‘Guess what? Girls can draw, too!’”

“Part of our goal was to really look at how women were pushing comics and cartoon art forward, not just the fact that women made comics,” Miller said. “We wanted to think about, ‘What are the different ways in which this medium has benefited from women who are making comics?’”

Walking through “Ladies First,” the exhibition begins to feel like a display of women who should be household names. Take Rose O’Neill, for instance, who created the character of Kewpie in comic strips in the early 1900s. McGurk said the cherubic Kewpie dolls, which you’d likely recognize today, became the first and most successful mass-marketed cartoon character before Mickey Mouse. “She became one of the earliest cartoonists to license and merchandise her characters, and this made her the highest-paid woman illustrator in the world [in 1914],” McGurk said.

Nell Brinkley, meanwhile, provided a counterpoint to the demure “Gibson Girl” archetype inspired by Charles Dana Gibson. Rather than curvy, serious and dressed in full gowns, the curly-haired “Brinkley Girls” in the 1920s were slender, playful and often depicted lounging in a way that conveyed independence and freedom. “She basically created the flapper style,” McGurk said. “They were always dating and not wanting to settle down, and there’s a lot of drinking and smoking.”

There’s Edwina Dumm, who became the first full-time female political cartoonist while working locally for the Columbus Monitor, and Jackie Ormes, the first nationally distributed African-American woman cartoonist, who also licensed a Patty-Jo doll based on her comic strip “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.”

The comic strip portion of “Ladies First” also highlights more modern innovators such as Cathy Guisewite’s “Cathy” and Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse” before moving into comic book innovators such as Tarpe Mills, who is responsible for Miss Fury — the first female superhero created by a woman. From mainstream comics to the underground and alternative comics movement and the debut of the graphic novel, the exhibition continues into the present-day with artists such as Alison Bechdel (“Dykes to Watch Out For”), Aline Kominsky-Crumb (“Twisted Sisters”) and Raina Telgemeier (“Smile”).

“The underground and alternative comics eras and generations are the reason that we have graphic novels the way we know them to be, which are largely a lot of personal stories,” McGurk said. “They're not what old comics were at all, and a lot of these women were a big part in ushering in the autobiographical side of that.”