Rest in peace, Trina Robbins

The influential comics creator and pioneer has passed away at the age of 85.

“Trina wears her wampum beads
She fills her drawing book with line
Sewing lace on widows’ weeds
And filigree on leaf and vine
Vine and leaf are filigree
And her coat’s a secondhand one
Trimmed with antique luxury
She is a lady of the canyon”

–Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

Trina Robbins, a comics creator, historian, advocate and pioneering figure in the underground comix movement — and, yes, the “Trina” Joni Mitchell sang about in 1970 — passed away yesterday at the age of 85.

Her death was first reported by her daughter on social media last night, followed by tributes and obituaries by her fans, fellow artists and news outlets, including The New York Times and Forbes. Forbes reported that Robbins passed away following a stroke that left her hospitalized earlier this year.

“Not only was she a legendary creator of comics, she was also one of comics’ greatest historians and researchers, and a guiding light to countless girls and women who had a hard time believing there was space for them in this art form,” Gail Simone said in a remembrance of her “hero, friend and mentor.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Robbins was active in comics and science fiction fandom in the 1950s and 1960s, contributing artwork to fanzines like the Hugo Award-winning Habakkuk. Her first comics work came from The East Village Other, an underground newspaper for those who thought the Village Voice was too conservative. The Other featured underground comic strips by artists like Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman, before underground comic books emerged from San Francisco with the first issue of Zap Comix.

Robbins would eventually head west to take part in that movement, but not before contributing to the creation of a character you might not associate with feminist values — Vampirella. Warren Publishing was looking for a new character that had “an aura of sexuality and mystery,” and had asked Frank Frazetta to design her. But publisher James Warren wasn’t happy with what he submitted.

“I was sitting in Warren’s office,” Robbins said, “where he was talking to me about the fact that my artwork was nowhere good enough to appear in his magazines, which was very true. Frazetta called to discuss a sketch of Vampirella that he’d sent to Jim. Warren said it wasn’t right. Frank had drawn her wearing, more of less, a basic bikini, but Jim had something else in mind. It became clear that Frank wasn’t getting the idea as Jim tried to describe it, so Jim turned to me and described the costume, the way the top was open in front and attached to a collar, the boots and so on. I drew it as he was talking.‘That’s it!’ he said, pointing at my sketch. ‘Now describe it exactly to Frank,’ he said and handed me the phone.”

Robbins described her design, which Frazetta then drew for the first issue’s cover of Vampirella.

“Frazetta’s original cover art of Vampirella looked a lot like my idea,” Robbins said, “but her costume shrunk. Over the years her costume has gotten skimpier and skimpier—now it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what I designed.”

Vampirella #1 cover by Frank Frazetta, based on Robbins’ design

Robbins would move to San Francisco in 1970 and went to work for It Ain’t Me, Babe, a feminist newspaper in the Bay Area. She edited the first all-women comic book, It Ain’t Me, Babe with collaborator Willy Mendes. She also became involved with Wimmen’s Comix, an anthology where each issue was edited by a different woman or women. Her story“Sandy Comes Out,” which featured the first “out” lesbian in comics, appeared in the first issue.

In the 1980s, Robbins was hired by Marvel to update their classic Millie the Model for a new age and for their Star Comics line, which was aimed at kids. Robbins created, wrote and drew Meet Misty, which starred the niece of Millie. The series was aimed at girls, an audience not typically associated with Marvel at the time, and featured career women with ambitions beyond finding a boy. It ran for six issues.

Meet Misty

For the independent publisher Eclipse, Robbins created a series titled California Girls, which ran for eight issues in the late 1980s following the end of Misty. Like that title, it featured reader-designed outfits and paper dolls.

In 1986, Robbins made history by becoming the first woman to draw a Wonder Woman title. Following Crisis on Infinite Earths and before the launch of the George Perez Wonder Woman title, Robbins drew The Legend of Wonder Woman, which was written by Kurt Busiek. It featured a new, contemporary Wonder Woman with a Golden Age aesthetic:

“Trina Robbins was a time traveler who walked forward and made comics history every step of the way,” said Joseph P. Illidge. “The FIRST WOMAN to draw WONDER WOMAN. (Think about that.) Her legacy and impact: beyond measure.”

Robbins never strayed from her activist roots, serving as co-editor of Strip AIDS U.S.A in 1989, which raised money to support people with AIDS. She also edited Choices: A Pro-Choice Benefit Comic Anthology for the National Organization for Women, which was published by her own imprint, Angry Isis Press.

The late 1990s brought another Wonder Woman project, this time with Robbins writing and Colleen Doran as artist — Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story.

“Deeply and profoundly sad to hear of the death of my friend and colleague Trina Robbins,” Doran said. “It was a delight to know her, to work with her and to grow in appreciation of her year after year.”

Robbins kept with her idea to make comics aimed at young girls by creating GoGirl!, which was published by Image Comics and then Dark Horse in the early 2000s.

Even in her 80s, Robbins continued to fight the good fight, assembling a team of creators for Won’t Back Down, an anthology to benefit Planned Parenthood after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

Beyond her own comics work, Robbins wrote about the history of comics, particularly women’s comics, throughout the years. These include 1993’s A Century of Women Cartoonists, 1999’s From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines, 2001’s The Great Women Cartoonists, 2013’s Pretty In Ink and 2020’s Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age. Fantagraphics released her memoir, Last Girl Standing, in 2017.

Robbins was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2013. She was spotlighted in Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book History of Comics:

A fixture at comic conventions and on panels, Robbins delighted everyone she met.

“Trina Robbins came to one of my CabanaCons at SDCC once,” remembers comics creator Tim Seeley. “She was in her late 70s, but could throw back tiki drinks and talk shit about the comic industry better than anyone there. Godspeed you bad ass.”

Godspeed indeed. Robbins is survived by her partner, artist Steve Leialoha, as well as her daughter Casey.

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