Brainiac On Banjo: History Never Ends, But…

“Trina wears her wampum beads, she fills her drawing book with line. Sewing lace on widow’s weeds, and filigree on leaf and vine.” from Ladies of the Canyon,” written by Joni Mitchell in tribute to Trina Robbins in 1970.

Much has been written about the passing of Trina Robbins, and I stand behind every syllable I’ve read. I will not be joining that informative chorus, but instead I will be discussing one of her final works, Dauntless Dames: High-Heeled Heroes of the Comics, published less than eight months ago.

This remarkably oversized tome, roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper, is from Fantagraphics Books’ Sunday Press imprint. Trina had a co-conspirator on this one, strip historian, connoisseur and Sunday Press honcho Peter Maresca. It is a true gem.

As the title suggests, Dauntless Dames puts the spotlight on a wide-variety of adventure comic strips that star women. Many, such as Tarpé Mills’ Miss Fury, Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr and Jackie Ormes’ Torchy Brown (later revived as Heartbeats) were produced by women — and women cartoonists were hardly a common sight before the Vietnam War. Male cartoonists who employed women heroes include Frank Godwin’s Connie, Russell Stamm’s Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, Bob Oksner’s Miss Cairo Jones, and Jack Sparling’s Claire Voyant… not to be confused with the current drag performer of the same name.

Each feature is fully represented by a biography written by Trina or Peter and a very generous sampling of published work. Most of these strips are very difficult to find despite the plethora of newspaper reprint books published over the past decade or two. Well, that’s not quite true: many had been represented in Trina’s previous books, of which there are many.

There isn’t a clinker in the bunch, but Jackie Ormes’ Torchy Brown is particularly significant and well-appreciated. Both Jackie and Torchy were Black and so the feature only appeared in Black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender; both of those papers enjoyed a very wide circulation at the time.

The tale of an Egyptian princess, Deathless Deer by Alicia Patterson and Neysa McMein, also is well-represented in Dauntless Dames. In fact, they reprint all but three of the Sunday strips. Ms. Patterson had a particularly strong pedigree — a scion of the powerful McCormack-Patterson family that owned the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, she went on to found Newsday with her husband Harry Frank Guggenheim. She hung out with folks like John Steinbeck (himself a comic strip fan) and Adlai Stevenson.

Dauntless Dames: High-Heeled Heroes of the Comics is a magnificent effort that sits proudly alongside Trina’s many remarkable efforts.

To state the obvious, a historian’s work is never done. In Trina’s case, on her chosen topics, she’d given it all a hell of a great start. We all have benefited greatly from her labors. To say I miss her dearly — we first met in 1971 — is to minimize my feelings as well as my gratitude.

Dauntless Dames: High-Heeled Heroes of the Comics published by Fantagraphics Books, released October 17, 2023, 160 pages. Amazon lists the book at $56.12, which is odd as I don’t think they accept change. Of course, Amazon also has a Kindle edition. Fantagraphics Books also carries the book, at the full retail price of $100.00.