August 28, 2020

Review: The Flapper Queens

The Flapper Queens
Edited by Trina Robbins
Available now from Fantagraphics
Review copy

The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age is a gorgeous volume that presents the 1920's art within as it was meant to be seen: oversized and in color. (Excepting the black & white strips, of course.) The art within is gorgeously reproduced, although sometimes the text is a little blurred or placed on a dark background, which I suspect is an artifact of the sources.

This anthology includes selections from Nell Brinkley, Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays (with Gladys Parker, who took over her Flapper Fanny strip), Fay King, and Virginia Huget. There's also brief coverage of the Annibelle strips by Dorothy Urfer and Virginia Krausmann, which isn't listed in the table of contents.

While I appreciate getting to see this art so beautifully presented, Trina Robbins has never been the best anthologist. Her introductions are brief (a paragraph to a few pages of text) and lack analysis. Some of the artists have five times the amount of work represented as others. I had no clue why until the write-up on Virginia Huget mentioned she was one of the three flapper queens. So Nell Brinkley, Ethel Hays, and Virginia Huget are the eponymous queens, based on my observations, but there's no indication why the other women artists were chosen for inclusion with them. 

Since Trina Robbins has published two previous volumes on Nell Brinkley, it is no surprise that Brinkley gets the most coverage. (Both as a singular artist and in the outro discussing the end of the flapper comics trend.) However, this was a chance for her to showcase other artists as well. Much of the Brinkley material was previously printed in her 2009 volume The Brinkley Girls. It is now out of print, to my knowledge, but still available in the way high-quality material for the other artists isn't.

Also, the comics are presented in a baffling order. I understand keeping each strip by an artist collected together, but the dates are printed on them and many are not presented chronologically. If there is a different significance to the order, it is not given and I cannot ascertain it. There's also no given reasoning for why the strips reproduced within The Flapper Queens were chosen to represent each of the artists. Are these strips considered their best? (By who?) Where they chosen randomly? Maybe.

(There is also one error where Fay Kings "Preserve Your Own Personality, Says Fay King" is printed on both page 110 and 113.)

I also felt that historical context could make this a more valuable volume for readers interested in these cartoonists. Some of the humor eluded me, especially that of Virginia Huget. There are also periodic appearances by racial caricatures and stereotypes, most often in Nell Brinkley's The Fortunes of Flossie strip, which could have been contextualized.

I appreciate the work Trina Robbins has done to preserve the history of women in comics and present their art to new audiences, but I am often disappointed by her work as an anthologist.

At the same time at all, I am not disappointed at all to see the work of these artists beautifully presented. The fashion! The cars! The pretty, wild girls! If you like comics history, or simply looking into the past, then this is a wonderful, beautiful volume.

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