An Interview with Trina Robbins, Part 2A column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2
A couple of months ago, Trina Robbins was kind enough to grant me an interview. This is part 2 of that long and interesting conversation. Part I, wherein we discussed her past influences, her opinion on modern superhero comics, and her work on Wonder Woman, can be found here. In part 2 we'll discuss Japanese manga, Trina's current projects, Dan DiDio, and Octobriana.
Kyrax2: I wonder if you're familiar with Japanese manga?
Robbins: I love manga!
Kyrax2: Do you have a favorite manga?
Robbins: Not really. There's not one that I consistently follow, but I love shoujo manga. It's just so pretty!
Kyrax2: Have you read Sailor Moon?
Robbins: Oh, of course I've read Sailor Moon! But I've read others, too. There was awhile, I guess it must have been in the early twenty-first century, when I was actually doing English language translation for Viz.
Kyrax2: You speak Japanese?
Robbins: No, no, it was the English language translations; what they do is, they have it translated first by a Japanese person, usually I think, I got the feeling they were Japanese exchange students or something, but that's the literal translation, and then I would take the literal translations and I would turn them into sentences that made sense; I would re-write it.
Kyrax2: Colloquial English?
Robbins: Yeah, exactly.
Kyrax2: Do you remember which comics you worked on for Viz?
Robbins: The first one that I did was B.B. Explosion which was for younger girls and very cute. I really enjoyed all the ones I did. Then I did some really nice Gothic ones like, I think it was called The Cain Saga and From Far Away, I did almost that entire series; that was a beautiful story. And another one, I can't remember the name of it now, another Gothic one. I love the Gothic ones.
Kyrax2: Awesome! So, in Japan the term "manga" covers a variety of genres. Everything from, as you were saying, shoujo manga stories about magical girls, to stories about wine enthusiasts.
Kyrax2: So manga's basically a medium, just like TV or print books. Yet when people say "comics" or "comic book" in the United States, most people associate that with the genre of superheroes.
Robbins: We immediately think of superheroes, yeah.
Kyrax2: So why do you think that is and what can we do to help expand the definition?
Robbins: Well, superheroes have claimed the market for so long, I think really since the 1960's, when the mainstream comics oriented themselves totally towards a young male audience. So that's, let's just call it 1965, which I think is when the Fantastic Four started, okay? So let's count on my fingers, '75, '85, '95, '05 so it's over 50 years, soon it will be 60 years, in 2015. So they have really claimed the market and people also think in clichés, people who don't really read comics think in clichés. Right now there are such amazing graphic novels by both men and women that are not superhero at all and that are really meaty, and you pay for it, and you sit and read it, and it takes you sometimes a couple of sittings, sometimes a couple of days to finish them, and you read them over because they're meaty. And they're done by men and women, and they're for grownups and they're for kids, there are some wonderful ones out there for kids including, if I can modestly say, the stuff that I'm writing.
Robbins: Oh, she will love the Chicagoland Detective Agency series. I'm working on book five now, it's a series. The main characters are a twelve year old Hispanic boy, who is a computer wiz, genius actually, a thirteen year old Japanese-American girl, who is a shoujo manga fan and who writes Haiku, and a talking dog, who is the real genius and brains behind the outfit.
Kyrax2: Sounds absolutely delightful.
Robbins: She will love it, 8 is the perfect age for that and as she gets older, maybe even now - I don't know how good a reader she is, how advanced she is...
Kyrax2: She's fairly advanced.
Robbins: Well my latest book, Lily Renee, Escape Artist is a graphic biography for, I guess they call it, young teens, or "tweens", or something, but grownups have liked it and I've gotten some really good responses from grownups. So you would like all of these too by the way, you don't have to be a kid.
Robbins:Like, I've read every Harry Potter book; you don't have to be a kid to read Harry Potter.
Kyrax2: I picked up Zita the Spacegirl for her awhile ago, and it's appropriate even for much younger kids, but my husband and I both really enjoyed it too. It's a great little comic. So what can we do as comic enthusiasts to help broaden the definition in the popular consciousness? Just keep making non-superhero comics or is there more we can do, do you think?
Robbins: Well, the comics creators of course, just have to keep doing what they're doing. There are more women drawing comics now than ever before, and I'm not saying that only good comics can be done by women, because as I just said there's some really great stuff out there by guys, but it really helps that there are so many women doing comics now and doing graphic novels now, because they really do have, women and non-superhero men, have a different viewpoint; their stories are not always - in fact they usually are not - hyper-muscular guys beating each other up, they have real content, real story. And what you can do, as a blogger, is to write about them. I wrote to you about how I know what it's like to have an audience that hates you; you read my email, you know, I went through that, but I feel - you may not feel this way because you like to dress up as Batgirl, so you are a superhero fan - but my feeling is they're not going to change. The mainstream is not going to change. They have a constantly rotating supply of young male readers. They don't care. You heard Dan DiDio, did he care? Did he care if women read their books? They don't care, so go elsewhere. There are some wonderful graphic novels out there.
Kyrax2: Well, DC did come out with a public statement subsequent to what happened at San Diego Comic-Con, stating that they were interested in featuring more female characters and particularly in featuring more female creators. I don't know, though...since then it's often felt like they're not taking that commitment very seriously.
Robbins: Yes, of course. As you said in your interview, Dan DiDio said, "Well, send in your proposals," and yet, of course you know that they don't look at unsolicited work.
Kyrax2: Yes. I found that out when I researched it.
Robbins: Of course, that's easy for him to say because then he gets off the hook.
Kyrax2: And right now only two of the writers on DC's New 52 are women out of all the writers.
Robbins: Yes, I know.
Kyrax2: In fact they took one of their two female artists off her book not long ago.
Robbins: Oh, you're kidding. Who was it?
Kyrax2: Amy Reeder.
Robbins: Oh, I love her work; she's so good.
Kyrax2: I know! Isn't she fabulous?
Robbins: Yes she's wonderful. What was she working on? What book?
Kyrax2: She was doing Batwoman, and she was doing lovely work. There's not a lot of detail about what happened, but I read that there were some creative differences and she's not going to be working on it, which is just such a shame.
Robbins: I really wonder what the creative differences were.
Kyrax2: Yeah, me too...but we'll probably never know. Speaking of women working in comics and broadening their horizons, I was reading through my copy of Womanthology yesterday.
Kyrax2: It is fantastic! You know, it was pretty cool, I received my copy on International Women's Day.
Robbins: What a perfect day to get it. That the art is so beautiful; it's just incredible to see so much beautiful art. That's another thing: lot of people who are feminists, I disagree with them when they say, "Oh, well there's no difference between men and women." There is. There is. So many of those superhero books are incredibly ugly, they're full of jagged lines and distorted, twisted, faces, and this book was beautiful. I think women draw more beautifully than men. That's why I like shoujo manga, it's so beautiful.
Kyrax2: Do you think maybe men are afraid to draw more beautifully, because they're afraid of being categorized as a feminine-style artist?
Robbins: Well there are the brave guys who do draw beautifully, you know, oh gosh, it's awful, suddenly names are escaping me. The guy who did that lovely series and I think he's still drawing it, on Troy, and in fact I think he's now drawing some stuff for DC. P. Craig Russell's another one, god he's so good, and Barry Windsor-Smith, I don't know if he's drawn any comics recently, but he was wonderful, you look at his art; there's a lot of guys who do draw beautifully and maybe these are the brave ones, who are not afraid to express their love of beauty, I don't know. Or maybe it's just that superhero comics attract guys who just want to draw violent, vicious, stuff.
Kyrax2: That's certainly a good point. Perhaps the content, and the nature of the content, and the audience, influences the style of art that's used. I'll admit, when I received it, I sat down with Womanthology and read it almost all the way through, in one sitting in one afternoon. I just literally could not stop reading for hours, I stopped to pick up my daughter from school and came back home and sat down and started reading it again, because I was enthralled. Story after story just sucked me in and I just wanted more.
Robbins: It's such a revolutionary thing, what Womanthology is. It's really a revolution and it signals the revolution to me, that there are going to be more and more books like this. Someone else notified me about an all-woman anthology they were putting together, and I've already sent them something that I did with Anne Timmons. I haven't heard more from them so I hope it didn't just fall apart. But I think there are going to be more and more books like this and just more and more graphic novels by women because each time something like this comes out, it encourages more women to do their own comics.
Kyrax2: Yeah, I was certainly inspired! So how did you hear about Womanthology? Did they approach you? Did you approach them?
Robbins: Actually the woman artist that I worked with, Karen Ellis, emailed me about it. And we had Octobriana; I don't know if you read our story, you probably did.
Kyrax2: Yes, of course.
Robbins: Well, she's a great character, I don't know if you know much about her, but she's actually the creation of a hoax. She was created in the early 60's by this Czechoslovakian writer who got people to draw her and wrote an entire book about her. In his book he says that she was created by a group of Russian underground cartoonists who were opposing the Communist administration; except it's not true, it never happened, it was a huge hoax. But in doing this, he created a character, a wonderful, fabulous, quirky superheroine character, who is public domain and can be written and drawn by anyone. So Karen and I had belonged to this email list of Octobriana fans and she had, a few years back, said to me, "Let's do a story; write it and I'll draw it." And that is what it turned out to be, and I've since written another Octobriana script for her and I haven't seen any art by her yet, so we'll see where that goes; but it was a lot of fun working with her.
Kyrax2: I'll have to look for that, that was pretty awesome vignette.
Robbins: It made us the first women to draw and write Octobriana. A number of guys have done her, and as always they've done her very badly!
Tune in next week for the final part of my interview with Trina Robbins, wherein we'll discuss computers versus typewriters, "Friends of Lulu", and the future of the comic book industry.
The Final Squeak
If you were interested in Lily Renee, Escape Artist, check out some of Robbins' other books for children and young adults: