Women Cartoonists

Women Cartoonists

The impact of women cartoonists throughout comics history has only recently begun to fully take shape. As a result, names once obscured by the passage of time have resurfaced and their contributions to the medium have, at long last, been duly recognized. Some of these artists, though, left their mark in ways far beyond the printed page.

Hilda Terry is one such pioneer. Creator of the comic strip TEENA for King Features during World War 2 and beyond, her career is especially noteworthy for a specific event during the 1940’s that forever changed the status quo of the cartooning industry.

Terry was born on June 25, 1914 in Newburyport, Massachusetts (just outside of Salem), on the same day as the famous Salem Fire, attributed by some as the revenge of the persecuted witches from colonial times. From the age of 5, she knew she wanted to become an artist. By the time she was 14, though, she, like many youths of her era did, left school to earn a living. In her case she had a job welding radio tube parts. Soon she realized she had to expand her horizons. “At my sweet sixteen party – a fizzle – I suddenly realized I had not grown up to be a cartoonist as I and everyone else had expected,” says Terry today, looking back. “I didn’t even know another artist. So, being already grown, I came to New York where I soon found lots of artists.”

Terry moved to New York about a week after that party and took various art courses, including a stint at the prestigious Art Students League (ASL), while making money waitressing. She would even go to wrestling and boxing matches and get the athletes to pose for her. Soon she entered into a brief career of fashion illustration. “From very early on, starting with portraits of boys with bugs crawling over their heads and snots falling out of their noses, I began drawing everybody. I could do portraits for five cents and pick up bus fare, and as a waitress, I never went hungry. Meanwhile, I loved cartoons. My best fun was drawing the stylish stouts as cute chubbies. Everyone knew that was what I wanted to do. In those days, artists would gang up in a village loft, and have rent parties every week –– 10 cents to come and mingle with artists and poets.” It was at one such party that she met fellow cartoonist and ASL men’s president Greg d’Alessio, who she’d go on to marry in 1938. With his direction and encouragement, Terry began selling cartoons to magazines like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST and THE NEW YORKER.

Terry, like her other female peers, was fighting difficult odds to succeed. “I get the impression that already, by the ‘30s, it wasn’t as easy for women,” says comics historian Trina Robbins, author of THE GREAT WOMEN CARTOONISTS. “Dale Messick changed her name so the editors wouldn’t know she was a woman. Although it was a useless gesture; the editors knew anyway, and the editor of the Chicago Tribune at first didn’t want to publish her because ‘he had used a woman cartoonist once and she hadn’t worked out!’”

“The men used to meet at bars and talk shop,” says Terry. “Women didn’t hang out with male groups in those days, so unless you already had a newspaper job, as Nell Brinkley did, or a male friend who could instruct you, there was no way an aspiring lady cartoonist could ever learn how to find the door.” Still, she remained vigilant in her efforts. “Having to do twice as good to get a job was what made me try harder. It was a privilege to be underprivileged. By the time you make it, you’ve worked so hard, you’ve learned to do it so damned well, they have to notice you.”

Then came the pivotal year of 1941. “They called me into King Features,” Terry continues, “and showed me a telegram from William Hearst. ‘Get Hilda Terry,’ it said.” IT’S A GIRL’S LIFE, her strip about adolescent girls, debuted on, of all days, December 7, the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Over the course of World War 2, the strip would portray the girls’ perspective of the war. “[It was] 6 panels, each a gag in itself, but [in] a sequence where the last panel is a finale. I did that so I could run [it] as a daily as well as a Sunday. But then we hit the paper shortage. I didn’t sell any dailies. By the time the panic settled, 4 or 5 others got on my adolescent bandwagon. My characters were Henny and Penny. One of the new strips was called PENNY, which gave me a chance to change my format with new characters. I coined the name Teena from Tina when the word teenage made its appearance.”

The cartooning community did its part for morale during the war. D’Alessio staged an anti-Axis exhibit at ASL which drew a large number of freelancers. Additionally, a group of cartoonists would entertain hospitalized troops with “chalk talk” shows, in which they would draw on giant sketchpads. Such events would forge a fellowship amongst the artists, which led to them creating an official club in 1946 called the National Cartoonists Society (NCS). Today it is the world’s leading organization for professional cartoonists. Some of its members over the years rank among the greatest names in cartoon history: Rube Goldberg, Walt Kelly, Arnold Roth, Lynn Johnston, and many more.

From its inception, though, it was, for all intents and purposes, a men’s club. “One of the founders, C.D. Russell, when he first proposed the idea of a cartoonists club, said, over and over again (he was a little tipsy at the time), ‘No girls. Men only,’ etc.,” says cartoonist and columnist R.C. Harvey, author of the book THE ART OF THE FUNNIES. “And the early constitution of NCS specified that members had to be men.” D’Alessio was the group secretary. During their formative years, they would organize original art exhibitions and hold charity chalk talks, often with movie stars and other celebrities. They quickly became a prestigious and high profile group.

Still, even with the influx of women cartoonists replacing the men who fought in World War 2, the formation of a group like the NCS was not unusual. “Remember, there were quite a few male-only organizations in those days,” says Robbins, “even public places like McSorley’s bar in New York, which simply didn’t admit women, and could do so because there were no laws to the contrary.”

Terry, through d’Alessio, saw what was going on with the NCS and realized this organization, which claimed to represent professional cartoonists, was systematically blackballing herself and other women from membership – in other words, three negative votes were enough to deny entry, despite the number of members who did want to admit women. In 1949 she drafted a formal letter to the NCS, claiming to represent the Committee for Women Cartoonists, and requested they either change their name to reflect the true makeup of their club, go back to being a private institution, or admit women. “I knew I had everyone’s support. It was only maybe a half a dozen who thought I was spoiling things for them — who felt if women come, they’ll have to bring their wives.” In late November 1949 her name was officially put up for membership, along with magazine cartoonist Barbara Shermund, however when it came time to vote they were both blackballed.

Harvey, in an article at his website rcharvey.com, describes how club president Milton Caniff, among others, was irate at the decision, and that the ensuing debate lasted long into the night before they voted to restore Terry and Shermund’s names to the ballot. Harvey quotes a passage from a letter written by member Bob Dunn to the Committee that says the three negative votes were cast “to bring the issue forcefully to the attention of the membership because the return on the first referendum for admitting the gals [conducted in the November Newsletter] was a mere 29 out of the entire 238 [members].” The blackball provision proved to be a major bone of contention for months. “Many of the people involved in founding NCS were members of other New York clubs, all of which employed the blackball,” says Harvey. After much wrangling and discussion, the NCS agreed to admit women into their ranks in June 1950.

Terry remained cool and confident through all the heated squabbles. “I was much too busy to spend any time worrying about that. When something annoys me, I write my mind and get back to my own life. That’s how I’ve lived to 88.”

Terry, once part of the NCS, was able to bring in other like-minded women artists as well, such as Gladys Parker. In addition, she went around the world doing USO shows with other members, in places like France, Germany and England. Meanwhile, she kept doing TEENA until 1964, when unexpected circumstances prematurely ended her run.

“When television began shaking up the newspaper business,” she continues, “the truck drivers struck, newspapers folded, and all the photographers, writers, newspaper boys and cartoonists had to find new jobs. I was already over the employable age, so I got ten things going on a freelance basis. Whenever anyone asked could I do this or that, I said sure – and ran to the public library to find out how. Among my ten things was engineering drawings for patent applications. To draw something that never existed as though it already does, the inventor has to explain every detail of what will make it work. That was my college education. Also high school.”

A year later, the Houston Astrodome, a completely enclosed sporting facility with a retractable roof and artificial turf instead of grass, opened. It had a scoreboard with filmed graphics from a number of movie cameras. Terry hooked up with entrepreneur Bob Roston, who had the idea of building open-air scoreboards with computer generated images, but needed an artist who understood computers. He sold the idea to the appliance manufacturer Stewart Warner and they got it in motion, with Terry’s help. “[I] did full board portraits for [player] introduction and celebrations, and quarter boards for stats for every man on the roster. Also at least two cheers for each player – one short for the disk for instant access, and one unlimited for the tape, plus the commercials and other animations…. I worked for all the teams that bought the boards I helped design, program, and sell as we led the technology, until the Japanese took over.”

She even met some unlikely people. “Rush Limbaugh was my scoreboard director when he worked for the [Kansas City] Royals. The fellow who got the job Rush wanted took one look at this little old lady in the computer room, and replaced me with a 20-man first-class animation company. Two years later I got a nice letter from the manager asking if I could come back. They missed my spirit.”

In 1979, Terry received the Best Animation Cartoonist award from the NCS for her work. She remains computer literate, despite the multitude of changes in technology. “I try to keep up – but it goes so fast. All of a sudden I can’t open my Quicken files. I have to upgrade. And every time I have to change the ink cartridge, I lose the printer. I struggle with everything.”

Also in 1979, Terry returned to TEENA by way of a new project – one that began with an epiphany of sorts. “I spent the summer doing all the crazy things to contact a guardian angel whom I believed must’ve been helping me with my gags.” Terry was no stranger to spiritual matters. At 13 she wrote a manifesto questioning the nature of the universe, including what a soul might look like. The discovery of DNA in 1953 was of great religious significance to her, as she saw it as a critical component in understanding the nature of God. And now another potential piece of the puzzle fell into her lap. “I had an encounter with a vision – a child whom I later found did exist 300 years ago. While laminating my old rotting cartoons, I discovered that not only did she help me with the gags – she actually put herself in the comic strip.”

This led to the creation of THE BABYSITTER’S MAGIC MOUSE STORYBOOK, a self-published book done in collaboration with children’s TV show host and long-time friend Job Matusow, that integrates the TEENA strips into a prose story featuring Matusow’s Magic Mouse character. Matusow, an accomplished writer, producer, and actor in radio and early television, began Magic Mouse as a radio show in Arizona, and slowly it grew into a traveling theater troupe, and in 1979, became the TV program MAGIC MOUSE MAGAZINE. “Some people wanted to revive the Magic Mouse stories,” says Terry, “and he wanted me to illustrate them with my teenagers, from when young girls were more innocent. Teena started as a babysitter during WW2.”

Terry believes that one of her characters, Gwendolyn, is an unconscious expression of the child from her vision, Dorcas Good, who would act as a kind of muse. “When I had to get an idea for my comic strip every week, I prayed for help. I knew I was getting the help. It was very specific at times. When it continued with the sports it was so different – and the year I won the award for best cartoonist animator, I simply had to know who was doing it.”

Terry remains active today, both in her writing and on the Internet (hildaterry.com), in addition to teaching at the ASL and running the 8 Henderson Place Foundation, dedicated to preserving the history of a landmark building in Manhattan (8hendersonplace.org). Currently she’s working on creating a website to preserve websites of other creative people and act as a central archive, an idea for which she’s currently looking for collaborators.

She stays quite healthy, too. “I swim two to five times a week – an hour each time. Sometimes less, and I fill the hour with water exercises. Five of them. I’m up to 100 times each. Keeps me sanitary for one thing…. My father made it to 90, smoking, drinking, carousing, the whole bit every inch of the way. His last wife was younger than I was at the time. You can say that nothing beats genetics, but nevertheless, I think my natural pleasure preferences gave me a lot more fun in my life than he got out of his.”

This past June 11th, Terry was the featured artist at the Friends of Lulu “Women and Comics” discussion series, held in the Manhattan bookstore Bluestockings. (For more information on this yearlong event, visit the site friends-lulu-nyc.org.) Terry regaled the crowd with stories of her career as well as her thoughts on science and religion, all with a great amount of exuberance and joyfulness. Later this month, she’ll appear at the Friends of Lulu table at the MOCCA Art Festival, also in New York.

All her life, Terry has had a profound awareness of the ties that bind the spiritual with the material. Within her writings, she continues to explore the questions that everyone asks at some point in their lives: who are we and why are we here?

“I think all creative people must sense that what they do comes through them. They may reject religious faith, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one who is confounded by the eternal mystery of what’s out there in Infinity…. We don’t invent. We discover what’s in Nature, and figure how to use it.”