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Why superpowers increase breast size: Interview with a comic legend

Trina Robbins, here for tonight’s 7 o’clock screening of Wonder Women!, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary relating “the untold story of America’s superheroines,” will first appear at Legends Comics from 2 to 5 p.m.
Miss Fury, a collection of the comic strips written and drawn by Tarpé Mills from 1944 to 1949; edited by Trina Robbins.

It’s not for nothing Trina Robbins could easily be described as Wonder Woman, the superheroine she drew in the mid-1980s.

The legendary writer, pop culture historian and 1960s underground comics pioneer is still going strong at 74 — teaching, writing books about female cartoonists, creating new comics and nurturing today’s generation of women artists.

The San Francisco-based comic book creator’s background is mind-boggling. She co-founded the Wimmen’s Comix collective, designed Vampirella’s costume, co-wrote The Powerpuff Girls, collaborated with writer Kurt Busiek on DC Comics mini-series, The Legend of Wonder Woman, and wrote the teen superhero Go Girl! series. Her books include The Great Women Superheroes; Miss Fury, her tribute to cartoonist Tarpe Mills; and Best of The Brinkley Girls, her Nell Brinkley homage.

Robbins, here for tonight’s 7 o’clock screening of Wonder Women!, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary relating “the untold story of America’s superheroines,” will first appear at Legends Comics from 2 to 5 p.m. for a book signing. She will participate in a post-screening question-and-answer with Victoria-based illustrator Ken Steacy at Vic Theatre.

The influential artist will have plenty to say about Wonder Woman, and why the superhero, born in the 1940s and popularized by a lassoo-spinning Lynda Carter in the hit 1970s TV series, has endured in a male dominated genre.

“She’s such an icon,” said Robbins, reflecting on the star-spangled, scantily clad superhero who symbolizes feminism.

“She’s just like Marilyn Monroe. Women dress up like her for Halloween and at conventions. There are lots of female superheroes but none have the power and instant recognition of Wonder Woman. They tend to be minor characters.”

Wonder Woman will never be confused with Batgirl, Catwoman or Emma Frost. “Super teams are popular. There’s always the token woman. But Wonder Woman stands by herself.”

Robbins is featured in the film alongside commentators such as Carter, reflecting on ABC-TV’s lack of confidence in the show that spawned megahits from The Bionic Woman to Charlie’s Angels; Gloria Steinem, and Riot Grrrrl’s Kathleen Hanna.

The documentary focuses on the lasting impact of Wonder Woman, created by William Moulten Marston, the psychologist and lie detector inventor who envisioned her as a tough-minded advocate for sexual equality. She’s the basis for the film’s study of female empowerment through comics and why girls today need more such heroic role models.

“It’s not just that they need superheroes,” Robbins said. “They need something they can look up to.”

Female superheroes have been overlooked because comic books have been traditionally read mostly by males, she said.

“Girls and women tend not to be interested in reading comics about overly muscled guys with thick necks and big chins beating each other up,” she said. But now, “many more women are reading because of graphic novels.”

Another upside to graphic novels is more women are now either writing or drawing comics.

Robbins is inspired by this, prompting her to recall why she co-founded Wimmen’s Comix in the 1970s.

“Underground comics was an absolute boys’ club. Women were not invited and we needed a place to work,” said Robbins, much happier now as a writer. “I was not treated well as a cartoonist. It was extremely male dominated.”

This is why, peculiar as it sounds, she was a writer for The Powerpuff Girls, the comic book that spawned an animated series about the adventures of pint-sized superheroes Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup.

“They’re adorable and funny, aren’t they?” she said. “They work on two levels. Kids like them but there’s humour for grownups.”

Another sign of male domination, she said, is that depictions of female superheroes in comics have been so one-dimensional. She points to the link between superpowers and breast size. A superhero’s “bra size gets three sizes larger and she gets this sudden, incredible desire to dress like a slut.”

Robbins says it’s because such characters were “adolescent boy fantasies” created by men for a largely male readership.

The affable trailblazer has never been afraid to speak her mind on such issues. Robbins famously took celebrated underground comics artist Robert Crumb to task for portraying women as sex objects in his satiric creations.

“He’s an incredibly good artist, but what he’s done, all too often, is give us vicious, violent misogny. His female characters have been raped and dismembered,” Robbins said.

Such depictions were the downside of the underground comics movement, she said. “Unfortunately, they could draw whatever they wanted, but all too often a lot of guys did very sexist, misogynist stuff.”

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman has yet to join the ranks of Spider-Man and Iron Man and get her own big screen movie. “I think the [mostly male] industry is afraid of her, and don’t know what to do with her,” Robbins said. "A lot of men don’t like her because she’s so strong.”