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US exhibit traces history of female comic artists

PITTSBURGH--It took a war to let America's female comic book artists break character.

A new exhibit at Pittsburgh's Toonseum is celebrating the history of female comic artists, including those who began laying the groundwork 100 years ago and the female artists of the 1940s, when World War II sent many male artists overseas.

“Wonder Women, On Page and Off” includes originals by Nell Brinkley, who created masterful, wispy drawings of curly haired working girls starting in about 1907.

But Joe Wos, director of the Toonseum, notes that even the successful female artists faced a type of glass ceiling at first. Some were able to break in to the competitive industry, but the characters and stories were mostly related to fashion and women's experiences.

“Men's comics, they could write about whatever they wanted. They could write about being a little girl, about being an iguana, or a Viking,” Wos said.

That started to change at the beginning of World War II, when men went off to fight and women filled the void at home, in comics and in other industries, Wos said.

The exhibit features original panels from Jill Elgin's “Girl Commandos,” a 1940s series that chronicled the adventures of four young women who fight against the Axis powers.

“You begin to see women in the heroic roles,” Wos noted. But after the war ended, women had to struggle to gain acceptance again.

Pittsburgh resident Cindy Washington visited the exhibit Friday and said she was struck by how female artists had drawn such powerful female characters in the 1940s.

These characters weren't “just waiting for someone to come and help — they were very active” in taking control of situations, Washington said.

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