Hot blue lightning seems to crackle, Star-Wars-Emperor-style, across the surface of The Complete Wimmen's Comix. Its title is a cheeky riff on the renaming passion that consumed feminism in the early '70s, and its two volumes come in a (actually rather ugly) salmon-colored box decorated with examples of the series' highly inconsistent artwork. The whole bulky thing feels like a suitcase bomb packed with jagged hunks of social revolution. And that energy keeps sparking throughout the 704 pages of this frenetic, anarchic, occasionally kamikaze production.
It's hard to think of an aspect of women's lives, real or fantastical, that Wimmen's Comix doesn't touch on. In 1971's "Breaking Out," a cabal of female comics characters — including Little Lulu, Betty and Veronica, and Petunia Pig — rise up against sexist double standards. (Betty and Veronica picket outside the high school, demanding classes in karate and women's history.) In Joyce Farmer's 1975 "Equal Rites," a dozen naked witches hold a birthing ritual to summon their forbears' spirits from outer space. Cecelia Capuana's "Modemorphose," from 1985, shows women's bodies changing to reflect the strangeness of female fashion: The figures grow huge bottoms, uni-bosoms or multiple legs that stick out in all directions.
Many of the artists fantasize about crime. In 1976's "Petite Morte," Joey Epstein envisions an all-woman street gang called the Tenderettes that rolls men for drug money — until one gang member develops a strange and lethal passion for their marks. In Melinda Gebbie's 1976 "The Confectionary," a sex-starved woman holds up a couple, kills the woman and rapes the man. Sharon Rudahl tells of a woman helping her son escape from a Mexican jail in "Jailbreak at Hermosillo."
Some artists simply turn a wry eye on the mundanities of life. In 1988, Mary Fleener recalls her friendship with a self-dramatizing "Trauma Mama." In Teresa Richards' 1976 "Chapstick," a woman fantasizes a steamy, explicit tryst on an elevator, then settles down to watch "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
It may be hard to see how "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and female-on-male rape can find homes in the same publication. But there's a strong, common current of energy unifying Wimmen's Comix. That's partly because some feminist issues, like abortion, are as fraught today as they were back in 1971. It's also because the collective seems to have remained mostly white, as far as can be judged from the photos in the introduction and the skin tone that predominates in the comics. It's genuinely painful to imagine the radical, clashing perspectives that might have been found in these pages if the collective had only reached out to more women of color.
They did reach out to a huge number of contributors — apparently regardless of artistic talent. The artwork is a total grab bag, ranging from the polished creations of Rudahl, Trina Robbins, Phoebe Gloeckner and Dot Bucher to painfully amateurish doodles by creators better left unnamed. Mixed in is subversive work in which wild, even ugly scrawls evoke an unnerving sense of chaos (Dori Seda, Diane Noomin and the perennially obstreperous Aline Kominsky-Crumb). There's even the occasional contribution from a soon-to-be-notable name (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Julie Doucet).
There's one more reason for the unity of spirit in Wimmen's Comix: These these artists, all clearly in agreement that "the personal is political," are much more comfortable with the first half of that pairing. They do tackle equal pay for equal work in the publication's early years and AIDS in later ones, with a dizzying assortment of topics in between. Rape, prostitution, sexual harassment, vegetarian cooking, science fiction, gothic romances, socks, bondage, nuns, farting, motorcycles and magic all feature in these pages. There are feminist fairy tales, stories of Harriet Tubman and Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, a board game, and a pointillist study of a cervix. There's even a 3-D issue (glasses included).
Still, though, these comics largely stick to the personal, to relationships and fantasies and the absurdities of everyday life. Whether it's 1971 or 1989, the contributors' favorite topics are self-definition and men, men, men. (Not to mention sex, sex, sex. Everyone is doing it in these pages, including cats and bugs.)
This says something about the nature of women and the nature of comics. It may be that, however revolutionary women's goals are, our first impulse is always to change ourselves before we take on the world at large. And it seems that no matter how talented the artist, it's just really hard to be funny about equal pay for equal work.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.