“A Brinkley bride-to-be reminisces about her carefree maiden days of wanderlust and freedom” (15).

Nell Brinkley’s Unsung Legacy

Stella Sun

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As one of the first prominent women cartoonists in the United States, Brinkley inspired a wave of women comic artists and pioneered a new genre of “pretty comics.”

The mainstream history of American comics has always been a masculine realm, from creators to characters to consumers. This exclusive male-dominated niche inherently produces misrepresentations of women, non-binary, and colored characters. However, within the seemingly homogenous history of mainstream American comics, there have been influential comic artists that disrupted the status quo. Illustrator, cartoonist, and comic artist Nell Brinkley was a leading figure in the comics field in the early 1900s and was referred to as the “queen of comics” in her day.

While neither Brinkley nor her work is very well known today, the untapped legacies that she has left for the American comics field are enduring and invaluable. As one of the first prominent women cartoonists, she created evocative, beautiful, and elaborate work that inspired a wave of women cartoonists and comic artists. Brinkley had also pioneered a new genre of “pretty comics” in the United States. While her popularity and innovations in the comics field faded since her passing in 1944, her work served, represented, and acknowledged a strong feminine audience and should be studied again today to diversify the present-day United States’ comics culture.

Brinkley’s career began as a comic-illustrator whose style was innovative, evocative, and non-conforming to the existing comic-illustrations in the male-dominated industry. Article-blog “Radical Romance: That Brinkley Girl” from Panels and Prose describes that when “compared to the simpler line work of contemporaries in the Sunday section like Herriman, King, or even fellow nouveau stylist McManus, Brinkley’s art was downright Baroque” (1). Additionally, Brinkley’s renowned protagonists, the “Brinkley Girls,” quickly replaced illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” as the new ideal of the American woman. Instead of the fragile yet voluptuous Gibson Girl created through a masculine gaze, the Brinkley Girl was independent, eccentric, and lived for herself. Not only did the Brinkley Girls captivate their readers, the artist’s “romantic and glamorous imagery became an inspiration to a generation of female comics artists” (3).

Brinkley portrayed complex emotions through both her lush drawings and her poetic narratives. The cartoonist evoked nuanced and extensive feelings of romance, adventure, fantasy, and sincerity through her protagonist’s shimmering eyes, expressive faces, voluptuous hair, glowing garments and accessories, and intricate backgrounds. “Radical Romance: That Brinkley Girl” also describes that Brinkley “never trivialized the fashion and multiple wardrobe changes of her characters, but instead made them outward expressions of some inner emotion, identity, mood” (1). Brinkley’s bejeweled flappers, extravagant princesses, and other charming heroines gave its audiences a gentle, feminine, and refreshing perspective on cartoons and comics.

For example, in her cartoon series “Betty and Billy and their Love Through the Ages” for the American Weekly, Brinkley tells the story of protagonists Betty and Billy, who look into a crystal ball each week to see their love life play out in different scenarios through moments in history. In the segment “In the Time of the Troubadours,” the artist lavishly illustrates Billy, a troubadour in this historic scenario, who has climbed to the top of a tower overgrown with roses to meet his lover, Betty. Humorously, the artist’s captions describe present-day Betty and Billy commenting on the practicalities and romantic appeal of this feat and its possibility to be recreated with an apartment window.

Nell Brinkley, “№15 — In the Time of the Troubadours,” from “Betty and Billy and their Love Through the Ages,” April 2, 1922 (6). Cover of the American Weekly supplement within the Sunday Milwaukee Telegram.

Brinkley’s captions and illustrations harmonize to create luscious and enchanting stories. In another example, the captions for Brinkley’s graphic short story, “Dimples’ Day Dreams” for The San Francisco Call in 1928 capture the romantic fantasies and musings of her protagonist, Dimples:

Sweet Dimples’ thoughts are far away now as the boy friend drones

“Come out of it–and marry me–be pretty Mrs.Jones.”

But still the “movie bug” persists, for out in Hollywood

Abide the heroes, handsome, idols of all maidenhood

Enshrined in fifty million hearts, herself a famous star,

With her imported peke in her imported motor car!

While “on the set” she acts and acts until hears a shout–

From the director: “Cut the scene–she’ll burn the fuses out!” (10)

Additionally, Brinkley’s page compositions were non-traditional. “Radical Romance: That Brinkley Girl” explains that “in [Brinkley’s] first serials, the stories were told in each Sunday episode by a single evocative full-page scene with accompanying text. In her stories of the 1920s, this format evolved into something closer to but not quite like a comic strip, with five or six numbered vignettes and blurbs advancing the story. Brinkley never resorted to speech balloons or even firm panel outlines. Instead, her vignettes floated on the page without definite borders in a dreamlike motif” (1).

The Princess from Nowhere, New York Evening Journal, 1933 (7). In her later years, Brinkley’s single-page cartoons began to look more sequential.

Brinkley’s fantastical illustrations, writing, and world-building depict nuanced emotions through unapologetically girly romances and captivate audiences who are underserved by the action and slap-stick comedy cartoons and comics at the time. Since Brinkley’s time, in the United States perhaps only Disney princesses have brought fantasy, adventure, and romance to a mainstream audience through a similar cartoon or animation medium.

Brinkley’s work had reached wide audiences in the 1900s. The cartoonist’s captivating protagonists were “featured by the Ziegfeld Follies, and Biograph once billed one of its movie starlets as “The Radiant Nell Brinkley Girl of the Follies. Brinkley herself was the subject of at least three songs, and her name was a staple of the mass-merchandising of women’s products in the 1910s” (4). Furthermore, the Brinkley Girl inspired comic artist Dale Messick’s “Brenda Starr, Reporter” (4).

However, while Brinkley was popular and highly praised during her time, her work began to fade from prominence over the next century. Perhaps some factors that contributed to Brinkley’s impermanent legacy were the rapidly changing landscapes of both the comics realm as well as the newspaper industry in which Brinkley worked. Newspaper publications peaked in the 1930s, which was followed by immense growth in the production and consumption of audio, visual, and digital media (14). This sudden boom in information consumption might have obscured those whose works were tied to the newspaper industry, such as Brinkley. Additionally, the shift in the comics scene to superhero comics in the 1940s might also have overshadowed Brinkley’s work and other artists with similar styles.

Nonetheless, Brinkley represents an extremely important time in both comics history and the United States societal structure. Following the success of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1920s, the artist’s work was described as “liberating the feminine personality” (1). Brinkley was a pioneer of women in cartooning and comics, as well as an individual who used her profession to give people a glimpse into the empowered modern American woman: someone who is independent, enlightened, wild, and courageous, yet also romantic, self-expressive, imaginative, and adventurous, just like Brinkley’s heroines.

Brinkley had also opened an untapped market of “pretty comics” within the American comics scene that unfortunately had faded with her passing in the mid-90s. While drawing pretty, which was associated with drawing like a girl, was often scrutinized in the United States, pretty comics found expansive potential in Asia. Shoujo manga in Japan rose in popularity a few decades after the height of Brinkley’s work and relies heavily on “prettiness” to market to girls and young women. Similar trends and market success have been found in Korean manhwa and Chinese manhua. In the United States, this more feminine audience that resonates with daydream-like adventures, delicate romance, and fantasy is sidelined by mainstream comics and cartoons, and perhaps only served by Disney’s princess animations. However, unlike Disney princesses who were born into a life of perfect fantasy, shoujo manga heroines were often opinionated young women with relatable daily routines who lived in a magic-filled world. Similarly, the Brinkley Girls were flappers, city-dwellers, or doting girlfriends who went on dreamlike adventures. “Pretty comics” have potential in the American comics scene today. With Brinkley as its pioneer, American comics can proudly study and expand into this genre and market.

Brinkley challenged the boundaries of American comics and paved a novel genre that appeals to a more feminine audience. Her legacy should be uncovered once again and utilized as a beacon to diversity and strengthen the United States’ comics history and culture.

Bibliography

  1. Smith, Popeye. “Radical Romance: That Brinkley Girl.” Panels and Prose. 09, 19, 2021. https://panelsandprose.com/2021/09/19/radical-romance-that-brinkley-girl/
  2. Smith, Popeye. “Notable Books: The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists in the Jazz Age.” Panels and Prose. 08, 08, 2021. https://panelsandprose.com/2021/08/08/notable-books-the-flapper-queens-women-cartoonists-in-the-jazz-age/
  3. Wikipedia. “Female Comics Creators.” Wikipedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_comics_creators
  4. IMDb. “Nell Brinkley Biography.” Amazon. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0109617/bio
  5. Chan, Suzette. “Recording the Modern Woman: Trina Robbins on Nell Brinkley.” Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/article.php?id=1232
  6. Brinkley, Nell, Betty and Billy and their Love Through the Ages, Cover of the American Weekly supplement within the Sunday Milwaukee Telegram, 04, 02, 1922. https://www.dbdowd.com/illustration-history/2015/11/13/nell-brinkley
  7. Brinkley, Nell, The Princess from Nowhere, Cover for New York Evening Journal, 1933. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/original-full-pages-nell-brinkley-1812509937
  8. McLeod, Susanna. “Nell Brinkley, Creator of The Brinkley Girl and Early Comics Innovator.” The Cartoonists. 05, 13, 2005. https://www.thecartoonists.ca/Index_files/2005pages/TC%20-%20Nell%20Brinkley,%20Creator%20of%20The%20Brinkley%20Girl.htm
  9. Lambiek Comiclopedia. “Nell Brinkley.” Lambiek Comiclopedia. 04, 16, 2020. https://www.lambiek.net/artists/b/brinkley_nell.htm
  10. Smith, Popeye. “Serious Fantasy: Nell Brinkley’s Flapper Feminism.” Panels and Prose. 09, 12, 2021. https://panelsandprose.com/2021/09/12/serious-fantasy-nell-brinkleys-flapper-feminism/
  11. Barron, Ashley. “The Brinkley Girls.” Ashley Barron Illustration. 06, 14, 2010. https://ashleybarron.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/the-brinkley-girls/
  12. Elise, Ridley. “Artist profile: Nell Brinkley, Queen of Comics.” Sketch by Sketch. 04, 01, 2014. https://sketchbysketch.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/artist-profile-nell-brinkley-intro/
  13. Wikipedia. “Superhero Comics.” Wikipedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhero_comics
  14. Wikipedia. “History of American Newspapers.” Wikipedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_American_newspapers
  15. Brinkley, Nell, The Bride, Published Illustration Art, 1928. https://grapefruitmoongallery.com/34668

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