Comic books by women are not as rare as one might think. Despite the fetishized female found in too many male-authored comic books and the stereotype of comics as a boy’s club, women have been involved in comics for decades. Just ask Trina Robbins, whose many books on the subject will convince even the most skeptical of readers. Better yet, just ask your local retailer what they’ve got for sale in the way of women’s comics. You may find a gaping discrepancy, however, not only between the large number of comics by women and what your local retailer has in stock, but in the range of work being produced. You could pick up Sarah Dyer’s feel-good, if uneven, anthology Action Girl, or Jill Thompson’s (you might recognize her from her work on DC’s Sandman series) latest Scary Godmother. But if you want something with an edge, and you’re looking for something that might make you feel a mite uneasy (especially if you read in public), ask for a copy of Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits. It details the life of one office worker, nicknamed Bitchy Bitch (whose given name is Midge McCracken), who doesn’t hold back when it comes to complaining about men, co-workers, and the world at large. At times explicit, Naughty Bits is a far cry from the standard superhero fare.
Roberta Gregory is, paradoxically, one of the best-known and successful women in independent comics (comix from here on in) even though her comic book sales are apparently dropping off at a rapid rate. Now when it comes to comic books, success is a suspect term; you’ll see the phrase, “nobody’s in independent comix for the money” repeated with frightening frequency. But people still publish, and if continued publishing is a barometer of success, someone ought to give Gregory an award. In addition to the ongoing Naughty Bits series (#31 is due out this month), Gregory’s work frequently appears in compilation comic books like Diva, she’s created no fewer than three other titles (including two compilations of a sci-fi story called “Winging It”), and fifteen 3-minute animated Bitchy short films (which seems a logical next step after the I’m not kidding three Bitchy Bitch stage productions). Gregory is also a pioneer in the field; she was the first woman to solo-publish and distribute a real regulation-size comic book (22:6), a fact we discover in an auto-bio bit called “Comic Books Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore” which rounds out Naughty Bits #30.
(Fantagraphics Books, Inc.)
Naughty Bits #30 includes two auto-bio stories, the first being the aforementioned story where Gregory relates her own origin story of how she became involved in independent comix, beginning with reading Disney comics as a child and discovering underground comix as a college student. The second, a witty and gently barbed story titled “The Republican Picnic,” relates the tale of Roberta and her friend Liz infiltrating a Republican rally held on an island off of Seattle. Her storytelling is superb; letting the Republican craft fair and food tent speak for itself, she manages to combine being forced to challenge her assumptions about Republicans while still turning a sharp critical eye on the propaganda which pervades the rally. Gregory’s work is, at times, dialogue-heavy, but the dialogue itself is never dense. She’s also has great skill in combining image and text; a perfect example happens in issue #30 when Roberta discovers Republican humor at a bumper sticker stand. One of the best things about Naughty Bits is that its content is so varied. Whether we’re reading about Bitchy’s latest sexploit with her ex-co-worker Chuck (hey, it isn’t called Naughty Bits for nothing!), or issue #27’s Bitchy Witch story set in 1347, the stories are always original and fresh.
Gregory seems to shrug this sort of thing off in her introduction page, found on the inside front cover, talking (and drawing herself panicking) about how the issue is “LATE as USUAL” and how she managed to pull it together. Issues also sometimes include work by guest contributors as varied as known comix heavies like Colin Upton and Joyce Farmer (half of the groundbreaking Nanny Goat Productions), to rising comix zine stars like Carrie McNinch (The Assassin and the Whiner). And, of course, there are the letters pages. Issue #28 includes excerpts from Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson, suggesting Gregory change cover styles or “the quickie-sketchbook look of the art, which has charm but seems always to be teetering on the edge of crudeness…” “Crude” is the key word here. Naughty Bits is crude, both in terms of the artwork and the unflinching depiction of sex. Bitchy has a lot of sex, whether with partners or toys. The series is full of this sort of playful perversion; issue #30’s Bitchy story “Bitchy Bitch Gets Good and Ready!”, refers both to Bitchy stocking up for the Y2K crisis and picking up with her lover Chuck (who, as we’ve learned in recent issues, likes it when Bitchy is, well, bitchy).
The comic is black-and-white and the art is unique; sketchy, yes, but never difficult to read and, in fact, often very engaging. Whether you like the characters or not, you have to admit the comic has personality; Bitchy grows fangs when she’s irate, and doesn’t hesitate to think bitchy thoughts. To her credit, Gregory never shies away from showing Bitchy at her worst moments, whether it be Bitchy’s rampant racism and homophobia early in the series (it shows up from time to time these days) or her unrelenting quest for action (be it with Chuck, or props, or some combination of the two). Issue #30 also makes more of a character of Marcie, the office born-againer, who’s dealing with her own personal demon in the form of David, a former boyfriend who’s looking to rekindle the flame, which Marcie takes as a sign of the impending apocalypse. Both Bitchy and Marcie end up at a Millennium fair of sorts; Bitchy goes because she’s been stockpiling cheap ravioli and hoarding water, but Marcie, who’s on the verge of a breakdown and has begun to carry a gun in her purse, goes to find others like her…and here’s where the story stops. Say what you want about the art; Gregory’s got a real talent for cliffhangers. Here’s hoping #31 gets done on time.