by Alex Dueben
Roberta Gregory remains perhaps best known for creating Bitchy Bitch. The short-tempered, foul-mouthed everywoman starred in the long-running series Naughty Bits, published by Fantagraphics from 1991-2004. In addition, she starred in a comic strip which was published in many alternative weeklies in the 1990s and was the subject of a series of short animations on the Oxygen Network starting in 1999.
Gregory’s career started long before that, though. In the mid-1970s, Gregory created the strip Feminist Funnies, published the groundbreaking solo comic Dynamite Damsels, and became a member of the Wimmen’s Comix collective starting with issue #4. She was a contributor to many anthologies over the years including Tits and Clits and Choices. Notably, she created work for the very first issue–and many subsequent issues–of Gay Comix.
Among her many other books are Sheila and the Unicorn, the two volume graphic novel Winging It, and the miniseries Artistic Licentiousness. Her recent publications have included Follow Your Art: Roberta’s Comic Trips, a collection of travelogue comics, and True Cat Toons. Her contributions to Wimmen’s Comix were recently collected in The Complete Wimmen’s Comix, out now from Fantagraphics. Currently, Gregory is working on the multi-volume project Mother Mountain, which she was kind enough to talk about with the Comics Beat.
Alex Dueben: Your father, the late Bob Gregory, wrote and drew comics for Disney and Gold Key, so you grew up around comics and art, but when did you start making your own comics?
Roberta Gregory: I was drawing my own comics back when I was a child. I would draw stories with pictures of animals, talking to each other. I would staple the pages together into books and sometimes I would sell them to my family members.
Dueben: How did you get involved with Wimmens Comix, because that was early in your career?
Gregory: I recall seeing underground comix in the head shops back when I was at university, in Long Beach, California. This would be when I moved out into an apartment, so I think that had to be late 1973 or early 1974. My favorite shop was The Phinius over on Anaheim Street. I was not into smoking anything but they had huge racks full of underground comix. I had already been drawing feminist comics for the Women’s Resource Center newspaper, so I was just thrilled to see comics in real comic books that were drawn and written by women. I read comics as a child but whenever names of creators were mentioned, with the exception of Marie Severin, none of them were women’s names. I sent my first Wimmen’s Comix story in later in 1974, so I acted really quickly to get something finished. To be honest, I really hate that story I created for Issue #4.
Dueben: Dynamite Damsels came out in 1976 and that was your first comic, is that right?
Gregory: Yes, I submitted a story for Wimmen’s Comix #5 that I thought was a big improvement, had humor in it, and used some of my feminist characters that I was starting to develop, but it was turned down. I think the editor for that issue said it seemed “too much like the other one” which I did not understand at all. So I got inspired to create my own comic book, since I realized that anything else I did would be published only at the whim of somebody else. I had met Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli, who published comics like Tits and Clits and Pandora’s Box under their Nanny Goat imprint and they were very inspiring and encouraging. I had a little money saved up and I think I spent about $1500 dollars to print 10,000 comic books. Now they are almost all gone.
Dueben: How did you get involved with Gay Comix?
Gregory: That was easy, I was contacted by Howard Cruse, the first editor. The first several issues were published by Kitchen Sink. They wanted to have equal representation of women and men creators and back then, I was one of the very few women doing LGBT themed stories. So for the first few issues I could write longer stories. There was so much competition for pages in Wimmen’s Comix, only a few pages were doled out. My first story was 4 pages in Issue #4, in Issue #6 I only had a one page story and in #7 only two pages. Nanny Goat had turned Tits and Clits into an anthology as well, so I drew some longer stories for that, as well.
Dueben: How did Naughty Bits come about?
Gregory: I had been working on some longer projects, my Winging It graphic novel and my Sheila and the Unicorn book, during the later 1980s (also while working a full time job, of course) and had less time for Gay Comix stories. So I was not much in print later in the decade. I was acquainted with Fantagraphics, but they were not interested in publishing any of this, so I did it myself again. I did get a job doing production art for Fantagraphics just before they moved to Seattle from California. This is all the pre-digital before-computers production, using a darkroom and a stat camera to turn glossy photos into halftones, literally pasting up magazine pages on boards, and so on. I had been working on medical magazines and car magazines during most of the 1980s, so the work for Fantagraphics was not much different. When I was working for them in Seattle, I think Kim or Gary suggested I try a comic book. Naughty Bits was going to be just a short lived collection of stories but Bitchy Bitch turned into a character and took over the series. It ran for 40 issues and I am sure I could have gone on much more with it. Fantagraphics thought it was not selling as well as it used to so they told me to wrap it up.
Dueben: You were telling stories with Bitchy Bitch for so many years in the comic and then as a newspaper strip – to what degree is her perspective yours?
Gregory: Oh, I dunno, Bitchy is sort of based on the kind of person I find extremely irritating, clueless, quick to anger, no insight, and so on. But I can really identify with some of the things that make her angry. She is frustrated with her life but does not seem to have any of the skills or self-awareness to do more than blame everyone else for what is not working in her life.
Dueben: You’ve mentioned on your website that you have plans to make a Bitchy Bitch graphic novel. You’ve done a lot with the character over the years, but you still have more stories to tell with the character? What else are you interested in doing?
Gregory: Well, in the later issues she was worrying about having breast cancer. That would be a great theme for her to deal with. Although, in the 10 or so years since the last issue, some women have done their own autobiographical comics about breast cancer. So now I dunno if that would be as relevant. Plus there would be a kind of 10 year gap in the story, since I am trying to keep current events in the storyline. That would be kind of challenging. I just love drawing and writing about Bitchy, I am happy to have some more time to do it. I am retiring at the end of May from my day jobs, though I am going to be so broke, I will probably still need to work temp somewhere.
Dueben: You mention on your website that you’re working on a novel and graphic novel titled Mother Mountain. Could you talk a little about the project – to the extent you want to, because I know you’re still in the midst of it.
Gregory: This has been going on for an insane amount of time. It was a spin off story with some characters from my Winging It graphic novel, which I finished at the end of the 1990s. (Drawn in a very piecemeal manner since I was working on so many other projects at the time, like the Naughty Bits series, and the Artistic Licentiousness mini series, etc.) I started drawing it as a graphic novel, and I believe the first twenty or so pages were at the end of the second Winging It volume, but there was just so much I could do with the story, I wondered how it would work if it was “just words” so I took the beginning and started writing it out, and really got to enjoy the process of writing. I always thought of myself as a writer who happens to draw instead of an artist who happens to write, anyhow.
Now I have it envisioned as four books. I have written it over many years, sometimes having to leave it to sit alone for up to a year at a time, with other projects and a five-day-a-week ‘day job’. The first two books are finished and are about 130,000 words long each, which is pretty long. It does not seem to fit any of the formulas of genre literature. It is technically fantasy, I guess but could also be considered a romance, though a rather peculiar one. It is just a story I was (and still am) very inspired by and love to work on. I have the feeling I am probably going to have to publish it myself. But sometimes I tend to be a bit negative about my career that way. The theme is that a young person has very little control over the sort of world they are born into, and choices made early in life can have huge consequences later on. But it all takes place on a different world than ours, and many of the characters are LGBT, and of course there is lots of humor in it. Nobody but me could possibly write it. Of course, several years ago I wrote a graphic novel prequel (beginning with the characters as children) that I can envision as a lovely color web comic of about 100 pages. Of course, all I have to do is draw and color it!
For more of Roberta’s story, check out her website.