The resulting atmosphere is so female-user-unfriendly that even women in the field are intimidated. (In one notable exception, L.A.'s Golden Apple carries a wide swath of books that appeal to women as well as a variety of ethnic groups.) And now 90% to 95% of comics readers are male, MacDonald wrote in the catalogue for "Broad Humor," a 1992 show of women cartoonists at the Cartoon Art Museum.
"Comic book stores are kind of creepy," says Encinitas cartoonist Mary Fleener, 43. "There are all these kids, and there's no women in there and no women over 30, for God's sake. I feel like a total misfit and here I am drawing comics."
DC's Berger says funneling books to the comics stores aborted some of her efforts to launch mainstream titles for girls.
"The books didn't do well and they were canceled," she says.
The Twisted Sisters anthology was designed to leapfrog that obstacle by coming out as a paperback suitable for bookstores instead of comics stores, allowing women readers to discover it on familiar turf. And Twisted Sisters, which focuses on the underground, is a good primer on the work of women cartoonists because they tend to swim in alternative waters.
Twisted Sisters editor Noomin says she was never attracted to corporate comics mills such as Marvel and DC, which generally cater to male aesthetics even though DC's CEO is a woman--Jeannette Kahn.
"Certainly the popular he-man, super-hero-type comics were never going to appeal to women," Noomin says. "They are adolescent male sex fantasies about men saving bosomy women from snakes. Pretty Freudian stuff."
What does appeal to women cartoonists is more personal work, often autobiographical, jibing nicely with a general trend in underground comics over the past decade. Instead of supernatural feats, they tackle intimate topics ranging from relationships, miscarriages and rape to surfing and having your ears blocked on an airplane.
Much of the work has a certain raw edge to it, and some of it is laced with anger honed by sharp wit.
Lay, who cherishes the artistic freedom the underground provides, plumbs her personal life for "a wealth of material."
"I just think any relationship is enough to piss off anybody," she says. "I just broke up with a boyfriend a few months ago, and I got 10 strips out of it so far.
"I didn't run them in New York because this is where he lives, but somebody here saw them and said, 'I think those are mean.' I don't see them as mean. I see them as cathartic and honest. I think men might see it as being mean because they might be afraid of women who express themselves honestly."
Gender-driven debates go back to the birth of the cartoon underground in the '60s, when such comics classics as Robert Crumb's Zap were publishing randy depictions of women. Such work has also touched off sharp debate among women cartoonists over the issue of political correctness.
Sternbergh, for one, says Zap's excesses may have simply amounted to "a bunch of horny young guys on drugs having fun, realizing, 'Hey, we can publish this stuff!' It was the '60s, for heaven's sake."
Robbins, a pioneering cartoonist in underground comics headquarters, San Francisco, spearheaded a feminist volley against the Zap view of the world in the early '70s.
"I think a lot of comics by males in the underground have definitely degraded women," she says. "They're very hostile--not all of them, but a lot. In the underground, where you're free to express yourself, a lot of men consider this their opportunity."
Robbins also considered it hers, and in 1970, she put together one of the first underground women's comic books, "It Ain't Me, Babe." That was followed two years later with Wimmen's Comix, created by a women's collective, which published irregularly for the next 20 years.
Another early '70s reaction to the male underground's take on women was the controversial work of two Southern Californians, Joyce Farmer and Lynn Chevely, who published under the pseudonym Chin Lyvely. Their book dealt with women's sexuality and it boasted a provocative title that played off slang for women's private parts.
"Of course, women and sexuality involves having periods and other things, and we included the other things," Farmer says. "We used menstrual blood and joked about it, which was a no-no."
Their title nearly became part of an anti-pornography bust of a Laguna Beach bookstore, Fahrenheit 451, in 1973. An investigator from the Orange County marshal's office bought a copy along with issues of Zap and other underground comics. When marshals returned to raid the store and arrest the bookstore owners on obscenity charges, the women's title wasn't included because no copies were left. The case was ultimately dropped.