Michelle Ann Abate, a professor of literature for children and young adults, looked at the roles of female characters in comic strips in her new book “Funny Girls: Guffaws, Guts, and Gender in Classic American Comics.” Credit: Courtesy of TNS

While comics containing strong female leads are often viewed as groundbreaking developments in modern literature, Michelle Ann Abate argues that these characters have always existed. They’ve just been overlooked.

Abate, a professor of literature for children and young adults at Ohio State, published her book, “Funny Girls: Guffaws, Guts, and Gender in Classic American Comics,” in January, aiming to examine the roles female protagonists played in comics from the early to mid-1900s.

“It takes a look at a handful of titles that were very popular in American newspapers, funny pages and American comic books from the 1920 s through the mid-1950s,” Abate said.

The book examines titles that were popular in American newspapers from the 1920s through the mid-1950s, such as funny pages and comic books. Additionally, Abate looks at the roles of female characters in comic strips such as Little Orphan Annie, the character on whom the 1982 film, “Annie,” was based; Little Lulu, a popular character in the 1930s; and Nancy, the subject of a popular comic strip that launched in 1938, as well as the role of Little Audrey, one of the three Harvey Girls from the 1940s publisher Harvey Comics.

In the last chapter of the book, Abate focuses on the 1950s comic book “Lil’ Tomboy,” the main character who can be seen on the cover of her book. The comic, which was in circulation for three years, featured a young girl engaging in various mischievous activities, and Abate emphasized how unique it was for this type of character to be featured in a comic, especially as a female.

“Lil’ Tomboy” is a prime example of a groundbreaking female character whose existence in the world of comics is often overlooked, Abate said.

“It was quite bold for the 1950s for her to be so mischievous and also quite a triumph for the publisher to be able to release a comic where a character engaged in such sort of misdeeds given the Comics Code Authority at the time, which was really clamping down on what could be depicted in comics, including showing kids being naughty and misbehaving and lying,” Abate said.

Abate’s interest in tomboys as female protagonists began when she started writing her dissertation on the long history of “tomboyism” in the United States. She said she engaged in extensive research for her dissertation when she came upon Tumblr, which opened her eyes to tomboy-related comics.  

“That’s where this project really began was way back in the early 2000s when I first came across little Tumblr comic books, and they were incredible and amazing and no one remembered this character and no one had written about this figure,” Abate said. “That kind of planted the seed of like, ‘Wow there’s some really incredible and amazing girl protagonists in mid-20th-century comics, like someone needs to do something about this and talk about this,’ and I thought, ‘Well, I will.’”

Caitlin McGurk, associate curator and assistant professor at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State, said in an email that Abate’s take on young female protagonists in 20th-century comics created the foundation for female characters in future comics.

“This book is a wonderful addition to the world of comics scholarship because the area of mid-1900s children’s comics is sorely understudied, and yet this was some of the most widely read comics material in the United States,” McGurk said. “These young and often mischievous female characters paved the way for a lot of the strong female leads we see in comics today,”