Visible Women

Without this woman, your favourite comic book heroes might not exist

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re spotlighting Ruth Atkinson, one of the first women to create cartoon strips, including Patsy Walker, now a key character in Jessica Jones.

Our current era will probably be remembered for its proliferation of superhero movie franchises, but the late Thirties and Forties was ‘The Golden Age of Comic Books’ – a time when comic books exploded and were selling in their millions. Many of the superheroes currently gracing a screen near you were born in this boom time: Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman and Captain America.

Perhaps this surging need for comic artists is how Ruth Atkinson got her foot in the door, in the then very male domain of comic book publishing. Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1918, Atkinson grew up in upstate New York. By the early Forties she had begun working for Eisner & Iger, a studio that produced comics for publishers – at this time, mostly for Manhattan’s Fiction House.

Atkinson’s first confirmed (ie signed) work as a comic book artist was in February 1944 – a single page in the aviation-themed Wings Comics. This made her one of just a handful of women working as comic book artists at the time. Atkinson continued to illustrate this page (using the male pseudonym Acer Atkins). After adding more regular pages to her roster, Atkinson got promoted to art director, but when she found she didn’t have time to draw she went freelance.

Ruth Atkinson changed the game

Why was she a trailblazer? 

By November 1944, Atkinson had fully broken into the boys’ club of comic illustration and was ready to create her first character – making her one of the first women ever to do so. Patsy Walker was a co-creation between Atkinson and writer Stuart Little and first appeared in Miss America Magazine: a humorous teen romance comic aimed at girls, and published by Timely Comics (later to become Marvel Comics).

A sassy redheaded teenager, Patsy’s peppy storylines revolved around her boyfriend Buzz Baxter and her frenemy Hedy. The character went on to appear in other teen romance titles before the eponymous title Patsy Walker was born and published continuously until the Sixties.

It was in 1945 that Atkinson created the comic that was to make her name. Millie The Model centred around the adventures of blonde Millie Collins, who moves to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a model. Although Atkinson wrote and drew the first Millie comic, subsequent issues were mostly drawn by a staffer. With 207 issues published between 1945 and 1973, Millie The Model became Timely/Marvel’s longest-running humour title.

The early Fifties saw Atkinson move onto pastures new, drawing true-life adventures and romantic stories. After that, Ruth Atkinson seems to fade from view. It seems probable that, like many women of the time, she stopped working after getting married – anyway, the Golden Age was ending. Atkinson died in California in 1997 having made an indelible mark as a comic book pioneer. Patsy Walker – now known as Trish Walker/Hellcat – is still part of the Marvel universe and can currently be seen on Netflix’s Jessica Jones.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Bijouu Karman, Unsplash