FF1991: Naughty Bits

Naughty Bits #1-40 by Roberta Gregory.

I’d been a fan of Roberta Gregory since way before Naughty Bits started in 1991. I’d gotten a hand on Dynamite Damsels when I was, like, 14, and I really loved her somewhat gentle style and pretty whimsical subject matter (like in Winging It). Unicorns and aliens and mysteries and personal stuff and earnest political stuff and… stuff.

And then there’s Naughty Bits.

This is not the Roberta Gregory I remembered! Where are the unicorns? Where’s the angel? Where are the dykes!??!

It seems like the first issue is mostly a reaction to getting a job in Fantagraphics that deals mostly with production work on their “Eros” line (i.e., porn, and most of it not very good). So she takes it to the next level with that R. Crumb, uhm, parody up there, and drawing in a much “rattier” style than she had been until now:

Not to mention the hawt, hawt, hawt sex:

It’s all hilarious, of course, and was apparently a totally unexpected success. Here’s Gregory explaining in the back of the first issue what it’s all about.

She seems more than a little bit worried that we’re going to think that Bitchy Bitch is (semi-)autobiographical, because Bitchy Bitch is a horrible person.

Hilarious, but an awful, awful person.

She seems so worried that she opens the next issue explaining the same thing again, so perhaps her worries were well founded.

This is more like Gregory’s normal drawing style. Easy and non-stressed lines with attractive and expressive figure work, but none of the angular insanity that we see in the Bitchy Bitch stories.

So in the first two issues, she’s established Bitchy Bitch (real name: Midge) as a bitter, mistrustful, angry, racist woman who has a constant monologue in her head where you get to listen to all of these things. She’s a one dimensional character that Gregory can do outrageous things with. But she starts filling in her background very quickly.

In the third issue we’re getting an explanation on how she ended up this way, with a look back at her childhood.

Horrible, racist parents, sexual abuse from an uncle, horrible friends, and all the goodies you’d expect. But it’s very well done. At this point it’s not clear whether Gregory plans on making Midge a three dimensional character, or keep her unsympathetic for maximum fun…

The attraction with “bad” characters as viewpoint characters is that the reader can go “tsk” most of the time, but still get emotionally engaged, so that if the viewpoint character does something good, then it feels momentous. If a “good” character does something good, then it’s just “whatevs”. The times Midge manages to do something nice, it’s “whoho”.

Naughty Bits isn’t all Bitchy Bitch, though. There’s also stuff like this, about how lesbians who start dating men get ostracised from their circle of friends. Done in Gregory’s normal art style.

This issue also starts the tradition of having some other artist doing a short back-up strip. This time it’s Gregory’s friend Donna Barr, of Desert Peach fame. She tries to get into the Naughty Bits swing of things and succeeds.

The Bitchy art style evolves rapidly towards more of Gregory’s normal style (note the rendering of the hair of the two women in the first panel), but it’s still pretty ratty.

(Note bitching and racism.)

In several editorials Gregory has been saying really bad things about Eros, so it’s ironic that Fantagraphics chose to run this ad on the back of the comic. Either they’re oblivious, or it’s a “tee hee” moment, I guess.

A guest page by Dennis Eichhorn, Pat Moriarty and Robert Boyd. I’m including this here, because there’s a letter reacting to it later… Probably three pages down or something on this blog.

And I’m including this because I think it’s the worst of the guest pages. It’s by Colin Upton and it’s so obvious and dreary. But most of the guest pages are pretty good.

But onto the letter pages. (This isn’t about the Eichhorn page, though.)

So, the reasonable question is: How can you have this character spouting (well, thinking) all these incredibly racists things? Aren’t you putting these things out in the world? Gregory retreats to the old “well, I’m slightly Mexican myself” instead of the better “Midge is horrible! This is what horrible people think!” defence. The early issues of the series is full of these kinds of discussions, which I think is healthy…

Pat Moriarty does an amusing page about sending Naughty Bits to relatives. I think I may perhaps not have done that…

The reaction to the Eichhorn page. Gregory’s defence seems to rest mostly on that she doesn’t censor. I guess… but she could be selective.

I don’t quite know what this defensiveness (and urge to explain things at length in the intros and the letter pages) is all about. Gregory seems to find the world-wide success of Naughty Bits a big surprise. Perhaps that has something to do with it. She has been creating comics since the mid-70s (the first woman to self-publish an underground comic book), but nothing she’s done had really taken off before she came up with Bitchy Bitch.

The next major Bitchy Bitch story deals with Midge’s teen pregnancy and abortion. Love the spaced outness (that’s a word) when she reads up on it…

Oh, speaking of the Eros ads. They’re back, and now with a warning. Heh, heh.

But back to the abortion:

Yikes. And it gets more harrowing, and then apparently Gregory think we (and Midge) have suffered enough, because she inserts this:

So edumacational.

This was written 20 years ago about the situation 25 years before that again… thank Emacs everything has changed now, and legal abortion is available everywhere.

Right? Right?

*sigh*

Gregory draws herself pretty much the same way she’s drawn herself since the 70s, so it’s probably not very… er… true to life any more. I like the way she comments about it here. I think Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics had been published by now, so these different levels of “realism” may be referring to that…

I don’t know what level this is, but I just have to mention how much I love the way Gregory draws angry breasts. They fly all over the place whenever Midge gets extra annoyed.

Nina Paley satirises Camille Paglia pitch perfectly. It’s just like listening to her.

Delayed readership reaction to the bobbiting in the first issue. But the interesting thing here is that by this point, 1993, Naughty Bits is Fantagraphic’s fourth best-selling comic book. Gregory has really hit a nerve with her somewhat more humanised version of Bitchy Bitch (well, she’s still horrible, but we’ve learned why she’s horrible). Hm… 1993… Grunge… Bill Clinton… Er… That’s all I remember. I was at University at the time.

I think part of the reason that the book took off the way it did (apart from being really funny) is that Gregory took the “annoyed internal voice” thing to a level that’s never been done before. When I’m annoyed, this is what my head sounds like on the inside, too.

Only not horrible! I swear! I’m nice! Totes!

So there’s an (embarrassed) self-recognition thing going on, while we’re tsk-ing her racist internal ramble and laughing at her. But I wonder how many people identify with Midge strongly and how many don’t understand her at all? Is she a “yes! That’s me!” to some people? And is she a total alien to other people?

Somebody should write an analysis.

More reader reaction about the apparent racism/sexism in Naughty Bits, and I don’t quite understand Gregory’s defence here at all…

Midge enrolling in college. This sequence really took me back. The enthusiasm and optimism combined with the rather scary reality of being at university the first few weeks. All the classes are going to be exciting! And then … er… not…

Heh. I seem to vaguely recall the R. Fiore/Roberta Gregory grudge match over at The Comics Journal. Gregory won that discussion here, I think.

Knockout!

In issue 19, we get the first actual circulation numbers. (I’m always interested in this stuff.) 5K. It’s respectable, especially in 1994, after all the distributor wars and booms and busts…

In the 20s, Neat Stuff starts featuring stories from the Bitchy Universe that doesn’t focus on Bitchy Bitch. She’s in most of the issues, but here we have a story about her boss, the competent by slightly ditzy new age enthusiast.

Reader reaction keeps flooding in…

Gregory seems to be worried about the direction about Naughty Bits. I think she shouldn’t have been: Everything has been chugging along nicely. Sure, there isn’t that much development, but there’s a lot of things happening, if that makes sense. Each issue is so dense. It’s not just a lot of words (although there’s that, too), but there’s so much action that you almost feel overwhelmed after each issue.

I thought it’d take me one long evening to read this small stack of comics, but it’s taken me four very long evenings of doing nothing but reading these comics. And they were very enjoyable evenings.

Anyway:

Bitchy Butch started appearing in Naughty Bits at this point (#21) and would appear sporadically in the next issues. She’d had a long run in Gay Comix/Gay Comics in the preceding years…

From an autobio story in issue 22. I did not know that “Standardized Patient” was a job that existed. Like I said, very edumacational.

I find it interesting that Fantagraphics either kept all the back issues in print, or printed way too many copies. Because until the end of Naughty Bits, you could still buy (almost) all single issues, as well as collections of the material from those issues. I think that’s pretty unusual.

One of the characters is Mawr-see, who always goes around praising the lowered. Gregory expresses her feelings about her.

Now those are angry tits!

Gregory starts running a story she wrote while a teenager (and illustrated later). I like the humour in the first two panels (it’s very much like something I’d written when I was 16), but it’s not very… er… good. Gregory was supposed to run all ten parts of it, but I think only three were produced.

And apparently all is not well in the circulation dept. Kim Thompson, the publisher, writes to notify her about the state and comes with some pretty harsh-sounding criticisms of the book.

In the letters pages the next issue the debate rages. The most amusing contribution is this:

It’s from Dave Sim, the guy who did Cerebus the Aardvark. His main point is that Bitchy Bitch is such an accurate reflection of What Women Are Really Like, so Gregory shouldn’t change a thing. I guess the proper reaction to that is “er, thanks? I think?”

The publisher gets to the point. “[who] draw psychotically misogynistic aardvark comics — are you sure that’s the audience you want, Roberta?”

Well, it made me laugh.

Anyway, this is 1999, so Bitchy Bitch is getting into the Y2K scare. Remember that? All the microchips in everything were going to fail?

Those were the days.

This issue also has the first longer autobiographical story, and I think that this is really where the problems start. It’s an interesting story about her father who’s gotten Alzheimers, but look at that two page spread. It’s barely comics. Gregory tells everything that’s going on, but shows very little. I think this story, expanded to a 150 page story told in a less compressed manner would have been a great thing. Kinda like Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”, only 15 years earlier.

But as it is, it’s not an inviting read.

One of Thompson’s suggestions was to have the covers be more elaborate, so we first get a painted cover and then a collage cover before it’s back to the usual style. I guess Gregory is very open to suggestions…

She’s very revealing in the autobio stories that are a regular feature from now on. And not only about herself, but her boyfriend and parents in a way that’s … unusual? Yeah.

In issue 32 Gregory presents her first biographical feature. It’s about Dr. Mary Walker, the civil war surgeon and women’s right activist. It’s fascinating, but very text heavy.

Words! Eww!!!

The next one is more like an illustrated story than a comic book, and it’s (unfortunately) not as interesting as the first one.

The third one isn’t even an illustrated story. It’s just a straight summery of Remedios Varo’s life with some recreations of her paintings by Gregory. It’s somewhat interesting to me, but I can’t imagine this is what most Naughty Bits readers signed up for.

Eek! Desktop publishing! Comic Sans! Eek!

And this is more like it, story wise. Heh, heh.

By issue 36 (in 2002), Gregory’s financial situation is deteriorating. The comic is selling less, and the animated version of Bitchy Bitch is paying some money, but irregularly. So Gregory has to take two day jobs. (As well as starting to study again. To be a hypnotherapist, of all things.)

But we finally get a longer Bitchy Bitch story again, and it’s such a relief to get her back. Gregory starts tying up loose threads by reintroducing long gone characters again.

Perhaps Gregory isn’t that inspired by Bitchy Bitch any more, but I think it’s just as good as ever.

A guest strip by Patty Leidy about cockroaches. I just had to include it because it brought back this February in Sydney again.

I’m still twitching. “Did I see something? No… No?!”

Traumatising.

Hey, I didn’t know about those… Gotta check them out.

The ultimate of 2003-era (and up) horrors: Having your relatives fall for a spam scam.

I’d love to visit a Castle Waiting store, too.

We’re getting towards the end… hang in there.

I thought that was a pretty strikingly horrific cover. And on the inside:

Gregory doesn’t quite get it…

Eek! It is pretty horrific. Just like in the early days of the book, so we’ve completed a kind of circle here…

Meanwhile, in the autobio section, most of the stories are about trips Gregory has taken since the last issue, and they start looking like this:

And are quite preoccupied with food.

I like these strips, but… Gregory’s autobio isn’t as good as the fiction, in my opinion.

Hey, I remember getting two wine corks when I read this the first time and trying out that trick.

Gregory as drawn by other artists often doesn’t look like when she draws herself…

The inside cover of issue 40 announces that it’s over, and that the book is selling 1500 copies at this point, down from 5000 at the peak.

And she’s taking other day jobs now.

After this, I haven’t really been keeping up with Roberta Gregory’s career.

I’ve read “Follow Your Art”, but I can’t remember anything else.

She’s had her own web site since the late 90s, and it’s still there.

But it doesn’t seem like she’s published much of anything since Naughty Bits was cancelled.

Various collections have been issued, including the first half of a projected “complete” collection in 2005. So that’s a bit depressing.

But I think these comics are fantastic (with some missteps in the last handful of issues). And reading them in “floppy” form is great — the introductions and the mix of stories really work well. I can understand why a big collection may be a bit… intense.

Naughty Bits is, I think, the last of the great indie comics.

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

4 thoughts on “FF1991: Naughty Bits”

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