Even within that rarefied subset of comics called the “alternatives,” the work of Donna Barr and Roberta Gregory stands out as unique. Gregory’s work first appeared in feminist underground anthologies, and in 1976 she drew “Dynamite Damsels,” the first solo comic book published by a woman. In 1991, her current series, “Naughty Bits,” debuted, starring Bitchy Bitch, a seething volcano of female angst trapped in the body of a suburban office drone.
Barr is best known for her character “the Desert Peach,” gay brother of Gen. Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel and commander of a motley platoon of misfit German soldiers stationed in World War II North Africa. Any assumption you make about the book based on that description is probably wrong. Madcap and funny as the 13-year-old series can be, “Peach” is most often about maintaining one’s dignity and morality in the face of the barbarism of war
Barr and Gregory, along with Walter Crane (whose wonderful “Sheba,” about a mummified cat trying to find her way to the afterlife, is a great example of the current trend toward intelligent fantasy comics) are on a Midwest tour, and will make three stops at comics specialty stores in Michigan on Thursday and another stop Friday.
Metro Times: Let’s start with a fan-boy question: What are the origin stories of your best-known characters, Bitchy Bitch and Desert Peach?
Roberta Gregory: Bitchy started out as a joke, two-dimensional character in a story in which the Good Roberta was drawing cute “Kitty Kat Toons” and the Evil Roberta was drawing “Angstoons with Bitchy Bitch.” She vaguely resembled the Bitchy of “Naughty Bits.”
Donna Barr: I was working at the University of Washington, in the file room, which was painted this weird off-pink and the staff was trying to name the color. “Peach?” “Desert Tan?” “Desert Peach?” Boing! Who else? The Desert Fox’s pretty brother sashayed into my mind, fully formed, and said, “Honey, you are stuck with me now.”
MT: You’ve both taken what could have been one-joke concepts and spun stories around them that are nuanced and engaging. When did you realize the characters had so much potential?
Barr: What makes you think we’re in charge here? I’m always completely shocked and surprised by what my characters are doing.
Gregory: In the first issue of “Naughty Bits,” Bitchy went on the “date from hell” and revealed a bit of vulnerability. Later we got her take on religion, and we saw her childhood and child-abuse issues, so she sort of started off deep. I don’t think it’s possible for me to write anything two-dimensional.
MT: It’s considered a big deal whenever a graphic novel gets mainstream attention, but you’ve both been doing work for some time that appeals to readers outside of the insular comics scene. What’s the secret?
Gregory: I keep hearing from some women that they never read comics until they read mine and now they have almost every issue. I do the sorts of comics I want to read myself, so perhaps that appeals to readers outside the comics world.
Barr: Somebody once asked how Roberta and I did it, and I said, “Well, we just hunt outside the fence, where the animals are wild, instead of inside the fence with the tame cattle.” The reply I got? “Yeah, but you and Roberta are experienced predators.”
MT: Roberta, you were part of the ’70s feminist underground comix movement, which had a voice that was very different from the R. Crumb-Freak Brothers school; still raunchy, but also more personal and political. What influence did those feminist undergrounds have on other cartoonists?
Gregory: I recall Howard Cruse saying that those personal and political stories inspired the editorial content of “Gay Comix” (an anthology Cruse edited in the ’80s). He said he felt inspired to come out in print because in “Dynamite Damsels” my character Frieda “came out” of the closet. I’m not sure if any of the young women doing comics are familiar with those feminist undergrounds. There are lots of indie comics with women creators, but I don’t think they are part of any kind of “wave.”
MT: Donna, when I try to explain the “Desert Peach” to someone who’s never seen it, at best they assume it’s sort of like “Hogan’s Heroes” …
Barr: ... which, by the way, often betrayed its origins in 19th century Prussian anti-military humor. The Germans had to live with this military, and had all the good jokes. Col. Klink is a German classic.
MT: Others find “Peach” outrageous or offensive. Most people who read it are quickly converted, but have you had troubles getting the book read due to knee-jerk response to its premise?
Barr: Of course. Americans have become a conservative, frightened people. But once you break down their reserves, they open right up. People with brains don’t find it offensive.
MT: If you were called upon to “save comics,” what would you do?
Barr: “Comics” is the poster child for what happens to an art form when it censors itself. It surrendered in the ’50s and has never come out of the prison it built itself. No art form can be saved; it can only save itself.
Gregory: There seem to be more wonderful comics around and very talented people creating things than ever before, but sales are too low to support them. The old problem is how to get books into the hands of readers. If I knew the solution, I’d be making a fortune!
MT: One last fan-boy question: In a fight between Bitchy and Peach, who’d win?
Gregory: I imagine Bitchy would fight dirty. If she had PMS, she would probably clobber the Peach, but he could probably coax her out of fighting with tea and cake.
Barr: The only edge the Peach would have is that he’s handled more weapons. He definitely makes better tea than she does, and he’s not a bad baker, so he’d win the tea party, hands down.
Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory and Walter Crane will appear at the following shops Thursday, July 12:
1-3 p.m., Vault of Midnight, 255 E. Liberty Plaza, Suite 215, Ann Arbor, 734-998-1413; www.vaultofmidnight.com
4-6 p.m., Underworld Comics, 1202 S. University, Ann Arbor, 734-998-0547; www.underworldcomics.com
7-9 p.m., Comix Plus, 14216 Michigan Ave., Dearborn 313-582-9444;
On Friday, July 13, noon- 1 p.m., they will appear at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park, 248-968-1190.Sean Bieri writes about ’toons and graphic novels for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org