The Forgotten History of Outrageous Women-Made Comic "Tits & Clits"

the cover of Tits and Clits comics

As Geek Girl Con hits Seattle this weekend, celebrating the rise of an inclusive female fandom, I want to take a look back at an early women-created comic that has been largely overlooked despite all current focus on the history of women in comics.

When Lyn Chevli and Joyce Farmer first began publishing a comic book called Tits & Clits in the early 1970s, they knew their comics were radical.  The pair thought of themselves as pioneers, standing firm on the fertile soil of female sexuality, scooping up a bit of rich earth beneath them, and shoving it in the face of a culture that considered sexually empowered women “dirty.” Now, after FDA approval of the birth control pill in 1960, that culture was evolving rapidly. As a 1966 U.S. World and News Report article put it, “An era of vast change in sexual morality now is developing in America.” Farmer and Chevli wanted to ensure that current state of “sexual anarchy” wound up liberating women. As Chevli told Cultural Correspondence a few years later, “Sex is a very political business. All we want to do is equalize that by telling our side.”

Underground comix seemed the perfect medium to spread their message. It wasn’t until after their comic book was published that they were informed that what they considered feminism was filth. In their hometown of Laguna Beach, California and beyond, Tits & Clits would become a source of minor controversy, caught up in escalating national arguments about feminism, sexuality, and obscenity.

Chevli had first discovered underground comix through her work running the Fahrenheit 451 bookstore in Laguna Beach, California. Comix, the unholy alliance of Mad Magazine-inspired college satire magazines and leftist underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Free Press, came into their own in 1968, just around when Chevli and her husband founded Fahrenheit 451. At the time, mainstream comic books were severely hampered in their subject matter by the Comics Code Authority of 1954. The Code prohibited nudity, “suggestive and salacious illustration,” abnormal or illicit sex, glorifying crime, and excessive violence or “lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations.” Underground cartoonists delighted in graphically depicting everything the Code forbade. Like the papers that inculcated them, underground comix dealt in mainstays of alternative culture: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Some explicitly tackled topical political issues, including the environment, the anti-Vietnam protest movement, and drug politics. Most, though, were far from being propaganda. Above all else, comix specialized in satire. Since their content prevented distribution through normal channels, comix were sold wherever hippies could be found: in head shops, on the street, at public gatherings like concerts and art shows, on college campuses, and in alternative bookstores like Chevli’s.

The 37-year-old sculptor spent hours behind the counter reading Zap Comix and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers when business was slow. The comix shocked and radicalized her. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, whom Chevli greatly admired, were known for putting perversities in print as often and as openly as they could. One infamous Zap story reveals a Freudian nightmare lurking behind a wholesome all-American family façade; the story culminates in an incestuous orgy. For all the dirty laundry that underground comix aired, their viewpoint on female sexuality was not what one would call enlightened—particularly not if one, like Chevli, was involved in the women’s movement.  By the early ‘70s, more and more feminists had begun to call for the creation of a “women’s culture.” Feminist forms of art would facilitate the rejection of old, chauvinist viewpoints and the instillation of a new cultural ethos. When she had the idea to start her own underground comic book, Lyn similarly envisioned it as antidotal: the shot of penicillin necessary to curb pathological misogyny and promote healthy sexual liberation for all.

After debt forced her to sell the bookstore in 1972, Chevli was determined to make her hypothetical comic a reality. Searching for a fellow artist, she wound up getting together with Joyce Farmer, a 33-year-old woman who worked down the street from Chevli’s bookstore at the bail bondsman’s office. Chevli asked Farmer to audition by drawing her “something dirty.” Farmer obliged, producing a sketch of a seated woman with her legs spread and a mouse nibbling at her labia.  Chevli was sold.  Neither had ever drawn comics before, but it seemed simple enough to do. After briefing her new friend on the basics of underground comix, the two women set to work on drawing what would become the first issue of Tits & Clits.

a page from the comic in which penises gush out of a woman's vagina and she delightfully licks them all

A page from Tits & Clits Comix that's titled "A Spring Story." 

Hard at work at their drawing boards, the women saw themselves as purveyors of feminist knowledge, putting women’s real-life experiences with sex and sexuality on paper. Yes, it was about sex, but neither considered their work to be pornographic. Nor did it occur to them that others might. After all, they were providing much-needed information about what sex was really like for women. Their background in women’s health—in 1971, both had begun leading sex education workshops at the Laguna Beach Free Clinic—echoed strongly in their comics. In “The Menses is the Massage,” Mary Multipary staves off the too-broke-to-buy-tampons blues by sopping up her flow with a repurposed kitchen sponge. Another story, “Fonda Peters Vaginal Drip,” features the eponymous Fonda trying and failing to treat a yeast infection over-the-counter. Mary Multipary tells her to douche with yogurt instead. Cured, Fonda throws herself a celebratory orgy. Characters in Tits & Clits bemoaned the prevalence of STDs and the paucity of satisfactory lovers, dealt with problem pregnancies and PMS without any semblance of panache, and masturbated with vigor.

the fonda peters comic, drawn in crude black and white

The "Fonda Peters" story. 

As provocative as it was, Tits & Clits stimulated a range of reactions. The title alone was enough to turn some people off. Farmer meant it to be an empowering, female-centric riff on the phrase “tits and ass” commonly used to describe women in men’s magazines. While some applauded the comic for showing the messier side of sexuality, others considered it more titillating than instructive.

A comic called "Menses is the Massage."

In July of 1973, Chevli and Farmer’s fellow cartoonist Sharon Rudahl tried to place an advertisement for Wimmen’s Comix #1, 2, and 3, Tits & Clits #1 and other “fantastic, avant-garde comic books by liberated women” in the Classifieds section of Ms. magazine. Ms. refused. The editor sent the check back, citing concerns from their publisher over “recent events.” The month prior, in Miller v. California, the Supreme Court had issued a landmark decision regarding pornography. As the Sexual Revolution raged on, producing ever more explicit art, music, and literature, the courts found themselves continually confronting questions of obscenity. In Miller, Court affirmed that obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment, ruling that material could legally be deemed obscene if it lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The publisher of Ms. presumably considered the comics pornographic and feared that helping to distribute them would open the magazine up to legal action.

“Not a single one of the books listed has the slightest titillating or erotic intent, as I believe even a conservative court would have to agree. They only offend the image of women as docile, sweet, soft spoken shadows in a male dominated society,” wrote Rudahl in response. That their work could be so misconstrued—by fellow feminists, no less—stung its creators. Insinuating that the comix were obscene was effectively declaring that they had no political, literary, or artistic value. If feminists couldn’t see the value in Tits & Clits, who could?

Of obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” Eyes of his time could not hope to see how much the times would change. Today, Tits & Clits retains some of its power to shock, but its subject matter has become far more acceptable. Feminism, sexuality, and pornography, and the relationships between them, remain contentious, but on the whole Americans are far more tolerant of all three. Forty years ago, people saw it differently. Their rejection by Ms. was the first, not the last, time Farmer and Chevli would see their work labeled pornography. Later that same year, the new owners of Fahrenheit 451 were arrested on obscenity charges for carrying underground comix. Chevli and Farmer spent the next year in fear, sure that they were the real targets of the bust, before the case was dropped. Entirely without intending to, they had become known as purveyors not of knowledge, but of smut.

Related Reading: Read Two Sexy Comics from New Women-Made, Sex-Positive Comics Collection Smut Peddler.

Samantha Meier is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. She is currently at work on a book about the history Tits & Clits.

by Sam Meier
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Sam Meier is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher currently at work on a history of the underground comix anthology Tits & Clits, co-founded by Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli in 1972.

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