Leslie Sternbergh began her brilliant career drawing little naked ladies for the boys.
"They were so demure," says the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based cartoonist. "They were little odalisques, naked 'maja' things on a chaise longue. I would draw them for the boys, and they would give me their lunch money and I would buy comics."
From that auspicious start came a happily two-dimensional life modeling for artists and drawing for such underground publications as Wimmen's Comix. And now, at the hallowed age of 35, Ms. Sternbergh has reached a zenith rarely scaled by women cartoonists. She's infiltrating the pages of Mad magazine.
"I'm racking my brain trying to think if there has ever been a female art credit," says Ms. Sternbergh, who peppers her speech with such balloon words as "eek."
There have been only a few others, says Mad Assistant Editor Andrew Schwartzberg: "Mad started off as a boys' club of some sort and it's a male-oriented magazine."
It's enough to make the scarce woman cartoonist grumble, whether her bailiwick is mainstream comic books and strips or even the underground, rules-breaking cartoons born with a '60s sensibility and a home in alternative books and weeklies. "There are very few fields as heavily male," says Trina Robbins, author of "A Century of Women Cartoonists."
"Maybe the only equivalent is the fire department."
Not everyone agrees, though, that it's discrimination that thins their ranks. While cartoon journalist Heidi MacDonald says, "Men don't think women can draw superheroes, and I've been told that by male editors to my face," several other female cartoonists say they've never felt slighted.
Still, their meager numbers give women cartoonists an identity headache. That is, they're rarely simply called cartoonists -- it's usually women cartoonists.
"I was introduced by this feminist in San Francisco as a woman cartoonist," said Carol Lay, a Los Angeles-born cartoonist and recent New York transplant. "I was thinking, 'Oh, it's not self-evident what sex I am?' "
So, women cartoonists are ganging up to curry safety -- and recognition -- in numbers. Diane Noomin began lifting the veil of anonymity in 1991 by editing "Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art," a Penguin trade paperback anthology of the work of 14 alternative cartoonists. Ms. Robbins' history was published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1993, and a second anthology -- "Twisted Sisters 2: Drawing the Line" -- is due out from Kitchen Sink in April, to be linked to an exhibition of the book's original drawings at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum in July.
Women are also launching their own professional organization, the Friends of Lulu, named after that Depression Era comics classic Little Lulu. The idea is to buck the male superhero-dominated industry. Indeed, the more lucrative mainstream ranks have no more than 20 women writing and drawing amid hundreds of male counterparts -- and that's five times as many as there were 10 years ago, says Karen Berger, executive editor of the DC Comics imprint Vertigo, which is geared to a mixed audience.
"We're trying to point out at the crassest level there's money to be made [in publishing comics for women], and that opens it up for women cartoonists to have more opportunities," says Ms. MacDonald, Lulu organizer and associate comics editor for Disney Adventures magazine.
Ms. Noomin, based in San Francisco, says she was never attracted to corporate comics mills such as Marvel and DC, which generally cater to male aesthetics even though DC's CEO is a woman -- Jeannette Kahn.
"Certainly the popular he-man, superhero-type comics were never going to appeal to women," Ms. Noomin says.
What does appeal to women cartoonists is more personal work, often autobiographical, jibing nicely with a general trend in underground comics over the past decade. Instead of supernatural feats, they tackle intimate topics ranging from relationships, miscarriages and rape to surfing and having your ears blocked on an airplane.
Much of the work has a certain raw edge to it, and some of it is laced with anger honed by sharp wit.
Ms. Lay, who cherishes the artistic freedom the underground provides, plumbs her personal life for "a wealth of material."
"I just broke up with a boyfriend a few months ago, and I got 10 strips out of it so far."