Teena eyes a potential new boyfriend. Artist: Hilda Terry.

TEENA

Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features Syndicate
First Appeared: 1944
Creator: Hilda Terry
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Hilda Terry, creator of Teena, was far from the first female cartoonist in the annals of newspaper comics — nor even the first with a female protagonist. Dale Messick (Brenda Starr) and Tarpé Mills (Miss Fury), to name only two, were producing their most famous comics on a regular basis before Terry's began, tho in both cases the cartoonists had found it expedient …

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… to change their first names to something gender-neutral so editors wouldn't reject their material out-of-hand just because they were women. But Terry was a pioneer in at least one very important way. It was her active campaign that led to professional recognition of women in the field, in the form of opening The National Cartoonists' Society, which had started as a men-only organization (some cited a desire to use naughty words freely), to membership by both sexes.

In a less momentous way, Terry's work, as well as herself, was also a ground-breaker. There was a minor trend in the 1940s for comics about teenagers to star girls instead of boys, exemplified by Aggie Mack and Bobby Sox; and, over in comic books, Candy and Patsy Walker. It was Hilda Terry's work at King Features Syndicate that sparked the trend.

The first episode of It's a Girl's Life appeared in newspapers on Sunday, December 7, 1941 — but it didn't attract the attention it otherwise might have because another item in that day's news eclipsed any new comics that happened to debut. The Sunday feature was done in an unusual format — six panels, each an independent gag but related enough for the last to be a punchline to the whole sequence, about teenage girls' response to the war (which had already been raging in Europe even before the cartoon began). They also could be marketed as a daily feature, but wartime paper shortages prevented that. The main characters were named Henny and Penny.

The comic came about because of William Randolph Hearst's love of good comics, and his desire to publish the best of them through King Features, which he owned. Hearst saw Hilda Terry's work, and told staffers to offer her a steady feature. He'd been doing that sort of thing since he started publishing comics — an early such acquisition had been The Yellow Kid himself.

In 1943, Harry Haenigson launched his own girl-protagonist strip, titled Penny. In response, Terry dropped hers and started a more traditionally-formatted Sunday comic about a similar character with a different name. "Tina" was a good candidate for the new one's name, but the word "teenager" was just coming into vogue, so that was the spelling used. Teena started on July 1, 1944. Teena's much younger sister, Gwendolyn, was added to the cast later.

Things went well for Terry and Teena for about 20 years, until a general decline in the newspaper business forced the cartoonist to find work elsewhere. She eventually wound up in the burgeoning field of computer animation, for which she won an award in 1979 from the society she'd been instrumental in opening up a generation earlier.

As for Teena, sources differ as to the exact year of the comic's demise, ranging from 1963 to '66. There is little doubt, however, that Hilda Terry's comics creations are a part of comics history that hasn't been seen in years.

— DDM

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Text ©2007 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.