Nell Brinkley (1886 – 1944) was an American illustrator and comic artist whose work reached prominence during the early part of the 20th century. Born in Colorado in 1886, Brinkley dropped out of high school to pursue a career in art. She produced illustrations for newspapers like The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, as well as book covers and illustrations. Around 1907 her skills were noticed by media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his editor Arthur Brisbane, who convinced her to move to New York and work for The New York American, creating illustrations and one-panel comics that appeared almost daily.
During her career she also worked as a journalist, interviewing luminaries of her day and producing illustrations to accompany the text. In an era before photojournalism and before photography saw widespread use in news publications, Brinkley's prolific illustrations and full-color covers made her a household name. She used her art and her popularity to support the cause of women's suffrage, American involvement in World War I, and to promote the expansion of women's rights.
Brinkley is perhaps most famous for "the Brinkley girl," a stylish female character archetype that supplanted Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson girl" of the Edwardian era as the idealized illustration of feminine beauty. Feisty, fearless, glamorous and a bit of a trouble-maker, the "Brinkley girl" was the celebrated subject of songs, films, and theatrical reviews of the day. Brinkley was one of the first female "comic" artists, whose single-panel illustrations (accompanied by short snippets of text) evolved into full-page covers that recounted narrative tales to her eager audience of magazine and newspaper readers. She was referred to as the "Queen of Comics" during her nearly four decade career, and her distinctive style continues to inspire modern artists.
Brinkley's comic oeuvre includes:
- "Golden Eyes" and Her Hero "Bill", 1918 - 1919 — American girl "Golden Eyes" enlists as an ambulance driver in WWI, working alongside her sweetheart Bill and his faithful dog Uncle Sam to bring victory to the allied side.
- Kathleen and the Great Secret, 1920 - 1921 — Kathleen's boyfriend discovers the secret of atomic energy, and the two are pursued across the globe by villainous rivals who would steal the secret from them.
- Betty and Billy and Their Love Through the Ages, 1921 - 1922 — Lovers Betty and Billy rediscover the romances they shared in past lives.
- The Adventures of Prudence Prim, 1925 - 1926 — Country girl Prudence moves to the big city and lives out a double life while trying to keep her free-spirited antics hidden from her up-tight aunties.
- The Fortunes of Flossie, 1926 - 1927 — Stylish Flossie experiences the ups and downs of modern romance while seeking help from various shady psychics, dodgy soothsayers, and seers of questionable authenticity.
- Dimple's Day Dreams, 1928 — Flighty Delphine, or "Dimples", ignores her boyfriend and fantasizes about fantastic careers she might embark on: an actress, a dancer, a modern artist, a politician...
- Pretty Polly, 1928 - 1929
- Sunny Sue, 1929
- Romances of Gloriette, 1930 — Brash, flirtatious Frenchwoman Gloriette visits America and undertakes grand adventures.
- The Princess From Nowhere, 1933 — American heiress Claire Silverthorne inherits the European kingdom of Balgravia, including its handsome Prince Rupert, when the country defaults on its bonds.
- Heroines of Today, 1937 — Dramatizations of heroic feats and daring adventures of real-life modern women.
Brinkley's work contains examples of:
- Art Imitates Art: In a 1917 illustration entitled "The Faery Woman, or, Ambition", Brinkley referenced the 1901 Frank Dicksee painting La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Her work reimagined the figure of the fairy on a standing steed as an allegory for ambition atop a galloping horse, while the besotted knight is redrawn as a modern man desperately trying to catch her.
- Costume Porn: Much of the appeal of Brinkley's illustrations were the stylish, contemporary fashions she dressed her female characters in. Even in a "historical" series like Betty And Billy And Their Love Through The Ages, the two lovers are depicted in gorgeously illustrated Hollywood Costuming versions of Medieval gowns, shining armor, baroque wigs, and harem costumes.
- Creator Thumbprint: Brinkley's distinctive art style was well known in the early 20th century, and her comics tended to re-use the same character archetypes (and design elements) more often than not. Elements of Brinkley's work that pop up again and again include:
- Beautiful, feisty, kind-hearted leading ladies with curly blonde hair. (Kathleen And The Great Secret and Romances Of Gloriette were the only serial strips to feature brunette leading ladies, while blonde Betty of Betty And Billy And Their Love Through The Ages occasionally gets reincarnated as a brunette.)
- Big, dramatic eyes framed by spider-leg lashes. Spindly limbs and doll-like feet for the ladies.
- Male love interests with slicked-back black hair, usually named Bill. Pencil mustaches may or may not appear.
- Costume Porn for the ladies, with ultra-stylish modern gowns or over-the-top Hollywood Costuming. Fabric that alternately billows in a Dramatic Wind or clings to the heroines' fashionplate perfect figures. Elegant tuxes or smart suits for the gents.
- The Flapper: The heroines of Brinkley's comics from the later half of the 1920's (Prudence (1925), Flossie (1926), Dimples (1928), and Polly (1928)) are stylish, playful, thoroughly modern girls. They wear their hair short (though still with the signature curl) and their skirts shorter. They dress in daring outfits and stay out late dancing. They also explore a new dimension of freedom in their romantic relationships that the heroines of Brinkley's earlier works don't — while "Golden Eyes" (1918), Kathleen (1920), and Betty (1921) are all in devoted, monogamous relationships for the duration of their serial, the girls of the late 1920's comics are free to date around. In fact, the comic strips that focus on Prudence, Flossie, and Dimples only end when the heroines get married!
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Many of Brinkley's heroines were blondes who — though playful, independent, and mischievous compared to other female characters of the day — were at heart sweet, kind-hearted girls.
- Noodle People: Brinkley's characters are drawn with a certain resemblance to fashion plate illustrations of the time. Hallmarks of the style include wide eyes with spidery lashes; long limbs; delicate hands; and dainty feet. The men are all tall and slim, while the women have figures that tended to echo the beauty trends of the decade. Brinkley's illustrations from the nineteen-teens through the early 1920's showcased girls with tomboyish figures and slim limbs, while her comic works from the later 1920's and early 30's exaggerated those features — legs and arms became stretched and straw-like. The trend got reined in a bit when she delved into semi-biographical illustrations in works like Heroines Of Today.
- Odd-Shaped Panel: This trope pops up in Brinkley's later works of the 1920's, including the multi-panel pages of The Fortunes of Flossie and The Adventures of Prudence Prim. The passage of time and the outcome of the protagonists' actions is illustrated in sequential vignettes that often lack hard borders, and never conform to the grid of boxes so often associated with newspaper comics. When outlines are used demarcate or emphasize a single panel, Brinkley makes use of sinuous curves and decorative elements (flowers, scrolls, curlicues, etc...) to shape and decorate the borders.
- Putto: Brinkley's serials and standalone editorial illustrations alike often featured little winged cherubs. The cherubim can be seen providing reaction to the comedic antics of her serial heroines or accompanying one-off drawings of couples to reinforce the idea that "love is in the air." One such putto even takes the role of a guardian angel of sorts in "Golden Eyes" and Her Hero "Bill"; referred to as the "God of Love," he follows the protagonist as she enlists in the Red Cross and watches over her as she fights to keep her beloved "Bill" safe.
- Self-Plagiarism: As early as the 1910's Brinkley was churning out a fully finished illustration every day for the Hearst newspaper syndicate from her home studio in New Rochelle, on top of providing illustrated reviews for Broadway shows and silent films, and interviews/portraits of A-list celebrities. Eagle-eyed readers can spot some panels or even whole-page illustrations that Brinkley recycled in order to meet a deadline. Some examples include:
- The "Book of Magic" children's section cover produced for February 26, 1922 is a mirrored tracing of a page from her "Golden Eyes" and Her Hero "Bill" serial (specifically the January 19, 1919 cover).
- The March 30, 1924 cover she produced for "The American Weekly", entitled, "The Lure of the American Golden Girl", is anothered mirrored and re-colored tracing of a page from Golden Eyes (the October 27, 1918 cover).
- The December 5, 1920 page of Kathleen And The Great Secret features a tracing from the November 24, 1918 page of "Golden Eyes" and Her Hero "Bill" as an Imagine Spot in the background.
- A single-panel illustration from 1932 captioned "Food of Love" is a tracing of panel 4 from the March 17, 1928 strip of "Dimple's Day Dreams" with a different background and a slightly more serious expression on the on the leading lady's face.
- The Suffragette: Brinkley herself was a Suffragette and her editorial cartoons drawn in the leadup to WWI were among the first to link patriotism and suffrage for women — most prominently, her modern rendition of The Three Graces as Suffrage, Preparedness, and Americanism. One 1928 strip of "Dimple's Day Dreams" sees the protagonist imagining herself as a politician, and then the president — an optimistic outlook when women had only won the right to vote 8 years prior.To be a politician! Ah—these days of women's votes,
Orating for the peepul [sic]—(with liberal Lincoln quotes)
Why not elected Mayor? Or Governor? Or—what a whopping wow!
Why not be even President? A gal where Cal is now!
- Sunday Strip: Brinkley's early comic serials were published as full-color covers for Hearst's Sunday supplements. This was a huge selling point for the papers, with frequent weekday ads promoting the fact that Sunday supplements were the only place to get Brinkley work in full color.