American herstory

Considering the tardiness of my last post on Black History Month, I thought it would be nice to post something in honor of Women’s History Month while it is still March (barely). This year’s theme is “Our History is Our Strength,” and if we’re talking about women’s strength in terms of comic book history, that means superheroes. And the strongest female superhero of them all, in terms of her historical status and cultural impact, is Wonder Woman.

First-wave feminist
Filmmakers Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Kelcey Edwards are preparing to share this iconic character’s story—as well as the stories of other fictional female heroes of comics, television and movies—in a new documentary, The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman. Currently in post production, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise the $10,000 needed to complete the film, the documentary includes interviews with feminist foremother Gloria Steinem and former TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. While you’re waiting for the film to be finished and released, you can watch this eight-minute preview of things to come.

Note: Since originally posting this the documentary has been completed and released, under the new name, WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.

WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines from Vaquera Films on Vimeo.

As mentioned in this preview, Wonder Woman was created for DC Comics in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston (with the help of artist Harry G. Peter), in an attempt to counteract what he called the “blood-curdling masculinity” of comics with a superhero who possessed “the qualities of maternal love and tenderness.” She was an instant hit with both girls and boys and her comic book exploits have remained in continuous publication ever since. Ms. Magazine #1Having her adventures chronicled by men through most of her 70-year career, Wonder Woman’s iconic stature as a symbol of feminism has much more to do with her life outside comic books than in them. Lifelong fan Gloria Steinem was instrumental in elevating Wonder Woman’s status when she made the decision to put her on the cover of Ms. Magazine‘s premiere issue in July 1972. The amazing Amazon is depicted as a giant battling against Wonder Woman wielding speculum by Carol Clementpatriarchal oppression beneath a banner reading “Wonder Woman for President.” A year later, Carol Clement was behind the unauthorized appearance of Wonder Woman in The New Woman’s Survival Catalog. There she was shown taking her reproductive rights into her own hands, vanquishing the combined forces of the A.M.A., the church and Planned Parenthood by brandishing a speculum like a sword.  Even in the comic book world from which she came, Wonder Woman occasionally gets to address issues of real concern to real women. In the 1998 graphic novel, Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story—a rare instance of a work about the character that was actually scripted and drawn by women—comic book veterans Trina Robbins (more on her later) and Colleen Doran examine the timeless tragedy of domestic violence, offering courage, hope, and hotline numbers to its real life victims.

Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman

Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman

Today, there are probably millions of Wonder Woman fans who’ve never read any of the character’s comic book adventures. That’s thanks to Lynda Carter’s 1975-1979 television portrayal of the Amazon princess that left an indelible impression on our nation’s collective pop cultural psyche. Soon, another generation of non-comic book readers will have a chance to get acquainted with Wonder Woman, through a pilot NBC is producing for a new television series.  Creator David E. Kelley (whose credits include Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal) is reportedly reinventing the character as a vigilante crime fighter in L.A., who, as Diana Prince, is also a successful corporate executive “trying to balance all of the elements of her extraordinary life.” The coveted title role belongs to 27-year-old Friday Night Lights star Adrianne Palicki.  A just-released photo of Palicki as Wonder Woman reveals that her costume is modeled after the comic book character’s recent controversial makeover, rather than the more traditional outfit made famous by Carter.  Although I don’t have an issue with the revised costume design itself, in my very first blog post I shared my concerns about the demotion in power and status that accompanied it in the Wonder Woman comic book series. I have similar concerns about the changes Kelly seems to be making in this television series, but I’ll reserve judgment until I actually see the finished product.

If you’d like to learn more about the details of Wonder Woman’s fictional life and its impact on the real world, and can’t wait for the documentary to be released, there are several good books available about her. These include Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniels, The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes: Volume 2—Wonder Woman by Michael Fleisher, The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia by John Wells, and Wonder Woman: Amazon-Hero-Icon by Bob Greenberger. Former  DC Comics president, Jenette Kahn, rightfully credited Wonder Woman as “perhaps the first feminist in pop fiction.” Fortunately for the male dominated world of superhero comics, she wasn’t the last.

The Avengers #83

The Avengers #83. Cover by John Buscema. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Second-wave feminists
Just as DC’s Wonder Woman was becoming a symbol of the women’s liberation movement, Marvel Comics was trying to raise the feminist consciousness of its readers—with mixed results. Several of Marvel’s attempts to smash the superhero glass ceiling employed the worst stereotypes of feminism. On the cover of The Avengers #83 (Dec. 1970), the Viking super warrior, Valkyrie, surrounded by her fellow “Lady Liberators,” stands amongst the unconscious bodies of several super men, denouncing them as “Male Chauvinist Pigs!” Thundra, who first appeared in The Fantastic Four #129 (Dec. 1972), is a hot-tempered titan from Femizonia, a land in an alternate future where women rule the world. The cover of the first issue of The Cat (Nov. 1972) announces the arrival of “Marvel’s newest action bombshell!!” and asks, “how did a beautiful girl gain the uncanny power of a killer beast??” And despite being written and drawn by women—Linda Fite and Marie Severin—the story itself sometimes embraces sexist stereotypes, such as literally giving the Cat the power of super woman’s intuition (you can read the entire origin story here).

As the Seventies wore on, Marvel began to take a more respectful tone in addressing women’s liberation. In her civilian identity as Carol Danvers, the super-powered Ms. Marvel, who debuted in 1976, was the Gloria Steinem-like publisher of Woman, a feminist magazine.  Still, she wasn’t entirely emancipated. Having been modeled after Marvel Comics’ male Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel was one in a long line of female spin-offs of already established male superheroes (whose costumes can often be distinguished from those of their male counterparts by the amount of skin they leave uncovered). Other examples include Batgirl, Batwoman, Spider-Girl, Supergirl, She-Hulk and Mary Marvel (named after another publisher’s Captain Marvel character).

Trina Robbins

Trina Robbins at an Underground Comix art exhibit in San Francisco, in 2010.

To learn more about the grande dames of superhero comics, from Wonder Woman’s World War II-era contemporaries to her successors from the Fifties through the Nineties, a good place to turn is the works of Trina Robbins. An early and influential participant in the underground comix movement, Robbins was one of its few female artists when she started her career. Robbins is a writer of books, comics (including the Wonder Woman story on domestic violence mentioned above), and self-described “herstorian” who provides two uncredited voiceovers in the above documentary preview. She has dedicated much of her life to educating the public about forgotten female characters of comic books and strips, as well as their real-life women creators. Her books on the subject include such classics as The Great Women Super Heroes, The Great Women Cartoonists and From Girls to Grrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines. Unfortunately, these titles are all out of print, though still available from used booksellers, and don’t cover more recent examples of female superheroics.

Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus

Captain Awareness: Assault on Campus. Cover by Phil Jimenez. Copyright Danny DeAngelo.

Post modern feminists
In more recent decades superhero comics have exposed readers to an increasingly broader spectrum of women characters and women’s issues. In 1997 Danny DeAngelo enlisted a host of comics professionals to help illustrate Captain Awareness: Assault On Campus, which was released through 2-D Graphics to raise awareness about date rape (one of the project’s sponsors was the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). A two-issue miniseries published by DC Comics in 2000, JLA: Created Equal, written by Fabien Nicieza and illustrated by Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein, imagined how differently the Justice League of America’s female members might administer justice after a plague has wiped out every man on the planet. The Pro, a 2002 one-shot from Image Comics written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmotti, was about a super-powered prostitute.

More a lampoon of the superhero genre than a serious examination of the sex trade, The Pro was an inevitable development in a comics culture that still largely treats super women as pin-up girls. Their skimpy costumes can barely conceal the huge, gravity defying breasts that seem to be their most common super trait. More disturbing still, Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone’s Women In Refrigerators Web site presents a lengthy list of female comic book characters who have suffered every indignity imaginable, from losing their powers (as Wonder Woman has, twice), to being raped, tortured, and even murdered (the site’s name is derived from the place Green Lantern once discovered a girlfriend’s dead body).

Kurt Busiek's Astro City Vol. 1 No. 4

Kurt Busiek's Astro City Vol. 1 No. 4. Cover by Alex Ross. Copyright Kurt Busiek.

Perhaps the best answer to this type of superhero misogyny is Winged Victory, who occasionally appears in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, a creator-owned series published by Homage Comics that debuted in 1998. As powerful as a titan, from her laurel wreath to her feathers, Winged Victory is an armored, sword-wielding embodiment of the Greek goddess, Nike. She soars across the globe saving women in need, choosing to work alone so her heroic deeds will serve as an example of female power. Hoping to be an inspiration for female empowerment as well, Winged Victory also oversees 14 self-defense schools open only to women.

To learn more about the history of fictional female superheroes and how they’ve both reflected and influenced cultural perceptions of real women, check out books like Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes by Lillian S. Robinson, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid, and Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology by Jennifer K. Stuller. There are also several Web sites offering a feminist (or at least female) perspective on comic books, including Comicsgirl.com, Girl-Wonder.org and Sequential Tart. And see my Women of Steel post for bios and backgrounds of a dozen of my personal favorite female superheroes who fight for truth, justice, and the feminist way. These include Batgirl (now known as Oracle), Batwoman, the Cat, She-Hulk, Winged Victory and, of course, Wonder Woman.

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3 Responses to American herstory

  1. Catherine Wier says:

    You’d know these ‘women heroes’ would have to be sexy, and don very little clothing!

    Also, who’s to say there couldn’t be a ‘male hero’ who showed a little maternal love and tenderness.

  2. Pingback: Wonder Woman’s makeover mishaps |

  3. At long last, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s completed documentary, now retitled Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, will premiere this Saturday, March 10, at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Here’s a preview of the finished product.

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