If you’re lacking some amusement in your life and needing a comic book superwoman to set your imagination on fire, then, by all means, check out “The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters From Comic Book History.”
In reality, the book’s author, Hope Nicholson, is quite spectacular and awesome. She has recorded eight decades of comic book history featuring super-heroines who started out quackish, plucky and ambitious, and ended with radioactive and supernatural abilities, demonstrative sexual deviance and language that would send kids searching through a newly-revised slang reference guide.
Meanwhile, the grownups would either blush for weeks or encourage all their friends to relish such artistic cursing.
Though Nicholson entices readers with some truly provocative accounts and thorough historical renderings of many of these comic book superwomen and their creators, she admits that this collection is not a definitive one. However, there are a number of these comic book characters that might not ring a bell.
The 1930s focused mainly on science fiction. The rise of the comic book began in the 1940s, yet the 1930s saw the birth of this industry.
It was an era in which women as creators, designers, fans and characters were already present and just getting started.
While “Superman” and “Dick Tracy” tended to dominate the scene in the 1930s, something even more sexist was going on in men’s clubs. On the seedy side crudely-drawn “Tijuana bibles” were passed around.
These featured comic book characters from “Blondie” (who was not very bright) to “Dick Tracy” involved in explicit sexual activities. But ironically, the overall comic book industry did support a moral code. Artists were not allowed to depict fully nude women or men, but as Nicholson writes, “naked female corpses were okay (hey, we’re not saying it was a good moral code).”
Let’s move on to the “golden age,” the 1940s, when the publication of comics increased in every genre. This was when World War II was in full swing. Readers were desperate for escapism.
It was in this timeframe that readers caught up on “Black Cat,” “Gail Porter: Girl Photographer,” “Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron,” “Katy Keene” (“I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have such beautiful dress designs sent to me from my fans all over the globe!”), “Madame Strange” (who is on a quest to find spies and saboteurs to unearth or blow up). Other superwomen included “Maureen Marine” (a human girl who rules a land under the sea: “Die! Fool of fools!”), “Miss Fury,” “Senorita Rio” (a dashing Latin spy: “Mind your manners, mein herr!”), the famous “Wonder Woman,” the icon of the decade, plus many other super-powered and super-endowed women.
Many of these comics were created by men. But, the 2010s changed that scene. Graphic novels had been becoming more popular.
One impressive up-and-coming cartoonist was Raina Telgemeier. She had some success adapting Ann M. Martin’s popular “Baby-Sitters Club” stories to comics form for Scholastic Books. In 2010, she released “Smile,” her first original full-length graphic novel.
Nicholson stresses in her book that though these comic books might not have been treated equally, were ignored and mainly frowned upon by male fans, the female readership was at its strongest since the 1940s.
During the 2010 period, we meet “Beth Ross,” a newly-developed “Prez” from the 1970s. Fortunately, Beth Ross is imbued with strong work ethics and morals imparted upon her by her father, who sadly dies from a curable disease before she’s elected “Prez,” or president. This comic was created by three men.
Then there is “Bold Riley,” a beautiful princess (sound familiar?) off on a whirlwind adventure of love and heroics. She was created by Leia Weathington.
A very crucial and positive move by women comic book creators was focusing on the rights and power of black women. I’m not sure how some female readers might react to “Penny Rolle,” an obese, incarcerated prisoner who won’t stand down to anyone: “Why do folks gotta say what I am, mother? Ain’t it enough to know who I am?” She is a prisoner at “Bitch Planet,” where her anger is suppressed, not eliminated.
“Martha Washington” of the 1990s, is another example of introducing black female characters who struggle for justice. She is not the wife of a founding father, but a young girl born to a freedom fighter father who had been murdered when she was a baby.
Here, Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, the creators, are not only discussing politics, racial discrimination and the dystopian future, but female fans of this comic learn, like Martha, to survive against all odds.
As for this reviewer, there are a few comic book superwomen who just aren’t my cup of tea. Some use too much violence for their cause, and the sexual tension is overly dramatic, even though I like the artistic flavor and design from creators of “Maika Halfwolf,” Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda.
Their artwork is simply stunning, with graceful costumes and, at times, lovely physical movements and expressions (which, naturally, soon turn ugly), among other features.
I’m also not a fan of “Pudge, Girl Blimp,” in which a fat girl is shunned by her parents. The best way for her to escape her miserable existence is to become a hippie and run off to San Francisco.
What makes this comic book character worse, though it can be seen as ironic and humorous, is that poor, chunky Pudge doesn’t realize that in truth, “all chubby folk are in fact Martian offspring, created to spy on the human race.”
While one who witnesses the colorful, two-page spread of Pudge gorging herself on treats, pop and chicken might bring on a chuckle or two, I must ask, “Where is the sense of dignity?” ... Especially from female creator Lee Marrs, an underground cartoonist during the 1970s and co-founder of “Wimmen’s Comix,” an underground all-female comics anthology.
With few exceptions, I was thrilled to have read Nicholson’s well-researched book. And I’m sorry to say that I’m limited to writing about all of the time periods and the sisterhood of superwomen who will remain a permanent part of history, like them or not.
Carol A. Wright, former Manhattan resident, is a freelance writer.