If you have an interest in feminist pop-culture history, have I got a website for you! Mike Madrid's visual companion to his new book The Supergirls, a history of comic book superheroines, is as thorough and captivating a graphic account as the book is a verbal one.
Now, if you want to see rare pictures of female superheroes you’ve admired since back in the day, you've gotta check out this website! See Sheena battling lions! Wonder Woman power-lifting a second, robotic Wonder Woman! And the Birds of Prey going Thelma and Louise on your assssss!
If you waste countless hours scouring the internet for the action pinups that have been the fodder for your fantasies since puberty's tumultuous dawn, and attempts to recreate the provocative visions dancing in your head turn out something like this (I know, I was surprised myself that “stick figure porn” is not something I just made up), well, let me tell you, have I got the website for you!
In case I haven’t already made my point, the rise of comic book superheroines is a conflicted tale of female empowerment. They break through the glass ceiling of the comic book world, only to find the men looking up their skirts. Maybe that's why so many switched to spandex. Probably not.
The Supergirls is the first book to focus exclusively on the female side of comic book history. (It’s also one of the first two releases from the nascent print arm of Exterminating Angel Press, as covered, by me, in this week’s Mercury).
More coverage (or uncoverage—ha!) after the break.
In the 1940s, two basic archetypes for female characters emerged: There was Sheena, the jungle queen (whose first appearance, in 1937, actually preceded Superman by a year), and Wonder Woman, the democratic defender (despite the fact that she's actually an Amazon). Since then, the sexy savage and the pristine princess models have been repeatedly revived, invigorated, re-worked, and reborn—but they always orbit these nuclei of archetypes. And although the roles for women in comics have tended to move from more to less sexist, the drawings have become more and more sexed.
On the other hand, when in 1954, the McCarthy-esque Comic Book Code demanded that “depictions of women had to be tasteful," Madrid told me, "the reaction was often just to not put any women in the comics, or the women that were in there just weren't allowed to do anything.” As a burnt-out senior creative director for the Gap, Madrid understands that the explosion (sometimes literally) of near-naked ladies in comic books is a reality of the teenage boy dominated comic book market.
So yes, the outline of this history is really a case study of larger patterns of feminism and fashion, but Madrid does a good job relaying the industry's unique subplot. He paints the roles of individuals, too—figures like psychologist and Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, who “felt that women were superior to men.” (Her magic lasso that makes bad guys tell the truth is a nod to Marston's role in developing the lie detector test. I hear he was something of an eccentric, too).
As an ever-present figure in comic book history, Wonder Woman is a kind of touchstone for women's progress. When creator Marston passed, so did her "messages of equality and love that were meant to inspire young female readers." With feminism and the sexual revolution raging inside her in 1970s, the latter won a stronger influence on her look and her power.
The length of Wonder Woman's signature starred underpants is a barometer in itself: “In the '60s, Wonder Woman’s starry bloomers went to the length of Bermuda shorts, but by the '80s, she sported a buttocks baring high cut leg. By the '90s she wore a thong.”
I was glued to The Supergirls as it chronicled Wonder Woman’s many iterations, wanting to know how it all turned out for the women of today (maybe because I am one). The modern section of the book does do a bit of stating the obvious, but in general Madrid's accounts show remarkable restraint, especially for someone with the kind of comic book knowledge that, according to editor Tod Davies, makes other nerds blush. Madrid's fieriest passions seem reserved for the older generations of heroines, but his accounts of new characters' bizarre births and storylines are weird and wonderful all the way through.
In the end, the cost of superheroines doing business is still measured in skin. And if you like skin, or hate skin, or find it inspiring...have I got a website for you!
Exterminating Angel Press' Tod Davies will have signed copies of The Supergirls at her reading at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, Sunday, September 13th at 4pm.