Part 1: The Phantom Menace
"Just proves that though you're a fierce fighter and have the courage of ten men, you're still a woman." Thanks Bob, we might have forgotten.
Wonder Woman is often thought of as the first woman superhero, the first female to carry her own title in comics, and all in all, the first lady of sequential art. I wouldn't dare argue with the latter, but she was neither the first female hero or title bearer: a number of important woman preceded her to set the stage for the mighty Amazon.
Proto-comics had been around for centuries, but it was the arrival of comic strips in newspapers in the late 19th century that really attracted interest in comic characters and their adventures. These syndicated strips introduced recurring characters that readers could grow attached to, becoming loyal consumers and fans. The 1920s and 30s saw a huge surge in popularity, with collections of strips being printed, and original comic books soon followed to meet the demand. Superhero and adventure comics saw readers through the hardships of World War II and beyond, into a time of horror and crime. This Golden Age of comics had a wealth of female characters, and the Platinum Age of the comic strips had a surprising number of women working behind the scenes.
The Platinum Age is roughly that time between 1897 and 1937 (the year that Detective Comics launched) while the Golden Age is from 1938 to 1955. Roughly - people like to quibble!
The first female cartoonist in America was Rose O'Neill who is most famous for her Kewpie characters that first appeared in 1909. Kewpie dolls were incredibly popular right up until the Great Depression, and O'Neill led an extravagant, bohemian life, as well as becoming a prominent women's rights advocate. Divorcing twice and considered one of the world's five most beautiful women (because looks are important!), O'Neill set the lead for fellow women cartoonists to follow.
Not long after, Nell Brinkley started as an accomplished illustrator, moving through several newspapers before becoming well known for her Brinkley Girl creations which were so popular that women would copy the hairstyles Brinkley used. Her women were a world away from the previous feminine ideal: they were fun loving, feisty and independent women. Suspicions were raised that Brinkley might even be – gasp – a feminist.
Brinkley's work is stunning, her women full of vim and vigour, and her adventure stories featuring the likes of Golden Eyes, Betty, and Kathleen captured the imagination in a way the Gibson Girls never had. Yet the Brinkley Girls are often missed out in our history lessons, while the Gibsons, created by a man, are still well known. Who'da thunk. Incidentally, Brinkley was also a roving reporter, covering murder trials and World War I, as well as promoting working women and the suffrage movement. Referred to as the Queen of Comics during her career, I think Brinkley is nothing less than an icon.
The Brinkley Girls perhaps got the jump on the next big movement in American society: the Roaring Twenties. This was the time of the Flappers, those brash, sexy, liberal women who rebelled against Prohibition and believed in all sorts of dangerous ideas like women's rights, working where they pleased, casual sex, doing away with one's corset (lawkes a mercy!), drinking, smoking, and wearing heavy make-up. Having achieved the right to vote, these women were quite intent on having a damn good time. In the comic strips, characters like Flapper Fanny (by Ethel Hays), Tillie the Toiler (by Russ Westover), and Mopsy (by Gladys Parker) were all the rage while the iconic Betty Boop was sexing up the cinema screens.
These characters were all stylish, independent, sassy women, and perhaps, dare I say, ahead of their time.
In the 20s Hollywood was unregulated, a hotbed of scandal, and was producing films full of scantily clad women, sexual innuendo, drugs, infidelity, homosexuality and all else that is considered wrong and bad in the world. Films termed as sex pictures were those that contained sex (obviously) and showed a disregard for the sanctity of marriage and an exploration of women's sexuality. With bad girls and fallen women, these films were aimed squarely at blue balled men, yet it was women that flocked to these films, relishing the sex and adultery, and also the inevitable downfall of the feisty female. Had this mood continued, who knows what the first female comic heroes would have been like?
But with the 30s came the Great Depression, and a suspicion that all these loose morals flapping about the place were to blame. Hollywood was given a strict moral code to adhere to (with mixed success), and readers no longer wanted to read about independent women having fun. Betty Boop found herself a less revealing outfit, and the flapper strips fell out of favour. Apple Mary (by Martha Orr) and Little Lulu (by Marjorie Henderson Buell) became the comic strips of choice. Apple Mary, later renamed Mary Worth, was the wholesome tale of an elderly woman who sells apples in her neighbourhood and dispenses advice. A soap opera for a time of hardship, and the polar opposite of the up and coming young women of the decade before.
Adventure and crime were still big business though, with the pulp magazines continuing their popularity with thrilling tales and pin up covers; comic strips might have turned wholesome, but this repression of female independence hadn't just stifled positive depictions of female sexuality - it had positively encouraged more salacious depictions. Without the gung ho flapper cartoons to offer an alternative, the main illustrated women now were the scantily clad, submissive, often tortured damsels in distress in the pulp magazines and dime novels. In other words, back in their place.
Weird Tales is perhaps one of the most famous, and many of its covers in the 30s were provided by Margaret Brundage who is especially well known for her erotic whipping scenes. Signing her work as M. Brundage, many readers were unaware she was a woman, and complaints over the sexist nature of her work (can you guess?) increased when it was revealed she was in fact female. Shocker. Brundage is credited with saving Weird Tales during the Depression but later found it difficult to get work. Many decades later she made appearances at conventions, only to have her artwork stolen by grasping fanboys. The Queen of Weird Tales died in poverty, despite her former fame.
We can see from these covers that having a woman writer/artist does not necessarily guarantee a better portrayal of women and that it was increasingly the case that regardless of a woman’s intent, her input was still constricted by the expectations of society and demand. Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that Brundage's unique style is soft and almost reverential of the female form, unlike the harshness of some of the other covers
The covers were designed to titillate, shock and arouse, and were primarily aimed at men. Which is perhaps not at all different from comics today. Tijuana bibles on the other hand had no such concerns: sold under the counter, with anonymous artists providing the material, these were pure masturbation material with no pretenses, and were at their most popular in the 30s. I can't actually show you any excerpts for fear of making this completely NSFW, but it's interesting to note that the women, while amateurishly depicted, were in all shapes and sizes, and of varying intelligence: the one constant was their raging horniness.
However, there were still strong women being portrayed in comics, if one knew where to look. Jackie Ormes created her comic strip Torchy Brown in '37, making her the first female black cartoonist, and subsequently the first comic strip artist to portray black women as intelligent, brave, sensual, and fashionable: completely different from the normal stereotyped depictions. Torchy was a fun loving teenager who grew to be a strong and independent woman, unafraid of standing up to the sexism and racism she encountered.
Until the 1990s, Ormes remained the only syndicated black female cartoonist yet few (white) comic fans are aware of her fame because her work was only ever carried by black newspapers. But at a time when the mainstream strips were full of black maids and mammies, her creations were inspirational, and she is deserving of far more acclaim. The Ormes Society, inspired by Jackie, promotes the inclusion and support of black women in comics.
Comic strips remained a hugely male dominated industry, and in order to compete, Dalia Messick changed her first name to Dale. Earning her money through greetings card illustrations, she hit gold with the creation and syndication of Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1940. This stylish character, along with an ensemble cast, was an immediate hit: her journalist job allowing for both romance and adventure. Messick was sometimes criticised by feminists for Starr being so interested in attracting the attention of the mysterious man (Mr Big?) that regularly appeared, but Messick insisted that Brenda was the perfect balance, bring some much needed cheer to the women of the war-hit decade.
At the height of Brenda Starr's popularity, the strip appeared in 250 newspapers, phenomenal for a woman creator in such a male dominated field. Brenda Starr has gone through a few writers in her time, all female of course, and sadly finished in January 2011. 71 years ain't bad right?
And now we come to the dawn of the superheros, when comics really hit the mainstream. With the Depression hitting hard, comic books were an attractively cheap form of entertainment that was lapped up by those desperate for a bit of harmless escapism.
In 1938, Action Comics #1 hit the stands, introducing readers to both Superman and Lois Lane. In '39 Batman followed, though Detective Comics had preceded Superman in '37. Wonder Woman arrived on our pages in '41. In the UK we had the Dandy and the Beano, and although I won't hear a bad word said about either (oi!), they have always been very squarely aimed at children and therefore aren't really pertinent to this discussion. But still, there they were.
Between Lois and Wonder Woman though, there was the Black Widow, Catwoman, Lady Luck, Golden Girl, Miss Victory, the Woman in Red, Red Tornado, Phantom Lady, and Sheena. And many more, all leaving their own distinct marks on the comic pages.
Lois Lane was introduced as a reporter with an acerbic wit and burning ambition, despite her being "just a girl". A lonely hearts columnist, Lois was determined to get the real scoops before bumbling star reporter Clark Kent, and was absolutely reckless in her pursuit of a story, not least in trying to unmask Superman. Lois was incredibly popular, earning her own comic title and sustaining her fanbase, along with Superman, through the post-war superhero slump. However, after the war, career women were seen as lonely and bitter, and subsequently Lois became less interested in who Superman was, and more interested in becoming his wife!
Lois was inspired both by Joanne Carter (who later married Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel) and by Torchy Blane, a fast talking feisty reporter character who appeared in several B movies in the 30s. The role of reporter offered women an alternative to the usual good girl/bad girl dichotomy, allowing an amount of independence and spunk that Lois managed to maintain even when her focus on Superman turned to the obsessive romantic (although in the early days, Clark was often quite the creepster).
Lois was never afraid to throw a punch (and often got whacked herself) and while she usually ended up being a damsel in distress, it was never a lack of intelligence that got her into trouble unlike the majority of other female characters at that time (and present). Lois required rescuing because she got in over her head and because she was a normal non-powered person. Sure, a man in tights was doing all the saving, but he was an alien from outer space with ridiculous superpowers. And Lois could match him in tenacity any day. Her and Clark's love hate relationship was a joy to read, and to watch: Lois is almost always portrayed favourably, and intelligently, in the many television and film adaptations. You can almost tell what generation a woman is from by her favourite Lois! (Teri Hatcher, so nerr.)
Fierce, brave, loyal, smart – surely we can forgive her for liking big blue?
Red Tornado, while not a well known name, is heralded as the first female superhero. Ma Hunkel possessed great strength and disguised herself with a cooking pot on her head – genius. She was inspired by her son's admiration for Green Lantern, and would in fact often masquerade as a man in her heroic exploits (to be fair, the pot made it hard to tell). However, while Ma Hunkel did appear first, she only appeared in her Red Tornado guise after another female hero had arrived: the Woman in Red, a costumed crime fighter. The Woman in Red had a rather good disguise: a floor length red coat, complete with both a hood and a mask. Both Ma and Peggy Allen, the police officer identity of the Woman in Red, had costumes that truly did disguise their identity, with no sexual overtones, something not really repeated until the recent development of Renee Montoya as The Question. And in between, there was also the non-powered introduction of Fantomah, a woman with the supernatural powers of an Egyptian princess who protects the jungle. When she used her powers her beauty melted away to reveal a fierce blue skull-head, complete still with flowing blonde hair – awesome. All have a claim to being the first woman superhero in comics. Take your pick!
Sheena the "jungle girl", inspired by the popular pulp magazines, was a real hit in her comic incarnation, starting in '37. A tall shapely woman warrior, and fierce white leader of so-called savages, Sheena was both the ultimate male fantasy and a proud tale of colonialism (her name is inspired by the title of Henry Rider Haggard's novel She). With her long blonde hair and ferocious nature, Sheena was a wild sensual creature, often having to rescue her boyfriend Bob, a young engineer who Sheena once saved.
Her strength and power had earned her the title of Queen of her adopted jungle, but as Bob reminded us at the top of this article (after she fought and killed a lion single-handedly by the way), she was still just a woman. Indeed Bob was never referred to as Sheena's partner, but as her "mate": clearly her dominating force could be willingly balanced by sceptical male readers for the promise of animalistic sex. Independent and strong, but still ultimately a cheesecake male fantasy for men to lust over.
But Sheena was more than just a pin up, she was the first female adventure character and the first woman to star in her own comic book in '42. Her leopard skin mini-dress with plunging neckline may have been designed to appeal to men, but Sheena did demonstrate that a woman was capable of being as strong as a man, even if the male readers didn't appreciate it. In the 50s, Sheena's highly sexualised image was falling foul of the outraged moral crusaders, and she made the move to television in a more toned down format which didn't last much longer. But her legacy is tremendous, inspiring many more jungle themed sexy adventure stories for years to come.
More domesticated, the Phantom Lady was a costumed crime fighter who escaped her rich and boring life to patrol the city streets. Wearing a yellow and green (and revealing) outfit, Sandra Knight turned to a life of heroism after thwarting an assassination attempt on her Senator father with only a rolled up newspaper to hand (which is a damn good origin story I think). She dedicated herself to the cause of justice, training hard and fashioning herself a weapon: a black light ray that could blind her enemies and render herself invisible.
Her revealing costume was later explained as being deliberately sexy in order to confuse her enemies – perhaps this is also why despite having no mask, no one she knew ever recognised her? Hmm. Phantom Lady went through a few costume changes, from a swimsuit, to a more revealing outfit, then to a more modest outfit (society is confusing), then to one with a "boob window", but compared to later incarnations of the character, the Golden Age Phantom got off lightly.
The younger Silk Spectre is based on Phantom Lady due to Alan Moore intending to use the original character in Watchmen (copyright confusion!). Phantom Lady now lives with DC.
There's no doubt that Sandra Knight used her alterego to become empowered, escaping the life of luxury in which she felt trapped, for a life of adventure where her disguise freed her from the demands of the patriarchy. As her fiancé exclaimed: "What a gal that Phantom Lady is! Sometimes I wonder... but no... it couldn't be... Sandra isn't that clever." Quite.
Just four months later, another most wonderful woman was to appear on the comic stands. Stay tuned for part two: Wonder Woman and the Attack of the Code.