In the early 40s, a character named Suprema was poised to make her comics début. She was to be unconventional and liberated, strong and forceful. A powerful woman. Comics and comic strips had never seen the like before, nor that of her overweight man-chasing sidekick.
After a quick name change, Wonder Woman was here, and for six glorious years she led young girls astray, promising them that strength and confidence meant they could achieve anything. Unfortunately, this still wasn't true: the number of women behind comics dwindled post-war and into the 50s. And Wonder Woman herself was soon told to sit down like a good girl and stop all her silly progressive nonsense.
Wonder Woman was and remains the most popular and long lasting woman superhero, from her first comic to her upcoming (and rather feared) TV pilot. She is instantly recognisable, hugely loved, and regarded as a feminist icon. Her origins are perhaps well known by now, but when William Moulton Marston created her, with the input of his wife Elizabeth, and the inspiration of their partner Olive Byrn, Wonder Woman was deliberately designed as a strong role model for young girls. Wonder Woman wasn't portrayed in the standard Good Girl style of kinky cheesecake with legs asunder, but as an athletic and cute woman who wasn't solely aimed to titillate. Wonder Woman had muscles, and she was ready to use them.
Her best friend was the sugar munching Etta Candy, who along with the Holliday Girls would often rescue Wonder Woman from trouble. Women helping women! Imagine. Etta is a bubbly curvacious young woman, who is of the opinion that her good health and confidence is down to her love of sweets. She drives her own car (named Esmerelda), is brimful of energy ("Woo Woo!"), and to be blunt is both short and fat and completely unapologetic for not conforming to society's expectations. Etta doesn't give a damn.
Wonder Woman herself did send her fair share of mixed messages as you can see above. In love with Steve Trevor who is continually frustrated in his attempts to get her to settle down with him (yeah, not gonna happen buddy), her affection for him never wavers as she tries in vein to attract his attention in her mousey Diana Prince alter ego. Yet at the same time she preaches female empowerment to the women she meets and to her readers. Ah well. Strong women can't help who they love either, and at least Wonder Woman never looked set to give up her day job.
Etta on the other hand is all about the men. Enjoying them that is! Etta doesn't care about landing a husband, or giving it all up for just one man – she's happiest chasing men, having fun, and all without a hint of shame. She had a mean right hook and would throw herself into danger for her pal any time, anywhere. And rather than her being the kind of sidekick that often needed rescued, it was her that often charged in to free her best buddy. She saved Steve (a man!) on many occasions too.
Etta has been changed over the years but the original Candy grrrl was nothing short of revolutionary. She did what she wanted, believed she could do anything, didn't care what others thought of her, and breezed through heroic deeds for the sheer awesomeness and fun of it all. She had no tortured past (though she did start off thin and deprived of sweets, still not quite the same as the usual female specific trauma), no limitations, and was a rare sidekick that had her own bunch of further sidekicks in the interchangeable Holliday Girls.
Etta Candy rocked. It's difficult to pinpoint any women characters in modern comics that are so utterly free of the usual female restraints. It's no surprise that Etta was changed and diluted after the Golden Age – she simply didn't fit. She was a normal woman being a normal person - an untenable position. She was modified to be insecure and weight-conscious (something you'll notice is true of Wonder Woman herself in the upcoming TV pilot), because we couldn't possibly have a woman who was brave, enthusiastic, happy and sex-positive, least of all one who was also fat!
But let us speak of the bondage, one of the most talked about points of early Wonder Woman comics. Constantly being tied up and restrained, Wonder Woman (and Etta!) was a real fan of her chains and ropes. And her spanking. BDSM aside, this allowed for a lot less violence than was present in other comics, while still maintaining a sense of drama, and was indicative of Wonder Woman's belief in rehabilitation over punishment. The sheer onslaught of bondage though is perhaps a direct result of Marston's beliefs. Y'see, he wasn't a feminist as such, but believed that in the next century women would come to dominate men, for the betterment of society. That was never really Wonder Woman's message though, instead being an inspiration for women to be strong and equal, which at that time was still pretty outrageous. Marston was quite aware of the titillating effect bondage had on readers, the steamy scenes perhaps making the radical imagery easier to swallow for a suspicious society.
In keeping with the strong woman theme, many of the villains that Wonder Woman came up against were powerful women, not the usual masked men. From Baroness von Gunther to Priscilla Rich (the Cheetah), Diana's "bad guys" were beautiful women with calculating plans – many involving someone being tied up of course. Most of the women were capable of rehabilitation, even the Cheetah with her split personality which made her one of the most interesting early villains. The occasional male villains on the other hand are often obsessed with power and/or women hating and are quite often ugly too. While this was in marked contrast to other comics where clever men were most often the criminal masterminds, and the occasional femme fatale was usually revealed to have a female weakness, or to be disregarded as a real threat anyway (hello Catwoman), this was seen as evidence of the Wonder Woman comics corrupting young girls and promoting homosexuality (um...).
When the Justice Society of America formed, Wonder Woman was clearly one of the most powerful members yet was relegated to the role of secretary while the men went off to do the dirty work. It's worth bearing in mind that at this point in history, it would have been unfathomable for Wonder Woman to be regarded as equal to the male heroes, despite her obvious strength. In one issue the men disappear and Wonder Woman rounds up the girlfriends to go and rescue them, which is a hugely exciting opportunity for the women. In the end, of course, it's them that need rescued by the big strong men. Of course.
When Marston died in 1947, Wonder Woman started to lose her feminist ideals, and was more interested in wanting to romance her man. The myriad of female roles and relationships in her comics, from the Holliday girls to the almost always female supervillains, led to accusations of lesbianism and feminist trickery. Etta had her last appearance for a decade in '50, and would never again be the same. Diana became increasingly focused on winning Steve's heart. The icons had been domesticated, diluted, tamed. But at least young girls minds were safe right?
Wonder Woman continued to star in her own comics throughout the decades, but never again would society allow her to return to that muscular, angular non-boobtastic form, nor would her fat-accepting friend ever bound enthusiastically across the pages.
In the early 40s, readers couldn't get enough of their superheroes, particularly when they were kicking Nazi butt. A whole host of new women heroes appeared: Miss America (granted powers by the Statue of Liberty!), Miss Victory and Liberty Belle amongst the less subtly named. My favourite remains Pat Parker, War Nurse and her band of helpers, the Girl Commandos. The Commandos were rather shocking for their time, featuring not only an overweight hero but a non-overtly racist depiction of a Chinese woman.
The success of Wonder Woman and the female characters that preceded her, may well have been inspiration for this new crop of strong women, as well of course as the need during World War II for women to take on many of the jobs that the men had vacated. But even at this stage, there was one key difference between the women of the comics, and the women of the comic strips that had come the decade before – none of these Wonder Women were created by women.
Comics had hit the mainstream, but much of the female talent seemed to have been left behind; those women who had scripted and drawn their own creations in comic strips did not appear to have comic book counterparts. That's not to say though that there were no women in the new comics at all: many worked as scripters, inkers or pencillers for varying degrees of credit. It might interest you to know that DC (known then as National Comics) and Marvel (known then as Timely and later Atlas) were regarded as having the worst record of female employment compared to other comics publishers at that time. Unlike today – oh, wait. Only one woman artist is known to have worked with the company that became DC during the 40s, uncredited of course, though there were female writers – most notably those employed by Marston to work on Wonder Woman.
Funnies Inc and Fiction House were known as better environments for all artists, compared to many of the production line setups elsewhere. But better still wasn't great: Lily Renée, who would later be known best for her art on Señorita Rio, has told how at the beginning of her comics career with Fiction House she received obscene scribbled notes from the male artists, and that the men stared at her "as if they were undressing me". Crying herself to sleep over a job she hated, and was even embarrassed by, it's perhaps easy to see why there were fewer women creators at this time.
With syndicated comic strips a woman could create her own work and send it off in the hope of publication. Much like webcomics today, there was little societal pressure on the actual creation of the characters (though whether they would prove popular was still dependent on such) and most importantly of all, the comics could be created on the woman's own time – that is, in the spare time around holding another job or looking after a family. A lot of the comic strip artists were also producing work for greetings card companies and advertisements, and perhaps had a greater deal of autonomy than those women working in the pencilling and inking industry of mainstream comics.
All these women deserve their own articles as their stories are fascinating (and time permitting they shall get them!), but some names for the interested: Nina Albright, Ruth Atkinson, Toni Blum, Ramona Fradon, Barbara Hall, Alice Marble, Tarpé Mills, Ruth Roche, Dorothy Woolfolk. And more besides.
By the mid 40s, Hollywood was struggling with censorship and many earlier films were retroactively banned or edited. Superheroes had fallen out of favour with comic readers after the War, and horror and crime comics were all the rage, along with humour and romance. Only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman really survived in the great superhero drought, selling alongside the new gory or soppy (or both? eww) upstarts.
Most notorious of the horror publishers was EC Comics, which had a dazzling array of talented artists including Marie Severin who came to the publisher via her brother, John Severin, a fellow EC artist. At the time, there were only three other women in the whole company, including the receptionist. Marie did covers, pencils, inks, colouring, and even lettering. Marie went on to work for Marvel and enjoyed an illustrious career in comics. As Stan Lee said: "Calling Marie the best woman artist in the business is an injustice. Marie was one of the best artists in the business, period."
Marie has spoken often about her career in a male dominated industry: "I didn't give a darn what they gave me, as long as I was being paid... I couldn't be bothered fighting and competing, I just couldn't... I'd do what they told me, but I wasn't that interested."
As the 50s approached, women across all industries were encouraged to give up their jobs for returning men. By 1950, it's estimated that only a third of the women in comics remained from the war-time peak.
McCarthyism was hitting Hollywood hard, seeing actors, directors and screenwriters blacklisted if suspected of Communist sympathies, and in this climate of paranoia and moral panic, the comics could hardly escape notice. In 1940, one editorial from the Chicago Daily News declared: "Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the 'comic' magazine." Wow - but why not tell us what you really think?!
Some of the comic publishers responded by creating their own editorial boards, to reassure the public that their comics met with the approval of psychiatrists and well respected public figures. As previously mentioned, one of DC's own rules was "inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged... Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance". Catwoman's appearances throughout the 40s became more and more sporadic, and she'd certainly been declawed. Resembling more a stereotypical damsel in distress, Catwoman's fall culminated in a '51 storyline that saw her hit on the head and realise she'd been suffering amnesia. Distressed at her life of crime, Catwoman retires, and she disappeared from comics completely in '54 for a staggering 13 years.
In '48 the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published two papers that were extremely critical of the media and its supposed harmful effect on children. The reaction was immediate, with legislation, censorship and even comic book burnings happening around the country. In '54 Wertham published a book called "Seduction of the Innocent", and everyone went bananas. Not only did Wertham state that comic books were directly responsible for juvenile delinquency, but that Wonder Woman was the "Lesbian counterpart of Batman", and that Batman and Robin comics were the "type of story [that] may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies".
Indeed, he believed that Superman encouraged fascism and gave children the wrong idea of phyiscal laws, but while he tiptoed around the issue of Batman and Robin sharing a bed, he was quite happy to pile his ire on Wonder Woman. Lesbianism aside, his main issue was clearly that Wonder Woman was "an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be", and that "For boys, Wonder Woman is a frightening image."
Parents and society had long fretted over what their children were reading (Penny Dreadfuls during the Victorian era set the trend of focusing on those publications the poor could also afford), and comics had attracted concern before - Wertham's assurance that children were delighting in blood, gore and violence and were having their fragile little minds warped by a man-hating lesbian, was more or less exactly what they wanted to hear. This was why little Bobby was acting out! This was why there was teenage crime! This was why society was going to rack and ruin! Huzzah!
It's unfortunate that all this mass hysteria wiped out the actual good points of Wertham's assessment of comics: the racism often present in the portrayal of villains, and the violence towards women in crime comics that was so sexualised and often set up as near-rape scenes. "Seduction of the Innocent" is a rambling collection of thoughts and opinions dressed as fact, and while it did ultimately result in the creation of the Comic Code and the resulting extinction of horror and crime comics, nobody was looking at the actual potentially damaging sexist and racist messages. Instead, the public decided that by the mere act of looking at a comic book, a child could turn into a dangerous criminal, and that children could equally be led astray by Wonder Woman and her terrifying feminism.
Women in comics had hardly even begun to move forward, and now all growth was cut off, frowned upon, neutered.
Stay tuned for the next installment: Batwoman and the Revenge of the Supergirls.
(Fun fact: the UK Royal Mail prohibition against mailing horror comics still stands. Customs & Excise list banned items as "drugs, firearms, obscene media, horror comics, knives, counterfeit currency...")