In 1956, DC unveiled the newly revamped Flash, kick-starting the Silver Age and a resurgence of superhero popularity. For the first time in a decade, heroes were big business again as their histories and identities were reworked to be more realistic, substituting magical origins for the scientific. Marvel jumped on board in the 60s, with their flawed and self-doubting heroes being pumped out by the dozen.
The late 50s and 60s are by turns a frustrating and interesting time for women in comics. Behind the scenes women were practically non-existent, and on page the reactionary additions of Batwoman and Supergirl, along with the prone to fainting and needing rescued Wasp, Marvel Girl and Invisible Girl were doing little to further the strong woman cause. But in the 60s things started to change, and one woman in particular was to help us on our way.
"I won't marry you - but I will kiss you! With a giant hand!". Hehe, that's my grrrl.
The Comic Code had left its mark, with many casualties falling by the wayside. Etta Candy was no more, Catwoman had hung up her whip, and Wonder Woman was busy chasing after her man. None of this of course was as important as the assertion that Batman was quite possibly gay, harbouring improper thoughts about his Boy Wonder, who according to Fredric Wertham in his infamous book Seduction of the Innocent, "often stands with legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident". I say.
Of course, Bruce Wayne had had plenty of girlfriends over the years, but due to that persona only being a front for his true, darker nature, none of those relationships could ever be taken terribly seriously. Catwoman aside, there was a distinct lack of women in Batman's world and the frisky feline was ruled out of bounds at the time on account of her being a criminal. The other woman in Batman's life was Vicki Vale, a magazine photographer who was determined to get the proof she needed to expose Bruce Wayne as Batman. Her first appearance in 1948 was billed "a new menace in Batman's life!", which is not a promising start for a new female character. She was intelligent (figured out Batman's identity), tenacious (not intimidated by the Dark Knight) and ultimately was therefore portrayed as an evil schemer out to foil Batman's fun. Vicki was abandoned as a character after the Golden Age.
Catwoman had absconded in '54, her playful villainous nature no longer welcome in the more conservative times. However, she'd never really been taken seriously as a criminal in the first place. In her first appearance, Batman unmasks a protesting Cat, telling her "Quiet or papa spank!". He allows her to escape, wondering when he will see this "pretty face" again; there's no need to see this villain as a real threat after all, she's only a woman! The Comic Code outlawed glamorous criminals, and Catwoman disappeared for over a decade.
And so Bats needed a new woman in his life, not for diversity or for the female readers you understand, just to prove his rampant heterosexuality and red-blooded maleness, which contrasted sharply with his persistent "girls are icky" stance.
In '56, an intriguing new character was introduced: Kathy Kane, a circus aerialist and motorcycle stunt rider who inherits a large fortune from her uncle. Inspired by the Batman, she uses her new found wealth to move to Gotham, create a false persona of a bored heiress, and builds a cave of her own under her new mansion. Her Batwoman costume was Code approved, no cleavage or too much skin on show, with a prim little collar and fetching high heels to showcase her good fashion sense.
Things start to go wrong when we notice that her "shoulder bag utility case" is little more than a purse. And while her weapons might be cunningly disguised as purse contents, it's a little rankling that Batwoman has the great weapons of powder puff and charm bracelet, while Batman gets his batarangs and countless bat themed gadgets.
Batwoman comes to Batman's rescue on several occasions and was aggressively marketed as a new rival and love interest for the Caped Crusader. But in the early 50s, feminism was a bad word indeed, and Kathy had to meet society's expectations. She might be Batwoman, but she would always be referred to as a girl. Batman constantly condescended to her and outright bullied her out of his way, while Batwoman was shown always to be weaker and less intelligent than him. Batman had more respect for Ace the Bat-Hound than he did for this fearsome female, yet she in turn was utterly devoted to him.
He goes so far as to track her back to her mansion and says that as he could work out her secret identity, so could anyone. Batwoman realises the folly of trying to play with the big bully boys and retires. Though not for long. Sadly there is no great change when Kathy returns, and in the story "The Super Batwoman", in which she accidentally swallows a capsule that gives her the powers of Superman for 24 hours, Batman reacts typically by telling her to go home and wait until the powers wear off! Batwoman threatens to use her powers to discover the identities of Batman, Robin and Superman, but being the silly woman that she is, the boys manage to scare her way with mice. Yes. Mice.
But Batman is so impressed with the heroics she performed with her powers elsewhere that he says she can play again sometime. Yay! Wait. Despite having superpowers, Batwoman is easily thwarted and even humiliated by the male characters, all for daring to try and discover the men's secret identities. The men on the other hand, have long known Batwoman's identity. For Kathy to know who Bruce and Dick really were, would put her on an equal footing with the boys. It would give her an equal share of the power, and imply that she was equally as intelligent and able. And so Batwoman was to remain in the dark until her disappearance in '64 when Batman was given a much needed revamp. But comic book fans will know that we'll be picking up her story again decades later...
Metropolis, unlike Gotham City, had no such shortage of romantically inclined women. Clark had both Lois Lane and Lana Lang fighting over him, both of whom were independent career women who, at least to begin with, had never suffered fools lightly. Lois in particular even exerted a certain control over Superman, in her own series being able to throw herself out a window to attract Superman's attention. Neither women of course knew of Superman's secret identity, and would often show their worst face to the hapless Clark – once again demonstrating that the man held all the power in the relationships.
Lois in fact was portrayed as somewhat of a brat. Her popularity with readers had ensured that she got her own comic, "Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane" (1957-1974), in which the intrepid reporter found herself in all manner of scrapes and shenanigans. In the main comics, Superman is even-tempered and a model gentleman, but in Lois' comic, he is shown to be at his wits end due to the scheming Lois, and is often quite cruel to her. "You little idiot!", he viciously yells at her at one point. Superman's sometimes bullying nature is close indeed to the verbal abuse Batman would bombard Batwoman with.
Lois is often mocked for not being able to see through a pair of glasses and realise that Clark is in fact Superman. But really, while the rest of the world is fooled, Lois is quite determined to prove her belief that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same but is constantly thwarted by a man with godlike powers. Once again, a woman seeking the identity of a man is portrayed as desperate or crazed, while her inability to gather the proof she needs ensures that we know that Lois is in no way equal to Superman.
Things changed in 1959, when Supergirl was introduced to the world. Well, not quite. Kara Zor-El is Clark's cousin and possessed all the same powers on Earth that Superman had, which would imply that she might just be as powerful a hero. But while Clark was raised on Earth by loving parents in an idyllic town, Kara was consigned to an orphanage by her older cousin, and told not to use her powers lest she somehow blow his secret identity. Her alter-ego, Linda Lee, is shy, intelligent, and lonely. She never rebels against Clark and does everything he tells her to.
Once again, this was in keeping with the times and perhaps not that surprising given Kara's creator was none other than Otto Binder, the man behind the similarly suppressed pre-code Mary Marvel, younger sister to Captain Marvel. Both girls were perpetually young, subservient to an older male family member, and never showed a hint of rebellious thought. This sweet kid sister role ensured that the girls were always seen as non-adults, as non-women, as non-threatening.
There was always a keen emphasis on Kara one day settling down and marrying, despite the fact she was a teen. And while she occasionally got to have a tearaway adventure, this was always explained away as an effect of malevolent magic or manipulations – never a stain on her perfect record. Her companions were a Supercat named Streaky and a telepathic Super-Horse named Comet. One of the most disturbing Supergirl storylines features Comet briefly being turned human and romancing Kara – without telling her who he is! He then returns to his telepathic horse form, being petted and cuddled by Kara who is still none the wiser. Yeah, little bit creepy there.
As comics moved into the 70s, Supergirl was increasingly out of touch with society, and was still never allowed to grow up. A Superwoman would be a true equal to Superman, and a sure threat to his domination. It wasn't going to happen.
Since the introduction of the Comic Code, Marvel had been concentrating primarily on romance comics but when DC joined its newly revamped heroes together in the Justice League of America, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began their famed Marvel Method collaboration with the birth of the Fantastic Four in '61. Here for the first time, we had heroes that were seen to be real people, with faults and flaws despite their superpowers.
These four heroes dispensed with the idea of secret identities, and were more like a family than previous hero groupings had been before. Of course, despite having one woman member, the first cover of the Fantastic Four shows the three men fighting the bad guy while the monster clutches Susan Storm aka Invisible Girl who clearly needs to be rescued. Later Susan would become the Invisible Woman with greater powers, but for now she held the title of Girl, and her only power was to render herself invisible. Great for spying, but not quite on the same level of power as Mr Fantastic, The Human Torch, and The Thing. Cue an awful lot of rescuing, a fair bit of crying, and rather a lot of fainting.
The conservative 50s might have been over, but Marvel was still very low on strong women characters. Their only title bearing woman was Millie the Model and staff wise there were only two females on board: Marie Severin, the all-round star, and Florence Steinberg, secretary. DC were little better, in fact only one woman better, with ace talent Ramona Fradon (co-creator of Metamorhpo and Aquaman artist), Liz Berube (colourist), and Dorothy Woolfolk (editor and creator of kryptonite).
After the début of Invisible Girl, it wasn't long before Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl appeared with the birth of the X-Men, and Janet van Dyne aka Wasp appeared in Tales to Astonish. These three women would go on to achieve greatness in later decades, but in the 60s, all three were very much stuck in some familiar patterns.
Firstly, all three were desperate for romance and in each case it was a younger woman involved with an older man: Susan is far younger than Reed Richards; Janet is far younger than Henry Pym; and it's hinted that the much older Professor Xavier is harbouring some non-platonic love for his young protégée – certainly Jean is devoted to the Professor. In each partnership, this age difference further underlines the position of power in the relationship. The women are girls, the men are grown up, wiser, and stronger. Another pattern was that of the "Smurfette Principle", a trope that states that any male ensemble cast in a story aimed at a predominantly male audience will feature only one token female.
What these women, at this time in history, also had in common with Batwoman and Supergirl, was that they were all shown to be ruled by their hearts and emotions, unlike the more sensible males. Keeping the men happy was seen as the most important factor in their lives, and they were always portrayed as weaker than the men. That's not to say that they weren't good characters. Jean Grey is perhaps the most complex and interesting member of the X-Men, but despite her vast power she is always (in the 60s) shown as being weaker than the men. Wasp is feisty and fun, but by the end of her first appearance is madly in love with Pym, and follows him into the Avengers with marriage, not justice, on her mind. Fainting with exertion was the order of the day. No matter how strong and powerful these women were, they were hugely constrained by the societal expectations of the period.
Over at DC though, something rather exciting was happening. Despite Batwoman and Supergirl being stuck with their conservative 50s influence, and Marvel having the reputation of being the more realistic and edgy comics, it was DC that got the jump on a new wave of progressive women. In 1963 when Marvel Girl and Wasp first appeared, second wave feminism roared into life with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and the legal victory of the Equal Pay Act.
In this same year, DC unveiled their latest superhero team: Doom Patrol. A band of so called "freaks" with strange powers that were mentored by an older man who sat in a wheelchair. Sound familiar? Doom patrol premièred several months before Marvel unleashed X-Men on the world, leading to suspicions that DC had a Marvel spy in their midst. However, it could equally be argued that Doom Patrol had taken inspiration from the Fantastic Four. Although they in turn are said to have been inspired by Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown at DC. Ah well.
Doom Patrol were a trio of powered individuals mentored by the Chief. Cliff Steele is Robotman, a human brain inside a metal body, Larry Trainor is Negative Man who must wear bandages at all times to protect others from his radioactivity, and Rita Farr is Elasti-Girl, a Hollywood actress who can shrink or grow her body at will. Despite this Smurfette set up, Elasti-Girl was truly treated as an equal by her team-mates, and her powers are never seen to be diminished because of her gender. Arguably Rita wasn't even as freakish as her pals, but her lack of a secret identity did make her very isolated from the public.
During a movie shoot, Rita is exposed to strange vapours from a volcano, and soon realised she now had the uncontrollable ability to change her size. Over time and with practice, this ability is refined and disciplined, even allowing her to enlarge and stretch just one limb at a time. Her relationship with the Chief could easily have gone down the same path as that of Marvel Girl and Professor Xavier, however while Elasti-Girl respects the Chief, she is an independent woman with no time for such unquestioning devotion.
While the Invisible Girl constantly needed her team-mates to rescue her, Elasti-Girl was rarely a damsel in distress, and certainly no more than her own team-mates were dudes in distress. Unlike the fainting female heroes in other comics, Elasti-Girl was daring and courageous at all times. Had anyone tried to speak to Rita like Batman does to Batwoman, or like Superman did to Supergirl, or even as Reed did to Sue, they would have got a giant slap from a giant hand.
And crucially, Elasti-Girl was never ruled by her heart. Breaking the convention that a superwoman always yearned, secretly or not, to settle down with a man and give up her pursuit of justice, Elasti-Girl was quite clear that her duty came first and any potential romance second. In fact, she delayed romance quite often, concerned that it would interfere with her work.
In many ways, Elasti-Girl was the ultimate woman hero, a hero who was a warrior, intelligent, compassionate and fierce, who put her work before her personal life but ensured the latter could work around the former, and who was seen as an equal by her peers and public. In short, Elasti-Girl was just like a regular male hero in what she was able to do, and what she was allowed to do, and her being a woman was seen as incidental rather than fundamental.
When Rita did finally marry her sweetheart Mento (Steve Dayton, with whom she later adopts Gar Logan who became Beast Boy), her new husband makes the mistake of thinking she might be happier at home. "Hold on, Mr. Dayton! You're my husband -- not my keeper! I never promised you I'd give up the Doom Patrol!".
Nowadays, such a statement seems quite normal, but at the time it was nothing short of outrageous! This was 1966, and it had only been two years since Batwoman had disappeared from DC, and the Invisible Girl was being told by her husband that "wives should be kissed – and not heard!". Rita was speaking out against her husband, informing him of what she was choosing to do, and that that choice was not his to make.
Sadly this original Doom Patrol run finished in '68 due to a dwindling readership. The resurgence of interest in superhero comics had peaked and was once again falling sharply with an overall decline in the comics industry. Doom Patrol ended with the team sacrificing themselves to save a village of people. It was a shocking end to a weird and wonderful series, and although Doom Patrol was brought back to life later and repeatedly retconned, the original Rita Farr had taken giant strides for women in comics. Shaking off the shackles of the conservative 50s and embracing the emerging feminism of the 60s, Elasti-Girl had shown that a hero could be a woman and be powerful, and a true equal to men. She could talk back to her husband, put romance on hold for duty, be trusted with the same knowledge as her peers, and sacrifice her life with her friends.
She is my hero.
Stay tuned for the next installment: Red Sonja and Power Girl - a New Hope?