On a trip to your local comic book store you can see any number of buxom women gracing the covers of superhero comics. They wear outlandish, revealing uniforms which defy the laws of gravity, fashion and, sometimes, public decency. But they consistently entice the male-dominated audience into buying them, month after month. It’s why adult film stars appear in guitar magazines or bikini-clad nubiles sit astride motorcycles. If a potential reader likes marijuana or sports or hunting or cars, there’s a good chance he’s probably interested in babes, too.
Both comics and popular magazines deal in fantasy, twisting and contorting the female form into suggestive poses no normal body can sustain — at least for long. Both imagine flawless skin and heaving busts with body fat only in the right places. Models and actresses push their bodies beyond the health and beauty limits of most people you or I know, but still their bodies still require extensive makeup and photo retouching. Women in superhero comics, however, are tailed by the hand — and plucked from the minds — of writers and artists, most of whom are male. Thus, their every aspect is completely unimpeded by the confines of reality.
Author Mike Madrid explores the history of the women of superhero comics beginning in the ’40s, when a domino mask and revealing gown were all that was needed for a wealthy debutante fed up with the world of cocktail parties and well-connected suitors to enter the world of crime fighting. By 1947, Madrid writes, “women… put on scanty costumes and assumed disguises in order to act like themselves”, but who these women were, how their creators should portray them, was unclear.
Comic book publishers were always looking for the next big thing, and the result was dozens of new characters appearing on newsstands every month. In a bid to get a hit, creators would try anything. Madam Fatal, for example, wasn’t a “madam” at all, but rather a retired stage actor named Richard Stanton in drag. On the flip side was the Red Tornado, the male alias of a working class mother who dedicated herself to ridding her neighborhood of crime. Madrid doesn’t explore the reasons for these strange transformations, but one imagines an in-depth study of these characters could fill a book their its own.
Madrid moves through these early heroines quickly, likely because many of them made only a handful of appearances and their influence is little felt in later, more prominent heroes. These early chapters are entertaining, but their lack of depth beyond a description of a character and her adventures causes them to move by without making much of an impression on the reader. The early chapters read like the Madrid is searching for an inroad to what he really wants to write about. Luckily, he finds it.
Madrid’s greatest strength is in the parallels he finds between different characters and their wider context in popular. In the chapter “The Queen and the Princess”, Madrid explores the origins of the jungle queen Sheena and Wonder Woman. These characters, he writes, comprise “the archetypes that would define the female superhero. Sheena was a passionate, savage beauty who embodied the erotic fantasies of men, while Wonder Woman was a powerful female who served as a role model for young girls.” In the early days, Sheena was a fighter, always defending her helpless male companion, and Wonder Woman fought for democracy and equal rights for women, but their stars didn’t burn bright for long.
By the ’50s Sheena faded into relative obscurity and Wonder Woman was labeled “a morbid ideal” for women, only to reappear later as a sort of cheerleader for the otherwise all-male Justice League of America. Madrid then details Wonder Woman’s long history of origin retooling, costume changes and other creative woes that showed just how uncertain the comics world was in handling such a strong female character.
In the chapter “Supergirl and the Ballad of American Youth”, Madrid parallels the development of Superman’s cousin in the late ’50s and early ’60s to the real world success of Lesley Gore, the picture perfect teen pop star who also happened to be a ;esbian. Later, Madrid sees Supergirl in the ’70s as “pretty, safe and well-behaved” like Marie Osmond and Debbie Boone, and it was there she was stuck until her death in 1985. Madrid notes that stars like Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry “projected an outspoken, independent and sexually confident image”, one that Supergirl could never attain.
The arc of the character, as Madrid portrays it, is incredible in part because it gives the brain a soundtrack by which to imagine the character’s evolution, but also because it shows the comics’ industry’s failure to keep up with the changing times, at least when it came to women’s issues.
In his introduction Madrid relates his own comics origin story in which he became fascinated with the character Supergirl, and this chapter is as much as a personal meditation on the character as it does a thoughtful assessment of her place in pantheon of superheroes. Both male and female superheroes take on secret identities that separate their personal lives from their heroic lives.
Still, he argues, in costume, men retain their adult status, e.g., Batman and Superman. But their female counterparts, no matter how well suited-up for battle, are always ‘girls’. Madrid covers more than just the superficial, such as haircuts and cute costumes, though those are in here, too. He’s more interested in the strange and exciting ways female superheroes entertain and enrich our lives — not entirely like so many real women do.