Does the classic superhero headquarters have a glass ceiling? It's certainly true that superheroines have had a mightier task to perform than their male counterparts just to get noticed in the comic-book medium, let alone thrive. Still, over the years the identities of superwomen, even more so than the traditional costumed men, have been subject to change.
After a handful of obscure predecessors, the era of the superheroine entered an auspicious phase with DC Comics' Wonder Woman, who leaped onto the printed page in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941–January 1942). Conceived as a draw for female readers (in the days before comics publishers wrote this entire audience off), the character—though like most such heroines, written and drawn by men—was an Amazonian archetype in whose adventures males were decidedly the less capable sex, and in which fantasias of matriarchal rule played out.
Of course, the fact that it was so fantastic may have undermined the empowering effect of the series on little girls reading it, and Wonder Woman would remain one of relatively few stand-alone superheroines for some time. Much more common were female versions of established male characters—and ones seldom with their own books, as Wonder Woman rated. Everyone knows Supergirl and Batgirl, though fewer people remember Bulletgirl and Batwoman—and perhaps that's no accident. The heroines created as diminutives of male heroes seemed to stay afloat; grown women on a potentially equal footing with their counterparts—like the forgotten 1950s Batman colleague Batwoman and the regular teammate of Fawcett Comics' Bulletman, Bulletgirl—sank thoroughly from view.
Of course, times change, and husband-and-wife teams took hold more firmly as the 1950s and 1960s progressed, from DC Comics' Hawkman and Hawkgirl to Marvel's Ant-Man (later Giant-Man) and the Wasp. By the 1970s, superwomen were liberated enough to be portrayed in extra-marital team-ups, including DC's Black Canary with Green Arrow and Marvel's Black Widow with Daredevil—in the latter case, the woman even took co-billing in the book's title.
But where were the women standing on their own two feet? In the 1950s Marvel had had Venus, a self-reliant career woman who just happened to be the Greek goddess of the same name. But did a gal have to be from Olympus to get star billing? It seemed sadly so, sisters, when, by the 1970s, Marvel tried a brand-new (if Catwoman-derived) heroine in her own book, the Cat. Unusually (and even more so for the time) both written and drawn by women (Linda Fite and Marie Severin, respectively), the series was a moody, intriguing innovation that withered within a few issues.
The gender dynamic was slowly changing when the superheroes pulled off their garish work clothes and got home, especially in the case of Spider-Man, whose alter-ego Peter Parker is raised in a matriarchal household by his widowed Aunt May and would end up spending most of his series dating—and later married to—the uncommonly gutsy and independent Mary Jane Watson. But they were still the proverbial women behind the man.
Superheroines were having better luck on the TV screen, from the Saturday-morning live-action Egyptian deity Isis to primetime's Bionic Woman and, again, Wonder Woman. Back in comics, female heroes found a haven in Marvel's more offbeat ensemble books like The Defenders, which featured another Amazonian character (this time, of the Northern European variety), the Valkyrie, and a retooled Cat named Hellcat (though this time, empoweringly if a bit surreally, it was Marvel's former prom-queen romance-comic character Patsy Walker under the mask). Team books in general seemed to be a more hospitable workplace for women, with Marvel's mega-popular late 1970s X-Men reboot featuring such powerful female images as Storm and Jean Gray (if never democratizing the book's male-centric name).
The latter character is pivotal—the telekinetic Gray, who had been able to take back her name after being called
Marvel Girl years before, is one of comics' few instances of a heroine whom male and female fans alike admire for her abilities rather than her appearance—a dignified, brainy humanitarian and leader, she gained god-like powers and met a tragic end (though various popular-demand resurrections have inevitably followed) in the X-Men book's classic
Dark Phoenix Saga (issues #129–#137, 1980).
But can a superheroine be powerful and actually live? Some have been trying it. The Wasp has gone from air-headed socialite sidekick in the 1960s to leader of Marvel's team the Avengers in the 1980s and 1990s; in the same time span the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl finally got promoted to Invisible Woman, and a stronger position in the team (a more permanent change than when she briefly left her husband, Mr. Fantastic, and the book itself in the I-am-woman early 1970s); Catwoman has gone from titillating vamp (and villain of the piece) to champion of the downtrodden (and star of her own book).
Meanwhile, the Amazon archetype introduced to comics by Wonder Woman has marched on, with ambiguous results. These characters always tread a line between role models of power and role players of dominatrix male fantasy, from Marvel's Thundra (a one-shot
Femizon from a matriarchal future) to Jack Kirby's Barda (steely and scantily clad interdimensional warrior woman) and beyond. A subset of this type has been the sexy assassin. From Gamora in Jim Starlin's mid-1970s Marvel series Warlock to Elecktra in Frank Miller's early 1980s Daredevil, the line between power and pin-up has always blurred—and all the more so in such characters' modern equivalents, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Lara Croft.
Mixed blessings like these have long been superheroines' lot. The elderly Agatha Harkness, strong-willed and somewhat supernatural governess of the Invisible Girl and Mr. Fantastic's son Franklin, was introduced in 1970, becoming perhaps comics' first super senior citizen. Oracle, the contemporary heroine who used to be Batgirl, is a technological mastermind whose abilities are indispensable though the use of her legs has been lost. But neither of these characters is the first woman—in comics or real life—to have her strength and know-how appreciated only after developments (age, disability) that disqualify her as a conventional sex symbol.
Legendary underground cartoonist and feminist comics historian Trina Robbins tried taking matters into her own hands with the 2000–2001 series Go Girl! for Image Comics. Written by Robbins and drawn by Anne Timmons, the book follows the adventures of a hip-hop era teen taking up the mantle of her mod seventies-superheroine mom (
Go-Go Girl!). Aimed at youngsters in an attempt to depict more three-dimensional females in comics and welcome more real ones into the medium's audience, the book wavers a bit between charming and cloying, but is a worthy and refreshing read. Its short, stormy run—previewed with high-profile fanfare and then delayed in its release and downgraded to an infrequent black-and-white due to low preorder interest among comic-shop dealers—said less about the book's quality than about the unsalability of women-starring series that is axiomatic in the industry (if self-fulfillingly so).
It is probably no coincidence that the most famous female comic-book artists have been humorists, deflating the self-importance of a male-centric genre. Marie Severin was known for satire books like Not Brand Echh! in the 1960s; Ramona Fradon for wacky heroes like Metamorpho and Plastic Man in the 1960s and 1970s; and Amanda Conner for the outlandish prostitute-turned-superheroine book The Pro in the early 2000s.
That last book's relentlessly unglamorized look at a low-respect female occupation may be a signal of things to come. No-nonsense portrayals of domestic abuse have appeared in Marvel's Ultimates and Spider-Girl (the latter of which has drawn some fire for its sympathetic characterization of Lesbian moms—and drawn a larger female readership than most comics have in years); well-rounded characters like Brian Michael Bendis' Jessica Jones in Alias (no relation to the TV show) and Frank Miller's reluctant urban warrior Martha Washington have garnered feminist praise; companies are trying out books starring non-male-derived, non-cheesecake-oriented heroines again (like Alan Moore's acclaimed goddess epic Promethea and Peter David's mature and enigmatic noire drama Fallen Angel); and even honest-to-gosh women writers like Devin Grayson and Gail Simone are bringing new spins to characters from the Black Widow to Birds of Prey.
High-profile movies like the Halle Berry Catwoman and the Jennifer Garner Elektra are in the pipeline, which will boost the box office for superwomen and may either help or hurt super-sisterhood—but whatever happens, both on the page and behind the scenes, the female population of a male-dominated medium will keep pressing forward, even if it's not in a single bound.