Superheroes, no matter their media of presentation, have always held a mirror to society and offered a reflection of cultural attitudes. No better example of this can be found than with superheroines.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were teen nebbishes when they created Superman, and their brazen Man of Steel clearly embodied the male adolescent power fantasy: He was handsome, self-assured, in control, and robust, attributes most insecure teenage boys can only covet. Little did Siegel and Shuster realize that they were paving a societal super-highway with their character. Following Superman's phenomenally lucrative 1938 debut, a heroic brotherhood quickly appeared: Batman, Captain Marvel, Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Captain America. Even the teenage sidekicks, like Robin the Boy Wonder and Bucky, were high-spirited males. The burgeoning business of superhero comics was the publishing equivalent of the
He-Man Woman Hater's Club from the Little Rascals film shorts. When women did appear in comics, they were damsels in distress. It's no wonder that girls found this new genre of comic books unattractive.
Comics publishers of this era tried to attract a female audience—they just didn't try very hard. Four significant female heroines, although not superheroines in the strictest sense, all showed up in 1940. First came Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, an unabashed attempt to milk the success of The Phantom and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Bowing in Fiction House's Jungle Comics #2 (February 1940), Fantomah wore no mask, but instead transformed her appearance from a beautiful blonde to a skull-faced monstress (keeping her flowing golden locks in the process), using her supernatural powers to combat evil. During her four-year career, she was confined to Jungle Comics' backup strips, almost as if Fiction House was ashamed of her. On his Toonopedia website, Don Markstein observed,
From beginning to end, Fantomah was obscure almost to the point of vanishing.
The Woman in Red, the first costumed heroine, originally donned her disguise in Standard Comics' Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940). She was actually police officer Peggy Allen, but by night she sported a crimson hood, mask, and cloak—as well as a revolver—to mop up crime without the judicial restraints that tied her hands in her day job. Fighting gangsters and thugs until 1945, the Woman in Red fared slightly better than Fantomah: While she was never cover-featured on Thrilling, her headshot was squeezed onto the covers of America's Best Comics #1 and #2 (1942). Largely unknown other than for her historical significance, the Woman in Red managed to resurface in 2001 in an homage by Alan Moore in the pages of ABC's Tom Strong (and in a related 2003 miniseries, Terra Obscura), and appears among AC Comics' vast stable of reclaimed characters from comics history.
On the heels of the Woman in Red came Lady Luck, first seen in the June 2, 1940, newspaper comic-book supplement, The Spirit. Lady Luck was the feminine answer to the Green Hornet—she even had her own
Kato, a chauffeur named Peecolo. She was actually a bored socialite, Brenda Banks, who at night concealed her identity with a green veil and caught criminals for kicks. Like the Hornet, Lady Luck was wanted by the law, complicating Banks' relationship with the police chief.
In November 1940 readers were introduced to the first cross-dressing superhero: Red Tornado. Strictly played for laughs, Red Tornado was actually Ma Hunkle, a stout matron who dressed up in red long johns and a cooking pot for a helmet in the Scribbly series appearing in DC Comics' All American Comics, starting with issue #20.
The first supervillainess also premiered in 1940. In the pages of Batman #1, Batman and Robin encountered a natty cat burglar slinking about in a form-fitting green dress. Batman was smitten by this kitten calling herself
The Cat, but before long she would be renamed Catwoman, and would begin a lengthy career as a sometime-thief, sometime-heroine.
As evidenced by the low profile afforded Fantomah and the Woman in Red, comic-book publishers weren't convinced that a superheroine could sell a comic. Newspaper syndicates were more courageous, and in April 1941 a vivacious costumed heroine dressed in a skintight leopard suit began fighting crime in a Sunday newspaper comic strip. This was Miss Fury, a character whose series
combined intelligently written mysteries with cinematic action sequences shown from multiple viewpoints, according to superheroine historian Trina Robbins in her book The Great Women Superheroes (1996). Miss Fury feared no man, slapping and scolding bad guys, even whipping them with her tail. Her adventures were written and drawn by a real-life woman of wonder: Tarpe Mills, one of the first successful female creators to render superheroines for the printed page. Mills was, like her character, glamorous. Miss Fury was a popular strip, enjoyed by both sexes, and Mills basked in the glow of celebrity its acclaim brought her.
Comic-book publishers impressed with Miss Fury's success tested the waters with more superheroines, but cautiously stuck only one toe in. The Black Cat, dressed in a black swimsuit and a pointy-topped eye mask, started her career in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1. She was secretly movie star/stuntwoman Linda Turner, who used the tricks of her trade and gimmicks from movie sets as
Hollywood's Glamorous Crime Fighter, solving mysteries in Tinseltown. The Phantom Lady's adventures transpired on the opposite coast, in Washington, D.C. Premiering in Quality Comics' Police Comics #1, Phantom Lady, decked out in a bathing suit and cape, thwarted political assassinations and other crimes with her blackout-ray projector, which she wore as a bracelet. Probably the first superheroine to bring together the holy trinity of costume, secret identity, and superpowers to the comic-book page was Bulletgirl, the elixir-powered, airborne companion of Fawcett Comic's Bulletman; Bulletgirl's first appearance (in early 1941) predates those of Wonder Woman, Mary Marvel, and even the Black Cat, though her sidekick status seems to prevent this from being often recognized.
Dr. William Moulton Marston, eminent psychologist and inventor of the lie detector, created for DC Comics the most famous of all superheroines:
Suprema, the Wonder Woman. Marston's concept underwent obvious name-doctoring, and Wonder Woman, the beautiful red-white-and-blue-clad Amazon who fearlessly deflected bullets with her bracelets, first saw print in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941–January 1942)—just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor dragged the United States into World War II. DC had more faith in this superheroine than its competitors did in theirs. Wonder Woman busted onto the cover of Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942), and by that summer she was also awarded her own title. Wonder Woman embodied feminine and masculine traits: She was a compassionate feminist who would fight when necessary. A favorite of girls, Wonder Woman also sold to boys during the war, as the heroine epitomized patriotism—and had a great pair of legs (comics have never been shy about the sexual exploitation of the feminine form).
World War II empowered American women. While men were overseas, their wives, sisters, and mothers took over back home. They worked in the factories and played professional baseball, all while raising the children. A nation of wonder women.
This gender strengthening augmented the status of comics superheroines, and the stands were soon filled with them. In addition to Bulletgirl, Fawcett Comics had Mary Marvel, the supergirl sibling of Captain Marvel, who, like her brother, said
Shazam! to gain her mighty powers. DC Comics introduced the streetwise Black Canary, the battling blonde in fishnets who became a valuable member of the Justice Society of America; Hawkgirl, the feathered fury who flew into action with her companion, Hawkman; the adventurous freedom fighter named Liberty Belle; and the assiduous Merry, Girl of a Thousand Gimmicks. Even Superman's girlfriend, the intrepid reporter Lois Lane, was a superheroine in her own right: She fearlessly scaled skyscraper ledges and infiltrated mobs, all for a newspaper story.
Marvel (then Timely) Comics published Miss America, a character historian Mike Benton called
a fair sex Captain America, who punched bad guys and bad girls alike (
Sorry, sister! Hate to do this, but you invited it! she once said while kayoing a woman) and eventually made her way into the All Winners Squad with Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. Another Marvel superheroine who turned heads was the Blonde Phantom, a yellow-haired detective in a shimmering crimson gown and black mask.
Superheroines appeared from other publishers as well. Kitten was the flirtatious sidekick to Cat-Man, Quality's diminutive Doll Girl fought crime with Doll Man, and Fox's web-swinging Spider Queen employed a
spider-web fluid two decades before Spider-Man. Commandette was an actress/stuntwoman heroine (and a ripoff of the Black Cat), making only one appearance in 1945, while Pat Parker, War Nurse, teamed with the Girl Commandos. Some superheroines were ace pilots, cut from the same cloth as real-life aviatrix Amelia Earhart: The Black Angel feigned weakness in her real identity of Sylvia Lawton but protected her native England from the
Nazi cobra of the skies, Baroness Blood, and Black Venus was a physical therapist by day, costumed air fighter by night.
Some ladies skirted the supernatural realm, like the original Black Widow (whose real name was Claire Voyant), Lady Satan, and Ghost Woman. There were masked mysterywomen and flag-waving Nazi-busters galore, too many to chronicle in full detail, but Pat Patriot, Yankee Girl, the Silver Scorpion, USA (
The Spirit of Old Glory), Flame Girl, Miss Masque, Golden Girl, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Rocketgirl, Owl Girl, Atoma, Moon Girl, Lady Fairplay, and Miss Victory were among their number. Wonder Woman, Mary Marvel, and a few others aside, these superheroines were featured in anthology titles, were partners to a male superhero, or were tucked away in backup series. Publishers still lacked faith in superheroines as cover-featured stars.
Superheroines, like their male counterparts, fell out of fashion after World War II. Comic-book sales dropped, publishers folded, and genres like crime, funny animals, and Westerns supplanted superhero material. In the real world, men returned home from the war and resumed their jobs, displacing the women who had so ably filled their shoes. Some women willingly reverted to domestic roles, some did so unwillingly.
As circulations spiraled downward in the mid- to late 1940s, the comic-book industry adopted extreme measures to make superheroines appealing to its male readership. Superheroines were often depicted in titillating pin-up poses, sometimes in bondage, with an abundance of cleavage exposed—Matt Baker's
Good Girl art Phantom Lady covers of the 1940s are highly prized collectors' items in the 2000s—in an exploitive trend called
headlights. In 1948 Marvel ambitiously tried a line of superheroine comics targeted specifically at young girls—The Blonde Phantom being joined by Venus, Namora, and Sun Girl—but these books were canceled after short runs. By the mid-1950s only Wonder Woman survived, and only barely at that. Girls were now reading romance comics, a genre started in 1947 by legendary creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby with Young Romance #1, featuring tales (written and drawn by males) centered on immature, sighing women fawning over Mr. Right (and sometimes Mr. Wrong). Superheroines had hung up their capes and donned aprons.
DC Comics introduced Batwoman in Detective Comics #233 (1956). She appeared not as an attempt to attract a female readership, but to counter allegations by psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham that Batman and Robin were homosexuals. Batwoman was actually Kathy Kane, an heiress who dated millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter ego). Garbed in a garish red-and-yellow batsuit, Batwoman fought boredom by fighting crime, but never developed a personality beyond giddiness. By 1964 she and her sidekick Bat-Girl (a love interest for Robin) were retired.
In Action Comics #252 (1959) DC introduced Supergirl, the teenage cousin to Superman. Supergirl, who also survived the destruction of the Man of Steel's homeworld Krypton, packed power like her relative, but was innocent and genial. When Superman introduced her to the world in 1962, he commented,
Physically, she's the mightiest female of all time! But at heart, she's as gentle and sweet and as quick to tears—as any ordinary girl! Supergirl's adventures accompanied Superman's in Action throughout the 1960s. Readers both female and male watched her mature as a heroine and a woman. For the first time in a generation, young girls had a new superheroine to emulate. Yet Supergirl's appeal wore thin over time. Attempts to expand her personality beyond her original naiveté failed, and she died—valiantly, at least, while saving the world—in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (1985).
History repeated itself in the 1960s. Superheroes were hot properties and by mid-decade commandeered popular culture. Marvel Comics was fundamental in reinventing the concept of superheroes—
heroes with problems—but its initial wave of superheroines still preserved the concept of women in roles shaped by patriarchal standards. The Invisible Girl premiered in Fantastic Four #1 (1961), and was shy and often endangered. The telekinetic Marvel Girl (a.k.a. Jean Grey), first seen in X-Men #1 (1963), was mostly a love interest for X-Man Cyclops, and the self-absorbed Wasp, the only woman in Marvel's Avengers, was an affluent fashion plate who loved to shop.
Other superheroines emerged during the 1960s: A sampling includes Wonder Woman's apprentice Wonder Girl, who go-go danced with her fellow Teen Titans; Fly Girl, the clinging partner of Archie Comics' Fly Man; Elasti-Girl of the Doom Patrol, who could expand her body to humongous proportions but could not grow beyond her restrictive domestic role; Mera, the wife of Aquaman and mother of Aquababy; Marvel's magical Scarlet Witch, who was persuaded to join the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants before exerting her own free will to become a heroine; Platinum (a.k.a. Tina) of the Metal Men, a lady robot whose faulty
responsometer caused her to go ga-ga over the human scientist who created her; and the all-new Batgirl, a high-kicking 1967 addition to both the Batman comics and TV show, who allowed a run in her tights to distract her from helping Batman and Robin. These characters may have put females back in action roles, but their dependent and/or indecisive personalities rooted them in stereotyped behavior.
It took a Brit to help wedge American superheroines from this trap of tradition. In the early 1960s actress Diana Rigg played Mrs. Emma Peel on the popular English television series The Avengers (not to be confused with the Marvel superteam title). Mrs. Peel was an intellectual well trained in physical combat. Leggy Rigg often wore skin-tight catsuits in the role, and her balance of beauty and brawn made Peel a bold new type of superheroine. Peel caught the American eye in 1966 once The Avengers was imported to the United States, where the character made her imprint upon superhero creators. DC's Catwoman, although a villain, went the Peel catsuit route, especially through fetching Julie Newmar's coquettish portrayal of the character on TV's live-action Batman series (1966–1968). The sultry Russian spy Natasha Romanoff, premiering in the Iron Man feature in Tales of Suspense #52 (1964), was one of Marvel's first female characters to exhibit a forceful personality—but she was playing on the wrong team! Soon, however, she defected to the United States, donned a form-fitting costume, and disabled villains with her
Widow's Bite blasts as the superheroine Black Widow.
In 1968 DC Comics borrowed heavily from TV's Emma Peel and reinvented its Amazon Princess. Wonder Woman was stripped of her superpowers and had to rely upon her newly acquired martial-arts training to survive. Wearing white jumpsuits, Diana Prince (alter ego of Wonder Woman) embarked upon globe-spanning exploits involving international thieves and assassins. This transformation was criticized by women's rights activist Gloria Steinem, who complained that DC had de-powered its principal superwoman. Other feminists joined Steinem's chorus. Dennis O'Neil, writer of Wonder Woman during this period, confessed in 2003,
Years later, I absolutely see what they were talking about.
In the real world, the sexual revolution of the 1960s enabled women to exert themselves physically, and the burgeoning women's rights movement afforded them political and cultural might. Women's liberation swept America: Bra burnings, sit-ins, walk outs, and demonstrations transpired to free females from societal shackles.
In the 1970s women became bolder, reflected on TV with female-centric sitcoms like the workplace heroine Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the boisterous, opinionated title character in the All in the Family spinoff Maude. Comics followed suit: Marvel gave the Invisible Girl more confidence and introduced a sisterhood of new superheroines. The iron maiden Valkyrie debuted as a sword-wielding feminist who became a member of the Defenders; two women creators—writer Linda Fite and artist Marie Severin—produced a short-lived series called The Cat, a crime-fighting alternative to DC's villainous Catwoman; and Black Widow took over half of Amazing Adventures (an anthology title shared with stories about the sexually egalitarian Inhumans), then co-starred in the pages of Daredevil.
When Marvel launched the all-new X-Men in 1975, among its cast of mutants was Storm, an ethereally beautiful African woman with long white hair. Storm was a survivor, an orphan who once supported herself with thievery. This weather manipulator became one of the X-Men's most popular members, and remains a favorite in the 2000s, particularly through actress Halle Berry's portrayal of the character in the live-action films X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003).
In the 1970s Marvel cranked out clones of its best-selling characters—Spider-Woman and She-Hulk, as well as Red Sonja, the female counterpart to Conan the Barbarian—and fashioned new superheroines like the disco-spawned Dazzler. DC gave Supergirl her own series, published Rima the Jungle Girl, unveiled the mysterious Black Orchid in Adventure Comics, introduced
Earth-Two (alternate reality) versions of Supergirl and Batgirl in the busty Power Girl and the brooding Huntress, and produced a comic book based on the popular Saturday-morning show Isis (1975–1977). ElectraWoman and DynaGirl were TV superheroines during the 1976 season of The Kroft Supershow, and Charlie's Angels (1976–1981), The Bionic Woman (1976–1978), and Police Woman (1974–1978) were successful primetime TV series starring female heroes. And then there was Wonder Woman.
Lynda Carter, a stunningly gorgeous, five-feet-ten-inch tall former Miss World USA, rocketed to instant stardom on TV's live-action series Wonder Woman (1976–1979). This hour-long action-drama was originally set in the 1940s, with Wonder Woman battling Nazis and extraterrestrials, then shifted to the present day with the 1977 season, at which point Wonder Woman's alter ego Diana Prince sported the grooviest pantsuits and fashions of the era. For the second half of the 1970s, Wonder Woman was TV's number-one superhero, and a spate of Wonder Woman merchandising flooded the marketplace. Girls adored the Amazon Princess, and college boys and men tuned in to admire Carter's attributes.
The 1970s was the decade of the liberated superheroine. Despite this cultural step forward, these superheroines were characterized with frailties, be they emotional attachment to boyfriends, husbands, children, jobs, or even their hair. That would soon change.
The first new superheroine of the 1980s had no such
weaknesses. She was Elektra, an assassin for hire wielding three-pronged daggers (called sai), first seen in Marvel's Daredevil #168 (1981). Elektra Natchios, like many fictional characters, survived the death (in her case, the political assassination) of a parent, her father, a Greek ambassador, and redirected her life as a result. Instead of fighting crime, as Batman did once his parents were killed, Elektra chose execution, a reaction catering perfectly to what historian Robbins called America's
get tough on crime mood of the 1980s. As a paid killer, she sought out and eliminated the worst of the worst, and while her marks were generally criminals, her methods were decidedly anti-heroic. She captivated the audience of the early 1980s, and has commanded a steady presence in comics ever since.
Actress Jennifer Garner was cast as Elektra in the live-action movie Daredevil (2003), and is pegged to star in a proposed Elektra solo film. Garner's physical prowess, honed pre-Elektra by her acrobatics on her television series Alias (2001–present), impressed her Daredevil costars:
She did this stunt where she kicks off the wall and does this split, and I was ready to marry that woman right there, gushed actor Michael Clarke Duncan to TV Guide in 2003.
Comics publishers didn't realize at the time that the emergence of Elektra signaled the end of cheerier, colorful superheroines. DC's Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, part-superhero, part-Alice in Wonderland, enjoyed an initial blip of success, then cascaded to cancellation. (Syndicated TV's animated She-Ra: Princess of Power [1985–1988] experienced a similar fate.) Marvel's pre-teen supergroup Power Pack also contained two girls in its cast. Like Amethyst, Power Pack was critically embraced, but did not connect commercially with an audience large enough to sustain its publication (though it hung on for seven years, an impressive feat in an increasingly depressed market).
Conversely, superheroines with a darker edge netted higher returns. Marvel's Dagger, of the team Cloak and Dagger, attacked evildoers with piercing shards of light. Spider-Man soon cavorted with the Black Cat (not the original Harvey character), a naughty but vivacious thief, and the Invisible Girl was liberated to the Invisible Woman, and temporarily became a supervillainess named Malice. While Marvel's 1980s superheroines got tougher, so did women in the real world: Self-defense classes were the rage.
During the 1980s some fans accused DC Comics of misogyny due to its treatment of its superheroines. Supergirl was killed (beaten to death, incidentally), Wonder Woman was erased from existence in 1986 (but was resurrected the next year), Black Canary was criminally assaulted in Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (1987), and Batgirl was debased and crippled by the psychotic villain the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Other DC superheroines became decoration, like Fire and Ice in the pages of Justice League America, important more for sex appeal than story substance.
In 1992 Michelle Pfeiffer's mesmerizing turn as Catwoman in director Tim Burton's Batman Returns popularized the concept of a
bad girl heroine. Pfeiffer's Catwoman was fundamentally a villainess, but while her motivations were anti-heroic, her plight was sympathetic. Deep down she had a soft spot, questioning her actions against Batman as she fell for his true identity of Bruce Wayne. Her alter ego Selina Kyle was battered and abused, but as the sultry Catwoman she took charge, letting no man interfere with her goal—revenge against her male tormentor. Pfeiffer's pulchritude made Catwoman the sexiest screen character of the year. As Catwoman she carried the torch lit by Elektra and helped transform the superheroine: Superwomen could now have looks that kill, and the power to kill.
Post–Batman Returns, the comic-book business—which once avoided superheroines in starring roles—has produced dozens of titles with sexually exaggerated women in the lead (a survey of DC and Marvel comic-book titles published in September 2003 included a remarkable sixteen titles [not including superteams] starring women). Many have shamelessly parroted Elektra, even equipping their characters with knives, swords, and mystical gauntlets: Avengelyne, Glory, Cyblade, Witchblade, and Shi. Other such characters have fortified themselves with an arsenal: Ghost, Tank Girl, Shotgun Mary, Barb Wire, and Silver Sable. Still others use supernatural powers to stop or eradicate their foes: Lady Death, Darkchylde, and Vampirella (a mainstream-comics revival of the extraterrestrial blood-sucker from Warren Comics' legendary 1970s line of magazine-sized, ostensibly mature nonsuperhero titles). Not all contemporary superheroines kill, but some of them come dangerously close. Even Wonder Woman has developed a warrior's edge.
bad girl protagonists with martial-arts mastery have transcended comics into mass-media omnipresence. Video games are filled with them, most notably Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame. Sexy
action heroines have replaced the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Bruce Willis action hero archetype in 2000s cinema. These action heroines are not superheroines in the strictest sense of the word, but—thanks to wires and special-effects wizardry—they display spellbinding feats of superheroics: Witness Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu in the Charlie's Angels movies; Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider film franchise; Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in The Matrix series; Uma Thurman as a vengeful bride in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004); and Halle Berry, stepping beyond her Storm role to upstage James Bond as Jinx in Die Another Day (2002) and succeeding Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman (2004). Numerous live-action television series have featured
chicks who kick, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Dark Angel, and the comics-based Birds of Prey and Witchblade. Aggressive superheroines have also invaded the world of children's pop culture, particularly in the case of the Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls, who usually level the city of Townsville in their violent efforts to
Since the latter decades of the twentieth century, men (enlightened men, that is) have grown less threatened by the concept of powerful women. In the case of superheroines, titillation has been employed as an incentive to attract the support of males. Some comic-book covers featuring superheroines border on softcore pornography, with impossibly proportioned women in pin-up poses.
It has been said that the comics industry has given nothing to girls but misogynist sewage from the underdeveloped noggins of pig-eyed little men whose idea of a strong woman is 'She Who Can Bear the Weight of Her Enormous Boobs', wrote Amazons! editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson in her introduction to Robbins' The Great Women Superheroes. Indeed, a subculture has developed that regards the superheroine as a sex object, attested to by a host of websites featuring photos of partially clad actresses in costumes.
Those extremes aside, superheroines have, like real-life women, clawed their way from subservience to prominence. Should future cultural climes alter the societal position of women, the characterization of superheroines will naturally follow.