Women in the Golden Age of Comics
The Golden Age was the time from 1930s to the 1940s and where women developed their role in comics, which would impact later women roles in comics. This time was truly golden for the comics as they had evolved from comic strips though during this era, women in comics weren’t really people with super abilities. These girls’ powers were successful careers, girls who were involved in romance stories or perky teenagers who were dreaming of guys. Comics during this time were developing themes, such as the lone woman taking care of children and filling in her husband’s jobs (think World War II).
Comics were also discovering new genres, like romance, action, mystery and crime, humor and teen-themed. The diversity was dwindling during the 50s because new mediums of entertainment were being invented. For example, the radio was very popular as radio was a free way of getting their daily dose of fiction. The fact the Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocents was released had accused comics for being responsible for the anti-social behavior. In reaction to that, the Comics Code was imposed, and thus began the dwindling of sales regarding comics. However, there were three types of characters for women in comics and they were:
Career Orientated Girls
With the use of women in comics during the Golden Age, the career-type character were usually females looking for work, but not work that women usually did during World War I. Instead of making weapons for the war effort, they would be portrayed as looking for work as a secretary, nurse or sometimes a teacher. Such characters were Millie the Model and Nellie the Nurse. Women looking for work as a secretary etc. was quite a big thing, as being employed was one thing, being paid the same rate as men was another.
The second role, which was the romance archetype, had two roles. They could either be the Bad or Good Girl.
- The Good Girl would usually have their heart broken or end up in a true romantic relationship.
- The Bad Girl always broke the boys’ hearts.
Plots involved with these characters could either that the Good Girl finds true love and gets married while the Bad Girl tries to be good, but fails and goes back to her wild ways.
Perky Teenager Role
The perky teenager roles were taken by characters such as Betty and Veronica from the Archie comics. They could be fun-loving and crazy teenagers (and sometimes stupid) as both of them spent all their time fighting over Archie. Josie from Josie and the Pussycats was also like this, involving her bands in strange adventures but always making it through.
Women as Superheroes in Comics
The first known female superhero was a minor character called Fantomah by writer/artist Fletcher Hanks. Fantomah was an immortal Egyptian woman who could turn into a skull-faced creature with superpowers who would fight evil. Her first appearance was in Fiction House’s Jungle Comics #2 which was released in February 1940. Another character who was highly influential was Invisible Scarlet O'Neil who fought crime using the power of invisibility and debuted on June 3, 1940 in a newspaper comic strip. Antiheroes were also used, as Black Widow (not to be confused with Marvel’s Black Widow) who was an emissary of Satan and killed criminals and sent them back to Hell. A popular female superhero was Wonder Woman who was created by William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth and she debuted in All Star Comics #8. He created Wonder Woman because he wanted a positive role model for girls around the world as he wrote in an article about comic books:
"America's woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip. By this, I mean a character with all the allure of an attractive woman, but with the strength also of a powerful man. There isn't enough love in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. What women presently lack is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love diaries. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force, but kept her loving. It is my hope to make this strip as appealing to adults as it has proved to kids.”
Marston was the writer for the first Wonder Woman comics, and he had written her as a woman with natural leadership skills, though he had always portrayed them with the themes of bondage. In one issue, she went mad because her bracelets had been broken, and the bracelets represented restraint and said that “power without self-control tears a girl to pieces.”
The World War II theme was fading away and publishers wanted to appeal to a wider variety of audiences. Since Wonder Woman, there would be Miss America, Sun Girl, Blonde Phantom, the revival of Phantom Lady and Black Canary. Female characters in comics then started wearing costumes such as the Woman in Red, who was a police officer and the Phantom Lady, who wore a green (and then red) cape. During World War II, women had to take up jobs that were usually taken up by men, such as arms making, truck driving and welders. The reason why women were employed to take up these jobs was because of the war effort. Women wouldn’t have originally been able to take up these jobs. Once the men returned home from war, the women refused to give up this, as they felt having a job was liberating and this created very vague definitions of masculinity and femininity. This new type of role in women created the 'femme fatale', who was a sexually aggressive woman. One such example is a comic character called The Spirit. She was someone who always wanted to avenge herself by the means of blackmail.
Women in the Silver Age of Comics
The Silver Age’s time frames were the 60s and the 70s and a popular comic genre was romance comics. During this time, were published that if you liked one, you would stick to it. If you wanted a classic 40s feel of superheroes, you were with DC, and if you wanted fast-paced action, you were with Marvel. There were still comics being published this time that could have been published to target girls and women, but few of them were being published by women. The beginning of the 60s would be a renewal of the target audience for comics, as DC had started the ball rolling but would be later known as the Marvel Revolution in 1961 where comics were published specifically for teenage boys.
After the Comic Code, DC had its own code about women in comics. Here is an example of what was stated: “The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.”
During the Silver Age, women always had some kind of connection with the hero’s alter ego. For example, Lois Lane worked with Clark Kent (Superman). Carol Ferris (Star Sapphire) was Green Lantern’s boss andIris West was the on-off girlfriend of Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen. Even when Wonder Woman was starting out she wasn't very popular at first during her comics but when she became an animated character she wasn't taken very seriously. In the Super Friends her main job was to use the Invisible Jet to take the men to their destinations.
In the 1950s, Batman’s character family would expand. That would be the popular beginnings for such characters like Ace The Bat-Hound, but two female characters would join: Vicki Vale, who was basically Lois Lane and Batwoman. She burst onto the scene during the 50s also known as Kathy Kane and the first response she gets from a male bad guy is “Ha-ha! What can she do?” Another super heroine called the Black Cat was someone on a motorbike, and there also many lines of what feminists would call sexist.
Burglar: "There’s only two of them. The girl doesn’t count.”
Robin: "A girl saving you? It’s ridiculous!”
Batman: "This is no place for a girl.”
Batwoman: "How could any woman ever equal the great Batman?”
Another prominent female character was Carol Ferris who played Hal Jordan’s (Green Lantern) boss. This was quite different, as the woman was in charge of the man. Hal Jordan tried many times to date her, but she rejected his advances and she always thought of business first as quoted here from Showcase #22 in 1959.
"You heard what dad said. I've got to satisfy his faith in me - and that means that during the next two years, I'll have absolutely no time for romance! I'm your boss Hal Jordan and that's orders."
Ferris was also a superheroine and took up the role of Star Sapphire to fight Green Lantern. A strategy she planned was to weaken Green Lantern so much that she would then propose to him. Star Sapphire unmakes Green Lantern, and he promises to marry her. With his ring, he reads her mind and realizes that she is Carol Fenris. He then erases her mind so that he can put off the marriage.
When Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics, the use of women in comics were more common and one of the first ones to be used was the Susan Storm, better known as Invisible Girl (or Invisible Woman) from theFantastic Four. Most of the time, the female roles were powerful ones but were usually influential in terms of evil. For example, the Wasp would always romantically advance with Henry Pym, but he would always reject her advances as he had a very fatherly tone. Those two characters became important roles in the Marvel Universe, but during their first appearances, they would be seen as women trying to gain equality.
With the Invisible Girl, her early adventures always had the feel of romance and when she meets Prince Namor, he asks for her hand in marriage and if she agrees, he will never attack on land again. She unwillingly agrees, and he feels as if she is just sacrificing herself. The rest of the Fantastic Four show up and Namor goes back to the sea from the lack of backup.
Invisible Girl’s brother, Johnny Storm who is known as the Human Torch and finds a photograph of Namor and both struggle to get the picture when Johnny decides to burn it. After that, Namor attempts to enter the Baxter Building and the Human Torch attacks him, but Invisible Girl stands in front of Namor and this romantic tension would define the image of Invisible Woman during the early years of Marvel.
Another example of romantic tension was the love triangle between Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops) and Warren Worthington III (a.k.a. Angel, now known as Angel) and Jean Grey when she goes to college.
Women in the Spider-Man comics were also very prominent, as the notable ones were Mary Jane Watson, Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy. A romantic tension that would appear was the appearance of MJ Parker who made Gwen Stacy jealous at a party. At the party they were to hand out burgers but instead they held a dancing competition.
With the Bronze Age, the women roles were taken further with the ability to creatively bring out the equality in women, with little things like changing names to such things as a whole new change in them, whether it is physically or mentally.
In the 1980s, writer-artist John Bryne had found new powers for Sue Storm. Not only were they powers as in her super abilities, but her personality-wise as well, where she developed a new found sense of confidence and with that she started using her powers more aggressively.
She then changed from Invisible Girl to Invisible Woman to show that she was now a mature woman, who was capable in making it on her own. She could now turn other people around her invisible, and could generate force fields that could pretty much stop anything. Jean Grey was perhaps the first to make a major transformation.
During the Bronze Age, she was romantically involved with Cyclops, but also had to deal with the advances from Wolverine. Jean Grey was then formed into the Phoenix and with that, it was a sign of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was a metaphoric sign that women were growing stronger each day.
Men usually led the team. For example, Mr. Fantastic who was the leader for the Fantastic Four and Cyclops who was the leader of the on-field team of X-Men.
With time, Invisible Woman and the Wasp would chair the teams. With that, Marvel added more to it, by adding many different nationalities. One team member called Ororo Munroe, better known as Storm was the first African-American to be recruited in X-Men eventually succeeded Cyclops and would join Monica Rambeau, the second Captain Marvel as minorities in leadership positions. Ororo is highly respected and is a dependable person on the X-men and also highly regarded by Professor Xavier.
With more time, women were gaining more and more important roles in comics. One example was Steve Gerber with his comic Howard the Duck which starred and Jennifer Kale in the Man-Thing. In Howard the Duck, Beverly talks Howard out of committing suicide and she is much like a mother towards Howard as his friendship with her was invaluable, helping him to cope of Earth because of that. Jennifer was made a prominent role, because she was the only human on Earth who had a psychic connection with Man-Thing.
Even though they both have strong roles, they are still portrayed as sex objects and victims. For example, Beverly makes ends meet by posing nude and her beauty usually gets her into trouble, one example is being capture by Dr. Bong who was obsessed with her during their teen years. This obsession allows Dr. Bong crave her even more and he soon wants to marry her and she marries him anyway in order to save Howard. Beverly was also captured by a sheik and Howard must save her. With Jennifer, she steals an enchanted book and accidentally summons a demon. Man-Thing manages to rescue her, and Jennifer manages to burn the book. Jennifer then apologizes for her behavior.
More and more readers during this time were very connected socially with their favorite characters and this allows the characters to seem as they exist in real life. Due to the development of women in comics, it produced various effects, especially in this time. There were still many strong portrayals of women and they were getting their own titles. One of them was Ghost from Dark Horse comics and Supergirl from DC.
However, it was common that sex was still used to women comics as Ed Benes as come under scrutiny for providing skimpy outfits for Supergirl and Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows where they had strong female characters, but used skimpy outfits at the same time. The bad girl trend would also continue, but soon met their end. They were still quite popular with the character Riptide from Image Comics posing nude for men’s magazines and she was dismissed from her team, Team Young Blood in issue #14.
They continued with Gen, which was another popular comic series from the same publisher and the characters would usually appear in skimpy outfits holding guns.
It would continue in the next 10 years with examples such as Barb Wire from Dark Horse comics, Lady Death from Chaos! Comics and Mantra from the Malibu Universe and DC was even having their take on this trend. Like mentioned before, this trend came to a halt by the time the speculator market crashed. Sexually suggestive characters were then used by Marvel Comics as characters like Invisible Woman (Fantastic Four #375) and Scarlet Witch (Scarlet Witch #1) started to wear revealing outfits and She-Hulk was skipping with a jump-rope nude in The Sensational She-Hulk #40.
The most prominent of them all is perhaps the White Queen, better known as Emma Frost. She was always drawn in lingerie-like costumes, and she treated the people around her quite sadistically. At DC, Mike Deodato's run as an artist with Wonder Woman was known for having the Amazons in skimpy clothing (and the fact that all the Amazons were portrayed as Caucasian).
The issue of body image was gained from today’s modern society, where many women in popular culture have been accused to altering the way people (girls in particular) should look and with that, it connects itself to gender identity.
One character who had broken out of the “popular culture mold” was Francine Peters from Strangers in Paradise who had a round face with a bit of fat under her chin. Her body was portrayed as chubby, as she had wide and round hips and her stomach was not flat nor did it have any abs, as most female characters were portrayed. She was objectified as being unattractive in her teenage years but following high-school her curve were seen as an asset by a number of her fellow characters ad her fuller figure made her an object of desire, even if she herself was not completely happy with it.
Trina Robbins had given her approval on it in a zine called From Girls to Grrrlz: a History of Women’s Comics that was published in 1999, by saying she was “pleasingly plump” and is very far from the usual templates which most comic artists use.
Another example is in Smallville where Clark Kent sees other people laughing at an overweight girl and calling her “Marge the Barge” because she does not have a date for the formal, so she rejects Lana Lang’s invitation and asks Marge out. At first, Marge rejects him because she thinks that Clark is only asking her out because he feels sorry for her and she tells him that after the dance, she will gone. Clark interprets this as if she is going to commit suicide. He then sees her stand on the edge of a bridge and yells at her to jump. After the confusion, Clark finds out that she will be gone to college due to an early admission. Clark eventually takes her to the homecoming and with some help from Lana Lang, Clark and Marge becoming the homecoming couple but sadly, Marge is hit by a drunk driver on the same bridge she was standing on and the driver ran her over because he was not made homecoming king.
The use of women in comics as sexual objects has been satirized where writer-artist Jhonen Vasquez had featured a tall, blonde, scantily clad, dumb super heroine in a comic called Squee! #2 where in the storyline, she has a hard time balancing herself because of her large bust and thin hips. Her career ends when she is tapped on the forehead and falls and breaks her spine, thus ending her career.
Also another example of how a woman in comics have been portrayed for her body image is Power Girl. Power Girl artwork was first done by Wally Wood who said that with each issue he would increase Power Girls breast. Eventually it was getting ridiculous of how large her breast had become to the point where DC didn't want to have Wally Wood to work on her issues anymore with DC saying that," it is becoming unrealistic of how big her chest has become", so since then they toned done her chest even though it is still rather large . In Justice League#37, Crimson Fox attempts to explain Power Girls outfit by saying that her outfit shows people what she is. "Female. Healthy. Strong. If men want to degrade themselves by staring and drooling and tripping over themselves, that's their problem, I'm not going to apologize for it."
With the 21st century, more and more people are opening to things which were probably taboos 50 years ago, and these include same-sex relationships, single parenting and positions of power in the workplace which have been used to define where women stand in today’s society. With that, they have been included in themes of comics.
Lesbian relationships have become more prominent. One such example is Destiny and Mystique from the X-Men, where they adopt Rogue and Nightwing as their children. (more about Mystique here)
Wonder Woman has also been speculated as being a lesbian, as there have been many subtle clues, but the most obvious one is probably where she lives, where Paradise Island is completely inhabited by women. This may prove that Wonder Woman is a lesbian, as this runs parallel to the Spartans, where boys, who were at a very young age, were to live away from their families and live in same-sex barracks (more about Wonder Woman here).
Again the series Strangers in Paradise explored the themes of same sex desire between Francine and Katchoo. Katchoo is lesbian (she has a very bad history with men but whether this informs her preference is never discussed) but Francine is not. Francine loves her friend greatly in a platonic fashion and feels impelled to respond but her religious up-bringing are a barrier to this and a love triangle forms.
There have also been some speculation of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy to have something of a sexual relationship since it is portrayed by Bruce Timm in his drawings. It is also said that Poison Ivy is like DC’s version of Mystique from Marvel in which Poison Ivy uses her looks to manipulate men and women into doing her biding. (more about Poison Ivy here)
Another person who has been suspected of being a lesbian is Renee Montoya, also known as the Lady Question. She has been portrayed in comics to have something of a lesbian relationship.
She has been seen kissing and is suspected of sleeping with women in some of the drawings that are depicted of her. Now more and more characters are found being suspected of such relationships and there isn't anything else that is being shown besides that. More about Montoya can be found here.
Women in Refrigerators
A term used to define a woman who was killed off. See Women in Refrigerators.
This issue also becomes more prominent, where Jessica Jones is the wife of Power Man leaves the U.S. out of fear for the Civil War and goes to live in Toronto.
The Black Canary also gives up her career of being a super heroine in order to raise her newly adopted child and she seems clearly devoted as she says “It’s more important for me to be faithful to you, and that means getting you away from all the costumes and crazies.
See, the mistake mom was afraid I’d repeat was that I wouldn’t spend enough time with my own kid,” in issue #100 which was published in 2007.
Good and Bad Girl Role
There have been “Good and Bad Girl” roles, where each of them have had different traits, visually and their origin stories, just as examples.
Good Girl Role
A large contrast can be made between the good and bad girl roles. Where the Bad Girls were mainly portrayed as women with attitude, Good Girls could be seen as having a strong spirit. Where the Bad Girls dress with revealing clothing, the Good Girls dress with the provocative sexiness of the 40s. The Bad Girls were usually avengers (much like the super villain archetype) and the Good Girls were adventuresses, heroines, sidekicks or girls who just happen to find trouble in their wake. Most of the Good Girls were usually super heroines, but also came from other genres.
Examples of the Good Girls were Lady Luck and the Phantom Lady. Another example of a Good Girl was Sheena, who was created in 1937 where she was to do a knock-off with Tarzan. But rather than doing a knock-off, she was then included in Tarzan’s storylines where she took the lead role. Her character was artistic, beautiful and smart and was a natural leader. She rescued men and had a male sidekick. Basically, it was the other way around.
The Phantom Lady also enjoyed being a lead character as a female in comics and was published by two different companies. The Phantom Lady was owned by studio and not the publisher, like many of the spin-offs by Jerry Iger and she was dropped by Quality. Fox bought her and she was in a new costume. With Quality, her costume was a backless yellow leotard with a green cape. With Fox, she wore a blue-halter top and tap pants which were also blue and a red cape. With both companies, she carried a “black light” which was like a flashlight but it projected darkness instead of light. She wore no mask yet she was not unrecognizable by her boyfriend who was a detective. The Fox version of Lady Phantom was drawn by Matt Baker. He had drawn Sky Girl and Mysta of the Moon. He was known to draw them as beautiful, strong and independent and he had lots of detail in them. His characters were glamorous, but also had sense of realism which people could relate to. He also drew Phantom Lady in flat shoes rather than high heels, adding a sense of realism.
However, Phantom Lady’s was infamous at one point, due to Dr. Frederic Wertham use, as he used her comic covers as an example of sexual bondage in his book Seduction of the Innocent though it is true that she is tied up thanks to Matt Baker’s art. In comics, there is always conflict between the good and the evil. The good always defeats the evil, though if that is so, then the suspense and adventure is lost, so, the villain must win sometimes to keep the story going. So, for the evil to win, they must somehow capture the good guy, as opposed to killing the good guy which will obviously end the story. Seeing as anything involved with a woman must be sexual subconsciously, her confinement is bondage. If the villain had beaten her, it would be considered “graphic sexual violence” and if the villain was a woman, the bondage or sexual violence becomes lesbian bondage.
In the case of art, the Good Girl had a great deal of sex appeal with the women featured, but the view of these comics which has been portrayed as sexy would perhaps be the views from its readers, which can be compared below.
Looking at the first picture of Phantom Lady, it is revealing, but compared to the second one it is not much. With this picture, there is no cleavage what-so-ever and half of the both of her thighs are covered up.
It is more revealing here and this is much sexier than the first one and the second one is usually used in modern comics today where the cover is spiced up than they are portrayed in the comic themselves. There is cleavage showing and a bit has been cut out on the sides of her body. There are also slits on her very short skirt. On the cover, there is also rope tied around her wrist, again, making a reference to the confinement of women in comics and how it is usually portrayed.
The third picture, it is even skimpier with a V-neck that plunges all the way down to her waste and her bottom half of clothing is almost like a piece of cloth.
However, the portrayal and popularity of Good Girls was due to the fact of the audience where they were a wide variety of people, where in the modern comics, the majority of the audience is based on male teenage readers. On the other hand, Lady Phantom wouldn’t have dressed like that if she were only to appeal to female audiences. Other characters like Sheena were created for general audiences as she was an elaboration on the Tarzan theme. She may have been revealing, but then Tarzan himself was just as revealing. When we think of the early 1900s, we usually think where men ruled, but certain characters’ traits made them original and different, such as their man-like strengths and alluring looks. Of course, there were story lines where the woman, who was sexy and alluring, would base her dependency only on the men, where they would have to save them from the villain. Sometimes the hero would receive an award and sometimes usually more than just a reward. But there were also strong portrayals of men and they too were attractive and popular.
Bad Girl Role
Come to the 1990s where there was a huge contrast from the 1940s, where the costumes there weren’t as skimpy and revealing, and the woman’s intentions were always good. So does someone go about defining Bad Girls?
They can often be women who have been abused during their childhood or had their parents killed and now seek vengeance in their sexually revealing, skimpy and provocative outfits. By revealing, skimpy and provocative outfits, it was usually a few strips of clothing and they would wield a sharp weapon.
Their art had reminded readers of theological or occult origins, such as demons, angels and vampires. Their art also had drawn women with breasts as big as their heads, long thighs (or legs in general), long spines and leg bones shaped like an “S”.
The archetypal Bad Girl type is Lady Death who is usually credited as the character that started or at least popularised the trend.
Avengelyne isn’t an extreme example of the Bad Girl role, though she still has the same traits such as wielding a bladed weapon and revealing clothing. The Bad Girls weren’t such a new phenomenon but with their extremity is what caused a bit of a stir. Looking back twenty years, Vampirella and Elektra we can see traits from the Bad Girls (both have also become modern Bad Girls too).
Vampirella, as a vampire was a heroic figure rather than a dark one. She lived on the planet of Drakulon, where it was very dark with river that was filled with blood. She was dressed with revealing clothing, though she posed with some cheesecake poses back in the 40s than an avenger.
As a guest star in Daredevil, Elektra had many things in common with the Golden Age Catwoman as they were both villains and had romantic ties with the heroes in their comics. Elektra being created in the 80s had ambiguous morals. She was a cold-blooded killer, an assassin yet when she died at the end of her story-arc, readers felt a sense of loss. She was a woman in which Daredevil could love and we could predict the sort of love life she would have. Lots of comic book characters become resurrected, but that would only cheapen Elektra’s come back. So Frank Miller completely did a full blown makeover of her resurrection with a dark ritual in a torn down church and thus bringing the dark aspects of the Bad Girl role. Miller and his team-up with Bill Seinkewitz also brought out the violent aspect of comics. Elektra’s resurrection was seen as something new because the writers used aspects from images and techniques rather than traditional comic book characters. Modern Bad Girls today are perhaps not as innovative today. They may be more profane and excessive, but they have little choices in the directions in which they go.
Birds of Prey
DC's Birds of Prey is an all female crime fighting team. It originally consisted of Oracle, Barbara Gordon of former Bat Girl fame. Black Canary aka Dinah Lance, daughter of the original Black Canary. Their personalities clashed at time but they would quickly become best friends.
Black Canary one day is ensnared in a trap and Oracle is forced to call in Huntress in as the rescuer. Eventually, this act would lead to the three forming the core of the group. They first operated out of Gothams Clock Tower. When that was destroyed they where forced to move to Metropolis. That's when they would acquire Lady Black Hawk as there fourth staple.
The Team was expanded to more members at one time including Big Barda, Hawk Girl, Gypsy, Judomaster, Katana, Infinity, & Manhunter officially. At one time they even let three men join Savant, Creote, & Hawk. Black Canary's mentor Wildcat, would also help when ever needed. Oracle would disband the Birds of Prey though right after the Death of Batman, her mentor.
Now that Batman is back though, Barbara has seen fit to bring back the Bird's of Prey. They are now confronted by a new and unknown opponent White Canary.