Women and Comics: Coming in from the Cold

Pop culture is often where small battles play out in the larger culture war. Libraries have discovered comics -as a way to spur reading in young people and English second language readers- but so have the censors who see not a revival of creativity, but a challenge to the established bland infantility of the 50’s. Comics are often attacked, even some of the ones mentioned here, where I’ve tried to pick out the most progressive titles.

Comics are the offspring of a rapacious corporate culture and a free wheeling creative spirit. Their vitality continues to appeal to the marginalized in society despite, or perhaps because of, their function as a platform for marginal imaginings. Like weeds, they have found a way into the light.

Academics and pop historians have discovered this subject. I’ve especially been looking forward to The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by a top rank cultural historian, Jill LePore. After spending quite a while on the DPL waiting list to receive a copy, I’ve read her book. But I’ve discovered one thing while waiting: the subject is too large for one book. Delving into the history of women in comics led to a surprising amount of reading. LePore is actually weak in the history of comics; she limits her scope to a feminist history that includes WW. It’s a compelling tale, but all of the surprisingly large literature of comics history is needed to fill in a complete picture. It IS 70 years of pop culture history, after all.

I like posting about comics here for a few different reasons:

It allows me to post regularly about something not related to me and my own work, so there are usually more regular posts.

It taps me into a larger conversation about pop culture which is related to the culture wars, and thus to my experience in art.

It allows me to “think out loud” about the things I’m reading, which in turn helps me to process them.

And it forces me to get better at writerly skills such as citation, summarization, finding and organizing different sources, and editing.

It’s fun, of course- a nice escape from reading academic art theory and history, which I enjoy, but which is often intended for other academics, and clotted with jargon. I want to remain topical. Comics and graphics are related to the history of printmaking. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading about the medium’s history:

Comic Books and America, 1945-54, William W. Savage, Jr, University of Oklahoma Press. This is a lively academic reading of comics’ treatment of race, gender, and war in the cold war era, including the censorship movement. America’s paranoid, conformist post-war years are a watershed in every aspect of comics history: censorship movements infantilized comics and reinforced the cultural pressure on women to adopt “traditional” consumerist housewife roles that had, in fact, never existed before. Mighty Wonder Woman stopped fighting for democracy and women’s superiority, and was shoehorned into a bizarre pseudo-family. Only Little Lulu fought back.

From Girls to Grrrlz, and Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896-2013, Trina Robbins, Chronicle Books and Fantagraphics: Curious hybrids that double as coffee table surveys and memoirs of Robbins’ own story of her role in the 2nd wave feminist efforts in comics’ underground/small press alternative publishing era in the 70’s and 80’s. There’s a nice overview of women’s long history both on and off the page, starting with the sentimental humor of turn of the century newspaper strips, then the sassy flapper era and war era adventures of female characters and their creators ( Pretty), and in her discussion of the teen and romance comics boom of the post war era ( Grrrlz), the inevitable domestication of women and their characters. Interestingly, this is about the time that women disappeared from the mainstream comics “bullpen”.

This is wrapped around a personal memoir of Robbins’ role in the alternative/underground comics movement of the 70’s-80’s. She played a significant role in the dawning of comics as a vehicle for personal/political expression for women (as they were for gays and other groups as well). It’s a good story, which she tells in both books, using many of the same examples. But Robbins is not big on interpretation; she lumps the giants who challenged assigned roles both on and off the page-Such as Tarpe Mills and Lily Renee-in with commercially successful, but ultimately sentimental figures as Grace Drayton. She also tends to ignore the mainstream houses after 1970. It lends the impression that the alternative comics are the apotheosis of the medium, a pretty thought- the alternatives certainly played a large role in opening up mainstream comics for different types of expression and creators beyond the usual adolescent power fantasy superhero tale told in the DC or Marvel house style. Their influence is celebrated in many posts here, and I made the same transition Robbins does as a reader. But given the small print runs, they don’t have much impact in the public at large, thus marring Robbins’ value as historical survey.

To get that story, one must refer to others, such as Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls. Madrid provides the only overview of women creators and characters from beginning to end in comic book history, centering mostly on mainstream publishers. While LePore and others focus on Wonder Woman’s roots in feminism, and Robbins on the feminist self-publishing and mini-comics of the underground/alternative years, only he links them all together, both on and off the pages. There is the excruciating, slow movement of the mass market comic book publishers toward less sexist characters, and more diverse creative teams, complete with much backsliding, e.g. the 90’s “bad girl” era of violent but hooter-licious superheroines intended for fan-boys, which even subsumed ( originally feminist) Wonder Woman.

These dark years also included the practice of “fridging”, or disposing of strong central female characters, often WAGs of central male characters, in a violent manner to facilitate cheap drama and plot transition. This is named after writer Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators blog which asked questions about “violence against fictional females” of male-dominated publishers and editorial teams for this heinous and sleazy fabulism. I happened across an interview of Simone in an old copy of The Comics Journal. It covered WIR, as well as her work as one of the first female writers at Marvel and DC, where she wrote iconic characters such as Wonder Woman and Superman.

Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Les Daniels, Bonanza. Helpful for his very hard hitting assessment of the Wertham anti-comics crusade that led to the mainstream publishers’ rather craven and mercenary establishment of the Comics Code Authority censorship program. This, and one presumes, the sudden absence of women in the creative sphere, led to a bizarre phenomenon in which characters became grouped into pseudo-families to alleviate the censorship pressures. Superman acquired a cousin/daughter figure in Supergirl, who had a super cat as well, and Wonder Woman bizarrely acted as mother/sister/grandmother to her OWN younger selves during the Kanigher years after her creator, feminist William Moulton Marston died. Her teen and toddler selves were transported through time to provide domestic plot ideas when popping bad guys, enjoying bondage and dominating her simpering boy friend, Steve, was no longer considered a good marketing strategy by DC.

Superman’s rather sadistic habit of “teaching” the nuptially-obsessed Lois Lane “a lesson” by humiliating her with elaborate ruses to counteract her even more elaborate ruses to prove her marriageability were mentioned by multiple authors here. His icy Closet- er, Fortress of Solitude predated Simone’s refrigerator as a way of dealing with inconvenient female characters. And Wertham noted that Batman, in order to “protect his secret identity”, lived only with his athletic young ward Robin.

Eventually, through the efforts of Robbins, Simone and many others, and in concert with the fresh ideas and greater creative power that the direct market brought to the industry, women have found an increasingly prominent place in comics. Alison Bechdel’s and Marianne Satrapi’s tales of personal struggles were a big part of comics’ entry into the bookstore market. This, and creator-owned publishers such as Image Comics has opened opportunities for female (and male) creators in the mainstream. I’ve reviewed comics here by fresh faces such as Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. I’ve also pointed out female characters, such as She Hulk, once slut-shamed mercilessly by her own writers, that transcend the super-babe-waiting-to-be-stuffed-into-a-refrigerator model.

 Many women (and men) in the burgeoning comics blogosphere have called out the industry on these issues. Here’s a  writer who challenges the long held assumptions about comics.   Gloria Steinem thought enough of her girlhood memories reading Wonder Woman to put her on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine.

I mentioned Jill LePore’s take on that iconic character I’ll post a second part of this piece separately.  The record-setting cinematic releases of iconic characters indicates they are relevant to our cultural narrative. It’s time to take the other half of these dreams and visions out of the deep freeze.

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