This spectacular sisterhood includes costumed crimebusters like Miss Fury, super-spies like Tiffany Sinn, sci-fi pioneers like Gale Allen, and even kid troublemakers like Little Lulu. With vintage art, publication details, a decade-by-decade survey of industry trends and women’s roles in comics, and spotlights on iconic favorites like Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen proves that not only do strong female protagonists belong in comics, they’ve always been there.
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Read an Excerpt
Hello, and welcome to the definitive guide to female representation in comics!
Wait, that’s not right . . .
Hello, and welcome to the most popular female characters in American and Canadian comics!
Hmm . . . still not quite it.
Hello, and welcome to the best female characters in comics?
Oh no, absolutely not.
Hello, and welcome to the weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics—for better or for worse.
Yes, now that’s it!
Female protagonists in the world of comics sure have come a long way. And not always in the direction you’d expect. We went from stories featuring Lois Lane, a capable female reporter who cared more about a sense of duty than determining the kissing skills of a dude who wore underwear over his tights to tales of Lois, now starry eyed, marrying said dude decades later. We went from an Amazon princess teaching our world about the power of peaceful resolution and feminist sisterhood to a solitary warrior who makes out with Superman. (What? It’s okay. He wasn’t married to Lois Lane anymore.)
Yet this is not a book telling you that things were better back then . . .
We have come a long way. We’ve gone from having 90 percent of comics created by white men to a thriving industry of comics in all sorts of formats created by all sorts of people. And that’s changing the characters we grow up with and love dearly—for the better. Today we don’t just have comics about romance, or adventures, or superheroes, but also comics about the absurdities of daily life, the politics of surviving, and the vast diversity of people who are more representative of the world we live in than ever before. All of these changes are necessary and noteworthy.
We’ve also gone from being able to find comics only on racks in drugstores to venturing into a wide range of weird and wonderful shops and conventions to score our monthly installments. Graphic novels now take their rightful place in bookstores, and webcomics are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And through the beauty of crowdfunding platforms, the power of publishing has migrated directly into the hands of comics creators of all kinds.
But along with all these advances, I fear we may be forgetting our history. We often fail to mention and honor all the amazing comics that have been made, comics that fought the status quo. We forget the history of subversive comics from decades past. We forget the trends in comics that defined each decade and entertained our parents, our grandparents, and, for some of you young’uns, your great-grandparents. We forget the long history of passionate female fans who have been fighting for respect since the beginning of the medium. We forget the female creators who gritted their teeth and rolled their eyes while playing in the boys’ club; refusing to give up, they pushed up their sleeves and went to work all the same.
This book is a history of comics, though it’s not a definitive one. It’s told through female characters not only because they’re easily lost to the sands of time, but also because they’re usually much more interesting than their male counterparts. In no other comics history book will you find characters like Maureen Marine, an underwater preteen princess; Starlight the brave Huron warrior; Pudge, Girl Blimp, fighting to find her identity in 1960s San Francisco; Sindi Shade, a punk-rock rebel in a dystopian future; or Bitchy Bitch, a straw feminist parody. But you’ll find them here.
These characters represent the many and varied changes the industry has gone through since the rise of the comic book in the 1940s. In these pages you’ll find superpowered heroes in tights, plucky girl reporters, scantily clad bad girls, polyamorous florists, sexy horror hosts, and many more. You’ll read about characters whose stories highlight the trends of their times, with special attention to those most likely to be forgotten, along with spotlights on a few who fought tooth and nail to remain well known.
These characters are here to guide you through the past eight decades of confusing, maddening, and entertaining comics history.
So come, let’s start at the very beginning . . .
The 1930s: Birth of an Industry
Sequential visual storytelling has existed for centuries, so the birth of comics cannot be traced back to a specific event. The line between illustrated stories and comic books is blurry, with comics gradually becoming a distinct storytelling format over a decades-long process. Comic books—that is, bundled pages of sequential art—date back to at least the mid-1800s. But it was in the 1930s that Superman debuted, and with that appearance came a raging excitement for comic books that solidified both the comics medium and the superhero genre (the two are inextricably intertwined).
Many of the first comic books were born from newspaper comic strips. Little Lulu was one, and her adventures were simple yet profound: she was a spunky forthright girl who took no flak from anyone. Other comics characters came from the opposite end of the medium—instead of being drawn from all-ages family-friendly comic strips, they started in the seedy underbelly of pulp anthologies. Action-adventure, science-fiction, Western, and crime comics all sprang from the pages of pulp magazines and later became staple genres of comic books produced by publishers like Marvel and DC. In the pulps you could read prose stories next to strips starring such characters as Olga Mesmer, Sally the Sleuth, Diana Daw, Polly of the Plains, and Betty Blake. Few of these characters made the transition to full-blown comics. (The exception was Sally the Sleuth, and it took her almost twenty years to do so.) The sources may have been salacious, but surprisingly they did have a moral code. Artists were not allowed to depict fully nude women or men, but naked female corpses were okay (hey, we’re not saying it was a good moral code).
On the even seedier side of that spectrum were the crudely drawn “Tijuana bibles” passed around in men’s clubs. These featured favorite comic characters, everybody from Blondie to Dick Tracy, involved in detailed sexual activities. This was the NC-17 fanfiction, if you will, of the 1930s.
After the premiere of Superman in Action Comics #1, in 1938, the single-issue comics format (previously relegated to detective stories, wholesome adventure comics, and newspaper reprints) exploded in popularity. Soon comic books of all genres were available on newsstands. Each issue typically featured a varied selection of adventures, evidence that every publisher was looking for that magical character that kids would cling to. And yes, many of these characters were women. In Amazing Man, we meet Super Ann, endowed with the power of ten men! Other comics had heroes like Neptina, a sometimes cruel undersea queen! Flyin’ Jenny, aerial ace! And of course Sheena, Queen of the Jungle! In the 1930s, before comics had a chance to cement themselves into genres, female characters enjoyed a variety of careers and roles.
About the women who worked in comics during this decade, little is known. However, we do know that some creators, such as Jackie Ormes, the creator of Torchy Brown (page 20), were getting their start.
The 1930s also saw the beginnings of fan conventions, which were not yet comics focused but were connected mostly to science fiction. Women were active in this community, as organizers, essay writers, and fans. Myrtle Douglas, aka Morojo, was a well-known fanzine editor and designer of some of the first costumes for fan conventions. She’s sometimes called “the mother of cosplay” for her role in encouraging and promoting fan culture and engagement. Bottom line: although comics had been around for a while, the 1930s saw the birth of the industry in a chaotic and varied form. And women as creators, fans, and characters were there right from the start.
The Magician from Mars
Predating Miss Fury, Fantomah, Wonder Woman, and most better-known superheroines, Jane 6EM35 is a sci-fi hero in the far future. Born to a human mother and a Martian father, she might have been just like any other half-Martian child were it not for an incident that occurred shortly after her birth. A nurse exposed the infant to cathode rays, causing Jane’s genes to mutate and granting her special powers: anything she wishes for appears out of thin air.
In addition to wishing stuff into existence, Jane also possesses incredible strength, fantastic intelligence, immortality, and (of course) eternal youth and beauty. Though she can have anything in the world, her greatest desire—to visit her mother’s homeland of Earth—remains out of reach. Her aunt forbids it and Jane can’t bring herself to disobey her dear, sweet, elderly aunt . . . until her aunt locks her in a steel room. Then Jane says, “Well, I guess that’s enough of that,” steals a rocket ship, and gets the heck out of Martian-Dodge.
In her first adventure, Jane saves an entire spaceship, steals all its gold, and sends the haul to Earth, specifically to aid a renowned pediatrician and his quest to cure infant paralysis. (Though truth be told she keeps a little gold for herself so she can live comfortably. I mean, she’s not Superman; she doesn’t want to work for a living.) Exploring her new world, Jane helps the less fortunate, catches suicide jumpers in midair, halts air-trains from derailing, stops runaway bulls, and gives lectures to unethical criminals everywhere. She knows the difference between a desperate man driven to rob (and turns his life around with a gift of money) and a corrupt politician exploiting the working class (whose only gift from Jane is a sock in the kisser). But at times she still acts pettily: when an irate hotel guest demands ink for his pen, an annoyed Jane fills the lobby with ink.
When the Magician from Mars was created, standards for comic book superheroes had not yet been established. If these characters were a form of wish fulfillment, why not have a hero who possesses every possible superpower? These were, after all, the days before Superman had his kryptonite weakness. Of course, even Superman didn’t have the godlike powers of Jane 6EM35. She soon found herself fighting increasingly powerful enemies; in one tale Jane conquers the literal embodiment of fear with the power of song. When Earth can no longer contain enough adventures, Jane sets off into space in pursuit of the scientific genius villain named the Hood, the one person powerful enough to defeat Jane. Who is revealed to be . . . her own elderly aunt!
The Magician from Mars was crudely drawn and scripted, but as a series it holds a great deal of charm and wish fulfillment. This action-packed comic is absolutely ridiculous, and awfully fun.
ESSENTIAL READING: You can follow Jane’s final adventure in the reprint collection Divas, Dames & Daredevils (Exterminating Angel Press, 2013).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I’ll admit that my interest in comics is relatively recent. By that, I mean that I jumped on the wagon around the time The Avengers movie came out, and by Deadpool, I was hooked. What I noticed as I browsed the shelves were the prevalence of males/heroes, and I asked myself: what roles did women play - both as characters and as developers and illustrators - in the comic industry? Were there more archetypes than Wonder Woman and Betty & Veronica? I’m happy to say it’s a resounding yes on that last one, folks. The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen by Hope Nicholson is a comprehensive reference book that is a must-read! Nicholson dives era by era, and we discover the trends of the decade, who was working behind the scenes, and what women were doing, facing and saving in their story lines. After each section, Nicholson also tells us where to find reprints of comics (digital or print) so we can see these ladies in action. But it’s not all positives for comics - we have a long way to go in having comics target diverse audiences and in doing so, broadening their scope. But there’s a silver lining for Nicholson: “...this decade’s readers - especially the younger generation - are clamoring for the pages to reflect the diversity they see in their lives, in their social media feeds, and in the mirror.” I urge any comic enthusiast - or simply someone with a passing interest in feminine roles in an important part of literature - would gladly immerse themselves between the pages of this book. You’ll find yourself coming back just to learn. And isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do?