Superheroes haven’t always dominated comics like they do today. The comic book format was introduced in 1933, but it wasn’t until 1937 when Superman debuted and started the superhero craze. Many of following heroes of the early 1940’s were wealthy and renowned. This held true for the early super heroines like Phantom Lady, who were often rich socialites who donned the super heroine identity in order to cut loose a bit.
Sandra Knight as Phantom Lady in 1947
Once the groundwork was laid for the super-heroine community, a number of super girlfriends popped up. Several male heroes had shared their secret identities with their sweethearts (who often fell into damsel in distress roles). When Hawkman needs help on a mission he creates a female version of his own costume and his girlfriend Shiera joins him as his sidekick. She takes a bullet on her first mission. More super girlfriends were to follow, each was a watered down, female version of their male counterpart. Flame and Flamgirl. Bulletman and Bulletgirl. Rocketman and Rocketgirl. Doll Man and Doll Girl. Am I noticing a pattern here?
Post World War II saw a decline in the popularity of superhero comics. Many of the heroes popular during the war were based on the war itself. Heroes like Spy Smasher who had worked diligently to fight the Nazis now found themselves without a mission. Many of these heroes and heroines faded into obscurity as other genres took over the comic book industry. Women in superhero comics mainly were used for their sex appeal.
Black Canary: one of the post WWII beauty queens to hit comic stands.
That is until Fredric Wortham wrote his Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. The book condemned comics as wholly inappropriate devices that corrupted the minds of the youth who read them. The result was the Comics Code Authority which mandated, among other things, that women not be drawn disproportionately and that they cover. Anything overtly sexual was removed. Since many of the women in superhero comics at that point had little going for them besides their sexuality, leading ladies like Phantom Lady and Sheena met their downfall and faded from the pages of comics.
The women who remained in comics were primarily the love interests of male superheroes like Batwoman and Bat-Girl for Batman and Robin. Or Lois Lane and her L.L. initialed rivals for Superman. These ladies fawned after their heroes who often kept them more or less at arm’s length. And they also had a knack for becoming damsels in distress.
Characters like Bat-Girl and Batwoman were introduced to dodge allegations of homosexuality between Batman and Robin.
Superhero comics finally began to gain back some ground in the late 1950’s. Heroes who had been buried at the end of the Golden Age of comics (the post WWII slump) were revamped and reintroduced. As the 1960’s began a lot of new faces began appearing in comics, especially as Marvel comics was really breaking into the top ranks of the industry. This was the era of the super teams. And each team had a token female member. Wonder Woman for the Justice League. Elasti-Girl for Doom Patrol. Invisible Girl for the Fantastic Four. Marvel Girl for the X-Men. And Wasp for the Avengers. With the exception of Elasti-Girl, these token females kept largely to more feminine tasks and even in action were portrayed as the weakest members of their teams.
An early Fantastic Four adventure. Note Invisible Girl is captured and in distress while her male comrades confidently assure her they are powerful enough to save her.
In 1966 Batgirl (not to be confused with the more ridiculous Bat-Girl) was added to the then popular Batman television show. She was later adapted to comics. Unlike most other women in comics, she wasn’t there to be a romantic interest of any male hero. She’s not even his sidekick and she doesn’t need his permission. Other heroines like Supergirl were also beginning to come into their own.
Barbra Gordon as Batgirl
The 1970’s saw more women and more powerful women. Some of the rising stars included Black Widow, Black Canary, Storm, Valkyrie, Scarlet Witch, and Ms. Marvel. The Comics Code Authority had begun to lose power and comics were becoming darker. That meant more sexualization and more skimpy outfits.
Comics continued to become darker in the 1980’s. Ms. Marvel was impregnated by rape. Wasp found herself the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband. Even youthful, innocent Kitty Pryde was nearly forced into a marriage with the ugly, sewer dwelling Caliban.
Batgirl is crippled by the Joker 1988
Elektra being impaled by a grinning Bullseye 1982
Hank Pym gives his wife Jan (Wasp) a black eye 1981
The trend of sexualization continued into the 1990’s. Smaller costumes. And bigger breasts. It got beyond ridiculous. As in body proportions that would make a Barbie look normal. And costumes that left nothing to the imagination.
Even Invisible Woman gets an edgier look for the 90’s.
And since then? I’m not sure we have enough hindsight to say yet. I think that women are still searching for their place in the world of superheroes. It’s still a man’s world. But I think the future shows a lot of promise for women in comics.
Gail Simone’s creation Birds of Prey unites an all female cast of some of DC’s toughest heroines.
Coming up on Women in Refrigerators: Fashion of the Superheroine. Catch up on Women in Refrigerators and learn more about superheroines here.
Much of this information is derived from Mike Madrid’s book The Supergirls. It’s a fabulous read and goes much more in depth than I possibly could. And as always thanks to Wikipedia for a lot of my information.