March 8, 2019 | Feature
reflections of the comic book superheroines who shaped me
Next to an out-of-business Herberger’s and a local deli chain, my hometown comic book store sits with cardboard cutouts of superheroes and logos decorating its windows. Above the door, a font reminiscent of the ’80s spells out “Granite City Comics and Games.” When I go back home, I drive past it every once in a while and see its green exterior out of the corner of my eye, a relic from my childhood. I wonder if they ever sold those limited-edition Justice League figurines in the glass displays, or if they put up a poster for Captain Marvel. I wonder what fills the stark white shelves these days.
The fictional universes of DC and Marvel have been a part of my life since before I even knew how to read. Growing up in the early 2000s, I spent afternoons watching reruns of Teen Titans, X-Men Evolution, Batman Beyond, and Justice League Unlimited. I had an array of toys (Supergirl, Batman, Green Lantern, etc.) from Happy Meals and birthday presents, and I spent my free time pretending that my brother and I were Johnny and Susan Storm (Human Torch and Invisible Woman).
At that age, superheroines were my role models. Perhaps it was the storytelling, or maybe just the cool costumes and powers, but my mind locked onto their stories and personalities with super-strength. I emulated Starfire’s kindness, Raven’s dry humor, Wonder Woman’s leadership, Hawkgirl’s fierceness. I adopted their favorite colors and foods, attempted to learn their fighting skills, and, perhaps most productively, tried to be a leader and hero like them.
By the time I entered Granite City Comics and Games for the first time, I had admired the animated versions of these superheroines for years. I knew their mannerisms, appearances, and personalities as intimately as my own, which was slightly less impressive considering I had modeled my personality after theirs. I followed my dad and brother around the store, poring over the elaborate, plastic-wrapped covers in search of the heroines’ familiar faces. But I didn’t find any, and it was only after I borrowed my brother’s comics that I realized my role models had been there—just not the way I had known them.
By the time I began reading comics, my favorite characters’ stories had been veritably chewed up and spit out a thousand times by dozens of different authors and artists. They had gone through timeline corrections, character developments, and costume changes. They had been aged up, then down, then replaced by different characters entirely. I entered a world of stories that had begun far before I had even been born.
The history of U.S. comic book heroes begins around World War II, in the Golden Age of Comics when comic books, according to PBS, were “cheap, portable, and had inspirational, patriotic stories of good triumphing over evil.” In the Silver Age, new creators took over and re-energized iconic characters like Superman with novel interpretations and storylines, many of which, like the reinvention of Green Lantern as Hal Jordan, lasted much longer than the originals. Next came the Bronze Age, which spanned parts of the ’70s and ’80s. Darker tones, realism, and the subversion of tropes characterized this era, along with major steps towards inclusivity with the creation of characters like Black Panther, She-Hulk, Shang-Chi, and Misty Knight. Finally, the Modern Age, which we are currently in, has so far been marked by universe reboots, which have attempted to remove half a century’s worth of baggage of DC and Marvel characters, and interplay with TV and movies, whose popularization has informed the importance and characterization of their book counterparts.
I won’t claim to have read the whole of Marvel or DC’s oeuvres, or even the whole of a single character’s comic books. Instead, I encountered comic book issues out of order based on what I could find and what my allowance could afford: the first few issues of Teen Titans Volume 3, Marvel’s Civil War, House of M, and Young Inhumans, to name a few. In addition, my brother and I shared two massive DC and Marvel comic book encyclopedias that we would page through when bored. Through these, I was able to learn about the experiences my favorite superheroines had in their original mediums.
Initially, this was incredibly exciting; it was like finding out your favorite TV show had five extra seasons you’d never seen and had also been renewed indefinitely. I began with Raven, who in the cartoon had been the serious but kindhearted telekinetic and empath who struggled with her evil father (a literal demon) and her own abilities. She was surprisingly similar in the comics, although her story was much darker (i.e. more deaths, resurrections, and demonic possessions), and her costume was much more revealing—a trend I would notice as I continued my rediscovery of superheroines. Nevertheless, I was ecstatic to see my favorite character continuing to defeat evil forces while working to be her own person and make friends, a journey that resonated with me deeply as a young girl, albeit on a smaller scale.
I sought out Ororo Munroe (Storm) next, eager to see what had become of the X-Men member who possessed the ability to control the weather. In the comics, she was the daughter of a Kenyan princess, and had in fact been the leader of the X-Men on several occasions. In addition, she was married to T’Challa (Black Panther) and was Queen of Wakanda, a fictional African country. I was overjoyed to see that Storm was even more important and respected in recent comics, given positions of leadership that might have gone to male characters in previous ages. Moreover, she continues to be wonderful example of representation as a confident and multifaceted African American woman.
Of course, I read about Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman) as well. Having existed longer than Storm, Raven, or, really, any other female character, she had an even more complex history. Initially created as a suffragist and secretary to the Justice Society of America, she eventually gained enough popularity to have her own comic book series. However, by the 1960s pressure from the Comics Code Authority forced her to give up her superpowers to focus on romance with Steve Trevor. The rise of a Wonder Woman TV show and the use of her image in women’s movement iconography brought her back to full superheroism in the 1970s, where she has existed in some form since, most recently as an ambassador and government agent. Many of her later iterations also worked to expand her character, exploring her bisexuality, her conflicted identity, and her relationships with other Amazonians and superheroines. It was a relief to see that, despite a sometimes-problematic past and the pressures of being the go-to example of female superhero, Wonder Woman hasn’t shied away from her radical feminism and power.
As wonderful as it was to see that the hearts of my favorite superheroines’ stories remained relatively intact in Modern Age comics—exhibiting all the autonomy and complexity I’d known them to have—they, as well as other female characters, haven’t always been portrayed this way.
The history of women in superhero comics has always been a battle between the core themes of superheroism, which champions the idea that anyone is capable of being a hero, and the limiting gender stereotypes of the patriarchy. In the Golden Age of Comics, women were relegated to secretaries and love interests of the male superheroes. As heroines, they tended to be partners or sidekicks, and often still strove to conform to typically feminine-coded behaviors such as homemaking, modeling, and caretaking. Furthermore, although they were powerful crime-fighters in their own right, many superheroines’ identities were frequently tied directly to those of pre-existing male superheroes, such as Supergirl with Superman. Superheroines and female stories in general evolved frustratingly slowly from the trope of the submissive superheroine, constantly forced into passive roles and immured in damsel-in-distress, coerced marriage, and infantilization plotlines. Even worse, with darker, more realistic themes in comics also came more aggressive sexist tropes such as fridging, in which female characters were murdered or brutalized in viciously sensationalized ways in order to motivate the male characters and garner shock from the reader (e.g. the paralysis of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke). It wouldn’t be until the 1980s that a female character would have a leadership role (Wasp as chairwoman of the Avengers in 1982), or even superpowers that eclipsed those of a male superhero.
In the Modern Age, following a rise in criticism of female representation in comics, superheroines were eventually given more liberated storylines and allowed to pursue powerful careers and goals, live without traditional nuclear families, and essentially have their own lives. However, they also became hypersexualized in order to sell comics in an increasingly uninterested market, dressed in costumes that resembled swimsuits more than practical crime-fighting attire (a stark contrast to their armored male counterparts) and drawn in spine-breaking poses with hyper-perfected faces and unrealistic, homogenous bodies. Even while fighting and resting, superheroines were drawn as if they were modeling—which makes sense, given accusations that modern comic book artists like Greg Land use pornography as popular references for drawing women. I know I found it disappointing to see Starfire, who in the cartoon had sported a feminine but ultimately wearable purple getup, commonly drawn wearing a bright purple one-piece that barely covered her torso, so clearly designed for the male gaze.
This trend has declined in recent years, particularly with revitalized efforts to showcase more diverse bodies in comics, such as Muslim-American Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and plus-sized Faith Herbert (though she is published by Valiant Comics, which is independent of Marvel and DC), following the the popularity of superhero movies and comic cons as well as an increase in female viewership.
However, for many women, the damage had already been done, even with inspiring superheroines and stories. I stopped reading comics some time in high school after increasingly feeling that they were not for me. Although I loved my superheroines, I grew exhausted of seeing them drawn in such an objectifying, homogenized manner. Moreover, I grew tired of searching for them, given that only 26.7 percent of DC and Marvel characters are female according to a 2017 study of 34,476 comic book characters, and men severely outnumber women in superhero teams (e.g. the Wasp being the only female in the original comic Avengers lineup). Even when they were included, their storylines and emotional developments, while progressive and resonant with me, were often sidelined in favor of other plotlines or male storylines. I no longer wanted to try to force my way into a medium that was not willing to include me and even criticized me for trying.
Nevertheless, my role models have remained with me. I’ve learned to pick and choose the parts of the superheroines and their stories that I enjoy; I’ve learned to emulate their passion for justice and criticize the issues that live within and beyond their comic books. I’ve rediscovered my love of superheroines through movies and TV, which have made major strides in updating the characters for the Modern Age, even though they still have a long way to go (Captain Marvel is still only the second female-centered DC or Marvel comic book movie). Moreover, I’ve become aware of the creators behind my favorite versions of superheroines, such as Amy Wolfram, one of the screenwriters of Teen Titans. These women have paved the way for more inclusive and unique stories, both in and beyond the comic books’ pages. These are real-life superheroines, who renew my hope that comic book stores could be a space for me once again.