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Fightin’ Femmes: Unmasking Female Superheroes with Comic Book Historian Mike Madrid

Posted by Becca Marcus at 11th August, 2010

by Lisa Hix, Woodhull Alumna

Originally Posted to Collectors Weekly on August 9th, 2010

Are female superheroes stronger than their male counterparts? According to Mike Madrid, author of “The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of the Comic Book Heroines,” they’re mentally tougher and less vengeful, but still know how to whack the bad guys. In this interview, he discusses rare ’40s superheroine titles like “Phantom Lady” and “Lady Luck,” as well as the drastic changes to Wonder Woman’s appearance and story since her debut in 1941. Madrid can be reached through his website, heaven4heroes.com.

When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, reading comics wasn’t as popular as it had been in the ’40s or ’50s. But my older sister had comics, including a big collection of “Betty and Veronica.” Our parents encouraged us to read everything, so at 6 years old I was just one of those kids that never stopped reading comics. At a certain point my sister started throwing her comics away. I snagged what was left, and I still have them.

The first time I saw “Supergirl” I was amazed because I’d never seen a woman do the things she did. In the late ’60s, women were still represented in the media in a pretty traditional way. It seemed so fantastic to see a woman with superpowers, more fantastic even than seeing the same feats performed by men.

The men were always portrayed as one-dimensional. They had to be brave and fearless and sort of stoic. The women were given more of a range of emotions and that made them seem more fully developed as characters, and more interesting.

My friends never liked the women superheroes. In comics, the woman was usually the token and weakest member of a team. The woman would have to be saved by her male teammates or protected by them, and she wouldn’t really help as much as the men did in fighting crime.

A lot of the guys I knew when I was a kid thought that the women were useless, and that the comic-book publishers should get rid of the female characters on teams like Fantastic Four or the Justice League.

Collectors Weekly: Can you talk about the earliest female superheroes from the ’30s, the ones you call “The Debutantes?”

Madrid: Well, in the early days of comics, there were a lot of rich playboy heroes like Batman and the Sandman. They were these rich guys who would use their money to create a secret identity and go out and fight crime. Oftentimes they didn’t have a superpower, but they had some kind of interesting gadget.

Also, there were these omnibus titles—“Adventure Comics,” “Action Comics,” “Marvel Comics”—that would have maybe seven or eight different features. Batman started in “Detective Comics,” Superman started in “Action Comics.” When a character got to be popular, he graduated to his own title.

The Phantom Lady, seen here in 1949, was a debutante named Sandra Knight by day and a crime fighter by night.

Many of those omnibus comics featured one story with a woman crime fighter, a character like Phantom Lady or Miss Mask or the Red Tornado. Often, they were the female equivalent of those playboy heroes, rich young women who led lives of seemingly no responsibility. They went to a lot of parties, had a lot of nice clothes, and they always seemed bored. They usually lived at home with their parents in big mansions.

To have a little fun, these women would develop secret identities for themselves like Phantom Lady, Lady Luck, Miss Mask, and the Spider Widow. Oftentimes, they didn’t have any superpowers, but knew how to throw a punch, so they’d put on costumes and go out and fight crime.

No one suspected these women were actually daring crime fighters. It would have been as if Paris Hilton was fighting crime. Her family would never suspect it because she was usually portrayed as a ditz with no ambition or backbone. Often in these stories, once the Debutante is back in her normal clothes, her father will say, “That Phantom Lady, she sure is impressive. I wish you could be more like her,” and then the young woman will give a knowing look to the reader like, “That’s our little secret.” But her parents never suspected.

In the late 1940s, superhero comics took a nosedive. Soldiers with time to kill in their barracks had been good market for comics. After the war, as these young men re-entered the work force, comic books struggled to gain new readers. In some cases, they decided to go after women, so they gave a lot of the Debutante heroines their own titles. The stories were a blend of crime fighting with a bit of romance. They didn’t last.

One of the interesting things about the Debutantes is that they had to play down their real ambitions because they didn’t have the option to lead the kind of lives that they wanted. Their secret identities, putting on a mask, freed them, in a sense, to lead the lives they wanted and to be themselves.

Collectors Weekly: Were they feminists?

Madrid: Yes, when they were in costume, they were like the women that you saw in some of those ’40s movies. They were brainy, witty, funny, and tough. Then, when they went back to their normal, everyday identity, they were demure and acted like they weren’t all that interesting. It was as if those costumes allowed them to let their real personalities out, which was kind of a weird thing.

A psychologist claimed that boys found Wonder Woman to be emasculating, and that her comics had lesbian undertones that were a bad influence on girls.

The exception to this rule was Miss Fury, who in her everyday life was a rich, independent woman. She would put on this costume every once in a while, this black, panther costume, and be Miss Fury, but she never liked doing it. She only did it when she didn’t have any other options, and she resented having that secret identity—she thought it brought her nothing but bad luck.

Interestingly, Miss Fury was the only character of this genre written and drawn by a woman. The others were written and drawn by men. The woman’s take is probably more practical and realistic—it would be a drag to have this secret identity, it would be a burden. The way a lot of men wrote these characters, though, a secret identity was a way for these women to free themselves.

Miss Fury is the opposite of Superman and Batman. In both cases, with their secret identities of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, that’s not who they really are. They’re acting a certain way so that people won’t suspect they are heroes. The hero, in a sense, is who they really are. Miss Fury was the opposite. When she was Marla Drake, that’s who she was. When she had no other choice, she would be Miss Fury.

Read the FULL article on Collectors Weekly Here!

(All images in this article courtesy heaven4heroes.com)

About Becca Marcus

Becca Marcus has written 46 articles on this blog.

Becca is the Program Coordinator at the Woodhull Institute. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in Media Studies and a correlate in Women's Studies. Becca is interested in Remix Video, collaborative technology, and Feminist community building.

Category : Community Member Projects and Updates / Culture / Media

One Response to “Fightin’ Femmes: Unmasking Female Superheroes with Comic Book Historian Mike Madrid”

  1. Lee says:

    How great to see the super – super heroines!

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