The Supergirls by Mike Madrid
A few years ago, I bought a LEGO Wonder Woman keychain to keep me flying true. I have a lot of little totems like that—my hot pink skull snowglobe is a pretty fabulous memento mori, while the “don’t panic” fortune I keep in my wallet has stopped me from panicking on many an occasion (including the theft and subsequent return of said wallet). My little plastic Wonder Woman is a perfect storm of reminders; that I, too, come from several strong communities of women, from my mother to fandom to my alma mater, that I’m a fan through and through, and that the best version of myself is just as strong, compassionate, and hard femme as Diana of Themyscira. As I go through my day, she’s a comforting, vague notion in the palm of my hand, even if I slip my keys through my fingers on my way home.
This is all well and good for me—I know Wonder Woman as a character instead of a notion. But to Western mainstream culture, Wonder Woman remains a vague notion. Like every long-running comic book character, her story has been updated, rebooted, retconned, and erased. But unlike the majority of A-list superheroes, Wonder Woman lacks a film to codify and anchor her in that vast ocean we call pop culture. Without such a film, Wonder Woman isn’t accessible to mainstream audiences. Without the presumed interest of mainstream audiences, studios won’t make such a film. Which is how we’ve ended up at this point in history, with Zac Snyder sneaking the most well-known female superhero not based on a male superhero into Batman versus Superman. In miniature, it’s a situation that fans of superheroines have to deal with everyday—characters we adore (the mighty Amazonian princess!) in situations that we don’t (in Too Grimdark Too Furious!).
Moments like these pepper Mike Madrid’s history of superheroines, The Supergirls. For every Rita Farr, a glamorous actress who can change any size and adores her career as a crime fighter, there’s an original flavor Batwoman, whose aspirations never seem to extend beyond capturing the heart of a superhero. The book is organized by decade, creating a narrative that sees superheroines react to the politics of the times while steadily getting more and more sexualized as time goes on.
Unfortunately, despite a very promising subtitle (“Fashion, feminism, fantasy, and the history of comic book heroines”), there’s not much analysis going on here, beyond the fairly tired observation that superheroines’ costumes are impractical. Perhaps I shouldn’t say tired; after all, it’s always new to someone, and if it wasn’t for the mercy of repetition (and Wikipedia), I would hardly get anywhere. But there’s plenty more to the complex nature and treatment of superheroines—from race (Madrid mentions the fact that Psylocke magically became Asian at some point, but doesn’t stop to touch on it) to age (Jess Plummer covers the trials and tribulations of Supergirl every Saturday at her blog), among many others. To his credit, Madrid does point out the double standard sexuality that She-Hulk so often hurls in the face of Tony Stark and Marvel’s original fascination with romances featuring younger women and older, controlling men (Wasp and Ant-Man, the Invisible Girl and Mr. Fantastic, Jean Grey and Professor X to a very limited degree). But when it comes to the supposed male reluctance to consume comics and films featuring superheroines, Madrid goes no further than observing it, instead of wondering why this is or what we would have to do to change that.
There’s also a subtle undercurrent of slutshaming to the whole proceedings. When discussing the late nineties and early aughts sexualization of teens that contributed to Supergirl’s new look, Madrid gets strangely vicious, calling Christina Aguilera “slatternly.” We should all be suspicious of anything that presents all of its female characters as sexy, pouting hardbodies, but the problem does not lie with said sexy, pouting hardbodies—the problem lies with the fact that we are provided with no alternatives.
But the marvelous thing about comics is that it is an inherently regenerative medium—adapting and remixing is part of the game. The more we know of its history, the more we can move forward. And that, dear readers, is why I will always hold out hope.
Sadly, the published version of The Supergirls lacks visual aids, presumably for licensing reasons. A visual guide is available on Madrid’s website, which I heartily recommend to round out your reading experience.
Bottom line: Histories like Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls are always important, but it lacks substantial analysis. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.