The book I mentioned in Part 1 of this essay-series is Mike Madrid's 2009 book on superheroines, entitled THE SUPERGIRLS.
In many respects I ought to like this book. The author appears to be a Silver-Age kid like myself. Just as I have devoted a blog to the topic of empowered female characters here, Madrid's introduction depicts the author as having an inveterate interest in comic-book super-heroines, if not for reasons identical to my own.
And unlike the only previous work on the subject-- Trina Robbins' GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES, a very detailed history of superheroines in comics, albeit with some major omissions-- THE SUPERGIRLS is an attempt to interpret the depiction of superheroines in cultural terms, as the book's subtitle indicates: "Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines." (Despite Madrid putting "fashion" first, possibly to appeal to academics, there's really very little about the specifics of fashion in fantasy or reality.)
Unfortunately, SUPERGIRLS is a prime example of an interpretative work laboring under a cloud of false victimology. I'm sure that Madrid must have in his mind some notion of the perfect superheroine, a figure that provides a "happy medium" between a type who is too wholesome and a type who is too oversexualized. But he does not succeed in depicting such a paradigm in the pages of his book. Thus, all through the pages of SUPERGIRLS, Madrid always seems to be carping at the imperfections of almost all those who have depicted comic-book superheroines, without establishing his grounds for true excellence.
The first two chapters don't raise many objections. Madrid divides the majority of Golden Age heroines into a few convenient, perhaps slightly oversimple, categories, and he devotes special attention to comparing and contrasting the two heroines who were arguably both the most influential and best-known comics-heroines; Sheena and Wonder Woman. However, even on page 2, he starts the victimology by claiming that "for now [i.e., 1947] women would have to be content to put on scanty costumes and assume a disguise in order to act like themselves." This sounds for all the world like one of many supercilious putdowns of patriarchy, easily countered by the observation that male superheroes are also predicated on acting like fools and diletttantes to camoflague their real natures. And if one should need a source for this observation, one can find it-- on page 5 of SUPERGIRLS, where Madrid himself admits that male superheroes had to "dumb themselves down" to mix with mortal kind.
However, when Madrid gets into the third chapter, entitled "The Girlfriends," he goes into victimology overdrive-- and both his logic and his accuracy go out the window. I'll try to keep my complaints to the most egregious examples.
Page 12-- Madrid asserts that the girlfriends of featured heroes-- the Hawkgirls, the Bulletgirls-- crusade against crime only to impress their boyfriends. It's one thing to believe this, but Madrid offers no textual proof of this species of victim-crying.
Page 36-- Madrid claims that in William Moulton Marston's WONDER WOMAN origin, "Hercules allows himself to be beaten by Hippolyta." That's not in any Marston origin I've read: as I remember, Hercules loses a fair fight, and then plots revenge through deception.
Page 56-- Madrid claims that "the most important female figure in [Batman's] world" is his "sainted, slain mother," despite the fact that the character rarely thinks about Martha Wayne at all in most of the Golden Age stories. This is a superficial Freudian reading put forth years ago by Michael Fleischer, but there's no evidence that the Oedipus Complex informs the Batman mythos. The idea that this complex is proven simply by the absence of lasting romantic relationships in the hero's life is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse: i.e., romantic relationships are *primarily* absent from the series because they would interfere with the open-ended setup of the franchise, not because of Batman's personal trauma.
Page 92-- Madrid, having spent a long time chronicling the career of the Silver Age Supergirl, complains that she "didn't show any signs of ever growing up to be a Superwoman"-- apparently another carp about men keeping women down, even though by that time it should have been evident that both male and female characters did not age, given that the readerships were assumed to turn over every few years.
Page 98-- He tells us that the 1990s version of Supergirl "was clearly meant to be a male fantasy, and no longer a character to attract or inspire female readers"-- yet, he has just finished complaining that the tame Silver Age version, which he compares to singer Leslie Gore, also never reaches any sort of potential, even though she was putatively aimed at female readers. There's also, throughout the book, no dealing with the possibility that sometimes female readers enjoy sexual fantasies themselves.
Page 103-- Madrid describes the Silver Age in very inaccurate terms, particularly when he claims that "Magic was a mysterious enemy, meant to be defeated." Granted, a lot of DC's Silver Age books are hot for science more than sorcery, but there are a fair number of magical heroes-- the Spectre, the Enchantress, Zatanna-- and I see no evidence that magic is despised, even by heroes like Superman, who numbered it among his vulnerabilities. This may be extrapolated from Madrid's view that all magic went out the window in the WONDER WOMAN book once Kanigher displaced Marston, but I don't think Kanigher used magic any less; he just didn't use it the same way Marston did.
Page 105-- Madrid claims that there's a victim-based reading possible from the fact that Superman and Batman did not make regular appearances in the early JUSTICE LEAGUE title, griping that "Wonder Woman is not considered to be in the same 'league' as Superman and Batman." This too is better explained by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. Many pros and fans have attested that DC editor Mort Weisinger maintained, or attempted to maintain, a close hold on these characters, since he Weisinger edited all of the Superman books and arguably influenced the artistic direction of the Batman books even when they were 0being edited by Weisinger's associate Jack Schiff. It's been rumored, with whatever truth, that Weisinger lobbied to keep Superman and Batman out of the Justice League, and I for one find this a more likely explanation for the duo's early JLA absence than some mysterious pecking-order.
Page 112-- After claiming that the Invisible Girl's original powers are useless-- somehow overlooking that she defeats Doctor Doom in FANTASTIC FOUR #5 and engages him in single combat in #17-- Madrid claims that Sue Storm's force-field powers come about because "Reed has figured out a way to boost Sue's powers." Madrid doesn't bother to cite the issue number where this happened-- though he's careful to cite issue #12 as evidence of Sue's non-importance-- but the fact is that in FF #22, Reed only suspects that Sue has powers she hasn't used yet. The scientist's "nuclear-powered" measuring device *accidentally* stimulates Sue into manifesting her new powers, which are, like the powers of the male heroes, attributable to the original cosmic-ray accident they all endured.
Page 139-- Light Lass, Dream Girl, and the White Witch are said to thwart the sorcerer Mordru in a LEGION story. Apparently all short-haired girls look alike to Madird: 'twas Princess Projectra, not Light Lass.
Page 159-- Marvel's Black Widow is said to be facing "hard personal choices" when she deserts her romantic partnership with Daredevil to accept the more "prestigious membership" of the Avengers. Yet what the character actually thinks is not some feminist assertiveness: she accepts the membership because she wants to have time to think about her relationship with Daredevil! The Widow also only remains with the Avengers for two issues in this period; in all likelihood Marvel editors simply wanted an excuse to terminate the ongoing Daredevil-Black Widow relationship for one reason or another.
Page 189-- "Numerous stories focused on the world's obsession with learning Wonder Woman's secret identity in an effort to find her weakness."-- Gee, that's such an original notion. Uncover a superhero's ID to compromise said hero. I guess Wonder Woman must have been the first hero ever to have suffered such investigations. Or, if she wasn't the first, surely this only happens to female heroes, as a marker of the indignities they alone suffer.
Page 221-- "Out of style, Wonder Woman was also erased"-- Uh, yeah, and it was because she was going to be rebooted, as Madrid himself tells us on p. 208.
Page 249-- "The jungle antics [of jungle queens] ended in 1954"-- again, no, Atlas Comics kept jungle comics, including two jungle queens, going until 1957.
On the same page, Madrid has problems with the nefarious Catwoman becoming a "good girl." He overlooks that she only reformed during the years 1951-52, and that she went back to being a "bad girl" for three 1954 stories-- and it was at this point that she was excluded from the DC universe until 1966. Since she was "bad" at the time of her forced retirement, the goody-goody Catwoman did not "pave the way for Batman's new love interest, the more buttoned-up and sexless Batwoman."
These are others, but these examples of inaccuracy and false reasoning are the most egregious. If most of them had been simple matters of misperception-- remembering Light Lass in place of another heroine, for example-- I probably wouldn't have written this review. But most of these citations grow out of Madrid's pervasive victimology: his hectoring insistence that nearly everything ever done with comic-book heroines is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Well, with a few exceptions. Madrid does at least give props to the creators of THE DOOM PATROL for a gutsy lady crime-fighter-- which is more than Trina Robbins did, when she conspicuously omitted Elasti-Girl from her own book. But to elevate the model of Elasti-Girl, Madrid has to drag down the Marvel superheroines using pretty much the same knocks Robbins used in her book : they're too weak, they're too girly, they "pose and point." Given that Madrid's whole project involves the "close reading" of the ephemera of comic books, one might wonder why he chose to read them so loosely.
Unfortunately, the only explanation I can devise is that he wanted to make comic-book heroines sympathetic for their having been so roundly victimized, whether they were turned into virgin schoolgirls (1960s Supergirl) or teeny-bopper whores (1990s Supergirl). But the question arises-- do we respect these heroines more for being victims-- or for being heroes, irrespective of gender? It is, unfortunately, a question Madrid doesn't even try to address.