The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen in Comic Book History

Book Cover Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

Hope Nicholson's newest project is The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, an engaging and gorgeous catalogue of comic book heroines though the ages. Hope, author of The Secret Lives of Geek Girls and founder of Bedside Press, specializing in archival comics collections, is pretty spectacular herself, and we relished the opportunity to ask her a little more about this fascinating book. 

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49th Shelf: It seems like superwomen are having a moment, what with the success of Supergirl and the Jessica Jones series, the awesomeness of reboots like Ms. Marvel, and excitement about the forthcoming Wonder Woman film. But your book posits that there exists an incredible history of powerful female heroes that it lesser known. So what do you think is particular about what’s happening right now?

Hope Nicholson: I think there are a lot of great things happening right now for female characters! Definitely we've never had as intense a cross-platform saturation as exists today in this really overwhelming presence of comic-book-related TV shows and movies, and we are seeing more female characters pop up as leading characters in these programs. Another great thing that is happening is an awareness that we need a lot of female characters from many different walks of life, to connect to all readers. So we're seeing more comic characters who aren't white, who aren't straight, who are transgender, and that's something that has really increased over the last decade. It's been great to see and I hope it only gets stronger!

49th Shelf: You write, “Female protagonists in the worlds of comics sure have come a long way. And now always in the direction you’d expect.” How would you chart the path of feminist progress in comics? Waves? Arrows? Meandering lines?

Mysta of the Moon

Hope Nicholson: Definitely meandering lines! There are things about the 1940' characters that I really miss. I miss that a female superheroine could be vicious and have her own moral code. Characters like Lady Satan, Maureen Marine, Mysta of the Moon, Madame Strange were all very cold-blooded in terms of their justice-seeking. Romance, too, wasn't always essential to the characters' plots; it began to be more important later on. But at the same time, these comics—in terms of storytelling—were pretty weak. Noticeable especially in jungle comics and war comics was an indifference to using racist terms and offensive caricatures.

Things about today's characters that I love is that they are coming from creators from all walks of life, bringing their own perspective. The storytelling can be very good, polished, and sophisticated in nuance, especially compared to 1940s' comics.

49th Shelf: What’s your theory as to why female characters tend to be more interesting than their male counterparts?

Book Cover Miss Fury

Hope Nicholson: Male characters have to be strong, and often that is their sole, defining characteristic. They aren't allowed to be sweet, kind, bubbly, flirty, or soft in any way, except in the pages of teen comics when they could indulge in romance and neuroticism. What fun is that, to be so limited to being just "strong"? No fun, I imagine, for boys!

But for female characters, I found there was a lot more variety in the type of characters they were. You couldn't often have a female soldier (save in a few comics like the sci-fi Gale Allen and her Girl Squadron) so female characters had to have a variety of different careers to enter the action. They could be superheroines with magic cloaks (like Miss Fury), but they could also be war nurses, or super-spies or intrepid investigative reporters. They were also allowed to be flirty, sassy, and funny, they didn't have to be stoic. And they could do all this, and in the pages of the comics, still know how to throw a punch or shoot a laser-gun. It makes it a lot more absorbing to read in my opinion!

They were allowed to be flirty, sassy, and funny, they didn't have to be stoic. And they could do all this, and in the pages of the comics, still know how to throw a punch or shoot a laser-gun. It makes it a lot more absorbing to read in my opinion!

In terms of later comics, when comic creators for example were rebelling against the comic code authority, a lot of male comic creators used this opportunity to just showcase a lot of explicit sexual content and drug humour. But the female underground cartoonists were tackling a lot of social justice issues in their rebellion instead. 

Book Cover The Wing

49th Shelf: Can you tell us about any Canadian (or Canadian-created) comic book characters in your book?

Hope Nicholson: Oh for sure! Since I am Canadian and have some knowledge of our comics, it was important for me to showcase Canadian characters where I could. I almost have one for each decade! 

There is The Wing, a 1940s comic character first published in Toronto by Bell Features: she works in a factory by day and draws comics by night—when she's not changing into her scandalous superheroine outfit to fight crime! 

There's Survivalwoman, a superheroine whose main duty is to search out literary grants and fight American imperialism, created by Margaret Atwood. It's a perfect time capsule of 1970s' politics and a wry and very funny parody of Canadian content and literature.

The 1980s' series Ms. Tree was not created by Canadians, but was published by the popular Canadian publishing house Aardvark-Vanaheim, a very prominent independent comics publisher.

Liliane was a comic about a young bisexual girl first published as semi-autobiographical zines by Canadian Leanne Franson. It started in the early 1990s and still continues today as our heroine has grown up and now faces challenge as a mother.

Book Cover Ramona Flowers

I included three Canadian heroines in the 2000s section! Two of these are webcomics, one the adult-humour webcomic Menage a 3 by Gisele Lagace and Dave Lumsdon, and the other being a character from Kate Beaton's Hark a Vagrant. Then I also included Ramona Flowers as the icon of the decade; she's the heroine of the Scott Pilgrim series by Canadian Bryan Lee O'Malley

For the 2010s, I have the character Keegan from Vancouver-based Johnnie Christmas's serial comic Firebug, and Penny Rolle, who was co-created by Toronto-based artist Valentine de Landro, with Portland-based writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. In addition, at least two Canadians are involved in the art for the modern Ms. Marvel: illustrator Adrian Alphona, and coloru artist Ian Herring, both based in Toronto.

Book Cover Torchy Brown

49th Shelf: What old-school kickass heroines from the book do you think readers will find are the greatest revelations?

Hope Nicholson: Definitely people have been the most excited to hear about Torchy Brown I think. Not just because she was a really well-rounded, gorgeously drawn, thoughtful and issue-based comic book starring a black woman—in the 1930s!—but also because she was created by a black woman herself, Jackie Ormes, who went on to significant acclaim with her work and merchandise based on her characters. People often like to think that our progression is a straight up and down path, but there was no black women hired to work on Marvel comics for example until just this year. And those hires were writers; I still don't think Marvel has hired a black female artist yet (though Afua Richardson had been attached to a book that sort-of...disappeared?)

I am not saying that the industry was supportive or healthy for women, especially non-white women, in the 1940s, but I certainly don't want the people who were working to have their histories erased just to make our current decade seem more positive!

Other than that, people do seem really drawn to Starr Flagg. She's such a boisterous, take-charge character, with incredible skills and wits that she's instantly become a lot of people's favourite.

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Book Cover Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

About The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Think comic books can’t feature strong female protagonists? Think again! In The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen you’ll meet the most fascinating exemplars of the powerful, compelling, entertaining, and heroic female characters who’ve populated comic books from the very beginning. This spectacular sisterhood includes costumed crimebusters like Miss Fury, super-spies like Tiffany Sinn, sci-fi pioneers like Gale Allen, and even kid troublemakers like Little Lulu. With vintage art, publication details, a decade-by-decade survey of industry trends and women’s roles in comics, and spotlights on iconic favorites like Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen proves that not only do strong female protagonists belong in comics, they’ve always been there. 

April 30, 2017
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