Meet more than one hundred of the most heroic female characters in comics history, complete with backstories, vintage art, and colorful commentary.
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.
About the author
Hope Nicholson is the owner of Winnipeg-based publishing Bedside Press. She's an ardent comics fan passionate about bringing new stories to light, and author of the book "The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen" which shines light on characters forgotten by comics history.
Excerpt: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History (by (author) Hope Nicholson)
Hello, and welcome to the definitive guide to female representation in comics!
Wait, that’s not right . . .
Hello, and welcome to the most popular female characters in American and Canadian comics!
Hmm . . . still not quite it.
Hello, and welcome to the best female characters in comics?
Oh no, absolutely not.
Hello, and welcome to the weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics—for better or for worse.
Yes, now that’s it!
Female protagonists in the world of comics sure have come a long way. And not always in the direction you’d expect. We went from stories featuring Lois Lane, a capable female reporter who cared more about a sense of duty than determining the kissing skills of a dude who wore underwear over his tights to tales of Lois, now starry eyed, marrying said dude decades later. We went from an Amazon princess teaching our world about the power of peaceful resolution and feminist sisterhood to a solitary warrior who makes out with Superman. (What? It’s okay. He wasn’t married to Lois Lane anymore.)
Yet this is not a book telling you that things were better back then . . .
We have come a long way. We’ve gone from having 90 percent of comics
created by white men to a thriving industry of comics in all sorts of formats created by all sorts of people. And that’s changing the characters we grow up with and love dearly—for the better. Today we don’t just have comics about romance, or adventures, or superheroes, but also comics about the absurdities of daily life, the politics of surviving, and the vast diversity of people who are more representative of the world we live in than ever before. All of these changes are necessary and noteworthy.
We’ve also gone from being able to find comics only on racks in drugstores to venturing into a wide range of weird and wonderful shops and conventions to score our monthly installments. Graphic novels now take their rightful place in bookstores, and webcomics are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And through the beauty of crowdfunding platforms, the power of publishing has migrated directly into the hands of comics creators of all kinds.
But along with all these advances, I fear we may be forgetting our history. We often fail to mention and honor all the amazing comics that have been made, comics that fought the status quo. We forget the history of subversive comics from decades past. We forget the trends in comics that defined each decade and entertained our parents, our grandparents, and, for some of you young’uns, your great-grandparents. We forget the long history of passionate female fans who have been fighting for respect since the beginning of the medium. We forget the female creators who gritted their teeth and rolled their eyes while playing in the boys’ club; refusing to give up, they pushed up their sleeves and went to work all the same.
This book is a history of comics, though it’s not a definitive one. It’s told through female characters not only because they’re easily lost to the sands of time, but also because they’re usually much more interesting than their male counterparts. In no other comics history book will you find characters like Maureen Marine, an underwater preteen princess; Starlight the brave Huron warrior; Pudge, Girl Blimp, fighting to find her identity in 1960s San Francisco; Sindi Shade, a punk-rock rebel in a dystopian future; or Bitchy Bitch, a straw feminist parody. But you’ll find them here.
These characters represent the many and varied changes the industry has gone through since the rise of the comic book in the 1940s. In these pages you’ll find superpowered heroes in tights, plucky girl reporters, scantily clad bad girls, polyamorous florists, sexy horror hosts, and many more. You’ll read about characters whose stories highlight the trends of their times, with special attention to those most likely to be forgotten, along with spotlights on a few who fought tooth and nail to remain well known.
These characters are here to guide you through the past eight decades of confusing, maddening, and entertaining comics history.
So come, let’s start at the very beginning . . .
The 1930s: Birth of an Industry
Sequential visual storytelling has existed for centuries, so the birth of comics cannot be traced back to a specific event. The line between illustrated stories and comic books is blurry, with comics gradually becoming a distinct storytelling format over a decades-long process. Comic books—that is, bundled pages of sequential art—date back to at least the mid-1800s. But it was in the 1930s that Superman debuted, and with that appearance came a raging excitement for comic books that solidified both the comics medium and the superhero genre (the two are inextricably intertwined).
Many of the first comic books were born from newspaper comic strips. Little Lulu was one, and her adventures were simple yet profound: she was a spunky forthright girl who took no flak from anyone. Other comics characters came from the opposite end of the medium—instead of being drawn from all-ages family-friendly comic strips, they started in the seedy underbelly of pulp anthologies. Action-adventure, science-fiction, Western, and crime comics all sprang from the pages of pulp magazines and later became staple genres of comic books produced by publishers like Marvel and DC. In the pulps you could read prose stories next to strips starring such characters as Olga Mesmer, Sally the Sleuth, Diana Daw, Polly of the Plains, and Betty Blake. Few of these characters made the transition to full-blown comics. (The exception was Sally the Sleuth, and it took her almost twenty years to do so.) The sources may have been salacious, but surprisingly they did have a moral code. Artists were not allowed to depict fully nude women or men, but naked female corpses were okay (hey, we’re not saying it was a good moral code).
On the even seedier side of that spectrum were the crudely drawn “Tijuana bibles” passed around in men’s clubs. These featured favorite comic characters, everybody from Blondie to Dick Tracy, involved in detailed sexual activities. This was the NC-17 fanfiction, if you will, of the 1930s.
After the premiere of Superman in Action Comics #1, in 1938, the single-issue comics format (previously relegated to detective stories, wholesome adventure comics, and newspaper reprints) exploded in popularity. Soon comic books of all genres were available on newsstands. Each issue
typically featured a varied selection of adventures, evidence that every publisher was looking for that magical character that kids would cling to. And yes, many of these characters were women. In Amazing Man, we meet Super Ann, endowed with the power of ten men! Other comics had heroes like Neptina, a sometimes cruel undersea queen! Flyin’ Jenny, aerial ace! And of course Sheena, Queen of the Jungle! In the 1930s, before comics had a chance to cement themselves into genres, female characters enjoyed a variety of careers and roles.
About the women who worked in comics during this decade, little is known. However, we do know that some creators, such as Jackie Ormes, the creator of Torchy Brown (page 20), were getting their start.
The 1930s also saw the beginnings of fan conventions, which were not yet comics focused but were connected mostly to science fiction. Women were active in this community, as organizers, essay writers, and fans. Myrtle Douglas, aka Morojo, was a well-known fanzine editor and designer of some of the first costumes for fan conventions. She’s sometimes called “the mother of cosplay” for her role in encouraging and promoting fan culture and engagement. Bottom line: although comics had been around for a while, the 1930s saw the birth of the industry in a chaotic and varied form. And women as creators, fans, and characters were there right from the start.
The Magician from Mars
Predating Miss Fury, Fantomah, Wonder Woman, and most better-known superheroines, Jane 6EM35 is a sci-fi hero in the far future. Born to a human mother and a Martian father, she might have been just like any other half-Martian child were it not for an incident that occurred shortly after her birth. A nurse exposed the infant to cathode rays, causing Jane’s genes to mutate and granting her special powers: anything she wishes for appears out of thin air.
In addition to wishing stuff into existence, Jane also possesses incredible strength, fantastic intelligence, immortality, and (of course) eternal youth and beauty. Though she can have anything in the world, her greatest desire—to visit her mother’s homeland of Earth—remains out of reach. Her aunt forbids it and Jane can’t bring herself to disobey her dear, sweet, elderly aunt . . . until her aunt locks her in a steel room. Then Jane says, “Well, I guess that’s enough of that,” steals a rocket ship, and gets the heck out of Martian-Dodge.
In her first adventure, Jane saves an entire spaceship, steals all its gold, and sends the haul to Earth, specifically to aid a renowned pediatrician and his quest to cure infant paralysis. (Though truth be told she keeps a little gold for herself so she can live comfortably. I mean, she’s not Superman; she doesn’t want to work for a living.) Exploring her new world, Jane helps the less fortunate, catches suicide jumpers in midair, halts air-trains from derailing, stops runaway bulls, and gives lectures to unethical criminals everywhere. She knows the difference between a desperate man driven to rob (and turns his life around with a gift of money) and a corrupt politician exploiting the working class (whose only gift from Jane is a sock in the kisser). But at times she still acts pettily: when an irate hotel guest demands ink for his pen, an annoyed Jane fills the lobby with ink.
When the Magician from Mars was created, standards for comic book superheroes had not yet been established. If these characters were a form of wish fulfillment, why not have a hero who possesses every possible superpower? These were, after all, the days before Superman had his kryptonite weakness. Of course, even Superman didn’t have the godlike powers of Jane 6EM35. She soon found herself fighting increasingly powerful enemies; in one tale Jane conquers the literal embodiment of fear with the power of song. When Earth can no longer contain enough adventures, Jane sets off into space in pursuit of the scientific genius villain named the Hood, the one person powerful enough to defeat Jane. Who is revealed to be . . . her own elderly aunt!
The Magician from Mars was crudely drawn and scripted, but as a series it holds a great deal of charm and wish fulfillment. This action-packed comic is absolutely ridiculous, and awfully fun.
ESSENTIAL READING: You can follow Jane’s final adventure in the reprint collection Divas, Dames & Daredevils (Exterminating Angel Press, 2013).
“An upbeat celebration of women in comics.”—J.D. Biersdorfer, New York Times Book Review
“A showcase for powerful women who range in sexuality, skin color, and spunk...this collection is an awesome reminder that feminists have been fighting the good fight in comics since before many of us were born.”—BUST
“[The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen] is a book I’m proud to have on my shelf.”—SyFy's Fangrrls
“An amazing compilation that is sure to introduce you to at least one superheroine of which you were unaware.”—Geeks of Doom
“Comic book heroines have come a long way and not always by the expected routes, as Nicholson, founder of Bedside Press, traces in this informative and entertaining encyclopedia of female characters in comics.”—Publishers Weekly
“This book is an uplifting reminder of the superheroines who have inspired us for almost a century and continue to do so in both comics and film today.”—ComicBook.com
“Fans of comics and graphic novels will love this passionate endorsement of female characters through comic history.”—Georgia Christgau, School Library Journal
“Since superheroes, female and otherwise, permeate so much of our current culture, it’s a real treat to get such rich history of how characters such as Carol ‘Ms. Marvel’ Danvers emerged and evolved, and Nicholson is a trustworthy, knowledgeable guide.”—Publishers Weekly
“A wonderfully entertaining and informative read; Hope Nicholson has captured the distinct core of every character, from famed icons to the forgotten heroines she's resurrected from the back issue bin of comic book history.”—Tim Hanley, Author of Wonder Woman Unbound, Investigating Lois Lane, and The Many Lives of Catwoman.
“In her snappy, irreverent style, tour guide Hope Nicholson takes us on a spectacular trip through time with stops to visit a crew of comic book heroines who range from the grotesque to the awesome. Some of this sisterhood of superwomen lasted only one issue, others have inspired us for up to 75 years, they are all fascinating. Thanks, Hope, for the time travel!”—Trina Robbins, Author of Last Girl Standing, Babes in Arms, and A Minyen Yidn
“The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is a wonderfully informative and oftentimes personal exploration of the leading women of comics from past to present. Hope Nicholson has created an intimate tome that very well may hold the keys to inspiring more women in comics—both on the page and behind the brush.”—Gerard Way, writer of Doom Patrol & The Umbrella Academy
“The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is an in depth catalog of the only thing I like better than comic book superheroes: comic book superheroines. Nicholson pulls from both the back and front of the long box, critiquing well-known favorites and revealing little known gems."—Tim Seeley, writer of Revival, Hacks/Slash, and Nightwing
“Nicholson’s work is rife with revelations for both the casual and not-just-the-movies comics fan.”—Brooklyn Magazine
“A fun...humorous survey.”—The Sacramento Bee
“A very well-written book that will make comics fan salivate.”—The Daily Times
“Nicholson is a true comics geek, whose love of the medium as a whole is evident in every page of Superwomen.”—Broken Frontier
“The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is an absolute MUST BUY.”—Rogues Portal
“If you’re looking for an example of how far comics have come in terms of equal representation, look no further than Hope Nicholson’s The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen."—Doom Rocket
“I like the mix of history, pop culture, and a little bit of reference. [The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen] is more akin to a heavily illustrated coffee-table book, allowing for browsing short entries about superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones and cult favorites such as Emily the Strange.”—Library Journal
“Profusely illustrated, impressively informative, exceptionally written, organized and presented.”—Midwest Book Review
“The characterizations of women in comics have come a long way since the 1930s, which is where Hope Nicholson begins her decade-by-decade review of famous, representative, quirky, or otherwise notable heroines in her thoroughly enjoyable book The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen.”—Foreword Reviews
“Nicholson doesn’t spend too long analyzing any one character—even Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl, despite being named ‘Hero of the Decade’ of the 1940s, ’50s, and ‘60s, respectively, garner only a couple of pages of commentary apiece. It’s a good choice, allowing Nicholson to cover a greater number of lesser-known characters, which she does in a breezy, conversational style (ripe with parenthetical notes and explanations, not to mention reprinted art), that’s immensely fun to read.” —Foreword Reviews
“Nicholson intimately and thoughtfully introduces readers to 100 impassioned, smart, strategic, and plucky heroines.”—The Georgetown Voice
Other titles by Hope Nicholson
Comics That Caught Fire
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Volume 1)
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (Volume 2)
Pros and (Comic) Cons
Love Beyond Body, Space and Time
an Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology
Sally the Sleuth
Gothic Tales of Haunted Love
A Gothic Romance Graphic Novel Anthology