an excerpt from DIVAS, DAMES & DAREDEVILS

by Mike Madrid

low_res_Divas_cover

INTRODUCTION-A CAST OF THOUSANDS

 

Imagine you are in a present-day comic book shop. Take a glance over the shelves of comic books and you’re likely to see many familiar titles – Superman, Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Catwoman, and X-Men. These are all names and faces and colorful costumes that we’ve come to expect to see on comic book shelves for decades.

Now imagine you’re looking at a similar rack of comic books from 70 years ago. First off, there were no specialty comic book shops—those didn’t appear in America in great numbers until the 1970’s. So if this were the 1940’s, you’d be looking at comics at a newsstand, a drug store or a candy shop. And the assortment of titles would look different from what we’re used to seeing— Champion Comics, Crackajack Funnies, Hit Comics, Heroic Comics, Wings Comics, Planet Comics, Military Comics, Jungle Comics, Wonderworld Comics, All-American Comics, Thrilling Comics, Air Fighters Comics. These were anthology titles, and they were the mainstay of the comic book industry from the late 1930’s to the mid 50’s– the era that has come to be known as the Golden Age of comic books.

The comic book industry in great part grew out of pulp magazines. Pulps offered cheap, often titillating fiction. Whether it was detective stories, science fiction or horror tales, fantasies or westerns, each issue featured several stories by different writers. After Superman made his 1938 debut, comic books became the hot ticket on the newsstand. Pulp magazine publishers began switching formats from written stories to illustrated stories, still using the same formula of presenting several different stories per issue.

The anthology concept made sense in the early days of comics, when publishers were trying to figure out what would attract readers to the fledgling medium. Rather than bank on the appeal of a single character, publishers would offer readers an assortment of stories in each anthology title. Very few of these stories continued from issue to issue. Most were self-contained, and were told in few pages, sometimes six or less. This was a new medium, and writers knew their readers had no prior history with these characters. So the writing was tight and well handled. The reader was taken on a journey filled with action, danger, plot twists, and some humor, all wrapped up in less than ten pages.

Since superheroes were such an exciting new concept, most of the anthology titles had a popular crime-fighting hero as their headliner. So, Superman starred in Action Comics, Batman in Detective Comics, and Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics. The characters featured in the rest of the issue could have been another superhero or two, a detective, perhaps a tuxedo-clad sorcerer, dashing soldier of fortune or a science fiction hero. A humor or “funny animal” feature usually rounded out the issue. These comics were 48, 52, 64 or more pages for a dime– a fantastic variety show in every issue. If any of these features proved to be unpopular with readers, the publisher could simply replace it with a new one. And if any heroes proved to be very popular, like Superman or Batman, they could be spun off into their own titles.

Since the 1960’s, two publishers–DC Comics and Marvel–have dominated the comic book industry. During the Golden Age, there were over 40 different publishers competing for a reader’s dime. So over 40 publishers, over a span of roughly fifteen years, produced multiple anthology titles every month, each one averaging about seven features per issue. This produced a literal flood of characters on the newsstands–a colorful cast of thousands for comic book readers to enjoy. Some of these anthology titles were popular and lasted for years, others lasted one year or even only one issue. Some characters like Superman, Batman, and Captain America have survived until today. But there are scores of obscure heroes like The Iron Skull, Doctor Frost, Minimidget, Human Meteor, Mr. Justice, Yank and Doodle, Steel Fist, The Phantom Sphinx, and Blackout that didn’t hit the big time, and are forgotten now.

And then there were the women. Only a handful of women headlined their own anthology titles, most notably Sheena, the Queen of the Jungle in Jumbo Comics, Mary Marvel in Wow Comics, and of course Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics. But, the anthology titles provided a home for many other women. Many of the anthology titles had a woman as one of their features, presumably to attract female readers. Modern day comic book readers might be surprised at the broad spectrum of heroines in Golden Age comics—daring masked vigilantes, queens of lost civilizations and intergalactic warriors, crafty reporters and master spies, witches and jungle princesses, goddesses and regular gals. The common perception is that Wonder Woman was the only heroine to fight for justice in the 1940’s. While she is the most well-known and enduring heroine, there were lots of others. Characters like Lady Fairplay, Miss Espionage, Margo the Magician, Senorita Rio, Iron Lady, and X of the Underground also paraded across the comic book page. Their time may have been brief, but they no doubt inspired some young reader with their combination of bravery and beauty.

In these very early days of comic books, there weren’t as many established rules about how women should or shouldn’t act. As a result, many of these Golden Age heroines feel bold and modern as we read them today. They are presented as fearless and unapologetic about their strength. They can fly a plane as easily as most people can drive a car. They’re smart, competent, and funny. While many are drawn in a sexy manner, they are the heroic centerpieces of their stories. They don’t waiting for a man to make the decisions for them. When a crisis occurs, these heroines take action, no matter how dangerous the situation is. Those around them have confidence in their abilities. “I knew I could count on you!” a grateful man tells Pat Patriot, after she has accepted an assignment that everyone else has refused. In truth, many of these female characters possess the same sort of authority and confidence as males. “That’s how you really want to measure an action heroine—can that role be replaced by a male?” notes sociologist Katy Gilpatric in the documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. Many modern day readers feel that superheroines have always been the second-class citizens of the comic book world. But the portrayal of women as less powerful, less capable, and less heroic than men didn’t become widespread until the 1950’s, when heroines like Batwoman were told that fighting crime was too dangerous for a female. It took the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s to change the representation of women in comics, and return more to the way they had been depicted 30 years earlier.

Another stereotype about women in comics is that they are obsessed with love and romance, and want nothing more than to settle down and get married. Again, this was a character trait that began to be written into stories more regularly starting in the 1950’s. Heroines like the Invisible Girl and the Wasp were portrayed as marriage-minded women who let the men in their lives order them around. But the heroines in this book are different. Romance is often not even an element of their stories. These women lead the same kinds of adventurous lives that men do, and they don’t express any need to change that in order to get married. Some of these heroines, like the space pilot Gale Allen, even push romantic liaisons aside when they interfere with her job. That’s not to say that these women don’t express emotions. It’s just that they show that they can control those emotions, in the same way a man can. Overall, these stories don’t express the idea that it’s a hindrance to be a woman, which was the case in the 50’s and much of the 60’s.

The heroines that you will meet in this book are not among the most famous in comic book history. They are, as the book’s title calls them “lost” heroines. Some had long careers, some made only one appearance. What these women may lack in big names they make up with heroic swagger. They stride through these stories in larger-than-life style, modern day heirs of American tall tale heroes. But they are also a reflection of their times. Keep in mind that the majority of these stories were produced during WWII. Everyone needed to take part in helping the war effort, including women. During WWII, women were stepping out of traditional roles to work in war plants, serve in the military, and fly planes. So it makes sense that women in comic books would be presented in a heroic fashion.

Still, not all comic book readers during the Golden Age were ready for strong female heroes. Beginning in 1940, the aviation-themed anthology Wings Comics featured the adventures of Jane Martin, a gallant nurse turned spy who could fly a plane and handle a gun. Perusing the pages where readers’ letters were printed reveals some differences of opinions between male and female readers regarding a proper woman’s role in comic books. The sentiments expressed in these letters sound strangely similar to those of today’s female comic book readers:

In Wings #31 (1943) a male readersreader named John writes:

“Someone is going to drop a high explosive bomb if you don’t get rid of Jane Martin, Secret Agent (ha, ha!). A woman’s place is in the home or maybe a nurse, and I mean a NURSE.”

A few months later in Wings #35 (1943), a pair of female readers respond. One writesreader named Evelyn writes:

“We girls are sick and tired of boy heroes.”

In that same issue, Charlotte adds her opinion, including a call for sisterhood among female readers:

“I believe that any and every comic book needs the feminine touch…To my way of thinking we girls should stick together!”

In Wings #43 (1944),  male Clyde expresses his desire for Jane Martin to curb her violent ways:

“I think Jane Martin could be tuned down or removed permanently…It’s not that I don’t like girls. The more the merrier, but I just don’t go for a ‘Pistol-packin’ mamma’!”

And finally, in Wings #46 (1945), Barbara has a message for publishers who don’t think females read comic books:

“I’d like to say that we girls don’t sit home reading the wallpaper. You know we like comic books too. What do you say, girls?”

Publishers did know that girls read comics. When superheroes became less popular after the end of WWII, publishers began to create new comics that would attract female readers. But they produced romantic stories, not heroic ones. It was felt that girls would find stories about dating and marriage more appealing than tales of adventurous women. When the Comics Code was instituted in 1954 in an effort to clean up comic books, it further affected the way women were portrayed. The Comic Code not only made sure that women were no longer drawn in an overly sexualized manner, but also that they be written in more traditional roles. And so, for the next decade or more, pretty but demure women who took a backseat to men populated comic books.

The stories in this book come before that era.  These stories give us a glimpse into comic books in their infancy. Like other mediums that developed in the 20th century –– movies, television, and rock ‘n’ roll –– the earliest works often feel crude by today’s standards. The writing in these stories is often raw and the art is sometimes simplistic. But there is a real vibrant quality to these stories. This is before comics were intended just as reading for kids, when they were simply entertainment. This was era when women could still be bold and powerful, and even dangerous. These women could crack a joke one minute and a crook’s jaw the next. This was a time before comic books became corporate, and marketing plans, toy lines, and big summer blockbuster movies determined what types of stories would be told. This was a time when comics were fun.

 

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