Women in Comic Books
I blame everything on one girl I met in San Diego. In the very hot San Diego summer of 1996, a daughter of a family friend and her little brother brought over all kinds of loot they had acquired at the San Diego Comic-Con (renamed a year later, Comic-Con International). What immediately caught my eye was a very large and detailed poster featuring Wonder Woman. Right then and there, I decided I would have one of those posters and I would go to this San Diego Comic-Con and I would have fun. So I begged my dad to take me and he said that it was okay. I went, I saw, I looted. The sheer amount of free stuff was too good to be true. Most importantly, I found my Wonder Woman poster. The beautiful Amazon, Diana Prince, displayed in her rightful glory, as a powerful, cunning and fierce warrior was before my eyes and in my hot little hands. The artwork was stunning; it captured the strength and beauty of the famous heroine perfectly. She stands with her back to her audience, her head cast to her right looking over her shoulder. Her magic lasso rests in her hands, which are poised to nab an evildoer at any given moment. Wonder Woman’s long black hair cascades down her back and frames her features elegantly. Her body is taut and lean and her muscles are well defined and toned to perfection.
There is definitely something alluring about that poster. It holds a place of honor on my mother's door at work. While I was displaying my loot when I got back home to Virginia, my mother begged me for that poster. Of all the neat stuff I brought back, she wanted the one thing I specifically went to the convention to acquire. How annoying. But I understood why she’d want it. She was drawn to it for the same reasons I was when I first glimpsed it in the hands of another girl that hot summer night, a woman personifying strength and beauty.
Women as characters in comic books have played many different roles and been drawn in many different ways. The first I think of is Wonder Woman, created in 1941, in her red and yellow bustier and blue and white star short pants, her magic golden gauntlets, glowing magic lasso, red boots and golden headband with a red star in the middle adorning her raven hair. She is a beautiful woman but a fearsome foe to would be thieves and crooks. The next image that comes to mind looks like a Dick Tracy cartoon where he is sitting at his desk, reading the paper. Suddenly, a beautiful blonde woman walks through his open door. Her hair is done up in a very 50's style. She stands in the doorway wearing a stylish brown suit, hat and purse to match. The stunning colors that stick out are the deep red lipstick adorning her pouty lips and the yellow of her blonde hair. Later on in the story, this same woman is kidnapped and tied to a chair. It is the old damsel in distress role. Then there are women in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. They are not superheroes, nor damsels in distress; they are just people. They are regular women in jeans and t-shirts. These are the modern women that we all know, love and (being the appropriate gender) are. The Sandman was created in 1989 and lasted till 1996. Alongside the regular women are the occasional personifications of complex entities like Death, Desire, and Delirium. Their main purpose is to tell a story through that perspective. There is a fourth role women in comic books play. It is one they play alongside the everyday women of Neil Gaiman’s stories. They are the women who traverse the pages of comic books wearing strategically placed pieces of cloth and skin-tight costumes. These women are the heroes, the villains, and the characters that cannot be categorized as good or bad. But they too are an important part of comic books. Be they spandex-wearing superheroes, damsels in distress, characters in a good old-fashioned story, or scantily clad anti-heroines, they are all women. The depiction of women in comic books has changed over the last fifty years and not necessarily for the better, but there is hope yet.
When I first think about women in comic books, I immediately turn to the negative aspects that I see. I see the unrealistic visuals that always pop out. For example, why do the women have perfect bodies? How is it their hair always lands just so and they never ever have a flaw or blemish anywhere? But most importantly, where are their clothes? So, I make attempts to answer these grueling questions that plague my view of the comic book world. It is necessary to note that I speak only of comic books found in specialty bookstores as opposed to comic strips found in daily newspapers.
I found the current comic book, Witchblade, published by Image Comics. It is the comic book, which unabashedly exposes its main character, Sara in all her feminine glory wearing nothing but a carefully draped and positioned web-like substance and a large glove where the web-like substance originates. The glove, which is the Witchblade itself, gives its wearer special powers. The book has a gimmick for multiple storylines and a very attractive heroine. It’s normal superhero comic book fare, in my humble opinion. The two concepts of a gimmick and a beautiful heroine are not deviant or wrong, in and of themselves. But I can’t get past the fact that her creator was possessed to draw her half-naked when her superpowers are in use. And how in the world does it stay on her body anyway?
Speaking of bodies quite prominently displayed, there is Catwoman. Created in the 1940s for DC Comics, she has progressed a very long way since her inception. She began wearing stylish black dresses of the forties and a black cowl much like Batman’s. She moved onto the small screen in the Batman television show in the 1960s, played first by Julie Newmar and wearing skintight cat suits, if you’ll pardon the pun. From there her look changed forever. Now she appears to wear almost nothing. Her breasts are exaggeratedly large, and her costume appears so tight that every muscle and indentation in her flawless physique is perfectly visible. For example, one can very easily locate her belly button and the curvature of her abdominal muscles. How many women do you know with perfectly spherical breasts? The only things that have stayed the same in her costume since the forties are the cowl with cat ears, high cheekbones and long wavy black hair. I noted the previous differences in Catwoman while reading Trina Robbins’s book, The Great Women Superheroes (163). The differences are a bit unnerving.
Why does it bother me? What difference does it make that one comic book character female is wearing a glove and little else and another comic book character female is wearing jeans and a t-shirt? It matters because my view of the comic book world is far too cynical. I enjoy a decent story in comic books like any other person. I like to enjoy the art that has been so carefully rendered to match the text and dialogue of the story. I like to appreciate a comic book for all of its aspects and features. It is definitely not a credit to the comic book when its sole endearing quality is the half-naked chick on the cover. That half-naked chick on the cover will immediately cause me to walk by and find another book entirely. All the half-naked chicks on the covers of comic books featuring women main characters have made me extremely wary of most comic books in general. I am afraid to pick up something new that looks like it is going to be insulting to my intelligence and sensibilities. I have also found that the comic books with the jeans and t-shirt clad female character have a tendency to be a lot better visually, artistically, and literarily than the half-naked chick books. Luckily there is hope for comic book women, superheroes and otherwise. It isn’t all cookie cutter women with big breasts and skintight costumes.
When the concepts of “female” “comic book” and “superhero” are all strung together in a row, I see images of women with perfect bodies come to mind. I became acquainted with the error of my thinking while reading respected comic book artist Trina Robbins’s book From Girls to Grrrlz; a History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines. Robbins introduced me to the likes of Little Lotta published by Harvey Comics in 1955. She was a young girl, roughly the age of eight or nine years old and there was a “lotta Little Lotta” (Robbins Girls 20-21). To say she was fat is somewhat of an understatement. The image included in Robbins’s book showed Lotta skiing. The visual punch line is that she is using two wooden sleds as skis. Another imperfect but wonderful character is Francine from Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, which has been published since the early 1990s. Francine has a round face and a small collection of fat underneath her chin. She appears as slightly overweight. Her stomach is not flat and she has no discernable muscle tone. Like Little Lotta, Francine is “pleasingly plump” and very far from any stereotypes of anorexic and exaggerated female forms (Robbins Girls 139). And last, but certainly not least, there is Roberta Gregory’s heroine from Naughty Bits, Bitchy Bitch. The character is intentionally drawn grotesquely for the sake of comedy. Her hair is affright, her mascara is running, and her breasts are sagging. She is downright hideous. She is an exaggeration of the female form but in the opposite direction of beautiful bombshells with bountiful bosoms.
Along with the imperfect body types displayed in comic books next to the perfect ones, it stands to reason to think of the artists themselves. They can’t be blamed too much for the way women are drawn and depicted as gorgeous beauties. Comic books are, after all, an art form and with art forms there are general stylistic rules to adhere to. One of those is proportion and realism. Women have breasts and they have a tendency to come in more than one size that varies from woman to woman. They are going to be drawn. Otherwise, it’s difficult to tell who we are cheering on to victory and what their sex is. For example, look at comic book art genius Will Eisner, one of the biggest and most important names in comic book history. One of the female characters, Ellen, from his comic book The Spirit, published in the fifties, is beautiful, blond, has a nice body and is fashionable. But she looks realistic. Her body is well proportioned and her face is very expressive and natural. I found her in an anthology of comic book history, The Art of the Comic Book; An Aesthetic History, by Robert C. Harvey (Harvey 71).With Ellen, Eisner has achieved the goals of realism and proportion desired for an appealing female comic book character.She also perfectly fits the style of the fifties and exemplifies the ideal body type.
The ideal body type of the fifties is recognizable by looking back at media like fashion magazines, television, advertisements and movies. Those media show women with tiny waists, supported breasts, and understated tummies. Their faces seemed milky and flawless and their lips darkened with rouge and black lined eyes. An excellent example surviving that era is a pinup of Betty Grable I found in Madcaps, Screwballs and Con Women; The Female Trickster in American Culture by Lori Landay (150). The pinup shows a rear view of a very shapely Grable in a white swimsuit, heels, and a coy smile. Images in comic books of the time reflected that same beauty.
The comic books had a tendency to also reflect the social conditions of the time as well.Women in the comic books of the late forties, fifties and even early sixties were portrayed in three ways.
The first way was as career oriented girls of the forties in comic books like Nellie the Nurse, Tessie the Typist, and Millie the Model (Robbins Girls 30). They were comic books geared towards female readers using the three top jobs a woman of the forties and fifties could hope to get: nurse, secretary and model. When push came to shove, or rather, when option of marriage pushed career, it was either one or the other for the heroine.
The second role was in the very popular romance comic books of the day. A woman in those stories could be the good girl who gets her heart broken. She could be the bad girl who breaks all the boys’ hearts. She could also be the good girl who gets the man and lives her happy married life. Finally she could be the bad girl who tries to be good but can’t give up her wild side and goes back to being bad.
The third role was the bouncy teenager in books like Betty and Veronica and Josie and the Pussycats to name well-known titles. These types of books depicted their heroines as boy crazed and completely fun loving teenagers. Betty and Veronica, of course, spent all their time fighting over who would get to date Archie and constantly vied viciously for his attentions and affections. Josie and her band, the Pussycats, always managed to find their way into some sort of adventure or mischief and get their way out of it by the end. Josie and the Pussycats went on to be a moderately successful cartoon show. The characters consisted of red-haired leader, Josie, dumb blond stereotype, Melody, and black intelligent woman, Valerie, plus a healthy supporting cast of family and friends. The interesting thing to note in that cast is Valerie herself. In the liner notes for the compact disc, Saturday Morning Cartoon’s Greatest Hits, it is noted that she is prominently featured on the show, is clearly very intelligent and undeniably a minority. This is something that was accepted in the cartoon and far before its time as far as the real world was concerned (SMCGH liner 8).
The way the women were drawn visually varied greatly as well. From reading From Girls to Grrrlz, I noticed one very significant trend. The women who were drawn realistically, in terms of body shape, clothing choice, and footwear, tended to be more successful with their female readership. The women who were drawn like floozies, wearing skimpy clothing and six-inch spike heels only had comic book runs of maybe four or five issues. This trend sends the message that the realistic depiction of women appealed to the female readers much more than exaggerated floozies (Robbins Girls 36, 38).
When did the earnest attempts at realism and appealing to the female audience change? Between 1961 and 1963, the comic books appealing to women were romance comics, one of the top two genres selling on newsstands. After 1964 and there onward, the superhero genre was leading the way, however. By 1977, the last romance title by Marvel Comics, Young Romance, ended its thirty-year run (Robbins Girls 77). While the romance comic books were dying, female superheroes were leaving their mark. Unfortunately, they were not catching hold with female readers the same way the romance and teenage comic books had. During the eighties attempts were made to create female superheroes that would be appealing to a female audience. The effort was noble and I appreciate it immensely, but it wasn’t enough to ensnare the interests of women. When did the women go from the ideal body type of the fifties to the half naked Sara from Witchblade? Following along this stream of consciousness, the conclusion is firmly made that males are the only ones who read comics (Robbins Superheroes 166). Naturally, comics that appeal to them are created and mass-produced. What resulted are characters like Angela and the women of Witchblade.
What also resulted were two characters by the names of Glory and Avengelyne. Rob Liefeld created the two characters. They very much fit the role of the scantily clad, buxom superheroines. Trina Robbins included a sample picture of these two women in her book, The Great Women Superheroes (167). I have paid extremely close attention to this one picture every time I have skimmed the book. There has always been something extremely odd about the picture that I couldn’t put my finger on the first few times I saw it. It occurred to me that there was no possible way that those women could be standing upright given the way they were drawn. I tried to stand the way they are standing. I started by standing up straight. Then, I looked at the picture and saw their bottoms were sticking up a little bit and they were bending forward at the waist slightly. Then came the hard part. I had to throw my shoulders back, thrust my chest forward, and arch my back so my shoulders could be in line with my hips. Needless to say I held that position for about three seconds. It was so incredibly painful. By doing this I proved that no woman could possibly stand that way. I am of course ignoring the fact that both these women have forty-two inch busts, fifteen inch waists and thirty inch hips as their measurements, thus making them impossible to exist at all. Apparently these exaggerated female forms are very popular and appealing to the male readership of comic books.
I am not the only one who has noticed the absurdity of unnecessarily exaggerated and mostly nude women in comic books. It has, of course, been approached in a satirical and comical way. Eisner award-winning comic book artist and writer Jhonen Vasquez approached it in issue number two of his four-part series Squee! published by Slave Labor Graphics. The female superhero Vasquez made fun of was tall, blonde, large breasted, scantily clad, and dumb. It was an exaggeration of an exaggeration and bitingly clever. In the satire, he took great pains to point out the inadequacies of that superhero type and brought a touch of realism to the whole scenario. It was proposed and wondered how she managed to stand up straight with her tiny waist and be so very top heavy at the same time. With a quick poke to the forehead, her precarious balance was offset and her skull was crushed by the weight of her enormous mammaries (Vasquez 14-17). A bit gruesome, but the point was clear, the depiction of women in comic books has become far too unrealistic and is actually displeasing to a select comic book audience. Unfortunately that audience is in a comic book minority. Vasquez’s audience consists of comic book readers who do not usually ascribe to the popular superhero comic book trend. He is published by a non-mainstream publishing group, Slave Labor Graphics, and is not distributed quite as widely as larger publishing groups like DC Comics, Image Comics, and Marvel Comics.
Highly acclaimed writer in several literary forms including novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, and comic books, Neil Gaiman made similar observations. He wrote a three issue miniseries for Image Comics called Angela. Angela, much like her contemporary Sara from Witchblade, wears carefully draped clothing so as not to cross over into the realm of pornography. She is an angel, with wings and everything. One of the male characters is being escorted through heaven, where these angels live and asks why all the women are dressed like “exotic dancers”. He receives no answer, but the message of the comment is clear. Gaiman was making sure that the readers were well aware of the fact that his vision of Angela was considerably more clothed than artist Todd McFarlane’s vision (Robbins Superheroes 169).
Fully covered and properly clothed female characters in comic books do exist, I promise. What’s more, mainstream publishers are currently publishing the fabled comic books I speak of. One such comic book is Kabuki by David Mack, published by Image comic books. That’s right, the same people that brought us Witchblade, scantily clad superheroine. Kabuki is not scantily clad. She is a Japanese secret agent skilled in several forms of martial arts and self-defense techniques. Her costume is designed to cover her entire body except for her shoulders, which are her only vulnerable part. She even wears a bulletproof mask to protect her face and true identity. What’s truly interesting about the comic book is the fact that Kabuki is based on a real person, David Mack’s constant companion and girlfriend, Connie Jiang. Included as extra pages in the Skin Deep trade paper back (a collection of individual comic books bound together, usually for reprinting purposes) are several pictures of Jiang posing for pictures that were translated into scenes from the comic books (Mack 98). This is a credit to Mack for two reasons. The first is his sincere attempt at a realistic rendition of a woman in the pages of a comic book. The second is that he succeeds in his endeavor and it results in beautiful art.
More beautiful art abounds in Death: The High Cost of Living, written by Neil Gaiman, penciled by Chris Bachalo, and inked by Mark Buckingham. DC Vertigo publishes it. DC Vertigo is DC Comics’ fantasy line of comic books “suggested for mature readers” as all their comic books indicate on the covers. As Robbins states best in The Great Women Superheroes, “Death is portrayed as a perky teenager wearing heavy eye makeup and black jeans” (170). This portrayal is quite far from the spooky, creepy, black hooded Grim Reaper we are all so very familiar with. The three issue miniseries from 1993 is based on an old belief that once a century Death spends a day as a mortal so she better understands and appreciates the lives she takes to the other side. She is an extremely dynamic and vivacious character. Death is amazing because she can find more enjoyment in living one day than the people who live every day, as is witnessed in the series. She has the ability to be amazing and dynamic and all she wears is a black tank top, black jeans, black pointy boots and a silver ankh. It goes to show that what the character is wearing really has no bearing on the storytelling.
Now, we come to a third character covered from head to foot. We have Harley Quinn, who recently made a solo appearance in Batman: Harley Quinn published by DC Comics. This single issue written by Paul Dini, penciled by Yvel Guichet and inked by Aaron Sowd introduced the Batman: The Animated Series cohort of the Joker into DC continuity. Previously she only existed in the cartoon series and was separate from the comic book. She now holds her rightful place next to the sociopath and arch nemesis of Batman, the Joker, within the hallowed comic book walls. Putting Harley next to her peer, Catwoman, mentioned earlier, not much is different about the way they are drawn. Both women are covered from head to foot in their costumes. Both women are wearing skintight costumes that reveal certain undeniable curves in the female form. The differences are Harley’s perfectly round and perky breasts are drawn proportional to the rest of her body, whereas Catwoman’s look out of place and awkwardly large. Whereas Harley’s physique emphasizes her well-defined muscle tone Catwoman’s emphasizes her belly button and breasts. There’s also the actual character of Harley Quinn as in what she is like. She has a tendency to let the Joker push her around while she is madly in love with him. In Harley Quinn, she gets the opportunity to push back. She is a physically strong and athletic woman that appeals to the side of me that nods and says, “Girls kick butt.” But she is crazy and silly enough where I see those same qualities within myself and I giggle along with her and at her antics.
To sum up these three women: Kabuki, Death and Harley have a few qualities in common that appeal to my picky tastes. Kabuki and Harley both know how to use their bodies as weapons and shields. They are athletic and strong as I wish I could be. Death and Kabuki are both very real in their portrayals. The writing and drawing that define them are extremely realistic and entertaining. Harley and Death both know how to make me laugh at the world and myself. All three of them are treated as people and independent women in their own rights and that appeals to my own independence. These three women are simply lovely, so why aren’t there more of them?
There aren’t more of them because comic book readers would rather buy the half-naked chick books or the other comic books that don’t feature women at all. Fact: in 1994 92.9% of DC comic book readers were men as opposed to the 5.9% who were women (Robbins Superheroes 207). This statistic comes from a survey of DC Comics readers, but it explains quite a bit on why the comic book industry is the way it is and why it is producing what it is. The men who read these comic books want to see their scantily clad super women and half-naked anti-heroines. It’s a vicious cycle, however. The female readership is not going to rise as long as books like this continue to be distributed, but if these books are not distributed and created, the industry is going to lose a portion of its male readership. Along with that, there is no guarantee that if they do create more female friendly comic books, women will actually take the time to purchase them and read them. The women that actually take an interest in comic books, like me, don’t give up until they find what they’re looking for: a good story coupled with good art.
Comic books, being both a visual and literary medium, rely on two aspects to get a story told. One is the visual aspect. How do the characters look? Is the background setting appropriate for the story? Is the comic book drawn well overall? The second is the literary aspect. Does the story make sense? How does the dialogue fit in to the storytelling? What message is being conveyed? Is there a message? Having one aspect distract from the other in the way that Witchblade and similar titles do, demeans the quality of the work being done in comic books today and subverts the work of comic books done in the past.
Women in modern comic books can be stereotyped and lumped into the category of scantily clad airheads, but they don’t have to be. Their role is not that limited. The role of women in comic books has changed because of one very obvious and easy to understand reason, comic books simply aren’t being produced to appeal to women any more. Most of the romance comic books and teen comic books from the forties and fifties have faded away to barely memories. They have been replaced by steroid enhanced and testosterone driven superheroes. The comic book industry has found safe haven in boys and men of all ages and it would seem they are happy staying there. What they want is women drawn like Angela and Sara from Witchblade. They don’t want Betty and Veronica, Tessie the Typist, and Francine from Strangers in Paradise. However, the perseverance of a few to breathe new life into women within comic books in the mainstream will not go unnoticed or unwanted. What happens to women in comic books in the future is anyone’s guess. It’s my hope that more women will see the genius of intelligent writers like Neil Gaiman and wonderful artists like David Mack and see that there are comic books they can enjoy.
Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History. University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Landay, Lori. Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women; Female Tricksters in American Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Mack, David. Kabuki: Skin Deep. Fullerton, CA: Image Comics, 1998.
Robbins, Trina. From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.
Robbins, Trina. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton, Massachusetts: Kitchen Sink Press, 1996.
Sall, Ralph. Saturday Morning Cartoons' Greatest Hits: Liner Notes. MCA Records 1995.
Vasquez, Jhonen. Squee! Issue 2. San Jose, CA: Slave Labor Graphics, 1997.
Women in Comic Books © 2001 by Jessica Robinson. Reproduction of any part without permission is strictly prohibited.