September 20, 2011

BOOKS: The Supergirls, Mike Madrid (2009)

The Supergirls is a breezy history of comic book heroines and the challenges they've faced in being accepted by the reader, not to mention by the male characters who dominate the superhero world. Chapters on each decade alternate with chapters on more specific overall issues -- sex and the superheroine, for instance, or what happens when groups of female heroes bond. 

The history of superheroines over the last 70 years is in many ways a re-telling of the history of women; as roles for women have changed, characters who were too deeply rooted in their historical era have faded away. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, for instance, was a spectacularly sexy character who couldn't be tamed down enough to survive the creation of the Comics Code in the mid-1950s. The fondness of comic book writers for frequent updates of their fictional universes has allowed some characters to stick around for decades, though, with each new revision bringing their history in line with current views of what women "should" be; Madrid's chapter on the many image overhauls, reboots, and rewritten origin stories of Wonder Woman is particularly entertaining.

Madrid shows a sharp awareness of the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which comics have failed to allow their female characters the same level of power as their male characters. As an example, he notes that a disproportionate number of superheroines have "pose and point" powers -- controlling the weather, telepathy or other psychic powers -- that don't require them to run, lift heavy objects, or do anything that might muss their hair; they just have to stand still and gesture dramatically, looking fabulous in the process.

This is a smart and affectionate piece of pop culture history, well worth the time if you have any interest in the subject matter.

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