Women in comics: Part I
Web article for Sideshow Collectibles
The comic book industry is often thought of as a “boys club.” An industry run by men, featuring predominantly male characters with books marketed to a specifically male demographic, leaving little room for female characters, creators or readers. While this is the perception, is it the truth? And has the industry always been this way? Let’s examine this. And to do so, let’s start at the beginning...
It can be argued that the first comic strips were the primitive cave drawings used to tell the story of the hunt, and later evolving into heiroglyphics and tapestries. So, in some form or another, comics have always been a part of our culture. But, what we consider to be the modern comic traces its beginnings to 1895’s “The Yellow Kid,” which is considered the official birth of the comics industry. Only a year after the debut of the “The Yellow Kid” as the medium was still taking its first steps, the industry also saw its first female creator. A young illustrator named Rose O’Neill began contributing comic strips to “Truth” magazine. She later hit it big with her “Kewpie” characters, the inspiration for the pop-culture phenomenon, the “Kewpie Doll” which was probably the most well recognized character in America until Mickey Mouse.
However, Rose wasn’t the only woman working in comics then. Several women comic-creators were busy making their marks on the scene, creators like Louise Quarles, Kate Carew, Jean Mohr and Grace Gebbie Weidersheim. Weidersheim, changing her name to Grace Drayton after getting married, illustrated several children’s books and comics, such as “Toodles” and “Dolly Dimples” but is most well known for creating the Campbell’s Soup Kids. Her rosy-cheeked children were a crossover smash known throughout the world though her name never appeared on the art.
While Rose O’Neill and Grace Drayton’s creations were sensations with the public at large, Nell Brinkley was making big changes in the comics industry itself from the 1910s to the 1930s. Abandoning the cute, cartoony toddler style illustrations, Nell drew comics about independent, single women on-the-go and as part of the work force. Influencing an entire generation of creators, female characters in the post-Nell Brinkley era were strong, single, spitfires, who smoked, drank and could hold their own with their male counterparts. It was around this time, evolving from the newspaper strips, that the comic book was born.
With the boom of the new comic book industry, World War II had also begun. In the war torn 1940s, the comics industry saw its biggest rise in female creators yet. As with the rest of the workforce during that time, many comics industry jobs were left vacant by men who had gone overseas to fight, and women stepped in to fill the pages. The rise in female creators also saw a rise in female characters both in comic books and newspaper strips. But these characters were more than just damsels in distress. They were detectives, spies and adventurers, creating a diverse marketplace and, likewise, a diverse spectrum of readers, from the lonely war wives to the soldiers abroad.
During this time, one of the industry’s biggest stars emerged, Dale Messick. Her comic strip character Brenda Starr made her debut in 1940. The quick-witted redhead was a glamorous, adventure-seeking reporter and a big hit with readers. At its peak, “Brenda Starr, Reporter” appeared in 250 newspapers and is still being published to this day. But even Messick had a rough time breaking into the comics biz. Born Dalia Messick, she began signing her work under the more androgynous name “Dale” to get around both the sexism of the time and editors who would rather take her to lunch than take a serious look at her work. Even decades later, she would get requests from male readers who, thinking she was a man, would ask for “more daring” private commissions of her character. She would send them drawings of Brenda doing things like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, coyly asking if that was “daring” enough. “She was more like a diva movie star than a cartoonist”, her granddaughter Laura Rohrman would recall of Messick who dyed her hair red like her character and had the same impeccable grooming and expensive wardrobe.
The 1940s also saw the first female superheroines, characters like Fantomah, Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, Black Widow, The Woman in Red, The Red Tornado and Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Miss Fury was the first to be created by a female cartoonist, Tarpé Mills. Like Dale Messick, she too changed her name to avoid discrimination, dropping her first name June. Unlike her present day counterparts’ more scant costumes, Miss Fury was clad head to toe in a dark outfit that revealed very little skin.
Then, there was Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman would be the breakout hit and most well known of all female superheroes. Co-created by William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Wonder Woman made her first appearance in “All Star Comics #8” in December of 1941. Writing under the pen name Charles Moulton, William Moulton Marston was a psychologist and was well known as the inventor of the polygraph. He had a deep interest in the educational potential of comics, and wrote her as a model of the era’s new type of woman. One who would triumph not with fists or firepower but with love. He proclaimed, “America's woman of tomorrow should be made the hero of a new type of comic strip. By this, I mean a character with all the allure of an attractive woman, but with the strength also of a powerful man. There isn't enough love in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. What women presently lack is the dominance or self-assertive power to put over and enforce her love diaries. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force, but kept her loving.”
Being the most well known female character also made Wonder Woman a big target. In the 1950’s, the comic book industry came under attack, due in large part to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent.” In the book, Wertham alleged that comic books were dangerous and a cause of juvenile delinquency. Parents were outraged and a Senate Subcommittee was formed to deal with the issue. Among Wertham’s arguments against comics were accusations that “Wonder Woman” featured subversive content, pointing out the bondage subtext and the idea that her strength and feminist attitude suggested she was a lesbian. To deal with the pressures on the industry, the Comics Code was adopted by the comics industry as a form of self-censorship. And the comics of the 50s and onward would be much tamer.
During the late 40s and on through the 50s, the Romance comics saw their heyday and adult women were a very major part of these comics’ readership. By 1950 there were over 148 different romance titles, and soon, virtually every publisher was putting out romance comics. However, the postwar years saw a decline in female creators and romance comics, which were almost all being created by men, whose stories began reinforcing the idea that a woman’s ultimate goal should be to get married. Still, the comics portrayed working women characters as intelligent and modern with real world problems.
But as the 1950’s drew to a close, female characters began to fall back into supporting roles with superheroines mostly being members of groups and not stars of their own titles. Not surprisingly, female readership began to decline.
By then, the mainstream comics industry was all but overrun with comics by guys, for guys. The next growth in women's comics would occur on the fringes. In the outskirts of the comics industry, the underground and indy scene began to rise. At first fueled by the women’s liberation movement and feminism, the female aspect of the indy scene was a platform for social and political commentary, over the years becoming a vast and diverse alternative to the mainstream selection. While still not able to outsell their superhero cousins, the independent landscape grew into its own unique culture. Among the alternative choices to the superhero comics were the Japanese imports, manga. The popularity among American girls reading manga would turn the comics industry on its ear.
SLG Publishing’s Editor-In-Chief Jennifer de Guzman, who recently received the Friends of Lulu “Women of Distinction” award, shares the following comments. “I think manga has made ‘mainstream’ publishers face what for them is an uncomfortable truth: There is nothing inherent in the sequential art medium that does not appeal to girls and women. That's something I've known and other independent publishers have known all along, but when the dominant publishers are forced to recognize it, it means that there's potential for a shift in perceptions.“
In an attempt to appeal to the female manga reader, many companies have made attempts to crossover into the manga territory, either by simply changing the format of the books to imitate the smaller size or by creating manga influenced branches of their companies and hiring Japanese influenced illustrators. Also, in an effort to reach more potential young women customers, DC Comics has recently launched their “Minx” line of graphic novels aimed at female readers. Whether these new initiatives will work to bring more female fans into the American comics market remains to be seen.
Chynna Clugston, the popular writer/artist who has worked on indy hits like “Blue Monday” and “Scooter Girl” as well as mainstream titles like “Legion of Superheroes” and “Marvel Team-Up,” looks to the future and notes, “I hope there will be a day when they stop looking at [women] as a novelty, though.” She adds, “Manga is helping that along, that much is obvious. Most women aren't concerned about reading something that makes them feel like going out and beating someone's ass, most of us want to read stories that have an emotional charge… interpersonal relations are far more important. Not just romance and all that crap, but events and character's reactions to them, to each other.”
Along with the diverse independent comics market, the popularity of the internet and web comics has led to what may be the largest number of female creators in the industry to date. In fact, this years Eisner’s (the Academy Awards of comics) featured more women nominated than in any other year before. But how much of this will spill over into the mainstream “capes and tights” portion of the industry? There is still a lot of room for change, but with the large number of female manga readers and the new trend of American comics being marketed to female fans, we face what may be the next great turning point in the history of comics.