Among other things, feminism taught me how to play guitar. As a young white whelp who had never had to know any better, I was unexpectedly drawn to the menace and message of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. Although I arrived a little late to the party, Sleater-Kinney’s breakout Call the Doctor was one of the first albums that I ever purchased from a store where tattoos were mandatory business attire. From there it was all back catalogues of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Boss Hog, to say nothing of bands whose names began with other letters of the alphabet. I never got all that good at guitar, but I certainly adopted all of the crass creativity and critical awareness that would first inform my politics and then my pedagogy. And which would also somewhat understandably inform the way that I came to regard female characters in mainstream comics, whom I felt were being artistically abused by their unrealistic proportions and seemingly undue salaciousness. (If you need some visual reference here, the new blog Escher Girls is committed to interrogating some of the most extreme skimpiness and impossible elasticity of female figure drawing in modern comics.)
Until a few years ago, this is why I thought I was being a good feminist by not reading Power Girl, the eponymous title of a DC Comics character whose most famous feature is the “boob window” on her costume. Yes, “boob window.” This is pretty much the accepted nomenclature for the oval absence that reveals her swelling cleavage through an otherwise skintight white spandex leotard. (A study of the history of her costume can be read here.) Whereas Superman’s chest was emblazoned with an “S” that proudly signified his Kryptonian family’s crest and Batman’s bat symbol signified, well, a bat, Power Girl’s permanent wardrobe malfunction seemed to literally embody the very worst of comics, which – despite my actual enjoyment of the medium and its newly warmed welcome at the fringes of academic interest – continued to endorse an anatomical ignorance of women’s bodies. This is even taking into account that, yes, we are talking about drawings of fictional women who are super-powered. Still, it seemed excessive. And so, as a devotee of Kathleen Hanna’s dictum of “revolution, girl style,” Power Girl was the last thing that I was supposed to want to look at.
I had arrived at this conclusion without ever having read a single issue of Power Girl in the first place, of course, which itself affirms the sad fact that I hadn’t learned anything from my deafeningly socially conscious music collection after all. To jump to a judgment based solely on bra size is perhaps as bad as just saying that all female superheroes suck – a prototypical fanboy sophistry (which I have literally heard actual human males say on more than one occasion). Because of course they don’t suck. It turns out, in fact, that Power Girl is pretty awesome. Despite a basically byzantine character biography and continuity within the shared DC Comics universe that dates back to her first appearance in 1976, Power Girl remained a member of the Justice Society of America (which is like the Justice League’s B-team – a mix of old-timers and ingénues) and was given her own ongoing title in 2009 with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Amanda Conner. This series defied all that was static about mainstream comics by actually being fun to read. Whereas Superman could never deviate too far from his role as the world’s biggest boy scout and the brooding grittiness of Batman made him seem like kind of a bummer to be around, Power Girl was as punchy and powerful as she was annoyed with having to keep doing this shit. Saving the world and whatnot. Which, when you think about it, seems not only like a lot of hard work, but also a real impediment to ever making plans. Yes, Power Girl was still saddled with a boob window, but whatever was supposed to be sexy or titillating about the character was met with a sense of humor that juxtaposed brains with brawn (and breasts). As she balanced super heroism with the day-to-day business of running a major tech company as her secret identity Karen Starr – to say nothing of the demands of pet ownership – Power Girl became a character whose costume became less important than simply rooting for her to have an evening where she could throw on some sweatpants and do nothing like the rest of us.
Amanda Conner’s figure work is easily eclipsed by her attention to facial expressions, and as Power Girl vacillated between the joy of actually hitting space monsters and the mind-numbing tedium of constantly being hit on, Conner’s cartooning navigates the minute muscular differences between smirks and scowls. Despite her overt curves, Power Girl became a character whose character was literally written on her face. Traditional supervillains notwithstanding, Power Girl was also constantly besieged by the misguided and awkward advances of the various men and boys with whom she came into contact – ironically mirroring those male readers, I’d argue, who fail the “I’m up here” test of looking women in the eyes.
The series was therefore at its funniest and most subversive (and frankly maybe even a little feminist) when Power Girl was fighting both as a superhero and as a woman; the threat of inopportune and unwanted male attention became as persistent and tough to tackle as anything else.
The series took on a slightly more serious tone after the Gray/Palmiotti/Conner run ended at twelve issues, but Judd Winick and Sami Basri’s subsequent take on the series maintained the integrity of the character while adding a sense of fragility – both in the Basri’s less bold linework and in Winick’s plotting, which emphasized the oddly relatable and often mundane relations between Karen and her employees in the offices of Starr Labs. Also, there was some pretty awesome stuff with dinosaurs, which the kid in me – who, for the record, was not actually allowed to read comics as a kid – couldn’t help but think was pretty awesome.
Sadly, Power Girl ended after 27 issues, and she did not survive whatever initial editorial mandates were in place in the September 2011 DC Comics “The New 52” relaunch, about which there was too much controversy regarding the depiction of female characters to address here. Please read this, this, and this for a necessary overview about the damage done to female characters and the almost complete absence of female creators in this relaunch, which is oh so slowly being remedied by a major corporation who maybe should have thought this through in the first place. In May of this year, though, Power Girl returns to the DCU alongside Huntress – whose own costume’s “navel window” also has a surprisingly storied history – in the series World’s Finest, of which the first cover seems to suggest that Power Girls’ boob window has been filled in and replaced by an ensemble that is less objectifying than it is ugly, like she’s wearing a lobster bib from the future and the feathered hairstyle of an overzealous extra in the background of a Pat Benatar video.
This is all to say that as I came to look past the disproportionately sexual bodies of female superheroes in mainstream comics and actually, like, read the books – which runs counter to conventional outrage, which is just to hate shit outright and hope that the people rally behind you – I learned that there is a lot to like and actually feel good about. Batwoman, Hellcat, X23, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Firestar, Scarlet, the Birds of Prey… however and whomever they may be drawn by, there are still many characters and stories that, despite what their costumes and cleavage would have you assume, convey a sense depth and conflictedness that far outstrips the editorial strictures to which their male counterparts are confined due to legacy or licensing. In many compelling cases, the stories of female superheroes take more creative risks precisely because the publishers assume that their predominantly male readership isn’t paying attention.
This is perhaps the best lesson from Trina Robbins’s classic study, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Women’s Comics from Teens to Zines (Chronicle Books, 1999). Even in a medium that has notoriously suffered from bust-inflation and damsel-in-distressism, it is a mistake to simply discount female characters for the work of their infelicitous, inexperienced, or straight up discriminatory creators. Especially in her chapter on “Girls’ Comics: 1941-1957,” Robbins reminds us of the many typists, nurses, actresses, models, and girlfriends whose romance comics accounted for one quarter of all comics being published by 1950. Of the many characters who starred in their own titles or strips, it turns out that pretty much most of their names ended with the same lilting long e: Millie, Nellie, Cindy, Jeanie, Melody, Taffy, Candy, Hedy, Katy, Suzie, Susie, Torchy, Tessie, Margie, Sunny, and Patsy. This Patsy, by the way, will eventually become the Patsy Walker/Hellcat of the current Marvel Universe, who has come a long way, baby, from her days as an easily outmatched advocate for women’s liberation, as Robbins illustrates with some dialogue from a 1945 story: “Are equal rights worth the loss of one’s boyfriend?… A thousand times no! Let’s get busy, women!” (26). The modern Patsy Walker, on the other hand, is pretty insistent about disavowing the Girl Talk culture of yesteryear, as we see in the 2009 limited series, Patsy Walker: Hellcat by writer Kathryn Immonen and artists Stuart Immonen and David Lafuente: “I answer the call of the desperate! The call of the oppressed! I answer to no law but my own!… I do not answer the telephone!”
It is with clarity, purpose, and patience that Trina Robbins’s book traverses the annals of vapid misrepresentations and desperate future-housewives of popular comics through the 1970s including Young Romance, Career Girl Romances, and Wartime Romances. Even in the burgeoning underground comics scene, however, women were still subject to the men with the pen: “Sadly, most of the male underground cartoonists understood as little of the new women’s movement as the newspapers did, and reacted to what they perceived as a threat by drawing comix filled with graphic violence directed mostly at women” (85). In this era, Robbins’s own autobiography intersects with her historical survey, as she contributed her comics to some of most important feminist newspapers and anthologies of the time, including It Ain’t Me Babe, Wimmen’s Comix, Wet Satin, and many more. Like most underground comix, though, these books suffered from uneven quality, unreliable financing, and accusations of pornography, from which few were about to secure consistent publication. Yet from this struggle, we can now enjoy some uncompromising examples of what it means to be subversive in a world where subversion itself was a boy’s club. If nothing else, Robbins reminds us that we all still have a lot to read, and her brief rundown of some of the best zines and self-published comics of the 1990s should be required reading for anyone who has been moved by Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Gabrielle Bell’s Lucky, Julia Wertz’s Fart Party, or any other comics by women who are brilliant and bold.
Sure, it’s odd that Robbins mentions Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog and not the feminist mainstay Wonder Woman, and we’ll have to forgive her for using “jitterbugged” to describe what teenagers did for fun in the 1920s, but the force of her book relies less on how it is written and more on what it asks us to do when it comes to women in comics: never stop asking questions about what we are reading, but always be able to find something strong in it as well.
This is perhaps why one particular sketch of Power Girl and Supergirl by Amanda Conner is so funny, forceful, and touching to me. Between these two characters, we see the commingling of confidence and frustration, consternation and friendship. But like Supergirl here, literally, I’d argue that what we don’t end up seeing – or wanting to see, or even caring about seeing – are boobs.
CONTINUED WITH PART TWO!