In a previous post, I attempted to work through an unlikely dialectic of pride and guilt when it comes my own defiance of the enduring stereotype of male comic book readers; somehow, and for whatever reason, it turns out that I read more monthly titles starring female superheroes than male. So pride because there are some really strong books right now, and many of these characters have rich histories and devoted creators despite the constant threat of cancellation due to poor sales. (Just this week, best-selling author Marjorie Liu’s brilliant run on the Marvel series X-23 ended after only 21 issues.) And guilt because these characters tend to be dressed in costumes that I’m sure Rush Limbaugh would have a choice word or two to describe. But we’ve been over this, and you can read the whole thing here. The conclusion is that the best part of superheroines like Power Girl is the way that they actively resist and subvert the male gaze, turning the target audience – men, basically, who are just too easily titillated – into the worst villains with whom they will have to contend.
This, of course, is all very serious stuff, and so I would like to follow up that discussion with the work of two creators whose satirical versions of comics’s most enduring female superhero, Wonder Woman, challenge our principal assumptions about the character: her historically fierce compassion and overall, um, niceness. Wonder Woman is a character who has had innumerable incarnations and iterations – the subject of an excellent recent retrospective on io9 – and as a result remains elusive despite her seeming ubiquity. For all of her alternate origin stories and shifting set of powers, she nevertheless signifies a kind of permanent strength that has withstood an often uncertain role in the shared DC Comics Universe and a rotating roster of creators who have different interpretations and agendas. Also, there was the whole pants or no pants debate.
Wonder Woman is in a lot of ways what is best about superheroes in that she is both strong and symbolic, dissatisfied and driven. The failure of “man’s world” to ever be at peace is her ironic call to arms, although she is not quite immune to a love of battle and the lure of brutality. And yet, somehow she’s still totally nice, of which Steve Rude’s Rockwell-esque portrait is a not uncommon representation.
What one finds in parodies of the character, therefore, is a kind of world-weariness and existential I-simply-refuse-to-keep-caring that is likely the result of having been so widely and wildly interpreted. Kate Beaton’s parodic appropriation of the feminist icon is the result of the character being so routinely misunderstood, as Beaton said in an interview with Comics Alliance:
She’s just a bit more complicated than everybody else. I mean, how many dudes are going to write her and get her right? I just think there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I think it’s a real shame people haven’t figured her out…. I guess the Wonder Woman that I draw is kind of sick of everyone not understanding her.
As a member of the pantheon of historical figures that comprise her brilliant webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, Beaton’s version of Wonder Woman smokes unrepentantly, disdains children, and is as unwilling to indulge the praise of her fans as she is the prattle of her super-peers. In one of Beaton’s strips, even the most seemingly effortless feat of super-heroism – getting a cat out of a tree – becomes a study in super-annoyance.
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.