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Comics have traditionally been a boy's club. It is hardly a shocking statement these days to say that comics have had a hard time dealing with women or portraying them in a positive way. Fredric Wertham didn’t help matters, with his opinions about why Wonder Woman was a bad role model.
“She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be.”
This led to a period where one of the many rules enforced by the Comics Code Authority was that females in comics showed girls what they were “supposed to want to be”. Women were rarely referred to as women; instead being called girl or lass. They were almost always the weakest members of any team they might find themselves on. Characters like Wonder Woman and Sue Storm would find themselves acting as a secretary or serving coffee while the menfolk discussed important matters.
Often, it felt like the men writing comics just didn’t know how to deal with a powerful woman. And just as often, it felt like a strain of misogyny was guiding their characterizations. Let’s face it, for a lot of super-powered ladies their greatest power seemed to be not causing a scandal by popping out of their ever-shrinking super suits. And no matter how powerful a woman was, it seemed she was guided by the twin goals of landing a husband and shopping. Nonetheless, there have been some great and interesting female characters and female-driven stories in comics. And some that are just downright weird.
Here is who is included in the list:
- Madam Fatal
- The Red Tornado
- Spider Widow
- Miss Fury
- Phantom Lady
- The Blonde Phantom
- Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires
1. Madam Fatal
Okay, so I admit that I have fudged my very first entry. Madam Fatal, you see, is technically not a woman at all. Richard Stanton was a wealthy widower and father of a young girl. He was also a famous actor. When his success leads some criminal types to kidnap his daughter, he uses his acting to bring justice to the world in a move straight out of Team America. He dresses up like an old woman and takes the name Madam Fatal to infiltrate the criminal underworld. Because what better way to get in with the mob than to pretend to be an old woman.
I feel like Madam Fatal deserves to be here for two reasons. One, he/she is the first cross-dressing comic book hero (in 1940; who says people weren’t progressive back in the day?), and with all-out talk of gender fluidity these days, I decided she can be here if she wants to. The other is that the kidnapped daughter who is the impetus for Madam Fatal to begin her life of crime-fighting is deemed so unimportant that the writers never even bothered to name her.
The character was never popular. Some have said that it was due to the cross-dressing angle, but I am not convinced, as this wasn’t a lifestyle choice but just a disguise to fool crooks into underestimating him. Unfortunately as the years went by comics did not become any more open-minded, and if Madam Fatal was used it was as a homophobic punch line, as in The Golden Age #4 when she is being courted by the Fiddler and the Gambler while other characters are laughing because they know her secret. So a character who could have been turned into an icon for alternative lifestyles instead became a not so funny gay joke.
2. The Red Tornado
The next entry is also a crossdresser; only this time it was a woman who dressed as a man. Most people probably think of the Silver Age android when they hear the name of the Red Tornado, but there was a golden age version too. Often considered to be the first superhero parody, Ma Hunkel donned a pair of long johns and put a cooking pot on her head to become the Red Tornado because of her son’s admiration for the Green Lantern.
Ma was treated considerably well, considering she originated as a joke. Sure she missed out on her chance to audition for the Justice Society of America because she split her pants, but she was later made an honorary member anyway. Of course, one of her special abilities was that she could cook to feed a large number of people, like the Justice Society, because I mean she’s a woman, guys. When she is brought back into the fold in 2004 after having been in the witness protection program for over fifty years, she becomes the caretaker of the JSA headquarters.
Ma somehow had earned enough of a place of honor to be used in Kingdom Come, and seemingly got a makeover in DC’s New 52 continuity. Ma Hunkel may have been a bit of comedy at first, but she has gone on to show that even your frumpy mom can be a hero if she puts her mind to it.
3. Spider Widow
Diane Grayton was a beautiful bored young socialite who one day discovered she has the ability to command spiders. Rather than use this ability to scare the wits out of everyone like I would, she decides that she will use this new found power to fight crime. As everyone knows, if you are going to be a superhero you have to have a costume. No tight leotards or spandex bodysuits for this gal though! She decides to go with a long black dress (but not like the slinky nightclubbing kind) and a floppy hat, and completes this ensemble with a green crone’s mask, giving her the appearance of a classic wicked witch.
Spider Widow hooks up with fellow crime fighter the Raven later, both romantically and in pursuit of catching criminals. She also teamed up with the Phantom Lady (more on her later). Of course, there is a story where jealousy drives her to a duel with Phantom Lady for the Raven’s affections. One of the most interesting stories for us now though is when Spider Widow and the Raven take on the Spider-Man. This isn’t the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler we all know and love, but a villain who rides on the back of a mechanical spider.
It is interesting to note that comics writers of yesteryear would be willing to have their heroine disguise herself as an old hag. In this age when super ladies tend to dress more and more like dancers in a hip hop video, hiding your natural assets would be unthinkable.
4. Miss Fury
Wealthy socialites seemed to be getting into the crime-fighting business left and right in the ’40s. Marla Drake got into it on the flimsiest of pretexts. She was going to s costume party and discovered that another guest was going to be in the same costume she had planned. She decided to wear the black panther skin her uncle had left her. It turns out that somehow the pelt fit her like a second skin. Of course, she never made it to the costume party; instead catching an escaped criminal.
The skin was of course magic, having been the garb of an African witch doctor. Miss Fury had claws and a whip to help subdue the thugs she had to stop. Strangely Miss Fury was initially known as Black Fury in her strips, but she corrected this later by letting them know she was Miss, not Black. I guess she figured it would be hard enough being a woman hero in the time period without having people assume she was black as well.
Even though she looked more like the traditional comic book vixen, Miss Fury had a couple of things that set her apart. She was the first hero to be created by a female, Tarpe Mills, who changed her name to from June to avoid discrimination. She also overcame being a single woman to adopt a boy, becoming the first single mom in comics. The strip also dealt with the plight of working women who were losing their jobs to men coming back from the war. Miss Fury could definitely be seen as a feminist hero, being more progressive than many of her modern counterparts. Another point of interest, Miss Fury was put out by the same company that distributed Rube Goldberg’s comics.
5. Phantom Lady
Bored debutantes fighting crime was apparently a popular theme in the ’40s. Sandra Knight was the daughter of a senator and was engaged to an agent of the State Dept. She put on a yellow swimsuit and a cape and became the Phantom Lady, because of comic books. Apparently her skimpy costume was so distracting that no one recognized her even though she rarely wore a mask of any kind. She even interacted with her father and fiancé without them realizing who she was.
Phantom Lady had no superpowers, but she did have a black light gun, which blinded her opponents rather than causing them to stare at posters saying things like “Far out, man” as one would think. She also had a car. She teamed up on several occasions with Spider Widow and the Raven, and fought such villains as the Avenging Skulls, the Subway Slayer and the Killer Clown.
Basically being a female knock-off of Batman apparently worked out for Phantom Lady, as she has stayed in publication pretty continuously with some changes to her costume (apparently a swimsuit wasn’t revealing and sexy enough). After her run at Quality she was picked up by a series of now-defunct publishers, and now currently has her home at DC. Another neat bit of trivia, Phantom Lady shared a first appearance with Plastic Man.
It is not uncommon for comics to use mythology as inspiration for characters and material. Marvel has been quite successful at this, and they started earlier than many might realize. In 1948 Atlas (later to be known as Marvel) started a book based on Venus, the goddess of love. Venus lived on the planet Venus (of course) but she wanted to hang out with us Earth folk. So she came down and got herself a job as the cover model for Beauty Magazine.
The book started off as a goofy romance comic, but as the ’50s got underway it changed to meet the demands of the times. Science fiction and horror elements began to get a lot of play in Venus’ adventures. She fought radioactive monsters, scheming criminals, and even supernatural beings like the daughter of Neptune and the biggest of the big bads, Satan himself.
Venus was a gal who was ahead of the times. To prove this, one of her nemeses was Loki, who was defeated with the help of Thor. Sure, these were not the versions of the characters who would become familiar to Avengers fans later on, but still. Venus was brought back and her origins retconned because once again, comic books. Probably the most interesting thing about Venus is seeing how her book changed as tastes changed. Her fluffy little funny romance comic ended up being a horror book that had a cover depicting her being embraced by a skeleton, all in a run that only lasted for about four years.
7. The Blonde Phantom
The Blonde Phantom may have been inspired by a storyline from Millie the Model. Her debut and the issue in which Millie becomes “The Blonde Phantom” in a campaign to sell perfume came out very close to one another, so it isn’t clear as to which inspired which. Both books were published by Timely, one of the former names of Marvel Comics. The Blonde Phantom has a couple of things that set her apart from other female heroes of the time.
First, she wasn’t a bored socialite. Louise Grant was a secretary to private detective Mark Mason. She decided to go into crime-fighting to keep her boss safe because it turns out she carries a bit of a torch for him. The second thing that really sets the Blonde Phantom apart is her choice of costume. Instead of showing as much skin as 40’s culture would allow, she chose to go with a long red evening dress and high heels, though the dress is slit up one leg so get an occasional tantalizing leg. She wore a black domino mask to hide her identity, which was apparently super effective as her detective boss doesn’t figure out who she really is.
The Blonde Phantom made a tiny comeback in later years, showing up in She-Hulk’s book in 1989. She had managed to hook her man and now had the name, Louise Mason. Sadly, the private eye had passed away, and Mrs. Mason was working as a legal secretary. She became an occasional sidekick of Shulkie, and the two had some bizarre adventures together.
8. Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires
This entry isn’t about a character, but instead about a particular storyline that featured the female members of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Saturn Girl, Supergirl, and the other ladies of the Legion decide that they hate their male teammates. They each seduce a male legionnaire in order to trick them into a deadly trap. After they have defeated all the boys they celebrate by having an evil female super dance party. Yes, really.
It turns out the girls just can’t help it. They were being mind-controlled by Queen Azura from the planet Femnaz, who hates all men. Yep, you read that right, Femnaz. Years before Rush Limbaugh would popularize the term Feminazi (if popularize is the right word in this case) DC had their man-hating queen hail from the planet Femnaz. Of course, Queen Azura sees the error in her ways when Mon-El and Ultra-Boy save one of the moons of Femnaz.
Released from the mind control, the female Legionnaires rush off to save the boys they have left to their doom. The one thing that really strikes me about this story is how in an effort to show that feminists are crazy, man-hating psychopaths, it shows that the girls are smarter and more powerful than the boys. I mean, after all, it was the girls having the dance party after having eliminated their male counterparts.
There are lots of other notable females and female-driven moments in comics. There was the time Ms. Marvel was basically raped by her own son and then decided to go live with him in another dimension. There is the whole evolution of Catwoman’s character. There is Sue Storm changing from the doormat of the FF into one of the more powerful characters in the Marvel universe. One of the things that I love about comics, despite all the talk about continuity and the “real” versions of characters, there will always be another version or another take on a character if you don’t like the last one.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 23, 2017:
I like the sound of The Blonde Phantom!
Kate Finley on May 28, 2017:
This had some interesting ladies! I had never heard of most of them. With Hollywoods intrest in taking the old and making it new again, some of these ladies could beripe for the picking. Thank you for the fun read