Power without self-control tears a girl to pieces. – Wonder Woman, in Sensation Comics #19 (July 1943)
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you may have already noticed that I like comic books. I don’t mean romance comics or Archie comic either; oh, no! I love superhero comics, horror comics and science fiction comics of the Silver (late ‘50s-early ‘60s) and Bronze (‘70s) Ages. And though I haven’t purchased a new comic since 1980, I still enjoy adding old ones to my collection or buying reprint editions to fill in the gaps. I sometimes reread old issues, I enjoy superhero movies and TV shows, and I think the recent trend for people to become real-life superheroes is just about the coolest thing I’ve heard in years.
My affection for the genre began with two male relatives; the first was my cousin Jeff, who as I’ve mentioned before taught me to read. Since he was only three years older than I he can probably be forgiven for quickly tiring of teaching me from “baby books” and switching to comics instead; one of the earliest ones I remember was a Superman annual full of these crazy Silver-Age “red kryptonite” stories (for those unfamiliar with the mythos, this substance does not weaken Superman as green kryptonite does but instead has weird and unpredictable effects such as giving him amnesia or taking away his powers). The other influence was my mother’s younger brother, who died of leukemia in his late teens just a few months after I was born; he was made my godfather (a purely sentimental gesture, since he was already terminal at the time) and when I was old enough to understand I was given a few of his things, including his comic books. Hence my affection for the old sci-fi comics such as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space which made up the bulk of his collection. And it was in the pages of the latter that I discovered one of my first heroines, Alanna of Ranagar.
Alanna was the beautiful daughter of Sardath, the most brilliant scientist of the city-state of Ranagar on the planet Rann, which orbited Alpha Centauri. Sardath invented the “zeta beam”, a means of teleportation by which Adam Strange (a heroic young archeologist from Earth) travelled periodically to Rann, where he fought weird menaces with his intelligence, his courage and the invaluable help of Alanna, with whom he had fallen in love. She had inherited her father’s formidable mind and was a scientist and adventurer in her own right, and Adam relied upon her wits and skills nearly as much as he relied upon his own. I was absolutely fascinated with the stories and wanted more than anything to grow up to be as beautiful and smart as Alanna, who (like John Carter’s Dejah Thoris, Sherlock Holmes’ Irene Adler and practically every woman in the works of Robert Heinlein) helped me to develop the mindset which later caused me to reject the false neofeminist duality of “a woman can be valued for beauty or brains but not both”.
Nor was Alanna the only such heroine I discovered in comics; another was Shayera Hol, better known as Hawkgirl, who fought villains alongside her husband Hawkman as the first married couple in comics (that I ever heard of, anyway). Like Alanna, Shayera was beautiful, intelligent, brave, and dedicated to helping her husband rather than trying to outdo him. Like Adam and Alanna, the Hawks showed me that the power of a well-matched man-woman team was hard to beat. The two ladies also shared something else in common; they both appeared in titles edited by the late, great Julius Schwartz, father of the Silver Age of comics and a former literary agent for such luminaries as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, and H. P. Lovecraft. Schwartz loved strong women and was a supporter of women’s rights at least since the 1940s; most of the ladies (whether heroine, love-interest or villainess) who appeared in the titles he helmed were interesting, well-developed characters who stood out in sharp relief against the flat, stereotyped females who appeared in most other comics of the time (such as the rightfully-mocked Silver Age version of Superman’s girl friend Lois Lane, whose life was entirely dominated by schemes to trick the Man of Steel into proposing to her). When I started selecting my own comics around my eighth birthday, I came to love another such heroine: Wonder Woman, whose adventures were overseen by Schwartz as of the July 1974 issue.
Wonder Woman was originally created by William Moulton Marston, the psychologist who invented the polygraph; he had previously written a book encouraging 1930s housewives to use their sexuality to help their husbands break bad habits such as drinking and gambling. Marston was a kind of male archeofeminist; in 1942 he wrote:
Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. There isn’t love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully. Woman’s body contains twice as many love generating organs and endocrine mechanisms as the male. What woman lacks is the dominance or self assertive power to put over and enforce her love desires. I have given Wonder Woman this dominant force but have kept her loving, tender, maternal and feminine in every other way.
As I discovered many years later to my delight, early Wonder Woman comics were chock-full of bondage and bisexuality; unfortunately, this type of content was quickly suppressed after her creator’s death in 1947, and the character began a long, sad descent until by the mid-‘60s she was nothing more than a joke. In the late ‘60s she was even de-powered and turned into an Emma Peel clone, and this sorry state of affairs might have persisted had not Gloria Steinem featured her on the cover of the very first issue of Ms. Magazine (July, 1972) and lamented her downfall in an editorial within. DC Comics took notice; her powers were immediately returned without explanation and for a year (six issues) her title featured reprints with new artwork. Finally Schwartz, who was well-known for his own super-power of reviving failing titles (he had previously rescued Batman in 1964 and Superman in 1971), was recruited to fix the mess and managed to put the Amazon Princess back on track from the very first issue he edited. Luckily for me, the Schwartz Wonder Woman was really my first in-depth experience with the character; I previously knew her only from a single early ‘60s issue of my mother’s and her appearance in the Super Friends cartoon show.
Though comics of that time could never have featured prostitutes (except for one late ‘70s story I recall in which Batman got some information from a pretty streetwalker named Maria), I have no doubt that these heroines helped me along my path by teaching me from a very early age that women could be strong without being bellicose, beautiful without being fragile and intelligent without being bossy; that standing up for what’s right isn’t always easy; that it’s a good thing to be who you are even if some others don’t like it; and that a beautiful figure is nothing to be ashamed of.