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The idea of why there are not more female heroes in comics, one that drives her own narrative, is defined by her actions rather than her gender and can kick ass literally or figuratively is, amazingly, still a topic of discussion in the 21st Century. Which is why I’m excited for the new book Divas, Dames and Daredevils by Mike Madrid which shows that in the Golden Age of comics there were more of these characters and a wider diversity than you could imagine.
Think Wonder Woman is the first prototype for a strong female hero fighting for “our rights” in WWII? Then you need to meet Pat Patriot and Jane Martin, Secret Agent who debuted before Wonder Woman and are featured in this book.
Madrid, who also provided an overview of the female superhero in The Supergirls, provides an thorough and enjoyable overview of the many, many female comic characters from the Golden Age. The book is divided into sections including Women at War, Mystery Women and Warriors and Queens. In addition to providing a quick history of each, he also provides pages from their comics. If you are interested in comic history or in the history of women in pop culture I recommend this book. I chatted with Mike about the book earlier this week.
Mike, once you started this were you surprised at how many female led books had been published in the Golden Age?
What really surprised me was the large number of Golden Age heroines that didn’t fit into the traditional superhero genre. There were dozens of brainy, courageous career women who had their own features––reporters, photographers, pilots, detectives. Regular women, no costumes, no powers. That’s different from today, where the role of women in comics seems to be limited to either superhero or superhero’s girlfriend. Some of these career women were quite popular. Nurse/spy Jane Martin, lawyer Betty Bates, and policewoman Sally O’Neil all had features that ran for ten years.
How did you go about locating these comics?
Finding many of these characters was a bit like archeology. Some were very obscure and only made a few appearances. Finding one character would often lead to another.
Your book shows that strong women who drive stories were happening long before the recent years of “strong female characters” why do you think that behavior changed?
In the course of my research I found that many very strong female heroes were created right when the comic book industry was taking off, around 1940. Comics were new then and more experimental. The world was also on the brink of World War II. During the war, women were taking on more active roles in the military of working in war plants. As a result, powerful comic book heroines were more common. When the war was over, women had to return to more traditional roles as wives and mothers. Consequently we see strong heroines begin to disappear in the postwar years, and more romance comics fill the newsstands.
I loved reading some of the sample letters from readers who weren’t thrilled with female characters - some of them sound like they could be taken off Tumblr!
[Example from writer “John” on Wings:
“Someone is going to drop a high explosive bomb if you don’t get rid of Jane Martin, Secret Agent (ha, ha!). A woman’s place is in the home or maybe a nurse, and I mean a NURSE.”]
Overall I did find more positive or negative feedback as you read the letters column.
The letters were definitely mixed, but the issues in the 40s were much the same as they are today. The negative letters tended to come from male readers that felt a strong heroine wasn’t “ladylike.” Meanwhile female readers wanted to see more strong heroines, but didn’t want them to be overly sexualized. It was good to see that there was such a vocal group of female fans in those days making their opinions known. It dispels the myth that the female comic book fan is a recent anomaly. They’ve been around for 70 years, and they’ve always been serious about comics.
Of all the female heroes you include in the book who makes the most sense for a modern update?
Mainstream comics today are very superhero focused. There was a real range of female heroes during the Golden Age, from warrior queens to outer space adventuresses to sorceresses. I’d like to see some of those early fantasy heroines like The Magician From Mars get an update.
She was a runaway and a thief with a brilliant mind and incredible powers. She fought fantastic foes in epic battles. I also think we need more comics titles for younger readers.
A character like Maureen Marine, a young girl who dies and returns to life as the queen of an undersea kingdom, could be updated for a modern younger audience.
If someone wants to read some of the comics you discuss in the book what’s your suggestion? I suspect that many of them didn’t survey paper drives but are any of them in the public domain?
All of the characters in Divas, Dames & Daredevils are in the public domain. There is a whole online community that deals with material in the public domain. Public Domain Super Heroes (pdsh.wikia.com) and DigitalComicMuseum.com are great resources for people interested in learning more.
And finally of today’s female heroes who do you think could fit in easily into the Golden Age of female heroes?
I think the current version of Batwoman could fit in with the Golden Age female heroes. A lot of those women were shadowy characters who were independent and took the law into their own hands. Batwoman has that same vigilante spirit. She’s tough, but has a sharp sense of humor like those early heroines. And the sexuality of some of those Golden Age heroines was unclear, so Batwoman being a lesbian wouldn’t necessarily exclude her from that group.
Thanks Mike. You can buy Divas, Dames and Daredevils here.