12 Stories That Suggest It Was Probably a Good Thing the Definitive History of the Women’s Liberation Movement Was Never Attempted by a Comic Book Writer
1. “The Revolt of the Super-Chicks” (The Brave and the Bold #63, 12/65-01/66)
The late 1960s and 1970s were pivotal decades, not least because of the movements supporting civil rights and equality for women. And while women can claim many victories during those tumultuous years, it’s fair to say their struggles to be taken as seriously as men were not exactly reflected in the comic books of the day. Case in point: “The Revolt of the Super-Chicks,” in which Supergirl and Wonder Woman — two women whom I defy anyone to call a “chick” to their faces — spend the team-up story fawning over fashion, swooning over men, hiding their feats of super-strength so as not to threaten the masculinity of their newfound playmates, and foiling the plans of the issue’s designated criminal mastermind (Multi-Face, a forgettable shape-shifter who dearly deserves his place in the Wonder Woman Villain Hall of Shame)… right up until the end of the story, when Supergirl chooses career over romance, because Lord knows no woman should ever think she could have both. Was writer Bob Haney making some kind of ironic comment on superhero gender roles? Perhaps, but it’s hard to sell that theory when Superman, despondent over his cousin’s decision to give up superheroing for glamor and romance (“…something every girl needs!” according to Supergirl) goes straight to Wonder Woman for help. “Look, you’re a woman — you understand female psychology!” the Chauvinist of Steel says. Can’t argue with logic like that. Fast forward to a scene where Wonder Woman confronts the former superhero/current fashion model in her new dressing room, trying to convince her to continue her superhero ways. “But — your powers, they make you different,” Wonder Woman implores Supergirl. “They… oooh! That dress — it’s adorable! Where did you get it?” the Amazon princess says, shortly before trying on a frock of her own and swooning over a man who kisses her within five seconds of barging into their dressing room. There’s something revolting here, all right — but it ain’t the super-chicks.
2. “Get Out of My Life, Superman!” (Lois Lane#80, 01/67)
Not too long after the above story came out, DC Comics seemed to cotton on to the fact that a lot of women out there had their pretty little heads upset about something. Evidence of this, er, enlightened attitude can be seen in the decision to send Wonder Woman off in a new “mod” direction (see below) to make her more relatable to female readers, while perennial doormats like Lois Lane became more assertive with the (super)men in their own lives. For years, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane was a groan-inducing collection of oddball stories involving alien abductions, imaginary weddings, and bizarre schemes to expose Superman’s secret identity, but it was clear by the late ’60s the comic had to change with the times. The first hint of that change was a nifty Neal Adams cover on #79; the next issue found a mini-skirted Lois ripping the “girl friend” part from the logo and throwing it to the floor as the cover proclaimed, “At last! The impossible comes true! It’s Splitsville for Lois and Superman!” The story begins with Lois, upset over being stood up by Superman yet again, deciding it’s time she left Metropolis and start a new life with a new name(!) far away from the Man of Steel. Oh, but not before she goes on a shopping spree, ditching her pillbox hats and white gloves for some “sophisticated miniskirt numbers” and a few “fun and sun sport outfits.” So take note, all you women out there looking to assert your newfound independence. First, buy a bunch of rad new outfits to better reflect the “new” you. Next, change your name and leave behind your hometown, chosen profession, everyone who knows you and all other ties to your former life. Once you’re settled into your new life, immediately fall in love with someone who’s handsome because seriously, what’s the point of starting over and being your own person if you just end up dying alone? Oh, and if a certain someone from your past tracks you down, pretend to stab yourself with a needle full of sodium pentathol so you can mess with his mind and tell him in a make-believe, drug-induced state that you’re happy in your new life and he should stop trying to win you back, just so he’ll let you get on with your nights of sobbing over what could have been. Got it? Good.
3. “Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups!” (Detective Comics #371, 01/68)
Introduced in the pages of Detective Comics shortly before her TV debut, Batgirl was no worse than any other derivative super-heroine, and certainly a step up from the 1950s-era Batwoman, who fought crime with her “utility purse” full of makeup-inspired tools. I wish I was making that up. Still, Batgirl’s motivation for donning the cowl and fighting crime could have been fleshed out a little better; where Batman and Robin were given suitably trauma-tinged reasons for jumping across rooftops and bashing skulls, Barbara Gordon simply liked the adrenaline rush that came from stopping a kidnapping while en route to a costume party. Her dilettante motives for fighting crime made her out to be a character that readers shouldn’t take as seriously as the Dynamic Duo, and her case wasn’t helped by occasional references to her relying on her “female intuition” when solving a case. And then there’s this story, which starts with Batgirl almost letting a bad guy get away because she took a moment to readjust her cowl after an errant bicycle wheel pulled it off-center. Rather than acknowledging the practical value of her reaction (the girl needs to see what she’s doing, after all), Batgirl berates herself for letting her feminine side get the better of her. “It wasn’t personal vanity that made me adjust my headgear — it was an instinctive female reaction!” she says. “[I have to] prove I can overcome my feminine instincts by sheer concentration!” The rest of the story finds her in similar situations, with her “vanity” compromising her crimefighting abilities, until a run in her tights (yes, that cover scene actually happens in the story) during a fight causes her to “extend her shapely leg”… and gives Batman and Robin the momentary distraction they need to defeat the (now drooling) bad guys. “You see, Batgirl?” Batman says. “This was one time where you turned a feminine trait to your advantage!” Cut to the final panel, where readers learn the run in Batgirl’s tights was no accident: “The fact that my feminine weakness betrayed me so often in the past… I just had to prove it had its strong points too!” Oy.
4. “Come On In… the Revolution’s Fine!” (Avengers #83, 12/70)
So far, I’ve been citing stories from the DC side of the comic shop aisle, but that doesn’t mean the Marvel titles of the day were any more enlightened about the ways in which they portrayed their female characters. Whether it was the very-grown-up Invisible Girl fretting about everything under the sun or the X-Men’s Beast calling Marvel Girl “a credit to her gender” just for knowing which tool to pass him, you can be sure Marvel’s Silver Age books weren’t too keen to rock the boat, gender politics-wise. That changed when a new generation of writers came up through the ranks, eager to add a dash of real-world relevance to the spandexed set. Among those young turks was Roy Thomas, who can justly take pride in the many timeless sagas he wrote during his long stints on The Avengers, Conan the Barbarian, The All-Star Squadron, and numerous other titles. This issue, however, is not one of them. No, it’s not because the main fight scene takes place at a New England Halloween parade in which the guest of honor is a local mathematician(!) with a time-bending invention; that’s just par for the course in comic-book land. No, it’s the fact the female members of the Avengers team, despite their collective status as some of the most powerful and intelligent heroes in the Marvel universe, are so easily duped by the man-hating Valkyrie into believing they will always be considered second-class superheroes by their male teammates (based on such “proof” as various newspaper accounts in which the male heroes are given higher play in the stories… though why this is the male teammates’ fault is anyone’s guess). So of course, the female Avengers rename themselves the Lady Liberators and head out to… do something liberating, I’m sure, but darned if I can make sense of what it is. Even the end of the story, in which “Valkyrie” is revealed to be the villainous Enchantress and the team is back together again, ends on a tone-deaf note; when Goliath congratulates the women for learning their lesson about “that women’s lib bull” (which: not the real issue here, bucko), the Scarlet Witch wags a finger and calls him a male chauvinist pig, suggesting we might not have seen the last of the Liberators. “And the battle of the sexes goes on… and on… and on,” reads the final caption — a line that Thomas probably still wishes he could take back.
5. “No Man is My Master” (My Love #10, 03/71)
To say the least, by the early 1970s the romance comic genre was seriously out of step with the times — the Pill, The Feminine Mystique, Ms. magazine, and the ERA may all have been part of a massive cultural shift, but they were nowhere to be found in the romance comics of the day, which still rolled out hoary plots about pining waifs waiting by the phone, and the strong yet blandly interchangeable men who loved them. One notable exception was this story, scripted by Stan Lee and illustrated by John Buscema, that tried to bring a bit of “women’s lib” into the genre with howlingly awful results. As our story begins, Bev is a young woman dating Nick, a boor of a boyfriend who insists on ordering for her in restaurants (“I ordered you the roast duckling… it’s time you learned to like it, Bev. My chick’s gotta like what I like.”) and taking her only to places that he wants to go. After attending a consciousness-raising rally (at which, natch, mildly unattractive women are spouting radical ideas like equal rights for everyone), Bev realizes she doesn’t need a man to make choices for her and tells her control freak of a beau she’ll be busy for the next few weeks. But when she dates a succession of men who dare to ask her where she wants to go or what she wants to eat, she starts grumping about how goshdarn hard it is to make all these difficult life choices (“Is this really what I wanted — boys who can’t even make a decision for themselves?” she mopes). Lucky for her, a certain someone is waiting to take her back and relieve her of the pressure of choosing her own entrees. Lee was never the most subtle scripter, but the way in which he so completely missed the point of what women were actually fighting for makes it highly unlikely we’ll ever see this story featured on his career highlights reel.
6. “They Shoot Hulks, Don’t They?” (Incredible Hulk #142, 08/71)
The Valkyrie’s first appearance was in the Avengers story mentioned above; this issue contains her second. In this story (the title is a reference to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a 1969 film about marathon dancing), the Valkyrie’s powers are bestowed upon a New York City socialite named Samantha Parrington, a young woman disgusted by her wealthy parents’ refusal to lend their charitable support to her women’s rights group because it’s not trendy enough. When the couple then chooses the Hulk as their next charity case (relishing all the publicity that would come from such a novel idea) and her domineering father takes credit for getting the Hulk to climb down from the top of the Statue of Liberty (when it was actually Samantha who got the big lug to calm down and follow them to their swanky address), she organizes her group to picket outside her parents’ house during their fundraising gala (the scene in which a confused Hulk is presented with a pile of “scraps of paper” is pretty amusing). It’s around this time the Enchantress makes her appearance, and it seems the she is keen on seeking revenge on the Hulk for past defeats. Sizing up the situation, she reaches across the dimensions to bestow the powers of the Valkyrie upon Samantha, who then demands battle with the Hulk to show the “male chauvinist pigs” of the world how strong a woman can be. Now, he may be a near-mindless machine of rage and destruction, but the Hulk knows he doesn’t hit girls, and so he refuses to fight back against the armored lass, allowing Samantha the chance to subdue him with ease. She then celebrates her victory by tossing his unconscious form from the top of the Empire State Building (as anyone would). Naturally, she’s horrified by her actions when she returns to her senses, but no matter — the Hulk just walks away from the fall and a de-Valkyrized Samantha is left to wonder if it was all just a daydream. Because apparently the massive, Hulk-sized crater causing traffic jams in the middle of Fifth Avenue wasn’t enough of a hint.
7. “The Man-Killer Moves at Midnight!” (Marvel Team-Up #8, 04/72)
One of the stresses of being a superhero comic writer is the constant pressure to come up with original and interesting super-villains to pit against the stars of your book. This is especially true for any of the writers who have tackled a Spider-Man story since the heyday of Lee and Ditko’s legendary run — with so many classic Spidey villains indelibly etched into fans’ minds, how do you come up with someone who isn’t just another misguided inventor with confidence issues or animal-themed sociopath with a chip on his shoulder? Answer: give the villain a motive that goes beyond robbing banks. And so we have the Man-Killer, the unimaginatively named villain that first appeared in this early issue of Marvel Team-Up. As Spidey is swinging through the night, he’s attacked by a mysterious, catlike figure. After the requisite two-heroes-introduce-themselves-by-fighting moment has passed, the Cat tells him she’s on the trail of Katrina Luisia Van Horn, an assassin who killed Chicago’s mayor for being “violently anti-women’s lib” — and she’s now in Manhattan to do something just as nasty. “If she isn’t stopped, she’ll destroy everything women have fought for… the precious little we’ve gained!” our superheroic Steinem says to Spidey, as if the murderous actions of one seriously disturbed person would, say, give Congress cause to repeal the Equal Pay Act of 1963. At any rate, Man-Killer’s origin is fairly pedestrian by comic-book standards; a world-class skier, she went over a cliff while racing to prove herself against a chauvinist competitor. Her mind and body shattered by the fall, she agreed to join a militant feminist group in exchange for an experimental exoskeleton that gave her mobility and super-strength. Sounds impressive, but then you get to the final page and witness the Cat defeating the Man-Killer armed with nothing more than the truth; namely, that her financing and weaponry were all courtesy of A.I.M., one of Marvel’s all-purpose (and mostly male) terrorist groups. Confronted by the thought she was unwittingly doing the bidding of (gasp!) men, Man-Killer’s mind snaps and she collapses in front of our heroes. Just goes to show you can’t send a woman to do a man’s job, AMIRIGHT GUYS? (Sigh…)
8. “Thundra at Dawn!” (Fantastic Four #133, 04/72)
And you thought it was intimidating for a writer to follow Lee’s and Ditko’s act on The Amazing Spider-Man. The hundred or so issues of Fantastic Four authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pretty much laid the groundwork for the entire Marvel Universe, and any creative team following in their footsteps had the near-impossible task of maintaining that momentum. When Kirby left under less-than-ideal circumstances in 1970 and Lee backed away from the title shortly thereafter, some of Marvel’s finest kept the title afloat, but it never really regained its sense of cosmic wonder until writer/artist John Byrne took over in the early ’80s. Despite the efforts of such writers as Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, pretty much all the FF issues published during the ’70s were predictable at best, soul-searingly awful at worst. Closer to the soul-searing end of the spectrum was this issue, featuring one of the earliest appearances of Thundra, the super-strong Femizon from an alternate-future 23rd century where the women rule and men are the subjugated gender. Her sole reason for coming back in time is to challenge the Thing to unarmed combat, proving once and for all that women are the superior gender. In this issue, she goads the Thing into a contest by kidnapping his girlfriend, Alicia Masters, in the middle of Times Square… and instead of everyone in the Marvel universe treating her act of kidnapping as a federal offence (which, by the by, it was), the next few panels are devoted to average folk and heroes alike weighing the odds and placing bets on who will win the “fight of the century.” The actual bout itself is uneventful, livened up only by events near the end, with Thundra about to deliver the final blow and Reed Richards using some cobbled-together doohickey to temporarily revert the Thing back to his human self, whom Thundra refuses to hit because it would be “unfeminine” to smite a helpless male. Pretty ham-handed stuff, sure, but pure Shakespeare compared to the later introduction of Mahkizmo, sworn enemy of Thundra who hails from a planet of… ah, I’m pretty sure you can figure out the rest.
9. “The Grandee Caper” (Wonder Woman #203, 11-12/72)
We know this is a very special “women’s lib” issue of Wonder Woman… mainly because there’s a “Special! Women’s Lib Issue” banner at the top telling us so. That a character as iconic as Wonder Woman would star in a story about the struggles women face is no surprise; that this story failed on so many levels is… well, it’s still no surprise, actually. Appearing as it did during her no-superpowers-but-plenty-of-kung-fu-and-hip-fashions stage of her career, the story opens with Diana confronting a group of loitering meatheads who think catcalls on a dark street is the way to win a woman’s heart. The brief scuffle reunites Diana with her former shop assistant, Cathy Perkins, who is now part of a women’s liberation group. Later, after department store owner Philip Grandee approaches Diana to model his new “liberated woman” clothing line, Cathy advises Diana to turn down his offer, explaining how Grandee pays his all-female staff low wages and buys his goods from sweatshops (insert your own “Sam Walton was obviously taking notes” joke here). After Grandee pays thugs to break up the group’s next meeting and kidnap Cathy, Diana leads a small team of women to the department store to free Cathy and bring Grandee to justice, so happy endings all around… that is, until a contingent of angry women storm the group’s next meeting to tell them how Diana’s actions caused Grandee’s store to close for good, leaving them all unemployed. So… a job that pays crap is better than no job at all? A guy who commits a federal offence deserves to go to jail, unless dozens of employees depend on him to pay their salaries? Women who fight the system to demand better working conditions are only hurting the other women who like the status quo just as it is? It was hard to figure out what this “special women’s lib issue” was trying to say, and it’s kind of a relief the readers never got a chance to find out what happened next, as another change in editorial direction was waiting for Wonder Woman in the very next issue — one that had nothing to do with turtlenecks or all-white ensembles, thank Hera.
10. “Night of Tears… Night of Truth!” (Night Nurse, 01/73)
In the early 1970s, Marvel — always mindful, at least in those days, of staying ahead of market trends — tried to serve the needs of its female readers with a handful of new titles created by and for woman. The already-mentioned Cat debuted in her own series, Claws of the Cat, thanks to this push to create marketable female characters; she would later morph into a literal cat-woman who called herself Tigra and wore a bikini for a costume, so fans of ironic revamps were well served. But at least the Cat enjoyed some semblance of a career after Marvel pulled the plug on its “chicks’ comix” experiment. Linda Carter, a.k.a. the Night Nurse, wasn’t as lucky, despite her title’s breathless promise to deliver tales of “danger, drama and death” at Metro General Hospital. Co-starring with the Night Nurse (why she was called that was never really explained, and she was never referred to as such in the stories) were the plucky black girl working her way out of the ghetto and the spoiled debutante redhead slumming it in the working world. Together, they faced the hazards of everyday life on the wards: stopping terrorists, taking care of elderly recluses in spooky mansions, being propositioned by hunky millionaire playboys, covering up for substance-abusing surgeon boyfriends who lose the police commissioner’s daughter on the operating table… you know, the kind of things that happen to nurses all the time. Even worse than the daffy workplace and romance plots were the personal subplots like the ones in this issue, in which the debutante’s wealthy father begs/orders her to give up nursing and come home (“Think of your aunts and uncles in the Midwest,” he implores her at one point, which… what?), or the flashback that shows our sobbing night nurse ordered by her man to choose either her career or their marriage (“You can be my wife, or a nurse… but not both!”). Any message of empowerment that might have emerged from the book was stomped on and buried by the melodrama and overwrought hand-wringing, and readers sent the now-infamous series packing after just four issues.
11. “Cry… Mandrill!” (Shanna the She-Devil #4, 06/73)
Together with Night Nurse and Claws of the Cat, Shanna the She-Devil was the third in a trio of titles that Marvel produced in the early ’70s featuring female heroes conceived by female comic writers. To be fair, it was slightly better than Night Nurse. But not by much. The set-up: Shannon O’Hara is your average breathtakingly gorgeous American woman who grows disillusioned with man’s cruelty to man and beast, and so she turns her back on civilization (minus the parts of it containing makeup and hair salons) to do her Tarzan impression in the jungle, saving wild animals from evil poachers and such. How anyone thought a shapely, red-headed gal in a leopard-print bikini could be seen as an empowering figure is anyone’s guess, particularly given the comic industry’s history of proffering scantily clad ladies in jungle settings for far less noble reasons. Adding insult to injury is a scene in this story, in which Shanna (who, by the way, lives in a hotel in a sizable-looking African city with her two panther companions, so you go, Nature Girl!) and several other prominent figures are invited to a mysterious dinner in which the issue’s main villain outlines his plan for taking over the country with their conscripted help. While the other dinner guests (all men) are told they are there because of their extensive business, military and government connections, Shanna’s role is to, as the Mandrill puts it, “be the charismatic figure to rally our supporters.” So even in her own element and within her own title, this Ph.D. graduate and ardent environmentalist is seen as little more than a pretty face to bamboozle the unwashed masses while the men do the real work of governance. Nice. At least her title’s swift cancellation (five issues in total) freed her up to go swing with Ka-Zar, Marvel’s bargain-basement Tarzan knockoff that enjoyed a far longer career than anyone with that description deserves.
12. “World Without Men” (World’s Finest Comics #233, 10/75)
By 1975, the struggle for women’s right was far from over, but it’s fair to say most women were probably feeling good about the gains they they had made over the previous decade. And then this comic came out, and everything went to hell. Well, not quite, but you have to wonder what DC was thinking when they put this one out on the stands. The story — penned, incidentally, by the late Bob Haney, he of The Brave and the Bold story at the top of this list and clearly saddled with issues of some sort — starts with Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. (just play along with it) out on the open road and cruising into the Southern town of Belton for a little rest and relaxation. Their first hint that something is amiss is a rather jumpy woman at the local blacksmith shop who nearly blinds Clark Jr. with a red-hot piece of iron; the pair then discover the town is populated entirely by women or, to use Bruce Jr.’s lingo, “beautiful chicks!” After the two are prevented by the women to save someone’s life because, y’know, male cooties and all, an enraged Bruce Jr. says someone should “slap some sense” into their “pretty faces” for their extreme anti-male attitudes. Well, that kind of tough talk is enough to earn them a ride via a bulldozer scoop to the local jail, where they learn from the other imprisoned men just how whack-a-doodle this place really is. Long story short: the town’s women are all being manipulated by “Sister Sybil,” who takes the form of a one-eyed obelisk out in the swamp. When she gives the order to execute all the men, the junior superheroes swing into action and save the day, but not before some of the women are turned into alligator monsters (…sure, why not?) and Sister Sibyl is revealed to be a one-eyed alien who plots to turn all the women into creatures like itself. She plans to do so with her special monster-making serum, and the only antidote to the alien’s monster-making serum is “a male’s touch,” hence the extreme gender apartheid business. But why would an alien go to such lengths to create monsters of the town’s women? “I was exiled from my own world for being hideous!” it monologues. “Thus, I hate all who are beautiful and must make them share my fate — eternal ugliness!” Of course Superman Jr. reacts to his creature’s pitiable cry for understanding and acceptance by grabbing the nearest phallic object and beating the crap out of her. The heroes save the day, the creature that preyed on humanity’s divisive nature is driven back to her home planet, and an important lesson is learned by all about the inherent evil of any social system that relies on the subjugation of… Oh, wait, that’s not what happens at all:
Thank goodness a couple of real men were around to save the women, eh? Also, thank goodness that no one in the final panel starts asking what happened to all the town’s men, children, older women, or women who didn’t measure up to societal standards of beauty. That kind of reaction would have put a serious dent in Brucie’s plans for the evening.