Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
This seemed like a good pick in the midst of the "and Death Note wastes another female character" theme.
"Fashion, feminism, fantasy, and the history of comic book heroines." This is a feminist history of superheroines in comic books.
This is a history of American views of women, a woman's place, and relationships, as seen through the prism of comic books. Which is to say, a series of kicks in the face. You can see the times reflected in entertainment, and they have long been deeply, deeply unhealthy.
Comics have often been about wish fulfillment, and female characters have been the victims of an unfortunate balance between attracting male and female readers, along with competing theories of what those readers want. It is like an instantiation of the virgin-whore complex, with strong, competent, bold characters that are subservient, demure, and never quite as good as their male counterparts.
The early days read like glints of proto-feminism, with heroines that save the day on their own. Then they go back to being the obedient wife or daughter, sometimes with a knowing smirk when someone comments on the heroine's adventures. They are making it in a man's world, but let's keep reminding everyone that it is a man's world.
Wonder Woman is the most famous and most feminist. She is part of DC's iconic Big Three, with Superman and Batman. She actually gets "Woman," not "Girl." She was conceived as a positive, strong role model for girls. And her creators were into bondage and submission, which fits in oddly and probably led to a lot of fetishes. (This is not exactly news or sensationalism; check any Wonder Woman archive.) And then the character spun out of control after World War II, going through many revamps and never seeing much popularity outside the Linda Carter era. Wonder Woman is an iconic image, but while anyone can give you the quick story on Superman or Batman, can you say much about Wonder Woman beyond her costume?
More often, we see the female counterparts of male superheroes, explicitly weaker and subservient. Whereas Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are disguises for their respective heroes, it is the heroic persona that is a play-act for the heroine, something exciting to do until she find the right man. We see Lois Lane, given second billing in her own series as "Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane," and even at her best depicted as needy, love-struck, bratty, and potentially the most annoying woman in the world. We see frighteningly unhealthy views of romantic relationships and power imbalances, where honesty and mutual respect are the only physically impossible things in comic book land.
It is tragic to see gender views that are so archaic and so recent. People who grew up with these cultural norms are still voting and running the country, and it does not get much more pro-equality on this planet. Worrisome.
The author seems not entirely immune. He refers to someone as "slatternly" unironically. He does a great job of presenting the attitude of an era without condemnation, inviting the reader to contribute his/her own, but he occasionally sounds like he is endorsing a decidedly un-feminist view rather than simply reporting that. It could be an accident of phrasing, or perhaps the poison afflicts even when you know to watch for it.
The book's organization mixes chronological with character-based. It takes a representative character of an era and follows her for a few decades. We see the careers of the heroines of the 40s play out. We see the full run of Sheena, queen of the jungle, then drop back to the 50s for super girlfriends. We see how Supergirl's character varies from her first appearance to her dovetailing with Lindsey Lohan. It is a good organization that shows the changing decades without unduly constricting the telling to simultaneous publications.
I found the organization highly intuitive in its arrangement of heroines. Whenever I thought, "Well what about X?" X appeared in the next chapter. This happened at least three times, so either the author and I are on the same wavelength or there is a natural structure.
I was not always thrilled with the emphasis. I want to believe that the incidents cited in older publications are representative, but I saw some picking and choosing of examples from the time when I was an avid comic reader (although it mostly keeps to the older icons). We might be interested in the worst example or "that one issue where," but do not treat it as the central tendency. Yes, it is easy to find someone online calling She-Hulk "a skank" rather than "a modern, sex-positive feminist," but it is easy to find someone online calling anyone a skank, while my sense of fandom leans towards the latter interpretation.
On the other hand, I know some worse examples in mainstream comics, so the author could have hit a few points harder with "can you believe they..."
The emphasis problem comes down to context. Much is made of the "when she was bad" stories, when the lady has an issue as the villain due to mind control, red kryptonite, super sleepwalking, miscommunication, or whatever. Almost every heroine profile mentions one. This makes up a narrative in which women are agents of deceit and treachery, too corrupted by power. This also ignores the fact that every single comic book character has this story. All of them. If you want to see the male heroes turn on their allies, it will not take you long to find Batman turning on the Justice League, Cyclops shooting people in the head, or Superman doing something insane monthly throughout the Silver Age. The more popular the character is, the more times it will have happened, for issues or years at a time. If it hadn't happened, it would mean the characters were not interesting enough to bother.
This sort of thing creates a focus on the negative, on superheroines' worst eras or features, which leads one to wonder back at the introduction. If female depictions in comics are so horrible, why would one be drawn to them?
The truth is that Sturgeon's Revelation applies universally. Most of everything is dreck, with shining successes worth remembering. Even for those shining successes, there are going to be lots of writers and authors who had bad runs. They may even have ruined a character for years. This is not the exclusive domain of female characters, and it should not be taken to dim the brightest lights.
The book ends on a positive note, but it makes the narrative a bit neat and suggests a narrow view of feminism. The neatness comes from over-imposing a story arc on heroine history, one that started in condescension, muddled through confusion, went through a cheesecake phase, and ends in maternal strength. Youth, adolescence, young womanhood, motherhood. That straightens out a lot of messy and overlapping lines, and it downplays both earlier successes and current weaknesses in the portrayal of female characters. Gail Simone is a shining light as a female comic book writer, but she is not the only one.
That narrow view is the nurturing, maternal one. It is a common feminist theme that women are uniquely strong in a loving way that protects and builds things up rather than fostering violence and aggression, and so on. It is a viable theme, but it tends to take over the character and leave little space between daughter and mother. You get young women who are victims, virgins, or harlots; you get older women who are loving mothers or bitter spinsters. There needs to be a larger space carved out in between for female characters as individuals first, themselves before their relationships. Otherwise we just have a new variation on the virgin-whore complex we started with.
The author is better than I am giving him credit for there. Many things are mentioned but not focused on, and it would take a much higher page count to explore the nuances that interest me. Without drawing much attention to it, Mr. Madrid mentions female leaders for every major superhero team, including the Authority, JLA, JSA, Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Legion of Superheroes. The threads of female leadership are never woven into a chapter addressing how this fits into a narrative where heroines are second-class heroes. Similarly, though I note the maternal ending, the last chapter cites several heroines who are individuals first rather than someone's mother or daughter, and it follows a She-Hulk chapter (and she is certainly not depicted as either). Our author does not call attention to it because it does not fit the narrative.
Let us end on that note that comics, like any medium taken as a whole, is a cacophony rather than a symphony. There are trends and themes, but there is no "comic book industry" that works with a single mind. There are several publishers, and within them many authors going in different directions, sometimes in intentional subversion of any editorial direction. Writing the book demands imposing some structure on it, but at any given time, someone will be coloring outside the lines.
PS I could have stood a bit more on how the Comics Code Authority imposed the lesser female roles on the industry. With explicit restrictions on how female characters could appear and act, there were limits on their use and an incentive just to leave women out as much as possible. Regulatory agencies, developed under threat of explicit legislative regulation, rarely do much to further art. They also reinforce the existing power structure rather than supporting the development of, in this case, new female voices.