Females to Astonish

On the Changing Roles of Superheroines in Western Comics over the Decades

After the recent release of Marvel’s “Mockingbird #8,” writer Chelsea Cain quit. She had been receiving abusive comments from fan boys disgruntled by increasing prevalence of women in comic production and superheroines like Mockingbird, Spider-Gwen, and Ironheart. With so many media working to be more inclusive, what makes a good superheroine? Let’s take a look at the history of women in superhero comics.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

In the ‘40s and ‘50s many comic books were produced specifically for female audiences. While many of these were romances, teen digests, or career-oriented comics like “Millie the Model”, there were also costumed crime fighters like Sheena the jungle queen and Wonder Woman. Apropos of their unconventional audience, these superheroines were strong and independent. While the images in these books would later be frowned upon as overly-sexualized and exploitative, female characters in non-traditional roles who owned their sexuality were groundbreaking for their time.

During the ‘60s, comics toned down the sexualization of female superheroes. Career women like Lois Lane, Jean Loring (of “The Atom”), and Carol Ferris (of “Green Lantern”) appeared. Superheroines like Supergirl strove to be treated as equals and many, like Susan Storm (The Invisible Girl), became cornerstones of their teams and universes.

In the ‘70s, superheroines increased substantially in number. Unfortunately, many, like Thundra and Man-killer, caricatured tensions around the women’s liberation movement. The ‘80s fared better; Susan Storm-Richards changed her alias to Invisible Woman in “Fantastic Four #284” eventually becoming the group’s leader. Wasp temporarily led her team after “West Coast Avengers #32”. Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), crippled in Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke”, went on to lead the Birds of Prey as Oracle.

The ‘90s introduced openly lesbian superheroes like Renee Montoya (The Question) and Katherine Kane (Batwoman) as well as unconventional heroes like Tank Girl and Mina Murray (of “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman”), vulgar, violent punk and bisexual suffragist, respectively. Recent comics are more inclusive and forward-thinking and will likely grow more so as the demands of the public change. The medium’s historical portrayal of progressive female characters makes absurd the notion that comics’ recent developments are new or unprecedented. As Stan Lee says: “Excelsior!”