Saturday, March 27, 2010
Playing on the Girls' Team: Notes on Jaime Hernandez and Female Super Teams in the Comics
A Hundred Pretty Girls
Love and Rockets 2 was one of my favourite comics of 2009, mostly because of Jaime Hernandez' "Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34," a fun metatextual superhero comic featuring three separate teams of female superheroes and set in the world of Hernandez' Locas stories (part 1 came out in 2008). Jaime's story had me wondering, why hadn't more U.S. superhero comics featured teams of women?
Hernandez has always liked the superhero women. Much of his early fan art seemed to focus on the femmes of the DC and Marvel universes. As well, his own stories are just packed with a surfeit of lady leagues, including Las Widows street gang, ladies' wrestling tag-teams, and all-girl punk bands. He introduced his own superhero women (Cheetah Torpeda, Comrade 7, et al) in the pages of the 1980s iteration of L&R, but hadn't really tied them into the team concept until recently. The superhero epic of "Ti-Girls" reveals a complex world of well-imagined female teammates, more subtly realized (and fun) than anything in the genre. But before the working-class black and latina amazons of Jaime's T-Girls, Zolars, and Fenomenons came on the scene, there was precious little in the world of comic books to rival them.
The first superhero team, the Justice Society of America, was an old-boys' club with one token female member, Wonder Woman, who held the rank of secretary. Of course, WW was not only a member of the all-woman society of Amazons who inhabited Paradise Island (the first superheroine "team"?) but was also given her powers by the chief female gods of the Greek pantheon (another all-star group of women). WW adventures featured quite a few girl couples and mini-groups, not to mention regular appearances of the Holliday Girls, an army of women chosen from Etta Candy's sorority, described as "a hundred pretty girls brave enough to capture dangerous men."
After the JSA, most superhero teams followed the same pattern of several men and one or maybe two women members. Thus we have the Marvel Family and Lieutenant Marvels, and later the JLA. The first incarnation of the Legion of Super-Heroes had a two-to-one ratio of men to women (3-to-1 when Superboy joined) but quickly expanded to include a whole cohort of women members, achieving near-parity several times (especially when you factored in Triplicate Girl) but the same could not be said for efforts like The Doom Patrol, Blackhawks, and especially The Inferior Five, which all featured a sole female member each. In 1960s Marvel Comics, the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and original X-Men all featured just one woman per team. Although the Avengers gradually added more women, it wasn't until the 1970s, with the advent of the Chris Claremont-penned new X-Men, that groups with a larger female membership began to dominate.
Brief Highlights in the History of All-Female Super-Teams
For some reason, in these comics written by men, powerful groups of women are often pictured as villains.
"The Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires" (Adventure Comics #326, 1964): The girls are brainwashed by Queen Azura from the planet Femnaz (paging Dave Sim!) into seducing the male Legionnaires and luring them into various traps but the day is saved when some of the boys save Femnaz from an exploding moon and the evil Queen has a change of heart. The genius of Jerry Siegel and the pencils of John Forte created this bizarre, adorable psychodrama.
"The Mutiny of the Super-Heroines" (Adventure Comics #368, 1968): In this recycled story, the female members of the Legion of Super-Heroes get a power boost and take over the Legion, kicking the boys out. By the time of this story, the girls already outnumber the guys 9-7 (check out the roll-call), but are still depicted as generally weaker than the boys and totally docile and obsessed with homemaking until a feminist harridan from another planet (this time Ambassador Thora from Taltor) boosts their powers. (Little known fact: Mort Weisinger was a huge fan of the films of Russ Meyer, especially Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!)
"Lenore Goldberg and Her Girl Commandos" Motor City Comics #2 (1969): Crumb's satire of the nascent women's lib movement is actually quite an awesome political document besides being a wonderful piece of underground art. Lenore and her gang kick some righteous bourgeois ass and shake up notions of class and gender to boot. The fact that the whole story is essentially a Crumb sex fantasy just makes it all the better.
It Ain't Me Babe (1970): Trina Robbins edited this anthology of women underground cartoonists and kicked things off with a cover featuring a team-up of Golden Age divas, including WW, Sheena, and Elsie the Cow. Similar amalgamations were to clutter her art for years and eventually lead to a gig writing Wonder Woman for DC!
The Liberators (Avengers #83, 1970): Writer Roy Thomas rehashes the old Legion plot mentioned above in a John Buscema-drawn story that features a new character called Valkyrie who convinces the female member of The Avengers that the sexism in the Marvel Universe means they should form their own team. This new amalgamation of Medusa, The Scarlet Witch, The Wasp, and The Black Widow goes on to defeat both The Masters of Evil and the male Avengers before Valkyrie is revealed to be Thor villain The Enchantress, craftily using her fellow women to help her steal some super-scientific doohickey. The Liberators subsequently return to their roles as Avengers while hinting at "male chauvinist pig" behaviour that might cause them to reunite.
The Female Furies (Mr. Miracle #6, 1972): Of course Jack Kirby has to be on this list somewhere. Lashina, Stompa, Bernadeth, Mad Harriet, and Big Barda were a team of immortal bad-asses from New Genesis trained by Grannie Goodness. When Big Barda, Kirby's zaftig Wonder Woman, falls for Mr. Miracle, her teammates pursue her to Earth and get their butts kicked. The gang has made occasional appearances since, in Karl Kesel's Guardians of Metropolis from Superman's 90s mullet era, and in Grant Morrison's 7 Soldiers and Final Crisis, but only Kirby brought his best game to the concept. A little known fact about this comic is that a copy was found in Henry Kissinger's briefcase when he visited China prior to Nixon in the early 70s. The event nearly caused an international incident and was later immortalized in "The R. Crumb $uck$$e$$ Story" in The People's Comics. (Bonus: Female Furies covers.)
The Grapplers (Marvel Two-in-One #54-56, 1979): Perfect 1970s cheese created by writers Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio along with artist John Byrne, the Grapplers were a team of women wrestlers given super-powers by an evil oil company so they could fuck-up Project Pegasus, a U.S. government alternative energy research facility where the Fantastic Four's Thing was hanging out as some sort of glorified security guard. Titania, Letha, Poundcakes, and Screaming Mimi were the big-thighed working girls who were joined by Thundra, the Amazon from another dimension who had been an off-and-on member of the FF cast for years and kind of had a crush on old Blue-Eyed Benjy. As with the Female Furies, Thundra rebelled from the group and they were eventually defeated by Black Giant-Man and Quasar, but lived to fight another day. I think I had an unhealthy obsession with this comic as a kid. Like, boner unhealthy.
Immola and the Luna Legion (1992): Joan Hilty created this group of lesbian superheroes for her contribution to the anthology comic Oh... and they later had an entire issue of the mag all to themselves (#8). I haven't seen this comic in the flesh but Hilty is an editor for DC and produces her own syndicated comic strip, Bitter Girl. Little known facts: Kurt Cobain wrote his suicide note on the back cover of Oh...#1 and an extended 20-page tribute to the Luna Legion forms the centrepiece to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
Femforce (Femforce #1, 1985): The team of superheroines created by Bill Black for his Americomics line of sexploitation, t&a, and public domain comics reprints. The team was made up of Blue Bulleteer (based on Phantom Lady), Miss Victory, and She-Cat (based on Harvey's Black Cat), Rio Rita (based on Fiction House's Senorita Rio) and a mix of other characters, some from 1940s comics appropriated by Black, other created whole cloth in the 1980s. Nancy Reagan was reputedly a fan, was published on several letters pages, and even went so far as to invite the Americomics team to be her guests at the Los Angeles Olympics. Although I know of no all-female group from the 1940s, Americomics large-breasted retcon fantasy does its best to fill the void, with everything from dvds, web-serials, and, incredibly, over 100 issues of Femforce comics.
Birds of Prey (1996 to present, off and on): Writer Chuck Dixon dreamed up the idea of a team-up of long-time DC superheroines Black Canary and Oracle (formerly Batgirl) set in a gritty noir-ish Batman-style continuity. Writer Gail Simone later added The Huntress as a core character of the continuing series. It was a tv series and later Gilbert Hernandez even wrote some issues (no joke)! Maybe because Gilbert is also a big fan of girl groups and created those weird leaping ladies from the Roy stories. Now that DC is competing with Warners/DC one on one, look for more superteams featuring lesbian mermaids and S&M princesses.