During the 1930s-1940s period that fans and historians call the Golden Age of comic books, a time during which the medium evolved from comic strips, women who were not superheroes were primarily portrayed three ways: as career girls, romance-story heroines, or perky teenagers.
Career-oriented girls included such characters as Nellie the Nurse, Tessie the Typist, and Millie the Model, each of whom appeared in comic books geared toward female readers using the types of jobs that non-wartime women of the era typically worked: nurse, secretary, and actress/model. Teachers were also sometimes portrayed.
The second role was evident in the very popular romance genre, pioneered by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. A woman in those stories could be the good girl or the bad girl. A good girl gets her heart broken while the bad girl breaks all the boys’ hearts. A good girl could also be happily married while a bad girl who tries to be good but can’t give up her wild side and goes back to being bad.
The third role was as a perky teenager. This is embodied by characters such as those in titles such as Betty and Veronica. The lead characters were both boy crazed and completely fun loving teenagers. Betty and Veronica spent all their time fighting over who would get to date Archie. Josie and her band, the Pussycats, always managed to find their way into some sort of adventure but emerged unscathed.
Another seminal superheroine is Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility; she debuted in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip by Russell Stamm on June 3 1940. A superpowered female antihero, the Black Widow—a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hell—debuted in Mystic Comics #4 (Aug. 1940), from Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics. The superpowered Nelvana of the Northern Lights debuted in Canadian publisher Hillborough Studio's Triumph-Adventure Comics #1 (Aug. 1941).
William Moulton Marston, a psychologist already famous for inventing the polygraph (forerunner to the magic lasso), struck upon an idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. 'Fine,' said Elizabeth. 'But make her a woman.'
Marston introduced the idea to Max Gaines, cofounder (along with Jack Liebowitz) of All-American Publications. Given the go-ahead, Marston developed Wonder Woman with Elizabeth (whom Marston believed to be a model of that era's unconventional, liberated woman). In creating Wonder Woman, Marston was also inspired by Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple in a polygamous/polyamorous relationship. Marston's pseudonym, Charles Moulton, combined his own and Gaines' middle names.
Marston was also the creator of a systolic blood-pressure measuring apparatus, which was crucial to the development of the polygraph (lie detector). Marston's experience with polygraphs convinced him that women were more honest and reliable than men, and could work more efficiently.
In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston wrote:
Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
Some of Marston Moulton's early stories included Wonder Woman as president of the United States and as a modern-day Incan Sun God, both non-traditional roles for women. Despite such portrayals of women in leadership roles, however, editor Sheldon Mayer was disturbed by the recurring bondage imagery. One issue dealt with Wonder Woman losing control because her bracelets had broken; she was driven mad because the bracelets represented restraint, and stated "power without self-control tears a girl to pieces".
The jungle girl archetype also made her transition from pulp fiction to comic books, with such examples from the 1940s and 1950s as Jann of the Jungle, Nyoka the Jungle Girl, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Such heroines would later be criticized for wearing skimpy clothing.
One publisher in particular, Fiction House, featured several progressive heroines such as the jungle queen Sheena. As Trina Robbins, in The Great Women Superheroes (Kitchen Sink Press, 1996, ISBN 0-87816-481-2), wrote:
[M]ost of [Fiction House's] pulp-style action stories either starred or featured strong, beautiful, competent heroines. They were war nurses, aviatrixes, girl detectives, counterspies, and animal skin-clad jungle queens, and they were in command. Guns blazing, daggers unsheathed, sword in hand, they leaped across the pages, ready to take on any villain. And they did not need rescuing.
In the Spirit's many adventures, the femme fatale was a character that sought revenge usually through blackmail or exploitation. One such adventure includes Broadway Lily, who attempts to exploit political tensions between the Spirit's confidant, Commissioner Dolan, and the Mayor. A doctored photograph of Dolan and Broadway Lily is given to the Mayor with the intention of forcing Dolan to resign. The Spirit discovers that Broadway Lily was bitter that the Commissioner arrested her lover, Foxy Dan, and wanted to exact revenge. When women turn away from feminine wiles to commit violent crime, however, the Spirit finds himself shocked. The Spirit comments about how women in organized crime are doing what men generally do. The response he gets is: "Didn’t you ever hear of the manpower shortage, handsome?
During this time frame, the comics of the Silver Age of Comic Books published by Marvel and DC were different enough that if you liked one, you were liable not to like the other. If you wanted the classic feel of the original 1940’s superheroes, you were a DC partisan. If you wanted fast action mixed with the emotional angst reflecting a world where social unrest was slowly coming to a boil, you were more likely to read the Marvel offerings
Most of DC's Silver Age superheroes each had a major female supporting character. These included two career women: journalist Lois Lane, who worked at The Daily Planet with Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent; and aircraft manufacturer Carol Ferris, the boss of Green Lantern's alter ego, Hal Jordan. Iris West was the on-again, off-again girlfriend of the Flash's alter ego, Barry Allen. Batman's supporting cast, beginning in the 1950s, occasionally included journalist Vicki Vale and heiress Kathy Kane, whose alter ego was the motorcycle-riding masked crimefighter Batwoman. With a tip of her cowl to the Harvey Comics character the Black Cat, who preceded her by 15 years as a superheroine on a motorcycle, Batwoman used weapons as well, although hers included powder puffs, charm bracelets, perfume, a hair net, a compact mirror, and a shoulder bag utility case with matching bolo strap.
Her first appearance, in 1956, was greeted with thugs retorting, "Ha-ha! What can she do?" and, referring the Batman, Robin and Batwoman, "There's only two of them. The girl doesn’t count". As for the heroes themselves, Robin tells Batman, "A girl saving you? It’s ridiculous!", while Batman tells Batwoman, "This is no place for a girl" and Batwoman herself sighs, "How could any woman ever equal the great Batman?
In 1964, Batman editor Julius Schwartz introduced a modernized Batman to fans. This "New Look" Batman not only had a revamped Batcave, a souped-up Batmobile, and new Bat-gadgets, but a new love interest: Police officer Patricia (Pat) Powell. The daughter of police detective Mike "Bulldog" Powell, she wins the Gotham City Police Academy's annual award for top-ranking cadet in Academics, Physical, Firearms, and Overall. Award-presenter Batman is shocked that such an award is going to a woman. He is even more shocked when Powell shares a secret with him that she has a crush on Bruce Wayne, Batman's secret civilian identity. Allowed to work with Batman on her first case, she gets distracted by a tobacco package with the initials BW and starts to daydream about Bruce Wayne Like many other female characters of DC's early years, she does not know that the man she loves is the secret identity of a famous superhero.
Of the women of DC's Silver Age, Carol Ferris in Green Lantern was unique in that she was Hal Jordan's boss. Despite his best efforts to date her, Carol firmly rejects his advances and adapts a business-first mentality.
She later assumed the role of a superheroine. Women from the Planet Zamaron (in their language meaning Land of Lovely Women) notice Ferris resembles their fallen Queen. The Zamaronians give Carol the identity of Star Sapphire and convince her to fight Green Lantern. Despite this new identity, the influence of the romance genre carries over into their battles. A strategy is devised in which Star Sapphire will weaken Green Lantern to such an extent that she will propose marriage to him. While recharging the ring, Star Sapphire unmasks Green Lantern, and he promises to marry her. With his power ring, Green Lantern reads her mind and discovers that she is Ferris. He erases her memory of what occurred so that he can put off marriage.
DC's Doom Patrol had many similarities to Marvel's X-Men. Its leader was in a wheelchair, its members were seen as outcasts, and there was an attractive female, Rita Farr (Elasti-Girl), who added an edge of romantic tension. She was involved solely with her future husband, Steve Dayton (Mento), who wanted her to leave the team.
When Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics in 1961, many brand new women superheroes were introduced. The first female superhero from Marvel Comics was the Invisible Girl, aka Susan Storm, charter member of the Fantastic Four. These superheroes were given a strong supporting role but were often maligned. The Wasp (Janet Van Dyne) was an early example. She would have to endure the tone of the fatherly Giant-Man (Henry Pym), who would ignore her romantic advances. Although these characters would develop and become cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, their early treatment would resemble a struggle to be recognized as equals.
The Fantastic Four's early adventures in the Silver Age had the feel of the Romance Genre. The Invisible Girl is central to this. An instant attraction occurs when she meets Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. He immediately asks for her hand in marriage, with the agreement that he will not attack the human race. When she reluctantly agrees, Namor becomes insulted, as he feels that she is sacrificing herself. An attack by the rest of the Fantastic Four, results in Namor fleeing the scene.
Despite this confrontation, the romance element is evident when the Invisible Girl’s brother, the Human Torch, aka Johnny Storm, finds a photograph of the Sub-Mariner on a bookshelf. Both struggle to get the picture when the Human Torch decides to burn the picture.
After this confrontation, Namor enters the Baxter Building and the Human Torch attempts to attack him. The Invisible Girl stands in front of Namor and tries to protect him from the attack. The romantic tension between the two would come to define the image of the Invisible Woman during Marvel’s early years.
Another example of the romance genre's influence would include Marvel Girl (aka Jean Grey) of the X-Men. In the early days of the X-Men, Jean Grey is the object of two members of the X-Men's affection. In issue #25, the Betty and Veronica portrayal plays a role reversal. Cyclops (aka Scott Summers) and Warren Worthington III (aka The Angel) both have feelings for Jean Grey after she goes off to college.
When Thor was introduced in Journey Into Mystery, his civilian alter ego was Dr. Don Blake. Don Blake developed a crush on his nurse, Jane Foster (comics). Like the women of the Golden Age, Foster was categorized into the category of a career girl. This crush would create tension between the relationship of Thor, and his father Odin.
The tension would continue between father and son. Eventually, a decision was made by Odin to turn Jane Foster into an immortal. Stan Lee had introduced another plot twist. Before she could become immortal, Jane Foster would need to pass a test to prove her worthy of being an immortal. Jane Foster had shown fear and in effect, failed her test. The result of Jane Foster being refused for godhood created another Betty and Veronica scenario. In the same issue, Odin would attempt to have Thor forget about Jane Foster by re-introducing him to the goddess Sif.
The most noticeable example of women playing a supporting role is the women involved in the life of Marvel’s flagship character – Spider-Man (aka Peter Parker). Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy # 15 features the most important woman in his life enduring a traumatizing moment. His Aunt May witnesses the murder of her husband, Peter's beloved Uncle Ben. Throughout the rest of the Silver Age of Comic Books, Aunt May would be constantly sick. Spider-Man (as Peter Parker) would work for the Daily Bugle as a way to help ends meet. Parker's going to college would lead to guilt about his Aunt May. Peter Parker: "You're a great guy Parker. Worrying about getting your own apartment, buying a new cycle, thinking only of number one. - While the woman who's devoted her life to you does without her medicine because she can't afford a new bottle.
After Aunt May, the next woman in the Spider-Man mythos would be an employee of the Daily Bugle-Betty Brant. She is the receptionist for J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle. A big part of Peter Parker’s identity is that he is not liked in school, but Betty respects Peter and sees him as more than just a bookworm. Like all the other women in Spider-Man’s life, Brant's personal tragedy would have an impact on his life. Betty’s tragedy would be that her brother, Bennett Brant was accidentally murdered during a fight with Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, and she blamed Spider-Man. This event would dramatically alter Peter and Betty’s friendship.
It would also be in the Silver Age that Peter Parker would meet another important woman in his life – Mary Jane Watson Mary Jane is the niece of Aunt May’s best friend, Anna Watson. Although her personal relationship with Parker would not develop until the tail end of the Bronze Age of Comic Books, she was part of the Amazing Spider-Man's supporting cast. Her presence would make Gwen Stacy, another woman in his life, jealous. One of the first examples was evident when Peter's friends throw a party for Flash Thompson, who was going to Vietnam.
Peter enters the party with Mary Jane and starts to talk to Gwen. This behaviour is also recognized by another partygoer, Betty Brant. The dynamic between Gwen and Mary Jane is reminiscent of the very popular romance genre. One is the good girl while the other is the bad girl. At the party, Gwen and Mary Jane were supposed to give out burgers to the partygoers but try to outdance each other.
Despite their strong roles, both are still portrayed as victims and as sex objects. Beverly makes ends meet by posing as a nude model. Her beauty seems to lead her into various problems, as she is kidnapped by Dr. Bong, a character who knew Bev as a teenager and was obsessed with her. His obsession leads him to wanting to marry her. Beverly marries Dr. Bong in exchange for Howard’s life. The result is that Howard the Duck is turned into a human as a punishment for trying to rescue her. In another adventure, Beverly is kidnapped by a shiek who wants to enslave her, and Howard must try to rescue her once more.
Jennifer Kale finds trouble in her first appearance in comics. She steals an enchanted book, and accidentally summons demons from another world. The released demon chases Jennifer to a movie theatre where the Man-Thing comes to her rescue. The Man-Thing and the demon resume their fight in the swamp where Jennifer burns the enchanted book and the demon disappears. Jennifer is apologetic to the Man-Thing for her behaviour.
When Jennifer’s grandfather discovers that she has a psychic link with the Man-Thing, Jennifer is still portrayed as a victim. The two are kidnapped by Dakimh the Enchanter and brought to the world Sandt where the Man-Thing must fight Mongu the Gladiator so that both can be freed or else they will die.
In the 1980s, under writer-artist John Byrne, Susan Richards found new uses for her powers and developed an assertive self-confidence to use her powers more aggressively. She changed her alias from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman.
One of the first women from the history of Marvel would undergo a huge transformation in the Bronze Age of Comics. Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl would not only become romantically involved with Cyclops, but would have to deal with the advances of Wolverine. The Betty and Veronica situation that occurred with Cyclops and Angel during the Silver Age had now carried on to Cyclops and Wolverine in the Bronze Age. Despite these romantic issues, Jean Grey was transformed into the omnipotent Phoenix. In an era that represented the Women's Liberation Movement, this transformation reflected the changes of society.
Throughout most of the Silver and Bronze Age, women in comics were not given leadership positions. Men (led by characters such as Mr. Fantastic, Captain America, and Cyclops) chaired teams such as the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. In the Bronze Age and early Modern Age, characters such as Invisible Woman and the Wasp would chair the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, respectively.
The Bronze Age of Comic Books represented a change for the X-Men. The forming of a new group representing various nationalities of the world would mark a turning point in the history of the team. Storm aka Ororo Munroe, would be the first relevant African-American superheroine of the era. She was the first black female, to play either a major or supporting role in the big two comic book houses, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. One of her defining moments would be eventually succeeding Cyclops as leader of the X-Men during the early years of the Modern Age of Comics. This was unique because Storm was a visible minority and would join Monica Rambeau, aka the second Captain Marvel (who chaired the Avengers) as minorities in leadership positions.
This portrayal would be put to the test in the Modern Age. While there were many examples of strong, female characters getting their own titles, including Ghost from Dark Horse Comics, Strangers in Paradise from Terry Moore, 9 Chickweed Lane, Birds of Prey and the newly invented Supergirl at DC Comics, it was not uncommon that sex was used to sell comics as well. In the 2000s, Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows was a key example of having strong female roles but blending it with skimpy outfits and the occasional nudity.
The decade would continue with other sexually suggestive characters from the independents including Barb Wire (from Dark Horse Comics), Lady Death (from Chaos! Comics), Lady Rawhide (from Topps Comics), Mantra (from Malibu Ultraverse), and Vampirella (from Harris Comics). Even a popular brand like DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint started to capitalize on the trend. Books such as Codename: Knockout and Vamps were published in the 1990’s. By the time the speculator market crashed, most of these “bad girl” comics met their end.
The trend towards sexually suggestive characters was also felt at Marvel Comics. In the early 1990s, characters such as the Invisible Woman (see Fantastic Four # 375) and the Scarlet Witch (see Scarlet Witch #1) started wearing revealing outfits. She-Hulk was also doing a nude jump rope issue in The Sensational She-Hulk #40. It is worth noting that the first truly sexually suggestive character in the Marvel Comics mythos appeared in the Bronze Age of Comic Books in the form of the White Queen, Emma Frost. The White Queen appeared in the X-Men during the Dark Phoenix saga and her lingerie-like outfits and dominant personality became her trademarks, which she carried on even as a superhero and member of the X-Men.
During the Modern Age of Comics, an issue that has gained attention in society is body image. Many images of women in popular culture have been accused of altering what people perceive as appropriate body types. The learned body image that develops is deeply tied to gender identity. The range of eating disorders and body image that are developed come from what people believe to be the cultural ideal.
An example of a character with an imperfect body type but still has a fan following is Francine from Strangers in Paradise. Francine has a round face and a small collection of fat underneath the chin, while appearing as slightly overweight. Her stomach is not flat and does not display any discernible muscle tone. She is what Trina Robbins describes as “pleasingly plump” and is very far from the stereotypes of exaggerated female forms.
Another example of body image in comics is in a flashback tale set in Smallville. Set in Clark Kent’s high school days, Clark sees others laughing at an overweight girl that is called “Marge the Barge” because she does not have a date for the homecoming dance. Clark Kent decides to reject Lana Lang’s offer to be his date for the homecoming dance, and asks out Marge the Barge.
She actually rejects him because she feels he is asking her out due to pity. She tells him that after the dance, she will be long gone. Clark interprets this as suicide and is concerned. Upon seeing her standing on the edge of the bridge in town, he screams at her to not jump. After a discussion, Clark finds out the she will be long gone due to early admissions to college.
After getting to know each other, Clark takes her to homecoming. With some help from Lana Lang, the Homecoming vote is rigged and Clark and Marge become Homecoming King and Queen. Once the event is over, Marge goes home and is hit by a drunk driver on the same bridge where she talked to Clark. The driver was a drunk teenager who was bitter that he was not made Homecoming King. Clark assumed that because she was overweight, that she was suicidal, and once he got to know her, he found that she was a likeable person.
The excess of exaggerated comic-book women has been satirized on occasion within the medium. Writer-artist Jhonen Vasquez featured a tall, blonde, buxom, scantily clad, dumb superheroine in the alternative press comic Squee! #2, with the storyline addressing her ability to stand up straight with an improbably tiny waist and overlarge chest. After a poke to the forehead, she tips over and her superhero career comes to an end as her spine snaps from the weight.
In 2002, writer Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck miniseries for Marvel Comics' mature-reader imprint Marvel MAX approached the topic of scantily clad superheroines, within a larger satirical framework. Issue #2 featured nudity, as Beverly's bare chest was visible in the shower. In issue #3, Howard and his human companion Beverly Switzler run across a woman police officer who has acquired the "Doucheblade", a parody of Image Comics' Witchblade, which transforms the officer into a superheroine whose chest expand and whose clothes disappear.
In 2007, Sideshow Collectibles produced a 14.25-inch "comiquette" statuette designed by Adam Hughes showing Mary Jane hand-washing Peter Parker's Spider-Man costume. The statuette has received criticism for MJ's ostensibly highly-sexualized and objectifying pose.