5 Jan 2008

Batgirl And The Human Siamese Knot

he words "women in comics" conjure up a lot of images. Sadly, not all of them are posititive. As I once blogged before, the portrayal of women in comics is often an insult to intelligent readers. But it's not all skimpy outfits and lame characters. We'll look at how WW2 gave rise to the first portrayals of women in comics, and the first superheroines. This will lead into a discussion of certain female characters, ending with a look at the classic Batgirl, the first caped feminist.

Twentieth century warfare wrought one change amidst its misery - the social emancipation of women. This came most directly in western combatant nations, where social roles had been immediately redefined. Women had been marshalled into the war machine like never before. As distinctions between civilian and military began to disappear with "total war", all of society was involved.

Most of the tropes of this era are well known. The image of Rosie the Riveter, for example, is an American icon; used as a visual shorthand to depict the changed role of women. A lot of films and literature have focused on female perspectives of WW2. Nostaglia and political correctness have tidied up this picture somewhat; it was not a rosy era of gender equality by any means. But women in the West now discovered they had more money, time and freedom than their mothers, and especially grandmothers.

There was a severe social reaction to the newfound strength of women. A conservative backlash sort to reassert proper roles; the decade following the war is the age of the suburban housewife at her most doped-up and servile. Jobs and opportunities open to women during the war were usually handed back to men at the end. In popular media, this is when film noir ruled, and the femme fatale was truly born. She symbolised an attack on good-old family values; suggesting all liberated women were rampant demons. Conservatives in the immediate post-war era, with all their anxieties about change, gazed upon the ruthless beauty of Lana Turner and shuddered in fear.

The world of comics was affected by all this, and saw a massive change with the beginning of the fifties. Superheroes were losing popularity; in the shadow of Hiroshima people wanted gritty realism, not weirdos in tights. Also, the audience had changed. Women were now reading comics more than ever before, and wanted material to suit. The days of the pulps, with their damsels in distress and male fantasies, were gone. The comic publishers rushed to meet this new market. During the war a number of female characters were born who reflected the newfound freedoms. Wonder Woman stands out as the original, of course, but there were others who are still appear today. Although a character called Millie the Model might seem an incongruous contrast to Wondy, her title was the longest-running humour comic Marvel has ever had.

A lot of these comics dealt with "career girls", not superheroines. Going by comics at the time, it seems girls were encouraged to become (in order of preference) either a journalist, model, nurse or teacher. Journalism was really at the top of the list; the power and independence of the job had a lot of appeal. A point was made with both Superman and Batman having journos for girlfriends (Lois Lane and Vicki Vale, respectively). Glamour reporter Brenda Starr first appeared in 1940, and she is still going. These stories had far more appeal among a young female readership than, say, comics about Wondy.

One of the earliest female characters was named, quaintly enough, Miss America. She ran about in a hideous costume and thick specs, with the WW2-era heroes Captain America and the Submariner. But the character herself was not as important as the comic she was in. "Miss America" became widely read by young women across the States. It launched the career of another superheroine, Patsy Walker. Originally a humour character like Millie, Patsy Walker would go on to become (in 1973) Hellcat, a costumed crimefighter. This bizarre reboot is unusual, even by the standards of comic book reality. It shows how popular she always had been, and how the continuity of comics can go some fascinating ways.

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(Note how this cover inverts the classic pulp image - here it is a woman to the rescue of a half-naked, imperilled male!)

Louise Grant, alias the Blonde Phantom, is one of the most famous of this Golden Age superheroines. She was death by sexy. Although her inspiration - wanting to impress a cop that she was keen on - is hardly ideal, she was an early feminist superheroine. She had no powers, packing only sass and a .45. She was a femme fatale, but on the side of good; she used her awesome charms to humble and beat the bad guys. Social niceties were eventually reaffirmed when she married her dreamboat and settled down to family life. But she was hugely influential, inspiring many copies, and some years later, she would return again.

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Aging is a strange thing in comics. Characters that have been active for decades don't age a day. Patsy Walker, for example, was first active in the early 50's, and hasn't changed since. But Louise Mason disappeared from comics for a while, and when she reappeared it was as a widow with two grown children. Nonetheless, all her contemparies who had remained active were youthful as ever. In a classic example of breaking the "fourth wall" Louise deduced she was, in fact, a comic book character. Consequently, as long as she remained active in a comic, she wouldn't age.

But here's where the irony sets in. The Blonde Phantom, once a symbol of assertive female power, would find herself linked to one of the worst examples of women in comics. I'm talking here of She-Hulk. Now She-Hulk is a dreadful character in many ways. As a comics book fan, I consider her a classic example of the ridiculous extremes that cheesecake art can reach. Then there's the fact her concept is so utterly devoid of imagination. Imagine the scene when comic legends Stan Lee and John Buscema created her:

SL: Dude! We need, like, another comic about a half-naked chick.
JB: Well, what if the Hulk was totally a woman? Like with boobs and stuff?
SL: Wickedcool.

At any rate, it was in She-Hulk that weird comic concepts, like Louise knowing she was a character, were run. As cool as this is, I am never going to read a She-Hulk comic, even for ironic appeal. I do have some standards. Besides, during the recent Marvel "event" Civil War, She-Hulk (in her public identity as lawyer Jenny Walters) was one of the fascist patronising jerks who took the Government side. And good old Louise was nowhere in sight. That's the problem with Marvel these days - no respect for the old school.

Now there's a big gap between the early superheroine comics, and the world as imagined by the 60's TV show "Batman". For most people, this lurid little piece of psychedelic lunacy is considered best forgotten. Others rank it a camp masterpiece (if such a thing is possible). It was, initially, a great hit. But once the initial joke wore off, the series became unpopular.

So, in the third season, they brought in Batgirl. The idea here was to appeal to the groovy, go-going, TV-watching hip chicks who were making the 60's their own. The Dynamic Duo became the Terrific Trio, with a female element changing the balance between the characters. Or perhaps, people starting talking louder than usual about how Bruce Wayne lived with this young guy, all alone, in that big empty house. So a girl hanging around, especially a party girl, would liven things up. Of course, the series had to maintain it's suspect sense of humour about the whole thing. Batman took a patronising and paternal, yet affectionate, line to his female counterpart. There's also that touch of dirty-old-man Bruce Wayne has always had. Robin, on the other hand, would rather hang a sign saying "no gurlz" outside the Batcave, and resents her intrusion.

Then there was the Siamese Human Knot.

For all her feminist credentials, Batgirl endured many a bondage session courtesy of depraved criminals. The threatening villainess here is Nora Clavicle - an extremely obscure character (this is her only canonical appearance). Long before Anna Wintour and her ilk, Clavicle was the original fashion bitch-queen from hell.

It is a testament to the celebrated class of Yvonne Craig that she handled all this with considerable aplomb. Burt Ward, who played Robin, had this to say of the above scene:

"Taking a clinching position with Yvonne and Adam before the shot, with our arms and legs intricately and tightly interwoven, was hilarious and titillating. Adam, wild man that he is, playfully began groping me on the legs and buttocks. At first I thought it was Yvonne (or maybe I just wished it) and didn't resist, but Yvonne is a classy lady who would never stoop to such perversion."

Indeed, she has the distinction of portraying not one, but two classic figures in 60's pop culture. Batgirl was one, the other was the notorious Orion slave girl. These are the seductive green-skinned women of Star Trek, part of the reason no sane person can take that franchise seriously. (But please, no Trekkie fatwas). But nonetheless, it is testimony to how cool this actress was. She really is a fanboy favourite.

But Batgirl's main contribution to social change came in 1974, when she featured in the following PSA:

(Note that Adam West isn't playing Batman in this - he was trying to distance himself from the character. Or so he said - the guy's gender politics are pretty suspect. Legend has it that, being a notorious lothario, he propositioned Yvonne Craig, and she flatly turned him down. His bruised pride appears never to have recovered!)

This ad was very heady stuff for its time, whatever it may seem like now. I've only learnt about this thing second-hand, but it's popular effect seems to have been remarkable. It certainly established the classic Batgirl as a distinctive personality. She wasn't enough to save the original series, which collapsed under the weight of its own crappyness.

But when the character was reinvented in DC's great overhaul - the Crisis series - a few things were changed. Her attitude to, and relationship with, Batman is no longer a schoolgirl crush; now she's how out to prove herself to show him what an arrogant bastard he is. (She originally chooses to copy his costume as a joke). And Robin just creeps her out. The new Barbara Gordon's inspiration is Black Canary - and here we complete a circle. Black Canary first appeared in 1947, as a costumed vigilante along the lines of the Blonde Phantom. It is very fitting that the first real modernly feminist superheroine takes inspiration from one of the Golden Age legends.

So despite a lot of bullshit - yes, I'm looking at you again She-Hulk - there is a fine superheroine tradition which has lasted some fifty years. From the Blonde Phantom through to Batgirl, there have been some kick-arse heroines who could do their thing with style, rather than sleaze. Well, maybe a little sleaze, but it was all kept very tasteful.

Well…tasteful is a relative word.

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