May 5, 2017
An Orderly History of an Industry Constantly on the Verge: on Hope Nicholson’s ‘The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen’
Has there ever been a better time to be a woman, a woman of color, a femme-identifying comics fan? The question is rhetorical but also fact. Any femme person in any geek or nerd archetype-adjacent industry knows that while these spaces are perhaps more visibly diverse and welcoming than ever, there are still rifts between appearances and actuality (though fewer than you might think). Perhaps the least obvious discrepancies appear in film and TV, where comics reach both a larger audience and shed their worst stereotypes—labyrinthian and often contradictory plot points, inconsistent art, archives of (likely) fanboy knowledge accrued through the kind of laborious devotion that brings little reward beyond a warped heaping of self-righteousness. Yet while Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman movies are on the way, we’ve yet to see any woman of color characters get that kind of studio lift. The same is true in a TV environment with Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the upcoming Black Lightning.
It is into this environment that Hope Nicholson releases The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen (out on May 2 through Quirk Books). Split into decades, Spectacular Sisterhood is less of an encyclopedia and more of a self-aware highlight reel for both memorable femme figures and totally now-obscure randoms from comics history. This isn’t Nicholson’s problem per se; she is a fan whose curiosity drives her deeper into an acknowledged imperfect space. She is the first to shout out other women in comics historians like Trina Robbins and admit her own knowledge deficiencies for iconic characters like Wonder Woman. But throughout Spectacular Sisterhood, she stresses just how unfair it is that she has to scrape and scrabble together her index of characters at all. It is into this wound that Nicholson excavates, in explanatory prose that’s both informally chatty and academically rigorous in its context, when available.
Nicholson’s work is rife with revelations for both the casual and not-just-the-movies comics fan, because she is careful and canny about contextualizing individual characters within their contemporary times, and not just with modern pop culture references. Though those are perhaps the most helpful; take characters like Miss Fury and Starr Flag, who emerged in the Golden Age (1940s) of comics but whose comic lives never made it out of the era. Nicholson compares them to Buffy Summers and James Bond respectively, but is quick to note that those characters benefitted only from having emerged in different eras or, well, having a male identity.
It’s a regular point of frustration: there have been interesting and multidimensional female characters in mainstream comics from the medium’s get-go, but because they never lasted long enough to evolve out of their oftentimes problematic cultural moments or embed themselves in the larger consciousness, they’re incomplete and easily dismissible sketches compared to the deep carvings that figures like Batman and Superman have left on our pop culture landscapes. If you want to just study female characters who had female creators and creative teams, that already-small list shrinks to an etching. And if you want to study non-white female characters, you’re basically examining a tiny scratch.
To this last point, Nicholson is tentative in writing about race and non-cis gender identity, but it comes off less as privileged hesitation than it is the kind of kid gloves care that comes from engaging with these issues regularly. That isn’t a diss; it’s easy to dismiss any kind of positive write-up for characters like Starlight, a Huron heroine who debuted in the 1950s. Nicholson is quick to point out the character’s many failures and inconsistencies, particularly the mass amalgamation of “Indian culture” into one composite figure. Nicholson is equally tentative about her appraisal of characters like the half-Asian Starfire and blaxploitation-inspired characters like Superbitch. And yet! A flawed indigenous or woman of color heroine is still a visible heroine, and the fact that the industry’s modern standards of diversity still struggle to anoint, market, and adapt comparative figures is more damning for ourselves. Of course, she does take pains to pull examples from indie publishers like Northwest Press’s The Legend of Bold Riley, and non-lead characters like Blaze from the new Jem and the Holograms comics.
Interestingly, Nicholson is averse to highlighting more higher profile superheroines, of marginalized identities and not, with the exception of one inescapable figure from each decade. Sure, it may seem inexplicable why she doesn’t include Storm, Jean Grey, or a host of other X-Men heroines in particular. (Beyond them, she also says nothing about now more mainstream heroines like Misty Knight, America Chavez, or Kate Bishop.) But that’s because she isn’t exclusively interested in tracking a history of heroines, but rather the variety of genres and kinds of female characters in comics, “good for women” or otherwise. Characters like Bitchy Bitch, Pudge, Girl Blimp, Torchy Brown, Dakota North, Friday Foster, and series like The Runaways, Dynamite Damsels, Empowered, and Street Angel are even today ahead of the curve, but they are still the exceptions, in the underground, indie, and mainstream worlds.
Nicholson is more interested in making sweeps of historic genre trends like romance or T&A (tits and ass, for the sheltered reader) and anthropological observations of comic distribution methods and consumers. This does provide a boon of “Wait, really?” information, such as the fact that the disco X-Men Dazzler was Marvel’s first direct-marketing-only comics experiment. (And racked up 400,000 debut copies sold, a figure that leaves even good modern sales numbers in the dust.) Or, that Sabrina the Teenage Witch made her debut through gory horror comics. Or, that the gendered view of the comics fanboy came about as a result of changing sales models and strategies, and particularly the removal of comics from more public and literally well-lit buying spots like newsstands.
That said, her care in that separation—between the characters she *should* spotlight and the ones she’s curated here—can feel superfluous at times. During her 1960s run-down, she brings up multiple WWII-era characters, revived during this decade, whose individual distinctions are less compelling than she perhaps thinks. The same applies for her spotlighting of romance comic heroines who all arrive on the page with an “I know this isn’t the best, but bear with me” caveat. She also makes seemingly special exceptions to include works by popular writers like Margaret Atwood and Kate Beaton. Meanwhile, she neglects to formally include the fantasy epic Saga, despite naming it through other sections.
Nicholson is generally trying to be fair; it is obvious as she gets deeper into the decades that there is both more to work with and a better quality of character to work with. But she doesn’t let that influence the rather rigid structure of Spectacular Sisterhood. In the book’s intro, she explicitly states, “[w]elcome to the weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics—for better or for worse.” My big wonder and ask is if she could’ve split her curation into a different direction besides just time, such as through mainstream vs. underground vs. web-based, or through creators and creative teams, or through longer-running characters/series vs. one-offs; if her considerable archival ability wouldn’t be better suited to perusing more substantial characters with more immediate or lasting influence, instead of attempting to piece together a chronology that is invariably lackluster at its start.
After all, this is our golden age of options. Where the traditional comics world can’t, or doesn’t, offer more than one kind of mirror, the internet provides—through alternate universe fan work, through race- and gender-bending toward a more inclusive direction, through original work that starts at the upper limit of mainstream publishers’ diversity initiatives. Spectacular Sisterhood is an orderly history of an industry constantly on the verge of but largely resistant to change. Nicholson wants the industry at all levels to be more and better. After reading the book, I feel the same.
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