The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History
May 2, 2017
I often look to my comics-savvy friends to fill in background information on characters or story lines when I’m puzzled (Who died in what event and why are they alive again?) or curious (Who created this character and what other books did that person work on?). I also go to those friends when I’m thinking about a new research project and don’t know where to start. If I want to learn about a character who is not currently in vogue (i.e., anyone who does not appear in the tide of recent Marvel and DC films), there are not many resources that provide both overarching explanations of that character as well as information about where to find comics in which that character appears. Most of the time I end up jumping from website to website, scribbling notes about publication dates and creator backgrounds before scouring book indexes and bibliographies for bits of information that I can stitch together. If I can, it’s a lot easier to probe my in-the-know friends, but I can’t expect them to always have relevant information. That’s where Hope Nicholson comes in.
Nicholson is the kind of person that makes me think, “I want to be more like her!” This Canadian gal is a fierce comics historian dedicated to finding, restoring, and reprinting out-of-print comics. Her newest revival project, Sally the Sleuth, is a 1930s sex comic! She also promotes diverse voices through her own Bedside Press. Her recent book, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History, is the closest that I can possibly get to having that infinitely-informed comics-loving friend. Nicholson provides an incredible number of starting points for those curious and/or puzzled researchers (like myself) while maintaining a conversational, engaging tone. She is also incredibly funny, and the chuckle-worthy quotes and delightful tongue-in-cheek descriptions that she uses makes the book a lot of fun to read. (One of my favorite comments is when she refers to Madame Strange’s spy-within-a-spy-ring plot as “an onion of spies.”) I always say that anyone who manages to make comics boring is “doing comics wrong,” but academia has a way of sucking all of the fun out of even the coolest things. Nicholson’s book is refreshing because it keeps comics accessible and enjoyable at the same time that it engages critically.
Presenting “the weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics,” The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen surveys 100 characters—both troublesome and wholesome—beginning in the 1930s with the “birth of an industry” and ending in the “digital and diverse world” of the 2010s. The sections are framed by a short introduction that provides context about happenings in the comics industry and an essay about the “icon of the decade” that features the most well-known character from the era. While these essays are short and simple, they provide an excellent bird’s-eye view of how the medium shifts in culture, readership, and form over each decade. Nicholson’s intention, however, is not to re-create the standard understanding of comics history. In an entry about Alejandrina Yolando Jalisco, Nicholson calls her work “feminist” with an implication that when comics feature women it is a subversive act. Thus, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen strives to construct a history that spotlights the role of women in comics thereby challenging the predominantly male-centric version of that history. As Nicholson points out in her introduction to the 1930s, “women as creators, fans, and characters were right there from the start”—a narrative that often falls to the background (if it appears at all) in many books about comics.
Each character is introduced by a banner that gives her name, a brief description, a quote from her comic, the name of her creator(s), and the book in which she first appeared. These short summaries are great for anyone looking for preliminary information about a character, which can be a daunting task when it comes to obscure and out-of-print comics. The “essential reading” recommendations are also a welcome resource for any researchers who, like me, have spent time digging through individual print-issues and online archives. Nicholson lightens the workload by pointing to contemporary reprints where characters can be found, but, unfortunately, not all of the wonderful comics that she references have been brought back to life. Hard to find comics don’t scare this historian, though, as she encourages readers to “get to back-issue bin-hunting!”
At the heart of The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen are single-page essays that critically examine the role, background, and life cycle of each character. Nicholson expertly weaves historical and biographical information together with feminist criticism that questions both the creation and consumption of these female characters. As a result, the book straddles the line between feminist criticism and reference. The inclusion of characters such as Roberta Gregory’s Frieda Phelps and Bitchy Bitch—both of whom were created to discuss differing aspects of feminism—automatically places the book within a network of feminist texts. Most of Nicholson’s criticism, however, is subtle. When Jack Manning and Del Connell’s Pauline Peril, for example, is defined by the fact that “her chest is the size of her head and her waist is the size of her wrist,” Laura Mulvey’s foundational concept of the “the male gaze” appears at the edges of the text. It is clear that she is engaging many of the classic texts and people who are essential in contemporary feminist conversations, but the content stays jargon-free and discusses the issues inherent in many characters without excluding non-academic readers. The encyclopedic nature of the text, in other words, makes it valuable for researchers in all areas of comics studies at the same time that it fills a need for a female-oriented history of comics.
Although Nicholson’s work is identifiably feminist, she uses a balanced approach that allows her to examine characters that may seem out of place. Nicholson is quick to call attention to the abundance of historically flawed representation in comics, but she also highlights the (sometimes small, sometimes big) role even the most cringe-worthy characters have in the female-centric history that the overall book encompasses. The inclusion of these characters pushes readers to reconsider the value of characters that are easy to dismiss due to their unsavory representation. While it can be an uncomfortable practice to spend time with such content, I think that comics scholarship (and beyond!) would benefit from asking more questions about the legacy and influence of these characters.
It would be impossible to include every notable character, so it is inevitable that some readers will be disappointed that some of their favorites are missing. (Even J. D. Biersdorfer’s New York Times review includes a paragraph pointing to “indie notables” that “definitely feel missing in action.”) However, The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is a strong balance of the iconic and the obscure.
Researchers looking for a quick summary of a character will find Nicholson’s book uniquely helpful, but they will also find previously unknown threads to follow. Comics readers, too, will learn more about their favorite characters at the same time that they can find new comics to dig into. Most readers—whether academic or otherwise—will find The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen to be an exceptional starting place, but they will probably have more questions as well.
If you find yourself hungry for more, there are a handful of other books to dive into for a more detailed view of the creators and characters that Nicholson touches on. For further academic yet accessible reading, check out Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics for a closer look at autobiographical comics, or Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists to hear directly from some of the creators found in Nicholson’s book. If casual reading is more your style, I suggest Trina Robbins’s books about women working in comics: Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer, From Girls to Grrrlz: A History of Female Comics from Teens to Zines, Pretty In Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013, and The Great Women Cartoonists.