Here she comes to save the day in a skimpy costume

Female superheroes face unique battles

April 19, 2004|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

Blockbuster. The word just sounds like a superhero, doesn't it?

Fitting, because smashing box-office records seems like part of the mission today for the leading men of comic books. Whether it's the anti-heroics of Hellboy or The Punisher (which opened Friday) or the classic valor of Spider-Man (returning to the big screen in July), testosterone seems vital to the formula for breaking out of the comics subculture and into the mainstream.

But where are the women?

Stuck in wardrobe, apparently, if sneak peeks at Halle Berry's turn as Catwoman (supposedly coming this summer) are any indication. Her dominatrix-meets-metal-chick getup says a lot about the complicated - OK, not that complicated - role leading women play in the parallel universe of comics.

Superheroines, especially, have a reputation as lowly spinoffs, the Adam's rib of their male counterparts.

"All too often they are the sidekick of, or the daughter of, or, in the case of Supergirl, the cousin of" the magically endowed man in question, said Trina Robbins, who studies all aspects of women's history in comics culture. She has written books on the subject, including The Great Women Superheroes, and she does a comic for young women called Go Girl!

Wonder Woman, of course, stands as the first lady of the genre. First appearing in 1941, this Amazon princess was fighting Nazis when Elektra (the female assassin played by Jennifer Garner in last year's Daredevil) was still in the inkwell. But even though Wonder Woman was no spinoff, she still had to serve as secretary to the Justice Society of America before she could become a member.

Wonder Woman's enduring fame came in large part from Lynda Carter's embodiment of her in a 1970s TV program. But Carter's tiara-wearing feminist would be embarrassed by the Wonder Woman of today, Robbins says.

True, Wonder Woman's appeal to modern (mostly male) readers owes something to the titillation factor. But what counts is the portrayal of the character, said Dan DiDio, vice president of the editorial department at DC Comics.

"I have to classify her in the same breath as Batman and Superman. Each of these characters has been around since the '40s." Thus, their plots should be worthy of their history.

"We've been able to push her as much more of a role model on the world's political and diplomatic stage," he said.

DiDio also points to the evolving role of the heroine in other DC titles, such as Birds of Prey, an ensemble series written by Gail Simone.

"She has really been able to walk the line by creating strong females that still play out the whole superhero fantasy part as well," DiDio said.

Most in the industry agree that the "fantasy" can get pretty twisted, as it did in the 1990s, with the rise of "bad girl" comics like Lady Death and Vampirella. Most publishers have backed away from such semi-nude ultra-violence. Still thriving, though, is the cheesecake style that Frederick Wertham denounced in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent.

As a result, independent comics and Japanese "manga" books have become a refuge for many female characters, and readers. Yet there's still room for women wearing uniforms in something smaller than a D-cup.

For a small core of dedicated fans, Spider-Girl is the book that bucks the superheroine stereotypes.

"It seems like all female characters are drawn as adolescent porn. Most have had their clothes ripped off at one time or another, especially spinoff characters," said John Koerner of Pensacola, Fla.

Spider-Girl, however, the strong, smart and fully clothed teen daughter of Spider-Man, "isn't like a female character envisioned by a guy."

Koerner, 33, a veteran of the gulf war, is one of the fans who have come to the heroine's aid by saving the comic from cancellation three times since it was first published in 1997. Currently, they're engaged in a "media blitz" to raise awareness of the Spider-Girl paperback collection carried in bookstores.

With some bitterness, Koerner recalls issue No. 51, when May "Mayday" Parker, the hero's alter ego, was subjected to the indignity of a shower scene. But that happened during the hiatus of regular writer Tom DeFalco, who admits, "this has been a book that has been getting ready to be canceled from the first issue."

A former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, DeFalco, of Long Island, knows his character doesn't do it for the typical adult male reader who craves "revealing costumes and sassy dialogue."

Instead, the writer tries to fill out Spider-Girl's personality with teen angst and the burden of bearing her father's powers, rather than preoccupy himself with filling out her uniform.

"She has the form of a 16-year-old," DeFalco said. "I used my niece as a template. So I told the artist, `Don't you dare do anything to her!'"

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