From Fantomah to Diana: History of Superheroines

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Women – and female superheroes in particular – didn’t always have the appropriate treatment in comics. Every strong and well-made heroine was followed by at least three shallow, stereotypical, self- obsessed damsels in distress, which nullified any kind of progress. Women in comic books were mostly taking one of three predefined roles: the victim, the blonde bombshell, or the villain.

There were few comic book women who managed to avoid the cliché of the three roles, becoming actual, well-developed characters with strengths, weaknesses, and personalities that extended past boys and shopping. Not all of them aged well, and some of them are apparently the products of periods long gone, but these women are to thank for today’s position of female superheroes in media.

FANTOMAH

Before 1940, there were no female superheroes. Comic book women were usually either romantic interests or supporting characters. That doesn’t mean they were bad characters, it’s just they didn’t play some major heroic roles.

The first true female superhero made her debut in Jungle Comics #2. Her name was Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, and she used her ability to transform from a beautiful young woman into a horrifying, blue-skulled monster to punish those who would threaten the jungle and all the living world within.

Fantomah’s influence on comic book industry cannot be overlooked. She set the template that all contemporary superheroines look upon. Comic book heroines simply wouldn’t be the same without her, and her appearance changed the comic books forever.

SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE

During 1930’s and 40’s almost everyone fought in the jungle, or around the jungle. Similar thing happened during the 1980’s, when everyone and their aunt were some sort of barbarians or mythical warriors thanks to Conan. The source for the jungle fever trend between two world wars could be found in the one comic book with a female lead.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, made her debut in 1937 and eventually went on to receive her own series a few years later. Sheena was the first female protagonist to receive her own dedicated comic book series in history, since Wonder Woman’s debut came roughly three years later.

Sheena’s powers in that time were revolutionary, although today she’d be yawned upon. Not only was she a combat and weapons expert, she was also able to speak with the animals. Technically, she might not be considered a superhero from nowadays perspective, but that didn’t stop her from becoming extremely popular back in the day.

For today’s readers, Sheena is obsolete, since no one seems to care about jungle stories anymore. But she did inspire a lot of similar heroes and paved the way for major female superheroes in comic books.

THE BLONDE PHANTOM

In the mid-1940s, superhero comics went into decline, mostly because after the war people didn’t want to read about traditional superheroes. As a result, comic book publishers started to look for a way to increase their plunging sale numbers: some turned to new genres, such as the Western, but a few companies focused more on a new audience. Until then, the main target demographic for superhero comics were boys, and young girls were a relatively underused market.

The Blonde Phantom was a major attempt at creating an ongoing comic book aimed squarely at younger female readers. While the stories may not seem all that progressive by today’s standards, the Blonde Phantom was still a big step forward in showing that female characters could lead their own series.

She occasionally appeared in Marvel storylines from time to time, even as a part of She-Hulk comics in the 90s.

GOLDEN GIRL

Superhero sidekicks have been around since the earliest days of comics. Seemingly every superhero had their own little helper, mostly a younger version of themselves. Golden Girl stands out from the rest of the sidekicks for being…well, a girl. That might not sound like much today, but back in the ‘40s, Golden Girl really did stand out. Fortunately, Golden Girl never became a damsel in a distress. She was a well-developed character, more than happy to take on the Axis Powers alongside her male counterparts.

Although the second iteration of Golden Girl wasn’t so successful, she still deserves quite a bit of credit: Betsy Ross was proof that the girls could keep up with their male companions, regardless of whether or not they were simple sidekicks.

NAMORA

As with many of the other superheroines of the era, Namora began her career as the Rule 63 version of a well-known character – in this case, Namor the Sub-Mariner. What makes Namora stand apart from other, similar heroes was her standing amongst her male counterparts. Namora was (and still is) equal in power to her more popular cousin. Even at debut, it was clear that Namora was not the weaker version of the existing hero, but that both of them were equals.

With the decline of Namor, Namora’s presence followed. She appears occasionally, and her power and personality remain intact, but it doesn’t seem she’ll have any major roles anytime soon.

BLACK CANARY

Thanks to the CW’s Flash, most of the people know who Black Canary is. She’s now seen as the companion of Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, but her history is much more complicated. Black Canary began alongside one of the least popular heroes, Johnny Thunder. Years after, she allied with Oliver Queen in fighting crime. Thanks to the DC’s infamous continuity reboots, Canary’s relationships became even less clear. After the big reboot in the 80’s, she was split into two separate people, mother Dinah Drake Lance and daughter Dinah Laurel Lance. Flashpoint storyline set that right, merging two Black Canaries into a single person.

If we put that aside, Canary was one of the strongest DC’s assets in the department of well-made heroes, not only female but in general. Hopefully, that won’t change anytime soon.

SUSAN STORM, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

The Fantastic Four have always been known as the First Family of Marvel, so it makes sense that Susan Storm would be the publisher’s first female character. With all the comic books company mergers and divides, it’s hard to tell which character belongs to which publisher, but Marvel as we know it today began in 1961, with a little comic book that made the Silver Age of Comics, called Fantastic Four.

Early on, Sue Storm played a more supportive role, despite being a capable hero. Her powers of being invisible (well, duh) and creating protective fields puts her in a disadvantageous position compared to the rest of her family. Fortunately, it got better as years went by. Susan Storm played a crucial role in Fantastic Four’s family dynamic, but also in the Marvel universe as a whole.

JEAN GREY

Nowadays, Jean Grey is known as the tragic user of the Phoenix Force, but before that, she was a far more traditional female character than one might expect.

Jean Grey, at that time known as Marvel Girl, was one of the founding members of the X-Men. She had all her classic mind powers, but her character was more of a romantic interest than anything else. That changed in a decade or so, with the Phoenix Saga, and Jean was no longer the weakest member of the team. Actually, she became one of the Marvel’s greatest and most powerful villains of all time.

Except for reviving Jean’s character, The Phoenix Saga was a turning point in the portrayal of female heroes in general.  To be honest, things weren’t (and still aren’t) perfect, but during Phoenix Saga, Marvel began to give us relatable, interesting, and well-developed superladies. Current fan favorite characters like Spider Gwen or Squirrel Girl wouldn’t exist today if Marvel Girl hadn’t become Phoenix.

WONDER WOMAN

If there’s one character to point out as the most deserving for popularizing female superheroes in comics, it’s Wonder Woman.

Diana Prince is nothing less than iconic. For more than seven decades Wonder Woman has been proving that a superheroine can match her male peers in terms of popularity, often overtaking them. After her first appearance, it didn’t take long for Wonder Woman to become one of the greatest DC heroes.  No wonder this Amazonian is traditionally depicted alongside Batman and Superman.

The only thing more impressive than Diana’s character development is the development of her stories. Her comics from the 1940s were pretty regressive, but over the several decades, she became a symbol of female empowerment and equality. A good portion of the credit for that might go to the TV show in the 1970s with Linda Carter in the title role. Compare her with Adam West’s goofy (and ambiguously gay) portrayal of Batman, and you’ll see why she was so popular and important. Gal Gadot filled her shoes more than well, giving us without a doubt the best movie and character of DC cinematic universe.

True, Wonder Woman does have her shortcomings, and she’s far from a perfect character – but that’s easy to ignore when she helped revolutionize an entire medium seemingly overnight.

Conclusion

Superheroines travelled a long way since their humble beginnings as support characters or damsels in distress. As our society grew more open to women, superheroines followed the social change, sometimes even leading it, and showing that lady heroes can be as popular and influential as their male companions.

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