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Mike Madrid – The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines

January 29, 2010

9. The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid (2009)

Length: 324 pages
Genre: Non-fiction

Started: 20 January 2009
Finished: 24 January 2009

Where did it come from? Gift from one of my few friends who will still buy me books. :)
Why do I have it? Well, see above, but I suspect he picked it based on NPR’s list of the five best books to share with your friends, and because he knows I like graphic novels.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 21 December 09.

Things are better now,
but women superheroes
have come a long way.

Summary: In The Supergirls, Mike Madrid takes a look at comic book heroines, from the inception of the genre in in the 1930s until today. In a genre that has primarily been written by – and for – men, the way that women are depicted has frequently been a reflection of the prevailing social attitudes about gender, sex, femininity, and feminism. The differences in power, popularity, motivation, and costume between comic book heroines and their male counterparts over the years has often mirrored the state of American gender relations, and women’s search for identity and and battle for equality has taken place not only in real life, but also across the pages of superhero comics.

Review: I’m a relevant latecomer to the world of comics in general, and my entrée was via collected graphic novels that look and feel like books – single-issue serial comics just don’t hold the same allure for me. I also haven’t particularly gravitated towards the superhero comics; with the exception of (very) sporadic X-men issues when I was younger, my only brushes with superheroes in print have been Watchmen, and the comics associated with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. My knowledge of various superhero characters is drawn almost entirely from their TV and movie incarnations, with some help from attending costume parties with folks who are nerdier than I am (at least when it comes to comic books.) Despite all of this, however, I still found Madrid’s The Supergirls both easy to follow and very interesting.

I think that this accessibility to the layperson is definitely the book’s biggest strength. Madrid is clearly incredibly well-versed in the history of comics, and he’s very good at summarizing characters’ backstories, personas, and main story arcs clearly and succinctly (not always an easy task, given the convoluted logic of some superhero universes). He’s also quite talented at describing how the characters and the genre as a whole have changed over time, and relating the superheroes and heroines to the prevailing mores and attitudes of their day. At times, I did feel like he was skimming the surface – relying too much on describing the patterns rather than giving a really in-depth critical analysis of them – but most of the time he strikes the right balance of drawing enough connections to hold the reader’s interest without ever tipping over into feeling dry or overly-academic.

While polar opposites in the publishing world, fashion magazines like Vogue and comic books offer different versions of the same opinion that clothes can transform a woman and give her power. Vogue presents its reader with the latest styles that can reinvent her as a corporate dynamo, a delicate blossom, or a smoldering vixen. The female superhero’s relationship with costumes is much the same. For decades, comic book fans have read about bepectacled wallflowers and girls next door who don a mask and costume to transform themselves into crime fighting marvels. The costume gives an ordinary woman the chance to step out of the box that society may have placed her into in her everyday life. She can present the world with an amplified version of herself – a warrior, an angel, a goddess. (p. 288-9)

So, apart from learning a lot about the history of superheroines, I also thought that Madrid made a number of very cogent points about the history of feminism, and the shifting relationships between gender, power (or the lack thereof), sex and desirability, and identity (secret and otherwise). Some of these were relatively obvious – such as the fact that while there is no shortage of “man” superheroes – SuperMAN, BatMAN, etc. – there are relatively few “woman” superheroes, and that even grown women frequently got stuck with a “girl” moniker. Some of Madrid’s points, however, were things that I had never noticed or thought to consider, such as the disproportionate number of superheroines with “stand and point” superpowers (i.e. psychic abilities, shooting electricity from the fingertips, etc.) – so that they can fight the bad guys without getting sweaty or mussing their hair.

My only main complaint about this book was the near-total lack of pictures. That whole “thousand words” thing is a cliché because it’s true, and the more Madrid talked about things like changes in Wonder Woman’s costumes over time, the more I wanted to just see a few representative panels illustrating what he was talking about. I’m sure that there were copyright/licensing issues that kept this book text-only, but more illustrations or a small section of color plates would have been a huge boon. (EDIT: Mike Madrid has created a website with all of the illustrations you could want, organized by chapter: The Supergirls Visual Guide. I wish I’d known about it while reading.) 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While I think this book will certainly appeal to comic-book-geeks, I don’t think that they’re its only audience. People who enjoy sociological or cultural studies or modern pop-culture history, particularly with a feminist slant, should definitely pick this one up as well.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The first comic book I remember owning is Superman #195, from 1967.

Cover Thoughts: Eye-catching and completely appropriate, although my total lack of comic-book knowledge made me spend a long time wondering whether it was supposed to be any character in particular, or just a generalized superheroine. (I suspect it’s the later, but I’m still not 100% sure.)

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 23: “Stories were filled with seductive female victims emerging from bathtubs draped in towels or lounging odalisque-like in filmy nightgowns, moments before falling prey to a murderer’s touch.” – a female slave or concubine in a harem, esp. in that of the sultan of Turkey.
  • p. 55: ““Robin is a handsome ephebic boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs.”” – Characteristic of an ephebe: a youth between 18 and 20 years of age in ancient Greece.
  • p. 136: “This also meant that the distaff members of the Legion had friends of their own sex to pal around with, and in some cases conspire with.” – noting, pertaining to, characteristic of, or suitable for a woman; female.
  • p. 210: “With her severe new black maitresse hairdo, Wonder Woman looked like an S&M aerobics instructor.” – a 1976 French film directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Gérard Depardieu and Bulle Ogier as an S&M dominatrix.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 9:05 am

    I just learned “odalisque” myself yesterday!

    This looks so interesting – like you I am not really into the single-issue serials, or at least I haven’t found any so far that I’ve loved. But it’s a fascinating topic to me, so I’ll definitely be getting it from the library. :)

    • January 31, 2010 6:46 pm

      Jenny – In what context did you hear/read “odalisque”?

  2. January 29, 2010 10:15 am

    I think it’s simply a generalized superheroine- it looks a bit like Stargirl, but she has a different color palette.

    I’ve been really looking forward to reading this. What an interesting point about the “stand and point” powers. My personal favorite comic book character is Harley Quinn, who gets to move around and brawl, since she’s not a metahuman, but she’s also a villainess.

    • January 31, 2010 6:49 pm

      Omni – Yeah, Madrid talks about how villainesses have a lot more leeway, since they don’t have to worry about alienating male readers by having too much power or being in charge of their sexuality… they can threaten male readers more than the heroines can, since they’re bad guys.

  3. January 29, 2010 10:48 am

    I want :)

  4. January 29, 2010 11:09 am

    Thanks for the review. As you suspected, there were copyright issues with adding more artwork. I have created a visual supplement on my website that shows images of the characters I discuss in the book.

    Thanks again,
    Mike Madrid

    • January 31, 2010 6:54 pm

      Mike – Thanks so much for the link – the website is awesome! I wish I’d known about it as I was reading… and am kind of embarrassed that I didn’t think to go looking for it.

  5. January 29, 2010 7:11 pm

    I have never heard of this book before. It looks interesting.

    • January 31, 2010 6:57 pm

      Kailana – I don’t think it’s very well-known, at least judging from its numbers on LibraryThing. It definitely deserves to be more widely read.

  6. January 30, 2010 7:47 pm

    This book sounds great. I’ve been meaning to pick up a book on comics since I read the McCloud book, but just haven’t done it yet. This one goes to high on the list.

    • January 31, 2010 6:59 pm

      Kim – Well, you recommend a comics book to me, I recommend a comics book to you, everyone wins. :)

  7. January 31, 2010 5:39 am

    It’s too bad about the lack of pictures, but regardless, I want this right now!

    • January 31, 2010 7:00 pm

      Nymeth – I poked around the link that Mike posted above, and there are all the pictures you could ever want. :) I do think you’d get a kick out of this book, for sure.


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