Book Review: The Supergirls: Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines (Revised and Updated), Mike Madrid (2016)

December 7th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Wonder Woman for President

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC through Edelweiss and a finished copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

After The Supergirls came out, something interesting happened. I got emails from readers who had no idea that there had been female superheroes in the 1960s, much less in the 1940s.

This is a difficult book for me to review. I’m rather new to the world of comic books, having only gotten into them in the past five years or so. With the exception of Brian Azzarello’s New 52 Wonder Woman, I’ve mostly avoided the long-running superhero titles; the sheer volume is just overwhelming! Like, where to start?

(Incidentally, The Supergirls has convinced me to avoid anything not published in this millennium – again with the exception of Wonder Woman, or at least Wonder Woman as written by William Moulton Marston. The early stuff is almost comically sexist and not worth my time. Well, except for the occasionally bizarro plotline, like when Supergirl falls for her horse Comet. Tina Belcher would approve.)

Instead I mostly gravitate toward more recently created series (Saga, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Bitch Planet, Monstress) and those based on stories I know and love from other mediums (Firefly/Serenity, Orphan Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stephen King’s The Stand and The Dark Tower; I’m damn near jumping out of my skin waiting for Octavia Butler’s Kindred!). My knowledge of most superheroes and villains stems primarily from the big and little screen adaptations; Fox’s animated X-Men series is a childhood favorite.

That said, from my neophyte perspective, The Supergirls seems thorough, meticulously researched, and well-thought out. Madrid’s writing is fun and engaging, though The Supergirls is best digested in small bites: the scope of the topic can be overwhelming at times.

While Madrid organizes his discussion by decade, exploring changes made to established characters and linking these to larger trends in politics and pop culture, life defies neat categorization and there is some bleed-through. Sometimes he’ll focus on a single character (Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, Storm, Batgirl, Ms. Marvel, Lois Lane, and Supergirl are discussed at length) which propels him forward in time, well beyond the bounds of the chapter, and then we’re forced to backpedal to a slightly more regressive past. It’s enough to give a girl whiplash.

Especially enjoyable is when Madrid zeroes in on a certain character, tying trends in her portrayal to popular contemporaneous celebrities: Lois Lane and Lucille Ball, Supergirl and Leslie Gore, Miley Cyrus and the New 52. I also loved the “The Queen and the Princess,” which is a compare/contrast of Sheena and Wonder Woman.

Madrid primarily focuses on the Big Two, DC and Marvel, with a brief mention of Image Comics toward the end. Other publishers, most notably Dark Horse, are omitted entirely, which is kind of a bummer – Buffy in particular seems perfectly suited to the topic of feminism in comic books. (Though there’s certainly no shortage of books in this area.) This is in keeping with Madrid’s focus on the more distant past; he only spends 15 pages on 2000 to the present day, or less than half that allocated to other decades. I would’ve liked to see a lengthier discussion of more recent trends, such as “fridging,” which isn’t mentioned at all.

Additionally, The Supergirls concentrates mostly on gender, though Madrid occasionally injects race and sexuality into the mix – usually in the form of snarky comments about early comics’ racist dialogue and plot lines. Still, I found myself wishing for a more overtly intersectional approach; after all, “the female experience” is not universal. Women of color experience sexism differently than white women, and LGBTQ women deal with different manifestations of misogyny than do their straight, cisgender sisters.

By necessity, and with the sole exception of Catwoman (love!), Madrid mostly limits his discussion to superheroines. This should come as no surprise, given the book’s title; but perhaps we’ll get a sequel dedicated to some of our favorite bad girls? The villains are usually more interesting, imho.

I wasn’t really sure what format would suit this book best. I usually prefer ebooks, but if a book has a strong graphic element (like comic books), I might opt to go the old-fashioned route, with a physical book. The Supergirls does include some artwork, but not nearly as much as I wanted/expected. On the pro side, this makes it well-suited for a Kindle.


2016-09-20 - The Supergirls - 0002 [flickr]



Author’s Note * ii
Introduction to the new edition * iii
Goddesses of Tomorrow * iv
1940s: A Secret Life * 1
The Queen & the Princess * 33
1950s: The Girlfriends * 57
Supergirl and the Ballad of American Youth * 83
1960s: The Modern World * 105
Girls Together (Outrageously) * 137
1970s: Sirens & Suffragettes * 149
Wonder Woman’s Extreme Makeovers * 187
1980s: The Dark Road * 223
Sex and the Single Superheroine * 249
1990s: The Babe Years * 275
Heroine Chic * 293
2000 and Beyond: Mother Love? * 309
Acknowledgements * 324
Index * 325


(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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