Super Women: Creative Heroines of the Comic Book Industry
The American comic book industry has historically been a male-dominated enterprise. The names of famous male artists, writers, inkers, and colourists come up over and over again. But, male-dominated as the American comic book industry is, a number of pioneering women have played important roles in creating or developing the characters and settings that make these episodic narratives what they are today.
In fact, there are so many of them that it would be virtually impossible to mention even half of them in this post. Instead, I’m going to focus on a few big names and the specific contributions they made.
But before I dive right in, a little history: comic strips, the forerunner of comic books, date back to the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that comic books started to hit the shelves. As with most other industries, the Second World War contributed to a temporary rise in the amount of women employed by the fledgling publishing trend, but when the war ended so too did the contracts of several female comic book writers and artists.
This trend of male domination continued for decades, but even as it did, the powers that were at Marvel, DC, and other publishers realized that they had hitherto ignored a valuable demographic, girls and women.
The struggle has been a long one, but things are slowly improving: respectful female representation in comics has increased a lot over the years, thanks to the pioneering female writers and artists who have helped etch out a place for women in comics.
Born in Toronto in 1918, Ruth Atkinson was one of the first women to earn a living as a comic book artist. Her deft pencil work helped launch Marvel’s and DC’s long-time publishing rival Fiction House who published her first credited work, a one-page drawing of a Hellcat fighter jet complete with technical specifications and trivia.
Fans of the Jessica Jones Netflix series will recognize the name Patsy Walker, a character that has been featured in several Marvel storylines over the years, but long before Walker met Jessica Jones she was going to malt shops and promenading at the beach.
These relatively puerile comics of the 1940s and 1950s don’t represent a leap for female representation in comics, but the fact that Patsy was originally drawn and co-created by Ruth Atkinson does. Atkinson helped pave the way for many others and, in so doing, co-created a character who has since become strong-willed and well-rounded, with a publication history of more than 70 years.
Also born in 1918, Toni Blum was another pioneering woman in the early days of comic books. The only woman at the Eisner & Iger Studio, Blum took a variety of pen names, including Anthony Bloom, Tony Bloom, and Tony Boone, but no matter which name she wrote under, her contributions were major.
She was one of only two writers at Eisner & Iger, the other being Will Eisner, and she even ghost-wrote for Eisner on his immensely popular feature “The Spirit” while Eisner was serving in the military during the Second World War.
Unfortunately, because record keeping was not top of mind for publishers when Blum was working, it’s impossible to guess how many stories she wrote. Given the length of her tenure, though, it’s safe to say that it was a lot. Demands were high on writers back then, viewed more as assembly line workers than creative professionals.
It was a good year for Wonder Woman in 2017. She appeared as the main character in her self-titled movie as well as in a supporting role in Justice League. Her creator William Moulton Marston and the women he loved was also the subject of a 2017 major motion picture, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. However, a name that receives little attention when discussing Wonder Woman’s creation, is Joye Hummel.
Although not Wonder Woman’s creator, Hummel took over writing responsibilities when Marston became terminally ill. Although originally uncredited, it’s now known that Hummel’s Wonder Woman scripts immediately preceded the character’s breakthrough success.
Alison Bechdel, rather than being a pioneering female comic book writer or artist during the medium’s formative years, is a contemporary source of introspective independent comics. A 2014 recipient of the McArthur “Genius” Award, Bechdel is a cartoonist and author who wrote and drew the critically acclaimed Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, adapted as a musical in 2013. Fun Home focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father and the formative years of her life. She is also the author and artist of the wildly popular Dykes to Watch Out For series that was published from 1983 to 2008.
In addition to being a critically acclaimed cartoonist and author, Bechdel is also the creator of the Bechdel test, which is used to determine if the subject matter of any given scene in a piece of fiction shows an active female presence. Scenes gets a pass if they show at least two women talking about a non-male subject, higher marks if the subject of conversation is other women.
This test, based on an essay by Virginia Woolf, now enjoys widespread use by critics and feminist authors looking to underline a lack of female representation in fiction. Unfortunately, even today few comic books from either of the big publishers, Marvel and DC, could pass this simple test. But, with people like Bechdel keeping writers’ feet to the flames, we could yet see a day when they do.
So Many Others
The subject of this blog post could easily be the subject of an academic paper or even a quite lengthy book. Names of creative women pepper the American comic book industry’s past, and each of them has left her stamp on the property or properties she worked on.
Women like Marie Severin, who co-created Spider-Woman, Sana Amanat, who co-created the first Marvel title to feature a Muslim woman as the titular character, and so many others present girls and women who read comics with strong characters they can identify with. And, if these same girls and women decide to look into who wrote their favourite stories, they’ll find real-life creative heroines showing that the days of “No Girls Allowed” is thankfully at its end.
A Few More References
For a long list of just about every woman who worked in comics, go to A List of Female Comics Creators.
For a comprehensive study, see Wesley Chenault, "Working the Margins: Women in the Comic Book Industry" (MA thesis, Georgia State University, 2007).