The Supergirls, Mike Madrid
It's unfair to say that Madrid's book on the comic book superhero (female) embodies all of my frustrations with contemporary popular comic book criticism, but it did irritate me. Lacking any illustrations or even consistent references to particular comic book issues, it takes an obvious concern - the representation of women in superhero comic books - and advances an argument that concludes that... perhaps there is a problem here.
Are they like Gods? Prove it
The notion that superheros constitute a 'modern mythology' has been thrown around for the past fifty years - Jack Kirby's Fourth World seems to have been deliberately created to draw the parallels - without any serious attempt to draw precise comparisons. Madrid throws it in at the end of a chapter without having developed the idea. A grounding in classics or anthropology might allow for some kind of analysis, a compare and contrast chart between the DC Universe and the gods of Olympus, perhaps. Anything would be better than a vague suggestion. The most comprehensive work on the subject, Supergods, is as much an artistic autobiography by Grant Morrison as a study of the deus in pictura.
Madrid's publishers were probably saving money and time but not actually putting any pictures in The Supergirls, but he does give detailed descriptions of the heroine's outfits. He makes the points that these outfits are inappropriate for crime fighting (4: 2012), that the female body in comic books became more eroticised during the 1980s and 1990s (297: 2012), that 'the bad girl' look was more enticing (288: 2012) even to women viewers and... so and so on...
The most interesting parts of Madrid's analysis comes from his comparison of DC and Marvel during the 1960s. The Marvel Age - as Stan Lee described it - is recognised as a the period defined by Lee (and Kirby and Steve Dikto et al) through a radical 'realistic' approach to the superhero. But, as Madrid explains, it was over at DC that women were given more progressive roles. While the Invisible Woman was still playing Damsel in Distress and The Wasp was more fashionista than action girl, DC's Elasti-Girl was a key member of The Doom Patrol and Wonder Woman is getting a starring role in The Justice League. And Batgirl is stepping out of the shadow of the bat...
She doesn't don a costume.. to prove her love for Batman... she is not his girlfriend or faithful handmaiden... Batman did not have power over Batgirl's emotions.. this was, perhaps, the key to Batgirl's liberation... a female who Batman can actually regard as a brilliant peer and a partner in the war on crime, the same way he would a male.
(124 - 125: 2012)
The Obvious (Reprise)
Madrid majors on the sexual anxiety of USA culture - the 'nation's Puritanical roots' (245: 2012). The tension between the sensual bad girl - whether she is a villain (Eisner's P'Gell in The Spirit), morally ambiguous (Catwoman in Batman) or a heroine (Storm's 'punk period in The X-Men) - and the pure superheroine (Mary Marvel, Supergirl or Invisible Girl) dovetails elegantly with the 'Madonna/Whore' dichotomy. So elegantly that it is predictable. It probably needs to be restated, just because it is so present in comic books.
Comic book history frequently revolves around certain moments, that are recounted because they do something unusual. One day, I'll make a list of them... it's the scene where the black man tells the Green Arrow and Lantern how they deal with 'coloured' people. It's that time Northstar comes out of the closet in the middle of a battle. Madrid does add in The Valkyrie and Ms Marvel, 1970s' attempts by Marvel to address the rise of feminism. The Valkyrie has a special meaning for me (Madrid says her 'all black Wagnerian garb, with its menacing silver nose cone breasts sent a clear verboten message to any male she encountered' (149: 2012) but there was at least one seven year old boy who would have begged to differ), and I'd like to see her become one of those 'certain moments'. Her tenure on The Defenders straddled a suspicion of feminism and the desire to tell a story about a woman's journey to self-knowledge and...
Hold on. That's the story. I'll be back later...