Factually Obscure: A Brief History of Women in Marvel & DC Comics
By: Lizzie Carr
From its very inception, the comics industry has been slow, exclusive, and, let’s face it, problematic in its depiction of female characters. As the years go by, however, the portrayal of women in comic books is now becoming more diverse and inclusive. And though there is still a lot of work to be done, the growth of diversity in comics so far should be celebrated. Women have made huge strides in this field and continue to do so. But before anyone can look forward, you have to look back. This is why, for Women’s History Month, it’s time to dive into the history of women in the notorious ‘Big Two’: Marvel & DC.
While female characters did exist in the early days and pages of comic books, they were never ‘superheroes’ and were usually put in for aesthetic reasons. It wasn’t until 1938 that audiences saw their first female hero: Sheena published by Fiction House. Not technically a ‘superhero’, there is a debate that Sheena nor Fantomah (published in 1940 also by Fiction House) should hold the title of ‘first superhero’, and it should instead be awarded to Miss Fury, who was released the following year (1941). Initially named The Black Fury, and later renamed, the comic strip was created by artist June Mills, one of the first major female comic artists. Mills signed her work using her middle name, Tarpé Mills, to conceal her gender. Although Miss Fury was printed as a Sunday comic strip in newspapers, the comic publishing house Timely Comics (which would later be renamed to Marvel Comics), reprinted the strips in eight issues from 1942 to 1945.
The same year as Miss Fury’s debut, another female superhero appeared. William Moulton Marston, an outspoken feminist, and psychologist (famous for inventing the polygraph alongside his wife), was hired by comics publisher Max Gaines after Gaines read an article in which Marston stated he believed there was more that could be done with the comic book medium. Marston turned to his psychologist wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, who convinced him the new hero should be a woman. The character was created based on the idea of a liberated woman and inspired by William and Elizabeth’s polyamorous life partner, Olive Byrne (daughter of Ethel Byrne, an activist who opened the first birth control clinic in the United States). In All-Star Comics #8, published by what is now known as DC Comics, Wonder Woman appeared.
In the middle of the Golden Age of Comic Books, Timely Comics began introducing more female superheroes like Miss America who was the first female on a superhero team in 1946. Notably, Miss America was reintroduced in 2011 as America Chavez, an LGBTQ Latina teenager (who will be making her live-action debut in Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and the popular Black Canary made her debut in Flash Comics #86 from DC in 1947.
To mirror the societal shift happening after World War II, where women had assumed jobs previously only held by men, women in comic books began to slowly move away from the one-dimensional house-maker character they had previously been identified as. Women were strong, capable, and could choose their paths in stories. However, this became seen as a threat. Influenced by a book titled Seduction of the Innocent, which condemned the portrayal of many female characters in comic books, a Senate Subcommittee was established and held a public hearing to determine if the ‘rise in juvenile delinquency and comic books were directly related. After the hearing, comic books were deemed to be a "threat on American decency", and the Comics Magazine Association of America agreed to create a code of censorship. The code censored violence and sexuality for the sole purpose of promoting “the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage." Or bluntly put, the reinforcement of traditional gender roles.
After the introduction of the Comics Code, there was a decline of not just female superheroes, but female characters altogether. DC Comics created their own Editorial Policy Code, which stated, ‘"The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities.” DC female characters were primarily secondary components to the stories, as either career-focused women or as girlfriends to the male superheroes. Kathy Kane, whose alias was Batwoman, was one of the first appearances of a female superhero after the new policy, appearing in Detective Comics #233 in 1956. However, she was later removed and replaced with Barbara Gordon as Batgirl in 1964. Both Batwoman and Barbara Gordon were invented specifically to act as love interests for Batman. Batwoman would return as Kate Kane in 2006, as one of the most well-known LGBTQ female superheroes.
Timely Comics had changed its name to Atlas Comics in 1951, and after rebranding again in 1961 and becoming Marvel Comics, the creation of new female superheroes began-- albeit still in supporting roles. The first female superhero from the newly rebranded Marvel Comics was Sue Storm, also known as the Invisible Girl, a founding member of the Fantastic Four. Other supporting female heroes that debuted from the new Marvel Comics were Jean Grey, who worked under the code name of Marvel Girl and was the first woman to join the X-Men in 1963, and Janet Van Dyne A.K.A. The Wasp, one of the founding members of The Avengers (1963).
The 1970s saw an increase of female superheroes as the women’s liberation movement gained momentum. 1970 saw the debut of Monica Lynne, the first woman of colour in Marvel Comics, and The Liberators, the first all-female team-up in Avengers #83. The Cat was released in 1972, created by Linda Fite and Marie Severin (who were already major players in the comics industry), and was the first female-led superhero series at Marvel. Then, in 1977, Marvel created Ms. Marvel, their attempt at solidarity with feminists. However, shortly after it was released it received mixed reviews primarily due to the controversial storylines the character was put in.
Although Ms. Marvel seemed to be a hit and miss for many comic fans, Marvel Comics was praised for its female representation in The Uncanny X-Men series. Existing characters took on strong and more powerful roles, for example, Jean Grey going from Marvel Girl to the Phoenix. Meanwhile, new and highly capable characters debuted, like Ororo Munroe A.K.A. Storm in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), who became the first woman of colour in mainstream comics. The 1970s also saw a boom in live-action series, and the iconic Lynda Carter took up the mantle as Wonder Woman, which aired from 1975-1979. With the rise of comic book characters moving on-screen, and following the success of Superman, Supergirl premiered in 1984. However, the film's massive failure ultimately led the producers to sell the Superman film rights to The Cannon Group Inc.
While more women were being introduced in comics or receiving their own series through the 80s and 90s, many of these characters became extremely sexually objectified or violent plot drivers for male characters. Look no further than Sue Storm donning her brand new Fantastic Four bikini with the cut-out ‘4’ on her chest, or Alexandra DeWitt, Green Lantern's girlfriend, who after six issues was killed by Major Force and put in a refrigerator to help a male character's storyline move forward. While these depictions of violence and objectification have seen a decline in recent years, the mainstream industry still struggles with its fair and equal portrayal of women in comics.
Jumping into the 2000s, major film studios were still hesitant to move forward with female-led superhero movies. But eventually Hollywood would cave and green light the infamous Catwoman and Elektra films. These films, just like Supergirl, were catastrophes at the box office. But rather than evaluating the very basic notion of "were they good movies?" (answer: no), their failures instead created the false narrative that audiences just didn’t want to see female-led superhero films.
With Ironman launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, and the success of the subsequent movies (and now TV shows), people began to hope that eventually, we would see a female-led superhero film again. However, the film industry reverted to old tricks and continued to tiptoe around the idea cautiously. It wasn’t until DC released Wonder Woman, directed by Patti Jenkins in 2017, and Marvel released Captain Marvel in 2019, that film studios finally saw the impact that these movies had on movie-goers. With the importance of representation becoming more widespread in film and the undeniable mainstream success of female-led superhero movies, there seems to have been a shift towards celebrating rather than excluding.
Currently, there is a wide slate of upcoming titles to look forward to from both Marvel and DC, including Ironheart (first in the comics at Riri Williams from 2016) from Marvel, and The Amazons (a Wonder Woman spin-off exploring the Amazons of Themysirca) from DC. After appearing in eight yes, EIGHT MCU movies (not including cameos or post-credit scenes), Black Widow is also finally getting her long-awaited solo movie with the current release date set for later this year. And with the mass phenomenon of WandaVision, and the show’s leading trio of Wanda Maximoff, Monica Rambeau, and Agatha Harkness, we can’t wait to see what happens next for women and diversity in comics on the page and beyond.
There are many female comic book characters not mentioned in The Brief History of Women in Comics: Marvel & DC, so tell us on social: who’s your favorite female superhero from Marvel or DC?