________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 4. . . September 29, 2017


The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History.

Hope Nicholson.
Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books (Distributed in Canada by Penguin), 2017.
240 pp., hardcover, $26.95.
ISBN 978-1-59474-948-3.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4


Hello, and welcome to the definitive guide to female representation in comics!
Wait, that’s not right . . .
Hello, and welcome to the most popular female characters in American and Canadian comics!
Hmm . . . still not quite it.
Hello, and welcome to the best female characters in comics.
Oh no, absolutely not.
Hello, and welcome to the weirdest, coolest, and most of-their-time female characters in comics – for better or worse.
Yes, now
that’s it! (From the “Introduction”.)


What do Little Lulu, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Ms. Marvel, Silk Spectre Witchblade, Ramona Flowers, and Ms. Marvel (aka Kamala Khan) all have in common? Each is an iconic female character for her decade (starting with Little Lulu in the 1930’s and ending with Ms. Marvel in the 2010’s). What a collection of women! Some, like Lulu, were just naughty: “she’d steal food, get into fights, be a smart aleck, and try to get her way in every situation” (p. 23) But as the decades roll on, the sisters of superwomen become more powerful and change in many ways (not just in terms of their costuming, either). Lulu’s knee length red dress, and later, Wendy the Good Little Witch’s all-red jumpsuit are positively chaste (why is red such a favourite colour for Superwomen?) compared with Wonder Woman’s bustier/skirt ensemble, and, in the 1960’s and 70’s, the ultra-sexy outfits worn by Vampirella, Barbarella, and Freda Foxx (aka Super-Bitch), a “one-issue comic anthology . . . marketed as ‘adult entertainment’” (p. 118)

     It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date at which comic books – “bundled pages of sequential art” (p. 12) – first appeared, but the debut of Superman seems to be the pivotal event which made the single-issue comics format massively popular and readily available. Those early 1930’s comics came from a variety of sources: newspaper comic strips, pulp anthologies, and even then, there were porn comics. Early female super-heroes included Super Ann (“endowed with the power of ten men”), Neptina, Flyin’ Jenny, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Interestingly, even in the 1930s, “female characters enjoyed a variety of careers and roles.” (p. 14) With the rise of the comic book came fan conventions (i.e. comic cons), and, early on, women took active roles in the fan community.

     Each superwoman is profiled with a write-up which provides a picture (usually full-colour), a capsule description (Olga Mesmer is a “super-strong and feisty half-Venusian adventuress . . . and just maybe the first superheroine in comics”, p. 15), a quotation from the relevant comic book text, the name of her creator (s), and a citation for the publication in which she first appeared. As well, for those wanting to learn more about a superheroine, Nicholson ends each write-up with a reference to “Essential Reading”, a source of further reading and, when available, reprints of that comic book or series. Nicholson’s knowledge of the comic book genre is encyclopedic, but encyclopedic doesn’t mean “boring”. I loved her conversational tone, her wit, and her sense of fun. Just read this description of Starr Flag, Undercover Girl, “the greatest spy in the world”:

Also known as Undercover Girl, Starr Flagg is an action-adventure spy heroine of the James Bond variety, complete with expert fighting skills and a quick wit. She always possesses the best qualities for any scenario. Master of martial arts? You got it. Expert lock picker? Absolutely. Master of disguise? No problem! More importantly, she’s equipped with a mind that can solve any complicated mystery. In every issue, Starr figures her way out of a dangerous situation thanks to some handy last-minute decisions. She also happens to be as ruthless as they come, sniping enemies, hitting them with torture weapons, or even siccing bloodthirsty gorillas on them.

All while being incredibly glamorous in, you know, an effortless kind of way.
(pp. 41-42)

     As the decades roll on, comics reflect the culture and concerns of the times. The 1940s offered not only the continued adventures of superwomen with magical super-powers but also a sense of the dark shadows cast by World War II. In the 1950s, comics faced the introduction of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Claims that juvenile delinquency was a potential outcome of exposure to violent crime comics, the comics industry developed the CCA. The Comics Code Authority “banned gore, violence, and sexual innuendo and led to the possibly sad, if temporary, death of crime comics (still technically illegal in Canada.) (p. 51) As a result, the newsstands were filled with plenty of kid-friendly stories like Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Tom and Jerry, Caspar the Friendly Ghost. However, even the Classics Illustrated series wasn’t enough to convince my parents that comic books were nothing but trash, and, as a result, everything I now know about comics, I’ve learned from Hope Nicholson.

     Hope Nicholson’s The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History is a rollicking trip through eight decades of comic book history. In the 21st century, although printed formats are still big, web comics have become an important medium. As well, reading audiences are “clamoring for the pages to reflect the diversity they see in their lives, in their social media feeds, and in the mirror” (p. 209), and the comic creators have worked hard to meet that demand. Women are a force in the current industry, not only as creators of content, but also in forming comics reading groups, as critics of the genre, and as attendees at comic cons, working to “establish more stringent harassment policies and to bring on more female and nonbinary creators as panel speakers and guests”. (p. 209) And, I was heartened by Nicholson’s shout-out to the “librarians who put graphic novels in readers’ hands.” (p. 209)

     Although this work focuses on female characters, I think that it can be enjoyed by male readers as well. The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History is a book for high school readers; despite the presence of Wendy the Good Little Witch and her like, these ladies have plenty of curves, cleavage, and can be quite sassy stuff. The introductory pages for each section offer a level of discourse which is sophisticated but not inaccessible. So, be prepared for some raised eyebrows, comments, and potentially, theft of the book when you acquire it for your high school library collection. But, you can also be prepared for strong demand from those who are fans of the comic and graphic novel medium.

Highly Recommended.

A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

© CM

This Creative Commons license allows you to download the review and share it with others as long as you credit the CM Association. You cannot change the review in any way or use it commercially.

Hosted by the
University of

Commercial use is available through a contract with the CM Association. This Creative Commons license allows publishers whose works are being reviewed to download and share said CM reviews provided you credit the CM Association.

Next Review | Table of Contents For This Issue - September 29, 2017
CM Home
| Back Issues | Search | CM Archive | Profiles Archive