One could spend the rest of one’s life digging through the astonishing archive that is www.digitalcomicmuseum.org. This remarkable resource — free full-issue scans of hundreds of public domain comic books from the 1930s-1950s — gives comics fans a raw glimpse of the ‘Golden Age,’ an age before the Comics Code Authority (an industry self-censorship group) clamped down on the wonderfully lurid experiment sequential artists were engaged in.
The gamut of work in this archive is jaw-dropping. Boxing comics, HAMLET comics, gory horror, racist westerns that nonetheless star Native Americans, women in prison comics, superheroes that Kirby & Lee later “borrowed” from, and romance, romance, romance comics. So many romance comics.
But one of the most interesting figures that emerges from this archive is the tough-as-nails woman superhero. The comics of the 1940s are full of rough-and-tumble super-women living independent lives. These heroes were written and drawn mostly by men, but the books they appeared in were clearly being read by women/girls, as well as by men/boys, if ads like this are any indication.
Every month, thousands of these readers would thrill to the adventures of heroes like:
KITTY KELLY, who goes from demure social worker…
…to a cleaver-wielding brawler.
LADY SATAN, a master (not ‘mistress,’ note!) of black magic.
Lady Satan wanders about in her stylish automobile, rescuing people (including sometimes clueless men) from monsters.
and THE VEILED AVENGER. A vigilante more bloodthirsty than Batman, her whip forces men to die by their own hand.
These early superheroines are both fascinating transgressions against sexism, and a reminder that comics have not ‘always been’ sexist in the same ways they are now. Sadly, they start disappearing in the early 1950s, just as the return home of GIs is being facilitated by a concerted societal effort to get women out of the workplace. Is their disappearance due of a shift in comics’ readership, now that men are home? Is it part of a general cultural trend that found women being put back in their place? Hard to say. But by the time the Comics Code is adopted in 1954, the erasure of these groundbreaking heroes is essentially complete. In some ways, it seems like comics are still recovering.