Friday, April 2, 2010

When We Were Young And Comics Were Fun

I've been super-busy for several weeks, first finishing off a major paper, then going on a cruise, then prepping for and presenting at a conference, and finally sorting through my comics, which mostly have to be sold before we move in August. As I arrange the comics in lots for sale, I can't help reminiscing over some of them, and of course lamenting that we have to part. On Monday I was stopped in my tracks by an old favorite, Detective Comics 371, with this fabulous Batgirl cover:
This issue is from January 1968 and so we're beginning to see some feminist issues surfacing. Basically the plot revolves around Batgirl's preoccupation with her appearance and how this interferes with her crime-fighting. Supposedly this vanity is an aspect of femininity and part of the overall weakness the latter allegedly confers upon females. Here's some excerpts:
In this early sequence, Batgirl goes into action when she witnesses the robbery of an armored truck in progress. As you see, worrying about her mask being out of place puts her at a disadvantage, and what happens subsequently is that Batman & Robin arrive on the scene and mop up at least some of the bad guys, leaving Barbara much to ponder once the fighting is over:
Next the same sports-themed robbers are interrupted as they are about to complete their heist of precious metals from the trophy-making department of the Gotham River Sawmill. Batman and Robin are, of course, expert log rollers, and so the battle is going their way until they are distracted by Batgirl's spontaneous feminine scream uttered as she arrives to see her crime-fighting companions in danger. And just when you thought things couldn't get worse, Batgirl is again sidelined by her anxiety over her looks as mud splashes on her face. Note that it's okay for Batman and Robin to be distracted by hearing a woman scream, i.e. their chauvinistic masculinity, but Batgirl's femininity is here labeled as a major disadvantage.
Next Batman and Robin are tipped off that the sports thieves are going to commit a robbery at the Royal Happening, an event taking place that evening and which Batman was scheduled to attend as his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Bruce gives his tickets to Commissioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara a.k.a. Batgirl, and plans to thwart the crooks' intentions as the Caped Crusader. The showdown occurs as the Batman calculated, but he and Robin are seriously outnumbered, and so Batgirl decides to shed her Queen Victoria costume and enter the fray, only this time she's prepared!
Taking advantage of the predictably sexist outlook of the crooks, Batgirl uses her femininity to her advantage and distracts the bad guys with her curvaceous appearance. Batman and Robin waste no time in finishing off the tactically compromised gang, but Barbara doesn't reveal the whole truth to the Dynamic Duo in the post-case analysis. Yes, that run in her tights was a deliberate ploy to get the attention of the crooks.

The story presents an interesting take on the emerging Feminist Movement, one I might suggest was fairly typical of DC and Marvel's male-dominated creative teams of the time. To begin with Batgirl's feminine traits are shown as disadvantageous to her ability to compete with men. In the end, those same characteristics are switched around and considered a strength. To an early-70s Second Wave Feminist this would most likely have been interpreted as male chauvinism, and an attempt on the part of the DC staff to support a system based on differences of the sexes. Ironically, the story is more in tune with more modern difference feminism, exploitation of the sexist attitudes of the male crooks aside, which sees strength in traditional feminine attributes.

The story also reminds me of how things have changed in comic books. This one can be read on a couple of levels. It's fun (I remember guffawing over and over at the cover and the panel where the crooks get distracted when I was around 13) but there's also some social issues being dealt with. And that's why, despite having admiration for his artistic finesse, I was really disappointed by Frank Miller and what he did to Batman and Daredevil, two of my fun faves of the 60s. Who needs all that darkness when there's enough of it in real life!? Comics were my escape from the harsh realities of the inner city! This particular book (Detective 371) also has work by a mixture of some of my all-time favorite artists - Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson (cover), Gardner Fox (writer), and Gil Kane and Sid Greene (artist and inker). These guys are some of the greatest of the greats in comic book history, to whom Miller, significant as his work has been, pales in comparison, in my opinion anyway.


  1. Why does Barbara Gordon have Princess Leia's hairstyle?Could this have influenced Carrie Fisher?

  2. Hi. I do not conform to the Feminist agenda. Altho i know it was very powerful before and since has been taken as the norm. To i am continually seeing others girls who wanna just do what's right yet are terrified of doing somethin wrong by feminist standards. Vanity itself is more female but it;s also natural, every female has it - tho why this should be a feminist issue only they know. Cheers hon.