An Author’s Journey: Women in Epic Fantasy (6, Male Creators & Female Protagonists in Comic Books, 1970s & 1980s)
3.21.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.10: Women in Epic Fantasy (6, Male Creators & Female Protagonists in Comic Books, 1970s & 1980s)
Good Afternoon, Everybody!
Sophia & I are in the midst of spring-cleaning (groan). However, it’s not all drudgery. In emptying some basement file cabinets & sorting through remnants of my life, I’ve rediscovered parts of the past that I’ve not seen in decades. For the finds of more recent vintage, such as this morning’s retrieval of a cache of family photos and some of the kids’ grade-school artwork, the nostalgia elicited can be offset in real time: just dash upstairs to see Adriana and Seth as they are now — older, but still at home, & still within a framework of childhood that Sophia and I are gratefully enjoying However, for the older finds, such as the past couple of weeks’ worth of rifling through comic book long-boxes as I write this series of blogs on women in comics & epic fantasy, those moments evoke the excitement that a 12- or 13-year-old A.J. felt as he spent all of his lawn-mowing or odd-job money on comics and sci-fi/fantasy books.
Those times were back in the late-1970s & 1980s, when being a “geek” or “nerd” didn’t have the current cultural popularity, & I spent so much time reading novels, histories, and comic books that I’m surprised I bothered to show up for school or my job at an amusement park! In the newly established comic book shops, my friends and I would marvel over the latest issues of the following ground-breaking series:
Frank Miller’s Daredevil featured one of the most powerful women ever created in the medium (and who, tellingly, also gets horrifically slain with her own sai by the villain, Bullseye);
Alan Moore’s Miracleman and Swamp Thing, both series that depicted women capable of anything, from Liz Moran’s seriously explored relationship with a superhero husband to Abigail Arcane’s…um…romance with a walking plant;
Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s New Teen Titans (& Perez’s Wonder Women) introduced rebooted versions of Wonder Girl & Aquagirl who stood alongside male teammates and new characters such as Raven & Starfire;
Chris Claremont and John Byrne/Dave Cockrum/Paul Smith/John Romita Jr. runs on The Uncanny X-Men completely redefined the way that women were presented in comic books — yes, many still sported attires that would be more suited to supermodel beachwear than crime fighting, but Claremont & his partners were insistent that their mutant superhero teams would be richly populated with female characters of every age, nationality, creed, and color!
I saw early on both that there were powerful, fully realized depictions of women in these books, and also that all male creators were making stories that imparted “real” personalities to women who’d been previously depicted as little more than spandex- and leotard-wearing “window dressing” in a predominantly male-consumer market.
In any history of popular cultural history of female artistic representation, these writers and artists from the sequential art genre should be given credit for trying to change the expectations of comic books and portrayals of women.
Sadly, during the 1980s and 1990s, while the desire among writers to churn out epic-fantasy tales in imitation of Tolkien created some wonderful contributions to the genre, there were some novels I simply couldn’t get into because of those books’ depiction of women.
“Say, what?” You might be thinking, how could a teenage boy have any critical sensibility if he’s reading Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor Smith/John Buscema runs on Conan and Red Sonja? where, in the first case, a loin-clothed, muscle-bound barbarian is racing about Cimmeria chopping up monsters and “bedding wenches”? Or, in the second, where a chain-mail-bikini-clad, curvaceous red-head is doing the same thing with Conan-like males?
Trust me, in the world of Epic Fantasy, there were many authors and books published during this time who relied upon strong female characters to propel their story lines; writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Susan Cooper, Madeline L’Engle, Katherine Kerr, and Katherine Kurtz.
However, for all of these authors’ respective advances in featuring believable, strong, and fully realized female protagonists, I began to discover that the the fantasy genre had a real dilemma in its portrayals of women.
Next time: Assessing Depictions of Females in Epic Fantasy through Lens of Victorian Norms…Here Comes Bram Dijkstra!