The first comic character Mike Madrid ever took to was Supergirl, so it’s appropriate she lends her name to his look at fighting females. From Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in the 1930s to Manhunter in the 21st Century, they’re all here – Wonder Woman, the X-Women, the heroines of the Legion, Lois Lane . . . But this isn’t just a round up of the usual suspects, as Madrid also brings us a plethora of more obscure characters, such as War Nurse, Miss Fury and Lady Luck.
He organises characters by type and period, so we have the Debutantes and the Victory Girls among the Golden Age gals enjoying A Secret Life, and Sirens and Suffragettes in the Seventies. This allows for a fascinating narrative factoring in social history, literary precedents and much more. And while I devoured information on heroines unknown to me – if spinster turned death-dealing aviatrix Black Angel doesn’t get a revival one of these days there’s no justice – I was equally satisfied by new details on old favourites. For example, I knew Captain Marvel was physically based on Fred MacMurray, but I never made the obvious-in-retrospect connection between sister Mary Marvel and another Hollywood star: ‘She was, as intended, a virtuous helpmate – a flying, bulletproof Judy Garland, minus the diet pills.’
I gobbled up the whole book but my favourite chapter focused on Madrid’s first love, Kara Zor-El, occasionally comparing the original Maid of Might’s heroic career to that of Sixties pop princess Lesley Gore. The idea sounds contrived, but Madrid uses Gore as a pop culture yardstick against which to measure Supergirl’s progress both as a heroine and Sixties chick, and it works. Madrid comes back to pop music again and again, usually to good effect, though the idea of the Dark Phoenix saga as a comic book Bohemian Rhapsody strained the conceit. Amusingly.
There’s also a meaty chapter on Wonder Woman, looking at her schizophrenic career as ‘Super-heroine Number One’ and coming up with interesting theories on why she almost has relationships with Batman and Superman after her Eighties rebirth. The only criticism I have of the section is that it could leave readers with the impression Diana’s still wearing the Brian Bolland ‘biker chick’ outfit of the Nineties.
Other highlights include discussions of Kitty Pryde’s journey from typical teen to leather fetish queen and Barbara Gordon’s transition from Batgirl to Oracle.
Madrid’s text manages a fine balance of the scholarly and the readable, but the very occasional errors are a shame. Superman’s co-creator Joe Schuster? Jimmy Olson? Still, I recommend this as a terrifically readable book of comics history. I’d love to see a second edition with copyrighted images of the heroines discussed – original archetype illustrations are used this time – and more attributions when individual stories are mentioned.