Batwoman & Beryl the Bitch


Posted by in February's Magazine

Ever since Batman and Superman first pulled their underpants on over their tights female rivals in equally eccentric garb have pursued them. Catwoman is to be played by Anne Hathaway in the blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer played earlier versions of Batman’s cat-suited nemesis. There are significant differences between male and female superheroes. While the recent slew of superhero movies – Spiderman, Thor, Captain America – were all good guys, Catwoman is an antihero.

In a photo that launched a thousand message-board debates earlier this year Hathaway was shown in her Catwoman outfit. The blogosphere was less than impressed with Hathaway’s ‘covered up’ look. While Superman, Batman and their kind are clad from head to toe in capes and cowls and colourful jumpsuits, superheroines are expected to reveal endless legs and deep cleavage.

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It seems we can’t get enough of superheroes so it’s only natural that superheroines will be next. A Wonder Woman script is already in development in Hollywood and gossip suggests that Mad Men star Christina Hendricks is everyone’s favourite to get the part. Wonder Woman wasn’t the first ‘shero’. During the Second World War, leggy Pat Parker, War Nurse donned a mask and bared her midriff in the name of the American Way uttering the immortal line: “Don’t cover that coffin! This soldier’s still breathing!’’ Well- spotted Nurse Parker! In 1943, Liberty Belle sported a vibrating bell-shaped belt buckle and did battle with Nazi invaders. Her war cry was: ‘’All right boys, I’m fully charged!’’

On this side of the Atlantic, the much less sexy Pansy Potter (the Strongman’s Daughter) gave vent to her super strength in the pages of the Beano, which informed readers: ‘’Pansy’s having fun galore, sinking U-boats by the score.’’

Wonder Woman, the first major superheroine, was another wartime creation. In patriotic stars-and-stripes bathing costume with golden eagle across the bust, she was descended from a race of warrior women from an ancient island where men were banished. Bracelets made of Feminium were constant reminders of men’s deceit.

In his fantastic new study of superheroes – Supergods – Grant Morrison, the Glasgow-born comic author writes, “the Wonder Woman strip far surpassed its competitors.” Part of the reason was that Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was a respected psychologist who believed in the educational possibilities of the comic. In terms of comic books Wonder Woman’s “fantasy world is one of staggering richness,” says Morrison

Wonder Woman celebrates her 60th anniversary this year. She had an alter ego and when not being Wonderful she stalked the Pentagon in severely tailored military uniform and harlequin spectacles. Wonder Woman was much more wholesome than her rival Sheena Queen of the Jungle whose appeal lay more in her skimpy leopard skin bikini than her ability to zap the Japs.

The first British superheroine was Electro Girl who appeared in 1947 in mask, regulation bathing suit and elbow-length evening gloves. She never quite caught on like Kitty Hawke who was to Girl comic what Dan Dare was to The Eagle. Like Dan, Kitty was a real product of her times and class. She was a pilot only by virtue of the fact that her father owned the airline. She and her female flight crew – Senior Captain Smedley and navigator the Hon Patricia D’Arcy – had clearly earned their spurs on the hockey fields of Rodean.

Female comic book characters, however, all too often fell prey to the prejudices and power fantasies of their male writers and illustrators. Supergirl, Superman’s cousin, was busty and blonde and wore minis long before Mary Quant. A dominatrix Batwoman joined batman in 1956; she had such delightful weapons as a lipstick smoke bomb and an expanding hairnet to ensnare fleeing villains.

Batman didn’t take to women.

Two of his most vicious adversaries were Catwoman and Poison Ivy (who played up to the misogynist notion that powerful women are mad, bad or probably both). No wonder Batman preferred Robin! (In a 1980s graphic novel reworking of Batman, however, Robin the Boy Wonder was replaced by a 13-year-old Girl Wonder in wraparound shades and a shock of orange hair.)

Halo Jones set the trend for a new kind of superheroine, she was a knock- kneed gamine and Alan Moore called his creation, ‘’not just another tough bitch with a disintegrator. What I wanted was an ordinary woman such as you might find standing in front of you at Tesco.’’ The undoubted star of the monthly Deadline was Tank Girl who was described as a ‘shero who has a solution for every eventuality’ and whose shaven head and aggressive attitude attracted girls to lookalike contests. Like superheroines before her, however, she was the creation of a man, Jamie Hewlett, and was constantly revealing her bare flesh.

In today’s graphic novel world there are other examples like Helena Bertinelli in The Huntress: Year One but when DC Comics recently rebooted their roster, guess what? The clichéd sheroes all had big hair and big busts. How we long for Deadline comic’s Beryl the Bitch!  Kennedy Wilson

Info: Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero by Grant Morrison: Jonathan Cape £17.99 

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