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Quick, who’s the oldest superheroine you can think of off the top of your head?
It’s a fair bet that Wonder Woman probably popped into your brain first. After all, the warrior princess of the Amazons has endured in popular culture for almost 75 years, and the very sight of her is synonymous with female strength and empowerment. People who’ve never walked into a comic-book store in their lives can tell you all about her -- and this weekend they’ll be descending upon movie theaters in droves to finally see her on the big screen for the first ever in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But while our dear Diana Prince is the best known female fury of the ‘40s, she wasn’t the only super-woman of her time. In fact, she wasn’t even the first; plenty of other comic-book heroines appeared alongside and even before her on newsstands, most commonly in anthology series they shared with their heroic male counterparts. These women ran the gamut from patriotic Nazi fighters and masked crime-fighters to cops, scientists and reporters; there were even other warrior-queens and ancient goddesses just like Wonder Woman. And because there were just as many comics focused on career and romance stories as there were about action heroes and adventurers, at the time the number of young girls who read comics actually outnumbered boys.
Unfortunately, the majority of these heroines were lost to time and the changing political landscape of the ‘50s, during which women who’d risen to prominence in the workforce during World War II were once again disenfranchised. But before all of that, the Golden Age of Comics was an exciting time of experimentation and adventure, where women could prove that they were as smart, strong and capable as any man. And while Wonder Woman is a unique feminist icon all her own, like any good feminist she owes a lot to the fascinating heroines who came before her. Let’s start at the very beginning with:
Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle
Debut: Jumbo Comics #1, September 1938 to 3D Sheena, Jungle Queen, 1953
People tend to assume that the American comic book industry began with Superman in 1938, but its official start was in 1933 when the first comic-only periodical was produced. Originally publishers used the new format for reprints of already-syndicated comic strips, but eventually, when they got tired of paying licenses to newspapers, they started to produce their own original content. These early books shared more in common with pulp magazines and dime novels than anything else; they were cheap to produce, full of sensationalist tales, and the people who worked on them weren’t taken all that seriously.
At the time, colonialist jungle stories were especially popular thanks to the rise of Tarzan and other similar heroes. It’s in a story like this that we find our first ever female comic book heroine: Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle. Inspired by the 19th century H. Rider Haggard novel She and created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger (although, of course, Iger contests that Eisner had any involvement because such is the comics industry), Sheena first appeared in the British magazine Wags in 1937, and was brought over to the U.S. in Jungle Comics a year later. As you might expect, she was a beautiful blond white woman in revealing leopard print-rags who grew up in the indeterminate African Jungle as “Queen of the Natives.” She even had her own damsel in distress in the form of her love interest, explorer Bob Reynolds, who had to be rescued constantly.
Over time Sheena slowly dominated the anthology series she starred in until 1942 when she became the first comic book heroine to lead her own solo title -- a good four months before Wondy did the same in Wonder Woman #1. She also appeared in not one but two syndicated TV series -- one in the mid-50s and another in 2002 -- and a 1984 movie starring Tanya Roberts from Charlie’s Angels. To this day, she’s one of the best known “Jungle Girls” in fiction.
Camilla, Queen Of The Lost Empire
Debut: Jungle Comics #1, January 1940 to Jungle Comics #163, 1954
Of course, there were pretenders to Sheena’s throne who became popular in their own right -- and many of them were even published by the same company as Sheena, Fiction House. Camilla, Queen Of The Lost Empire was one such example.
In February 1940, Camilla started out as the manipulative, despotic ruler of a forgotten Viking city in Africa (they were very lost). However, this premise was eventually abandoned and she soon became a wandering, biking-wearing warrior in her own right. While Sheena got along mostly ingenuity and might, Camilla was the first of these heroines to wield a sword and lead armies into battle. No wonder she -- and Fran Hopper, one of the first female comic book artists in America -- made Jungle Comics into one of the longest running books of the Golden Age until some other artists took over in the late 40s and eventually turned their queen into another generic jungle girl.
Debut: Jungle Comics #2, February 1940 to Jungle Comics #51, March 1944
Just one issue after Camilla’s first appearance, Jungle Comics also became the birthplace of the first superpowered woman in comics: Fantomah, the“Mystery Girl Of The Jungle.” Unlike Sheena and Camilla, Fantomah’s story comes with a bit of a twist; when she activates her supernatural powers, her face changes from that of a beautiful blond woman to that of a blue-faced skeleton monster. Imagine if Skeletor and Evil Lyn had a kid together and then left her to rule the African jungle. That’s Fantomah.
Originally Fantomah protected her home from evildoers with incredibly bizarre and brutal punishments -- for example, sending a pride of flying jungle cats to rip open the parachutes of invaders, or giving a mad scientist to his own demon army of genetically enhanced gorillas. You know- normal jungle stuff. Eventually, she was retconned into being the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess (cast by Gods Of Egypt’s Alex Proyas, no doubt) without all the cool super powers, and by 1942, she’d already faded into obscurity.
The Woman In Red
Debut: Thrilling Comics #2, March 1940 to Thrilling Comics #46, January 1944
A month after Fantomah made her debut, comics got their first-ever costumed vigilante with The Woman In Red. Policewoman Peggy Allen was her precinct’s best undercover agent, but in order to keep from blowing her cover, she would dress in head-to-toe red and investigate crimes without any legal restrictions. While she had no powers to speak of, she was a brilliant detective and even better sharpshooter, and she had the full backing of her police commissioner do what whatever needed to be done to solve a case -- which, yeah, involved killing people sometimes. Remember, this was around the time Batman was still carrying a gun.
Although her Golden Age legacy ends with her final issue in 1945, once the Woman in Red entered the public domain she was resurrected in Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s Tom Strong series in 2001. This new version of the characters did have superpowers thanks to a magic ruby crystal and was a part of a superhero team called SMASH, which was placed in suspended animation and revived decades later. This ends up being a common trope for bringing back Golden Age characters. Let’s be real, it’s probably Captain America’s fault. He did start it.
Amazona The Mighty Woman
Debut: Planet Comics #3, May 1940
Amazona only lasted for a single issue, but she predated Wonder Woman by over a year, and her power set is similar enough that some people mistakenly assume she was actually a Wonder Woman knock-off. Unlike Diana, she’s the last of a superpowered race of humans lost to the Ice Age and follows hunky explorer Blake Manners back to America (so, a little more like Diana) after he discovers her citadel in the Arctic North. From there she stops a gang of criminals who interrupt a party, dazzling the guests with her superhuman strength. Too bad she never got to do more!
The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil
Debut: The Chicago Times, June 3, 1940 to 1955
Fantomah might have been the first woman with superpowers, but Scarlet O’Neil, definitely had the first consistent set of powers -- at least, when she had them at all. After an accident with an invisibility ray built by her father, Scarlet developed the ability to turn completely invisible, clothes and all, be pressing a nerve on her wrist. As her comic was a bit more kid-friendly and less action-packed, Scarlet generally used her invisibility to help out children in trouble, and other more mundane adventures.
Eventually, in 1950 Scarlet’s powers were dropped, as was the “Invisible” from her name, and another character named “Stainless Steel” ended up becoming the star of her series instead in 1954. Scarlet was never seen from again, and a year after changing the name of the strip to reflect its new hero, creator Russell Stam (who’d previously worked on Dick Tracy) dropped the comics industry entirely to pursue a career in television.
Debut: The Spirit Section, June 1940 to Lady Luck Comics #90, August 1950
Another heroine who has Will Eisner to thank for her existence (though he never wrote or drew any of her stories), Brenda Banks was an Irish-American socialite and a compatriot of The Spirit. While she had no supernatural powers -- and no mask, either, for her first few appearances -- she stopped crime with her jiu-jitsu mastery, her excellent marksmanship skills, and occasionally her chauffeur Peecolo.
Lady Luck first debuted in newspaper comic strips alongside the rest of The Spirit’s allies, and her adventures were later compiled and reprinted in books like Smash Comics and Lady Luck Comics. In 2011, Geoff Johns announced intentions to revive her a member of the Justice League in DC Comics’ New 52, but it ended up never happening. Instead, she made an unexpected appearance in The Phantom Stranger #6 in 2013 and hasn’t been seen since.
Marga The Panther Woman
Debut: Science Comics #6, July 1941 to Weird Comics #20, 1942
As is common for Golden Age comics, Marga’s origins are complicated. In her first appearance, a mad scientist injects her with panther DNA, causing her blond hair to turn black and giving her the strength of a panther. In a later retcon, she’s instead a young girl who was raised by panthers in the jungle. Either way, like other Jungle Girls before her she was more comfortable with animals than humans and committed herself to protecting her jungle habitat with her panther-like strength.
Debut: Mystic Comics #4, August 1940 to All Select Comics #1, Fall 1943
By some accounts the mysterious Black Widow (who, while now currently owned by Marvel Comics, bears no relation to the red haired Russian superspy we all know and love) might be considered more of a villain than a costumed hero, but only in that she has a habit of mercilessly murdering criminals with no remorse at the behest of Satan. But hey, if it’s good enough for the Punisher and Ghost Rider then it’s good enough for her, right?
In her original Golden Age incarnation, the Black Widow is a medium named Claire Voyant who’s murdered at the hands of her employer --which doesn’t sound so weird when you consider that she put a fatal curse on his entire family while being possessed by the Devil. Satan must’ve really liked her, though because once she gets to Hell he sets her up with a cool new costume and the power to kill people with a single, sending her back to Earth to get vengeance. Once she’s done with that, she starts to go after organized crime syndicates and other nefarious villains next, under the pretense that she’s sending their souls on an early trip to Hell where they belong.
After sixty years of being lost to comic book history, Claire was later welcomed into the official Marvel Universe in The Twelve, a 2007 mini-series by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston. Like the Woman In Red before her, the new (old) Black Widow has a completely different backstory than her Golden Age counterpart and also belongs to a cryogenically-frozen superhero team from the ‘40s. Great minds, huh?
Debut: Bell Syndicate Comics, April 1941 to 1952
A wealthy socialite with no superpowers to speak of but a ton of technological resources at her disposal (gee, who does that sound like?), Marla Drake, AKA Miss Fury, fights Nazis and other criminals while dressed in an ability-enhancing catsuit. She’s also especially notable for being written and drawn by Tarpe Mills, one of the first female comic book creators in the industry -- although certainly not the last, as more women stepped in to take on the jobs left behind by men in World War 2. She was also the inspiration for Marvel’s Hellcat and recently appeared in a newly rebooted series for Dynamite Comics.
Debut: Speed Comics #13, May 1941 to All New Comics #11, Spring 1945
Punching Nazis was once a time-honored tradition in the superhero comic world, and as the war began to pick up in Europe female heroes began to jump into the fray as symbols of virtue and patriotism. Pat Parker, War Nurse was one such symbol. A nurse living just outside of London, she became a part of the war effort when she learned of a planned nazi attack on the British navy and swooped in to stop it.
Eventually she ended up in a mask and tiara that’s strikingly reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s current look -- although after a while she abandoned her “War Nurse” identity to lead an ethnically diverse group of “Girl Commandos,” which was created by Barbara Hall and taken over by Jill Elgin until it ended in 1946.
Debut: Captain Fearless #1, Aug. 1941 to Captain Aero #26, 1946
A stenographer for the U.S. government, Joan Wayne didn’t just take down Nazis and Fascists during the war -- she also attempted to reform the system from within by taking down corrupt politicians with her presumed super strength and speed. Plus, and for a while, she was drawn by the prolific Nina Albright, who turned her into one of the most popular patriotic heroines of the time period.
Decades later, Miss Victory was rebooted in 1984 by A.C. Comics and given a brand new origin story surprisingly similar to Captain America’s. Instead of a secretary, she’s a former research scientist at the U.S. Department of Defense, who both worked on and became the sole user of a de-aging, superpower-granting super soldier formula called V-47. She’s now considered a staple of A.C.’s all-female “FemForce” team.
Debut: Pocket Comics #1, August, 1941 to Black Cat Mystery, 1951
Long before Felicia Hardy donned the name “Black Cat” to steal treasure and flirt with Spider-Man, Hollywood actress, and stuntwoman Linda Turner used it to track down Nazi spies in the film industry. Linda would go on to be one of the most popular “Victory Girls” in comics, and her solo title continued well into Silver Age of Comics -- although by then, the book had been retooled into an anthology series for kids and she wasn’t featured as a character anymore. Oh, and of course she had an acrobatic sidekick, too: Kit Weston, a 13-year-old circus performer who went by “Black Kitten.” Picture Dick Grayson in a dorky cat costume and that’s pretty much Kit.
Debut: Police Comics #1, August 1941
Another hero created by Will Eisner, Sandra Knight was the daughter of a U.S. senator, who developed a taste for stopping bad guys after thwarting an assassination attempt on her father. Unlike most superheroes in comics, she had an actual explanation for her skimpy outfit -- that it was meant to distract the male criminals she fought against. She also used a black light ray that allowed her to blind her opponents or render herself invisible.
The rights to publish Phantom Lady switched hands many times over the next several decades. After her final appearance in Police Comics #23 for Quality comics, she was sold to Fox Feature Syndicate, then a bunch of other different companies until she all but disappeared in the mid ‘50s thanks to her famously revealing costume (one of her covers even ended up in the anti-comic book Seduction Of The Innocent). Finally, she ended up in the hands of DC Comics, who brought her back in the ‘70s and completely revamped her origins.
The mantle of Phantom Lady is now a legacy that’s been passed on to several different women; a version of one of these heroines even appeared in the cartoon “Batman: The Brave And The Bold.” The Silk Spectre of Alan Moore’s Watchman was also directly inspired by her legacy -- and, clearly, her wardrobe.
Debut: Daredevil Comics #2, August 1941 to Daredevil Comics #11, 1942
Occasionally known as the American Joan Of Arc, Pat Patriot (who bears no relation to the New England Patriots’ current mascot -- “Patriot” is derived from her last name, Patrios) started out as a disgruntled factory worker who, while dressed as Uncle Sam for a local play, uncovers an illegal smuggling operation perpetrated by her former boss. Galvanized by this discovery, she basically becomes the best freedom fighter around, and eventually decides to fight the Axis powers in a “War Nurse” costume. The new get-up didn’t last very long, but that wasn’t the end for Pat; instead she became the leader of the “Girl Commandos,” a multiethnic all-female team of World War II fighters. Move over, Nick Fury, your Howling Commandos have got nothing on these women.
Debut: Military Comics #1, August 1941 to Military Comics #7, February 1942
Unlike the Miss America who fought alongside Captain America and Bucky in the All-Winners Squad for Timely Comics, Joan Dale was a reporter who, after being visited in a dream by the Statue of Liberty (no, really), was granted the power to transmute elements and used them to fight crime. She was abandoned as a character pretty quickly, but she deserves credit for being the first Victory Girl to take on “America” for a title -- and alongside the DC Comics hero known as BlackHawk, too.
Debut: Smash Comics #25, August, 1941 to Smash Comics #37, November 1942
You probably know Drake Burroughs, the Wildfire from DC Comics who first debuted in the ‘70s, but he was actually the second superhero to hold that title. Before him came Carol Vance Martin, an orphan who was given powers by the “God of Fire” after almost dying with her family in a forest fire herself. After she was adopted by a wealthy benefactor, Carol fought crime with her pyrokinetic powers -- and surprise! Some of those criminals were also Nazis.
Debut: The Eagle #2, September 1941 to The Eagle #4, January 1942
What, you thought Peter Parker was special because he invented his own web shooters? Turns out Shannon Kane managed to make it happen 20 years before he did. After her scientist husband was killed by “enemies of the country” Shannon discovered a formula for spider-web fluid in his notes and used it to create herself a pair of bracelets, allowing her to swing through the air and trap the criminals she fought against. Unfortunately, her story only lasted three issues over the course of a year, but she was briefly revived for a World War II-themed mini-series in the early ‘90s.
Great Comics #1, Nov 1941 to Great Comics #3, January 1942
Madame Strange’s legacy didn’t last very long -- as with Spider-Queen, she only appeared in three issues of an anthology series before vanishing into the ether. But oh boy, was she great in those three issues. All we know about her is that she’s an “American girl reporter” who used her ridiculous strength, speed, sharpshooting, and piloting skills to track down Nazi spies in Europe.
Dynamite Comics #2, December 1941 to Dynamite Comics #3, 1942
It’s commonly thought that male superheroes turn to crime-fighting after something terrible happens to their loved ones, and female superheroes do it after something terrible happens to them. For Lady Satan, it’s arguably both: she lost her fiancé to drowning, and almost drowned herself after the Germans bombed their ship. To get revenge, she put on a mask and an evening dress and stalked Nazi-occupied France, killing everyone in her path with a chlorine gas gun. She was later revived in 1946 as a mystical sorceress who stopped crime with dark magic, but this new Lady Satan didn’t get very much traction either and quickly faded away.
So What Happened?
It’s clear that by the time Wonder Woman finally hit the scene at the end of 1941 in All-Star Comics #8, she had plenty of female company to share newsstands with -- including characters not even listed here, who kicked butt as everyday reporters and lawyers and scientist. And of course, there were many fantastic women who arrived on the scene after Wondy, too -- like Black Venus, a nurse by day and a World War II pilot by night; the Veiled Avenger, a district attorney’s secretary who fought crime with a bullwhip; or Mother Hubbard, who was literally just an old lady with witch-like superpowers.
However, by the time the mid-'50s rolled around, most of these publications had completely dried up. Dwindling comic book sales supposedly brought on by the rise of television certainly didn’t help, and neither did the changing cultural emphasis on pulling women away from their wartime era responsibilities and back to lives as homemakers for the returning men.
But the real nail in the coffin came with psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s 1954 The Seduction Of The Innocent, which claimed depictions of sex, violence and horror in comics led directly to juvenile delinquency in its young readers. Fearful of being censored or even shut down by the U.S. government, the comics industry censored itself instead, creating the Comics Code Authority as a draconian set of guidelines to dictate content. Comics that followed the CCA received a seal of approval from the Comic Magazine Association of America; comics were guaranteed not to sell well, or to even be stocked on newsstand shelves in the first place.
The CCA had a profound chilling effect on how women were portrayed in particular -- ironically in no small part by enforcing a dress code and demanding that “females” be drawn “realistically.” Other parts of the Code mandated against supernatural horrors, weapons, sex, and romance that didn’t promote the “sanctity of marriage,” completely decimating entire genres where female characters thrived and incentivising their subservience. DC Comics’ in-house editorial policy even doubled down further, stating that "the inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance.”
These days it feels like the comics industry is slowly beginning to improve in its depiction of its female heroes -- or, at the very least it feels like critics are rightfully calling for the comics industry to improve, even if things are still slow to actually change. After all, “secondary” women have dominated the pages of our favorite superhero stories for decades upon decades.
Still, at the very least we can take comfort in knowing that it wasn’t always like this; that despite how meaningful Wonder Woman’s legacy is to us, she’s not the only one of her kind. Plenty of pioneering heroine and female comic book artists paved the way for her first, and they’re worth celebrating. Even the ones who only lasted a single issue.
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