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Dorothy Woolfolk and the invention of Kryptonite

Contributed by
Apr 12, 2018

Shortly after Superman met his untimely demise in the oft-discussed Death of Superman story in the early '90s, an interview with Jocelyn R. Coleman for the newspaper Florida Today was conducted with a seemingly inauspicious former DC editor in her home. Dorothy Roubicek, best known by the name Dorothy Woolfolk, was the first female editor to work at DC, and, in fact, for many years, remained the only one. She is also widely considered to be one of the first women to have worked on scripting Wonder Woman, with the exception of the likely contributions of Elizabeth Marston and the recently confirmed script work by Joye Hummel, who was a teenager at the time of her first contributions to the series after Marston had left the series. Dorothy reportedly met her husband, William Woolfolk, when she rejected one of his pitches for Superman, but she seems to have kept the name throughout the rest of her life.

At any rate, Woolfolk is a bit of a mystery, and new, contradictory facts about her have been slowly emerging about her only to be later disputed by new research for some time. Woolfolk is often cited as one of the creators of Kryptonite. I personally first discovered her work through comic creator Alan Kupperberg's touching memorial to her, in which he mentions that he was attempting to meet up with her to thank her for her significant help in his early career only to discover that she had recently passed away, only to look back and realize she had been the editor on some of the only female-fronted books DC published in its first five decades of existence.

Woolfolk is a mysterious figure in the world of comics history. Very little attention has been given to her. In some ways, this is due to the behind-the-scenes nature of her work as an editor, though that can't be the whole reason considering that many male contemporaries receive much greater praise and renown. As with film before the advent of celebrity in the mid-1910s, writers, artists, and editors were usually uncredited in the early days of comic publishing. This is due to a combination of factors—such as the low opinion held society-wide about comic books of the time, and because the children and teenagers that comics were generally aimed at weren't exactly writing in demanding to know the names bringing them their entertainment. Because of these omissions, comic historians now face serious troubles attempting to figure out who exactly did what during the Golden Age of comics. It also allowed many marginalized creators to be overshadowed and forgotten when contemporaries fail to give them credit, or when biased historians neglect to mention their contributions.

In her Wikipedia entry, Dorothy Woolfolk is credited as “helping” to create Kryptonite, the famed Kryptonian metal that, depending upon its color, can have any number of adverse effects on Superman. It doesn't list who else “helped” to create it, though, which leads one to question the language used here. Not particularly known for grandstanding, Woolfolk cited her initial personal disinterest in Superman being based in his invulnerability rendering all threats mostly obsolete, and she suggested a metal that villains would be impervious to and which could affect only Superman. We know that the first appearance of Kryptonite was in the Adventures of Superman radio serial, but it appears to have been Woolfolk's choice to bring it to comics.

Originally appearing in its standard green, there have now been at least 22 different kinds of Kryptonite introduced to the comics, making it one of the most important and consistently revisited elements of Superman mythos. Meanwhile, the first comic book appearance of Kryptonite, edited by Woolfolk, was penned by Bill Finger, who is generally recognized as the creator of Batman before Bob Kane claimed rights and prevented Finger from seeing any profit from his work. As said, credits during this time of comic publishing are more than a little difficult to sort out.

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After a brief attempt by another editor to modernize Lois Lane, which brought us often painful stories attempting to deal with civil rights issues through a white woman's perspective as written by men in the late '70s, editorial reins were passed over to Woolfolk, who had returned to comics after raising two children and apparently having divorced William. Again, the timeline here is on the wonky side - it's difficult to know even exactly how many husbands Woolfolk had, or when the marriages and divorces occurred.

During Woolfolk's all-too-brief, seven-issue run as editor of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane, Lois began to fully support feminism, breaking up with Superman and telling him she couldn't bear to live in his shadow any further. She also moved in with some girlfriends, one of whom asserts that women have to stick together: in other words, a complete subversion of her constant, often tedious rivalry with Lana Lang. This seems to have been mostly the feminist Woolfolk's idea. Then, despite being slated to take over editorial reins on Wonder Woman, Woolfolk suddenly left the company.

To my knowledge, Carmine Infantino is the only person to date to have commented publicly on her departure to date, insisting that he fired her because she was always late and unable to maintain a deadline. However, Tim Hanley, writer of the book Investigating Lois Lane, did research that refutes this. Her books were always on time and actually increased output when she took over.

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Although Woolfolk was gone, the backlash against her took some time to die off. The letters pages dealing with Lois' feminism were fielded by an unknown writer calling himself Alexander the Great, and his responses are so aggressive towards women that they're honestly quite difficult to read, particularly through a modern lens. His responses to letters were offensive, not only to readers that supported the new direction but also to Dorothy Woolfolk and even Lois Lane herself, referring to Lois as “an obnoxious dame” and making repeat comments about how Superman should “put her in her place.” Due to the over-the-top sexism of the responses, it's difficult to understand their purpose or who the actual writer was. One wonders why a comic company would include a letter page dedicated to insulting the main character of the comic they are printed in. Again, this is one of the many mysteries of Woolfolk's departure from DC that may never be solved.

There are many stories of Woolfolk having fielded aggression from her peers, specifically often in response to her feminism, her support of Gloria Steinem, and her insistence on overseeing books with multi-faceted female characters. Jarringly, the editor that replaced Dorothy Woolfolk on Wonder Woman before she even began, Robert Kanigher, immediately murdered an analog of her on-panel. “Dottie Cottonman, woman editor” is shot by a sniper and immediately killed in one of the most unquestionably tasteless scenes ever to appear in a comic, which is definitely saying something. Even without knowledge of Woolfolk's career, the issue reads like a disturbing response to a feminist editor in a comic book often thought to be intrinsically feminist. Once you begin to learn the troubles Woolfolk had with DC and how Kanigher benefited directly from her expulsion from the company, the issue is downright appalling. Though Kanigher oversaw Wonder Woman for some time, this was emphatically not a feminist or forward-thinking time for the character, and few reference the many years he oversaw the book other than to comment on the surprising lack of compelling storylines that plagued the character for years.

Dorothy Woolfolk did a great deal of work modernizing an industry that has often, then and now, quite obstinately refused to be modernized. She paid a price for her efforts, from being patronized and verbally attacked by her coworkers to having her work more or less forgotten. When people look back on Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane, it's often to cringe at the title or laugh about its rampant absurdity. On the other hand, there are often references to her work from those that directly worked with her or got their beginnings in comics due to her help. Particularly moving is Kupperberg, who was more than happy to not only thank her for her contributions but to defend her, albeit posthumously, as the beloved “Auntie Mame of comics.”

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