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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 the first woman to have worked on scripting Wonder Woman, with the exception of the likely but unconfirmed contributions of Elizabeth Marston. Dorothy reportedly met her third 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. Woolfolk is often cited as either one of the creators or the sole creator of Kryptonite. I 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.

Woolfolk is a mysterious figure in the world of comics history. Very little attention has been given to her due to the behind-the-scenes nature of her work as an editor. Like film stars before the advent of celebrity in the 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.

Originally appearing in its standard green, there have now been at least 22 different kinds of Kryptonite introduced to the Superman mythos. While Woolfolk's insistence that Kryptonite was her idea is not substantiated due to the fact that very few records exist to either confirm or deny such claims, it seems particularly odd that she would say that she invented something so seemingly incidental as a single fictional metal. The Wikipedia entry on Kryptonite likewise makes the claim that her assertion that she was the idea person behind Kryptonite “has been disputed in the comic book world” while failing to cite where, when, how, or by whom it has been disputed. There is a possibility that Woolfolk could be lying, but there's not much in the way of evidence that she was, nor a strong motivation for her to do so, nor would it particularly fit her established method of operation. Interestingly, the first appearance of Kryptonite 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.

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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, editorial reins were passed over to Woolfolk, who had returned to comics after raising two children and apparently having divorced William.

During Woolfolk's 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. Despite being slated to take over editorial reins on Wonder Woman, Woolfolk left the company. To my knowledge, Carmine Infantino is the only person to date to have commented on her departure, 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 both her male and female 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 analogue of her on panel. “Dottie Cottonwood, 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. Without the knowledge of Woolfolk's career, the issue reads as 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.

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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