Hope Nicholson explores comics history with The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen

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Apr 13, 2017, 1:00 PM EDT

Hope Nicholson is a well-known name in the comics industry. From editing, writing, and producing hit anthologies like The Secret Loves of Geek Girls to bringing attention to forgotten works of comics through her indie publisher Bedside Press to editing Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain, Nicholson's got her fingers in many exciting and interesting comix projects.

She's also put together a new book: The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History, a gorgeous, colorful archive that takes readers through decades of comic book history and picks out some of the most interesting, iconic and oft-forgotten female characters comics has to offer. Through these characters, Nicholson tells the fascinating story of comics.

I'm so honored that Hope took the time to sit down with me to chat about putting together the book, the way women have been represented over the years and the importance of showing different facets of women — race, culture, sexuality, orientation, body shape and size — on the page.

Where did you even FIND all these characters? This book is an amazing collection of female comic book characters, many of whom have been forgotten to history. What was your research process like?

Hope Nicholson: Oh boy, this might be kinda boring to other people!

It was a really fun process, but I wanted to go about my research in different ways. I found previous histories limiting (aside from Trina Robbin's excellent work) and obviously very male-focused and exclusionary, so I ignored all previously written comic history books and went straight for something I love a lot: data. Basically my process for selecting characters, after writing down each one that came to mind (which was exhausted at about 50 characters), was to go to comics.org and export the data of published books in certain time frames, and also go to Diamond Sales, NYT best-sellers, and Mike's Newstand, a website that also collects data, but only by major publishers.

From there I scanned the titles and looked for ones that popped out to me as interesting or curious that might have female leads. I also organized them by sales data when I could, or by volume of comic titles -- much of this data I didn't end up using but I wanted to make sure I featured some best-selling characters as well as obscure ones, plus it gave me a fairly accurate view of the shifts in genres/publishers over time. I also used the public domain superheroes website for a lot of clues on rare public domain characters.

And finally, I asked friends to recommend titles for me; for example, Steve Manale recommended Street Angel, which I would have never discovered otherwise. This was also very useful when doing more modern comics since there is VERY LITTLE history written about webcomics, so I had to go straight to the sources: people who started off in webcomics.

In addition to that, I looked for advertisements in the comics that would lead me to other ones, and that was a big help as well in discovering some pretty obscure ones. For example, The "Top 100" lists of comic shop sales that was distributed in Amazing Heroes really helped showcase indie comics that sold well at the time but are now completely forgotten.

For example, in the sales chart below, I found the character 'Vanity,' which I otherwise would have never heard of, and featured her in the book. I had a list of about 353 characters that were interesting to me and featured I think about 100 of these in the final book.

How did you decide who to/not to include? The Internet always has an opinion, after all, and I'm sure you'll get "I can't BELIEVE you didn't include X!"

Yeah, I felt if I decided to angle the book as "the best female characters" I would get a lot of that. So instead I wanted to make it clear that this is a sampler of characters, popular and unpopular, who represent some facet of the comic book industry and history. I wanted to give comic fans a lot of new material to chew on with characters even diehard fans would have never heard of, but also be a fun and entertaining intro to comics history for the casual reader. I also wanted to represent a lot of different genres; comics are very very intertwined with superheroes and always have been, but there's a lot of other work out there! The one limitation I had was no autobio/memoir books and no evil characters, since that's just not the focus of this book.

Going back decades means you were going to find a lot of cringeworthy representation, which you comment on the book. Did you feel dejected by it? How did you handle it internally? Was it hard to put that aside and look for the good?

Oh yes, I think one day I was reading The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-geist and I just reached my breaking point. NO MORE RAPEY PORN, I cried. The 1970s with their indie comics that just focused on exploiting women sexually and the 1990s comics that were all about the male gaze were really, really difficult to get through (plus those Image comics in the '90s had the tightest, smallest lettering that gave me headaches and as a result I didn't end up featuring them much). But honestly, whenever that happened, I looked at my list and chose a different character to read instead, like Wendy the Witch. Something lighter to break it up. And some characters, like Superbitch and Empowered, have a complexity of exploitation and relevance, so it was important to not dismiss all sex comics.

You focus on a lot of sex-positive female characters in this collection, which is great. Is that issue important to you? How do you feel about so many male writers penning sex-positive women?

It for sure is important to me! I wish that I could have focused on more asexual representation as well, but especially when it comes to women, this isn't often represented. Jamie's girlfriend Erin in Girls with Slingshots is asexual so I was able to mention her, but I would have loved to include more characters. As it is, I think sex-positivity has often failed to include those with low sex drives or interpersonal desire. It was also important for me to take a step back with some of the sex comics and look at, "Okay, I don't like this, but is it bad, is it exploitative? Or is it just not to my taste?" as in the case when I was reviewing Small Favors.

Regarding men writing sex-positive women ... it is possible. Jaime Hernandez is the greatest writer of women's inner worlds than many writers of any gender, but it is rare. Women's sexualities are often connected with danger and wariness, and I don't see that represented as often. It's easy to say, "This female character can be as sexy as she wants because she has the power to bust bad guys in the face!" but that lacks a lot of nuance of why women are hesitant to showcase their sexuality, even if they have a high sex drive. There's a lot of ways to hurt someone that have nothing to do with physical strength.

How have things changed for female comic book characters over time? What trends did you see?

Things have ebbed and flowed a lot in various directions. Women characters in the '40s had a wide range of personalities. Vengeful, sexy, driven, sweet. That kinda disappeared for a long time. At the same time, comics were awful at diverse representation of women in terms of race and culture. This has gotten measurably better, especially in the last decade, and in the last 2–3 years there's also been a big shift in transgender representation which has been great to see and I hope to see continued. There is still some representation that is very rare to see in comics, so by no means are we at the best we can be. Especially in regards to Indigenous representation and asexual representation. Plus we could use more chubby girls on the comic book page, to be honest.

Do you have a favorite character or two from the collection?

Yes, I often say Maureen Marine. I think because I was so delighted to discover her, she had a silly name, a silly backstory but holy goodness was she VENGEFUL. She was a preteen girl whose parents died in a shipwreck and she became the sole female inhabitant—and ruler—of a race of undersea mermen, who she often led to war.

Other than that, I think I'd have to say Jalisco, who has been a favorite character of mine for a long time. I think mostly because all artists seem scared to make their main characters ugly, unless they are men. Being pretty or not pretty doesn't affect your crime-solving skills but it does affect your daily life, and Jalisco in Chicanos really showcased that. There's a lot about that series that puts me off in terms of violence and queer representation, but the main lead is so enjoyable that, well ... it's a problematic fave, I guess.

So many of these characters haven't had their runs reprinted. Do you think that might be different if they were male characters, or is that the nature of old comics?

Well, looking back into the history of comics, I was very glad to focus on the female characters because to be honest most of the male characters were very bland and generic. The reason being likely is so that the reader could project themselves easily onto the character, and male is the 'default standard.' But if I had to write a whole book on male representation, it would be a lot harder to slog through the research. Plus in regards to representation of masculinity, it's pretty generically bad across the eras, I suspect; there hasn't been too much push to create sensitive or sweet male characters who aren't children, though there are notable exceptions like Jericho in Teen Titans or Redlance in Elfquest. But I digress.

I think it's more important maybe to look at the creators. In the cases of female creators created by men, they were often reprinted. But those created by women, less so. How many times have you seen R. Crumb artwork of women out there, as a canon of comic history, but less so Pudge: the Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs?

Girl genres too are much less represented in reprints, and this is because of the peculiar market we have where nostalgia/collecting really is overwhelmed by men. I am sure academics know the reasons why, but the fact is very few women are into nostalgia and collecting. They like to do things with comics, and always have, but the obsession with possessing the physical artifact isn't there. Maybe it's a money thing more than interest? Less women have the disposable income to spend on trinkets like this, but we do see a lot of women in archives and librarian work, so there is an interest and fascination with old literature. The mostly male readership of archive comics don't seem to care much about romance or fashion comics. And if the nostalgia market isn't there, why risk a reprint, I suppose. I'd love to do a fashion in comics book, though; it was really something that has fascinated me through the research process. Everyone likes fashion, right?

It might be strange to end on a question about production, but I'm a book nerd and this physical book is gorgeous. Did you have any input in how you wanted it to look? What do you think of the final product?

It is gorgeous! It made me feel really angry at my own published books, haha, since I'll never be able to have books from my own small press that look as good! Oh well, something to strive for.

In regards to the visual look, really I had no input, so I was very excited to see it turn out. My big thing from working in the film industry as a visual researcher for a while and publishing reprints is that I really, really tried to get as high-res images as I could so they would look sharp and clean in the book. I think I failed on one pin-up; that will likely bug me until the end of my days, but the rest looks gorgeous! The only other advice I had to the designer was to make sure a wide range of characters in terms of eras, genres and appearance were featured on the cover pages in the grid, which they did well. The designer really outdid themselves in the project, I couldn't be more happy. It makes me feel very good.

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History will be released on May 2 from Quirk Books.

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