A comic book herstory

Such stuff as dreams are made on

Published: May 30 2017, 01:01:am

Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

THE SPECTACULAR SISTERHOOD OF SUPERWOMEN. Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History. By Hope Nicholson. Quirk Books, 2017. 240 pp. Illus., index.  $25.00.
PICTURE A REVISIONIST VERSION of The Tempest, one in which Miranda reads The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen. “O, wonder!,” Shakespeare’s castaway teen enthuses after setting the book down. “How many goodly creatures are there here!“
    Instead of accepting a world peopled exclusively by men, her eyes are opened to new possibilities. Her brave new world has such people in it as the iconic Little Lulu, Wonder Woman and Batgirl, along with the all-but-unknown Starlight, Tiffany Sinn and Cutey Bunny . . . Such people as the book’s author, self-described “passionate fangirl” Hope Nicholson.
    Okay, on the day after Still Star-Crossed’s prime time premiere who can say for sure that we won't soon see a new production of Will's final play that has the sorcerer’s daughter enjoying Nicholson’s sharp, opinionated survey of comic book women. And, yes, I’m using Miranda’s words to express my own reaction to this attractive addition to a neglected corner of pop culture history.
     As work of social scholarship it deserves to be taken as seriously as, well, the best new book about Britain’s Bard. Its author, an established editor, archivist and researcher, makes the case for a “sisterhood” that includes women who make comics, women portrayed in comics and women who read comics.
    She does so in a colloquial, conversational style that is both charming and disarmingly non-academic. She begins with the following introduction:
    “Hello, and welcome to the definitive guide to female representation in comics!
    “Wait, that’s not right . . .
    “Hello, and welcome to the most popular female characters in American and Canadian comics!
    “Hmm . . . still not quite it.
    “Hello, and welcome to the best female characters in comics?
    "Oh no, absolutely not.
    “Hello, and welcome to the weirdest, coolest, most of-their-time female characters in comics — for better or for worse.
    “Yes, now that’s it.”
    Having focused our expectations, Nicholson spends the next 222 pages covering nine decades — well, 82 years to be precise — of North American sequential art history. Each of her book’s 101 entries introduces us to a specific “superwoman,” a term as flexible as the imaginations of their fans and creators. With a single exception, every item is accompanied by an illustration.
    On one level The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is a buffet, with the reader free to browse the menu and sample the dishes at random. Each item ends with an “Essential Reading” note with information on where to find more about the featured character.
    What makes it really cool, though, is the fierce social and critical commentary that forms the book’s larger tale. As a small-press publisher, the Winnipeg-born Nicholson has a keen appreciation of comics as a business, one that has long been considered a boys’ club (Little Lulu regularly faced a “No Girls Allowed"sign).
    At one point, in her discussion of Chicanos protagonist Jalisco, she reminds us that we’re reading “a feminist book.” Woven throughout is Nicholson’s version of comics history, in which the sisterhood — creators, characters and their fans — is present from the beginning. Rich with facts and insightful connections, the individual entries allow her to editorialize on such topics as technology, creators' rights, male privilege and comic marketing, all presented with a self-deprecating wit that suggests that, in the end, we’re all friends here.
    Well, okay, occasionally a flash of anger shows through. As on Prospero’s tempestuous island, not all deep feelings are positive. Even so, for Miranda’s sake, dad should add The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen to his prodigious library. The result of exhaustive research, Nicholson’s fine book is anything but exhausting to read. O, wonder!

The above is an original Reeling Back review by Michael Walsh originally published in 2017. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I first met Hope Nicholson at the 2014 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF), where we chatted briefly. She was introducing Nelvana of the Northern Lights, a beautifully restored collection of the Canadian superheroine comic from 1941 that she co-published. As it turned out, 2014 was a busy year for Nicholson. Besides the Nelvana launch, it saw the release of director Will Pascoe’s Lost Heroes: The Untold Story of Canadian Superheroes, a documentary feature for which Nicholson did research and was an associate producer. It also was the year that Nicholson founded Bedside Press, her own comics publishing company, in her hometown of Winnipeg.
    We had a second conversation at VanCAF’s 2016 edition. She had just published (and edited and contributed a story to) The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, an anthology of comics and stories by and about fangirls. If I’d had any doubt that Nicholson was the real deal, they evaporated the moment I saw that her new collection included an introduction (and a story) by Trina Robbins, a cartoonist and activist who’s been championing women in comics history since the mid-1970s. Among the contributors to Geek Girls was Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood, who contributed four pages of new comic art. (Their association is ongoing, with Nicholson acting as consulting editor on Atwood’s Angel Catbird, a graphic novel series launched in September 2016.)
    In 2015, a year she was not at VanCAF, Nicholson produced Brok Windsor, another classic Canadian comic book restoration. Published in Vancouver between 1944 and 1946, the collection was another Bedside Press book that I just had to have. Ten days ago, she brought The Spectacular Sisterhood (published by Philadelphia-based Quirk Books) to Vancouver. Four days ago (May 26), she was discussing her new book on a panel at the U.K.’s MCM London Comic Con.

See also: Books to shelve alongside The Spectacular Sisterhood include comics historian Maurice Horn’s 1977 Women in the Comics (Chelsea House Publishers), four works by Trina Robbins — Women and the Comics (with Catherine Yronwode; Eclipse, 1983), A Century of Women Cartoonists (Kitchen Sink, 1993), From Girls to Grrrlz (Chronicle Books, 1999) and The Greatest Women Cartoonists (Watson-Guptill, 2001) — and Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls (Exterminating Angel Press, 2009).