The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly: A Beginner’s Guide to the Female Superheroes of Marvel and DC
When it comes down to it, there's a simple formulation for why female superheroes are traditionally rendered in the tightest of skintight outfits, if they're lucky to get one at all, and everyone of us knows what it is: the natural law dictating that sex sells and the corollary that superheroes are a capitalistic enterprise. Whether it's in the pages of Catwoman or a paid model to dress as Catwoman at a DC company booth, men and (some, assuredly) women line up to get a glimpse of the naughty bits and will happily pay for it if you force them. There's nothing at all wrong with that fact of life, because it is the only fact of life that will always be true if we, or any animal species, are to survive. It becomes morally dubious and creepy, when only the women are forced into outfits with plunging necklines that go all the way down to their pubic bone.
This type of character design is frequently gussied up in the guise of female empowerment, and maybe that would fly if more women wrote the scripts, drew the pages, and ran editorial staffs or were in more of those roles. But men do write most of the scripts, draw most of the pages, and certainly run and fill out the majority of the editorial jobs. Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with lookin' hot and shakin' that moneymaker or the fact that T&A exists (or that men create most of it), but it's about context, character, and how those messages are sent. Intent and how their work will be received must matter to every artist, and that means that the ladies and (some, assuredly) men who complain about the insexquity in comics doth not protest too much. Sure, the topic has been covered ad nauseum and we'd all like to move on now, thank you. But the fact that we still need the label of "female superheroes," or that that label implies something obviously different from, simply, "superheroes," proves the conversation still merits.
But superhero comics have too long and varied a history to really dive deep into all of the not-so-egalitarian female character designs through the decades.* So, when we talk about traditional female superheroes in comics, we're talking about the Big Two: Marvel and DC. Not only do they dominate the superhero field, they also, basically, invented the genre. Witchblade and Grimm Fairy Tales were created for a very specific audience, but Batman and Spider-Man are, ostensibly, meant for everybody. So, if they aren't fair game, I don't know what is. Of course, Marvel and DC have been in business and publishing periodicals for approximately 160 years combined, so this won't even come close to an ultimate guide. I don't have the time for all that, and neither do you. But if you're a n00b in this debate, or just want some easy points to make, take a look at some of the best and worst of what superhero comics have to offer women.
First and foremost, the company that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built has never had a female superhero with household names like Wonder Woman or Catwoman or Batgirl. With the success of Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Black Widow may be poised to change that, but it looks like the ludicrous-even-in-context Hawkeye is getting the star treatment first. But there are plenty of male heroes with books for her guest star in! For that matter, she is an Avenger and there are a ton of super teams in the Marvel Universe with their own titles that tend to have fairly decent female representation. So, while solo female titles have tried and failed here, usually with lackluster execution (explaining the lackluster reception?), Marvel isn't devoid of engaging female superheroes. Still, it really should be noted that Marvel is currently publishing only one solo female superhero book, though the X-Men are about to become a total clambake.
Kitty Pryde, or Shadowcat, has almost always worn some variation of the original recipe X-Men uniform, except when she was a member of Excalibur and bought her outfits from Nightcrawler's favorite catalogue, Swash and Buckle Quarterly. Kitty has almost always been an audience perspective character, serving as the way into so many of the X-Men's bizarre and oft-times silly adventures. In the vein of a mentally strong, if not always physically capable woman written mostly by men for a predominantly male audience, she's been painstakingly portrayed as one of the most relatable characters (female or otherwise) in all of comicdom. As such, Kitty has rarely been utilized as the object of male gaze. But that may be due to the fact that all the male writers and artists see her as their girlfriend or sister, just like the fans do, a perfect thing to be protected from the ubiquity of the close-up ass shot. Though, slip ups do happen from time to time. If ever there were a Mary Sue, it was Kitty Pryde; in the realm of comics, that means she's shown more respect but perfection does make for a boring character, even when she's riding an intangible space-bullet through the Earth.
Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (previously known as Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird) is without a doubt a character who's most recent re-design at least tries to consider and grapple with all of the bullshit that super heroines have been wading through for nearly a century. Carol, specifically, has suffered mightily. While her super-alias was once Ms. rather than Miss Marvel, do not let that feminist period fool you - before 2012 she mainly dressed to impress in what amounted to swimsuits and thigh-high boots. She's also been killed, de-powered, and raped, well before she carried a title of her own. But her current costume recalls both her male namesake and the fact that she's one of the best USAF-trained pilots in the world, so even an awful haircut can't negate that progressiveness of her new stature in the Marvel Universe. Hopefully the actual comic by Kelly Sue Deconnick, while off to a good start, lives up to Captain Marvel's cosmic potential.
Sue Storm has been around since Marvel's beginning, as a founding member of the Fantastic Four. For most of Sue's 50ish years of existence, she's worn exactly what her teammates have worn when super-galavanting all over the place. Okay, not the Thing's man panties - if she dressed like that, the Comics Code Authority would never have approved. To be sure, Sue isn't always a glowing beacon of hope for a better realized tomorrow: despite being a grown-ass woman, she was initially called Invisible Girl; for the first 10-20 years her only characterization was Johnny Storm's sister, Reed Richards' girlfriend-then-wife, or the lust object of both Dr. Doom and Namor the Submariner; and there's this. Still, with few exceptions, a simple blue leotard has been her look for a half century because the Fantastic Four are a team and a family, and nothing says "team" or "family" like head-to-toe matching outfits. They exist, but only the biggest hacks try to draw Sue as a sexpot. That's what the Human Torch is for.
Rogue has been all over the sexualized map, mostly leading by her bust-size. She started as a timid teenager unable to control her life-draining powers, and so was understandably modest. Later, for no real reason other than artists apparently got bored drawing her relative lack of curves, she became more carefree and voluptuous. Though she remained covered from head-to-toe (with a bomber jacket accessory, no less), Rogue quickly became the X-Men's go-to pin-up gal. Think about that: an insanely beautiful woman, who is suddenly written as absolutely wanting to go to Poundtown, but who can never be touched. Maybe that evolution was supposed to be meta? Recently, though, due to the X-Books growing seriousness and pomposity, her super-look reverted back to her modest origins and (voila!) she's written as an interesting character again. This is a wholly welcome change, but it doesn't say anything "good" about comics that it took wearing the mutant superhero version of a burqa before Rogue was something besides Gambit's or Magneto's or Iceman's love interest. But she's been a capable leader and complicated individual for a few years now, so we'll take what we can get.
Emma Frost is a fantastic character. Whether as one of the villainous members of the Hellfire club, leading her own team called the Hellions, or serving as co-headmaster and co-leader of either Generation X or the X-Men themselves, she is a stone-cold badass. She pushes people's buttons and she is wrong as often as she's right despite the perfection she exudes. And because she doesn't have the same mental manipulation qualms of Professor X or Jean Grey, she isn't necessarily supposed to be likeable. But that's exactly why she is: good guy or bad guy, Emma Frost isn't going to put up with your shit. Sadly, she also, always, looks like this:
Sexy and confident? Sure. Valid for performing feats of superheroics? Only in comics as we currently understand them, or movies/TV shows based on same. One reason January Jones was laughable in X-Men: First Class, when she wasn't stiffly spouting dry one-liners, was because the actress looked ridiculous and uncomfortable throughout. Oh, she looked like the character from the comics, but she had none of the confidence to pull it off. Jones isn't the greatest thespian of all time, but few people could make Emma Frost work onscreen without the whole get-up and character turning into some camp nightmare out of a Roger Corman flick or the 1960s "Batman" serial.
Hey, speaking of the Bat-Family...
As previously mentioned, DC has a much stronger reputation with strong female characters, at least on the surface. They have female superheroes well-known to the public that have nothing to do with Christopher Nolan and entirely due to the Warner Bros. licensing machine, which is helped by a publisher actually publishing comic books that feature women in the lead, titular roles. That isn't to say those comics are always good, but that's true for every title, and the dedication to those who have had success is always a plus. But DC is also a company that is constantly fending off well-deserved criticisms for the dearth of women in their talent pool and for boneheaded character designs that originate from editorial, rather than creator, mandate. When they do something right, they usually do it very right. But when they do something poorly, accept no substitutes - DC comics is the Wolverine of epic fails.
Batgirl is equally as cool as Batwoman and, since Kate Kane always gets the love, it would be a disservice not to include her - all of her. Conceptually, the character may be the diminutive, feminized version of Batman, but Barbara Gordon started it all because she wanted to be the man-bat herself, gender be damned. She established that the girl-bat had to be not only athletic and able to keep a secret, but also exceptionally smart. After being horrifically crippled by the Joker, Barbara's super heroics didn't lose a step as she became Oracle, the Bat-Family's net-based eyes and ears. She was idolized by a many members of the disabled community, and had an arguably much more powerful alter ego. Cassandra Cain eventually replaced Barbara, and she was a ninja, a trained assassin like Bruce Wayne, and even more ruthless. Then Stephanie Brown, who was much closer to Batgirl's initial characterization and had one of the best-designed, most realistic super-suits ever. Disappointingly, Cass and Steph have barely made any appearances in the new Barbara-starring comic, or any other DC book since the company-wide reboot. Babs' new incarnation also leaves behind Oracle but she retains her matured development thanks to Gale Simone, one of DC's lone female creative voices. Batgirl's stories might not always live up to their protagonist, but the women who take up the mantle usually are.
Wonder Woman has been around so long that she could very easily fit into the "bad" category. She wore a skirt, knee-high boots, halter-top, and a tiara (she is an Amazonian princess, after all) before donning the blue underpants we immediately recognize. She's had various designs over her many years of fighting crime; some worse than others and every single one was poorly realized by both writers and artists. Much of Princess Diana's faults can be tied directly to no one really knowing what the hell to do with her outside of the Justice League, so it stands to reason that her outfits would be as confused as her stories. That is, until the DC reboot. Since, her comic's focus has gone in a very new direction for the character and her book: mythological horror. Though she still dresses pretty much the same, Wonder Woman now seems to own the bustier-panties look like she never has before. Credit Cliff Chiang, her latest artist, for making the too-traditional super heroine aesthetic work by emphasizing her powerful physique over the easier, and more obvious, sex appeal. Wonder Woman can get away with it because, really, who's going to stop her?
Catwoman is probably the poster girl for "sexy female superheroes, who are supposed to be sexy." That is, an aspect of her characterization is definitely intended to titillate and that's mostly supposed to be Selina Kyle's choice. As the polar opposite of the stoic, strong Batman, the slinky, smooth Catwoman makes sense. She's either in it for the thrill, the chase, or the score, like all the best femme fatales. Due to her popularity, then, it's possible she's the biggest reason most female superheroes are sexy first and heroes second, or third, etc, etc. And while it may make sense for Selina to use her sex appeal in the context of any number of stories, she's at her best when she isn't designed to flaunt curves in body stockings that would not support them but when she's looks like a New Gods damned professional cat burglar. Colloquially known as the "Darwyn Cooke" design, it shows that Catwoman is above all else, a very practical woman. That's how she comes by her sexuality, too, after all. But while the DCnU proved a boon for Wonder Woman and not a nightmare for Batgirl, Catwoman was brought to a new low. The entire first issue was dedicated entirely to getting into her costume just to get out of it again for some Bat-humping by the end. Empowering? Maybe. A sure-fire way to boost sales? Absolutely.
Harley Quinn, while we're on the subject of the DC reboot (and we won't be leaving any time soon), has probably suffered the greatest indignity since September 2011. She's a fairly new addition to the published comics, having arrived aesthetically intact from the much-deservedly-beloved "Batman: The Animated Series." That is, when she first appeared in a DC comic, she wore the jester-like costume for the TV show, bells and make-up and all. Form fitting and appealing cosplay, yes, but as the Joker's clinically insane sidekick and love interest, it worked. However, when it came time to translate the Harley to video games, she began wearing the shortest of short skirts, thigh-high fishnet stockings, and her hair in age-confusing pigtails. Then the comics rebooted and her new, canonical designed mirrored the "edgier" look from the games. Gone was the crazy-but-fun villainess, suddenly replaced by a woman who seems more determined to frighten teenagers' burgeoning sexualities than committing any crimes. If the new Harley gives you a boner, or a lady-boner, it's probably the weirdest.
I'm not going to say much about the characters of Star Sapphire or Starfire because I haven't read nearly enough of their comics to understand them completely on a character level. The most I know is that the former belongs to a Green Lantern Corps-like group with pink power rings and the latter is an alien warrior princess from a planet with less strict social mores, who looked a lot different in childrens' cartoons. Regardless of their origins or their characterizations, though, there is absolutely no reason for either of these women to perform any super heroic act dressed like they're companions from those flyers shady dudes in Vegas are always handing out:
This has nothing to do with being a hero or a role model, being practical, or even shame. Defend these costumes at your own peril, Borat and his friends will never stop laughing at you.
In the end, neither Marvel nor DC should hang their heads too, too low, but they shouldn't raise them too high, either. Progress is bending toward equality, and hopefully the next few decades will see new, young that eschews the tropes of our elders. Creators who don't work for them are already doing this, and when comics are fully democratized on the web, the Big Two will feel the hurt if they don't adapt to all the growing markets. We still have far to travel, but now you know how far we've come.
* There are entire companies whose output I will probably never read, and only read about if Alan Moore or Grant Morrison decides to do a riff on those characters for a future graphic novel. As well, publishers like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Dynamite also distribute material that are the furthest thing from being "superhero comics" and when they do make those, they tend to be commenting on the tropes or using the language of stereotypes to help tell their own, unique stories. There's also the gamut of indie and web comics that I, personally, have only begun to scratch the surface of. This ain't intended to be exhaustive.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He had a helluva time narrowing this down, but the "fuglies" were by far the easiest.