By Eilis Flynn
Why is building a super-heroine so different from building a super-hero?
Before I answer that, when you’re about to start writing a new story, how do you create a hero and heroine? Do you start with your hero, or do you start with your heroine? Depends on any number of factors, doesn’t it? Depends on the story you want to tell, right? Same thing with super-heroines and super-heroes.
First of all, you have to understand that they’re not the same. One isn’t better than the other; one isn’t more important than the other; one isn’t preferable to the other. Heroes and heroines are just different. And that is the case with super-heroes and super-heroines.
How are super-heroines created? To get some idea, let’s look at some Qs and their As about some super-heroines in pop culture!
Q: Who was the first super-heroine of the 20th century? (See, I have to be specific about the century, but I’ll get into that later.)
A. Wonder Woman
B. Miss Fury
C. Edith Cavell
The answer is (B). Believe it or not, it wasn’t Wonder Woman. Journalist Tarpe Mills came out with Miss Fury almost a year before psychiatrist Charles Moulton Marston, the developer of the X-ray machine, introduced Wonder Woman. And Mills came out with her character on her own, as opposed to Marston, who spearheaded a committee to come up with Wondie. Wonder Woman is notable because she battled evil through the 1940s and the 1950s and went on from there, never really going away to this day, while Miss Fury fought crime in one incarnation or another before she went off into the sunset in 1953. (Wonder Woman, of course, continues to live, no matter how many versions of male creators try to kill her off.)
Edith Cavell was a real-life hero of World War I, a nurse who worked on the front. Amazing woman! But not our topic today.
Of course, Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, also introduced a woman warrior in a short story. It wasn’t a very big intro in 1934, and only diehard fans remembered her, but decades later, in 1973, Marvel Comics came up with Red Sonja, based on Howard’s character. There were big differences between Howard’s Sonya and Marvel Comics’ Red Sonja. Howard’s feisty character, who showed up in just one short story, was based in modern times, while Marvel’s Sonja was a contemporary of Conan the Barbarian and also held her own in a fight. Also interesting, but also not our topic today.
Q: Who’s the comic chick who went from girl to woman to girl?
A: Wonder Woman
D: Disco Dazzler
Sorry for the broad hint! Ahem. The answer, of course, is (B). Before super-heroines were big—and super-heroes had barely come on the scene themselves—there was Shiera Sanders, introduced in 1940, just a while after Superman and Batman. But she wasn’t super yet; she was super-hero Hawkman’s girlfriend. By 1941 she had gained super-powers and she fought alongside Hawkman as Hawkgirl. She faded after World War II, but a new version was introduced in 1963, by then Hawkman’s wife—but she was still Hawkgirl. Twenty years later, Hawkgirl became Hawkwoman, but she wasn’t any stronger and she was still very much a sidekick. Another twenty years later, she was Hawkgirl again—but there wasn’t a Hawkman in sight. She was also more likely than not to relax by starting a brawl than taking a bubble bath. (Her secret identity moniker went between Shiera and Shayera, but again, not the point.) The latest version of Hawkgirl will be part of the TV series Legends of Tomorrow, debuting in 2016. She’s as persistent as Wonder Woman herself!
Wonder Woman, of course, was always Wonder Woman (A). There were Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot too, but they were different characters.
Supergirl was always Supergirl (C). There has been a “Superwoman” from time to time, but only for a single story line, and never for long. And of course, she’s got a TV series of her own, starting in a few months on CBS!
Disco Dazzler (D)…oh, that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother workshop!
Q: For those of you who’ve seen the Marvelverse movies, what about the character that Scarlett Johansson portrays? Codenamed Black Widow, Natasha Romanova (1964) was:
A: A Russian spy
B: A ballerina
C: An actual widow
D: All of the above, depending on whom you ask
Natasha has been a complex and many-lived character (D). That black catsuit she often sports? Not original to her. That costume she’s become best known for only began to be her usual outfit in 1970. No, Emma Peel (1965) of the British TV adventure series The Avengers(!) wore the sleek black catsuit before the Black Widow. Natasha started off as a Russian spy who later defected, becoming at one point a freelance agent of the government agency SHIELD. At one point she was implanted with false memories of having been a ballerina; at another point it was revealed she was married, but her husband faked his death before he ultimately died; and she dated Daredevil, Hawkeye, and others. Busy, but when you’re one of a relatively small pool of super-heroines in a mostly male genre, you probably have your pick.
Q: Why was 1976 a notable year for heroines of all stripes?
A: Miss Piggy was introduced
B: The original Charlie’s Angels debuted
C: Phoenix of the X-Men was revealed
D: Apple Computer was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
Kidding! A, B, C, and D all happened. (For those of you who are curious, Jean Grey of the X-Men was first known as Marvel Girl, then became known as Phoenix or Dark Phoenix in the “new” X-Men depending on whether she was threatening to destroy all of humanity, but mostly as Jean Grey. Also popping up in the Marvelverse are Miss Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Captain Marvel, all female. There was a male Captain Marvel, but he was killed off. Also not to be confused with DC Comics’ Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel—male—both of whom must be the topic of yet another workshop, and that Captain Marvel was recently renamed Shazam. So if you’re a longtime Marvel Comics fan, their favorite phrase “Make Mine Marvel” has many layers.)
Q: Why do we remember Supergirl (1959) and Batgirl (1967)?
A: One is Superman’s cousin and the other is not related to Batman at all
B: From their movies. Oops, sorry, Batgirl never had her own movie, and the Supergirl movie is not spoken of in polite company. Alicia Silverstone as “Batgirl” in the Clooney version of Batman isn’t spoken of, either
C: No idea
D: The possibilities are endless!
It’s (D)! Remember when I mentioned that “Superwoman” as a character has popped up from time to time, but never for long? Supergirl has been the cousin since her introduction in the late 1950s, and she’s stayed that way. (She does have a doppelganger of sorts in the form of Power Girl, the slightly older and definitely more zaftig clone/parallel dimension version, who has gone through a number of different changes.) The same isn’t true for Batgirl. Since the version you’re probably most familiar with is Barbara Gordon (Commissioner Gordon’s daughter or niece, depending on the writer), it may come as a surprise to you that before a series of recent company-wide resets of the DC universe, Barbara fought crime as wheelchair-bound Oracle, leaving the titles of “Batgirl” and “Batwoman” to others. For the moment, anyway.
Q: Not precisely a super-heroine, but she’s pretty darn super nonetheless: How many incarnations has the declared dead ex-junkie turned deadly assassin Nikita had since she was first introduced in 1990?
Oh, this one’s a gimme (D). La Femme Nikita was the original French film, which came out in 1990 (with Annie Parillaud); Americans were so intrigued by it that they came up with their own version under the title Point of No Return in 1993 (with Bridget Fonda as the lead character, renamed Nina); TV got interested in the character and came up with Peta Wilson (1997–2001); and the latest one on TV just ended with Maggie Q as Nikita (2010–13). It’s had four incarnations in 20 years. Why is this character so popular? We’ll discuss it in my workshop coming up next month for the Carolina Romance Writers, “Building a Super-Heroine”!
Over the years, Eilis Flynn has written fiction in the form of comic book stories, romantic fantasies, urban fantasies, a young adult, a graphic novella, and self-published historical fantasies and short stories (most published under the name of Eilis Flynn). Check out eilisflynn.com if you’re curious about them. As Elizabeth Flynn, she’s also a professional editor and has been for more than 35 years, working with academia, technology, finance, romance fiction, and comic books. She can be reached at emsflynn.com. Most days, she hangs out at Facebook at eilis.flynn. Hope to see you there!