Monday, May 31, 2010


Note: Click on any of the embedded images to see a larger version.

I was reading an online copy of the first Atom comic book, published in 1961 and drawn by the fantastic Gil Kane. I'd read the story before, but something struck me as peculiar this time around.

In the origin story, scientist Ray Palmer is trying to discover how to shrink objects in size and return them to normal. The idea is that you could ship tons of food and other goods much more inexpensively if you could reduce their size for transport first, then grow them back to original size at the destination. Unfortunately, everything he shrinks explodes. Work isn't going so well.

His girlfriend, Jean Loring, is an attorney and Ray remarks that she's so smart, she "breezed through law school in two years." Ray seems to be experiencing a bit of an inferiority complex where Jean's intellect is concerned, but he's determined to "prove himself" as a research scientist and thus be worthy of marrying her.

The interesting catch is, even though Jean is so smart and has, so far, successfully established herself in a legal career, she refuses to marry Ray because she wants to prove herself as an attorney before giving up her legal career and settling down to marry Ray!"

The story was written in 1961 when women were still primarily objects to be rescued in the comic books and in other forms of entertainment. It never occurred to the writers or probably to the prepubescent male readers of the book, that a woman could be married and maintain a successful career.

Before you accuse DC comics of being raw-meat-eating sexists, remember, this is 1961 and the comic book was merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of society at the time (though I don't doubt that individual, real-life women chaffed at that attitude).

Comic books, like films, television, novels, and any other art form or entertainment venue, are mirrors of the attitudes and perspectives of the age in which they are created. That's why a comic book created in 1961 seems so archaic to us now, especially compared to the themes expressed in modern comics.

Just jump ahead to 1971 and the now famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow tale: Snowbirds Don't Fly. Green Arrow's (Oliver Queen's) former sidekick Speedy is discovered to be a heroin addict. Drug abuse and addiction had almost never been explored in comic books before (Spider-Man explored pill addiction a few months earlier and lost their Comics Code Authority Seal for those issues as a result), since it was deemed inappropriate for children.

Yet the stage was set for comic books to be more than entertainment and, read now more commonly by high school and college age audiences, was a platform for education. Of course, comic books had always educated the people who read them, relative to the societal norms of the time, hence Jean's reluctance to get married, since, in 1961, it automatically meant she'd have to give up her career, regardless of her intelligence and success.

Since that time, many other social issues have made their way into the comic books. Northstar of Alpha Flight (showcased in the X-Men) became the world's first openly gay comic book character. I found an example of comic characters who are HIV positive at It seems that, in the early 21st century, there are few, if any topics that comic book's won't address as "obscene" or "inappropriate" for readers.

Once the barrier was broken, the flood waters rushed in. While nudity and "sexual situations" are still (barely) avoided in mainstream comics, comic books are at least approximating the events we can read about in the mainstream media (including the blogosphere). Comics are reflections of our times and right now, our norms include a fairly free flow of information, even to younger audiences (and what would a reader of Wonder Woman in the 1960s think of her now?).

Before leaving this topic, I wanted to present the modern world's most famous example of a successful career woman married to a superhero. I'm sure you all know who I'm talking about. With no powers of her own, she still manages to be an equal in just about every way to her husband Clark, and his cape wearing alter ego.


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