Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: 'The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen'

What do you have to do to be worthy of the title “superhero”? Must you be capable of flying around in your underwear or blasting cobwebs out of your wrists? Do you need the wealth and training to thwart evildoers with your creepy cowl, pricey toys, and great, big muscles? Or maybe a woman who simply manages to run the everyday patriarchal gauntlet and come out the other end with her humor, wits, self-respect, and strength intact is a sort of superhero too.

I’d guess that Hope Nicholson would answer “yes” to that last one, because her new book The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is not solely populated with the Amazonian princesses and cousins from Krypton you’d expect it to be. In Nicholson’s estimation, females devoid of super powers such as Maggie Chascarillo of Love & Rockets and Little Lulu deserve a spot in a volume with a title like that. So do women as grisly as E.C.’s Old Witch or as provocatively proportioned as Vampirella, as outrageous as the blaxploitation exaggeration Superbitch or the heightened feminist Bitchy Bitch, or as flesh-and-blood human as Frieda Phelps. If there’s a takeaway from The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, it’s that if a major female character managed to penetrate the penis-centric world of comics, then she’s pretty super, and you can’t really argue with that.

Nevertheless, Nicholson makes her selections in this character compendium carefully. Don’t expect every iconic female comics character to be represented. There’s no She Hulk no Brenda Starr no Catwoman or Red Sonja. Nicholson seems more intent on moving beyond the obvious, with a particular eye for underground comics. She still knows that she couldn’t get away with sidelining such major players as Bat Girl, Super Girl, and Wonder Woman, but I really love the fact that the author not only admits to not being a Wonder Woman expert but also admits to only having “read maybe five of her comics.” You usually don’t see honesty like that in the kind of book that tends to be intent on dazzling readers with obscure knowledge.

If there’s a controlling theme its that Nicholson seems to respect each of the characters she chooses on some level. If she chooses a T&A title character like Pussycat, it’s because Pussycat is not just a curvy figure but also a genuinely effective secret agent. Nicholson doesn’t give the creators behind these characters a pass because they managed to craft a fairly well-developed female character either. She acknowledges when they are exploitative, and in the case of Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty, which happens to contain a worthy female character in Martha Washington, homophobic.

Yet Nicholson is generally more into celebrating than finger wagging, and there is a true spirit of love at work here. Her affection for these characters is heartfelt and palpable. Her pro-Wendy the Good Little Witch testimonial is particularly touching. Nicholson is very funny too, and reading her cases for and critiques of these characters is like listening to a good buddy tell you what makes her geek out over cocktails. Next drink’s on me, Hope. 
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