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I wanted to love The Supergirls (Exterminating Angel Press, 2009). And I certainly feel like Mike Madrid has his heart in all the right places. I also want to give this book to any budding female fan of superheroines that needs some perspective.
But for me, it was just sort of a miss. I think I may have been expecting different things from it.
This isn’t really a history of the superheroine, although there’s a lot of history here. It’s more of a collection of essays chronicling the ups and downs of female characters in mainstream comics. Madrid sticks to Marvel and DC for the most part, and while he discusses girlfriends like Lois Lane, it deals mainly with the female characters with super powers (as the title would suggest). That’s a huge topic in and of itself, and while I didn’t really expect this to cover the portrayal of women in all comics everywhere, all the time, the subject does get repetitive.
While it is arranged in, more or less, chronological order, the chapters do sometimes overlap each other. Supergirl and Wonder Woman have chapters focused exclusively on them, but they also tend to pop up all over the place. This is understandable to a certain extent since they are two of the most significant female characters in comics, but it begins to feel repetitive.
I also think the book could be organized a little bit better. Some chapters focus on characters, others on time periods. I guess I wish it had focused on one or the other. I think as separate essays, each chapter works, but taken all together, I just felt like I got the point.
Having said that, though, it’s a light and intelligent book and Madrid isn’t afraid to pull some punches. I sometimes think he’s a little harsh about some things, like his discussion of celebrity debutantes like Paris Hilton (it’s relevant, really) but I think a lot of these issues are issues that need to be brought up with some aggressiveness.
I particularly loved his section on Betsy Braddock — who started out as a frilly girly-girl who was transformed into a scantily-clad ninja. I think in this part alone, Madrid most clearly illustrates the problem with the way superheroines are portrayed — they’re either harmless and sexless or overly sexy. Neither comes across as particularly powerful for women.
Still, I didn’t get as much out of the book in total as I got from that part. But yes, I’ve read plenty of books about comics and women in them (I do, after all, love Trina Robbins, as we all should). For someone new to comics, this book probably has more value.
So yes, I know that’s a pretty ambivalent recommendation of The Supergirls, but it’s still a recommendation. It’s a worthy read, sure, but don’t expect too much.