alan moore’s invisible girls and phantom ladies (1983)

During the afternoons I teach a small group of highly susceptible kids. They are easily influenced because of their age, which is around 9-12 years. Besides Thursdays and Fridays I have a group of only boys. I have my hands full, but a lot about the male specie becomes clear to me as I watch these boys.  They are forever ranting about Comic Books. Of course I share this passion, so we often discuss certain comic book characters etc. I always tell the boys that violence is bad (I mean, when I give a piece of clay to a girl, she will start kneading it and start problem solving about how she would produce a beautiful item. When I give a ball of clay to a boy, chances are he would threaten to throw another boy with it,or, like one boy actually did, start throwing it to the floor as hard as he can to see if he can flatten it in that manner.) One boy said he is going to draw `Thor´ for me, so I asked if there are no female characters he can draw for me and he replied sure, he´ll draw ´Invisible woman`. I am trying to find ways to teach these boys to become real men. And I´m not so sure the comic books are helping. I really love the work of Alan Moore, and recently came across his Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies.

In his essay ‘And all right, we need a woman’: victimized heroines and heroic victims in Alan Moore’s quasi-Victorian graphic novels`,  Maciej Sulmicki writes:

“Moore has long ago declared an interest in the image of women in comics books and recently confirmed that he has always felt ‘that [women’s problems] was an area that needed to be addressed’. 25 years ago, in a three-installment essay in The Daredevils he wrote of ‘Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies’, i.e. sexism in comics. Although the text is written in a jocular tone, the main message is quite serious: that comics are rather fueling sexism and gender inequality than combating them. Women in mainstream comics are said to serve primarily as decoration, especially in visual terms, this being the case even when the female characters have something important to say. Such an approach to the visual presentation of females is a continuation of a long-standing tradition, visible as early as in comic strips from the first half of the twentieth century. Moore claims, however, that graphic depiction is not as important as the type of character as which the woman is presented. Both ‘helpless quivering victims’ and pale copies of female superheroes, as well as examples of rough ‘Marvel-style’ feminism serve to fuel stereotypes. In the case of the first two, scantily-clad and often captured and tied up heroines are accused of fueling ‘sordid adult fantasies’ and ideas such as women enjoying being raped. In the final installment of the essay Moore opines that the masculine world of comics is unlikely to significantly change its approach in favor of equal rights unless it is motivated from the outside – by the readers.”

Moore´s Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies: Originally published in The Daredevils #4 – #6 (Marvel UK, April – June 1983)


Okay. Seeing as this is such a sticky subject suppose I’d better lay my cards on the table straight away.

I’m a wimpy, indecisive, burned-out woolly-minded liberal old hippy who eats quiche, saves whales, is friendly to the Earth and subscribes to Spare Rib, The Black One-Parent Gay Catholic Gazette, and Animal Welfare Against Nuking the Nazis Quarterly and if anybody wants to make anything of it, then I’ll quite cheerfully butt them in the face until their nose is flat enough to rollerskate on.

The reason I’m prepared to make such a candid confession is because I’m pretty sure that after reading the article in hand most of you will be saying pretty much the same things about me anyway and I thought it’d look better if I got in first. And the reason I’m donning my Sou’Wester in preparation for a torrent of abuse is because this feature concerns women, and women don’t seem to be a very popular topic nowadays. There are a couple of possible reasons for this sad state of affairs.

The first is that a small but vocal percentage of feminists are quite obviously as mad as snakes and have hopelessly damaged personalities. They pounce with demented glee upon increasingly trivial and unimportant examples of ‘sexism’, they make outrageously twisted and generalised statements to the Press along the lines of “All men are rapists“, and in general make themselves very difficult to like.

The problem arises when these foaming maniacs are presented in the media as being a representative cross section of the women’s movement, thus reinforcing the image of feminism that most men are only too eager to accept as the truth: an army of crop-haired Amazon gargoyles who chainsmoke untipped Woodbines, shift cement blocks for a living and have a physique somewhere between that of Popeye and a Commer van.

The other reason is that men, over the last few thousand years, have come to enjoy the perks and privileges that are part and parcel of being born into the male gender and are very reluctant to give them up. Men in general are a pretty insecure bunch and when they start to feel threatened by something they tend to respond by hurling forth salvoes of scorn and contempt, or, failing that, they refuse to take the issue seriously at all.

Even generally broadminded people who believe that the abolition of slavery in America was by and large a good thing seem to get very defensive and hysterical when it’s their Sunday Lunch that’s being threatened by the Women’s Movement. My guess is that if these gentlemen had been Southern Plantation owners they’d have felt the same reluctance in forgoing the pleasures of their Negro house-boy bringing them a Mint Julep on the veranda.

All right. So that’s the basic situation, and it’s one that is obscured by a lot of bluster, silliness and ratbrainery on both sides. But once you’ve swept away all the damned lies and statistics, it becomes plain that there really is a serious problem under there somewhere. Women in general are not really getting a fair suck of the sauce-stick, and it’s not just in obvious areas like equal pay for equal work and who brings up baby.

These areas are obviously important, but they’re all symptoms that spring from a central illness, an illness that affects the way it which we see women and the way we treat them in our largely male-oriented society.

The media presents us with a number of different stereotypes to choose from when forming our ideas of womanhood. There’s a wide variety of different designs, and they’re all about as palatable as a lobster with skin cancer.

There’s the sort of top-heavy pneumatic giggling brain-wipe that Barbara Windsor has made a career out of portraying. There are the masochistic, grovelling sluts that populate the lyrics of heavy metal numbers and aftershave commercials. There are the acid-tongued drudges and tarts-with-a-heart-of-gold served up every week in Coronation Street. There are the helpless, quivering victims that populate films like He Knows You’re Alone and Dressed to Kill – creatures that have no other reason for existing other than to be thrown face-first into buzzsaws by transvestite dwarf psychopaths.

I mean, imagine opening The Sun every day and finding page three adorned with a photo of a pouting specimen of masculinity clad only in his Y-fronts. Imagine naked men sprawling sensuously on the bonnets of new model cars at the motor show. Imagine having to listen to some sweaty and repugnant female version of Bernard Manning telling an endless string of Father-in-Law jokes. Sure, it’s funny once. Maybe it would be funny twice. But three times? Four times? Five thousand times? Can you imagine having to live with something as insulting as that every day of your life? No wonder so many feminists are cranky.

And comics are, in their way, every bit as guilty as other media in presenting a distorted vision of women to their readers. Maybe more guilty in some respects. After all, comics tend to be aimed predominantly at a young audience, an audience that may very well be going through an impressionable stage of their lives and desperately trying to make sense of the world in which they find themselves.

Very often, since younger school-kids tend to associate only with people of their own gender, they may be well into their teens before they actually get to know and talk to any real women. And by that time the damage has been done.

When I was about seven and first started reading the Superman/DC family of comics, I had no reason to believe that they didn’t reflect true life. Okay, so I just about had it figured out that people who tried leaping over tall buildings in single bounds were likely to do a little more than rupture themselves. I mean, I wasn’t a complete idiot. But super-heroics aside, I imagined that the way human beings behaved in these strips was probably pretty accurate. And this led me to form a number of interesting, albeit thoroughly deluded conclusions.

Firstly, only men could be heroes. Superman, Batman, Green Arrow … these were characters that one could admire. The women characters, when they emerged, were very pale and limp carbon copies of their male counterparts… Supergirl, Batwoman, Batgirl, the ludicrous and obscure Miss Arrowette… none of them were in any danger of upstaging the masculine Super-types whose books they infrequently appeared in. You get the impression that as much as anything they were there purely for comic relief.

Miss Arrowette would reduce gangs of criminals to spluttering, coughing helplessness by engulfing them in clouds of talc from her ‘Powder-Puff Arrow’. Batgirl would dazzle villains by reflecting the sun’s rays from the mirror contained in her Bat-Compact. Supergirl, a being of strength approximate to that of Superman himself and thus able to push planets out of orbit without working up a sweat, would spend her time either frolicking with Supercat or Superhorse, or maybe falling in love with the young men from the bottle city of Kandor who would always turn out to be villains who wanted to use her in order to revenge themselves of Superman.

Somehow she never realised this until it was too late no matter how many times it happened. Not even when all of her Kandorian boyfriends had names like E-Vill and Nars-Tee and the like.

Secondly, women who weren’t endowed with special powers of abilities were uniformly spiteful, nosey, treacherous, vain and dippy … and that was just the nice ones.

Take Lois Lane as a case in point. Here we have a woman who has an unusually responsible job for a member of her sex. She is a newspaper reporter, and had been so since the days when women newspaper reporters were very few and far between. Not only that, she is a star reporter whose byline is known and respected throughout Metropolis, if not the free world in its entirety.

Now, if you think about a character like that realistically, you’d imagine that for a woman to have come so far she’d have to be capable, determined, tough and extremely resilient, wouldn’t you? As opposed to being dopey, vain, gossipy, lovesick and accident prone? Sure you would. But the people at DC at the time obviously felt otherwise.

Lois Lane was portrayed as a sort of shallow, brainless Superhero-Groupie who would go to any humiliating lengths to gain Superman’s attentions. She was unlucky to the point of being near-suicidal, always managing to fall off window ledges or out of aeroplanes or getting captured by Luthor.

She would pry constantly into the Secret of Superman’s true identity, more than once in the hope of blackmailing the man of steel by threatening to reveal his identity if he didn’t agree to marry her. She would indulge in vicious and degrading catfights with her equally unlikeable rival, Lana Lang, over which of them had ownership of the kute and kuddly Kryptonian.

She was, in short, a royal pain in the bum, and I used to cheer along with all the other little misogynists when at the end of each story Superman would outwit her by means of his superpowers and basic male superiority, usually managing to publicly humiliate her in the process.

As you see, the general impressions that I formed of women as a species were far from salutary. The only exception to this general rule was that of Wonder Woman, although I didn’t really have a lot of time for her either to be honest.

Wonder Woman was at least unique in that she was a character in her own right and not just someone wearing a male superheroes old costume that had been let out a little at the chest. That said, however, you’ll notice that Wonder Woman didn’t merit the spin-offs afforded to her masculine counterparts.

There was no ‘Wonder Boy’ turning up complete with tiara, bracelets and lasso to aid her in her fight against crime. There was no pesky male reporter throwing himself off the Empire State Building in the hope that she’d swoop down in her invisible robot plane and rescue him.

Furthermore, even though she was allowed to join the Justice League of America her principal function was to sit quietly in the background at their meetings and take down the minutes as if she’d just arrived from the Temp Bureau. Clearly, she was a second-class super citizen from the word go. Perhaps that’s why she used to spend so much time hanging around with her chums, the Holliday Girls, and getting tied up by arch-foe Paula Von Gunter. Who could blame her in the circumstances.

Anyway, so far I’ve done little more than present a brief outline of the problem and I’m already well over my word-limit for this piece. Next issue I want to look at the issue a bit more specifically and look at women in comics from Keyhole Kate to Elektra. I also want to study the curious trend in preadolescent pornography known in the trade as ‘Good Girl Art’ and ask the question “Is Dark Phoenix really just Minnie the Minx without her catapult?” Till then, keep those cards and letters pouring in.

Read the whole text here

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