12 Horrible Superhero Comic Stories for Women

Given recent topics of discussion, KC and I started talking over some of our “favorite” bad superhero stories when it comes to the treatment of female characters. These are the stories where, months or years later, you find yourself wondering “who thought THAT was a good idea?” or “did the writer just get dumped by his girlfriend?” This is just an approximate ranking, and I welcome discussion/debate in the comments. Especially if we’ve forgotten some real doozies.

12. The blase’ death of Triplicate Girl. In one of Braniac 5’s stupider moves, he creates Computo, a controlling robot computer. While battling it in Adventure Comics #340 (1966), in a story written by Jerry Siegel, Triplicate Girl (with the power to split herself into three) is thought to have been killed.

Computo kills Triplicate Girl

Computo kills Triplicate Girl

But never fear, only one of her three bodies died! It’s ok, no worries, she’ll just change her name and everything’s fine, tra la. Look how happy she is. Ah, the comic 60s, when no one felt anything bad.

Duo Damsel debuts

Duo Damsel debuts

Action Comics #252

Supergirl debuts in Action Comics #252

11. Supergirl as Superman’s secret. Imagine this: you are the only survivor of a remote, advanced civilization. You think you’re the only person like you left in the galaxy. Surprise! A girl cousin shows up. You’re no longer alone, so how do you treat her? You dump her in an orphanage and tell her to hide from the world because she’s going to be your “secret weapon” until she can prove her abilities. Three years later, in Action Comics #285 (1962), she’s finally allowed to be known to exist.

10. Superboy becomes a man — with the help of a girl brainwashed by robot. In DC Super-Stars #12 (1976, written by Cary Bates) appears “Don’t Call Me Superboy“, one of several stories intended to show why and when Superboy decided to become Superman. This one is decidedly the creepiest, though, as a Kryptonian Robot Teacher returns to test his manhood. One of the methods involves dating Misty, the most popular girl in school. She’s also super-smart, and she figures out Clark Kent’s secret identity. The two are talking, then kissing, in her otherwise-empty house… then cut to the next morning, where Ma Kent is talking about how Clark’s bed is still made, indicating he never came home. The implications are clear, and that’s understandable enough for teens in love.

Superboy in love ... and not coming home

Superboy in love ... and not coming home

It only turns nasty later, when the Teacher reveals that Misty was selected and brainwashed to be Superboy’s perfect girl. She’s had no free will the entire time, making Superboy a date rapist, since he made out with someone incapable of consenting. She’s returned to her life with her memory erased, her role as a lesson prop done.

9. Was Black Canary raped? When Mike Grell ushered Green Arrow into the modern grim’n’gritty age with The Longbow Hunters, part of the story involved the hero rescuing his girlfriend Black Canary, who had been captured and tortured at knife point. The writer reportedly said she wasn’t raped, but since one of the side effects was her inability to have children, readers will be forgiven for understandably being confused at just what Grell was implying. A classic example of torturing the girlfriend to motivate the hero.

Green Arrow rescues Dinah in the Longbow Hunters

Green Arrow rescues Dinah in the Longbow Hunters

Avengers Childrens Crusade #1

8. The Scarlet Witch destroys the world in revenge for her children disappearing. This example should probably be higher, actually, but with all its details, it’s frequently too confusing to figure out how bad it really is. Apparently, while married to the robot Vision, she magically created two sons for them, but Thomas and William were later erased from existence. She freaks out and starts killing her Avenger teammates out of grief, and when the X-Men try to kill her in return, she first makes mutants rule the world in the House of M event, and then casts the “No more mutants” spell that depowers 90% of them. In between, she goes catatonic every so often, when various characters (such as Wolverine) aren’t sneaking off to find and sleep with her. The current Avengers: Children’s Crusade miniseries is now picking the same scab, with two characters who might be her kids after all out to rescue her from marrying Dr. Doom.

The last appearance of Equinox

The last appearance of Equinox

7. Don’t be a Batgirl. Either you’ll be shot and paralyzed as a plot device (Barbara Gordon, The Killing Joke) to annoy your adopted father, or you’ll be denied a voice, raised mute and illiterate to be a better assassin (Cassandra Cain, No Man’s Land), or you’ll be treated as a joke and a beard for Robin so no one will think he and Batman are gay partners (Bette Kane, Bat-Girl, 1961), or you’ll wind up a teen mother tortured to death (but not really) as a lesson to others (Stephanie Brown, aka the Spoiler). Then a clueless editor will insist girls aren’t as worthy of being memorialized as boys are.

6. Power Girl‘s magic baby. During Zero Hour, she had an “immaculate conception” that turned out to be mystically created by her grandfather Arion (ick!), resulting in a rapid-aging magic baby who never even got a name, until he later temporarily returned as Equinox, only to vanish in Justice League America #108 (1996). Everyone, fans and creators, have unspokenly agreed to never think about it again — it’s that pointless and unnecessary a plot twist.

Five-Star Super-Hero Spectacular

Contains "How to Prevent a Flash"

5. The lesson of Ms. Flash. In this one-shot story from the 1977 Five-Star Super-Hero Spectacular (again written by Cary Bates), we meet Patty Spivot, Barry Allen’s lab assistant. She gets powers the same way he did, by standing in front of a shelf of chemicals struck by lightning, but deadly side effects made her a destructive force. By the end of the story, we’ve learned that this was all Barry’s imagination, and he pushes her out of the way to prevent her gaining super-speed. Even as a kid, I got the message that girls couldn’t be trusted with guy powers (since Barry’s accident had already been repeated to create Kid Flash), because they’d just screw them up.

Arisia Rrab

Arisia Rrab's bad taste

4. Green Lantern Arisia Rrab. When told she’s too young to date Hal Jordan, she subconsciously uses her ring powers to age herself into a hottie with really bad taste in costume (Green Lantern Corps #201, 1986). After some protest, Hal then shrugs and begins romancing her, regardless of the fact that she’s still mentally a teenager. She’s also being mind-controlled as a weapon to destroy him. She later winds up depowered, regressed to her mental age, amnesiac, and killed by Major Force, but not before Geoff Johns retcons her planet’s orbit as a way of making her old enough that Hal’s not committing underage date rape (Green Lantern #13, 2006).

3. Where to start with Identity Crisis (2004)? With the evil, jealous ex-wife who turns out to have taken a flamethrower into someone’s head and left footprints on her brain? How about the murder victim, Sue Dibny, one of the few active partner wives in the Justice League, tossed away as a plot device? Or the rape by Dr. Light inserted into her background just to make things seem more “adult” (and whose consequences were ignored)? (I’m still astounded we didn’t have parents’ groups up in arms over a rape story featuring the Super Friends of the Justice League, especially the way it was shown in the comics. Just another sign that no one reads the funny books any more, I guess.)

Sue Dibny and Dr. Light

Sue Dibny raped by Dr. Light

Then there’s the way Zatanna is ordered to mind-wipe bad guys whenever it’s convenient. I think, though, the worst part is the motive for all this: The Atom’s ex-wife Jean Loring just wants him back, and she thought this insane plan (courtesy of writer Brad Meltzer) would do it. It’s basically just an example of “bitch crazy” plotting, where no other explanation is needed. Those jealous women, amiright?

Avengers #200 cover

Avengers #200

2. The rape of Ms. Marvel. In The Avengers #200 (1980), Ms. Marvel is, as Wikipedia has it, “kidnapped by a character named Marcus — the apparent son of Avengers foe Immortus — and taken to an alternate dimension, where she was brainwashed, seduced, and impregnated. The character gives birth on Earth to a child that rapidly ages into another version of Marcus, who takes Ms. Marvel back to the alternate dimension with no opposition from the Avengers.” With four credited writers/plotters — Jim Shooter, George Pérez, Bob Layton, and David Michelinie, it’s hard to know who to blame for this mess, or to understand why at least one of the four didn’t realize that impregnating a woman against her wishes is called rape. The next year, the storyline was revisited in Avengers Annual #10, in which Ms. Marvel tells off her comrades for letting her go when she was obviously mind-controlled. That followup is also the first appearance of Rogue.

Lois Lane #42 cover

Sample Lois Lane frustration cover

1. The character of “Superman’s Girl Friend” Lois Lane throughout the 50s and 60s. Although we’re told that Superman loves her, this love is exercised by Superman getting his super-friends to mislead, trick, and lie to her to “teach her a lesson”. Featuring the worst kind of paternalism and woman-hating, these stories were about showing Lois how she should stay in her place and not try to find out anything Superman doesn’t want her to know, like his obvious secret identity. Even better are the lettercolumns, in which every so often the editor would run missives in which fans say they want to see Superman spank Lois. I’m not sure if that was a fetish among burgeoning teen boys or some kind of revenge fantasy among those who’d had a hairbrush taken to their hindquarters, but it’s odd, either way.

Spanking letter column

Click for more examples


25 Responses to “12 Horrible Superhero Comic Stories for Women”

  1. Anthony Says:

    “Lois Lane” topped all of those other choices? For all its flaws, at least Lois wasn’t subject to something more appropriate for some HBO-only drama/”Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” like most of this list…

    And yes, I figure superhero comics sales must’ve fallen so low that none of this has roused the ire of any parents’ groups. Could only imagine the negative publicity for DC and Marvel if the general public was aware of how their kids’ favorite animated TV characters were being written in the comics. (“They did *what* to Batgirl?!”)

    Then again, I guess this might be one reason *why* they keep getting away with writing stuff like “Identity Crisis,” if nobody in the general (non-comic-reading) public is aware of this…

  2. John G Says:

    Wow, only one Marvel story?!

  3. William George Says:

    … I guess this might be one reason *why* they keep getting away with writing stuff…

    It’s 100% because superhero comics fanboys keep buying it in huge numbers and those same fanboys get jobs writing the material later on.

    You want better comics involving women? Make them, and to he’ll with the superhero companies.

  4. William George Says:

    To hell. Not, to he’ll. To hell with auto correct as well.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Two, John, Ms. Marvel and the Scarlet Witch. I’m more familiar with DC, though, so it’s possible I’ve missed some. I thought about including the way Peter and Mary Jane’s baby was simply disappeared, but that’s not horrible, just sad. Maybe the retcon of Gwen having Norman’s kids might qualify, but that’s horrible mostly because of that nightmare image of the Green Goblin’s face during the moment.

    Anthony, I put Lois at the top because of the length and derision of that portrayal. Regarding public knowledge, I think the stories being so convoluted and ridiculous to try to explain also helps protect them. By the time you figure out what’s going on, you’re invested. It’s too complicated to make a good soundbite.

  6. kris larsen Says:

    Just take a look at the 1953 theatrical release poster of “Kiss Me Kate” – with Howard Keel doing the spanking. There must have been something in the water at the time.

  7. hapax Says:

    How could you leave off Green Lantern #54, and the senseless murder of
    Alex, that gave the name to the whole “women In Refrigerators” trope?

  8. Comics A.M. | Michael George to stand trial again; cartoonists remember 9/11 | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Comics | Johanna Draper Carlson and K.C. Carlson assemble “12 Horrible Superhero Stories for Women,” from the debut of Supergirl in Action Comics #252 to the rape of Sue Dibney in Identity Crisis. [Comics Worth Reading] [...]

  9. Matt Kuhns Says:

    “Have Superman… give her a good hard spanking.” Yikes.

    What’s really depressing is that this reminds me of the period in the late 1980s when the Fantastic Four printed an apparent stream of misogynistic letters along the lines of “The Invisible Woman is useless I hate her please make her die.” I still scratch my head as to where, exactly, that came from.

    Alas, though, it probably just wasn’t (and still isn’t) that much of an anomaly.

  10. Anthony Says:

    Your whole article loses credit with your blatantly homophobic comments about Batman & Robin. I fail to understand what kind of point you’re trying to make about one marginalized group by bashing another. Who thought THAT was a good idea?

  11. Anthony D. Says:

    Note: the above comment wasn’t by me, if anyone’s wondering.

    Johanna wasn’t being homophobic, just remarking on part of the reason the original 50s Bat-Girl was created (the writers of the era not wanting to make it seem that Bruce and Dick didn’t have any interest in women), besides giving Batwoman her own Robin-like sidekick …

  12. Suzene Says:

    The recent inclusion of childhood sexual abuse/rape as part of Aurora’s backstory in the new Alpha Flight series prompted me to stop reading, despite being a big AF fan. Adding sexual abuse to the backstory of yet another female character for the sake of angst was bad enough, but adding it to this character, who’d already been physically and mentally abused to the point that she suffered a mental break before she was even fourteen, just skeeved me out past the point of wanting to read any more — apparently they had to for the trifecta to make it reallllly tragic. This was the same guy who did the “Spider-Rape” story with Peter’s roommate and the Chameleon a few years bakck, so I didn’t have a lot of hope that this was going to be handled well.

  13. Suzene Says:

    Also, #7. Dang…I’ve complained individually about how the female half of the Batclan tend to be treated, but seeing them all there in one entry does highlight that it’s darn near a theme.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Hapax, the story itself wasn’t that bad, considering. Yes, it’s another example of killing the woman to motivate the guy, but if I was to pick another case of that, it would be John Stewart and Katma Tui (because it meant losing a nifty Green Lantern). Alex’s death has become more than it was in the retelling.

    Matt, interesting. I’ve been told that letter column assemblers knew to run what they wanted to see more of, so now I’m wondering if an editor wanted some justification for dumping the character or something.

    Anthony D., thanks. I was wondering how someone got THAT out of noting the atmosphere at that time.

    Suzene, yuck, that’s another horrible example. Along similar lines, I almost included the sacrificial death of Nomad (Rikki Barnes) in the recent Onslaught Unleashed. I knew they needed to clear the decks for the Captain America movie, but I’ll miss the character.

  15. Arcturas Says:

    …..its a shame that comics now have to resort to the lowest common denominator to tell a story. Rape is not funny, its not interesting, and its not character development. Its not necessary in any story to show it in a graphic manner, as the implication is enough. In the real world, such damage is eternal to the victim, and such attitudes in comics suggests a lack of compassion toward women in general, and toward real world victims.

  16. Jim Perreault Says:

    I didn’t know they killed Nomad. That seems pointless to me!

    Jim

  17. Matt Kuhns Says:

    Johanna, the most bizarre thing is that this was going on doing the two or three years that the Richardses were off the team, barely appearing in the FF series at all. Thinking about it, maybe seeing a superheroine “quit” to raise her child, AND drag her superhero partner with her, actually made some people dislike her more than if she were “doing her job” and staying by the guys’ side? More and more curious, as I keep thinking back on that era.

  18. James Schee Says:

    What about Terra & Mirage from the short lived Team Titans book?

    Terra was a young woman with similar powers to the original Terra from Teen Titans (who might deserve spot as well) who was surgically changed to look like the original and mind wiped by the Time Trapper.

    Mirage had the mind wipe as wel but also was raped by her former lover Deathwing and became pregnant with his child. For a while she deceived her friends, using her powers to make it seem as if she had lost the child.

    X-Men’s Psylocke has had her eyes removed, been eviscerated, depowered, and then mind-swapped with an assassin.

    Oh and Carol Ferris’s the whole Star Sapphire/Predator thing, where the Star Sapphire part of her was impregnated by Predator part of her. It was so freaking confusing….

  19. A.S.S. Says:

    As we point out in our post… Lois Lane went from being an aggressive, career-minded reporter in the pre-50s to a woman whose singular focus in life was finding a husband (Superman) in the 50s and 60s. She had no problems trying to trick him down aisle either, a tactic which often put her in awkward and embarrassing situations.

    So yea, she was a pretty bad role model. Not atypical for the era though, and she was loved by her fans… most especially girls. In fact, if you look at those old letters it was far-FAR more often girls writing in to say Superman should spank Lois. So, maybe it was burgeoning teen girls with the developing fetish?

    Actually, it was probably more just a commentary of the times. Do something wrong and you get spanked for it. Don’t think there was any fetish going on there.

    Interestingly enough though, DC would NOT allow Superman to spank Lois. He was too much of a “gentleman to inflict bodily punishment on a lady” (as your newspaper clip shows). This at a time when Lucille Ball was getting spanked by her husband on the TV show ‘I Love Lucy.’

    Of course, when the fans kept pushing, DC had a “Superman Robot” (not Superman himself) administer a spanking. Spanking Robots were still several years in the future, of course… lol… but that’s another story!

    ~Todd and Suzy

  20. Thad Says:

    Morrison’s comments on Identity Crisis in last week’s Rolling Stone interview were pretty well on point.

    ( http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/grant-morrison-on-the-death-of-comics-20110822 )

    That and Alan Moore’s rape obsession. It’s so weird to me how Moore spends so much time ranting about how violent and misogynistic comics have gotten and how much he regrets The Killing Joke…and then turns around and gives us Lost Girls, Neonomicon, and LoEG: Century.

    Neonomicon, actually, is the only comic I can think of that I was too squeamish to finish; I quit after #2.

    (Only other book I can think of that comes close is Kevin Smith’s Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do, which not-coincidentally was another book that retconned a rape into a character’s backstory. But unlike Neonomicon, it didn’t chill and disquiet me, it just disgusted me. …oh, and the first issue of Deadpool Max was all really mean-spirited homophobia, so put that on the “Things I stopped reading because I found them offensive, but not because I found them disturbing” list.)

  21. Ed Sizemore Says:

    Thad,

    I wish I had quit Neonomicon at issue 2. However, by the time 2 came out I had already pre-order 3 and 4. You were better off stopping at 2.

    I agree Alan Moore’s obsession with rape, particularly schoolgirl rape, is very disturbing.

  22. Thad Says:

    In a lot of cases I can see where it’s coming from (the reasoning behind its presence in Alice in Wonderland is obvious, and the peculiarity of the total lack of women in Lovecraft is explicitly addressed in dialogue in Neonomicon), but taking his career as a whole it makes for a disturbing damn trend.

    And did we really need to see Mina Murray molested by Voldemort?

  23. Kenn Says:

    Nice list! I agree with Suzene about Aurora in Alpha Flight! There is absolutely no reason to layer on an abuse story, especially when Byrne gave future writers a ‘cure’ many years ago.
    As for the list, I still don’t get how the Kanes were meant to ‘de-gay’ Batman & Robin, as neither male reacted to the attention in a way that would imply he were straight, but Bat-Girl WAS revolutionary in that she was the first (maybe only) female sidekick to a costumed heroine (something that’s going to be revisited in the new Batwoman).
    Identity Crisis was horrific. Just wanted to add Zatanna’s apology tour as one of the negatives created by that storyline!
    Also, an honorable mention might go to the Wasp.

  24. Johanna Says:

    Oh, I didn’t think about the virtue of seeing a female pair of heroes. Good point. And yes, I don’t know enough about the Wasp to comment fully, but whet I do know isn’t very encouraging.

  25. Jim Perreault Says:

    Wasp was the (very effective) leader of the Avengers during the classic Stern/Buscema era. But somehow, I don’t think that is the story Kenn is thinking of.

    I tend to think of Hank Pym as more of a whipping boy than the Wasp.

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