Pretty Comic Books and Long-Suffering Girlfriends

By Poison Ivy,

I’ve been looking at a wealth of comic book covers drawn by Bob Brown, and thinking about what art needs to be on the cover of a book. Why are there people on the covers of books? Why aren’t they all paintings of sunsets, or flowers, or big honking weapons, or fangs? It’s not that such covers don’t exist. (Although I haven’t personally seen one with fangs, someone has undoubtedly done a cover like that.) Nonrepresentational covers have been tried many times, and while they can look rather classy and sometimes even intriguing, there’s nothing like a piece of representational art to attract a reader’s eye. Strictly speaking, even a drawing of a flower is representational. But not really, when the story inside is a romance and not about floriculture. I don’t know how the online future of the book will take advantage of the appeal of cover art, but I do know that back when I was collecting comic books, every time I saw a girl on the cover, I bought it.

The cover of Green Lantern #16, for instance, drawn by Gil Kane, with its dazzling villainess, Star Sapphire. She was actually Carol Ferris, the girlfriend of Hal Jordan, the hotshot test pilot who was Green Lantern then. And she was kind of annoying as a foil for his secret identity shenanigans. But somebody has to be. Where’s the fun in having a secret identity unless someone starts asking why you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same room? Still, that wasn’t a good enough use of a secondary character, so after a while the writers upped the ante and gave Carol a secret identity as Star Sapphire. A villainess, naturally. Comics must have conflict. This is probably my all-time favorite Green Lantern cover, strictly because of the strong and pretty female depicted.

When I was reading comic books as a kid, there were about three standard stories with girls on the cover. (I say girls, not women, because that’s how they were spoken of back then; women was meant.) The first type was a straight female-in-jeopardy story, such as this one featuring Space Ranger’s girlfriend, Myra. Which also attracted me because the villains were living jewels. Sparkly! For a while, Tales of the Unexpected put Myra on every cover, along with a little pink alien. Then both got dropped. No way of knowing which creature was least attractive to the mostly boy audience.

The second type of girl cover was some version of dating or a wedding. The best example is when the hero appears to be marrying, and all his fighting buddies are dismayed that he’s essentially leaving the Boys Only club. A great example is the cover of Blackhawk #155, in which Blackhawk appears to marry Zinda, Lady Blackhawk. (That’s not an aristocratic title; it’s her mascot name.) Of course these marriages did not happen. Only much later in comic books did anyone ever get married for real. But I was always a sucker for that kind of cover. I lived in hope. Yeah, me and Lois Lane, who perpetually sought to marry Superman. (I’m not citing Lois Lane’s own comic book because she was always on the cover. Of course I bought every issue.)

The third type of cover with a girl on it featured her as some kind of super being. Either she had suddenly gained superpowers (temporary, of course, since she could never be allowed to overshadow the hero), or she had become a supervillainess. The heroine-as-villainess was never more pronounced than in Blackhawk, a war/adventure comic about a band of quasi-soldiers that originated in the early 1940s fighting World War II enemies, and years later was fighting aliens and monsters and, of course, supervillains. Poor Lady Blackhawk got turned into Lady Killer Shark, and she spent several stories sneering and being evil—and of course, wearing standard villain colors, purple and green. (Why are they standard villain colors? Because the heroes are usually in primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. So that leaves purple and green to contrast. Bet you didn’t know that’s why Spider-Man’s arch enemy, the Green Goblin, wears purple. Now you do.)

What you notice about all these covers is that there is no attempt to make these depictions of women into pin-up art. They are not semi-nude. They are not contorted in the manner of pole dancers. They are not the victims of bondage fetishists. All of which you can find on comic book covers of the very far past, the 1940s, and the present. But these women are G-rated. And that’s another reason I bought these comics. As silly as some of these covers are, they do not degrade or laugh at women. Some of them feature strong women, even if the strength is to be temporary or they’ll need the male heroes to finish the job. And some of these covers are downright romantic. You know me, crazy for romance. That’s why I always buy romance novels with weddings on the cover.

But that’s another blog entry, for another day.

Happy New Year!