Queer Female Superheroes: DC Comics Bombshells Tell Their Own Story
Christina M. Knopf / SUNY Cortland


DC Comics Bombshells
DC Comics Bombshells

In 2013, DC Collectibles introduced a line of statues by artist Ant Lucia called the DC Comics Bombshells, which rendered fans’ favorite female superheroes and villains in the style of pin-up models from the 1940s (see below). In 2015, writer Marguerite Bennett used Lucia’s character designs as the basis for a new, feminist, queer, comic book series DC Comics Bombshells. Bennett was praised for “low key pulling off a level of representation still largely absent in most mainstream films and TV shows.”[ (( Riley Silverman, “Bombshells and Batwomen: An Interview with Marguerite Bennett,” SyFyWire, June 15, 2017, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/bombshells-and-batwomen-interview-marguerite-bennett. ))] Bennett’s own female, queer identity is significant in this regard because she is not creating diversity but offering representation, noting, “I might just not know how to write anyone straight.”[ (( Quoted in Silverman, “Bombshells,” paragraph 4. ))] And queer female readers appreciate seeing familiar characters in stories more specifically “for” them.[ (( Silverman, “Bombshells. ))] In the words of Bennett’s Aquawoman, “I am the teller of my own story. I belong to myself alone.”[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Laura Braga, & Mirka Andolfa, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 2: Allies (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2016). ))] DC Comics Bombshells, with its all-female starring cast, established by an all-female creative team, exemplifies the validation of women’s experiences and self-expression, offering a retro comic book variant of #MeToo — women telling women’s stories.


DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art

The series used the changing role of women during World War II as its premise. Bennett’s allohistorical universe followed the exploits of established but reimagined female superheroes, anti-heroes, and supervillains as they joined the war effort as part of a female paramilitary organization called The Bombshells. Despite their pin-up stylings, characters were defined not by their sexuality but by their wartime roles: Batwoman played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Supergirl and Stargirl were Russian bomber pilots in the Night Witches regiment. Wonder Woman joined the Army while Aquawoman worked reconnaissance with the Navy. Zatanna was a cabaret performer in Germany and Huntress a member of the German youth underground. Catwoman and Poison Ivy were smugglers in the European black market. Harley Quinn was a doctor in a London psychiatric hospital. (See image below.) Additionally, the characters represented different sexual orientations, gender identities, colors, nations, faiths, ages, and economic backgrounds, all of which were revealed subtly through the contexts of the stories. Bennett’s writing thus managed to represent the variety of women’s experience without resorting to the comic book formula of using one or two women as archetypal stand-ins for all women.


The DC Comics Bombshells cast
The DC Comics Bombshells cast.

“In this story, in this universe,” Bennett said, “I wanted the women to be the ones to define what heroism is going to be for this coming century.”[ (( Vaneta Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells Creates World Where Women Were Heroes of World War II,” Newsarama, July 24, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016, http://www.newsarama.com/25336-dc-bombshells-creator-creates-world-where-women-were-heroes-of-world-war-ii.html, paragraph 7.))] Therefore, the heroines exist in a world where they are not derivatives of male superheroes but are instead heroes in their own right. The allohistory was created without the real-world constraints faced by women of the past (or present). Though prejudices are found in the Bombshells universe, they do not limit the activities of the women. Bennett explained, “I don’t want to see them first have to prove that they’re allowed to be heroes. […] I wanted to move society ahead [so that] when girls pick up these books, they can see these women […] living up to their fullest potential.”[ (( Quoted in Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,” paragraphs 11-12. ))]

The Bombshells story is a response to, and enabled by, heightened attention to contested public spaces with active debates about who is/not allowed to participate in civic life. The alternative version of WWII offers a reminder that the contributions of women in the past, and present, is often undervalued or dismissed. Commander Amanda Waller describes her Bombshells unit saying, “While the good gentlemen are relying on traditional warfare — we have engaged an independent organization that makes use of ‘unexpected and unsuspected resources’” — women (emphasis added).[ (( Marguerite Bennett, Mirka Andolfo, & Laura Braga, DC Comics Bombshells, Volume 3: Uprising (Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2017). ))] WWII, with its apparent clarity of purpose, is a popular media frame for subsequent conflicts.[ ((Ex., Andrew Crampton, & Marcus Power, “Frames of Reference on the Geopolitical Stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War Intertext,” Geopolitics 10, no. 2 (2005): 244-265. ))] Bombshells thus offers a useful parable for exploring the social changes of the present day; shifting gender roles of the 1940s works as a metaphor for the shifting gender identities of the 2010s. In 1941, the workforce became gender integrated; in 2016, bathrooms did. In 1943, women were allowed to serve in all branches of the military; in 2010, gays were allowed to openly serve, and in 2016, combat jobs were opened to women.

The second series of DC Comics Bombshells, “United,” was introduced in late 2017 and featured the Japanese internment camps that held over 100,000 Americans between 1942 and 1946. In 2018, immigration detention centers in the United States held about 40,000 people per day. The parallels between these institutions were introduced in April 2016 when Bennett featured the mayoral campaign of Harvey Dent, reimagined as a war-era Donald Trump. While Trump was promising to “make America great again,” Dent promised to “make Gotham golden once more.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))] Both campaigns promoted stricter immigration as a means of improving the economy and reducing crime and civil unrest. And, both campaigns made visible the white, patriarchal hegemony of American power structures by making explicit a desire to return to an era of exclusively white male privilege (see below).[ (( Andrew O’Hehir, “America’s First White President, Salon, December 10, 2016, accessed January 24, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/12/10/americas-first-white-president/; Andrew O’Hehir, “Fake News, a Fake President and Fake Country: Welcome to America, Land of No Context,” Salon, December 3, 2016, accessed August 10, 2019, https://www.salon.com/control/2016/12/03/fake-news-a-fake-president-and-a-fake-country-welcome-to-america-land-of-no-context/. ))]


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Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory.

It is arguably WWII’s iconicity in American cultural fabric that makes the diversity and situated truths of Bombshells narratively and commercially successful. Its historical context and vintage aesthetic work within the nostalgia economy that supports the superhero industry.[ (( Carol Tilley, “Superheroes and Identity: The Roles of Nostalgia in Comic Book Culture,” in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys, and Contemporary Media Culture, ed. Elisabeth Wesseling (London: Routledge, 2018), Kindle edition, 51-65. ))] Authenticity was established through use of retro art styles and media formats. Each story acts as a separate chapter focusing on a different heroine, each given her own generic formula: Wonder Woman, a war film; Supergirl, a propaganda reel; Catwoman, a noir; Zatanna, a Hammer horror; Aquawoman, a romance; Harley Quinn, a comedy; and, Batwoman, a pulp radio serial.[ (( Rogers, “DC Comics Bombshells,”; Barksdale, “DC Comics”; Amy Ratcliffe, Marguerite Bennett discusses WWII female heroes in ‘DC Comics Bombshells’,” Comic Book Resources, July 29, 2015, accessed October 26, 2015, from http://www.cbr.com/marguerite-bennett-discusses-wwii-female-heroes-in-dc-comics-bombshells/. ))]


Batwoman's Pulp Aesthetic
Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman.

Batwoman, aka Kate Kane, was the series’ lead heroine. As a Jewish-American lesbian fighting Nazis, her identity was central and organic to the story. By comparison, the CW’s new Batwoman (2019-present) television series has been criticized for “riding the feminist train” and ostracizing “the very people who they need to keep the ratings going, 18–45-year-old males, especially white males who are the significant purchasers of comic books” by featuring a queer superhero played by a queer actress (Ruby Rose),[ (( Bobbie L. Washington, “The Batwoman Controversy,” Medium, May 21, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://medium.com/@screamingbear/the-batwoman-controversy-a18c94dfb8d. ))] and for being a mediocre show unremarkable aside from its queerness.[ (( Alex Cranz, “The Mediocrity of Batwoman also Feels Like One of Its Biggest Strengths,” Gizmodo, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-mediocrity-of-batwoman-also-feels-like-one-of-its-b-1836505759. ))] Whereas the Bombshells Batwoman exists independently of a male counterpart, even preventing the crime that instigated the creation of Batman in canon, CW’s Batwoman is a replacement for the inexplicably-absent Batman, offering a thin foundation for what some fans have perceived as needless male-bashing in the trailer (below). Likewise, the trailer’s revelation of Kane’s sexual orientation is perceived as clunky at best.[ (( Washington, “The Batwoman”; Susan Polo, “The CW’s Batwoman Pilot Gets the Most Important Thing about Batwoman Right,” Polygon, July 18, 2019, accessed August 23, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/tv/2019/7/18/20698871/cw-batwoman-review-sdcc-2019. ))] The combined effect may be undermining the series’ morals about integrity and privilege.


CW’s Batwoman Trailer

The main message of Bennett’s Bombshells, which is also found in the CW’s Batwoman, and in the queer, Muslim, black, and Latinx characters throughout the CW Arrowverse, is captured by the words of a Bombshells Batgirl: “You’re allowed to be happy in your own skin, in your own home.”[ (( Bennett, Andolfo, & Braga, Uprising. ))]



Image Credits:

  1. DC Collectibles Ant Lucia Art (YouTube)
  2. DC Comics Bombshells.
  3. The DC Comics Bombshells cast
  4. Frames from the Bombshells’ Trump allegory
  5. Batwoman’s Pulp Aesthetic and the Moment She Prevents the Creation of Batman
  6. CW’s Batwoman Trailer (YouTube)


References:




Superhero Noir: Expanding the Emotional Depth of Superhero Narratives in Jessica Jones
Katrina Margolis / University of Texas at Austin

Jessica Jones Screenshot

Jessica Jones and Trish Walker talk in front of the noir classic The Killers (1946)

The closest thing to consensus surrounding the definition of film noir is that it is easier to identify than it is to define. [ (( James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 9. ))] Even if you’ve never seen a film between 1941 and 1958 (inconclusive dates occasionally given to mark the noir era), the building blocks of the genre are easily identifiable; this includes the hard-boiled detective, the seductive but deadly femme fatale, low-key photography, and an often jazz inspired soundtrack. [ (( Naremore, More Than Night, 10. ))] We get all of these things in the Netflix show Jessica Jones – the noir classic The Killers (1946) even makes an appearance in the first episode of the second season. The show quite consciously attempts to blend two genres that are thought of as far from each other: film noir and the superhero narrative. [ (( Brian Kenna, “Marvel’s Jessica Jones (review),” Science Fiction Film and Television 10, no. 2 (2017): 289-293. ))] Not only does the show blend these genres, it experiments with traditional noir in ways that are rarely seen. Season one explores neo-noir with inverted gender roles: Jessica (Krystin Ritter) as the hard-boiled detective and the seductive but evil Kilgrave (David Tennant) as the femme fatale. This sort of inversion, while still rare, can be seen in films such as Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) and Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005). I will be focusing here on the second season, which goes further into genre bending, exploring what a nearly all-female noir means. In addition, I will be exploring how this hybridity of genres allows for a traditionally more superficial genre (superhero narratives) to explore very real and difficult topics such as trauma, abuse, agency, and power.

The genre of noir, posthumously named by French cineastes, grew from wartime and post-war male anxieties about the changing landscape of gender-roles. [ (( Jack Boozer, “The Lethal Femme Fatale in the Noir Tradition,” Journal of Film and Video 51, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 1999/2000): 20, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688218. ))] The femme fatale grew from this paranoia as well; a woman who is beautiful and yet also treacherous, “criminally depraved and castrating in their desires”. [ (( Boozer, “The Lethal Femme Fatale,” 22. ))] Acting as her counterpart, the hard-boiled detective is synthesized in the stereotypical Humphrey Bogart persona: tough, introspective, emotionally repressed, and fond of whiskey. [ (( Naremore, More Than Night, 21. ))]

While Jones embodies the latter role (whiskey and all), Kilgrave’s death leaves the femme fatale role open at the beginning of the second season. With this male threat to her gone, Jessica is able to focus less on the trauma inflicted by Kilgrave, and more on the unresolved mystery surrounding the origins of her powers. The alluring but deadly role is filled by Jessica’s mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer), who until the sixth episode (and 17 years of Jessica’s life) is presumed dead. Alisa is, of course, drastically different from Kilgrave, and this unusual role pairing of mother and femme fatale accomplishes a number of objectives. First, it redefines what it means for a woman to be alluring yet treacherous, qualities that do not have to be intentionally malevolent. Alisa’s allure comes quite obviously from the fact that she is the mother Jessica believed she lost. Her posed threat is outside of her control, her rage a side effect of the genetic experiments performed that she wants to tamper but truly seems unable to. Second, putting Alisa in the role of femme fatale allows the superhero genre to explore the complications of parent-child relationships, particularly their potential for being destructive and damaging. Alisa is quite literally deadly, but she is a danger to more than Jessica’s physical well-being.

Jessica and her Mother

Jessica and her presumed dead mother, Alisa

Throughout the series, Jessica struggles with her identity and the gap between the anonymity she desires, and the hero others want her to be due to her abilities. The second season finds Jessica hunting down the mysterious IGH, the group that conducted experiments on her and her mother after their deadly car crash. While her motivation is originally selfish, her search ramps up as others like her start to be murdered in quick succession, her motives becoming more and more based in a moral obligation to society. It is through this part of the season that we believe Jessica may be moving towards the role of hero, even if it is hero with a noir twist.

When Jessica discovers her mother, as well as the doctor who conducted the initial experiments, she immediately contacts the police, wanting to turn in the figures responsible for the recent stint of murders. However, as she waits for them, the pull of wanting to have a relationship with her mother becomes more and more powerful, leading them to escape and run before the police can arrive. Jessica recognizes that this is not necessarily the right move, even telling her mom that everything in her keeps telling Jessica to turn her mom in. This initial decision leads farther and farther down a moral rabbit hole—the more she gets to know her mom, the more Jessica can forgive in regard to her mom’s behavior. Any line she may have walked between hero and outlaw disappears when she chooses to flee the country with her mother. While Alisa’s aggression does not threaten Jessica directly, her violence towards others jeopardizes Jessica’s already waning moral code, and ultimately her ability to be a hero, not a “masked vigilante” as so many call her throughout the show’s first few episodes.

Kia Groom wrote of the show’s first season that while “it masquerades as a show about heroes and villains, ultimately Jessica Jones is not a fantasy. It’s the reality of existing in a patriarchal society that does everything it can to silence, dismiss, and ignore women”. [ (( Daniel Binns, “‘Even You Can Break’: Jessica Jones as Femme Fatale,” in Jessica Jones, Scarred Superhero: Essays on Gender, Trauma and Addiction in the Netflix Series, ed. Tim Rayborn, Abigail Keyes (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2018), 14. ))] This season once again utilizes this masquerade, and Jessica’s decision is about the severe difficulty in navigating a toxic relationship with her mother: do you act in your best interest and cut them off, or do you maintain the relationship knowing it is damaging?

As Jessica develops a relationship with Alisa, her relationship with her sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor) begins to deteriorate. Within this relationship, the noir roles are actually different than that of Jessica and her mother. Jessica becomes the femme fatale to Trish’s hard-boiled detective. Throughout much of the first season, Trish acts as a foil to Jessica—not only is she opposite in appearance (blonde hair to Jessica’s black, designer clothes versus ripped jeans), but she has a family, a successful career in the public eye, and has overcome serious addiction issues. When Jessica chooses her mother despite what her conscious tells her, Trish picks up the investigation of IGH and those involved. Her sobriety lapses, her once clear moral code begins to waver, and she shuts herself off emotionally from those around her—checking off all of the qualifications for the noir detective role. Jessica’s allure to Trish is the same as her threat: her powers. Jessica tells Trish to stay out of the investigation, worried for her safety. Consistently, this drives Trish’s desire to keep pace with Jessica even more. Like Alisa, Jessica becomes unintentionally alluring and treacherous to Trish, further changing the concept of the femme fatale. Ultimately it is Trish who saves Jessica from her mother, removing the threat of the femme fatale in order to allow Jessica to return to society. However, as in traditional noir narratives, no one remains unscathed. Jessica’s punishment is the loss of her mother, while Trish lands herself in the hospital after voluntarily subjecting herself to the experimental genetic editing. As this is how the season ends, it will be interesting to see who encompasses what role as the show continues.

Jessica and Sister

Jessica is afraid for her sister’s safety, due to her lack of powers

Historically, superhero narratives have focused primarily on more dichotomous issues of good versus evil. As the genre has grown, this has changed and superhero narratives deal with the complexities of topics such as racism, colonialism, and mental illness. Jessica Jones is not unique or alone in tackling these more serious issues. The show does, however, engage in genre-blending in a more ambitious way than Marvel has ever attempted before. Not only does this change the preconceived notion of a superhero narrative, but it also updates noir in an incredibly unique way. Returning to Groom’s quote, the show successfully utilizes the masquerade of superheroes and the conventions of noir to bring into conversation topics that are marginalized or difficult to discuss such as violence towards women, toxic relationships, and sexual trauma.

Image Credits:
1. Jessica Jones, Season 2, Episode 1 (Author’s screen grab)
2. Jessica and her presumed dead mother, Alisa.
3. Jessica is afraid for her sister’s safety, due to her lack of powers.

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