Although I’m giving this book five stars, you should know it’s more for historical interest than actual entertainment value, though reading Vixens Vamps & Vipers is entertaining—not in the way the original comic books collected here may have been (or not) but rather what they reveal about the creators, and the times they were created in. With the recent controversy about how women superheroes are being portrayed—for example, Power Girl’s “boob window” and the recent alternative cover for Spider-Woman’s first issue by Milo Manara—a little history of the portrayal of women from way back in the Golden Age of Comics might at least give some perspective.
As the title suggests, the women in this collection of old-school comic books are all villains (or, as the title calls them, “Villainesses”, which you could take as either demeaning or ironic) most in the super villain category, pitted against some of the first costumed (male) heroes in comics, all of whom have been forgotten since the Comic Code of 1954 sent most comics companies into bankruptcy (which is addressed in one of “compiler and annotator” Mike Madrid’s historical background essays featured throughout the book). Only some of the women actually even appear in super-villain garb, though almost all of them are portrayed as super smart, super confident, and able to kick ass on occasion. In fact, if it weren’t for the occasional convenient volcano, the heroes might actually lose sometimes!
Above all, this collection reveals the fears of the white men who created these stories. The most interesting chapter to me is “A Rainbow of Evil,” featuring comic books with women villains of color, some in foreign countries. Madrid gives a good intro/essay to this one, but I’d add on by saying these stories seem all about colonialism, which had begun its inevitable post-WWII collapse, right at the time these comics were coming out. Although the “heroes” of these stories are all white men (plus Sheena Queen of the Jungle!) come to save the poor innocent colored natives from the evil colored women (there are no powerful colored men anywhere to be found) all I can read in these stories, now, is a huge Fear of colored people revolting against their supposed benevolent white leaders. Some of the female villains even explicitly say that they’re enacting revenge against the white oppressors.
My favorite character of this section, maybe the whole book, features Veda the Cobra Woman. She looks the most “super-villain-ish” with her body suit, but also because of how she’s drawn, creepily snake-like, by Vernon Henkel. And, she’s from India, and when was the last time you saw any woman from the Indian subcontinent in a comic book? My only big complaint about Vixens Vamps & Vipers is that the included reproductions are in black and white and not the original color, so Veda comes off as ‘white’, though of course color reproductions would have increased the price.
But, speaking of fear, I think the white men who created these Vixens Vamps & Vipers were a little scared of women, period. Or, a little scared of losing power over women. The “regular” minor-character women featured in the stories are as you’d expect from late 1940s culture—weak and submissive. The villains seem almost to be villains because they’re super smart, confident, and able to kick ass on occasion.
Scared of them, and also super attracted to them. Maybe scared that they themselves (the writers and artists) might like strong women. These “vipers” are basically dominatrixes, precursors to today’s super villain women in comics, like say, Emma Frost or Catwoman (the bullwhip makes at least two appearances here—though it’s called, tellingly, the “black snake whip”—some other fear is lurking in these pages….). That is, nothing much has changed? But no, strong, confident and kick-ass women are now also superheroes, working right alongside their male counterparts, or just saving the world on their own.
But, if you don’t want to get into Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory, you can also just read this collection of Golden Age comics for the art and the writing, both of which seem amazingly primitive (the writing more than the art) now. Comics have come a long way in craft. But I can’t help returning to the idea that they are a place in which desires and fears get acted out. I guess the criticism, still, is that it’s men’s desires and fears. Thus the boob window and Spider-Woman’s heart-shaped butt. But I wouldn’t want to take the working with desires and fears away in the name of political correctness, I’d rather just want women’s desires and fears included too.