I (Dr. Donnelly) have not historically been a comics reader, but have spent the last few weeks reading two books about women in comics, watching two movies about them, and visiting my local comics book shop. This - as most things do - shoved me into a nerdy mental spiral about the intersection of women as characters and consumers.
I've been intimidated by comics for many years, to be quite frank. This is for several reasons: I like entering stories at their beginning, which is nearly impossible with most historic comics, plus I never felt welcome in any comic shop I even dared venture into. After years of listening to Glen Weldon on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (and reading his works about Superman and Batman), I finally felt ready to head into a shop and request a purchase. Earlier this year, I headed to our local neighborhood shop, Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse. Amalgam also happens to be owned by Ariell Johnson, the first African-American woman to own such a store on the east coast, and I could not have felt more welcome. I told the staff the text-based books I like to read and they recommended a host of comics for me to try out - including Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and John Lewis' March. I've been back several times since, much to my wallet's chagrin.
When Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman movie came out earlier this year, my social media feeds were inundated with friends and colleagues who claimed Diana Prince as their own muse. I saw Halloween costumes from days of yore, as well as baby onesies for children born this year. I was delighted for sure, but never quite got around to seeing the movie until it showed up on Xfinity. The movie was FAB, y'all, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. (And can we have a hot minute for Gal Gadot shooting that while growing a human?! I mean...) Wonder Woman was never part of my childhood, but I was eager to get to know her. So I did what any 'normal' academic would do: I found books on her history and dove on in.
The one I can recommend the most is Jill Lapore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which delves not only into the titular hero herself, but her creators - a man with an ahead-of-his-time respect for women and the women who loved him. (This story is also told - albeit with creative licensing - in the new film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women - which stars Luke Evans and is one of the year's best films.)
In Lapore's exhaustive journalism, I learned that Marston created Wonder Woman as the prototype for the future of America. He felt that sooner rather than later, men would realize that true leadership required wisdom, patience, and grace and those were inherently female traits. In the middle of the 20th century, when everything was falling apart because men had been in charge, Marston was convinced the future belonged in the hands of women.
His view of women comes largely from the powerful and brilliant women in his own life, his polyamorous wives Olive and Elizabeth, and is intimately connected with female sexuality. Wonder Woman's lasso, for example, forces people to tell the truth, but has connections to submission and bondage as Marston viewed the three as inherently linked. In order to be truthful, one had to be vulnerable and in order to be vulnerable, one had to trust. Submission is ultimately a form of trust and that's what the lasso symbolized. For Wonder Woman's critics, it was the worst kind of precursor to 50 Shades of Grey.
There's a lot more to unpack about Wonder Woman and her symbolism, but what keeps sticking with me is how highly politicized she became. Comics have always been something derided by the "mainstream culture" even in their origins, but there was particular fear surrounding Wonder Woman and after Marston's death in 1947, she was stripped of her feminist powers almost completely. She had a resurgence with Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, but it really would take until the 2000s for a female superhero to be prominent on the comics shelves.
The reasons why are explored in Hope Nicholson's The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, which explores all of the female comic book characters from the form's inception to now, but they're largely what you'd expect. As WWII ended and women were stripped from the jobs they held, by and large, the female superheroes were as well. The comics industry was dominated by men and the spaces in which they were sold tended to be male as well. This was particularly cemented in the 1980s with the advent of direct sales, which created the comic book store and comic book conventions, both of which were not known for being welcoming.
It was in the 2000s that webcomic began to democratize the production of graphic novels and comic books and comic fans were forced to acknowledge the fanbase was more diverse than they wanted to believe. The work of embracing more voices both as consumers and creatives is ongoing.
So what does this all mean for business? First of all, comics is one and so there are lessons to learn about inclusivity. What I keep thinking about is the idea of spaces. In your company or your organization, what does the physical space look like? Does it communicate that only insiders are welcome or can anyone participate? What about emotional spaces? Are there unspoken rules about who speaks to who or who can talk at meetings or who people can confide in?
I also keep thinking about history and context, two things that we are professional and personally obsessed with at Abbey Research. Wonder Woman, as a character, has been a myriad of things throughout her life cycle and each are important to understand as lenses into cultural values. If you miss her creation and Marston in particular, then there's pieces of her story missing. What's that at your organization? What stories do you tell that haven't been examined in a while or stories you've stopped telling that explain major decisions?
If you're a comics reader, I'd love to hear from you - what should I be reading?! And please, the next time you're in Philly, drop by Amalgam and let Ariell and her staff open up whole new worlds for you.