In the beginning, and in fact before that, superheroes had girlfriends. It was a significant part of the story but virtually every history only looks at heroes as a group but the girlfriends (and occasional boyfriends) are treated almost as an afterthought. The evidence isn’t really happy with that assessment.
The original super powered crime fighters, Mandrake and Lothar, appeared in newspapers in 1934 and Mandrake’s girlfriend (whom he married in 1997) appeared in the second story. This is the equivalent to appearing in the second issue of a comic book. Her name is Narda and she is a princess of a [made up] European country. She is an expert in martial arts.
The original superhero with a skintight costume and a mask with no visible pupils, the Phantom, appeared in 1936. He had Diana Palmer as a love interest from before he was moved to Bangalla and was still running around in New York City (and his costume was gray). That is, right from the start.
When Superman started up in 1938, Lois was right there with him. From that first story she is portrayed as a strong, independent woman of considerable tenacity and endurance. Wow. Radical. The whole dipstick schtick (try saying that ten times really fast) was a fifties thing, an era when women were generally portrayed as stupid. But the world is never full of idiots – there’s always room for one more and in this case it was Lois Lane.
We know about the dichotomy between Clark Kent and Superman. If it didn’t half-expose something significant we would have ignored it years ago. But look at Mandrake. On duty or off, he is a superpowered magician. There is no dichotomy for Narda to be bothered with.
With the Phantom there was a dichotomy between bored playboy Kit Walker and the Phantom. But when the Phantom moved to Bangalla, Kit Walker became no more than a name for the Ghost who Walks.
Compare Superman to another hero with a dichotomy who only almost got a girlfriend in the golden age. The Shadow’s Margo Lane was added in the radio show in 1937, years after the Shadow started in pulp stories in 1930. She was added to the novels in 1941 to the general outrage of the readership. As a result, Margo was quickly turned from a girlfriend into a confidant and companion. She is introduced remarkably late for a girlfriend, which was part of the problem.
The other part is how much like the Shadow she is. She didn’t go through Asia and learn to cloud men’s minds, but she is like him in attitudes, skill sets, and personality. And though Lamont Cranston is a dichotomy to the Shadow, much like Kit walker and the Phantom in the early days, Margo has no such problem because she knows who the Shadow really is.
Also, as I said, her skill set is much like his. She does the thing he doesn’t have the time to do, she doesn’t do things he cannot do for himself.
Compare that to the Phantom and Diana Palmer. He is the virtual prince of a distant country who similarly is in line to inherit a title – in this case as Phantom. Where he is strength, she is agility as an Olympic level diver. Where she is originally a nurse, he punches people’s faces in.
In the same way, Mandrake casts illusions which Narda punches people out. If Mandrake doesn’t depend on super strong Lothar, he depends on his highly trained girlfriend.
The superhero and the girlfriend are basically always on the same social level. There isn’t a case of someone lifting up the poor. So, Narda is a princess without political power, but Mandrake’s father runs a school of magic which is located in the Himalayas and runs as its own virtual state. In addition he has connections to various international organizations with guns. Surely in power he matches any non-ruling princess.
Diana Palmer is a socialite, or at least she was until she became the wife of the Phantom and moved to Bangalla. She didn’t have the wealth of the Phantom who, let’s face it, has more money that Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, and Smaug put together. But she was rich before she ever met him.
The idea of a rich superhero courting a poor female doesn’t enter into it. And it’s never the case that the hero falls for a girl in a wheelchair – not even in this millennium. The girlfriend will normally have a different focus than the hero. She completes him or, in a less charitable view, she succeeds in things which don’t interest the hero. Where she doesn’t do that she is either rejected by the fans (Margo) or becomes an antagonist and rival of the hero.
In this, Lois Lane is very different from virtually every other girlfriend outside of a comic book told in a television series or movie. Notice in the Flash, the TV show turned Iris West into Lois Lane. She is now the daughter of a cop and Barry Allen is a forensics scientist. She is also the daughter of the man who fostered him, making the two of them kind of siblings, but that’s not creepy in any way at all because Hollywood’s doing it.
Like Lois, Iris is writing about the superhero in her life.
We associate Lois suspecting Clark of being Superman with her fifties version. But she had her first suspicions in 1940. The two of them are co-workers and rivals. This is unusually tense and helped keep them apart. What originally gave Clark the advantage was he was Superman.
Superman would tell people he was a reporter and then write up the crisis he’d just solved as a scoop. Later stories would have him be the first to interview Superman. Of course, back then you had to verify your interviews, you couldn’t just claim you interviewed Superman when your helicopter had been hit by a RPG during the New Orleans flood while you were saving puppies or something. But perhaps he did that. In any event it left Lois in the cold.
Superman was moved to cartoons and it was turned into a running gag that Lois would scoop Clark Kent because she could leave the scene before Superman could or Clark would have to pretend he didn’t know what happened.
Comic books, particularly in DC, developed having a girlfriend as a part of many of their superheroes. Marvel didn’t do this. Captain America was in a military camp. The only women he would have met would have been transient members of his life. Remember, Peggy Carter wasn’t created as a character until the 1960’s. Neither was Baron Zemo. Cap in the forties was a lot more interesting when written in the sixties.
The Human Torch, similarly, had no real interest in women. He met them, but they were no more part of his life than they were of Cap’s. The one exception is Sun Girl. Put in as a fad to have females partner their heroes, Sun Girl had no personality and in the stories was clearly a lesser friend than Captain America. She has been retconned to have joined while Toro was away.
Namor, too, didn’t have a girlfriend in the 1940’s. He did have a rival, policewoman Betty Dean. But there was no romantic attachment between them until the 1950’s when Marvel/Atlas tried to revive their big three.
The other Marvel heroes who are still remembered, like the Angel and the Destroyer, did not have girlfriends. Mind you, as far as the Destroyer was concerned, what kind of girlfriend can you have when you work behind enemy lines?
We should note right here that, at the time, DC was developing stronger and deeper characterization through the existence of girlfriends than was Timely/Marvel, MLJ (later Archie) or Fawcett.
MLJ had about fifteen heroes excluding the (very) bizarre ones. Of these, three have someone who might take the roll of a girlfriend: Bob Phantom has a secretary, Jinx Friday; the Comet has a genuine girlfriend in Thelma Gordon; and the Web has Rose Wayne. If we include the Hangman, he has a girlfriend, but it’s Thelma Gordon because his brother the Comet disappeared for several decades.
In Fawcett, Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family are virtually sexless, even off stage. But Bulletman has a girlfriend, later wife, in Bulletgirl. But like some relationships she is simply a gender-reversed version of him.
On the other hand, of that same group of superheroes, six are cops, firefighters, a professor of criminology, or a private detective. Another four are some form of journalist, the son of a man who owns a newspaper, or a man who owns a newspaper.
But of the ones with girlfriends or something like that, one is a gal Friday whose actual name is Friday. The others two share a last name with Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon. That doesn’t tend to indicate a lot of work put into them. Batman was published more than a year before either of the Comet or the Web. Then again, MLJ’s Captain Commando who came out in the early forties was surnamed ‘Grayson.’
In DC, other heroes had girlfriends, and boyfriends. Wonder Woman was a princess like Narda or the Phantom. But unlike them she was not show as ever having access to vast sums of money. The treasuries of Paradise Island are not for personal wealth but for the construction of the magnificent public buildings of the island. Personal residences barely seem to exist at all if they do in fact exist. No one walks from their house or invites people over.
But Princess Diana falls in love with the first man she meets. What natural explorations she undertook before then is never explained. If there were no male gods wouldn’t there be some kind of lesbianism on the island? If there were male gods, what real reason was there to keep mortal males away?
Whatever the reason, Steve Trevor became the thingfriend of the superhero and has been largely laughed at for it ever since. But his role was that of Lois Lane. Steve Trevor works with Wonder Woman’s other identity. He is attracted to Wonder Woman but not Diana Prince.
He is somehow fooled by her glasses even though she often doesn’t bother to change her hairstyle. In the forties that was far more significant than it is now. But still he is fooled. However, the mocking questions about how glasses can fool someone stick to neither Steve Trevor nor to Wonder Woman.
Because they are coworkers and because Wonder Woman does not have personal access to a vast treasury and is not inclined to spend money, I tend to put them in the same social class. That she wouldn’t spend money for personal aggrandizement fits with Athenian principles if not always practice.
But it is not as coworkers they are rivals. Steve Trevor was originally presented as an intelligence officer. This was World War II and it wasn’t an easy job. One woman in France looked right, looked left, crossed the road and was shot by the Nazis. Can you tell why? Seriously, leave a comment.
Steve Trevor went on his own missions and got into his own firefights. This was where he and Wonder Woman were rivals and, again, the superhero had the advantage because of their super powers. We are used now to there being a vast discrepancy between the powers of Superman and Wonder Woman, but at the time they were very close in power.
As such, it was Steve Trevor who was the one who was captured, he was the one tied up, and was the one who had to be rescued by the superhero he, again, was considered something of a joke. This is odd, since in many stories it’s Wonder Woman who gets tied up.
But the fact Steve Trevor he is a rival who is saved by the super hero because his determination exceeds his capacity to succeed. In this he is indeed a Lois Lane to Diana Prince’s Wonder Woman.
From there the most notable girlfriend is the one who got promoted. I am of course talking about Shiera Hall, aka Hawkgirl. She is in no way a rival to Hawkman, nor does she provide complementary skills. In fact, she is closest to Margo Lane in this. She is his support and is much like her boyfriend. She has a similar costume, she uses similar weapons, she uses similar devices to give her what come close to being super powers from our point of view. She uses all of that for the same purpose he does, fighting crime.
Carter Hall (Hawkman) is an archeologist. A lot of people say that’s boring, but that’s a later wave of archeologists who became careful and logical. When the people who wrote these comics were kids, they heard about archeologists who described how they broke into a tomb and immediately, “beheld the mask of Agamemnon.”
But Shiera was not an archeologist. She was a woman he met on the street who looked like a woman he thought he had dreamed about the night before. On this basis and no more than that, he decided she was the love of several of his lives, if not in fact all of them. It was this that led the two of them to become superhero crime fighting partners.
But once she put on the costume, Shiera had a hard time transitioning into the role. This might have been used to give us some stories that became part of comic book lore, much like the Justice Society’s Crimson Claw story which dealt with delinquency, poverty, and ethnic conflict about ten years before social reformers got hold of those concepts and made them buzzwords.
They could have talked about how difficult it is to shine a spotlight on yourself by putting on a costume, how it makes you more responsible for what your do. They could have talked about how the costume and the powers made others place heavier burdens on you. You can fly (not do anything else, just fly) so we’ll load up everything on your shoulders. It could have been a seminal part of superhero lore. Instead we got a story about girls being dumb.
But I will say Hawkgirl put her costume on in the pages of the Justice Society of America. So when people talk about superheroes created specifically to be part of a group, the first of all these was Hawkgirl. Another Golden Age first for DC.
But the weaknesses of her representation still remain and are paralleled by Bulletman and Bulletgirl over in Fawcett. Bulletgirl didn’t take it upon herself to put on a costume and take up the device created by her male counterpart off her own bat. Like a good little housewife-to-be she waited for him to give them to her. Like Hawkgirl, Bulletgirl starts off being overcome by what the hero would have pushed his way through or recovered from. The problem with Hawkgirl is she showed her abilities before the costume and not enough is made of her difficulties to wring some strength from the story.
But the assistant to sidekick path was a worn one. In Quality Comics, Doll Man had an assistant and fiance in Martha Roberts. She was a lab assistant in 1939. In 1951 she managed to shrink to 5 ½ inches (no, just thought about it real hard) and became Doll Girl. This is, however, beyond the timeframe of this article.
From there the girlfriend business is merely part time. Ibis, the magician in Fawcett, has a girlfriend/wife, Taia who was killed with him in ancient Egypt (I know, it happens a lot). She can wield his magic wand, the Ibistick, but as there is only one of these, she is backup and nothing more. She has no job or skills outside using his Ibistick as given him by the god Thoth.
In Quality Comics, Captain Triumph’s dead brother’s fiance, Kim Meredith, eventually becomes Captain Triumph’s fiance as well. I guess because they were twins it’s not such a big change. And like many stories it’s a case superpowers, chicks dig the superpowers.
The original Flash, Jay Garrick, had a girlfriend named Joan Williams, later Joan Garrick. She does not put on a costume and does not get super powers in story after another. But she is a solid individual who is never anything other than a rock. Not only do the two of them live in the Midwest, they embody the spirit that part of the country found most admirable in the forties.
The girlfriend or boyfriend of a superhero is nothing other than a way of showing us the character of the superhero. The Flash is not the same character without Joan. In that, let’s look at the old girlfriend in a fridge trope. This kind of loss was done before, but rather better done than the losses suffered as of late.
Jim Corrigan was a cop who was shot and his body dumped in a barrel which was filled with cement and dumped into the bottom of a lake. He expected to leave this world behind but was told to come back to this world and be the Wrath of God. The murdered man became the Spectre, and having never made it to his and Clarice’s engagement party, he broke off the engagement. It nearly killed him to tell her that. That’s how you know the man.