An Interview with Comic Historian Mike Madrid at GeekGirlCon ‘14
Mike Madrid is the author of three insightful books on representations in women in the comic medium. In his first book, The Supergirls! Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines, Madrid celebrates the power, wisdom, and often crazy costumes of comic book heroines. In his next two volumes, he revisits the Golden Age and some forgotten female characters at the dawn of comic books. The two compilations Divas, Dames & Daredeveils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics and Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of the Golden Age are must reads for anyone interested in the evolution of representation of women in comics.
I make a point to go to Madrid’s presentations at GeekGirlCon. He is a fantastic presenter with well-organized material, high-quality presentation, and sense of humor with cultural references that are guaranteed to make you smile. This year I wasn’t able to attend the presentation on Vixens, Vamps, and Vipers. But, I did get to sit down with my favorite comic historian. Now I get to share this interview with WatchPlayRead readers. (In aggregate scoring, I’d call that a win.)
You should pick up these books for your own collection (and I highly recommend that you do!) The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics, and Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics.
WatchPlayRead (WPR): Where does you interest in exploring Golden Age comics come from?
Mike Madrid (MM): I became interested because, of all the eras of comics, it is the one I knew the least about. Like many people, I thought there were a handful of heroines around. In doing more and more research, I found this multitude of really interesting women, both good and bad, that have kind of been overlooked. And in a lot cases I thought they were really ahead of their time. Really, a lot more progressive than what we’ve seen in recent years. So I became really fascinated with them and thought that they were a group of characters that needed another look.
WPR: Regarding Golden Age comics being a head of their time, have you identified any key differences on the creator side of comics or the social customs of the time that make it so?
MM: I think part of the reason the Golden Age is so interesting is because the medium of comic books was just being born. So in a sense, these creators were developing their own language and they were basing work off of newspaper comics, but creating a different language and art form of their own with comics. I think that there was more room for experimentation in the same way early films and early rock ‘n roll, and the beginning of all these mediums, had very experimental times. Also, in the beginning of comics they weren’t sure who the audience was going to be: adults or kids or a combination of both. They were doing, in some cases more, what we would consider now, more progressive material. After World War II, it became established that this was a medium for kids. There was a need to buckle down and clean things up a little bit. And that, is when I think we see the more interesting characters disappearing.
WPR: Are there any modern comic creators or characters that capture some of that Golden Age allure in that these characters have both agency and fun or anything goes attitude?
MM: I think some of Grant Morrison’s stuff like the current Multiversity, where he is creating these fantastic characters that don’t have to amount to anything. He generates a lot of interesting ideas and characters. In an ongoing series when it actually has to lead somewhere, I think it changes and the outcomes and some of the results are disappointing. Some things from Warren Ellis like Stormwatch and Planetary had some fantastic characters. I think a lot of it is that in a series where a character only appears one or two times, they can be crazy and fantastic. Some creators have to sustain characters for a long period of time and readers are going to want more depth out of them that I think not all creators know what to do with the characters.
I love Love and Rockets by Jaime Hernandez and the “God and Science” stories, which is a superhero story where one of Maggie’s friends had to pass as a superhero and she was part of the superhero team. I was reading that and I loved it so much I wanted to read comics like this every month. Because they were just fantastic characters—really great female characters—funny, crazy things happened but it’s still heart-warming. It’s my ideal kind of comic.
WPR: With Supergirls! Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines, you talked about costuming and how it has changed. Some of the costuming that the Golden Age ladies are wearing is equally revealing with bare midriffs, plunging necklines, and lots of leg. Yet, they are not held back by it. What is different [with female characters] now?
I think a lot of it is the writing. Granted you can write a really strong character, but if she is drawn to look like an object or stripper, how much of the strength of character can come through. A lot if comes from the frame of reference from the artist. I think that the old comics were looking at Hollywood and at movies and drawing influence from there. For the last twenty some years it really feels like artists are looking to adult entertainment and “stripper culture.” You can see the difference in a character from the 1970s and then at how she’s drawn in the 1990s and nowadays.
There was the controversy over the Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover recently. I see the reason, but it is not the worst I’ve seen by any means in the last few years. I was looking at something, I don’t read Red Hood and the Outlaws, but I saw a picture of Starfire recently and I thought “Oh my god, why wear anything?” So, yeah, it feels like “stripper culture” to me. I think there was something in the 1990s where men’s entertainment, adult entertainment, really came into the mainstream and I think that aesthetic is just part of what we see.
[Author’s note: Mike and I were fully talking about male gaze in adult material being used as drawing influences and becoming the visual basis for objectification female characters, including what is deemed ideal or sexy. We were not attributing this change in perspective to women who choose to dance or participate in adult entertainment.]
WPR: There’s nothing behind the curtain any longer.
MM: For me, that’s what makes comics such an adult medium. That there is, you know, I think you can have great characters. I haven’t been following the Power Girl and Huntress series for a while because I didn’t think the writing was that interesting, but you can say they are good characters. They are two strong women, one of them is running her own company, but if you look at the way they are drawn—do you want your seven-year-old daughter to look at them and is the writing something she can understand?
WPR: Are there any Golden Age female characters that you would like to see rebooted?
MM: Good ones or bad ones?
MM: OK. Some of them have, I think. But there is a character I liked in the first book [Divas, Dames, and Daredevils] The Woman in Red. Actually Alan Moore brought her back as part of Terra Obscura. But they tend to bring them back and put them as part of the modern superhero genre. I liked the original version of her because she is a police detective and her boss knows she is The Woman in Red and when he has these cases that are too difficult for the police force to solve, he hands them over to her. And I also like that she wears this long red cloak like a monk. Somebody asked at one of these talks what character I’d like to see adapted into a movie and I said her. It would be the only superhero movie Tilda Swinton would be ideal to star in, you know what I mean? It would be fantastic.
WPR: It would be!
MM: And for the bad character, there is this character in the new book named [Vamps, Vixens & Vipers] Madam Doom because she, like a lot of the characters in the new book she is remorseless, she doesn’t feel bad about what she does. She actually takes some pleasure in it. At the same time she is elegant and kind of icy, yet she falls in love with this hero. The thing I like about the story line is that too often you see a bad woman and hero fall in love and she will repent or reform. In this case she has no intent to reform. This character Black X actually considers giving up his spy work to be with her. So, he winds up playing what we consider to be the traditional female role of someone who follows his heart. Where she actually has no heart and is happy just doing her evil deeds.
WPR: In exploring the Golden Age and bringing it to the forefront, what do you hope your readers or fans will take away from these compilations?
MM: I think there is this perception that comics from the Golden Age were simple more juvenile fare. These stories when revived or reinterpreted by modern writers, they make them sort of corny and campy. While there is a certain campy quality to them, what I would like people to see is that there was actually more depth to a lot of the characters. And, that the writing was quite different. A lot of these stories are told as a self-contained story in about five to eight pages, where now we have a story line that stretches for six months. So the writing is really tight and characters are developed quite quickly with really good, really smart characters. The women in particular are funny. It’s a big thing with me that we don’t see that many women with a sense of humor and I just think there is more to that perception of a real gung-ho patriotism because of WWII. There is more interesting work and progressive characters than what we’ve seen.
WPR: I can’t agree more. It’s been eye-opening for me to read these stories and wonder why we don’t have more of that now. Is there anything you think comics does as an industry or specific creators are doing better today than the Golden Age?
MM: Definitely handling diversity better now. I think with the nature of the medium and the way stories are told, you are able to explore characters motivations more and obviously develop them more over time.
WPR: After creating your latest two books, are the heroines or the villainesses more interesting to you?
MM: It is interesting. I talked about this yesterday [at the presentation]. Obviously we look at the heroines a being, you know, representing female power and they pursue what we consider to be important values like justice and truth; but, at the same time, they hide behind these secret identities and they compartmentalize their heroism. They assume a false identity. They go out. Then they go back to these lives where they put on a pair of glasses and they’re secretary or someone’s daughter and no one knows what they can actually do. Whereas these villainesses, they made a real commitment. They are bad full time. They aren’t interested in being restricted by society. They work outside of society and they are about these lives of freedom and independence for them. Granted, they do that by stealing and killing people. In a sense it is more, I hate to say, that glamour of the outlaw, but they are stronger characters due to their convictions. Granted that their values are not what we respect, but they stick with them and they are willing to pay the price for living the kind of life that they want. I found that interesting.
WPR: It is interesting. I feel like we don’t see that with some of the villains today and prevalence of anti-hero stories. It all seems very gray. When you look at the Joker, he depicted as just remorseless.
MM: One of the issues I have now, in modern comics, when you look at the big villains and who they are you still have The Joker, Doctor Doom, Darkseid, Red Skull, and Thanos, but I don’t feel there is a woman at that level. You had, in the last thirty years, a character like Mystique who was really murderous terrorist. And over the years she’s become a little bit softened. At one point she joined the X-Men and then she had her own series where she is doing missions for Professor X and then we find out she was married to Professor X. There is something about these villainesses that when they get to be popular there is a need reform them and bring them over to the good side. I am not saying that I don’t want characters to improve themselves or reform, but ultimately I think it takes away some of their power and makes it seem a though they don’t have the same drive or have what it takes the same way that a man would. You don’t have anyone at the “Big Two” that is a woman sitting at that table. In the same way that people say that you don’t have real strong female heroes. Captain America, Thor, Iron Man but who’s the female that can be with them. Wonder Woman (on the DC side), but I feel like it is the same on the villains. Emma Frost, for example, is someone that was bad. Now she’s kind of good, but still a little bad. And then you have these heroines that are the same thing. Black Widow is an Avenger, but then she’s an assassin on the side. Psylocke goes behind her teammates’ backs and kills people. So the women on both the good and bad side tend to fall into anti-heroine gray area where I think they wind up not being as strong as either the good or the bad.
WPR: Switching gears a little bit, you’ve been at GeekGirlCon every year since it started. What keeps you coming back?
MM: First of all, it is really fun. For me, it is the most enjoyable of conventions. When I first wrote Supergirls, I did it with the idea that I wanted to write about these characters, but I wanted to also write a book that would be accessible to women who might be interested in this subject with a lot of pop-culture references to ground what I was talking about. I’ve heard from a lot of women since it came out about why they liked it. Before I wrote it, I didn’t know that many women who liked comics. I knew Trina Robbins a couple of other women, but I wound up having conversations here with women that I always dreamed I’d have but never thought I would. I meet these people here with really incredible interests. Also, when you go to other conventions there are a lot of people selling comics and stuff. I love the fact that here you have lots of people that are making things. And it just seems…over the years comics have gotten so serious that I fear the fun has been taken out of it, here there is still a lot of fun even though there is serious discussion about women in fandom and what all that entails. But, there is also a real fun and enjoyment of all these interests people have. And I feel like that is missing at other conventions I go to.
WPR: Well, that’s because we are always the “humorless feminists” at the big conventions.
MM: At the big conventions, it is also a guy with an iPad checking off the issues of Showcase that he needs. And here I think there is more freedom. So a lot of the women let it go with the cosplay stuff, right? It’s not like you are being constantly eyeballed by a bunch of guys. It just feels like an environment where you are free, even for just two days, to enjoy what you like. I think that is great. It is such a unique experience. It’s a lot of fun and really smart. I learn about comics here that I have no idea about. Last year I went to the Sequential Tarts panel and I was interested in what women read and I learned more about series that I didn’t know a thing about—same at your panel yesterday.
WPR: Great! I was at that Sequential Tarts panel too. There is always something undiscovered out there. I love the learning aspect at GeekGirlCon.
MM: A lot of people ask me why more women don’t read comics. There is a perception that women don’t read comics. I think the obvious answer is that they don’t like the way females are drawn or something. But, I always say that I think women are looking for something other than 20 pages of people in capes fighting. They want to see and read different types of stories and that theory of mine has been validated here. When I hear about the types of series that women are enjoying, they are often titles with more depth and have more range and different types of characters. It is has been great learning about that stuff. Especially for me, as I am over the years becoming more disenchanted with some of the mainstream comics. I never wanted to be that guy at the comic book store who talks about how things were better in 1982, but it’s heading that direction. Part of the reason I looked to the Golden Age material is that I don’t want to lose that love of comics. And it is always good to learn about other quality titles out there.
WPR: So what is next for you? Is there another book project?
MM: I told my publisher I don’t want to don’t want a Sex and the City #2 version of my books. For me, I only want to do something if I feel it a substantial. What is interesting are the characters and the stories. That’s what speaks to me. So if I find something compelling enough to look into and explore, I will. Right now I don’t have any plans.
WPR: I hope you find something to motivate you. Your books are always at the top of my reading list.
MM: You know, it is interesting living in San Francisco because we ae supposed to be so intellectual but we have no bookstores, a few small ones. So it is interesting coming here and meeting people who have read my books. Even the AV guy yesterday said I’m so glad you’ve got a new book coming out.
A big “thank you” goes out to Mike Madrid for taking the time to chat with me during GeekGirlCon ’14. If I get to bend Mike’s ear again, I must ask him about the alliteration all his book titles. I’m a big fan of it! With a name like Mike Madrid, he comes by it naturally.
If you are looking for a gift for a comic reader, or someone looking for a different take on female characters, I cannot recommend these books enough. Follow these links to purchase.