From Friday’s The Oklahoman:
By Matthew Price
Many people thinking of comics from the 1940s would think of muscled supercharacters such as Superman and Batman. But writer Ron Goulart follows another trend, that’s continued from the early days of comic books until today.
“Good Girl Art,” the latest book by comics historian Goulart, traces the popularity of drawing pretty, often scantily-clad female characters back to the Phantom Lady, Torchy, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
Comics originally were reprints of comic strips from newspapers. But after the success of Superman in “Action Comics,” more and more publishers began requesting original material.
By 1941, “some of the more crafty publishers realized it wasn’t just kids (reading comics), it was teenage boys, it was young men,” Goulart said in a phone interview.
“The thing about GIs in the Second World War, they were kids, 18 or so,” Goulart said.
Rather than look solely at Superman, these teens and young men “might want to see somebody in a bikini, like Sheena,” he said.
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, is described by Goulart as a “blonde, female Tarzan,” and was published in “Jumbo Comics,” from the shop of Jerry Iger and Will Eisner.
“What distinguished her from Tarzan, Ka-Zar and the other comic book jungle characters was that a great many readers found her a bit more interesting to look at,” Goulart writes in “Good Girl Art.”
“Her core audience was added to appreciably during World War II, when thousands of pin-up happy GIs joined the ‘Jumbo’ readership.”
The Good Girl style of art took a bit of a beating in the 1950s, as Dr. Frederic Wertham, senior psychiatrist of the New York Department of Hospitals, led a crusade against comics that caused the adoption of the Comics Code. This voluntary code slowed down Good Girl Art, but it came back in the 1960s and 1970s.
“By the 1970s, you have a college audience and an older audience,” Goulart said, that was drawn to characters like Vampirella and a revived Black Canary.
“Good Girl Art” also follows the career of Dave Stevens in the 1980s.
“We have two pieces of his work, the one where he did the Betty Page-type character for the Rocketeer, and then he did an unpublished Phantom Lady, which is one of the last ones in the book,” Goulart said. “He was one of the, in his period … one of the most popular guys doing that kind of thing. He certainly helped the revival of interest in Betty Page, as well. Betty Page also influenced the return of Phantom Lady in the ’40s.”
And Good Girl art continues to this day, with artists like Frank Cho, who provided the cover to “Good Girl Art,” and Adam Hughes.
But one thing that’s changed is the role the women play.
“In the old days, like the ’40s … when you saw women on comic book covers, about half of them would be victims,” Goulart said. “Now when there’s women on the cover of a comic book, I would say 95 (percent) or 99 percent of them are heroes. You don’t see the woman being saved anymore, you see the woman saving someone else.”
Goulart says comic books often reflect what’s going on in the world and in society.
“In the Second World War you had Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth and you had pin-up girls. This was what was going on. Comics were aimed mostly … (at) males. So they’re going to put pictures of pretty women,” he said. “I didn’t invent that, and I’m not justifying it, but that’s the way it is. You could say, well, this is a very sexist thing, but … the good girl art, for the most part (is) incredibly tame considering what you can see in the men’s magazines, or certainly on the Internet now. It’s a very sedate kind of sexiness.”