Lonely Gods:
Social Minorities in American Superhero Comic Books

Return to Main Page

No Place For a Girl:


Batman Comics of the 1940s

       Although introduced in 1939, the character of Batman really began to develop during the next decade. The year 1940 in particular introduced many of the primary characters which are still around, including The Joker, Robin, and Catwoman. 1 Batman's early interactions with Catwoman demonstrate the attitudes towards women during this period.
1st Catwoman appearance
Batman's first meeting with Catwoman
Batman's very first encounter with "The Cat" was in the first issue of Batman, published in the Spring of 1940. 2 After he foiled her plan to steal a diamond, he tore away her disguise, shouting "Quiet or Papa spank!" 3 In addition to Batman's condescending comment, The Cat tried to seduce Batman right there on the spot, saying "Why don't you partner with me! You and I together," as she wrapped her arms around him. View Image This use of her feminine wiles on Batman appeared to be somewhat successful, as in subsequent panels Batman allowed her to escape before finally concluding, "She still has lovely eyes! Maybe I'll bump into her again sometime." 4 View Image Batman clearly viewed Catwoman more as a pretty face than as a serious opponent. This kept with the expected gender roles of the early 1940s. Although the numbers of American women working in professional fields slowly increased throughout the 1920s and 1930s, three quarters of them were employed in female dominated fields such as teaching or nursing. 5
Cat Scratch Fever
A conflicted woman
It was also expected that a woman's place should be at the home, especially if she had a husband. Subsequent appearances of Catwoman play on this perception. While Catwoman was a strong female villain who managed to continuously evade Batman and the law, she was still written foremost as a woman who was always in danger of falling in love with her male nemesis. In the sixth issue of World's Finest Comics, Catwoman listened to Batman giving a speech on the radio. "What a man!" she commented to herself. "Sometimes I want to kiss him ... and sometimes I want to scratch his eyes out!" 6 Female characters like Catwoman channel other ideas prevalent within the 1940s. One popular concept used within film noir of the late 30s and early 40s was the idea of a "femme fatale" or villain seductress, a woman who used her beauty and wiles to ensnare heroic men and force them into dangerous situations. This is obvious with Catwoman who attempted to seduce Batman and lead him away from the heroic path into a life of crime. However, the concept of a seductive female villain was not limited to just the pages of Batman. Other popular comics of the 1940s, such as The Spirit, also included a variety of female villains that tapped into the film noir genre.

       The Spirit was created by Will Eisner in 1940, and tells the adventures of criminologist Denny Colt who fought crime as a masked vigilante known as The Spirit. The Spirit quickly became popular, due to its inclusion in multiple Sunday newspapers during the 1940s. Many of the female characters in The Spirit parallel the traits of Batman characters such as Catwoman. An early inclusion in The Spirit was the character Silk Satin, first introduced in 1941. Satin, a female criminal and later British agent during World War II, encountered The Spirit several times over the years. In Satin's first appearance in March 1941, she aids a gang of criminals in stealing a valuable medallion. The Spirit, catching her in the act, returns the stolen medallion and kisses Satin. This act causes Satin to instantly fall in love with The Spirit. As she later says to The Spirit, "I hate you! Hated you ever since you kissed me! That kiss meant nothing to you .. just a part of another adventure! Well ... crawl ... why don't you take advantage of the fact that I've fallen in love with you?." 7 After The Spirit is captured by the group of criminals, Satin frees him and kills the two criminals she was working with. 8

       Silk Satin appeared several more times in The Spirit, still in love with the hero and secretly lamenting to herself that the Spirit already had a girlfriend. 9 Silk Satin next appeared in the story "Spinx and Satin, published in 1941. Now an agent of Britain, Satin was assigned to kill the Spirit. She lamented to a disguised Spirit that she still loved him. "If you were assigned to kill someone you loved for the sake of England, what would you do?" 10 Later, when the Spirit tried to confront her about her love, she only evades his questions, saying "besides ... you belong to Ellen Dolan!"11. This mantra would be repeated in still another issue, where both Silk and Spirit are stranded at sea and are rescued by a ship under the control of villainess Madam Minx, whom Silk eventually gets into a fistfight with. 12

Meet P'Gell
Meet P'Gell
       Silk Satin was not the only female antagonist The Spirit encountered. Later issues of The Spirit also included temptresses, most notably the character of P'Gell, first introduced in 1946. In her first attempt to obtain riches, P'Gell associates with the criminal elements of Istanbul and, during her quest for riches, rotates through a series of three separate husbands. Even in the face of death P'Gell manages to use her wiles to keep herself safe and wealthy. "And what about me? Was I killed?" P'Gell asks the reader near the end of the story after she is threatened by the criminal Picar. "Of course not! Picar changed his mind ... er .. charmed by my .. ahem .. personality, he proposed! And I could hardly refuse. Istanbul is so dangerous for a poor, delicate, defenseless window these days!" P'Gell closes out the issue with a seductive wink at the reader. 13

       When writing The Spirit, Will Eiser deliberately tried to introduce alluring, interesting female villains into the comic. Director Michael Uslan later wrote, "Drenched in film noir cinematic techniques of lighting, mood, character, dialogue and pacing, ... Will Eisner brought to life a formidable stable of murderesses, husband killers, blackmailers, extortionists, thieves, assassins and sirens, all cloaked in alluring faces, voluptuous bodies and entrancing hair. Pied pipers to a city of testosterone-filled lunks, they could mesmerize any man on Earth." 14 Mesmerizing female villains such as Silk Satin, P'Gell, and Catwoman proved highly popular, and demonstrate the Film-Noir trend of the 1940s where female characters were considered a seductive threat to men, and could lead men astray into lives of crime or even death. Other, more minor female characters also created dangers for male heroes such as Batman. These included not just villains, but girlfriends of Bruce Wayne.

       In 1948 the comics introduced the new character Vicki Vale into Bruce Wayne's life. While Bruce Wayne did have a few girlfriends through the early years of the 1940s, these characters were all rather minor and soon disappeared from the comics. Vicki Vale was very different, however, and this was apparent immediately from her first appearance in Batman #49. Instead of being a movie star or heiress, Vicki was a magazine photographer who wanted a feature of Bruce Wayne for her magazine.
Vicki Vale
Vicki Vale figures it out.
Nor did she immediately swoon in his presence, instead only consenting to go on a date with him to get his picture.15 Vicki Vale was also the first woman to discover Bruce Wayne is really Batman. She arrived at this conclusion not by happening upon the fact by mere chance, but rather through using her own intelligence and detective skills. However, both she and Batman's reactions indicate how women were treated in comics during the 1940s. Instead of openly confronting Bruce Wayne and telling him she knew his secret identity, Vicki Vale transformed into a sinister figure who went to any length to get additional proof so she could expose him in the pages of her news magazine. Likewise, when Batman realized Vicki's intentions he did not trust her with his identity but rather sabotaged her plan and convinced Vicki she was wrong. Any woman, regardless of whether she was not a villain, would only create chaos for Batman's superhero lifestyle. Even Vicki Vale's first appearance in Batman was heralded as "A new menace in Batman's life". 16 View Image

       While Vicki Vale was not always threatening to expose Bruce Wayne as Batman, she only served as a liability in Batman's fight against crime. In the very next issue of Batman, Vicki joined Batman and Robin in order to take some photos for an article about crime.
Vicki Vale
She's so silly.
The three were soon captured by gang members who were searching for a stash of money hidden by another criminal. The gang leader, Stilts Tyler, proceeded to torture Batman into revealing the location of the money, but had little success. Having failed to make Batman talk, Stilts decided to use Vicki as a hostage, locking her in a room filled with deadly gas as Batman watched. Batman refused to give in, and quickly escaped and freed Vicki. "Batman, I hate you!" Vicki yelled as he cut her bonds. "I might have died, but you didn't care!" Batman explained that Vicki was never in any actual danger. "That 'deadly' gas was only air. If there were really deadly gas pouring into that room, that fly buzzing around would have dropped and that plant would have drooped! So stop pouting!" 17 View Image In these early appearances Vicki proved herself to be only a liability for Batman. This reflected cultural ideas that women should not insinuate themselves into the work of men.

       In a 1936 Gallup Poll, an overwhelming 82 percent of Americans felt women should not have a job if their husbands were employed. 18 This demographic was due mainly to a depression era sentiment that women took jobs from men who needed them. 19 This belief made the situation for workers even worse. "Separate labor markets ensured that only rarely did women and men compete for the same jobs. The consequence of firing women was not that men gained access to jobs but simply that more households faced destruction." 20 With America's entrance into World War II, the idea of women working rapidly changed in response to the war effort. Although the amount of women working increased during World War II, the idea that women and wives should be subordinate to men still lingered, and working women were paid much less than working men in the same career.
Be Patient!
Batman Respects Women.
"After the war, women in better paying jobs were laid off, and when they returned to the labor force they were hired in traditionally female occupations. The result was that after the war, women were still paid less than men." 21 The Batman comics of the 1940s clearly show that women were valued less than men, as Batman dominated over all of the women he met during his adventures. In another story published in World's Finest Comics from 1941, Batman was called to solve the mystery of a man who developed amnesia after nearly being murdered. Recruiting the man's nurse, Batman took her to an abandoned mansion looking for clues. When the nurse finally asked what he is looking for Batman replied: "Just like a woman, always asking questions. Be patient." 22 After the adventure concluded, the nurse was still confused about what happened, leaving Batman to easily explain to her how he solved the case. All of these early interactions with female characters, from Catwoman and Vicki Vale to minor characters such as this nurse, demonstrate a condescending paternalism. Batman was always stronger and smarter than any woman he came across. Even an intelligent, independent career woman like Vicki Vale was never able to outwit Batman in any of her schemes to learn his secret identity.

Continue to the 1950s...