A WOMAN OF VALOR

1.

When I was nine years old, I fell in love with a superheroine whose unlikely name — a name that still brings a wince of lust and embarrassment to my face when I say it — was Barda. Big Barda. I have never recovered, thank God, from my first sight of her, in Mister Miracle #8 (September 1972).

2.

The intricate pop-Zoroastrian theology of the comic books that Jack Kirby drew at DC Comics in the early seventies (in which Mister Miracle, “Super Escape Artist,” figured prominently) is wonderful, nutty, and hard to summarize. For now I’ll just say that Big Barda, commander of the Female Furie Batallion, was born and reared for a life of perpetual combat, on a world called Apokolips, by a Dickensian harridan with the cruel-irony name of Granny Goodness. She dressed in elaborate armor of dark blue scale mail with a vaguely pharaonic battle helmet, and carried a fearsome chunk of hardware, admittedly somewhat ambiguous from the Freudian point of view, called a Mega-Rod. As for her eponymous immensity, it was not merely physical; everything she did partook of the bigness that was the essence of her character. She spoke in exclamations and displayed Rabelaisian appetites for food and drink. She was brusque, sardonic, hot-tempered, and did not endure patiently the doubts and tergiversations of anyone less intelligent or quick to seize the moment than herself. And she was, to my knowledge, the first super-heroine in the history of comic books whose personal courage, moral integrity, and astute intelligence, though they pervaded all her actions, were most joyfully expressed through her willingness, when necessary, to kick ass.

3.

Say “superheroine” and most people, I suppose, will think of Wonder Woman. With the possible exception of Supergirl, she is certainly the best known, or maybe it would be more accurate to say the most recognizable of costumed comic-book females. And Wonder Woman is strong, and buxom, and noble-intentioned; and when necessary she, too, has never hesitated to knock some heads together. When I was a boy she was, as she remains to this day (because of her ancillary trademark value as a superficially feminist icon), a star in the firmament of DC Comics, far more important than Big Barda could ever hope to be.

Now, I have heard some women say, over the years, that growing up they liked Wonder Woman (an affection which says less about the character, I think, than about the thirst and adaptability of young girls seeking female heroes in the relative desert of comic books.) But she never came anywhere near reconfiguring, like Barda did, the erotic topography of my brain.

4.

Wonder Woman’s story just never added up. It made no narrative sense. Her motivation, her purpose in life, her relations to men and their world had been formulated and reformulated by a succession of writers over the years, without ever growing any clearer. We were told that she was an Amazon princess, of misty origin, a demigoddess, heiress to Hellenic splendor and daughter of Queen Hippolyta herself; and yet she dressed in a costume that appeared to have been previously aired by a burlesque dancer at the Gayety, in Baltimore, Maryland, on the Fourth of July, 1933. I learned from my reading of Jules Feiffer’s seminal The Great Comic Book Heroes that the early stories, which I read in cheap reprints, had been accused of promoting low morals; and I had noticed that they did seem to feature a lot of scenes of Wonder Woman tying people up or being tied up herself. But at the age of nine I didn’t get what that was all about. I still don’t, come to think of it. At any rate, Wonder Woman had abandoned bondage and domination nearly a quarter of a century before, her magic golden lasso of compulsion the only surviving trace of those wild days.

This lasso formed one third of Wonder Woman’s essential toolkit, along with her bullet-scattering bracelets and her invisible airplane. What any of these had to do with Greek mythology, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or one another, only the late Dr. William Moulton Marston, her creator, knew for sure. A lasso! An invisible airplane! Even her secret identity, Diana Prince, felt gratuitous, unlived — she might have abandoned it at any time without cost to anyone, least of all herself. Rooted in mythology, Wonder Woman never generated any mythology of her own; she contradicted herself without struggling against or embodying those contradictions; she had, in other words, no story. Only a narrative — only a woman with a narrative — can truly engage the erotic imagination. Everyone else is just a pinup.

5.

Supergirl, then. She was Superman’s cousin, it may be recalled, Kara El, born and raised in Argo City on the planet Krypton. She was a blonde, well constructed (all superheroines must be well-constructed). Always a tad on the perky side, to my way of thinking. She looked nothing like her older cousin; what she looked like, in fact, was the classic shikse as envisioned by Jewish men of the day. She had all the classic shikse accouterments: a Super-cat, a Super-Horse, a girlish Super-Room of her own. She hung out with the clean-cut, earnest teen-agers of the future — they came from all over the galaxy, and yet they were all goyim — at the thirtieth-century headquarters of the Legion of Super-heroes. She wore, one sensed, a formidable brassiere. But Supergirl had more soul than Wonder Woman. It was a sisterly, Laurie Partridge brand of soul: chipper, maybe, but tinged with parental loss. She had the tragic Superman streak, the central existential knowledge that her mighty powers derived from her greatest sorrow.

At the same time, Supergirl constituted a betrayal of one of the key elements of the Superman myth — that he was the sole survivor of a destroyed world, the eternal orphan. Inevitably, perky and ample as she might be, Supergirl cheapened the drama of Superman. She gave off a whiff of exploitation, of endless writers seeking endless variations on a theme. She had the elements of a narrative, but it was largely a borrowed one, an echo of that of her superfamous cousin. She did not possess her own mythology so much as belong to Superman’s, right along with Krypto, and the Phantom Zone, and Bizarro, and the City of Kandor in its bottle. She was, finally, ancillary, inferior, a kid. She was not Superwoman — there was no room, apparently, for a Superwoman. She was all-powerful, and yet she did not command.

6.

Across town and in another universe, at Marvel, the pickings were, to be honest, probably worse. It took Marvel Comics years to begin to put together any worthwhile superheroines. The first crop was, to a gal, embarrassingly disappointing. They had all the measly powers that fifties and sixties male chauvinism could contrive to bestow on a superwoman. One of these ladies could, for example, make herself very, very small. Another, whenever she chose, could render herself invisible. Several employed witchery, or some enhanced form of women’s intuition. One was the black widow type, and knew karate. And so on. It was not until a character called the Valkyrie came along, in the seventies, that a Marvel Comics heroine established herself as entirely her own woman, no one’s wife or sister or daughter or girlfriend, no one’s archenemy-ess. The Valkryie’s winged horse, Aragorn, you suspected, would have wiped the floor with Supergirl’s fussy, effeminate Comet. A few years after the Valkyrie, a sword-swinging, fiery barbarian named Red Sonja came along, brought to more vivid life than any preceding superheroine by artist Frank Thorne during a glorious eleven-issue run. The nineteen-seventies, as I look back, were a pretty good time for amazons.

7.

I guess it was inevitable that comic book writers and artists, looking for source material, would turn, now and then, to the Amazon. That was the archetype underlying the very first superheroine (though, come to think of it, Wonder Woman’s problem all along was that she never lived up to her Amazon billing), and from time to time in the history of comics — though not very often — independent, freebooting heroines like Sheena the Queen of the Jungle popped up: tough and strong but, more importantly, beholden to no one. Sheena, the Valkyrie, and Red Sonja were unencumbered by any glasses-wearing, steno-pad-carrying secret identity. There was no unwitting, patronizing lunk of a boyfriend or super-date, no repressive cover story to get tangled in. They did not shy from a fight — on the contrary, they relished conflict. And they demanded to be treated as equals, to whatever extent that their mostly male writers and artists were willing to grant. As fond as I may be of this type of character, however, I’m obliged to concede that the Warrior Woman is, in its way, as sexist a cliche as Shrinking Violet (tininess), or Phantom Girl (insubstantiality), or Light Lass (rendering any substance to the condition of fluff).

This is where Big Barda comes in.

8.

Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City in 1917) was a bit of a madman, a cultural magpie, self-taught, movie-crazy. He grew up scrapping on the Lower East Side. He had seen tough service under Patton. The harshness of the world and the wonder of the movies mingled freely in the comics that he drew. As he got older, his vision turned darker and darker, his sense of the indifference of a hostile universe to human fortune increased. More and more in his work at Marvel during the late 60s, vast primal forces of Good and Evil fought a perpetual war to whose combatants our earth was at most a bystander, at worst a worthless speck of dust. This endless warfare, this broken universe, left a heavy mark, in Kirby’s work, on human beings. It took strong people to stand up to it. Kirby’s people, in his drawings, grew more and more massive, statuesque. They strode across the panels like tragic Shakespearian giants, beset all around by men and creation, crackling with energy bolts. When they slammed into walls and buildings, the walls and buildings fell down. It was out of this late-Kirby world of grandeur and conflict and sorrow over the brokenness of the world that Big Barda came, brandishing her Mega-Rod.

9.

Barda was up to the fight — any fight, and then some. The world she was born into and the way she was raised had obliged her to learn to be strong, vigilant, resourceful, and submissive to no one. But her intelligence told her that conflict is a waste, of life and time and energy, and she regretted it. She had her own narrative — a history of heartbreak, hardship and achievement — and though it constituted only one part of the larger mythology of Kirby’s epic, it was her part; she had earned it. She saw the wrongness, the wickedness, the unreasoning cruelty of the world, and though she had been trained to withstand it, her heart rebelled. Mighty, she used her strength and risked her freedom to help the weak. In time she would mutiny against the might-makes-right strictures of her home, and attempt to form a partnership of physical and intellectual equals — with Mister Miracle, her paramour, the love of her life. In his company, in rare moments of quiet, she doffed her armor, laid down her Mega-Rod, and made him a gift — both of them knowing full well its value — of her vulnerability, her sorrow, the pain of her childhood and youth. She was a valkyrie with a brain and an aching heart.

10.

In her substance and substantiality Big Barda, Kirby biographers and scholars generally agree, was modeled on the late Rosalind Kirby (nee Goldberg), Jack’s wife of fifty years.

11.

After discovering Big Barda, I could never be happy with the run of the mill heroines I encountered in my life, whether they were amazons or violets or wasps or invisible girls. Then one night I met this woman who was not — not at all — Big. Five feet tall, she generally went about unarmed. She had been raised not in the suicide slums and battle-orphanages of Apokolips but on the maple-lined streets of Ridgewood, New Jersey. It was tough on her; she had been encouraged, like most girls at the time, to learn to shrink, to be witchy, to turn herself invisible. She was pretty much the proverbial slip of a girl — a size zero — but she had, I saw at once, an inner Bigness. Like Barda, she did not suffer fools gladly. She did not carry a Mega-Rod; she didn’t need one. She had plenty of narrative — sometimes it seemed that she was all narrative, stories and incidents and catastrophes and triumphs, like Churchill’s definition of history, one damn thing after another. From time to time the frenzy of battle came upon her, and then the walls and buildings started to rock and crumble. I had never met anyone, in short, more fit to command the Female Furie Batallion. Now that passing time, hard-earned wisdom, four pregnancies, and I have all conspired to free her from the cruel-irony dietary and body-image regimes of the Apokolips in which we raise our young women, I think she would fill out pretty nicely, given the opportunity, whatever mad armor Jack Kirby could dream up.

12.

It’s traditional in Jewish homes, on the Sabbath, for a husband to chant the poem called Eshes Chayil, “A Woman of Valor.” In ancient Biblical language he praises her, articulating a litany of true womanly virtues: strength of body and mind, compassion, resourcefulness, reliability, artfulness. He praises her costume, and her readiness for righteous battle. “She girds her loins in strength,” is what he says, “and makes her arms strong.” Every week, in every home — traditionally — every husband affirms this central truth to every wife: that she is, as that great Jewish mythographer Jack Kirby understood, his Big Barda. Alas, the chanting of this poem is not, I’m sorry to report, a tradition that my wife and I observe. So I guess these words will have to serve instead.

(Berkeley, 2004)

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