DC Bombshells Rewrite History
By Valerie Estelle Frankel
Comic-Cons offer every possible superheroine mashup. Steampunk Wonder Woman, robot Catwoman, and bell-bottomed Batgirl aren’t even a surprise. Thus the time was right for another alt-world. DC Bombshells (with its first graphic novel out this March, fittingly Women’s History Month) takes place in a reality where (only!) female superheroes guard the homefront during World War II. Originally created as a series of statuettes, it’s styled like 1940s pinup art with a touch of dieselpunk — scifi tech from the car age rather than the Victorian steampunk era. True, the concept came from alluring statues of just the girls in clever twists on their original costumes that are nonetheless rather racy. And the comics aren’t much better as the variant covers reveal (very much so!) Poison Ivy doing lingerie ads, Huntress flaunting a low rockabilly top, and Rose Wilson in what must be called a pirate stripper costume too racy for Halloween shops.
The comic derives from the figures — often a bad idea if movies from videogames have anything to say about it. Nonetheless, it works. Marguerite Bennett, who’s writing the series for DC, notes:
We retroactively grew their life stories out of the designs. What could’ve made Batwoman pick her weapon of choice, if it’s not evoking a creature of the night? What is the mask that Joker’s Daughter carries? How did Harley get on that torpedo? It’s great fun. (Dietsch)
Their origins as models that mirrored pin-ups is on the surface problematic. Certainly, there is more than a touch of “good girl art” as heroines fight in short shorts and exaggerated cleavage. Badder girls Harley and Poison Ivy are down to their bras. Robert Tonner (CEO and Founder of Tonner Doll) loves the “naughty but wholesome” take as he calls it (Dietsch). Nonetheless, the original artists insist that elements of power are present too. Statue designer Ant Lucia explains:
One important thing to the Collectibles team was to keep all the women in a power position. They’re all fun poses, but we were really careful as to not cross over that line into something that portrays those characters as less than powerful. (Dietsch)
DC Collectibles Design Director Jim Fletcher adds, “One of the premises of the line is that they have to have an attitude that we like, but they mostly have to look like they’re in control of what’s happening” (Dietsch). Certainly, dressing characters as noir femme fatales, female ball players, and bandana-wearing workers emphasizes forties-style power — of women new to the men’s working world.
More significantly, there are no supermen, only the superwomen. Thus Batgirl’s role as Batman’s sidekick has vanished as if it never existed, along with Batgirl herself. Batwoman even saved young Bruce Wayne, removing the need for any caped crusader besides herself in her perky batter’s uniform and mask. Unlike the real Golden Age of comics, women are the ones with the superpowers. “There will be male heroes too,” said Marguerite Bennett. “But what I wanted to concede the entire series to be was that the women came first. No heroines are derivatives of their male counterparts” (Rogers). This world of capable, heroic women with no male superheroes in sight is what many would have actually seen at home, with the young men all at the front and only Rosie the Riveter types left to defend their families. “GCPD doesn’t mind the extra pair of hands, with enough of us gone overseas,” Detective Maggie Sawyer notes.
“In this story, in this universe, I wanted the women to be the ones to define what heroism is going to be for this coming century,” Bennett adds (Rogers). Bennett, who is also writing A-Force for Marvel, with its all-female Avengers team, wanted to make sure that in the DC Comics Bombshells universe, women could soar.
This new world remakes all the characters for World War II (though Wonder Woman’s classic forties origin with Steve Trevor is about the same, unsurprisingly). Batwoman is an actual Bat-woman as an all-American ballplayer by day, vigilante by night, with her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer a police detective (echoing the current Batwoman comics). Batwoman notes, “I’m keeping the neighborhoods safe while everyone’s got their eyes overseas.” Their roles emphasize the women taking men’s jobs during the war, though their private relationship flourishes outside of the public gaze. Bennet adds:
Batwoman is technically operating outside the law, and Maggie Sawyer is our Jim Gordon in the “Bombshells” universe, so their reasons for being guarded in public had nothing to do with their personal relationships. I wanted to focus on scenes of them together and happy. The last thing I wanted to do was open with them having to suffer prejudice and violence; we’d much rather watch our heroines be heroines than first prove that they have the right to be here at all. (Barksdale)
Upon meeting famous Kate Kane, superhero manager Amanda Waller begins recruitment with her line, “How would you like to end the war?” and the women are off to the front.
After Batwoman bids her girlfriend a loving goodbye, Waller escorts her to an alien spaceship. “While the good gentlemen are relying on more traditional warfare, we have engaged an independent organization that makes use of ‘unexpected and unsuspected resources’,” Waller explains. “Welcome to the Bombshells.”
Certainly, women experimented with nontraditional warfare at the time. The world needed women to take men’s jobs at home but also in the field. And many of those women distinguished themselves.
Russia’s female fighters included the beautiful blond sniper Roza Shanina, famous for her many confirmed kills. And women who joined European resistance movements carried arms, and used them, as did the many women in intelligence and espionage roles. In the United States, women were forbidden to fire their weapons, but the Army Air Force utilized female pilots, including a contingent of Chinese-American women. Army ground forces also utilized women’s skills in new ways, including for training men in field artillery and in cryptography. Women served in these capacities with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a reserves body. (Ben-Ghiat)
In an interview, Eleanore Sonich describes joining the Marines in World War II because they were the toughest. The Marine commandant rejected fanciful nicknames for their women’s division, saying, “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname, and they don’t need one.” Sonich describes telling off her drill sergeant at one point and learning to defend herself: “They told you what the seven vulnerable parts of the body were, where you could strike,” she said. “And also, we had hat pins, but they weren’t on our hats. They were under our lapels, and you could jab somebody with that. That would be a surprise.” Her job was filled with strength and capability not harassment about a woman’s role (Albrecht).
At the same time, the series is an alternate history of World War II, not a period piece. Thus there are no external limitations on the women’s roles as African-American Amanda Waller plays recruiter or Batwoman lives quietly with her girlfriend. Bennett explains, “I don’t want to see them first have to prove that they’re allowed to be heroes. I didn’t want to deal with elements of sexism or segregation. I wanted to move society ahead so that we could already jump over those hurdles” (Rogers). She adds: “When girls pick up these books, they can see these women being wonderful and living up to their fullest potential without first having to deal with all the societal constraints” (Rogers). Lucia notes:
The illustrations harken back enough that they have that vintage quality, but the other fun thing about it was adding in a few modern elements that we just thought were a fun take. This developed into an Elseworlds scenario anyway. It was a little bit of both. Every time we started we would gather imagery of old goggles or shirts or shorts or skirts styles or any elements we thought we might be able to incorporate. (Dietsch)
Forties fashion is front and center: Bennett explains:
“We wanted to be able to give a sense of the time period, not only in the artistry, not only in the designs, but also in the media and the film and the art that was prevalent in that era” (Rogers).”
Zatanna’s in full burlesque with a fascinator. Catwoman’s slinky black dress, gloves, and glasses give her a Mata Hari appeal. Mera, in a floppy beach hat and sandals, is a bathing beauty teasing the sailors. Black Canary is a lounge singer. Hawkgirl has a diesel-punk jet pack and is saucily chewing bubblegum. Down to the lines up the backs of stockings, there’s a strong forties aesthetic.
While other series might begin with the individual stories — Iron Man before Avengers — this one creates the heroes only to team them up (though admittedly, they’re permutations of beloved characters already). DC Bombshells thus creates a world of teamwork. Superheroes often battle alone — Superman has no partner, only weaker friends from Supergirl to the human reporters. This comic, however, emphasizes teams and partnerships in every story. Batwoman and her partner Detective Sawyer work together, like Diana and Meera or the two Karas, now Russian pilots.
The Karas (Supergirl and Power Girl in the normal DC universe) are not alien but Russian, allying with the US from foreign lands. This version, they’re half-sisters Kara Starikov and Kortni Duginovna, defenders of Mother Russia. They are blessed by the Zorja — the twin goddesses of dawn and dusk who watch the skies — and call themselves Supergirl and Stargirl. Of course, as with all heroes, their vulnerability is to each other. On capturing one to force the other’s surrender, Russian command smirks, “This superwoman has a weakness after all.” The Soviet Government recruits them as poster girls in patriotic red, flying the skies to show Russia’s might.
Of course, many have more active roles than neighborhood watch or literal poster girls. Another famous women’s assignment in the war was far more perilous — spy. Catwoman is a widowed Italian countess and cat burglar who “cracked a safe and found something that gave her a change of heart” according to Waller. Marguerite Bennet adds:
I wanted to have the art and media of the era influence each woman and her saga individually — Batwoman is a pulp radio serial, Wonder Woman is a war story, Supergirl and Stargirl are in a propaganda reel, Zatanna is in a Hammer film, Catwoman is a noir, Harley Quinn is a Looney Tune farce, Aquawoman is a romance, etc. I hope there is something for everyone — dark to light — and everything is between. (Barksdale)
Meanwhile, Zatanna and the Joker’s daughter are both entertainers in German clubs…though Zatanna is secretly Jewish and Romani. Deep undercover, she uses her magic to rescue English John Constantine, though Joker captures them both. Joker then summons the horrific demon Tenebrous the Binder with a sacrifice of human lives, and the world is imperiled once more. Constantine tells Zatanna, “Together though, we might find a way to banish these things. Change the tide.”
With the men quite emasculated (Steve Trevor has severe war trauma and Constantine is transformed into a rabbit), only the women can intervene.
The superheroines begin to converge: Harley Quinn invades Europe, riding a bomb down in ponytails and flying goggles, only to find Poison Ivy, a French spy who turned on the Germans with chemically transforming perfume and garden shears. In her usual goofy fashion, Harley convinces her to come fight Nazis in Berlin. Meanwhile, Batwoman arrives in Germany to work with Catwoman, only to discover the zombie army the Joker is unleashing. Doing recon, Kate picks Huntress — the leader of the German Youth Resistance and owner of a secret swing dance club — to be her “sidekick.” The commonality is solidarity against the Germans but each superheroine gravitates toward partnership.
Across the world, Kortni tells her sister, “Every step we have taken, we have taken together.” The supergirls are coerced by the Soviet government to serve, their parents held hostage and their entire village under threat. When they’re sent to bomb a Soviet prison, they recoil from the task in horror. The prisoners tell the supergirls, “You could truly change the fate of our motherland, lead our people away from their false commanders.” Inspired, they save their mother (though their father is stolen from them) and defect to the US where they join the Bombshells and change their red suits to blue.
Diana and Steve are attacked as they leave her magical island of Themyscira, and she fights back with Amazon strength, saying, “If I must show you a wonder, then a wonder you shall have!” General Samson Lane recruits her to be a Bombshell, and Amanda Waller dresses her, as Diana thinks, “in the fashion of the goddesses of your people…the goddesses of love and war, who protect [soldiers’ planes] as they fly, or harken of home.” When Diana refuses to murder Nazi prisoners of war, Lane is angered at her pacifism, proclaiming, “There’s a price for insurrection and desertion of duty in the field.” Steve Trevor, ex spy, knows it’s execution.
Despite the threat, Diana clings to her ethics. Like the supergirls and Batwoman, she operates in the service of life. Diana goes to prison, calmly replying, “If our choices were easy, we would not be worthy of heroism.” Nonetheless she snaps her bars and escapes, Steve at her side.
More than in male hero comics, there’s a stress on trust and partnerships — everywhere the women go, they instantly find allies. Gone is the surprise and suspicion of superheroes…or of strong women. With no straw misogynists insisting the women stop it and hide in the kitchens, they are born to the Allied cause or in more cases freely choose it once they’ve understood the Nazis’ threat toward the world. At last there are women choosing where to pledge their power and wielding it without a single man as superpowered competition waiting to rescue them. And it’s all in the past, emphasizing that there are more forties stories possible than Agent Carter’s doomed battle for respect on her own show. Marguerite Bennet concludes:
For my own part, I wanted queer characters, women of color, women of different faiths, women of different nations, women of all ages and from all places in life. In so many teams, there are only one or two women and their experiences must stand for the experiences of all women. In the world of “Bombshells,” we have enough female characters that no one has to be the role model, the romantic interest, the badass — an archetype. No woman has to be everything. No woman, indeed, has to be anything. (Barksdale)
After the war, the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed American women to become permanent members of the United States Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. While we may believe that full equality has been achieved today, there are many places where it lags, even in America. The SEALS, for instance, are still only considering opening their doors. By January 1, 2016, all service branches must notify the government if they intend to keep certain positions closed to women (Ben-Ghiat). Perhaps DC Bombshells can serve as a reminder that we really can defend our country. Yes, we can.
Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of several books on superheroines, including the forthcoming Superheroes and the Heroine’s Journey as well as The Avengers Face Their Dark Sides: Mastering the Myth-Making behind the Marvel Superheroes, Empowered: The Symbolism, Feminism, and Superheroism of Wonder Woman, and other books on superheroism and feminism. Discover them all on Amazon.
Albrecht, Brian. “Eleanore Sonich Remembers Being One of the Few, Proud Women Marines of World War II.” 29 Aug 2014. http://www.cleveland.com/profiles-of-service/index.ssf/2014/08/eleanore_sonich_remembers_bein.html#incart_related_stories
Barksdale, Aaron. “DC Comics’ ‘Bombshells’ Is a Blast From the Past but with Queer Characters.” The Huffington Post, 31 Aug 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/dc-bombshells-queer-superhero_us_55d35c10e4b055a6dab18890
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. “When World War II Brought Women to Battlefield.” CNN, 19 Aug 2015 http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/19/opinions/ben-ghiat-wwii-women/
Bennett, Marguerite, Ming Doyle, Laura Braga, and Marguerite Sauvage. DC Bombshells: Enlisted. New York: DC Comics, 2016.
Dietsch, TJ. Bombshells: An Oral History of the DC Collectables Line that Exploded in Popularity. CBR, 2 Oct 2015 http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/bombshells-an-oral-history-of-the-dc-collectibles-line-that-exploded-in-popularity
Rogers, Vaneta. “DC Comics Bombshells Creates World Where Women Were Heroes of World War II.” Newsarama, 24 July 2015 http://www.newsarama.com/25336-dc-bombshells-creator-creates-world-where-women-were-heroes-of-world-war-ii.html
The images used are property of D.C. Comics and Legendary Women, Inc. does not own the rights to or profit from them.