Consider this to be BookFest PA 2016’s splash panel.
Historian Tim Hanley, author of “Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter” and “Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine,” will discuss the portrayal of women in comics at 11 a.m. on July 16 at Schlow Centre Region Library.
But first, his credentials — Hanely studied European history in college but ended up writing a paper on the gay panic surrounding Batman and Robin, he prefers the Golden Age of comics but has a soft spot for the work of the early 2000s and, perhaps most importantly, he’s a DC guy.
Below, the historian talks more about his love of comics and the topics he’s keen to continue exploring.
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Q: Do you remember the first comic you ever read ?
A: I actually don’t! My grandmother was a yard sale enthusiast who often bought me stacks of old comics, Archies and superheroes and “Classics Illustrated” and whatnot, so I’ve been steeped in comics ever since I knew how to read. They were always just around, and I don’t remember what specific issue started it all.
Q: Based on some of your books it seems like you’re a DC guy. What attracted you to that universe as opposed to some of the other brands lining the shelves?
A: Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies were huge when I was a kid, and while I was too young to see them, Batman was everywhere and soon after starred in his own, fantastic animated TV show every afternoon, so Batman was my main gateway into superheroes. Batman’s a DC character, and getting into him led me to other DC heroes because their ads were always in the Batman comics I was reading. These days, the superhero comics I buy are split pretty evenly between DC and Marvel, but DC is my preferred universe even though I love them both.
Q: When did it occur to you that comic books could be the subject of scholarly analysis and not just enjoyable reading material? Or, phrased another way, when did you begin to set your sights on becoming a comic book historian?
A: I started to see comics this way when I was in college, studying to be a European historian and finding myself very bored. European history is fun and all, but the deep dive of standard academic history just wasn’t for me; I liked the stories more the minutia. So I started taking courses that came at history from different angles, and exploring history through popular culture really resonated with me. I brought in my love of comics and ended up writing an essay on the gay panic surrounding Batman and Robin in the 1950s, and I was off to the races from there. I ended up doing my master’s thesis on the history of Wonder Woman, and that eventually evolved into my first book.
Q: What do you think distinguishes comic books from other modes of storytelling? Are there certain narrative tools that are unique to that medium?
A: This is going to sound really simple, but the combination of words and pictures makes comic books unlike anything else. It’s everything good about books combined with everything good about movies or television, a blending of words and visuals into specifically chosen snapshots to tell a story. But unlike books, there’s more than just words we bring to life in our heads, and unlike movies, there are no budget restraints or CGI limits. Creators can do anything they want in a comic book; it’s unbridled imagination, right there on the page. The narrative potential is endless with comics.
Q: A lot of your work seems to be focused on the women of comics, like Wonder Woman or Lois Lane. What about those characters were you interested in examining through your research?
A: The superhero genre is a male dominated field on every level, from characters to creators to the histories of both, and I found myself far more interested in the often overlooked history of these great female characters.
With Wonder Woman, her unconventional feminist origins and the bizarreness of her early decades fascinated me. She’s a feminist icon now, but her journey to this status and the behind-the-scenes drama therein is such an unusual tale, one that’s been largely forgotten and that I wanted to bring to light. With Lois Lane, she’s this great, inspiring, heroic character in her own right who’s always overshadowed by Superman, so I dug into the many depictions of the Superman mythos across comics, television and film and flipped the perspective to focus on Lois and how she’s grown and changed over time.
Q: How do you think the portrayal of women in comic books has changed or evolved over the years?
A: It’s an up and down journey, for sure. Many female characters in superhero comics were strong, independent women when they debuted in the 1940s, but found themselves pigeonholed into weaker roles with more of a romantic focus in the 1950s and 1960s. While almost everyone got a brief return to relevance with women’s lib in the 1970s, many female characters faded into the background in the decades that followed as the genre became more of a boys club. This led to a lot of unpleasantness for female characters in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as increasingly sexualized depictions. Now, though, we’re seeing a real renaissance for female characters in comics books, one that’s not coincidentally paired with a growing female fandom and more women writing and drawing comics these days.
Q: Was there anything you discovered that surprised you?
A: I was pretty well versed in the overarching history of superhero comics and their occasional propensity for treating female characters poorly, so there was nothing big that really surprised me. It was more the weird, little things that caught me by surprise, like in 1960 when young readers launched a yearlong letter writing campaign in the letter column of “Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane” to get Superman to give Lois a super-spanking; she was always trying to figure out his secret identity, and the kids thought she needed to get punished for being so nosy. Or like when I counted up how often Wonder Woman said “Suffering Sappho!” (one of her regular catchphrases, with a very specific lesbian implication) in the 1950s and found that she said it more often as the book became increasingly focused on (heterosexual) romantic hijinks.
Q: Some of these characters and storylines stretch back decades. As a historian, how do you keep it all straight?
A: I’m a big nerd, really, so keeping comic book continuity straight is kind of wired into my brain. Plus, there are clear benchmarks and eras that you can use to organize things. For example, every Wonder Woman comic from 1941 to 1986 is technically one long story (DC rebooted their entire superhero line in 1986), but along the way there were key creative changes that help to mark out several distinct portions of her history. I choose to focus more on each individual era when I write, keeping an eye on the overarching history but narrowing in on what makes each step of each character’s journey unique.
Q: Do you have a favorite DC era?
A: For history, I love the Golden Age of comics when superheroes began to debut in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Everything was new and innovative, and people were laying the groundwork for what the genre would become. It’s a fascinating, constantly changing era that’s always fun to dig into. As a fan, I’d have to say the early 2000s; DC was building toward a big event, “Infinite Crisis,” and in the years leading up to it there was a cohesion to their books and a lot of stellar storytelling that made it all a very entertaining era to read.
Q: Is there rare comic book issue floating around out there that you’ve always wanted to get your hands on?
A: I’d love to get my hands on any early “Wonder Woman” comics; the farthest back my collection goes is the late 1950s, and before that things get very expensive! In particular, it’d be fun to have “Wonder Woman” #7 from December 1943, the cover of which shows Wonder Woman running for president.
Q: If somebody was walking into a comic book store for the first time, is there a current writer/artist/storyline that you would recommend as a good jumping on point?
A: Superhero comics are in a weird state of flux right now, with everything relaunching all of the time. DC actually just started a new relaunch called “Rebirth,” so there’s a new “Wonder Woman” #1 in stores right now that’s an excellent jumping on point. There’s also a “Superwoman” #1 coming in August that stars a superpowered Lois Lane that looks great. I’d also recommend “The Legend of Wonder Woman,” a miniseries by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon that retells Wonder Woman’s origins; it’s set during World War II, and it’s ones of the best Wonder Woman stories in years. There are several issues of that available now.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a couple of short pieces for book collections currently, one that focuses on letter columns and another that goes behind the scenes of Wonder Woman’s early years. I’ve also recently wrapped up a draft of my third book, which is on the history of Catwoman and should be out sometime next year, and I’m about to launch into writing my fourth book, the details of which I’m not ready to announce apart from that it features yet another comic book heroine! The research for this one has been a blast. So yeah, I’ve got a lot of superhero history fun on the go. It’s a pretty great gig.
IF YOU GO
- What: “The History of Women in Comics” with Tim Hanley
- When: 11 a.m. July 16
- Where: Schlow Centre Region Library, 211 S. Allen St., State College
- Info: www.arts-festival.com/bookfest