I began working on the CAPE, MASK, BOOTs project with a simple question: Who came before Wonder Woman? I stumbled onto an answer in the weirdly fascinating form of Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle, who is considered to be the first female comic-book superhero. Created by writer and illustrator Fletcher Hanks under the pseudonym Barclay Flagg, Fantomah made her debut in the comic book Jungle Comics No. 2 in February 1940.
That's nearly two years before Wonder Woman, who debuted in December 1941, just as Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States was pulled into World War II. Wonder Woman's comic book sold, at its peak, around 2.5 million copies each month, according to superheroine expert Trina Robbins in The Great Women Superheroes. And she went on to become an enduring symbol of female empowerment.
So what other powerful heroines can we look to from the early days of comic books? With my character Hauntima in Cape, I wanted to honor Fantomah and her bizarre skull face as an example of the earliest superheroine power. But as I researched other early female superheroes, I found inspiration to create so many more characters — like Zenobia, the Palomino, Hopscotch, and Nova the Sunchaser. Not only did I think powers like flying and super strength would come in handy, but also shapeshifting, controlling fire and weather, transforming objects into different objects, making things appear and disappear, shooting heat beams from the eyes, using powerful gadgets, and invisibility, to name a few.
I fell in love with the fascinating variety of crime fighters who populated comic books and newspaper strips in the years and months before WWII, and in the immediate years after, which became known as the Golden Age of Comic Books (1938-1950).
Characters like the Woman in Red, who is considered the first masked heroine, Amazona, Black Cat (not Marvel's version), the Magician From Mars, Lady Luck, Madame Strange, Flame Girl, and even Miss Fury — their stories date back 80 years, yet they are worth revisiting today. Both then and now, characters like these allow girls as well as boys to imagine that, when the world makes us feel utterly powerless, we just might have what it takes to fight injustice, protect the people we love, and even do a little good.
Many of the earliest superheroes and superheroines like Fantomah are part of what's called the public domain, meaning creative material that is no longer protected by copyright, trademark, or patent laws. (Wonder Woman belongs to DC Comics and is protected, so she makes no appearance in my stories.) You can learn more about the earliest caped heroes over at the informative and fascinating Public Domain Super Heroes website. And to learn more about the earliest women superheroes, pick up Trina Robbins' The Great Women Superheroes and Mike Madrid's Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Golden Age Comics.
If YOU created a superhero, what would she be like?
Who Came Before