AMAZONS in DISTRESS: An Examination of 1980ties Super heroines and further investigation into Women in Refrigerators Syndrome
PART 1 of an ONGOING SERIES
In 1999, Gail Simone, a prominent comic book collector and fan, realized that a large portion of her favorite female characters, both super heroine or ... normal ..., often met "untimely and icky ends". Simone started collecting data and compiled a list of dead or harmed female characters in comic books. The list was entitled Women in Refrigerators, or WiF, and put online. The study was named WiF after a particular Green Lantern comic in which his long time girlfriend is found stuffed into his fridge by the villain Major Disaster.
The study prompted a lot of heated debate from all corners of the comic book universe; editors at major publications were for and against the study and just about every opinion was expressed.
In this blog post and in 2 future blog posts to come, I am writing criticism of 1980ties female fronted action comics. One of these comics was purchased for $1 at my local comic book store and the other from Frank Santoro's curated action comics table at this past MOCCA festival. They are reflections on the WiR study.
Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld #4 of #12
This comic caught my eye because a) it was dirt cheap, b) the ornamental frame that surrounds the protagonist Amethyst is extremely well drawn and original c) I thought Amethyst was pretty attractive d) its cover depicts what looks like someone who is a mixture of Captain Morgan and a smurf chasing after a cute girl. I had just been alerted about the WiR study and this pretty much summed up its thesis in a subtle way.
Published in 1983 by DC comics, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld is a deeply loaded, excellently crafted example of the odd midpoint female protagonists often found themselves in 1980ties action adventure comic books - and for that matter, pop culture, generally speaking. Females protagonists in the 1980ties are no longer the "damsels in distress" of the prior 1960ties or 50ties. This is an era post Alien with Signori Weaver. But they are not just yet the Amazon heroins like "the Bride" in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Xena: Warrior Princess, or Alice in the Resident Evil series. Rather, female action protagonists are in this very strange, dark midpoint. Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld is a prime example of this odd "Amazons in Distress" as I am going to put it.
The story is about (and I am jumping 1/3 of the way through the story) Amy Winston, aka Amethyst, a teenage girl who spends nights dreaming strange dreams of a "lost legacy" as it is put. She then discovers that she isn't actually from Earth in the first place, but the orphaned heir to a mystic otherworld throne, Gemworld to be exact. These dreams were just foreshadowing her revelation. She transforms from one world to the next in a style similar to Jack Kirby "plasma beams" and Winsor McCay surrealism.
From a design stand point, this title is a triumph. The pencils and inks are done by Ernie Colon who has a remarkable sense of the figure and interprets the writer's (Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn) narration with sequence that is simultaneously experimental but easy to read (a feat only accomplished by the best comic book artists). He also understands sequential "futurism" inside and out as illustrated in the below page layouts.
Not only is the futuristic sequence well done (although in these two examples they go in just about the same direction), the colorist Tom Ziuko emphasizes motion by using an influx of color as depicted in the below page (lower four panels).
It is significant to point out that the people making this comic are men. However, the series is edited by Karen Berger.
A power feud is occurring between two kingdoms in Gemworld - between the house of Amethyst and the blue smurf captain Morgan Opal. Essentially, all you really need to know is Opal for bitter reasons is attempting to usurp the kingdom of Amethyst to gain control of Gemworld. Since Amethyst has just learned about her unique super powers and has not mastered using them, she is outmatched by her foe Opal since she is still gaining training from her witch goddess mother Citrina. It's somewhat of a coming of age story. But in the meantime, in this issue she is basically terrorized by the mighty Opal as illustrated in the below panel and page fragment.
Her hair is pulled, she is attacked by a tentacle monster and later on (not shown) a gigantic snake (oh man - Freud would have a field day). Amethyst does retaliate here and there with plasma beam super powers, but she is no match for the tricky Opal. Essentially, it is 23 pages of a girl being chased, frightened and on the verge of being dis empowered - like a more psychedelic and PG-13 friendly scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
While there are no girls in refrigerators - and in all fairness, this is like reviewing 1/12 of a story (and who knows? Maybe later on Amethyst will be granted a sweet sword, a machine gun or the power to behead dudes with her mind), the manner in which Amethyst is pursued is somewhat disturbing when you consider the audience of comic books during this time period. Think about how weird it would be to read 23 pages of Batman getting his hair pulled and intertwined by tentacles, his facial expression no longer stoic or stern but in a state of pure panic.
D. Curtis Johnson, a writer who has done considerable work for DC comics, puts it best in response to the WiR study (and for research purposes, this quote was found in the book The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen.
The urge that makes adolescent boys (and grown men, actually) feel good when the hero saves the damsel in distress is, scarily enough, the same urge that wants that damsel to be in distress in the first place, and the chivalrous desire to protect women from harm is inextricably tied to a secret thrill at the thought that those women are out there somewhere, being slapped around. Want to get a quick emotional flare out of an adolescent boy? Don't show him your hero saving Grandma from a train wreck, or pulling the little baby out of the burning house. Those are obviously heroic acts but your teenage reader won't identify with them, particularly - he doesn't understand old people or babies at all. But every teenage boy has at least one hot and sweaty crush going on at any given time, and if there's one thing he clearly knows and understands, it's wanting to rescue the love of his life from some horrible other guy who doesn't deserve her and is probably doing bad things to her ... hopefully at the moment you actually bust in to save her, in fact, because then she's at her most vulnerable and needy and you're there to pick up the emotional slack.
Amethyst is the stereotypical unattainable pretty blond girl who is being humbled in issue #4. That's all I'll say about the series due to the fact I am being unfair by not observing the whole story arch. With that said, it is clear that this comic is simply a very subdued "roughie" comic book similar to a sixties exploitation movie but done in the Reagan 80ties so somehow marketed to kids. It's a perfect example of a "Amazon in Distress": a warrior princess who has an uphill battle ahead of her.
With all this said, I am going to go out on a limb here and give the creators credit. While to our eyes this comic seems harsh, simplistic and soft core, a title like this in 1983 was still edgy in the world of mainstream comics. The mere fact it is a story meant for girls as implied by the feminine color palette through out the comic (but probably consumed most by weird 40 year old men) would have been hard to market to 1983 DC. The mere fact it's fan letter column is entitled "PURPLE PROSE" would make some suits a little edgy. Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld is a coming of age story - both literally and metaphorically. It doesn't yet know who it is. You don't really hear a lot about Amethyst these days because it probably didn't go too far as far as sales (I am guessing). But I will point out 2 fan letters found at the end of the comic (on a tangent: sometimes, do you wish you lived in a world BEFORE the internet?).
NEXT UP: We leave the world of the mainstream comic book and take a visit over to a CAPITAL COMICS title called WHISPER. It is a story about a pre-Kill Bill female Ninja Assassin. Until then, true believers!