Jetta (Standard Comics, 1952-1953)
Writer and Artist: Dan DeCarlo
Every discussion among “Fifties Good Girl Comic” enthusiasts is roughly the same. Somebody will throw out a title – Suzie or Patsy Walker or Katy Keene – and the conversation will commence along deeply ploughed channels, debating fashion cut-outs and career choices, until somebody says, “And then there’s Jetta,” at which point everybody goes reverentially silent. Jetta is something of the Holy Grail amongst this set, discussed only in hushed tones with other initiates. It ran for only three issues, which had horrendous distribution problems, making it almost ostentatiously rare. It was written and drawn by Dan DeCarlo, the man who invented Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and who more or less defined the Archie style. It was a humor comic about the future, ten years before The Jetsons. In their mouths, no superlative seems too extreme – it’s the Funniest of the Fifties comics, the best drawn, the smartest, the sexiest…
Every time I hear these Jetta panegyrics, I go back to my reprints and try and find just what it is everybody else seems to find in these few issues, and come up empty. The artistic style is classic and distinctive, but the jokes are awful and the characters worse. It’s basically Future Archie – Jetta’s main boyfriend is even named Arky, to really hammer the point home. Each issue contains a few stories which link together a series of flat future-tech puns (“Now you’re cookin’ with Uranium!” being the main catch phrase the series was trying to sell) in the service of telling a tale about Jetta’s variously goofy friends getting into mishaps of their own devising, often involving Arky’s chronic infidelity, which is always laughed off in the end as Jetta routinely takes him back (this is the Fifties, remember, when every good girl was expected as a matter of course to accept her Man’s roving larks).
Partially, the flatness of the comic can be laid at the door of Fredric Wertham, whose campaign against comics’ obscenity made all of the comic publishers over-chary. Across each issue’s first page is a banner reading “Look for this banner when you buy a comic magazine. It is your guarantee of wholesome reading.” Nobody was taking chances, which famously blanched the entire industry for the better part of a decade. Partially, it’s the fault of the Fifties ethos of bland conformity generally, though I think it’s easy to understate that decade’s capacity for subversive commentary. If the Fifties was the age of McCarthy, Separate Marital Beds on TV, and Andy Griffith, it was also the era of Mad Magazine, the Twilight Zone, and Rusty Warren. There were still ways to be funny and clever within the confines of the era’s straitened mores. But Jetta’s rebellion is entirely visual – the female characters are given short skirts and placed in “accidentally” tantalizing positions that got by the moral authorities precisely because the characters and humor were so entirely unexceptionable.
It’s an interesting strategy in the face of censorship, and perhaps it was the only thing DeCarlo could have done at the time, but it doesn’t make the comic good so much as good as could have been expected. Jetta has no character. Arky is morally mostly gross. The best character is of course the female villain, Hilaria, mainly because she at least has an identifiable motivation for doing things, namely hatred of Jetta. It won’t make you laugh, and you probably won’t care about anything that happens to anybody, but as a timepiece, and as an example of an art form grappling with creative restrictions, it’s fascinating. There are better “Good Girl” comics from the era, ones featuring young women dealing with the pressures of careers and actual relationships, but none with the same strange mixture of futurism and conformity, creepy sexiness with standard gender roles, as Jetta.
Hokey Smokes, a Power Meter!
Fierce: 2: Jetta gets momentarily angry at Arky’s various infidelities, but invariably takes him back with open arms after.
Smart: 1: Jetta is never shown doing anything requiring mental effort. The one science project that she’s shown being a part of, all she does is trip and fall while carrying a box of parts.
Funny: 3: I can’t say I laughed once during this comic, and can’t really imagine who would. Did “Stop handing me that space gas” ever evoke raucous guffaws? Yes, humor ages the worst of any element in the arts, but there are plenty of examples of Fifties humor in a “wholesome” vein that are legitimately funny still. There are a couple of gags that have glimmers of clever, however, if you’re really into puns.
Fashion: 5: It’s fair to speculate that the entire point of Jetta was to give Dan DeCarlo an excuse to draw women in really short skirts. His private sketches show an artist who enjoyed sexualizing his characters. Still, DeCarlo’s vision of future fashion is probably the most engaging thing about this comic, and was certainly influential in the development of The Jetsons later aesthetic.
Batgirl (DC Comics, 2011-2014)
Writers: Gail Simone, Marguerite Bennett.
Artists: Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes, Daniel Sampere, Fernando Pasarin, Jonathan Glapion.
The trick to a good Bat comic isn’t to invent villains as disturbing as possible, but rather to invent villains whose vices are extensions of the Bat heroes’ virtues. The unique drama of the Batverse comes from that tension as virtue meets its extremities. And few comics explored those tensions as fruitfully and consistently as Batgirl when Gail Simone was at the helm. Her Barbara Gordon is an exceptional human being in every regard, a person of such extreme gifts that her genius is always on the verge of becoming monstrous were it not for the overwhelming power of her basic capacity for empathy.
Simone’s run lasted for thirty four issues, though the actual number is lower still, as every time Simone built up a good head of narrative steam, the editorial powers-that-be roped the book into some sprawling Bat Event that scattered her carefully wrought threads. When permitted to tell her own stories, however, this series provided some of the best Bat writing ever. The run begins with Barbara Gordon recovered from the spinal injury that had bound her to a wheelchair for three years, creakily reassuming her role as Batgirl. Her first villains darkly echo this process. The Mirror is racked with Survivor’s Guilt, just as Batgirl is confounded by the fact that she has been given a second chance to walk when so many others were not. In fighting his obsession over the unworthiness of Those Who Survive, she has to wrestle with the darkness familiar to anybody who has had a shot at recovery not granted to others.
In Gretel, Batgirl faces a broken woman of superior abilities who is unable to piece herself together after extreme trauma. For Barbara Gordon, still haunted by the images of the Joker standing over her, putting the bullet in her that severed her spine, Gretel is a case of what might have been, and in fact what might still be, if she doesn’t resolve the fears and rage swirling about her own traumatic past. But her greatest foil is Knightfall, a titanically wealthy young woman who was made to watch her family slowly murdered over an agonizing three hours, and who resolved to use her resources to wipe out crime in Gotham City. She is smart and resourceful and organized, and absolutely committed to the virtue of what she does. She wants to eradicate the criminal element through a massive show of irresistible, privately-funded force. In some sense, it’s a familiar story – a character gets fed up with the revolving door of crime allowed by the super hero moral code, and decides to end it at last in an orgy of anti-criminal violence. But Simone consistently finds the humanity in her, and the lingering inhumanity in Batgirl, and sets them in a dance that runs throughout the comic.
That dance is fueled, as is much of this comic, by the pull between empathy and reason. Batgirl is supremely rational and intelligent, but at the same time consistently presented as the Bat figure with a unique sense of empathy and human feeling (in spite of one scene where she is chomping down on bacon, telling her father to “keep the swine train comin’” – a line that feels out of place for someone who ought to be smart enough to know the horrendous cruelty and waste of the pig industry, and empathetic enough to not be so glib about pleasures that come from the suffering and death of living creatures). Keeping those faculties in balance is her main character challenge, never realized as beautifully as in her relation with Poison Ivy, Simone’s characterization of whom is breath-taking. Ivy’s extreme reaction to the seasons, her struggle to identify with the suffering of people, her loneliness within the magnitude of her grander cause, are all eloquently portrayed, and make a lovely confrontation point for Batgirl’s own issues of balance and commitment.
One thing I’ve never been able to make up my mind about with this series is Ricky Gutierrez, Barbara’s boyfriend-for-no-discernible-reason. Some days, I think he’s brilliant as Simone’s commentary on all the vapid, characterless girlfriends of super heroes that have popped up through the years, people who have no personality and no purpose beyond getting kidnapped or hurt so that the main hero can get vengeance. He’s a bit more developed than that, but not enough to make all the big drama around his character feel justified unless it’s as a fond but snarky nod to that trope. The all-overness of the relationship as it is characterized tend to make me think that’s how it’s meant to be read – Sometimes it seems like they’ve only had one actual date, and yet he’s got a framed picture of her, and yet she at one point says she has no boyfriend, and yet she calls him her one shot at real happiness, and yet… What it all adds up to is that he’s there and emotionally important so long as he’s needed to motivate an outburst of righteous rage in Batgirl, and nowhere present otherwise, just like the cutout girlfriends of old. If he is an homage character, he’s one of the best there’s been, and if he’s not, he’s a rather consistently disappointing presence at the center of some fairly important narrative moments, which would be unfortunate. So, I’ve chosen to believe the former.
Leaving Ricky aside, Simone’s Batgirl is a series that grapples with the guilt of recovery, the greater guilt of genius, the tragedy of family (the side stories of her long-absent mother, long suffering father, and psychotic brother are all elegantly wrought), and the subtle bleed between empathy and rage with a consistent sense of psychological realism in the midst of the fantastic.
“It’s all done save the power meters, fellahs…”
Fierce: 10: Batgirl is cut from the same cloth as Batman, capable of untold fury and brutal precision, but always able to reel it in before crossing the uncrossable line, and somehow that edge of empathy makes her even more fierce.
Smart: 9: We don’t see as much of the intellect of Batgirl in this series as we did when she was Oracle. We hear about her genius a good deal, her eidetic memory is frequently referenced, and on occasion see her doing some research or computer work, but the vast majority of the time she’s punching and kicking and bleeding. Still, the psychological intelligence of the title, and the fact that her analytic approach to problems underlies even her punchiness, make this decidedly one of the brainiest books in the New 52.
Funny: 8: Batgirl isn’t a battlefield yukster, but her inner monologues and, more importantly, the everyday dialogue, are all often quite funny without the whiff of pandering that slunk into the comic after Simone left. It’s smart and current without trying to painfully show at every moment how Very Smart and Very Current it is.
Fashion: 8: No matter who’s handling her, Batgirl feels like part of the Batverse. Her costume is tactical and practical, not at all the cutesy party couture it was often before and has reverted to since. The visual portrayal of Poison Ivy is poetry, pure and simple. Even Catwoman, long the focus of everybody’s sluttiest possible efforts, is comparably restrained and sensible here – still sleek and catlike and exuding that simmering eroticism, but within the context of the character’s basic elegance.