If you don’t know who Nightshade is, then this is the book for you.
DC Comics Super Heroines: 100 Greatest Moments offers more than just a random countdown of battles between super villains and Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Zatanna or any of the rest of DC’s catalogue of female heroes. Author Robert Greenberger provides more of a history lesson about gender perception and the evolution of female characters in an industry dominated by male creators. The 100 greatest moments are less a ranking than a round number dispersed among the characters as need requires. In a book of this sort, Wonder Woman needs more great moments than Nightshade, and if you don’t know who Nightshade is, then this is the book for you.
Oversized and made for display, the book also shows the evolution of the comics art form in the decades since the 1930s when Lois Lane first appeared in a Superman comic. The “greatest moments” tend to be greatest arcs and whole pages are devoted to the reproduction of artwork from those comics. The scope ranges from art by Joe Shuster, Sheldon Moldoff and Harry G. Peter, men who helped create the craft and whose character designs are still in use today, to Phil Jimenez, Darwyn Cooke and the incomparable George Perez. The reproductions are stunning and lead to lost afternoons absorbing and analyzing the pages like any great art. The books might even make you wistful for your old collection of long boxes, depending on what era you did the most collecting. There are also sections that will make you want to find the nearest comics shop, an endangered species these days, to find the full runs that surround some of these greatest moments.
Superhero universes are maddeningly complicated things, and Greenberger serves as a more than ample guide through the many deaths, rebirths, redesigns and reboots of these characters. He assumes prior knowledge of events like Crisis on Infinite Earth, the New 52, Flashpoint, Rebirth or any other culling of the DC multiverse, and doesn’t dwell too long on the particulars. Celebrating the super heroine and showing their importance as ever evolving characters is the goal of the project, and he proves to be the finest tour guide, dashing his appreciation of the artwork with a little history pertaining to its creation. His fandom is contagious like that of an older sibling handing you the books you might never read yourself.
Surprisingly, the book also serves as a quiet indictment of the hiring practices within the superhero comics industry. There is a paucity of female creators credited among the 100 greatest moments of DC superheroines and most of the moments of great character evolution mentioned, from the crippling of Barbra Gordon to the death of Supergirl, are written by men. While Greenberger is completely forthcoming with his feministic intentions for the book, the male gaze is burned into the DNA of superhero comics. You can see it in the “boob” window that never closes on Power Girl’s uniform to the unfortunate thong that plagues Black Canary’s fishnet stockings. The book avoids the grotesque distortions of the female anatomy most prevalent in 90s comics, but you can’t help but wonder what this list would look like if comprised by a female historian. Even the most empathetic men have their blind spots, so it would be fascinating to hear what moments a woman considered most important in the long history of DC Comics.
DC Comics Super Heroines: 100 Greatest Moments joins a long legacy of epic tomes made for old fans but with a broad enough eye toward snatching up some new ones. Like so many other innovations in expanding the comics audience, Stan Lee pioneered the way with Origins of Marvel Comics. Printed in the 70s, that book had a more limited ability to show the maturity of comics because the stories Lee juxtaposed were 10 to 15 years apart. Greenberger has decades to illustrate the progression of the super heroine from damsel in distress to driver of story. The medium has matured enough to include epic battles between Wonder Woman and Ares to quieter moments like Superman, Batman, Catwoman and Lois Lane discussing long term relationships over ice cream cones. There’s been a little bit of everything over the decades, and the best part of Greenberger’s work here is the surprises he unearths. It’s well worth seeing what he’s found.