When Sweet Briar junior Kimberly Colbert was a little girl, she’d devour the comic books her older brother let her read — to her mother’s chagrin. They were “boy comics,” her mother argued. The trouble? There wasn’t much out there a 6-year-old African-American girl could relate to, either in print or on the screen.
Even at a young age, Colbert noticed how women, and women of color, were portrayed in those “boy comics” and cartoons. They had “big boobs,” she remembers, little clothing, and virtually no impact on the plot.
“Why do boys get to do all the cool stuff?” she wondered. Maybe, a tiny voice told her, this is just the way things are?
Colbert grew up the youngest of four in Montgomery County, Md., just 20 minutes outside Washington, D.C. — and later in Williamsport, Md., a quaint town of 2,000 souls. Her father worked a government job while her mother made sure the kids were doing well at home and in school.
Her love of comics never waned, becoming a “nerdy” obsession she shared with sister Robin, who was eight years older and the closest to her in age. Together, they would spend their afternoons watching episodes of “Justice League” and “The Powerpuff Girls.”
Her questions remained, too, but Colbert didn’t quite know how to voice them. As she got older, she turned to web comics and self-published works by female and minority artists for cartoon heroes that looked more like her.
It wasn’t until Colbert arrived at Sweet Briar — a small, rural, all-women’s college three hours southwest of home — that she realized something: Maybe those mainstream comics could — and should — be different.
“I thought: Maybe I don’t have to accept it,” she told listeners at the Honors Program’s summer research introduction in May.
Colbert, an art history major who is also earning an Arts Management Certificate, was one of eight students selected to participate in Sweet Briar’s 2016 Honors Summer Research Program. It was the perfect opportunity to finally tackle some of the questions she had been pondering over the years. For eight weeks, Colbert read everything she could get her hands on: from secondary literature on the topic of women and minorities in superhero comics to issues of “Wonder Woman,” “Storm” and “X-Men,” beginning with the 1940s until today.
She was particularly interested in how the female characters Wonder Woman (an Amazon character from DC Comics), Storm (a black superhero from Marvel) and Nubia (Wonder Woman’s black Amazon sister) were portrayed.
“The approach to how Wonder Woman was rendered has varied greatly over the years and is often a reflection of how women were [viewed at the time],” Colbert explains in her proposal.
In fact, Wonder Woman was more than a mere reflection of her time when she made her first appearance in 1941. Created by psychologist, writer and polygraph inventor William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was envisioned as a character who was not just beautiful, but also strong and powerful. In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston explained why he thought women longed for such a character.
“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power,” he wrote. “Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their [physical] weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”
Wonder Woman could “have it all,” Colbert argued in her final presentation Tuesday afternoon, at least until the 1950s. America’s political and cultural climate, along with Marston and artist Harry G. Peter’s deaths during that decade, would soon demote her to a secondary character in her own series. It took Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s to bring her back to the surface.
In addition to tracking Wonder Woman’s character development, Colbert also looked at the 1970s’ creations Nubia and Storm, analyzing each protagonist’s depiction through the decades.
Colbert’s faculty mentor, art history professor Kimberly Morse-Jones, studied alongside her.
“I probably know zero about comics,” Morse-Jones admitted during the introduction in May. “But I live in a household of comic lovers, so I might as well catch up!”
And she did.
“Thanks to Kimberly, I’ve learned a great deal about the historical context of comics, in particular how attitudes towards gender and race are reflected in them,” Morse-Jones says. “I’ve also learned that comics are fun! I’ve enjoyed reading them for entertainment as well as what can be gleaned from them.”
An honors course on comics is already planned for next spring, and Colbert knows her professor will call on her to share what she has learned this summer.
Colbert says her research has been a “test in empathy.”
She’s learned to put herself in the shoes of the artists who were creating the early comics in the 1940s — 16- to 25-year-olds. They were “cheap labor,” and their imagination was still vivid, she explains. “You can kind of see by looking at these comics that they were created by kids — there’s a guy who can shoot lasers out of his eyes, or have heat vision.”
The artists’ young age also meant something else.
“You’re expecting people who haven’t been in the world to talk about the world,” Colbert says. “What they are putting into the comics is what they’ve been fed.”
She discovered that illustrators who tried to use their work for social commentary were quickly shut down. She also realized that segregation created challenges that don’t exist the same way anymore, and learned not to hold early comics to today’s standards.
“I didn’t think that black illustrators existed during segregation, but they were there — it’s just that they had to work in minimalized capacities,” she explains. “It was eye-opening. You see how many privileges we have now.”
The project also forced her to step out of her comfort zone. She’s now read many of the mainstream comics she rejected growing up, and it’s given her perspective on the problems — and improvements — in them.
“This was a big step for me,” she says. “I don’t usually read Marvel and DC Comics because I’m like, ‘You all don’t speak for me.’ ”
And that’s still true, for the most part. But Colbert also knows that reality is not all black and white (no pun intended).
“Women have always been subjects rather than characters, and even today, we’re still fighting for strong female characters,” she says. “But I can’t keep up the idea that everyone is out to get women, or everyone is out to get minorities. There are problems, but there are people trying to get it right.”
Marvel announced last week that Iron Man Tony Stark will soon be replaced by Riri Williams, an African-American woman and “science genius,” according to TIME. Her character is based on the true story of a 15-year-old girl who enrolled at MIT and built her own Iron Man suit in her dorm room.
Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis told TIME that Riri is “inspired by the world around me and not seeing that represented enough in popular culture.
“Talking to any of the older [Iron Man] creators, it’s the thing they said they wish they’d done more of — reflecting the world around them,” he added. “It just wasn’t where the world was at that time. Now, when you have a young woman come up to you at a signing and say how happy she is to be represented in [Iron Man’s] universe, you know you’re moving in the right direction.”
Colbert, a self-proclaimed “optimistic pessimist,” isn’t getting too excited yet. She hopes the current drift toward more strong women, and women of color, in mainstream superhero comics isn’t just a trend, but a progression that will continue to gain steam.
Her research is part of it, and in many ways, there’s a similar movement going on in her own life. The Honors Summer Research Program, she says, has taught her to have confidence in herself.
“When I was chosen for the program, I wondered, ‘Why did they pick me?’ And then when I heard other people’s projects, I was like, ‘Really, why did they pick me?’ I learned not to minimize myself.”