5 Questions: Comic Book Historian, BookFest Speaker Tim Hanley

[Originally published in the July print edition of Town & Gown Magazine]

Being educated in the history of our nation as well as our world is essential in the progress we make as a race. But when most people think of history, old, ratty textbooks are likely the first things that come to mind — not colorful pictures bound together to make a story. However, comic book historian Tim Hanley differs greatly.

Hanley used his master’s degree in history and his final thesis papers as catalysts to exemplify the correlations between real world issues, such as feminism and the 1950s juvenile delinquency crisis, and the power of illustrations.

Hanley will be part of this year’s BookFestPA during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. He’ll talk about “The History of Women in Comics” 11 a.m. July 16 at Schlow Centre Region Library. He took some time to talk about the role of women in comics.

T&G: How did you find your passion for graphic novels?

Hanley: I’ve been a big fan of comic books, and superheroes especially, for as long as I could read. So when I took a course on modern American culture during my undergrad, I decided to write my main essay on the gay panic surrounding Batman and Robin in the 1950s. The essay was a blast to write, much more fun than researching the French Revolution, the intricacies of the Vietnam War, or any of the other subjects I was studying. So I started to move more into the history of popular culture and wrote about comics whenever I could. Eventually, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Comics Code Authority and how it changed the comic book industry, and then my master’s thesis was all about Wonder Woman.

T&G: Looking through your list of articles and other publications, it seems like there’s a running theme of women’s empowerment. Would you consider yourself a feminist?

Hanley: Yes, I absolutely consider myself a feminist. Looking back at the history of our society, it’s clear that men have been privileged over women at every level, and that this imbalance continues today. While progress has been made, inequality is still the norm everywhere, be it economically, politically, or culturally. To put it in superhero terms, there’s a reason that Batman has headlined nine movies and Wonder Woman is only just now about to star in her first solo film — and that reason is that male narratives are privileged over female narratives. It’s true with superheroes, and it’s true across the board. For me, feminism is about acknowledging this pervasive inequality and working to counter it. In my own work, I try to highlight female characters whose fascinating histories have been overshadowed or forgotten over the decades. I’’s a small thing to do in a tiny corner of the pop culture landscape, but I think that their stories are important. Moreover, the histories of characters like Wonder Woman and Lois Lane reflect the history of women in our society as a whole, and, in their own way, they illustrate why feminism is so necessary.

T&G: Where did you find your inspiration for your first book, Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine?

Hanley: Originally, my inspiration came from researching other comic book topics and seeing brief mentions of Wonder Woman’s bizarre history here and there. I was intrigued by the feminism and fetishism that defined her first incarnation in the 1940s and her emergence as a feminist icon in the 1970s, but not a lot had been written about her. I decided to focus on Wonder Woman for my master’s thesis, and that project eventually turned into Wonder Woman Unbound. The book is a history of Wonder Woman that focuses mainly on her first few decades, looking at her stories and the creators behind the scenes to trace the unique journey to her modern iconic status. Created in 1941 by a psychologist who thought that women would take over the world, Wonder Woman’s original matriarchal message was lessened in the 1950s as she became obsessed with marriage and then disappeared all together when she gave up her superpowers in the 1960s before the women’s liberation movement helped return the character to her feminist roots in the 1970s. It’s quite an unusual series of events.

T&G: What does it mean t you to be featured at BookFestPA and will you be doing at the event?

Hanley: It’s a huge honor to be invited, and I’m very excited to get to visit Pennsylvania for the first time and be featured at the festival. I’ll be giving a talk on the history of women in comics. It’s going to be a broad-strokes look at the evolution of female characters in superhero comics over the past 75 years that will delve into classic, long-running characters like Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and Batgirl as well as current favorites like Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, and Black Widow. I think it’ll be a good time! I’ll also have both of my books for sale in the tent after my talk, along with lots of free bookmarks and other cool giveaways.

T&G: Is there anything you’re currently working on?

Hanley: Wonder Woman Unbound and Investigating Lois Lane are both out now, and I’ve got a book on the history of Catwoman that should be out sometime next year. It’s a look at the many lives of Catwoman, in comics and on screen, from her first appearance in 1940 to the present day. As a villain, she offers a fascinating perspective on the superhero genre that took me into new territory after two books about heroines, so that’s been a lot of fun.

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