Beyond the Graphic Novel: Gender-Bending Superhero Feminism

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We’re no longer in Jack Kirby Land, kids: in one of British artist Margaret Harrison’s series of sexually charged superhero watercolors, Captain America is transformed into a muscle-bound, breast-enhanced Tom of Finland action pin-up, his star-spangled costume accessorized with a skirt, stockings, and high heels. In another he’s reflecting on Wonder Woman in a mirror while the Avengers’ Scarlet Witch rages below. These illustrations are also meant as indictments of male misogyny and rampant militarism, in the satirical vein of James Gillray and other political cartoonists of her native land. Harrison’s career spans more than four decades, and her work is now being celebrated with a retrospective catalog On Reflection: the Art of Margaret Harrison.

“Captain America 2,” 1997.

“Captain America 2,” 1997.

A pioneering feminist, Harrison co-founded London’s Women’s Liberation Art Group in 1970. The following year, her first solo gallery show was shut down the day after it opened for alleged indecency. Specifically, police deemed her Hugh Hefner — portrayed as a big-breasted, corseted Playboy bunny — to be offensive, apparently oblivious to the inherent irony of their actions against this already-ironic work. Undeterred, her art remains socially engaged. Among her most powerful are those that juxtapose texts with images in compelling cultural critiques. “Homeworkers,” a mixed-media assemblage, is a masterful, intricately composed indictment of female labor exploitation. And this year’s “Beautiful Ugly Violence” exhibition at New York’s Feldman Fine Arts Gallery included narratives by domestic abuse convicts which were typewritten and overlaid with delicately subdued wash drawings, often of seemingly innocent household objects, and arranged in comics panel sequences.

As police once forced Harrison’s gallery owner to remove her paintings, the book’s author, Kim Munson, had been forced by Apple not long ago to remove “objectionable” cartoons from an underground comix history iPhone app she’d produced [story here]. This and other commonalities, such as a shared passion for workers’ rights, make Munson’s accompanying commentary and interviews with the artist empathetic and engaging as well as informative.

right side panel of “Getting Very Close to My Masculinity” diptych, 2013.

right side panel of “Getting Very Close to My Masculinity” diptych, 2013.

sketch for “Women of the World Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But the Cheesecake,” 1969.

sketch for “Women of the World Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But the Cheesecake,” 1969.

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details of “Beautiful Ugly Violence” exhibit, 2015.

details of “Beautiful Ugly Violence” exhibit, 2015.

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“Homeworkers” with detail, 1977.


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One thought on “Beyond the Graphic Novel: Gender-Bending Superhero Feminism

  1. kimMunson

    Thanks for this article Michael! I was honored to have this opportunity to introduce Margaret’s work to a new audience and put her new work in context. Several of her works use Captain America to discuss her take on US politics. I presented on her paintings, Captain America, secret identities, and politics at the Popular Culture Association conference and at Wondercon. and people are always fascinated with her work.

    Her retrospective, Accumulations, is at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art until 24 January 2016. She also has some work (including Captain America and Bunny Boy) in Unorthodox at the Jewish Museum, New York, until 27 March 2016. She will be included in Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-79 at Tate Britain, London, 12 April – 29 August 2016, and will have a one person show in Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao in 2017.

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