Women’s History Month Superheroine Spotlight: Olga Mesmer, Fantomah, and Woman in Red

either Olga Mesmer, Fantomah, or Woman in Red is the first superheroine

While it may seem simple enough, the term “superheroine” is actually a rather ambiguous one. There’s a very thin line between the superhero genre and sci-fi and fantasy. Not all superheroes have alter egos, superpowers, and a colorful costume. That’s why it’s difficult to denote the first true superheroine in comics. Instead, I’ve decided to highlight a few of the characters most likely to merit the recognition as the first superheroine in comics.

Olga Mesmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes

Olga Mesmer is possibly the first superheroine in comicsOlga Mesmer first appeared in a featured titled “The Astounding Adventures of Olga Mesmer, the Girl with the X-Ray Eyes,” in the August 1937 edition of the pulp magazine Spicy Mystery Stories published by Culture Publications. This debut predates Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 (June 1937) by ten month. So not only is Olga arguably the first superheroine in comics, but also the first superhero.

In the feature, Olga wields superhuman strength and x-ray vision due to experiments performed on her mother by her mad scientist father. She eventually discovers that her mother was actually from Venus and travels to the planet and ends an interplanetary war.

The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes from Spicy Mystery Stories

It’s hard to say whether Olga is a superheroine or just a sci-fi heroine. She doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but she does have superpowers, an origin story, and she engages in heroic feats. However, if you accept that the superhero genre started with Superman, then characters that predate him can’t truly belong in the genre.

Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle

Fantomah may be the first superheroine in comicsFantomah made her debut in February 1940 in Jungle Comics #2 published by Fiction House. Despite being blonde and white, Fantomah is presented as the mystical protector of the African jungle.

Like Sheena (who also appeared in Jungle Comics), the argument can be made that Fantomah is more of a “Jungle Girl” than a true superheroine. However, unlike most of the other “Jungle Girls,” Fantomah does have superpowers.

Fantomah flying into action in Jungle Comics

Her ill-defined power set includes the ability to fly, teleport, levitate objects, turn giant spiders into normal sized spiders, and do just about anything else the situation calls for.

She doesn’t wear a costume, but her face does transform into a blue skull when she uses her powers.

Fantmah's face transforms into a skull

The Woman in Red

The Woman in Red may be the first superheroineThe Woman in Red first appeared in a March 1940 feature in Thrilling Comics # 2 published by Standard Comics under their Nedor Comics imprint. She may not have any superpowers but unlike some of the other ladies on the list, the Woman in Red is the first comic heroine with a solely “superheroine” feel.

Peggy Allan is a police officer who decides to create a costumed persona for herself after becoming frustrated by the limitations of her badge. As the Woman in Red, Peggy fights crime and is an excellent detective. She’s kind of like a gun-toting Batman.

The Woman in Red may be comics' first superheroineShe’s also notable for the fact that her character is free from much of the objectification that plague other heroines of her time. Her costume actually covers and de-emphasis certain anatomical features that many other heroines’ costumes are designed to emphasis.

Comment and let me know which character you think merits the recognition of being the first superheroine in comics!

And please join me next Monday when I’ll discuss the Red Tornado, the first crossdressing superheroine.


7 Responses to “Women’s History Month Superheroine Spotlight: Olga Mesmer, Fantomah, and Woman in Red”

  1. 1 ashley marie March 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Big fan of Woman in Red, but Olga Mesmer may take the title… I’m not sure if being a superheroine necessitates wearing a costume, and Olga does have superpowers. Thanks for the post!

  2. 3 Raven Davenport July 26, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    I am a fan of all three characters. Vana should also be mentioned. Appearing in December of 1939, she was a woman from an advanced interplanetary society of scientists whose gadgets gave her capabilities of shooting beams which melted steel, flying, and indestructible force shields. Although she could easily be shuffled into the golden age space adventurers’ genre, Vana and her husband’s adventures took place on contemporary Earth. They even fought Nazis. This places Vana clearly into the superhero genre. http://pdsh.wikia.com/wiki/Vana

    As for being the first superhero (male or female), there were plenty of characters who predated superman — even in comics. Huge Hercules appeared way, way back in 1902. In newspaper comic strips, this strong man in a ten gallon hat lifted an elephant and outran train. http://pdsh.wikia.com/wiki/Hugo_Hercules

    Regardless, I’ve written articles about Fantoma already. I am writing a blog post now about Olga, and I might get around to the Lady in Red soon. I thank you for confirming some of my own research.

  3. 5 riffingreligion August 7, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Great post! I’m really fascinated by pre-Wonder Woman female superheroes. I frequently blog about my favorite of the bunch, Lady Satan.


    Other very early female superheroes, in addition to Vana, include Ritty, Lady Zina and Super Ann, all from 1939:


    Oh, and if you want to go even further back, check out the 1919 silent film called The Lightning Raider:

    She’s not really a superhero, but she’s got some of the tropes, including the spandex, the chest emblem, the cool name and the cape, and though she starts out as a thief she fights crime later. She’s kinda like a female Robin Hood crossed with Zorro.

  1. 1 Crazy hats and grumpy cats | Librarian for Life Trackback on April 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm

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