This paper examines the ways that comics can subvert twenty-first-century nostalgia for an imagined halcyon 1950s by refusing to treat history as idyllic, unchanging, or distant, focusing specifically on Joëlle Jones's Lady Killer (2015–17). Lady Killer engages with long fifties nostalgia in two ways: on a formal level, through artwork reminiscent of illustrated advertisements of the period, and on a narrative level, through evocations of the romance comics that were hugely popular even as they are forgotten by Golden Age constructions. Lady Killer revels in fifties nostalgia, but to the point of absurdity, including so many elements of the nostalgic imaginary that it overwhelms readers with its period. In the process, it reveals the cracks in that imaginary, reminding readers of just how problematic the era actually was. Lady Killer challenges the ideological uses of nostalgia through its refusal to engage in the reification of history.
The American twenty-first-century has been permeated by nostalgia for an imaginary 1950s, and in particular for its supposedly traditional gender roles, as Susan Faludi first documented in The Terror Dream (2007).1 At the same time, comics as an industry is beset by nostalgia, so much so that the very classification of the history of comics into “Golden,” “Silver,” “Bronze,” and “Dark” Ages positions the early days of the medium as mythic in both financial and thematic terms. This article examines the ways that comics can subvert this nostalgia for an imagined halcyon past by refusing to treat history as idyllic, unchanging, or distant. It focuses specifically on Joëlle Jones's Lady Killer, a two-volume (thus far) series begun in 2015 and published by Dark Horse, which follows the adventures of Josie Schuller, a typical 1962 housewife who moonlights as a professional assassin. Lady Killer engages with long fifties nostalgia in two ways: on a formal level, through artwork reminiscent of illustrated advertisements of the period, and on a narrative level, through evocations of the romance comics that were hugely popular even as they are forgotten by Golden Age constructions. Jones's art references both the stylized drawings of dress and housewares advertisements of the midcentury period and the angles and motion of Googie design, but undercuts the idealism of those images through graphic depictions of murder and bloodshed that seem to spatter across the pages. At the same time, her text captions call attention to the unchallenged sexism of the era both in comics and in society at large, referencing standard plots and tropes of romance comics and suggesting that this oppressive sexism has itself demanded Josie's violent response. Finally, the fragmentary nature of both the narrative and the art suggests the splintering of Josie's feminine subjectivity and the impossibility of any monolithic understanding of the period's history. In the process, Lady Killer challenges the ideological uses of nostalgia through its refusal to engage in the reification of history.
The post–September 11 period has seen a surge in nostalgia for the Cold War era, and in particular for the “long fifties,” which I define as the period between about 1949 and 1964, after the Soviet acquisition of atomic weapons, but before full-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War. This nostalgia followed almost immediately on the 2001 terrorist attacks, in part because of the similarity of the developing Global War on Terror, both at home and abroad, to Cold War foreign policy. Despite early comparisons of the 9/11 attacks with Pearl Harbor, the undefined nature of the Global War on Terror bore a much more significant resemblance to the Cold War, particularly in terms of the anxieties it resurrected in American culture. Elaine Tyler May writes: “It was the cold war that echoed most loudly across the post-9/11 landscape. The terrorists seemed to have brought into reality national nightmares that dated back more than half a century. The villains seemed to personify the characteristics of the communist threat.”2
However, while on one hand the Global War on Terror seemed to have summoned the dangers of the Cold War back to life, paradoxically the similarities between the post–September 11 period and the early Cold War era are also reassuring, providing a framework to explain the inexplicable. In this framework, terrorists are attacking America not because of complex sociopolitical reasons but because they hate our freedoms, just like the communists. The comparisons are in the end superficial—there is little resemblance between a loose network of nongovernmental terrorist networks, often with radically different goals and identified primarily with nonwhite, former colonial nations, and the organized and highly structured Soviet Union, and terrorist attacks are a radically different form of warfare than either the proxy conflicts of the Cold War or the policy of mutually assured destruction—but since the anxieties produced by these conflicts are the same, the same solutions are often suggested for both, in foreign and domestic policy. Furthermore, since those solutions seem to have worked the last time—popular wisdom has it that the US decisively won the Cold War, pace Putin—the comparison allows for the comforting thought that they will work again.
One particular solution toward which the United States has gravitated is the restoration of the stereotypical fifties nuclear family. During the Cold War, the family was often positioned as the most important bulwark against the approaching communist flood. Stephanie Coontz points out: “Cold war anxieties merged with concerns about the expanded sexuality of family life and the commercial world to create what one authority calls the domestic version of George F. Kennan's containment policy toward the Soviet Union: A ‘normal’ family and vigilant mother became the ‘front line’ of defense against treason; anticommunists linked deviant family or sexual behavior to sedition.”3 In the fifties, the nuclear family was presented as the answer to the challenges of both communism and changes in domestic culture. At the same time, the family was positioned as a refuge from the dangers of modern life. Just as public, communal bomb shelters were replaced with private, backyard fallout shelters, Americans turned inward for reassurance.4
After the September 11 attacks, political responses not only drew parallels between the terrorists of the twenty-first century and the communists of the twentieth, but also suggested that the answer to both threats was the same: the strengthening of the nuclear family on the fifties model. Of course, by 2001, the fifties family had become somewhat endangered—feminism, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, rising levels of divorce, and the growth of alternative family structures all had worked to redefine what a “normal” American family looked like, and the glamorization of the “traditional” nuclear family, always already a conservative ideological position, had become even more old-fashioned with time.5 As a result, the nuclear family's sudden resurgence in the wake of the attacks was surprising, and the connections drawn between the health of the family and the safety of the nation were striking. In an article analyzing political rhetoric after September 11, Julie Drew wrote: “Conservative positions on marriage, divorce, and abortion are linked, astoundingly, to national security during what was still deemed, on October 12, a crisis situation—a crisis of family values, if not the imminent threat of terrorist attack.”6 The attacks were characterized as not against a nation-state but against American families. Furthermore, much conservative thought at the time suggested that the attacks were only possible in the first place because of the weakening of the nuclear family structure, and this “crisis in family values” was presented as at least as dire as the danger of terrorism.7
In a sense, this attempt to return to the family structure of the past is a continuation of the culture wars that have characterized American discourse since the late 1960s; as Coontz points out, American conservatives have been trying to return to the fifties ever since we left them.8 This fantasy of the restoration of fifties culture is founded in what Svetlana Boym defines as restorative nostalgia:
Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. … [Restorative] nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth. This kind of nostalgia characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the antimodern myth-making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths and, occasionally, through swapping conspiracy theories.9
Restorative nostalgia does not center on algia, or the pain of separation, but on nostos, the return home. Furthermore, it proposes that such a return home is not only desirable but possible in the first place. Restorative nostalgia does not recognize that the remembered “home” never existed in that form, or that nostalgia is “a romance with one's own fantasy.”10 For the restorative nostalgic, you can go home again, and indeed you should. For many Americans, the turn away from the nuclear family is not just a symbol of but a cause of twenty-first-century uncertainties. If only that family structure were restored, it would bring with it the economic growth, social stability, and global power that (nostalgic) cultural memory ascribes to the fifties.
Of course, the obvious problem with any return to the fifties family model is the reinforcement of white patriarchy such a return implies. The nuclear family of the fifties is defined not simply as husband, wife, and two children, already a heteronormative model, but specifically through the lens of Father Knows Best. This family is founded on distinct gender roles that are not only unappealing but nearly unthinkable to significant portions of the American public. The fifties family both refuses the legitimacy (if not the very existence) of nonheterosexual relationships and also requires women to return to their kitchens. As attractive as the nostalgic construction of the fifties family may be, few would publicly call for the rolling back of women's legal rights. However, to demand a return to “traditional” family structures always includes assumptions about the position of women within those structures, and as those structures have once again been praised in the twenty-first century, a reactionary position on women's social role, if not their legal one, has once again become standard in certain circles. Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, seems so enamored of fifties gender mores that he refuses to eat dinner with women who are not his wife.11
And the perceived legitimacy of those mores in American culture has surged in the twenty-first century with the rise in Cold War nostalgia. This restorative nostalgia for the fifties family seemed ubiquitous in the immediate aftermath of September 11; Faludi writes: “The cultural troika of media, entertainment, and advertising declared the post-9/11 age an era of neo-fifties nuclear family ‘togetherness,’ redomesticated femininity, and reconstituted Cold Warrior manhood.”12 Furthermore, the desire for this return took on new urgency, as the discourse surrounding September 11 specifically coded the ostensible weakness of the nation that allowed the attacks to take place as feminine. Drew writes: “What is particularly interesting about post-9/11 public discourse is not that it argues that the U.S. is masculine, but that the U.S. is far too feminine, and thus must work to become more masculine in order to be safer.”13 According to this reasoning, the only reason the United States was open to attack in the first place was because it had become soft in the years following the Cold War. That softness was defined as a result of the disintegration of traditional gender roles. As masculinity had become less dominant, the nation had become less masculine; as the nation became less masculine, it lost the strength that American culture traditionally considers a masculine trait.
May suggests that the particular celebration of masculine men that followed the attacks was an attempt to negotiate the nostalgia for fifties family structures in a post–Feminine Mystique world: “The elevation of male heroism reflected a widespread invocation of traditional gender roles. In the twenty-first century it was impossible to revive the male breadwinner and the female homemaker; the feminist movement as well as harsh economic realities made that household form a rarity. But the crisis brought forth images of strong, competent men rescuing and protecting weak, vulnerable women.”14 However, Faludi argues that the return to rigid gender structures was less compromising, and more willing not only to discard the gains of feminism but also to blame feminism, and women generally, for the attacks themselves.15 Given the rise of conservative politics in the years since the attacks, the proliferation of antifeminist movements from Gamergate to the Sad Puppies of the Hugo Awards, and even the growth of men's rights activist groups, Faludi's predictions seem perhaps more accurate. Today, nostalgia for fifties families has become inextricable from beliefs that a woman's place is in the home, and even as women across the United States refuse the confinement of binary gender roles, reject patriarchal standards of behavior, and reassert their rights, the prevalence of Cold War nostalgia in popular media, from film to television to video games to music, reminds us that the women question is still very much subject to debate.
On the surface, Jones's Lady Killer series simply replicates this fifties nostalgia that has run through both political rhetoric and popular culture during the GWOT in films like Catch Me If You Can (2002), Down with Love (2003), Beyond the Sea (2004), Shutter Island (2010), Brooklyn (2015), and Bridge of Spies (2015); video games like the BioShock (2007, 2010, 2013) and Fallout (2008, 2010, 2015) series; and television shows like Pan Am (ABC, 2011–12), Masters of Sex (Showtime, 2013–16), The Astronaut Wives Club (ABC, 2015), and Good Girls Revolt (Amazon, 2016); but perhaps best epitomized in AMC's Mad Men (2007–15). The series follows Josie Schuller, a typical suburban housewife in 1962, as she tries to balance the demands of her family with her atypical employment as a professional assassin. Much of the conflict of the comic stems from the irony of a housewife as assassin, and from the absurdity of locating deadly violence in peaceful cul-de-sacs. In fact, in a negative review in the Comics Journal, R. J. Casey described the comic's setting as little more than a gimmick.16 However, this very predictability provides the backbone of the commentary of this comic; its repetitive use of clichés foregrounds the clichéd nature of the nostalgic imaginary of the fifties. David R. Coon describes a similar process in recent films set in the suburban fifties, noting that while “these films do, in fact, draw on the styles of earlier media texts, they do so not in order to evoke a certain time period, but to openly reference an artificial construction of a particular period. The self-reflexive way in which these films play with nostalgia reveals rather than conceals the process of manipulating the past.”17 By positioning characters as stereotypes in a world that is essentially a pastiche of signifiers of fifties-ness, from tiki bars to the Seattle World's Fair, the comic overwhelms readers with nostalgia, making it impossible to believe that the fifties constructed in popular memory are themselves anything other than a facade.
In fact, Jones's art is almost an extended homage to midcentury modern design. Both Jones and her cowriter for the first arc, Jamie S. Rich, did extensive research for the project, and everything from the language to the fashions to the cars to the wallpaper is period appropriate (fig. 1).18 In particular, the character design is less reminiscent of contemporary cartooning than it is of fifties advertising. The period costumes combine with the domestic settings to echo the home advertisements that have become so iconic of the era. Coon points out how those advertisements were specifically linked to the marketing of suburban homes to Americans: “The early utopian images came primarily from advertisements and television sitcoms. As suburban developments expanded, manufacturers quickly realized that new homes could be filled with new appliances, furnishings, and other consumer goods. As a result, the advertisements for these types of goods frequently featured suburban homes as the backdrop for the items being sold.”19 These ads presented a halcyon image of domestic suburban life that could be attained specifically through consumption, and that image has since become the foundation of the fifties nostalgic imaginary, blending Postum and SOS with Donna Reed, Ozzie, and Harriet, dressing the product in crinoline, and staging it in a mint-green kitchen. Jones is obviously aware of the influence of these period advertisements on the popular image of the fifties. In fact, in the concept stage she created several mock ads featuring Josie that are reprinted in the collected edition of the first arc, all of which show Josie posing with the trappings of domesticity—deep freezers, mops, dressing tables—while transforming the domestic space into one of murder—deep freezers hold corpses, mops wipe up pools of gore, cold cream removes blood spatter (fig. 2).20 Furthermore, the covers of the issues of the first arc all reference advertising, featuring taglines from “The Perfect Solution to Those Problem Stains” (for bloodstain removal) to “Stylish Enough for Her … Roomy Enough for Everyone Else!” (for a car transporting a corpse).21 Lady Killer thus transforms these reassuring portraits of a comforting time into threatening images of violence.
Even the pages without violent content display this tension between the idealization of fifties style and the violence of Josie's occupation. Jones's drawings are particularly angular and dynamic, referencing the love of motion characteristic of Googie style; elbows become Noguchi-esque boomerangs, and forced perspective and odd angles seem to rocket the images off the page. This connection becomes most obvious in the fifth issue of the first arc, which takes place at the Seattle World's Fair. As Josie sits through an orientation for tour guides, the panels replicate frames from the introductory film she watches (fig. 3). These images are themselves cartoons—both more stylized and less representational than Jones's typical art—and are markedly Googie, at once angular and rounded, and displaying the visual alignment with speed and motion that characterizes midcentury modern design and that stems from the celebration of the potential of science that marked both the World's Fair specifically and the fifties generally. And yet even on this page, seemingly an uncritical celebration of American progress, the frame on the bottom right (and to a lesser extent, the frame on the top right) displays a spatter of black ink—a stylistic element that occurs on every page of the comic. These spatters are not diegetic, but clearly reference the blood spatter that litters the scenes of Josie's murders. Ginnis Tonik discusses the symbolism of these spatters in several of her reviews, often specifically linking them to a refusal of fifties nostalgia: “Smatterings of black ink throughout the issue left me wondering if these spots were intended to indicate blood or debris—either works as cracks in the white nuclear family so revered in nostalgic lamentations for the good ol’ days before the civil rights movement.”22 The chaos of the spatters contradicts the order of the midcentury modern fantasy of progress, and suggests that something sinister has left its traces on this clean and tidy suburban facade.
Furthermore, Lady Killer does not just resist fifties nostalgia on a stylistic level. The narrative refuses to ignore the sexism that characterizes the era even as it refuses to romanticize that sexism as “traditional gender roles.” In the back matter of the last issue of the first arc, Rich announces his departure from the title in a feature that purports to be an advice column, a conceit common to Golden Age romance comics.23 He clarifies that Lady Killer was Jones's original concept (likely to encourage readers to stick with the series despite his departure), and in particular, he points out that Jones had a specific cultural critique in mind from the outset:
The period setting would be more than just an excuse to draw tailored clothes and vintage furniture; Joëlle saw some cultural significance to having Josie be a housewife in mid-century America, and particularly why killing other people might provide her with an outlet. She said I needed to read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and get an idea of what it meant to give up an education and career to take care of a husband and kids and clean the house day in and day out.
Thus from its conception the series was intended as a critique of the fifties ideal of the nuclear family, and as a commentary on the violence that family structure perpetrated on women. Coontz points out: “A successful 1950s family, moreover, was often achieved at enormous cost to the wife, who was expected to subordinate her own needs and aspirations to those of both her husband and her children. In consequence, no sooner was the ideal of the postwar family accepted than observers began to comment perplexedly on how discontented women seemed in the very roles they supposedly desired most.”24
Josie escapes her gender role through her violence as a professional assassin, but also through her participation in a genre more often coded as male: the spy story. Although she does not work for any particular government, her position in the first arc as an assassin working for a shadowy organization links her with the Cold War espionage narratives that are as much a part of today's conception of the fifties as the domestic space. But the heroes of those narratives are almost always men, epitomized by the misogynistic and philandering James Bond. While certainly Josie is presented as a competent assassin, her work is not depicted as glamorous, and as her contracts are limited to Seattle, she does not engage in any kind of jet-setting lifestyle. Instead, that role is assigned to her handler, David Peck, who is drawn as square of jaw and shoulders and who continually tries to draw Josie into sexual banter, only to be rebuffed. Peck is introduced in the first issue when he arrives at Josie's house unannounced, threatening her domestic tranquility. When Josie rebukes him for showing up on her doorstep while her husband is home, he excuses himself by telling her he came in disguise as a plumber. However, this disguise consists solely of a large pipe wrench; Peck, naturally, is wearing a stylish suit more appropriate for playing baccarat in Monaco than fixing leaks in kitchen sinks (fig. 4). He immediately parlays his disguise into a double-entendre, as if he assumes that Josie is as susceptible to his charms as any Bond girl would be. When Peck meets with the head of their assassin organization in issue 3, he flirts with his boss's secretary after the fashion of Bond with Moneypenny; the moment could not be a more obvious nod to the Bond franchise if Peck tossed his hat on a coatrack (fig. 5). However, as much as Peck's characterization is an obvious engagement with the masculine Cold War nostalgia typified by the Bond franchise (and reborn in recent films like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  and Kingsman: The Secret Service ), Josie's characterization does not participate in this iconic role. As a woman, she cannot occupy the figure of the male hero, and as the protagonist, she cannot be dismissed as either eye candy or a villainous Mata Hari. As a result, Lady Killer suggests that the nostalgia for the adventure tales of the period is possible only for men. Those spy stories did not, and do not, leave space for a female subjectivity. When Peck attempts to murder Josie on their boss's orders, he demonstrates how much these narratives are dependent on violence toward women for their construction of masculine heroism in the first place.
However, while Josie is excluded from participation in the glamour of espionage, her story does reflect a different iconic narrative of the fifties: her decision to open her own small business in the second arc (nos. 1–5, August 2016–September 2017) engages with the nostalgic ideal of the fifties as a time of individual economic growth, during which mom-and-pop stores proliferated and hard work was all it took to achieve the American dream. The second arc of the series sees Josie's family now in Florida, her husband having changed jobs. Josie has struck out on her own professionally as an independent assassin. In the first issue of this arc she outlines a series of seven rules for going into business that could have come from the pages of a manual, all of which emphasize the idea that persistence and elbow grease are all that is required for success:
One: perseverance is key. The price of success is hard work … so that whether you win or lose … you can be proud that you have applied the best of yourself to the task at hand. Two: learn from your mistakes. Look forward to failure. This is how you learn to succeed. Three: creating your own business is a series of small steps. Start with what you have and build what you need. Four: always be prepared. Five: have the right tools for the job. But above all … six: don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. And lastly … seven: trust your instincts.
Of course, the irony here is that Josie is explaining these steps as she struggles to dismember the corpse of her most recent hit (fig. 6). But even so, her determination to create a successful small business reflects present-day nostalgia for a time in which economic success seemed possible at all: when stable domestic life supposedly produced stable economic life. However, again this image of the successful small-business owner is typically a masculine one. While female cottage industries are certainly a part of the fifties imaginary, those cottage industries are rarely coded as successful, and it comes as no surprise when Josie's Tupperware party in the first issue of this arc does not produce a single sale. But Tupperware is not Josie's real business, and the first three issues of the arc show her succeeding in her violent version of the American dream. Unfortunately, her feminine position again becomes a liability, and she finds herself caught between Irving, a subcontractor who reacts to her firing him by trying to kill her entire family, and a mysterious assassins’ union that wants to take away her independence to force her into a more corporate model. Thus the collapse of Josie's small business both replicates the fifties fear of the organization man—that more and more men were losing their masculinity through their employment as cogs in corporate wheels—and reminds the reader that the fifties dream of business success was never available to women.
Trapped in a society that confines her to the kitchen, Josie is only able to keep her sanity by transforming the gender performances deemed acceptable by fifties society into outlets for violent self-expression. Over the course of the series, Josie masquerades as an Avon lady as well as a Tupperware consultant to gain access to her marks; she poses as a waitress at a strip club to murder a sexist and misogynist patron; and she disguises herself as a stewardess to sneak up on a philandering pilot. Thus she inverts assumptions about women in the fifties, positioning herself in stereotypically feminine roles to engage in stereotypically masculine violence. She refuses to be positioned as either only feminine or only masculine—as either only housewife or only assassin—and seems to find her greatest joy in mixing the two. Her assassination business at last seems to be taking off in the third issue of the second arc, which opens with a three-panel spread showing the joy she takes in her work (fig. 7). In the top panel she poses, left arm behind her head in a typical glamor-shot position, right hand holding a cleaver aloft, the caption announcing: “Things have been going just swimmingly!” The second panel, colored now in shades of expressionist orange, depicts a gleeful Josie smashing the cleaver down on an unseen victim, inky blood splashing through the background-less frame. She seems transported with delight, and tells readers: “I feel like my old self again!” Finally, the third panel, which takes up half the page, shows the anticlimax: a kitchen scene, a bathrobed man sitting in a chair, cleaver splitting his skull, while Josie calmly heats water in a teapot. The background suggests a waterfall of blood surrounding a prefabricated kitchen, cabinets open to display various dishes, a prepared salad waiting on the counter, a houseplant centered in the kitchen window. Josie is most herself, it seems, when she can unify both sides of her personality—when she is able to transcend gender expectations by joining her love for the domestic with her love for violence. However, such blurring of the boundaries between masculine and feminine was unacceptable during the fifties, and Lady Killer continually reminds readers of the consequences of such rigid gender roles, suggesting that Josie's violence is the only sane reaction to constant gender policing by the men in her life.
In fact, the narrative of the comic never lets readers forget that Josie is beset by patriarchy in both her jobs—as housewife and as assassin. The first arc (nos. 1–5, January–May 2015) sees her targeted for assassination by her own organization for reasons that are somewhat unclear and yet overtly sexist: her boss, Stenholm, suggests that she is a danger to the organization as well as to her family, arguing that she is both slighting her duties as an assassin by putting her family first and slighting her duties as a mother by working as an assassin. Stenholm calls Josie in for a meeting, only to make her wait for more than an hour; when he finally does arrive, it becomes clear that he was intentionally late in retaliation for her request for the meeting to be scheduled before her husband returned home from work. He implies that this request is proof that she does not take the work seriously, saying, “I suppose you take your family life seriously, too. Which is why you've been letting it get in the way of things.” This charge seems monstrously unfair in context, as the two hits Josie has pulled off so far went quite well, and she is obviously a professional. Stenholm is more likely assuming that her family life must necessarily get in the way of her profession based on his own assumptions that women belong in the home. On the other hand, he refuses to allow Josie to simply return to her family. In a later issue (no. 3, March 2015), he assigns Peck to assassinate her, and when Peck objects, asking why they can't just fire her, Stenholm slams the desk with a “BAM” sound effect, telling Peck: “Those kids would be better off as orphans than growing up with a woman of that sort.” Stenholm has decided that Josie must die both because she does her job too well, and because she does it too poorly—because she is too committed to her family, while also being a danger to that family—and because she is violating the norms of the fifties patriarchal family structure by refusing confinement to the home. When Josie strikes out as an independent contractor in the second arc, she is still besieged by men who suggest that she can't make it on her own, from the older ex-Nazi who offers to clean up her kills and attacks her family when she dissolves their partnership, to the younger man who wants her to join the assassins’ union, only to force her back into contact with Peck at the end of the arc.
Furthermore, sexism is not only confined to the workplace in this comic. Josie seems to be an ideal fifties housewife, managing the cooking, cleaning, and children easily and providing a relaxing and welcoming space for her husband, Gene. And until the end of the second arc, Gene has no idea that Josie is leading a double life. Instead, she protects him from the reality of her profession as part of her commitment to creating a loving home. Unfortunately, this home turns out to be extremely fragile, built as it is on Gene's ignorance of Josie's true self. The cracks in this marriage are hinted at as early as the first issue, when we first spend an evening at Josie's home (fig. 8). After dinner, Josie, Gene, and Gene's mother, Mrs. Schuller, sit around the television in the living room. Gene is the only one of the three who seems interested in the show; Mrs. Schuller holds a newspaper, and Josie sits straight on the couch, hands between her knees in a posture that suggests both readiness and discomfort. Gene, however, reclines in his boxers, stocking feet resting on the coffee table in front of him, pipe in mouth. None of the three speaks in the panel; instead, the speech balloons consist of dialogue from the television program. And yet the dialogue seems to be commenting specifically on the family, as one character berates another for putting his feet on the table just as Gene has done. Thus the panel emphasizes not only Gene's lack of manners, but also his disrespect for Josie's attempts to keep a tidy home. Gene has obviously made himself comfortable by taking off his pants and tie (although, strangely, he still wears his sweater vest and sock garters), but Josie is not only fully dressed in evening attire with pearls, she is wearing a different dress from the one she cooked dinner in—she has dressed for this moment of family togetherness. The comic thus emphasizes the work that Josie performs to provide a comfortable space for Gene as well as his ignorance of and lack of appreciation for that work. The second arc ends with Gene finally discovering the nature of Josie's profession and leaving her, driving away with the kids, the family dog, and the widow of his late boss. It seems he was less attached to Josie as a person than he was to the role she filled, and he has no problem recasting that role with the nearest available female. Oddly, he leaves his mother behind; this older woman is apparently superfluous to the maintenance of the patriarchal nuclear family.
Josie's dilemma, torn between home and work, is a stereotypical one for a nearly forgotten genre of the time: Golden Age romance comics. These days, comics are almost always positioned in a nostalgic framework, at least as far as the industry is concerned. For years, the standard classification of comic book history has been into “ages”: the Golden Age from about 1939 to 1954, the Silver Age from 1956 to 1970, the Bronze Age from 1970 to 1985, and the Modern (or occasionally Dark) Age from 1985 through the present. This classification system itself participates in fifties nostalgia, implying that earlier comics are inherently better than more contemporary ones. The term “Golden Age” denotes an idyllic, mythic time, and to define the early years of comics as such implies that those texts participated in some kind of lost perfection. In a reflection of the positioning of the fifties as both purer and somehow better, these early comics are often described as more innocent than those that came after (despite being heavily propagandistic during the World War II years) as well as more innovative. In the Golden Age, romance comics were a major share of the comics market, as Michelle Nolan notes in her exhaustive survey of the genre: “There were times … in the 1950s when one in every four or five issues sold on the newsstands of America was a romance comic.”25 However, while romance comics were hugely popular during the Golden Age, those historical comics tend to be remembered disparagingly today, if they are remembered at all, and the Golden Age category often ignores the genre entirely. Nolan points out that although the collectors’ market for Golden Age comics has been going strong for years, it has largely ignored romance comics, and only recently have the prices for them begun to approach those for comics in the superhero or horror genres.26 Furthermore, very few academic studies have been done on romance comics, and Nolan and Jeanne Gardner are among the few who have published work investigating this forgotten genre. Nolan argues that romance comics have slipped out of the public mind in part because their readership was predominantly female, an audience that did not fit the direct market model that took over comics retailing in the 1970s.27 Thus romance comics have been excluded from the nostalgia attached to Golden Age comic books specifically along gender lines. Even as comics from the fifties are highly valued both for their rarity and for the supposed purity of their pre-Code storylines, romance comics are ignored because they were, and are, for girls.
Of course, these early romance comics are certainly not perfect, and I am not arguing that the nostalgic glorification of Golden Age comics should be extended to them. All Golden Age comics suffer from the same historically based flaws, in particular a certain level of unthinking racism and sexism. Romance comics especially tended to reaffirm sexist views about the position of women in the home. Gardner notes that romance comics “reiterated traditional gender roles,” and Nolan writes, “Most romance stories … reflected the times as well as wish fulfillment. Women were only occasionally shown to be the masters of their fate; they were seldom the equals of the men they pursued.”28 Romance comics generally worked to reinforce the prevailing patriarchal ideology of the fifties, reiterating that a woman's place was in the home, subservient to her man; plots often focused on teaching girls and women their place. This didactic element continued even in those comics that featured couples already married, a not-insignificant portion of the genre. Often wives were presented as unsatisfied in their marriages because their husbands did not appreciate their household management, or because they continued working despite their husbands’ wishes, or because they found married life lacking in excitement and adventure. The solution to these difficulties, however, was never changes on the part of the husband, much less the dissolution of the marriage: “The solution to every marital problem presented in a romance comic was for the wife to fully rededicate herself to her marriage, and thus find maturity and happiness.”29 Romance comics thus perpetuated the gender rigidity that marked the boundaries of (as well as training young female readers in) their social role.
In particular, romance comics refused the notion that women could be both wives and workers. With few exceptions (nurses, for instance, or newspaper sob sisters), and increasingly as the fifties went on, romance comics implied that women should always abandon career ambitions for family.30 These comics were of course in tune with larger cultural beliefs encouraged by the feminine mystique, and the limiting of women to the home was a standard message in cultural products of the fifties—in fact, it is those cultural products that have linked rigid gender roles with fifties-style order and prosperity in the American mind. And the resurrection of the fifties family in the GWOT era has brought with it fifties-era questions about women's ability to juggle work and home life. Thus Josie's own balancing act between her professional life and her home life echoes not only the typical concerns of Golden Age romance comics, but also present debates over the nature of family and the position of women. Tonik writes:
Josie's competency being based on her ability to juggle her domestic and professional duties is particularly poignant considering that this continues to be an ongoing criticism of women. … Josie's professional work isn't conventional by any means, but that's what makes this move on the writers’ part so fascinating; Josie is in the fantastical situation of being a housewife with a secret identity as an assassin, yet this seemingly mundane question is still raised. She becomes an everywoman facing the same challenges to her credibility that women continue to face today.31
By linking Josie's dilemma with her fifties setting, Lady Killer reminds us that questions about women's role in the workforce are themselves tied to fifties nostalgia, and to fifties oppressive ideology. The series takes those questions to the point of absurdity, depicting the most diverse possible roles one woman could take on, producing, as Tonik writes, “a delightful exaggeration of an ongoing sexist issue in a setting frequently fetishized by nostalgia.”32 The absurdity of the situation is only emphasized by the fact that Josie herself is not overtly a feminist; she does not claim equal rights for herself, or challenge her husband's claims to rule in the home, or suggest that perhaps the housework might be divided equally. Nor is she particularly sexually liberated—the comic presents her dislike for vulgarity on multiple occasions. She simply wants to be able to pursue what she considers a fulfilling career while also having a happy fifties home. It does not matter that her career is assassination; the problem here is that she wants to have a career at all.
In the end, Lady Killer challenges the nostalgic imaginary of the fifties that has permeated GWOT culture by bringing the fifties into today. The series refuses to position the fifties as an idyllic time, but instead, through its very faithfulness to cliché, forces readers to recognize the violence and despair lurking under the perfect Formica surface. When in issue 4 of the first arc Josie fends off Peck's attempts to murder her, wrestling with him in a car as her crinoline petticoats fill the frame, the series simply exaggerates the history of women struggling in the backs of cars with men searching under their skirts (fig. 9). When both arcs begin with Josie undercover, impersonating first an Avon lady and then a Tupperware consultant in order to get close to her targets, the series is only embellishing the real history of fifties housewives using these cottage industries as excuses to get out of the house. Lady Killer revels in fifties nostalgia, but to the point of absurdity, including so many elements of the nostalgic imaginary that it overwhelms with period-everything. In the process, it reveals the cracks in that imaginary, reminding readers of just how problematic the period actually was. Nostalgia requires a certain distance from the past that allows for a rewriting of that past in a more flattering light. As Boym puts it, “Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship.”33 By overwhelming audiences with fifties-ness, Lady Killer submerges them in the markers of nostalgia, drowning them in gender roles better left in the past.
Recent years have seen a determined attempt at more diversity in both mainstream and independent comics, with female characters and creators in particular gaining increased visibility and market share. Marvel's Carol Danvers, for instance, has left behind the female-marked title of “Ms.” to embrace her earned rank of captain in her recent reenvisioning in Captain Marvel (Marvel, 2014–15), refusing the position of a superheroine who is somehow secondary to the “real” Captain Marvel even as she reminds readers of the real heroism of real women in military service. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro's ongoing independent series Bitch Planet (Image, 2014–) also tackles nostalgia for “traditional” gender roles, but sets the story in a dystopian future in which women who refuse to conform to their expected feminine duties are imprisoned as “noncompliant” gender traitors. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples's science-fiction Saga (Image, 2012–) features two characters from opposing sides of a long-lasting war who defy both their superiors and their people to fall in love, and charts their attempts to escape from the confines of a permanent war culture reminiscent of both the Cold War political climate and the present GWOT, in the process challenging gender binaries in their care for their child.
Comics as an industry has thus both inspired and participated in the recent #MeToo movement that emerged in part as a response to the election of Donald Trump, challenging the GWOT nostalgia for fifties-style families by foregrounding the violence that that family structure has tacitly endorsed. The 2016 US election at times seemed almost a battle over the place of women in politics, between a woman who has long been subjected to sexist critiques of everything from her competence to her fashion sense and a man who has joked about sexual assault; this tension might be best encapsulated in the viral images of Trump looming behind Hillary Clinton during their town-hall debate on October 16, 2016.34 However, Clinton's loss of that battle certainly does not signal the loss of the war, as the inauguration-day protests featuring women in now-iconic pink pussy hats proves the refusal of American women to return to their kitchens.35 Still, the struggle for women's rights continues to be framed through the nostalgic imaginary of traditional gender roles. For instance, as Christina Cauterucci points out, the New York Times reported on the men left behind with child-care duties during the Women's March as if it were still 1962—or indeed, 1910, during the women's suffrage movement.36 Lady Killer upends this nostalgia to reveal the real violence inflicted on both men and women in the name of tradition, challenging obstinate sexist iconography while locating that iconography historically, and reminding readers that the past was never as golden as it seemed.