The Storm of Women’s Rights: ‘Lady Killer’ Brings Feminist History To Life
There aren't many decades that brought as much change for women as the 1960s. The roles and rights of women changed and the world met second wave feminism --- and yet, especially at the beginning of the decade, women were still often expected to fill only the role of a housewife and mother.
This is where Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich's Lady Killer comes in, set in 1962. Lady Killer's heroine Josie is exactly the housewife and mother that the times demanded she be, and a focused career woman who happens to make a career out of assassination. It's a book that carries a lot of weight as a story about a woman in a time of great change. It's also a book that's easy on the eyes.
To really appreciate the depth of Lady Killer, a reader must have some knowledge of the historical context in which Jones and Rich have placed dear Josie. As the creators of the book, they have absolutely done their research, and it shows. That being said, it's a book that also does well with a simple surface reading. Readers without knowledge of what women's lives were like in the 1960s, or of the expectations being placed upon Josie, are told what they need to know to understand the story. The art is thoughtful, expressive, and full of clear storytelling.
The basic gist of Lady Killer is this: a housewife and mother named Josie superficially seems just that, but in reality is a trained assassin. She has a boss, she has regular jobs, and she is ruthless and efficient. She also has a husband, an overbearing mother-in-law, and two daughters.
By issue #2, while Josie hasn't exactly cracked, she does seem to be showing the stress of maintaining the façade of perfection. In the world of the early 1960s, being a wife and mother came with a great many expectations, and unsurprisingly, so does being a trained assassin. Still, Josie is a consummate professional who has been at this job for years and years. The story follows Josie as she struggles with increased demands from work and problems at home.
Jones' art really soars in this book, and it's clear this is a project from her heart. As we discussed a few weeks ago, she took inspiration from places as varied as ads from the era and Milt Kahl. Her Josie is all knowing smirks, perfect winged eyeliner, and elegant clothes. She's sexy, but not ever, ever objectified. Jones has taken pains to keep Josie in period-appropriate clothing, and all of the backgrounds are also perfectly in place according to the era. As I said, while it's possible to enjoy this book with no knowledge of the era, if you are familiar with the lifestyles and designs of the 1960s, you will be especially rewarded.
The art really emphasizes and perfects the story, which is engrossing and full of solid characterization, particularly for Josie. While many of the characters have a cartoony edge and wouldn't be out of place in animation from this era, there's a grit to the art that gives it depth. Every page has ink splatter and rich shadows that keep it from ever feeling too light.
One of the most fascinating things about Josie is the choices she's made and the possibilities the future holds for her. We meet Josie in 1962. The birth control pill was available after 1960 as a contraceptive, but only for family planning for married women, and not even in all states or at all pharmacies. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women, which attempted to identify and solve some of the inequalities women faced --- the findings were published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique was released in 1963 and ushered in the second wave of feminism.
It must be assumed, then, that the choice of 1962 is a deliberate one --- some gains have been made, but the biggest battles are yet to come. Josie is living at one of the most turbulent times in American history for women, and she is also living a life that demonstrates an eternal and ongoing struggle for women even today. Josie is, after all, trying to have it all.
Just two issues in, it's easy to see that Lady Killer is a solid book with gorgeous art and a dedicated, well-studied team. The heroine that Jones and Rich have created in Josie is certainly memorable. The rest of the cast is less well-rounded, but Josie is clearly the focus throughout. What remains to be seen in future issues is just what sort of mess Josie will be thrown into.
Comic critics are often asked, "What books would you recommend for this woman in my life who has never read comics?" There's no catch-all answer, unsurprisingly, since women are a diverse demographic and contain multitudes --- but going forward I might have a new response. If that woman in your life is a feminist, well, give her Lady Killer and watch her turn into a comics lover.