By Jessica Clark, MA
It’s that time of year again where comic book fans from across the globe descend upon San Diego for Comic-Con International, the famed comic book convention. As the Bates Center’s Pinterest page illustrates, the nursing profession has been depicted in various comics and graphic novels. From Wonder Woman to Jane Foster to Night Nurse, here are some of the most well-known depictions of nursing in comic books.
Three Nurses & Romance Comics
Three Nurses (formerly Confidential Diary and later Career Girl Romances) published by Charlton Comics was a prototypical romance comic series seen throughout the 1940s to 1970s. The end of World War II witnessed a decrease in superhero comics, which led to a rise in other genres, including Westerns, science-fiction, crime and romance. Romance comics were aimed at drawing in female readers. Unlike teen comics, romance comics aspired to be more realistic, using first-person narration and young heroines in professional roles. Each story was self-contained and depicted strong and close romantic love and its various complications, such as jealousy, marriage, divorce, and heartache.
The Romance comics offered the added advantage of providing a venue through which readers could learn about nursing as an occupation. The 1950s was a period of severe nurse shortages and it wasn’t unheard of for Romance comics to insert a page about the nursing profession (example above), most of which described nursing as an honorable occupation, explained the variety of options open to young women interested in the field, as well as the constant need (i.e. employment openings) for nurses.
Women (nurses) had to play the game of male/female roles, yet, had to find their way around obstacles to get things
Many comic books of this era mentioned career advancement, academic standards, and the admirable qualities found in a successful nurse. In an effort to attract its readers into the field, some comics provided cut out paper dolls with nursing uniforms and hats.
In 1954, the comic book industry implemented the Comics Code Authority as a means of cutting down on the violence, gore, and some sexual innuendo found in some comics in an effort to avoid the threat of potential government regulation. This resulted in the stories emphasizing traditional patriarchal concepts of women’s behavior, gender roles, and domesticity, which created a Stepford-esque depiction of femininity.
For instance in 1961, Atlas Comics first published a short-lived title called Linda Carter, Student Nurse. Intended to appeal to a teenage reader, the chaste and perky Linda Carter seemingly lived her life solely at the service of fallen and distressed male superheroes, a typical portrayal of nurses at that time.
The depiction of nurses in comics began to change as Medical Romances, such as Cynthia Doyle Nurse in Love, rose in popularity. While still the typical male-female roles of the Romance comics, medical comics were slightly different. Unlike most Romance comics, the Medical Romances were often series with the same characters allowing them to be more realistic in the workplace and in relationships.
Women (nurses) had to play the game of male/female roles, yet, had to find their way around obstacles to get things done. This scenario, familiar to nurses and eloquently described by Leonard Stein’s 1967 article “The Doctor-Nurse Game,” was played out in the pages of comics. Unlike previous comic nurses of the 1940s and 50s, nurses are depicted as independent, capable, and intelligent. They are able to read medical situations better than doctors and possess the temerity to point it out. The doctor might not listen, and given the reality that nurses of the time had limited authority to challenge more powerful groups, to see it happen in comics was powerful. However, the narratives of the story remain stereotypical: nursing is for women and the female characteristics merge with the profession, making it difficult to separate the woman from the image. Still with limited autonomy within a restricted professional realm, nursing was one field women could obtain independence.
Wonder Women: Nurses as Super Heroines
By the 1970s, feminism and the sexual revolution challenged the values in Romance comics, marking their slow fade. In place of the Romance comics was the modern-day superheroine, best typified by Wonder Woman.
One of Wonder Woman’s secret identities was that of Diana Prince, a take-no-prisoners army nurse. Wonder Woman was not immune from the stereotypes of romantic leads in comics. She fell in love with a soldier and borrows the nursing identity from a look-a-like woman who willingly gives it to Wonder Women so the original Diana can follow her fiancé to care for him in the hospital. However, Wonder Woman exhibited strength and intelligence that illustrated that she wasn’t just another stock character meant to prop up a male lead.
Another nurse that took center stage was Jane Foster in the comic Thor. For many years, Jane Foster was a nurse employed by Dr. Donald Blake, Thor’s first mortal host. Foster’s character was famously changed to an astrophysicist in the 2011 film adaptation starring Natalie Portman perhaps reflecting Hollywood’s own misbegotten perception that nurses were not intelligent and possessing competent scientific acumen.
Perhaps the most enduring nurse character in comic books has been the Night Nurse, which originally began as a mini-series that followed three nurses and their lives in a New York Hospital. The Night Nurse evolved into a critical character charged with providing quality health care to the entire superhero community, particularly Daredevil, Captain America and Doctor Strange, sort of like an urgicenter for the superheroes similar to the centers on which so many non-superheroes also depend on .
Night Nurse has remained a central figure in the Marvel universe. One that has highlighted the nurse as something other than a romantic foil. Changes might have been made when comic series make the jump to the big and small screen, but the Netflix series Daredevil still has Night Nurse, portrayed by Rosario Dawson.
In a recent Time article, Dawson proclaims that her character is more than a “love interest,” which shows that even though depictions of nurses have a long way to go, there has been a progression that illustrates that nurses have something to offer to comics and as we all know to the health of our nation.
Find more nurse in comics on the Bates Center’s Pinterest Page:
Chaney, J. A., & Folk, P. (1993). A profession in caricature: Changing attitudes towards nursing in the American Medical News, 1960-1989. Nursing History Review, 1(1), 181-202.
Hansen, B. (2004). Medical history for the masses: How American comic books celebrated heroes of medicine in the 1940s. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 78(1), 148-191. doi:10.1353/bhm.2004.0018
Hayton, C. J., & Hayton, S. The girls in white: Nurse images in early Cold War era romance and war comics. In C. York & R. York (Eds.), Comic books and the Cold War, 1946-1962: Essays on graphic treatment of communism, the code and social concerns (pp. 129-145). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
Stein, LI. “The Doctor-Nurse Game.” Archives of General Psychiatry. 16.6 (1967): 699-703.
Vaughn, D. (2006, May 8). Comic book care: A history of nurses in comic books. NurseWeek, VOL, 18-100.
Weiner, R. G. (2010). Portrayal of nurses and Marvel Comics’ Night Nurse. International Journal of Comic Art, 12(1), 323-336.
Jessica Clark is an archivist at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and is a public history and social media enthusiast. Her academic interests include women’s history, 19th century America, and public spaces. Follow her on Twitter @archivistjessc for the latest Bates Center and archive updates.