Wednesday, June 4, 2014

FIRESIDE: Part 4: The Superhero Women

The Superhero Women was a very honest effort to demonstrate that Marvel had a wide variety of female characters, every bit as innovative as their male heroes and villains. 

Unfortunately, in 1977 that just was not the case. It didn’t stop me from loving the book as a child, but as an adult, it is an uncomfortable document of missed opportunities and a reflection of how much farther comics culture had to go to feature strong female characters written with sincerity. 

The breakdown of female Superheroes in 1977: The seducer, the girlfriend, the rape fantasy, the sister, the pseudo-villain, the jungle queen, the spin off. There were incredibly few women in comics that failed to meet on of these criteria. Some of these characters had true strength. Efforts were made by a mostly male creative team to make them have some kind of resonance. Some started out weak and improved over time. 

The book starts out in a very unusual place. Unlike the preceding volumes, few of the women in the volume began with a first issue or ever achieved a solo feature. They were, often, secondary. Kicking off the volume with Medusa, weird wife with living hair of the Inhumans, was a little strange. As the Inhumans had a series, and the concept was most closely associated with the Fantastic Four, it became stranger still that the tale herein was from a Spider-Man comic. 

The plot is pure Silver Age. Medusa is being tricked into posing as a hair spray model. The queen of an ancient race as hairspray model. Think about that. The story was probably included in part because John Romita draws lovely women. It’s barely a step up from some of the Lois Lane/Superman shenanigans of the 60s. 

The perfect follow up to that bit of fluff is, of course, the first issue of Red Sonja, She Devil with a Sword. Spun out of Conan, Sonja’s deal is that she wears a metal bikini, and if you defeat her in combat, you’ve got a sex slave for the night. I did warn you about rape fantasies. Anyway, this story is actually a pretty good mystery by Warren alum Bruce Jones paired with great art by Frank Thorne. Red hair count so far? Two for two. 

The Invisible Girl is next. This is actually a pretty funny issue of Fantastic Four, doing some “day in the life” bits. The first 8 pages are all humor, with the Thing scaring off a Mah Jong club that’s come up to the FF’s suite in the Baxter Building to complain about the noise. Sue Richards (The Invisible Girl) turns Thing invisible while he scares the biddies off with some silly props. The next 14 pages are devoted to an adventure that faces them against the Mole Man. Sue saves the day with a new found use of her invisibility powers- the ability to generate a force field and move objects. Two hundred issue late her code name would be changed to the Invisible Woman by John Byrne. A Lee/Kirby joint. 

Ms. Marvel was a kind of spin off of Captain Marvel. Not the SHAZAMMY one, the Marvel one. Trademark fight. Don’t ask. Anyway, she started out with a real honest to Sappho first issue. The story featured tough as nails newspaper reporter Carol Danvers who would occasionally black out and go do super lady stuff as Ms Marvel. Only the first issue is printed here, so who knows how that turned out for her. Later in 2014 Marvel is reprinting the series, so I suppose I will finally discover if Carol has a blood sugar thing, or if she’s just flaky. Bonus: since the Marvel Universe is pretty NYC-Centric, her boss is JJ Jameson, employer-nemesis of Peter Parker. If you are dying to know, Gerry Conway and John Buscema created this one. 

As no female villains made it into the previous “Bad Guys” volume, one slips in here. Hela, goddess of death faces Thor in a Lee/Buscema outing. This seems to be done concurrently to their Silver Surfer collaborations. The proof? This bit of Asgardian dialog from Hela:

“Thou wouldst DIE to save thy beloved? Sif asked if Hela had e’er known love— and now I answer NAY! But, at LAST I know what it doth mean! Not even DEATH (that’s you lady) may crush it!” Drama at its finest!

The Cat #1 really is a standout in this volume. It features a leotard-clad hero named the Cat: college student by day, hero by night. The spectacular part? It is written by Linda Fite and drawn by Marie Severin. Let that sink in. Actual female cartoonists. It was another decade before a woman wrote or drew Wonder Woman at DC. So, good job Marvel. This story has all the action and melodrama of your standard Marvel comic of the 70s, with really great art and solid writing. Alas, the series only lasted 4 or 5 issues. The character was soon brought back as were-woman Tigra, thus fulfilling the “sex-object/furry fetish” motif. 

The Wasp started as a lab assistant turned mirror-image of the lead of Ant-man. The pair also were founding members of the Avengers. Their history has been.. complicated. In the beginning, they were just two science geeks fighting commies and Atlas monster rejects in the space of 10 pages a month. Harmless non-sense. Lee and Kirby did the chapter here, but Leiber and Heck were the regular team. Bonus info: the Wasp did have a solo feature where, as a candy-striper, she would relate monster tales to hospitalized kids. In later years she was a fashion designer, a punching bag, and the head of the Avengers. 

 Lyra the Femizon. I don’t know where to start. This volume was ostensibly aimed at kids. The story here, in glorious black and white, was a part of Savage Tales Magazine #1. It featured “adult” tales in the fantasy/action genre/ Sword and sorcery. Nipples were visible. Cat fighting, amazonian wrestling, and general lesbianic mayhem were present. It was one of those “there’s only one dude in a society of women” deals. He, of course, is a traitor, and we get post coital guilt murder. My inner 7 year old was surely impacted by this on some level. As I was raised by 2 women, I can only guess that the lesson involved castration. 

Shanna the She-devil, not to be confused with the earlier She Devil With a Sword, is a red head. Shanna eventually is romantically paired with Marvel’s Ka-zar, who is a rip-off of Tarzan making his comics debut in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. There is also Sheena Queen of the Jungle from the 40s. Some fat guy is selling cocaine, and there is a leopard. She's unique, in that the "obvious romance" of her and Ka-Zar came later, so in this appearance she's a strong independent female dispensing jungle justice. Carol Sueling wrote it. It's the only other female name in the credits. Shanna wears a leopard pelt, and has a pet leopard. That’s fucked up. Vince Colletta inked it, so you can’t tell Ross Andru drew it. 

The volume ends as strangely as it began. Spider-man facing off against a character typically associated with another character. Black Widow in this case, who generally showed up in Daredevil and who debuted in Iron Man. This is pre-Daredevil, and in this tale Natasha is a full-on red-headed seductress anti-hero. The fight ends with her gloating about what a pussy Spider-Man is- until he gets his game back and leaves because the whole dame fighting thing is beneath him. She mulls him over for a page or so in her bathrobe, and decides she’ll be alone forever.

Final red head count? Four. 

And that’s it. the best female characters 1977 had to offer. 

Chris Claremont was already starting to change that, but but the X-Men hadn’t really generated any female solo tales yet. Spider Woman and She-Hulk were still in the near future. In fact, i would guess that the array of female characters that happened at Marvel between 1978 and 1982 may have been the result of the weakness of this volume. Admittedly, not all of them attained the ideals of the New Feminism, but it was an improvement. 


Next? Superhero Battles: 240 pages of beat downs. 

4 comments:

  1. It's funny that Byrne, who eventually would change Sue Storm's moniker to Invisible Woman during his tenure, started out his run with Sue at the hairdresser's fussing over a new do just before she's attacked by an elemental sent out by Diablo. Though he introduces new powers to make her a team member worthy of more than just "mom of the team" he certainly plays Reed off as condescending and sometimes dismissive toward her. It's like Byrne wanted to portray her as a strong female character but couldn't make it past some of the entrenched sexism and patriarchal point of view of the day.

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  2. You make an excellent point. I think as Byrne's run progressed, Sue became more fully realized. Still, that her first show of independence in his run was getting her hair cut short is pretty telling. At least her hairdresser was gay?

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  3. It took until issue #13 for Carol to get control of the change to Ms. Marvel.

    Stan was so in love with his own writing that he forced two issues' worth of stories about Hela into this book. That, and the Femizons tale, were wasted space as far as I was concerned.

    Not sure where you got the idea Greer Nelson was a librarian. She was a student at the University of Chicago. At the time of the book, she would have been a junior (returning after a 2-year break). Under the influence of her mentor, Dr. Tumolo, she was taking more science courses.

    Shanna didn't connect with Ka-Zar until Ka-Zar Vol2 #1, five months after her own series had ended. I think you're right about the Sheena part though.

    Black Widow didn't encounter Daredevil until his issue #81, 15 months after this story (from Amazing Spider-Man #86). In the intervening time, she'd been one of the two features in Amazing Adventures Vol2.
    Hope this helps!

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  4. Hi Darci, I made some edits based on your comments. Thanks for pointing out my misunderstanding about the Shanna/Ka-Zar time line. As to Greer being a librarian.. I have to blame 1979 Patrick. I knew nothing of academia, and honestly skimmed a bit when doing the re-read to write the above. On Black Widow, I knew the order of things, but didn't make it clear in the writing. Thanks!!

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