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Sunday, October 06, 2013

THE STUPOR-ZERO WOMEN

Dug out Marvel Comic's THE SUPERHERO WOMEN by Stan Lee and started reading through it yesterday. 

This was originally published in 1977, as part of the 'Marvel Origins' line. It supposedly features the 'origin' stories of many of Marvel's female superheroes, and is clearly meant to be a distaff equivalent to the previous entries in the 'Marvel Origins' TPB line, ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, SON OF ORIGINS, and BRING ON THE BAD GUYS -- which were entirely devoted to tales of male superheroes and supervillains.

THE SUPERHERO WOMEN is also a really painfully self conscious attempt on the part of both Marvel as a company and Stan Lee, specifically, to cash in on that whole wild and wonderful 'Women's Lib' thing that those crazy swingin' college chicks were getting 'into' back then. And, yes, the patronizing male condescension is absolutely that rankly apparent in pretty much every introductory word Stan Lee types for this horror.

See, while the basic idea is sound -- nobody did a better job of exploiting passing pop culture fads than Marvel did during the Sensational 70s -- there was a real problem with this particular concept.

It was as if Stan woke up one morning and decided to cash in on the Civil Rights Craze by doing an entire trade paperback reprinting the origin stories of all Marvel's funky, freaky black characters. And for all I know, that may well have occurred to old Smilin' Stan... and the reason that TPB never appeared is the same reason that should have kept THE SUPERHERO WOMEN non existant as well -- MARVEL HAD ALMOST NO CHARACTERS THAT FIT THE FORMULA.

Superhero comics began at a time when mainstream American culture was utterly dominated by male nominally Christian purportedly heterosexual Caucasians. This was the general target demographic because it was male nominally Christian purportedly heterosexual Caucasians who had the money to spend on cheap, throwaway entertainment like comic books. Comics, like all other forms of for profit pop culture offerings, catered to this audience and instinctively did nothing to offend it -- which meant that superhero comics from their inception featured white guys as the heroes.

I want to say that no conscious decision was ever made about this, that it was simply instinctive for comics founders like Simon and Schuster and Kane to create characters like Superman and Batman as white guys who were obviously heterosexual (at least, judging from their romantic interests) and who, while never obviously demonstrating any particular kind of religious preference, still, did nothing that would keep people from presuming they were some manner of protestant Christian. But given that so many of comics' founders were actually Jewish, I'm not sure that a conscious decision wasn't made, at some point. to make all 'superheroes' goy and white -- and given that at least a few of comics founding geniuses were probably closeted homosexuals, most likely a conscious decision to make all superheroes straight was made by at least some of them, as well.

However, in comics Golden Age, there were a handful of female protagonists, ranging from Lady Luck to the Black Canary to Wonder Woman and the original Black Widow (a crazed assassin put on Earth by Satan to kill evildoers). They made up a very small percentage of the otherwise overwhelmingly masculine super hordes, but they were there.

This did not continue into the Silver Age. When DC tested the waters to see if it was 'safe' to publish superheroes again, they did it by reviving male characters -- the Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, the Atom -- in new, updated, Silver Age, 'atomic' guises. Black Canary did not get a 'Silver Age' re upholstering, and Wonder Woman had never been out of print. (Wonder Woman has never been out of print, although she has never been as popular a character as any of her male contemporaries. It's just that her publishers have never owned the rights to the character; rather, they lease them from the heirs of Wonder Woman's creator, and the deal under which they lease those rights requires that Wonder Woman perpetually have her own title.)

When Marvel looked over at DC's 'Silver Age' successes and decided to try to emulate them in the early 60s, they very much varied the characterization and personality formulas of the superhero up to that time, creating far more complex and realistically nuanced characters -- but Marvel's line up of characters were still all very much male nominally Christian purportedly heterosexual Caucasians. The only super powered women that Marvel created in the early 60s fell into what I call the 'Inevitable Girl' formula -- which is to say, every super team needed a chick in it, so every super team got one. Thus and so, the Fantastic Four got Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl. The Avengers got the Wasp, who was Ant-Man's sidekick. (A female sidekick for a male character was pretty revolutionary at this time, however, the Wasp also filled the other formula slot that Marvel confined nearly all of its female superheroines to for decades, namely, the Distaff Version of a More Powerful Male Character type chick.) The X-Men got Marvel Girl. And for a very long time, these were the ONLY super powered female characters the Marvel Universe had.

Yet by the time 1977 rolled around, there were a few more female super characters hanging around -- not many, and almost none of them had ever had their own titles, but, still, there were a few. None of them had proven even remotely popular or commercially successful, making one wonder exactly what it was Stan Lee thought he was doing, putting a book like this on Marvel's publishing schedule -- but maybe he figured, what the hell, the stories were all reprints, he might sell a few copies of stuff that otherwise wasn't generating any revenue right now, and maybe it would get him laid by some of those kookie swingin' college Women's Libbers.

And so it was that THE SUPERHERO WOMEN hit the stands, featuring the 'origin' stories of such humdinger characters Ms. Marvel, Red Sonja, the Invisible Girl, Madame Medusa, the Black Widow, the Wasp, and Hela, Goddess of Death.

No Marvel Girl, strangely enough. Even more strangely, no Valkyrie, a singularly liberated female character who had appeared, by that time, as the only female member of the Defenders, and who was certainly no more obscure than Hela, or, for that matter, the Cat, Shanna the She Devil or Lyra the Femizon, three other characters who didn't even get on the cover of THE SUPERHERO WOMEN, but who appeared within its pages nonetheless. No Scarlet Witch, a character who had become more and more prominent and well developed over the course of her membership in the Avengers.

In fact, the choices for the various stories and characters included in the volume seem... well... strange, to say the least. Medusa, for example, has never had her own title; rather than reprint a tale from when she was perhaps the most formidable member of the FF's opposite numbers the Frightful Four, or something from the Inhuman's various solo features, Stan chose an issue of Spider-man in which Medusa guest starred for inclusion here. The Black Widow got the same treatment, and it's even crazier there, because prior to this TPB's publication, the Black Widow had her own feature for a while in AMAZING ADVENTURES, and Lee could have reprinted any of those stories instead of one where she essentially played second fiddle to Peter Parker.

Whatever the case may be, the entire volume more than adequately displays that over the decades, Marvel's treatment and depiction of female super-protagonists has been pretty weak, if not outright shameful. Of all of the female characters featured in this volume -- Medusa, Red Sonja, the Invisible Girl/Woman, Ms. Marvel, Hela, The Cat, The Wasp, Lyra the Femizon (whoever the hell she is), Shanna the She Devil, and the Black Widow -- only five have ever had their own titles.

Of that five, only one (Ms. Marvel) currently has her own title. None of them have ever been particularly popular or commercially successful (The Cat got two issues of her own title and one issue of Marvel Team Up, the character then went on to mutate into two different characters, the Hellcat and Tigra, both of whom have, at one time or another, had their own titles that had very short runs, neither of whom have proven to be particularly successful over the years).

Now let's take a more analytical look at these characters. Out of the 10, 3 were created to fill the Inevitable Girl slots in otherwise all male teams (Medusa, the Invisible Girl, and the Wasp). Five are arguably female surrogates of more popular male characters -- Red Sonja (Conan), Ms. Marvel (Captain Marvel), The Wasp (Ant-Man), Shanna (Ka-Zar), and the Black Widow (Spider-man).

(It may seem unfair to reduce the undeniable complexities of the Black Widow character to a phrase like 'female Spider-man surrogate' -- but the story in which she appears in THE SUPERHERO WOMAN presents her as nothing but an inferior female copy of Spider-man, so in this particular case, it's actually very accurate. And even when we speak of the complexities of the Black Widow as a character, she has, since her introduction, always been paired with male characters and her persona has always been largely defined by her interactions with male characters. )

Only two of them have identities not derived or in some other way defined by male characters -- Hela, Goddess of Death, who is in no way a protagonist or even really much of a character, and Lyra the Femizon, whom I don't think anyone on Earth had ever heard of prior to THE SUPERHERO WOMAN coming out, and I doubt many who have read this volume even vaguely remember.

Neither of these characters can even remotely be accurately described as 'superhero women', either.

And that most of the stories are simply straight up awful, well, that doesn't help this TPB work any better, either.

All told, other than the historical value of owning something that reprints both THE CLAWS OF THE CAT #1 and "The Fury of the Femizons" from SAVAGE TALES #1, there's really little point to or value in this trade paperback.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to have it in my collection, wretched though much if not all of it is.



If you enjoyed this article, try my novel Zap Force -- a story of a team of college student superheroes fighting to save themselves and the rest of the world from the secret super powered cabals scheming to enslave us all!

2 Comments:

At 11:02 PM , Blogger Darci said...

Re: "the Black Widow had her own feature for a while in AMAZING ADVENTURES, and Lee could have reprinted any of those stories instead of one where she essentially played second fiddle to Peter Parker"

Natasha specifically set out in Amazing Spider-Man #86 to prove she was no carbon copy (although you seem to indicate you think she failed). I think this story was chosen for its John Romita art. AA's stories were from John Buscema, Gene Colan, and Don Heck.

Re: "The Cat got two issues of her own title and one issue of Marvel Team Up"

Actually, she had four issues, plus MTU #8. The story for the fourth issue was written (by Linda Fite) and partially drawn (by Ramona Fradon) but never published. In what appears to have been one of the fabled all-night sessions of the Crusty Bunkers, Alan Weiss and Jim Starlin provided the art for a abbreviated (only 15 pages) substitute finale.

"Beware the Clutching Claws", Stan's foreword to the reprint from The Cat #1, describes Linda as leaving Marvel to be Herb Trimpe's wife. Actually, she left to earn a living wage at Alan R. Liss, Inc. Stan also disingenuously claims to have lost track of Wally Wood...
Thanks!

 
At 6:20 AM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

For someone with the willpower, intelligence, and all around personal power of Natasha Romanoff to decide that she needs to prove anything to anyone, much less that she needs to prove she is not a 'carbon copy' of Spider-man, a person she has never met who has nothing to do with her (he's a classic costumed vigilante; she's an adventurer/meddler with an exotic past much more in the Simon Templar/Modesty Blaise tradition) is simply idiotic. It's clear to me that Romita pencilled a story in which the two characters fought, and Stan, as was his wont, just came up with the most idiotic character motivation he could contrive.

Natasha has never been anything like a 'carbon copy' of any character anywhere, despite the fact that Marvel kept trying to make her play second fiddle to various male characters. For whatever reason, Marvel was never comfortable with the idea of strong women who might support their own comics; even when they tried it, they never gave the books very much time to establish themselves.

And yeah, I caught that bullshit about Wally Wood, too.

 

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