Robert M. Price
Did you ever
notice what you must have noticed when you read early Marvel Comics—how the
women don’t count worth a damn? I’m not condemning; back then we were all just
on the verge of noticing plenty of social realities to which we had long been
conveniently blind. I guess I’m just amazed how blatant it all looks in
retrospect, all these years later, years that haven’t really passed, not
one-for-one, in the Marvel Universe anyhow, where we are supposed to imagine
Spider-Man gaining his powers only a few years ago. For me, he got them over
forty years ago! After all, I was there when it happened.
Anyway, picture if
you will, the breakdown of all three Marvel supergroups. Let’s see: starting
with the premiere superhero band, the Fantastic Four, you’ve got Mr. Fantastic,
a super-brain with Plastic Man powers thrown in as a deluxe extra. Then there’s
the Human Torch, a nova burst of power. And the Thing, a stone behemoth of
near-limitless strength. Now, dear me, wasn’t there supposed to be a fourth
member of this group? Yes, I could swear there was, only I can’t quite spot her,
I guess, yes, come to think of it, because SHE’S INVISIBLE! And not only
invisible, but the Invisible Girl. Later on, this got altered to the
Invisible Woman once our consciences began to rise. There are obvious advantages
to being invisible—ask anyone who thinks he is! But we’re really talking about
espionage here, as in the wartime Universal sequel The Invisible Agent.
But, next to these other characters, she, ah, kind of gets lost, wouldn’t you
say? It’s like the ending of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Finally the Invisible Man gets into the act, but not till after Count Dracula,
the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein Monster, i.e., the big guns, leave the stage.
Dracula, Larry Talbot, and the Monster are like Reed, Johnny, and Ben. Sue’s
just left over.
On to the
Avengers. I love this one! Taking inventory, who’s on the roster this time?
First up, the Mighty Thor! God of Thunder! Next is the invincible Iron Man! Then
the incredible Hulk! Then the astonishing Giant-Man! Forget you even know the
characters! Just listen to the names! And then, in the last spot—the Wasp! The
only female in the bunch is named for an insect, and not only an insect, but one
famous as a metaphor for stuck-up bitchiness.
Let’s not neglect
that third Marvel franchise, a kind of Fantastic Five, the X-Men. The male
heroes are all interesting and dynamic, based on strong symbolism of various
sorts: the Angel, Cyclops, the Beast, the Ice Man and (drum roll, please)…
Marvel Girl! She doesn’t even have her own name! She shares the name of the
company, as if you had a DC Damsel! They eventually realized, as with Invisible
Girl/Woman, that this was inadequate, so it became, uh, nothing. Jean Gray. The
only super-hero(ine) with no stage name at all! Doesn’t that kill you? Every
time they do the X-Men roll call on TV, we hear Cyclops! Rogue!
Wolverine! Colossus, etc., and Jean Gray! I think I liked
Marvel Girl better!
Another way you
could tell Stan and the gang were blind to the importance of women (again, as
most of us were at the time) is the way significant female characters were
usually just emasculated versions of prior male heroes. And this went on for a
long time. Back when it was Timely Comics, Captain America had a distaff
counterpart called Miss America. The Sub-Mariner had his Namora and Namorita.
The Torch briefly had Sun-Girl. I guess he didn’t want Frederick Wertham coming
after him with those accusations of homosexuality. One heroine who was not a
feminized hero was nonetheless a zero: the Silver Scorpion—whose costume
contained neither a shred of silver nor any hint of a scorpion design!
In the Silver and
Bronze Ages, it was the same even with the villainesses. The Enchantress was
Loki with breasts and a nose-job. The Black Widow became a Spider-Woman, and
then we had a real Spider-Woman (two or three, I seem to remember), plus one or
two Spider-Girls! Valkyrie was a female Thor, a second Sif. Ms. Marvel was Mar-Vell
with a sex change operation. Tigra was the Beast with a bra, Hell-Cat the Single
White Female Panther. The She-Hulk? Nuff said!
The Scarlet Witch and Crystal were not derivative of male characters, but their
powers were vague to the point of indefinability. Medusa was as silent as Black
Bolt. I guess we had to wait for the X-Women of the 70s for things to change. I
missed Moon Dragon pretty much altogether, so I don’t know where she, Mantis,
Magdalena, Circe, Thundra and other (I suspect interchangeable) characters fit
DC has done a better job with heroines, such as Wonder Woman (admittedly a bit
close to Superman), the Black Canary, and others, but then again Star Sapphire
is a pink, lady Green Lantern. Batgirl? Supergirl? Hawkgirl?
Today I think we are seeing that Superheroines ought to have their own
integrity, their own identity, though it will be merely another kind of
condescension if we make the defining trait about them be that they are female.