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Daily Archives: December 7, 2011

This Female Fights Back!

Longbox Graveyard #25

The 1970s were the decade when women’s rights entered American popular culture. Helen Reddy‘s “I Am Woman” hit #1 in 1972, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in an enormously-hyped tennis court battle of the sexes in 1973, and Archie Bunker’s battles with his liberated, live-in daughter (and every other ethnic and societal stereotype) were front-and-center in All In The Family, the top-rated television show from 1971-1976. The newsstand brought us Ms. Magazine, and a new version of Cosmopolitan aimed at young women. The state-by-state battle for ratification of the (ultimately doomed) Equal Rights Amendment was a premiere political story of the decade. Women’s Lib was happening, baby!

As a kid growing up in 1970s California I had a vague idea that women needed to be liberated from something, and I was pretty sure that being a “male chauvinist pig” was a bad thing. But being an adolescent comic book fan, I was mostly interested in women as sex objects. Throughout the late seventies and early eighties, Marvel Comics would appeal to my base yearnings with books like Red Sonja, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, and Dazzler, but it was the first and the least provocative of the books introduced in that era that would best hold my attention — Ms. Marvel!

now you see her …

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You Might Also Like: Ms. Marvel Gallery

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When Ms. Marvel was introduced in late 1976, Marvel Comics was happy to co-opt the popular entertainment brand of feminism to promote the book. The mast-head told us that “THIS FEMALE FIGHTS BACK” (as opposed to the kind that doesn’t, I suppose), and the editorial filling in for the first issue’s letter column was an apologia by scripter Gerry Conway, who solemnly admitted that he was “… not totally liberated, (but) … know(s) enough to be aware that a problem exists, and to understand that we’re all susceptible to chauvinism at times,” before awkwardly explaining that Ms. Marvel wasn’t written by a woman because, “… at the moment there are no thoroughly trained and qualified women writers working in the super hero comics field.”

Because, as we all know, being a writer for Marvel comics required thorough training, like being a brain surgeon or an astronaut.

Which is to unjustly single-out Conway, because this sort of arm’s-length acknowledgement was kind of de rigueur for any sensitive issue at the time, and by addressing feminism as an issue at all, Marvel was actually being progressive.

Ms. Marvel wasn’t the only wonderful woman superhero of her time

I’ve no doubt Marvel hoped to court female readers with this title, and to close the gap with their “Distinguished Competition,” which had long outdistanced Marvel in the female superhero department, thanks to characters like Supergirl and Batgirl, to say nothing of Wonder Woman, who was enjoying television success at the time. But I’m even more certain Marvel hoped to get male readers onto this book, as all the female comics readers in the world (whatever their mythical numbers may have been) could not have been enough to sustain a Marvel book in the 1970s. The old salts in the bullpen may have had wonder stories to tell about the golden age of romance comics, but more relevant must have been the 18 million households that were watching Charlie’s Angels in the United States in 1977. The feminist movement had won women the right to go bra-less on network TV, and the merest hint of Farrah Fawcett’s nipple threatened to topple the Republic! This “women’s lib” stuff might make the book relevant, but jiggle TV was hot and in Ms. Marvel the House of Ideas had a property that could ride both waves.

With her blonde Kate Jackson swoopy-do and bare mid drift (that sometimes revealed a navel, take that, Barbara Eden!) Ms. Marvel might have been a pin-up heroine, but the stories never trended in that direction. By issue #3, Chris Claremont was aboard, bringing with him the imprimatur of writing strong female characters on Uncanny X-Men, and under his watch the book would never stoop to the wet t-shirt and butt shot antics of cheesecake books of later decades (and I say that with admiration, having scripted a dozen or so issue of Ex-Mutants, myself). Come issue #9, Ms. Marvel’s costume lost it’s bare front-and-back panels (largely to simplify coloring the character), and, more importantly, the no-nonsense alter ego of Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, had begun to assert herself.

… and now you see less of her

In refusing to write about Ms. Marvel as a “feminist hero,” Chris Claremont kinda-sorta made her … a genuine feminist hero. Other characters react to Ms. Marvel’s femininity, of course, but Ms. Marvel herself resists the temptation to strike a pose, put her fists on her hips, and remind everyone that she’s a woman (a rare thing in an otherwise on-the-nose era of comic book writing). And the book spends plenty of pages on “secret identity” stuff, too. Beneath her mask, Ms. Marvel is Carol Danvers, an honest-to-gosh 1970s female role model — single, a successful professional, unattached (and with a hint of doomed romance in her past), educated, and starting a second career as a magazine editor after having previously been a security chief for NASA.

It is this character of Carol Danvers that makes Ms. Marvel a diamond in the rough.

Danvers had a hot temper (easily trading barbs with her editor, Spider-Man nemesis J. Jonah Jameson) …

… but she also used her head in battle, employing fuzzy science to defeat more powerful foes with frankly ridiculous traps that she cobbled together on the spur-of-the-moment …

… but that schtick did help to separate her from the average Marvel meathead, reinforcing Ms. Marvel’s brainpower (and Claremont wasn’t above calling for a montage when he wanted to drive that particular point home) …

… and I suppose it is a cheap way to show Ms. Marvel’s “feminine side,” but she was also unique in seeming more concerned with the collateral damage of her super-powered antics than the male heroes of her day.

When I picked up this book in 1977 I might have had some vague sense of making a feminist statement, but mostly I was looking for a good new superhero book, and Ms. Marvel delivered.

Sort of.

With powers and costume based on a then-more-familiar Captain Marvel, the book seemed to suffer an identity crisis from the get-go, with the creative team rummaging through the storybook toolbox to give the character her own unique spin (she’s amnesic! she has precognition! she has phantom memories! she curses like Captain Marvel! she crosses over with Spider-Man! she doesn’t need Spidey anymore, now she has her own supporting cast!). When Chris Claremont signs on in issue #3 things start to settle in, but the book would still suffer for pitting Ms. Marvel against second-rate villains like Tiger Shark. The closest thing Ms. Marvel gets to an A-List villain is M.O.D.O.K., but that confrontation was sullied by having Carol sexually threatened by the villain, in a slimy dream sequence stimulated by M.O.D.O.K.’s mind-ripper beam.

If this is M.O.D.O.K.’s game, you have to wonder why he didn’t mindscrew Captain America or Iron Man when he had the chance. I suppose it is reasonable that Ms. Marvel’s gender makes her more vulnerable to the jerks she battles, but I contend it isn’t necessary. Fortunately, Carol puts paid to M.O.D.O.K. a few issues later and this run of the book doesn’t tread back into this kind of territory.

The truth is this is a forgettable run of superhero stories. The art is never better than serviceable, and when Ms. Marvel spent her twentieth issue fighting dumbass dinosaur men, I guess I’d had enough (because that’s where my collection runs out).

All these years later, I wish I’d stayed with the book, even though it only had another three issues to run. Not because I expect the stories got any better, but because in my recent read-through, I found I’d grown quite attached to Carol Danvers, the woman behind the Ms. Marvel mask. It meant nothing to me when I was a teen, but as a creepy grown-up reading comics in my garage, I found Carol Danvers refreshingly mature, well-realized, intelligent, and strong in ways that few female comic characters can claim. Against all odds, and maybe despite themselves, Marvel really did create a strong, iconic female superhero in Ms. Marvel (but then they cancelled the book, and passed the character around between different series, then raped her, then un-raped her, and turned her into a crypto-fascist, and gave her a second series) … but in truth I don’t want to know about any of the other brand withdrawals Marvel made with this character in the past three decades.

I’d kind of like my last memory of Ms. Marvel to be about a woman who was secure enough to take girlish joy in her own costume change.

Ms. Marvel was at best an average comic, but Ms. Marvel herself was a good and potentially a great character. I’m sorry it took me thirty-five years to realize it, but it did make for a pleasant surprise when I unearthed this run from the Accumulation. Still, Ms. Marvel deserved better. She deserved better villains and better art. She deserved better loyalty from me, instead of abandoning the book before it was over. She deserved to get off to a faster start rather than floundering around for a year while her readership went away. She deserved better of Marvel’s editors after her book was cancelled.

And she certainly deserved better than that “This Female Fights Back!” motto on her very first issue! Sheesh!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #26 Longbox Soapbox (Special Six Month Anniversary Issue!)

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