Where Have All the Silver Age Women Gone?

Posted by Jennifer

Superhero comic books are built on a foundation of longevity. The longer a hero has been around and consistently published, the more likely that hero is to be published in the future, to headline comics and accumulate more and more cultural cachet. That’s the main reason that comic book characters created later have such a hard time gaining traction in the market – they can never match up to the longevity (and thus popularity) of Golden and Silver Age characters.

Marvel doesn’t have a lot of active Golden Age characters, beyond Captain America and Namor; no one in Marvel has a publishing history as lengthy as that of Batman or Superman. But in 1961 Marvel ushered in a new era of comics with the Fantastic Four, quickly followed by Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, and the Avengers, among other titles. To this day, these Silver Age characters are the ones who have endured, the ones deemed largely indestructible. When one of these characters dies, goes crazy, or is otherwise put out of commission, you know they’ll be back to their status quo within two years at the most, and that the Marvel U will be heavily impacted by their absence. Even the most unpopular members of these groups, like Iceman or Ant-Man, always seem to find a team to be a part of.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about the female heroes.

It’s a dark time for Silver Age Marvel women. Jean Grey, the first X-Woman, has been dead since early 2004, and has become the character Marvel editors like to hold up as an example of their principled “dead means dead” stand. (Which doesn’t seem to apply to any other character.) Janet Van Dyne, the first female Avenger, has been dead since Secret Invasion and only seems to be remembered by her abusive ex-husband. Wanda Maximoff, one of the most popular early X-Men characters and the second female Avenger, was turned into a genocidal psychopath and has been waiting since 2004 for redemption – or at least use for more than one issue per year. Gwen Stacy has been dead for decades. Mary Jane Watson has been cast aside, derided as a hindrance to Spider-Man’s character development. Betty Ross has been brainwashed and turned into a monster. Lorna Dane is lost in space.

I’m beginning to sense a pattern.

Sure, there’s a few Silver Age women still holding up the fort. Sue Storm, Marvel’s flagship female character, is still around and saving the world – though who knows how the current “Three” storyline in Fantastic Four will end. Black Widow is having something of a renaissance. Sharon Carter, after all her time spent brainwashed, is finally back to herself and leading the Secret Avengers. Pepper Potts has become a superhero. And maybe Allan Heinberg will finish Children’s Crusade sometime this century and we’ll actually get Wanda back in action.

But percentage-wise, Silver Age women are losing more often than they’re winning. And while bad things happen to Marvel characters of both genders, they DON’T tend to happen to the Silver Age male characters. Just try to imagine Marvel treating Spider-Man like they treat Jean Grey – or Mary Jane. Even Thor and Captain America, who both had recent death periods, have returned more quickly than Wanda or Jean, and always with tons of fanfare. Marvel isn’t calling for high-profile writers to revitalize The Wasp with a new series, like they did for Thor, or giving Jean’s legacy to her protege, as they did with Cap. In fact, the closest thing Jean has to a protege – future daughter Rachel Grey – is lost in space with Lorna Dane (and Alex Summers, the only major Silver Age male hero not currently active in comics).

Why does this matter? Because these women SHOULD benefit from the same phenomenon of preferential attachment and historical legacy as the male characters. They should benefit from the same continuous progress in characterization and storytelling and that lifts them from the more problematic trappings of the past and develops them into strong, well-rounded modern characters with the weight of history behind them. They should all have stories like the ones Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick have told about Pepper Potts, who has grown from secretary to CEO to superhero.

It’s hard to create a market for new characters of any gender. I don’t think this is an excuse to stop trying; in fact, it’s the only way comics will evolve to include more characters of color, male and female, which makes it absolutely necessary. I do, however, realize that this is difficult process, an uphill battle. But no such problem should exist for characters with 40+ years of history. The women of Marvel’s Silver Age should be mainstays in their books, granted the same guarantee of presence that their male counterparts receive. Instead, we have an upcoming Avengers movie with only one woman – Black Widow — and no upcoming female-centric films, and we have a comic book market where only two Marvel women (Spider-Girl, who I’ve complimented elsewhere, and X-23, teenage former prostitute clone of Wolverine) currently headline an ongoing solo book.

This is Marvel’s self-advertised year of women, and its commitment to that goal has been admirable. I’ve bought all of the one-shots and miniseries over the past year that have celebrated this theme, and most have been excellent. But if Marvel really wants to celebrate its women, it needs to look back at what Stan and Jack and others created, back in the 60s, and treat those early women with the respect and prominence that they’ve earned.

By Jennifer Smith
E-mail: Jennifer@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • Allen

    I feel the same issues with race. Though I don’t have the same research behind me that you do, I feel “hit” when a minority character, be he/she Black, Asian, gay or lesbian, has something bad happen to him/her. You’ve outlined the very reasons I feel there needs to be a dialogue about this. I feel as though the comic fans who the Big Two allow to mandate the status quo don’t even understand why I want a character that looks like me or why I want greater equality in my comics. Why is it okay for the majority of superheroes to be White straight men? Why can’t varying characters (women, LGBT, ethnic/racial minorities) be (more) in the spotlight with the “big guys”? I know I do not always like change, but why must we be so afraid of it that we can’t introduce new and more diverse characters? I’m not talking about tokenism, but about real, non-stereotypical portrayals of people who reflect those in society who, today, occupy demographics we often consider minorities or disenfranchised groups.

  • I am being very excited about your article!

    Beautifully said.

  • This is an absolutely amazing post. I used to be an ardent reading of all the X-titles when I was younger, but I lost interest in them after Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza stopped writing for them. I love my first appearance Jubilee that I have (Uncanny #244), but I was saddened to learn what they did with her character – I had always hoped they would develop her into a full blow adult character within the X-Men. That Jean Grey has been dead and will allegedly stay dead is very disheartening. She was always a fantastic character. I loved Rogue and Storm, too, although they are not silver age.

    Fabulous post. My brother nearly had a heart attack when he picked up new X-piece after years of being away the other month – said they made it on VAMPIRES!!

    Can’t believe it.

    -Linds, bibliophile brouhaha

  • It’s really all about sales. If Marvel/Disney figure out a way to sell a female book on a regular basis, then they will. However, they don’t seem to be very motivated to make that happen.

    I was really digging the Ms. Marvel book. I hopped onboard with the last storyline, and enjoyed every issue.

  • John — You’re completely right that the issue of sales & female-centric books is a marketing problem. But how does having one of their most popular characters stay dead (and thus not be any books) HELP sales? There has to be something else going on here.

  • Alex

    As a black man, I would love nothing more that to have more ethnic characters, and I would also want more women and more LGBT characters as well. I feel that Marvel and DC have made some great strides by introducing more of these characters. Static, Blue Beetle, the new Spider-Girl, Jackson Hyde the new Aqualad, Starman, and the like. I think the fear to introduce more of these characters comes from the fact that they might be viewed as stereotypes by the readers that they want. Then there is the backlash from the older fans that want things “to go back to they way they used to be” which can be felt more so on the internet, the land of snap-judgments (seriously what did fanboys/fangirls do before the internet?) The older fans most likely have more money, which means that they have more of a say in what goes into the stories. So really, when the demographic changes, then things will begin to balance themselves out. Oh and X-23 isnt that bad, shes more than just wolverine-lite, she really has evolved to be more than that. Well, most folks like her more than Daken anyway.

  • @Allen Oh, I absolutely agree. But the difficulty with characters of color — I’m writing a grad school paper on this right now — is that there WEREN’T a lot of them in the earliest days, so it’s hard for them to catch up to the white heroes in terms of longevity and popularity. I absolutely believe that comic books need more diversity in all ways, and I think Marvel and DC have an obligation to buck the trend and create more characters of color (and more female characters, and more LGBT characters) to create a more inclusive universe. But in this case, I’m pointing to an even more bizarre phenomenon not “justified” by sales — eliminating women who have just as much history as their male counterparts.

    @Linda I think there’s definitely some hope — as the generation that grew up on 90s comics and the X-Men cartoon becomes more involved in the industry, characters like Rogue, Storm, Jubilee, and (hopefully) Jean might get more of a spotlight because that’s who those writers love. Marjorie Liu, currently writing X-23 and Dark Wolverine, is a huge Jubilee fan, for instance. It’s another small moment of hope I have, amid all the frustrations I detail in this article.

    @John What Caroline said. I’m not even necessarily talking about solo books, which is another complicated issue — I’m talking about having these women alive and fighting as part of teams. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be granted that prominence. It wouldn’t do a thing to sales.

    @Alex I didn’t mean any slight against X-23! I’m actually really loving her book and I think Marjorie Liu is doing a fantastic job with her character. But the fact remains that her origins are a bit… suspect, and for her to be the only female character with a solo book is troubling. As for characters of color, I do agree that when the demographics of the audience change things might get better, but I’ve met enough younger (straight, white, male) comic fans who don’t want things to change to be cynical about that. Marvel and DC need to create those characters regardless of fan reaction or sales, but that’s a difficult and complicated thing that is beyond the boundaries of this article (and more in line with what I’m currently writing for a grad school paper).

  • Excellent post, Jen. I can’t really weigh in on it because you know how scanty my Marvel knowledge is, but I think it’s telling that you mentioned “Marvel’s flagship female character” yesterday and I sat there for 20 minutes going “…Sue? Jean? Uh…Mary Jane?” until you posted the Women of Marvel cover in question. Marvel trades in icons less than DC does, but they haven’t even seemed to TRY to make any of their female characters terribly iconic (unlike DC, which seems intent on taking away Wonder Woman’s iconic status and replacing her with Hal Jordan, NOT THAT I’M BITTER) – and that iconic status is what leads to continuous publication of heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America.

  • I think a big problem for a lot of the Silver Age women is simply the age in which they appeared.

    What I mean by that is that for the most part they were supporting characters to male main characters or characters in team books. Thus, you can kill off Jean Grey without ending the X-Men, and it’s made all the more poignant (theoretically) because of Scott Summer’s loss.

    Similarly, with Gwen Stacy, she lives on in Spider-man’s guilt about her death.

    In writing this, I’m not saying that they’re right to have done this, but when you’ve got mostly male writers and editors writing books with primarily male characters, the (mostly unintentional) self-identification will lead them to examine what it means to the guy to have bad things happen to the female characters instead of the other way around.

    Again, I’m not saying it’s a good thing.

    Personally I’m hopeful. I’ve seen quotes from Marvel editors that more or less state that Jean Grey’s return is pretty much inevitable. Also, it seems like there are female characters that have lasted post Silver Age (Storm, Ms. Marvel, Kitty Pryde, etc…). Plus, there are more female writers and editors than before–or at least it seems like that to me.

    In the long term, I think this means more female readership–which in turn will mean more female characters, editors, and writers.

    It all feeds on itself, just like it did in the Silver Age, only in the other direction. It’s just not immediate.

    Well, one can hope, anyway.

  • lilacsigil

    Jim – but in team books, you could kill off the male characters just as easily, and they’re still around. Why do the women have to die for male angst? Marvel guys can angst perfectly effectively with no motive at all!

    I thought Jean Grey was the poster girl for Revolving Door of Death? Times change!

  • Monica

    JIm, it’s true that silver age female characters were mostly supporting characters to male characters, but most of them evolved into so much more. I can think of Avengers storylines in the last twelve years in which the Wasp lead the Avengers and the Scarlet Witch functioned neither as the Vision’s wife or Pietro’s sister but rather as her own person. And these were good, interesting stories. And now one is dead and one is crazy. And yet both Pietro and Ant-Man are very active, and the Vision is… sort of alive/sort of a legacy.

    I do agree there’s hope about post-silver age female characters, but there’s not the same sense of history that cements so many male characters into the Marvel pantheon. With nostalgia’s powerful use as a marketing tool, it’s sad that it’s not being used to boost Marvel’s women.

  • Anika

    I finally read this! It’s a great post, thank you for getting the discussion going again.

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