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