The Unbearable Lightness of Being Sue Storm

Sue Storm is the perfect woman. Or at least, when she was created in 1961, when comic books were written for and by boys, she was the perfect woman. She looks like a Barbie doll: blond, blue-eyed, a figure to die for. She acts like a 1950’s Vassar girl: bright but the submissive caretaker, introduced to be sister, wife/lover/mother (Sue was introduced as Reed’s fiancé and fiancé promises marriage and motherhood, at least in 1961), and friend at once. She is a member of the scientific team but sort of in the way they let the Robinson family travel together in Lost in Space. They tell you Maureen or Sue has a purpose to the mission but it’s clear her purpose to the story is The Woman. And in Sue’s case she is also Judy. Mother/Caretaker and Hot Young Thing/Love Interest at once. As I said, the perfect woman.

And then there is her special ability. Sue Storm, the perfect girlfriend, becomes Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, which, of course, makes her just that much more perfect. What man wouldn’t want his girlfriend to turn invisible every now and then? And when she is visible she wears a skintight body suit. Now, a lot can be said about the ability to disappear being her main gimmick, if not her main function, in the comic. Turning invisible (1) transforms Sue, already Barbie-perfect, into the ideal female form. As Ben Grimm’s mutation represents the epitome of strength Sue’s represents evanescence. She achieves what studies indicate a majority of the female population — those who diet — wants: she becomes weight-less, literally lighter than air. (2) Fulfills the continually compelling myth that women are the sneaky sex. What can be more secretly manipulative than invisibility? The opponent won’t know he is being attacked until it has already happened. (3) In addition to being unseen, Sue is effectively silenced. She loses her ability to have a say in the action since speaking up would defeat the purpose of being invisible.

In those early issues, in addition to being the caretaker, Sue portrays the role of needing to be taken care of — the damsel in distress demanding a deliverance from danger. At first her power is seen as entirely defensive, unless it’s being used in some kind of espionage plot, as suggested in point (2) above and then it is almost always at the request of a man. And almost always ineffective, resulting in the required rescue plot. When she does get to partake in the saving the day of the day, it is still in the defensive “put a shield up” way while everyone else — brilliant Reed, strong Ben and powerful Johnny — acts. Sue is relegated to the role of sidekick to the Fantastic Three.

And finally, as the only woman regularly in the title, Sue is everyone’s love interest. The object of Reed’s affections, of course, but also notably those of his arch nemesis, Victor Von Doom (Dr. Doom) and his opposite, Namor. And Sue, good girl that she is, flirts with both, is tempted by both but never succumbs unless it is an alternate universe or she is being mind-controlled and even then it’s more of a plot point to make Reed look more like a hero and less like a nerd. After all, if a girl can have Namor and she sticks with Reed Richards, he must have something going on. Basically, Sue has a lot of hats, plays a lot of roles, but has very little to say about herself.

So, in conclusion, Sue Storm, a.k.a. Invisible Girl, is not a strong female role model.

Unless you look beneath the surface.

Sue Storm is arguably the smartest woman in the Marvel Multiverse. Arguably because though they never make the top ten lists, there are plenty of Marvel women shown to be of above average intelligence. Lorna Dane has a Ph.D. in Geophysics. Jennifer Walters was a member of the Order of the Coif. Kitty Pryde is a genius hacker. Kate Kildare graduated magna cum laude from Vassar when she was 16. And Carol Danvers was her high school class’s valedictorian. But none of these women are known primarily for their high IQ. In fact, I would imagine many comic books readers do not even realize they have achieved these honors. But Sue Storm is, at least, considered to be a highly intelligent person. The only problem is her husband is considered to be the most intelligent person in the Marvel canon. As smart as Sue is, Reed will always be smarter. But she is smart, and more importantly she is known to be smart, within the story and within the medium, and that is notable.

Sue Storm is also arguably the best parent in the Marvel Multiverse. But here it is not arguably because there are others vying for the title (are there any good parents in the Marvel Multiverse? The Parkers as featured in Spider-Girl are decent but I think they are alone in even that). It is arguably because she has made some rather questionable decisions in regard to her children — leaving them during Civil War, for example. But as many mistakes as she has made over the years it is clear she loves her children. It is clear she wants what is best for her children, even if sometimes she cannot figure what it is (and as a parent, I understand that failing). And it is clear she would fight to her dying death and beyond for her children and for her family. She is a fiercely passionate mother and family woman. And it is important to note she is also a career woman, but her career is (literally) married to her family life. While it is not something most working mothers can emulate, it is something most working mothers can identify with and that is all but unique in the medium.

And as time passed, Invisible Girl grew into Invisible Woman and “put up a shield” turned into a wide array of varied powers, both defensive and offensive, even lethal. Becoming invisible became almost an afterthought compared to what Sue is ultimately capable of. Nearly fifty years after her introduction, Sue is now a force to be reckoned with. And while it did not happen over night it is worth saying that her power growth did begin when Stan Lee was still in charge of her destiny.

As sexist as the mantle of Invisible Girl appears to be looking back from 2009 with a Women’s Studies Minor to back me up, the fact that Sue was introduced as a super heroine at all is important to the history of Marvel comics. She was the very first Marvel Girl introduced during the Silver Age and in a way it is only because of Sue that we have any others at all. And in never having a secret identity, marrying and staying married for all these years, and having two children while continuing her super-heroing, Sue has continued to be a trail-blazer for all the Marvel Women who came after her. And if she is a role model for them, maybe she’s a role model for the rest of us.

Posted by Anika
email: anika@fantasticfangirls.org
twitter: magnetgirl

  • Caroline

    GREAT article. I find the women created in the Silver Age so complex and interesting. They’re not just fighting the usual obstacles that heroes have, but the assumptions of the times they were created in.

    That panel with the dialogue is AMAZING. Poor Sue.

  • sigrid

    I *love* how the female characters were so often introduced with no real *thought* as to the implications of their powers. And Sue’s powers . . . they are TERRIFYING.

  • Caroline

    Another thing I forgot to say — I think it’s *so interesting* what you point out, that there are a lot of women in comics who are mentioned as being very smart and well-educated, but it’s rarely ever their ‘thing.’ Even Moira McTaggart showed up as the housekeeper before it was decided she was a scientist.

    Interestingly, movies tend to like the ‘labcoat barbie’ thing, so we even have characters like Jean, who isn’t a scientist in the comics, turned into one. Odd.

  • Anika

    @Caroline – That is a whole other article. The apparent but not actual deficiency of intelligent women in comics. There are so many discussions of who is *smartest* (Banner versus Pym versus Richards etc. or even cross-companies with Wayne versus Stark) and time after time the first woman that shows up is listed at around 30th if she shows up at all. And yet there ARE plenty of women who are *written* as being just as exceptionally intelligent as Peter Parker, for example, but it is not seen as a defining feature so it’s treated as trivia or simply forgotten.

  • You already know I love this — the analysis of her powers especially, but also the fact that she’s a good mother who still manages to do her job, which is a rarity in any medium, much less comics. Lovely work.

  • Dan

    FANTASTIC FOUR was one of the first comics I ever read–beginning with tattered old back issues I’d find at the monthly baseball card and comic show held in the basement of a seedy roadside motel–and, for the most part, I always found Sue rather dull.

    Despite being one of the first female characters in comic books to actually be allowed to join in the fun, these old issues usually depicted Sue in the role of either “mother” (primarily to Ben and Johnny, since these were the days before little Franklin came along) or “victim.” For all of its failings, it was the FANTASTIC FOUR of HEROES REBORN that was my first introduction to a Susan Storm Richards who was a fully-realized and well-rounded character (at least as much as you can find, in my opinion).

    I also think it should be noted that the Ultimate version of Sue is frequently mentioned as being on par with Reed intellectually.

  • John

    This is an excellent, well thought out and poignant column. Kudos to you Anika.

  • I read Fantastic Four reeeally briefly when I was in about 4th grade, and Sue was basically the whole reason I enjoyed it. I think it was a story arch wherein Reed was dead, and for some reason Sue was fighting an alternate universe version of him? He was being very patronizing and smug and kept calling her “Invisible Girl” until she finally turned around, defeated him soundly, and added, “That’s Invisible WOMAN.” My 9-year-old self got heart eyes right there, I’m pretty sure.

  • Twyst

    only because i had been thinking about her today, Moonstone is thought of as very intelligent as well — but she’s evil. For some reason, a lot of bad characters are super-intelligent, i guess that makes it a great victory when they are defeated. ANYWAY…
    I enjoyed this article a lot. I am not a fan of Sue, but this had me thinking more about her and appreciating her more as a character, because, to be honest, i only really think of her in the superficial mother/victim/reed arm candy that were discussed in the first half.

    thanks :)

  • John

    FULLY agree. I’ve been looking into the history of the FF lately and I have to say, I think Sue is definitely the most interesting and well-developed of the four. Also, looking at those panels from way back, “Why if only to keep the men’s morale up!” make me gag, and I’m glad she’s become such a force to be reckoned with even if it took awhile. Arguably the most powerful member of the team these days, and seemingly with the most depth of character.

  • ブリックス

    i love this wholesome content