Women of Marvel: Volume One
by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Linda Fite, Tom DeFalco, Carol Seuling, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Jim Shooter and David Michelinie
For the last three years, the amazing Jess Plummer has been noting what free promotional materials Marvel and DC have sent along to Wiscon, the world’s oldest feminist sf convention. After last year’s pretty decent showing, she was disappointed that Marvel’s offerings this year featured no ladies at all. After all, Marvel has so many interesting female characters and female-led titles these days, from Ms. Marvel to She-Hulk (featuring Kevin Wada’s deliriously delightful covers and Javier Pulido’s willfully and wonderfully grotesque art) to X-Men, which boasts an entire team of lady mutants without bothering to change the title. Why not celebrate that?
That’s what Marvel does with the intermittent Women of Marvel trade paperbacks. These paperbacks collect issues focusing on the ladies of Marvel, making them pull the double duty of reprinting difficult to find issues and putting said issues in conversation with each other. The first volume, released in 2006, collects a handful of first issues and epic stories from all over the seventies and eighties, from Black Widow to She-Hulk.
The timing is important, and not just because I love seventies comics and might as well be married to the eighties. All of the collected comics were released after second wave feminism entered the mainstream consciousness in the United States. Both the first issues of The Cat and Shanna the She-Devil are collected here. Along with Night Nurse (a short-lived medical drama collected in the massive Women Of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades Omnibus), these titles were specifically created to appeal to a female audience by creating characters with decidedly second wave feminist slants.
Greer’s origin story explicitly frames her as a housewife whose identity has been suppressed by her husband’s well-meaning overprotectiveness; after his death, she tries to return to the workforce, but nothing hiring makes any use of her interests and experiences in biology. She discovers a mentor in her old college professor, whose greatest work—a procedure meant to free women from their social conditioning and realize their entire potential—turns her into the superheroine the Cat. Shanna’s origin story finds the good vetarinian Dr. O’Hara finally so fed up with society violently preying upon the weak—framed explicitly as animals and the homeless, but implicitly women—after the massacre of the big cats under her care that she moves back to Africa with two leopard cubs to single-handedly protect nature from poachers. Shanna, as a character, is wildly problematic. She’s a white jungle princess that the natives superstitiously fear and respect. But, in concert with Greer, she shows Marvel courting a female audience by catering to female power fantasies, not male sex fantasies. At one point, Shanna kicks a poacher in the face while declaring that “This is how I assert my femininity!”
I’m singling Greer and Shanna out because they are, in a way, singular—in these first issues, they’re unconnected to the larger Marvel universe. But the rest of the women featured are connected not only to the rest of the Marvel universe, but each other. Of the issues collected, only Amazing Spider-Man #86 and Shanna the She-Devil #1 fail the Bechdel Test, albeit while focusing heavily on the stories of Black Widow and Shanna. Ms. Marvel #1 passes on the basis of a largely off-panel business conversation between Carol and Mary Jane, but pitting this against Carol’s larger role in the X-Men comics collected here softens that a little.
I’ve been listening to Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men lately. (If you haven’t been listening to it, you are missing out!) Recently, they highlighted Chris Claremont’s legendary run on the series, which I’ve been meaning to read. The X-Men issues collected here are all his work from the eighties, and they are phenomenal. Kitty Pryde’s parents force her to enroll in a school run by Emma Frost, an adventure that results in not only an amazing, thoughtful battle between Storm and Emma but also heavily focuses on Storm and Kitty’s loving relationship. The newly good Rogue struggles with the repercussions of what she did to Carol Danvers. And Dazzler takes the women of the X-Men on a shopping trip to decompress, where they inadvertently inspire Jubilee to join the X-Men.
Even the lone Avengers issue collected focuses on how the women of the Marvel universe relate to each other. When the group decides to recruit new members, Wasp immediately declares that it’s a total sausage fest and hosts a brunch to see if any lady capes are interested in joining up. Naturally, it’s immediately gate-crashed by a misogynistic villain who assumes that Wasp is the weakest member of the Avengers, and the ladies—Black Widow, Sue Storm, Dazzler, Spider-Woman, and She-Hulk—take him to the curb while politely discussing the morning’s business. (She-Hulk gets the job and shows up to work in a purple tuxedo with her pink Cadillac slung over her shoulder. Why doesn’t Jen have her own television show yet?)
What impresses me so much about this collection is that all of these comics are older than I am, but still feel fresh, fun, and a smidge progressive, albeit in a very seventies way. (One of Greer’s powers stems from her “feminine intuition”.) This is exactly the kind of thing I think little girls would gobble up: the appealing, if uniform, art, tons of different ladies doing different things (including Kitty Pryde, who is so cool!), and just the joy of some of the gags and characterization here. (Rogue destroys a satellite’s security system with a Susan B. Anthony quarter at one point. It’s beautiful.) While all of the issues collected here aren’t necessarily the first appearances of some characters, it’s still a fantastic introduction to the women of Marvel.
(Oh, and DC, true to form, didn’t send anything to Wiscon, because why pretend anymore.)
I rented this book from the public library.