Fearless Defenders: Doom Maidens
by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney
2013 • 144 pages • Marvel
One of my favorite comic book covers is the piece of art gracing the The Avengers #83, which features several Marvel ladies—Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Medusa, and Black Widow—standing triumphant over the fallen bodies of their male colleagues as an ice cold blonde known only as Valkyrie declares “All right, girls—that finishes off these chauvinist male pigs!” The story within The Avengers #83 is not as gloriously overt as the cover, unfortunately. Valkyrie is soon revealed to have been a false identity created by the Enchantress for extremely petty and dude-centered reasons. (Amora Incantare: the woman who became Dazzler’s main nemesis because she once got an audition Amora totally blew off. The Enchantress, everybody! I love her so.)
I love that cover so much because it’s so willfully antagonistic towards what people in the seventies assumed were the main audience for comic books, even if the story immediately took it back. To a much lesser degree, this run of Fearless Defenders reminds me of that. While it does feature Warrior Woman Hippolyta (ain’t the public domain grand?) scoffing at the idea of calling in the Avengers for back-up because they’re all dudes, Fearless Defenders: Doom Maidens only really features two named male characters with any lines—Odin, who appears in flashbacks, and Mr. Raven, the lackey to Ms. LeFay, the villain. The gender ratio is what any mainstream action film would look like genderswapped; this is a story that is totally unconcerned with menfolk. And being basically only about women, it’s also about women interacting—positively, neutrally, and negatively. Misty and Valkyrie clash—memorably questioning each other’s unique dialects—before teaming up. The romantic subplot is between Valkyrie and Annabelle Riggs, an archeologist gaga about Asgardian history. Valkyrie answers to the triad Allmother, who is taken to task by Hela for letting Valkyrie get away with shirking from her duty. And that duty? Rebuilding the Valkyrior with mortal women, to balance the scales and avoid the rise of the Doom Maidens. It’s almost a uniquely female-centric title.
Almost. Cullen Bunn’s writing is fantastic; the pure bombast of his Warrior Woman is swoon-worthy. (She’s proud to the point of defensive about being Greek, rolls her eyes at anything Asgardian, and watches Gladiator and Mortal Kombat in the Underworld with Pluto. And did I mention she has tattoos?) Even the climax of these issues, which sees every major female Marvel character turn up to kick some undead butt, manages to get in single character beats out of the cameos. (Ugh, She-Hulk talking about rage. My heart.) But a lot of this is severely undercut by Will Sliney’s art. If Bunn, as a writer, is expansive enough to write from other perspectives without letting his own get in the way, Sliney, as an artist, isn’t. His art communicates a heterosexual male gaze so strongly that it’s occasionally disruptive. The five main female characters are all given the same, lovingly rendered plush pout, there’s plenty of back-breaking poses in order to show off a character’s boobs and butt at the same time, and said boobs are usually clothed in material so fine that you can see that they’re not wearing bras. (Can you imagine high kicking someone in the face as hard as Misty Knight can with your breasts flapping in the breeze? That would be incredibly painful for both parties. This is pretty basic logic.) Veronica Gandini’s coloring lends a slightly glossy, shiny polish to his work, which unfortunately makes the book look like it’s been rubbed in Vaseline. At one point, Dani Moonstar (oh, did I mention that Dani Moonstar is in this book? A dude calls her Pocahontas and she defenestrates him) has a magical girl transformation into her Valkyrie armor. What should be a great moment for Dani ends up being a poor cheesecake shot highlighting her—you guessed it—boobs and butt.
How am I supposed to enjoy a story that is so firmly about women when the art is consistently reinforcing the idea that women—even a gay woman like Annabelle—must always be presented in a fashion that supposedly sexually gratifies straight dudes? Which is to say in a fashion that undercuts and denies their personhood. Hence the supposedly, because I like to think that straight dudes, you know, actually like women. (Because as a queer woman, this kind of thing? Doesn’t work for me.) There are hundreds of ways to draw and represent characters in a way that both affirms them as a person and shows off how attractive they are. It is baffling that an artist who can do that kind of work wasn’t selected for a title featuring a large cast of women.
I am, I think, going to go on and read the next volume—Fearless Defenders had an itty bitty run, alas—but the art will always mean that my recommendation for this comes with a caveat.
I rented this book from the public library.