Wednesday, March 21, 2012

WHM 2012 The Women of MARVEL

In the last two weeks I talked about my favorite comic book women at DC. This week I'd like to talk about The Women of MARVEL.

The first MARVEL comic-book I read regularly was THE AVENGERS, and the first few issues I bought featured Scarlet Witch in a prominent role. I have already talked about #113, so today I'd like to talk a little about #128. In this issue Agatha Harkness from the FANTASTIC FOUR guest-stars, as this story continues from an issue of FF (which I didn't manage to get for many, many years later).  She decides to take the Scarlet Witch in hand and teach her how to use her "magic" powers more wisely. The Scarlet Witch is actually a mutant, not a sorceress, but in this story she learns to depend more on herself and her core strength, and not to look to any man, be it her brother or her boy-friend, to protect her. The menace that Thor and the other Avengers couldn't stop, SHE could. Because this was one of the first issues I read that featured Wanda in any prominent role, I was intrigued and attracted. I began a love-affair with this character that continues to this day.
At the time of this story (1974) she and The Vision (the red-faced guy on the cover who isn't Thor or Iron Man) were trying to work out whether what they had was love or something akin to it; they ended up marrying about a year later in GIANT-SIZED AVENGERS #4. They remained married, in the Avengers, for several more years. During this time she evolved into a stronger and more forceful character. She had self-confidence and a loving husband. They were quite the team. In the mid-80s MARVEL gave them a four-issue mini-series and when that sold well enough, they got a 12-issue maxi-series as well. In this story she and her husband decide to have a child. Scarlet Witch uses her magical mutant powers to help biology along (seeing as how her husband is an android) and not only does she succeed in getting pregnant, they eventually have twins~! As wild as this development was, what came later was even worse: Wanda is portrayed as schizophrenic and dangerously crazy after her "sons" are shown to be manifestations of her own imagination. When Wanda is confronted with this truth, their children cease to exist. Meanwhile, the Vision has been taken apart by some governmental agency (never mind that he's an android, not a robot) and then put back together. Unfortunately, they somehow lost his humanity. They divorce, two very broken people.

About ten years ago Kurt Busiek and George Perez were responsible for bringing THE AVENGERS back to the top of the sales and quality charts. Amongst the members were the Scarlet Witch and her ex-husband. Wanda was now portrayed as a woman who had lost her children but who was trying to cope as best she could; the Vision was more human, but had seen Wanda trying to make steps to be happy again, and was "letting her go." It was melodramatic, but well-done melodrama. I had the feeling they were inching back towards each other....

However, in the recent HOUSE OF M cross-over event, it was shown that the Scarlet Witch was responsible for destroying the entire reality that MARVEL had created over the past 40 plus years, killing several of her friends and fellow Avengers in the process. This was too much for me, and I dropped MARVEL. I have since heard that reality has been righted, but I haven't gone back. I really don't understand why MARVEL would treat one of its oldest and best-known characters like this.

While we're on the topic of Avenging Women who have not been treated well by MARVEL, could someone please tell me why founding member the Wasp is not in the new AVENGERS movie?! Instead of Janet Van Dyne-Pym, we have the Black Widow?! She was only an Avenger for a few issues in the early Seventies and then again in the Nineties. That doesn't really put her in the same class as Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor. However, in AVENGERS #1 the Wasp is there, and she should have been in the movie.
The Wasp can shrink, fly, and blast you with "wasp stings" that resemble modern-day tasering. Plus she's cute as a button and is a joy to be around! She is one of the few characters who actually cares about her costume, changing it almost every chance she gets. She was originally the girl-friend (then wife) of Hank Pym aka Ant-Man/Giant Man/ Goliath/Yellow Jacket. For years they were MARVEL's other "power couple" (we'll get to the main one in a minute), always together and always dependable. Like the Scarlet Witch and the Vision, they stayed with the Avengers for several years; also similar to what happened to the Scarlet Witch, MARVEL couldn't seem to leave well enough alone. The Wasp's husband began to be portrayed as suffering from paranoia and/or an inferiority complex. He began to have bursts of anger; he failed at missions and became more and more frustrated. He began to beat his wife, got framed by a super-villain and sent to jail, and was finally divorced by Jan. She bounced back stronger than ever, even leading the Avengers for several years. Hank, too, eventually bounced back and played a supporting role in the West Coast Avengers while Jan stayed on the East Coast. Then in the Busiek-Perez rebooting they were well on their way to reconciling, healthier and happier than ever.

Then the Scarlet Witch destroyed the universe, and evidently killed both of them. They may have gotten better; I'm not sure because I dropped MARVEL when HOUSE OF M started.

The other MARVEL group that I bought throughout the 70s and into the early 80s was THE DEFENDERS. Originally formed by Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk, it added its first new member in #4: The Valkyrie! She started off similar to Thor or the Hulk in that she was really two separate identities: an honest to goodness Norse warrior-woman, trapped in the frail body of a mousy nobody named Barbara Norris. Her search for her identity was aa continuous sub-plot in the book for years. She was nearly as strong as the Hulk, she was armed with an enchanted blade, and she rode a flying horse. Visually, she was quite a sight.

THE DEFENDERS had a rotating, open-door membership policy unlike any other group out there: if there was danger, and you happened to be around, you were drafted in. Valkyrie was only the first new member, but she wasn't the last (not by a long-shot). Nighthawk joined to take the place of the Sub-Mariner, and with his money he paid Power Man to hang around for a few adventures. Daredevil happened by a few times. The Son of Satan (yes, that was his name) also joined up a few times.

When Dr. Strange begged off from regular meetings he was replaced by the Hell-Cat. Patsy Walker had been a model with her own "love" series from the 40s to the 60s. Then she was re-introduced in the pages of THE AVENGERS and given the uniform of an obscure MARVEL heroine called The Cat. She appeared for about a year and then went off for more training. Instead of returning to the Avengers, however, she met up with The Defenders and spent the rest of her crime-fighting career with them. She was a fun character who initially only had grappling hooks on her gloves; eventually she acquired a magical cape and several years later (after I had moved to Japan and stopped reading comics) she married the Son of Satan. I guess love really is blind....

Two more well-known MARVEL super-heroines belonged to the X-Men: Storm and Marvel Girl slash  Phoenix. I have already written about STORM here so suffice it to say that she was always one of my favorites until she cut her hair into a mohawk and went "punk." The Storm shown here was an African goddess who could control the weather and who was strong enough to lead the X-Men when Cyclops took a leave of absence. The Storm that I thought I knew would never go radical punk with a stud dog collar for a necklace (!). I figured that the creators at X-MEN didn't know what the hell they were doing, so I dropped that book. Storm is now back in her beautiful straight hair flowing cape/costume look and recently married the Black Panther. So I guess MARVEL wisened up on that score.

A few years before I left X-MEN, though, there was a wonderful run of stories by Chris Claremont and John Byrne (and Dave Cockrum before him). One of the best arcs in this run was the great DARK PHOENIX SAGA. If you have never read this collection of stories, you must go to the library or bookstore and get a copy. It is one of the greatest comic book super-hero stories EVER.

Marvel Girl was introduced in the early 60s as another of the traditional "weak" super-heroines; Jean Grey had some telepathic and telekinetic powers, but usually she stayed in the background behind the men of The X-Men. In the late 70s, however, she was the victim of a cosmic radiation accident that increased her powers a thousand-fold. She became the Phoenix. Unfortunately, gradually it became clear that the Phoenix persona was like some sort of vampire who wanted more and more energy to feed off of. Jean was able to keep the power under control but she became more and more schizophrenic while doing it.

Then in 1979 a band of Evil Mutants try to manipulate Jean into thinking she is the Black Queen, not having any idea of what they are actually unleashing. Jean's psychic blocks are let down and the Dark Phoenix persona takes over.

Although the X-Men are eventually able to defeat the Dark Phoenix and restore Jean Grey to her humanity, the story didn't end there. While under the power of Dark Phoenix she had consumed a sun and killed millions of broccoli people. The MARVEL version of the galactic police wouldn't let her  get away with that without some type of punishment, and so instead of being executed Jean killed herself, freeing the universe of the threat of the Dark Phoenix.

MARVEL has brought back the Phoenix and Jean Grey a few times since then, but those stories just tarnish what is a wonderful melodrama.

Last but certainly not least, let's talk about MARVEL's first and most famous super-heroine, Sue Storms Richards of the Fantastic Four. Originally introduced as the Invisible Girl, she later became Mrs. Fantastic when she married Reed Richards. They were MARVEL's first married super-heroes and first "power couple." A few years later they were the first MARVEL couple to have a child together. When their son, Franklin, developed cosmic powers of his own and Reed had to "shut his mind down," they became the first super-hero couple to separate (although they later reconciled). Sometime in the 80s she officially changed her name to the Invisible Woman and never looked back.

Although she was originally introduced  as a "wall flower" (her power was to become invisible!) she gradually became stronger and stronger. Her invisibility was increased to include invisible force fields and then invisible fields of energies she could make into such things as bridges, ladders, and parachutes. In one of the first FANTASTIC FOUR stories I remember reading (FF #166-167), she nearly stopped the Hulk in his tracks when the men-folk couldn't, simply by creating a force shield around his head and cutting off his oxygen. Clever AND beautiful! As her powers were shown in more and more creative ways she became just as strong as her team-mates/family Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, and the Thing. She has appeared in cartoons and in the two main-stream Hollywood FANTASTIC FOUR movies. Gone forever are her days as a "shrinking violet."

Nowadays if you ask current comic-book fans for their favorite MARVEL woman you are more than likely to receive answers like Ms. Marvel, Mystique, the She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, Spider-Girl, or Emma Frost. These women are either copy-cats of established male characters, or blatant sexual stereotypes (I mean, really....Mystique walks around completely nude, for no real reason!?!). No, thanks. Give me the classic MARVEL women, please.

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