Women of Marvel

A Marvel Women's History Lesson, Part 2

Thoughts and reflections on the state of females in comics over the last decade and into today

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By Valerie D’Orazio

More Than Just “Girl Power”

I’m starting this article with an anecdote from my own experience writing for Marvel Comics. When Associate Editor Jeanine Schaefer asked me to contribute a story to GIRL COMICS—a 2010 anthology featuring an all-female creative and editorial team—I really wracked my brain trying to come up with what I felt was a story “appropriate” for that type of publication. I decided it should star a plucky female super hero in an inspiring tale illustrating “Girl Power”; I assumed that was what was expected of me.

Firestar

Schaefer took one look at my pitch and suggested, “You know, this is fine, but you can write any character or story you want, right? It doesn’t have to star a female. The point is that you really enjoy writing it.” I happily threw out my pitch and started on a Punisherstory.This experience illustrated to me a point that is very important to keep in mind when considering Women’s History Month as it relates to comic books. Women can write and draw any character, male or female, if they have an affinity for the character and the talent to make it happen. Marie Severin held her own in the 1960’s drawing the Hulk and Sub-Mariner, and was, with her work the Marvel parody comic NOT BRAND ECHH, one of the most gifted humor artists ever in the business. Ann Nocenti wrote a thrilling DAREDEVIL run in the 1980’s and the ground-breaking THYPHOID limited series in the 1990’s, adding aspects to the Daredevil mythos that have been used up to this very day.

The reverse is also true: Men can write and draw some really great and genuine female characters. I grew up thinking that a female scripted the great FIRESTAR limited series, but it was instead Tom De Falco—who would later write another favorite, SPIDER-GIRL—who crafted what I felt was a very sensitive portrayal of young teenage mutant. To me, Chris Claremont was the voice of young women in the comics I read as an adolescent, and John Romita Jr.’s illustrations of characters like Shadowcat and Rogue from the same time were elegant and powerful.

I suppose it should be obvious in 2011 that gender doesn’t matter—talent does. And yet if that was so obvious, why have Women’s History Months at all to remind us? Why put out a series like GIRL COMICS? Why have spotlights on female super heroes and talent?

We—the comic book world—are still learning, adapting, evolving. We need to know where we came from in order to know where we are going, and open things up to discussion. And during 2000-2010, in a time of unprecedented increase in female characters, comic creators, and fans as well expansion into new genres, that dialogue became more important than ever before. Marvel Comics wasn’t afraid of that dialogue, and their super heroines reflected the ongoing discussion. From the perpetually-resurrected SPIDER-GIRL, to the frank reflections of ALIAS, to the X-Men’s new Hope, the Women of Marvel have reflected the current times.

Spider-Girl

The New Super Heroines

Perhaps some regarded Spider-Girl, the character who debuted in WHAT IF? #105, as just another spin-off of a popular male superhero; a gimmick. But it was obvious there was something about May Parker—the web-slinging daughter of Peter Parker from another universe—that resonated with readers of both genders. Her solo title, the first volume of which debuted in 1998, became the subject of several very vocal fan-campaigns to keep it alive. While other books might have met the ax with more of a whimper or a grumble from readers, SPIDER-GIRL became a cause célèbre, possibly one of the most talked-about and beloved female solo series in Marvel history.

Just as women were attempting—successfully—to get out of the shadow of a male-dominated world and define themselves, Spider-Girl, like She-Hulk before her, transcended “spinoff-itis.” She wasn’t just the female teenage version of the publisher’s flagship character. She was her own person, with her own fanbase. She also brought new readers to Marvel, opening the door for the publisher to try more books for a younger and more diverse audience.

Switching gears from the general-audience fun of SPIDER-GIRL to the mature vibe of Marvel MAX, ALIAS was another groundbreaking title that featured a complex female character seeking to define herself. Jessica Jones wrestled with balancing a career, a social life, and addressing her own personal issues. In a sense, she could have represented the struggle any number of female super heroes, the “mature readers” nature of the title giving writer Brian Michael Bendis more room to explore them.

Similar to Jones’ journey from the flashy former super heroine Jewel to a down-to-earth P.I., the character Songbird started life as the flamboyant super villain Screaming Mimi and has grown into the anchor of the Thunderbolts. These are continuing stories of the lives of women past their so-called “expiration dates” as the young heroine or villainess of the month—these are not the equivalents of seemingly interchangeable Hollywood starlets.

Hope

As the years drew closer to 2010, even female characters traditionally thought of in supporting roles as the dutiful wife or girlfriend became more active and the focal points of their own stories. The towering shadow of Mary Jane Watson dominated the life of Spider-Man in the “Brand New Day’ storyline simply by her absence—she was gone, and yet her presence was constantly felt. Betty Ross’ years as the long-suffering romantic interest of Bruce Banner came to a head as she transformed into the rampaging Red She-Hulk. Even private investigator Dakota North did what the many tragic girlfriends of Matt Murdock failed to do before her: Recognize that being involved with Daredevil was dangerous to a girl’s health, and thus she lived to see another day.

And the key character to bring together the fractured X-Men and mutantkind was “merely” a little girl, Hope. In a series of comics filled with strong female characters—Storm, Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Jean Grey, Psylocke—perhaps it was inevitable that “A Girl Would Lead Them.” Hope is a fitting important new super heroine to start the new decade, and to end our too-brief overview—I could gab on the topic for days—of the best of Marvel’s crop of female characters from the last 10 years.

The Creators

I remember a time when literally there were one, maybe two, prominent females writing or drawing mainstream comics, period. It was a rule of thumb: Who is that one lone female scripter or artist that everybody knows? When working on an anthology series for another publisher, we tried to come up with 10 big female names currently working in comics; after giving up, we decided to extend the criteria to book authors and TV personalities.

But now we have a variety of female talents working on some of the top characters of the day, from Wolverine to Norman Osborn. They represent no one so-called “female style” of comics but instead bring a myriad of different approaches and points of view.

From RUNAWAYS to WOLVERINE & JUBILEE, Kathryn Immonen’s writing combines inter-personal relationships with character-driven action. Known for her haunting work on 30 Days of Night: Eben & Stella, Kelly Sue DeConnick is currently using talents to explore the twisted psyche of the Green Goblin in OSBORN.

X-23

When she’s not writing novels, Marjorie Liu can be found bringing the mysterious world of X-23 to light. From BLACK WIDOW to DAKEN: DARK WOLVERINE, she has been able to bring a rare voice to these unusual characters, and has a devoted following of fans.

And hot on the heels of her critically acclaimed graphic novel, Return of the Dapper Men, Janet Lee is adding her unique style to the Marvel take on that Jane Austen classic, EMMA. Lee had this to say when asked about her experience as an artist for Marvel:

“Working for Marvel is amazing. My boyfriend introduced me to the X-Men about the same time I found Jane Austen at the local library, so there is a weird synergy there that I think my 16-year-old self would appreciate.  I'm not a standard super hero artist—my work is quite stylized—so when people used to ask if my next goal was working for Marvel, I'd laugh at them. And then I found all the wonderful, risky, non-standard—and even sometimes non-super hero—stories that Marvel publishes and, well, dreams can change!”

Comics For Everyone

I lastly wanted to touch on the topic of comic book genres outside that of traditional super hero fare. There has been some debate as to whether females, as a majority, tend to like one type of comic over another, one type of storytelling over another. That isn’t what I’m discussing here. Rather, I think the trend towards putting out comics in many different genres, which Marvel has successfully done over the last 10 years, is just an awesome thing in general—bringing in many new readers, male and female. From books like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and EMMA, to the Oz Universe comics, to the all-ages lines, the net is cast wider to reach as many readers as possible.

And that’s not just a cool thing to do, it’s business-smart. It recognizes the need for comics to be a truly mass-market phenomenon. And without including female readers, comics are not truly mass-market. You have to include women, children, and simply people of both sexes who might rather read a detective story or a comedy or a western or a manga. By offering things like Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming’s TAKIO, or Ed Brubaker’s CRIMINAL, or Laurel K. Hamilton’s titles, or the recent STRANGE TALES anthologies, Marvel recognizes the potential comic book reader landscape is vast and diverse. And I believe that impacts women—creators and fans—positively in every which way: providing more reading choices, more employment opportunities, and expanding the definition of what comic books are.

Girl Comics

Because if there was a limiting point-of-view that I, as a female lifelong “comics person” have encountered, it’s this: “comic books are about super heroes, have many fight scenes, and are made by and for men because that’s just the way it is.” That’s pretty limiting to male “comics people” too, actually. And that’s why now is such an exciting time to be in comics; there’s just so many new and cool things out there. Every Wednesday I look at the comic book racks and see a wealth of unique and exciting stories out there for me—or anybody, really—to try.

Anyway, that is your Women’s History lesson for today , and I appreciate Marvel asking me to write this, and for giving me the chance to write the comic book stories I wanted to tell.

Valerie D’Orazio is a professional writer whose work includes PUNISHER MAX: BUTTERFLY, X-MEN ORIGINS: EMMA FROST and GIRL COMICS. You can read her thoughts regularly on her blog.

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