As an enormous comics fan of both the Marvel and DC Universes, ever since I was a child I always gravitated to the DC universe more. Even during the periods where Marvel’s output was clearly superior, I was still a DC boy at heart. And it all probably has to do with my love of female super heroes. DC has, without a doubt, the most iconic female heroes in comics. Wonder Woman is the first and longest running of course, and along with her, characters like Supergirl, Batgirl and Catwoman are all household names. Even your grandma could pick them out of a line up. Supergirl and Catwoman have carried their own series for nearly twenty years, and Batgirl, either in the wheelchair or out if it, has been a monthly feature at DC for the better part of fifteen years straight.
Not to say that Marvel’s heroines are anything to scoff at; In fact Marvel, without question, has some of the best female heroes in comics. The X-Men titles alone have given us possibly the most well rounded and iconic heroines in comic book history with Storm, Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Phoenix, Psylocke, Emma Frost and several more. And yet Marvel has yet to yield one single female hero to headline her own comic for any considerable length of time, while DC continues to have success with female led books. Why is there a difference? Is editorial at Marvel more sexist, or do Marvel fanboys just not want to read stories from a female perspective?
Marvel Women: The Early Years
When Stan Lee began the Marvel universe in 1961, the only prominent female hero regularly published was DC’s Wonder Woman. Supergirl had just been created, and Batwoman was less a hero and more just a character who would pop up occasionally in Batman’s comics and try to get him to marry her. Stan Lee was the first to change all this. While not showcasing a major female super hero character in a book of her own yet, all three of the major team books of the early Marvel Universe (The Fantastic Four, The X-Men and The Avengers) had at least one prominent female character. And not just as a love interest like Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane were for Spider-Man, but as a fully fledged super heroine in their own right. In fact, the Invisible Girl, Marvel Girl and Scarlet Witch were in fact the most powerful members of their respective teams. So right there, that’s what Stan Lee did right.
But here’s Stan Lee did wrong; the women heroes, despite their power pedigree, spent much of the Silver Age fretting over the male heroes on the team. Sue Storm was usually being kidnapped by Doctor Doom or being chewed out by her boyfriend (and later hubbie) Reed Richards, or worst of all, trying to impress him with a sexy new outfit. Scarlet Witch was pretty much a harpy or a victim, complaining about how much she hated working for Magneto, or fending off the lascivious Mastermind’s marriage proposals. And Marvel Girl, despite being telekinetic and telepathic, was mostly just portrayed as the girl next door who all the boys had a crush on. She almost never was the team’s MVP, despite the fact that her power was the easily the greatest.
It is hard to fault Stan Lee here though; he wasn’t a young man when he created the Marvel Universe, and was merely a product of his sexist times. The fact that he made as many new women superheroes as he did is to totally be commended. He created the blueprint others would later improve on in a post sexual revolution world. But maybe that sexist outlook, where women characters were just there to support the men folk, seeped into the editorial culture at Marvel and has maybe never left. Although for a few years in the late 70’s, they really did try to make up for it.
The 1970’s: Women’s Lib Catches Up With Marvel
It wasn’t until the next decade, when creators other than Lee took over the writing on most Marvel titles, that the women started to emerge as strong as their power sets would imply. Under the guiding hand of people like Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Marvel Girl became the Goddess like Phoenix. Susan Richards dropped the “girl” from her name and became the Invisible Woman, and eventually even became the team leader. Scarlet Witch’s powers were revealed to be more than just random hexes, but the ability to alter reality itself. The Wasp…well, the Wasp got lots of new costumes and got slapped around by her husband Hank Pym. But she did get to become leader of the Avengers for awhile, so I guess that counts for something. Uhh..right?
But Marvel still lacked a solid marquee female character that could carry her own ongoing title. As the 70’s continued to roll on, and the phrase “women’s liberation” was on everyone’s lips, just where were the Marvel solo books for women heroes? DC had Wonder Woman on television, both in live action and animated form, not to mention non comic related female heroes like The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels kicking ass on the small screen. No doubt feeling the pressure, Marvel fired back with several books to counter Wonder Woman in the late 70’s, starting with an unexpected female take on their most famous hero and corporate mascot, Spider-Man.
In 1977, Spider-Woman was unleashed onto comic book fans everywhere. She very quickly got her own ongoing comic book, and by 1979 even had her very own cartoon series on Saturday mornings. She instantly became a staple of Marvel marketing; I was a young child during this era and remember Spider-Woman being marketed on lunchboxes and toys along with Spider-Man and Captain America as if she were “one of the guys,” and always had been. I even remember one of those “take a pic with Spidey” events at a local mall when I was four years old, where I took an awkward Sears portrait style photo along with some poor schmo dressed up as Spider-Man…and there was a Spider-Woman there too. What made Spider-Woman so cool was that unlike her DC counterparts Batgirl and Supergirl, she wasn’t a Xerox copy of her more famous male namesake. Her powers, her costume, her origins were all different. Aside from living in the same universe, she had no real ties to Peter Parker at all.
And then, almost overnight, she was gone. In 1983 her comic book series was cancelled, and worse, she lost her powers and became just Jessica Drew, Private Investigator. X-Men writer Chris Claremont liked her well enough, so she’d show up occasionally in a panel with Wolverine or something, but that was it. No one really knows why, but rumors are that then Marvel Editor in Chief at the time Jim Shooter just plain hated Spider-Woman, as he thought a female version of a male hero emasculated him. (I guess that makes Batman and Superman giant sissies then? And what about the Hulk??) There have been rumors of sexism swirling around the Shooter years at Marvel for decades now, and their treatment of Spider-Woman merely adds fuel to that fire.
A new Spider-Woman was eventually created, but she wore a costume identical to Spider-Man’s black costume and was kept around mostly as just side character in West Coast Avengers, probably just as a way for Marvel to keep the copyright. (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her third Spider-Woman was also created in the 90’s.) It was over twenty years later when writer Brian Michael Bendis revived the classic Spider-Woman for New Avengers and did his best to make her a Marvel mainstay again. And so far, it has worked. But despite being announced years ago now, there is still no ongoing Spider-Woman series from Marvel on the horizon.
Another major female character to get her own title during the period was Ms. Marvel. Originally, Carol Danvers was just a female knock off of the alien warrior Captain Marvel, even wearing a sexier version of his costume (eventually as her series progressed, she got her own costume, one which she still wears to this day) Although her own series was cancelled in 1979, she went on to join the Avengers, where she was a mainstay for quite some time.
Avengers #200 was a very controversial turning point for the character, which essentially had her brainwashed by a villain who was obsessed with her and had her impregnated, only to have her take off with him at the end, with all the other members of the team giving their blessing. This storyline has long been referred to as “The Rape of Ms. Marvel.” This story, along with the editorially mandated death of Jean Grey, gave Marvel of the early 80’s their first accusations of misogynist undertones. Writer Chris Claremont did his best to undo the damage done to her in his X-Men title, and made Carol Danvers a cosmically powerful character named Binary. (essentially, he pulled a Phoenix on her) Today, Ms. Marvel is arguably more important to the Marvel Universe and more high profile than her male counterpart, so that’s gotta count for something. But despite her high profile, her own attempts at carrying a series keep getting ignored by fanboys.
The last major new female character of the era was the She-Hulk. She Hulk has the distinction of being the last major character to be created by Stan Lee for the company, and the reasons for creating her were similar to the reasons for creating Spider-Woman; copyright. In 1979 The Incredible Hulk was a very popular tv show, and the guys at Marvel feared that the producers would create a female Hulk much like The Six Million Dollar Man gave way to The Bionic Woman. If that was the case, they wanted to make sure THEY created her first, and therefore owned the copyright free and clear. And so at the end of 1979, She Hulk was bornLike Spider-Woman, She-Hulk’s series only lasted until 1982. But unlike Spider-Woman, after her series ended she continued to be used in comics like The Avengers, and even joined the Fantastic Four title for a while. All this added exposure in popular team titles increased her popularity with the Marvel fanbase, and when she was given a title again in 1989. (with then popular writer/artist John Byrne at the helm) The series was far more popular this time, and lasted five years. Marvel did right this time, but then after the cancellation made no attempts at giving her another ongoing for nearly a decade.
The Present (And Future) of Marvel’s Heroic Women
For the past twenty years or so though, Marvel’s commitment to ongoing series with female protagonists has been spotty at best. Oh, there have been numerous attempts to do so…characters like Elektra and Mystique have all been given ongoing series, sometimes with big name quality creators, only to flame out quickly after a couple of years. Even highly regarded series like Brian Bendis’ Alias never got incredible sales to go with their rave reviews. Similarly, Spider-Girl, an alternate universe version of Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s teenage daughter, has much critical acclaim but never could generate significant sales, and was ultimately cancelled. In a way, Marvel has had to resort to trickery to get fanboys to buy a series with a female protagonist; X-Men Legacy has essentially been a Rogue series now for years, and It probably would sell half as well were it simply just called “Rogue”.
In fairness, the past five or so years have seen Marvel give ongoing solo series to Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk again, but very rarely with their top tier creators, or given much fanfare in an effort to create buzz. The teen girl version of Wolverine called X-23 was the most recent ongoing super heroine book to get the ax, leaving Marvel with no female lead books yet again. Marvel is pretty much in the exact same spot they were forty years ago, before their late 70’s “Girl Power” moment.
So is Marvel to blame? If you build it, and no one comes, can Marvel really even be at fault? Or have all their recent attempts been anemic and deserving of failure? Or is the ugly truth that most Marvel Fanboys are really just that sexist? The massive popularity of the X-Men titles, with their huge amount of strong female characters suggest otherwise. And the success of Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Batgirl and Catwoman as part of the “New 52” relaunch at DC shows that fanboys WILL buy female heroes if done right. Sooner or later, Marvel will hopefully launch a female centric property and it will stick, but only if they keep trying and don’t give up entirely, as they seem to have done lately.