Every week this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new installment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Ms. Marvel # 2
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artists: John Buscema and Joe Sinnott
Ah yes. The old comic book conundrum: heroines in comic books and comic books as a male-dominated industry.
These two ideas are not necessarily conducive to a respectful, forward-thinking relationship, are they? But that isn’t to say that writers, artists and editors haven’t tried to marry these two truths in a considered and reverent way over the years.
With varying degrees of success, of course.
Even psychologist William Moulton Marston’s 1941 creation, Wonder Woman – the most famous heroine in comic books – has a duality about her that allows one major character aspect to betray the other. In Wonder Woman we have female empowerment and sexual equality played against the more subtle, more subjective, passive woman – subservient to man in a male-dominated society. The character of Ms. Marvel, one of the staple heroines in the Marvel Comics Universe, is another interesting example of the role female characters play in comic books.
Created in 1968 by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gene Colon, Ms. Marvel, in the guise of her real-life self, Carol Danvers, (a non-powered member of the U.S. Air Force), first appeared in the pages of the Marvel Super-Heroes title. She didn’t become the super-powered Ms. Marvel for another ten years when, in 1977, she got her own monthly, self-titled series.
In Ms. Marvel #2, Carol Danvers has left the military for a new occupation – the editor of “Woman” magazine. Far be it for me to editorialize this shift in characterization (a military woman to a woman running a feminist magazine), but not lost on this reader is the fact that the periodical is published by J. Jonah Jameson, the male chauvinist of the Marvel Universe (and Peter Parker’s demanding and unruly boss at The Daily Bugle).
Ten years on from her first appearance, a life-altering job change and the advent of super powers can’t change the male-centric background in which Ms. Marvel operates. A sign of the times? Perhaps. Naïve or lazy writing? Not here. Gerry Conway is an acclaimed writer in the comic book world. He had an much-admired tenure scripting The Amazing Spider-Man series, including writing the famous death of Gwen Stacy issue. He co-created characters like The Punisher and Jason Todd – who would become the second Robin – as well as writing Justice League of America for the better part of a decade. Handing Carol Danvers the job of top editor of a woman’s magazine was an attempt to empower her as a woman – just as the super powers she was given empowered her as a legitimate female comic book character in the Marvel Universe – someone who could stand on her own, against a variety of villains and heroes, both male and female. In issue #2 of her self-titled series, Ms. Marvel is able to dispatch Spider-Man foe, the Scorpion, as well as hold her own against a rampaging super villain called Destructor.
Something went wrong for Ms. Marvel in the following years, however. That sense of empowerment, real or imagined, eroded away, leaving many readers with a bitter taste in their mouths and a hollowed sense of worth in their soul.
In the early 1980’s, in the pages of The Avengers, (a flagship title of Marvel Comics) a superhero team with whom Ms. Marvel had affiliated herself with, Carol Danvers found herself abducted by the offspring of one of her enemies and brought to another dimension in order to be brainwashed, seduced and impregnated. Many readers, comic book writers and feminist theory scholars considered this sequence of events an act of rape. Even more alarming was the apparent sense of apathy from Ms. Marvel’s Avenger teammates. Famed writer Chris Claremont, outspoken critic of this degeneration of character and inappropriate story, later undid the sequence of events.
The costume itself was always a bone of contention for those that demanded more self-liberation exemplified from the female character. Ms. Marvel’s knee high boots, boy-briefs, bare back and bare mid-rife, accented with a flowing red scarf around her neck, I suppose, didn’t encapsulate the sense of “self liberation” some writers and readers wanted out of the character. As sexy as it was, the costume itself was derivative of Captain Marvel’s spandex persona – another nod to Ms. Marvel’s unconscious compliance in a male dominated comic book world.
In recent years, the costume has changed – becoming more original in its design and the character has been given a more permanent, leading role in the Marvel Universe. Ms. Marvel was front and centre in the acclaimed Civil War series. She became a proponent of that story’s politically motivated “Mutant Registration Act” and went toe-to-toe against the likes of patriot, Captain America. She also had a prominent role in Marvel’s top-selling Secret Invasion series as well and has had dealings with all of the biggest characters in the Marvel Universe, holding her own against the likes of Iron Man and Nick Fury. At different times, she has even led the superhero team of The Avengers as well, all true and worthy characteristics of empowerment – not just for females but for all humans.
It’s taken a long time for Ms. Marvel to become a well rounded character, deeply involved in the universe in which she operates and aware of her place and role within in. Finally, it seems, she is worthy of her top billing status in the comic book world and the embodiment of something akin to a liberation.
Still, readers will always hearken back to her early years. Even with the costume change, her flowing red scarf has remained. We are a sum of the events that make up our history are we not? Besides, I always thought the scarf was a cool visual motif. And a little sexiness is just fine in my comic books.