Last week I had a great conversation with the notorious comics writer Scott Lodbell. Scott’s not notorious because he’s a bad guy or anything – honestly, I thought he was very cool and friendly and sincere and interesting, really – but because he wrote the infamous first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws that caused so much controversy on the comics interwebs, including on this very website.
Next week’s Manifesto column will focus on some of my thoughts about Lobdell, Red Hood and the man’s legacy in comics. But this week I decided to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia and look at a super-heroine who was an unholy mix of derivative schlock and well-meaning liberal guilt: the one and only Ms. Marvel.
On the short list of absurdly stupid super-hero outfits would be this charming little outfit worn by tonight’s starlet, the one and only Ms. Marvel. No, your eyes don’t deceive you. Marvel’s latest super-hero sensation (in 1976, that is) flew into battle wearing a distaff version of Captain Marvel’s costume. Well, a spectacularly sexist version of Mar-Vell’s flashy red and blue suit. The female Marvel had the wore the same chest symbol, bikini briefs and boots, but she wore an open belly (and open backed) version of the uni, along with bare legs, a scarf, and Farrah Fawcett hair. In other words, no, it is just as it looks: the woman has long sleeves, gloves and a scarf – and a bare midriff, back and legs.
Who is the genius who came up with this outfit, which is equally badly suited for very hot and very cold days? Chances are that it was comics great Johnny Romita, who worked as Marvel’s art director in the mid-’70s. Romita designed most of the super-hero outfits of the era, and his style was sometimes quite bizarre. I wonder if Romita ever thought to run this cover past his wife, or one of the female Marvel staffers of the time, or one of his daughters. From their suggestions, maybe they would have given Ms. Marvel some flip-flops or snow boots to go either with the hot or cold theme. Ms. Marvel – the McDLT of her era. The hot side stayed hot while the cool side stayed cool.
Inside, Ms. Marvel was just as jumbled. She was created by the infamous Gerry Conway, who was notorious (at least with me) for his bizarre and poorly-thought-out heroes and series. In his short run at DC in ’75 and ’76, Conway bowed to fan pressure to revive the legendary Justice Society of America in their own series, but brought them back as supporting characters to a much-despised Super Squad. He revived Blackhawk, that book with World War II flying aces, but never had then actually fight in World War II. At Marvel, Ms. Marvel might have been Conway’s most notorious book.
Setting aside the likelihood that the character was created mainly to keep copyright on the name, the character is a bizarre match of good ideas and ridiculous sexism. For instance, Ms. M. is actually Carol Danvers, who made a mint writing a book about the space program and her involvement with Captain Marvel. Okay, that’s interesting enough. From there, Carol persuades J. Jonah Jameson, the guy who hates Spider-Man, to give her seed money to start a new magazine called Woman.
So stop right there. A confident career woman, with a background of security behind her, making her way in New York as the editor of a glamorous magazine published by a sexist pig, in mid-’70s New York. That could be a fun comic book. A bit silly, a bit romantic, a bit of its period. I think we can all think of a few writers who could write a great version of that very comic. Brian Wood, come on down! But this being Marvel, they had to have an overlay of heroic stuff on top of the plot of Ms. Marvel’s series. Okay, then, they gave Carol some limited powers that help to convey her independence and power at the time.
But noooo, to use a catch phrase of the era, Conway had to mess up a great concept. First, Ms. M had to wear in absurd costume. And have derivative super-powers. And have an extra power, a "seventh sense" that is kind of a magnification of her woman’s intuition that allows her to see the future.
Say what? A super women’s intuition?! WTF?!
AND he had Carol and Ms. M. actually live kind of separate lives. One didn't know that the other was sharing a body with her – meaning that strong feminist Carol Danvers, former Air Force officer and editor of a female-centered magazine that was not all about how to make sure one's husband's shirts could avoid ring around the collar, was constantly suffering blackouts every time she actually had the chance to exercise her powers and become self-actualized. That's a pretty damn interesting subtext to me.
So what I guess I’m saying is that this whole thing is a big damn mess, but it shouldn’t have been. If only Marvel had been a little more Ms. in the Equal Rights Amendment sense of the word. If only they had played up something, anything, that would make Carol a unique heroine. but, really, they never do, and in the end it’s just kind of sad and pathetic.
No wonder Marvel never knew what to do with Carol Danvers in her super-heroine guide. She’s the lost stepchild of super-heroines, wandering from name to name, costume to costume in the vain hope that she would catch on. Some characters are destined to be second-stringers, and Carol seems to be one of them.
I’m kind of intrigued by the question of whether Ms. Marvel was a failure because of its decidedly feministic stance, or because of the decidedly desultory nature of her stories, or because the kids at the time simply rejected the idea of a female leading her own book. I remember when I was a kid and this book was coming out – and yeah, all the kids read comics when I was a kid. I’m old, what can I say? – my friends found it more laughable that I was buying a comic with Ms. in the title than the fact that I was buying Howard the Duck every month. But then again, Howard was not desultory, was never second-rate, and was always trapped in a world he never made. Wauggh!
I understand the recent Ms. Marvel series was pretty decent, and of course there will be a new Ms. Marvel or Captain Marvel again at some point in the near future. But she really is the poster child for
the mediocre comics idea that causes people to go back to the well again and again.
Usually these Manifesto columns are calls to action or are meant to rile you up and get you angry about something. I guess I’m asking you here to get angry about mediocrity. Down with beige!