Sunday, January 31, 2010

I shouldn't comment on this one.

I think what's making me irrationally pissed off about the "Silver Age had no meaningful women" argument going around is that I used to think that way.

I used to think that the female characters in the Silver Age were complete bubbleheads, bad sitcom women who stood on tables and cried "Eek a mouse" and spent all their time swooning over the male leads. There were a variety of "look at the sexism" scans in books and on the Internet to support that, after all. And we all knew the 60s were sexist.

Then, at my sister's urging, I read some Silver Age comics. The Essential X-men, in particular. And holy fuck, yes there was Jean mooning over Scott and the guy's making utter asses of themselves to get her attention. But there was also Jean throwing the biggest guy on the team across the room with just the power of her MIND, and Scott being the one who fainted, and the telepath/empath on the team was the old bald guy while the girl was the heavy artillery.

And there was Wanda Maximoff.

Holy shit, there was Wanda Maximoff the one-girl wrecking crew who just pointed at stuff and destroyed it. She was saddled with an overprotective brother... who ended up injured and on the ground much more often than she did. (Which made the couple stories where she accidentally takes him or herself out with her power much more humorous than insulting to me.) She was the pretty girl Magneto pointed out to lure guys like Namor to his side, but she wasn't there because she was pretty or had some controlling men power. She was there because she pointed at things and broke them. Behind that beauty wasn't the sort of fake power that girls get so much, there was real destructive power. She made bad things happen. She was the Scarlet Witch, and god help you if you knocked her brother down in the fight.

And then, in search of more Wanda, I found myself seeking out the Avengers. And the Essential Avengers features the fucking Wasp saving the asses of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America on a regular basis, dammit. Yeah, she was a clotheshorse and kind of frivolous, but she had the power to shrink to a fucking spec and they used it and her cleverness to make her a force on a team with a GOD on it.

And I know, some of you are going to argue "Well, our point was girls who weren't derivative and could carry a story..." Well, stuff it. First, EVERY superhero is derivative of Superman, that's just comics. Second, these women could carry titles if it weren't for the constant glossing over of everything appealing about their early appearances by people who haven't bothered to look.

Seriously, if you find yourself arguing that Silver Age Nostalgia is exclusionary to women? Do yourself a favor and go read some fucking Silver Age comics. And if you have and you think that, you seriously missed something there. Because buried underneath all that 60s sexist shit is some solid gold.


  1. I remember the Wasp rocked pretty hard in the mid-80s, which was when I first started buying instead of inheriting comics, but I don't recall being as impressed with her when I read the older stuff. So I will, in fact, go back for another look. Thanks for the heads up. :)

  2. How about the glorious issue of DOOM PATROL where the Chief sends Elasti-Girl off on a wild goose chase because he's taking the men on a mission that's too dangerous for a woman?

    Naturally, Rita has to come back and save their butts. And afterwards she tells the Chief that if he ever pulls a stunt like that again, she'll cut off his...


  3. My main problem with the women in Silver Age stories always boils down to Stan Lee's dialogue for them. I sometimes wonder if Lee actually knew any women, or if the sixties were just weirder than I always figure they were.

    Second, these women could carry titles if it weren't for the constant glossing over of everything appealing about their early appearances by people who haven't bothered to look.

    They couldn't have carried titles in the sixties because of the sexism. Comics were really conservative and didn't want to touch controversy with a ten foot pole. The Ghost of Fred Wertham was still haunting the publishers and no one wanted to drum up another witch hunt. Neither Marvel nor DC would touch feminism as a topic until the 70s when they were distanced from the older controversies and felt ready to push boundaries again (and when feminism had become pretty much mainstream, even if it was still considered controversial).

    Nowadays they can't carry titles because of the audience for comics. The superhero comics audience is now both incredibly conservative and nostalgia hungry - so anything that doesn't play to their nostalgia doesn't sell, no matter how good it is. As the comics audience continues to shrink, this only gets worse.

  4. Jer, you're kind of missing the strength of a lot of the characters though. And I'm saying this as a fairly cynical, embittered person.

    The Silver Age ladies were awesome even with very questionable dialogue choices. There's a nice post somewhere highlighting Sue and Jean in Kirby's work with and without dialogue. The dialogue sometimes weakens them, but the art portrayed a woman who was satisfyingly strong.

    The thing about soloing a comic seems bizarre to me though, because well...looking at the X-Men for example: We've got Beast, Iceman, Cyclops and Angel. None of whom could have supported their own comic at the time. (Beast DID end up with a mini showing his transformation at least.)

    Sue Storm? Member of the Fantastic Four, again, none of whom would be remotely interesting headlining a solo book, because the group dynamic is the draw.

    The Wasp didn't need a book, so long as she was coheading in her Tales of Whatever (I can't keep 'em straight) with Hank. She was essentially Robin to his Batman, there.

    I think the whole "could they support a solo book" doesn't quite work for these characters because they tend to be so prominent in their groups. And that's not even getting into miniseries and the like.

    And as for DC: Wonder Woman HAS a book. Black Canary HAD one and will again. Barbara Gordon's is coming back (see also Black Canary.)

    Really though, this is kind of away from the main point. I always bring up Uhura for this because I think it's a very easy relevant example:

    In the 60s series, Uhura didn't have a whole lot to do. She didn't have a great many plots focusing on her. Her job seemed to be something similar to an operator/secretary. She was the only woman we saw regularly (Chapel was relatively rare, and Yeoman Rand vanished pretty quickly.)

    But you can't seriously argue that she wasn't MEANINGFUL. For all the flaws of her portrayal, her very presence was a very big deal. The fact that she was portrayed as cool, competent, able to do her job without needing constant male oversight. The fact that she could be a visible member of her race during a time when positive portrayals in sci-fi were pretty rare...

    Yeah, no one was likely to read "The Uhura Adventures" but that's not the POINT. Her presence, her existence, opened the way for a lot of other portrayals. It opened the way for books which allowed her character more to do. It's what made it possible for Zoe Saldana's version of Uhura in the new movie to be so legitimately awesome. Hell, that was a case where nostalgia opened up the ability to do more with a character that had been somewhat neglected.

    And even IF the Silver Age heroines were as weak as some people would think (even though I think actually reading the comics would disprove that in most cases) trying to pretend that they didn't exist, or claiming they're not meaningful, denies their significance in the greater scheme and their role in forging the way for what came later.

  5. Since I'm not on Livejournal, I think I'll add a few quick observations to the debate here:

    Today's fans (especially the younger ones) do not know very much about of the heroines of the Golden Age, at least if they weren't published by DC. The fact that a significant number of them who were able to carry solo books or newspaper strips (at the time there were hardly any teams worth mentioning apart from the JSA and the Blackhawks). Trina Robbins' "The Great Women Superheroes" is a good place to start reading up on them. Also let's not forget that the Golden Age provided a somewhat larger palette of genres, so apart from superheroines you also had jungle heroines (Sheena, Nyoka, etc.), spy adventure heroines (e.g. Senorita Rio), air heroines (Black Angel, the Valkyrie), Western heroines (e.g. Firehair, some also set in the present of the 1940s) and S/F heroines (e.g. EC's Moon Girl), not to mention some of the more comedic titles, including a sub-genre with "working-girl" heroines ("Millie the Model" was one of Marvel's top-selling titles well into the 1960s).

    The argument that "meaningful" Silver Age characters like Batgirl are really Bronze Age ones ahead of their time just makes me shake my head. If one can argue that way, what is to stop others to declare that e.g. Spitfire, the Japanese-American Golden Girl and the African-American Human Top introduced in The Invaders are Golden Age characters created after their time? (They certainly were products of Roy Thomas's Golden Age nostalgia).

    Now obviously there were some weaknesses to Silver Age heroines (they did on the whole tend to be a little less forceful than their Golden Age predecessors, at least in the 1950s and early 1960s), but some of the complaints about them are way over the top, at times exaggerated or based on selective observation. For instance the Invisible Girl is all too often summed up as if she had not quite soon progressed beyond the state of the first few issues of The Fantastic Four (when she could only turn invisible). Even as a love interest she was in a slightly stronger position - before her marriage she had another attractive suitor in Namor, while Reed did not have a corresponding alternative love interest - and I always thought that the dutiful 1950s mother was supposed to be a happy homemaker, not to go out on dangerous missions all of the time.

    @Jer: Well, Stan's dialogue was pretty odd for a lot of his male characters as well, but then I suspect he did not really set out to write naturalistic dialogue most of the time. Personally, I always felt that Mary Jane Watson sounded exactly like his "hip" public-speaker persona (as seen in his Soapbox columns), but that was part of her charm...

  6. I'd like to stand up for the much malighned girlfriends as well. Lois Lane was a reporter and a good one. Iris West was a reporter. Carol Ferris ran her own company and managed to fend off Hal mean feat. Jean Loring was a lawyer. Harlequin was a villain who ended up working for the FBI. Joan Garrick...well, Joan was smart enough to marry Jay who is awesome.

    They didn't just sit around, in between the kidnappings and alien invasions, they actually had jobs and stuff.

  7. Hallelujah, Ragnell! I totally agree with everything you said. Yes, there are problems with racism and sexism in the Golden and Silver Ages. Hell, there are problems with racism and sexism in comics now. But the jump from that to "there were no meaningful characters back then" is utterly absurd.

    Heck, Sue and Reed nearly got divorced--during the Silver Age!--because Reed kept trying to keep her at home with Franklin instead of letting her be a super-hero, and she wasn't going to put up with that crap for long. :)

    There's plenty of goofiness, shamefully dated material, and just plan embarrassing sexism back in the Silver Age (and passing it off as just, "Well, it was a more sexist time" doesn't excuse it, either. "The Feminist Mystique" was published about a year after the FF started.) But there were loads of significant characters back then, and it's folly to say otherwise.

  8. I'd like to submit Saturn Girl and the other ladies of the Legion of Superheroes (sadly a much-overlooked title that is currently waiting on its sixth book and fourth version) for "good strong examples of Silver Age Superheroines". Heck, they're good strong superheroines for ANY age of comics.

    Go to:
    You want "Hero Histories" at the top.

  9. To make my angry women comment I would say that modern comics are worse...

    - Big Barda -- Dead
    - Batgirl -- Paralyzed (although probably stronger)
    - Wanda Maximof -- crazy and possibly evil
    - Jean Grey - Dead

  10. It’s great to see good information being shared and also to see fresh, creative ideas that have never been done before.

  11. Wndola -- On the bright side, HoM established she wasn't evil at all. She's still crazy, though. :(

  12. You just saved the day. Nostalgia ( Even if I wasn't born yet, these comics were part of my childhood ) and kick ass feminism?

    This site is now added to my bookmarks.