Discussion – Marvel Now! Part 3: Feminism

Women haven't always been very prominently or positively portrayed in comics. This is beginning to change, but only fan support will determine if this change is a permanent progression.

Women haven’t always been very prominently or positively portrayed in comics. This is beginning to change, but only fan support will determine if this progression is a permanent trend.

The third part in my ongoing series covering the new titles brought in during the new age of Marvel’s comic book line. With this entry, I’ll be getting a little more serious, as these titles tie into a serious issue in the comic format.

For those unfamiliar with this discussion series I’ve been working on as well as Marvel Now!, I’ll briefly sum it up for you. For everyone else, feel free to skip ahead a couple paragraphs.

In comic books, we see characters created decades ago being written by countless writers over the span of generations, building up histories sometimes too big to be covered by a Wikipedia page. With an ongoing story dating back 20, 40, 60 years, it can create a situation where potential new fans are overwhelmed, and don’t know where to begin. The traditional method for cleaning up a comic book universe was to hit the reset button. Plot holes could be fixed, origin stories could be updated to modernity, and characters could be presented fresh to kids picking up their first comic book.

Old fans hate reboots(and really any kind of change with some fans), and reboots, by nature, become necessary with the coming of each generation. Marvel’s latest solution is what I like to call a soft reset. No new origin stories, no undoing any history(for the most part, anyway), just a new status quo. New titles are launched, and old titles are renumbered back to issue 1. Each title rethinks it’s approach, it’s target audience, and it’s overall purpose. The idea is that Marvel’s superheroes have become so iconic that even those who have never read a comic before have some familiarity with the characters, and can play catch up as long as you give a good starting point for them to pick up from. Don’t give new readers the 15th rehash of Spider-Man, they get the idea, just give us all a creative new take, and tell us all where to start reading.

Marvel’s history of sexism.

Comics used to be really sexist. I mean, sexism existed in all forms of media back then, but in comics, it got pretty ugly, and it stayed that way. While much of culture was changing to better reflect women, comics still hyper-sexualized women, relegated them to supporting roles, and horribly abused them for the sake of drama and entertainment (see Women In Refrigerators).

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Pictured above is a small statue that Marvel released for sale back in 2007. Pictured is a big breasted, twig-waisted Mary Jane in tight jeans, a tight shirt revealing her midriff, her ample cleavage, and the straps of her thong. She’s bent over with her ass out, and what is she doing? Spider-man’s god damn laundry. This figurine embodies all of the horrible things Marvel did with it’s women for years. At least people weren’t quiet about this. Outrage spilled over this socially backwards depiction of one of Marvel’s most iconic female characters. Of course, as it always seems to be when companies connected to geek culture make tragic social missteps, horrible people in the geek community came out to voice their support. You heard the classic callous remarks of, “lighten up”, “stop being so sensitive”, along with derogatory remarks towards female critics, slinging around terms like, “femnazi” and telling women to “get back in the kitchen and bring them a beer”. With people this outrageously horrible, you see why it’s necessary for depictions of women  to change, and for creators to aim higher for the purpose of progressing our culture.

Marvel’s latest answers to a long-ignored problem

Captain Marvel:

One of the early and more prominent female super heroes, Carol Danvers began as an airforce pilot, became Ms. Marvel, a companion character to Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), then recently assumed her dead predecessor’s title, becoming the new Captain Marvel. Carol, from the start, was presented as a much more feminist character than the pin-up damsels in distress that had previously been the norm in comics. She was a tough woman fighting in a man’s world. But it was a bit of an insult that Carol couldn’t have her own identity, instead being the pretty female attachment to a pre-established male character. On top of this, Carol’s superhero career has been a series of impractical costumes serving the only purpose of providing sex appeal.

No pants, nothing covering the midriff, but at least she'd keeping her neck warm.

No pants, nothing covering the midriff, but at least she’s keeping her neck warm.

Look, she has a complete shirt now! PROGRESS.

Look, she has a complete shirt now! PROGRESS.

What was that about progress? Sorry, got distracted by the blatant ass shot.

What was that about progress? Sorry, got distracted by the blatant ass shot.

Fans complained about the treatment Ms. Marvel was getting, but only because people liked the character. Carol Danvers wasn’t Peter Parker, but she was popular. So she dragged along in crappy roles for decades until the revitalization of The Avengers. Once things got going in New Avengers, Carol became more the powerhouse and pillar of the Avengers people wanted her to be. Unfortunately -maybe more than ever- Ms. Marvel in New Avengers on was over sexualized, her main purpose seeming to be how hot she is and who she was romantically involved with. So the new portrayal of Ms. Marvel, while an over-all improvement, was give and take.

With Marvel Now!, the decision came to make a prominent female star, and so Ms. Marvel was developed from arm candy to what fans wanted all along, a badass. So dropping the feminine designation of “Ms.”, Carol Danvers now goes by the gender neutral title of her predecessor, Captain Marvel. Dick Grayson Robin did temporarily assume the role of Batman, so it’s not uncommon for sidekicks/proteges to take the big title, but for a female to take the title is a different matter all together. What if Batgirl became Batman? There’s no reason it couldn’t happen, but has the idea ever been explored? Well now Carol Danvers has taken the title of Captain Marvel, and the best part is it will probably stay her title. Marvel doesn’t seem to be in a big rush to bring back Mar-vell (permanently), and Carol is more popular than he ever was, so consider this change permanent.

Now how is the quality of the comic book, you ask? It’s….okay. I really wanted to love this series, I wanted it to add it to my list of must-buy comics, but so far, it hasn’t really impressed me. In terms of story, it gets off to a slow start. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick set out to write a feminist series, and you can feel in her writing how seriously she took this very important job. There is a great sensitivity paid to the subject of strong women and female role models. The series begins covering a history of female pilots that Carol looked up to growing up. She does a little time travel, interacts with her heroes, learns a little about herself through a little soul searching, and after many, many issues, Carol Danvers finally settles into her new role once and for all.

The problem stems from how subdued DeConnick seems to be. She’s trying so hard to send this message of strong women being strong that she sets aside just about any other priority of a comic book. We get no real villain for the first 6 issues. The biggest villain present is male chauvinism, which is all well and good, except it doesn’t offer a good face to punch. Captain Marvel, for all her powers, doesn’t receive an adequate bad guy to fight until issue 7, and all she gets then is a giant robot. The robot is fucking sweet, but by the time you finish issue 8, you realize that you’ve followed a super hero with the power to blow up a damn planet for two thirds of a year, and the biggest challenge she faced was something you normally throw at rookies in the first issue of a “Young Heroes” comic series. Carol’s a beast, at least let her fight some Skrulls or something!

Now the writing isn’t terrible,it just feels as if DeConnick is holding back and building up. When she finally tears the training wheels off, I’m sure the writing for Captain Marvel will be a crowd pleaser. The art, on the other hand, sucks. Dexter Soy’s artwork is grit on top of grit, and it’s an ugly mess only heightened through badly tinted coloring. The comic always makes you feel like you’re in a dream sequence or on some strange alien planet. It’s gross. A shame they couldn’t get cover the cover artist, Ed McGuinness to do the whole comic , because his cover designs are beautiful, and iconic, and his work on the rest of the series would really set the tone for what some of us hope is a long running series for Marvel.

When Emma Rios is brought in to handle a couple issues, it’s like a revelation. It’s different, unique, but very appropriate to the series. Issues 5 and 6 are great if only for Rios’s work. Then Dexter Soy comes back in issue 7, and I wanted him to go away as fast as possible so Emma Rios could make this comic enjoyable to look at again. It’s a shame. At least from issue 9 onward, the art is primarily carried by Felipe Andrade, who’s a little too indie hipster chic for his own good (it’s not nearly as fun and stylish as it wants to be), but at least it’s an improvement

Now, I can’t finish this series without talking about Carol Danvers new look. Her new uniform is one of the best costume updates ever made. We lose sexy cheesecake model Carol, but we get in exchange badass epic hero Carol. The suit looks instantly iconic, a blend of Mar-Vell’s suit with something more formal, like something soldiers would wear for a ceremony. If those soldiers could fly and shoot explosions from their hands. And her mask is all the coolness that a child could hope for. It flies onto her face in panels at her mental command and makes her look like she’s ready to fuck shit up. A lot of updated costumes (see the entire list of new Spider suits since the 90s) feel either gimmicky or flat out forgettable and replaceable. I don’t think I want to see Carol in another costume after this one. Base all future costumes on this one, Marvel!

HELL YEAH!

HELL YEAH!

Now, her hair, on the other hand, I can do without. It’s this sort of dumb looking ponyhawk. I hate it. Then again, I hate a lot of modern hair styles(thank you Skrillex, for teaching people to grow their hair out on top, but shave the sides), so maybe I’m just too old fashioned.

I love Carol, but this hairstyle has to go.

I love Carol, but this hairstyle has to go.

Grade: B-/C+, for a series that’s underwhelming but never terrible. Maybe skip a few issues, because it starts slow, but I see it building up, and this title is only going to go up, in my mind. I’m critical of this series only because I want so much from it,

Fearless Defenders:

Pictured: an annoyingly large part of Fearless Defenders

Pictured: a frustratingly large part of Fearless Defenders

Fearless Defenders is a polar opposite of Captain Marvel. Fearless Defenders is silly action fun. No deep character development, no profound lessons, no serious issues, this series is just for entertainment. This series is based heavily in Marvel’s brand of Norse mythology, covering Valkyrie’s quest to recruit new Valkyries  from Earth rather than Asgard. Picky about who she chooses, Valkyrie instead chooses to work with female heroes such as blaxploitation remnant, Misty Knight to fight Asgardian threats to the people of earth.

The main trio of the series is Valkyrie, Misty Knight, and Annabelle Riggs, a brand new character that is neither super powered nor rich in character. Annabelle is a friend of Misty Knight who’s primary purpose is being a lesbian. Sometimes she serves as comic relief, but most of that comic relief stems from her hard crush on Valkyrie. Valkyrie thinks little of this, and outside of accepting the kiss pictured above, doesn’t reciprocate Annabelle’s feelings. And so, at least once an issue, time is taken for Annabelle to fawn and flirt, and gush over the beautiful woman of her dreams, and that’s all. Fearless Defenders is not about romantic relationships, it’s about action, and having your buddy’s back, and so Annabelle is odd and out of place in every sense. She’s a clownish detour from the theme of the book. I wouldn’t take such a big issue with this cheap bit of entertainment if I didn’t feel like it was over-sexualizing lesbians. I don’t know. I’m back and forth. Is it just tongue-in-cheek exploitation for good fun, or the same masturbatory aides we saw so much of in the 90s?

The action itself is great, though. The series quickly decides to forsake deep plot and character growth, and instead just gives awesome, all-women action(just like any good porno). It’s hacking, bashing fun. The villains range from random henchmen to crazy, creepy skeleton Valkyries that  serve as the initial antagonists of the comic.

Probably the best part of this series? The covers. Every issue features a cover that references something from pop culture, from video games to toys to pulp fiction comics from the past. I’m just gonna list some of them, and end my review of this comic on that.

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I hope they actually make a Danielle Moonstar action figure to package this issue with.

I hope they actually make a Danielle Moonstar action figure to package this issue with.

Anyone else remember paper dolls? Because I really appreciate this reference.

Anyone else remember paper dolls? Because I really appreciate this reference.

Grade: B, for accomplishing what it sets out to do, but not doing anything particularly fantastic. The story is thin and serves as a means to an exploitive end, the art ranges from solid to pretty great. It’s worth a try if you’ve got a hankering for a silly, fun comic.

X-Men Vol. 4:

I can't get enough of appreciating the character designs for this comic.

I can’t get enough of appreciating the character designs for this comic.

With the return of the adjective-less X-Men title, the decision came to do an all-female team for the comic. If this were the 90s,this would have panned out to a six issue mini-series about fighting over boys through the ripping of clothes and mud wrestling. So when Marvel announced an all-girls X-Men book, I, at least, had reservations.

I was pleasantly surprised with what I found with X-Men Vol. 4. The concept is that take away Xavier, Cyclops, and Wolverine, and the true core of the X-Men for decades has been the women of the team. So we’re presented not with a all-women off shoot team, but a list of available members to meet a specific task that happen to all be women. It’s only by coincidence and circumstance that the team ends up being the X-women. While Defenders often felt contrived and silly for it’s ways of circumventing the appearance of men, X-Men boldly includes men in the comic, and lets them be naturally, organically irrelevant. The story takes place in Wolverine’s school, but as Logan is constantly away, the only men around often at all are Beast, and some of the students. Meanwhile, you’ve got the Headmistress, Storm, one of the top-ranking teachers, Kitty Pryde, and powerhouses Rogue, Psylocke (in pants!), and Rachel Grey. With women like these, it’s hard to explain how a Wolverine-less X-Men series WOULDN’T be female dominated.

The book begins with the return of Jubilee with a mysterious baby in tow, and in need of immediate protection from an even more mysterious force identified by villain, Sublime as his sister, a being intended to conquer and destroy all life on Earth. With only three issues out, it’s hard to judge how this story will ultimately pan out. The bright side is, everything that has been released has been easy and fun to follow, with a surprising amount of character development for such a brief amount of time. We instantly connect with Jubilee, who takes her new surrogate mother role with a seriousness and a youthful zeal. There’s something terribly charming about watching the young woman grow from her childish beginnings in the older comics, and see her build a connection to something as mature as motherhood.

The art for this comic is something else. It’s the second best art in Marvel comics, ever(The absolute best will be covered in the next installment of my article series). Long live penciller, Olivier Coipel. No matter what he’s drawing, it looks gorgeous and real without ever getting overwhelming like photo-realistic artists often are. No, Coipel uses a gentle touch, a divine subtlety that displays, reacts, and emotes. My descriptive abilities fail to explain how good the art is in this series.

The character designs are respectful, both socially and historically. Each character is still very much themselves, but they’re anatomically correct with costumes that seem more practical. Psylocke has pants now! Skin bearing has given way to practical, protective suits! And yet the body suit Psylocke wears now doesn’t feel like a dramatic change, it’s like something she wore originally, or in the many other portayals of the character in different worlds. Jubilee looks Chinese! Actually Chinese, not some offensive stereotype, not a white character painted orangish yellow with narrow eyes. No, down to the facial structure, Coipel nails Jubilee’s features like no other before. One more thing to note is how he captures so much of their personality in their posture. The closest comparison I can find is in a Pixar movie, the way they devote so much time to making sure characters even move in-character.

Grade: A+, for solid story, great character portrayals, and some of the best art I have ever seen. Seriously, it’s gorgeous to look at without the designs ever feeling exploitive. It’s a little early to judge the comic for sure, but from the past three issues, this promises to be one of the best series on the market today. Put this on your monthly buy list.

Conclusion:

Feminism in comics still has a long way to go. Over sexualization and objectification of women is far from over. The good news is new comics are being made that attempt to pay a greater respect both to the great female characters companies have created, and to the readers who expect better for said characters. A community is growing that supports the idea that more mature, more accurate portrayals of the sexes will lead to better story telling and a better over all experience for the reader. That is enough to give me hope. Excelsior.

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4 responses to “Discussion – Marvel Now! Part 3: Feminism

  1. I’ve been loving Captain Marvel. But I’m a big fan of character drama, which is what that book’s largely focused on. It’s not a story about a superhero punching things; it’s more about who Carol is as a person. I actually really loved Soy’s art; Rios’ art was gorgeous; and I really like Andrade’s art, which reminds of me Rios’, though not at her level. I think DeConnick’s just doing some fantastic characterization, and has given her such a great supporting cast. (Kit!) She also happens to write the best friendship in all of comics, between Carol and Jessica. Seriously, I just love watching those two interact. So Captain Marvel’s an absolute must-buy to me.

    Fearless Defenders, I will admit, I’ve been enjoying. The first issue was full of way too much cheesecake, but that’s been toned down since then. It’s been a lot of fun, but it has also started moving towards some good character drama, too. The most recent issue, as an aside, is worth buying for the art alone. Stephanie Hans just did a stunning job. It is the most gorgeous book on the stands, bar none. Marvel needs to bring Hans in for a lot more work, because she is amazing. The story in this issue is really good, too, including the return of Clea. But the art is just wow.

    X-Men is awesome. Coipel’s art is gorgeous. Wood’s writing is great. The characterization is solid. Jubilee and Shogo are one of the most touching plots going right now, in any comic. It’s just a stellar book, and exactly how an all-female book should be. It’s worth noting Wood and Coipel are also making more use out of the students than Jason Aaron has in over 30 issues of Wolverine and the X-Men. I mean, who ever knew that Bling could be a really cool character? I had suspicions that she could be good, but Wood has actually proven it.

    The one other thing I’ll bring up in terms of Now! and feminism: In a couple months, Captain Marvel will be Marvel’s only female solo title, and Kelly Sue DeConnick their only female writer with an ongoing project. Red She-Hulk ended not long ago, and Journey Into Mystery – which has been an absolutely fantastic book under Kathryn Immonen and Valerio Schiti – has only one issue left. And Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men will be ending soon. If Marvel’s smart, Kathryn Immonen will be landing somewhere soon; they should try to keep Liu employed, too, but I’ve never been big on her writing. The reason these books are ending, of course, is because no one was buying them. X-Men is selling insanely well, of course. Fearless Defenders has very good sales, given its creative team and concept. But Captain Marvel’s physical sales are terrible. It sells below 20 000 issues each month. Digital sales aren’t tracked, so I’m hoping those are really strong. But the point I’m making is that readers don’t actually seem to much care about female titles. It’s hard to really blame Marvel for its poor record on feminism when their audience never rewards them for any effort they do make. That’s not to say I hold Marvel blameless; they’ve done a lot of awful crap. It’s just a little discouraging, sometimes, when I want to get excited at Marvel actually making an effort, and they have to end it because nobody else gave a damn about it.

    • You make some good points about Captain Marvel, and I might even go so far as to say you’ve written a superior review of the series to mine. The only validity left in my criticisms ties into your point about the poor sales of Captain Marvel. I don’t think it’s that people don’t care about the character, or about female characters in general. I think the book just needs a stronger entertainment value. Captain Marvel hasn’t been exciting enough. You can have great character development, but there needs to be a strong enough appeal to our base emotions(suspense, arousal, violence, laughter) for people to want to come back every month for the latest issue. I have to admit, Captain Marvel failed to convince me it’s worth my money on a regular basis. Also, all the issues I bought were digitally, so I guess I never actually contributed to the sales record.

      My god, this month’s issue of Fearless Defenders had amazing art! The penciling was, anyway. The coloring was mostly above and beyond expectations, but some times it went a little off. Like eyes would sometimes turn into black pits of evil for no apparent reason, and the overall tint of the picture would sometimes have too much green or blue in some of the scenes. It’s similar to the problems I had with the Dexter Soy art. Maybe odd tinting is just a pet peeve that I’m alone in having.

      And with Wolverine and the X-Men, it’s an issue of choice of students. X-Men has yet to show whether they’ll have a revolving door of students to masterfully develop, or whether they picked a handful, and decided to leave it at that. That’s what Wolverine and the X-Men has been doing with Quentin Quire, Broo, and Idie, though Aaron should be given credit for giving decent screen time to the other kids, which may have slowed the progress of his primary characters. Don’t hate on my Wolverine and the X-Men, I love that series…

      And thank you for writing a whole damn essay in reply to my article! It really is touching to see someone deem me worth the effort of an intensive, detailed response. In a world where most comments on the internet are “ur gay” and “your wrong im right shut up”, this is really inspiring to see. Thank you!

      • It’s an issue I care about, despite my possession of a penis. So I do tend to get pretty long-winded when I comment on that sort of thing.

        My problem with the students used in WatXM is that they’re basically all brand new. I actually counted once, out of curiosity, and the students Aaron chose to focus on had a combined total of less than 20 appearances before WatXM started. Aaron left every single one of the classic New X-Men students as background at best. Rockslide got a handful of lines in the execrable Frankenstein Circus arc, but that’s it. There are so many great young X-Men, and Aaron chose to ignore every single one of them in favour of a bunch of relative blank slates that he gave two-dimensional (at best) personalities to. Wood did more with the New X-Men characters in a single issue that’s not even about the school itself than Aaron’s done in over 30 issues of a series that’s specifically about the school. It’s infuriating. And I hate the book for a lot of other reasons, as well.

        As far as Captain Marvel goes, I can understand the criticism. The art angle is entirely subjective, obviously, so that can be set aside. And it was definitely a very slow book, until The Enemy Within. I just happen to like slow, character-focused stuff.

        • Feminism has become an increasingly greater concern for my penis-owning self as well. It’s important, and no one should ever have to justify their support of this cause. None the less, you read my article in it’s entirety(I gather), made intelligent and well-informed statements, and I appreciate what you’re saying even if I don’t agree with every last word.

          I don’t think it’s really fair to complain about Aaron’s choice to use new and underexposed characters. Fans complain all the time about how unoriginal comics have become, that it’s just variations of the same old stuff over and over again. Aaron makes the attempt to do something very different with his approach, and to utilize characters that no one else is using as well as adding new ones. Comics are all about adding and creating, not just continuing. I think what makes the X-titles so great is each one is using a different list of characters. Wolverine only appears in half of the books! The franchise is designed now so there is a book for people to turn to if they have some select favorites. A little like how it’s always been, but a little more pronounced than before, I feel.

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