Monday, October 6, 2014
Much like the Wasp and Marvel Girl, the Scarlet Witch received a bad rap, at least for her earliest depictions. Yet the character of Wanda couldn't be accused of any of the sins attributed to those Marvel characters. Maybe Wasp gushed about shopping and Marvel Girl was seen playing house-mother to the X-Men, but the Scarlet Witch was rarely if ever seen in such stereotypically feminine situations. And while one must admit that the previous two femmes were not that formidable, the Scarlet Witch's power-- to cause catastrophes just by pointing her hands-- was not so marginal. Nor could anyone argue that it was largely defensive in nature, as with the Invisible Girl's force fields. In one early appearance the Witch beats the Swordsman by causing a machine near him to explode, and in a later one, she causes the ground beneath a tank to collapse.
I've only encountered one rather vague criticism of the Scarlet Witch, possibly originating with Trina Robbins: the Witch was a heroine whose main power was to "pose and point." Maybe the criticism was that it placed the heroine on display for the evil male gaze, as opposed to having her engage in rough-and-tumble battles like the majority of Golden Age comics-heroines. Nevertheless, the central conception of the Scarlet Witch was that she was a mutant version of a witch, and the archetypal idea of a witch is that of a being who casts spells on others-- not a bare-knuckle fighter.
The worst one could say of the early Witch was that she didn't have much backstory, or much direction beyond choosing to fight evil as an Avenger. Of course, one could say the same of many of Marvel's male heroes in the 1960s: the Human Torch goes to college for a while, and then drops it to pursue his romantic interests-- which sounds like a stereotypically feminine thing to do. Arguably in the 1970s and thereafter, the Scarlet Witch eclipses the Torch and many others. Through her controversial romance with the android hero Vision, she showed a level of courage that surpassed the battles with super-villains, and she hopped up her powers through the study of witchcraft. This seems to have been her best period as a character, though I confess I have no idea what her status is these days.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Whereas Hawkgirl was created as an integral part of the Silver-Age HAWKMAN feature, Mera-- DC's first Silver-Age character to marry the hero of her feature-- seems to have come about by happy accident.
Arguably, the template from which she derives is not so much Hawkgirl, Lois Lane or Carol Ferris, but that of Superman's nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk. Although Mxyzptlk remained a perpetual thorn in the side of the Man of Steel, it might be argued that he indirectly spawned a plethora of helpful imps who either regularly or irregularly assisted DC heroes. 1959's "Bat-Mite" was conceived in the vein of a pest who wanted to be helpful to Batman, but others were better helpmates, like "Cryll," a shape-shifting alien who started assisting Space Ranger regularly in 1958. The first issue of Aquaman's 1962 magazine introduced a helpful extra-dimensional imp, "Quisp," who was only made occasional appearances. Quisp would be phased out of the feature as soon as Mera appeared in issue #11, and not only did she take his position, she was also given, via editorial fiat, the same powers Quisp had displayed: the ability to manipulate water much as Green Lantern manipulated his ring's energy, turning water into solid, offensive objects like clubs, fists, or, as seen above, giant monsters.
Mera quickly became a dominant force in the feature, somewhat shoving Aqualad to one side. She married the titular King of the Seven Seas in issue #18, about a year after her debut, and gave the feature a more domestic feel, particularly when she gave birth to Aquaman's first son.
Mera's popularity, like that of many other Silver Age heroines, has waxed and waned many times. At present, she seems to have undergone a slight rebirth, thanks to the "Brightest Day" series. Not surprisingly, I find that she, like Star Sapphire, had her best stories in the Silver Age and never quite made a meaningfuil transition to the current era of DC Comics, as did characters like Batgirl and Black Canary.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
A while back, ultimate fighter Ronda Rousey-- who made her film debut this month in EXPENDABLES 3-- called out comics "for being sexist." In her quote she sneers at Invisible Woman and Marvel Girl, and even finds a reason to downgrade Wonder Woman. It's a typically thoughtless celebrity quote, but a lot of full-fledged fans have made similar claims about the supposed marginalization of all female characters in the comic book medium. And though I've made some criticisms of the original Marvel Girl myself, Rousey's broad criticism sounds almost like it was derived from an almost identical oversimplification that appeared in Trina Robbins' THE GREAT WOMEN SUPERHEROES.
One of the many powerful heroines Robbins completely overlooks is the female member of the 1960s DOOM PATROL: Elasti-Girl. Perhaps she was overlooked precisely because she weakened Robbins' case re: marginalization. Like the other members of the team, the character was once an ordinary mortal who became "super" due to a cataclysmic event: after actress Rita Farr accidentally inhaled mysterious volcanic gases, she gained the power to grow to the size of a skyscraper or to shrink to the size of a mouse. The latter ability came in handy for the occasional espionage situation, but unsurprisingly Elasti-Girl spent most of her 1960s career "getting big." As the above panels show, the heroine could even enlarge discrete portions of her body at a given time.
Though her partners Robotman and Negative Man were both "heavy hitters" in their own right, Elasti-Girl was one of the first, if not the first, times that the female member was the "heaviest hitter" on the team. She and her fellow members perished in the DOOM PATROL's final issue, but her male compatriots were both revived in the 80s and 90s while Rita stayed dead. For all I know, she may have been revived in recent years, but I for one wouldn't mind if she'd been kept safely dead back in the period of her conception.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Many early 1960s Marvel heroines get a bum rap, but none more so than the Wasp.
She was introduced as a partner to the Ant-Man in TALES TO ASTONISH #44, the same issue in which the sketchy backstory of the main hero was given new depth. This story revealed that scientist Henry Pym lost his first wife to the Communist menace, and this later motivated him to devise his size-changing abilities in order to fight all forms of crime and tyranny, as the Ant-Man. But years later he met a potential replacement in heiress Janet Van Dyne, a much younger woman who returned his interest, albeit covertly.
However, in keeping with the slam-bang world of early superhero comics, no sooner did they meet than an alien monster killed Janet's father. She swore vengeance in the presence of Pym, so right away he revealed his costumed identity and invited her to become his crimefighting partner as the Wasp-- albeit with very different shape-changing powers, which extended to giving her Tinkerbelle-like wings in her miniature form.
Many fans have not liked the Wasp simply because she was not a powerhouse, and was often relegated to camp-following her partner-- who soon upgraded his powers as "Giant-Man"-- and as comedy relief. But these fans overlook that the Wasp was more than a source of woman-based jokes about going shopping and the like. The Pym-Van Dyne interaction was a bit like a famous quote explaining the appeal of the Astaire-Rogers team: "He gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal." Stuffy scientist Hank Pym didn't really have a lot of class to offer, but he did have scientific smarts and a sense of mission. Janet Van Dyne internalized many of those elements, but added her own very feminine take on all of the male alarums and emergencies. That's not to say that she invalidated those struggles, but she grounded them in a greater sense of everyday reality.
Over the years the Wasp received assorted power upgrades and became the Avengers chairman for a time. Currently she may be dead, though this probably won't last. Still, her original incarnation remains her best version; one that gave full reign to Stan Lee's phenomenal abilities to provide credible voices for a wide spectrum of comics-characters.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Technically the character who became best-known for transforming into the DC character Star Sapphire appeared in 1959, not 1962. However, it's only in the latter identity that Carol Ferris, girlfriend of Green Lantern, concerns this blog.
I've already provided a detailed myth-analysis of the character's origins in this essay, so I won't tread the same ground again here. I neglected to mention that the name "Star Sapphire" originated in a Golden Age FLASH villainess, and that another character using the name briefly appeared in the 1970s title SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-VILLAINS. However, as far as impact goes, both of these figures are nugatory: Carol Ferris is the only Star Sapphire with any mythic resonance.
Unfortunately, much like many of the temporary super-forms Lois Lane assumed in the Superman titles, Carol's never quite became much more than a recurring problem for featured hero Green Lantern. The three stories that appeared in the 1960s-- authored by John Broome, Gardner Fox and Gil Kane-- represent the apex of the character's history.
In later DC comics, Star Sapphire went through a bewildering number of mutations. Sometimes she was a Jekyll not responsible for Hyde's crimes. Sometimes she was the very embodiment of the tyrannical female. She's certainly not the only character to have received such ambivalent treatment; arguably most characters who last a long time in corporate-owned comics-- including featured heroes-- suffer the same fate. But to date few of the attempts to re-define Star Sapphire have "taken." Even Steve Englehart, whose 1990s GREEN LANTERN series posited that the Zamarons were the female half of the all-male Guardians race-- was unable to give Star Sapphire a new lease on life. The character still appears, but her raison d'etre was in a sense left behind in the Silver Age.
As a minor side-note, though by the 1960s most fans had forgotten the Golden Age Star Sapphire, Robert Kanigher had not forgotten that he created her. In a late 1960s WONDER WOMAN scene, in which editor Kanigher was listing his accomplishments for the fans, he specified that he was the creator of "Star Sapphire"-- no doubt puzzling many of the readers who only knew of the Carol Ferris version.
Monday, June 23, 2014
When comic-book historians complain about the lack of vivid heroines in the 1960s, they usually dismiss Hawkgirl as a mere shadow of her male partner-- not least because the franchise, debuting in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #34, was named "HAWKMAN." This could be fairly said of many "-girl" sidekicks, not least the Hawkgirl of the Golden Age-- but not Shayera Hol, wife of Katar. The premise established a strong sense of equality between the team-mates: both were accredited police officers of the alien world Thanagar, equally adept with advanced technology and good at battling evildoers. As to why Thanagarian cops tended to fly around with artificial wings and anti-gravity devices, Gardner Fox supplied the usual SF-rationales, which were of less importance than the kinetic pleasures of flying superheroes.
Unfortunately the HAWKMAN feature wasn't notably successful, and though the Hawks had a couple more short-lived series, as well as appearing in features like JUSTICE LEAGUE, this version of the franchise petered out with the introduction of DC's "Crisis" continuity, after which the characters were substantially revised. Thus the 1960s remains the height of Shayera Hol's fortunes, during which she rarely served as "hero's kidnapped sidekick." In fact, HAWKMAN #14 is devoted to the proposition that Hawkgirl gets to save her hubby from a man-stealing alien amazon named "Queen Alvit." Actions speak louder than words:
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
1959's SLEEPING BEAUTY may have been the first fantasy-film I saw on the big screen, since I have an intense memory of the end scenes-- Prince Philip's flight from Maleficent's castle with the help of the three fairies, and the climactic duel between the princess and the villainess in her dragon-form.
A number of elements in the Brothers Grimm story "Little Briar Rose" and its congeners had to be changed to please the ethos of the audience Walt Disney sought to please. Even as a kid, I noticed that one substantial change: that the "sleeping beauty" of the title doesn't really sleep very long, any more than the rest of the court within the enchanted castle. This change certainly came about because Disney's adapters wanted Princess Aurora to "meet cute" with Prince Philip. Were they worried about the inappropriateness of a princess marrying up with the first fellow who came along and kissed her into wakefulness? In addition, the thorn forest that grows up around the castle isn't put there by a good fairy, seeking to protect the castle for centuries until the destined prince comes along: the thorns are just a last-minute defense by Maleficent, sent to delay Philip. They certainly add to the colorful background of the climax but don't serve any narrative purpose.
In the Grimms' version, one of the thirteen fairies is simply excluded from Briar Rose's christening because the king and queen don't have enough plates for all of them. OK, little hard to believe, given that they're ROYALTY, but then, how often do folktales focus on detailed motivation? The excluded thirteenth fairy curses Briar Rose and has her curse mitigated by the twelfth fairy. After that, the thirteenth fairy is never seen again, though in some tellings Briar Rose has a later encounter with another villainess, an Ogre Queen to whom her prince is related.
Obviously a feature film needed a more prominent villain, one who could be punished at the conclusion for having visited such an evil fate on a helpless victim. In the film Maleficent is excluded because she's just plain evil, and she justifies her reputation with her curse and her subsequent attempts to bedevil Aurora. The character's design is plainly intended to give her a resemblance to the Christian Satan, a visual reference followed up literally in the climax, when Maleficent confronts Philip, claiming to unleash on him "all the powers of hell." It's a neat mythic touch that she chooses to change into a dragon to fight the prince, since Revelation in the New Testament equates Satan with "the great dragon."
Maleficent was killed dead at the end of SLEEPING BEAUTY, and I prefer to remember her that way, taking no notice of any later "revivals."