Friday, May 4, 2007
Comics don’t always “get” women. Not as readers and even less often as characters. Many of the women characters in comics suffer brutal torture and death at the hands of editors who are as misogynistic as the villains running amok on their four-color pages. Many women comic characters wear costumes that look more like they are getting ready for their hourly dance at the exotic all-nude club than for their nightly patrol as superheroes.
But one woman character in comics has been breaking the sexist molds of comic creators for years, and in late 2006, she gave readers one of the most feminist, empowered-woman moments in the history of comics. The Invisible Woman is invisible no longer!
The Invisible Woman did not start out with “woman” as part of her name. From the inception of super heroism in the 1930s, with the notable exceptiob of Wonder Woman and a few others, most characters were labelled as “girls” – Supergirl and Batgirl – or as “lasses” – Light Lass and Shadow Lass. So it was not surprising that when new Marvel Comics creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four in 1961, they christened the group’s only female character as a “girl.” The Invisible Girl would remain a “girl” even after she married the team’s leader and gave birth to a child in what would become the new company’s First Family of superheroes.
Like most women in comics, the Invisible Girl’s powers were non-threatening and mainly meant for defense. If in a tight spot, she could hide by “disappearing,” turning invisible until the danger passed. Susan Storm (later Susan Richards) represented what society thought about women of the time: they were “girls” who needed to hide when it came time to fight the giant green monsters busting out of subterranean caverns.
Her force fields were an afterthought. (After all, she was called “Invisible Girl” not “Invisible Force Field Girl.”) She could shape giant shields or bubbles to protect herself and the members of her superhero family. Using her force fields wasn’t easy and caused her constant pain and anguish, much the same facially in the illustrations of the 1960s and 1970s as the depcitions of her giving birth. Unlike the men in the group whose powers did not cause them pain to maintain against the onslaught of their foes, The Invisible Girl would often show her “natural feminine” weakness by straining painfully to maintain the shield. When she couldn’t handle the stress of maintaining the force field, her male companions would need to save the day. For most of the first 100 issues of The Fantastic Four, The Invisible Girl would need more protecting from the threats that would endanger her and her superhero family than she did protecting of the men in the group.
Things have changed in 45 years of Fantastic Four comics. In the 1980s, John Byrne transformed the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman. As both writer and artist, he soon showed the comics world that Sue Storm-Richards was the most powerful member of the Fantastic Family. She could do a lot more than cower underneath her force fields. She could use them as transport devices, riding on ramps of force; she could expand them inside something else, exploding an object from within among many, many other lethal and devastatingly destructive uses. She could block nasal passages; she could stop a heart. What was originally an afterthought became arguably the greatest super power on her team and in the entire Marvel universe.
25 years after her transformation from girl to woman, the new creative team of J. Michael Straczyinski and Mike McKone have advanced the Invisble Woman yet again with a story moment that can be viewed as one of the few feminist outcries in comics, a wake-up call to fan boys everywhere that women in comics can take care of themselves.
In issue 540 of Fantastic Four, the first couple of comics, Sue Richards and her husband Reed are arguing over dubious choices he’s making in the ongoing Civil War saga in the Marvel Comic universe. To defend his actions in supporting a law that requires superheroes to register with the government or face capture and imprisonment (think Homeland Security meets Nazi Germany with super-powered soldiers), Reed claims he’s protecting his wife. In response, the Invisible Woman blasts a tube of solid and invisible force through the 50-some floors of the team’s Baxter Building headquarters. Once her husband has seen the extent of this destructive act, she says: “Do I look like I need protecting, Reed? Do I?”
Though making neat holes in each floor of their HQ may seem decidedly male with its penetration imagery, it’s a point that the supposedly super-genius Mister Fantastic, and maybe all men in comics as well as those who read them, need to understand: women superheroes have come a long way from the days in which they needed men to protect and rescue them. Not only can they protect themselves, but from the way this conflict looks like it will play out in the Fantastic Four, they will be the ones who will rescue the men.