If art mirrors life, there is no better illustration of it than those towers of pop culture—the comic books. Back in the bad old days, at least 10 years ago, it wasn’t hard to tell the boys from the girls even in the world of fantasy. Superman had all the fun, donning the snazzy costume, zooming through the sky, battling the villain. Meanwhile, back at The Daily Planet faithful Lois Lane slaved over a hot typewriter and pouted when Clark Kent stood her up for lunch.
It might be too late for Lois, but today, thanks to the women’s revolution, her younger sisters are on the frontlines with their male counterparts. The superheroines have arrived—Red Sonja, Medusa of the Living Locks, Hela, Goddess of Death, Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four, Ms. Marvel, Shanna the She-Devil, and those darlings of the animal world, the Cat and the Wasp. “With the explosion of feminism, the feminist heroes were born,” says Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, the guru of the supernatural strip.
Lee, of course, should know. His company, largest in the field, feeds the need for fantasy with some 100 million comic books a year, and Lee has recently published his personal tribute to the liberated ladies, The Superhero Women (Simon & Schuster). “Years ago I guess you could say we treated women as objects,” Lee admits. “But with the homogenizing of the sexes—I mean you have girls taking woodworking instead of sewing—how could we keep them out of the comics?”
The ladies are not only in the comics but also dazzling us with the same acts of derring-do the men have performed for years. “We want our women to be active, to be in there swinging,” Lee explains. Active is surely an understatement for Medusa, emissary from the world of The Inhumans, whose snakelike locks ensnare denizens of evil, or Red Sonja, whose Viking battle axe cuts through living flesh with the gusto of the heroes of Valhalla. Sonja bellies up to the bar with the best of them and belts out oaths that would make any trooper proud. “ByErlik’s beard,” the red-headed warrior shouts, “I’m half crazed for a flagon of ale.”
But the superheroines are more than a simple testament to “You’ve come a long way, baby.” They give us sociology in a cartoonist’s balloon. The development of the wonder girls is a short course in the evolution of the women’s movement, beginning with the first steps of self-assertion. Sue Storm and Janet Van Dyne (better known to comic freaks as the Wasp) are still the cleanscrubbed homecoming queens of the ’50s. To be sure, they’ve brushed up on their Betty Friedan, but their consciousness has been raised only to a point and they sometimes backslide into the mould of docile femininity. They never fight alone but always accompanied by men—their goal is to share in adventure, not to reach for it themselves. After defeating the fearsome Creature from Kosmos with her cohort, Ant-Man, the Wasp reassures her minuscule mentor, “I will always be beside you! And some day I will make you realize that you love me as I love you. But until that day comes, it will be as you want it... just partners.”
Partnership holds no lures for those Kate Milletts of the comics, Hela, Medusa and the fabulous Red Sonja. They* are quite capable of taking on the world alone. Like the student demonstrators of the ’60s, these are the rebels who hunger for the cry “Chicks Up Front.” Medusa has no qualms about teaching the legendary Spiderman a trick or two about hand-to-hand combat. “You think because Medusa is a female that she cannot be your better,” she taunts. “But now you shall learn how wrong you are!” Icy Hela, Goddess of Death, takes supreme pleasure in vaunting the inevitability of her power: “Hela needs no help! None who live can e’er escape me!”
Fortunately for the fainthearted, the most modern of the superheroines have moved beyond the screaming battle of the sexes, triumphing over misogyny to emerge into the wonderful world of sisterhood. The Cat develops her eerie balancing act with the help of a female physicist and vows to use her extraordinary powers to “fulfill the potential of womankind.” But, with the touch of realism that separates Stan Lee and his Marvel empire from its competition, the feline fracturer is haunted by that old devil—self-doubt. After a virtuoso performance, she agonizes, “I did what I set out to do, and I did it well—but have I become a stronger woman only to become a poorer human being?”
No such doubts assail Ms. Marvel, truly a representative of the new generation of determined sisters. Like the granddaddy of all the comic heroes, Superman, she spends her off-hours as a reporter. A hard-hitting journalist, she fights a tough editor for top pay and then shows her independence by refusing to edit a women’s section filled only with recipes and hairdos. And even more important, when she dons her demon-fighting duds, Ms. Marvel becomes a role model for aspiring young children. As she swoops down garbed in her blue mask and red scarf, a little girl gasps, “Wow! When I grow up I wanna be just like her!”
Ironically, behind every superheroine in the vanguard of fantasy and feminism stands a man—her creator. There is no real-life 'race of super females drawing their psyches out on the cartoonist’s easel. Male chauvinists, take note: the avenging ladies have been foisted upon you by Stan Lee and his male colleagues. And, while female comic buffs are increasing, most of the superheroines’ loyal readers are male. To keep their interest while shattering their stereotypes, Marvel’s amazing amazons are endowed like Playboy centrefolds and are often dressed in little more. “After all,” laughs Lee, demonstrating that a certain male interest dies hard despite the best intentions, “if this is the way men like their liberated ladies, this is the way we’ll give it to them.” Watch out, Stan! Red Sonja may be listening!
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