70s and 80s, ladies
So, me & women. For better or worse, lots of them, and a lotta cultural blast-furnace for much of it. To see the scarring, check out Bless me DC, for I have sinned, Long live Lib, Unpleasantries, Faster, pussycat, The orgasm that saved the world, and Missed! Ran out! Dang! Unnhh! This post is even more so as its topic ranges from my early teens (1977) to my early 20s (1988), both awash in frequent-yet-unreliable sexual contact, chaotic shifts in political climate, and sordid soap opera. Fortunately I’ll turn the dial down on the “about me” part, but I encourage you to review Long live Lib in particular for my take on the political history.
The long-standing constraints on what-to-show, what-to-say for comics loosened in the 80s. If my perception of the prevailing narrative is to be trusted, the story goes, that this began the upward climb from awful, objective, so-terrible sexism into more “aware” work and finally into the enlightened post-gender, post-sexism of today … right? Horse shit it did. I’m not blanket-condemning the age; I can name just as many good and/or interesting titles of the time as you can. However, despite the “mature” labeling (which barely yielded a nipple and a “shit!” once in a while) and a bunch of media play about “at last, comics grow up!”, by the solid launch of The Eighties at about 1986, the women in most comics, especially the supers ones, had nosedived into damn stupid and outright appalling from a considerably better prior state.
I fully grant you that the Sixties superheroines offer almost no support for “older stuff is better,” especially from the otherwise socially and psychologically spectacular Lee-Kirby and Lee-Ditko teams. Marvel Girl, the Invisible Girl, the Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and the bevy of sniveling love-interests like Karen Page offered literally nothing positive for women’s lib or anything resembling actual character, especially in contrast with their incredible and unique contemporary, Elasti-Girl. I’m focusing instead on the Seventies, beginning with Lee’s turnaround in the only book he wrote or cared about at that point (see Jackpot, Tiger) and especially focusing on the halting but important stories by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, and Steve Englehart.
Thundra, Mantis (see This one), Valkyrie, Hellcat, and tenuously, the Scarlet Witch – here it’s indeed a confrontation with men but with much more weight on the women’s side than you might think. In direct contrast to their iconic and often sinister names and costumes, the female characters of this narrow time-window were extraordinarily personal and individual – not icons or representatives at all, having more in common with genuinely interesting TV characters like Mary Tyler Moore, the newly-positive Margaret Houlihan, and Alice.
The stories typically – actually universally; I can’t think of an exception – began with women who refused to put up with this-or-that bullshit on a male hero’s part, and resulted in a certain chastening and “gee, we have to think about this,” for the men. Crucially, the stories did not devolve into some fantastic imagining of conflict-free, consciousness-raised, “aware,” or generally resolved disappearance of male-female conflicts. They exposed the conflicts and defied the current assumptions of what they meant or how the male characters initially thought they should be resolved. I think Wolfman’s early Black Cat counts here too.
The one, single thing that I saw as a pre-teen and see now as I look back, for these characters at that time, is that they led actual sex-and-relationship lives like it was a normal thing. Yes, even Sue Storm. There was no question among characters, writers, and readers, that the Vizh and Wanda, Reed and Sue, Matt and Natasha, Peter and Mary Jane, Scott Summers and Jean Grey in the very early New X-Men, et cetera, et cetera, were having ordinary and ongoing sex, and that this was both of importance to them as people and also of no astounding moment.
Special mention thereof goes to the Black Widow, in her role as Daredevil’s lover and co-title – especially in that as with many of these characters, no, she was not being especially well-written. It’s almost a textbook on how not to write a purportedly strong female co-star, up to and including the infamous ass-spank. The plus lies in the founding concept and in the attempt: she was definitely posing problems, new concepts, and above all proactive input into the male hero’s situation. Furthermore, Matt was written as an unrelievedly neurotic dick, and not tagged as the reasonable or right one dealing with the “little woman.” It didn’t make for scintillating comics drama, but it did show – and I stress this hard – that the classic “manly-man is right and the woman just needs to shut up” message wasn’t there. Those of you paying attention will note that in cinema, a bare five years later, this message would be front-and-center in every action and martial arts movie out there, and echoed in quite a few comics. So much for the sexism-to-awareness progress narrative.
I can identify the moment: following that bizarre editor-writer meltdown between Shooter and Englehart around Avengers 150, and during the Shooter Avengers thereafter. What appears to be some attempt to get the Wasp on track as a character actually turns into the moment when the Avengers go permanently sour. It’s the apogee of the bridge-transition from Thomas/Englehart to Shooter/Gruenwald, and when it comes to women, that is a bad thing. They all went to hell in a handbasket, fast. By the early 1980s you get Thundra “admitting” that she always had a sexual thing for the Thing which her attacks on him hid or sublimated, you get the whole Carol Danvers rape thing … It takes the weird emergent feature of Red Sonja’s “I won’t screw anyone until he beats me up” thing and makes it the new normal. You get the odd sexlessness of Storm and the sublimated neurosis of Phoenix.
I’m leaving aside the independent and alternative scene which is trickier and, obviously, vastly more diverse and creator-individualized. If we’re looking at the early 80s, then such characters as the Pinis’ Leetah in Elfquest, Collins’ and Beatty’s Mike Tree in Ms. Tree, Baron’s Sundra in Nexus, Sim’s Astoria in Cerebus, and Willingham’s Fathom and Morningstar in Elementals defy easy generalization, instead providing a case-by-case opportunities for discussion.
So, sticking with Marvel and DC, by the early mid-80s, things are looking like a whole different, dare I use the term, universe: absolutely riddled with sado-masochism, hinting/sniggering innuendo, inarticulate tantrums, constant over-reaction, and what Matt Groening called “Ms. Vaguely Dissatisfied,” rightly centered in the famous cartoon. Sue Storm unaccountably becoming infantile and angry with her name-shift to the Invisible Woman, the forever emotionally eight-year-old Abbie Cable, the unbelievably shrill and exasperating Silk Spectre; and then oh my eyes, the Rachel Summers, Madelyne Summers, Jean Grey returned, and all manner of related gibble gabble that characterized the eclipse of the X-titles as anything to care about.
You can see the shift literally, and indeed my girlfriend of the time did, with mingled contempt and hilarity, regarding the late 70s Scott and Jean obviously being in an ongoing, perfectly ordinary sexual relationship, vs. the decade-later claim that the single time they ever had sex was on top of some butte in the desert. I mark that claim as clinching the transition, by 1988 or so, from the X-Men’s tenure as the key women-friendly title to the exclusive purview of twelve-year-old boys.
And then you can toss in all the explicit rape, in most cases tagged as the only way to turn a female character “tough,” as I wrote about in the Unpleasantries thread. Red Sonja isn’t just the weird outlier any more. It’s the Eighties, not the Seventies, in which the women get raped and killed off and stuff! Not even going to get into the big-hair and heels crowd which says “Eighties” in culture talk, but really dates from not much earlier than 1988 and for the next decade or so.
There are some exceptions. Claremont managed to keep Rogue and Kitty more-or-less safe from such things, and to maintain at least some degree of characterization and decision-making strength for them. I liked Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel, and if I were romantic enough to assign autonomy to a fictional person, I’d say Spider-Woman visibly struggled against her own writers’ various inadequacies as I wrote about in Missed! Ran out! Dang! Unnhh! Maybe a kind reader will remind me or inform me of a couple more … but even so, all of these are ambiguous or halting at best, and compared to the mid-70s Valkyrie and Thundra? You gotta be kidding me.
Scheduling from now on: One Plus One on Thursdays, column on Sundays
Next column (Sunday July 10): Sense and consequence