Carol Danvers spits on your grave

Yet another example of that precise gap in my superhero comics buying: purchasing Ms. Marvel #1 and following as the newsstand’s inconsistent provision allowed, then missing the whole Avengers/X-Men story, to discover it upon returning to the titles in the late 80s. Then, in retrospect, discovering the original meaning had been long erased.

(OK! I know this post has been long delayed and is appearing three days after its listed date. The plan is a column every Sunday, with comics Tuesday and Thursday and possibly more. August hit me with a ton of logistic computer hassles. Better now.)

Regarding feminism, my life timing was pretty good, i.e. disastrous, don’t you think? I turned 13 in September 1977, having witnessed quite a bit more grown-up romance and sexuality than most, in a family full of older siblings and semi-siblings (the oldest born in 1949). In other words, two years too young to participate as an equal in the Sexual Revolution, being instead just in time to run face-first into the backlash. And not only the right-wing backlash, bad enough as that was and is, but the cultural/assimilated one which appropriated the language of equality into itself, and which was by far the most prudish of all the available sociopolitical trajectories. I’ll spare you the details of the ensuing mid-teen life characterized by constant sex and constant withholding of sex, mostly with older women working out their personal ethics on the fly and, apparently, by Braille.

Cover by John Romita Sr., interior art by John Buscema

That tween year is my topic instead, as an image search reveals that I remember every cover of Ms. magazine, as I read every issue back then as it arrived in the mail, and also those of the first year or so of Ms. Marvel, the comic. The series was born, as have been so many in a desperate grab to make sure the word “Marvel” isn’t used by DC in the wake of the two companies’ failed mid-70s marriage, and in this case, in the midst of complete editorial and ownership chaos – between Len Wein and Jim Shooter, for the former. The writing was tossed to Gerry Conway’s already absurd workload in whatever meet-the-deadline sty they kept him, Tony Isabella, and Bill Mantlo in. In content? Everything, everything is wrong with this thing, but look at each piece and you can see why.

  • She gets herself a job at the Daily Bugle, striking sparks with JJJ; OK, this is obviously familiar and clearly staying in the comfort zone of how to write a Marvel comic.
  • She’s a nice blonde from next door: nowhere near as edgy as Tigra, the Cat, Hellcat, the earlier versions of the Black Widow, or the Black Cat: no animalism, no sexual history, no rebellion, no shadow-side of the law, no snark. Carol is not a bad girl flexing her unleashed womanhood, but rather an unscarred everygirl who’s deciding what being a woman means.
  • Her super-concept is somehow to be a Kree-trained warrior, i.e., tied into the Thomas Marvel mythology which only makes sense for Conway as Thomas’ key protege, but in practice is also a complete blah for immediate and engaging conflicts.
  • She doesn’t remember herself as Carol while in costume nor as Ms. Marvel while out of it, so pretty much every plot is “What? Erh? What happened? How am I connected to that Ms. Marvel person?” Which is hands-down a terrible groaner, obviating the need for, e.g., motivation, personality, and agency … but I have to admit, not that bad a spin on the concept of a woman in the process of self-reinvention.

It’s an example of individually not-very-admirable pieces leaning against one another to form a surprisingly interesting whole – in this case, not a statement, but a question: “What is a Ms?” Is this about rebelling or about fitting in? And that, historically, is actually a pretty good question. For my inadvertent series on such things, see Bless me DC, for I have sinned, Long live Lib, Unpleasantries, Faster, pussycat, The orgasm that saved the world, Missed! Ran out! Dang! Unnhh!, and 70s and 80s, ladies. The big picture is this: the trajectory of activism associated with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine, clashed dramatically with the anti-establishment activism of Women’s Lib, which originated in the New Left. In Long live Lib, I outlined Sara Evans’ and Alice Echols’ designations of mainstream, radical, and cultural feminism, and specifically how the language of the most separatist and radical-sounding strains were co-opted and tamed into fully petit-bourgeois form, and how the class-focused, sex-positive, and antiwar-focused strains of Lib were literally extirpated from feminism.

Therefore in that fine moment of 1977, several things are at work about “Ms” as a new designator:

  • Its infinite range of profoundly individualized meanings, via personal insistence, based on its linguistic content of removing marital status from address. (Note that divorced women at this time were still struggling with their legal surname and expectations thereof.) “What it means to me” is the meaning, so one has to ask and to tell; in this, it’s very Lib.
  • Its implication of professionalism, specifically higher pay, which is all very good at first glance until you recognize its utter lack of radicalism. Remember Echols’ point: that Steinem co-opted and adopted Morgan’s break with the New Left, as well as nominally radical feminism’s idealism about awareness-first sisterhood transforming society (and indeed the planet), into straightforward middle-class status and endeavors, which isn’t Lib at all. I mean, if that’s what you want, then fine, but let’s not paste the bravery and risks of radicalism or the starshine of cosmic transformation onto it.
  • Its oppositional perception which identified it with antiwar political action, rampant sex especially with black men, and alternate-lifestyle – precisely those New Left things which Morgan and Steinem’s activism was not. The Christian Right of the day was flipping out over divorce-and-marriage and abortion, both of which were Supreme Court issues and not much to do with grassroots radicalism or uncontrolled sociological stuff like “Ms” as a term, but the latter provided a visible but completely mis-aimed target for retaliation.

In yet another surprising 1977-is confluence, this was also the year in which Ms. shifted its advertising to mainstream providers and went to glossy format, amid cries of selling-out. Which would have been accurate except that arguably Steinem and the mag had never been in a position to sell-out from. (And I’m being mild. Her and the magazine’s ties to the CIA are not a joke.)

Shaun and Andy Gibb, 1977

Back to the comic. As a point of revealing trivia, check out Carol’s hairstyles: in daily life, she has the classic post-60s long-and-straight middle-parted look, associated to a certain extent with antiwar protest and the Pill. In costume, she sports that interesting cross between Farrah Fawcett, Dorothy Hamill, and Shaun Cassidy, which was nigh-universal for both men and women of the era (which itself marks the precise origin of the unisex salon), and which had been pioneered for her by Mar-Vell himself. She is the adult/career 70s grappling with growing up in the 60s, in which the bipolar amnesia and “what is my power for” musings are completely consistent.

Maybe hairstyle isn’t trivial after all. Remember, this was a straight look for men, associated with assertive sexuality and less commitment to marriage. 1977 female sexuality was entirely murky – should the “Ms” have sex? Is it more empowered to have sex whenever you feel like it, or less? Should she want sex? If so, for what? Take the lead in arranging sex? With whom – a successful, high-status man, or with a radical, society-questioning man? What about marriage: to discard the loser you were saddled with, yes, but for what, a winner? How about motherhood – to be seized as the source and expression of empowerment? Or set off as an option to be integrated with professional success? If nothing else, the most visible version of Ms, i.e., the magazine, inadvertently showcased these tensions in every issue, and I think they’re doubly visible in our heroine’s semiotics, including her costume’s otherwise mysterious belly-window. The messages arrive mixed. As with Valkyrie, indecipherable ambiguity is the only possible path.

None of these questions were addressed sensibly, but were instead thrown into a rather vicious tug-of-war which is profoundly unresolved today. At the risk of overlooking some of the magazine’s high points of journalism, I’ll go so far as to say that the lack of resolution became the new normal so that the least radical, least reflective, most mainstream version would continue to prevail. And if you want to question that, then someone can always point to the Christian Right and do the Body Snatchers howl, shutting you up ASAP.

Ripped top, crotch shot, spanked Betty Page expression, masculinized gloating threat – and not the only cover thereunto, not by a long way

I’m OK with the first Ms. Marvel series, as a valuable artifact of inadvertent yet productive confrontation. Call it incoherent, ham-handed, and downright ridiculous; I won’t argue. It’s definitely not good in a literary sense, nor clear in an ideological one, or “right” in terms of my own ethics then or now.

But you know, as I keep saying, “problematic” isn’t a bad thing when it reveals struggling values in action. I know it’s catchy and cachet to say that superhero comics are establishmentarian, but the ones I grew up with certainly were not. In them, inadvertent or not, cringe-inducing or not, the struggle-in-action for ordinary people’s ordinary values in on full display. Somehow the costumes and other gaudy idiomatic trappings make that more possible rather than less, particularly when the character in question isn’t a hot TV or movie property and when the title is considered beta, not important to merit an editorial policy, but not losing enough money to cancel just yet.

This is the “let’s be less sexist” revamp, too. With added heels.

The generally-forgotten second half of the series deserves some credit, written by Chris Claremont, illustrated by Jim Mooney and Dave Cockrum. I’m skipping it here to save space, but briefly, all that problematism reaches new heights in a more interesting way. You’ve got all of Claremont’s class-tagged notions of female achievement, themselves quite Ms., with the admirable side of getting Carol way more agency and at least some identifiable point of view.

Ultimately the title reached 23 issues, no great shakes but on the other hand, no Inhumans or Skull the Slayer or any of the other titles of the day that never came within spitting distance of double digits, either. Then what happened? Well, she bounced around Team-Up, Two-in-One, and the Defenders like all good extraneous Marvel characters, until coming into the X-orbit in a telling way: yet another bizarre dust-up between Claremont and Jim Shooter, via Avengers #200 in 1980, arriving just moments after X-Men #137. Let me see if I can get this right …

  • OK, Carol’s pregnant, she’s giving birth, and no one knows who the father is, and of course that’s the big reveal (I mean, as opposed to anything she thinks or wants to do).
  • Resolution, after various rejected proposals and a one-night plotting session from Shooter to David Michelinie: she’d been kidnapped and impregnated by a time-traveler named Marcus, and the baby grows up nearly instantaneously to become … Marcus.
    • You gotta be kidding me #1: Marcus admits that he’d used some kind of electronic roofie to influence her acquiescence to this. (Why? Because she can’t have “wanted it” all by herself without being a slut?)
    • You gotta be kidding me #2: Although the Avengers evict Marcus into the limbo-y time=stream, she professes great love for him and goes with him, now as his lover. (Reaching for the brain-bleach now.)
  • Reader response was understandably squicked. Carol Strickland’s fanzine article The Rape of Ms. Marvel, puts it reasonably well, and a lot of other people thought so too.

The infamous sequence (Michelinie/Perez)

Wikipedia as of this writing is clearly at the mercy of some absurd flack: “feminist icon,” “highly regarded,” indeed! Carol Danvers was the abused child of the company for thirty years, and like Spider-Woman has every right to burst from the pages and throttle a good six or seven perpetrators.

Hey, here’s another thing: all of this is embedded in the context of the long-running trial of Patty Hearst. This was the crushing cultural death-knell of the New Left woman: slut-shamed as wanting a black man, derided as basically stupid and violent, ultimately defined as subject to a lawyer’s made-up “syndrome” which resembles nothing so much as classic Marvel MCI. Convicted as guilty “although she couldn’t help it,” then pardoned long after the political bite is forgotten, with “couldn’t help it” remaining although no one remembers what the “it” was.

Claremont was no slouch in striking back through retconning at Marvel. Almost immediately, in 1981, he has the X-Men and Carol revise the story to show that her loving exit with Marcus was itself mind-controlled (hey, you don’t mess with the master when it comes to gerrymandering plot with MCI), to get her mind and powers stolen by Rogue, and to guilt-trip the Avengers, which is to say, their writers and readers, for allowing it. Carol gets cosmic-outstanding super-powers from the Brood, which is more or less to say, from Claremont Marvel mythology as opposed to Thomas’ via the Kree, gets flamey hair and the power of a star, gets renamed “Binary” (which puzzles me as that would mean two stars but … OK!), delivers an exit speech, and flies off.

One might think that Claremont’s response is a step up, but I don’t. What I see is, in addition to an understandable attempt to scrub out one outstanding instance of bad (hell, worse than bad) writing, the character is shorn of humanity, and not doing anything, either about the past or into the future, lacking entirely in depth and responsivity. Now, it’s all about how we (i.e. the X-Men, especially Rogue and Wolverine) feel about it, and specifically, that she is not here to continue to act and interact. I’m not talking about Claremont’s motivations, but strictly about this central feature of this, one of his favorite characters: that she keeps getting swept out of sight. There’s Binary, the uber-powerful cosmic woman hero! Yay … oh wait, there she goes, bye-bye. A bit later, we have the Carol analogue inhabiting Rogue’s head – oh wait, bzzzt, there she goes … bye-bye … bye-bye …

Respected icon? Horse shit. Carol is a goddam chew-toy; you get a gold star for “being feminist” by including her in some nominally-troubling fashion, and then you kill or evict her again. She’s like the raped girl in all those mainstream movies and TV episodes who’s marched out to blink in the sunlight a few times while the star-power protagonists discuss what’s right and wrong.

Here’s my reference for talking like this: Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, high on my list of must-read recommendations, and here’s why. I was horrified to see someone referring to it recently, said someone obviously not having read it, which ascribed “horror films are rape fantasy” concept to it – in fact, Clover thoroughly extirpates that concept from multiple angles, and caustically states its originators might do better not to storm out of films halfway through if they want to comment on them.

Here I’ll focus on one of her key examples which is yet again historically confluent with everything else in this post: the original 1978 I Spit on Your Grave, which if you didn’t know was initially titled Day of the Woman. It is of course notorious for having been pulled from distribution practically the moment it was released, in part based on a Siskel & Eber review which accused it of glorifying rape; for being tagged as one of the worst films ever made, et cetera. What happens in the movie is simple: a woman is brutally, explicitly, and repeatedly raped by a small group of rural men, and then she kills them all. It is strikingly straightforward and uncompromising.

Original pressbook cover

Clover’s thesis is that B or low-budget independent film is “breaking news,” the real deal about what we think and want and get stressed about, with the messiness and problematism and less-than-stellar productions being hallmarks of authenticity rather than targets for putdown. Then the mainstream film culture picks up on it, sanitizes it, and reframes it into a more palatable, glossy, and reassuring form. To paraphrase Clover as best I can: the mainstream view of women, including Steinem-style feminism, rejects the sexualized voice in any circumstances – most literally, no prostitutes or other sex workers, and in complete identity with bourgeois prudery, the raped person is considered tainted, physically, but also with the sneaking squicky suspicion that she might have “wanted it” after all. It’s crucial to the mainstream, sanitized versions of rape-and-revenge that someone else, either a crusading woman or a troubled man, take on the voice of representing this person, as she is tacitly no longer quite human, while her proper role is to sit about woefully. Given a general societal confusion about what to do, with the default being inaction, which is the framing device for any such story, what she thinks the perpetrators deserve, let alone what she would do about it, is strictly off the table. (Please note, incidentally, that the plethora of rape-and-revenge movies of the 80s are actually mainstream in this analysis insofar as the perpetrators are uniformly two-legged demonic animals, not people at all, and the victim never ever takes action as that’s left to her enraged husband or father.)

The sin of Day of the Woman (which I insist on calling it in my mind, although that title was scotched pre-release) is that it is entirely accurate regarding what can happen, and historically has happened – particularly in its characterization of the men as regular guys, with different personalities and outlooks – and that the heroine’s conclusions and actions are absolutely her own, refusing to accord with the “tainted” or voiceless role. But if I’m reading Clover right, that’s no sin at all. It is truly cogent and pertinent to ask, what does this person think, and what will she do?

Still got that belly display going – is that supposed to be a running gag or something?

What’s up with Carol since then? Let’s see, there’s Kurt Busiek’s Warbird in the 1990s, a maundering, alcoholic, useless wreck who’s expelled from the Avengers for being such a load. Great … The 2000s are better, right? She’s back as Captain Marvel (which I acknowledge is fair, name-wise) … but I’ll tell you how I see it. None of this is written as a person, but as with all of Marvel for the past twenty years, done in a way to write which I associate with, but is not limited to, Brian Bendis and Christopher Priest – all about alternate realities, re-imaginings, interconnecting plotlines, “it’s a new universe now,” and fanboy reconstruction, riddled with dialogue composed of boilerplate Hollywood snark and fanbait references. There still isn’t any Carol Danvers addressing the questions asked by her first versions. She’s like all the rest of the Marvel characters now, a paper doll.

Whereas, Carol Danvers began as one question that was never properly answered – what does a non-shady, middle-class professional woman do with her womanhood? – because the most comfortable answer to that was, apparently, rape her so she’s now in a proper story-understandable role. And then when she offered another valid question – what does a rape survivor do with her womanhood? – we’ll stay sanitized and mainstream, stroking our chins and saying “gee that’s wrong” and never see the person herself take action, and now, eventually, that entire history is merely forgotten.

That’s not me. Instead, I want to read – maybe to write – the B-movie, Clover-style Carol Danvers. The one who thinks for herself and decides what to do.

Links: Hillary Clinton the anti-woman ‘feminist’ – this is what Evans and Echols are talking about – what became of feminism when Women’s Lib was erased from it. “Warbird,” indeed.

Next comics: August 23, Sword of God, “The Edge” p. 5; August 25, One Plus One, “I Want In,” p. 8

Next column: Read your Bible (August 28)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on August 21, 2016, in Gnawing entrails, Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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