So in the last month, I’ve been trying to read more superhero comics than I ever did before, trying to give myself a crash course in an art form I should have followed when I was young, but didn’t. (So please remember this in light of what follows, and make allowances for the narrow, American-corporate-comics scope of this particular binge.) I read more comics than the doctor’s recommended dosage, with the result that I now announce everything I’m going to do before I do it, and talk grimly about hard choices without moving my mouth. Apart from catching up on the expected mix of brilliant work and not-so-brilliant work, and becoming convinced that thought bubbles are eventually going to make some kind of comeback, I was able to get into the best part of comics reading: finding characters you like and following them. (That’s why Marvel and DC will never go completely out of style: they may be reworking a lot of characters created decades ago, but their artists and writers-for-hire created so many characters that you can always find some you like.)
And in that free-associative way that only a blog post can excuse, it got me to thinking that one of my favourite types of character is the one who has the initially lame powers, who doesn’t get to fight a lot, and maybe doesn’t seem quite at home in superhero comics – the magical woman. Or the reality-altering woman. Or the woman who isn’t super-strong or super-fast, but somehow makes things happen. Call her whatever you will, I likes her.
There are lots of female characters with supernatural powers, but there are at least three who come to mind when I think of this kind of character and why she’s not quite at home in the superhero/action world: Jean Grey in X-Men, Wanda the Scarlet Witch, and – at least after her powers were redefined to include force fields and other stuff – Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four. All three were early Lee/Kirby/Marvel creations. All three were supposed to give some female interest to superhero comics; all three started out with powers that seemed unimpressive to action-comic fans. Jean is probably the definitive version of this character: she looks, acts and talks like a character from one of Lee or Kirby’s romance comics (actually, she resembles that other Marvel redhead, Patsy Walker, but without that weird quasi-religious vibe Al Hartley gave to Patsy), a perfect and spunky young woman, adored by all men – including, creepily, her much older mentor Professor Xavier. She’s not there to be an alternative to the usual portrayal of woman in comics, as Wonder Woman was in a very limited way. She’s there to bring the traditional comics woman, and hopefully female comics readers, to the superhero world.
Because these characters are supposed to fit the traditional comic-book definition of femininity, Lee and Kirby gave them powers that don’t require a lot of punching and brute force – which means accomplishing things without moving much or, more importantly, changing their appearance. All three guys in the Fantastic Four have body-distorting powers. Sue was given the power of invisibility, which originally made her only one-third as powerful as Casper the Friendly Ghost. This instantly led to fan complaints that her powers were no help, but it meant she’d never have to be drawn in an unconventional or unattractive way. Same with Jean, who once spent part of a backup story demonstrating that her telekinetic power made housework a breeze. And same with Wanda, whose “hex-power” was originally just a fancy name for standing there and making things fall on people. These characters have been powered up and up and up over the years so they can hold their own in the increasingly wild fight scenes, but that’s partly to compensate for the fact that they’re not fully convincing as ass-kicking badasses – at least not like Black Widow, or even the Wasp, who at least is allowed to change her body structure.
Okay, so that’s why these heroines and their powers can reasonably be criticized as remnants of Lee and Kirby’s romance-comics training. Now here’s why I like them… well, probably partly because they seem to have wandered in from other comics. But it’s more than that. What I like about these characters is that they are ordinary comics women who could wander along a comic-book street and be mistaken for every other interchangeably pretty woman in that world – but they have abilities that make them exceptional, powers that suggest that a “conventional” woman is capable of more than society is willing to acknowledge. That has an elemental force because the hidden power of women is always what men have feared the most. Sure, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel are strong, but in our world, the primary fear of Male Chauvinist Pigs™ is not necessarily getting beaten up. No, what Male Chauvinist Pigs™ fear is that wives, mothers, sisters will be free to do things that they were never allowed to do before, stretch beyond the traditional limits of what women were supposed to do and think and say.
A man with reality-altering powers can be great too, but he’s usually more of a know-it-all authority figure with a title like “Doctor” or “Professor.” The most popular magic woman in U.S. popular culture, Samantha Stephens from Bewitched (Barbara Eden fans can dispute this elsewhere), is a metaphor for how women could overturn traditional authority, if they wanted to. The day Samantha decides to stop playing by the rules of ’60s society, Darrin and his whole patriarchal suburban Madison Avenue scene are screwed.
And even though their powers may not seem particularly impressive when introduced, you just get the feeling that if these other powerful female characters would question their own assigned roles, they could unleash forces that a merely strong or fast man could never beat. Badass superhero powers are impressive but easily defined and limited. Magic, telekinesis, and other physics-altering powers are interesting because they show a character changing the world around them, making other people play by their rules. So these characters have potential for growth – growth in power and in confidence – that the bruisers don’t always have. But they are also extremely hard to use effectively, and the more specifically magical their abilities are, the harder they are to use.
Scarlet Witch never broke through to top-tier status; her longest-running series was a rather dull miniseries about her marriage to a robot and her magically-created fake children. (Yeah, I know, androids aren’t robots; I don’t care; “robot”‘s more fun to say.) Jean is… well, she’s been through a lot and not much of it is empowering. Zatanna stumbles along with a limited series here and there and a stalwart supporter in Paul Dini. (Though oddly my favourite thing he wrote for that character is her appearance on the animated Batman where she had no powers, because it really is goddamn ridiculous to have Batman hang out with supernatural beings.) Even villains get this treatment: the Enchantress in Thor has been around for almost the entire series, and no one has ever figured out how to make her popular. I don’t think it has much to do with power levels: writers can make up any reason why any character could win in a fight. It’s more about the fact that these are action comics, and these are not action characters.
So what do writers do, if they can’t quite get a handle on how characters work within an action comic? Of course: at some point, she will get too powerful and go crazy. Not that this is limited to women characters, and sometimes it’s more a matter of convenience than anything else. (Picking Scarlet Witch to suddenly get godlike powers for no reason was probably just a matter of throwing a dart at a board full of characters the comic didn’t need for a while.) Plus what always happens is that in trying to power these characters up, the writers make them too powerful and have to find some way of pulling back; that’s how we got the final season of Buffy where Willow is scared to do anything interesting with her powers.
Still, you’ve got to admit that these crazy-with-power rampages happen to a lot of these female characters, and was happening even before the
Dark Willow Crazy Wanda Malice Dark Phoenix thing. That story came at the end of an era where there were a lot of popular stories and movies about this sort of scenario, one of the greatest of them all being Carrie. Like Stephen King, Chris Claremont and John Byrne rose to stardom by examining a character’s fear of power she can’t control, but also society’s fear of a powerful woman: what’s going to happen to us, to all of us, when the suppressed powers of a young woman are unleashed?
Well, that’s fine. It’s a good story that plays on our fears, and if it’s been done too many times, so has every comic book story. (I hear a bunch of superheroes are going to fight another bunch of superheroes and then team up to fight the villain, anyone know where that’s happening?) I do think comics and other media could do a better job than they have done in the past of finding other ways to write these mystical women. And not all the stories have to be dark and woe-is-me, what if she loses control of her powers, things.
For example, one of the things I enjoyed about the Kurt Busiek/George Pérez run of The Avengers (a run which appealed to me because it was so art-centric, a vehicle for an artist to do his thing, something that seems uncommon in today’s more writer-driven mainstream comics) was that we actually got to see Scarlet Witch enjoy the growth of her powers without going out of her mind right away. Okay, yes, there was all the usual soap-opera relationships and retconning of her origins and that’s all well and good. But we got to see her occasionally have fun with being more powerful, and power without guilt is rare enough to be worth trying once in a while.
On the flip side, the dark side, I’m surprised more writers haven’t dealt directly with the implications of being a person with non-action powers in an action-adventure universe. When there’s a character with no powers at all surrounded by super-beings, the writer will always address this, usually coming to the convenient conclusion that regular people are even more awesome than super-people. But what about the character who is super-powered, but not in an aggressive way, who would be the “Glass Cannon” in any fight if their powers were turned off? I could see someone mining some interesting metaphors from the idea that someone has a talent that makes them a poor fit for the superhero world. And with women characters, there’s an opportunity to look at the question of what women have to do to make it in a man’s world (in this case, superhero comics) and how similar they need to be to their male colleagues. A character like Jean was created to have stereotypically “girl-friendly” powers and diversify the readership. There’s still room for writers to explore how that would isolate a character from the rest of the cast, the way Robin has fully explored the good and bad implications of the whole teen sidekick concept.
In supernatural fantasy, powers are metaphorical and literal at the same time: metaphorical, because they stand for something that exists in the real world, but literal, because we like to dream of what we would do if we actually had those powers. The great thing about magical female characters is that they have really strong metaphorical meanings, but their powers are also good escapist fun: the power to just think and make things happen is one that seems to be limited only by imagination. And when a woman has this power, the standard line, “she’s more powerful than you know,” takes on a lot of real-life resonance: women are more powerful than the world wants to admit. Which is why, with all due respect to the punchers and kickers and funny-talking guys with hammers, I’ll always brighten up when there’s a good, solid heroic role for a woman getting in touch with her innate abilities.