Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jean Grey versus Black Widow

[Some blog posts are written out of general interest. Others are written because of a need to inform. This one is being written pretty much out of bitterness because at the time of this writing, my colleagues in the department get to go to the opening of Ant-Man and I don’t.]

We at Mentor Public Library have been in a comics mood this summer, and with good reason. Our summer reading theme was superheroes, there are superheroes in movies and books this summer, and we have a program coming up this Thursday, July 23 with comics scholar Valentino Zullo, who is going to discuss the history and impact of one of the greatest superhero teams: the Avengers. So, with good reason, we've had superheroes and comics on the mind lately. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current spate of Marvel movies. Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, this blog is called Mentor’s Reader, so why are you talking about movies?” But, of course, those films rely heavily the story arcs that were established in the comic book series put out by Marvel, and what I have to say relates both to what’s on paper as well as to what’s on screen.

Arguably the best Marvel film thus far
I was talking the other day with one of my co-workers (who is probably watching the opening credits of Ant-Man as I write this) about the way that women are represented in the Marvel superhero movies and in the Marvel universe more generally. In particular, we were comparing the X-Men movies (varied in quality but generally enjoyable) with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which we agreed was the best of the Marvel flicks so far). One important point of comparison (although there could certainly be others) is the change in the role that women seem to be playing in superhero stories, and the comparison between the X-Men movies (which started coming out in 2000) and Winter Soldier (released last year) was profound. I talked about this a bit a few months ago when I wrote about women in comics generally. But I think that looking at two characters in particular (Jean Grey and Black Widow) might make the point a little more directly.

By way of background I should say that (as some of you may know) I am the one responsible for buying stuff for the Young Adult Graphic Novel section. This is kind of dream come true for me, but it’s also a real challenge. What with trying to keep up with what comes out on the major imprints, as well as the enormous (and growing) output of manga from Japan, it can be a little overwhelming. I am fortunate in that I have several colleagues here who are passionate about the genre, and doubly so in that they are women. I’m continually impressed with their dedication, especially given the gender politics of comics and graphic novels, which are often very weird.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the only people I ever knew who were into comics and superheroes when I was growing up were boys. The people publishing the comics knew their target audience, and when we looked at the superheroes in the comics we read, we mostly saw versions of ourselves reflected back at us. There were some women: Batgirl and Wonder Woman for those of us who read DC, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow and Sue Richards for the Marvel readers. And then there was X-Men. The early 1980s, which was the era in which I started following comics seriously, was also the golden age of the X-Men series. In earlier days, X-Men had been a pretty standard team-based story line with, as was pretty much par for the course, only one serious female character: Jean Grey (alias Marvel Girl). Marvel Girl was cool, a really powerful telepath, but also (and not unimportantly) Scott Summers’s girlfriend (and later wife). As time went on, more women joined the X-Men: Storm (Ororo Munroe) who could control the weather, and Rogue (full name unrevealed), a “southern belle” who could steal the powers of others. Still, the team was predominantly male, and its leadership wholly so.
Dark Phoenix

Then came the Dark Phoenix Saga, and here, for once, Jean Grey took center stage. In X-Men #101 she had become bonded with the ultra-powerful Phoenix entity. Starting with X-Men #129 in January 1980, it became clear that this entity had a dark hand hyperdestructive side. Throughout the year, readers followed Grey’s efforts to control the entity; ultimately unsuccessful, partly because the entity itself was too powerful, and partly because she was being mind-controlled by Mastermind on behalf of the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club. After a desperate battle on the moon between her friends and the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, she allowed herself to be killed in order to safeguard the universe. (For more on this whole story, see Meredith's post here.)

Jean Grey's epic demise
This is one of the greatest story arcs in the history of the comic genre, and its conclusion in X-Men #138 is utterly devastating. But once we get over the shock, it’s worth taking a look at the character of Jean Grey a bit more deeply. For a lot of this story arc and the issues that preceded it, her character was framed by being the object of competition between Scott Summers (Cyclops) and James “Logan” Howlett (Wolverine). Mastermind attempts to control her by transforming her into an upper crust Eighteenth Century society lady (complete with fainting spells). And then of course there's her mentor, Professor Charles Xavier, who uses his psychic powers to try to keep her mind in order. When she finally comes into her own, it is because she has a power inside her which makes her crazy, destructive, and totally impossible to control. The movie version of this (which I personally think is a travesty) is stripped down. The Mastermind storyline is eliminated, the Cyclops-Wolverine competition is accentuated, but in the end the result is the same: a lady gets too powerful and she explodes.

The original
Black Widow
Black Widow, by contrast, has never gotten quite the play that Jean Grey/Marvel Girl/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix has. Natasha Romanoff made her debut in the mid-1960s, and had a definite Cold War inflection. She started out looking a bit like Cruella DeVille, but soon moved on, defecting to the United States, getting a visual update in Spiderman #86 (July 1970) to a more sleek outfit, and then famously teaming up with Daredevil for four years in the early 1970s. All the while it is clear that Romanoff is her own woman, and why not? Although she doesn’t have superpowers per se, her background as a KGB life-taker means that she is well able to take care of herself. While she does have a relationship with Daredevil (a fact that was somewhat camouflaged by conventions of comics decency in the 1970s) she retains her own agency, and Daredevil has to spend a lot of time keeping her from using all of the methods at her disposal to achieve her ends.

Her first screen appearance was in 2010 in Iron Man 2, followed by the first Avengers movie in 2012 where she was played quite ably by Scarlett Johansson. She doesn’t bother with a Russian accent, and I don’t really care. What she does do is fight tough and never panic, even when she’s getting chased through narrow spaces by the Hulk. It should be mentioned that Romanoff is one of a number of powerful female characters in the Avengers orbit. These include Agent Maria Hill (played with grit and humor by Cobie Smulders), and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Melinda May (played by Ming Na-Wen). The Melinda May character is impressively well-rounded. She can be quite soulful. She can also deal out a prodigious whupping and pilot the S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent of a C-130.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

For my money the best example of progress is the Black Widow character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. First of all, I will say that I think that Winter Soldier is simply the best of the Marvel movies so far. Complex, entertaining, and beautifully shot, it lets its characters develop as people, giving it a depth that some of the others lack (both of the Thor movies for instance). From the get-go it is clear that Black Widow is not just an appendage of Captain America. She has her own skill set and does her own thing. Sometimes this meshes with what Captain America is doing, sometimes it doesn’t. But what it clear is that she doesn’t need some other character to make her whole. She doesn’t simply sit in a control room directing traffic. She gets out into the field, a force to be reckoned with, and her opponents ignore her very much at their peril.

I’m always a bit dubious about talking about progress when there is still a long, long way to go. Perhaps the reason that I am surprised (if also gratified) when I meet women who share my interest in comics and superheroes and such is that I know how much they’ve had to overlook in terms of being crammed into a box. The world of superheroes needs more strong, complicated women. It needs women who are tough, fierce, and courageous, women with human vulnerabilities, but who are just as capable of running the show as their male counterparts. We need this because these characters can be role models (just like any literary character). As a society we want (or should want) girls who are self-sufficient and who have the strength of body and character to stand up for themselves. Superhero comics can achieve this on their own, but getting it right there increases the chances that we’ll get it right all down the line.

Interested in more comics history like this, and from one who is indeed a scholar on the subject? Don't forget to join us at the main branch this Thursday for Avengers History with Valentino Zullo. 


No comments:

Post a Comment