Marvel’s Fleeting Feminism

Marvel’s Fleeting Feminism

The recent announcement of a new creative team for the comic book series Wonder Woman has stirred up some controversy, stemming mainly from an interview in which the artist, David Finch, proved wary of the term “feminist.” His hesitance clearly alarmed people who value the character’s status as an icon of feminism, especially as it came on the heels of Stevie St. John’s article in the Summer 2014 issue of Bitch Magazine that explained how the series’ current creators have undermined the feminist aspects of Wonder Woman’s mythology. What has received less attention is the fact that DC Comics has handed its 75-year-old franchise to Finch’s wife, Meredith, a writer who has very little experience working in comics. But, as we shall see, this situation has a historical precedent.

In the early months of 1972, Marvel Comics Group was experiencing a rapid expansion of its line of titles. Stan Lee, the publisher, saw an opportunity to court the largely neglected market of female readers. He instructed his editor, Roy Thomas, to create three titles aimed specifically at teen girls. However, Lee did not want these to be more of the same true-confessions romance or Betty and Veronica style cartoon-humor books that Marvel had been publishing for decades. Instead, they should use the same approach as their successful titles aimed at boys, such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Rawhide Kid: dramatic continuing narratives with tight continuity. As was his custom, Lee provided the basic idea for each new series: The Claws of the Cat, a superhero title; Shanna the She-Devil, a jungle-girl adventure strip in the vein of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle; and Night Nurse, a medical soap opera. The details would be left to Thomas and the freelance writers and artists he would hire.

110692A decade previously, fully 40% of Marvel’s output was targeted at female readers. Before the re-emergence of the superhero genre in 1962, there were numerous such “girl comics” on their schedule, including long-running properties such as Millie the Model and Patsy Walker. For boys, there was an assortment of sci-fi/monster and western titles. However, Marvel’s focus began to shift away from girl comics as the company found increasing success with stories about new superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Thor. This shift was due in part to disadvantageous contracts with Marvel’s distributors, which limited the company to a set number of comic books that they could release per month. As a result, in order to introduce a new title, another one had to be cancelled. And two-thirds of the time, a title aimed at girls was dropped to make way for one aimed at boys.

This process can be seen by examining Marvel’s release schedule, which has been compiled by Joseph William Marek on his website Marvel Comics Group 1939–1980. Here we can see that Teen-Age Romance was replaced by The Incredible Hulk; Linda Carter, Student Nurse made way for The Amazing Spider-Man; Love Romances was cancelled in favor of X-Men; and Kathy, the Teenage Tornado surrendered her spot to Daredevil, among other examples. As a result, by 1968, less than 5% of Marvel’s comics were written specifically for the female demographic.

The distribution problem was resolved in 1968, allowing Marvel to dramatically increase the number of titles they published. Between the autumn of 1971 and the autumn of 1972, Marvel fully doubled their line of comic books. It was during this period of expansion that Stan Lee decided to reach out to his female audience. Interestingly, this coincided with the debut of Ms. magazine, which first appeared as a special preview issue in January 1972 (and had been excerpted the month before in New York magazine) before publishing its first regular issue, with its famous Wonder Woman cover, in July.

Percentage of Marvel Comics' Titles Aimed at Female Readers 1961-1972
Percentage of Marvel Comics’ Titles Aimed at Female Readers 1961-1972 (Source: Tony Lewis)

For a 40th anniversary retrospective in New York magazine, Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, and other Ms. personnel discussed the origins of their magazine, and the climate for feminist periodicals in 1972. Steinem reports, “We’d been crawling around on our knees trying to raise money, which was arduous…That was the worst. We were met with pure, unadulterated hostility.” Advertising director Cathie Black recalls, “I had an ad-agency guy grab our research report out of my hands, throw it on the floor, and make a gesture as though he were going to spit on it.” Male members of the media establishment were openly skeptical that a feminist magazine would last more than a few issues. But, despite this anti-feminist atmosphere, Stan Lee proved himself open to publishing comics with a feminist sensibility.

The most overtly feminist of the three titles launched in the summer of 1972 was Claws of the Cat, in which a disaffected housewife, Greer Grant Nelson, is widowed and takes a job as a laboratory assistant to a matronly biochemist, Dr. Joanne Tumolo. Like Captain America, Greer volunteers to undergo a mysterious process that raises her mental and physical abilities to superhuman levels. When Dr. Tumolo is nearly murdered by a megalomaniacal businessman, Greer becomes a superheroine known as the Cat to avenge her. A three-page flashback sequence details Greer’s feminist awakening during and after her marriage to a chauvinistic Chicago policeman, which leads to a more fulfilling relationship with her mentor, Dr. Tumolo. At the conclusion of the sequence, Greer thinks, “Dr. Tumolo really makes me proud to be a woman. I can’t let her—or myself—down.”

Claws of the Cat-1
Claws of the Cat #1, by Linda Fite and Marie Severin

Although this feminist story was approved for publication, it did not signal a feminist sensibility in Marvel’s editorial offices. It had been decided that all three titles should be written by women, though this seems to have been more a gimmick than an attempt to promote women creators. Roy Thomas certainly didn’t go out of his way to track down qualified women writers. Claws of the Cat was written by Linda Fite, who worked in the office as a production assistant and was recently married to Herb Trimpe, the artist on The Incredible Hulk. She had been attempting to secure freelance writing assignments since 1968, but had seen only two short back-up features published. Claws of the Cat was her first, and only, regular writing assignment at Marvel.

For Shanna the She-Devil, Thomas recruited the wife of his friend Phil Seuling, a comic book dealer and convention organizer. Carole Seuling had no experience writing comics, but Thomas knew she was a fan of the jungle-girl genre. Another rookie writer, Steve Gerber, worked on her scripts to bring them up to Marvel’s standard. For Night Nurse, Thomas hired his own wife, Jean Thomas, whose only previous credit was a 7-page romance tale for Marvel’s Our Love Story. She was the most successful of the three, later enjoying a 15-issue run on Spidey Super-Stories, a series aimed at beginning readers and produced in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop.

racoonThe result was a low-quality product in a flooded market, and, not surprisingly, all three titles had been cancelled by the spring of 1973. The next time a female character would headline a Marvel series was Red Sonja in 1975, a chain-mail bikini wearing swordswoman spun off from Conan the Barbarian. It wasn’t until 1977 that Marvel would try again to sell superhero comics with a female lead, though these later characters—Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, and She-Hulk—were clearly derivative of well-established male heroes. More original superheroines would emerge throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, but they were found primarily in team books or as supporting characters in titles with a male lead. Some of these have found a measure of mainstream success in recent films, such as the Avengers’ Black Widow, the X-Men’s Storm and Mystique, and Gamora in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy. But it remains to be seen if Marvel Studios will give any of their superwomen a chance to headline a summer blockbuster. Even Wonder Woman, the most iconic female superhero of all, has failed to achieve this. She is scheduled to make her motion picture debut as a supporting character in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Given the long-standing resistance to feminist ideology at both Marvel and DC, this should come as no surprise. Nor should the hire of an inexperienced writer who happens to be the wife of a popular artist.


For Further Reading:

Sean Howe. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon. Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003.

Trina Robbins. The Great Women Cartoonists. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001.


Image Sources:

Featured Image: Claws of the Cat #1, by Linda Fite and Marie Severin.

Night Nurse http://www.comics.org/issue/111440/cover/4/

DC/Marvel meme: http://imgur.com/YgOOVvv

All images used under Fair Use Doctrine.

Tony Lewis is an independent scholar with a Master’s degree in English Literature from Western Washington University. He has been blogging about comic books and popular culture for ten years. You can read more of his work at OriginalMarvelUniverse.blogspot.com.

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