The State of Marvel Comics (Part One)
It’s been almost a year since I took on the mantle of Mighty Marvel Monday, and 2015 can be characterized as a year of growth and change, not just for MMM, but for me, on a personal level. So on the eve of Obama’s final State of the Union, the idea came to me to reflect on my year of observing Marvel, to, in the epideictic tradition of praise and blame, highlight the positive, reiterate necessary criticism, and reassert communal values.
I tend to shy away from calling myself a “comics journalist.” Comics journalism, and especially the kind of comics journalism that gets the most criticism from other comics journalists and the most attention (re: perks) from TPTB developed on what were originally independent fan sites, often with a message board. As online journalism, loosely defined, moved towards blogging in terms of content and aesthetic, these comics websites also moved to curate content resembling journalism, until today there seems to be, on the surface, very little difference between the two. There also seems to be a not-totally unfounded desire to not bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak.
I came to be part of comics journalism through academia, but also through fandom. Only in the past decade has it become acceptable to identify as both. Both communities not only practice but praise criticism as an integral part of being an academic or being a fan. Both communities also view criticism towards the institutions without which these communities would not exist not as antithetical, but fundamental. Institutions, whether they be universities, or studios, or multi-media conglomerates, are shaped by people, and thus they can be changed by people–and preferably by those from within, for whom these institutions are not an abstract, but a lived reality.
It is because of this sideways entry into comics journalism that I feel it is a civic duty to speak not just to other Marvel fans but to Marvel itself, to remind the institution that Marvel has become that with great power comes great responsibility–and that responsibility is to more than the so-called “core demographic.”
I realized as I was rounding up my links and my thoughts that I have rather a lot to say in terms of what we’ve seen from Marvel in 2015, and what I want to see in 2016, especially in regards to three aspects: women, diversity, and queerness. This week, I want to focus specifically on women and Marvel.
In 2015 Marvel continued to demonstrate how they value women as characters, and specifically as characters that are worth leading their own solo titles. At NYCC, Marvel made the mistake of declaring at their Women of Marvel panel that in 2010 there were zero female-led titles at Marvel, and now there are 17. It would be a great statistic, except for the fact that it’s untrue. I remember She-Hulk, Black Widow, and a little series called Girl Comics just off the top of my head. But it is true that there are more titles now than there was then. In March alone you’ve got 16, not including team books: Black Widow, Mockingbird, Captain Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Scarlet Witch, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Spider-Gwen, Silk, Hawkeye, Angela: Queen of Hel, Patsy Walker A.K.A. Hellcat!, Weirdworld, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Wolverine. March is also the month of the Women of Power variant covers, some of which you can see below.
These titles represent the best of Marvel, and the best of what Marvel could be. They are diverse not only in their ages and ethnicities, but in their personalities and lived experienced. (Only a quarter of these women are not white, and none of them are queer, officially, but those are issues to be expounded upon in the coming weeks.) The tone of their books is also widely varied, from pure sword and sorcery, as my friend calls it, in something like Weirdworld, to postmodern lighthearted romp with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Marvel is only strengthened by that diversity as well, not just in terms of titles featuring women, but the company as a whole. What Marvel does again and again, better than any other comic book company that I’ve witnessed, is redefine what “superhero comics” means as a genre. I am optimistic for the future of women in Marvel comics.
I’m also optimistic for the future of women behind the scenes at Marvel Comics. Some people have put forward the idea that perhaps the statistic the Women of Marvel panel was referring to was about women as writers and artists on titles, which is a good guess but also untrue. When you do a search to see what titles Marvel was putting out in 2010, you’ll see Marjorie Liu was writing X-23 at the time, Jen Van Meter was on Black Cat, and some soon-to-be big names like Kathryn Immonen and Kelly Sue DeConnick were also around. I don’t mean to pick on the Women of Marvel, since I love the fact that there is a weekly podcast and an annual Women of Marvel panel at San Diego Comic Con and now New York Comic Con. Facts get not fact-checked, and I appreciate the spirit in which the statistic was intended. And when Sana Amanat goes on Late Night with Seth Meyers, that’s inarguably a milestone.
But when you deliberately misrepresent the history of women within your own company, you run the risk of contributing to the ongoing problem of women’s erasure from the history of comics. In 2016 Marvel will have the most titles written and drawn by women ever in its history. March solicitations just came out, feature a record 27 women on 21 titles. A creative team made up of just women is something that can happen now–and is, on Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!, Angela: Queen of Hel, and the new Mockingbird, which is also a new record. It’s exactly the direction that Marvel should be going. It’s still not enough.
I refer here to the words of the Notorious RBG, when asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be “enough”:
“So now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay. And when I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough? And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
So Marvel can do better. And better in this sense really just means to continue valuing your characters as more than just eye candy, as actual people, and without imposing double standards. It sometimes boggles my mind that the same company that is home to Ms. Marvel also just greenlit Gwenpool as an ongoing series. It floors me that I have to reconcile how a company that could pair up with ESPNw to draw 25 incredible women athletes as the superheroes they are could also continue to give work to artists who don’t know what women’s bodies actually look like.
I believe in Marvel. That’s why I’m still here. 2015 was a year of amazing strides in terms of normalizing women in comics, both on the page and behind the scenes. 2016 needs to be even better.
Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Jeremy Renner and others were at Wizard World New Orleans. Hayley Atwell was on the once again noble mission to make Chris Evans blush.
— Wizard World (@WizardWorld) January 9, 2016
Chris Evans, meanwhile, was on a mission to ruin my life with his nicely groomed beard and warm looking cardigan sweater. Just leave me here to die.