Friday, September 22, 2006

Profile: Lois Lane

Lois Lane
First appearance: Action Comics #1 in June 1938. Note that this entry could refer to all incarnations of her, including as a resident of Earths One and Two, and today.

Current status: now married to the Man of Steel, and ever the crusading-for-justice journalist she’s always been.

Was subjected to the following acts of discrimination: Lois has been through many situations that do raise questions and certainly are telling of the times in which she’s lived. In the Golden Age, she’d actually had to make do with put-downs from her boss, Perry White, among others who argued that certain jobs were more fit for a man than for a woman, and which may have included Superman himself (when Roy Thomas wrote All-Star Squadron in the 80s, he didn’t make things all that different. At least, not in how I saw him doing it in the 1984 annual). During the Silver Age, we had absurd slapstick situations such as those seen in Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, in which she got turned into “The Fattest Woman in Metropolis!” or even was depicted as a startling vixen. That series, in fact, did have a problem at times of depicting women as pea-brained, venomous, petty obsessed and were desperate for a mate with whom to fulfill their lives. Lois herself was shrewish, petty and a schemer in her own series, which is quite alarming when you’d think that she, of all people, would surely have been touted as the most likely candidate for being someone whom working women could admire in a fictional story. It was only after the series ended in the Bronze Age that things started to improve for her characterization. Of course, we should also note that in the Iron Age, she got stuck in the “Byrne Hold” at the hands of Metallo, all for the sake of it, and, more recently, there was also her plot device-ish depiction in Identity Crisis, with her being depicted more as an entity whose feelings were clearly not important, and who only served as a vehicle of importance to the male characters in the book. In a storyline written by Greg Rucka in Superman, she was also shot and injured while on the job.

What’s wrong with how this was done? In the Golden and Silver Ages, let’s just say that, if only people had been more wide-minded than they were at the time! Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? In the case of the Byrne Hold, excess is the word for how she ended up being picked up by the neck. And, in the case of IC, it was total contempt for her character and her potential.

The really odd thing about the Super-Family during the Silver Age, if any, was that they were probably the least realistically depicted group of characters at the time. Most other couples in comics at the time, certainly under the pens of Gardner Fox and Bob Haney, usually led much more plausible relations as far as these things go in comic book worlds with sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism involved. Clark Kent’s and Lois Lane’s, by contrast, may have been all but the most neglected under those terms, until the Bronze Age, and certainly until the Iron Age, when succeeding writers began to depict them in more grownup fashion, and didn’t go too far with the slapstick effects.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Profile: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman
First appearance: 1941 in Sensation Comics. But let me note that this whole essay could discuss any misuse of Diana (or Hipolytta) in all the incarnations she’s had since then, both Earth-1, Earth-2, and today, not to mention both mother and daughter.

Current status: the mother is dead, having been killed off during the Our Worlds at War crossover in 2001, and the daughter is, currently, still working but not the star of her own book (she's in the new version of Justice League of America). Instead, it’s Donna Troy who’s currently the star.

Was subjected to the followings acts of discrimination: let’s see, there’s the times when she would end up tied up with bondage, chains, and even her own golden lasso during the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages. She would be paralyzed by having her magic bracelets tied together as well.* And, in more recent years, there’s the time when John Byrne wrote her in much more pathetic, exploitative form when he wrote her book in 1996, the only good thing about it being the introduction of a new Wonder Girl, Cassie Sandsmark (and then other writers bettered him on that!). And then, there’s the parts in Identity Crisis where Diana was depicted alternately as a zombie-like tool for interrogating Slipknot, and then as apathetic.

What’s wrong with how this was done? On the early depictions, it depends on how you look upon it, as either guilty pleasure or just some embarrassing form of gleeful tomfoolery. On the later depictions, that I can address more easily. In a battle with Darkseid’s minions, when they invaded Themyscira and caused injuries galore, instead of going to cry alongside her Amazonian sisters, she went and collapsed in her then boyfriend’s arms. Unfortunately, considering the storyline, it was not the tongue-in-cheek pleasure it might sound like, and could be in a different story setting.

The depiction in Identity Crisis is even worse, because it’s symbolic of the massive sexism that permeats the whole miniseries.

* Donna Troy, by contrast, besides being born human, was not affected by such effects, and while her golden lasso did not have the same power and influence that Diana’s does, she could not have her strength paralyzed by locking her own magic bracelets together, and unlike her adoptive older sister during the Silver Age, she could fly authentically, which would mean that she could also levitate in the air.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Profile: Marrina

Marrina Smallwood
First appearance: Alpha Flight #1 Vol. 1. She was a member of the Canadian super-team AF, plus a guest member of the Avengers, whom Namor was in love with, and when they married (briefly), she became queen of his newly founded kingdom of Deluvia.

Current status: dead

Was subjected to the following acts of discrimination: in Avengers #272, we discovered that she’d suffered from a disease that damaged her face, but which was fortunately cured (following this, she and Namor married). But the troubles didn’t stop there. In Avengers #291, she went insane as a side effect of pregnancy with sea animals(?) and transformed into a colossal sea monster called Leviathan, and two issues later in Avengers #293, her husband, prince Namor of Atlantis was forced to kill her with Black Knight’s ebony blade.

What’s wrong with how this was done? Why did the prince of Atlantis have to suffer two losses of loves? First Lady Dorma and then Marrina as well? I feel that’s going way too far.

I wonder if it ever had anything to do with Roger Stern’s being taken off the series at around that time. Maybe because he didn’t want to kill off Marrina, but TPTB did, and so Stern was ejected and replaced with Ralph Macchio, who wrote the book for about a year. But so far, I have no clear way of telling.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Profile: Lady Dorma

Lady Dorma
First appearance: Marvel Mystery Comics #82, May 1947

Current status: dead

Was subjected to the following act of discrimination: in Sub-Mariner #37 Vol. 2, May 1971, just shortly after her marriage to prince Namor of Atlantis, she was murdered by asphyxiation (she could not breathe above water) at the hands of the evil queen Llytra of Lemuria, who coveted Namor for herself to consolidate the two kingdoms and increase her own ruling influence. She had kidnapped Dorma in order to blackmail Namor, but he found out and tried to stop Llytra. Unfortunately, the evil queen, deciding that, if she couldn’t have Namor’s hand in marriage, that Dorma couldn’t either, broke the water tank where she was holding the Lady hostage, and Dorma choked to death on the upper air she could not adapt to, dying in Namor’s arms, and leaving him a widower on the very same day he wed.

What’s wrong with how this was done? Although Lady Dorma was a very weakly written supporting character during her Silver Age appearances, engulfed with melancholy thought balloons about the male lead (and her willingness to tolerate Subby’s crush on Sue Storm, who was already engaged to Mr. Fantastic, did not speak well of Dorma’s backbone), that does not mean it wasn’t possible to improve upon prior characterization, and make her more of an interesting protagonist, even if she still maintained the status of a minor character.

During Heros Reborn, there was an alternate reality version of herself featured in that since-scrapped pocket universe, who was even more rabid in personality than her own predecessor had been. But that, if you ask me, was only screwing up in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Record: John Byrne

John Byrne may be well known as the writer and artist of many Marvel and DC series and characters, to say nothing of his being a ret-con machine (Marvel Two-In-One #50 may have been a precursor to what he really ended up doing in subsequent years as a ret-conner), but he may also be known for a lot of discrimination against women in whatever he’s worked on as a writer, even subliminally. Between his debut in comic books in the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, there were quite a few books he wrote where sexism had a presence, even if you couldn’t always see it. To enjoy any of his works can often require big doses of salt. Here is my own list of discriminatory acts Byrne included in his own writing resume in years past:
  • In Fantastic Four #239, a young nine-year-old girl is shown having an abusive drunk of a father, so drunk in fact that he doesn’t care that he’s struck his kid with a rolled-up newspaper for neglecting her household chores in front of Frankie Raye, the college student and foster daughter of Prof. Phineas Horton, inventor of the original Human Torch, who discovered she had powers similar to Johnny Storm, the second Human Torch. At least Byrne didn’t torture us with any scene of if the drunkard dad did give his daughter any worse.
  • Sue Storm is later turned into an evil antagonist named Malice by a villain named the Psycho-Man (whose operation on her she may have described as “mental rape”), during which time she wears a skimpy and spiky leather costume while attacking the FF. After being freed from the effects and exacting revenge upon Psycho-Man, that’s when she decided to change her name to Invisible Woman – because her experience under Psycho-Man’s influence is what helped her to grow into one.
  • Frankie Raye later becomes Nova, the new herald of Galactus (and later dies in his service in 1992, in Silver Surfer #75).
  • In The Thing #3-4, during an adventure with the Inhumans, it was “revealed” that Lockjaw, Crystal’s faithful pet, was really another Inhuman, or humanoid, himself. Need I continue with how embarrassingly bad this was? Let me just say that Peter David later undid this in X-Factor, writing that it was a ventriloquistic joke pulled by two of the Inhumans themselves (not that even that was any better though).
  • On the FF #264’s cover, we’re treated to a scene of She-Hulk being kicked in the head. And that’s just one of the problems with whenever Byrne wrote some, if not all, of the stories involving Jennifer Walters. During Fantastic Four #290, when battling Blastaar in the Negative Zone, She-Hulk rips a panel off a control deck to use as a club. That’s as far as she gets at that particular point, since Blastie, who can’t stand seeing his ship getting torn up, stuns her with one of his built-in beams. And, when Reed Richards’ hometown in California was enveloped by a strange force covering where time seemed to advance much faster more than on the regular plane (issue #293), Shulkie gets dragged inside, and, while I don’t have the exact issues available now, I think we were treated to a scene of her having aged drastically, and needing to have the effects reversed. The vibe I got from that story seemed to be that girls couldn’t handle themselves on their own.
  • In Man of Steel #2, when Superman foils a convenience store robbery, there’s one woman among the four armed thieves, who makes the declaration before opening fire, “DON’T JUST STAND THERE, WASTE THE MOTHER!” If that implies what I think it does, it sure doesn’t sound feminine to me. After felling the 3 other male thieves with her, Superman then knocks the female thief unconscious with a mere finger flick, all in order to make it safer to remove and disarm an explosive charge she’s got under her trenchcoat. Presumably, this is to make the woman seem crazier that she could be.
  • In Superman #1, where Byrne reintroduced Metallo, originally a minor character in the Silver Age, the villain, while holding Lois Lane hostage to force Supes into action, raises her at arms length by the neck after she annoys him by scoffing at his codename. This has come to be known as the “Byrne hold”.
  • In Action Comics #584, during a fight between a possessed Superman and the Teen Titans, Superman, after breaking free from Wonder Girl’s lasso, takes her too by the neck, and mouths off with what could be construed as implied rape, before Jericho puts a stop to all that by possessing Superman’s body, after which the crippled technologist in whose body Superman’s mind now happens to be shows up, and soon, the minds are switched back to normal. Another disturbing thing about this story when I pondered it later on, was that it seemed almost like a takeoff on the "fanboys in the basement" stereotype that's been around for almost two decades.
  • In Superman #2, Lex Luthor's goons beat the hell out of Lana Lang, whom they captured quite by chance while trying to search the house of the Kents in Smallville. Sure, she's okay following that, but just what exactly makes that whole encounter any better than being drugged, which, as a medic working for Luthor says, she's allergic to?
  • During the Legends crossover, Granny Goodness also gets seized in the Byrne hold, as performed by Darkseid.
  • While Superman and Hawkman are battling an armada of alien ships, Hawkwoman is beaten up by a villain, who smacks her across the face.
  • Byrne's run on West Coast Avengers in 1990 is surely one of the worst examples on his resume. Tigra starts becoming more cat than human, to say nothing of savage, and when restraining her, the USAgent smacks her on the face, not unlike how Hawkwoman was smacked by a villain in Action Comics. And Scarlet Witch is turned into a cartoon villainess, cutting her adorable red curls and going tomboy, oozing with embarrassingly bad stereotypical villainy, and, when paralyzing the Avengers at one point, she scratches Wonder Man across the chest. All this in order to make her father Magneto look good, because he’s trying to argue honorably about how to deal with the hero guests, while as for Quicksilver, he was just boringly handled. And as for the Wasp, she was little more than attractive wallpaper. I didn’t read how Byrne’s own storyline had ended (I think he was taken off the book shortly afterwards), but by now, I don’t even care. It’s like leaving a movie in the middle and not caring what happens next.
  • In The Sensational She-Hulk, whatever parody there is notwithstanding, the whole notion of a pregnant woman (NOT Jennifer, if that matters) being tortured in issue #1 is just plain sick. As is the part in issue #2 where Jen’s in danger of being beheaded, and, come to think of it, even her just sitting around captive while Spider-Man bests the crooks.
  • John Byrne’s Next Men has quite a bit of the women-in-danger-of-torture theme too, with the Next Women, shall we say, being subjected to some of this discrimination as well.
  • In his run on Wonder Woman in 1996, John Byrne screwed up there as well, with WW being more quick to violence and less smart than usual. Women are in quite a lot of alarming jeopardy here, and the only good thing about his run on the book is probably that it was he who introduced Cassie Sandsmark as the new Wonder Girl, and most succeeding writers made better use out of her than he did! (Byrne even had the chutzpah to put down his own creation, as can be seen at the botton of Cassie’s profile page in the Titans Tower.)
So, there you have it, this is a lot of, if not all, of what underlines John Byrne’s resume, and not very remarkable when you look at it more closely. Recalling the premise of Identity Crisis, one can only wonder if writer Brad Meltzer may have borrowed a page from Byrne. Which would suggest then that Byrne, for all his merits, may have simultaneously been a contributing factor to the downfall of comic books.

(Note: this'll be the first of a couple of entries I'll do every now and then that'll look at the problem engulfing comic books by examining the writer's and/or the artist's resume. And I'll try to add more data to even this topic as time goes by. It's not easy to complete all at once, since I need more time than ever to figure out what examples to cite.)