Women of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades Omnibus

March 20, 2011 | Trades

Women of Marvel

They are strong, confident, capable and often complex – not a damsel in distress in the bunch.

They stop bad guys, save lives and sometimes even the planet.

They’re the mighty female heroes of Marvel Comics and they’ll take a backseat to no man – although they just might be taken a little more seriously if they didn’t always charge into battle sporting leopard-spotted bikinis, skin-tight (and often low-cut) spandex and occasionally nothing at all.

As the topselling comic book company around marks a milestone anniversary, graphica and comic book fans get to enjoy a rather intriguing look back at some of the most notable (and truly obscure) female characters it has spawned in Women of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades Omnibus (Marvel Comics, 1,160 pages, $140).

First, let’s be clear: Amidst the 48 issues collected in this whopping 3.3-kilogram (7.5-pound) tome there is just one issue from the 1940s, one from 1991 and everything else is from Marvel’s most prolific era from the 1960s through the ’80s, so the “seven decades” part of the title might be a tad misleading. What does make the cut is an interesting cross-section of comics – many long overdue for reprinting.

Most significant are three short-lived series from the early 1970s that prominently featured female creators and were spawned in a fairly transparent effort to try to lure female readers: Night Nurse, The Cat and Shanna the She-Devil:

Night Nurse follows the lives of three young nurses at Metro General Hospital in New York City, far outside the super-hero-filled Marvel Universe. It was among the leading edge of comics that took aim at social issues in a rapidly changing America – touching on such subjects as class warfare, feminism and race.

The debut issue – the entire four-issue run was written by Jean Thomas (then married to then-Marvel editor Roy Thomas – thoughtfully hones in on a heart-wrenching dilemma as one nurse is forced to choose between her career and the man she loves.

The Cat makes its mark for being both written and illustrated by women. Linda Fite, whose work pops up in several places in this volume, pens the adventures of young widow Greer Nelson, who becomes a costumed adventurer after volunteering to be the guinea pig for an experiment designed to help women reach new heights of mental and physical acuity. Marvel legend Marie Severin illustrated the first two of this four-issue run, while Patty Greer drew No. 3.

Carole Seuling plotted the first four of the five-issue run of Shanna – the leopard bikini-wearing heroine – who was on the leading edge of animal rights and environmentalism as she helped protect the jungles of Africa from poachers, warlords and other ne’er-do-wells.

While the early 1970s introduces us to these strong female characters that reflected the growing strength of the women’s rights movement, Marvel also took the liberty of pushing the notion to its extreme with such characters as the Cat antagonist Man-Killer – the embodiment of radical feminism, who turned evil after crashing in a ski race against a cheating, sexist male and utters such gems as: “He’s a man, baby – and men are dirt!”

As the work in this omnibus moves into the 1980s, we get three noteworthy graphic novels and a memorable limited series.

Up-and-coming actress (and sometimes super-hero) Allison Blaire is outed as a mutant in Dazzler: The Movie, a poignant look at the fickleness of fame and the lengths people will go to achieve it. A young girl teams up with four of Marvel’s premier heroines – Storm, She-Hulk, Tigra and Wasp – to teach the people in her small town a lesson about faith and determination in The Aladdin Effect.

The Sensational She-Hulk, written and illustrated by Canadian comic book hall of famer John Byrne, is still widely considered one of the best of Marvel’s graphic novels and the seminal work on the character, though it’s startling, 26 years later, to encounter a number of unpleasant number of racist remarks directed at the mighty green heroine’s aboriginal boyfriend.

Rounding out the best of this volume is Firestar, a four-issue series illustrated by Mary Wilshire that shows what can happen when someone with sinister intent manipulates a person with great power.

Women of Marvel is a bit of wrist breaker (do yourself a favour and employ an ottoman to hold it for you) and can be a tad disjointed, but when paired with the recently released Girl Comics (Marvel, 136 pages, $22.50), the first-ever mainstream book entirely crafted by female creators, it is a refreshing tip of the hat to the past, present and future of women in comics.
(This article was first published in the Toronto Star)

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