Today’s a Wednesday and that means it’s comic book day! Today I’m tackling Marvel’s new A-Force #1. I know it’s a bit of a cop out considering this is the very first issue, but I feel it’s important to address issues around feminism and representation in this issue since it has been an area of debate. Thus, today’s post is going to look a little bit different than the others.
Last week I stumbled upon this femme-bashing piece by frequent New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, which I think is a wonderful way to contextualize attitudes of walking into this issue. Under the academic authority of her prepubescent sons, Lepore tackles the appeared failings of A-Force, dealing strictly with the appearance of Marvel super heroines, specifically the cover. Lepore apparently did not get the memo not to judge a book by its cover, but nevertheless her judgement of the first issue falls quite short of an accurate interpretation of women in comics.
Given that Lepore’s main criticism is that the super heroines of A-Force look like “porn stars,” it seems apt to begin with a discussion on the physical characteristics of the team.
First of all, let’s not overlook the fact that Lepore is making a gross generalization of bodies that appear in porn. Has Lepore not heard of or seen April Flores or Courtney Trouble, both who have engaged in creating feminist porn? Hmm, it’s like Lepore has intentionally forgotten about porn performers such as Belle Knox, who would not have been suspected of creating pornography because she is not especially curvaceous or having that “porn star” look. Porn depicts a range of bodies that excite and stimulate because porn shows people having sex. Surprisingly enough, people who do not look like “porn stars” also have sex.
That said, Kelly Thompson wrote a wonderful article on wo/man inequal physical representation which she revisited some months later to assess the state of the Big 2 (which are Marvel and DC, if you are unfamiliar). In brief, her argument can be summed up as such:
- Body type: women in comics are often portrayed sexually idealized (to the “typical” white, heterosexual, cisgender, and otherwise privileged man) rather than embodying athletic (and variant) body types that are more suitable to the work super heroines do. More important than the physical idealization of these bodies is the meaning they carry (sexiness, beauty, etc).
- Clothing: women in comics often don lingerie, swimsuits, or plunging bust-line catsuits, breast and stomach windows, and sexual and unconventional footwear such as thigh highs and high heels. Of course, more important than clothing is context. (Emma Frost, for example, wears clothing described here because revealing her body is part of her weaponizing her body.)
- Beauty: women in comics are prioritized, first and foremost, on their beauty, while this is a standard untrue of men portrayed in comics. (Hulk and She-Hulk are honestly the best example.) Aptly summarized by Lepore, emphasizing beauty for female characters is problematic because it limits the range of representations of femininity by not representing a range of physical beauties and because “Their power is their allure, which, looked at another way, is the absence of power.”
- Posing: women in comics are posed often in brokeback positions. A brokeback position is where a body is positioned as if their back is broken, allowing for the infamous reveal of the face-breast-butt trinity.
Let’s use Thompson’s guidelines to assess the cover of A-Force #1, which Lepore describes as depicting “pervy characters and costumes”:
- Body type: This is still mainstream media and while there isn’t a lot of diversity in body types, none of the women on the cover have exceptionally large breasts, butts, or hips that are obviously sexualized. The shading on She-Hulk’s body at the center emphasizes the muscles in her arms and legs. Sure, there’s still room for improvement on this front, but none of these women are depicted with obviously sexually idealized body types. You could conceivably imagine any of these women taking on a bad guy!
- Clothing: She-Hulk’s outfit has been changed from a bathing suit – or even ripped clothing or no clothing – of the 1980s to a sleek and elegant outfit that one can envision a woman at the gym wearing. Dazzler and Storm, the most clothing revealing of the bunch, are covered up by the title logo and Dazzler’s sparkles, placing an emphasis not on her appearance but on her powers. (Nico also exposes skin that is covered up by the title logo.) Of the 25 background characters, only three expose their midrif while the rest of the bodies presented are entirely covered. (There’s a peek of Dazzler’s bosom, but as mentioned before, it’s mostly covered by the logo.) While there is still an ongoing debate about outfits, these women are covered and wearing skin tight outfits like their male counterparts.
- Beauty: I won’t lie, I wish I looked like She-Hulk here, but she isn’t remarkably pretty. In fact, the shading and shape of her face suggests strong cheekbones and broad jaws, more typical of masculine beauty. While none of the women on the covers are incredibly ugly, they aren’t stereotypically pretty either. Each woman also looks incredibly distinct from other woman on the cover, showing a range of potential beauties.
- Posing: On the cover, we see She-Hulk taking center stage. She is not in a brokeback position. Instead, she asserts a sense of authority and strength through a strong pose of crossing her arms and standing proudly, typical of a pose a male super hero might do. As for the other women on the cover, they have outstretched arms as if preparing to dive into battle, which is realistic for the action presented. Even when their arms or thighs are outstretched in a way that shows their breasts or crotches, there is no indication that these are sexual poses or for the sexual gratification of a viewer.
Overall, we see that contrary to Lepore’s distress, A-Force comfortably fits within Thompson’s four critiques of physical representations of super heroines in comics.
On her reflection of the original post, Thompson writes, “As far as I’m concerned Marvel has all but stamped these issues out as significant problems in the last two years, which is pretty impressive. Ms. Marvel became Captain Marvel and graduated to an incredible costume that doesn’t look anything like a swimsuit and I haven’t seen her in a brokeback pose in just about ever, she looks like an athlete and a superhero.” I point out this quote because she addresses changes Marvel has implemented in the past year in order to combat sexist representations in their canon and, more particularly, to demonstrate how Lepore’s reading of female bodies in Marvel comics is limited. Many of the Marvel super heroines have undergone costume changes to make them less stereotypically sexualized, such as She-Hulk’s transformation from a swimsuit in the 1980s to a training suit of the current run. Thompson points out how Ms. Marvel’s swimsuit was transformed into Captain Marvel’s fully-clothed and military-esque uniform (Carol’s leap from Ms. Marvel – intially a gendered counterpart to the male Captain Marvel – to assuming the mantle of Captin Marvel also demonstrates a conscious shift in empowering women and making these super heroines less reliant on their male predecessors or influences.) Even super heroines that were initially completely clothed, like Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman), have undergone uniform changes from catsuit (or more aptly in this case, spidersuit,) to wearable, aesthetically-pleasing, and efficient uniforms. Although it is not a problem to attack what seems to be slander to feminist doctrine, criticizing the appearance of the ladies on A-Force #1’s cover fails to account for what improvements are represented.
We should also address other facets rather than just focus on looks. After all, women characters are more than their appearances! Not two weeks ago, Thompson published another relevant post on what constitutes strong female characters, which I highly urge you to read. The purpose of this post is to point out psychological and social inequality in the depiction of men and women in comics rather than the physical attributes, which Lepore is so quick to criticize. Rather than just being physically strong, women have been denied a range of psychological interiority in fiction that is privileged to men. The virgin/whore binary is well-worn by female characters in fiction, and feminists have argued against “bad” representations, but in actuality, the only thing that makes a strong female character is being a psychologically complex and dynamic character.
Let’s assess this in A-Force #1. First of all, we have the team: She-Hulk, Medusa (of the Inhumans), Dazzler (of the X-Men), Nico Minoru (of the Runaways), Spider-Woman, and Scarlet Witch. In a post about the upcoming series, co-writer G. Willow Wilson noted, “We’ve purposefully assembled a team composed of different characters from disparate parts of the Marvel U, with very different power sets, identities and ideologies.” There was an intentional assembly of some of Marvel’s most complex women, who also represent a diverse range of ages, teams, races (as in aliens, mutants, etc – skin color is sadly lacking), ethnicities, and other kinds of identities.
Lepore makes a number of misconceptions in her article that could possibly dissuade a potential reader from A-Force, such as the many super heroines based on male super heroes. Even the Guardian has acknowledged that “When Marvel was expanding rapidly in the 1970s, female superheroes were often afterthoughts, cynically created as brand extensions: Spider-Man begat Spider-Woman, Hulk begat She-Hulk, and so on.” Lepore attacks this most fiercely with She-Hulk, which is a valid compliant. (It should be noted, however, that Jennifer Walters is Bruce Banner’s cousin and that she has her own standing in the Marvel universe independent of Bruce.) However, other objections Lepore raises are completely unfounded, such as Loki’s transformation into a woman. (For a short time, Loki possessed Sif’s body during Thor v3, which was directly related to the plot. This was not a decision to promote female visibility or to change Loki’s gender. In his current solo run, he is shown as a male and briefly embodies a female body in Heven during Original Sin 5.1, so we have a history of Loki changing bodies.)
More important than the transformation from male characters into female characters are the female characters created independently of male predecessors. Medusa of the Inhumans, Dazzler of the X-Men, and Nico Minoru of the Runaways will feature prominently in the series, and none of these characters are based on a male super hero. We should also not forget that neither of Marvel’s flagship characters (Captain America and Iron Man – both are male), none of their female-inspired super heroines are the leader of the team, which again places emphasis on women rather than men. Although an argument could possibly be conceived that She-Hulk and Spider-Woman are based in male super heroes and the series features too dominantly on them, Jennifer Walters and Jessica Drew are recognizably independent from Bruce Banner and Peter Parker and are iconic female super heroines in their own right now.
Even more women super heroes independent of male counterparts or predecessors appear on the cover and in the book, so it isn’t like Marvel is shoving its only independent women into the forefront of this title. Jubilee, Rogue, Wasp, Snowbird, Jean Grey, Black Widow, and Firestar all appear on the cover. By the first page, we also see America Chavez, a notable young, queer Latina super hero, and Jessica Jones, representing motherhood which isn’t so often depicted in comics. These background stories are a testament to the range of stories presented in A-Force, and it shows how consistent this universe has been created.
We shouldn’t forget that women super heroes based off male counterparts are often overlooked or forgotten, but A-Force gives us a space to focus on these women characters instead of the men. In the first issue, we see Namora and Namorita accompany Namor, which is important because usually Namor gets the only attention when it comes to the Sub-Mariners. During this part, Namora gets the most screen time as well, significant because when she is seen with Namor, preference is given to Namor’s story. The reversal of this convention in A-Force demonstrates the possibilities of expanding stories about women characters, even when they include men or super heroines inspired by super heroes.
The last point on this section is that it should be noted that it is remarkable for Marvel to even have enough female characters to produce the A-Force. In 2014, Marvel had at least 15 titles featuring female solo titles or leading female characters. This is a small number compared to the many male solo titles and leading male characters in team books. More remarkably for A-Force, Marvel did not have to create these characters; they were already existing in the Marvel Universe with a strong presence. A title like A-Force could not have existed before now, and this is a wonderful feat!
It should come as no surprise that Lepore’s attack on the physical qualities means that there is little address of the storyline in her review. However before I begin, it should be remembered that A-Force is part of Marvel’s Secret Wars event that’s currently taking place, so if you jump into this book without historical knowledge of the Marvel universe or its convergence and manipulation with other universes in the current event, of course it’s going to seem as if the Marvel universe was rebooted for the sake of creating a space for women characters. (And even if that was the case, what’s wrong with that?)
Before we see the credit page, we see a number of activities the super heroines engage in their downtime, such as eating breakfast among friends and colleagues, performing errands with their families, enjoying their solitude, showing affection for their loved ones, and heading off to work. In short: these women are acting like normal human beings.
Next we see the A-Force in action at Arcadia, an island that serves as a space solely for these women. We see them take orders from She-Hulk and make their own calls, demonstrating that these women can effectively work together as a team and assert individual prowess, as they subdue an invading Megalodon (a mangled shark monster) during a patrol.
America makes a bad call, banishing her from the island. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that America makes a bad call because humans are flawed, so there’s nothing especially sexist about this. The A-Force mourn the loss of their friend and companion, so She-Hulk summons the Sub-Mariners to inspect the cause of the Magalodon. We see her executing orders and dispatching her troops, demonstrating feminine subjectivity and authority in action.
Meanwhile, Nico has fled to mourn the loss of America privately. We see her being sensitive and emotional, which reminds us that these are fleshed characters with consistent and realistic responses, neither overwhelmed by emotion nor only authoritative. We end with a shooting star and a myster super heroine (?) that Nico cradles, showing empathy for strangers.
In summary, we see multiple facets of human life in this issue: working, grieving, and struggling. The events presented in the first issue show women operating in a society that is RUN BY WOMEN and yet it functions safely and properly. Arcadia hasn’t been burnt to the ground just because women are in charge! The people who inhabit the island, including the A-Force, prove themselves to be rational and strong people. Overall, there is nothing that makes A-Force particularly different from any other team book other than the fact A-Force is composed entirely of women.
The authors of the novel are also important to the overall feminist significance of A-Force. G. Willow Wilson has been noted for her work on Ms. Marvel v3 for her Pakistani-American super heroine, Kamala Khan. Marguerite Bennett collaborated with Kieron Gillen (notable for his work on Young Avengers v2 and his ongoing series with Image Comics, the Wicked + the Divine) to revive a female character Marvel acquired in a recent licensing trial in Angela: Asgard’s Assassin. Both series have been noted for their contributions to the Marvel universe, with Kamala Khan representing an otherwise unrepresented racial minority and Bennett writing one (if not the only) of Marvel’s first major transgender characters: Sera. Both series have also received high praised.
Furthermore the authors are women writing a story about women. While this seems obvious, a bulk of the female solo titles published by Marvel – including the ongoing Storm and the late She-Hulk – were written by men, so this is also a victory. Not only that, it’s written by two women, which is a political victory in itself. Rather than having women pit against each other, A-Force demonstrates how two women can work together to produce a book that is just as canonical as a male work.
Lepore wants us to agree that “Alas, the Avengers are not funny, and neither are the She-Avengers,” but she fails to account for the fact that the A-Force is not the She-Avengers, or else it might have been titled so. Given a team name free from gender constraints, A-Force is an important contribution to Marvel’s growing titles of female-led and solo titles. Lepore falls into the trap of imposing gender restrictions onto the A-Force and dismissing it before the comic has the chance to demonstrate its feminist possibilities.