Funnybook Babylon

October 21, 2011

Girl Talk in Context: The Ultimates Problem

Filed under: Articles — Tags: , , — Chris Eckert @ 11:31 pm

Looking across the sometimes bleak landscape of Women in Superhero Comics, it’s easy to get dispirited. Whether’s it’s inequity in representation — be it in the stories or on the credits page — there’s still plenty of ground to make up before things are acceptable. And even when female characters are pushed to the fore, it often results in tawdry trash like Catwoman, Voodoo, or Starfire in Red Hood ft. Outlawz. But not everything is terrible — it’s not like we’re back in 1996 in the Year of the Bad Girl or anything that dismal — and I admit, as White Male Privilege-y as it is, I sometimes wonder exactly what people are looking for. People choose arbitrary data points and then go off on how this proves that comics are a vast misogynistic wasteland. What percentage of colorists on team books released in October of 2011 by Marvel are female? How many women appeared on the covers of the top ten DC New 52 #1s? How many Black Lanterns were mothers? Do any of these sets of data mean anything?

One of the harshest criticisms of Superhero Comics as Boys’ Club of late comes from Colin Smith in his review of The Ultimates #1, entitled “Yet More Stories For Boys“. It the review, he points out that the book features an almost exclusively male cast, with females relegated to background support roles with minimal dialogue. From this, he extrapolates that Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic, Marvel Comics, and the whole of “Common Comics Culture” is careless misogynistic and does not believe women have worth beyond sexual conquest.

Putting those claims aside for the moment, I’m not entirely sure why Smith chose to focus on Ultimates #1 over all of the other comics published in August. On one hand, it’s a high profile, heavily promoted first issue. It’s also part of Marvel’s budding day-and-date digital rollout. But it’s also only one of eighteen ongoing team books that Marvel released that month. The other seventeen team books (Alpha Flight, Astonishing X-Men, Avengers, Avengers Academy, FF, Generation Hope, Heroes for Hire, New Avengers, New Mutants, Secret Avengers, Thunderbolts, Ultimate X-Men, Uncanny X-Force, Uncanny X-men, X-Factor, X-Men, X-Men Legacy) are all more gender equitable. Every book has a woman on the cover, and aside from X-Force they all have multiple female team members. The only three team books with a single character on the cover (Alpha Flight, Generation Hope, New Avengers) feature a female cast member (Aurora, Idie Okonkwo, Squirrel Girl) in that role. I haven’t read all of these books, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that women have prominent speaking roles in all of them.

Granted, that could get Marvel as a whole off the hook for this specific problem, but it doesn’t address why Ultimates was such a Boys’ Club. Smith isn’t wrong in that regard, all the major roles in the book are filled by men. Why did Hickman and Ribic have such a male-dominated cast? It’s important to remember that even though this is a first issue, this is either the sixth or ninth volume of “The Ultimates”, depending on how you feel like counting. So while it’s Ultimates #1, it’s also effectively Ultimates Part 63.

Those previous sixty-three issues were written by Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb, and Charlie Huston. Those writers introduced twenty-seven individuals identified as members of the Ultimates: Black Panther, Black Widow, Black Widow II, Blade, Captain America, Carol Danvers, the Falcon, Giant Man, Gregory Stark, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Karma, Nerd Hulk, Nick Fury, Perun, Punisher, Quicksilver, Red Wasp, Scarlet Witch, the Spider, Thor, Tyrone Cash, Valkyrie, War Machine, and the Wasp.

Of those, only nine were women, and seven of them are effectively off the table when Hickman picks up writing the book.

  • Black Widow – Betrays the team and is killed in Ultimates 2

  • Carol Danvers – Forced to resign from S.H.I.E.L.D. in Avengers vs. New Ultimates

  • Karma – Only appeared as a reserve member for three issues in Ultimate X-Men, presumably dead, in hiding or in a prison camp as per the Ultimate Universe’s status quo policy on mutants

  • Power Princess – Returns to her home universe in Ultimates 4

  • Scarlet Witch – Killed in Ultimates 3, currently appearing as a hallucination, ghost or a magical being in Ultimate X-Men

  • Valkyrie – Killed in New Ultimates

  • Wasp – Killed in Ultimatum

That leaves the second Black Widow and the Red Wasp, two characters introduced by Millar to replace previously murdered women. At the end of Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates, Black Widow II was placed in charge of the Ultimates’ “Black Ops” team, but expresses doubt about working with her ex-husband Nick Fury. The Red Wasp, on the other hand, had scarcely appeared in the book since Ultimate Avengers #5. She appears briefly in UA #17, helping Perun prep for battle.

 

Before anyone points out the inherent skeeviness of killing off four female cast members, take note that Giant Man, Gregory Stark, Iron Man, Nerd Hulk, Perun, Quicksilver, the Spider, Thor, and Tyrone Cash were also gruesomely killed over the course of the past decade of comics. That’s literally half the team. Of course, Iron Man and Thor (and Quicksilver) got better, while none of the women did. Okay, Scarlet Witch might be back in Ultimate X-Men, and Valkyrie is still around as a mistress of Hela, but they’re not back on the team at any rate.

Millar also introduced and killed off swaths of all-male reserve crews — the Giant Men, the Reserve Captains America, and the Rocketmen. One All-Male-Revue spared complete annihilation was the Captains of Europe, who appear in Hickman and Ribic’s Ultimates #1. This leads Smith to bristle at the notion that European military concerns would ever be so gender-biased:

Yet not a single one of the European “Excalibur-class super-soldiers” who’re on display are anything other than conspicuously male. It’s something which I doubt real-world sensibilities over here on the other side of Pond would ever accept, but then politics doesn’t really appear to be Mr Hickman’s strong point.

These European Super-Soldiers were created by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, two men who are in fact from Mr. Smith’s “side of the pond”. It’s also worth noting that in Ultimates #2, these Super-Soldiers are being killed en masse by the Children of Tomorrow, a far more gender-balanced group of killers. While it’s anyone’s guess whether or not a new version of this project will emerge from the ashes — and whether the new class will be a bunch of white dudes again — I cannot imagine reaction would’ve been any more favorable towards Hickman had he decided to add a bunch of diversity to the Super Soldier program only to immediately slaughter them. But it’s not just genocidal fascist utopians who are swelling their ranks with women in Ultimates: upcoming covers and previews also suggest that a number of female heroes — Black Cat, Black Widow II, Susan Storm, Spider-Woman, and others — will be joining the team in the near future.

 

I realize some of this may come off as an apology for Marvel. It’s a lot to expect a reader’s initial response to a flashy first issue to take into account years of past stories, or to look at previews of upcoming issues. Realistically, not manyreaders will have all of this knowledge. Each reader is obviously entitled to their visceral, personal response to a piece of media. But at the point you fancy yourself a critic/journalist/pundit/whatever it is you’d call people in the blogosphere, there ought to be some expectation of consideration and thought.

This isn’t to wash all blame away from Marvel, or Hickman, or Ultimates fans, or any combination of creators and publishers and fandom. But to use a single issue to condemn Hickman and Marvel is at best foolish and at worst intellectually dishonest. Jonathan Hickman’s script for Ultimates #1 does not exist in a vacuum. It’s one of dozens of scripts commissioned by Marvel every month. It’s one of dozens of scripts that has been written to get the characters in the book to where they are in this issue.Imagine two slightly hipper Roger Sterlings creating this book.

Further, The Ultimates a modern adaptation of a half-century old comic book, The Avengers, which was created by two middle-aged men during the same timeframe that the second season of Mad Men occurs. In the formative first year of that book, there were six team members and five of those six were WASPY white guys. Four of those white guys have, in the past decade, been the stars of a series of six movies that have grossed over two and a half billion dollars at the box office. There are at least four more films featuring them (as well as Ultimates stars Hawkeye and Nick Fury) coming out in the next two years that Marvel hopes are going to net them another couple billions of dollars. While this is a mercenary motive, the focus on these characters may prove to be a more powerful force towards the gender make-up of this book than the interior sexism or bias of any individual creator.

Smith accounts for this in some conciliatory comments after his initial blog post, insisting that it’s the “Common Comics Culture” to blame, and praising Hickman, Ribic, and White as “undoubtedly highly competent creators”. Of course this comes after an entire essay focusing on how bad and misogynistic (or foolish and misogynistic) people at Marvel have created a bad comic. And that seems the be the takeaway from the links that first brought the article to my attention:

“What is Marvel Comics doing to its women? Could it be that there is some kind of corporate mandate in effect, like the ones that govern the movies–unstated rules that women have to be peripheral and background, and god help us if there is more than one in a story?

I don’t even know what to say to this hypothetical, as it’s demonstrably untrue given practically any Marvel book with a cast of more than a couple people. Of the books I read, I know that books like Avengers Academy and Thunderbolts both have several female characters that are front and center in their stories. I realize this is damning with faint praise, and even if they’re well-written the women in many other books fall into neat categories like Love Interest and Support Staff, but that’s part of the problem with making statements like the one above. It’s a depressingly low bar, and one that is easy for companies to meet. It’s the equivalent of “I’m not racist because I didn’t use any racial slurs.” If fandom really wants to hold the Big Two’s feet to the fire — about gender equity, diversity, or any other important issue — let’s not make it easy for them to weasel out of it.

2 Comments »

  1. As a huge fan of Hickman, I tend to think that he writes women well based on his work in FF with Sue, Valeria, and Alicia and I agree that the Ultimates lineup didn’t have women on it, per se, from the get-go so I don’t mind it as much. I’m sure we’ll see more women involved. Ultimate Hawkeye has Karen Grant and Liz Allen working in it and you can be sure that Hickman hasn’t forgotten that Spider-Woman is an agent of SHIELD or that Sue Storm and Ben are still involved with the government. The Ultimate Comics relaunch seems guy-heavy, but I think it’s fairer than that. For example, both X-teams are led by women (Kitty Pryde and Karen Grant).

    It just seems premature considering that the whole thematic point of the initiative right now appears to be tearing down the old and bringing forth the new. Ethnic diversity is a part of Spider-Man, the aforementioned gender diversity in leading roles is a part of X-Men, and The Ultimates might not be around in any recognizable form in a few more issues the way things have been going for them.

    Comment by Dan — October 22, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  2. Nice article. Keep up the good work :)

    Comment by Dacl — November 12, 2011 @ 10:18 am

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