Saturday, February 27, 2016

Fireside Chats #4 - The Superhero Women!


With Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974, Son of Origins in 1975 and Bring on the Bad Guys in 1976, the arrival in 1977 of the next Stan Lee Fireside tome was no surprise really. The Superhero Women speaks for itself as to content and offers up one of John Romita's finest illustrations for its beautiful cover. Weirdly this book is more in the then present of the Bronze Age in many ways than the past  of the Silver Age as had been the case with the previous volumes.


Only a few of the stories here are from the 60's with most being solid 1970's  Bronze Age efforts, books produced after Stan had left his legendary status as editor and entered into his broader and  more arcane role of publisher which seemed mostly to be to hype and advertise Marvel creations and stump for them to be made into Hollywood productions.  Stan opens by discussing the attitude at Marvel towards women and saying essentially that the need had always been recognized that more heroines should be created, but that Marvel never produced stories targeted just at girls. I don't really swallow that, but in the late 70's it was pretty standard stuff,  though in the 60's not so much.


The first heroine we meet is Medusa, a product of the 60's and to his credit Stan gives Jack Kirby co-creator credit for her.


But despite "Madame Medusa" having debuted in the Fantastic Four and even having had her own solo story in Marvel Super-Heroes, the story we get is from a guest-starring role in The Amazing Spider-Man. The volume will begin and end with a Spidey story, likely a ploy to make sure the fans get what they want in the way of popular heroes even in a tome dedicated to the distaff side.



Medusa here as rendered by John Romita and Mike Esposito is beautiful and she gives Spidey a good battle before of course they having a meeting of minds and mend fences. It's a good story, but hardly a great one. Clearly the desire to have Spider-Man trumped other concerns.


With Red Sonja we have a character who was one of Marvel's newest creations, a part of the Conan the Barbarian mythos. For the first time, Stan is writing about a character he had no part in at all. Aside from approving the purchase by Roy Thomas of the rights to Conan, Stan's role in this creation are strictly as observer. But since the Conan books were such an important part of the then-current Marvel, leaving her out was not an option.


As for me, I fell in love with Red Sonja like Conan from the moment I first clapped eyes on her in pages rendered with outstanding skill by the newly minted Barry Windsor-Smith.


She was a knockout and well capable of holding her own against the Cimmerian and in the pages of her own title. It would've been fine by me for them to have included that debut tale, though since she had her own title it was likely though more apt to push that.


That title came in Marvel Preview and we have the story here from issue four of that run. Now nothing in the title of this tome suggests we will be getting origin stories and for the most part we don't. This is a ferocious adventure written by Bruce Jones and drawn with magnificence by Frank Thorne, whose women are as idealized in their own way as John Romita's.


Then comes finally the turn of the Invisible Girl (not yet "woman" alas), though mostly Stan refers to her by her name of Sue Storm Richards, giving a hint of his own close connection to the character who as part of the Fantastic Four really made Stan's rep.


The story we get here is a sequel to the Mole Man story which debuted the team in the very first Fireside volume. Whether this is intentional or not, it's a neat sidebar and shout out to those who had been getting them all as they appeared. Sadly there's nothing much to report here, save that Stan tries to sell the notion that Sue was a different character in that she was a part of the team, and that's true, but anyone who reads these vintage tales will not for a moment imagine that sexism didn't inform these stories in significant ways. It's just how things were done in those "Mad Men" days.


Ms.Marvel, the next entry is in fact an in-your-face reaction to that, the most directly women's lib character yet presented. Stan calls back to the first volume when he evokes the memory of Doc Strange and how his origin had come after his debut. In the case of Ms.Marvel it happens again, the story we get here reveals nothing about how she got her powers and says little about her role in the early days of Captain Marvel.


But it does a dandy job of showcasing her powers in a story which is firmly wedged into the Spider-Man continuity. Carol Danvers gets a job with J. Jonah Jameson, battles The Scorpion, and pals around with Mary Jane Watson. No stop was left unpulled to launch this title, even down to having "Big" John Buscema draw it, which was fairly typical at this moment. He was the big gun in the Bullpen and was tapped to do this more than a few times with titles the company wanted to give a big send off. She-Hulk who came along several years later got this identical send-off.


Hela, the goddess of death from the pages of Thor always struck me as an odd choice, but though we learn little about her origins, we do get arguably the most emotional story of the book when this two-part epic by Stan and John Buscema is presented.


In this one Hela demands the death of Thor and seeks him out on Earth and only the intervention of Odin can forestall the inevitable end.


If you want to know what the hubbub about the writing of Stan Lee is all about, I recommend this story. It's one of his best ever, emotional and compelling and full of thematic depth. Buscema is in his prime here even if I personally don't think Joe Sinnott's inks do him justice. For all his magnificence (and I consider it plenty) Kirby was not as capable as Buscema at portraying emotions, and "Big" John is ideal for this particular Thor story.


And then came The Cat. Stan admits that he knows very little about this character and talks how he had to peruse the issue before writing about this brazen attempt by Marvel to tap into the Women's Lib movement. He does discuss the way the title seemed to come apart even as it was being born, with talent changes coming almost immediately.


But we will always have this delightful debut story by Linda Fite (soon to marry Herb Trimpe) illustrated by Marie Severin and Wally Wood. Back then, if you wanted to launch some comics featuring chicks, then Wally Wood was the ideal choice for artwork. That said, Stan seems to have no idea that poor Greer Carson had long since become Tigra, nor that Patsy Walker had assumed the costume seen above as Hellcat in the pages of The Avengers.


And at long last we get an actual Ant-Man story in the pages of one of these Fireside books. Overlooked in the previous volumes, Ant-Man only got a mention as part of the Avengers and here poor Hank Pym only gets invited to the party because he hangs out with the winsome Wasp.


It's a beautiful story from Tales to Astonish with some Kirby layouts and Don Heck finishes. The script of this really complicated origin story is by a guy named "H.E. Huntley" who it turns out, as revealed by Stan in his introduction is Ernie Hart, a longtime talent who had worked at Marvel on various strips. In fact Stan brings up nom de plumes several times in this book, mentioning not only Hart, but George Roussos who did the FF story seen above as "George Bell" and Mike Esposito who did the Medusa-Spidey yarn as "Mickey Demeo". Stan also takes a heartfelt moment to remember Artie Simek, the letterer of this story who had passed away in 1975.


The Femizons are perhaps the oddest addition to this book. Stan and John Romita created the Femizons to be part of Savage Tales, the black and white magazine Marvel debut to showcase Conan as well as other stories which had a more mature and violent aspect. Other features in the first Savage Tales were Ka-Zar, Man-Thing (debut), and a feature called "Black Brother".


This is the only appearance by the Femizons in a raucous story you can read here for yourself featuring Stan's "Violent Volutpuaries". They did show up again sort of as part of the back story for Thundra who appeared in the Fantastic Four to give Ben Grimm a hard time.


Shanna the She-Devil by artist Ross Andru with a script by Carole Seuling was, like The Cat, part of Marvel's early 70's attempt to latch onto the Women's Lib movement for fun and profit. Over the years Shanna has proven to be perhaps the most successful of these characters, the third being the weird and exceedingly unsuccessful Night Nurse.


Stan for his part doesn't seem really to remember much about how Shanna came to be, but he works mightily to justify her presence in the book by mentioning that Marvel was at the time of publication starting to bring out Tarzan in new adventures. The salesman in Stan never stopped, which is simultaneously part of his charm and a really annoyance. The timelessness of this book is rather undercut by the Tarzan mentions, but I can see why he feels the need to promote, it was his main mission always.


And finally at long last The Black Widow makes her appearance. Introduced as a classic femme fatale in the pages of Tales of Suspense, the Widow was first an Iron Man foe and later an enemy of The Avengers. When I first ran across the character she was the girlfriend of Hawkeye who was hopelessly smitten with her. Her fishnet outfit though was as old-fashioned as it was alluring, and the times called for something sleeker, more in keeping with that other Avengers on the TV starring Mrs.Peel.


To that end in the pages of another Spider-Man story we are introduced to the attitude adjusted Widow. As drawn by John Romita and Jim Mooney here, the Widow goes from just another heroine to an absolute smokin' hottie in a mere four pages. Take a look for yourself.





I'm not gonna' lie -- these pages were a revolution for yours truly. (I just might have gone through puberty during these four little pages.) The sheer unblinking femininity of Natasha radiates in these delightful pages and by the end of them we are truly confronted with a brand new kind of heroine, someone truly dangerous. For this new Black Widow to seek out Spider-Man made a weird kind of sense but it certainly was a neat high-profile to relaunch the character. She went on to have a short series in Amazing Adventures, alongside Medusa as part of the Inhumans ironically enough. By the time Stand was writing this volume she'd already had a breakthrough long-standing romance with Daredevil and had served as leader of The Champions.


And that ends the Fireside run of Origins books. It's clear by this one that Stan has run out stuff to say really, but it doesn't mean that there weren't still great stories that needed to be reprinted. Fans of Marvel might be surprised to see so little about The X-Men, but at this moment in 1977 the Uncanny heroes were far from sales successes and had just relaunched. More surprising is the absence of Spider-Woman who like Ms.Marvel was a brand new Marvel item.  Fireside went on to do that with volumes dedicated to the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Captain America and Doctor Strange as well as others. But somehow these four dedicated to the "origins" of Marvel Comics hold a special place in the annals.

To quote Stan "The Man" Lee..."Excelsior!"

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7 comments:

  1. There was a 5th book in the series in 1978, 'Marvel's Greatest Superhero Battles'. Like 'Superhero Women', it didn't really have any 'origin' tales ('though the X-Men reprint shows the first appearance of The Blob), but it belongs on the bookshelf alongside its four predecessors. I remember looking at 'Superhero Women' in a bookshop at the time, but it didn't really grab me for some reason. Wish now that I'd bought it 'though, if for no other reason than to have an unbroken run. (It commands quite a high price on eBay.)

    [Incidentally, 'send-off' usually applies to something 'wrapping up', not 'starting up', so, in the case of a spectacular final issue or TV episode, we'd say that it gave the series 'a good send-off', as in it was something to remember as a conclusion, not a beginning. It's also used to refer to funerals - "We gave ol' Charlie a good send-off!") 'Start' (or 'start up') would probably serve your intended meaning better.]

    I have the majority of these tales in other reprintings, but it's good to see them in the context of this book, so nice one, Rip.

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  2. I've always viewed Greatest Battles volume as a separate entity along with the Hulk, FF, Cap and Spidey volumes. Certainly a dandy book, but not in my mind at least part of the origins series. By this time Fireside was unleashing all sorts of different kinds of books. Like you I'd love to have them all. I didn't get the others at the time and more is the pity.

    As for "send off" I'm thinking of it as a the farewell proud parents might give to a child as they head off into the rough and tumble world. These books were nurtured by the top talents before being handed over to presumably lesser lights.

    Glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Too many of those characters were created as female counterpoints of male heroes, which may have marked them as inferior in readers' minds. Shanna and the Cat were part of a deliberate effort to attract female readers, released at the same time (along with Night Nurse) and all flamed out very quickly. The Black Widow was kind of a cool sixties variation on Catwoman, but when they gave her that shiny Black Fury style jumpsuit, they seemed to emphasize her as a female Spider-Man.

    I think, aside from the low level of creativity and perhaps a timidity about what they could get away with, a big reason for their failure was visual. I thought the Cat's costume could've been much more appealing, particularly the colors. These comics were all cranked out because of a rapid editorial fiat. Someone like Dave Cockrum (who made Ms. Marvel look 1000 times better) might've been able to save the Cat. Steranko's covers suggest that Shanna could've been much more visually compelling. If they'd approached the art similarly to the way they did Conan, it might've looked great.Instead here was another victim of the mass editorial delusion that Colletta was the go-to artist for female comics. Imagine if they'd put someone more intricate in the BWS vein on it and worked more Burroughs-style fantasy in, it might've had more of a chance.

    Marvel eventually got to a less-awkward place where they were able to create powerful and original female characters, starting maybe with the X-men's Phoenix.

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    1. I agree that a lot of gimmickry went into those early efforts. The Shanna-Cat-Night Nurse trio being the most obvious blatant attempts. It seems to me that Black Widow elevated her game and became distinctive apart from other, her spy back ground giving her a cache. The fact that she changed boy friends made her compelling to me. Ms.Marvel was limited and for reasons I guess of marketing saddled with that terrible costume originally with the weird stomach cut out.

      Later Marvel got better as a result of Chris Claremont who made intriguing women or maybe he made women intriguing, something like that. It became a bit of a fetish with him after a while but for a time he really shined at it.

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  4. Kid mentioned the next volume in this "series", and I'm pleased to say that in spite of selling my comics collection and some additional memorabilia/books, those five volumes still rest comfortably on my bookshelf.

    Like others, as a child I was always a little disappointed when a true "origin" story was not included. However, seeing things now through a different lens, it would have been silly to have included FF #1 for Sue's installment, as we'd already seen that in "Origins". The issue that they did reprint, in hindsight, was wholly appropriate.

    Not only did these books make Christmas morning extra special for five years in a row, to think of the price point... wow! Thinking what trades of this thickness go for these days, talk about some bang for the buck (or six bucks!).

    Thanks for the memories, Rip.

    Doug

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    1. So maybe I have to readjust my thinking on the "five" volumes. I've never seen that Battles book linked to the other four before, but I see how that works.

      Thanks for the kind words and you're very welcome.

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  5. Oh, I think your logic on the Fireside books and how they should be "grouped" is probably correct, Rip. I tend to think of them as a series; I should add, however, that I never got any further Marvel books from Fireside (my loss).

    Doug

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