#FireRickRemender?: Thinking Through Gender, Disproportionate Aging & Sexual Consent in Superhero Comics

The recent #FireRickRemender controversy on Twitter and Tumblr brought to mind a topic that I have given some thought to in the past, but that mostly exists in the form of an evolving question that I do not quite have an answer to yet, nor that I can make any confident assertions about. In fact, even as I write this I am trying to think through the best way to articulate the question itself based on some general observations.

For those who are not familiar with the Captain America #22 controversy, I recommend you read this piece. I think it covers it well, but the short version is Sam Wilson—Falcon—has drunken sex with Jet Black Zola who at the beginning of the current series was just a little girl of undetermined age, but since has spent 10 or more years in another dimension where time moves faster. By her own admission, she is at least 23 years old when her sexual encounter with Falcon takes place—beyond the age of consent in most places that I know of.

falcon-cap22There are fans who feel that the ambiguity of her age and the involvement of alcohol in the hook-up make for an icky situation—more than just icky, for some—a situation that suggests the possibilities of rape. Sam Wilson was drunk enough to not remember having sex at all, which means that he must have been clearly drunk enough that no one should be having sex with him if they care about clearly delineated consent. In other words, it is a problematic scene all the way around. (You can read the whole scene here and decide for yourself).

Still, it is not so problematic that I think the writer, Rick Remender should be fired (though I am not a fan of his work and will admit to having a dislike for the guy ever since his “hobo-piss” comment in regards to the reaction to the also controversial Havok “m-word” speech in Uncanny Avengers). The fact is that the age ambiguity—fostered in no small part in these issues by John Romita, Jr’s inability to draw children and young adults very well (and whose art has gotten decidedly worse since the 1980s)—has a long history in Marvel Comics.

Side note: It could also be an issue in DC and other superhero comics, but as I am not as familiar with them I don’t feel comfortable making that claim. As it is, I am still trying to develop a shape for this issue that allows me to explore i­t, and hope that readers will chime in with examples and ideas—thus this blog post.

So here is the real question that arises for me from this kerfuffle: It is not about whether Rick Remender should be fired, but instead: How does flow of time in superhero comics, with its sliding timescales, disproportionate aging, and alternate dimensions confuse and complicate issues of sex and consent in those long-running serials?

Here the thing: There is a pattern in superhero comics of young female characters disproportionately aging as to make them sexually available for the adult male characters (and ostensibly for their straight male readers). Of course, the nebulous nature of the passage of time in serialized superhero comic books makes any exact determinations impossible, but there are certainly a few examples of transformations that allow for otherwise pre-teen or teen girls to suddenly be the age of consent.

magik4The most obvious example I can think of is Illyana Rasputin, aka Magik, of the New Mutants and later the X-Men. When she is kidnapped by Belasco, not only does he want to make her his bride, but as soon as she starts to get a little older she is depicted in her Darkchilde form—mostly naked with a more developed body, little short shorts and a crop top, and with a come-hither look. When it comes to Ilyana, her arc from seven year old girl to New Mutant to X-Man is one that makes the subtext of uncontrollable dark magic and the dangers of female sexuality quite explicit. The whole Belasco’s bride thing makes it text, not sub-text. The way she is depicted now, after having reverted to her original age and then returned to her young adult form again, (dying and then returning), reinforces the possibilities opened up by her aging. She falls safely into the male gaze, from a position of taboo anticipation for her eventual desirability.

There seems to be a very gendered distinction in how characters are aged in superhero comics. While young Franklin Richards, for example, is temporarily aged in the 1990 “Days of Future Present” crossover event and later as a member of the ill-considered Fantastic Force, he is not depicted to be hypersexualized in order make him seem older and more mature (he has battle armor he pulls from a pocket dimension for that).

Pre-teen and teen girls like Illyana come pre-sexualized in the hypersexualized world of superhero comics. A young female character’s maturation seems to most often (if not always) be connected to her sexual availability.

Majik2

Illyana Rasputin in her Darkchilde form from the cover of X-Infernus #1 (Dec 2008)

This kind of potentially problematic aging is not always immediate, however. For a character like Kitty Pryde, aging is simply disproportionate to the adult characters, allowing her to eventually “catch up” to the others, while they remain just about the same age. Kitty was introduced to X-Men as 13½ years old, but who despite the passage of 34 years, she has been allowed to age about 10 years, while the other X-Men have not really aged much at all. I made the joke to someone on Twitter not long ago that aging in Marvel Comics allows for eventually every child character to be old enough to have consensual sex while the adult characters remain young enough to have it with them. Except, I guess it is really not all that much of a joke. It’s creepy.

Joss Whedon on his run of Astonishing X-Men wrote a great scene that acknowledges Kitty and Peter (aka Colossus) having done the deed, reinforcing this temporal disproportion. In this case the disparity is less obvious because the beginning of the series makes a point of stating how Kitty is returning after a long absence. This indeterminate amount of time is elastic enough to absorb any qualms about Kitty’s age in relation to Peter who always seemed old for his age. Suddenly, the distance in their ages seems not so great—certainly less than the nearly seven years when their romance began. For many readers drawn back to X-Men by Whedon’s run after a long absence, that elasticity of time is an especially important way to make the distinction between the Kitty of now and the Kitty of the simultaneously distant and not-too-distant past. Wolverine may quip “’bout time,” but really when else might their having sex really worked in terms of their ages?

wolverine-knows-2

You’re right, Wolverine. It is “about time” – that’s what makes it potentially creepy (from Astonishing X-Men #14)

Another example of the weirdness of how time passes in the Marvel Universe is Julie Power, formerly of Power Pack. I have not read the issues of Runaways or Avengers Academy that she most recently appears in, but just from I have read online and the panels I have found by doing a little searching, she has gone from a little 10 year old girl to an about 17-year old sexually active girl in a halter top and posed in erotic ways.

julie-power

Julie Power in her teen-aged bare mid-riff incarnation.

To be clear, it is not that I think aging characters is a problem or that the depiction of sexuality is necessarily a problem—I wish it were done more often­—rather, I think it is problematic how young female characters are aged especially in relation to male characters.

Another important example is Kate Bishop of the Young Avengers and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye series. While she first appeared in comics on the verge of being 18 and the most recent Young Avengers series had her turning 21 (so she aged about 3 years in about 9 years real-world time), she not only moved from technically being a minor to being legal adult (whatever that means), but Clint has basically stayed the same age in that time (early 30s maybe?). What makes this such a great example is not the sexual component to their relationship, but that writer Matt Fraction had to explicitly address its possibility on his blog.

He wrote:

But i’ll say this: they’re not gonna fuck. [Kate] doesn’t want to fuck him and he doesn’t want to fuck her. It’s not going to happen. They never daydream about it. They don’t wonder about it. They won’t idly pass the time thinking what if. There is nothing sexual in their relationship. Flirtatious? At times. Sexy, even? To a point, maaaybe? I don’t even want to play with will they or won’t they. Because they won’t. So I’ll say, again, unequivocally, as long as I’m on this book, it’s not in the cards even remotely for either of them. I am interested in a love between these two that has nothing to do with sex or physical/sexual attraction. The dog won’t die and they won’t fuck. The end.

HE-4-panelsHere’s the thing though, despite Fraction’s protests, the Hawkeye title plays with a lot of sexual tension between them. Sure, Hawkeye claims to not want to sleep with her, and she addresses it as creepy, but there is a lot of subtext that this article over at Comic Vine does a great job of illustrating. But even if that weren’t the case, the fact that Fraction felt the need to address it means that Kate reaching the age of legal consent immediately put her character within the realm of possibility for that to happen because unfortunately it seems like that is how disproportionate gendered aging in Marvel Comics seems to work. Let’s put it this way, while I believe Fraction when he claims “they won’t fuck,” I would not be in the least bit surprised if some other writer down the line makes it happen. She is certainly depicted as sexually active in Young Avengers. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, I just don’t trust comics to not make the leap from her doing the deed with similarly (though statically) aged Noh-Varr in his spaceship and doing it with Hawkeye or Iron Fist.

Speaking of Young Avengers, another example of disproportionate aging is Cassie Lang, aka Stature (a superhero name that might even be worse than Iron Patriot). Before she showed up in Young Avengers I am pretty sure she was last depicted as a sickly girl of about 9 years of age. I remember her from Avengers #223 (1982) which featured a great team-up of Ant-Man (her dad) and Hawkeye. But after being a kid for many years, she returned as a teenager of about 16 years old in 2005—ready to start a romance with Iron Lad (a young version of Kang) and later the young version of Vision built around Iron Lad’s brain patterns (it’s complicated). In Cassie’s case, however, despite the romance plot, there is no case of overt-sexualization. The gradual introduction of an older Cassie Lang avoids the discomfort of the suddenly sexually available character. Maybe she appeared in other books in-between at that younger age or an intermediate age, I don’t know. The thing I do know is that while she was closing in on 18 (until she was killed by Dr. Doom), her dad and other Avengers stayed the same age.

cassie-lang

Cassie Lang as a little girl, though it is creepy how her dad compares her to a sex symbol.

Green_Lantern_Vol_3_34

Aging Hal Jordan (December 1992)

I am not sure what this all means, except as another broad example of problematic depictions of women in superhero comics. The phenomenon seems to suggest that, when it comes to girls and women in superhero comics, age and maturity are overwhelmingly associated with sexual availability, and that is troubling. Disproportionate aging happens all over the genre—for example see Hal Jordan’s whitening hair in post-Crisis Green Lantern while Batman and Wonder Woman stayed about the same—but it seems that when it comes to young women, this pattern takes on a creepy and even potentially predatory cast. As such, I am not surprised that some folks took issue with the Falcon and Jet Black Zola sex scene. At first glance, it seems like the edges of the veneer of consent and the social mores around sex and age that superhero comics frequently rub up against are being pierced through to reveal the bare truth about the role of women in superhero comics as foremost sexualized objects, whether they are little Cassie Lang, or even Aunt May.

aunt.may

25 thoughts on “#FireRickRemender?: Thinking Through Gender, Disproportionate Aging & Sexual Consent in Superhero Comics

  1. Since you mention Green Lantern: any discussion of this topic will inevitably turn to Arisia, the former teenage Green Lantern of Sector 2815, who was a particularly crass example of the same trope — aged solely and explicitly for the purpose of being able to hook up with Hal Jordan. If anyone isn’t already familiar with her tale, I haven’t the heart to recount it in full. I’m very sad that her treatment turned out to be, not a brief lapse of taste and judgement, but a prototype for subsequent characters.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      Yes, I am vaguely aware of that story and came across it while looking stuff up for this post, but since I am more familiar with Marvel decided to stick with their characters for the most part. Wasn’t the deal with her that she was somehow simultaneously 14 and 250 years old or something? The sources I saw weren’t clear.

      Also, remember if you like the piece, please share it!

  2. This was a well written piece. I agree that it is a complicated issue. And, yes, you are right, there does appear to be a double standard in that when fictional females are aged often they suddenly become sexually active, while this is not usually the case with male characters.

    Having read Power Pack when I was ten years old, the idea of Julie Power suddenly being sexy is more than a bit disturbing to me. I cannot help wishing that all four of the Power siblings were restored back to their original ages, or at least close to them, so that we could have them reunited in some fun adventures.

    I was going to mention Arisia, but Richard beat me to it. So, instead, I’ll bring up Mary Marvel. in the past decade she’s gotten darker and older and, in the process, her sexuality has been ramped up. Not sure how I feel about that.

    • Ah yes, Mary Marvel. . . that was part of some DC crossover. . .Final Crisis? Infinite Crisis? Crisis on Crisis World? Crisis 17: Crisis Ad Nauseum? ;) Anyway, i had forgotten about her “evil sexiness.”

      One thing I didn’t mentions in regards to Power Pack, but that came up in conversation with a friend yesterday, is that in the recent FF series Alex Power is depicted as being between 15 and 17, which means somehow Julie Power, who is his younger sister, has passed him!

      I have no idea where the other two Powers kids are.

  3. This post was eye-opening. I never pieced it together before. I think that Marvel is really the main offender when it comes to this sort of thing. Everything said of Kitty could be said for the other female POV characters that followed her, like Rogue and Jubilee.

    As I was reading this, I was thinking of Layla Miller, another X-Men-related character. This one appeared first in House of M as an orphan child.

    That’s right, a CHILD. Immediately after that she appears in X-Factor as a teenager, with no explanation given for her aging. As a teenager, sexual tension with Jamie ‘Multiple Man’ Maddrox is established after some kind of flash forward depicts the two of them getting married. Later during a story arc involving Bishop’s future timeline, Layla is stranded in the future. When they next see her?

    I can also think of at least one occasion where the exact opposite has happened and an old man has been aged backwards with the express goal of making him sexy.

    In the 90s, through some plot contrivance, Magneto was made younger for the express purpose of making him a viable sex-partner for Rogue. I guess those two met in the middle like Benjamin Button or something.

    I suppose that, even though it’s not explicitly stated, the same thing has happened with Xavier. Initially he was depicted as being quite old, but later depictions of him skewed much younger to make it less weird when he romanced younger women. I don’t think there’s an official explanation, but he seemed to go from being an old man with pattern baldness, to a man of around 40 who looked like he shaved his head to be cool.

    • I also just remembered Monster Girl in Invincible is introduced in the body of a little girl, sent to another dimension to age her up. She returns as the ‘sexy’ one. Though to be fair, she was meant to be an adult trapped in a woman’s body to begin with.

  4. I just imagined a horrible Marvel Universe scene where people like Jubilee and Rogue are sitting in a Cafe gossiping about how creepy and weird it is that Franklin Richards hasn’t aged a day since they first encountered him. ‘Cosmic rays will give you superpowers, but they also give your kids developmental disorders.’

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I had forgotten about those countdown websites. I remember back in the day there was one for the Olsen Twins. . . UBER creepy. Except in comics they can speed up the clock.

  5. I am not saying you’re wrong, it definitely does happen to more female characters than male, but I can think of a couple instances where it has happened to male characters, as well. Robin to Nightwing Dick Grayson, widely regarded as one of the sexiest male characters in comics, is an example of the slower variety, where he seemed to age while Bruce just… didn’t. The other Robins, Damian excepted, are not far behind. And of the instant variety, It actually happened in a book you mentioned a lot, here so I am surprised you did not mention it. Loki in Young Avengers. While he had the mind of a much older person, he was in the body of a 13 year old boy. (or Asgardian equivalent of, anyway) then, in one page, he was aged up to 20ish by Wiccan. They didn’t age him up to how he was before he was reborn, an old, ugly man, nope, they went for 20, for prime hotness. Then this happened in the first issue of Agent of Asgard: http://comicsrefueled.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/loki-agent-of-asgard-1-page-5.jpg
    He is clearly intended to be smoking hot now.

    • Hey Jill! Thanks for commenting. A lot of people have mentioned Robin, and I think he’d be an interesting case to look at in detail. It would be particularly interesting to examine his aging in relation to the homoerotic undertones of his relation with Batman. As I said in my post, I am not as familiar with DC and the amount of research of DC comics I’d have to do to explore it in that universe is daunting. Would love for someone to pitch a guest post about it though.

      Loki is another much more recent example and I am embarrassed that I never didn’t think of him. I don’t read Agent of Asgard, and still haven’t gotten around to reading the Journey Into Mystery series that first had him de-aged – but I think you are right about the intention behind his aging, and there is definite tension there with the film version of Loki and the fan buzz around Tom Hiddleston’s attractiveness. Perhaps one day I will get around to examining that more in detail.

      Anyway, my examination of this phenomenon was meant to be a beginning of inquiry (as I suggest in the post), and like most noticeable patterns, it is unlikely it is applied evenly across titles and across time – but I do plan to keep my eyes open for more examples and also for exceptions. Thanks!

  6. Richard already mentioned Arisia, but I thought I’d go into detail just how bad the case of that character was.
    While techincally very old in Earth years, for her species, she was barely post-pubescent and had both the mind and body of a very young teenager.
    She developed a crush on Hal Jordan, and he refused her -specifically- because of her age.
    She responded by somehow using her Green Lantern powers to age her body to that of an adult. Given, she did not spend some time in some alternate universe and age all on her own. She literally forcibly matured her body while retaining the experiences, emotions, and maturity of a young teen.
    Upon being approached by her in an adult body, Hal eagerly agreed to a relationship with her. It is implied very heavily that every character involved understood she still had the mind of a 14 year old.

  7. I’m a little surprised this article has no mention of one of the most creepy examples of disproportionate aging in a male for the purposes of sleeping with a woman. The time Ms Marvel got weirdly impregnated by some other dimensional guy and then gave birth to him and then he aged really fast to take her away to his other dimension. There are a decent number of articles out there, but I think Carol Strickland’s is one of the first that really brought it to the attention of a lot of people who weren’t reading comics at the time:

    http://carolastrickland.com/comics/msmarvel/

    • Well, she is literally caught having sex in that image.

      But while I was going for a bit of hyperbole at the end there, she has been drawn progressively younger over the years – heck, in the recent Howard the Duck I didn’t even recognize her for a second.

      In the Spider-Man films this is even more pronounced.

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  10. Interesting discussion. For me, the counterpoint to this analysis is where there wasn’t disproportionate aging. In the classic Wolfman/Kane Teen Titans run from the 80s, the relationship between (underaged) Terra and (adult villain) Deathstroke was marked as inappropriate, and this was reinforced with the focal character of Beast Boy (as a teen with a crush on Terra) that adopted the presumptive POV of many readers.

    At the same time, Wonder Girl’s relationship with Terry Long always looked wrong to me as a kid — probably because he had a moustache, and so looked older than the “adult” heroes in the DCU.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      I am definitely interested in learning about more examples from DC, but not sure how these examples are “counterpoints.” Aren’t they just examples where there was no disproportionate aging? Or where particular writers/artists either didn’t think the difference in age was a big deal (Donna and Terry) or where it was underscored as a problem (Terra and Deathstroke)?

    • Maybe counterpoint is the wrong word — it’s a story without disproportionate aging where the inappropriateness of the sex is foregrounded in a CC-approved book. It’s a story that didn’t gloss over things (and where the character was invented as too young to have sex, but was still sexualized and not just in Lolita-like ways (though that too).

      As for Terry — he still looks older than me, and I’ve aged 35 years. I just can’t explain that.

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