Girl, You’ll Be an Invisible Woman Soon: Defining Serial Characters

In my re-reading of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four run that helped to inspire my recent post contemplating the title’s cancellation in 2015, I came upon two panels in Fantastic Four #24 (February 1964) that got me thinking about Susan Richards, née Storm, aka the Invisible Woman (though back then she was still known as the Invisible Girl). It also got me thinking about how readers conceptualize a character, and to what degree such a characterization can be independent of how the character acts in the actual stories she appears in.

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Fantastic Four #23 (February 1964)

In the issue, Sue and Reed get into an argument, and Reed’s response is to adopt a patronizing tone that cannot be justified by his being her husband or even officially her boyfriend (since he wasn’t either yet)—not that such a relation would actually excuse his attitude. They are colleagues and teammates, but his respect for her as such is questionable in the scene. Reed calls her “scatterbrained and emotional” and suggests he knows better than she does what is in her own best interest. Her rejoinder—”Oh, go polish a test tube or something!—is a fine zinger of a masturbation reference at the gray-templed egghead, but the next panel has her skulking in bed like a teenager, thinking to herself that she is only angry because she knows “he’s right,” reinforcing Reed’s characterization of her as infantile and prone to petty feminine whims.

“If only he understood women better,” she thinks, but she should be thinking this about Stan and Jack, not Reed, whose attitude is portrayed by the creators as reasonable male frustration with women having agency. The scene really reinforces the unwillingness of men to listen to women and treat them as they would other men, with discernible motives, concerns, and individual idiosyncrasies. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm frequently actually do act out in childish ways, but I don’t know of Reed admonishing them in a gendered way.

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Fantastic Four #14

This was not the first time in reading those early issues that I started at the acceptable degree of sexism in the comic. In Fantastic Four #14, the first family returns from an adventure exhausted, the men lying about, as Sue—who presumably would be just as tired as they are—decides to “do a little housecleaning.” Despite how the world Fantastic Four imagines frequently challenges Cold War ideas of masculinity and family, it still cannot imagine a woman as a rational independent human being who is not beholden to serve her male peers. In another issue, she serves as the group secretary, as if Reed Richards could not invent some supersteno-bot to take notes. And I winced, when in issue #16 the FF are captured in the Microverse and Sue is threatened with being held in servitude as a scullery maid, because the terrible fate is presented without irony, despite her actually serving as maid for the men in the group. I guess, the fact that the FF gig lets her get all dolled up like a 1960s beauty queen is some kind of advantage over the unkempt look that Kirby gives her when her slavish fate “as a drudge for merciless lizardmen” is imagined

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Reed always be diminishing Sue’s capabilities, even when he is trying to make her feel better (Fantastic Four Annual #2)

I felt pity reading those scenes in Lee/Kirby issues, because, as much as I love those early stories, Sue Storm, one of my favorite characters from my comics-reading 80s childhood, has had to repeatedly justify her existence both inside and outside of the narrative, and at least once, both at the same time. Kirby and Lee drew and wrote a story in issue #11 wherein the male members find a crying Sue upset about reader letters calling her useless and asking that she be removed from the group; letters not unlike those actually published on the letters page of each issue. While her teammates come to her defense, the “Lincoln’s mother” analogy they give is nearly as bad, reducing her value to the support she gives great men rather than the things she can accomplish herself. Thankfully, they do back up this wack argumentation with examples of Sue saving the day in a couple of previous adventures.

I felt pity when I came across a few panels in a mid-70s issue—Fantastic Four #169, written by Doug Moench—wherein Luke Cage (a temporary fill-in for the Thing) asks Sue why she’s the Invisible Girl and not Woman, considering her own superpowers and the fact that she’s a mom. She replies that her old name just “sort-of stuck,” and that “Invisible Woman” is “long and unwieldy” like “chairperson.” It’s a sad excuse, the kind of justification given by those that will tell you that language doesn’t matter, but that they will stubbornly refuse to change their use of it in the same breath, not seeing the irony of their position. Luke Cage doesn’t buy it either, but he has the good sense to reply “It’s your business, lady…” and keep his mouth shut. Who is he to tell a woman how to identify, even if I agree with what he’s suggesting about her being a grown-ass woman and not a “girl.”

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(from Fantastic Four vol. 1, #169 (April 1976) – Words by Doug Moench, Pencils by Rich Buckler, Inks by Joe Sinnot)

The pity I felt was not for the character as she was written in those cases, but that she’d have to be written that way to begin with and having such thoughts written into her head. Essentially, as I read I thought “that is not Sue Storm.”

This is absurd, of course. Sue Storm is however she is written. Yes, we can object to how she is portrayed, but being a fictional character she cannot feel anything. Instead, I am feeling something through her, or through an ideal Susan Richards shaped by my incomplete reading of the entire Fantastic Four serial, and by the era I became most familiar with at a time when I was most susceptible to influence, the John Byrne era of the first half of the 1980s.

Byrne wrote a character arc for Susan Richards that saw her become more independent, more proficient with her powers, more questioning of her role in the group, resentful of Reed Richards’s patronizing manner and air of superiority, and finally taking on the name Invisible Woman. And I admire his run (from late 1982 to 1986) for that, as much as for his adventure-packed, wonderfully-drawn, drama-filled stories that seems to intentionally play with and run parallel to the original run of Kirby/Lee stories. But as I pointed out back in 2012’s post “Misogyny to the Rescue,” her transformation and treatment is not without its problems.

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Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964)

In this era of Fantastic Four, Susan increasingly harbors resentment at her treatment, especially at the hands of her husband. Such resentment is nothing new, however, having made various appearances to varying degrees since at least 1964’s Fantastic Four Annual #2. In that issue, Reed tries to leave her behind out of fear for her safety when they are about to go after Dr. Doom, but she refuses, saying “Reed, if your love is going to start making me an outsider then I don’t want it!” This sounds more like the Sue I know. But in light of the twenty intervening years between that story and Byrne’s run, for Reed to continue to have that patronizing perspective about his wife makes her refusal to tolerate it anymore not only reasonable, but belated. When Susan and Reed became estranged in the 1970s, nearly divorcing, it was Reed’s handling of Franklin’s mutation and powers that drove Susan away, but in the 80s she was finally standing up for herself about herself. Even if, in order for this to happen and stick, she must be psychologically transformed by a villain and dressed up in a dominatrix outfit.

It is this Susan Richards that I, as a long-time reader of Fantastic Four, admire and think of as the quintessential version of the character. The strong-willed, tough-minded, outspoken, caring, but independent, woman who is an equal part of a band of superhero adventurers who established the Marvel Universe as we know it. Every other version of the Invisible Woman I might read is measured against that ideal that feels like the “real” character.  In Fantastic Four #269, the reader gains insight into Susan’s thoughts about how she has been treated during the Byrne-era, expressing anger towards her husband, rejecting her status as “delicate china doll” and claiming her importance to the group. Whether he meant to do this or not, Byrne’s inclusion of She-Hulk as part of the team in this era helps to underscore the double-standard Susan operates under and the incoherence of the role of her gender in that standard. Susan’s vulnerability recurs as the reason for depriving her of agency and involvement, and she must struggle against this and prove wrong her peers’ characterization of her “femininity” (her very “girlness”) as what make her worthy of protection at best and as a liability at worst. She-Hulk’s raw power and unchecked sexuality, on the other hand, makes her mostly immune to that attitude (though, as I have explored before, She-Hulk’s sexuality is treated inconsistently and often becomes a weapon to use against her and a tool for her humiliation). Thus, when Susan Richards is transformed into Malice under the influence of FF-foe Psycho-Man in issues #280 and #281 and turned against her team, her first act is to defeat She-Hulk rather handily. This clearly establishes Susan’s power in no uncertain terms.

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Fantastic Four #269 (August 1984). Words and art by John Byrne.

However, as I wrote in my post about the confrontation between Malice/Susan and Reed, no sign of power by the Invisible Girl goes long without being undermined. This is no Marston-Peter era Wonder Woman opportunity for loving submission. Instead, Reed Richards defeats/rescues her by weaponizing the misogyny of which he is readily capable and that readers have seen him enact in countless ways big and small in the 20+ years from the series’ beginning. Byrne’s handling of Susan Richards’s arc just recapitulates what is evident in Reed’s characterization in that scene and throughout the series history.

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Susan Richards makes her announcement regarding her new name. (from Fantastic Four #284) [click to view larger version]

John Byrne, who as a writer and artist is absurdly beholden to continuity, probably felt he owed it to the original material and its readers to couch Susan Richards’s transformation in her feminine insecurities, but such a point of view assumes a neutral value to the narrative history of these characters. In part one of my series of posts on X-Men’s Storm I mentioned how the weight of continuity’s demands falls particularly heavily on characters of color and women characters, in that the terrible ways they have been written or depicted must be addressed and incorporated into any attempt to rehabilitate the character thus re-inscribing the very problems with how the character has been written into the canon. In the case of the Invisible Girl-turned-Woman, her frustrations with her husband and her role on the team don’t actually coalesce into action on her part until after she’s made to suffer the requisite trauma that too often becomes the motivating factor in histories and arcs of women characters. Something needs to change her from girl to woman, and for that thing to have value to the patriarchy it must be a violation of some notion of purity. Sue’s anger and her claiming of her power, symbolized by her new name, come as a result of what Psycho Man did to her to make her into Malice. While the narrative makes clear that Susan was not physically assaulted (and thus actual rape is thankfully avoided), Susan’s speech when she declares her new name certainly evokes a sense of psychological violation that might as well be rape. (And painfully, Byrne actually has her suggest in Fantastic Four #282 that what happened to her is worse than physical assault. Sigh.)

Look, I love the fact that the Invisible Woman gets an arc, a chance to become a “modern woman.” But, to connect her evolution to trauma is to just re-inscribe her gender-based vulnerability and dismiss the possibility for Sue to develop a feminist consciousness on her own. Such a development seems like it could be a natural result of being an intelligent woman living through the second-wave feminist movement and its response to the renewed domesticity of women in the post-War years and the positioning of the nuclear family with a man at the head as the Cold War bulwark against Soviet Communism in ways that tied depriving women of agency and independence to national security. This is not to say that the character of Sue Storm-Richards does not in many ways and many instances serve as a non-normative figure that challenges easy and narrow conceptions of womanhood, because she certainly does (Ramzi Fawaz claims as much in his book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics), but enfolding that transformation into the domestic drama that is often at the heart of Fantastic Four would have been a way to develop the character without reinforcing the centrality of trauma in the narratives about women.

Still, regardless of the problems in the execution of this arc of her character, the results were impactful to me as a reader in my mid-teens, and perhaps to other readers as well (I am still trying to get my hands on some later issues with letters pages addressing fan response to the change), and thus this image of the Invisible Woman retroactively influenced my view of her when I re-read the earlier stories. In reading the Kirby/Lee stories, for example, I see the “modern” Invisible Woman embedded in that character struggling to come out both as a woman within a narrative set in the 1960s, and as a female superhero struggling within a genre that regularly marginalizes women. Thus, the simultaneous sense of pity and potential I have while reading her stories; the latter fueling the former, and the former driving me to read against the grain in order to acknowledge the ways in which those potentialities are already manifested.

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Miles Morales struggles with being outed as a person of color in Spider-Man vol. 2, #2 (words by Brian Michael Bendis, art by Sara Pichelli)

This kind of reading experience and conscious reading practice is not limited to the Invisible Woman of course. In my post from last year, “Slut-Shaming She-Hulk,” I wrote about how She-Hulk’s blaming herself for how her friend and co-worker came on to her made me sad for her, and angry at Dan Slott for writing the scene. As Alejandro Jimenez wrote in his guest post here on The Middle Spaces, “Miles from Representation: On Needing More from Bendis’s Spider-Man,” Miles Morales’s expressed relationship to his Afro-Latinidad is troubling. In particular, while his use of one of his identities—“Hispanic”—as a way to resist identification of his blackness (as if these identities were mutually exclusive) might be potentially compelling as the story of a young man fumblingly navigating his identities in the way adolescents immersed in a white supremacist society often do (I know I definitely had my own issues as a 15-year old), as written, this exploration lacks the framework to even hint at the complexities of those competing feelings of individuation, ethnic belonging, and the (dis)comforts of assimilation. As such, when I read scenes like the one in Spider-Man vol. 2, #2 , Miles’s words do not seem like his own, but those of Brian Michael Bendis.

And again, I know this is mildly absurd. Of course, Miles Morales’s words are those of Bendis, of course, Invisible Woman’s words are Byrne’s or Moench’s or Lee’s, but what I am trying to get at is the life of serialized characters outside of any one writer or artist’s depiction of them. Essentially, discovering those early panels I wrote about at the beginning of this post got me to thinking about the tensions that exists between the wide-ranging and often incoherent textual evidence of a character’s voice and attitude and comics readers’ understanding of that character through a form of (re)collection.

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Sue Richards’s questionable outfit from Fantastic Four #371 (December 1992) Art by Paul Ryan.

I’ve defined “(re)collection” before as a practice I theorized in my dissertation: “the means by which pop culture engagement is joined with elements of memory, history, tradition and language through multiple broadly-considered collecting practices (of which reading is one) through which not only authors construct identity for their characters, but that denotes the very process of becoming that cultural practitioners (readers, collectors, makers) are continually re-scripting. Thinking about my own reading practice in these terms I can’t help but wonder how my investment with the character of the Invisible Woman—a character who I am unlike in multiple ways—reflects an understanding of my own positional identity. Could it be the recurring sense of having to resist not only stereotypical portrayals of one or more of my identities, but also the narrow frameworks that represent that very resistance? Is it that my identification with the Invisible Woman, regardless of any momentary or positional assertion of a resistant identity, is defined in relation to a white hetero-patriarchal oppressive status quo? Is it that those moments of what Jose Esteban Muñoz calls “disidentification”—when even problematic narratives of racial or sexual exclusion can be transformed into sites for our own cultural practices—are bound to be undermined by regressive plot points, (like, for example, when in 1992’s Fantastic Four #371, Susan Richards’ Malice identity returns in the form a bathing suit type FF uniform with thigh-high boots and a “4” shaped boob window), once again connecting her assertion of agency with a maleficent sexuality, thus assuring that this resistant work is never complete? Is it how invisibility becomes both a condition to avoid and a skill to put to work in navigating frameworks of power? Yeah, probably all of those things. It certainly isn’t that she is merely “relatable.”

Perhaps it is my ability as a deeply engaged reader to take a scene, such as one in Darwyn Cooke’s “Twas the Fight Before Xmas” in Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #21 (February 2003) and gain a sense of the multivalent layers of affect, which can have Susan laughing with her friends over the size of her butt on the action figure included in a Fantastic Four playset in one scene, and forlornly considering the “size of [her] caboose” moments later, echoing my own questions about this whole minor point in the story, i.e. why does her ass have to be a topic of discussion to begin with?  I may not be able to the relate to the feeling of navigating a world where my ass often becomes the measure of my value, but I can identify with the sense of how the marginalized can slide from humor to despair and back in response to the reminders of our circumstances.

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Panels from Spider-Man’s Tangled #21 (February 2003) words and art by Darwyn Cooke.

Ultimately, I find the work to resolve and make sense of the narrative incoherence that is the unavoidable result of decades long serials (and which superhero comics with their unfixed notions of time and rotating creative teams exacerbate) part of what makes engaging with them and writing about them so much fun and so continually fascinating. And while I try to use my own experience as a kind of orienting framework, I am most interested in hearing about and theorizing other readers/collectors experiences with making their takes on characters cohere for their own use. I am also interested in examples of this kind of work in fictive narratives. To this end, I plan to spend more time examining letters pages, fan forums, finding examples in fiction, and hopefully undertaking personal interviews to explore this practice, and consider the role of self-making in this work as a constitutive aspect of progressive world-making. It is this shared world-making that makes possible the presumably radical, and that at it’s best Fantastic Four represents.

 

4 thoughts on “Girl, You’ll Be an Invisible Woman Soon: Defining Serial Characters

  1. For me one of the most fascinating examples of what you term (re)collection (which I will definitely be incorporating into my vocabulary) is Loki’s gender. Loki has now been acknowledged multiple times in canon as being gender-fluid, which was presumably a response to the widespread fan misremembering and wishful thinking about the deeply problematic story-line where he was trapped in a woman’s body – not even transformed into a woman, but literally trapped in the body of another human being, who happened to be a woman. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, this story-line happened because the writers wanted more aggressively sexualised female villains because Amora wasn’t so popular at the time. But people fantasised and hoped and no-prized this storyline into an example of sorely lacking representation, and it became so popular that it stuck. It’s been pretty inconsistently used, but it’s been acknowledged seriously enough for people who still write the older cis version of the character into their modern books to look out of touch. It was the first time I’d even witnessed that kind of fan pressure, or seen anything acknowledge the life characters undoubtedly have outside their own canon, and for that pressure to have come from the queer community was something of a revelation. It’s a big part of why I love comics – characters have so much life outside the pages, and in recent years Marvel especially have actually been exploring and using that in ways you don’t really see in any other medium.

    • Hi Charlotte! Thanks so much for the comment. A great example by the way, one I mentioned recently (if obliquely) in a review of an issue of Vote Loki, specifically in terms of the influence of the charming version of Loki from the Marvel cinematic universe, which I think reinforced (or established) through a popular good-looking actor, the character’s potential sex appeal.

  2. Pingback: Brief Reviews (11/16 to 11/30, 2016) | The Middle Spaces

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