I love it when a random comic book grab ends up being something noteworthy and potentially productive to think and write about. I recently found a copy of Marvel Fanfare #38 (June 1988) and based on nothing but it only costing a dollar, I snagged it. The bimonthly anthology series—which ran from 1982 to 1991—was meant to showcase some of the best work at Marvel using high quality paper, a new (at the time) coloring method, and a no-ads format. The art in these comics (and in this specific issue) tends to be superlative. Marvel Fanfare was kind of Al Milgrom’s pet project. He edited the entire series. Most issues also featured a one-page inside the cover comic he wrote and drew—called “Editori-Al”—in which his cartoon avatar frequently appeared.
When I got it home to re-bag, catalog, and store my purchases in the appropriate comics boxes, I noticed that not only did Jo Duffy write both stories included in the issue, but the pencilers on each of the stories (Judith Hunt and Colleen Doran) were also women. I honestly cannot remember many Marvel Comics where both the writers and pencillers were women. The first nineteen issues of Power Pack (by Louise Simonson and June Brigman) is one of the few other examples I can think of from that time period (and well after). Of course, Marvel Fanfare #38 isn’t quite entirely written and penciled by just women because it includes Milgrom’s nine-panel intro comic that not only points out the rare occurrence of this issue’s women creators, but also, unfortunately, sets a discomforting tone for the context in which the work of women appears in the field. Fortunately, the fact that the stories themselves were created by women allows readers to consider their content in ways that differ from the masculinist norm.
The introductory paratextual comic opens with Milgrom’s avatar discovering the gender of the primary creators and momentarily doubting it could be right. Looking at the comics pages in a filing cabinet, he confirms the fact in stilted language that is a little cringey: “—But the writer and both pencilers this issue are…females!” To be clear the ellipsis in that quote is not because I elided anything from it. It indicates a pause written in for suspense at this incredible fact. The use of “females” as a noun (something to avoid, guys!) is a habit that reinforces the cringe when I read it, but Milgrom’s need to assure readers that he “didn’t plan it this way — or even realize it till now–” serves both to reinforce a “gender blind” ideal and deflect possible accusations of a feminist agenda. Any effort to address inequality, especially behind the scenes so that those who are underrepresented actually have an opportunity to tell stories and create characters, runs the risk of being accused of so-called reverse discrimination, so the “it just happened” narrative reinforces the myth of organic diversity while allowing any effort towards equality to be seen as special treatment, lowered standards, and “diversity for diversity’s sake.” The short comic even has a title that suggests the kind of last minute or after-thought nature of the female creative team. “Editori-Al” is changed with a carat inserting a “G” to make the title “Editori-Gal.”
Milgrom’s avatar goes on to explain that Marvel “had a lot of lady letterers, colorists — even editors” when he joined the company fifteen years earlier, though “the only women artists were Marie Severin and Ramona Fradon,” but that now there are so many women working at Marvel, that the sixth panel depicts him with his shoes off to use his toes to help count them all. Milgrom’s apparently well-intentioned highlighting of women creatives working at Marvel, however, falls into the rhetorical trap of flipping from acknowledging a move towards equity to expressing a misguided perspective on the proportion of women working at Marvel. If he had tried listing the names of men, fingers and toes would have been woefully insufficient, but as used, counting these digits is meant to suggest “a lot.”
The comic editorial then attempts some humor in the form of Milgrom putting on a blond wig to pretend to be a woman in order to be “prepared” for this “new trend” and get at its “forefront.” This is an unfortunately gross and unintentionally TERF-y kind of joke. The notion that this degree of representation (a comic written and drawn by women!) represents some major trend in superhero comics is what is actually laughable. This misjudging of how many women are actually present in a historically male-dominated space is unfortunately something that is not only common but is a phenomenon that has been scientifically studied. It is a cognitive error that according to Virginia Valian, Distinguished Professor of psychology and linguistics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, emerges from under-representation being taken as the norm to the degree that any increase in that representation comes off as equality even when it is not even close. This also affects the perception of influence of those groups, where in the perceived inflated number is credited for the perceived imbalance in terms of who actually has favored status. For example, the idea that women have an outsized role in producing young adult and children’s fiction, leading to the erroneous conclusion that boys don’t have role models in those books. In fact, at least two-thirds of lead characters in that fiction are boys (even when they’re animals!).
This paratextual “Editori-Gal” suggesting that men dress as women in order to take advantage of whatever benefits some women might have while also benefiting from male privilege is straight out of the trans-exclusionary radical (so-called) feminist playbook (and something that is only real in comedies like TV’s Bosom Buddies (1980) and films like Some Like it Hot (1959)). From the patriarchal point of view, such a perspective suggests that any gains by women victimizes men. But from the TERF point of view, it is evidence that transwomen are men faking their way through womanhood for their own benefit. Such a point of view, even if it emerges from a self-deprecating “joke” about Al Milgrom trying to be a woman with a mustache, is dangerous because it is transwomen who end up being viewed with suspicion.
Now, I am not bringing this up to call out Al Milgrom specifically. It strikes me as kind of pointless to use this joke strip from 32 years ago as a personal indictment of the man. I have no idea what his views on feminism or transgender folks might be, though his joking characterization of famed X-Men scribe Chris Claremont in the “Editori-Al” from Marvel Fanfare #2 (May 1982) as a blowhard that can’t stop talking about how many women characters he includes in his work is discomfiting in retrospect (even as it seems accurate). I do know, however, that the caveats regarding not trying to make any kind of political point by having a Marvel Comic written and drawn by (mostly) women (save for colorist Petra Scotese, the rest of the art team are men) remains a concern through to the current moment. The reaction to things like the infamous “Feminist Agenda” cover of Mockingbird #8 (December 2016), or how poorly the admittedly uneven Girl Comics anthology mini-series of 2010 sold, suggests that explicit attempts to correct (or even humorously point out) the underrepresentation of women (or any under-represented group in the industry) is viewed with suspicion and the assumption that standards are being lowered to allow for this. I am bringing up this comic not because I want to “cancel” Milgrom but because it is more evidence of how at every step, the inclusion of women into the field of Big Two superhero comics has been a struggle even in moments of opportunity like Marvel Fanfare #38. Furthermore, the two music-related stories in the comic depict attitudes that reaffirm how women and girls are undervalued. I am not saying those attitudes reflect those of the creators, rather that the stories allow readers to make note of the pervasiveness of sexism in the culture rather than take it for granted.
The back-up story—which we’ll tackle first and only briefly—is penciled by Colleen Doran, who is perhaps best known for her creator-owned comic A Distant Soil. Entitled “Duet,” the story features X-Men’s Dazzler and Rogue hanging out in a small New York nightclub during some undetermined period in the main X-book (my guess is it is after Uncanny X-Men #214 [February 1987] and before the beginning of The Fall of the Mutants in Uncanny X-Men #225 [January 1988]). The story is a fairly short and straightforward one that hinges on the former foes (once upon a time, before either joined the X-Men, Rogue spent several issues of Dazzler’s solo series trying to kill her) getting past their differences as members of the same team and enjoying a night out that lets Dazzler perform somewhat anonymously. As Rogue’s narration explains, “She insisted we come here tonight, that it would be safe, because in this club, either they know her and don’t care what she is…or they assume it’s all part of the show.” Rogue’s thoughts go on to add, “And I wanted to believe her because I’m a mutant myself.” This narration plays up the queer coding of the mutant metaphor. Dazzler sees the club as a safe space to perform her identity in a way that echoes queer club culture and the network of gay bars that offered some respite from a heteronormative world despite being in that world and thus positionally vulnerable to it. Mutants, like queer folk, navigate with uneven access to an invisibility that can be leveraged as a defense against bigotry, but that also poses an institutional danger, especially for those without the ability to pass. Either way, however, other intersecting identities can limit or exacerbate those possibilities.
The appealing part about this story is its focus on female-friendship and having fun—something that was increasingly missing from X-stories of this era, given the constant avalanche of violent trauma that is X-life in general, and that was particularly relentless at this time— but there is not much to the plot itself. As Dazzler and Rogue join an old friend of the former’s—famous singer P.D. James—on stage for a song, there is a sudden kidnapping attempt. Armed opportunists aware of Dazzler’s powers take a hostage to keep her at bay and ask that the rich and successful James come with them. Rogue, however, being an unknown factor and able to pass for a non-mutant is able to trick the would-be kidnappers, distracting them long enough to make a sound on the keyboard that allows Dazzler to do exactly that: dazzle the criminals so they could be defeated. At the story’s conclusion, Rogue’s narration informs us that the club’s owner made sure to file a police report that kept their names out of it, reinforcing the place as a safe space (well, safe-ish) that protects the well-being of those vulnerable to institutional interference
While I do love that the story ends with Rogue enjoying herself—“because times like this don’t come nearly enough”—I would have been more satisfied with a version of this story that ended with Rogue using her powers to absorb musical ability and rock out with Dazzler and the band rather than just carousing with James and his friend. That said, the way the story takes advantage of multiple vectors of identity in order to cohere still makes it interesting to me. Even though the would-be kidnappers know of the danger Dazzler poses, they underestimate Rogue and don’t bother to consider that her companion could be a “closeted” mutant. I think this is an echo of men frequently underestimating women’s capabilities. Furthermore, there is a neat reversal of the usual vectors of hypervisibility, in which the blonde conventionally beautiful woman is identified as the other (her light powers being literally the visibility of her difference), while Rogue is able to avoid being singled out to her advantage.
It is refreshing to have a comic book superhero story featuring women that is not framed through the male gaze (It even passes the Bechdel Test!), something that is not even guaranteed by an all-woman creative team. On the other hand, stories that do hinge on women’s unspoken disposability provide a frame for analyzing the different ways that manifests, as can be seen in the comic book’s main story, “Whatever Happened to the Podunk Slam?”
This Moon Knight-centered story was written by Jo Duffy with pencils by Judith Hunt, an illustrator known for picture books, who has also done limited work for the Big Two and drew some Robotech comics. It involves millionaire Marc Spector (one of Moon Knight’s many identities) experiencing a mystic vision involving Podunk Slam (a popular boy band), their fans, an ancient artifact, and “elderly people insisting they shouldn’t be old.” The day before, Spector had refused to buy the purportedly cursed mask artifact for his art collection and then later sponsored a trip to a Podunk Slam concert for the residents of the Danielle Clarke Home for Lost and Friendless Girls on which he accompanied them. The fact that mystical Egyptian priests have to reach across space and time to make a connection for Moon Knight is telling because otherwise within this storyworld no one would have ever noticed that there was one, and this is because the evil plot in the story targets the most vulnerable and dismissible populations of women: teen age girls and the elderly.
The story opens with a confused old woman wandering in the group home for girls at night. No one knows where she came from, but one of the orphans is missing. This isn’t mentioned when Spector arrives with his manservant Frenchy (yes, really) to bring the girls to the concert. There is no reason to think this mystery has anything to do with their benefactor or the trip. The concert itself is a way to depict the Beatlemania-like apoplexy that the girls achieve when the boys sing their hits (and Frenchy gets into it too), while also depicting Spector’s distaste for the spectacle and the music. The narration, which is not from the point of view of any character, but has a kind of limited omniscience, reinforces Spector’s point of view by describing Podunk Slam as “five boys who [despite] combin[ing] a staggering lack of talent as singers, dancers, or actors…can capture feminine hearts — and pull in huge sums of money” because they are “in the hands of a shrewd production company.” Despite the narration’s critical view of the concert, Spector seems to be the only one who feels this way. The girls’ detailed discussion of the band’s different versions of their songs suggests deep engagement with that music and an impressive degree of discerning fan knowledge. Spector’s negative reactions to the group place him on the outside of this phenomenon. He concludes that “Everyone here but me is out of his mind!” This claim, however, is ironic, since mental health issues and identity fragmentation is a recurring element of Moon Knight’s story. The informed reader should consider how his claim about everyone else’s insanity is a projection of his own social isolation and fragile mental health. In fact, the story mocks Spector’s reaction to being at the boy band concert as he lays on a couch with an icepack on his head after the show. Frenchy says he is being “a big baby about a little headache,” especially since, the moon having risen, Spector’s stamina and ability to endure pain has doubled! This is also when Spector has his vision, so maybe the headache is really an unnoted side effect of direct communication with a timeless god.
Regardless of the headache’s source, since Podunk Slam is the favored music of young girls (and the explicitly feminized Frenchy), it is easily dismissed as talentless noise. The attitude depicted towards “what girls like” is particularly striking given that it exists in a comic book genre that is often synonymous with arrested male adolescent development. The very medium the story is published within is the kind of “cultural disaster area” (as Spector calls Podunk Slam) that is dismissed by those who see themselves as cultural arbiters. The earlier scene depicting Spector vetting art for his gallery establishes him as just that kind of person. Even today, superhero comic books are a marginal part of even the most generous valuation of the centrality of superhero franchises. For a superhero, especially a C-lister like Moon Knight, to question the cultural value of boy bands is a joke whether Jo Duffy meant it to be or not!
This pot and kettle aspect to the story is delicious irony, but it also highlights how even in the “popular” sphere, cultural production marked as masculine is positionally categorized as superior to “girl stuff.” In Music in Everyday Life (2000), Tia DeNora explores the apparent gender divide in how listeners engage with music they collect. The technical and historical categories of the “serious” male collector (and that are often privileged in the field of music fandom) are cast against the more affective approach that DeNora discovered among women surveyed about their relationship to music. Rather than dismiss the value of these kinds of opinions and engagement with popular music as emotional and biased, DeNora’s perspective asks us to consider valuing the negotiated readings of songs that provide methods to both place the self in a social context provided by popular culture and to express the self through an affective reading of the music. In this way, the music fandom DeNora describes serves to reconcile the tensions between the demands of our social world and our sense of our individual identity. In other words, these songs have both deep personal and idiosyncratic meanings while also providing a means of social negotiation within a community. Spector’s point of view may be a common one when it comes to generalized dismissal of boy bands, but DeNora’s work builds on the knowledge of music that for a long time remained in what Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber termed, “bedroom culture” in their contribution to 1976’s Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain.
While the main focus of Resistance through Rituals and a lot of cultural study at the time revolved around subcultures marked by male participation (like Mods and Rockers), in “Girls and Subcultures: An Exploration,” McRobbie and Garber address girls being largely absent from the study of youth subcultures at the time. They suggest that female subcultural activity may not be marginal to the subculture, but that their activities are structurally central to a different range of activities altogether that was (at the time of writing) invisible to researchers in comparison to the public masculine subcultures they were studying (211). They suggest that the subcultural activities of girls are “easily appropriated into the traditionally defined cultural space of the home” (213). The social position and gender inequality that girls must navigate leaves most of their subcultural activity to be structured around the domestic sphere or within certain institutions, such as school. As such, the listening practices of girls (to take an example relevant to our topic) would be more solitary or in small groups at home making it difficult to gather and interpret data in the way it was for the more visible, mobile and violent boys associated with the same social groups.
This framework is important for considering the reaction by boys and men (and women and girls trying to appeal to patriarchal sensibilities) when what had been a part of this fragmentary and isolated bedroom culture of the 60s and 70s not only had public expression but shaped popular culture itself. The negativity of Spector’s reaction and assessment of Podunk Slam speaks to how for a very long time the tastes and desires of young women were secondary to a more “serious” assessment of cultural value. While the culture industry has prioritized how to commodify those desires associated with young women as to better sell to them since at least the Beatles era—which led to the more public consumption and associated subcultural practices by those girls—the broader cultural attitudes towards those desires (and the object of them) often remain negative and depicted as not as serious or sophisticated.
Given this dismissive context, it is not surprising that it took a mystic vision for the “Fist of Konshu” to know something was wrong. It turns out that the opening scene with the missing orphan girl and the mysterious old woman was not an isolated incident. This has been happening wherever Podunk Slam has been appearing. We soon discover that Podunk Slam are actually five old men who—through the manipulation of their evil opportunist manager—have used the cursed mask that Marc Spector refused to buy to become young again and gain success at the cost of the youth of their fans. “Confused and harmless senior citizens” are not just appearing where young girls have gone missing, they are the girls! They have just had their youth stolen from them by the mask and through their devotion to the boy band. Podunk Slam don’t know their fans are paying the price for their vigor but come to suspect this might be the case since the spell to make them young and famous explicitly came with a price someone had to pay. While Podunk Slam are not blameless, it is noteworthy that in the scenario Duffy devised, the band’s management is exploiting both the band (through a predatory contract) and these young fans, moving the blame away from the performers or the tastes of young women, and towards pernicious industry practices.
It should come as no surprise that elderly women (even if really teen girls) are as easily dismissed, so much so in American culture, that it does not seem like a stretch that their sudden appearance is treated like an inconvenience that does not merit actually taking what they have to say about their identities into account. In fact, their pathetic grasping of autographed photos of their favorite music group is used as evidence of their dementia. Furthermore, not to lay too much on the parallel I am making, but when these girls scream their love of Podunk Slam or any band popular with their demographic they are also trying to say something about their identities in that paradoxical way most of us do, by both insisting on the uniqueness of our passions while announcing our belonging to one or more subgroups.
The story’s end works out for the girls who had their youth and vigor stolen, when a member of Podunk Slam smashes the mask, they are all changed back to teens. It does not work out as well for the band itself, who is rejected by the fans the moment they too are transformed back into their true forms, elderly men. Moon Knight’s failed attempt to get the girls to listen to the old men sing comes off as a bit tragic, given that the girls complain, saying “Eeyew! Gross,” “I don’t want to listen to them!” and “They’re old!” But it strikes me that rejecting this old version of the band is not a mere reversal of the disposability of both young and old women notable in the management agency’s mystic scheme but rather are the consequences of the band misrepresenting themselves and no longer being able to create the performance aesthetics of this genre of music. However self-sacrificing they might have been in the end (and the story goes out of its way to make sure they are sympathetic), they nevertheless agreed to the manager’s scheme knowing someone would be hurt.
Speaking of getting hurt, while Moon Knight is busy fighting the security guards after confronting the band and their manager backstage at a show, the manager runs out on stage and announces to the house full of eager young fans that the superhero is threatening the band, and that if the girls really love Podunk Slam, they will “Get backstage and get Moon Knight!!” The riot of teen girls bursts into the dressing room and attacks the Fist of Konshu who is not sure how to handle fighting off children and threatens to “get rough!” There is something even more absurd than superheroes normally are in the image of Moon Knight being grappled by dozens of tweens. Even when the band itself tries to explain that Moon Knight was not a threat to them, the girls double down on the violence, encouraging each other to use their nails to scratch him and their heels to stomp him. Moon Knight explains their behavior is being caused by the same spell that transformed the men into a boy band, so it takes the destruction of the mystic mask to calm the girls.
This sudden inclusion of a detail attributing the girls’ behavior to the power of the mask (something there is no indication of before the moment it is mentioned), strikes me as a narrative necessity to not make the girls into villains, but there is also something satisfying about seeing those girls tackle Moon Knight after Marc Spector’s dismissal of their fandom as “craziness” and of the band as without talent. This energy, while taking violent form (not an unusual manifestation for superhero comics) resonates with the degree to which girl subcultures would explode in the 90s and become much more visible and move beyond a mode that can be dismissed as mere consumption. The Riot Grrl movement is an example of this, as are the countless ‘zines and other modes of cultural production by young women in the decade(s) following. Furthermore, as Mary Celeste Kearny reminds us in 2007’s “Productive Spaces: Girls’ bedrooms as sites of cultural production,” “Cultural production is primarily understood as creative activities that result in material objects,” which I think does not account for the complex and ephemeral ways that culture is produced within and among networked virtual communities. In 2007, Tumblr, for example, was only just beginning to be a thing. In addition, the power of these girl-focused cultural commodities can also be seen in how mainstream the boy band phenomenon would become and how the lens of nostalgia would help such groups gain wider appreciation. Even the kinds of people who you might expect to express opinions similar to Marc Spector’s about bands like “Podunk Slam” are now likely to look back fondly on past eras of popular culture they would have dismissed. New Kids on the Block’s second studio release, Hangin’ Tough, the subsequent explosion in their popularity, and their many copycats would not come until later the same year Marvel Fanfare #38 was released but the boy band phenomenon was not non-existent and was nothing new. Nor was the trajectory from niche band for tween girls to mainstream powerhouse. While Backstreet Boys, for example, never quite had a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band moment of self-transformation and self-parody, they have become a part of mainstream popular culture across age and gender lines as their fans came of age and the nostalgia I mentioned above coalesced into a kind of reverent parody that would allow for a broader range of male-identified fans as can be seen in things like this excellent cold open from season five episode 17 of Brooklyn 99 and the closing bit from 2011’s execrable This is the End.
Nevertheless, despite being primed to shape pop culture and calling on girls and young women to engage deeply in fan subcultural activities, there is still a cycle of dismissal in the mainstream and among male-oriented fan spaces before that kind of transformation happens. In this context, “Whatever Happened to Podunk Slam?” is an early indicator of that influential energy as much as it is a warning about how easily female gender-identity intersects with age leading to women being exploited and/or discarded.
Finding this issue has reinforced for me how much collecting—even what seems on the surface to be random acquisition of things we happen upon and strike our fancy for whatever reason—is still a form of research and a methodology for constructing knowledge. Explicitly seeking out examples of a kind of comic or comics of distinct categories is certainly important, but the very nature of the comics industry and the field of its study, along with the countless examples of different comics that exist, means it is impossible to account for all of them in a systematic way. Instead, single issues like these can be a form of buried treasure that given the right lens can productively engage with multiple facets of comics and other forms of study, including the intersections of gender and representations of popular culture in comic books.