Women’s History Month: 31 Days of Power Volume 3
The heroes in our comics should reflect the world around us—and that means they should be diverse in their backgrounds, ethnicities, preferences, and genders.
In that spirit, we’ll be celebrating Women’s History Month by honoring female characters in comics history for the month of March.
First appearance: Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (Marvel, 1968)
Created by: Roy Thomas, Gene Colan
Alter ego: Ms. Marvel, Binary, War Bird, Captain Marvel
Originally debuting as the love interest to Mar-Vell—the original Captain Marvel—Carol Danvers was created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan in 1968 as a reaction to the women’s liberation movement, with Colan stating in the first issue of Ms. Marvel that readers might see “a parallel between her quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, and identity.” Initially, writers did a solid job of portraying her as a capable, intelligent, groundbreaking, feminist character. In the 60’s and 70’s she had a successful military career and was a skilled fighter pilot—unheard of roles for women of the era. Even her name, Ms. Marvel, was a nod to feminism, as the 1961 resurgence of title “Ms.” had roots in the movement in its public use by feminists Sheila Michaels and Gloria Steinem as a way to reference a woman who didn’t “belong to a man.”
Predictably, her male creators’ initial attempts to create a feminist hero weren’t without error—her powers were derived from Mar-Vell and her costume design was viewed as reductive—but none of them comes close to the worst judgment ever exercised by writer David Michelinie and Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. In 1980, the milestone 200th issue of Avengers, Carol went through months of gestation in a matter of days and it turned out she had been abducted and impregnated against her knowledge—effectively raped—by a cosmically powered character named Immortus in order to produce a descendant.
Comics historian Carol Strickland’s article The Rape of Ms. Marvel expounds this issue much better than I can—and the story was addressed and corrected by Chris Claremont later, but Danvers really got her due in 2012 when Kelly Sue DeConnick reinvented her as Captain Marvel.
Using the tagline, “Higher. Further. Faster. More.” DeConnick’s reintroduction of Carol came with a new look designed by Jamie McKelvie who drew more from her background as a military officer than it did her prior appearance as a leggy, blonde bombshell and takes the character back to the feminist intention of her roots. In addition to her skills as a leader and tactician, Danvers as Captain Marvel has basically the same power set as DC’s Superman—super speed, strength, invulnerability, flight, along with energy blasts—but it’s her humanity that sets her apart from other characters. She’s an imperfect human being like the rest of us, but her drive to improve herself and be informed rather than defined by her troubled past has inspired countless women to join “The Carol Corps,” a legion of fans based around mutual celebration of the character. She’s replacing Harley Quinn as one of the most cosplayed characters at conventions, and there’s not much that makes me happier at a con than seeing a little girl dressed as Captain Marvel (except for that time I saw one dressed as Captain America.)
Marvel’s 2019 Captain Marvel film will feature Carol Danvers—a lead actress has not yet been cast but fans have clamored for Katee Sackhoff, Heather Doerkson, and even MMA fighter Rhonda Rousey—and will be the first Marvel film to feature a female lead.
Higher. Further. Faster. More. Indeed.
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men #244 (Marvel, 1989)
Created by: Chris Claremont, Marc Silvestri
Alter ego: Jubilation Lee
A member of the X-Men at the height of their popularity—during Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s run that began in 1991—and featured heavily in the hugely popular X-Men cartoon series, Jubilee occupies a similar role in the team during the 90’s that Kitty Pryde did in the 80’s.
Whereas Kitty came from a nuclear middle-class Jewish family in middle America, Jubilee was born in Beverly Hills to two Chinese immigrants who had done well for themselves. The cush life she was accustomed to came to an end when her parents were murdered by hitmen, and after fleeing an orphanage, Jubes sought refuge in the same place most kids her age do—the mall, where she stole food to survive. She discovers her powers—to create brightly colored, explosive ‘plasmoids’ at the subatomic level—when trying to escape mall security, and realizes that she can make some serious coin by using her powers to entertain mall-goers. She falls in with the X-Men when security calls in the “M-Squad”—a team of mutant hunters—in an effort to put a stop to her performances.
Often garishly dressed, Jubilee is late 80’s, early 90’s fashion personified. Clad in neon pink shades, a bright yellow jacket, jean cutoffs, and ostentatious earrings emblazoned with her name, she spoke in heavy-handed slang and brought a youthful energy to the team that provided a window to the X-Men for a younger, more diverse audience. If Wolverine made every kid want to be an X-Man, then Jubilee made them believe it was possible. It’s no surprise that the two developed a father/daughter type of rapport in the books.
Practically overflowing with courage, she stepped up to the plate and regularly fought for Xavier’s dream—equality for mutants via protecting a world that fears and hates them—facing and defeating many of the X-Men’s most deadly villains completely on her own. Aside from Wolverine, she was possibly the focal point of more stories than any other X-character in the 90’s because she made the team relatable. She wasn’t super strong, didn’t have a healing factor, couldn’t control peoples’ minds or shoot lasers out of her eyes—she was actually afraid to explore the depth of her powers for fear of hurting someone—but was tough and confident.
In recent years, writers made the puzzling move of depowering her and turning her into a vampire. Most recently, she was the core of Brian Woods female driven X-Men series alongside Psylocke, Rogue, and Storm. In Bryan Singer’s upcoming film, X-Men: Apocalyse, she will be portrayed by Lana Condor.
First appearance: Marvel Graphic Novel #4: The New Mutants (Marvel, 1982)
Created by: Chris Claremont, Bob McLeod
Alter ego: Danielle “Dani” Moonstar
Indigenous characters don’t have a very positive history of representation in comics. They’re often subject to the interpretation of a white male writer and the trappings of stereotypes that have been perpetuated by centuries of misguided portrayals in popular culture. Your typical indigenous superhero might be named something like “Red Eagle,” be covered in war paint, with a manner of dress decorated in feathers, fringe, or—in the worst case—consisting simply of a loin cloth and moccasins.
That’s why it was such a damn crime when comics whitewashed the history of one of the most positive representations of an indigenous superhero in modern history—Danielle Moonstar, of Chris Claremont’s New Mutants, which featured Charles Xavier’s next generation of mutants in the 80’s.
Yes, Claremont is a white male, but he’s the exception to the rule, having created more diverse, three-dimensional characters—many of them female—than any other mainstream comics creator in history. Dani Moonstar is a Cheyenne woman who was not just a skilled warrior and leader, but someone who was heavily informed by her cultural identity and struggled with the fact that her grandfather had put her future in the hands of Charles Xavier—a white man—in order to help her control her ability of projecting convincing illusions of people’s deepest fears and desires. Reflective of her Cheyenne culture, she also shares a deep connection with nature and has an innate telepathic rapport with animals.
Her assertive nature was apparent when, in the first issue, Xavier scolds her for replacing the boots and belt of the classic black-and-yellow X-Men uniform with items more representative of her culture and personality. Dani puts him directly in his place saying, “I am Cheyenne. Nothing—no one—will ever make me forget or abandon my heritage. I am also an individual, Professor. You say we must wear these clothes, I will do as you ask, but in my own manner. If that bothers you, I can leave.”
Nearly the first hundred issues of The New Mutants—Dani left the team in issue #87—are centered around her journey as a Cheyenne and a woman. Somewhere late in the game, Marvel had the idea to whisk the New Mutants off to Asgard in a story where Dani forms a strong bond with a winged horse and becomes imbued with the power of one of Odin’s Valkyries. The resulting story explored her connection to her culture in a sensitive and introspective way, but also opened the door decades later for her to—in a convoluted, unnecessary manner—solely dedicate herself to the goddess Hel as one of her Valkyries, meaning that one of mainstream comics’ most compelling indigenous—and female—superheroes has faded into the background.
The absolutely brilliant thing about Cathy is that she related to so many women on so many levels. She was the essence of the modern woman. Cathy struggled with body issues, work, relationships, her parents, and myriad other subjects prominent in any 30-year-old woman’s life.
Cathy was a comic strip that you may remember from your newspaper comics page that ran from 1976 through 2010. It was created by Cathy Guisewite, and based on her own experiences as a woman. Cathy’s commentary teeter-tottered between the seemingly mundane and life’s grand questions—Why don’t I feel comfortable in any swimsuits I try on? Is my relationship going to work? Guisewite always made the issues light-hearted yet honest at their deepest cores. How many of us haven’t felt the pang of disappointment when something didn’t fit in the dressing room? How many of us feel so, so great eating that extra cookie, yet guilty at the same time? Cathy brought everything, big and small, to the forefront. Reading her strip every week felt like a small hug, coupled with an, “I totally get it.”
She was the perfect place for women to look and understand that so many problems are shared problems. Relationships are not easy—for anyone. Work is often stressful—for all of us. Cathy showed us that we are never, ever alone, and that made us feel a-ok to sometimes feel the need to just say, “Aaaccck!”
The strip was syndicated in 1,400 newspapers at its peak, and probably touched countless lives. There is something to be said for a comic when its final strip makes the New York Times (and many other news outlets) as actual news. The sheer volume of topics that Cathy covered is exceptional—34 years of social commentary is no small feat—and though Cathy is no longer produced, Guisewite’s insights to the female mind are timeless and still relevant to this day.
Cathy’s bio was contributed by Marissa Bea.