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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, March 14, 2008

FEMALE TROUBLE

The previous tale discussed may not be a major comics-myth, but it fits my definition for complex symbolism. In contrast, the story to be discussed here—the Roy Thomas/John Buscema tale from AVENGERS #83 (December 1970)-- possesses only a rudimentary symbolic structure. Still, this story will help illustrate one of my earlier points as to how mighty mythic oaks can grow from nutty little null-myths.

The story—titled “Come on in—the Revolution’s Fine” (henceforth just “Revolution”)—is basically entertaining, despite its considerable lapses in logic. It’s not my intention to bag on a story tossed together over 30 years ago, but in my retelling it’ll be pretty obvious that those lapses are of Weisingerian proportions. (For the uninitiated in comicspeak, Mort Weisinger was known for having edited a number of wildly overcomplicated Superman tales, as well as being a onetime boss of Roy Thomas). Lack of logic never prevented a story from having strong mythicity, but “Revolution” is nothing more than an exercise in the sort of overinflated “relevance” that appeared in many pop-cultural works of the period—in this case, Superheroes Meet Feminism.

Since for this series of essays I’m mainly interested in the first appearance of the Valkyrie, I’ll summarize “Revolution” in reverse, pursuing it from the POV of the villainous Enchantress who stage-manages the plot as well as giving birth to her armor-breasted alter ego. Following the attempt of the Enchantress and Executioner to conquer Asgard in HULK #102, Odin exiles them both to a barren nether-world. The Enchantress (telling her story for an audience of captive heroes) relates that her exile with her demi-god partner was at least bearable thanks to their companionship. Were we dealing with modern “mature” superheroes, one would presume that the villainess, no longer able to call upon a host of other swains, may have finally let the Executioner “execute” an assault upon her holy of holies— which would be consonant with the Enchantress’ wrath when Executioner deserts her for another woman, an unnamed sorceress of that nether-dimension. In fact, as the villain takes his leave of Enchantress, he reminds her of how she once “pined for Hercules,” and sadistically hopes that she’ll pine for him as well—which suggests that for some time the axe-man has resented being kept at arm’s length, especially because of the sorceress’ affections for other men. The end of their idyll turns this Asgardian Ishtar into a man-hating termagant, which leads her to assume the guise of the Valkyrie, sort of a road-company Wagnerian Brunhilde.

Upon jumping to Earth from her dimensional prison, the Enchantress’s main goal is to return to Asgard, where her powers will be at their greatest. Writer Thomas doesn’t explain her reasons for wanting to do so, but to be charitable, I’ll assume that Thomas meant that once she returned to Asgard, she would somehow avoid getting kicked out again by Odin and would then use her powers to seek revenge on her ex-lover. Somehow Enchantress finds out about a scientist who’s invented a dimension-hopping device that she thinks can return her to Asgard, but it seems she can’t find a way to approach the scientist in private because he’s being guarded from kidnap-attempts by four of the Avengers—coincidentally, all males. In addition, four male villains—the Masters of Evil, with whom the Enchantress sometimes ran in her mundane supervillain years—are planning to kidnap the aforesaid scientist.

Needing some pawns to run interference against both all-male groups, the demi-goddess somehow hits on the idea of forming the Liberators, a sisterhood of superheroines, which she, as the Valkyrie, will lead into battle. By devices unknown she manages to assemble four heroines in Avengers Mansion. Of the four, two of them, the Wasp and Scarlet Witch, are already members of that super-group. The third, the Black Widow, was then something of a hanger-on with the group, and the fourth, Medusa of the Inhumans, had no substantive connections with either the Avengers or the Enchantress, and is apparently brought in just to give each of the three groups four players.

With a little bit of sophistry about how the male superheroes have always kept the women down, the villainess-in-valkyrie-garb convinces the heroines to join her. The official explanation is that the Enchantress also uses “subtle spells” to influence the ladies, but in order to make his climax work, Thomas claims that those spells depended on the heroines having some “trust” in the Valkyrie and her mission to liberate women. But the arguments that the Valkyrie uses to persuade the heroines are so thin, especially considering that they come from a completely unknown source, that the women look pretty stupid for having believed anything out of the Valkyrie’s mouth. By itself “Revolution” is probably not a fair representation of whatever Roy Thomas might think or have thought about feminism, but on the face of it the story bears strong resemblance to the “myth” (note the quotes) propounded by anti-feminists, viewing feminists as either deluded females or women resentful of not being able to get/keep a man.

The closest “Revolution” comes to the status of fully-realized myth is in aping the basic pattern of the “women-revolt-against-men” tale-type, less typified by the Valkyries of Norse myth than by the Greek Amazons. It’s marginally interesting that the real Valkyries were spirits of death—just as I’ve argued the Executioner is a sort of minor death-god—so that if any death-symbolism appeared in this early iteration of the Valkyrie, one could view the story as showing how easily an incarnation of Love becomes a representation of Death. But the general character of the Enchantress’ alter ego is more Amazon than Valkyrie, though her only martial act in the story is to blast a couple of heroes with rays from her spear. (Despite the resentment-of-males theme, this time a spear probably is only a spear.) Later iterations will stress those Amazonian aspects, and eventually the Valkyrie will be one of the first heroines at Marvel to rate as a “powerhouse” (to use one hero’s word for her in DEFENDERS #4). I’ll talk about some of her differences from other, earlier heroines in a future essay.

By the way, the captive Avengers all get loose and vanquish the villainess, just in case you wondered. And though at the end the Scarlet Witch calls Goliath a “male chauvinist pig” and implies that a real all-girl group is still a possibility, the Liberators never made a comeback, implying something of a “win” for the Y-chromosome set.

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