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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...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

WOMEN BEHAVING BADLY


The next two chapters of the Marvel Valkyrie-mythos appear over a year apart. The first tale (INCREDIBLE HULK #126, April 1970) introduces Barbara Norris, a one-shot support-character who would become integral to a later iteration of the warrior-woman, while the second (INCREDIBLE HULK #142, August 1971) gives the Valkyrie her first appearance as an entity clearly separate from her “mother” the Enchantress. The first tale is, like AVENGERS #83, just an enjoyable entertainment, but with the second attentive readers will begin to see a deeper symbolism shaping up, albeit one which is likely to strike the casual reader as rather risible.

Recapitulating HULK #126 is complicated by its being the third part of a tale that loosely associates the future charter members of the Defenders. Said tale begins in DOCTOR STRANGE #183 (November 1969), wherein the mystic hero learns of a breed of demons, the Undying Ones, who desire to cross into the Earth-domain for the usual nasty reasons. As #183 was also the final issue for that incarnation of DOCTOR STRANGE, writer Roy Thomas was constrained to continue the story in other titles, which next appeared in SUB-MARINER #22 (Feb 1970). This tale ended with the demons thwarted again, though Doctor Strange became a captive in their unholy realm—which is where HULK #126 picks up.

Barbara Norris, member of a cult of Earth-mystics that worships the Undying Ones, plays the part of both a betrayer and a savior. The cult’s leader gets the idea of using the Hulk as a catspaw to help the demons invade Earth., and pretty Barbara, despite expressing some reservations about “toying with a man’s life,” nevertheless helps her fellows drug Bruce Banner. Then the cultists hurl Banner into a dimension ruled over by a insectile tyrant called “the Night-Crawler.” This dimension is an “alternate pathway” which the Undying Ones can use to invade Earth once their old enemy the Night-Crawler is out of the way, and so the cultists hope that the Hulk will clear that path for their masters (who, incidentally, are still keeping Doctor Strange captive in a magical prison).

Banner throws a wrench in the gears: knowing that he’ll endanger the Earth by fighting the Night-Crawler, he represses the transformation. The frustrated cultists see all this via the usual crystal-gazing, but when Barbara develops a somewhat-tardy conscience, the cultists toss her in after Banner, hoping (correctly) that Banner will be forced to fight to save a damsel in distress. Sure enough, once the Night-Crawler menaces Barbara, Banner “hulks out” and monster battles mystic tyrant. In the end, the Hulk manages to both beat the Night-Crawler and foil the cultists’ plans as he unleashes a cataclysm that destroys the tyrant’s world, thus making it impossible for the Undying Ones to use it as a pathway. The Night-Crawler then teleports himself into the Undying Ones’ realm to fight them for their cosmos, and for some unexplained reason he pulls Barbara and the Hulk along with him instead of leaving them to die in the cataclysm. While demons go at each other, the Hulk and Barbara happen across the imprisoned Doctor Strange. Barbara, who learned from her fellow cultists of Strange’s self-sacrifice, somehow divines that she can free Strange by taking his place in the prison, thus making amends for her earlier misdeeds. This also helps writer Thomas solve the problem as to how to get both heroes out of this alien clime, for Strange then magicks them both back to Earth. The Hulk transforms back to Banner, and the two heroes exchange some pleasantries before parting (though no word is spoken of poor Barbara’s unenviable fate).

Compared to the earlier Hulk-tale, HULK #142 isn’t nearly as entertaining on the visceral level, being a labored satire that overtly references its inspiration, Tom Wolfe’s book RADICAL CHIC. But unlike AVENGERS #83 it does manage to put a more complex spin on the “war between men and women” myth-theme that AVENGERS #83 botched.

The story in short: during one of the Green Goliath’s jaunts into New York City, two rich social-climbers, the Parringtons, decide to advance their social status by persuading the man-monster to attend a benefit designed to raise money for his “cause:” i.e., not being hounded by human beings any more. The only reason this daffy plan works is because the Parrington’s cute young daughter Samantha goes along and talks the Hulk into going along with it all. However, the Enchantress is watching from her prison-dimension and transforms Samantha into the Valkyrie, the better to kill the Hulk for wrecking the villainess’ plans back in HULK #102.

Now, although the Enchantress’ motives have no more to do with “women’s lib” than they did in AVENGERS #83, Samantha is emotionally invested in the cause, though she’s never given even the most shallow reason for being a “libber.” She’s a cartoony sketch of a feminist, and Thomas makes her actions even more erratic than those of Barbara Norris. Samantha’s first seen complaining that her father ought to “throw a bash” for women’s lib, which he refuses to do since he’s got his more original “Hulk-benefit” idea. However, despite deeming the Hulk “the biggest male chauvinist pig this side of Norman Mailer,” Samantha goes along with her folks on their crusade to bring the Hulk to heel. She even uses judo to hurl an Army guard out of their way, and then, when her parents fail to persuade the Hulk of anything, manages to talk the monster into trusting her. (The female as betrayer again, sort of.) Then, after her father holds a press conference for his benefit—that is, doing exactly what he said he meant to do—she becomes irrationally irritated at him. Showing a dizzying blend of practicality and goofiness, she refuses to tell the Hulk of her parents’ superficial motives for fear of getting them hurt, but she organizes a women’s lib picket to protest the Hulk-benefit. (One could easily suspect her of piggybacking on the publicity generated by the benefit for her own cause, though Thomas doesn’t make this explicit.)

Now, this course of events is fairly silly, even in the context of a fantastic universe, but these plot-elements aren’t what give the story a mythic (if inadvertently funny) quality. This mythic element comes to the fore in the location where the Enchantress chooses to transform the wind-changing women’s-libber into “the vengeful Valkyrie”—said location being a skyscraper that bears a marked resemblance to (but is never identified as) the Empire State Building. It’s near the summit of this building that the transformation takes place—a building later described as symbolic of male hegemony, in that it was “built by the hands of males.”

So here we have a sorcerous female transforming a slightly-strident feminist into an Amazonian powerhouse, atop a big, tall building that symbolizes maleness.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But then other times, it isn’t. And sometimes the letters “p.e.” don’t stand for physical education.

Following Samantha’s transformation, she quickly beats a path to the Hulk-party, which is about to fall apart anyway, partly because the Hulk’s impatient to see Samantha again, as she’s the only one he trusts. The Valkyrie bursts in—ironically, only the Hulk recognizes her despite her costume—and attacks the man-monster, demonstrating that she’s strong enough to hurt him when she hits. Her battle-dialogue suggests that she’s fighting him largely for the pleasure of beating a representative of the stronger sex, and only a couple of pages later is it revealed that she’s under the Enchantress’ magical control. Sexual politics are further polarized by the Hulk, who refuses to hit a girl and is (for once) prepared to leap away rather than continue the fight. However, Valkyrie again resorts to womanly deceit, pretending to make peace with him so that she can Spock-pinch him into dreamland.

Then, still a couple of panels before we see that Valkyrie’s being controlled by the Enchantress, the warrior-woman seems quite prepared to murder the monster so that ‘every egocentric male” should “tremble” at the deed. For one panel she even drags the unconscious behemoth by his hair, reversing the old caveman-courtship joke. But when Valkyrie hauls the Hulk all the way to the top of the maybe-Empire ‘scraper, it’s evident that we’re not just dealing with a little penis-envy symbolism, but a reversal of a prominent cinematic myth, which also involved a monster and a girl going to the top of a towering building that maybe represented what the monster wanted to do to the girl—

This time, at least, beauty genuinely tries to kill the beast, and so the Hulk takes the high dive (though after the deed’s done, Sam-Valkyrie does suffer, like Barbara Norris, a tardy attack of conscience). Gamma rays being a greater source of potency than prehistoric evolution, the Hulk survives the fall, though it does irritate him enough to consider breaking his rule about hitting girls. However, at that fortuitous moment the Enchantress’ spell wears off, returning Samantha to humanity and somehow changing Hulk back to Banner as well. The two of them recover without recognizing each other from their one-night stand-off, and then go their separate ways. Samantha has no memory of being Valkyrie, but Thomas closes the tale with a literally-pointed suggestion that the Valkyrie may return— for the Valkyrie’s spear is seen laying in the rubble. By the logic of the story the spear should’ve vanished when the spell ended, but it comes to nothing in any case, for this phallic token of the first Valkyrie is (to the best of my knowledge) completely forgotten by everyone. When the Barbara Norris Valkyrie manifests in DEFENDERS #4, she possesses an all-new magic spear—more on which later.

I’ve stated that this whole Kong-lomeration of myth-motifs is amusing, at least to me, but I also stand by my notion that it’s also strongly mythic, possibly more so because Thomas doesn’t seem to have consciously drawn on the 1933 film for the story’s sexual content. I have nothing against the various websites that amuse themselves by seeing penises in every comic-book missile, but at the same time, I think I’m aiming a little higher than that. It’s damn near inevitable than any story presenting the fantasy of a strong woman is going to invoke a certain amount of sexual content, and I regard such content is entirely valid in a mythopoetic sense. Some archaic myths are solemn and portentous, like the Gilgamesh epic, and some are salacious and funny, like certain Thor-tales (in particular, the one which shows Thor being unable to outwrestle an old woman). HULK #142 isn’t consciously salacious, nor is it nearly as complex as its cinematic forbear. But, for a story that seems dimly hostile toward feminism, it takes an important step in the direction of articulating a new feminine myth-figure.

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