A few weeks back, I picked up Marvel’s Secret Wars. This crossover event took place over the course of twelve issues from May 1984 through April 1985. I picked up Secret Wars because it looked interesting, and I remember having issue #8, the first appearance of the Symbiote, when I was younger. Fans have been clamoring for Secret Wars on the big screen, and at SDCC, the Russo brothers again spoke about their interest in directing Secret Wars. Reading, Secret Wars, though, they would have to address a number of issues, specifically in regard to the representation of women and Black characters.
In all honesty, Secret Wars was hard for me to finish. I understand it’s a large-scale, marketing crossover that doesn’t necessarily take it self too seriously. However, there are so many issues surrounding representation that it made it difficult for me to get through. I will not be able to address all of the issues I saw with Secret Wars in this post, so I want to zero in on a few and explain why they are problematic.
Over the past few years, I have written extensively about representation in media, and specifically in comics. I have written about reader responses to the first appearance of Black Panther, the problems with Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’ Strange Fruit, the character of Buck Wild in Milestone’s Icon, and more. I do not want to rehash those aspects here. If you want to see what I have had to say, just click on the links above.
Secret Wars plays into, I would say, young, white male readers’ romance fantasies. What I mean by this is that the series taps into those desires, or longings, of adolescent boys during the period when they begin to earnestly think about romantic relationships. Throughout, Secret Wars presents women on the periphery, as helpers to the male characters. Along with this, each of the male characters who have significant others back on earth–Mr. Fantastic and Colossous specifically–constantly think about Sue Richards and Kitty Pride. Reed Richards thinks about Sue and their unborn baby, focusing on the domestic. The female characters do not have these thoughts or longings for people left on earth.
Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp, caught my attention. Immediately upon arriving on the Beyonder’s world, the heroes debate about who should be their leader. She defers her leadership of the Avengers to Captain America because, as she says, “Some people don’t know me well! They might have doubts. . . and there’s no room for that!” Captain America, ultimately, becomes the leader of a band of the heroes. The other group, the X-Men, fall under Charles Xavier. This is important too because Storm, who has been the leader of the X-Men in the field argues that she should maintain her position; however, Xavier becomes the field leader. Storm ultimately defers to Xavier’s leadership, but she does not agree with it. In this manner, she becomes the counter to Van Dyne, and throughout, she questions Xavier’s position.
In each instance, the role of women in leadership positions becomes undermined, once by Van Dyne deferring to Captain America and once by Storm reluctantly acquiescing to Xavier’s position. The argument between Storm and Xavier is important. Storm plays into stereotypical tropes by becoming an angry Black woman who doesn’t “know her place.” When Xavier calls the X-Men to follow after Doom, Storm runs to Xavier and tells him, “I will speak to you and you will listen to me.” She is the leader of the X-Men in the field, and she did not give her teammates the order, Xavier did.
Xavier’s orders undermine Storm’s position. Xavier treats her in a paternalistic manner, telling her to control her anger because it is causing a storm to erupt, thus hindering Cyclops’ take off. Storm tells Xavier he is a good tutor, but that he needs ti “leave the war to the warriors.” To his, Xavier points his finger, sternly looks out of the panel, and tells her, “Notwithstanding your doubts, I have made my decision which is mine to make–I will give the orders! Understood?” Storm rebuts by telling him that he will do things her own way, no follow his orders. Xavier counters, telling Storm she will obey him and his “will not tolerate insubordination, mutiny, or desertion!”
This whole exchange undermines Storm’s role with the X-Men. It usurps her position and places Xavier, the white man, at the top. Xavier’s paternalistic and harsh words to Storm add to this. While Van Dyne submissively defers, Ororo angrily disagrees. The juxtaposition between Van Dyne’s and Ororo’s responses also plays into stereotypes of the White Van Dyne being submissive and the Black Ororo being combative. Apart from this scene, which occurs issue #6, I forgot Storm was even in the comic until issue #11 when she comments that everyone should attack Doom.
Storm and Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel) become almost nonexistent throughout Secret Wars. Rambeau, hailing form New Orleans, became the second Captain Marvel in 1982 and even led the Avengers. During the scene where everyone says whether or not they should attack Doom, Rambeau does not say anything. Elsewhere, she only serves as an advance scout, never really commenting on anything that is occurring. Her purpose, along with that of James Rhodes (Iron Man) and Storm becomes nothing more than a soldier in the war.
Van Dyne, on the other hand, gets a large amount of space within the narrative; however, this space only serves to reinforce her position as the stereotypical woman, only concerned with her beauty and domestic activities even in the midst of battle. Van Dyne finds herself in Magneto’s base, and she seduces him, in a way, to get information. Just before the X-Men enter to confront Magneto, he crafts a comb for Van Dyne. She tells him, “You really discover the things that you take for granted when Bergdorf Goodman’s is a billion-zillion miles away! And I wish this place had plumbing! What sort of beings would build a place with no. . . no powder rooms?”
While Van Dyne’s words here can be seen as playing into the ruse to get Magneto to give her information, she makes similar comments when alone. Even amidst the war, she focuses on outward, superficial appearances. Escaping Magneto’s base, Van Dyne crashes her ship. The first thing she says after the crash is, “Oh, no! I broke a nai! I don’t even have an emery board and I’m thirty-seven trillion miles from my manicurist and it’s her day off anyway!” Instead of worrying whether or not she is ok and where she is, Van Dyne worries about a broken nail and the fact that it’s manicurist’s day off.
The representation of Van Dyne and Storm play off of one another, working within stereotypes that reinforce harmful views of both white and black women. These caricatures carry over into the triangle with Zsja, Collosus, and the Human Torch and with Volcana and the Molecule Man and even with the Enchantress and Thor. In the next post, I will explore some of these aspects of Secret Wars. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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