In my first post on Marvel’s Secret Wars, I discussed the ways that the representations of Janet Van Dyne and Ororo Munroe each played into both gendered and racial stereotypes. Today, I want to expand some on the ways that Secret Wars, through the some of the relationships in the series, plays into young, white male readers’ romance fantasies. This comes up in two specific relationships. The first is in the triangle between Johnny Storm, Zsaji, and Colossus. The second is between Volcana and Molecule Man. Each of these relationships play into readers’ fantasies.
The triangle with Johnny, Zsaji, and Colossus draws upon tropes of infatuation and jealousy. Zsaji is a healer from a another planet, a planet that the Beyonder took a part of to form the Battleworld. After a battle with the Wrecking Crew, the heroes find a village and Zsaji heals them. When she heals Johnny, he calls he “gorgeous” and tells her, “I think I’m in love! Baby, I’ll tumble 4 ya!” Zsajireplies; however, Johnny and the rest of the heroes cannot understand her. The language appears as squiggled lines, signifying the language barrier.
In fact, Zsaji never speaks in English to anyone throughout the series. This move inhibits her agency and our ability, as readers, to determine how she truly feels. Instead, Johnny and Colossus always project their feelings onto her. When Galctus summons his planet into the Battleworld’s orbit, Zsaji takes Johnny into her dwelling. Johnny thinks that she is doing this to spend time with him, and when they enter, he thinks she is fixing him drinks. Johnny’s thoughts only present Zsaji as love interest, not as someone who can assist him and the others in their ongoing battles.
Later, when Colossus gets injured, Zsaji heals him, and he has the same initial feelings as Johnny. As he looks upon Johnny and Zsaji, he thinks, “She is very beautiful. . . and very much in love with the Human Torch! Why does that trouble me? And why can I not picture Kitty [Pride] in my mind now? Zsaji! Her name is Zsaji . . . stop looking at him that way!” Colossus’ thoughts introduce the triangle into the narrative, and his initial thoughts also present Zsaji as a possession, not as an individual.
As he recovers from his wounds, Colossus begins to constantly think about Zsaji, causing him to forget about Kitty Pride. When Zsaji comes in to help ease his pain, he tells her, “I cannot deny my feelings! Zsaji, I think you are the most beautiful, most wonderful woman I have ever met!” He tells her this, and as she leaves, Johnny swoops down from the sky, grabs her, flies into the air, and kisses her. Johnny assumes that she likes him; however, her inability to communicate with Johnny, Colossus, and the reader, does not indicate if this is true. Johnny’s actions, like Colossus’ earlier thoughts, present Zsaji as a possession, not as an individual with a choice in who she loves and what she wants to do or not do with that person.
During an attack by Doom, Zsaji becomes injured and Colossus watches on the screen, thinking he needs to do something. He defers, however, to Johnny because he “knows” that Zsaji likes Johnny instead of him. He tells Johnny, ” I have bad news! Zsaji has been injured!” Helping Reed Richards, Johnny looks up as asks, “Huh?” He proceeds to tell Colossus, “I’ve got no time for a chippie now! Reed’s hurt! I’ll send her a card later!” Johnny’s flippant response, again, places Zsaji as nothing more than an object for his pleasure. To him, Reed seems more important. Granted he is helping Reed at that moment, but his response to Colossus highlights his true feelings about Zsaji. Even if he could not help her, he could reply in a better manner.
Zsaji survives the attack, and later we see her awaken from her sleep and suddenly sitting up in bed, startled by someone at her door. The panels show a silhouette in the doorway, standing there almost seductively. We can tell, from the outline, it is Colossus, but while the framing presents this as a supposed act of romance, the panels depict it as a menacing intrusion on Zsaji’s privacy, which, like Johnny’s grabbing of Zasji earlier, it is. Colossus expresses his love for Zsaji, and the narration reads, “She cannot understand the words. . . Nonetheless, the essence is clear. She smiles. . . as though seeing him for the first time.”
These moments, as I have pointed out, depict Zsaji as a possession. They also, though, present her feelings as fleeting. She moves seamlessly from Johnny to Colossus, without even any indication of the shift. The narrative reads that if Johnny likes her then she goes with him. If Colossus likes her, she’ll end up with him.
Along with the adolescent male fantasies, Zsaji also represents fears over relationships between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Immediately after the scene where Colossus expresses his love, we see Nightcrawler and Wolverine talking about where Colossus has run off to. Wolverine tells Nightcrawler that Colossus’ obsession stems from Zsaji’s healing power, and he continues by stating, “This ain’t the girl next door, either! Different world . . . different culture . . . who knows what love means to her? Probably not the same as to him! Looks to me like it’s a standard part of her patient-care!”
Throughout, we need to think about Zsaji not just in relation to the relationships she has with Johnny and Colossus. We need to think about her in relationship to discussion of colonialism and the “othering” of individuals. The fact that she remains voiceless, essentially, and that she serves to heal the heroes calls upon us to think about Zsaji in this manner. I do not have the space to explore these aspects here, but it is definitely something we need to consider with Secret Wars.
Meeting with the rest of the heroes, Colossus must decide whether or not they shall fight Doom. Captain America tells them that they will not attack Doom unless everyone agrees. Colossus is the last to agree, and he tells those gathered around the table that he has finally found the woman he loves and that if they attack Doom all that may go away. He asks them, “Am I being selfish?” The final panel of the penultimate issue shows a closeup of his face, fists clenched, and a tear rolling down his cheek as he says, “Forgive me, Zsaji. . . I say yes. . . we fight!” This moment links him with the heroes, of course, but it also, as Johnny’s statement does earlier, places Zsaji’s life below his and those sitting around the table. He does not respond flippantly like Johnny does, but his response does push Zsaji to the side.
Doom blasts the heroes’ base, incapacitating everyone. Zsaji comes upon the scene and uses her power to heal Colossus, and in doing so, she dies. She sacrifices herself so that he may live. Again, this moment places Colossus’ life above her own existence. While it appears that Colossus truly loves her, Zsaji’s actions play into the “magical Negro” trope. Even though she is not black, she is othered. Her powers and her sacrifice work to save the white characters at the expense of herself.
Colossus mourns Zasji’s death, and as the X-Men prepare to leave the Battleworld, Professor Xavier convinces Colossus to return with them by telling him that death is inevitable and asking him what he will do with the life that Zasji granted him. A panel shows another closeup of Colossus’ face as tears stream from his eyes. He stands up and agrees to return to earth.
There are many layers of Zsaji that need to be examined in more detail. This post merely scratches the surface. While I did not get to Volcana and Molecule Man here, I will in the next post. 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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