Over the past couple of posts, I have focused on the depiction of women in Marvel’s crossover Secret Wars. Today, I want to wrap up that discussion by briefly looking at the relationship between Volcana (Marsha Rosenberg) and Molecule Man (Owen Reece.) As I have noted before, I could also dive into examinations of relationships between the Enchantress and Thor or between Titana and the Absorbing Man. However, I feel that the interactions between Volcana and Molecule Man provide a prime example of how the series plays into the young white male readers’ romance fantasies.
Along with the heroes and villains, the Beyonder brought ordinary individuals from various planets to the Battleworld. Marsha Rosenberg and her friend Titania (Mary MacPherran) came from Denver, CO. On the Battleworld, the two women agreed that they would serve Dr. Doom in exchange for superpowers. Doom obiliged and turned Rosenberg into Volcana and MacPherran into Titania. Immediately after their first appearances on the page and their transformations, the women encounter the men that they become romantically involved with.
Titania exhibits her strength and approaches the Absorbing Man, telling him, “I’m going to do anything I want to you! Everything I always wanted to do to everybody who used to be bigger and stronger than me!” Here, it looks like Titania could become a character that upends patriarchal systems, but she doesn’t do that. The Absorbing Man reclines on a couch and says she needs to save her fighting for tomorrow’s battle. When Titania asks if he’s backing down, he simply responds, “I got nothin’ to prove . . . to a dame!” What could have been a challenge to patriarchy becomes a submission to it. Titania angrily wrecks some of the furniture in the room and storms off.
As Titania walks away, Volcana and Molecule Man have their first interaction. He tells her that he despises violence, and she replies, “Really? You? The infamous Molecule Man? I’ve always wanted to meet you! You’re . . . different than I expected!” Molecule Man sarcastically replies that he’s different because of he is shorter than she expected, and Volcana tells him it’s because he seems more sensitive. At this, Molecule Man opens up and relates how he has been seeing a therapist and his therapist says the same thing.
Molecule Man is awkward in his interactions with others. Doom and the other villains want him to be ruthless, but he refuses. He talks about seeing a therapist numerous times, and always appears to not be very assertive. Volcana serves, in a way, as boost for his self esteem. She dotes and fawns upon him, becoming the devoted girlfriend that will bolster Molecule Man’s confidence.
After Molecule Man obliterates the heroes’ headquarters, a panel shows Volcana and Molecule Man looking romantically at one other. She has her hands underneath her chin, gazing down at him and tells him how impressed she is with his powers. He stares up at her lovingly, telling her it’s easy, and he ends by letting her know that she can call him Owen. This panel plays on the tropes and images of the initial romantic moments between a couple: the doting glances, the embarrassing stances, the terms used to speak to one another. In this panel, the longings of the readers become visualized through Volcana and Molecule Man.
The other villains make fun of Volcana and Molecule Man’s relationship. Arm in arm, the couple walk upon the members of the Wrecking Crew. Molecule Man tells Volcana how hard it was for him with people making fun of him all the time, and she tells him, Oh, you poor, poor boy! I wish I’s been there to help you!” As they approach the Wrecking Crew, Piledriver lets out a “moo” and informs the others, “Hey, here comes the milksop and his cow! Romeo and Guernsey!” Embedded within Piledriver’s statement is a commentary on Volcana’s appearance and Molecule Man’s demeanor. This is not the only instance where characters make derogatory comments about Volcana, and they ultimately work to reinforce supposedly uniform standards of beauty.
Upon hearing Pieldriver, Volcana wants to attack, but Molecule Man restrains her. They begin to walk away, and Piledriver throws another insult at them, calling the nerds. At this, Molecule Man and Volcana get ready to defend themselves. In one panel, we see Titania hiding behind a tree watching the fight. Volcana steps in front of Molecule Man and grabs Piledriver by the throat. To this, Titania thinks, “I can’t believe how Volcana mothers that little wimp!” Throughout Secret Wars, Volcana plays the role of the domestic helpmate to tee. She becomes, in essence, a mother figure to Molecule Man.
After Wolverine wounds Molecule Man, Volcana pleads with the Enchantress to teleport her to his side so she can help him. As she teleports into the room, Titania exclaims, “Girl, ever since we were kids back in Colorado you’ve done a lit of stupid things over a lot of wimpy mama’s boys, but this takes the cake!” To Titania, Volcana mother’s Molecule Man, putting his needs above her own. Volcana runs to Molecule Man and holds his head, all the while telling him she will keep him warm till they can get to Dr. Doom for help.
Over the course of the series, Volcana constantly dotes on Molecule Man. While we do not see domestic scenes between the two, she becomes a submissive helpmate to Molecule Man. It’s not too far of a stretch to envision her in the role of a loyal housewife maintaining the domestic space for Molecule Man. The whole relationship plays into the fantasies of the readers. In many ways, Molecule Man can be seen as a stand in for the readers, if we buy into stereotypes about comic book readers. He’s short, insecure, and picture himself as unable to do anything of value. Even with these feelings, he experiences love with Volcana, and she bolsters his confidence.
Ultimately, Volcana, through her support, becomes the woman in the background as Molecule Man increases in relevance. In this manner, her identity gets subsumed within his own rise. By placing such a focus on Molecule Man, she denies herself her own identity and growth. This does not change throughout Secret Wars, and as a result, the relationship, like the initial panels with Titania, reinforces a patriarchal structure, privileging the male position.
There is much more that could be said here. But, I do not have the space. W hat 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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