Stuart Smalley Would Be Proud

(Soundtrack: Everclear–World of Noise)

I feel that I am growing–as an “online personality”. Apparently, the best way to prevent pernicious binaries like “genre comics”/”artcomix” or “children’s fiction”/”adult fiction” from exerting their baleful influence upon sincere discussion of superhero comics is not to deconstruct them but to ignore them! I owe this “change of heart” to the good folks at The Comics Journal Message Board, who’ve been delighting me of late!

I’m especially gratfeful, at this moment, to Robin Bougie, who initiated a very interesting thread dealing with gender assumptions in the work of Stan Lee–especially in the “romance titles”. (as an aside, David Welsh has recently approached this topic from an entirely different perspective).

Anyway, my position is that:

Stan showed a great deal of wlllingness to “break the rules” by dealing with romance in a way that “adventure fiction” (which had always been coded as a “male” genre) rarely had–and it’s an interesting fact that many of the letters in the sixties/seventies Marvels are from women–but the (you can call it unconscious if you want to) kind of gender complications unleashed by a figure like “pining Parker” (for instance!) completely disappear from the “female-coded” love comics, and here I think you can easily make the case that, although the superheroes comics are very ambiguous on the subject of what it means to be “a man”, the romance comics leave almost no room at all for doubt about their construction of “femininity”.

In a strange way then, you could say that Stan, as a writer, had a great deal more success in reaching actual women with his superhero work!

Now, I’ve got a really high fever tonight, and cannot seem to focus on the book I’m supposed to read for tomorrow’s seminar, so I thought I’d try to develop this a little bit, building upon Robin’s insight that:

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed about love comics of the era, and this isn’t specific to Marvel, but to DC and Charlton as well – was the constant overpowering notion that women (even the heroine of the tale) are confused and have no idea what they want in life, whereas men are always wise, understanding, and ready to make things right if their girlfriends would ONLY listen to them. I have about a dozen love comics where, to get his girl to listen to him, the male lead takes a ‘Daddy role’, and puts her over his knee and spanks her as if she were a spoiled toddler.

When you compare this ‘perfect’ male character to the confused, insecure and flawed male characters in Marvel’s superhero titles of the time (Peter Parker, etc) you get an idea that two sets of rules are in place.

Maybe I’m connecting dots that don’t exist, but I’m seeing male love comics writers like Lee not wanting female readers to see men as weak, flawed, or anything other than right 100% of the time. How else can you explain it?

I’m sure that there’s a great deal of truth in this argument. The only proviso I would offer is that, again, the superhero books often take situations from the love books and expose them as the conventional shams that they are. Is this Stan’s way of “getting back” at female reader expectations that may not have even existed? My assumption is that Stan, whose desire to change the way superhero were written (and make money in the process!) is common knowledge, simply would not have bothered to rock a romance title boat that was perceived as a relatively stable source of income for the company. And even if he had wanted to “innovate for innovation’s sake” in this area, I don’t think he could have, since it’s pretty clear that he was saving all of his best “love stuff” for the superhero titles themselves.

Which brings us back–as usual–to Gwen and Mary Jane. It’s easy to see Gwen, especially in the last few years of her pre-clone existence, as very much a replica/possible critique of the standard “Our Modern Love” protagonist. She may show some resourcefulness on occasion, and even an “independent streak”, but there’s no denying the fact that she is “father-fixated”, and that Captain Stacy’s death in issue #90 frees her to refocus all of this submissive desire upon the unassuming person of Peter Parker. From that point on, the relationship is doomed, because Parker is nothing like the patriarchal males that Robin correctly sees everywhere in the “romance comics”.

I don’t wish to imply that Stan Lee thought about these matters in those terms. I don’t think that’s the important thing. Everything we need in order to understand this situation is right there in the text–and so is Mary Jane Watson!

Now, MJ is a different story entirely. One of the first things that we are told about her is that she has no (living) father. More importantly, she shows no desire to find a surrogate. From the beginning, her function is to “speak truth” to “with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility”. Lee does an absolutely abysmal job of getting inside this character’s head, but the important thing is that he brings her into the equation, and leaves her characterization sufficiently open to reinterpretation by Gerry Conway. Conway’s most distinctive achievement was to recast MJ’s “flightiness” as a choice, rather than a “primary characteristic”–a praxis, in fact. After Stan left the title, MJ continues to be “her own woman”, but this is no longer interpreted as a “condition” which renders her “unfit” to participate in a genuine romantic relationship.

Of course, complications ensue when Gwen’s clone comes back, but I’m too delirious to revisit that situation at the moment! I feel I should add, however, that Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s revelation (prepared for by the work of Roger Stern) that MJ has always known that Peter is spider-man is really the only thing that makes sense, given the facts that we know about their relationship, and deserves the (dubious?) title of “greatest retcon of all time”! It fits with the spirit, if not all of the details, of the sixties and seventies backstory. MJ’s attraction/repulsion to Peter is rooted in her sympathy for a fellow-creature that is far too busy/troubled by his own demons to ever run patriarchal power moves on her combined with the fear that, by his very nature, Peter will always strive (unsuccessfully!) to take “responsibility” for anyone that gets close to him. I would argue that her decision, at long last, to show her cards, speaks of a new resolve to confront Peter’s “responsibility issues” head on, rather than attempting to escape from the orbit of their unspoken gravity. (Let’s not forget–she disappeared from the title for FIVE years!) This is not to say that the two characters should necessarily have renewed their romance in the aftermath of this revelation, and, in fact, DeFalco refused to cheapen the ambiguities of this uniquely charged situation by rushing to a facile denoument! Sadly, Michelinie/McFarlane (and their successors?) did not share his scruples!

Good Night Friends!


One comment

  1. Dave,

    If Robin isn’t familiar with John Benson’s Romance Without Tears, a collection/study of surprisingly well-adjusted Dana Dutch romance comics that break the confused woman/wise man mold, then he should check it out. Of course, I can hardly imagine that nobody on the TCJ messageboard has pointed this out already.

    And yet I’m too lazy to check it out and see for myself!


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