Friday, 29 June 2012

Spider-Woman: An introduction

1976 saw the creation of a new character, Spider-Woman, debuting in Marvel Spotlight #32 (cover dated February 1977 – a sign of how confusing the years can be). In 1978 she received her own ongoing series, which has been collected in two Essential volumes, and in 1979 she secured her own cartoon which lasted one season. Her title lasted fifty issues – until 1993 that was the record for a Marvel comic headlined by a female superhero.

Yet her impact on the Spider-Man titles was almost nil. She had a few cameos but her only substantial appearance during her original run was in Marvel Team-Up #97 (not yet reached by the Essentials) and that was a rare non-Spider-Man issue in which the Hulk instead headlined. As we’ll see she has no direct connection to Spider-Man (although later Spider-Women would do better in this regard) and is really a spin-off in name only.

I did consider for quite some time whether to include Spider-Woman in this series or not because of this. Ultimately I came down in favour of inclusion because creatively she only existed because of Spider-Man and it’s worth considering just how much originality and distance from the male character she actually received. But first it’s necessary to consider the track record on female superheroes, particularly for Marvel in the late 1970s.

Until I sat down to write this piece, I was under the impression that female superheroes have generally not been successful in their own titles. True it’s hard to forget that DC has had Wonder Woman for seventy years (her solo title debuted in the summer of 1942) but I assumed that’s very much the exception that proves the rule (and I’ve read that historically her title has never been a top seller and at times it’s only survived because the character was held under a “keep her in regular print or the rights revert to the creator” clause and the merchandising opportunities were too good to loose). The other historic exception of note is Supergirl, which is a sign of where the creativity and interest goes, and also an indication of the commercial factors behind them – DC was quick to secure the trademarks for various Superman spin-offs but took time to actually use them. Eventually both Superboy and Supergirl were firm features, able to stop other companies cashing in on the Super-franchise.

It seems in digging about that there have in fact been a few more female titles that actually lasted some time – Mary Marvel (the younger sister of Fawcett’s, later DC’s, Captain Marvel), Batgirl (just how many Batgirls have there been by now?), Catwoman and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane although it was her boyfriend who (usually) did the superheroing. (And no doubt more that I’ve overlooked.) Spot the pattern? It seems as though a female title has normally only succeeded if it’s spinning off an established male title and/or there are strong corporate demands to shore up the male character, either by blocking rivals from creating female derivatives or to boost sales (and in the case of the second Batgirl, TV ratings).

Marvel’s female titles generally fall into this vein as well. The longest running female led title I can think of is Spider-Girl – the adventures of Spider-Man’s daughter in an alternate future which lasted 100 issues from 1998 until 2006 (despite constantly being under threat of cancellation), followed by a renumbering & retitling as The Amazing Spider-Girl which lasted 30 more issues until 2009. Second comes the second She-Hulk series which ran for sixty issues between 1989 and 1994 (although in Marvel’s modern numbering style later She-Hulk series have seen the numberings shoved together to have an “issue #100”). In joint third place with fifty issues each is the original Spider-Woman series between 1978 and 1983 and the second Ms. Marvel series between 2006 and 2010. (After that comes Dazzler with forty-two issues from 1980 to 1985. Then it gets into various series that only lasted up to three years maximum such as the first Ms. Marvel, the first She-Hulk series, Silver Sable, Elektra and X-23 amongst others.)

Both the Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents series are biased toward the pre 1990s output but how do the female titles fare there? Well DC has put out volumes containing Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl (largely collecting her strips in various other titles), whilst Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane is in the Superman Family volumes (the latter title combined Lois Lane with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen). Showcase Presents didn’t launch until late 2005 and the first female headline titles came in mid to late 2007 with Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl all debuting that year. Marvel’s Essentials have been around since 1996 but took longer to snowball and initially focused on just the big name series. However from 2002 onwards some of the smaller and less successful series began to get their own Essentials, starting with Ant-Man in February that year. It wasn’t until December 2005 that any female title got an Essential, with Spider-Woman being the first. Savage She-Hulk, the character’s original 1979-1981 series, followed in July 2006, then came Ms. Marvel in February 2007 and Dazzler in August 2007. Make of that what you will.

All of the relevant Marvel titles so far Essentialised originated during a short period in the late 1970s, although Dazzler was delayed for various reasons. And in all but one case there were well-known corporate mandates crawling all over them. I don’t honestly know if this was also the case with Ms. Marvel but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that a female with a name including the company’s name appeared just a few years after DC had revived Fawcett’s Captain Marvel and his supporting cast. (Captain Marvel had originally been published by Fawcett in the 1940s and early 1950s until a lawsuit by DC for similarities to Superman led to the character being ditched. Then in the next twenty or so years Marvel adopted that name and established their own Captain Marvel character, securing the trademark. DC subsequently obtained the Fawcett stable of characters and revived them in their own titles, though they’ve never been able to get the “Captain Marvel” trademark back for the original.) Other points that strongly suggest corporate rather than creative design are the fact that her origin was unclear for many issues and the original writer was Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief (although that title wasn’t yet used), Gerry Conway who left after just two issues. The character was a pre-existing member of the Captain Marvel supporting cast who had gained powers from him due to an accident – as though it was hard to come up with something more original. Her title lasted just twenty-three issues and then the character went on to be used in other ways (and I very much mean used but that’s for a consideration of the Avengers). (EDIT: Since drafting that I’ve since seen this comment by later Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter that supports the corporate mandate theory.)

It’s reasonably well known that both Spider-Woman and She-Hulk were created because Marvel were concerned to secure the intellectual property to female versions of their highest profile characters. I’ll come to Spider-Woman below, but in the case of She-Hulk this was because of fears that the success of the Hulk TV series would lead to spin-off characters (this was an era when The Six Million Dollar Man had spawned The Bionic Woman) and decided to create a female version themselves to ensure they retained the copyrights. The Savage She-Hulk began in late 1979 (cover date February 1980) but benefited from a clear origin at the outset and, after the first issue by Stan Lee, a single writer for the rest of her run. But she was still a clear knock-off of her male counterpart – she was his hither-to-unmentioned cousin who gained similar powers due to a blood transfusion, though generally she’s retained full intelligence & control in both identities, unlike her cousin’s multiple personalities and combinations of minds & bodies. Her original title last just twenty-five issues but she’s been revived several times since and has built up quite a fan base.

The Dazzler was even more corporate driven, originating out a plan by Marvel to have a singer-superhero with a real-life singer to do promotional appearances. Over time there were even proposals to work with a record company and even produce a movie (it all gets complicated – have a read of Jim Shooter: The Debut of the Dazzler for more details). The project kicked around for a few years, by which time the disco scene began to die. However a desire to test the potential of the direct market by doing a direct market only title that was only available in comic book shops that pre-order on a non-returnable basis (unlike the newsstands that operate on a sale-or-return basis that can lead to hundreds of thousands of copies printed that never get sold) came about. Wanting to minimise the backlash from the newsstand distribution, an obscure character was picked and so Dazzler was one of the first ever direct market only titles. The series was initially quite successful and lasted a total of forty-two issues but suffered various problems such as turnover of creative teams, unsuccessful spin-offs and a switch to bimonthly publication before eventual cancellation. Still the character had some originality, not being a derivative of any existing Marvel character. However her origin was one of the simplest for Marvel – she’s a mutant and thus born with her powers. Okay she made her first appearance in X-Men but she was an early sign of what would become a rather lazy approach to origins in later years.

This was the broad background to the environment in which Spider-Woman was created in 1976 and provides the obvious points of comparisons for the series as I go through the two volumes in future posts.

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