Posted May 16, 2015 by Paul Ramos in Columns

Musings on Diversity and Feminism in Marvel Comics – The New THOR


After months of speculations, we now know who is the new Thor — Dr. Jane Foster, of all “ladies”! After reading and thinking who is the “Worthy” one who already wields the mighty Mjolnir, Thor’s all-powerful weapon, I personally fell off my seat upon learning her identity. Good job, Jason Aaron, for wisely putting the red herrings along the way.

This is an obvious strategic move by Marvel to gather more public attention and publicity in the midst of some cynicism, if not outrage, from skeptics and traditional comic book readers of the Thor’s identity but also the gender itself. True, some exposures from the media and some of the influential comic book websites are utilized to maximum effect, and hoping that new potential readers, particularly the ladies, go to the nearest comic book shops and buy that comic in question (Thor #8). A case of cash grab, you ask. Probably the answer is in the middle. Marvel is a corporate enterprise anyway and the logic of capitalism is to earn (by any means necessary). Yet, the lingering issue of gender identity in the name of diversity (or representations from various peoples in a large and complex society) in mainstream comics continues. You want proofs. Please go to the comic websites, look and read the comment sections or forums to see personally the dislikes, rage and hate on the supposed gender change of the God of Thunder.

The big consolation here is that the female comic book demographics increase in favor of the new Thor, alongside with a number of Marvel titles that cater to ladies and comic book fans alike—Ms. Marvel (in addition of being a Muslim) and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), plus Spider-Gwen and Elektra. So, what’s the rage against the “lady” Thor, moreover on the Jane Foster’s role? The absolute answer is somewhat illusive, but possibilities are illustrated nevertheless. Is the “lady” Thor a new concept or being explored already? The answer is the latter for an old issue of “WHAT IF?” just did that: Jane Forster as the wielder of the Mjolnir. Obviously, the design, story and scenario are way different in the 1970s, but that constitutes a precedence of a female “god” of thunder. Moreover, Marvel tinkered this feminine Thor in different alternations or universes, whether in crossovers or in the influential and seminal “What If?” series. One, I remember Storm once held Thor’s hammer in a company crossover with DC (and she actually challenged Wonder Woman, who later carried effortlessly the same hammer). And, in one alternate possibility in “What If?: Age of Ultron”, Scarlett, err, Black Widow heroically summoned her will to be the “Worthy” possessor of the Mjolnir in the midst of total destruction until she and other heroes around finished the job (Note: our Pinoy artist extraordinaire –  Mico Suayan illustrated that issue).


And so, why still the dislike on her role as Thor? Perhaps it is more on being traditional or nostalgic about the past or the continuity of anything or everything regarding the Norse God of Thunder. This ranged from the mythology up to the mainstream comics. True to the fact Thor is often portrayed as “the man” (or god) for the longest time in many stories. He exhumes the essences of masculinity or the paragon of what should a true man should and must be: strong, bulky, physically and muscularly toned, commanding, decisive, authoritative, drunkard and carouser, more action oriented, and in the loosest sense, being a true gentleman, if not the ladies’ man. So consistent that imagery that probably Jack “The King” Kirby had these qualities in mind in crafting and conceptualizing the “Mighty Thor” we Marvel fans know, love, care, support and cherish.
Perhaps the male readership of the times contributed to the male-centricity of the Norse deity in comics for the past fifty years or so. As Stan Lee often said, superhero comics were commercially geared towards the young to teenage boys for the most of Marvel’s publication runs. Ladies in the superhero genre were placed in two distinctive roles: one as the main love interests of the heroes or their alter ego, and two, as a supporting cast to the superhero team. The former is very dominant, like Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson for Spider-Man, Pepper Potts to Iron Man, Betty Ross to Bruce “The Hulk” Banner, and of course, Jane Forster to Thor/Donald Blake. The latter is quite plentiful this time around, but in the 60s up to the 70s, there were a few actually (The Wasp, Invisible Woman, Marvel Girl, and Storm were originally played as the singular female cast in a superhero team before another lady was casted for the sake of storyline or arc). Putting into context in those times, strong female casts existed but their roles reflected to the norms of the periods as supporting characters to the male-dominated or patriarchal-ruled society, despite the fact that the second wave of feminism came forth in the same period.

Feminism as an ideology roots back in the tail-end of the 18th century in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. Primarily, it focuses on obtaining equal treatment and rights to both sexes (and later, genders). It lost steam in the 1920s after the signage of the 19th Amendment or the Women’s right of suffrage. Seriously, if there is a woman that can define feminism to the core, it’s definitely Wonder Woman. Her creator’s (William Moulton Marston’s) vision was the exact counterpart to Superman: both equally powerful and intelligent in many ways. Though due to DC’s corporate practices in the 1940s up to the 1950’s, Wonder Woman’s true potentiality diminished as Superman’s less powered counterpart, it shows here that there was precedence after all that super-heroines can equal or even surpass their male counterparts. Again, there are two comic incidents that female casts can get the best out of their male bosses. Storm comes to my mind, particularly when she once defeated Cyclops for the leadership of X-Men (and adding insult to injury, Storm was depowered prior to her usurpation). Prior to that, the Dark Phoenix Saga showcased one of the most powerful entities in the Marvel Universe: Jean Grey-Dark Phoenix. Truly, powerful women emerged in the late 70s and the early 80s, though in a very slow pace. Yes, there were characters like Black Widow, Black Cat and Spider-Woman, but they served as either as their heroes’ foils or counterparts (again) to their heroes’ imageries.


It is often said the 1990’s is the age of superhero EXTREME comics—bombastic and exaggerated anatomical and costume designs, including female characters (think of Psylocke, Rogue, Jean Grey, Catwoman, Wonder Woman and Dazzler in their sexiest and most endowed forms yet!). But personally, their characterizations started to gain more strengths and integrity, trying to move away the stereotypical portrayals of supporting casts or the so-called “weaker” gender. Granted, their physiques were still the greater assets to male readership, but their “extreme” attitudes even inspired some female readers/viewers (like the famed 1990s X-Men television series) to think or re-think on female characters should be envisioned (in addition to some male readers who later go beyond the damsel-in-distress paradigm, like Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Brian Wood). Indeed, many instances that these female superhero characters end up saving their male counterparts or become the focal points of the story arcs despite their near-impossible endowed physiological physique. Thus, the seeds of female empowerment emerged slowly and steadily that paved the way of the stronger female archetypes in the 2000’s, including the calls of diversity in the latter part of the decade and the present times.

Diversity in comics is nothing novel per se for Marvel Comics pioneered in that direction. Though Black Panther is widely considered as the first black superhero in mainstream comics (and first black ruler to brag with), Sam “The Falcon” Wilson is with equal footing with the King of Wakanda Kingdom as one of the first black superheroes. The highly influential and seminal Giant-Size X-Men 1 presented a new group of mutants from different nations, illustrating that there were more minority groups of people who can make a difference (and also, being “different” or “others”). Most prominent were Ororo Monroe or Storm and Thunderbird who represented the black and Native American societies, respectively. Originally, Bishop could have been a Filipino mutant, but last-minute changes took place to revert him as black for the black comic book community. Jubilation Lee or Jubilee represented the Chinese-American section. Even Psylocke’s ninja form is a representation of the Japanese ninja culture (even though the whole ninja epistemological paradigm in visual representations in Western comics is virtually wrong in the first place). Recently, Miles Morales as the replacement of Ultimate Universe Peter Parker/Spider-Man created a buzz in the comic community for his lineage as a black-Latino. As mentioned earlier, Ms. Marvel-Kamala reflects the adolescent life of an American-Muslim lady. Even the LGTB’s are given this kind of treatment in the pages of Marvel comics. Of course, mutant North Star is the most prominent and the first one to go out the closet in the 1980s. He became headline news when Marvel announced of his same-sex wedding in an issue of The Astonishing X-Men. Daken, son of James “The Wolverine” Logan Howlett, is portrayed as a bisexual. And former poster of machismo Shatterstar turned out to be gay, to the cringes of creator Rob Liefield! Naturally, DC followed suit in a slower one. There is the black Green Lantern, and even a Muslim Green Lantern. Though originally created in Wildstorm Comics/Image Comics, Midnighter and Apollo were some of the most powerful superheroes and they are both male couple.


The fires of the unfinished business of feminism are also gaining momentum, particularly a stronger voice in the mainstream comics industry, in correlation of equal treatment. The latter may be a later thought in some titles like Alias (Marvel Max that featured Jessica Jones, a fallen super-heroine on the road to redemption and full-status superstardom), Elektra (never messed up with female assassins like her), Spider-Woman (to be later discovered later as the numero uno alien infiltrator in the pages of New Avengers and the mega-event, Secret Invasion) and Lady Marvel (Carol Danvers, strong military lady with a high sense of duty and patriotism, rivaled only by Captain America, of course), there were still few moments that female protagonists really came out front to grab the spotlight (plus, the storytellers above are still males, particularly Michael Brian Bendis. In credit, he proves himself of making female casts as powerful, dominant, alluring, damaged and even heroic).
Furthermore, the internet was gaining grounds in influencing the tone and pace on how comics in general should accommodate the new demographics—ladies and the LGTB’s, including the Political Correctness (or PC) paradigm that sexist/ racist/insulting/demeaning terminologies are to be monitored/censured/erased/deleted/chastised in the name of equality, diversity, multiculturalism and harmony in the globalized world. That was highly evident in the emergence of the indie-publishers like Image, Dark Horse, Boom, IDW, Avatar, Fantagraphics, and Top Shelf whose visions are very similar: DIVERSE COMICS for diverse audiences without the editorial mandate or intervention creators/artists suffered/confronted in the mainstream comics. Aside from political correctness, which becomes a parody or farce itself, these independent comics target various audiences whose tastes range from plain funny, weird, scary, sci-fi, political and social criticisms, avant garde to the outrageous in any ways possible. They succeed in the long-haul, making the mainstream took serious notice. So serious, Marvel started hiring female artists/writers and assigned them to some titles, especially in female dominated superhero teams (books in X-Men for instance). Moreover, standalone titles like Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Young Avengers, Red She-Hulk, and Journey Into Mystery, and later, Storm, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Elektra and the all-female cast The Uncanny X-Men and The Fearless Defenders that met both or either critical and/or commercial successes, proving diversity and feminism bear fruits. Even so, the supposedly male-centric figures are now given a direct female counterparts, not just inspired or plain amalgams of sorts. Ghost Rider was treated a female version (though that didn’t last long). The Punisher was given a number of female-inspired vigilantes (in the adult Max version and later, the 616 continuity). Captain Marvel was originally the man, but the title Captain Marvel was soon bestowed to Carol Danvers, to which the title Ms. Marvel she once had was given to a Muslim teenager named Kamala. How about Iron Man? Well, Pepper Potts has a specialized built armor just for her and was christened “Rescue”.

And knowing the Mighty Thor would be next, the term “Unworthy” emerged in Jason Aaron’s mind since the Thor: God of Thunder run. Deep inside, she (Lady Thor) could be anyone except Jane Foster (she has cancer, terminal cancer!). But, let’s face it. Marvel (even DC joins the diversity bandwagon) is known to take some progressive (or liberal) stance which includes putting other peoples in same old traditional superhero names. Marvel capitalizes this one, for better or worse. A sense of carpe diem—seize the diversity moment! Admittedly, the current Lady Thor storyline needs to be addressed, including some serious plot holes, like the Nick Fury’s cryptic whisper in the same author’s mega-event “The Original Sin”, and the cancer-stuff Jane suffers and why she is the “Worthy”?). Anyways, one consolation is nothing is permanent but change, going back to the status quo. Let’s give Thor-Jane Foster a run, should we?

Paul Ramos