Friday, November 25, 2011

She's the Boss: the Wasp and Captain Marvel, Avengers, pt. 2

4. The Superhero period (AVENGERS 262-285) 1986, 1987

“Wait a cock-eyed second,” you might say: “aren’t all Avengers stories superheroic?”
Ah, but in this period the settings become detached largely from the view of the average person. We’re no longer in the familiar New York streets; everything’s exotic.

As his run ends, Roger Stern writes the graduation of Captain Marvel, who came in with him as a rookie and, just as he turns in what will prove his last scripts on the title, becomes the team leader, the Wasp, handing the baton to another, very different young woman---someone a lot like a less-experienced version of Cap, a real model Avenger---who makes mistakes, but not out of impoverished character. Monica’s role models definitely include Miss Janet Van Dyne, the team leader of note through her entire evolution. She, like the Wasp, respects people’s experiences, even her parents, all the while thinking for herself. For my money, they are as strong a pair of characters in any serialized medium with parallel arcs.

Maybe Monica’s a bit too pristine, a bit tragedy-free, to really hit that spot you find with the Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel Classic characters, but she is the bridge to that sort of humanism, and is what she must be. It goes unspoken, save in her demonstrated character, but frankly, as an African-American first, and as a woman on top of that, she must be at least twice, if not ten times as exemplary, as a super-hero. She carries a lot on her shoulders, but never casts her dilemma in terms of race, but of individuality. Wasn’t that Martin Luther King’s dream: to be judged, not by one’s skin, but by one’s character? The fact that Stern handles her evolution with this conviction is shown, not told, and is therefore strongest for that. Even when she is scared nearly to death going into Avengers #250, she goes into battle alongside the Avengers anyway. This illustrates the point that she never nurses self-pity. Go big or go home. Her exploration of her powers as time goes on is another wonderful science-fiction experience. If Stern is maybe too respectful of her reputation, it’s an error to his favor; what she stands for means everything to him, and his female characters play out before the chiefly young audience in an impressionable way.

Call it politically correct if you will, but it was the only right way to do it for the times, it was sincerely inspired by, and called attention to, strong people in the real world, and stands as an honorable contrast to the “girlfriend in the refrigerator” mentality that makes women objects of brutalization to “motivate” violence contributed by the vengeful male heroes.

The leadership position casts the Wasp as a character played in the round, so to speak, with mistakes and temptations. If anything, in her love of luxurious creature comforts and pursuits that would make a lot of sense and be a lot of fun in the real world; if Monica is the reader’s fantasy of superhero dedication with her energy being able to pierce the veil of imagination, Janet’s a fantasy of adulthood, in a somewhat more prosaic sense. The power to shop till you drop on Park Avenue and know it’s decadence is a fantasy you’ll not have a hard time finding in America. Monica’s easy to admire, and her powers are amazing, and she really is someone to whom you could look up to, which is fantastic! Janet, however, you just might underestimate---fortunately, her powers change to where she can shrink only about a foot in height before sprouting her wings and flying, which is an appealing ability, and she has a wicked energy “sting.”

If you have some prejudice regarding gender roles, you may find her unrelatable at times, talking of make-up and constantly changing her costume, or regardless of your gender, you may enjoy all of this, maybe even feel like you’ve learned a little something. It could be the rich thing: Monica’s modest working class background is beautifully done with a touch of New Orleans culture, but without exploitational stereotypes, while Janet’s epicurean tastes might rankle those who frankly find those things wasteful, the province of snooty people. They come with their stereotypes, too, but Janet’s always contrasted with them, and seems attuned to need in people---particularly of the type of need you have by the time you need Avengers! For now, let’s put that comparison aside, and not pit one against the other. Stern never makes rivals of them; why should I?
Chairwoman Wasp gets a pair of very head-strong super-strong men---an exiled undersea monarch and a son of Zeus---in the last incarnation of the team I’ll discuss.

They’re enormous fun, Namor and Hercules, a couple of characters I wouldn’t have related to much growing up, but you give them to Roger Stern, and it sings! Hercules in particular bristles under the command of the Wasp; if he were dating your sister, you might see a haughty, braggart swain, as Thor might growl when they are at logger heads (Lee/Kirby did it so well, you may not be able to read anything new very easily after they’ve spoiled you). If She-Hulk thinks of Thor as a bit of a chauvinist, Hercules is like Superman as a Frat Boy. Yet there is Cap, obeying, and the team, winning! No wonder Black Knight gets to feeling a bit insecure sometimes in this company. He has to hand it to Janet: she takes Hercules successfully in hand, as when they are lost in Limbo, seeking Kang the Conqueror. It’s noticeable, when he’s finally not in his right mind, Hercules makes a very bad judgment call based on this smoldering disrespect…and his mistake becomes compounded when his mighty father believes the Wasp is at fault!

She takes that consideration in, herself; if she hadn’t been leader, if she hadn’t been someone he resented so, he would’ve…but she does this soul-searching, knows she and Cap both tried to stop him from walking into a deadly ambush, and is strong enough to realize, try as she might, her people make their individual decisions, and come to her group with their values already in place.

She cares, though, because she is a true leader, ready to sacrifice herself if necessary, and always giving of herself to the team. When her back is against the wall in the team’s darkest hour---when there IS no team left but herself----she conquers her own guilt and fights for the life of Hercules himself against the twisted romantic couple of the Masters of Evil, Titania and the Absorbing Man, complete badasses---with the most unlikely, but appropriate, super-hero imaginable: Hank’s successor as Ant-Man---Ant-Man! Her bedside manner’s good for Hercules, but it sure gives those two a headache. No, she can’t do it all alone, but she can decide, and that, more than her deeds, makes her who she is. After all these years, the Wasp, an original Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby creation of the fertile Sixties, is a decider: as a woman, and as a super-hero, and as a leader of last hope.

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