The Superhero Women (1977)

The Superhero Women, front cover
The Superhero Women by Stan Lee

Published in 1977 The Superhero Women by Stan Lee was the fourth, and last, of the Marvel/Fireside Books Origins collaborations. Sadly it’s also the weakest of the bunch. Although it follows the format established by its predecessors – reprinted ‘origin’ stories of Marvel Comics superheroes and villains prefaced by text introductions by Stan Lee – this volume doesn’t really work. What is clearly meant as a celebration of Marvel’s female heroes instead just highlights the publisher’s lack of strong, independent female characters and reinforces male stereotypes of women in tight-fitting, revealing outfits.

The Superhero Women back cover
The Superhero Women, back cover

First up is the long-haired Medusa, a member of The Inhumans, in a tale reprinted from The Amazing Spider-Man issue #62 (July 1968). In this story Medusa has been sent into the world to gauge whether humanity still fears and hates the group. She quickly gets embroiled in a scam by a greedy CEO who wants to use her as the advertising spokesperson for – wait for it – a hairspray product. There’s a misunderstanding between her and Spider-Man that leads to a brief fight before she flies home, leaving behind the CEO who is then sacked by the company’s board. It’s all pretty standard fare but it’s hardly the most empowering of story lines.

The Superhero Women page 45
Page 45

Next up is Red Sonja, loosely based on a Robert E Howard character, in a story reprinted from Marvel Feature #4 (May 1975). In this tale the red-headed barbarian (wearing a chain-mail bikini that must be the most uncomfortable, and impractical, ever conceived) rides into a small town where she is immediately accused of being a witch who is turning the town folks into stone. It turns out that one of the local women has slowly been replacing the townspeople with stone statues so she can keep them captive without alerting suspicion. Sonja promptly feeds her to some rats and leaves. It’s not a great story, and it certainly isn’t an origin tale, but Frank Thorne’s artwork is a treat although he does what he can with the slightly daft plot.

The Superhero Women page 55
Page 55

Chapter three features The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl in a story reprinted from The Fantastic Four #22 (January 1964). In this story she and the FF again trade blows with The Moleman in a sequel to the group’s very first story (reprinted in Origins of Marvel Comics). The Moleman has a plan to sink all of the major cities in the world thereby creating chaos but The Fantastic Four deal with the threat quickly. Most of the story explores The Invisible Girls growing powers and fleshes out her character in more depth. It’s not an origin tale but she is the star of the story and, for a story published in the early ’60s, her character is treated with respect.

The Superhero Women page 88
Page 88

Next up is Ms Marvel in a reprinted story from Ms Marvel #1 (January 1977). It’s a decent enough story as ex-Security Chief Carol Danvers is offered a job as Editor of a Women’s magazine (natch) by Daily Bugle publisher (and Spider-Man tormentor) J Jonah Jameson, while her alter ego Ms Marvel fights another Spider-Man villain, the Scorpion. The character’s origin is barely revealed but there are some hints of future plot twists and it’s solid first-issue fare. Sadly the story is marred by the character’s outfit which features more skin than cloth and is clearly meant to attract pubescent boys.

The next character featured is Hela, the Asgard Goddess of Death, in two stories reprinted from Thor issues #189 (June 1971) and #190 (July 1971). In this pair of stories Hela has decided that Thor must die and spends both tales trying to kill him only to relent when Thor’s girlfriend, Sif, talks her out of it. The idea that Hela reprieves the Norse God because she is a women who has never known the love of a man only damages her as a character. Also, there really is no reason for Hela to be in this book and she should have been featured in the series’ third volume dedicated to Marvel villains, Bring of the Bad Guys.

The Superhero Women page 163
Page 163

Chapter 6 features The Cat in a strange and, frankly, bonkers story reprinted from issue #1 of The Cat (November 1972). A young widow, unable to find a job that challenges her, agrees to undergo various experiments designed to increase her stamina and intelligence. The experiments are funded by a power-mad millionaire who wishes to create a race of superhuman Amazons to help run his chain of heath clubs (seriously, I’m not making this up). Out of all of the stories reprinted in this collection this is the one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Its basic message – that in order for women to compete with men they need to be artificially altered, and even then all they’ll be good for is shop help – is cack-handed and definitely not Marvel’s finest hour.

Next up is The Wasp in a tale originally printed in Tales To Astonish #44 (June 1963) and here the book gets back on track as the story not only features The Wasp’s origin tale but also that of Ant-Man. The plot is centred around a giant space monster that kills Janet Van Dyne’s father before attacking New York. The young girl joins forces with Hank Pym (Ant-Man) who shares his reduction formula with her and together they defeat the beastie. From her beginnings as a side-kick The Wasp has gone on to be a staple of the Marvel Universe spending several decades on The Avengers roster and, along with The Invisible Women, she is one of Marvel’s longest established female characters.

The Superhero Women page 198
Page 198

Sadly any good will garnered by the previous story is more or less snuffed out by the next tale to feature a women protagonist: Lyra, The Femizon, originally printed in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971). The story is set in the 23rd century on an Earth (now laughingly renamed ‘Femizonia’) where women are the dominant sex and the majority of men have regressed to a savage state and now live in caves – there’s definite shades of Planet of the Apes here. Clearly meant to be empowering, the story would probably carry more weight if all the women didn’t dress in revealing, fetish outfits and didn’t indulge in bitchy back stabbing. To make matters worse Lyra only realises the injustice of her society when a man educates, and then beds, her. Thankfully for the feminist cause the character only saw print once.

Continuing the scantily clad theme the next story stars Shanna, the She-Devil in a story reprinted from issue #2 (February 1973) of her own comic. The plot involves Shanna attempting to infiltrate the liar of a slave merchant while simultaneously trying to stop the highjacking of a lunar rocket filled with heroin (!). The story may be over the top but the character is self-reliant and resourceful and succeeds without resorting to help from a man. True, Shanna may wear a leopard skin bikini but I suspect that’s done to reinforce the characters parallels with Tarzan rather than for titillation.

The book concludes with another reprint from The Amazing Spider-Man (issue #86, July 1970) featuring The Black Widow. In this tale Widow forces a fight with Spider-Man to better judge his combat tactics. It’s not a great story but The Black Widow is one of Marvel’s best established women characters so it’s fitting that she’s included. Again, it’s not an origin tale but it it the first time we see her wearing her iconic black leather catsuit, so it is an origin of sorts.

Lee rounds off the book with a quick epilogue where he apologies for not including other more well known women heroes such as Spider-Women or Phoenix. The exclusion of the latter is baffling as X-Men team member Jean Grey’s transformation into Phoenix, from The Uncanny X-Men #101 (October 1976), is one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe and quickly propelled her onto the A-list of Marvel heroes.

Page 235
Page 235

All-in-all The Superhero Women feels rushed and unfocused. The lack of origin stories (there are only two, for The Cat and The Wasp) hampers the book and the poor quality of the stories doesn’t help either. Lee’s introductions to each character are brief and workmanlike but you can sense his heart’s not really in it – he gets all the way to page 195 before he realises the book doesn’t fit the Origins template established by the previous entries. Thankfully there are more women heroes today and the comics industry has come a long way since the mid-seventies. That’s not to say that scantily clad power babes don’t still exist but at least they’re balanced by more thoughtful and intelligent female characters.

Ironically, despite being the weakest of the four books, modern collectors will have trouble finding a copy of The Superhero Women for under £25 making it almost as costly as the first volume, Origins of Marvel Comics. I suspect this lack of availability has more to do with poor sales of the book when it was first published than the unwillingness of collectors to relinquish their copies.

After the first four volumes were printed, and clearly aware that the ‘origin’ well had run dry, the next set of Marvel/Fireside collaborations feature one character per book (with one exception) and more readily resemble the trade paperbacks of today. Those seven volumes, published between January 1978 and October 1979, also feature introductions from Lee and I’ll be looking at them all in more detail over the next few weeks, beginning with Dr Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts.

The Superhero Women
Published by Fireside Books, November 1977, 260 pages
Softcover: ISBN 978-0671229283
Hardcover: ISBN 978-0671227661