My Misspent Youth — Ms. Marvel by Gerry Conway and John Buscema

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

The late nineteen-seventies were boom years for fabulous female characters walking their boots straight to their own titanic titles in the Marvel line. Although the publisher long operated with a commitment to a progressive outlook on social issues, the earliest years of the Marvel Universe were rife with embarrassingly retrograde depictions of the women in those four-color pages. Some course correction occurred in the second decade of the broader saga launched by creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and their cohorts. Even so, the emergence of stream of female-fronted comics often seemed more an exercise in establishing copyright for genderswapped versions of the most popular characters. Especially since there was no real effort to enlist women creators to write and draw the adventures of these women characters, the endeavor could seem more performative than a sincere push for equality.

Writer Gerry Conway was at least trying to be more purposeful in incorporating a feminist sensibility to the process when he joined artist John Buscema to introduce true believers to Ms. Marvel. He sought input from his wife at the time, Carla Conway, and credited her on the debut issue’s splash page as providing “more than a little aid and abetment.” In a text piece in that first issue, Conway laid out his aspirations for the character.

“Ms. Marvel, because of her name if nothing else, is influenced, to a great extent, by the move toward women’s liberation,” wrote Conway. “She is not a Marvel Girl; she’s a woman, not a Miss or Mrs. — a Ms. Her own person. Herself.”

Part of that selfhood, in her alter ego of Carol Danvers, was operating in the workforce in a place of leadership and power. (Ms. Marvel was a debut in the issue, but Carol Danvers had been around for around ten years already, mostly as a supporting character in Captain Marvel.) In that, she of course had to struggle against rampant chauvinism, embodied by the cantankerous publisher of The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, who took a break from bloviating against Spider-Man to hire Carol to edit a new women’s magazine. In Conway’s rendered, Carol had a very different view of what the magazine should be, and her own worth as the person running it, and wasn’t reticent about expressing that perception.

At this point, Carol doesn’t know that she’s fighting a different sort of battle out on the byways of Marvel’s Manhattan. Carol has no awareness that she dons a colorful uniform to fight crime, and Ms. Marvel is similarly oblivious to the fact that she has a day job overseeing a new periodical. Even as she dukes it out with the tail-swinging Spider-Man villain the Scorpion, portions of Ms. Marvel’s fragmented memory keep coming back to her.

Conway plays it somewhat coy in the writing initially, though it’s pretty easy to crack the mystery of whether there’s a connection to these two blonde women moving through separate stories in the first issue. All is revealed to the reader by the second issue; Carol trails in awareness by another month.

All in all, it was a good start for Ms. Marvel, albeit flawed in ways that were endemic to the era and couldn’t be entirely counteracted by good intentions. Conway and Buscema didn’t last long on Ms. Marvel. Without a couple issues, they’d moved on. Chris Claremont took over as writer and stuck with Ms. Marvel to the very end. He remained committed to Carol throughout his increasingly influential career at Marvel, often finding ways to rescue her from what he saw as misguided, to be kind about it, treatment at the hands of other writers. He went a long way towards getting Carol closer to the fully empowered vision Conway, and her earliest fans, had for her. Down the line, when there was thankfully more gender, racial, and cultural diversity among the creators in the Marvel ranks, other writers took her yet further, arguably fulfilling the whole potential of the character. In time, it became completely believable that Carol could inspire young marvels all on her own.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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