Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Women of Marvel: Sue Storm Part 3 - Invisible No More

THE EARLY 1960s WAS A TIME OF GREAT CHANGE ... especially for women, though the origins of this change go back to the World War II years. The conflict with Nazi Germany and their allies brought about two big transformations in society. First, with the domestic workforce being drained by volunteers and conscription into the armed forces, women began to take on jobs, formerly reserved for men, in manufacturing and service industries, leading to a change in way women saw themselves and their role in society. As the war ground on, women took a step further, actively participating directly in the war - driving ambulances, operating ant-aircraft guns and even piloting war planes from one airfield to another in order to free combat pilots. Almost half a million women were enrolled in the British Armed Forces, and societal resistance to married women taking jobs faded. In the Soviet Union, nearly a million women served as medics, radio operators, drivers, snipers and even combat pilots. In Germany, women of the League of German Girls assisted the Luftwaffe as anti-aircraft gunners and as guerrilla fighters in Werwolf units behind Allied lines.

Though the "We Can Do It!" girl is often referred to as Rosie the Rivetter, the real Rosie was first depicted in a Saturday Evening Post cover by legendary American illustrator Norman Rockwell (yes, the "we're looking for people who like to draw" guy). Click on images to enlarge.
So when the war ended, it's hardly surprising that many women had little ambition to return to their traditional role of home-maker and unpaid domestic servant, even as their men returned from the War looking to pick up their old lives again. 

Seriously? This is how advertisers in the 1950s saw women? Talk about poking the tiger with a stick ... is it any wonder that as the Sixties rolled around, there would be a feminine backlash against this kind of this nonsense?
During the 1950s, advertisers simultaneously targeted women as the new consumers while at the same time, reinforcing their stereotyped roles as homemakers. Sociologists even conducted research they said "proved" working women were harmful to the growth of their children. These ill-advised attempts to put the genie back in the bottle resulted in what was called "second wave feminism", where women sought to address the issues of cultural inequalities, just as first wave feminists had battled political inequalities such as suffrage and property ownership.

Betty Friedan in 1960.
Betty Friedan - probably the catalyst and focus for Second Wave Feminism - had been active in both her high school and college newspapers. Graduating in 1943, she first worked as a journalist at the Federated Press, then as a writer on the United Electrical Workers EU News. She was fired from UE News in 1952 because she was pregnant with her second child, a common enough occurrence at the time. She began a freelance career and contributed to a range of magazines, including Cosmopolitan. For the 15th Annual Reunion at Smith College in 1957, Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her fellow alumni, looking at their post-graduation experiences and satisfaction with their current lives, and started publishing magazine articles about what she called "The Problem That Has No Name", and received many responses from housewives who realised that they weren't alone. Encouraged by the way her articles were received, she reworked and expanded the topic into a book, The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963.

Betty Friedan's ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), would forever change the way women saw them selves and how they wanted to be seen.
"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women," Friedan wrote in the early pages of the book. "It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - 'Is this all?'."

Friedan asserted - quite correctly - that women are as capable as men for any type of work or career path, countering the assertions by the mass media, educators and psychologists that working mothers are bad mothers. The book became a bestseller, which many historians believe was the impetus for the "second wave" of the women's movement in the United States, and significantly shaped national and world events.

My point in describing all of this is that Stan and Jack were creating the Fantastic Four comic against this very background. Where they may have started out simply wanting to characterise Sue Storm as being no helpless female victim, as so many other comic heroines were, as 1963 rolled over into 1964, we'd see Sue Storm becoming more assertive about her role in the team and in her relationship with Reed Richards.

Though initially, it seems all Sue Storm has to do is act as surrogate mother to her unruly family, it later turns out that yet again, she is key in defeating this issue's seemingly invincible super-baddie.
Fantastic Four 18 (Sep 1963) pits the team against a foe who had all their powers, The Super-Skrull. The opening pages have Sue Storm shown as the sensible voice of reason, scolding Ben Grimm for his childish display of temper when a news broadcast cut to commercial rather than showing b-roll of him in action against Dr Doom.

It's still not perfectly formed yet, but Fantastic Four 18 has another instance of Sue - rather than Ben or Johnny - being key to defeating the team's current menace.
But later on in the tale, when Reed figures out where the Super-Skull's power is coming from, he devises a miniature scrambler and reasons that only Sue, as Invisible Girl, can get close enough to the Skrull to plant the device. Yes, it has Reed master-minding the plan to beat their enemy, but once more Stan and Jack demonstrate that he can't do it without Sue.

It must be pretty humiliating for Sue to be transformed into a female plaything for despotic ruler Rama-Tut, though Stan's copy doesn't give any indication of that. It's a fairly standard threat, familiar to most fictional heroines of the period. Yet Stan and Jack allow Sue her revenge when she defeats the tyrant by freeing her team-mates ... though they could have made more of Sue's triumph.
The following month, Fantastic Four 19 had the team travel back in time to the era of the Egyptian Pharaohs in search of a cure for Alicia's blindness. There, they're subdued and enslaved by fellow time traveller Rama-Tut, who may be a descendant of Kang or Dr Doom or both. And yet again, it's Sue who frees the team from captivity to defeat the slightly slimy villain who had ear-marked her for a lifetime of emotional and physical slavery. Given the catharsis of the moment, I'm a little surprised that Stan doesn't give Sue some harsh words to say ... or maybe Sue's just too classy to gloat.

At the climax of "The Hate Monger" it's up to Sue storm to deflect the aim of the villain's Hate-Ray so that it strikes his minions and turns them against him.
Though Sue doesn't have a great deal to do in Fantastic Four 20 (Nov 1963), Stan and Jack have her as the catalyst in the defeat of another baddie, The Hate Monger, in Fantastic Four 21 (Dec 1963). This was the first instance I can think of that Stan and Jack openly address the issue of racism and bigotry in a Marvel comic. Both men were Jewish and both likely would have experienced comments like "Go back where you came from" during their lifetimes. Putting it in a comic book story was pretty ground-breaking, especially against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, which would also have been gathering pace at the time.

It's not clear who speaking the line "They're actually agreeing with his un-American sentiments", but my guess is that it's Sue - Ben would have called him "Stretch", and the line doesn't sound grown-up enough for Johnny. It might seem surprising to many today that this scene was inconceivable to readers back in 1963.
The end of the tale has the shocking revelation of The Hate Monger's true identity ... at least it shocked me as a ten year old reading this issue. And, true the form of recent FF issues, it's Sue once again who thwarts the enemy's plan and causes him to fall victim to his own weapon. But we had reached the point where this didn't seem to be enough for Stan and Jack any more. Repeatedly showing Sue rescue the others issue after issue wasn't driving the message home that not only did Sue think more quickly than her companions but often acted more decisively. Something else had to be done. So why not make Sue the most powerful member of the team by extending her meta-human capabilities?

While running some tests on Sue's super-powers, Reed suspects that Invisible Girl might have abilities beyond simple invisibility. Within a few minutes, Sue spontaneously generates a protective force field, though no one in the room realises the full implications of this new development.
Fantastic Four 22 (Jan 1964) was on sale in early October 1964, around a year after Reed Richards' impassioned defence of Sue's membership of the FF in Fantastic Four 11. The issue opens with Reed Richards running some tests to determine the extent of Sue's abilities. Unexpectedly, in response to Ben and Johnny's horseplay, Sue generates an invisible force field to save herself from being splashed with chemical foam.

Stan and Jack weren't creating these comics in a vacuum and here, they include a sly homage to the popular contemporary tv show, Car 54 Where Are You, that starred a pre-Munsters Fred Gwynne as Officer Muldoon. In Stan's dialogue, the police officer even makes reference to his partner waiting downstairs in the car.
Just as quickly, the FF are besieged by angry neighbours complaining about the Fantastic Four's disruptive behaviour, and are visited by a police officer, who looks suspiciously like Car 54 Where Are You's Officer Muldoon, about their storing an ICBM in midtown Manhattan.

Though it's done in quite a comedic way, Stan and Jack are using these scenes to establish the full extent of Sue Storm's newly-discovered abilities. The annoying complainer and his lawyer are swept down the hallway and into the elevator in a style that resembles the telekinesis powers of X-Men's Marvel Girl.
Then it's back to more exploration of Sue's new powers. The team establishes that Sue can also make other objects or people invisible, but can't maintain her own invisibility at the same time. And then the story switches back to more complaining neighbours. This back and forth takes up the first half of the issue's 22 story pages.

I always thought The Mole Man was a pretty weak villain, and he's easily thwarted by Sue, using her force field power. Stan and Jack also reveal an additional ability when they have Sue force invisible objects to become visible.
When we do find out what's going on, it turns out to be nothing more complicated that the FF's old Foe, the Mole Man, looking for revenge. And it's Invisible Girl's force field power that saves the day.

As the saga of the Fantastic Four unfolds over the next couple of years, Sue's increasingly sophisticated abilities play key roles in saving the team from disaster. In the climax of their battle with evil counterparts The Frightful Four, in FF 38 (May 1965), it's Sue's force field that ensures the survival of the team.

If this had happened just a year earlier ... bye bye, Fantastic Four. But incredibly, Sue Storm's force field power shields the team from even a nuclear detonation. And she's unconscious, as well! Tell me again how Invisible Girl is the weakest member of the FF ...
It's Reed and Sue's engagement in Fantastic Four 35 (Feb 1965) and their marriage in Fantastic Four Annual 3 (Nov 1965) that turns the team into a proper family, but it's Sue's humanity and empathy that remains the moral compass of the team across the years that followed.

Around this point in the Fantastic Four saga is where Stan should have accepted the obvious and changed Sue Storm's superhero name to Invisible Woman. However, opportunity missed, it was left to John Byrne to make that change nearly thirty years later in Fantastic Four 234 (Nov 1985).
And though Invisible Girl took maternity leave in Fantastic Four 83 (Feb 1969) and was replaced by Crystal of The Inhumans, then later by Medusa in Fantastic Four 130 (Jan 1973), and again by She-Hulk in Fantastic Four 265 (Apr 1984), she would always return to take up her role as the most grown-up member of the Fantastic Four, and eventually became leader of the team in Fantastic Four 382 (Nov 1993).

Next: Separated at Birth II