Natasha: I crave excitement… suspense! And I must have it… as only the Black Widow can!
This seemingly innocuous panel, first printed on page three of Amazing Adventures #1, provoked a red reaction in one Lester G. Boutillier:
“The Black Widow’s statement in panel 3, page 3, indicated a character trait entirely alien and removed from the personality she was depicted with in the Avengers’ stories, and one which I personally find offensive and unladylike. I remember the complaint of a female fan some months ago about the absense of any solo strips of female characters, but you didn’t have to give half a book to a feminist.”
It’s a wonder that someone so long ago had such a strong reaction to such a generic panel, but it’s even more of a wonder how little the comics discourse has changed. In 1970, letters colums were arguing about whether women had too few appearances or too many; today the comments sections are increasingly divided over whether diversity has gone too far. It’s easy to imagine the modern Lester G. Boutillier. “I know that the tumblr sjws always complain… but you didn’t have to make Thor into a feminist.”
But this panel isn’t particularly feminist, and with a few exceptions here and there Marvel and DC both have aspired to mass-market centrism rather than speaking truth to power. Most of their “political” arcs in recent years commit to an aesthetic rather than a position. Civil War seems to be about gun control or the Patriot Act, but those metaphors fall apart if you squint at them, because it is actually about a man in an American Flag body-condom punching a man pretending to be a robot. Most superhero stories, in fact, are about punching, about the possibilities of righteous violence, which only leaves room for certain types of allegories. Some argue that diversity in superhero comics is oxymoronic, impossible, that the ink is too deep to wash out.
Still, the superhero is an empowerment fantasy, something that speaks bold-print to the marginalized. And that empowerment symbolism is weaved in deep enough that the mere ritual of donning a costume is understood as a feminist act by the self-identified enemies of feminism. When fans complain about Marvel’s “political correctness” today, it is mostly because they read threatening feminist symbolism into the way Carol Danvers cuts her hair. The radicalism of the “diverse” superhero is one invented by the reader, by the meanings we invest into four-color avatars. It’s a testament to the superhero’s power as icon that so many feel a claim to it.
From Amazing Adventures #1, by Gary Friedrich and John Buscema.