Marvel must be thrilled that their new female-led ‘Captain Marvel’ series is a resounding success, selling out its initial print run and going back for a second printing. With a featured role on ‘Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ and a rumored live action movie in the works, Carol Danvers is poised to possibly become Marvel’s most prominent female hero in history.
Which begs the question, why did it take so long for any woman to have this sort of impact at Marvel? Critics and fans alike have often wondered why Marvel has never had its own “Wonder Woman”– a female icon as instantly recognizable as Spider-Man or Captain America? Sure, females have always been linchpins on their various teams, but rarely do they manage to sustain their own solo comics for more than a few years at most and certainly never for the length of time as Marvel’s flagship male heroes. But, to be fair, at least they’ve tried. Here is a look back in time at some of the women who have starred in their own series.
During much of the Golden Age, Marvel, then known as Timely Comics, published many books starring female characters. They just weren’t super heroes. Red-headed teen Patsy Walker practically launched a cottage industry with an entire line of books starring herself and her teen pals in comedic tales similar to those found in Archie Comics. Marvel also showcased professional ladies in ‘Millie the Model,’ ‘Nellie the Nurse’ and ‘Tessie the Typist.’ But it wasn’t until 1944 that a female super hero graced the cover of her very own comic, Miss America. The book sold very well, but with the second issue, was converted into ‘Miss America Magazine’ aimed at teen and pre-teen girls that still included comic strips starring Miss America and Patsy Walker but eventually the comics were dropped from the magazine altogether! The character Miss America was Madeline Joyce who was caught in a violent electrical storm and awoke with super strength and flying ability. Though her billowing red uniform would have perfectly complimented Captain America’s mostly-blue suit, she was strangely never connected to that hero, other than working alongside him and other Timely heroes as the All-Winner Squad. (And retroactively, in The Invaders.)
In 1946, Marvel introduced another mystery woman, The Blonde Phantom, also known as secretary Louise Grant employed by detective Mark Mason, who invariably bungled his investigations and had to be rescued by The Blonde Phantom. In typical fashion, Louise was in love with Mark, but he only had eyes for her glamorous alter-ego. Nowadays, it’s doubtful that an artist would design a super suit consisting of a long, shimmering gown (with peek-a-boo belly window) and open-toed high heels, but it was a simpler time and kids probably never questioned it.
The Blonde Phantom’s adventures continued for several years, but eventually disappeared along with 99% of super hero comics on the stands as the 1950s rolled around, in a time when super heroes fell out of vogue and were replaced by supernatural, horror, western, war and romance comics. The character was revived in the late 80s, when she became a supporting character in ‘The Sensational She-Hulk’ comic. (More on that later.)
Before the 1940s were over, Timely, for the first time, actively pushed a wave of female-led super hero comics by releasing three new series, ‘Namora,’ ‘Sun Girl’ and ‘Venus’ in 1948. Namora, “the Sea Beauty” was the cousin of one of Timely’s most popular heroes, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and possessed identical abilities– the power to breath on land or underwater, super strength and flight (thanks to tiny wings on her ankles). Unfortunately her solo title only lasted three issues, but she frequently appeared in her cousin’s book and other Timely titles. The character was later revived in the Silver Age, but was seemingly killed. She was recently revived as a member of the Agents of Atlas.
Sun Girl was dubbed “the Mysterious Beauty” and indeed she was, as an origin was never provided for her. She wielded a sunbeam gun on her wrist and operated solo and alongside the original android Human Torch. But as with Namora, her book only lasted three issues, but she also continued appearing in other titles.
Finally, and most successfully, there was Venus, “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Indeed, this truly was Venus, the Roman goddess of love and she oddly lived on the planet Venus. Decades before Thor and Hercules emerged in the Marvel Universe, Venus was the first classic deity to star in her own book. Venus traveled to Earth out of boredom and met Whitney Hammond who made her the editor of his fashion magazine Beauty. Venus perhaps survived by changing formats, from comedic romance to melodrama to science fiction and then, once super heroes started to fall out of vogue, supernatural thrillers. Venus’ title lasted twenty issues, many more than her contemporaries. Like Namora, she was recently re-introduced as a member of the Agents of Atlas.
Once super heroes faded from popularity, Timely Comics switched to science fiction and monster stories. The company even changed its name to Atlas Comics for a while. During a golf outing, the publisher of DC Comics mentioned that the company had scored success with ‘Justice League of America,’ a team-up title uniting that publisher’s biggest stars. Atlas’ publisher then went to writer Stan Lee and instructed him to create a super team along those lines. Lee was frustrated by the assignment until his wife suggested he create a team he would be interested in writing. Thus was born the Fantastic Four, comics’ most famous dysfunctional family and a new era in comics, the “Marvel Age.” Lee brought a realism and complexity to his characters that had never been employed in comics in the past and gained a legion of devoted readers.
The Marvel Universe grew rapidly, but females were relegated to supporting roles and members of teams, and they were typically the weakest links on those teams. The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl’s powers were initially passive. (She didn’t gain the ability to create force fields and turn other objects invisible for a few years.) Marvel Girl of the X-Men struggled with all her might to move even the smallest objects with her telekinesis. After joining the Avengers, Ant Man reversed his shrinking abilities to become Giant Man, but his partner Wasp continued shrinking to bug-size. The Scarlet Witch’s powers were vague and unpredictable.
Their personalities were likewise less-than-empowered. Invisible Girl was the mother hen of her brood and pined for the emotionally distant Mister Fantastic. Along the same lines, Marvel Girl was in love with her stoic team leader, Cyclops. Wasp was typically depicted as a flighty party girl who loved shopping and flirting with Thor to make her boyfriend jealous. And Scarlet Witch was kept on a short leash by her overbearing brother Quicksilver. Not a headliner among them.
It wasn’t until the 70s that Marvel attempted to once again launch a line of female-starring books. One title, ‘Night Nurse’ wasn’t a super hero title, but rather a medical based romance/drama series. The character, in recent years, however has been reinterpreted as a supernatural character and even dated Doctor Strange. Shanna the She-Devil was just the latest in a line of white jungle queen characters that populated dozens of comics and were epitomized by the character Sheena several years earlier. Shanna wasn’t a break-out star, but quickly met and eventually married jungle king, Ka-Zar and became a fixture in his various series through the years. She also starred in a racy Marvel Knights series in 2005, with pin-up girl art by Frank Cho.
The third female in this trifecta was The Cat, Greer Nelson, a co-ed who was granted the powers of a race of cat people. The Cat’s book was actually written by a woman, Linda Fite and drawn by several female illustrators. Marie Severin drew the first two issues and Paty Greer the third. Ramona Fradon illustrated the fifth issue which was never published.
Alas, this wave of female heroes didn’t fare much better than the Golden Age batch in terms of their books’ success, but these characters managed to hang in for longer terms. As stated, Shanna has remained an active part of the Marvel Universe. Greer Nelson abandoned her identity as The Cat but became a real cat woman, Tigra the Were-Woman, and subsequently served as a longtime member of The Avengers. The Cat identity was adopted and modified by humor teen star Patsy Walker, who was established as a part of the real Marvel Universe. Patsy chose the name Hellcat and served with The Avengers and The Defenders.
One previously established hero, The Black Widow, flourished as a leading character, co-headlining the anthology series ‘Amazing Adventures.’ Natasha Romanova was a defected Russian secret agent, who now dedicated her skills to serving the US government. Mirroring the jet-setting adventures of big screen hero, James Bond, the Black Widow traveled to exotic locales around the globe in her exploits. As of now, Black Widow may be the most high profile Marvel female, embodied by Scarlett Johansen in ‘The Avengers’ live action movie.
Perhaps Marvel’s most visible solo female of the decade was actually a licensed property, Red Sonja. Existing in the same continuity of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, she starred in ‘Marvel Feature’ for seven issues before getting her own series for fifteen issues. She teamed up with Spider-Man (kind of) in ‘Marvel Team-Up’ and even appeared in a live action movie, starring Brigitte Nielson.
It’s hard to imagine, but in the 70s, DC’s roster of heroes were EVERYWHERE, appearing on every manner of licensed merchandise and on the cartoon ‘Super Friends,’ which was watched by millions. Marvel’s heroes had a much smaller profile… pretty much the opposite of the way things are now. Though Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were DC’s biggest names, Supergirl and Batgirl were also household names. Marvel may have taken note of that in its choices for its next batch of female titles by basing them on existing male heroes.
In 1977, Carol Danvers, a supporting character from Marvel’s ‘Captain Marvel’ series, received her own book as Ms. Marvel, although strangely almost everything about the character, including her military background and job working security for NASA, were eschewed. Instead, she was placed in the role of the editor of Woman magazine, owned by The Daily Bugle, bringing her into contention with Spider-Man’s foil J. Jonah Jameson. In the earlier issues of the series, Carol wasn’t even aware that she was Ms. Marvel! She blacked out when she became the super hero! (This eventually went way.)
Her solo title lasted a respectable 23 issues and she eventually joined The Avengers. Her story in that title ended badly and, eventually, she was robbed of her powers by Rogue. She gained different cosmic powers and became Binary, a member of the space-faring Starjammers for several years. Finally, in the late 90s, she regained her Ms. Marvel powers and costume, but also gained the unfortunate code name Warbird. “Ms. Marvel” was deemed out-of-date, but eventually the powers that be came to their senses and returned her old moniker. She then scored another solo series that lasted 50 issues. Her recent transformation into Captain Marvel seems to bode even better for her!
Also in 1977, Spider-Woman debuted. Unlike Supergirl or Batgirl or even Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman had absolutely no connection to Marvel’s flagship hero, Spider-Man. In her earliest appearance, she was revealed to be an actual spider, mutated into human form. That origin was quickly discarded. And so was the next one. The character was something of a hot mess.
The secret truth of the matter is that animation studio Filmation planned to create a Saturday morning cartoon super hero named Spider-Woman so Marvel, already owning Spider-Man, got all “Aw Hell Naw!” and hastily cranked out their own Spider-Woman to stake claim to the name.
It shows. Her earliest adventures were a mess of sloppy continuity, contradictions and vagueness. Initially she was a villain! Then she discovered that she was being manipulated by Hydra. Eventually she became a hero. Or did she? At one point, it was revealed that The Viper was her mother. Then that was disproved. I think.
Her comic, likewise, was murky with a supernatural bent. She was based in San Francisco, separating her from 99% of Marvel’s heroes, who lived in Manhattan. Yet, during the late 70s, she was Marvel’s most recognizable female hero. She even had her own Underoos!
Her series ran a respectable five years, but it concluded with the truly bewildering decision to have her willingly die and have her very existence wiped from the memories of everyone who’d ever met her. This was reversed in an Avengers storyline, but she still remained mostly powerless for over two decades. She was replaced by Julia Carpenter, who debuted in ‘Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars’ who later starred in her own miniseries. Much later, teen Mattie Franklin assumed the identity of Spider-Woman, with both Jessica and Julia’s blessing, and headlined her own book which lasted for 18 issues. Jessica has taken the role back, and quickly proved to be a break-out star in ‘The New Avengers’ and a solo book that was long in the planning, but ‘Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.’ failed to find its footing and was cancelled after only seven issues.
Finally, in 1980, Marvel introduced a feminized version of The Incredible Hulk, his cousin Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk, who gained similar strength after an emergency blood transfusion from Bruce Banner. To differentiate her, though, she could adopt her Hulk form at will and she retained her intelligence and rationale. Eventually, she simply stayed in her She-Hulk form full time. Why not?
Her initial book lasted 25 issues, but that was just the warm up. She joined The Avengers and enjoyed a memorable run before stepping over to the Fantastic Four to replace The Thing. It was during this period that she truly flourished into a fan-favorite.
Writer/artist John Byne, who’d molded her into a brassy, confident and hilarious character in ‘Fantastic Four,’ launched a new title starring the emerald beauty, ‘Sensational She-Hulk,’ noted and still fondly remembered for its humor and for the She-Hulk “breaking the fourth wall” and talking to the reader.
Another notable occurrence in this book was the reintroduction of The Blonde Phantom, the Golden Age great, now an older, heavier lady-of-a-certain-age, who hadn’t missed a step and who served as She-Hulk’s right-hand gal.
Like many other ladies on this list, the She-Hulk has had numerous attempts at a solo series. She recently starred in her own book that lasted 38 issues. How long until she gets another shot?
If one book changed the face of comics in the 70s, it was the relaunched ‘Uncanny X-Men’ featuring an eclectic mix of mutants from around the globe which included some of the most unique and complex heroes to ever appear in a super hero comic. Included were some fascinating female leads. Storm was an African mutant, who’d grown up as a thief and pickpocket, only to become worshiped as a goddess after her weather-controlling powers emerged. She had an iron will, was a master strategist and possessed a heart full of love and compassion, serving as an older sister to her younger teammates. Her secret weakness was claustrophobia, the result of being buried alive as a young child. Then there was Phoenix, formerly the frail Marvel Girl, now possessing near-limitless cosmic powers and struggling to contain such power with her normal human psyche. Eventually she was driven mad and committed suicide to prevent herself from destroying the cosmos. And then there was Kitty Pryde, a wide-eyed ingenue, often cited as the first truly realistic teen character in super hero comics.
None of these were considered for solo books, however. No, the first female mutant to gain her own series was Dazzler, an aspiring disco singer who roller skated into action, wielding light powers which she usually used to jazz up her concerts. The character was a joint creation between Marvel and Casablanca Records, the home of Donna Summer, The Village People and KISS. (Marvel published two special KISS comics during the era.) The plan was for Casablanca to hire a singer/actress to actually release an album and tour as Dazzler, but that never happened.
Don’t scoff! Dazzler defeated The Enchantress, Dr. Doom and even Galactus in her solo series! Her book lasted 43 issues and she starred in a graphic novel, wherein she publicly came out as a mutant as a career move, which backfired, dooming her singing career. She officially joined the X-Men at this point and has even appeared in two X-Men cartoons and a tie-in arcade game! She also remains utterly fabulous.
Besides Dazzler, no other female characters held their own on-going books in the 80s, but many appeared in miniseries and one-shots. ‘Cloak & Dagger’ spun-out of Spider-Man and were the definition of 80s grit, starring two teens who gained their powers from drugs! The Scarlet Witch co-starred in a series with her husband, The Vision. Kitty Pryde also co-headlined a book, with Wolverine. Magik of the New Mutants and Saturday morning hero Firestar also received minis. The first female Captain Marvel, African American Monica Rambeau starred in two one-shots.
But probably the most significant miniseries starred Daredevil’s former lover-turned-killer Elektra. ‘Elektra Assassin’ was a gritty, mature book, aimed at adults who were increasingly becoming comics main audience.
In the 90s, comics experienced a boom in popularity, partially fueled by speculators who thought modern comics might one day be worth the same as classic Golden and Silver Age books. Violent anti-heroes came into vogue and Marvel responded by giving hired gun, Silver Sable her own series, which lasted for 35 issues.
Once again, miniseries allowed females to spread their wings and take the spotlight. Among others, Black Cat, Rogue and Storm starred in their own limited runs.
One of the most controversial characters on this list is Spider-Girl. The daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, May “May Day” Parker starred in a futuristic series that won over many fans. But when the book was on the verge of cancellation due to low sales, Marvel received a letter from a young female reader, imploring them to keep the book around, because Spider-Girl was her favorite character and one of the rare role models in comics for young girls. This turned out to be a hoax. The letter was written by an adult male, signing the name of his infant daughter. Nevertheless, Spider-Girl lasted an impressive 100 issues and continued appearing in various Spider-Man titles and in a follow-up miniseries that wrapped up some plot threads from the ongoing title.
In the 2000s, manga (comics imported from Japan) enjoyed a surge in popularity among young female readers, who were, in many cases, experiencing the comic art form for the first time. In response, Marvel attempted to tap into this market by publishing some of its titles in the same “digest” size, including ‘Runaways’, ‘Emma Frost’ and ‘Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.’
Marvel has made a concentrated effort to court female readers but, unfortunately, their efforts haven’t really panned out. Marvel has recently released the miniseries ‘Models Inc.’ starring a revived Millie the Model and other fashion stars from its Golden Age, ‘Marvel Divas’ featuring Photon, Black Cat, Firestar and Hellcat and ‘Heralds’ with an all-star cast of female heroes.
The Daughters of the Dragon, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing had a miniseries, then starred in ‘Heroes For Hire’ with a mixed cast that included Black Cat and Shang Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu.
And, of course, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk both starred in recent books. Marvel even introduced a female Ghost Rider, but that failed to catch on, as did a book starring X-23, a female teen Wolverine clone.
Marvel took some flack for not having any ongoing books starring women recently, but now that ‘Captain Marvel’ has arrived to great success things appear to be turning around. Coming next is ‘Red She-Hulk’ starring Bruce Banner’s ex-wife, transformed by M.O.D.O.K. and the Leader. Red She-Hulk has been a regular presence in the Marvel Universe for a couple of years now and has served in the most recent team of The Defenders, but this will be her first solo showcase.
What does the future hold for the women of Marvel? Surely they will continue to thrive in team settings, as they have in the past. But as for which ladies will headline their own books? That remains to be seen. Which heroes do you think deserve their own ongoing books? Feel free to comment below!