Gerry Conway has two essays in the Ms. Marvel Masterworks Volume 1 collection. As the first writer of Carol Danvers’ solo series, his original piece from the first issue’s letter page is reprinted; he also wrote an introductory essay for the Masterworks volume. The 2014 introduction is absolutely a response to Conway’s writing in 1977. This is really good, because the 1977 piece was infuriating, while the 2014 piece made me sob. Fortunately, the 1977 piece is waaaaaay at the end of the book, right before the bonus art. It seemed pointless to throw it against the wall by then. Given Conway’s fairly progressive 2014 essay, his 1977 essay is a perfect illustration of a mindset that which is harmful to the medium of comics and media as a whole. It also demonstrates how those in positions of power can do more for those who have none – and how they often fail to do so.
In writing about Carol in 1978, Conway refers to her as not “your average super-heroine.” He says Carol’s greatest weakness is that she doesn’t know who she is. He goes on:
Now if you’ll think about that for a moment, you might see a parallel between her quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity…She is not a Marvel Girl; she’s a woman, not a Miss or a Mrs. – a Ms. Her own person. Herself.
Chris Claremont gets a lot of (well deserved!) credit for developing Ms. Marvel over both the two years of her solo series and her later appearances with the X-Men. But Conway laid the bones of a character that was powerful, vibrant, and not beholden to any of the men around her in those first two issues; when he passed the pen to Claremont, he was handing over a great foundation on which to build Carol Danvers.
Where Conway starts to go wrong, however, is in paragraph 13 of his essay. Prior to this he has stated that “like anyone who’s been alive in the past decade or so,” he’s aware of the changes in society, and that he has changed himself. He has the insight to say that calling himself a reformed chauvinist is inappropriate because “that’s not the sort of judgement a man can make about himself.”
Unfortunately, Conway begins to go off the rails here. He congratulates himself for “bending over backwards” to understand Carol’s point of view, points out that this is, after all, a writer’s job. He then asks the question: “Why is a man writing this book about a woman? Why didn’t a woman create Ms. Marvel?”
Conway could have started a fantastic conversation with this question. It’s naive to suggest that the entirety of comics history could have changed if a writer in a smallish title in 1977 had suggested that it was wildly inappropriate for the new super-heroine to be written by a man. But instead, he says:
For one thing, for whatever reason (right or wrong), at the moment there are no thoroughly trained and qualified women writers working in the super-hero comics field…There should be but there aren’t…Reason two is more personal. A man is writing this book because a man wants to write this book: me.
From there, Conway moves on to suggesting reverse sexism is at play when calling for a female writer of a female superhero:
If the women’s liberation movement means anything, it’s a battle for equality of the sexes. And it’s my contention that a man, properly motivated and aware of the pitfalls, can write a woman character as well as a woman.
If Marvel had put this essay at the beginning of the book, I don’t know if I’d’ve ever bothered to read Ms. Marvel, and I would have missed out on a story that I absolutely loved.
But it’s 2014 Gerry Conway that I read first, picking up that question of why there were no qualified women in comics to write Ms. Marvel, and this time he digs deeper in his answer. He discusses the boy’s club of comics in the 70s (and now) in this way:
We lived in a kind of psychic treehouse, isolated from the larger world, enjoying the things we enjoyed, and with little or no awareness that we’d created a series of institutional impediments to keep access to the treehouse limited to those who shared our interests, and, predictably, our gender. It’s not that we were against women joining us in the treehouse, per se. We just wanted them to be the kind of women who’d enjoy climbing up a tree to get there…we were happy in our treehouse. We saw no reason to change, or to put up stairs, or maybe add a few lower floors, or even hang a sign inviting newcomers.
There are amazing women now writing and creating art in comics. Just in mainstream comics, and authors and artists I can easily call to mind, you have: Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marjorie Liu, Gail Simone, G. Willow Wilson, Sophie Campbell, Marguerite Bennett, Roxane Gay, Nicola Scott, Elsa Charretier, and Amanda Conner. With the brilliant art and writing that women are creating, it’s easy to wonder how the modern age of comics might be different if there had been more Mary Jo Duffy and Louise Simonson in the 70s and 80s.
Conway goes on to describe how he felt slightly ashamed for years about his stint writing Ms. Marvel, horrified that while he claimed that there were no women qualified to write the book, he claimed that he was. He talks about meeting Kelly Sue DeConnick at a convention, and how she asked for his autograph. He couldn’t understand why.
Then I was asked to write the introduction to this collection, and as I was paging (and cringing) through the first issue, I came across one panel that seemed as if it could explain everything. Go look for yourself: page three, panel three. You see?
Ms. Marvel may have been a clumsy first attempt to create a “feminist super-heroine,” whatever the heck that is, but it was an attempt, and it wasn’t the last.
In very very teensy tiny print, almost without our intending it and certainly without our conscious knowledge, this book was a sign at the bottom of the treehouse that said, in the mildest possible way, “Girls Allowed.”
Some of you read that sign and climbed up.
Others of you got an axe.
Welcome to you all.
And that, my friends, is where I start to cry.
See, here’s the thing. I loved comics when I was little. My parents hated that I read A.L.F. and some Disney comics and LOVED Archie. I read the Digests over and over and over. And then I got a little older…and there was nothing.
It’s not that I didn’t know comics were out there. It’s not that I thought they were too childish. It’s that when I picked them up, every woman was cheesecake, or a girlfriend, or about to be killed off to make some sort of moral or emotional point for the hero. When there was a female character, there was invariably a rape or mystical pregnancy storyline (I’m looking at you, Avengers #200, we’ll get to you another day.) When I was in college, I read Spawn, where the only really important female character turned up in a 9 issue spin-off and was virtually naked. I read Sandman where the only way to conceptualize female characters was as unending beings who, I’m sorry, don’t really have gender (And if you think they do, and you’re saying Delirium is uniquely female, you’re kind of proving my point here). I read Preacher, which had Tulip, I guess, but I barely remember what the crap she did in that book.
Mainstream comics didn’t give a shit about me, or my life, or what I had to say about anything. I was so irrelevant to comics that they didn’t even send unsolicited dick pics. (Note: I don’t want unsolicited dick pics. No one in the world wants unsolicited dick pics. Dick pics are an aggressive act of attention-getting on the part of the sender. Unsolicited dick pics are staggeringly offensive for many reasons, but the relevant detail here is that when someone sends you an unsolicited dick pic they think they’re doing you a favor. See where I’m going with this?) Even Deadpool, one of my favorite comic book movie adaptations to date, had to include a line about how the girlfriends thought this was going to be a superhero movie, “but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!”, as if someone might not have dragged their boyfriend to see the flick. (Ryan Reynolds says studios are always the last to get it.)
Women, of course, are not the only underrepresented group in comics, or in media as a whole. Women of color, Black women, queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, the list goes on. And if you’re on Book Twitter or Book Tumblr, you see the conversations about ownvoices and diversity in literature play out, day after day.
It’s not that you can’t write about women, it’s that if you’re not a woman, you aren’t going to understand in your guts how that guy standing too close feels like a threat, not just a close-talker.
It’s not that you can’t write about autism, it’s that if you’re not autistic, you’re going to be writing a series of tics and obsessions, but you won’t understand the sensory onslaught of the world around you and the crushing depression and anxiety that come from fighting your own neurology to be considered a person.
I am enby, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in transition. I can tell you what it was like to identify as a lesbian in the late 90s, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to come out today in the age of Twitter and Tumblr.
I could write a story about a Black girl, but since I haven’t sat in a room with Black people without being a white woman, I can’t know what it’s like to be in a room with your family when you get to stop worrying about white gaze.
Marvel hired their third Black female writer last year. Unfortunately for them, last year also saw them hiring their first and second Black female writers. The current Iceman title is written by Sina Grace, who is gay and Middle Eastern. America, the book about America Chavez, a queer Latina girl, is currently written by Gabby Rivera, who is a queer Puerto Rican woman. Kamala Khan, the new Ms Marvel, is written by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman. Sophie Campbell, a trans woman, helped launch the recent Jem and the Holograms comic, specifically including an openly trans woman for all the reasons I’ve described here and plenty more I do not have the lived experience to write about. Fans are hungry for these stories; fans are hungry to see themselves in books and on screen and in the world. Look at the resounding success of Kamala Khan in comics, The Hate U Give in YA books, and everything that Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes touch in TV and movies.
Nicola Scott (who I believe is one of the best artists currently working in comics and I will fight you) noted recently:
Four years ago I became the first female creator to design a Batman B&W. I didn’t know that fact at the time.
This week I apparently became the first female creator to get a thank you credit for a DC film.
HOW ARE EITHER OF THESE FACTS POSSIBLE?! pic.twitter.com/8Yhjo6DSS9
— Nicola Scott 🏳️🌈 (@NicolaScottArt) November 19, 2017
Comics, and media in general, have a long damn way to travel before they find anything even remotely approaching equality. Women like Gail Simone or Kelly Thompson are an oasis in a desert of cis-het white men, and you need your GPS, an off-road vehicle, and some road trip supplies to find them.
I’m impressed that Conway realized, over time, that he was out of line by saying that there were no women qualified to write Ms. Marvel, as if young and inexperienced men weren’t hired to write comics on a regular basis. I think he did a good job in those first two issues of Ms. Marvel, and that he laid some excellent groundwork that Chris Claremont picked up and ran with. But would a woman have written it better than Conway, or yes, even Claremont?
You only need to look at Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run to see the answer.
Carol Danvers (played by Brie Larson) will star in the upcoming Captain Marvel film, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, slated to open in 2019. It is the 21st entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started in 2008, and the first to headline a female main character.