A Thor Subject
The comics industry grapples with attracting women readers.

The new Thor (Marvel)


Jim Geraghty

The surprises came in a trio: First, Marvel Comics announced that the character of Thor, based upon the Norse God of Thunder, would become a woman. The second surprise was the venue in which the switch was announced — ABC’s feminine-minded daytime talk show The View — but perhaps that was predictable, considering that Marvel and ABC Television are both owned by Disney.

But the third, and biggest, surprise is that anyone thought this was a good idea.

“This is not She-Thor,” senior writer Jason Aaron said in a Marvel release. “This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.”

The “She-Thor” reference is meant to address the complaint that some of comics’ most high-profile heroines are just female versions of previously existing male heroes — Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Namorita . . . characters that seem derivative and superfluous in the hands of the wrong creative team.

Comic-book characters go through all kinds of seemingly permanent changes — broken backs, retirements, deaths — only to return to “normal” within a few months or years — which is often a sign that a new editor or writer has taken the helm, or that the dramatic change flopped with readers. For what it’s worth, Marvel insists Thor’s new womanhood isn’t a brief experiment.

Marvel editor Wil Moss declared, “The new Thor continues Marvel’s proud tradition of strong female characters like Captain Marvel, Storm, Black Widow and more. And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute — she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy.”

In changing the gender of one of its higher-profile heroes, Marvel appears to be trying to address the complaints of female comic readers and creators that Marvel and its equally iconic rival, DC Comics, don’t know how to reach a female audience and don’t have many ideas about what to do with their female characters. Comic publishers may be more attentive to these complaints in the face of a trend of slumping sales.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an entertainment entity attempting to reach out to a new or bigger audience. Of course, some forms of entertainment are quite comfortable with an audience skewing heavily to one gender. You don’t hear much griping that romance novels aren’t selling well among men, or that men aren’t watching enough soap operas.

Women willing to venture into a comic-book shop are rare enough — we all know the stereotypes of the proprietors and patrons. Once a woman steps inside, she’s greeted with comics, posters, collectible art, action figures, and other merchandise featuring mostly male characters, while the superheroines and villainesses are almost always depicted with centerfold bodies in skin-tight clothing.

Some of this is the nature of the genre and, in fact, mass media. Most of the men in comic books have at least the muscle tone of Michelangelo’s David. The fictional worlds of superheroes are hardly the only ones to feature near-ideal physiques and beautiful people. Attractive people smile, wink, and pose for us on our movie screens, television screens, and magazine covers.

And it’s not just male creators who create sexually explicit, almost impossibly attractive characters. Stroll through a bookstore and you’ll see the female-written and largely female-read supernatural thrillers of Laurel K. Hamilton, Jacqueline Carey’s explicit alternative-history Kushiel series, and of course the Fifty Shades series by Erika Leonard, a.k.a. E. L. James.

But the world of superhero comics, a field with so many creative minds that provides Hollywood with so much of its raw material, shouldn’t really be struggling to imagine and depict female characters memorable for more than their cup size.

"Socially Relevant" Superheroes
The classic comic-book character Archie Andrews faces his ultimate demise in an upcoming issue in a story straight out of the progressive playbook. Here’s a look at Archie’s fate, and some Twitter takes on where comic books might look for "socially relevant" storylines.
Archie Comics announced that Archie will be killed stopping an assassination attempt on Kevin Keller, the series’ first openly gay character who is a senator pushing for stronger gun control laws. The identity of the would-be killer remains a secret, but is said to be a stalker who wants to “destroy” Keller.
For publisher Jon Goldwater, the story has a larger message, telling Rolling Stones: “He could have saved Betty. He could have saved Veronica. We get that, but metaphorically, by saving Kevin, a new Riverdale is born." Comic-industry writer Andrew Wheeler calls the story “an unambiguous condemnation of America’s lax gun laws.”
The Archie character debuted in 1941, and was recently relaunched as Life With Archie, a series that AP describes as “more socially relevant,” with stories involving “Kevin’s marriage, the death of longtime teacher Ms. Gundy and Archie’s love interest, Cheryl Blossom, tackling breast cancer and affordable health care.” (There’s even a zombie spin-off, Afterlife Archie.)
So if Archie can be reimagined in a “more socially relevant” way, what about the legions of masked and caped superheroes? Twitter users took to the hashtag #MakeComicBooksMoreSociallyRelevant to consider the possibilities. Here’s a look at their snarky story pitches.
“The Justice League of America creates a list of hurtful and insensitive words you're not allowed to say.” (Pen Guinn, @PenGuinnBlog)
“Superman changes his name to Adequate Cishet to avoid hurting feelings.” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“The Punisher decides that Eric Holder's justice system is good enough; fights for an assault weapons ban” (KingShamuse, @KingShamus)
“Susan Storm refuses to turn invisible anymore, because ‘That's just what the patriarchy wants.’” (Chris McKeever, @TheRealMcKeever)
“Wolverine checks his privilege; finds out it's made of adamantium too.” (Dr. Kanko Patriarchy, @kankokage)
“She Hulk demands birth control that is powerful enough to affect her gamma radiation-fueled uterus.” (Shane Styles, @shaner5000)
“Casper The Friendly Ghost has learned to check his privilege, and is now truly ‘down with the struggle.’” (VekTor, @VekTorBK)
“Wonderwoman smashes the glass ceiling with her invisible jet.” (Cranky Gordon, @CrankyGordon)
“Superman outs himself as an illegal alien.” (Gumlegs, @Gumlegs)
“Black Widow quits Avengers when Nick Fury decides he will only pay for 16 of 20 BC choices” (DallenH, d_allen)
“Eric Holder appointed to head up Justice League; monitoring of parade floats made top priority.” (Sam Valley, @SamValley)
“Superman & Batman are required to take sensitivity training for making fun of Aquaman.” (Azina, @azina)
“Hulk Smash Puny Hedge Fund Managers And Banksters!!" as Marvel teams up with #OWS” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Wonder Woman's teaching gig, woman's studies, gets rest of justice league pinched, nat.crime rate doubles” (JohnWiseman, @JohnWiseman17)
“Wonder Woman abdicates title, gives Golden Lasso of Truth to Hillary, who promptly explodes.” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Daredevil is called racist by @Toure led MSNBC panel after caught saying ‘I don't see color…’” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Spider-Woman comes out, marries Jean Grey but is killed by a jealous cisnormative Wolverine.” (KingShamuse, @KingShamus)
“Veronica knocked up by Archie. Archie croaks, and she ends up on public assistance.” (MOG, @pa01212)
“Ritchie Rich denounced by Harry Reid on the Senate floor for not paying his fair share.“ (Joe, @JoeFL65)
“Citing tax evasion laws, the IRS targets the Xavier Institute so the NSA can confiscate & retask Cerebro” (@Timothy Bertolet, @tim_bertolet)
“Peppermint Patty and Lucy announce their engagement.” (Super Genius, @Crapplefratz)
“Captain Marvel gains his powers by saying the magic words ‘Barack Hussein Obama! Mmm Mmm mmm!’” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“The new Robin is fired after a transphobic Tweet causes outrage on Gawker and TMZ” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Internet forces layoffs at Daily Planet; reduced to writing clickbait for Buzzfeed, Superman kills self” (David Burge, @iowahawkblog)
“Rogue Uses Her Mutation To Only Steal White Male Privilege“ (Starless, @starless941)
“Peter Parker decides to honor his Arachno-heritage by campaigning against pesticides and evil GMO makers” (VekTor, @VekTorBK)
“Hawkeye forced to change name after WaPo editorial saying he appropriated it from Native Americans” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Flash cited by Di Blasio for speeding, fitted with 300lb ankle weights to ‘level the playing field’” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Mr. Freeze's Global Warming speaking tour interrupted by mysterious caped crusador called The Denier” (Diet Publicola, @DietPublicola)
“CaptainPlanet deals with polluters,sells them $200,000,000 in carbon credits,goes on speech circuit” (Terry_Jim, @Terry_Jim)
“Nick Fury is accused of being an Uncle Tom since all of the Avengers are white or green.” (Dr. Kanko Patriarchy, @kankokage)
“Cost of Obamacare forces Arkham Asylum to close. All patients are released.” (Azina, @azina)
“Professor X, but with the power to marshall #hashtags for activism” (Tony!ToniTone! Stark, @StarkTTT)
“Plutocrat 1%er Scrooge McDuck killed in violent OccupyDisneyland overthrow” (David Burge, @iowahawkblog)
“Wimpy takes over for Uncle Sam telling Popeye he'd gladly pay him Tuesday for (insert everything) today” (Matthew Ferrara, @mfcompany)
“Jonathan and Martha Kent arrested for harboring illegal alien children from Krypton” (David Burge, @iowahawkblog)
“Rocky & Bullwinkle's marijuana dispensary destroyed by agents of Kang the Kenyan Destroyer.” (Zach Ward, @UnrealZachWard)
“Clark Kent travels to Bizarro World, becomes unjournalist unreporter at MSNBC” (David Burge, @iowahawkblog)
“General Halftrack comes out of the closet during sexual harassment Court Martial.” (Super Genius, @Crapplefratz)
“Lex Luthor sponsors a Democrat "climate-in" event after donating $1 Billion to DSCC. Decries Kochs” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Mandarin Sent To Inner City For Muslim Outreach/Midnight Basketball Program” (Starless, @starless941)
“Punisher creeped out by President saying "I'm good at killing people." Retires to Keys, runs a B&B” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Black Panther joins the New Black Panther Party, designs nightsticks made from vibranium” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Batman goes on a listening tour of Arkham Asylum, discussing prison reform with Clayface and The Riddler” (KingShamuse, @KingShamus)
“Peter Parker's origin retold; as a dying Uncle Ben tells him ‘With great power comes white privilege!’” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“Aunt May is refused a pacemaker for her chronic heart condition. Told to ‘Take the pill’ by the IPAB” (Chris Coon, @Coondawg68)
“The Social Justice League” (Alex Soti, @Ajsoti)
Updated: Jul. 15, 2014