Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Wives Under Tables, Crawling Across Floors

There are times, Gentle Reader, in which I wonder about the various hats I wear. You are familiar with this, I'm sure; we change, subtly, our speech and action and mindset with our different environments. I am a scholar, a feminist, a writer, a reader, a geek, a "cool chick" (well, I was, once), a daughter, a puppy-mother, and a wife. Once or twice the stars align and the moon shines down on the me that is all of those things, combined. But more often than not, I have to put aside the student hat, say, and wear the daughter hat, or exchange the geek for the cool, etc. Tonight, I am the pseudo-intellectual, pondering the meaning of The Wife Hat in the comic book world.

I don't wear hats well; no matter the literal hat, I look like Debbie Gibson, circa Electric Youth, all round cheeks and glossy eyes and radiating 80s innocence. But figurative hats chafe as well, and the fit is just as uncomfortable. Perhaps it's the sheer fact that I grew up at the tail end of Gen X: not as rebellious as those who came before, but not as needy as those who came after. Or perhaps it's that grunge streak still lingering in my bones. Or perhaps, just perhaps, I'm Mary Contrary, refusing to admit how my garden grows.

Gail Simone's article "Women in Refrigerators," and my recent rereading of it, got me thinking about the role of wives in comic books today. The wife is a different hat than, say, the girlfriend or lover. The wife's attachment to the husband is preceded by a wedding, an announcement, perhaps a gimmick or two. But no matter what it is preceded by, it is followed by a Huge Shift In Storyline. What to do with her once she's on board? We have to give her *some* role, right? If she's a superhero as well, then fine, no worries. Sue Storm and Reed Richards form a family, and their marriage works (well, pre-Civil War, but that's another post) precisely because they are in the same profession, and understand the dangers. But what of the others? Not an infinite group, certainly, but there are several wives we can, and will, talk about.

But first, a caveat. Understand I'm speaking strictly of comics within, say, the last ten years. And also, please understand that I am speaking only of the comics I read on a regular basis (see the current list in my previous post, "Wednesdays (and sometimes Thursdays)..."). With those concessions in mind, let's move on.

In the finite group of wives in comic books, cross-universes, who has the healthiest marriage? I posed this question to Mr. Reads, and his immediate reply was "Sue Dibny." Hm. Well, I definitely see this pre-52, and yes, Dear Reader, I even see it in Identity Crisis in Ralph’s reaction to Sue’s death. But the most recent issues of 52, and in particular, those dealing with the Superboy cult, are twisting this healthy marriage into an unhealthy obsession. But as Sue is deceased, perhaps we should move on.

My reply was, "Linda Park West." I would scream it from the mountain tops, if I could. But as I am 8 feet below sea level at the moment, I'll settle for posting it on the internet. Wally and Linda, even when they had problems, were *real*. Their problems were mirrors of every marriage's problems. Work, public and private faces (as a reporter, Linda exists in the public as much as Wally does), miscarriage, these are real problems that real people deal with on a daily basis. And they worked *through* those problems, and made their marriage work.

But what truly makes Linda a fascinating example of the superhero’s wife is this simple fact: she’s utterly human. She responds as a “real person” (whatever that is, Dear Reader!) would to all the situations she is faced with on a daily basis, and, in particular, those that involve her husband. Think back to Infinite Crisis, when the Flashes push Superboy Prime through the Speed Force. Wally is about to be sucked away, and he uses the last bit of the Force to see his wife. He tells Linda that he loves her, and the twins, and will see them as soon as he can.

Linda says, basically, “to hell with this!”, grabs on to the twins and her husband, and we are presented with one of the most beautiful images in recent comic book history: Linda, refusing to let her husband sacrifice himself and leave her and their children behind.

But why is this such a healthy marriage? The Flashes, as a whole, tend to take to marriage well, but I believe there's something more to this. Linda Park West is a character drawn from life. She wasn't a main character in the Flash series, nor was she a sidekick or partner. She was a woman, married to a man. She did her job, he did his, and sometimes, the two collided.

Perhaps, then, I should revise my earlier statement regarding superheroes marrying superheroes. Is it easier to marry someone in your profession? Does it allow for sympathy or understanding? Or does Linda Park West, and to some extent her counterpart Lois Lane, counter that assumption? Lois Lane, too, is a reporter, married to a superhero. But Lois’s tendency to put herself in harm’s way because she knows her husband always saves her speaks to something a bit deeper and darker, something, say, that we might see in The Ultimates.

We turn now to The Ultimates (and yes, Dear Reader, I *do* read Marvel, despite my DC-blogging-evidence to the contrary) and the marriage of Hank and Janet Pym, Giant Man and Wasp.

Remember the image I mentioned earlier, of Linda and Wally and the twins? The polar opposite of that image, for me, is in an early issue of The Ultimates, during a disturbing scene of marital abuse between Wasp and Giant Man. Janet shrinks down and hides under a table, while Hank, normal sized, looms over her, a can of insect spray in hand. It's been a while since I've read it, and my memory may be faulty, but I believe he asks her, "Why must you make me feel so small?" before he sprays her with insecticide and attacks her with ants.

Like Ms. Simone and her image of a woman stuffed in a refrigerator, I am haunted by the image of a wife hiding under a table and being attacked by ants.

Now, let's do remember that The Ultimates is a comic that is rather brutal and nasty, on all levels. That's what makes it so smart. But this scene, this very frightening scene, demonstrates a level of reality that we don’t normally see in the comic book universe. Giant Man and Wasp feed each other’s abuse cycle. She is written as a classic abused wife, and he is written as a classic abusing husband, and they torture each other, and return to each other, ad nauseam.

Superheroines hiding under tables to escape their superhero husbands. Janet Pym, burnt and attacked and so very small, cowering away from Giant Man, who in this scene is not Giant at all, but rather quite normal sized. This image has a long legacy in the history not only of comics, but of literature at large. Of the world at large. Her power is to shrink down in size; his power is to grow taller. She is “the classic abused wife” (and although I say it, I quibble with that terminology), and she participates actively in the abuse. She gives as good as she gets in the scene just prior to her cowering. She fights back. And then Hank takes it even farther.

What does this *mean*? *Why* is her power to shrink down? And why, why, why do I remember this image before I remember Linda and Wally? Why do I think back to the wife under the table instead of to the wife jumping into the speed force, children and husband in hand? And why, oh why, does it only rank just a point above Sue Dibny's corpse crawling across the floor in last week's 52 on the Amy-Reads-Freakout-Richter-Scale?

One answer, simply, is this: The Ultimates is a scary little book. Captain America is a jock jerk, Tony Stark is a frightening obsessed man, Natasha is an immoral wench, the list goes on and on. But to look at this scene as it exists not in The Ultimates but in The World, is to see what some envision the role of the wife to be. Gail Simone said it better than I ever can, and I fully admit this. But I think it’s worth reconsideration. Wives under tables, crawling across floors, we live with these images every day. We can’t escape them. Sure, we try to turn a blind eye to it, and pretend that it doesn’t exist. Or, even worse, we admit that it exists but we refuse to talk about it. Why? Literature, whether defined canonically or loosely, is a safe space in which to talk about huge social issues. And this is, indeed, a huge social issue.

So I leave you with this, Gentle Reader, and I promise a more upbeat post soon. But this has been brewing on the backburner for some time now, and who better to inflict with my thoughts than The Internet At Large?



At 9:26 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

I am going to think about this one, Etta. I don't read comics, but as I've read I've been thinking of television...I have to read Simone first. There is something interesting happening with Addison on Grey's Anatomy--not sure it's relevant to this specific post, but your post has got me thinking.
P.S. I object to the prefix "psuedo." You are an intellectual by profession; there's nothing wrong with calling yourself that.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Jesse said...

Lois’s tendency to put herself in harm’s way because she knows her husband always saves her...

I don't think this is what Lois Lane does. She gets into trouble because it's part of her job, which she is very good at.

Of course, sometimes she thinks something like:

"Fortunately, Clark/Superman will get me out of this."

But I've seen her get out of enough tough situations on her own that I believe she really doesn't need to be rescued by Superman most of the time.

Of course, you may see it differently.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Jesse,
I don't think this is what Lois Lane does. She gets into trouble because it's part of her job, which she is very good at.
Of course, sometimes she thinks something like:
"Fortunately, Clark/Superman will get me out of this."
But I've seen her get out of enough tough situations on her own that I believe she really doesn't need to be rescued by Superman most of the time.

Good points, all. I was thinking, specifically, of an issue of Superman or Action Comics when Lois threw herself out of the window, knowing that Superman would catch her (although he wasn't anywhere nearby). Of course you're right that she does it to get the story, but there's still either blind faith in her husband's love, or a strange immortality complex :)

Of course, you may see it differently.

I probably do, but we're seeing the same issue from different angles rather than opposing sides. Plus, I welcome debate and questioning on my blog, so please, keep it coming!
Thanks for reading!


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