On the evidence of Messrs. Hickman and Ribic’s The Ultimates #1, the fundamental concerns of feminism haven’t yet become a matter of public concern and debate on Earth 1610, or (it needs to be said) in the offices of Marvel Comics either. For in the whole of “The Republic is Burning,” there’s not even a single minor speaking role given to anyone who’s not evidently a bloke, while the few occasions in which women are discussed find them mentioned solely in a specifically sexual context.
In an attempt to be as fair as possible, it should be added that there are only eight different characters in Mr. Hickman’s script who are given word-balloon time anyway. It’s a relatively small cast for a story which takes in scenes set off the coast of Uruguay, in a banqueting hall in Asgard, in the Triskellion’s control room, in a Tokyo club, upon a desert which can apparently be found in Northern Germany, and within what appears to be another dimension hidden within a big concrete mushroom. Yet wherever the story of “The Republic is Burning” travels, women appear at best as silent walk-on characters.
Indeed, it’ll tell you a truth if I explain that the woman who has the most important role and the most impressive degree of responsibility in the whole comic is the one seen holding Nick Fury’s cup of coffee for him as he arrives at work (a). She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t appear again, but she does look competent as well as beautiful in her best Diana-Rigg leather-spy outfit as she waits for her boss to take his morning hit of the bean.
Look a second time at the scenes set in Fury’s control room in “The Republic is Burning,” and it can be noted that there’s only a few women to be seen there helping to defend the free-ish world. Look again and it can be hard to perceive any meaningful action being engaged in by these women at all. All the operatives who’re seen tapping away at their keyboards and looking serious and involved are male, with a single exception, as is Fury’s line-feeding second-in-command. In fact, it takes a little concentration to notice any responsibility or even motion on the part of the Triskellion’s female staff at all. We can see a blonde woman being somewhat distressed in the background of one panel (a), and there’s also a rather sultry agent in sunglasses shown tapping at a tablet while the men around her discuss disasters (b). But no one who’s female is given any lines to speak or any behavior of relative consequence, beyond that vital Fury-friendly coffee, to undertake.
Yet there is one single woman who does appear for a whole two panels in Mr. Hickman’s story (c). We never see her face clearly, though somehow we do see her substantial breasts, one in each of the panels she stars in, a fact which seems to say something about the storytelling priorities at work here.
Whoever this of-course-unnamed woman might be, she’s quite clearly intended to be besotted with Tony Stark, whose disappearance causes her to wave with a schoolkid’s fervor at the back he’s turned towards her as he leaves. Though she’s entirely unimportant in her own right to the story, she does inspire one of the two occasions when women are actually mentioned in the dialogue of The Ultimates #1, for Stark’s new dogsbody describes ”that woman” as one who has “rather inconveniently misplaced her ankles.” It’s an entirely offensive comment, and Mr. Hickman manages the trick of appearing to have Stark respond in a way which is anything other than misogynistic while actually defining Tony as something of a good-old fashioned MCP:
Stark: “Two things, Jarvis… one, this year I’ll be dating women who actually eat, and two, don’t be offensive — it’s a charity event.”
Given the absence of women from the story as anything other than window dressing, the reader might imagine that Mr. Hickman and his editors would have been keen to avoid adding to injury with insult. Sadly, not. Stark’s defense of the woman he’s just been talking to isn’t one which upholds her right not be so judged, although it does seem at first glance that that’s what he’s doing. Yet his comments very much don’t say “That’s a cruel and dehumanising thing to suggest” to his employee, but rather his opinion that:
(1) if he’s decided to find “fat” ankles attractive, no-one should disagree with him about the matter, and;
(2) we should be “charitable” to the woman given the nature of the social event at hand.
In essence, Stark is suggesting that in particular circumstances, it’s important to show charity to women who don’t have skinny ankles. Good old Tony, for now it’s plain why folks shouldn’t, in certain formal situations, pass crudely derogatory sexual judgments on the physical appearances of women: charity. To compound that, his response to the idea that a woman’s ankles are of anyone’s business but her own is to propose that it’s his definition of what’s attractive which counts. “Jarvis” isn’t out of line because he’s been so unfair to a woman who’s doing no one in the world, as far as we can see, the slightest harm at all. Rather, it seems that Tony’s implying that if he hadn’t decided to stop “dating” women with shapely ankles, then the absence of such really would be fair game for mockery. The ultimate arbiter, it appears, of how a women should look, and of when it’s acceptable to cuss her for that is, surprisingly, not the woman herself, but Tony Stark.
Of course, it seems certain that Mr. Hickman deliberately designed this scene to show us that Tony really is a fairly decent drunkard and womanizer. Yet in a comic which is so unconcerned with anything other than blokes and blokishness, and which only discusses women in a sexual context, the lack of care and precision in Tony’s words really is something to regret. In a book which wasn’t so insensitively written, Tony’s comments would’ve passed as markers of the strengths and weaknesses of his particular character. Yet when the only two mentions of women in a comic inhabit the same sexualised territory, what might have been signs of an individual personality instead becomes a theme for the book as a whole, as we can see in the following exchange between Nick Fury and Hawkeye, where the latter has been sent to a Bangkok which is “currently in flames”:
Fury: Clint. I’m pretty sure I sent you over there to make sure things did not go to hell.
Clint: Nick, I swear… she was already pregnant.
It is, of course, just boys joshing, and yet, boys joshing about women in the context of sex is all this comic contains where it comes to any discussion of the other 51% of the world’s population. And so, if all we see women doing is offering drinks and looking alluring, and if all we “hear” is men discussing women in terms of sex and nothing else, then it just looks very bad indeed.
It’s just as telling to note who isn’t a woman in The Ultimates #1. In addition to the active and apparently more important roles in Fury’s entourage being reserved for men, the leaders of this issue’s world-threatening conspiracy are all males too. (There are women in their ranks, mind you, and they appear to be identically blonde and beautiful Nordicesque twins.) Still, both Fury’s base and the gaggle of his primary opponents do have women prettying up their background. Yet not a single one of the European “Excalibur-class super-soldiers” who’re on display are anything other than conspicuously male.
It’s something which I doubt real-world sensibilities over here on the other side of pond would ever accept, but then politics doesn’t really appear to be Mr. Hickman’s strong point. (See (h) and (i) below for a few more examples of this.) Similarly, the massed carousing immortals of Asgard are almost entirely male with the exception of one bikini-clad woman carrying the drinks in the background of a single panel and another largely-naked lass making a sole semi-nude appearance to cheer on the immortal boys when they get down to their manly brawling. It seems that only the youthfully undressed cheesecake gets the privilege of waiting on the boys in this Asgard of the Ultimate Universe.
Of course, there can’t have been any intention to programme such a significant measure of careless misogyny into “The Republic is Burning.” It’s impossible to imagine that the men at Marvel sat down as architects do and decided as corporate policy to treat everyone that wasn’t a bloke in The Ultimates as silent and sexualised support-units for the pleasure and general convenience of men. That’s a simply inconceivable idea. No, it seems plain that the problem is still – still — that no one at Marvel who’s connected with The Ultimates #1 cared about anything beyond the manly super-heroics of it all. For if they had, there’s simply no way that this story could’ve possibly appeared in the unfortunate shape that it has.
Oh, well. The Ultimates #1 is just another example of what happens when everyone’s asleep at the wheel. It’s a car-crash of a comic, and we’ll be returning to its worrying representation of people of color as well as its improbable plot confections in the not-so-distant future.
Until then, the question really does need to be asked again: why don’t more women read super-people comic books?
This review originally appeared on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.