Representation in Marvel’s “Secret Wars”

A while back, I picked up Marvel’s Secret Wars. This crossover event took place over the course of twelve issues from May 1984 through April 1985. I picked up Secret Wars because it looked interesting, and I remember having issue #8, the first appearance of the Symbiote, when I was younger. Fans have been clamoring for Secret Wars on the big screen, and at SDCC, the Russo brothers again spoke about their interest in directing Secret Wars. Reading, Secret Wars, though, they would have to address a number of issues, specifically in regard to the representation of women and Black characters.

In all honesty, Secret Wars was hard for me to finish. I understand it’s a large-scale, marketing crossover that doesn’t necessarily take it self too seriously. However, there are so many issues surrounding representation that it made it difficult for me to get through. I will not be able to address all of the issues I saw with Secret Wars in this essay, so I want to zero in on a few and explain why they are problematic.

Over the past few years, I have written extensively about representation in media, and specifically in comics. I have written about reader responses to the first appearance of Black Panther, the problems with Mark Waid and J.G. Jones’ Strange Fruit, the character of Buck Wild in Milestone’s Icon, and more. I do not want to rehash those aspects here. If you want to see what I have had to say, just click on the links above.

Secret Wars plays into, I would say, young, white male readers’ romance fantasies. What I mean by this is that the series taps into those desires, or longings, of adolescent boys during the period when they begin to earnestly think about romantic relationships. Throughout, Secret Wars presents women on the periphery, as helpers to the male characters. Along with this, each of the male characters who have significant others back on earth — Mr. Fantastic and Colossus specifically — constantly think about Sue Richards and Kitty Pride. Reed Richards thinks about Sue and their unborn baby, focusing on the domestic. The female characters do not have these thoughts or longings for people left on earth.

Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp, caught my attention. Immediately upon arriving on the Beyonder’s world, the heroes debate about who should be their leader. She defers her leadership of the Avengers to Captain America because, as she says, “Some people don’t know me well! They might have doubts. . . and there’s no room for that!” Captain America, ultimately, becomes the leader of a band of the heroes. The other group, the X-Men, fall under Charles Xavier. This is important too because Storm, who has been the leader of the X-Men in the field argues that she should maintain her position; however, Xavier becomes the field leader. Storm ultimately defers to Xavier’s leadership, but she does not agree with it. In this manner, she becomes the counter to Van Dyne, and throughout, she questions Xavier’s position.

In each instance, the role of women in leadership positions becomes undermined, once by Van Dyne deferring to Captain America and once by Storm reluctantly acquiescing to Xavier’s position. The argument between Storm and Xavier is important. Storm plays into stereotypical tropes by becoming an angry Black woman who doesn’t “know her place.” When Xavier calls the X-Men to follow after Doom, Storm runs to Xavier and tells him, “I will speak to you and you will listen to me.” She is the leader of the X-Men in the field, and she did not give her teammates the order, Xavier did.

Xavier’s orders undermine Storm’s position. Xavier treats her in a paternalistic manner, telling her to control her anger because it is causing a storm to erupt, thus hindering Cyclops’ take off. Storm tells Xavier he is a good tutor, but that he needs ti “leave the war to the warriors.” To his, Xavier points his finger, sternly looks out of the panel, and tells her, “Notwithstanding your doubts, I have made my decision which is mine to make — I will give the orders! Understood?” Storm rebuts by telling him that he will do things her own way, no follow his orders. Xavier counters, telling Storm she will obey him and his “will not tolerate insubordination, mutiny, or desertion!”

This whole exchange undermines Storm’s role with the X-Men. It usurps her position and places Xavier, the white man, at the top. Xavier’s paternalistic and harsh words to Storm add to this. While Van Dyne submissively defers, Ororo angrily disagrees. The juxtaposition between Van Dyne’s and Ororo’s responses also plays into stereotypes of the White Van Dyne being submissive and the Black Ororo being combative. Apart from this scene, which occurs issue #6, I forgot Storm was even in the comic until issue #11 when she comments that everyone should attack Doom.

Storm and Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel) become almost nonexistent throughout Secret Wars. Rambeau, hailing form New Orleans, became the second Captain Marvel in 1982 and even led the Avengers. During the scene where everyone says whether or not they should attack Doom, Rambeau does not say anything. Elsewhere, she only serves as an advance scout, never really commenting on anything that is occurring. Her purpose, along with that of James Rhodes (Iron Man) and Storm becomes nothing more than a soldier in the war.

Van Dyne, on the other hand, gets a large amount of space within the narrative; however, this space only serves to reinforce her position as the stereotypical woman, only concerned with her beauty and domestic activities even in the midst of battle. Van Dyne finds herself in Magneto’s base, and she seduces him, in a way, to get information. Just before the X-Men enter to confront Magneto, he crafts a comb for Van Dyne. She tells him, “You really discover the things that you take for granted when Bergdorf Goodman’s is a billion-zillion miles away! And I wish this place had plumbing! What sort of beings would build a place with no. . . no powder rooms?”

While Van Dyne’s words here can be seen as playing into the ruse to get Magneto to give her information, she makes similar comments when alone. Even amidst the war, she focuses on outward, superficial appearances. Escaping Magneto’s base, Van Dyne crashes her ship. The first thing she says after the crash is, “Oh, no! I broke a nai! I don’t even have an emery board and I’m thirty-seven trillion miles from my manicurist and it’s her day off anyway!” Instead of worrying whether or not she is ok and where she is, Van Dyne worries about a broken nail and the fact that it’s manicurist’s day off.

The representation of Van Dyne and Storm play off of one another, working within stereotypes that reinforce harmful views of both white and black women. These caricatures carry over into the triangle with Zsja, Collosus, and the Human Torch and with Volcana and the Molecule Man and even with the Enchantress and Thor.

The triangle with Johnny, Zsaji, and Colossus draws upon tropes of infatuation and jealousy. Zsaji is a healer from a another planet, a planet that the Beyonder took a part of to form the Battleworld. After a battle with the Wrecking Crew, the heroes find a village and Zsaji heals them. When she heals Johnny, he calls he “gorgeous” and tells her, “I think I’m in love! Baby, I’ll tumble 4 ya!” Zsajireplies; however, Johnny and the rest of the heroes cannot understand her. The language appears as squiggled lines, signifying the language barrier.

In fact, Zsaji never speaks in English to anyone throughout the series. This move inhibits her agency and our ability, as readers, to determine how she truly feels. Instead, Johnny and Colossus always project their feelings onto her. When Galctus summons his planet into the Battleworld’s orbit, Zsaji takes Johnny into her dwelling. Johnny thinks that she is doing this to spend time with him, and when they enter, he thinks she is fixing him drinks. Johnny’s thoughts only present Zsaji as love interest, not as someone who can assist him and the others in their ongoing battles.

Later, when Colossus gets injured, Zsaji heals him, and he has the same initial feelings as Johnny. As he looks upon Johnny and Zsaji, he thinks, “She is very beautiful. . . and very much in love with the Human Torch! Why does that trouble me? And why can I not picture Kitty [Pride] in my mind now? Zsaji! Her name is Zsaji . . . stop looking at him that way!” Colossus’ thoughts introduce the triangle into the narrative, and his initial thoughts also present Zsaji as a possession, not as an individual.

As he recovers from his wounds, Colossus begins to constantly think about Zsaji, causing him to forget about Kitty Pride. When Zsaji comes in to help ease his pain, he tells her, “I cannot deny my feelings! Zsaji, I think you are the most beautiful, most wonderful woman I have ever met!” He tells her this, and as she leaves, Johnny swoops down from the sky, grabs her, flies into the air, and kisses her. Johnny assumes that she likes him; however, her inability to communicate with Johnny, Colossus, and the reader, does not indicate if this is true. Johnny’s actions, like Colossus’ earlier thoughts, present Zsaji as a possession, not as an individual with a choice in who she loves and what she wants to do or not do with that person.

During an attack by Doom, Zsaji becomes injured and Colossus watches on the screen, thinking he needs to do something. He defers, however, to Johnny because he “knows” that Zsaji likes Johnny instead of him. He tells Johnny, “ I have bad news! Zsaji has been injured!” Helping Reed Richards, Johnny looks up as asks, “Huh?” He proceeds to tell Colossus, “I’ve got no time for a chippie now! Reed’s hurt! I’ll send her a card later!” Johnny’s flippant response, again, places Zsaji as nothing more than an object for his pleasure. To him, Reed seems more important. Granted he is helping Reed at that moment, but his response to Colossus highlights his true feelings about Zsaji. Even if he could not help her, he could reply in a better manner.

Zsaji survives the attack, and later we see her awaken from her sleep and suddenly sitting up in bed, startled by someone at her door. The panels show a silhouette in the doorway, standing there almost seductively. We can tell, from the outline, it is Colossus, but while the framing presents this as a supposed act of romance, the panels depict it as a menacing intrusion on Zsaji’s privacy, which, like Johnny’s grabbing of Zasji earlier, it is. Colossus expresses his love for Zsaji, and the narration reads, “She cannot understand the words. . . Nonetheless, the essence is clear. She smiles. . . as though seeing him for the first time.”

These moments, as I have pointed out, depict Zsaji as a possession. They also, though, present her feelings as fleeting. She moves seamlessly from Johnny to Colossus, without even any indication of the shift. The narrative reads that if Johnny likes her then she goes with him. If Colossus likes her, she’ll end up with him.

Along with the adolescent male fantasies, Zsaji also represents fears over relationships between people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Immediately after the scene where Colossus expresses his love, we see Nightcrawler and Wolverine talking about where Colossus has run off to. Wolverine tells Nightcrawler that Colossus’ obsession stems from Zsaji’s healing power, and he continues by stating, “This ain’t the girl next door, either! Different world . . . different culture . . . who knows what love means to her? Probably not the same as to him! Looks to me like it’s a standard part of her patient-care!”

Throughout, we need to think about Zsaji not just in relation to the relationships she has with Johnny and Colossus. We need to think about her in relationship to discussion of colonialism and the “othering” of individuals. The fact that she remains voiceless, essentially, and that she serves to heal the heroes calls upon us to think about Zsaji in this manner. I do not have the space to explore these aspects here, but it is definitely something we need to consider with Secret Wars.

Meeting with the rest of the heroes, Colossus must decide whether or not they shall fight Doom. Captain America tells them that they will not attack Doom unless everyone agrees. Colossus is the last to agree, and he tells those gathered around the table that he has finally found the woman he loves and that if they attack Doom all that may go away. He asks them, “Am I being selfish?” The final panel of the penultimate issue shows a closeup of his face, fists clenched, and a tear rolling down his cheek as he says, “Forgive me, Zsaji. . . I say yes. . . we fight!” This moment links him with the heroes, of course, but it also, as Johnny’s statement does earlier, places Zsaji’s life below his and those sitting around the table. He does not respond flippantly like Johnny does, but his response does push Zsaji to the side.

Doom blasts the heroes’ base, incapacitating everyone. Zsaji comes upon the scene and uses her power to heal Colossus, and in doing so, she dies. She sacrifices herself so that he may live. Again, this moment places Colossus’ life above her own existence. While it appears that Colossus truly loves her, Zsaji’s actions play into the “magical Negro” trope. Even though she is not black, she is othered. Her powers and her sacrifice work to save the white characters at the expense of herself.

Colossus mourns Zasji’s death, and as the X-Men prepare to leave the Battleworld, Professor Xavier convinces Colossus to return with them by telling him that death is inevitable and asking him what he will do with the life that Zasji granted him. A panel shows another closeup of Colossus’ face as tears stream from his eyes. He stands up and agrees to return to earth. There are many layers of Zsaji that need to be examined in more detail; however, I do not have the space to do so here.

Along with the heroes and villains, the Beyonder brought ordinary individuals from various planets to the Battleworld. Marsha Rosenberg and her friend Titania (Mary MacPherran) came from Denver, CO. On the Battleworld, the two women agreed that they would serve Dr. Doom in exchange for superpowers. Doom obiliged and turned Rosenberg into Volcana and MacPherran into Titania. Immediately after their first appearances on the page and their transformations, the women encounter the men that they become romantically involved with.

Titania exhibits her strength and approaches the Absorbing Man, telling him, “I’m going to do anything I want to you! Everything I always wanted to do to everybody who used to be bigger and stronger than me!” Here, it looks like Titania could become a character that upends patriarchal systems, but she doesn’t do that. The Absorbing Man reclines on a couch and says she needs to save her fighting for tomorrow’s battle. When Titania asks if he’s backing down, he simply responds, “I got nothin’ to prove . . . to a dame!” What could have been a challenge to patriarchy becomes a submission to it. Titania angrily wrecks some of the furniture in the room and storms off.

As Titania walks away, Volcana and Molecule Man have their first interaction. He tells her that he despises violence, and she replies, “Really? You? The infamous Molecule Man? I’ve always wanted to meet you! You’re . . . different than I expected!” Molecule Man sarcastically replies that he’s different because of he is shorter than she expected, and Volcana tells him it’s because he seems more sensitive. At this, Molecule Man opens up and relates how he has been seeing a therapist and his therapist says the same thing.

Molecule Man is awkward in his interactions with others. Doom and the other villains want him to be ruthless, but he refuses. He talks about seeing a therapist numerous times, and always appears to not be very assertive. Volcana serves, in a way, as boost for his self esteem. She dotes and fawns upon him, becoming the devoted girlfriend that will bolster Molecule Man’s confidence.

After Molecule Man obliterates the heroes’ headquarters, a panel shows Volcana and Molecule Man looking romantically at one other. She has her hands underneath her chin, gazing down at him and tells him how impressed she is with his powers. He stares up at her lovingly, telling her it’s easy, and he ends by letting her know that she can call him Owen. This panel plays on the tropes and images of the initial romantic moments between a couple: the doting glances, the embarrassing stances, the terms used to speak to one another. In this panel, the longings of the readers become visualized through Volcana and Molecule Man.

The other villains make fun of Volcana and Molecule Man’s relationship. Arm in arm, the couple walk upon the members of the Wrecking Crew. Molecule Man tells Volcana how hard it was for him with people making fun of him all the time, and she tells him, Oh, you poor, poor boy! I wish I’s been there to help you!” As they approach the Wrecking Crew, Piledriver lets out a “moo” and informs the others, “Hey, here comes the milksop and his cow! Romeo and Guernsey!” Embedded within Piledriver’s statement is a commentary on Volcana’s appearance and Molecule Man’s demeanor. This is not the only instance where characters make derogatory comments about Volcana, and they ultimately work to reinforce supposedly uniform standards of beauty.

Upon hearing Pieldriver, Volcana wants to attack, but Molecule Man restrains her. They begin to walk away, and Piledriver throws another insult at them, calling the nerds. At this, Molecule Man and Volcana get ready to defend themselves. In one panel, we see Titania hiding behind a tree watching the fight. Volcana steps in front of Molecule Man and grabs Piledriver by the throat. To this, Titania thinks, “I can’t believe how Volcana mothers that little wimp!” Throughout Secret Wars, Volcana plays the role of the domestic helpmate to tee. She becomes, in essence, a mother figure to Molecule Man.

After Wolverine wounds Molecule Man, Volcana pleads with the Enchantress to teleport her to his side so she can help him. As she teleports into the room, Titania exclaims, “Girl, ever since we were kids back in Colorado you’ve done a lit of stupid things over a lot of wimpy mama’s boys, but this takes the cake!” To Titania, Volcana mother’s Molecule Man, putting his needs above her own. Volcana runs to Molecule Man and holds his head, all the while telling him she will keep him warm till they can get to Dr. Doom for help.

Over the course of the series, Volcana constantly dotes on Molecule Man. While we do not see domestic scenes between the two, she becomes a submissive helpmate to Molecule Man. It’s not too far of a stretch to envision her in the role of a loyal housewife maintaining the domestic space for Molecule Man. The whole relationship plays into the fantasies of the readers. In many ways, Molecule Man can be seen as a stand in for the readers, if we buy into stereotypes about comic book readers. He’s short, insecure, and picture himself as unable to do anything of value. Even with these feelings, he experiences love with Volcana, and she bolsters his confidence.

Ultimately, Volcana, through her support, becomes the woman in the background as Molecule Man increases in relevance. In this manner, her identity gets subsumed within his own rise. By placing such a focus on Molecule Man, she denies herself her own identity and growth. This does not change throughout Secret Wars, and as a result, the relationship, like the initial panels with Titania, reinforces a patriarchal structure, privileging the male position.

There is much more that could be said about not just these characters and their relationships but between more throughout Secret Wars. But, I do not have the space. What are your thoughts?

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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