Thursday, January 08, 2009

Criminally Underused / Misused / Forgotten Marvel Character #1

The Wasp

Now is it not a good time to be a Wasp fan, but then, when has it ever been a good time to be a fan of the Wasp? Of all the classic Marvel characters - all the folks dating back to the earliest Stan & Jack & Steve days - I feel safe saying that the Wasp has gotten the worst shake of them all.

She's never even had the chance to headline her own title.

Her primary attribute, as a character, is her marriage (and later, divorce).

She married her husband while he was having some kind of schizophrenic episode.

His own instability - seemingly the only thing writers could think to do with Henry Pym for decades - forced her into the role of prop for Pym's ongoing mental health problems.

To that end, she was subsequently on the receiving end of the most famous episode of spousal abuse in the history of superhero comics.

When no one could figure out what to do with her, she was turned into a mutant wasp woman creature, and then turned back into a human at the nearest opportunity.

But it's not enough merely to like the Wasp because so much crap has been foisted upon her. No, the fact is, merely by virtue of having survived and thrived despite these circumstances, her durability has managed to become a facet of her character.

It's an old, ghastly cliche that personal trauma is necessary for female characters - a rape, an assault, something like that. The Wasp has collected her fair share of them - see above. But rather than swear vengeance and become Dark Wasp, she's managed to survive pretty much the way real people do, you know, in the real world: by getting up, dusting herself off and pushing forward. Her father died in her first appearance, after all - but, you know, she's no Peter Parker. The default mode for the Wasp, after all this time, is that of strong, independent woman in a leadership position. It's not something any one creator really did, it was a natural progression more than anything else. But there you have it: the quintessential Avenger, even moreso than Captain America. This is why when, a few years back, Chuck Austen's bringing back the abuse storyline as an important piece of continuity felt so forced. Not because it wasn't important - certainly, it's probably, unfortunately, the single defining act of Hank Pym's career. But for Janet van Dyne, it's probably something she's done with and put in her past. She's not a victim, she's the only person on the planet (in Cap's absence) from whom Kang was willing to accept the unconditional surrender of Earth.

Now, the one facet of her character I've struggled with is probably the part that most readers see as most intrinsic: her affiliation with the fashion industry. Now, I'm probably the least fashion-positive person in the world - on my good days I think of the industry as a blight on the face of humanity, a parasitic organism attached with a death-grip to advanced capitalism. I long for the day we will all be mandated to wear identical unisex jumpers. But the Wasp is a fashion designer (albeit a terrible one, from everything we ever see her design), and this aspect of her character is often played for laughs. Even if I, personally, don't like it, the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Comics are wish-fulfillment through and through. It's obviously a guy's dream of what a successful woman would want to do - play with dresses and purses all day, tee hee - but nevertheless the Wasp actually has a career and a life outside the realm of superheroics (and one that would doubtless appeal to many female readers who could find little to envy in conventional male wish fulfillment fantasies). This is entirely due to the fact that she is and has never been a headliner, so that even when she's featured in the Avengers we don't see everything in her life, but the fact is that unlike Tony Stark or Peter Parker or Reed Richards, her success and her business acumen occur in a field that is absolutely 100% divorced from her avocation of crime-fighting. That's pretty cool.

I think of her as someone in the mode of Coco Chanel - fierce, intelligent, powerful, more than the equal of the men in her life, and actually willing to use fashion as a means of self-expression in more than just a bullshit consumerist Carrie Bradshaw fashion. You don't have to be Adorno or even Foucault to see the limitations of that lifestyle and the economic presumptions that accompany it. The Wasp changes her costume to express herself - sometimes loud and garish and ugly, sometimes simple and stark and sleek, sometimes utilitarian. Always herself, a personality that is strong and unflappable despite the best efforts of many unthinking writers.

She's often been a standout of the Avengers, but never been given the opportunity to shine by herself. If her temporary death will have any effect, let us hope that - like Thor, Hawkeye and Mockingbird - a return from the grave will only serve to make her a fare more popular character than she was before.

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