It is common for modern-day comic readers to look on the current (2014) comic environment with a mix of regret and hope where the topic ‘women in comics’ are concerned. On one hand, the tropes of certain kinds of female characters (that being busty, leggy, doe-eyed, damsels) still exists within the comics community at large. It is not exactly impossible to understand why and how these particular traits first emerged in US comics, comics having started as pseudo-successor to crime dramas/short story publications. The fact they remain speaks to the implicit ‘heritage’ many comics have assumed. Still, other comic readers can look to see the evolution of the female role in comics to have taken on a great amount of — change that is owed to many outstanding female artists, writers, and comic creators.
The History of the Femme Fatale
It is important to first bring up the fact that, with this particular entry (and some of the next one), I am going to be talking about the role of female comic characters as they have evolved in the Big Two (Marvel and DC). I have selected them for this article not because they embody the best history of this subject, but rather because they present the largest surveyable library from which to select certain examples.
I must say that there are virtually countless individually created comics, both through private and small-scale outlets, which present women in dynamic and diverse ways. Please do not think my omission of these books, and my selection of the examples I am going with, as one that was done out of ignorance. I will very likely create an article to touch on works like Persepolis, Saga, Princeless, Lumberjanes, and other amazing books.
The first entry into this series aims to explore the origins, evolution, and subversion(s) of one of the most popular comic tropes for women – the Femme Fatale. I will also be looking at, where possible, historical examples of the Femme Fatale and how this particular trope impacts the role of women in comics.
A femme fatale is, literally, a ‘fatal woman,’ a female whose presence and/or affections result in death or misery. They are mysterious, highly attractive to the opposite sex, enigmatic, and they often have their own agenda. Often, these agendas run counter to the main hero of stories, hence why these kinds of characters prove to the unseen antagonists or the cause of a hero’s downfall. Sometimes, the femme fatale can be her own hero, perhaps using her charms and sex appeal to escape from dangerous scenarios or people. Regardless of how they are used, femme fatale characters are always alluring, mysterious, and desirable.
Femme fatale characters, at their heart, represent some fashion of dialogue on sexuality. In a historical context, femme fatale characters often speak about the desires or warnings of men. Some male writers might create a femme fatale character to reflect his own opinions of how a sexually liberated woman (i.e. one who uses her charms as she sees fit to lure her own lovers, as opposed to submissively waiting to be picked up by a male) is lethal.
Other male writers might have created a femme fatale character to provide a context for ‘spice’ in his tale. The most popular period of the femme fatale as a literary figure is from the pulp-stories of the 1930s and onward. The pulp-crime series famously focused on men and cast women as either the dangerous femme fatale characters (those who either hired the detective-heroes or who worked for the antgaonists), damsels, or unimportant side characters. Special consideration should be given to the character of Nora Charles, the wife of the character Nick Charles and the other half of The Thin-Man series by Dashiell Hammett. While not a femme fatale character she was an important literary female within the crime genre of the time.
The most enduring profession of the femme fatale has almost always been the spy. Even going back as Biblical texts we can see one of the most famous femme fatales, the beautiful and cunning Delilah. It was Delilah’s role as a spy for the Philistines that undid the heroic judge, Samson. The enduring archetype of the dangerous but attractive female spy has led to the creation of two of the most popular, and lethal, female characters in comics: Black Widow and Spider-Woman.
Black Widow/Natasha Romanova
The original Black Widow was created as the character named Natasha Romanova. She appeared as an agent of the Soviet Union in 1964, her role serving as an antagonist to Iron Man along with Crimson Dynamo. Natasha’s character appears in the stereotypical femme fatale attire, an evening-dress wearing woman with the elegant fur-throw about her shoulders. While Natasha started her comic career as a villainess, she eventually became an operative of S.H.I.E.L.D and a member of the Avengers.
While Natasha is a character who has villainous roots, her love for Hawkeye/Clinton (Clint) Barton eventually became one of the reasons she defected to the USA. This did not, however, make her any less lethal. She continued to exist as a spy and as a capable fighter through her comics career, even becoming popular enough to have been included in the 2012 Avengers film over other characters who were more ‘classically’ involved in the creation of the Avengers team, characters like Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne.
In the real world, the USA had its own share of female soviet spies who have caused a stir. In 2010, it came to the knowledge of the US Government that a series of Russian spies were stationed in the country under a program called the Illegals Program. These agents were stationed in the US with the goal of acquiring any/all intelligence possible. These agents were discovered by the program called Operation Ghost Stories.
One of the more famous agents in this group was Anna Vasil’yevna Kushchyenko, ie: Anna Chapman. Anna became famous in the media for her appearance, adding to the tropes of the ‘femme fatale’ female spy. Chapman/Kushchyenko’s infiltration of the US proved that the role of spies from Russia had not faded after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the American pop-culture consciousness, Anna became a real-life Natasha Romanova. The popularity of the Black Widow role, as embodied by actress Sacrlett Johnansson, also went a great way towards granting Natasha/Black Widow more and more popularity.
Among other traits, Natasha Romanova is commonly credited as being a sniper. One of the Soviet Union’s greatest sniper agents was a woman named Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko. According to accounts, Lyudmila joined World War II early on at the age of only 24 and, after having turned down being a nurse, she joined the 25th Riffle Division. Lyudmila is credited with over 300 confirmed kills.
Natasha has always been a character who embodied the mysterious nature of the femme fatale character. Still, certain writers and artists have played up her sexuality both in art and in her role as a seductress. While these traits are sometimes maintained as a way for some comic creators to reference Natasha’s origins, perhaps it was Joss Whedon who simultaneously honored one aspect of Natasha’s original character and re-defined her for modern audiences.
In the 2012 Avengers film, Whedon marinated Nastasha’s spy nature (seen when she lured Dr. Banner into her trap with a child), but her character is never played as seductive or sexy. She is directed by Whedon and played by Johansson as a capable, realist S.H.I.E.L.D agent. Whedon included her love/concern for Hawkeye as one of her defining character traits which played a factor in her deception of Loki, perhaps the only time a mere human ever got the drop of the crafty Asgardian — one of two times if you count the sacrifice of Phil Coulson. Natasha’s use of feigned concern and ‘womanly concern’ in the film’s sequence with Loki were all common femme fatale tools, albeit ones subverted for the purpose of showing a heroic, capable women standing up to one of the world’s greatest dangers at incalculable personal risk.
The character of Jessica Drew has embodied mystery and isolation almost since her creation. Where Black Widow was a rather public agent who eventually came to work for S.H.I.E.L.D, Jessica has been depicted with a much more checkered and hard-to-reconcile upbringing.
In her ’77 appearance, Drew was the result of a tragedy and brainwashing. As a child, Drew grew up with her scientist family amidst vast amounts of uranium neat Mt. Wundagore, the impact of which required young Drew to be placed into a special chamber that would save her life but also adjust her age. The process was also aided by a serum concocted by the blood of an irradiated spider. While her time in the chamber took up decades, Drew herself only appeared to be a teenager. Unfortunately for Jessica, by the time she emerged, her life has she had known it was over. Her mother had died and her father had abandoned her. She was unfortunately discovered by HYDRA, having emerged from the chamber with no memories, and turned into an agent who would be used to commit the murder of Nick Fury.
While the comic Spider-Woman: Origin changed a great deal about Jessica Drew’s background, the factor of her body being changed by science and her having been inducted into HYDRA are elements which remain the same. The fact that Jessica was raised by HYDRA often results in stories relating to the fact that Jessica Drew knows nothing else but how to fight and be a spy. She frequently is shown with troubled memories, sometimes false ones, that impact her ability to truly trust others. Given the fact that Jessica was recruited by HYDRA when she was mentally young and unaware means, in a sense, she was a female child soldier. While this very real, very serious issue could obviously not have been touched upon by Marvel at the time, Jessica Drew’s hardships mirror that of real-world female child soldiers.
In June of 2012, a former female child soldier named Grace Akallo spoke before the United Nations about her time as a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). “It is very important that girl child soldiers are reintegrated into the community otherwise they are left to fend for themselves,” she said. This issue of having to re-adjust to the world of peace and non-violence is one that the character of Jessica Drew perhaps most embodies. While her art and frequent statue-figures depict her as a shapely, attractive super-model, Jessica Drew’s mind is one that is riddled with conflict and tragedy.
One of Jessica Drew’s other defining features are her powers, one of which included the ability to exude pheromones that allow her to control men. This ability, as well as her role as a spy and assassin, perhaps placed Jessica Drew in the most iconic of the femme fatale trope camps. Jessica began her spy career being controlled by men, although she was able to escape and form her own destiny over time. While Jessica Drew’s ability to attract men sometimes results in her comic art being highlighted for her sexually attractive figure, the fact that current writers have taken to exploring her mental state as well as her form are signs that she exists as a powerful, capable character with layered emotions and a heroic quality of character that causes her to return to helping others, even if she cannot always help herself.
More Than The Figure
The idea of the femme fatale is one that has existed since man’s earliest literature and, more than likely, will continue well into the future. Comics, the inheritor of the popular crime genre, took up the mantle of creating and maintaining ‘sexy dames’ and ‘dangerous broads’ in order to entice and entertain male audiences. As the popularity of comics increased during the 60s-90s, female readership of comics increased exponentially. While there are obviously examples of well-written female characters in comics from Marvel and DC Comics during all ages, the fact remains that it has been slow-going to see all female characters in comics elevated beyond just existing as the sexual pin-ups and reasons for men to draw breasts and legs.
While new characters come into existence that walk the line of ‘sex appeal’ and ‘dynamic, well-fleshed-out character’ easily, some writers and directors have worked hard to explore the passions and minds of previously shallow and/or simple characters. The work done to give tension to Jessica Drew after Secret Invasion, and the fall-out she underwent from learning she had been replaced by a Skrull, served as some of the most dynamic and character-defining moments for her character since its creation. Joss Whedon’s stern, but loyal take on Black Widow has helped to make the character more popular that she was pre-2012.
Both Black Widow and Spider-Woman, characters with deadly namesakes which evoke the ‘feel’ of the 1930s femme fatale tropes, have proven to be characters who are more than capable of surviving into the next iteration of comics where male and female characters receive the best story-telling attention possible, not just the best art that highlights the form. Loving the mind behind the character’s text-balloons and speech patterns goes farther than caring only about the leggings or bust-line of costumes.