In the last few years, Marvel has successfully expanded its number of titles with female leads. At the same time, “Captain Marvel” is (in a move many think of as long overdue) set to be the first Marvel female superhero to star in her own film, while “Ms. Marvel” and “Squirrel Girl” have garnered good sales and critical acclaim in their books.
With “She Hulk” and “Elektra” solo series soon to be released, and with characters such as “Spider Gwen” having developed a fierce fan-following, there’s never been a stronger female presence across Marvel’s line. This shows how much the company has evolved over the years: of the numerous superhero titles launched in the 1960s, none had a female lead.
RELATED: The 17 Best Silver Age Marvel Comics
However, this doesn’t mean that female characters were completely absent from Marvel’s Silver Age adventures. Be they partners, antagonists or superheroes themselves, women played an integral part in Marvel’s titles of the time, beginning an evolution of gender representation that is at an all-time high today (with, admittedly, a lot of room still left to grow). Join CBR as we head back to the ‘60s to spotlight the mighty Marvel women of the Silver Age!
15. Invisible Woman
Poor Sue Storm. Reed was the acknowledged leader of the Fantastic Four, Johnny had solo adventures in “Strange Tales,” and Ben was the dangerous, unpredictable member of the group. That left Sue as the girlfriend, nagging sister and damsel in distress. To be fair to Lee and Kirby, they quickly recognized that many readers weren’t enamored with Sue, leading to a fabulous moment where Reed and Ben answer “fan mail,” breaking the fourth wall in the process. They used the tried and tested “Lincoln’s Mother” defense (that’s a thing, right?) to argue that although Nancy Lincoln is little remembered, she was still important to old Abe. Their hearts were in the right place, even if the execution was clumsy.
What’s interesting about Sue is how she changed and grew over the following years. In many ways, the three males all stayed in their defined roles: Ben remains loveably surly, Johnny is still a man-child and Reed, wherever he is at the moment, is a brain box. But Sue gained new powers, had children and slowly began to command more respect, both from her teammates and readers. Invisible no longer, Sue Richards is now one of Marvel’s premiere characters, just as she should be.
14. Betty Ross
Betty is a character who has enjoyed huge development since her Silver Age origins as Bruce Banner’s love interest. Under later writers (particularly Bill Mantlo and Peter David), she became a stronger, more independent character. For much of this time, she was still romantically involved with Bruce/The Hulk, but it was very much an equal relationship.
Such independence is a long way from Betty’s portrayal in the Silver Age, as a character that was almost wholly defined by the men in her life. With an overprotective father in General “Thunderbolt” Ross, a persistent suitor in Glenn Talbot and a long-standing attraction to Bruce Banner, the majority of Betty’s actions revolved around these men. Growing up in this male-dominated military world is one of the things that made the bookish Bruce so attractive to Betty — her pursuit of this relationship being a subtle form of rebellion against her overbearing father. As he memorably told her in the first issue of “The Incredible Hulk,” “You keep out of this, Betty! This is man talk!”
Having become her own (Red She-)Hulk since those days and, more importantly, standing on her own as a strong character besides, Betty has finally come into her own in an ongoing evolution that will hopefully continue to yield dividends.
13. Black Widow
When she made her first appearance in “Tales of Suspense” #52 in 1964, the Black Widow was far removed from many of the females then appearing in Marvel’s titles. As a Russian agent, she was calculating, deadly and utterly dedicated to the Communist cause. After her initial attempts against Tony Stark failed, she enlisted Hawkeye to her cause. Clint Barton has always been a sucker for a pretty face and in no time at all he was putty in Madame Natasha’s hands, happy to enlist in her struggle against Iron Man.
What’s interesting about Natasha’s evolution as a character is that, despite her best intentions, she did fall for Hawkeye, and found herself grudgingly admiring Americans. This journey of self-discovery culminated in Natasha attempting to defect from the Soviet Union, something she eventually achieved after surviving both an assassination attempt and KGB brainwashing. With Natasha now a member of the movie Avengers and starring in her own series, it certainly seems to have been a wise move.
12. Alicia Masters
A recurring character in “The Fantastic Four” from the title’s earliest days, Alicia was the girl that managed to get under the Thing’s rocky exterior, sensing the good man behind the gruff facade. One of the great things about Alicia’s portrayal is that, although she was blind, she was still portrayed as a strong, independent character. Her skills as a sculptor are acclaimed, and it was Alicia’s ability to perceive the best in anyone that was instrumental in persuading the Silver Surfer to turn against Galactus and fight in defense of Earth.
As the stepdaughter of the Puppet Master, Alicia didn’t have the best upbringing. In fact, the first time that readers met Alicia was when the Puppet Master used her in his scheme to destroy the FF. The Puppet Master’s plan revolved around the fact that, with the addition of a blonde wig, Alicia looked exactly like the Invisible Girl. With Ben later dating Alicia and Johnny eventually marrying her (or a Skrull posing as her, at least), it’s perhaps not surprising that this resemblance was never mentioned again. Otherwise, things could have become pretty awkward for Marvel’s fantastic foursome.
Thor’s early adventures in “Journey into Mystery” were characterized by non-stop action and lots of punching. When Amora the Enchantress first appeared in #103, she brought something different to the table: a mix of sultry seductiveness and self-centered behavior that caused no end of problems for the Thunder God. In her first appearance, even Loki called her merciless, which is setting the bar pretty low… or high, depending on your perspective.
The Enchantress certainly caused her share of trouble over her initial appearances. She enlisted the Executioner to help kill Jane Foster, she turned Erik Josten into Powerman, and she was a member of Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil. In later years, she would be instrumental in the creation of the Valkyrie. Yet, despite this, characterizing the Enchantress as evil would be doing her a disservice. While certainly not a conventionally heroic character, her appearances in later years — including Dan Jurgens’ run on “Thor,” where she becomes Thor’s wife — show a character that can be brave and loyal. If her actions help advance her position at the same time, so much the better!
10. Marvel Girl
In many ways, Jean Grey’s tenure during the original adventures of the X-Men is defined by her relationship with Cyclops, but that shouldn’t detract from what a strong character she was. Her very first appearance saw her discourage the attention of her amorous teammates, demonstrating her powers and proving that she was far from helpless. This was the case for the majority of Jean’s appearances during the Silver Age. She wasn’t a token character, there to make up the numbers; she was an integral member of the team with an impressive power set that dwarfed those of her fellow X-Men.
Jean’s early adventures seem gloriously uncomplicated when compared to her later years, not to mention the merry-go-round of death, resurrection and power-ups that followed her exposure to the Phoenix Force. However, despite all these changes there were two constants over that time. Firstly, for better or worse, her relationship with Cyclops always remained in some form. Secondly, until the end, she remained a strong, independent character.
9. Jane Foster
Perhaps more than any other Marvel character of the time, it was Thor’s relationship with his love interest — in this case, the nurse Jane Foster — that helped drive his stories forward. Falling for Jane in his secret identity of Donald Blake, Thor incurred the wrath of his father, Odin, who was furious that his son would fall in love with a mortal. Their relationship was at the center of so many of Thor’s early stories, but frustratingly for much of it, Jane is just an “object” to be kidnapped or fought over. Any woman could have filled Jane’s role, what’s important is what she represented — a challenge to Odin’s will and a reason for Thor to involve himself in earthly affairs.
Even though they are no longer together in the current Marvel Universe, Jane’s relationship with Thor remains a key part of her character. It was a large element in Thor’s solo films, with Natalie Portman playing Jane. It was also the driving force behind “Thor: The Mighty Avenger,” a wonderful series that was gone too soon. Thankfully, her current status as the new Thor is helping Jane receive new levels of exposure and development, finally giving her the chance to show the hero she truly is (and always has been).
8. Karen Page
Sharing some similarities with Jane Foster, Karen Page was the romantic interest for Matt Murdock during early issues of “Daredevil.” As Donald Blake feared that Jane couldn’t love a man with a limp, so Matt Murdock believed that Karen wouldn’t care for a blind man. In actual fact, Karen was besotted with Matt, ignoring the attentions of poor Foggy Nelson, who was left as the office gooseberry. Unfortunately, the course of true-love didn’t run smoothly. Although Matt did reveal his secret identity to Karen, this played a large part in her leaving his life, with Karen unable to handle the reality of his dangerous lifestyle.
If Karen’s portrayal during the Silver Age was rather bland, her appearances in later years — although more infrequent — had dramatic repercussions. She became addicted to heroin and sold details of Matt’s identity, leading to the rightfully acclaimed “Born Again” storyline. Then, years later, when she returned and it appeared as if her and Matt might have a chance at a happy ending, she was brutally murdered by Bullseye. A striking example of how falling in love with Matt Murdock is a dangerous choice, Karen Page is undoubtedly one of Marvel’s most tragic Silver Age females.
7. Mary Jane Watson
The Veronica to Gwen’s down-to-earth Betty, Mary Jane shook up “Amazing Spider-Man” when she finally made her appearance in #42. Her famous first appearance and immortal opening line: “Face it, Tiger… You just hit the jackpot!” have been often imitated. Mary Jane was undoubtedly a party girl in these early appearances, flirting with Flash, dating Harry and making not-so-subtle attempts to tempt Peter away from Gwen. In some ways, it’s a refreshing change from many of the love-struck females that filled Marvel’s titles at the time, but it’s also a little exhausting. The infamous “Deadpool” #11, where he travels back in time and inserts himself into “Amazing Spider-Man” #47, has a recurring gag where Wade’s convinced that Mary Jane is either addled or on drugs, due to her strange speech patterns and constant dancing.
It was only after Gwen’s death that Mary Jane began to show the maturation of her character, entering into a relationship with Peter and then, years later, marrying him. Although Peter and Mary Jane are currently separated (because Hell magic), they remain a popular pairing in other forms of media; so it may be the case that the Comic Gods will bring them back together, where the Comic Devils ripped them apart.
6. Pepper Potts
Unfortunately for Pepper, her design in early issues of “Tales of Suspense” was intended to be that of a rather plain girl – a “perky, pug-nosed, freckle-faced imp” according to the writers — in stark contrast to the society beauties Tony would typically date. Tony, Pepper and Happy Hogan made a curious pairing; Tony’s sharp dressing contrasting with Pepper and Happy’s ordinary looks. It didn’t last, and within a few issues, Pepper received a makeover that altered her look, including turning the character’s brown hair into her famous red.
Certainly no pushover, in her early appearances Pepper takes no nonsense from the men in her life, and is always willing to confront Iron Man is she feels that it is in Tony Stark’s best interests. In a nice touch, although she is initially interested in Tony Stark, she falls for Happy Hogan, with the two characters eloping together after Happy survives a near death experience. In recent years, Pepper has gained first-hand experience of super heroics, both through her membership in “The Order” and her time as armored hero, Rescue. What’s remained constant is Pepper’s character: the strong-willed person who is always ready to stick up for her friends.
5. Scarlet Witch
The recent solo focus on the Scarlet Witch in James Robinson’s ongoing series is notable because for much of her history, Wanda Maximoff has been a character who has been defined by her relationship with others. Whether Quicksilver, Vision, Magneto or Wonder Man, for years Wanda’s choices were shaped through the influence of men. Her initial appearances showed that she deferred to Quicksilver’s judgement in all matters, and when she joined the Avengers, it at first seemed that she would attempt to pursue a relationship with Captain America (although this plot point was quickly abandoned).
It was the Vision, more than any other male, that helped shaped Wanda’s character. Their burgeoning relationship helped give Wanda the confidence to break free from Quicksilver’s stifling love. And it was the trauma of Vision’s personality reset under John Byrne that helped give Wanda the confidence to embark on her own course. In the years since “Avengers Disassembled” took a wrecking ball to her reputation, Wanda has shown true strength of character to rebuild her life and her reputation, highlighting the qualities that have been there all along.
4. Sharon Carter
As good as it was to have Captain America return to the pages of Marvel Comics in “Avengers” #4, it’s fair to say that the Cap depicted in the following years was a bit of a buzzkill. Particularly in his solo title, he was always engaged in extended monologues about the loss of Bucky and his status as a man out of time. Thank goodness, then, for Sharon Carter (Agent 13), who brought some spy glamour to Cap’s adventures, and a much-needed smile to Steve Rogers’ face.
Sharon’s great aunt, Peggy Carter, may now be more famous thanks to her recent TV series, but Sharon is a great character in her own right. In her early adventures, she proved a formidable S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, while the danger of her job posed a challenge for Steve Rogers, scared of losing anyone else close to him. Presumed dead for years, Sharon was brought back in 1994 during the acclaimed Waid/Garney run on “Captain America.” Embittered and cynical after years fending for herself, the sparks flew between her and Steve, and they have continued to be an enjoyable on-off pairing in the years since.
Everyone’s favorite Asgardian warrior woman, Sif has been a large part of Thor’s adventures since her introduction in the 1960s. When Jane Foster was returned to Earth with her memories of Thor removed, Sif re-entered his life and the two rekindled their relationship. In the coming years, Thor would be torn between his attraction to Sif and his love for Jane, leading to one period where Sif merged her life force with Jane in an attempt to save her life.
As one of Asgard’s finest warriors, Sif is far removed from a stereotypical damsel in distress. Many of her adventures have seen her fight against seemingly insurmountable odds, or defying authority to do what she believes to be right. While she has been involved with several other men, including Erik Masterson and Beta Ray Bill, her relationships have always been portrayed as one of equals. While Sif finally gained an ongoing series as the main character in “Journey into Mystery,” beginning in #646, the title was cancelled in less than a year. Fingers crossed that the upcoming “Thor: Ragnorak” will contain several epic moments for Sif, leading to a new series and long overdue recognition for her greatness.
2. The Wasp
Janet Van Dyne was one of Marvel’s first Silver Age female heroes to receive the solo spotlight, featuring in 5-page back-up stories in several issues of “Tales to Astonish.” Her main role, though, was as the crime fighting partner for Ant Man (later Giant Man) and as the love interest for Henry (Hank) Pym. In her very first appearance, Janet resolved to embark on a relationship with Hank, and story after story saw her attempting to charm him, while bemoaning the fact that he remained oblivious to her affections. This flirty, flighty nature was a key part of the Wasp’s character, with it being rare for her to interact with any male hero without some kind of flirtatious comment.
It’s perhaps this early depiction, as well as the precedent for Janet’s constantly-changing outfits, that has led many creators to underestimate, or worse, undermine the Wasp. What is clear is that she has grown immeasurably (pun intended) in the years since: both in her competence as a hero and in her strength of character. She’s been divorced, led the Avengers, built up a business and — ironically, given her early depiction — has proved that she doesn’t need a man at all.
1. Gwen Stacy
More than 40 years after her untimely death in “Amazing Spider-Man” #121, it’s difficult to consider Gwen a character in her own right, rather than for what she became: the idealized girlfriend and the constant reminder of what danger could befall Peter Parker’s loved ones. Gwen’s special place in Peter’s life is evident from the number of times Marvel keeps returning to the character, whether in the original clone saga, the idealized marriage of “House of M,” the icky retcon that was “Sins Past” or her current appearances in “The Clone Conspiracy.”
Examining Gwen’s early appearances shows how her character evolved through her time in the spotlight. The Gwen of the Ditko issues was a more brittle character, always ready with a barbed remark. The John Romita issues spotlighted the Gwen that is more familiar, with the flowing blonde hair, the ever-present hairband and the steadfast love for Peter. It was easy to imagine Gwen settling down with Peter, which is part of the reason why her character still holds such fascination: there’s the tragic death of a too-young soul, but also — for both readers and Peter — the lingering question of what might have been.
Those are our top 15, but there are many more fantastic female characters to discuss from Marvel’s Silver Age. Keep the conversation going in the comments!
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