The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 115 | The Life and Times of the Invisible Woman

Leaving Proof 115 | The Life and Times of the Invisible Woman
Published on Sunday, May 13, 2012 by

Perhaps more than any other mainstream superhero comics character, the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman, Sue Richards (née Storm) has reflected how the role and perception of women have evolved over the past fifty years. For this Mother’s Day-themed edition of Leaving Proof, we take a brief look back on the life and times of the fairer half of Marvel’s First Couple.

It is important to keep in mind the superhero comics industry milieu when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four in 1961. At the time, female superheroes were novelties who, as we’ve discussed in a previous edition of Leaving Proof, spent a disproportionate amount of time helplessly overmatched, bound, and gagged. An examination of the underlying reasons for this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this article, but one cannot discount the effect that William Moulton Marston‘s Wonder Woman and his fixation with depicting bondage situations in comics had on subsequent portrayals of female superheroes. This isn’t to suggest that other superhero comics creators inherited proclivities similar to that held by Marston, but success breeds imitation, and with Wonder Woman being the only consistently successful female superhero at the time in terms of keeping an on-going title afloat, it should not surprise us that later comics creators would adopt many of the features associated with the earliest incarnations of the character. Against such a backdrop, coupled with the “rebound” male chauvinism in the workplace that occurred in the years after World War II, it is perhaps understandable that Sue Storm’s first comics appearance involved scenes such as the one below (from Fantastic Four #1, cover-dated November, 1961)

In her earliest days as Invisible Girl, Sue Storm’s superpowers were limited to making herself invisible, and she was by far the weakest member of Marvel’s premier superpowered quartet, little more than a damsel-in-distress who spent a lot of her time getting trussed up by the villain of the month, feeling sorry for herself over some imagined slight, fainting from the effort of utilizing her meager powers, pulling all manner of stunts in desperate bids for romantic attention, or whining about her wardrobe and hairdo. Even after becoming the team’s nominal second-in-command with her marriage to Reed Richards in 1965’s Fantastic Four Annual #3, Sue was still prone to inappropriate displays of “feminine weakness” that require a stern male influence to keep in check. The panels below, from Fantastic Four #65 (cover-dated August, 1967) offer a succinct encapsulation of the state of affairs in the Richards household (click to view in larger size)

To Lee and Kirby’s credit, their portrayal of Sue would improve over the years, particularly after the birth of the couple’s son, Franklin (image from Fantastic Four Annual #6, cover-dated November 1968)

In relatively short order, Sue would transition from being a flighty, unreliable, and underpowered member of the team to a benevolent matriarch with a slightly expanded powerset (Sue would gain the ability make invisible force-fields and the power to render other objects and persons invisible, as long as she was in direct contact with them). That Lee and Kirby kept her on the team roster despite her transition to motherhood is an important marker that paralleled the proliferation of an increasingly progressive view regarding gender roles during the late 1960s—in earlier decades, a married mother continuing to work full-time after the birth of her child would be considered an aberration by a society conditioned to believe that the young mother’s rightful place was in the nursery and the kitchen.

It wouldn’t be until John Byrne—fresh from his landmark collaboration with Chris Claremont on The Uncanny X-Men—took over the writing and art duties Fantastic Four twenty years after the title’s debut that Sue Richards would start taking significant steps towards the contemporary incarnation today’s readers are more familiar with. A strong, protective, maternal drive would continue to be the core of the character’s motivation under the England-born Canadian’s watch, but this would be buttressed by a heretofore unexpressed assertiveness and a boost in her offensive capabilities (page below taken from Fantastic Four #282, cover-dated September 1985, click on image to view in larger size)

It was also during Byrne’s run that Sue Richards would discard the Invisible Girl code name for the more appropriate Invisible Woman moniker.

Writers subsequent to Byrne would continue to build on his work of making the Invisible Woman one of the Marvel Universe’s most versatile and powerful superheroes and the Fantastic Four’s most formidable combatant. In Fantastic Four #400 (cover-dated May, 1995), she is shown using her invisible force-field projection ability to become the first and only superhero to pierce the carapace of a Celestial (click on image to view in larger size)

There have also been efforts in recent years to variegate the texture of the relationship between the Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic, rooted in Byrne’s portrayal of a marriage that occasionally strains under the weight of their responsibilities as parents, public figures, and professional superheroes; with none more notable than her estrangement from her husband over political differences during Marvel’s Civil War event

While I have my misgivings about the premise and written execution of Marvel’s Civil War (let’s just say that I found it to be exceedingly clumsy and misguided as a metaphor for the American political landscape and a rather joyless exercise in superhero crossover excess), I do think that it was important that the Invisible Woman played such a marked role in the whole affair as her own person, in clear opposition to Mr. Fantastic.

It could probably be argued that in the superhero comics world where characters, regardless of gender, are rarely, if ever, allowed to permanently change and grow meaningfully over time, Sue Richards is a notable exception: A return to the 1960s Fantastic Four status quo—a dynamic informed by archaic notions of the woman and the mother’s place in society—would be all but unthinkable now except in the service of some manner of metafictive commentary. So here’s to Susan Richards, the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman, sister to the Human Torch, friend to The Thing, wife to Mr. Fantastic, mother to Franklin Richards, and a vibrant reminder to the superhero comic book fan, so often given to bouts of real and imagined nostalgia, that change can be good.

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4 Responses
    • Happy Birthday Sue Storm and everyone else!

    • I like the way Sue is used in Claremon’ts New Exiles. She is Madame Hydra a recurring villainess that chases the team through the OmniVerse. She is also a queen to Namor in a war torn world. Sue was a character that Claremont brought around time and time again in many different forms in true Exiles fashion.

      • I’m not too familiar with the New Exiles stuff, although a cursory look seems like it might be partially based on the Malice persona she manifested during John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four (the Malice thing is the kind of stuff that divides FF fans, from what I gather from online discussions… I thought it was interesting myself reading about it, though superficially, it looks like Byrne trying to recreate the Jean Grey/Black Queen dynamic from his run on Uncanny X-Men, right down to the quasi-S&M costume design).

        My favourite “alternate reality” version of Sue is probably the Ultimate Fantastic Four version (although I have no idea what the status of the team or the title is these days). In it, she was near Reed’s equal in terms of raw intellect, although while Reed’s expertise was in quantum physics and such, Sue was the team’s resident expert on biology and biochemistry.

    • I’ve always loved Sue Storm.  She’s what female characters should aspire too.

      My girlfriend and I were watching an episode of The Killing tonight and she commented on the lead character of Detective Sarah Linden.  She said something along the lines of when they make a strong female lead character, they tend to sacrifice other aspects of what makes her a woman in the first place, or they adopt more male characteristics.  In the case of Linden, she’s becoming a bad parent.

      Sue Storm is the perfect example of how to do it right.  She can stand on her own with the men, she’s everybit their equal if not superior in terms of raw power.  She’s still an excellent mother, doing a good job of balancing motherhood and “work”.  She’s still all woman.

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