Superhero partners: Mary Marvel

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Mary Marvel is a female superhero from the 40s, the sister of Captain Marvel, a comic book originally published by Fawcett Comics (now owned by DC). Marc Swayze, the artist, based Mary Marvel’s appearance and personality on Judy Garland, the quintessence of “virtuous” girls during the time (remember that she was Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, 1939). Mary first appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures #18. She discovers that she is a long lost twin sister of Billy, Captain Marvel. When Mary uses the magic word “Shazam” she transforms herself into a preteen girl, capturing the essence of Judy Garland, and the stereotype of “a good virtuous girl” in the 40s (again, remember Dorothy). When Billy uses the magic word, he transforms into a grownup man.

Mary Marvel is not a woman: she is a girl. She is not “Lady” (like Lady Luck) nor “Woman” (like Wonder Woman), she even has no rank during the war. She is not voluptuous nor sexy. The target here was to attract girls into read comics, not to appeal males, nor to appeal young ladies. She is only treated as “Mary,” plain and simple. Despite not being treated as a “woman” nor having any ranks and being just a girl without any female sexy attributes, she had her own comic book through Wow Comics during the 40s. Her origins and behavior have changed under the hands of DC, but her origins in Fawcett Comics give us a glimpse of how women were seen and considered within society during the 40s.

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Female superheroes during the 30s and 40s used to live a secret life, very much like their male counterparts. However, unlike their male counterparts, they weren’t that free, really. While Superman and Batman had the real control of their lives, superhero women in the 30s and 40s were usually the daughters of important men, who led frivolous lives, and then transformed into female superheroes fitting for the good of society. There were exceptions, like Miss Fury, who didn’t desire to be a female superhero, or Wonder Woman, who like Superman had special origins. However, in a whole, we can see these women reflecting the desires of real women: wanting to be themselves. They only could be themselves, in all their glory, when they acted as female superheroes. They acted as the women society wanted them to be when surrounded by people, and had a second, more colorful life, when fighting the crime.

Some other female superheroes were just partners of the male superheroes. These women didn’t need to tell lies to their counterparts, nor needed to pretend to be someone else while being with their boyfriends. However, unlike the female superheroes that appeared before them, they only wanted to do good to accommodate or make happy their male partners. The message was that women were weak, highly dependent on men, and that they only wanted love, not to do real good in the world. Though being a superhero partner ensured to see women in the comics for a long time, it is unmistakable that their roles as just partners reinforced the stereotypes surrounding women (as weak, just wanting romance, and male-centered).

One of these superhero partners did not comply with the “girlfriend-boyfriend” stereotype. This female superhero was Mary Marvel. She was the sister, and not the girlfriend, of a male superhero. Even though the magic word of “Shazam” just transformed her into a girl and her brother into a grownup man, this ensured that her image was far from other male superhero partners: she did not need romance (because she was too young) and was “still” virtuous (because she was “still” a girl). There were no romantic tones in her stories: she wanted to do good, help her brother. She was strong willed, and virtuous.

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Despite these positive attributes, stereotypes of women in comics were there to stay: or they were career girls, girlfriends or teenagers. In this sense, Mary Marvel reinforces one of the stereotypes of the times: the teenager, the teen or pre-teen. She is not interested in romance and she is “still” virtuous (because she is a girl). Despite this, Mary Marvel in being shaped onto the image of Judy Garland, who got into stardom thanks to Dorothy in “the Wizard of Oz,” is taking from Dorothy many good attributes: she is sweet, a strong girl able to lead others, and who has a big nurturing heart. Being able to lead others, even when a little girl, is crucial to create strong-willed future women.

Despite being a leader, the problem with Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel is their different given status. While Captain Marvel transforms into a grownup man, Mary just transforms into a girl, reinforcing the lower status of Mary confronted to Captain Marvel. Men were still in charge, and even if the message of Mary was better than other female partner superheroes, she still represented that women were in a lower level, thus had a lower status than men in society. Even if she had her own titles through Wow Comics, her reality and message to women was unmistakable: whatever you do, even if having a leading and nurturing character, you’ll hold a lower status than man in society.

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About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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  • Chloe McCracken

    Fascinating post, Pepi! I’d never heard of Mary Marvel. Nice that she could be strong and independent – a touch of Artemis and her “virgins” there 🙂

    • Thank you! She was a strong and “not-so-typical” character back in her time. 🙂

      • OK. I shared your Mary Marvel article on FB. I hope you get lots of feedback. 🙂

        • Wow, thank you Claire!

  • Oh, does this make me want ot create a woman SuperHero of my own, or what? A fantastic article. Thanks!

    • Thanks! If you do create a female Superhero of your own, please let me know 🙂