The Canon of Canon

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Title: The Canon of Canon
Creator: Fuck Yeah Black Widow
Date(s): July 12, 2015
Medium: online
Fandom: Marvel Comics
Topic: Natasha Romanoff, female characters in comics
External Links: The Canon of Canon, Archived version
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The Canon of Canon is a meta post about Natasha Romanoff and female characters in comics on Tumblr written by Fuck Yeah Black Widow. The post addresses the hypercritical way fandom engages with female characters and the misogyny apparent in both canon and fandom.


Natasha was Marvel’s first female lead and Marvel’s first female leader, and women were writing into letters columns in 1971 to say how much they appreciated her, because female fans are not a twenty-first century invention. So why is it so easy to collapse entire decades into a litany of misogyny?
Stories are made in the listening and the telling together. They are transformed by the emotions they beget. And comics have so many stories— stories that are supposed to matter, to build each other up, but too many stories for one person to know. (Except maybe Mark Waid.) And so fans tell each other about the stories, find ways to fill in the gaps. We tell each other which stories are essential, which ones count the most. We invent the canon of canon.

And one of the things we say with some regularity, is that comics write women poorly.

I am going to tell you a secret: comics write men poorly. [...] Once upon a time, Steve Rogers was a werewolf. He was a sexist jerk who demanded his girlfriend quit her job, he has love interests retroactively inserted into his past and timelines stories can’t keep straight. [...] Thor once teamed up with Hitler. Iron Man once went on a murderous rampage and had to be replaced by an alternate universe teenage version of himself. Then it was brainwashing.
If you like any comic book character that’s kicked around long enough to carry weight in the universe, you are picking out the “good” stories and ignoring the rest, embracing inconsistency, or a little bit of both. This isn’t a rule that only applies to women, but women have a unique reputation of being poorly written.
This is my last secret: there are no characters with agency. Each of them is shaped by creators, by the lines they are drawn with and the words put in their mouths. And each of them is shaped by us, by what we take away from them, and what we put back.

What would happen if we chose our canon differently? What if we judged the best Avengers arcs in terms of how they handled the Scarlet Witch, and not how they handled Hawkeye? What if the stories that gave Karen Page a voice were the influential, essential part of Daredevil? Thor’s best runs and Sif’s best runs are not necessarily the same, but only one of those is never going to go out of print.

I’ll give you an example. Recently DC Comics came under fire for soliciting a variant Batgirl cover that clearly reference The Killing Joke. The argument for the cover is that the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story is a classic, something every fan knows and recognizes the worth of. [...]

Yes, many, many years ago DC editorial gave that infamous “cripple the bitch” go-ahead. But the problem for our latter-day selves is that we keep returing to it. DC still sees the Joker’s history as more important than Barbara’s. We keep feeding that canon, the one where The Killing Joke is brave and important and iconic. The one where it’s an essential Barbara Gordon story, necessary to the fabric of the shared universe. “Some stories,” Dan Didio once said, “Some stories… are so strong that undoing them would be a crime. The DCU would be a lesser place without… the crippling of Barbara at the hands of the Joker.”

My classic Barbara Gordon story was printed in Batman Chronicles #5, and is called Oracle: Year One, written by John Ostrander and Kim Yale. They were outraged by the Killing Joke’s casual mistreatment of Barbara, and worked hard to bring her back into a (quasi-) heroic role in Suicide Squad. They invented Oracle, and in 1997, they finally told Oracle’s origin story.

This single issue is, I think, more significant and more groundbreaking than The Killing Joke ever was.

Barbara’s self-reinvention made her into a distinctively modern hero that still echoed with the power of myth. Her story grappled with disability in a way few superhero comics have been allowed to, since. [...] Moreover, Oracle: Year One was a profound and early statement on the treatment of women in comics, a protest of the way Babs had been made into an afterthought for someone else’s anguish. It put the story into her perspective, a firm middle finger to the refrigerator, years before refrigerator became a watchword. It is speaking to a conversation we are still having today, on this blog, right now. It is a more important comic than The Killing Joke, but somehow less remarked and less recognized.
Superhero comics posess few narrative consistancies, and “women suck” is definitely not one of them. When we talk (and we do talk) about the time-before-now as a vague sexist past we have to move away from, we sometimes obscure and erase the efforts of a whole host of creators that have tried to give women a voice. Marvel’s first major female-creator push was in 1972, not 2012. The shape of comic book continuity depends not just on stories that get told but the stories that get remembered.