Sue Storm/Richards, AKA the Invisible Girl, AKA The Invisible Woman, has at various times in her long career with The Fantastic Four reflected everything that is bad and mishandled about the writing and general depiction of female superheroes – from the early days in comics all the way through to Jessica Alba’s revelation that she was told not to express any emotion in the Fantastic Four movies, because it might make her look unpretty for a fraction of a second. And let’s not forget all those stupid jokes whereby her invisibility powers lead to her being accidentally naked in public whenever a writer, director or artist wants to add a bit of cheesecake slapstick. But it’s not all doom and sexism, and the Invisible Woman is generally regarded as one of the most intelligent & powerful women of the Marvel comics universe today.
The Fantastic Four, usually made up of Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic), Sue Storm-Richards, Sue’s brother Johnny (the Human Torch), and Reed’s friend Ben Grimm (the Thing) who all received their powers from exposure to “cosmic rays” on the same space flight, are always pitched as being a ‘family’ of superheroes, which is what makes them different to other super teams. In the ‘Silver Age’ early days of their team they represented a move towards comics stories based on science rather then mysticism, and their stories have often involved sci-fi tropes such as space travel, miniaturisation, mad scientists, interdimensional travel (such as to the Negative Zone) and so on.
When I was reading up on Jean Grey, I heard her referred to as “a Stan Lee girl” and Sue suffers from that too, before and after her marriage to Reed Richards – she was created and originally represented as the token girl on the team: the pretty one who made the supper, had a far less militant (more defensive) power than the boys and acted “maternally” towards them, providing a calming influence when any of them lost their temper. When not playing little mother to the gang, “the Invisible Girl” was often positioned as the damsel in distress, an object of lust for various antagonists to the Fantastic Four, especially Doctor Doom and Namor the Sub-Mariner.
Like Jean, Sue Storm-Richards was substantially overhauled as a character more than twenty years ago, her powers expanded and her role given greater significance. The change came primarily when John Byrne, one of the great comics writers for female characters, was brought to the Fantastic Four title in 1981. Sue developed forcefield powers, became far more confident and assertive, and rebranded herself as The Invisible Woman.
At the same time, the first fractures were shown in Reed and Sue’s relationship, and she walked out for the first of many near-divorce scenarios that led to fan resentment and anger towards her character.
Sue is a trained fighter as well as the possessor of great powers – like Kitty Pryde, her abilities are only limited by the imagination of her writer, and can be used in all manner of inventive and fierce ways. She is often portrayed as having leadership abilities, though she only gets to be actual leader of the Fantastic Four when Reed is otherwise engaged. This seems a bit backwards to me considering that he’s basically the quintessential boffin which doesn’t necessarily translate to leadership qualities. But of course, he’s Mr Fantastic, and it is often hard for writers to overcome traditions that have been ingrained in the comics for so many decades.
Sue also is one of the few mothers in the Marvel Universe, where time travels like treacle, and any sign that characters are ageing is usually avoided like the plague. Reed Richards has been allowed to age gracefully, with discreet greying temples, but Sue still looks as blonde and perfect as she always did. Still, their children Franklin and Valeria are a ticking time bomb, and have been creeping closer and closer to ‘teen superhero’ age over the last 30+ years, which would automatically mark Sue and Reed out as belonging to a former generation.
Both children have been involved in major FF related plots, with son Franklin displaying major mutant powers at an early age (which were “shut down” by Reed, causing one of many marital disputes between himself and Sue), and daughter Valeria visiting them from the future before retrospectively taking the place of a previously stillborn baby. Sue has left the team on various hiatuses over the years, usually because of the needs of the children or problems with her marriage, but always returns.
Their marriage, for all its dramas and problems along the way, has remained constant, something rarely seen (long-term) between two active superheroes in either DC or Marvel.
In Civil War, the Marvel event based around the compulsory registration of superhumans, Sue disagreed strongly with her husband’s support of Tony Stark and his deep focus on science over human ethics. She left him in spectacular fashion, using her forcefields to blast a hole through the building as she went, but also left her children with him, something I was taken aback by.
Then of course I had to stop and think, why is this so distressing to me? Surely the point of this is that leaving her children was a sign of how very wrong the situation was, how deep her concerns. Plus it’s kind of awesome that a married lady can run off and live as an underground freedom fighter with Captain America, because of her beliefs, right?
Well, yes, it is awesome, and I am well aware that it’s my own preconceptions about motherhood that got in the way here, but frankly the part where it all falls down for me is that I wouldn’t trust Reed Richards to keep a pet hamster alive. Lucky that Franklin and Valeria are quite resourceful as children, really. Oh and they are occasionally allowed a nanny, though on at least one occasion the nanny in question turned out to be a version of their mother from the future.
The Ultimate Universe which has not always been kind to its versions of the female Marvel superheroes, produced a spectacular and highly enjoyable version of The Fantastic Four. Taken back to a time where they are teenagers, educated in a special school for scientific geniuses, this version presents Susan Storm as an accomplished scientist in her own right, and one whom the young, geeky and far more likeable Reed Richards believes is smarter than him.
She doesn’t agree, especially in the area of physics, but is prepared to concede that he is certainly an idiot. In particular, it’s Susan who is drawn to studying how their unexpected superpowers actually work, and to test their parameters. Finally, reinvented for the 21st century, Reed and Susan are presented as a couple who are also equals, and it’s amazing the difference it makes.
Also, banter. Did I mention that Ultimate Susan Storm gets to be funny?
Chrono Bandit (to Reed): . . . And no funny business. I know you can stretch like a rubber band and I know Invisible Woman can turn invisible. We studied you guys before we hacked into your files. We know all about you ‘Mr. Fantastic’.
Susan Storm: What about my force fields? You ever seen one of my force fields before?
Chrono Bandit: No . . .
Susan Storm: That’s because they’re invisible, jackass.
(Chrono Bandits go flying)
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand
15. Jean Grey
17. Emma Frost
19. Lady Sif
21. The Wasp
23. Misty Knight (and Colleen Wing)
25. Kitty Pryde.
26. Crimson Fox