All Comics Are Gimmicks, Get Over It
This week saw the upheaval of a 52-year status quo in the form of the mighty Mjolnir‘s rejection of that pinnacle of machismo, Thor, for a worthier female warrior. Unsurprisingly amongst comic book fandom, this move had its detractors. Shocking, I know. Many have pointed their accusatory keyboard-weathered fingers towards Marvel and bemoaned “Hustlers! Swindlers! *deep breath, then with a low grumble*….Users of Gimmickry!” Is this insertion of a woman into the role of Marvel’s Asgardian Avenger indeed a (Scooby-Doo voice) g…g…ggg..gimmick? Well, obviously. Know what else is gimmicky? The very idea of Marvel’s Thor! And so is literally every single conception in the history of comic books, many of which have become inseparable from the essence of the medium’s most cherished characters. A much more vexing aspect to this is that a large portion of fandom still dismisses any change that moves women into the spotlight as a nothing more than a hollow gimmick. Clearly, that’s a problem, but it’s not altogether unexpected and it was likely unavoidable. But in order to get past this inanity, we need to perspective on comic industry gimmicks and find some visage of appropriate responses. For starters, we should probably stop referring to her solely as “Lady Thor.” Then, we need to remember that all of it, both your most beloved and you most reviled concepts in comic books, are all gimmicks.
Apologies for dropping a valedictorian graduation speech bomb on you but, the dictionary definition of gimmick is: “an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal.” In other words: sales. You know, that thing business’ do in order to preserve existence? All mainstream comic book publishers are gimmicky. That is kind of their whole deal. Keep in mind superheroes as a genre was itself a gimmick in a time where comic books offerings consisted primarily of science fiction, funny animal cartoons, jungle adventures, Westerns, etc. Superheroes were to a degree repackaged familiar pulp heroes, but now given fantastical abilities. Everyone knew The Shadow and Doc Samson, but what hook could be given to a new character that would let them stand out amid the congested pulp mags? The impossible feat of a man lifting an automobile above his head adorning the comic book that heralded the era of the superhero was a gimmicky image; it snagged the imaginations of every kid who saw it at their local newsstand and it sold more than double the national average. Cha-ching. The gimmick worked; ergo we don’t view it as a gimmick.
The problem is many always associate the things that lacked substance with being gimmicks and credit the things that worked well as being above a gimmick. Obviously, there’s some truth to this. A “chromium, holofoil,3-D, glow-in-the-dark, blood infused inked, collector super special #1 with a trading card that contains the secret code for entry into our sweepstakes for only real fans” cover, is a shallow and exploitative money grab. It also totally worked for a short period of time. We were all young investors sowing the seeds of our financial future via the gathering of all five covers to X-Men #1. I’m as guilty as anyone. How’s everyone else enjoying their yacht? Nonetheless, those types of gimmicks were surface level, literally in the case of covers, but there were also story-based gimmicks that had varying degrees of success and varying degrees of substance. The Death of Superman or Knightfall both certainly had financial success and both were conceived as a way to boost sales by upending the status quo. One can debate the subjective quality of each of those stories, but they were fully realized stories essentially based off of the question: “what’s the craziest thing we could do with this character?” While many still appropriately label these stories as gimmicky, they are also viewed as iconic tales that are largely forgiven for their superficial beginnings. Interestingly, across Marvel started Spider-Man’s Clone Saga for actual plot-based reasons; namely, to allow for more story options for Peter Parker by dissolving his marriage. Except, that plan was kicked to the curb once the sales numbers started coming in and any semblance of a cohesive narrative was stretched thin beyond recognition in order to milk the clone-cash-cow. The Clone Saga is remembered as a tremendous gimmick with little recognition of the storytellers’ initial desire to increase creative flexibility. Point being, virtually every new idea is a gimmick in one form or another.
Now about “Lady Thor”: granted, currently the use of this moniker can partly be attributed to her identity beneath the wing-adorned helmet being unknown. However, it reeks of the same identity problems female characters have struggled with for years: Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Batgirl, Invisible Girl, and they didn’t even bother to let poor Jean Grey even keep a codename for like, 15 years. Those specific examples have mostly been rectified, but there’s a history of male dependent identities and submissive titling that isn’t easily dismissed by saying that everything’s equal now because Black Widow is in a movie. Combine this with the critiques of replacing the existing Odinson with a long-haired femme fatale and the harsh words start sounding like schoolyard wails of “They made Thor a girl!” Grow up, read the damn story first and ask yourself so what if they did? This was not pandering to a vocal minority of female readers, this was Marvel realigning their products to better reflect what is already half of their overall fan base and positively reinforce the roles women can play in what has traditionally been a boys-only sandbox. Everyone is fully entitled to a gut reaction, a preliminary assessment of something being pitched to you, but indolently decrying a new approach to a story by a company whose first order of business is coming up with new ideas to sell, is counterproductive for all involved. If the story itself lacks quality, which in the very capable hands of Jason Aaron is a highly dubious proposition, then critique away. For now though, recognize it as gimmick with good intentions. Thor is one of Marvel’s hottest properties at the moment and has a very wide, very bright spotlight on it. It’s also in a great position to succeed with talented creators with forward thinking story ideas featuring a new take on a proven property. It’s ready for the fight with naysayers and primed to come out on top. You’re damn right Thor’s a girl.