We're all learning about Agent Carter together.
Margaret "Peggy" Carter, who is currently starring in an eight-episode miniseries on ABC and co-starred in "Captain America: The First Avenger," did originate in Marvel Comics. But in the comics she hasn't really appeared all that much, and isn't likely to do so in the future — because she's dead.
Peggy Carter first appeared in 1966 in the Captain America strip in "Tales of Suspense." Before that, though, they were introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13, which is important. Bear with me here.
In 1966, Steve Rogers is passed by a pretty blonde on a New York street and thinks, "That girl! When she walked by, I thought I was in the past again — looking at her!"
Cap pursues the young lady, who turns out to be an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. transporting a dangerous compound called Inferno 42, and pursued by Batroc the Leaper, master of the French fighting art known as la savate. Naturally, Cap defeats Batroc and makes sure Inferno 42 gets to the right hands. All the while, though, Cap keeps thinking that this girl — whom we later learn is Sharon Carter, Agent 13 of S.H.I.E.L.D. — looks like "her"!
And who is "her"? We get a flashback to the liberation of Paris in World War II, where we see Cap and his girlfriend, an American fighting with the French Resistance named Peggy Carter. The two are separated in battle, and Peggy is nearly hit by a shell, leaving her with amnesia.
Captain America goes on to a famous date with an iceberg later in the war. And after thawing out, he begins dating Sharon, who it turns out is Peggy's sister. But he never knows if Peggy is alive or dead after Paris.
In 1973, he finds out that Peggy has been living with her parents in Virginia since the war, still suffering from amnesia. This being comics, where Cap and Sharon couldn't age, but Peggy couldn't escape being a WWII vet (who hadn't been frozen in an iceberg like some people we could name), it was quickly established that the aging Peggy wasn't Sharon's sister, but was instead her aunt.
After recovering her marbles, Peggy quickly became an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a supporting member of Captain America's book. However, eventually her age caught up with her and she died in a nursing home in 2011.
So, obviously, there are quite a few differences between the comics Peggy and the TV Peggy. Not the least of which is that the one played by Hayley Atwell is far more interesting.
In "Agent Carter," Atwell plays a no-nonsense, hyper-competent agent of the "Strategic Science Reserves" — the Marvel Universe version of the Office of Strategic Services. And like the OSS later became the CIA, the SSR will morph into S.H.I.E.L.D.
But Peggy has a problem: It's 1946, and women are generally treated by men as infants and/or second-class citizens. She isn't taken seriously by her colleagues, who assume she got her job by being "Captain America's girlfriend" during the war.
So when her wartime colleague Howard Stark — who will someday be the father of Tony "Iron Man" Stark — asks her to clear his name of a treason charge, she must do so on the Q.T., as they used to say. If she's caught, it will not only be the end of her career, but likely a stretch in a federal pen. A man might get the benefit of the doubt in 1946, but a woman certainly would not.
Which ratchets up the stakes, as well as being historically accurate. It would have been enormously disappointing had Marvel treated the gender disparities of the time with lip service. Instead, they wisely made it part of the series premise.
In fact, it's a theme running throughout, lest we forget why women felt the need for a liberation movement in the 1960s and '70s. A waitress has to put up with pats on the butt. Working women live in dormlike hotels, with a "den mother" who enforces curfews and a "no men" policy. And those working women, who built planes and tanks during the war, are being squeezed out of the workforce by returning G.I.s. ("I had to teach a guy from Canarsie how to rivet today," complains one.)
Marvel couldn't have done better than Atwell for the role. Her statuesque beauty makes her perfect for those elaborate '40s fashions. Her strength and agility make the fight scenes plausible. Not to mention her acting chops — she completely sells the period milieu.
And, while the ratings are still a bit soft on "Agent Carter," those who have seen it like it. It's got a 90 percent approval rating from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 97 percent thumbs up from reviewers.