Outside of Ellen's massively retweeted celebrity selfie, the most viral moment of the Oscars was probably John Travolta's flub while saying Idina Menzel's name. I suppose I could link to the occurrence, as I often link to things for extra context, but given the amount of "how Travolta would mispronounce your name, yuk yuk" generators popping up on Facebook, I feel like everyone has heard about it. Don't get me wrong, I think peeling back the veneer of celebrity perfection tends to be more helpful than harmful, but here ... I guess I wonder whether the flub doesn't deserve a little grace. Or at least a pass.
Not just because these things happen, but because John Travolta is both reported to have
and not have
dyslexia, and discussion of whether or not it's okay to joke about his mistake is leading to a weird Internet justification circle-jerk about him working on being better at his job, if he is in fact dyslexic. We spend a lot of time on the world wide web both celebrating and decrying political correctness, but Travolta's flub provides insight into why it's important to treat mental disorders seriously. Because if you don't, victim-blaming abounds (even if the subject in question isn't actually dyslexic).
The fact is that sometimes working on what you have to say in public won't actually counteract a mispronunciation, and this would be an easy thing for most to admit if dyslexia wasn't involved. If the Travolta who presented at the Oscars on Sunday was officially and completely known to not be dyslexic, then all the name generators in the world wouldn't seem suspect to me. As it is, they do, because highlighting a simple mistake in the face of a bloated awards show seems like easy pickings -- and because people's insistence that the mistake is on him, regardless of genetics or brain chemistry, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. People who have dyslexia or any type of learning disability (full disclosure: I have ADD) already have enough to deal with, without being told their failures are that much more weighty, because they have a disorder.Anyway, that's just how this whole thing is striking me. It may be a personal reaction, but I find the situation annoying. Others may not see this as a travesty, and that's fine (there's certainly other things going on in the world that deserve greater attention). But can we all admit that the joke has unintended bite in its well-tended justification? If we're honest about that -- what we're saying, and why -- then we can learn something from it.
I was elated upon finishing last week's Ms. Marvel #1
, the debut
of Pakistani-American superhero Kamala Khan. The book, scripted by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona, and edited by personal favorite comics wrangler Sana Amanat, proved to be one of the strongest first issues I've ever read. In twenty-some pages, the creative team confidently introduced me to the characters and conflicts Kamala will be dealing with throughout her adventures, while also subtly nodding at the political and cultural identity questions that seem set to fuel her origin story.
Excited to see how comics fans across the world were reacting to the new Ms. Marvel's introduction, I took to the Internet, discovering mostly positive buzz
about its YA leanings, its goofy humor, and its incisive character beats. But I found another common bit of praise, too. Something puzzling. In multiple reviews, I noticed that the emphasis was less on what makes Kamala a stand-out comics character -- being a Muslim woman of color and second-generation member of an immigrant family, for starters -- and more on what makes her universal, i.e., her writing of fan-fiction, her emulation of Captain Marvel, and her desire to be accepted by other teenagers. True, her character-DNA more easily links her to the dweeby Spider-man than some unknowable supreme being, and that's a good thing. Reinforcing the mysterious Other is the last thing Wilson and company intend to do with this book; as I see it, their mission is to tell stories about a teenager who happens to be Pakistani and Muslim, while examining how her cultural and spiritual traditions might conflict with her superheroing, even as her background is written off or stereotyped by the dominant (read: white) culture.
However, reviews continually reassuring me that Kamala's tale is relatable to readers who are not exactly like her? That's a troubling trend. Comics culture struggles with many, many things, from to racism to sexism to ableism to harassment (to name just a few syndromes). It seems to me that couching one's response to a book in relief that specifics can be transcended in favor of only
the universal might create more problems than are solved. Perhaps relatability is how minds are most often changed. Perhaps in showing one person's struggles with identity, without getting into the nitty-gritty of unique experiences, somebody hesitant might pick up Ms. Marvel #2. But without championing the specifics, I wonder what that journey is worth. If you don't note Kamala's struggle to resist bacon in the book's opening pages, how can you understand her growing frustration with the obedience expected of her as a Muslim woman? If you don't recognize Kamala's rebellious streak in the dinner table scene with her father, mother, and spiritually-focused brother, how can you believe she'd wish to be part of a different, BAM-POW! culture in the book's closing pages? If you don't see how politically charged and excitingly problematic it is that she's shape-shifted into Captain Marvel (a blonde, busty white woman) by book's end, then I'm not sure this book will ever thrill or entice you.A wise writer once told me that specifics make a story universal. Artists should resist the urge to write all things for all people, and what makes Kamala's story interesting to me is what makes her different from me. I am not a woman of color, I am not a follower of Islam, I am not a second-generation American. But I connected with Kamala's desire to be accepted for what she loves and what she believes she can achieve, if given the opportunity. Of course, getting to be Captain Marvel at the issue's cliffhanger will pose new challenges to Kamala, and I hope, lead her to reassess and appreciate her singular heritage. That seems to be where the creators are heading, as Kamala immediately regrets wishing herself in the good Captain's shoes, after a creepy unexplained fog engulfs her and gives her superpowers (comics, everybody!).
When did it become passe to want
to read about someone else's experiences, and identify with those who are different because
of the differences we all share? No two people are alike, and I'd never want drama or my comics to state otherwise. Between DC's recent white-washing
of previously POC characters, and the engrossing discussion of race and theatre production
on Howlround, I know that I, as an arts consumer and artist, must resist the urge to rely on some community-enforced code of universality in order to champion creative work. I don't have to control or caveat a narrative in order to enjoy it. No one should have to do that.
It's good to acknowledge that Ms. Marvel
is smart, funny, exciting, and relatable. It's also good to acknowledge that the series' creators are giving us something we've never or rarely seen before. By celebrating the specific, we celebrate the universal. But only if we make the effort to understand the specific first.POST-SCRIPT: I unfortunately wrote this without delving into how cool it is to see a community of people represented in superhero comics that rarely get the spotlight. Kamala, her family, and her friends Bruno and Nakia all arrive fully fleshed out, and I hope their stories soon become essential reading for some.POST-POST-SCRIPT: All my rambling aside, track down Ms. Marvel. It is a wonderful book, a perfect example of a comic that's meant to inspire young women to examine and appreciate what makes them special. Seriously, it looks to be a great, important story, meant to appeal to non-comics readers and aficionados alike. Check it out.Ms. Marvel sketchbook art: Adrian Alphona, artwork.
Sooooooooooooooooo, this seems like a strange place to write about this, but I feel like my complete support of the Affordable Care Act and what it's offering Americans should be known, especially given how public it's become over the past weekend. A while back, I was given the opportunity to speak with the Chicago Sun-Times
about signing up for health insurance; provided is the profile that was written about my experience
. I can't speak for everyone, obviously, but my experience with signing up was pretty easy, despite one small bump. It's definitely something everyone should look into, if only to see what insurance options are available.
I am honored to announce that I have had a piece published on Howlround this afternoon. For those who don't know, Howlround
is an online meeting place where artists can interact and discuss theatre and teaching practices, along with a host of others subjects. Entitled "A Place In The Conversation: Portraying Disability Onstage,"
my post was adapted from a thought-piece I wrote earlier in January on this very blog, and it was a blast to work with Howlround to bring questions about putting disability onstage to a wider audience. So, give my Howlround essay a read, and get involved in the discussion! I'd love to read your thoughts!
It wasn't until graduate school that I really examined my disability. Obviously, I've made allowances for my inability to hear certain things at certain times throughout my life; I've always accepted that as part of my daily routine. And I was educated on the technicalities of my hearing loss by numerous doctors and counselors, to better explain my needs to other people; that was no biggie, either -- just part of making sure I lived life to its fullest. But it wasn't until I got a new hearing aid in 2011 that I truly caught how little I was hearing in classes up to that winter quarter. Not having to crane forward to listen or do so much guesswork with lip-reading gave me the luxury to relax and truly think about my hearing loss. About my essential need for devices to help me hear. About how my coping skills went noticed or unnoticed by those around me. About how I felt about what I could and couldn't hear. About how reluctant I was to think about my feelings about what I could and couldn't hear.
That last bit surprised me. As a writer, I spend a lot of time dredging my own (and sometimes others') experience for answers to life's big questions, but giving myself time to examine my feelings about my disability, from age eight onward, seemed daunting. I was happy to accept I could hear better now, but when asked what I thought of my disability, or why I didn't write about it, I often passed my hearing loss off as part of my life, a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole essence of my identity. Sure, I had memories of rough times adjusting to wearing a hearing aid, and the stress of being the constant classroom expert on hearing loss took a little getting used to; but no great shakes, these memories. But when asked to plumb my experience of disability for narrative conflict by my advisers, why was my response immediate and dismissive? "Not being able to hear is intrinsic for me, that's all," I'd think. "Nobody on the outside will be interested enough to know about it."
First off, I was wrong about that. Plenty of people were interested, and plenty of people could find parallels between a hard of hearing person's struggles and their own (without either party being reductive about it). Second, though I may never know the why
of my immediate response, I now find it telling nonetheless. I assumed sole-ness or alone-ness in my condition. As far back as I can remember, I was the only kid in my class with hearing loss. This made it extra-imperative for my parents to motivate me to see my disability as a positive, as something that contributed to my work ethic and personality, as opposed to detracted from those elements of my identity. (So, of course, I took their encouragement and turned it into a superhero. More about that here
.) They also worked hard to make sure I never felt different from my classmates, but the honest fact of the matter is that I still was. That's neither a positive or a negative; it's also not something I ruminated on until I began research for a play centered on family and disability and identity.
As part of my research, I educated myself on the Deaf community's relationship to technology, some of which I've used in the past -- shake-awake alarms, closed captioning systems, basic stuff. I took the 2000 documentary "Sound And Fury"
out of the Ohio University library and watched it. I'd highly recommend tracking this movie down (as well as its sequel!), because it deftly explores the pro and con sides to using a cochlear implant, while documenting one family's debate over whether or not its Deaf members should adopt the technology. At one point in the first "Sound and Fury," a Deaf father laments that if his daughter gets a cochlear implant, she will be neither Deaf nor hearing; she will be a third thing, with no specific culture to bind her to her family, to him. I paused the film. I rewound it. I played his comments again. I rewound the film. I played the comments again. I paused the film. I began to cry. Because I was that third thing he was talking about. And I'd never recognized that before. Obviously, I don't feel disconnected from my life or from my family and friends. I relate to them as any fully hearing person would; my disability is not severe to the point of separating me from anything, but it still calls for a lot of explanation. And I see myself in parts of the Deaf community (in the emphasis on visuals and body language), though I have no clue if I have a place there. I am that third thing that has no prescribed place.
When describing this reaction to an adviser, he pointed out that straddling two worlds afforded me a unique perspective as an artist. I agreed, but my epiphany also made me lonely in a weird way. The more research I did, the more singular I felt; the more singular I felt, the more I latched on to reflections of myself in media. (This is why I so love shows like "Switched At Birth" or books like Wonderstruck
; they show me myself, and I devour their tales selfishly -- less for the ideas they impart, more for the "Yup, I've been there" feelings of relief they evoke in me.) Two years and some change away from that fateful watching of "Sound and Fury," I still wrestle. Examination of disability has claimed a larger and larger part of my own writing, and I find myself attracted to discourse on the subject, which further challenges me as an artist.
Take, for example, Jacqueline Lawton's recent great interview
with Gift Theater co-founder and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, as part of the Theatre Communication Group's Diversity & Inclusion blog salon. Seriously, read the whole interview and then come back. It is a smart, thought-provoking discussion about the types of inclusion needed within Chicago storefront theatre. Of particular interest to me was Michael Patrick Thorton's thoughts about casting actors with disabilities: "Maybe in addition to seeking out disablist playwrights, we should also be strongly encouraging our national playwrights to encourage casting directors to see disabled actors for non-disabled-identified roles and advocate for them to producers. To me, that’s really a critical step toward the endgame of perceptive normalcy." In another part of the interview, Thornton talks about the foregrounding of disability in ableist storytelling, which reduces a person to simply what they lack, or what happened to them to create that lack. There's a ton of truth to what he's saying, and writing for disabled actors without making their disability the focus of their plots is one way to create balance between character and actor.But I wonder if there's another way to do that, too. And it involves such a personal way of looking at things for me that I don't know if my perspective has any merit in the larger goings-on of producing theatre. But here we have it anyway -- perhaps another necessary thing for disablist playwrights to do is to draw the audience, disabled or not, into the perspective of characters who have disabilities, and to do that in as many different ways as possible, to reach someone and communicate experience clearly and intelligently (through touch, taste, sound, or any possible sense). For me, I find freedom in my everyday problems being examined; the actor's vocals changing as his hearing aid blinks on and off provides some of my favorite material in Tribes. So I wonder ... Is there a way to make disability a part of the world of one's play, without reducing it to stereotype or "triumph-over-adversity" tales? Is there a way to make it business as usual while sharing it with someone unaware of its pitfalls and daily
accommodations? Or can it be the driving examination of the play without seeming wholly negative? (I am trying to walk this tight-rope with a play about Joe Shuster and his diminishing sight; it's no easy task, I'm finding.) These questions always leap to my mind in discussions about how disability is portrayed or invited onto a stage. Because there are so many possible answers, the questions kind of haunt me.The one thing I do know is that an individual artist's perspective (whether it be writer, director, designer, or actor) will always come into play somewhere along the line, and a choice about portraying disability will have to be made. For me, if I could offer someone the opportunity to recognize their own experience far sooner than their late twenties (when I did), I'll be a happier playwright for it.
I am a big admirer of year-end lists. Yet there are reasons not to be. Lists can reduce the year's output to a simplified collection of already well-covered moments. They can inadvertently steer a body away from searching deeper into the records of pop culture, to discover objects on one's own. They can define taste, instead of interrogating it. On the other hand, such lists can still introduce a person to a movie or book or play they'd never consider otherwise. Or, lists can force one to reconsider something long filed away as inconsequential or lost. And, let's face it, there's a lot of entertainment to be had in seeing critics praise art you already appreciate. I guess what I'm saying is, your mileage may vary.
Me, I love lists! So I thought I'd post one of my own on the good old blog, specifically centering around achievements in comics this year. I spend a lot of time on this blog being critical Sarah. I thought it might make a nice change of pace to celebrate the year 2013 in comics, through five (by my standards) noteworthy comics. These are my choices. What are yours? Sound off in the comments section!
My Five Notable Comics From 2013 (Though Most Are Over A Year Old)
I'll start with my most anticipated read of the year: March.
I actually gave Congressman John Lewis' graphic memoir to my father for Christmas. Largely inspired by his connection with and consumption of the 1957 comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
, this book is the first of three to chronicle Lewis' life and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. The first volume deals with Lewis' young life, and Nate Powell's beautiful black and white art quickly draws you into Lewis' perception of the world around him. Particularly striking are the book's opening moments, when a young Lewis preaches to the family chickens, and the closing pages, which involve a paddy wagon full of arrested individuals driving "off-screen" as they sing about overcoming great obstacles. Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin intended this story to teach future generations about civil rights and the work of Dr. King, just as that 1950's book taught him. There are many lessons throughout the book, but it never reads as dry or didactic, only engrossing and awe-inspiring.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga arrived on shelves in the spring of 2012, but it's been on my mind ever since. The story of two parents trying to raise a child in a mixed-up world might seem old hat by this point in human history, but add in intergalactic wars, ghost nannies, robot princes, and a cat who can tell when you're lying, and everything old becomes new again! Staples' down-to-earth pencils and ink ground this space opera in human concerns, like what happens to a body after pregnancy, or how to get a job when one's entire family is on the run from two sides of the same war -- and while I don't discuss lettering much in this space, Staples' handwritten narration gives a glint of the sassy grown-up child these parents will raise. Of course, Vaughan's signature sense of humor and heart saturates the plot, but it is his dissection of narrative as life-sustaining, and family as the forge that shapes and even melts our sensibilities, that define the book. Released in increments to give Staples enough lead time to craft the tale well, this creator-driven work engages with its audiences' real-life concerns in a visceral, vibrant way.
How to talk about Young Avengers
? I've read interviews where writer Kieron Gillen equates the team book with the adolescent act of starting a band. It's also clear the entire short season of fifteen issues is meant to be a metaphor
for being eighteen, for being on the cusp of adulthood, of learning one's possibilities and limitations. Hailed by many comics sites as something new, a pop-infused story that addresses ACTUAL young people (instead of middle-aged readers who grew up with Superman and The Simpsons), this book was labelled Tumblr bait by cynics, even as optimists embrace its shirtless
Noh-Varr scenes and emotional roller coasters. What can't be disputed by anyone is the genius of the artwork -- Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton sculpt classic comics facial expressions into pop art shots, and muck about with traditional layouts, even breaking borders between panels to connect their isolated teenagers. This book may be ending soon (I blame the need to boost Loki's age, in order to appease Tom Hiddleston fans, I suspect), but its appeal lies in its "flash-in-the-pan" nature. The Young Avengers save the world, then go for Korean barbecue afterwards; the sad truth of adolescence is that good nights like that aren't meant to last forever.
Astro City brought me back to reading comics on a monthly basis two years ago. So it's only fitting that the series' return should end up on my "top of 2013" list. Now published under Vertigo's banner, Astro City hasn't lost a step, even after vanishing for a time due to scribe Kurt Busiek's health concerns. The new group of issues has examined both the heroes and regular citizens of the titular city, with covers from painter Alex Ross warmly inviting us into Busiek's bright world. Interior artist Brent Anderson has made the transition from pen and paper to digital, and his work remains as clear-eyed and emotional as ever. Meanwhile, Busiek builds and builds his superheroic universe, adding in call responders to a hero hotline, a giant alien presence intent on studying humanity, and a potentially unhinged fourth wall-breaking miscreant -- while revisiting old faces, including a retired family man, a stuntwoman psychic, and our first-ever look into his Wonder Woman stand-in, Winged Victory. At the end of each issue, a tiny street sign alerts us that we are now leaving Astro City. When the book was on hiatus, that notice struck me as bittersweet. Now the story continues, and I can't wait to come back.
I've written and written and written about Daredevil.
About Mark Waid's interrogation of fear and fearlessness, of perception and obsession. About Chris Samnee and Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin and Javier Rodriguez and their consistent, snappy artwork. About my appreciation for a book that actually addresses disability, even if its central character is essentially sighted, given his radar sense. So what haven't I praised about this title? What's left to write about? I'll tell you what's left -- lawyer and Dare-love interest Kirsten McDuffie. She's amazing. She's basically Lois Lane, except she was in on the secret identity thing from the get-go. So I guess she's more like Linda Park, a woman Waid has had some experience
scripting in the past. In the latest issue of the Dare-saga, Kirsten flirted with danger by addressing New York citizens via some sort of super-microphone during a crisis. In the process, she officially won Matt Murdock's heart, as she set everyone straight about the fear-mongering Sons of Serpents, a group of racists intent on creating mob rule in the Big Apple. Corny, sure. But Kirsten's heroics are just as important as Daredevil in this book; that is a refreshing change of pace for a love interest.
PSYCH! BONUS PICK, Y'ALL! (I SAID I'D STOP AT FIVE, YET HERE WE ARE!)
is a book about what Hawkeye does when he's not being an Avenger, usually when he's hanging out with the other, cooler Hawkeye
. Also, it's about his dog Lucky, who loves pizza. Helmed by writer Matt Fraction, artist David Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, this book has been a fan favorite for months, even as it's gotten a bit behind schedule, shipping-wise. But it's worth the wait. Fraction's decompression of time can be trying when read a month at a time, but his current insistence on telling street-level stories from a variety of perspectives, including Pizza Dog's, has brought a lot of enjoyment to me, personally. Aja's work can be sprightly and perceptive (as when Hawkeye leaps through the air naked, and a little Hawkeye mask covers his unmentionables; or when a phone conversation with Kate is split into thirty-something distinct panels). Hollingsworth gives everything a purple tinge and a cartoony look that makes Hawkeye's world seem pretty basic, even as the writing deepens Hawkeye's descent into poor behavior. With Clint Barton's book, come for the humor, stay for the inventiveness and emotional gut punches!
Despite its reputation, I've never been a huge fan of The Killing Joke.
Graphic novel enthusiasts remind me it's long been considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever told, due to the Dark Knight's psychologically complex sparring matches with the Joker. That doesn't make me like it any better. The mental and emotional damage featured in its pages have heavily influenced twenty-plus years of Batman comics since, people point out; I acknowledge that this is true, and read a Superman book instead. What about Chris Nolan's masterful portrayal of the chaos/order dichotomy at the heart of Batman and the Joker's battle for Gotham City in "The Dark Knight?" I admit I like that movie a lot, even though it ends twice; I appreciate Nolan's distilling of the entire book into an intense ten-minute interrogation scene that allows the Joker and Batman time to highlight their similarities and differences. But it still can't make me admire the source material.
Because for all its high-minded thoughts about justice and revenge and the human capacity to survive immense horrors, The Killing Joke
still views the most humane character in the Bat mythos as cannon fodder. And such a cynical mindset makes readers focus on the wrong things inside the tale itself. Case in point: a lot has been said in recent months about Batman potentially killing the Joker at the end of the story -- giving context to the title, The Killing Joke. I can understand Grant Morrison's need to structurally justify the story's violence with claims that author Alan Moore was not only investigating the hero and villain's relationship, he was finishing it; he was taking Batman over the edge. Certainly, this hypothesis blew the minds of avid readers within the industry, people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith and comics legend Mark Waid. But I couldn't get invested in that reading for two reasons. One: the artwork and dialogue in the last pages of the book are subtle to the point of obfuscation; if Moore and artist Brian Bolland wanted us to understand a murder had been committed, and Batman had lost his mind and war on crime simultaneously (which, admittedly, is a pretty powerful ending), then they should have given us the clues we needed to finish the image in our minds. The script itself doesn't offer much in the way of context, either. Two: the relentless, continuing picking-apart of the hero and villain's relationship, while the point of the story, only serves to diminish examination of the tale's terrible treatment of its lone female figure, which yesterday, was revealed to be worse than previously thought.
I speak, of course, about Barbara Gordon, and her paralyzing at the hands of the Joker. Yes, Alan Moore wrote a story about the Clown Prince of Crime psychologically torturing Batman and his colleague Commissioner Jim Gordon, but the way he chose to frame this torture through the physical violation and shooting of Barbara Gordon, then Batgirl, is the big set-piece of the story. And it serves no purpose to change Barbara herself; the incident exists only to give stakes to Batman's run towards insanity. Which folks admire as strong storytelling even today, even if I've heard Alan Moore himself regrets the tale, even after Brian Bolland
has revealed, along with a comics researcher, that Barbara was initially supposed to be photographed fully naked, blood gushing from her lower regions in as pornographically violent a shot as I can think of. But I ask -- what is psychologically complex about destroying a woman so that men can prove themselves able to endure witnessing it? (Or, in the case of Morrison's take, what is complex about watching a man avenge a woman's unnecessary destruction?)
Sure, in the final printing, DC Comics toned down the violence and nudity on the page where Jim Gordon views a group of photographs, taken by the Joker, showing how much pain his daughter is in. Kudos to them, I guess? But there's still that nagging, well-known story that editor Len Wein gave Moore the okay to "cripple the bitch." Discovering that Barbara's torment was initially drawn to titillate as well as horrify only gives the lie to this story, and proves how little Moore and Bolland cared about her, beyond her use as a plot device.
Some might tell me this revelation about Barbara's nude shot is irrelevant now, as it was never published in the first place. To them I say, it's all the more relevant today, because it visually demonstrates the hugely problematic treatment of women in comics history, inside one of its most-purchased stories. If women are to stop being victims in narratives, then books like this need to be seen for the flawed creations they are; they shouldn't be championed as innovative in all aspects, if they are simplistic in major ways.
What's most remarkable about The Killing Joke, to me, is that Barbara survived it; in fact, she flourished in spite of its twisted humor. Today, she is back to being Batgirl, but thanks to the initial work of comics team John Ostrander and Kim Yale, Barbara became so much more than another creature in a cowl. She became information broker Oracle, a woman who proudly accepted her disability and the different life it led her to build. Greatly under-appreciated Bat-journeyman Chuck Dixon never shied away from spotlighting her feelings about it, and in his 1990's run on Birds of Prey, he gave Barbara the words to burn Nightwing and Batman for thinking of her primarily as damaged goods.
Her speech (pictured above) is so powerful because it recognizes her agency, her ability to build her life -- whereas The Killing Joke left her for dead, helpless and alone. I loved Oracle my entire childhood, and well into my adulthood; she showed readers there were many ways to be a hero, and not every hero had to jump around on rooftops to accomplish good works. The only reason I shy away from New 52 depictions of Batgirl now are because DC feels it necessary to remind readers over and over again how seminal her torture at the hands of the Joker was; I prefer to believe Barbara's best moments came after that heinous narrative choice. I believe her best moments came when she did good works, while disabled, maybe because of her disability, all under her own steam.
Bruce Wayne: The Road Home -- Oracle #1: Shane Davis & Barbara Ciadro, Cover Artists.
Birds of Prey vol. 1, #8: Chuck Dixon, Writer; Greg Land, Penciller; Drew Geraci, Inker; Gloria Vasquez, Colorist; Albert DeGuzman, Letterer.
I don't know if it's because I've been teaching theatre history and trickle-down tradition this fall, or because I've been thinking a lot about how my generation's viewed in the media, or because of the blog posts (and one particular Howlround piece
by OU colleague Ira Gamerman!!!) I've been reading, but lately I've spent a lot of time considering the concept of legacy and one's conversation with the preceding generation via art.
Whatever the igniting spark, the fire roared to life last week when I opened the latest issue of Young Avengers
. In its first few pages, our intrepid young heroes pleaded their damned-if-you, damned-if-you-don't end run to Captain America. His response was not "Avengers, Assemble!" -- as you can see above. Of course, Cap's being controlled by a dimension-hopping parasite in the form of Hulking's mother (aptly named Mother), sooooo parents just not understanding is a big part of the book. And appropriate to my ponderings about how generations communicate with one another over time (as when Renaissance artists looked to the Romans and Greeks to breed innovation in their own time).
Now some readers out there are critical of the unsubtle tone writer Kieron Gillen takes with a book about a bunch of teenage vigilantes moving from the drama of sixteen to the maturity and self-reliance of eighteen. Most complaints I've read mock the book's chummy relationship with its fans on Tumblr (the alien Noh-varr's shirtlessness
alone could launch a thousand picto-blogs), but other complaints center on the youth of the intended audience. The book is for tweens or teens, folks argue; it's cutting-edge panel construction and kooky characters can't make up for its lack of a traditional plot and tugging at the heart-strings heroics. But why shouldn't Young Avengers, a book about teenagers, largely for teenagers, be celebrated by the audience of young men and women who populate Tumblr? Furthermore, does broad-based appeal outweigh an appeal to youth culture, or an appeal to something new in comics?
Personally, I think Cap's "Father Knows Best" attitude is hilarious -- particularly since his hand-waving away the threat of Mother is followed by Kate Bishop, aka the female Hawkeye, turning to her fellow teenage heroes and declaring that the world is ending, so the Young Avengers should assemble already. Idealism versus pragmatism at its finest. But what does all this have to do with legacy and talking to the past through art? For me, this moment showcases Gillen's awareness of comics history. Young Avengers
, in its many "short season" stories, has always been about a bunch of aliens and young kids trying to live up the legacy set by the likes of Thor, Cap, and the rest of the Avengers. Hence, the team being named Young Avengers. Gillen comments on that here, with Cap's paternalism and experience actually hampering the kids' organizational efforts. By hanging a lampshade on the older generation of heroes, he retains the sense of history that dominates and contextualizes the Marvel universe, while allowing enough room for the reader to see how Kate Bishop, Wiccan, Hulking, Loki, Miss America, Noh-varr, and various others will have to operate differently. How will they deal with matters? Not by reasoning with adults, or making elaborate battle plans. They'll use magic and bickering with exes and lying to teammates. They'll take their rightful place as heroes by acting like young adults becoming adults. They'll take stabs at saving the world until they find a way to save it. And I find that as innovative and impressive as the amazing layouts littering this comics run. Certainly, Young Avengers deserves to be loved for all the traditions it will set, and others will later talk to and break.
Young Avengers #12: Kieron Gillen, Writer; Jamie McKelvie, Penciller; Mike Norton, Jamie McKelvie, & Stephen Thompson, Inkers; Matthew Wilson, Colorist.POST-SCRIPT: This is an unrelated note, but its importance cannot be overstated. It's been brought to my attention that I've tended towards abelist language in posts littered throughout my blog history, mostly terminology concerning mobility and mental illness (making pejoratives of "crazy" and "lame," for example). I am sad to say I used such language without thought, and will avoid all such usages in the future. I am sorry if use of such terms caused offense.
It's hard to remember what I get out of superhero comics sometimes. Between the very real sexual harassment issues
plaguing the comics industry, and the less-than-insightful tokenism comments I read in response to the introduction of the new Ms. Marvel last week, I am beginning to wonder if there are any positives for superheroes in a comics culture obsessed with power and profit first, humanity and diversity second. I vote with my dollars, of course, but when public perception about superheroes (and the industry they spring from) begins and ends with reinforced power differentials, then I worry. I worry that I have no way to defend my love for men and women dressed in capes, running around trying to make the world a better place. I worry that there's nothing to learn from these kind of stories, that maybe I shouldn't keep encouraging people to look past the surface to the warm red heart beating underneath all the goofiness and glamour.
Every once in a while, I think about whether it's worth it to read aspirational stories where people kick the crud out of each other. I weigh the negatives -- inequality in gender portrayals, meaningless acts of violence, cynical events created in the name of sales -- against the positives -- mind-bending entertainment, amazing metaphors, endless opportunities to bring diverse experiences to a broad audience. And I can't make up my mind. Should I stay, or should I go?
At times like these, I turn to my favorite superhero comics for clarity. Often, it's not even my favorite comics; it's usually my favorite panels. Because for all the inequality and outdated thinking I see in action-adventure comics, they also contain some of the most humane moments I've ever read. Case in point: Birds of Prey volume two, issue number six.
This issue revolves around a death match that Black Canary has agreed to fight, mostly in order to protect her teammates, family, and friends. Before the battle can begin, however, Huntress, aka, Helena Bertinelli, intercedes
Sicily-style, and steals the match out from under the Canary's nose. It's classic Bertinelli, trying to help everybody, and doing it in the brashest way possible. Completely outmatched by her opponent, Huntress has no chance to win the fight; it's certain she will die. Black Canary shouts at her stupidity, and Helena asks to be left alone; one imagines it's to prepare herself for the coming pain.Except it's not. Helena wants time alone to pray, in my favorite panels ever composed for a superhero comic:
I find this set of images so startling and beautiful, I have a hard time articulating my love for them. The first time I read them, I started crying. And I don't have knee-jerk reactions to works of art that often. I think part of what moves me so deeply about this moment is its simplicity. It exists on the corner of a page, as artists Alvin Lee and Adriana Melo, inkers Jack Purcell and J.P. Mayer, and colorist Nei Ruffino emphasize Helena's privacy, framing her prayer from afar. We see her as we would see anyone reaching out in prayer; she doesn't look particularly powerful or heroic here. She's simply a person who happens to be in a superhero costume. So many cape-clad stories are outlandish -- quiet, personal moments like this stick out.
The other half of the equation, of course, is writer Gail Simone. In her years-long work with the Huntress, she rekindled Helena's faith, and gave the heroine life-long friendships. So when her final prayer is not a prayer for rescue or redemption, but a prayer of thanks for friends and the purpose they give, Simone ensures you fall in love with Helena all over again. Further, you understand what's led her to make such a dangerous decision. The solemn sincerity of this sequence kills me; it's bracing, almost shocking in its lack of spectacle or superhero hi-jinks. (Helena does go on to win the fight, but only by refusing to fall down.)
So when I think about giving up on superhero comics, I look to moments like this for proof that superhero tales can be so much more than fisticuffs and fantasies. They allow us to explore not only identity and power differentials, but the vulnerability that is essential and inevitable in every human life. Birds of Prey issue six keeps me looking to the horizon, searching for the next set of panels to knock me flat.
Birds of Prey #6: Gail Simone, Writer; Alvin Lee & Adriana Melo, Pencillers; Nei Ruffino, Colorist; Jack Purcell & J.P. Mayer, Inkers.
Last week, Marvel made a momentous announcement
. Along with the relaunch of their Captain Marvel
title next year, the company will be publishing a new Ms. Marvel
title, which will star a young Muslim American heroine. Penned by Vixen
writer (and convert to Islam) G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona, and edited by Sana Amanat, one of Marvel Comic's sharpest editors (whose conversations with fellow editor Steve Wacker about growing up Muslim-American inspired the new Ms. Marvel in the first place), the book aims to bring a new perspective to superhero comics.
And yet, the creators involved keep assuring the public that Ms. Marvel, known in her civilian life as teenager Kamala Khan of Jersey City, will wrestle with the same identity issues and familial struggles that every teenager endures. After reading numerous interviews where that universality was highlighted, I began to wonder, why all the reassurance that this tale will be more frazzled Peter Parker
than second generation Pakistani-American tale? Shouldn't we embrace the specificity of Kamala's experience, see through new, non-white, non-homogenized eyes for a change? Shouldn't that be as exciting as Ms. Marvel herself?
And I realized, Marvel Comics is hedging its bets, working not to alienate the current audience, while prepping for a new, likely female, one. As much as I welcome Kamala Khan, others might disagree
with my enthusiasm. Of course, Stephen Colbert is joking in that clip; others in certain comments section really aren't
. The main criticism I see popping up (even in the comments sections of pop culture sites
I like) is that the inclusion of such a high-profile character indicates tokenism on Marvel's part, that the choice to include a Muslim-American character in its roster is somehow pandering and audience-grabbing, and therefore, is devoid of any narrative value. Quite frankly, these thoughts read as cover for the ignorant fanboys' real worry: that their clubhouse is being invaded by women and people who aren't white.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this reaction. People came out in droves to protest a biracial Spider-man replacing the white one back in 2011; why wouldn't there be beef here? The comics industry is one of the most, if not the most exclusionary, art form I can think of; I often wonder why I continue to support it at all, when my other love -- theatre -- is all about building communities and giving everyone a voice within an artistic process. Sure, it's not a perfect discipline, and it can be exclusionary, in terms of race, gender, and class, like any field (there's many ways
to look at the RSC's current all-male productions of Shakespeare plays, for instance). But I know few in the theatre who would openly oppose the creation of a character with a little-explored background. Most theatre artists I know would embrace building an open world, one that draws audiences into experiencing a new perspective. Why wouldn't comics companies want to do the same, unabashedly? And why would comics fans be so instantly skeptical about the provision of a hero to inspire young women and young Muslims? What, precisely, is not worth celebrating
with Ms. Marvel, whose previous incarnation left a LOT
to be desired?
I think my befuddlement can be answered by confronting the accepted aspirational model. Aspirational tales have been around since the days of Greek myth, probably since long before that, in some form of cave drawing. And again and again, people have been told that a hero is Theseus, Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts. In short, guys. Guys who worship the appropriate gods, who win glory through grit and determination. In more contemporary times, people might fantasize about being Indiana Jones, or John McClain, or Batman
. The victors are always men. We are told repeatedly in American society that we should aspire to be strong, and smart, and physically imposing, like white dudes. (Captain Marvel
's current writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick has been kicking this assumption's butt all over the place by building a faster, smarter, more iconic Carol Danvers.) So what could be more daring than to ask us to aspire to be a young Muslim-American teenager, who struggles to reconcile her cultural life with her superhero one? Of course, Spider-man also wrestles with his acts of derring-do, but he gets to date a never-ending series of attractive women, so there's still wish fulfillment there. In this new Ms. Marvel
, we will be asked to identify with someone we might not interact with every day, but who is nevertheless all around us, all the time. We will be asked to take what might be an assumed minority as its opposite, as majority. We will be asked to accept that women and people of color love comics, too, and have their own stories to tell. I really can't think of anything more momentous and meaningful than making the world, narrative or otherwise, a little bit bigger. Here's to you, Marvel Comics, and to your upcoming Ms. Marvel!Ms. Marvel #1: Sara Pichelli, cover artist.