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: Adrian Alphona, cover artist.
It has been a while since I've posted about actual writing projects on this blog. That might be because I'm currently busy teaching, thinking about web comics creation, and bouncing between three full-length ideas (a dissection of the legally blind creator of Superman, a treatise on prescribing ADD medication to kids who don't need it, and an unraveling of Agatha Christie's 1926 disappearance). Meanwhile, Chicago Madness is on hiatus for a bit. But there is something I've been writing on and off for several years with my trusted writing partner, Laura H. It's a doozy, and I recently realized I don't tell many people about it, when it's easily one of the coolest projects I have going. That ends today, curious readers!
Together, Laura and I hatched our own idea for a comic book series in late 2009; it's called LIBERTY, and it's set in an alternate reality America; the story revolves around a set of super-powered heroes, who exist in a cosmopolitan yet unsettled nation. I'll let Laura's blurb fill you in on the major details of our setting and the first arc:
LIBERTY is an ensemble comic, in the spirit of Astro City. Our story begins in Philadelphia, PA. America's history is altered. Philly is the capital, and has been since Benjamin Franklin first took seat as the first President of the United States of America. There is a war raging in the West of the Country, where the Sioux nation holds fast to the Western territories, and skirmishes spark between forces at the US/Canada border. An outbreak of nation-wide natural catastrophes spurs mass panic and an outcry against powereds who are barely stopping the gap. Liberty, symbol of justice and icon of powereds throughout the country, is run ragged with crime in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, twin brothers and graduate-student-cum-heroes Ben and Joe, masked vigilante The Warden, and the Lakota tribeswomen the Crow Girls with their ally Sunstroke join forces to battle a mob presence in the city which proves to be as insidious and destructive as the natural disasters hammering the nation.
When Liberty meets a mysterious soldier during an investigation, she is forced to take a wider look at the country as a whole, and the role of powereds within a nation that is anything but unified. The question Liberty asks, and which must be answered, is this: "Because I am the strongest, is it my responsibility to shoulder the struggles of everyone around me? To what extent is my influence helping, or hindering?"
One of our biggest aims with this material was not only to ask deeper questions about the American mindset, but also to tell exciting superhero stories about people who have yet to receive the spotlight from the Big Two publishing companies out there. To that end, our work very purposely has a female lead in Liberty, showcases several LBGTQ and ethnically diverse characters, and aims to highlight American regional differences without stereotyping. There's a good helping of humor mixed along with the action set pieces, as well -- with The Warden acting as a grim protector of Eastern State Penitentiary, while mothering the cats who live in the abandoned building; and identical twins Ben and Joe having no real experience at superheroing, but doing it anyway, while grousing about the lameness of their powers.
In short, this story has been an absolute blast to write, and we want to share its existence with you, as we're refining the first arc of the series right now. In exciting news, we feel we've reached a stage where we want to get this story into the public's heads; for that, we need an artist, as we move towards the idea of publishing the book somehow, potentially in a web format (details are still being hammered out there). So, I put the call out to you, Internet readers: if you are an artist or know if any artists who would like to work on a history-rich, action-packed project like LIBERTY, please head over to my contact page and give me a shout-out. I'd love to hear from you!
In an ideal world, every art form would offer a window into every experience. I'm talking cultural experience, religious experience, ethnic experience, social experience; whatever environment or identity one claimed or came from, it would be mirrored through some artistic response or representation. In an ideal world, we would learn about those who are different while approaching the world through another's eyes. And we would do so without chaffing, complaint, or the need for endorsement
to popularize such empathy.
But we don't live in an ideal world. We live in one that often pushes
minority perspectives aside, either disavowing
cultural experience or claiming narrative tokenism
if such a perspective is championed in a mainstream, niche, or pop culture context. As a playwright, my work about disability could win me grant money, but in terms of that hook leading to productions, it's hard to say. Some might find my perspective limiting, too outside the norm of universal experience to attract audiences. I would respond that it's the specifics of a struggle that make art universal, whatever its medium. Of course, there are tons of examples of literature and art and movies opening one's world to others, including a recent study claiming such outcomes
. Really, I'm being completely ridiculous when I state unequivocally that the world isn't perfect (because it never could be), and that varying perspectives are often undervalued (because often they are championed
). But the fact remains that different art forms take a while to embrace all the cultural contexts available for exploration and expression.
Take comic books. There is a massive amount of racism laced
into the DNA of comics culture
, and it's something we're still not past (look at how the casting of Idris Elba in "Thor" or Michael B. Jordan in the potential "Fantastic Four" caused a horrifying uproar
). After all, it took a looooong time for Marvel to finally release a book featuring a superhero team made up of people of color (but lo and behold, here's Mighty Avengers
). Editor Tom Brevoort previously claimed there needed to be a valid, plot-based reason for such a team to coalesce. But last time I checked, the Justice League formed because a starfish-shaped alien decided to hug people's faces and take over the planet, sooooo I don't know how much water worries about tokenism hold. Like, when the Ultimate universe Miles Morales hit the scene, a biracial Spider-man wasn't given too much of a narrative reasoning. Miles simply was, and he became Spider-man, much like Peter Parker was, and became Spidey before him. Of course, there was push-back to Peter Parker's death in that alternate reality, and Miles might not be selling as well
as Parker did, but his presence is important, nonetheless. By existing, by taking up the mantle of an iconic hero, Miles gives kids who aren't the standard white audience a stab at being the hero who saves the day. It might seem like a small thing to worry about -- whether or not you can put yourselves in Spidey's booties for fantasy's sake -- but the ability to envision yourself that way says a lot about our society and its artistic output.I bring all this up because DC and Marvel effectively cancelled two of their women of color-led series this week. I had not read either Katana or Fearless Defenders, but I'd heard good things about both books (despite what the linked article opines). That said, sales were never robust for either series, so I guess I'm not surprised that they won't be on the shelves come January. But it does make me wonder. What does a corporation selling characters need to do, in order to better support its vast array of heroes? Does it need to stick to its brand, as Brian Wood's X-Men has done, with its all-female roster, despite the recognizably gendered name? Does it need to heavily publicize the choice to include people of color, as was done with Miles Morales? Does it need to wrap the heroine into a bigger book, as happened with Katana, who runs around in Justice League of America?
Or is the answer simpler? Is the answer a command? Such as, LISTEN. Marvel and DC, there are tons of talented artists out in the world, of every color and creed and experience. What are their lives like? What do they have to say? Hire them. Let them share their perspectives with others. Promoting books by writers who
empathize with multicultural experience is fine, but if you really want to create a bigger audience for your more diverse books, include members of that community in the creation of those books (I'm not saying this never happens, but it doesn't seem
prevalent). Don't shy away from publishing books about women, about people with disabilities, about people of color -- because the readers who need them are out there. But by not engaging them in the artistic process, you doom your books to fail. Because you are refusing them a seat at the table, a chance at making their voices heard. If we want our art to truly reflect the vastness of our society, we need to quit pretending that the only people who want to read and write comics are white dudes, and that claims of tokenism and fan alienation justify exclusion. Those excuses are beyond lame. They're horrifying, in fact. My suggestion is far from the only solution available, but if a heated dialogue is the result of such equalizing momentum, then so be it. What better way to learn what's going on in someone else's head?
This Friday, the remarkable happened. When the new Batman: Eternal
book was announced during a New York City Comic Con panel, the typical "Will Stephanie Brown be coming back?" inquiry was made. And instead of blowing off the question, as has happened in the past
, book creator Scott Snyder replied yes, she will return to the DC universe, in issue three, due out next spring!!!
I don't quite believe it. And yet I do. And yet I don't. And yet ... it makes sense. What better way to improve public relations for DC Comics than to resurrect a formerly off-limits character
? If corporate gives the fans something they want, maybe the horde will calm down about all the recent nightmares DC's inflicted on its female heroes. I hate to be cynical in that way, especially since DC's playing this as if they're finally listening to popular demand. (Heck, Dan DiDio's even dropping hints
that Lois Lane might get her own title in 2014!) But I think DC's systematic stabling of fascinating female and minority characters broke any trust I have in their New 52 regime, pretty much from day one. Still, this is the first time in two years of con announcements that I've been excited about anything DC is doing. One could even argue that giving characters like Steph and Lois their due shows that fan pressure is getting results. And yet ...
And yet I can't believe Stephanie Brown will be well served by her inclusion in the New 52. Her one and only appearance post-reboot came in Grant Morrison's Batman, Inc.
, which began its life as a sunny, trippy title, and ended with Batman enduring a grief-stricken existence. Throw in DC's bizarre mandate that characters can't have levity or stability in their personal lives, and Stephanie Brown's Pollyanna position doesn't seem quite right for any book's climate, let alone one set in the hellish Gotham City.
Now I know Steph herself started out in dire straits. Created by Chuck Dixon, she only donned her Spoiler costume to spoil (get it?) her psychotic father's crimes. While the lifestyle paved the way for first love with Robin, it also led to her brutal murder, courtesy of gang leader Black Mask and Steph's own terrible decisions. But who doesn't love an underdog? So, courtesy of a faked death, Steph found a second life as Batgirl, under the confident hand of Bryan Q. Miller. BQM understood that Steph's power comes from her capacity for hope, and her ability to follow through on her dreams with smarts and sunniness. Sure, the character started out as kind of a ditz, someone in way over her head, at times dangerously so. But she made friends easily, drawing then-Batgirl Cass Cain out of her shell. She followed her heart, and did what was right -- adopting the Batgirl mantle with unorthodox cheerfulness, even as others doubted her dedication. And she proved that fear is not the coolest weapon in the Bat toolbox. That hope has value, and endurance need not be a slog, if you finish what you set out to accomplish.We need positive character portrayals in any narrative, not simply for our enjoyment, but also to grant meaning to stories themselves. If stakes are always high, emotions always hot, and characters always millions of miles away from achieving their goals, then any given narrative not only lacks surprise, it lacks depth. The New 52 is a continuous embodiment of this problem. Sure, Superman and Wonder Woman are soooo in love, but what fun moments do we get to share with them, that make their relationship matter to us? (Even their initial hook-up was fraught, based only on rejection from their mere mortal romantic partners.) Sure, Nightwing is kicking it bachelor-style in Chicago, but he may die soon, now that his secret identity has been revealed to the public, so don't depend on him. And don't even get me started on Forever Evil, a month's worth of stories dedicated to gross and downright depressing supervillain origins. (Though it did lead to one moment of hilarity, i.e., Ultraman snorting kryptonite as if it were cocaine!)Bright characters like Stephanie can help the New 52, if only because stories about hope would provide a contrast to the universe's enveloping darkness. Of course, such an impact depends on whether or not Stephanie is allowed to broadcast her bubbly point of view. I'm not holding my breath, and I won't be returning to DC Comics until I get a better idea of what they intend to do with female heroes like her. For now, though, it's nice to spot a little bit of light in all the dismal news DC's been delivering lately. It's nice, and so very Stephanie.UPDATE: As reported by one of my favorite feminist comics blogs, it seems that the Steph question at NYCC was actually a plant by DC. It also seems that perhaps the way for Stephanie has been paved prior to this occasion, with most Spoiler-centered creator pitches being rejected because of that? Who really knows?Batgirl #24: Bryan Q. Miller, Writer; Pere Perez, Artist; Guy Major, Colors; Dave Sharpe, Letters.
For what's seemed like months (actually stretching back to a full year), I've been the recipient of the following heartwarming web story
via email, on Facebook, and through Twitter. The story involves one determined mother, her awesome son, and a bunch of cool comics people. See, Christina D'Allesandro wanted her son Anthony to wear his hearing aid, but the boy reasoned that his favorite superheroes never had to use such a device, so he remained unconvinced that one was necessary for him. So Christina wrote to Marvel Comics, asking for help. In response, a team of Marvel editors and artists brought Blue Ear
to life. Cleverly, the blue-clad hero uses a nifty-looking gadget to hear when people are in trouble; thus, he can leap to their aid, just as Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk do! This worked for Anthony, and he no longer looks down on his hearing aid.
I adore this story. I love the way it crosses my path every couple months. What that mom did is creative and remarkable. What those artists did is generous and smart. The friends passing it on are loving and thoughtful. At the same time, I think this warm and fuzzy tale highlights a serious problem within superhero comics -- that the requirement for a good superhero story must involve physical perfection. This has been a part of comic books since Superman got his start in 1938, and it's hard for contemporary auteurs to move past it. Think about this for a moment. We now know about Blue Ear's existence. Can you name any other hard of hearing heroes at Marvel? I can think of two. One is Hawkeye, who lost some hearing in an explosion in the 1980's; however, I don't know how often this loss is referenced, if ever. I haven't seen it in Matt Fraction's uber-popular new series, and it sure wasn't mentioned in 2012's blockbuster "The Avengers." The one Deaf hero I know of is Echo. And she's dead. If not for Blue Ear, Marvel might not have any hard of hearing characters. (Of course, they have the blind Daredevil, but don't even get me started on how he's not blind, thank you very much, radar sense!)
What I'm getting at is this: when we don't see ourselves represented in the larger culture, we often find ways to put ourselves front and center. This mother was able to do that for her son. And the reason this story gets forwarded to me is because I've taken it upon myself to put my disability front and center within my work. In particular, there's Hearing Aid Girl.For those who don't know, she was a part of my thesis, The Magnificent Masked Hearing Aid, at Ohio University; she was a cartoon drawn by a character as an extension of her hard of hearing identity. But my relationship with that cartoon goes back much farther than the one project. I created Hearing Aid Girl (or H.A.G., as I unfortunately acronymed her) after I was first diagnosed with hearing loss, at age eight. My parents were concerned about my response to wearing a hearing aid, as most kids hate them. They encouraged me to look at the device as an imaginary friend. Why an imaginary friend? Well, I loved the Value Book series growing up. These books were short, cartooned biographies about visionaries such as Ben Franklin, Margaret Mead, and Helen Keller. Each story involved the future famous person adopting an imaginary friend, often an object, that served as their conscience throughout their lives. For Helen Keller, it was a doll come to life. For Charles Dickens, it was a creature called the Bookworm. My favorite story involved ace hockey player Maurice Richard and his hockey stick, Slapper. But I digress. My parents knew I had a vivid imagination, so they wanted me to look at my hearing aid as a separate entity, as a pal.
Of course, I loved superheroes just as much as I loved the Value Books. And I was obsessed with "Batman: The Animated Series" in third grade. So I took my folks' advice and turned it ever so slightly, creating a superhero whose powers emanated from the hearing aid she wore. Of course, being a kid, I wasn't subtle about the whole thing. I cribbed Superman's origin story for my own drawings. I gave her a scientist turned werewolf for a sidekick. I named her alter ego SARAH BOWDEN, for crying out loud, and made her main enemies my own brothers (not that they ever did anything to deserve that). My parents wanted me to look at my hearing aid as something distinctive and useful, as opposed to limiting and bothersome. Their suggestion that I turn my experience into narrative was a wise one. And despite the fact that Hearing Aid Girl's adventures had so very little to do with hearing impairment (mostly, she sparred with giant evil snowmen and dragon-people), I learned from her. I figured out how to mount obstacles by thinking through stories; I trained myself to see the loss as simply a part of my life; I engaged with others about my hearing aid through the use of comics panels. Hearing Aid Girl had a huge impact on me. So it only seemed right I give her a second life in my thesis.
What's funny is, that second life has a mind of its own. Threading her through The Magnificent Masked Hearing Aid
allowed me to open up about my personal superhero and share her with the world. So I get a respondent at a theatre festival telling me she wants way more Hearing Aid Girl stories. So I get this article sent to me as a result of transparency. As a good friend noted in one Facebook post, "FYI: Marvel owes you royalty fees." And every time I read this article, or a new Internet incarnation of the story, I am inclined to mentally bleat, "YEAH, THEY DO! I HAD THIS IDEA FIRST!" Of course, that's silly. All great ideas appear in a variety of forms. But I have begun to feel like Hearing Aid Girl could serve a purpose beyond silliness. And I wonder if she'd be good for people to see, ridiculousness and all. She helped me. Maybe she could be good for others? But what form could she take?
I've been thinking about maybe a web-comic? But I have no idea how to get started on that. So I wanted to throw an open question out to the web and the world. HOW DOES ONE BEGIN TO MAKE A WEB COMIC? WITH WHAT TOOLS? WITH WHAT RESOURCES? WHERE CAN I GO FOR MORE INFORMATION? Any and all information or directions are appreciated. I'd love to see what I could do with my own Blue Ear.
Looking back at the negative entries I've posted -- along with the boycott protocols I've enacted -- over the past month, I'm thinking I may have taken things too far. Not to intimate I was overly harsh on DC, or that my ban was ill-conceived. Far from it. Still, I've definitely thrown the baby out with the bathwater. When I made my vow to leave DC forever(?), I failed to realize I would be leaving its imprint Vertigo behind, as well. Vertigo has not only published some of the best comics of the past twenty-five years, it's also the new home of Astro City.
And I cannot give up Astro City. Because everything DC Comics does wrong, Astro City does incredibly right.
Since its debut in 1995, Astro City
has excelled at telling down-to-earth, optimistic superhero stories. Creator and scribe Kurt Busiek continually undercuts expectations by featuring Superman analogue Samaritan having dreams about flying, by highlighting a little-known supervillain's quest for fame, and by exploring the lives of non-powered citizens, whose daily routines are continually thrown off by superhero battles near the office. Coupled with emotionally charged interiors by Brent Anderson, and engrossing painted covers by Alex Ross, the series indulges the whimsy that fuels hero fantasies, while threading human stakes through Busiek's action-packed hijinks. As a result, I've yet to find an issue of Astro City that's emotionally uninvolving. And the series has been running for ALMOST TWENTY YEARS.To be fair, Astro City has been on hiatus for a while, due to Kurt Busiek's health concerns. But this past June, it returned, clad in the glory of a new number one, and boy, how I rejoiced after reading that first issue! Not only has Busiek's scripting kept its smarts, not only has Ross' cover work remained top-notch, not only has Anderson's art retained its idiosyncratic nature despite his switch to digital -- but the book itself remains humane to its core. There will be no casting off history in the fake Astro City; the book proceeds in real time, so characters can age and mature. There will be no over-involved crossovers with hidden universes to goose sales; Astro City stands alone. And there will be no sacrifices of female characters, just to inflate stakes; Busiek is far more interested in watching characters grow, rather than be torn down.Take, for example, last week's issue. In it, telekinetic stunt supervisor Maddie (previously introduced in Astro City: Family Album) is abducted and enslaved by the Majordomo, for the purpose of using her gift to nefariously rule the world. Sounds like a recipe for a kidnapping fantasy disaster, right? That would be true in a lot of other comics, but not Astro City, which allows Maddie to fool us all! From the moment of her capture, she knows more than the Majordomo. Having discovered at an early age that the masked vigilante life wasn't for her, she's since formed a community of like-minded super-powered folks, who hold everyday jobs and help each other when situations such as kidnapping arise. A friend who can talk to machines handily releases Maddie and her fellow captives, and they all work to bring down the villain's airship, wrapping up their trouble before Honor Guard (Astro City's Justice League) has a chance to step in, while leaving Maddie a minute to decline an offer to join Samaritan in his quest for justice.Busiek takes a captive tale and turns it on its head, making a choice to work from the sidelines seem like the strongest one possible. Maddie is expected to be a hero, to be a certain type of person within her society. But she refused to work from the mold set for her simply because of who she is; she would rather find joy and companionship in everyday life, while helping when she can. She works within her skill set, same as Samaritan, but she values her personal life more than he does (he's the guy who literally counts the seconds he's wasting between disasters). Because she's built a life, she knows how to protect it, using her own methods. Seeing just how she goes about her business is a pleasure, and it proves that superhero stories can both be light and matter-of-fact about their ultimate silliness, like great short stories.Furthermore, three of Busiek's first four return issues have focused on women as something other than sex objects or victims. This shouldn't really be trailblazing, but when you look over the rest of DC's offering, and see Wonder Woman only has a second book after seventy years because she has an all-powerful boyfriend, Busiek's choices are refreshing, to say the least. Of particular interest to me was the two-part tale of a female first call responder for Honor Guard, whose miffed advice resulted in an international incident she immediately teleported to, in an effort to rescue the girl who called her in the first place. The responder was SURROUNDED by women in both issues, and got advice from none other than Cleopatra herself. Busiek's women are full-fledged heroes in their own right, and he celebrates that every chance he gets. For those who aren't reading Astro City yet, this new number one is a great place to get started. You'll never find a friendlier town, with all sorts of people lending a hand.Astro City #4: Alex Ross, Cover Artist.
In between bouts of checking email and reading the newspaper this past Sunday, I came upon an eye-catching tweet
from personal acting hero, Marlee Matlin. In it, she points out that a weekend New York Times
profile about Michael J. Fox and his upcoming eponymous show mentions the growing use of disabled actors/characters on TV, while failing to list any deaf performers as examples.
I quickly turned to the New York Times Arts section to peruse the aforementioned article. Sure enough, while disabled characters from 1970's TV shows and today are mentioned, it seems that entire swaths of people (including Deaf actors) are missing from the commentator's analysis. As a hard of hearing woman, I found this a little baffling, especially because Matlin has been on SO MANY different, and popular, television programs over the years -- as she herself points out, before mentioning all the other Deaf actors she can think of on her feed:
Now I for one have been excited about "The Michael J. Fox Show" for months, ever since I caught a clip
of what must be a typical family dinner within the show's universe. In said clip, Michael J. Fox struggles to hold a spoon steady enough to serve himself some food, before his wife grabs it from his hand, pointing out that the children are starving, and they don't have time for one of his personal victories right that moment. Mike amiably gives up the spoon, and his wife dishes everything out for everybody. The matter-of-factness of that moment left my jaw on the floor. In most TV programming I've encountered, disabilities hinder to the point of generating giant crying jags, or they provide the impetus for stories of overwhelming, music-swelling triumph, endgame achieved. The reality of living with a disability day-in, day-out is much harder to catch on-screen, with its little compromises and regularly unseen accomplishments. Oftentimes, my disability seems easy to accommodate, but that's only because anticipating my troubles takes up a huge amount of my mental energy and ingenuity. The point being, people with disabilities don't let things hold them back, by and large. They are just as capable as anyone else, if not moreso. Sometimes, they just need a little help, and sometimes they need to pick their moments. "The Michael J. Fox Show" seems to innately understand this -- unsurprisingly, since Fox has been poking fun at/utilizing his illness for personal gain for some time over on "The Good Wife"
-- and I look forward to whatever he and his storytellers have to say about living with Parkinson's disease.
But back to Ms. Matlin's point. There are a LOT of actors with disabilities working today. And shouldn't their contribution be recognized outside her tweets about their mere existence on planet Earth? Frankly, I needed her reminders, because her messages got me thinking. I have a disability, I write about it all the time, I take pride in exploring it for (hopefully) the benefit of my audiences. Yet how often have I actually worked with performers who have disabilities? I think the answer can be counted on one hand. There are artists out there who write about disability FOR actors with disabilities. Not only do they provide work for highly undervalued and diverse performers, they successfully bridge the gap between so-called "normal" audiences and the disabled performers; John Belluso
was one such playwright before his untimely death. Why am I not doing this, too?
The answer can't be as simple as, "I don't know where to find actors with disabilities." I find them when I look. And I do look, often discovering cool theatrical events
along the way. But then there's this other part of me, this tiny voice that says, "What you try to do is make disabilities relatable by theatricalizing/translating the experience of living with/perceiving life through them. Couldn't a non-disabled actor learn something from that?" Certainly, I've worked with actors who can hear, who have painstakingly observed me in order to portray what it's like not to hear (both physically and emotionally); ultimately, they have given amazing performances. So I don't want to devalue their hard and respectful work with my doubts. But also, there's this niggling worry at the back of my mind. If never given the opportunity to represent themselves within the work I create, how am I serving people with disabilities? Am I so mainstream that I can't actually connect with a community I belong to by virtue of my hearing loss, by virtue of being just who I am?
That's a question that's been haunting me for some time. It leaves me at a loss, completely stymied. There's virtue in being caught between two worlds, I suppose. But other times, it feels like I'm serving two masters, without even fully understanding my obligation to one. Tweet sessions like the one above remind to keep exploring, to keep working, to recognize myself in others, but still demand more of the culture at large. I can only thank Ms. Matlin for that, and keep working to broaden my horizons and my artistic partnerships.