It should come as no surprise that the Americans With Disabilities Act is my favorite triumphant piece of legislation past. This weekend was the act's anniversary, and I was humbled to see that Howlround, the amazing online theatre commons, reposted a piece I wrote for the organization last year in regards to theatricality and accessibility, citing the blog as one of "our favorite articles." The piece can be found here, and please enjoy these other articles about neurodiversity and performance of disability by able-bodied actors.
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.
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.
Back in January, I was delighted when I came upon an article about the Nalagaat Theatre Troupe. Delighted because I saw a reflection of myself within its aesthetic. See, the company's fascinating ensemble is composed solely of blind and deaf actors; they generate "happenings" about perception via rhythmic body movements and vocal chanting or singing. Given the special attention paid to the types of communication they use to build their work, I was not surprised to learn their director was a fully-sighted, fully-hearing person. Obviously, they would need help connecting with each other and with an audience, and they can only do that if someone is encouraging their embrace of what sound and sight they have -- a sliver of the sound and sight many audience members take for granted every single day.
What was startling to me was the actors' relationship to the director as disabled people. The director is able to reveal her performers' perceptual differences through abstract scenes and comedic sketches; she helps the audience step into the world of people whose taste and touch are more primary than their aural/ocular senses. But when one of her actors remarked he was tired of performing pantomime, I was initially repulsed by her reaction. He wanted to do a Gorky play. She asked how the actor planned to perform Gorky, when he couldn't see, hear, or talk. The actor responded that he didn't know, that it was the director's problem. The director responded, "No, it's your problems. You are the deaf and blind ones."
I slammed my paper down on the kitchen table. I walked around the house and cursed a bit. How dare she tell him what his problems are?! He already knows what his problems are, he lives with them every single day, and now this woman who's been brought in to support his work, who doesn't experience half the troubles he likely does just trying to get out the door in the morning, she's out and out told him he cannot achieve what he wants to achieve! After pacing around for a while, I returned to my morning coffee and the article. I was bringing far too much of my own baggage to this piece, clearly. I needed to see the creative enterprise for what it was, not for the touchy-feel triumph story I wanted it to be, as a hard of hearing woman and theatre artist.
After all, the director couldn't really be dismissing her collaborators. In a way, her matter-of-fact opinion could even be called refreshing, in the sense that it involved no pity or condescension. She basically asked a deaf and blind man to solve his own problem. How many people would feel okay doing that? Furthermore, her expectation that his problem is something he must solve, and no one else, puts the onus for personal responsibility on him as a man, not as a disabled man. And isn't personal responsibility something we could all use more of?
Fast forward a few more months. I have purchased a copy of Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree, an exhaustive study in how illness can either be used as a marker of identity, or a marker of shame and social marginalization. In the book's opening pages, Solomon wisely points out that, while he's had his eyes opened to a great many things doing the research for his book, he still has his prejudices. For instance, after meeting a blind woman who was upset that her husband admitted he'd be relieved if their child was born with sight, Solomon pointed out he didn't understand her problem. He would rather be clinically depressed (as he is; it's a condition he has written about previously) than go blind. That is his hang-up. This was his warning to the reader that he is open-minded, but everyone has things they can't comprehend, and he must take responsibility for his own issues. I appreciated that admission at the time, and it helped me get through the chapter on deafness, where I felt Solomon had a hard time cracking through why sign language and Deaf culture might need to be sustained on a larger scale. (Overall, this book is as compassionate and thoughtful as anything I've read; Solomon allows people on the edges of society -- due to physical and mental difficulties -- to share their experiences at length, so you understand better how others adapt and fight to make their way in the world.)
Fast forward to this evening, where I come upon a Howlround article entitled "The Affects of Disability Portrayal and Inclusion in soot and spit." The author, Alice Stanley, examined Charles Mee's latest production, down at Arizona State; the play itself is not narratively coherent, in a conventional sense (I know none of Mee's plays that are?), and features discussions of things as varied as obsessive compulsive disorder, deafness, and autism -- oh, and also the Morton Salt Girl comes to life at one point, too. But the play's most striking facet for the author was its use of actors with Down Syndrome. I'd recommend reading the full essay to get the gist of what I'll be talking about here, because I finished the article and wanted to scream. (So I may be incoherent here for a while.)
I wanted to scream at the fact that Howlround, an organization I greatly respect, didn't ask for more than a piece about how disability is difficult to portray. Of course it is, because there aren't many disabled actors working out there, are there?! (But that's an issue for another post.) Granted, a piece about one woman's reaction -- though she definitely admits her ignorance of disability issues up front -- to seeing Down's syndrome actors onstage provides telling indications of how uncomfortable we are when confronted with disabled people in unexpected spaces. But then the article somehow also excuses those feelings, and shifts the blame for any discomfort squarely onto the shoulders of Mee and company.
Of course, Stanley is right to be concerned that the play could equate all disabilities, especially if the work doesn't given her the tools she needs to dig out its meaning. But using precious article space to state one's embarrassed reactions to merely witnessing Down's Syndrome actors struggling with text proves the author might be missing the point already. (Of course, I could be waaaay off base here, but I'm going with my gut reaction.) Because you know who probably doesn't care about flubbed lines? THE ACTORS IN THE PLAY. They are performing lines, not being asked to perform their disability.
Because guess what? You don't perform disability if you have one. You're never going to be a standard issue portrayal of your disability, because there isn't one. And if this play is offering that, or the viewer is taking that away from the play, then all sense of individuality and personal responsibility between creator and the culminating audience is lost.
More often than not, if you have a disability, you spend all your time trying to PERFORM normalcy, because that's what society expects from you. Society has taken steps to anticipate and serve your needs, but ultimately, society still expects you to pull your weight. Because you're a person. Because you're a citizen. Because you've spent your whole life accommodating others, so they don't feel embarrassed/overwhelmed by you and your difference. So they know how to approach and interact with you, even if it means you feel isolated from who you are because they don't know this big part of your life is getting up in the morning and putting a hearing aid on.
All this to say, concern about disabled people being exploited is all well and good, but to worry that disabled characters "pull focus" simply by existing in a less-than-disabled make-believe world does nobody any good. Why shouldn't disabled characters pull focus? Why shouldn't they fill up every nook and cranny of the stage? That's a better set of questions to ask, because lamenting the existence itself gets us nowhere. Let actors act and deal with your hang-ups on your own time.
In comics, there is a phrased bandied about that describes leaving something to the imagination: "Leave the blood in the gutter." The gutter is the little gap of white space that accounts for all the shots not drawn and inked within a six-panel page. A good filmic example of leaving the blood in the gutter is the shower scene from "Psycho." We never see the knife enter the flesh, but we know it has. Truthfully, I never gave the gutter much thought, until I read the work of fine artist/comics collage-maker David Mack. It is he who unlocked the potential of unspoken or unseen things for me, simply by having Echo, the one deaf character in the Marvel universe, pronounce "It is in the silence between the notes where you will find me," while playing the piano. Here, Echo stakes her claim as a deaf woman, and goes on to share her five senses with us; she invites others to follow her into a silent world, and she doesn't let go of your hand once you begin the journey. In short, she doesn't perform her disability and leave it at that. She's not there to "represent" anything but herself. She unspools her life for us in surprisingly personal imagery (lots of childhood drawings and scrabble tiles), and enlightens us just by being, just by existing, just by doing.
You don't perform disability. And even if you did, that doesn't make the world at large conform to your scatter-shot view of it. Because, really, normal folks -- t's your world. We're just living in it. And that's far more beautiful and painful to watch than you could ever imagine. So, if you want to know about the experience, ask. But don't ask on your terms. Ask for ours. That's the responsible thing to do.
He's able to fly above us but chooses to walk among us - human nature is an inspiration. We just have to SEE what he sees. -- "Smallville" and comics scribe Bryan Q. Miller, via Twitter
Happy birthday week, Superman! (And Lois Lane, who also appeared in April 18, 1938 Action Comics #1!) You're looking as full of vim and vigor as you did the first day you flew onto newsstands; certainly your hair is as blue-greased as ever, and your spit curl falls ever so elegantly out of place on your forehead same as always. What has changed about you is your meaning in the lives of most Americans.
Sure, you've always represented adolescent power fantasies, and you've always had an over-developed sense of fairness and justice. You've often fought on behalf of the little guy, while also being accused of fascism by commentators who sought to destroy you. But what changes about you from generation to generation is WHO you actually are behind the cape. From 1938 until 1986, Superman was the reality and Clark Kent was the myth. From 1986 until 2011's New 52, Clark was the reality and Superman was the myth Clark used to work good in the world. In either scenario (though I much prefer Clark or immigrant Kal-El as the foregrounded personality), what matters often is the revelation of the true persona, or even more impressive, the hiding of that persona. Superman's creators knew what they were doing when they gave Superman a double identity, and it is that double identity -- along with the love of a good woman -- that gives Superman his vulnerability, his complexity, his relatability, and his wicked, wicked fun.
Many of the places I go to read about comics and culture have spent this week blogging about what you mean to them. The above quote by Bryan Q. Miller pretty much sums up how I feel about you, Man of Steel. Human nature is the inspiration for your Clark Kent clumsiness, and it's human desire that lies at the heart of your intoxicating abilities. Not only does your guise as Clark Kent allow us mere mortals to envision ourselves in your bright red boots (once you don them for action), your work as Superman is aspirational. You can represent the best, most compassionate and striving version of humanity, best typified in this wonderful series of panels from Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman. But that's not why I am fascinated by you, why I feel I personally relate to you, despite my being a woman, and the common, insistent claims out there that you have no personality and are as boring as dirt.
I have to admit many of your elements over the years have been problematic. You've been a bully, you've been square and patriachial, and you've been The Man holding down Lois Lane by secretly laughing at her not figuring out your secret (starting early and often in the comics). All this to say, I look at you with clear eyes. I know all these things about you, and I can still see what's powerful about you at the core. It's not flight or super-strength or super-hearing (natch). It's because I live with a secret identity every day.
I have a disability, but it's not a visible one. Most people who meet me don't know I'm hearing-impaired until I finally announce it. I've been told by a multitude of colleagues that they didn't know about my handicap for a good year after meeting me. This isn't necessarily something I hide on purpose. It's a part of my life; I can't say I forget about it on a daily basis. But after waking up in the morning, I put my hearing aid on, same as anybody who wears glasses or contacts would put those on to function in the light of day.
But your sly Clark Kent wink at the audience, I recognize it. Because the advantage of not having a see-all, be-all disability is that I know something others don't; I know I'm technically less functional, but no one else does, and that gives me a feeling of power. All people see is my successful walk through the world; they don't see the hundreds of little foibles I endure without my hearing aid, or when I struggle over the phone, or the way I have to position myself in a room so I can hear everyone in it. Others don't see the work, so to them, it doesn't exist. To them, I'm normal, much like you are normal as Clark. And when I tell them about my disability, I get to impress people in retrospect, much like when readers get to see you jump into action.
Like you, I get power from a secret. In the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, you got satisfaction from duping others into thinking you were a weakling, not worth noticing. In the Bronze Age, you hid happily with Lois in the classic story, "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?". In the Modern Age, however, things changed. Authors needed a reason for you to court Lois as Clark, and so it became important for that side of your personality win her over first. So telling her about your secret life as Superman became a major point of vulnerability for you. In fact, in all Ages, revealing your alter ego always has a cost, whether it be to your love affairs or your civic duty.
And I understand that, too. Because announcing your secret leaves you open to judgment or exposure. It takes away your advantage, and who would think anyone could gain ground over you, Supes? But it's possible. And not because of kryptonite, but because of human insecurity and need. While Batman may one-up you in terms of psychological torment, your ability to show humanity both its largest triumphs and its deepest woes, simply through the putting on or taking off of a pair of glasses -- well, that justifies more than 75 years of narrative work to me. And the fact that you consistently announce yourself as Superman, or as Clark, and go about the business of pursuing a story, or squashing an alien invasion? That just gives me hope to live my life as openly as possible, without worry, and with courage that I will be understood. Thanks for the example, same as always, Superman!
POST-SCRPT: And if you haven't watched this yet, give her a go right this minute:
I'm pretty psyched, particularly for Amy Adam's take on Lois Lane. Also promising are the myriad opinions we get on Supes before he appears. After all, he is a public object of fascination in both reality and fiction, so it makes sense to have folks give voice to their thoughts on him even in a movie trailer.
So much has grabbed my attention the last few months. The holidays! Producing February's Chicago Madness (the theme -- write a scene with your own M. Night Shymalan twist)! Working on curriculum and teaching for Silk Road Rising! Watching DC's disastrous choices involving Clark Kent and Wonder Woman's romance, the company's firing and rehiring of Gail Simone, as well as its weird blunder of hiring a homophobic writer while one of their top books pushes forward with the engagement of an awesome lesbian couple! Looking on as Marvel launched a new world of books that take artistic risks and build up a solid stable of writers!
But I haven't written about a lick of it. I wish I had a good excuse, or some particular bit of something stuck in my craw at the moment. Mostly I've been working, attempting to launch my next big writing project, and enjoying comics, along with an amazing read in Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree. I haven't really mellowed out on discussing comics' reflection of our society, but I found I needed a bit of break from being up in arms about things, especially after the Christmas miracle that was Gail Simone's rehiring.
However, I have wanted for a while to share some books I think everyone might enjoy in the year of good old 2013. I haven't got anything ranked in a particular order, but if you want to start getting into comics this spring, here are some amazing reads that I am having boatloads of fun with, starting over at Marvel Comics, and continuing over the next few days, with other companies:
HAWKEYE, Aka, The Best Book I Had No Idea I'd Ever Fall In Love With, Ever!
Clint Barton, his dog named Pizza Dog, and most importantly, his brash and brave partner-in-superhero-fighting crime, Kate Bishop ... they all bowled me over when they rolled onto shelves last summer. Weird to use a bowling metaphor for a comic about archers, but I have no other way to explain how this book stunned me stupid when it arrived in my life. It hit me in the head like a bowling ball. A fun, cocky, mayhem-filled bowling ball -- all right, I need to stop this.
The point is, I have never cared about Clint Barton. Even when he was blasted deaf due to an explosion (of course, he was cured), I didn't care about him. But writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja have brought a clarity and amusement to Hawkeye's adventures, highlighted by Clint's translations of foreign languages into Pigdin French, and Aja's breaking down a bow movement or falling out of a skyscraper across several panels. It's impossible not to love the lug! Not when his book is this stylish, bouncy, and action-driven.
But the real heart of this enterprise comes in the form of Young Avenger Kate Bishop. Another Hawkeye, she outperforms "Hawkguy" at almost every turn, even as she forges a strong emotional bond with her mentor and predecessor. Kate is truly one of the great female comic characters out there, and even though her hero's journey starts in a sadly typical place for women in comics, she has since outshone that origin and become the second lead on a book that has done nothing but surprise me since it debuted back in August. Check it out for a fun ride.
DAREDEVIL, Or, My Favorite Story About Disability & Its Ties to Personal Power!
I already wrote about how amazing I think Daredevil is, and it's no secret that I absolutely adore Mark Waid's sharp, insightful writing. However, it doesn't yet go without saying that you should be reading Old Horn Head's stories at the moment. In fact, this week's issue, number 23, is a great jumping-on point! And if you know what's good for you, you'll backtrack and read the entire series to date.
Because this book will impress you with its thoughtful depiction of disability (or lack thereof), as much as it induces smiles with that catchy swashbuckler aesthetic. Each rotating artist has been given a lot to tackle by Waid, who challenges them to depict blindness in a visual way. Of course, Matt Murdock is only partly blind, and crackerjack pencillers, inkers, and colorists have taken every opportunity to put you behind the eyes of a man who "sees" with sonar.
I appreciate this derring-do because I often feel lonely reading superhero comics. There's rarely anyone disabled populating them, somebody who reflects my world view (even as I have adopted secret identities and kryptonite as translations of my identity). Often the disabled aren't allowed to share their perception with the larger readership. Waid turns that on its head for Daredevil; he treats Matt as a man whose abilities are directly informed by his disability, and we're in on the secret with him. We know why he cares about what he smells and what he hears. We know what's important without sight, the same way he does. And like us being in on the joke with Clark Kent, knowing he's Superman, we know blindness is not a weakness for The Man Without Fear.
CAPTAIN MARVEL, As The One Book I Know Led By A Female Fighter Pilot!
Okay, usually I'm not nuts about copious time travel and callbacks to comics history I know nothing of, but man, is Captain Marvel a wild ride! Not only does Kelly Sue DeConnick have a wicked sense of humor, Captain Marvel has been helmed by a team of artists who want to leave their mark on Marvel with weird viewpoints and dark stylizations.
Captain Marvel has blipped on and off my radar the past couple of months, after debuting last July. Frankly, the opening saga went on for two issues too long, with its time-traveling beguilingness quickly shriveling all my goodwill. However, since hitting a couple of stand-alone stories, DeConnick has developed the supporting cast, including a former Ms. Marvel, and let her heroine smash robots and other things with her fists, giving the whole book an afternoon serial, popcorn-y sheen. A sheen with one unique selling point -- the popcorn fun revolves around a woman for once, not a man! It's sad that this should seem novel, but given the fact that Wonder Woman is suffering to carry her own book right now, it's refreshing to see Captain Marvel ditching the "Ms." in her original moniker, and lifting pretty much whatever she wants over her shoulders, and tossing it in jail for all to see.
YOUNG AVENGERS, From Top-Notch Creators To The Top Of My Pull List!
This book JUST debuted last month, but I'd been waiting for its arrival with bated breath for what seems like years. Kieron Gillen and Jame McKelvie are an amazing team; they brought us the simply wonderful music-as-magic book, Phonogram. And their collaboration only improves with Young Avengers, which features so many mind-blowing layouts, I demand you buy it to personally feel the sensation of your eyes popping out of their sockets
I've never read Young Avengers before. But that's just fine, because Gillen deftly tells you everything you need to know about the characters in the span of a couple of pages. And the opening three pages provides all you really need to know about why this book will be amazing: there's a Ronettes song, Kate Bishop flying a spaceship, and Marvel Boy (or whatever his name is now) explaining away years of confusing continuity by dancing in his underwear and shooting at alien invaders. Simply put, this book is batty, but the teenagers feel fresh and real, and I look forward to seeing where the super-team of Gillen and McKelvie takes these marvelous, relatable teens.
One weird final note -- I also appreciate how Gillen rehabilitates Kate Bishop's reputation by opening the issue with her waking up in a strange man's bedroom. No judgment is made about Kate's appearance or decisions, as would happen in many mainstream books; there's also no cheesecake shots. Her opinion about how she feels is given precedence over what one presumes is a widely male readership's opinion on the subject. It's a refreshing take, and further cements my love for the character, and for Gillen's overall incisive depiction of the female thought process.
So, To Sum Up ...
What have we learned about my recommendations from Marvel Comics? Well ...
Kate Bishop is amazing, and I want to be her best friend. Daredevil routinely makes me cry with its dedication to exploring differences in perception. And Captain Marvel and the Young Avengers are well worth the time and expense, since they are tons and tons of fun.
Stay tuned over the next couple days for posts on DC's readable books, and independent books everyone should be picking up. It's been fun compiling this list, and I only hope to get people turned on to some good reading!
I don't usually deviate much from my stated love of comics and need for news updates on this blog. However, this week, something pretty disturbing happened that I think merits room for contemplation. The U.S. Senate failed to vote yea on an anti-discrimination U.N. treaty that emulated our own Americans With Disabilities Act, with some Republicans citing the document infringed on U.S. sovereignty. How this treaty, whose intention -- as sponsor John Kerry bluntly put it -- was, "Be more like us," could fail is beyond me. I have no understanding of the various reasons doled out, which revolve around the possibility of home-schooled children with disabilities being ripped from their parents, and something-something about reproductive rights. (Columnist Gail Collins assesses the situation here.) Now I don't want to debate the thoughts driving what I imagine must seem valid concerns for politicians like Rick Santorum, who is parent to a developmentally disabled child. What I want to spend some time talking about here is the marginalization I feel at the hands of such worries. And discuss how most people with disabilities survive, despite idelogues working their hardest to limit certain strictures of government.
The government may be too big for some people, I grant that. However, the government has never paid for my hearing aids. I've gotten through my inability to hear most things because of the communities in which I've lived. When my twin brother and I were born three months premature, the church at which my father served as an assistant pastor had such a generous congregation, they took it upon themselves to raise funds dedicated to any and all medical difficulties my brother and I might endure in our lives. This has been lucky for me, as hearing aids cost about two thousand dollars, and I've needed to dip into that fund more than once in order to obtain the technology necessary to making it through day-to-day schooling, and later, to surviving in today's difficult job market. I've always been extremely touched by this congregation's continuing gift, and I try really hard not to lose sight of the fact that many people out there have been looking out for me all my days, that I need to return the favor by leading a purposeful life.
Two helpful examples of purposeful lives arrived in the form of my childhood itinerant teachers for the hearing-impaired (likely now they'd be called itinerant teachers for the hard of hearing; either way, that title is a mouthful). Both women helped me throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school. They made sure my teachers understood my special needs, and they made sure I knew how and when to speak up about what I needed. They also made sure I understood exactly what my hearing loss was, so I could explain it to the curious. One counselor even made sure I got an early start on advocating for disabled rights by spearheading my 1990's letter-writing campaign to Dick Durbin and President Bill Clinton, in which I demanded to know (in a cute eight year-old way) why hearing aids weren't covered in the legendary health care package they didn't end up pushing through Congress. I would be nowhere without these ladies, and I thank them virtually now, and every day in my head as I encounter difficulties in my hearing and find ways to overcome my problems.
Another big help throughout my life has been my parents, for all the amazing and obvious reasons. They worked with all my schools, and with me, sometimes staying up till all hours with me as I cried over homework (I also have ADD, natch). They likewise stood up for me when teachers misunderstood my problems coping, when people who led my classrooms accused me of stupidity and laziness. My brothers also provided support throughout my life, never making me feel different just because I had to work at a different speed. My whole family actually supported my identification as a hearing-impaired woman (though I was mainstream-schooled); they never questioned the specialness I afforded to such a dsability-centered world view, and they helped me explore my developing confidence through the superhero comics I cobbled together as a kid (all revolved around the wacky adventures of my alter ego, Hearing Aid Girl, and if you ever want a peek at that stuff, you're in for ridiculousness galore, and plenty of self-consciousness from me).
I point all this out not to toot my own horn, or wallow in my personal trials and triumphs. I bring all this up because I know, without a doubt, that I would not have become the person I am today if I had not encountered so many helping hands along the way. Some came from local forces, such as the school district. Some came from my family. Some came from my church community. And thanks to the ADA, I have been promised that I will not be overlooked for work, or discriminated against at work, because of my disability, because of this thing that's made me the hardworking, inventive, occasionally humbled person that I am. Why would America stand up and say, "We will not afford others the same opportunity," WHY? There is no sense in it, and it makes me sad that my largest community, the American one, now holds the black eye of a Congress that refuses to help others based solely on what-ifs and maybes. We cannot pull inward; if we don't reach outward, it's certain we'll leave someone behind. And that someone will have a perspective worth sharing with the world, I guarantee it. So thanks to my family, friends, church, and schools -- for seeing in me someone who's worth having along for the American experiment. I will try to bring purpose to it with all the days I have. I only wish I believed that our politicians would do the same.
I feel like I've been non-stop hard on comics lately, especially when it comes to superhero comics. Of course they are my first love in the medium, so it stands to reason I'd be harder on them than, say, some graphic memoir I'd recently had a tough time digesting (I'm looking at you, Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?). But there have been a lot of serious problems coming up in hero tales lately, with sexism, harassment, and a general lack of varying perspectives peppering the funny book news-o-sphere. On the one hand, I'm glad these concerns are being addressed, out in the open, as opposed to being locked away in a closet covered with a sign stating that the superhero genre is "not for sensitive ladies and minorities." But on the other hand, the constant barrage of challenges the industry and its fans face now seems to outweigh any progress made by the artists and writers, who're the ones driving diverse storytelling. And that's a shame.
However, today I take a break from frowning, and I pump my fist in celebration for a change. Because Marvel's latest volume of Daredevil swept the peer-reviewed Harvey Awards this weekend (the results of which were released on IGN this afternoon). Daredevil won both "Best New Series" and "Best Continuing Series," while netting a "Best Writer" award for Mark Waid, and art honors for inker Joe Rivera. Earlier this summer, Daredevil stood out at the Eisner Awards, too, winning "Best Continuing Series," as well as "Best Single Issue" for Daredevil #7, and "Best Writer" for Waid (again). Clearly the critics have spoken. And now so can I.
Anybody who talks to me about comics for more than two seconds knows the first thing I'll recommend to both avid readers and non-fans is Daredevil. There are several reasons why. First, Waid's always known how to write a great book. DC made a major mistake when they took the possibility of writing Superman away from him, driving him straight into Marvel's arms and onto creating this contemporary classic. The clarity of Daredevil's character work nets Waid big rewards, and not just in the trophy-taking business. His decision to dial down Matt Murdock's hectic lifestyle, to make his book fun for the reader, rather than gritty and melodramatic (as it has been since Frank Miller revamped the character in the '80s), unlocked all sorts of narrative possibilities -- not least among them, the swashbuckling daring Matt so nicely demonstrated when he kisses a mafia bride in the series' first issue:
The most important thing about Waid's tonal shift is that it allows Matt Murdock and his alter ego Daredevil to surprise the reader. He concerns his law partner Foggy Nelson, by laughing off recent lost wives and nervous breakdowns. So we, too, are concerned. We watch Matt closely, as he fights Dr. Doom and battles monsters made of radio static. We watch his choices -- when he's careless, is that because he's carefree, or because he has a death wish? We don't know, and each time we think we have an answer, Mark Waid ratchets up the stakes and puts us in the dark again. It's a lovely place to be, and this air of mystery makes this book a delight to read issue to issue, because you rarely know what's coming when you turn the page.
Likewise, Waid's deft touch with humor leaves him all kinds of places to go, from playing with Matt's not-so-secret identity (he was outed in the press only a year or so before this series in the Marvel Universe)--
--To sending Matt down the River Styx as Charon, the equally blind ferryman, in a fight against Mole Man and his minions:
By playing light-hearted inside dour circumstances (traveling to the underworld to retrieve your father's long-deceased body is pretty gross), Waid holds back some of his cards. Cards he's only now starting to show at issue #16, as Matt's sanity comes under suspicion, with damning evidence about his dad's whereabouts rising to the fore. But this article is more a summary than an accolade now, and that's not good.
Let me get to what I truly love about this book. It's how Waid and the artists involved deal with perception. Waaaay back a million years ago, I wrote a post about Daredevil's blindness and how not enough writers and artists use his radioactively-induced darkness to show sighted people what being blind (after a fashion) is like. By not shifting our perceptions into a different perspective, narratives opportunities were being lost Well, not so with Mark Waid and company.
Waid uses Daredevil's super-senses and refined radar to build stories and carry them forward. From Matt's heightened hearing uncovering a hit-man at a wedding--
--To his would-be girlfriend (with whom he shares a ridiculously Lois Lane type of push and pull) wanting to mimic his sightlessness to understand him better:
Nothing is off-limits.
Other recent stories involved Daredevil using his lack of sight to lead a bus of schoolchildren out of the snowy wilderness into safety, a villain using Matt's sensitive response to sound against him during a prison break, and even his five senses being completely taken away from him by Doctor Doom. That last storyline ended with one of the most chilling panels I've ever caught sight of; in it, Matt's lays across a barbed wire fence, completely unaware of its ragged effect on his now-numb body; he believes he's just jumped onto a train to safety, and is chugging away from Doctor Doom's henchmen. And he smiles, carefree -- when his imprisonment is just beginning, both in Doom's castle, and in his mind and body.
Waid and artists Paolo Rivera, Chris Samnee, Marcos Martin, Marco Checchetto, Javier Rodriguez, Matt Hollingsworth, and Joe Rivera have unlocked a whole, vibrating, exciting world in Daredevil, the world of a man who communicates with his surroundings through a system completely unique to him.
Through radar sight, which finally, decidedly does not look like our vision of things:
Through his super-elevated hearing:
And through his high-tuned sense of smell:
I'm leaving out his amazing sense of touch, because I can't find any stellar artwork of it at the moment, and really, do you need me post more awesome pictures here, instead of making my point about how great Daredevil is? Honestly, I've been wanting to write about this series since it debuted last year, but I knew any mention of it would send me on a gushing tack. One that demonstrated my excitement more than the series' greatness.
Look. What I'm trying to say is, this book is something new. Not just for its humor and its throwback tone and inventive artwork. It's the perception of the character that stands out. Matt invites us into his world, BECAUSE of his differences, not in spite of them. We see the world the way he does, and we appreciate his powers because we know their limits, as well as their heights. Waid routinely shows us the disabled man behind the super-powered human, and it's because we see both sides that we appreciate his remarkable abilities all the more. Case in point:
It's Matt's absence and the coping with said absence that Waid plays with, as do his artists. Waid's interest is in how a disabled or differently-abled man survives in a marvelous world. And his clear-eyed, no-holds-barred exploration of Matt's senses and how people manipulate or embrace him makes Daredevil worth a read. Because it's the one story I've consumed this year that comes closest to depicting what grappling with real-world disabilities is like. Plus, it strongly showcases the power of the comics medium, to be both a purveyor of different perspectives and perceptions, and a comfort to those who are different. I know I've teared up at almost every issue, and I'm only hearing-impaired!
See, the most amazing thing about Waid's run so far isn't that Daredevil's now rebuilt his super-senses from scratch. It's that the only thing that scared him when he first went blind WAS his appearing super-senses. This presence filling an absence was out of the norm for him at that point, and reading about this experience gave me a new appreciation for my hearing loss. And opened me up to its blessings and its curses in a new way, through a different perspective. Now I put it to you. Even amidst problems in the larger comics industry, what more could I ask for from an award-winning book?
Last Saturday, the Festival mentors and a full audience watched the closing night of my thesis play; it was good to receive outside thoughts about the show, since I feel too close to it to see the impact it has -- but it was a relief to learn that the script tracks the way I want, as the mentors all arrived at the same ending message and were touched by my characters' journeys. (Many audience members afterwards shared with me how the play validated the way they cope with and accept what others perceive as their own weaknesses or imperfections, and for that good feeling alone I think writing the play was worth it.)
Of course, the performance itself was powerful, and I'd like to take the time to thank actors Matt Marceau, Rachel Collins and Marissa Wolf for their hard work and ingenuity, as well as send my undying love to crackerjack director Shelley Delaney for her fly dramaturgical skills and the two tons of heart she brought to the project. Likewise, my gratitude to the hard-working stage management team of Shiloh James and Jacob St. Aubin. And thanks so much to my endlessly inventive, endlessly patient design team: Feliica Hall on sets and lights, John Salutz on sound, and Megan Knowles on costumes. Together, we all brought this play to life -- and if you don't believe me, dear reader, check out these production stills taken by talented PACE students at Ohio University:
Last week, we had the opening run of the Playwrights' Festival productions, i.e., my thesis The Magnificent Masked Hearing Aid, and Ira Gamerman's thesis Israeli-Palestinian Resolution: A Very, Extremely Important Play ... In Progress ... by Samuel Goldmeyer. And they went splendidly! Ira's play was funny and deeply touching, and the design elements and acting work blended beautifully in that little memory play of mine, so the audiences both Wednesday and Friday night were really invested in the conundrums Henry and Tess (my respective hero and heroine) were facing.
You'll have two more chances to check out my show this week (Thursday May 31st and Saturday June 2nd). Tickets are available an hour before showtime at the Forum Theater in the RTV Building on Ohio University's campus.
For recent info on the productions from the our Theatre and Film librarian at OU, look here.
In other news, the rest of the Seabury Quinn, Jr. Playwrights' Festival programming begins today! Everything kicks off with our first reading at 1 pm in the Baker Theater in Kantner Hall! The next four days will be chalk-full of sit-down readings, staged readings and productions -- with our festival mentors (Jacquelyn Reingold, Eric Coble and Aaron Carter, all OU alum) and audiences providing feedback for the playwrights. It's going to be a whirlwind week, but also a super-fun and informative one, as we present our year's worth of script work to the public.
Information on the readings and times can be found here. Information about the festival can be found here.
Playwright News & Musings on Comic Book Culture
Check this page for updates on Sarah's writing and thoughts on a great many topics, including but not limited to superheroes and disability.