There's no other way to express that, and I've been scrounging around for the complicated/elegant words to do so for what seems like months. It's what kept me from doing much writing about the cartoony stuff, even as I let comics' tropes, heroes and social implications bleed over into my work as a playwright more and more. (You may have noticed how much I've working on that, based on my recent website renovation.)
I've been staving off my feelings of bummed-out-ness for a while, but some recent events have broken my spirit (the picture above eventually figuring into this discussion, I promise):
1) Lois Lane remains a desk jockey over in the Superman books, Action or otherwise. As an editorial mandate, I get it--because if the book isn't about Clark anymore, then Lois can't play a huge part in his life. Because Lois is what gives Superman his humanity, his grounding as a human, despite not being human at all. Secretly the editors know this, but would rather spend their time talking about marriage being a boring story choice; they depend instead on alienating our hero from everyone and everything on the planet (that way, we understand the emotional parallels between us nerds and the most powerful man on the planet). This also means Lois can't be his partner in crusading journalism. She needs to be gone, so we feel Superman's pain that much more.
Likewise, this separation gives the DC writers a chance to reinvigorate the "triangle-for-two," where Lois loves Superman but gives shit-all about Clark, unless he's currently acting as her doormat (in the latest issue of Superman she only pops in to ask him to pick up her sister from the train station). In current continuity, Lois has a boyfriend, whose only purpose (outside of being blond and shirtless the first time we see him) is to remind Clark how very alone he is. In this version of their love story, Lois isn't a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, or an independent woman who seeks truth for the world and herself, thus attracting Clark because she is his equal and her own person. No, now she's become a club to beat Clark with, to make him feel inferior because she JUST CAN'T SEE how internally awesome he is -- I mean, what lady would? HE WEARS GLASSES! Certainly there's a pain in Superman that revolves around the rejected nerd actually being more powerful than anyone can imagine, but is that really where we want to take this character after so many years and so many stories focusing on Superman getting cruelly rejected as a mild-mannered dude and Lois going blind or being fat or having some other deficency which makes her worry she'll never be good enough for Superman? Can't these characters grow?
2) I guess not. Because even in another universe Clark and Lois can't be together. On Earth-2, Lois and Clark were married YEARS before editorial mandate made it so in mainstream comics. And their marriage was a huge success, allowing the two to have adventures together, to make their world a better place. Their relationship was probably more stable than our Lois and Clark's, even when they had to deal with all the glorious time crises that DC seems so fond of foisting on their books. But in the New 52, that stablity is no longer the case. Lois is dead. THEY CAN'T EVEN BE MARRIED IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE! Because Superman needs an emotional motivator. So Lois has to die. A good woman must be sacrificed so a man learns to be a better man. (Sadly, this isn't the first time I'll be mentioning that in this article.) And so she becomes a club to beat Clark with again.
In actuality, Lois represents the best parts of the guy. If you don't believe me, give the good folks at Wired and some of Superman's best comic writers time to prove it to you.
(For clarification on this, check out DC Women Kicking Ass.)
Now I get that Azarello is writing a horror comic, and he needs to view Wonder Woman as a complex and flawed character, not a feminist icon. But the decision to mess up her heritage this much smacks of short-sightedness to me. Taking one of your only popular female characters and giving her a backstory that essentially robs her of any self-rule -- that doesn't expand her character, that weakens it. And it puts women back in the place of being worked upon in comics, instead of taking action when it is necessary. This is what's happening to Lois, this is what's happening to Wondie. And I found a familiar echo of it over at Marvel two months ago ...
4) ... When they killed Echo, whose lovely face (as drawn by David Mack) sits at the very top of this post. This is the most important part of what I'm writing about, because it's really the straw that broke the camel's back for me. Echo is one of my all-time favorite women in comics, not just because she's cheeky and she doesn't take orders from anyone. It's because she's Deaf. Or I guess, was Deaf.
And since her creation by Mack and Joe Quesada waaay back in 1999 (for Daredevil), she hasn't been used much by anyone except Brian Michael Bendis. He made her an Avenger and had her fight ninjas and date Hawkeye, which was pretty cool. And he gave her a starring role in his new Moon Knight series. But boy, I wish he hadn't.
And it's not just because the first time we see her, she's an undercover hooker wearing nothing but either a bikini or a bra and panties (I can't decide what it is from Alex Maleev's artwork):
But is it necessary?
I think it frames Echo in the wrong light, right off the bat. She's not the person who fought the deadly Hand ninja clan, she's not the person who rebuilt her life as a deaf artist after surviving a vision quest. She's someone to be looked at, specifically by Marc Spector. She is seen, not seeing.
Now for those who don't know, Moon Knight is basically Marvel's version of Batman, except he's schizophrenic. And in this new book, Bendis pulls a pretty neat trick, in which Moon Knight (aka, Mark Spector) splits his personalities, so that each side of him is reflected in a different Avenger: either Captain American, Spiderman or Wolverine. Each influences his decisions, as he carries on a book-wide conversation with them about how best to defeat the West Coast Kingpin.
Whether or not this is a true representation of the schizophrenic experience, I can't say. But I can tell you how excited I was by that premise, how it allowed internal space to be brought to life in a new way on the page, and how it allowed readers to maybe understand a version of an illness they'd never want to talk about otherwise. I was further excited to learn that Echo would be starring in this series. I was pumped that these two people, who are usually viewed as disabled or disadvantaged in some way, would get the chance to prove their worth via turning those disadvantages into their strengths.
So you can imagine how bummed out I was when I read the series (now cancelled, by the way, ending at issue #12; guess it's hard to build readership for a schizophrenic guy and a Deaf girl, after all). Bendis gets Echo as a person, but he immediately pegs her as Spector's sidekick here, as someone who was working undercover to bring down the West Coast Kingpin, but who is so secretly charmed by this unstable dude, it's only a matter of time before she gives into his wiles and lets him lead her on to an untimely end.
In fact, he has Echo call the Avengers Mansion to check in on whether Moon Knight is okay to date. Not just work with, DATE:
In it, Echo returns to Mark as a ghost of sorts, and she point-blank reveals Bendis' motivation to use her as cannon fodder while he struggles to stand up in battle! "If you give up now," she tells Spector, "your entire life was a complete waste. And worse yet ... so was mine. ... I don't mind dying to keep the world turning. But the hell I'm going to stand here and watch you mess up my sacrifice. You feel bad I died? Then show me. Don't just tell me. Get up. Get up and show me what I meant to you. Get up and make my sacrifice worth a damn."
And he does, winning the fight. And so we come full circle. I grew worried Echo would not be allowed to be her own woman in this series, that she'd be a sacrifice to motivate Moon Knight (marking her as weak as Wonder Woman and Lois before her), AND BENDIS ACTUALLY USED THE WORD "SACRIFICE" to prove my worries true! What's more, he makes certain Echo isn't just dead; eventually in the issue, it becomes clear she's not a ghost, she's only another voice in Mark's head. As useless and un-individualistic as the other shadows that live there. She's no longer her own person, she's what Mark makes her be to get him where he needs to go. And what he makes her be is part of him, his thoughts, his interpretations.
And what's sick is I felt sad in the way Bendis wanted me to feel sad! As if I were the fallen hero, instead of an outside woman screaming, "This is not right!" Because that's how good of a writer he is.
This is not say Bendis is a chauvinist or sexist, and he made me hate myself; he writes great female characters in his crime books, his superhero books, in any books. And for all I know, Echo could've been killed off by the editor or by Marvel, not Bendis. But what's been demonstrated here is calculated. A sacrifice for a hero's journey. Never mind that women are often used this way in comics, instead of given powerful stories of their own. Never mind that Maya was a great character. Never mind that she had Latina and Native American heritage, giving another perspective to a white male-dominated industry. Never mind that she was Deaf. The story choice to have her die makes logical, structural sense.
But I can't never mind. I do mind. When I read Echo: Vision Quest (her first solo adventure after her first appearance in Daredevil), I felt like finally, finally somebody understood how I look at the world as a hearing-impaired person. And that was being shared with others, in a medium I love. I felt lucky, blessed to have that little joy. Because I'd never heard the type of thoughts she had about her disability written out for the world to see. I'd only heard those thoughts in my own head, and I thought I was the only one who had those exact thoughts (about the value of silence, about how internal cues matter as much as external ones). Superheroes had always provided a solace for me as someone who felt differently-abled the way they often do, but Echo's struggle wasn't painted in metaphor like the others'. It was the same as mine. And because it existed, I felt less lonely.
I felt like I mattered to writers who wanted to pick her up from time to time and explore issues of hearing impairment, of femininity, of being a daughter, of being a fighter, of being someone else.
And now I find that this isn't true. Because Echo is dead. Because Wonder Woman's lost her heritage. Because Lois Lane is stuck behind a desk. They don't matter. So I begin to feel I don't matter, I'm not the audience comics are looking for, despite the comfort and insight I've drawn from them for years (as have others).
And that makes me angry, and then it bums me out. Because if DC and Marvel don't want me, why do I keep reading their books? For a tinge of hope that something may change, when it rarely does? That they'll realize all they need to do to keep female readers, and keep reflecting their own society, is to stop forcing women to look at the world as their male readers do?
Well, I think I'm giving up that hope. Because this pattern, this weakening of women's wills, is weakening my will. I'll keep reading, I'll finish Moon Knight at issue #12, but unless something incredible happens soon, I may not hope for or fight for anything more from these companies. I may just give up my books and accept I'm unwanted, which may be the saddest thing of all. For now, I can take solace in the fact that at least Echo got to do this before she died:
Echo: David Mack, Artist.
Wonder Woman: Brian Azarello, Writer; Cliff Chiang, Artist/Inker; Matthew Wilson, Colorist; Jared K. Fletcher, Letterer.
Moon Knight Series: Brian Michael Bendis, Writer; Alex Maleev, Artist; Cory Petit, Letterer; Matt Hollingsworth, Colorist.