Thursday, August 02, 2007

On readership and identity

Prompted by a look at my collection on returning home from my ten-month trip abroad, I’ve been contemplating the place of stereotype in the way we envision the reading habits of various demographics, in relation to gender, and for me more pertinently, to sexuality.

Way back in my piece on the prospect of introducing a Wonder Boy into the ‘Wonder’ family, I touched upon a reading by Eve Sedgwick entitled ‘How to Bring Your Children Up Gay’, an ironic title whose article examined, among other things, the way in which effeminacy in gay males is decried at its most simplistic as a sign of abnormality by the more conservatively inclined, and at its more complex, a perpetuation of stereotype that can, and is often, rejected by even adult gay men. The criticism of ‘nancy boy’ or ‘sissy’ is not simply the supposed dominion of the heterosexual bigot; it is employed just as vindictively among gay men as an attack on the legitimacy of more ‘effeminate’ gay men. And why? For many, the criticism is an honourable one; to be a gay ‘sissy boy’ supposedly undermines the queer challenge to heteronormative assumptions that gender and sexuality are inevitably linked. If the simplistic and inefficacious assumption is that a gay man is simply a female in a man’s body, then the gay man who behaves according to a broad understanding of what it is to be ‘feminine’ perpetuates the legitimacy of the assumption, rather than challenging the binaries upholding the claim. The value judgment you’ll find as an extension of this, that ‘straight acting’ or ‘masculine’ gay men are the ‘ideal’, is, as far as I’m concerned, just as insidiously homophobic as statements like ‘why can’t gay men simply behave normally’, or ‘why can’t they act more like us?’

The result of the rejection of effeminacy, whilst making an interesting statement (for the challenge to an inevitable link between gender and sexuality is indeed an important one), renders marginal the experiences of gay men who do fall into that category, or more broadly the category of ‘stereotype’. Popular culture has us at an awful double bind. Behave according to the stereotypical understanding of what it is to be a gay man, and you’ll be presumed ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ enough to appear on Will and Grace, but you’ll also face the rejection of your politically minded peers desperate to smash that stereotype. Attempt to smash the stereotype, and you get ousted from the mainstream understanding of what it is to be a gay man, and you end up launching a critique on your peers who do seemingly affirm that stereotype.

What exactly does this all have to do with comics? For me, this debate around effeminacy, and more broadly stereotype, dictates the way in which the campaign for fair representation of gay men within comics must proceed, and also sheds light on the frustratingly simplistic ways similar discussions about women as readers of comics have gone forward. As a gay male comic book reader, the need to defend my reading of titles like Wonder Woman or Manhunter becomes inevitably tied to the way we let stereotype inform our value judgements about readers. And also, as a gay male comic book reader, there is an element of personal politics that inevitably shapes my choices, and the representations of other gay men I find acceptable to consume.

To take things back specifically to my own experience here, the progression of my own political concerns has often shaped not simply the way I have bought and read comics, but the extent to which those practices have been featured in other areas of my life. As a young boy, I was a huge Wonder Woman fan. I never stopped being one; I’ve been following her adventures in some form or other since I was 5. Looking at the rest of my comic book collection as a child, I see the entire Jessica Drew as Spider-Woman run, complete with appearances in other titles. I see Firestar, Batgirl, and a fair amount of the Black Cat. And yet the extent to which that reading played a part in my friendships or school-life is marginal; reading female-headed comics as a kid would have been understood by peers and family as a marker indicative of a sexuality I was keen not to disclose. As I got older my readings shifted, I became more affluent, and also more dedicated, branching out to the majority of the DCU and some Vertigo titles. But looking at the ones that frame the majority of my collection…The Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Birds of Prey, Checkmate, Sandman, Promethea, Manhunter, Lucifer, Y The Last Man…all comics featuring, if not starring, strong and diverse portrayals of female characters. As time went on, the admission of my comic book preferences, as well as the heroines I watched on TV (Buffy, Xena, Alias) went hand-in-hand with the disclosure of my sexual identity. The link between them, if not truly one made by me, was one I internalised enough to treat them with equal delicacy. For me here, what seems to become an interesting relationship to examine is the growth and development of my sexual identity and its effect, if any, on the comics I have consumed, and why. Is there any reason one can ledge an assumption that a gay male comic book reader would gravitate towards particular portrayals of strong females in comics? And what part do I play in a contribution to the success of that assumption?

In short, here’s the thing, the concern, the issue that prompts this entry. Do I like these comics because I am a gay man; are they an extension of some sort of gay aesthetic, one linked similarly to notions of effeminacy? The stereotype of the tiara-wearing gay comic fan, with his Lynda Carter obsession, is rife in the comic spheres, and to all appearances (albeit sans any tiaras and only moderate interest in Lynda Carter), that stereotype finds an example in me. Throughout the years, and only up until I was 19 or so, my interest in comics, and Wonder Woman specifically, has been downplayed in other areas of my life. In recent years however, I own more Wonder Woman t-shirts than I do Superman comics, I’m looking to shape my Masters around my interest in comics, my friends buy me comic-related memorabilia, heck my friends in New Zealand refer to me as Wonder Boy. Comfortable as I am with my interests and aesthetics, stereotypical or not, I am more keen than ever to examine the way in which we read meaning into our comic reading as indicative of who we are.

I am keen to undermine the idea that I read the comics I do simply because I self-identify as gay. Rather, the comics I read now more than ever before have become inevitably entwined with my political concerns. Heavily influenced by the online feminist community here, I have become incredibly concerned with finding empowering, strong, diverse, rich portrayals of women in comics. Not because I want to prove they exist, but because this is where I identify the enjoyment in my reading. To attempt to read that back, to look at causes and effects, to establish a link between my sexuality and my comic-book preferences, only works I feel because my politics act as the link between them both. From my sexuality extends the fundamental concern of my politics; diversity. Based on that, my academic readings dictate my appreciation of postmodernism and the poststructural undermining of identity (from which I read Y the Last Man, or the Sandman for instance). It is on those bases that I delight in non-normative portrayals of all types of individuals in comics, most especially women, because the transgressive possibility of diversity in their representation is so provocative.

I know that some of that may seem almost unnecessarily complex, but I would maintain that only such a level of complexity is ever fruitful when we come to discuss the relationship between the identities we uphold and the way we consume comics. It is a lack of this complexity that often undermines the discussion of women as readers, as creators and as characters in comics in more mainstream circles. The call to compile lists of ‘girl-friendly’ comics, to understand what it is ‘women’ want to read in comics, what should be aimed at them, how they should appear within comics, is forever apparent, forever reinforced, forever debated. And in the further reaches of the blogosphere, the call for similar discussion in relation to homosexual readers and characters also celebrates debate. I fear, at least as we currently understand it, these debates to be based in largely unhelpful terms.

To try to isolate what it is that makes a woman, or a gay comic book reader, is a hopelessly obtuse endeavour. To further obtain some kind of general understanding of what ‘they’ want to see is equally insensitive. But to look at political concerns, as much of the feminist blogosphere is doing, helps to move discussions away from hopeless ‘what makes women tick’ discussions to anecdotal looks at various different women’s experiences as readers of comics, and how their private interpretations of their genders and politics inform the way they consume comics.

As my own reading goes on, and my writings in this blog develop, my exploration of the links between my understanding of my sexuality, my politics, and my comic book preferences will be something I will hope to consistently emphasise. And I would appeal, from a private curiosity, and also a devotion to diversity, that others might do similarly. As ever the comment section of this blog is open for contribution and comment for people to share their interpretations.

And so, any thoughts?

Alex x

Monday, April 30, 2007

On Spartans

Well, after weighing in with my perspectives on Sexual Violence in terms of Gorgo’s rape, I’ve finally gotten round to watching 300.

I’ll be as honest as I can here. There is a part of me that was incredibly entertained by the action. A part of me exhilarated by the battle. A part of me admiring the epic style. A part of me a lil guiltily turned on by the well-oiled almost unnatural physical perfection of the Spartan army.

But there’s something about underlying tones of sexism, homophobia, racism, masculinist crap about the weakness of emotion, the hideous evoking of simplistic ‘West takes on the Eastern scum’ mentality, the notion of physical perfection as moral superiority, that killed my vacuous buzz. While I acknowledge that some of this was somewhat in line with supposed Spartan ideology, I am no fool when it comes to detecting a whiff of creator agreement and embelishment.

I think the scene that undermined my superficial enjoyment the most had to be the part where Ephealtes enters the tent I’d like to call ‘The Diversity/Depravity Tent’, where we get a nice solid message about how lesbians, the handicapped, the deformed, the self-mutilating, the 7-feet-tall dark skinned men in makeup and the sexually ‘deviant’ are all evil sons of bitches, part of the same team, and want to take over the world. It was a place where the acceptance of diversity, however extreme, became synonymous with submission to evil. I mean, if ever there was a message that diversity equals depravity, this is where it got its public service announcement.

What. Utter. Tripe.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

How to Bring Your Wonder Boy up Gay

The name ‘Wonder Boy’ is one suspiciously absent from the current comic book world. Wonder Woman has never had a young male sidekick, and in light of the families of her respective DC trinity associates, that fact is curious in its conspicuousness. For both Batman and Superman, there is a recognisably distinct family of characters, from both sides of the gender spectrum, sharing panel time, and often their own titles, with their patrons.

Wonder Woman’s family, by contrast, has primarily been a female-only space. Along with the two Wonder Girls, fellow Wonder Women Hippolyta and Artemis, as well as Nubia, have been touted at times as members of the Wonder Family. Attempts to incorporate men into the adventuring cast of the Wonder Woman title are often hampered by their status as love interests. So, why no Wonder Boy?

Is it because of gender discomfort? By this I am referring to the gender connotations that having a young male hero inspired by a female icon like Wonder Woman might generate. In the current masculinist culture of comics in general, it is easy to see how a Wonder Boy character would be picked on for being the male sidekick of a female superhero. Yet all around the DCU, young women have and are taking up arms in the name of their male icons. Supergirl, Batgirl, Miss Martian, Speedy, Aquagirl…all of them have been at times accepted as legitimate heroines without questions to their femininity. Clearly we are comfortable with female interpretations of what were started as male traditions (though not in all cases, as Stephanie as Robin stands to prove), yet I am not sure the same would be the case for a Wonder Boy.

The recent introduction of a Power Boy is one of the only examples I can think of where a Heroine’s title has been taken and applied to a male, yet even there the urgency with which he has been disassociated from Power Girl as a namesake, and also turned into an obsessive and abusive ‘himbo’ is a worrying example for how seriously male interpretations of female traditions might be taken in the DCU. And the fact that Karen is herself a take on the Supergirl character as derived from Superman would pretty much undermine Power Boy as an example anyway. Which leaves us with…not very much.

The problem here isn’t that a Wonder Boy would be necessarily effeminate because he had a female namesake, but because it’s imaginable people would joke about it anyway, both within the text and outside it. I can just see the whispering during his first outing with the Teen Titans, or the questions about whether he’d wear a tiara too…And moreover, I wouldn’t place the line at being a questioning of his masculinity, but also his sexuality. I daresay a Wonder Boy wouldn’t just be the focus for joke about femininity, but for homosexuality as well. The way in which we live in a culture that still predominantly views gender and sexuality as collapsible categories makes it inevitable that expectations about femininity will become linked to the desire for men as a love-object, and vice versa. If Wonder Boy were questioned about his masculinity, questions about his sexuality would go hand in hand. It’s infuriating, but I daresay an annoying truth. Moreover, Wonder Woman’s status as something of a ‘gay icon’, while seemingly free from affecting her female co-stars, is something that I would hazard a guess would come to affect the attitudes towards a Wonder Boy.

Here’s the rub for me: what would be the problem if Wonder Boy were effeminate? And moreover, what if he was gay as well as effeminate. Would that be a big problem?

In an article I was reading the other day to which this post owes its title, Eve Sedgwick looks at how the image of the young effeminate male has become the spectre of the adult gay rights movement. Consistently in gay and pro-gay literature, there is a cultural emphasis and value placed on the gay male who isn’t feminine, who is masculine and takes part in a typically ‘masculine’ ontology. This move is important because it seeks to debunk the supposed link between sexuality and gender by maintaining that it is possible to be masculine and still desire men. The downside in that move, and the placing of value on this breaking of stereotypes is that the effeminate gay man becomes marginal within an already marginalized group. In psychological literature, where homosexuality has been removed from the DSM as an example of mental disorder, Sedgwick notes how there is still an apparent need to identify young male femininity as ‘Gender Disorder’. While various aspects of society have been able to move forward with regards to an open view of sexualities, the transgression of gender lines still seems to evoke discomfort, and returns to speak about what is ‘natural’.

Taking it back to Wonder Boy, if we were to introduce a Wonder Boy who is masculine and heterosexual, we would do a good job of debunking the presumed link between gender and sexuality, but we would also perpetuate the value judgement that relegates femininity in males to being an example of disorder. Because it is such a predictable outcome that a Wonder Boy would be a prime subject for questions about his sexuality and his masculinity, any attempts to contradict a stereotype would have the adverse affect of reinforcing the stereotype as something we fear.

Generally, whether or not a Wonder Boy is a big manly man or not, and whether or not he desires men, women, both or none, isn’t something that would usually concern me. However, since Jimenez introduced the character of Bobby Barnes into the Wonder Woman mythos, a character who was then not only ignored from any future issues but also met a great deal of fan scorn, I’ve been left mulling over the concept of a ‘Wonder Boy’ for some time.

For those who weren’t around for issue 188 of Jimenez’ run on Wonder Woman, Bobby Barnes was introduced as the nephew of Diana’s then love-interest Trevor, and was a young African American boy who idolised Wonder Woman and was blown away to finally meet her, receive an honorary ‘Wonder Boy’ t-shirt, and be invited to Themyscira where he could be seen sharing his panel position with Cassie as Wonder Girl. The potential for taking this optimistic young boy further in the Wonder Woman mythos and actually making him a real Wonder Boy was hampered by the fact that his uncle was killed off in the very next story-arc after Jimenez’ departure. Yet the potential for conflict between Bobby and Diana over Trevor’s death seems like a curious dropping of the ball as far as creating an interesting Wonder Boy character. Bobby could easily have returned as a newly empowered Wonder Boy to take issue with his uncle’s death, or perhaps to honour it by fighting by Diana’s side.

In any case, Bobby was forgotten from his one-issue appearance, though not without some conflict on the DC message boards. The issue of Bobby’s debut was also Jimenez’ final issue, and was a tribute to Lynda Carter. Jimenez has always been open about being a young gay man inspired by Carter’s on-screen superheroics, and how important watching the show had been for him. As a result, the strong reactions against his work, and this issue in particular, were often hard to distinguish from the general homophobia he could often receive on the message boards. Fans picked on the issue for being action-lite, and for Diana’s radical amount of costume changes throughout. It was pretty, optimistic, and some might say a little thin on content, but in the spirit of the show it honoured, it was a fun issue. Nevertheless, the readers came out in force to chastise Jimenez for fulfilling his childhood fantasies on the page at best, and promoting some kind of ‘gay aesthetic’ at worst. Attacks on the content of the issue were a thin veil for some of the homophobic abuse levelled at Bobby as a projection of Jimenez within the text, and gave a good indication for the kinds of controversy I feel writing a potentially gay Wonder Boy could arouse. The example of Jimenez’ introduction of Bobby provides another problem with the investments of a Wonder Boy; the idea that the character might become a vehicle for the politics of his creator, or will be accused as such.

As with the issues discussed earlier concerning Wonder Boy’s masculinity and sexuality, there is an almost inevitably political component to introducing a young man into the Wonder Woman mythos, one that would be difficult to avoid for any writer at the helm. If Wonder Woman is till to be considered a feminist symbol or icon, does that apply to her protégé’s, and would that include a Wonder Boy? If the double-w has become a symbol of Amazonian heritage and courage, can a man wear it and what are the connotations if so? Does DC have the current creativity and subtlety to explore those issues without resorting to stereotype; to introduce a male character with a female mentor and primary companions, without resorting to stereotypical tropes? Would the avoidance of stereotype simple reinforce them anyway? The questions I have raised above, along with the rest of this discussion, are just examples of the kind that could take place. Yet despite the hotbed of connotation, I am even more inspired that a Wonder Boy is something the Wonder Woman mythos needs, possibly because of the symbolic implications his absence currently represents.

Any thoughts?

Friday, March 30, 2007

On Sexual Violence

On reading Grace’s article over at Heroine Content concerning 300 and the opposition she has faced regarding her opinions on Gorgo’s rape by Theron, I was shocked too by the idea that there are still people who cling, at least morally, to notions of rape based in the fight or flight, in overt force. A lack of understanding about the subtle violences of coercion in relation to sex is always an alarming wake up call for me about just how people are kidding themselves in their emotional lives, and the arguments levelled at Grace’ definition expose to me this huge area of grey that still seems to need ironing out. I fully agree with Grace’s definitions of rape, and here’s why.

When I was back in school, a sociology teacher asked all of the class a series of questions to be answered only in our heads. She asked if we'd ever had sex to keep someone happy. If we'd had sex to keep someone with us. If we'd had sex because we didn't want to make someone mad, or because we feared the consequences if we didn’t do it. If we’d had sex not really knowing what we were about to do. If we’d changed our minds about wanting to have sex during the act, but carried on because we thought we had no option. If we’d had sex when we simply weren’t in the mood for it, but our partner was. And most importantly, she asked, in any of those instances, if our partner’s had suggested even a modicum of pressure, of persuasion against our unwillingness, had made us feel a negative consequence might arise from our non-conformity.

Then she asked us whether we could really justify those occasions as being consensual acts of sex, in the full meaning of consent; in the notion that both partners were willing, ready, fully informed and wanting to. We all went a little bit quiet at the indication she was making, at the idea that these cases, in what we viewed as inconsequential moments, rape, in a moral sense, was subtly present.

Its easy to hide behind the notion of rape as a) being a dramatically big event based in overt violence committed by a stranger and b) more likely male on female, in order to protect oneself from the grey areas of our own sex lives, where we may have been victims, or where we may have been perpetrators in the pressures we may exert. A more comprehensive, yet simple understanding of rape in relation to consent forces us to examine ourselves more closely, and perhaps the opposition that Grace’s opinions may get is rooted in personal discomfort. Yet I for one am not ungrateful for the personal discomfort exploring these issues evokes. If we aren’t prepared to examine the psychological violences of coercion in relation to sex, we render ourselves open to becoming victims, and more importantly perpetrators of a form, however small, of sexual violence. To underestimate the importance of fully informed consent in sex is to undermine the act itself, as well as the basic freedom of our sexual partners to make an informed and willing decision.

Any thoughts?

Monday, March 19, 2007

She's like SO whatever....

Just caught the preview pages of Supergirl's appearance in March's issue of The Brave and the Bold at Newsarama. Seems like Waid has caught on to our new Kara... have a look at these two pages....

I couldn't help but laugh. Perez is a great artist, and makes it damned clear that this isn't his projection of sexual fantasy on the page, this is a (17?, I thought she was 16, did I miss a birthday?) teenaged girl who thinks she's a male fantasy. Rather than have Kara situated in a variety of sexual poses, Perez' art works off of Waid's text beautifully, having Kara's flirtaciousness come off as childish as it sounds. Here Kara seems pretty vacuous, audacious, and I have to say pretty amusing in her lack of subtlty. Waid even manages to poke fun at Kara's skimpy costume, and her attempts to use it to get closer to GL. Its a shame that the appearance of Kara outside her own comic is one of a slightly bimbette, almost stupid girl, but then we do have the rest of the issue to have her redeemed. Also interesting is that the following pages (which you can access via the link) have Kara impulsively inserting herself into a crisis, trying to save the day. The naivety of her rescue acts as a nice accompaniment to the rest of her naivety, concerning GL's secret identity, her relationship with Kal, her romantic advances... Its almost a subtle balance between innocence and an attempt at being 'innocence lost'. Kara wants to be sexy and heroic, yet her rather blunderous attempts at both simply suggest her age, and the possibility that one day she'll find more secure ways of doing both.

any thoughts?

alex x

Sunday, March 04, 2007

On dying Amazons

With Amazons Attack! just around the corner, I can’t help but find myself thinking back across their Post Crisis history, specifically in terms of their interactions with the rest of the DCU, but also in terms of their more significant storylines within the Wonder Woman title. Wherever the Amazons have appeared in significant numbers in the past, it has been in the context of war, of suffering, of tragedy, and predictably with a high body count. I don’t mean that to sound flippant, in fact I find it disturbing just how often in the past we have been treated to images of hundreds of dignified, strong, intelligent and noble women being slaughtered either by each other or at the hands of the villains of the day. When I see this, it is compounded by the nameless way they have are treated, and also by the way the story of their tragedy has been extended to include yet another degradation. It begs me to ponder; do the Amazons have to die to be interesting? Do they have to die in order to appear outside of the Wonder Woman title, and what does that say for their comparative relationship with ‘Man’s World’? What does this all indicate for representations of women in comic books (when whole nations of them have to die frequently, gratuitously, and sometimes without any particular reason in order to be included in a major storyline)? And perhaps most importantly, will Amazons Attack! carry on that trend? Back when I was a frequent poster on the DC Message Boards there was always frequent discussion on just how many times you can massacre a race of women that has never numbered over more than a few thousand, and still justify that it isn’t gratuitous. Lets have a bit of a history lesson to assess why that discussion has occurred.

Back in War of the Gods, one of the few company crossovers to feature the Amazons to any significant degree, Hippolyta takes a delegation of Amazons on a world tour; their first exchange with the outside world in centuries. During the storyline Circe manages to manipulate their rivals, the Bana Mighdall Amazons into framing the Themyscirans for murder, and also turns Hippolyta into Shim’Tar. During the crossover, a few Amazons die during the conflict, and their relationship with the outside world is damaged by the incident. At the time I remember being irked by the whole thing, most particularly because of the tragic resonance it achieved in the context of their historical suffering at the hands of Herakles. Were I to know it would only be the beginning of a trend, I may have despaired even more.

Before appearing outside of the Wonder Woman title again, the Amazons went through a number of internal conflicts, struggles and invasions, in the space of only a few years at a time. In one of them, Circe yet again decided to manipulate the Bana Mighdall Amazons by sending them to Themyscira to claim the island as their own and then transporting all of the Amazons to a demon dimension where they were forced to band together in their struggle to survive.

It intrigues me here that not only are the Amazons subject to more suffering, but that Circe becomes the symbol of that suffering. I wonder to what extent this trend of tragedy might have been more noticeable had she been a male villain. In fact, during their tenure, other significant Amazon storylines involve them being manipulated by female powers, including Eris and Ariadne. Does the fact that the villains are women make the Amazons’ gratuitous miseries any less so? And do so many really have to die to get panel time?

In their next significant appearance, the Amazons are invaded by Darkseid who invades them purely as an aside in his quest for Godly power. Even the resolution of the conflict revolves around Diana’s persuading him to leave. This is another unfortunate aside in the situation of the Amazons; that they fail to appear in a context outside of Diana, and act as a blank slate for her suffering as well as their own. The body count at the end of this event is incredible, if we’re to go by the art.

Contextually, this particular event is quintessential for what makes me uncomfortable about the kinds of stories the Amazons are included in. It is John Byrne’s introductory arc, and so anything that plays out here is marred by the fact that it is important for him to make a big impression. Indeed, what makes a bigger impression than killing lots of Amazons in a conflict that has nothing to do with them? It’s gratuitous, and what’s more, it’s an event that bears no relevance to future storytelling until Jimenez uses it years later to provide his own massacre of the Amazons with resonance. More infuriating, from what I can remember, the Amazons during Byrne’s story are relatively nameless, identical and in the end ultimately void of anything composing personality, in terms of art as well as writing. The event reeks of shock-value, and provides further material to indicate the Amazons as nothing but cannon fodder in a war fought between Diana and her foes.

The penchant for big Amazonian battles gets picked up again much later with Jimenez’ run on the title, where he manages to massacre them once, and then kill off a few more later. Firstly, we have the Civil War during which the two Amazonian tribes come to blows over tensions exaggerated by Ariadne’s manipulation. A hell of a lot of Amazons die here, and their conflict is resolved with Hippolyta’s abdication and abolition of their monarchy. What matters more with this story, other than the now familiar body count, is that President Lex Luthor uses it to undermine their standing as a peaceful nation in the face of the UN, and Diana’s mission in general. It is a very well written yet horribly annoying plot point that helps to redraw that line between the Amazons and the outside world.

Jimenez follows this up by having the Amazons fight on the side of mankind against Imperiex during Our Worlds At War. In order for the Amazons to appear in this company crossover, they apparently had to barter quite a lot. Not only does Hippolyta die, but she is the only one to do so during the storyline who isn’t given a resurrection at a later date. To add insult to injury, Themyscira is completely decimated during the event, the Amazons are forced to fight alongside Darkseid, and then their sacrifices achieve little panel time other than in the Wonder Woman title anyway. And if you thought that at least this would cement their future relationships with the outside world, you would be sadly wrong. In fact you could, at this point, be forgiven for thinking DC editorial sees it’s Amazons as nothing more than an apparently exponential nation of corpses.

To overcome this, Jimenez makes an important move to representing the Amazons in a context that a) isn’t about war, death or suffering, and b) places them firmly in the DCU in a context which is cooperative, rather than one of necessary difference. He reintroduced them after OWAW with a newly replenished, futuristic, blessed, floating Themyscira (lovingly and patronisingly referred to on the message boards at the time as ‘My Little Pony island’, or the Themysciran Archipelago). This new island paradise was opened to the world as a University for cultural exchange, not just with Man’s World, but across dimensions and worlds. The rebuilding had bonded together the Themysciran and Bana Mighdall Amazons into one nation, represented by Artemis’ and Phillipus’ relatively (if not officially) joint standing as their representatives to the outside world. It was a good move in trying to provide a situation where the Amazons could appear in other comic books without having Wonder Woman attached to them, or marching in line ready for war. Had this particular progression been taken seriously, and applied in the DCU, the theme of tragedy might have been laid to rest, and provided for more varied stories concerning the Amazons, and their place in the world of Man.

But alas, not everyone agreed with that idea, and the Amazons failed to be included outside the Wonder Woman title, and quickly became subject to more massacring.

As soon as Jimenez left, Simonson decided to kill more Amazons in a confusing conflict with something called ‘The Shattered God’ and a Roman Goddess. Again, the Amazons actually play little part in the story other than as targets for a conflict that actually has nothing to do with them, and is certainly not resolved by them. Loeb does the same in his Superman/Batman arc, where the reintroduced Supergirl’s arrival is commemorated by having an army of Doomsday clones attack Themyscira, and the death of Harbinger.

Most recently, Rucka came on board and, despite being one of my favourite Wonder Woman runs, made decisions that further cemented the ‘dead-Amazon’ syndrome. Firstly, he kicked them out of the sky and into US territorial waters. The event put a quick stop to their status as a university of cultural exchange, as they became embroiled in political stalemate with the military surrounding the island. Any concessions concerning previous battles fought together, and any progress supposedly achieved by being a university was undermined by the suspicion they were still treated to by the outside world. Before resolving this, it appears constrictions of the Infinite Crisis company crossover took precedent. Diana’s killing of Max Lord rendered the Amazons the subject of scrutiny and distrust, as well as attack by the OMAC army who went about slaughtering them not just in the pages of Wonder Woman, but Infinite Crisis too. Though well-written, by now I have to say I had grown quite despairing at the sight of yet more Amazons brandishing arms at the sight of invasion, and dying in each others arms. It is only more of a testament to the trend that this conflict was not ended in triumph, but in retreat from the world altogether.

What is promising about Amazons Attack! is that, while it provides a continuation of the above storyline, it also already breaks some of the conventions of prior Amazon appearances. Firstly, it is a storyline that actually centres on them. It is a story that incorporates Diana in a central role, even crosses into the Wonder Woman title. But it is not about her, its about them. Secondly, they have become the invaders, they are going out to meet the outside world, rather than have it trample up the beach or over their philosophical space. Thirdly, it is a storyline touted as having a big impact on the DCU. The idea that the Amazons will be a part of that is a huge change from where they have been before.

Yet the question remains. Do the Amazons have to die to be interesting? Thus far the evidence from DC seems to be an unequivocal yes, and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ scale of the upcoming storyline lends itself to the idea that we may yet see more Amazons dying in each others arms. And I can’t help but wonder what message that conveys.

And I really wish they hadn’t been referred to as ‘sexy aliens’ in Pfeifer’s interview. For crying out loud…

any thoughts?

alex x

go here for an interview with series writer Will Pfeifer

and here for an interview with the series artist Pete Woods, as well as a look at some of the gorgeous art involved.

Katching Up with Kara Part Two: A Matter of Sex Appeal?

Part Two: a matter of Sex appeal?

If I dare to make this point strongly enough, I’d like to hazard a guess that one key issue in the controversy surrounding this Supergirl isn’t just the fact that she’s immature, flippant, arrogant, or has such a seemingly horrendous dark past. Its because since her reintroduction, we haven’t been able to get away from the character’s sexuality.

Initially, I think this was primarily an artistic problem, one that both Turner and Churchill shared. Both portray Kara as unrealistically, perhaps abnormally thin, yet incredibly tall, with doe eyes, full lips, pert breasts, and dressed in a mini skirt that rides as high as the waistband does low. Her poses, more with Turner than with Churchill, were constantly sexualised, and her vacant expressions suggested more porn than heroism. With Churchill the problem has been the adoption of the theme, the cheeky alluring looks, the wafer thin leg poses with hips cocked and skirt flaring to suggest what the fanboys want revealed (pardon the cliché). Its unrealistic, and its concerning considering the age of the character, who started out as only 15, and even now at 16 expresses the kind of emotional immaturity that should lead to a raising of her own specific age of consent until we can be convinced she could take sex seriously. Yet with all that said, if the problem were simply artistic, it would be a clear-cut answer to protest for an art change to something more acceptable, though whether we’d get one I couldn’t guarantee.

The problem now is that it’s not just artistic any more. It’s in the writing. More than that, it’s seemingly in character. In line with the party-girl we’ve got now, Kara now takes to making frequent jokes about her sexuality; teasing Boomer about their suggestive relationship, curving over a pool table and drawing attention to her ‘nice s’, if only for the purpose of warning him its not open for him to joke about. In issue 11, during her audition with the Outsiders, Kara’s doe-eyed expression at being chastised by Nightwing seems to not just be wishful projection on the artists behalf, but an in-character reaction from a girl who has been doodling about her crush on Nightwing and his ‘cute tushie’ since she met him. The faux-innocent sexuality is becoming a part of her persona as we’re meant to accept it. When she cracks the line to Boomer ‘I’m a girl in a tight t-shirt, I can go anywhere I want’, or she tries to argue with him about ‘semi-lucid suspended animation’ making her more than a sixteen-year-old, the optimist in me would like to accept she is displaying a rye sense of humour about human sexuality, but the realist in me recognises the attempt at making Kara sexually viable, or at least present the idea that she thinks she is (as I’m sure many young teens do). As a result it becomes more and more convincing that Kara isn’t being dressed and styled by her artists into wearing skimpy outfits and pouting; she’s dressing and styling herself.

Its this train of thought that makes me worry so completely about the extent to which the ‘fanboyishness’ of the industry filters down onto the page. This isn’t just artists drawing unrealistic women or sexualised images into comics, this is the male fantasy getting written into the text. Its harder to fight for a more realistic, or at least less provocative Kara when the justification for it is becoming a part of the text, when it is seemingly ‘in-character’ for Kara to stand around pouting and posing in knee-high boots and a mini-skirt that shows us her underwear and provoking her older-male cast with innuendo. There’s a transference going on here it seems from writer to character, and the more convinced or interested in the character I become, the harder it becomes to object. To say it another way, to have Kara suddenly (and thankfully) cover up her midriff and start wearing a costume that doesn’t show us her underwear, while a wonderfully and necessary move in the effort to reduce objectified images of women in comics, would now seem out of character for a Kara who apparently seems not to care.
Its at this point I become torn between buying into this Kara and challenging the possible fanboy-service her character has become. I would also like to question my own discomfort. I am fine with a Kara with a dark past. I’m fine with her being obnoxious and flippant and complex, because I want to see where it’s going, and because I find it intriguing. But I am not fine with the sexual element being played up on the page. Why? Maybe I do have my own parameters about what is and isn’t acceptable ‘Supergirl’ behaviour, or maybe I simply don’t trust that this is happening in the spirit of complexity, and is more about writers and artists getting away with creating a male fantasy.

Phew, that’s about as far as I can get at the moment without my mind spinning some more, and
I hope my confusion isn’t too, well, confusing. As ever, any thoughts?

alex x

Katching Up with Kara Part One: Expectation vs Experimentation

Ok. I’m going to start what may promise to be a bit of a long entry with a moment of internet silence, while we all gulp back those initial gut reactions to seeing yet another blog thread with ‘Kara’ in the title. Yes, this shall be another discussion of the current Kara Zor El, otherwise known as Supergirl, and yes, I gather that we (the comic-blog-reading folk among us) are probably quite sick of these by now. And no, I can’t promise you originality. All I can do is give you my honesty on a subject that has bugged me since the revamp, and continued to as its been argued so heatedly about it across the net. (For those of you wanting to read up on what’s gone before, hop on over to ‘When Fangirls Attack’, you’ll find more than your pleasure.)

Phew, and so after my premise, I guess I want to get right stuck in there, though I fear my ideas might be a bit disparate, and I’m also about two or three issues behind (my most recent Supergirl issue was 12 due to a seriously uncooperative comic shop here in Palmerston North), so bear with me and feel free to give me some info on what I’m missing.

Part One: Experimentation vs Expectation

I can’t help feeling a whole lot of what seems to be the problem with latest incarnation of Supergirl is this massive disjuncture between expectations of what the Supergirl title should invoke (sweetness, honour, heroism, a female readership(?) being among the many debated points recently across the net) and the experimentation that seems to be going on with Kara as a character by her writers (roughly and concisely described in a number of places as ‘Paris Hilton in a cape’).

So far, or at least in the past few months, the Kara we have been presented with has been a ridiculously complicated character; a sixteen year old female alien who has arrived on Earth after a period of semi-lucid suspended animation in order to carry out her destiny of killing her younger (and now older) cousin Kal-El only to find that she a) doesn’t really want to, b) he just happens to be the greatest super-ist hero on the planet and c) she is expected to inexplicably become a part of that legacy with her newfound awesome power.

As a result of these intricacies the Kara we have is petulant, avoidant, often sullen yet with a wicked sense of humour, considerably flippant and yet continuously curious, and tortured over what her life should be about. She’s not sure if she wants to be a hero, and for the past few months at least has tried her hand at a number of different projects trying to figure out what she wants. What differentiates hers from any other super-hero coming-of-age seems to be a) the length of time she is taking to ‘find herself’, and b) just how unattractive a person she often becomes along her journey. Lets face it, this girl isn’t the poster girl for good, or even cool. She swears like a fiend in front of her elders, seemingly to impress them, flaunts her sexuality as ‘jailbait’, picks fights with seemingly every other hero she meets, avoids her older heroic cousin, complains, moans, and generally bumbles through life with no tact and little finesse. This isn’t the Supergirl of your childhood folks, and I’m not even sure she’s meant to be, or if she’ll ever get there.

The thing is, as a character I find Kara fascinating. I don’t like her, in fact I would find her obnoxious arrogance grating on a real-life person or friend. But I am intrigued by her, and I am interested in where she’s going. What’s more, I enjoy reading her, because the creative vision behind her does seem to be consistent in its difference. It would be simple to say she’s just a complicated teenager. She’s not, she’s the horribly contested site of multiple identities, she’s from an entirely different planet, one she remembers, she is time and age displaced, in a body that may possibly be too young for the foreign intellect of her mind, yet hopelessly emotionally inexperienced. She’s got two completely different legacies placing demands on her, a past that seems riddled with murder, bullying and darkness, and a possible future at the side of one of the greatest heroes of all time. She is neither child nor adult in the conventional sense, yet she straddles too many borders to be simply be a teenager, or even simply a teenage superhero. Is it any wonder that as a result she is impulsive and demanding, at times hedonistic and at others self-involved with melancholy? I don’t know, all of this makes sense in context to me, as much as it can anyway. The literary license here is that the writers are in a lovely position of being able to write however they wish; the only convention for an alien character like Supergirl comes from the girls we’ve been familiar with in the past, and those have quickly been rendered irrelevant to the girl we’re meeting now.

And therein lies the problem; that she’s Supergirl, and this isn’t the Supergirl we’ve been expecting, or been used to. Supergirl, in her many incarnations, has tended to be incredibly heroic, sometimes vulnerable, but strong-willed and minded, even Post Crisis. Even Matrix and Linda, with all their individual complexities (Protoplasmic shape-shifter and Earth-Angel) seemed more solid Supergirls, and shared in common with their Pre-Crisis predecessor this iconic sense of goodness it seems. And here we have the current Kara who isn’t sure if she’s coming or going, and sure doesn’t care much what we think about it. There is an expectation here, and I stand to be corrected if anyone disagrees, that whoever wears the Supergirl title, the cousin of Kale-El, should be good, should be optimistic. Not necessarily uncomplicated, but in no uncertain sense, a likeable character. And this Kara is seriously undermining that.

The question becomes whether or not the Supergirl moniker should be one that is allowed such radical reinterpretation as, say, the Green Lantern moniker, which survives because it is allowed the idiosyncrasies of its different title bearers. It is written into that mythos that there will be many (in the corporation at least) and not simply one (and while fan divisions over the ‘true lantern’ can be strong, it is a division that is catered for by the writing). Whereas Supergirl doesn’t seem to be intended as a legacy. If it were, we wouldn’t keep erasing previous Supergirls from continuity. And it therefore becomes more important to establish, apparently (and I’m going mostly on the seeming contempt people are having for the changes so far) what the parameters for the character should be. Should Supergirl always be heroic? Should she be likeable? Should she be a character girls want to read, and how on Earth do you define that quality anyway? The feeling I get here is that fans are saying there are or should be limits to what the Supergirl identity is constituted by, and that arrogant flippant party-girls like the current Kara are unacceptable.

The disjuncture between expectation and the experiment that seems to be going on here, and I do believe it is a character experiment, gets a fair nod within the text of the book, no more so than in the recent Terra guest-issue, where Terra and Kara clash over what Supergirl ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be. In an earlier issue, a young girl turns to Kara and says ‘Supergirl shouldn’t wear black. Too dark’, another self-referential nod to the dark direction the character has taken with regards to her past, and also her flippant skirting of the no-killing rule. Its nods like these that lend me a certain faith in the creative team, an awareness that what’s going on here isn’t your usual Supergirl, and that maybe that might be ok. As Kara says herself in issue 10 ‘Be yourself. It makes life a hell of a lot easier.’ This Supergirl is on a journey, and at some point she will find herself, and her purpose, and her place, and I will be intrigued to see where that is. What matters is whether enough fans are invested in this Kara to see where she ends up, and whether or not there is going to be some fusion of horizons in terms of the girl we have now, and the Supergirl that we want to see. Inevitably, that fusion is never going to satisfy everyone, but I am intrigued to see how you get from the vitriolic dislike I can see fans are having with the current Kara, to something that is broadly less controversial, and still keep that a natural progression of the character we have at the moment. And are we willing to wait the length of time that might require to happen? Is there really enough agreement on what the ‘Supergirl parameters’ are to produce that kind of result, and should we be revising those parameters or not? While I would like to suggest that we should be, I understand that has more to do with the fact that I am less invested in an idea of what Supergirl should be, than finding out where the writers will take this one.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

10th Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy

Click here for the latest collection of articles, covering DC's Supergirl and Batgirl, to movies like Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth, women as gamers and in gaming, and a whole host of other stuff. At some point I will try to collect links for some of the former carnival editions for your viewing pleasure. For now, go and enjoy! Thanks to Reb at 'Adventures in Lame' for hosting, and for the link, chuffed as pie!

back after my hiatus soon
alex x

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Revisiting the Perez Era: Making Wonder Woman political

Having started a re-reading of Perez’ Wonder Woman reboot, in light of Heinberg’s current one, I was struck with just how many distinctive creative revisions are taken to Diana’s story that, in some form or another, highlight her status as a political heroine. Moreover, whether intentionally or not, the changes made by Perez also provided a means by which Diana’s status as a feminist could become definitively measured. In the past William Moulton Marston has been credited for defining Diana as a feminist heroine, whether implicitly or explicitly, and through a reading back it is interesting to attempt an understanding of the particular brand of feminism he was espousing. In his reboot, Perez makes moves that redefine Diana’s feminism to fit into a specific context. What follows is an attempt at being brief on some of the key factors involved in that process, as well as some of the other notable developments that seem to evidence a liberalising of Wonder Woman as a heroine.

1) The Loss of Romance
Whether you loved it or you hated it, Perez decision to take what had been Diana’s primary love interest for so many years and age him so significantly as to be off limits is a poignant one. Steve Trevor and Diana’s love for him, which, in the original story had been a key factor in Diana’s quest to Man’s World, now becomes slightly less influential. While his relationship with Diana remains important, it is the absence of its sexual and romantic nature that is most intriguing. In this simple move, Perez importantly allows Diana to define herself, her motivations becoming more than simply for the intrigue and love of another. While I am not sure if I agree with the removal of romance from her story overall, the impression it leaves, the seeming attempt to identify Diana from the outset as having her own story, rather than tying her immedietely to a love interest, is interesting to me. In this move, Perez also removes the default heterosexual status of Diana as a heroine. That is not to say that he makes her a lesbian or revises her sexuality in any way, but rather that he leaves her sexuality open by refusing to introduce her with an immediate love interest. Though he later introduces Superman as a potential crush for Diana, the encounter serves more to highlight Diana’s naiveté, and her reverence for the Gods than a sexual identity. And despite romantic attention from Hermes, Diana remains solo for the duration of Perez’ run. While this has been the source of much consternation for many, it is intriguing to see how this step has managed to present an image of Diana as relatable to all sexualities, because she has no specific one according to which one must strive. In the fantasy of identifying with Diana, her sexuality, at least, is not an obstacle in Perez’ run, but is a eutral plateau apon which projection becomes possible. Also significantly, Perez continued to introduce a variety of all-ages, all-sexualities cast members, setting the stage for Diana’s to be a tale of openness and liberality.

2) The defining of Patriarchy
In the very first issue, Perez weaves the tale of the rape of the Amazons as the crescendo of their conflict with the patriarchal regime. It becomes central to the way in which the Amazons come to regard the outside world, and is therefore an important aspect in the consciousness of Diana as she grows. The intellectual and spiritual, as well as the martial prowess, of the Amazons is emphasised to portray women with strong and intricate philosophies, and to illustrate those characteristics that suffer under the repressive structures of a patriarchal regime. Here it feels as if Perez is creating the tone and feel of the feminism of his cast, though its boundaries have yet to be set. He is concerned with the outcomes of sexual violence, and does not shy away from its horror. By doing so Perez allows for the possibility of aligning the concerns and beliefs of the Amazons to real-world feminist issues rather than allowing for their message or concerns to devolve into the symbolic or generic. He takes a very real, very present danger, and by showing them as at risk of that danger he does, at least to me, succeed in creating an aspect of the Amazons that makes them relatable, and makes a discussion of politics possible within the text.

3) The Costume
By detaching the link between Diana’s costume and the American flag that can be seen in its pattern, Perez makes another step towards individualizing Diana, and also highlights the disjuncture between her own culture and the one she comes to protect. While in her inception, Diana’s relationship with America and the War effort was distinctly patriotic (as were many of the roles played in her secret identity), in his reboot Perez breaks her ties to America as representative of it as a nation. While it becomes her home, her links to its political and philosophical structure are no longer there, rendering her again, rightly or wrongly, a more open and flexible heroine. It subsequently becomes possible for one to draw comparisons between a whole range of international ideologies and the causes Diana represents, allowing for but not limiting to America alone.

4) The Ambassador
After her initial mission in Man’s World, Diana’s motivation for staying there is immediately one of ambassador and teacher, as a representative of her culture, on her mother’s request. As such Perez sends Diana straight into a political rather than simply heroic role. Diana becomes the site for politics, a conversation about cultural differences. Again, a comparison to Marston’s original setup seems appropriate. The philosophies of Marston’s own Wonder Woman, particularly his own brand of feminism and its ties to some tenets of BDSM philosophy, are not to be underestimated. What is notable is that these differences were portrayed far more in terms of gender, not cultural differences. While they were presented as aspects of Amazon culture, they were universalised as female characteristics, thereby making the essential division one between man and woman. In lieu of the times however, Perez’ own political conversation takes place on a variety of fronts, with cultural differences being the basis upon which more conflict and contradiction is then discussed.

5) Defining his Feminism
During an important and rather epic story arc, Perez introduces the Bana Mighdall Amazons, a splinter group of Amazons existing in Man’s World for some time, yet separate from them. They are ruthless mercenaries, long corrupted by war, running their city as arms dealers. Despite having developed in Man’s World, their relationship to men is more antagonistic (in light of their own personal history), and based on conflict, need, supply and demand. Their radical nature provides an interesting contrast to their Themysciran counterparts, helping to draw a line around the kind of feminism Perez is seeking to define for them. Unfortunately, and as a result, his construction of the Bana Mighdall Amazons might be read as some alternative brand of feminism, and possibly belies some of Perez own views about the roads to which radicalism and separatism lead. It is an unfortunate side effect, in that if the dichotomy between the Themyscirans and the Bana Mighdall Amazons is to be read in terms of feminisms, then whichever the latter represents is bound to suffer a poor rep as a result due to their negative portrayal, while the Themyscirans become the ‘good feminists’ by default. The extent to which their relationship is supposed to be read in this way is obviously beyond me to definitively say, but it raises some important issues concerning the extent to which Perez may or may not have been trying to set up a particular feminism for Diana. If it is indeed the case, then it is important for highlighting the possibility of feminisms as a plural, rather than the generic straw-man ‘Feminism’ that could have been the case. Perhaps it would had been more satisfying to have a more truly representative presentation of the possibilities, but an attempt is a move nonetheless.
(It is important to note here, that this is not the only time it is possible to read the presentation of the Bana Amazons as a bad metaphor for radical feminism; the introduction of Artemis years later is a horrible example of the constructing of straw-man radical feminism seemingly used in order to undermine it as unsound, something that has thankfully not detracted from Artemis’ subsequent success as a character. Whether or not this can be blamed on Perez initial design for the Banas, is something I’ve yet to explore.)

Phew! well, those are the more central themes that strike me at present, i am sure more will arise as i re-read. As ever, i enquire, any thoughts?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Part Two - Overshadowing the Amazon Princess

So then I read Wonder Woman 226, and the satisfaction and inspiration I found in the previous issue took a bit of a down turn.

There are many ways I could, if I wanted to, spin this issue to a positive end. In its pages, the relationship between Diana and Kal, Wonder Woman and Superman, is explored through a series of poignant vignettes, depicting key scenes in their lives and in their relationship. The lean is definitely towards Diana, the stories within are mostly specific to important happenings within her own narrative, and Superman’s part in being her friend during those times.

In a strange way, this issue should appeal to some of my most emotive academic and personal interests. Metaphorically at least, the story explodes the idea of the individual as a singular entity, by constantly referring back to the way we, as individuals, and Diana, as an Ambassador/Heroine/Woman, are defined by the people we let into our lives, those other individuals who share our experiences. No matter how we try to draw lines between ourselves and the other people in our lives, we find ourselves irrevocably involved in them, and them in us. We experience joy, sorrow, love, but we do so with other people there to share them, inspire them, nurture them, be our focus. This issue demonstrates that quite beautifully, showing Diana in some of her happiest and tragic moments, and the way Kal has been there in one way or another to give them audience, an ear, a shoulder, a smile.

Another academic interest in this issue comes from the metaphor it provides concerning the binary opposition of man/woman. By interweaving the lives of Diana and Kal, or perhaps more Kal into Diana’s, the issue serves as an example of man and woman as categories which define, reify and yet also undermine one another. Indeed, there are many ways this issue explodes and problematises the dichotomies of man/woman, inside/outside, that the likes of Eve Sedgwick and Ed Cohen have done such good work discussing academically, though I won’t go into them here.

Yet, in all of this, I still can’t seem to move past some of the wider implications of the issue. This was to serve as the final issue of Wonder Woman. Not the ending (as purposefully explained in the previous issue) but an ending at least. Yet for some reason, the possibilities that fact implied for the subject matter were abandoned in favour of an instalment in the wider storyline of Infinite Crisis playing out across the DCU.

The choice to review the relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman seems to gain its impetus from the fact that their friendship had recently suffered much difficulty within the text. While the most striking part of that conflict (their fight in issue 219) did indeed occur within the pages of Wonder Woman, the drama of their crumbled relationship actually occurred elsewhere; in the preceding chapters of the Sacrifice arc (where Diana and Kal first came to blows and also odds), and in the pages of Infinite Crisis itself. What’s more, while issue 226’ review served as a kind of prompt to all those of us who were either unaware of or had forgotten about the importance of that relationship, the resolution of their conflict also occurred in the pages of Infinite Crisis, rather than in Diana’s title itself.

As such the issue suggests for me a sense of unfulfillment, an instalment in a wider narrative (a metanarrative perhaps?) that, while having an important effect on Diana’s story, was not, in fact, her story. This is not a story of ‘Wonder Woman’, but rather about something else, and seems to have missed the opportunity to bear any relationship to the very first issue for a sense of closure, or indeed any particular thematic points from previous issues. It practically ignores the supporting cast of recent years, as well as any of the other threads left over from Rucka’s run (such as the Ares/Circe/Lyta situation, Vanessa Kapatelis, Leslie’s relationship with Ferdinand, or her conflict with Veronica Cale etc) and instead attempts a reinterpretation of history. Its strange, for an issue that does in fact recall a series of events from previous Wonder Woman issues, it seems to bear very little resemblance to any of them, or to provide them with much more meaning, the vignettes so overshadowed by the wider implications of the text and its relationship to Infinite Crisis.

Much worse, the continuity is wrong. I am in one mind about the two implications of that particular problem. On the one hand, if these continuity glitches were a mistake, they evidence an editorial laziness not quite acceptable for the final issue of any title, let alone one of DC’s flagship characters. Secondly, if these glitches were in fact deliberate revisions, part of DC’s attempt to establish a new continuity to its ‘New Earth’ in the wake of Infinite Crisis, then this is simply more fuel to the already raging fire that this issue was not the final issue of Wonder Woman, but a chapter in a different story altogether, and speaks ill sentiment of editorial appreciation for Diana as a character.

What provides this issue with such a disappointing resonance was the way it fails to capitalise on the promise of the previous issue. As discussed in the first part of this thread, the previous issue was all about moving away from grand narratives down to personal ones, it was about changing the world heart by heart, it was about renewed faith in Diana’s story, her uniqueness, her personal touch. This issue, rather than providing us with a continuation of that theme, relegates the continuation of Diana’s story to only one or two pages at the end, using the rest of the issue to tie her up to Superman. Another disappointing aspect to that choice is that Superman is such a larger than life character, bringing with him so much of his own mythology, that his presence within the text doesn’t exactly overshadow Diana, but threatens to suggest that her story can only take place in the context of his own. For much of her comic book career since the 1940s, people have fallen back on describing the character of Wonder Woman as ‘Superman lite’, his star-spangled female counterpart, rather than acknowledging the idiosyncratic points that make her such a unique heroine. By choosing to have her share panel time with Superman in what was to be her final issue, the result is a reinstating of that old assumption, a kind of step back from trying to set Diana with a unique place in the DCU. Even the cover to the issue, shown above, represents Diana in a diminutive position with regards to Superman, his shadow and presence gaining their overpowering context from her rather demure physical pose. The context of Infinite Crisis also accentuates the idea that Diana's personal narrative is being disregarded in favour of another narrative, even within her own book.

And so, from going forward so brightly in the previous issue, where the importance of Diana’s personal narrative seemed so clear, this issue does a hell of a good job reminding us that Diana’s story is one that is subject to the whims of higher powers and wider happenings. It is the comic book version of a TV ‘clip show’, and had it been entered somewhere else, i.e. as a chapter in an annual, a special, or some other collection of stories, or indeed even as an earlier issue, it might have been a good clip show. But in the context of being the final issue? It is a whimper rather than the bang Rucka’s run had consistently proven itself to be, and I suspect more of a testament to bad editorial decision-making than his writing. Still, I couldn’t help but feel short changed, and would be very interested to hear Rucka’s thoughts on the matter.

And yours.

alex x

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One Step Forward; Two Steps Back: Part One - Endings of the Amazon Princess

Back when I was at university, a bunch of us used to meet up in a café to conduct our seminars. One particular occasion we were chewing over postmodern philosophy a bit, trying to get our heads around it (or at least some of it). We were looking at the idea of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, a suspicion of anything that seeks to instate itself as the ‘grand story’ of what is and isn’t legitimate knowledge, the engendering of a state of questioning awareness, and scepticism of theoretical certainties. It was like studying finesse, always just about graspable, but it just had to feel right. It was also the makings of something of a paradox. For those of you familiar, and those of you interested even if not, one of the greatest critiques always fired at postmodern philosophy is the idea that postmodernism itself runs the risk of becoming a metanarrative, the kind it seeks to critique; it runs the risk of becoming arbiter to correct and incorrect modes of thought. By recommending scepticism of the rules, is it instating a rule? And the way postmodernism seems to flout that criticism is in its evasive style, in being enigmatic, and in the process, more than a little bit vague. Postmodern philosophy does a lot to critique, but does very little to suggest, to replace, to reinstate. It tears down houses, like science, like metaphysics, and it doesn’t bother building you a new one. In that way it, perhaps, avoids being accused of being a metanarrative, but it does then leave you thinking you’re out in the cold. If there are no true ways of doing things, no grand story of how things are supposed to be, what are you left with? Pragmatically, what do you do with postmodernism? If postmodern theoretical work does manage to escape the accusation of being a metanarrative, what alternative does it represent? If we are to remain incredulous to attempts at creating foundations of thought, what are we left with? If we’ve learned to question everything, if we’ve got the tools to cast down our most certain ideas, how do we move forward? And most importantly, how do we change the world?

The latter question bugged the hell out of me. I wanted to change the world. I still do, in all the idiosyncratic ways people do. I want people to be happier, and I want to celebrate difference without reifying it. I want to open things up, and get rid of a lot of other things altogether. I want to get rid of pineapple on pizza…(sorry Timmy), how does my incredulity, my critical finesse, my distrust of statements of truth help me change the world? How do I change the world if not by making up rules, by being certain and setting up foundations of thought and sanctioned forms of knowledge? The answer is lying in the pages of number 225, volume two, of Wonder Woman. The answer, is incrementally.

Throughout the issue, Athena takes us on a journey from the grand to the personal, she speaks to us of the crumbling of the Gods, and the endurance of Diana, not simply as their champion, but as her own. For those of you taking note, Athena’s appearances during Rucka’s run often portrayed her as playing chess with the characters of the storylines, pitting them against each other and manoeuvring them towards her endgame. The game of chess, as it begins, is open-ended. It has rules, but it also has a multitude of outcomes, dependent on the players. And as they are moved across the board, those outcomes become few, they become streamlined, and inevitability comes into play (the parallel between that process and the solidifying of discourses in the social world only just occurred to me). Athena plays the game of fate with the people on Earth, including Diana.

By issue 225, Athena’s chessboard is nowhere to be seen. She tells us that this is an end to the story, as it has been written from the beginning. The board is not gone because this is the end, nor is it gone because she has achieved her endgame. The board is gone because Athena’s quite possibly had a change of heart. For now she speaks to us of endings, plural. She’s done playing the game of fate, and with it goes the idea of a grand play in which all the cast have played a part. The Gods, as she informs us, are withdrawing from the stage, taking with it the certainty, finality, foundation they represent. She goes us a step further, she undermines the Gods to the reader, reducing them down to characteristics of pettiness and vanity. And in so doing, Athena encourages us to challenge what they represent, she gives us the encouragement to be incredulous, to critique, to question, by exposing their flaws. And then there is Diana.

Athena speaks of Diana with a curious turn of reverence, using the kind of devotion and deference in her exposition we would expect Diana herself to use in referring to the Gods. Athena is worshipping Diana, not as a God, but as a representative of humanity, as a champion of the personal and the individual. Athena, lovingly perhaps, speaks of Diana’s own strengths and flaws, hinting at her tragic complexity. Just as she speaks of the retreat of the Gods, she juxtaposes it with the endurance of Diana. And why is it that Diana will endure? Because, she contains within her the gifts of her Gods, without actually being one. Diana is a part of the grand story and ancient tradition, but she is not it. She will not stagnate, because she will always grow. She contains the ability to change and adapt that the Gods do not.

In the final pages, Athena speaks to us of change, and the great task of trying to change the world we live in. How, she asks, do we measure the success of a mission that seeks to change the cast of humanity’s heart? How do we change the world when it is so set in its certainties, in its foundations, in its Gods, in its metanarratives of what is and isn’t the right way of doing things? Incrementally. Bit by bit, piece-by-piece, person by person. Diana returns from her meeting with the Gods to be greeted by her friends and her supporters. Each has travelled far to see her, to offer support. She addresses each one, not as a mass, but individually, requesting names, asking them where they’re from. She does so because it’s the only way to do it, heart by heart. She’s going to change the world, and she’s going to do it by paying attention to each and every narrative of the people she meets. And she’s going to change with it in a way the grand stories never get to do.

In that single issue of Wonder Woman there seems to be that inspiration for my answer to the postmodern conundrum. I can’t hope to defend such a philosophical and theoretical framework against its critics. I’m not even going to try too hard. But I can change the world a little bit by sharing the things I feel I’ve learned, the questioning part of me, the critique, the incredulity to certainty. And by being comfortable with the uncertainty it has engendered (as I’ve mentioned before) and open to the conversations always already implied in my movements in the world, I stand the chance of learning to change as well as be changed.

alex x