Tag Archives: DC Comics

Superman and Nostalgia

10 Jul
Message of Hope or Greed?

Message of Hope or Greed?

Last night, my husband and I went to the movies, something very rare indeed, but the cinema not far from us has a deal of $6 tickets on Tuesdays — great deal.  We decided to see Man of Steel, primarily because we both loved the Christopher Reeve movie Superman (1978) and we both liked Henry Cavill in Stardust.

Sadly, I was exceedingly disappointed. Cavill does a good job, as does Amy Adams as Lois Lane, but the whole movie lacked a sense of humanity. It missed the opportunity to demonstrate how we are all called upon to work for the greater good — a conversation that seems to be in desperate need of life support in the 21st Century.

Man of Steel made me quite nostalgic for the Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. The 1978 version presents a picture of humanity and develops characters that I feel invested in and want to watch. The movie also had a richness of pathos and wit.  Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor was nothing less than brilliant, and Ned Beatty just adds to that brilliance. I would also argue that the 1978 version is very family friendly — there is not a lot of gratuitous violence. Finally, I’m just not convinced that anyone but our Terrence Stamp (Bernadette from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) can play General Zod.

Henry Cavill does a good job of playing Superman and he is certainly easy on the eyes, but his character lacks the humanity that Superman had with Christopher Reeve. Amy Adams starts off as a wonderfully strong and independent woman, but the character loses all credibility as a strong independent woman with the awful awful line: “What if I have to tinkle?”  Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Jor-El is a bit over the top and certainly lacks all of the humanity that Marlon Brando delivered. Alas, I think the worst crime of this movie was the 35 minutes of non-stop gratuitous violence that does nothing to move the story along, nor does it make us feel more invested in any of the characters.  Rather than watching a movie about the plight and hope for humanity, I felt as though I was watching a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

When I watch the 1978 version of Superman, I leave the movie inspired and hopeful that humans are capable of a transformative experience and that we are dedicated to the greater good for the greater cause.  I left Man of Steel feeling grateful I only paid $10 for my husband and me to see an enormous amount of violence and a rather nasty nationalistic, almost jingoistic message of patriotism.

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Wonder Women! Pop Culture and Feminist Role Models

24 Apr

Lynda-Carter-WWAsk someone to name a superhero, and the first answers you’ll get are almost always men. As with much of popular culture, the roles available for women in comics are often sadly subordinate. A wonderful new documentary explores this issue and the relationship between feminism and popular culture.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines was directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and produced by Kelcey Edwards and is featured on the PBS series Independent Lens. The hour-long documentary poses an important central question

What are the consequences for women when they are strong and when they are the central actors of their own lives?

The film is centered on one of the oldest and most well-known comic heroines, Wonder Woman. Created by psychologist William Moulton Marston as an antidote to what he saw as the overly violent and masculine world of 1930s comics, the Amazon princess has been a figure of admiration and scorn alike since her introduction in 1941.

Princess Diana has been rebooted and rewritten dozens of times (unlike her male colleagues) but still maintains a loyal following. Her treatment over 70 years has clearly reflected the ups and downs of feminism in this country. As women were driven from the workplace after WWII, so was Wonder Woman reduced to guest star in her own books. The notorious Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent shut down huge sections of the comic industry, made it clear that a strong woman must be a lesbian and was therefore not a fit model for children. As Second Wave Feminism got rolling, Wonder Woman lost her powers — it’s hard not to see a backlash correlation there. Despite everything the character has been through, however, she remains a strong symbol for millions of people, serving as a nice symbol of the undying spirit of feminism in the face of obstacles.

The documentary features insights from a wide variety of people. Gloria Steinem discusses the importance of strong women role models in all media, and other icons from the Bionic Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Xena are given their due. Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna takes a keen look at the backlash against feminism and the trivialization of strong women as merely sex symbols as the 20th Century came to a close. Comic historians and media analysts look at the roles of women over the decades, providing some sad and disturbing insights. With 97% of all decision-making positions in media held by men, it’s no surprise that women’s roles are narrow and hard to come by.

The film also remembers the groundbreaking 70s Wonder Woman series, featuring conversations with star Lynda Carter. She is outspoken about the power of the series for girls and women, however light the plots and dialogue may have been. We hear from Portlander Andy Mangels, the writer who created Wonder Woman Day, an annual comic store fundraiser for domestic violence shelters and programs. Given Diana’s mission to spread a message of peace and love in a violent world, that’s a perfect tribute.

Wonder Women! is a significant and fun look at 70 years of popular culture and how it succeeds — and fails — both to reflect our world and to inspire us. It serves as an excellent introduction to some important themes and provides a good jumping-off point for anyone interested in further study. The film is being rebroadcast on Independent Lens based on local PBS affiliate schedules; it can also be watched online at the series website.

Hero of the Week Award: April 12, the Trans100

12 Apr
Hero of the Week

Hero of the Week

This week it is a true pleasure to celebrate the first publication of the Trans100, a project to celebrate heroes in the transgender community. Curated by Toni D’Orsay of This Is HOW and Jen Richards of wehappytrans.com and supported by GLAAD, it’s the first effort of its kind. It is intended to become an annual effort and very much a work in progress. Richards notes in her introduction:

If you recognize that this project is incomplete, and yet still has much to offer, then we trust you will find what we did: an awe inspiring collection of one hundred amazing people doing important work. Not the only hundred. Not the hundred you agree with. But one hundred that reveal a cross-section of trans people active in the United States right now, that indicate the breadth and depth of the work being done by and for the community.

The focus is clearly on the work, as emphasized by the many wonderful people celebrated on the list. It’s a marvelous project, helping raise awareness and provide contacts and context for growing media attention around trans issues in the U.S.

It was a particular pleasure to see my dear friend Jenn Burleton celebrated on the Trans100. Jenn is the Executive Director  of TransActive here in Portland, a pioneering organization providing services to transgender and gender nonconforming children and youth. TransActive will be hosting an Open House on April 17 from 4 to 7.

Honorable mention this week goes to Gail Simone and DC Comics for introducing the first out transgender character in mainstream superhero comics. Simone is an immensely talented writer with a unique connection to her fans. She understands that the comic industry is still overdependent on characters that date back to the 50s and before, frequently falling short of representing modern readers and their communities. She introduced Alysia Yeoh in Batgirl #1 (Sept. 2011) as Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon’s roommate. In Batgirl #19, out this week, Alysia tells Barbara that she is transgender. Simone notes that comics (especially independent presses and “mature audience” books) have had some trans characters before, most of whom achieved gender-fluidity through fantastical means like magic, shape-shifting, brain-swapping, and cloning.

Those characters exist [and] that’s great, but I wanted to have trans characters who aren’t fantasy-based. And I feel like there’s a lot there yet to do.

Thank you, Gail Simone for your continuing efforts to move mainstream comics forward.

Hero of the Week Award: March 8, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

8 Mar
Hero of the Week

Hero of the Week

This week the NCAA provided much-needed leadership in the treatment of LGBT people in college athletic programs. Recognizing the rapid change in LGBT acceptance in all aspects of college life, the NCAA sought to provide a single, comprehensive resource for campuses. The elegantly titled Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student-Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs is a welcome guide. It provides Best Practices, Policicies, and Legal Resources along with sample discussions, resources for allies, and more detailed recommendations for all aspects of the recruitment-to-graduation process.

The guide’s introduction sets the stage clearly:

Athletics departments have a responsibility to ensure that all student-athletes have an opportunity to participate in a safe, inclusive and respectful climate where they are valued for their contributions as team members and for their individual commitment and character, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

Given the increasing focus on LGBT issues in professional and collegiate athletics, this single resource is very welcome indeed. Thank you, NCAA, for taking this important step. (The guide is available free of charge on the NCAA website.)

It’s been a good week for social justice, giving us two solid honorable mentions. The first goes to some performers who backed out of the 2013 National Scout Jamboree. Citing the Boy Scouts of America’s rabidly homophobic membership policy, pop-rockers Train derailed their participation on Monday. The very next day, singer Carly Rae Jepsen told the Scouts “Call me? No way.”

As an artist who believes in equality for all people, I will not be participating in the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree this summer.

Big thanks to GLAAD and Eagle Scout Derek Nance for bringing the Scouts’ practices to the attention of these performers.

Finally, some good news on a not-so-super situation at DC Comics. For a new digital-to-print series featuring Superman, the publisher contracted with crazed homophobe Orson Scott Card to write the first issue. Many comic shops have refused to order the issue and the push-back against DC has been strong, so far to no avail. Enter artist Chris Sprouse. Slated to pencil the Card story, Sprouse announced this week that he was not willing to be associated with the writer. The timing of his decision has forced DC to back-burner the story and rush out later issues to fill the gap. Hopefully Sprouse’s ethical stand will help the publisher to rethink their whole arrangement with Card.

DC’s Newest Gay Hero: Diversity or Tokenism?

27 Nov

DC's Newest Gay Hero, Bunker

As we noted here at TSM a while back, DC Comics’ “New 52” relaunch of all their titles has been a bit of a mixed bag. Many of the characters are getting truly fresh starts (especially Superman and Wonder Woman) while others are barely being tweaked (Batman and Green Lantern). One stated purpose of the relaunch was to make the DC universe more appealing to a broader cross-section of readers. The first month did a mediocre job in terms of bringing in more female readers and the subsequent two months haven’t improved on that much.

So how do LGBT characters fare in the New 52? As we reviewed before, Batwoman is still a strong lesbian character with a clear history that includes Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Former gay couple Apollo and Midnighter have been fully rebooted, so their new versions have just met, but the editors promise us that they will remain a couple. In the 31st Century, Legion members Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet are pretty clearly still a couple; recent additions (just before the relaunch) Gravity Kid and Power Lad have yet to be seen.

The biggest gay splash in September came from a character who was not actually seen in the comics until just last week, new Teen Titans member Bunker. Co-creators Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth indicated that they would be introducing Bunker, a gay teen from Mexico, in Teen Titans #3, which was released on November 23.

So how does Bunker stack up on a first read? Also a mixed bag. He’s a fairly flamboyant character, which is a departure from other gay superheroes. While some readers will find this an irritating stereotype, I actually found that aspect of the character refreshing; some gay men are flamboyant, and having one hero represent that part of the community is fine. Topping that off with a purple and pink costume and the power to generate purple psionic constructs, however, is a bit over the top. His dialogue is also pretty improbable, even for the character as briefly defined. He makes a casual reference to his own “cute butt” when speaking to a hobo he’s just met on a train, which screams stereotyping to me.

His Mexican heritage also reads as tokenism in this first appearance. His dialogue is pretty improbable, coming across more like an American teen who speaks Spanish as one language than someone from a “very small village” in Mexico. He peppers his speeches with random Spanish phrases (like “Madre de dios!”) which serves only as an irritating reminder that he’s part of a larger cultural fabric. We’ll see how his background is fleshed out; over a few issues many of these concerns may be eliminated, but the initial presentation feels very self-congratulatory.

I’m also concerned about writer Scott Lobdell’s ability to create a three-dimensional gay character. He did write the famous issue of Alpha Flight in which Northstar comes out, but the dialogue and characterization were pretty cardboard. He’s also responsible for the horrific rewrite of Starfire in the New 52, and his treatment of female characters (including Wonder Girl in a nurse’s uniform in this issue) is built heavily on objectification. Given his defense of that approach as “empowerment,” it’s clear that he doesn’t understand feminism; we’ll see how he does with a gay character.

Bunker’s first appearance lacks the subtle complexity of Marvel’s young gay couple, Hulkling and Wiccan, introduced a few years ago. The character may develop well, but the overt stereotyping in the first appearance isn’t promising. Fans of the Teen Titans will find Red Robin and Kid Flash compelling as characters but no real meat in the series so far. Readers interested in a strong gay character would be best advised to take a wait-and-see approach. The New 52 has a long way to go before it demonstrates diversity that even begins to approach the world it purports to reflect.

Women In Comics: A Look at DC’s New 52

2 Oct

September is over, and all 52 titles of the DC relaunch have been released. Given the furor surrounding the lack of women writers and the lack of visible female characters before the comics were available, how do things actually stack up? The answer is: not very differently than in the old DC universe. After reading 32 of the new titles (including all the titles with female leads) and reading multiple reviews of the remaining 20, the simple truth is that the balance of women in DC’s titles is pretty close to what it was.

While holding the status quo is better than a reduction, DC has really missed an opportunity. One stated purpose behind the New 52 was to make the comics more accessible and appealing to new readers. Given the fact that, despite stereotypes, there are plenty of women and girls who read comics, this was a perfect time to broaden the appeal of DC’s offerings. Instead, they opted to hold steady and, in some ways, reinforce the stereotype of mainstream comics as a boy’s world. Let’s take a look.

First, by the numbers:

  • 29 titles are solo male characters or male duos and groups
  • 11 titles are groups with mixed membership, most of which are predominantly male
  • 7 titles are female leads (including the team book Birds of Prey)
  • 5 are something else altogether, usually supernatural titles

A few of the ostensibly male-dominated comics have pleasant surprises in the supporting cast. Animal Man may feature Buddy Baker as its lead, but his wife, Ellen, is an important character in the story and is actually more thoroughly developed than many of the women who are leads in their own titles. Superboy also features a strong co-lead in the unfortunately unnamed woman who is the scientist overseeing the lab where he is being supervised (he’s a recently grown clone). Mr. Terrific, a mediocre relaunch of one of my favorite DC characters, also features Karen (Power Girl) Starr in a strong supporting turn.

In the team books, it’s a very mixed bag.

  • Justice League and Stormwatch are very male-dominated. The first issue of JL doesn’t even include the one female character (Wonder Woman). The Stormwatch cast is (so far) mostly men and the visible female characters are poorly developed. Green Lantern and the New Guardians has a slightly better ratio at this point, but the final makeup of the team is unclear; the writing is also distressingly macho, with a number of “scream like a girl” lines.
  • Justice League International, Teen Titans, Hawk & Dove, and Justice League Dark are much better balanced. The Wonder Girl in TT is a complex, promising character and Dove is a much more interesting counterpoint to Hawk than the previous version (although she has grown mysteriously more buxom). JLD features a number of strong women, including the very powerful villain and one of my favorites, Zatanna.
  • My longstanding favorite, the Legion of Super-Heroes, has two titles, the latest Legion of Super-Heroes title and Legion Lost. Of the 42 (really!) pre-relaunch Legionnaires,  13 were women. Eleven of the 27 members in the two books so far are women, including an impressive four out of five new members.
  • Suicide Squad and Red Hood & the Outlaws are moderately balanced, but feature some truly bad plot and character decisions that I’ll look at shortly.

And how are those seven books that feature women characters as leads?

  • Batgirl and Batwoman, both reviewed on TSM earlier, are outstanding. They are complex stories, well told, with strong characters.
  • Birds of Prey continues in its original vein, with strong female leads and promising plot points. Even without the wonderful Gail Simone writing the book, it is one of the more interesting books of the relaunch.
  • Supergirl and Wonder Woman are very interesting new interpretations of very longstanding characters. Supergirl is scripted as a very convincing teenager cast into a confusing situation. Wonder Woman’s world is creepy and mysterious, featuring the Greek deities who populated her previous incarnations; it’s also one of the most strikingly drawn books in the relaunch.
  • Voodoo, a character with whom I was unfamiliar, is an interesting mess. The lead character turns out to be a violent alien (who may not even be female?) and the plot is a bit sluggish. Interestingly, although the bulk of the story takes place in a strip club, the female supporting cast is well written and reasonable free of stereotypes and pointless titillation.
  • Last, but by no means least, there’s Catwoman. In many regards, this title is much like the two Bat-ladies. Selina Kyle is a complex, interesting, powerful woman. The overall story is interesting and well-paced. Unfortunately, the last several pages have become quickly infamous. Batman appears in Catwoman’s room and the two engage in a pointlessly drawn-out sex scene. While the clarification of the love-hate relationship between the two as a physical relationship is fine, the presentation is frankly bizarre. The best overall analysis of this gratuitous plot point is brilliantly provided by Savage Critic.

Catwoman’s soft-core porn (with costumes remaining on) is one of the major disappointments in the treatment of women in the New 52. Another is the treatment of the two female leads in Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn’s jester costume is replaced with a pointless bustier-dominated costume and the character is reduced from intriguing obsessive to stereotypical psychopath. Far more disturbing is the redesign of Amanda Waller. Originally a short, heavyset, African-American woman, Waller has long been a fan favorite for her strength of character, her guile, and her indomitable will. The fact that she did not have a typical super-hero hourglass figure made her an outstanding exception in DC’s cast. Sadly, the new Amanda Waller looks like a busty Halle Berry. What kind of message does that send?

If Superboy dressed like Power Girl...

An unfortunate trend in the new books is a superfluity of nude and lingerie scenes. At least six titles feature women in various states of undress. While there are reasonable circumstances (arising from sleep, changing clothes, being strippers) in each case, it is interesting to note that the male characters do not experience the same level of on-panel undress. (Two notable exceptions are Hawkman, who is discretely nude for several panels and Superboy, who spends much of his debut issue floating in a tank wearing a pair of bike shorts.)

Even when not in various states of undress, the female characters also tend to have much skimpier costumes than their male counterparts. In a world where all four of the Robin characters are allowed to wear long pants, it’s curious that the shorts and tank tops are so predominantly female. (Void-Star.net postulated a revised Superboy costume some time ago which underscores this point nicely.) There is nothing wrong with presenting the human body in a comic book (and it can be handled tastefully like the costume changing scene in Batwoman), but the imbalance smacks of objectification at best.

That leads us to the very worst moment for female characters in the relaunch. Frankly, it’s one of the worst-written characterizations I have ever seen in a comic. Starfire, a long-standing member of the Teen Titans, has always been a sensual woman comfortable with her body and sexuality. As originally written, however, she was independent, strong-willed, and though a bit naïve (she is from another planet, after all), intelligent and engaging. The new Starfire is nothing more than an animated toy for the male characters. Unable to distinguish between Earthlings and devoid of long-term memory, she pursues sex partners wantonly and without any apparent pleasure. A buxom, energetic, no strings attached sexpot, she is the worst stereotype of a straight teenage boy’s dream character. Readers (even those not long-term fans of the character) are justifiably outraged at this misogyny. Let’s hope the editorial team can find a way to write themselves out of this mess quickly.

The whole relaunch is a mix of the traditional, the unexpected, the sad misstep, and the pleasant surprise. The male-dominated books that I read featured some blunders not unlike those described in this post. The tragic difference is that a handful of badly-written male characters get lost in the very masculine mix. The exploitation and shallow characterization of a significant percentage of the limited female characters, on the other hand, sends a bad message to all readers, both male and female. Let’s hope that as the New DC progresses, the writers will take a lesson from Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, and Supergirl and find ways to present strong, varied, interesting female characters. After all, art is supposed to imitate life, isn’t it?

Women In Comics: Batwoman Relaunched

15 Sep

Batwoman was originally conceived for the worst of reasons. In response to the pressure brought to bear on the comic industry in the early 1950’s, DC comics created Kathy Kane, aka The Bat-Woman, as a female counterpart to and potential love interest for, Batman. Having Batwoman (as her name compressed to fairly quickly) around supposedly defused the “homosexual mystique” around Batman and Robin. It should be noted that this bleak period in Bruce Wayne’s career also featured the first “Bat-Girl” as Kane’s sidekick, the horrific sprite Bat-Mite, and (wait for it) Ace the Bat-Hound. Really.

When Julius Schwartz took over the editorial helm of the Bat-books in 1964, he jettisoned most of the peripheral characters and refocused the books on Batman and Robin as crime-fighters and detectives. Batwoman faded away, popping up a few times over the next forty years as DC continuity re-re-re-booted. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was brought back, totally re-invented.

Katherine “Kate” Kane is a Jewish socialite in Gotham City. She also happens to be a lesbian, a nice twist on the reasons for the original Bat-Woman’s creation. Her Batwoman is a strong character in her own right (not pulling exploding lipsticks and the like from her “utility purse” like her predecessor). In the five years since her debut, she has built a solid fan following and generally positive critical reaction. When DC announced its total recreation of its universe with this fall’s New 52, Batwoman was given her own title for the first time (having featured in Detective Comics most recently). Having seen the many changes served up for Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon, how does Batwoman fare?

Amazingly well, actually. Perhaps because she lacks the lengthy history and iconic status of some of the other characters, the reinvention of Kate Kane seems pretty minimal. The first issue does a nice job of (re)introducing the character and her supporting cast while introducing an intriguing (and creepy) new plot. The art is breathtaking. From a purely artistic standpoint, this issue is worth a look. J.H. Williams III serves as co-author and penciller and does an outstanding job of stretching what the page can do without overwhelming the reader.

Batwoman also remains a lesbian in this reinvented DC Universe. Given some of the less-than-delightful changes some of the female characters have experienced (the ridiculously skimpy new costume for Starfire and the apparent radical weight reduction of Amanda Waller, for example), this is a very good thing. More importantly, her sexual orientation is treated as a simple fact rather than a bludgeon. That’s true integration and good storytelling. I’ve had a good look at about half of the new DC titles so far, and Batwoman stands cowl and shoulders above the rest. Let’s hope DC can keep up the good work on this surprisingly innovative and interesting character.

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