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Archive for February, 2006|Monthly archive page

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2006 at 5:01 am

Vol. 2, No. 4
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In this issue:
a review of Amazing Spider-Man #529 / notes on a We3 companion video by Vitalic that will delight you, Marvel’s creative rebound, Quizilla: Marriage Edition / rants about artistic anticlimax

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

reviews

Amazing Spider-Man #529 (Marvel)
J. Michael Straczynski (Writer) / Ron Garney (Penciller) / Bill Reinhold (Inker) / Matt Milla (Colorist) / VC’s Cory Petit (Letterer)

Okay, okay, we’ve all enjoyed a good giggle about the Lovecraftian Spider Penis, and even a good groan at the No-Prize inspired, fourth-wall busting, eyeball-rolling smirk on page 4. But at the end of the day, this issue of Amazing Spider-Man was a very pleasant surprise.

Y’see, I’m one of those. You know the ones. Those guys who are suckers for cheap marketing gimmicks like costume changes, provided the new duds are attractive. There’s just something about old wine in new bottles that I’m powerless to resist—a shocking confession on a nostalgia-drenched site like this one, I’m sure.

Of course, if the wine has fermented, not even a snazzy new bottle is going to make me drink more than a sip. In the case of Amazing Spider-Man #529 and the (apparently much reviled) “Iron Spidey” suit, though, I quite happily finished the bottle and find myself feeling a little drunk. So drunk, in fact, that I’m thinking seriously about investing in a whole case. Maybe even buying into the winery again.

The thing is, I haven’t read Spiderman regularly for years—literally not since Todd McFarlane was drawing Amazing back in the late 1980s. And this absence is despite the fact that Spider-Man is, conceptually, one of my favorite Marvel characters. Despite the fact, too, that I remember many stories from that era with great fondness: the delightfully interminable Hobgoblin mystery by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, the “Gang War” story by Tom, Jim Owsley, and Alan Kupperberg, the “Missing in Action” crossover within the Spidey-titles, and of course the tour de force by J. M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, and Bob McLeod, “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” What ever happened to that Spidey? Every now and then, I pick up an issue of Amazing, just to see what’s new, and I’ve flirted with returning in a serious way several times before, usually whenever it looks like the new bottle is shiny enough and that it really does contain a hint of that old grape, some stash that was blessedly preserved in a connoisseur’s secret wine cellar when someone let the Spider Clones loose to trash the liquor store.

One issue isn’t enough to convince me, but Amazing Spider-Man #529 has a lot going for it, not the least of which is Ron Garney and Bill Reinhold’s fantastic visuals. Garney is, to me, the perfect Spidey-artist: his pencils are loose and dynamic, reminiscent of all the best Spidey artists since the 80s: Sal Buscema, Ron Frenz, and John Romita Jr. And I have to say it: I really dig the way he draws the new Spidey costume in this issue.

There are, of course, lots and lots of things that seem “wrong” with the new costume, perhaps most of all its implicit heaviness. Spider-Man is supposed to be light on his feet, not weighed down by body armor. And he’s supposed to be vulnerable too—that’s precisely what makes him the quintessential Marvel character. That scene in which Peter (facetiously?) asks Tony for heat vision and rocket-boot enhancements is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that the new suit makes Spidey absurdly powerful. Indeed, the new suit seems to rob Spidey of everything that makes him, well…Spidey! (And I must say, at least give him four golden Spidey-legs so that he has eight appendages in all—or are we actually supposed to count “eight” already, and Quesada really is having a Spider-penis joke on us after all??)

But here’s the thing that redeems the new Spidey costume for me. It isn’t just that it looks slick, but that it, and the new powers that accompany it, finally defamiliarize Spider-Man for us again, so that we can feel the danger that Peter feels when he leaps off that roof and must trust in the new suit’s ability to allow him to glide safely down to the street. The scene where Peter steps into space to the immortal words of “…here goes nothinnnnnngggggg!” is an obvious quotation of a similar scene in Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman film, where Peter first has to trust that his webbing will allow him to swing safely through the city. And it works: despite the seemingly invulnerable suit, we still get a little taste of vulnerability in that moment.

The action sequences of this issue of Amazing are also designed, it seems, to quell our anxiety that the new suit fundamentally violates the most basic aspects of Spidey’s character. The cute quips as he lands on the roof of a speeding car and peels it open to confront the sleaze bags and the wonderful bit of business where he steers the car with his webs, while riding it like a surf board over the 59th Street Bridge while singing Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) (loved this!!). This song is at the core of the issue’s management of the potential problems created by the new costume—it’s a metaphor for all the lightness and “gooviness” that the more militaristic “Iron Spidey” costume risks undermining. The song is the perfect encapsulation of the joyfulness and the freedom from care that one associates with Spidey’s swings through the city. Here are the lyrics, and here is a brief audio clip (click the link on the right hand side of the screen) for anyone too young to not know this sublime ode to everyday happiness by heart. So yeah, when Spidey turns into Superman, deflecting a thug’s bullet off his back at the end of this issue, it still “feels” like Spider-Man, at least to me. For once, it feels like something’s gone right for old Spidey—he’s got cause for “feelin’ groovy,” and so do we.

The other great thing about this issue—the thing that makes this feel like a real Spider-Man comic—is the way it combines a sense of fun with an equal sense of impending doom. I could be totally off-base here, but after much mental resistance and even a bit of trash-talking, I’m actually getting kind of interested in this whole Civil War business. I don’t really have much of an opinion about whether or not the new Peter Parker/Tony Stark relationship makes sense—I’ve never read an issue of Iron Man in my life, but I am so far enjoying the new situation, and Straczynski’s comment that Peter is a guy who might have a weakness for father-figures rings true. The exciting thing about the “blood oath” that is given at the end of this issue is that it promises to embroil Spider-Man in a conflict with some real stakes. I’m hopeful that it will generate the kind of turmoil and anguish in the Spider-books that give meaning to those precious moments when Spidey and the reader genuinely are feelin’ groovy.

notes

We3: The Companion Video by Vitalic

Attention: fans of the Morrison/Quitely animal story masterpiece. Have you seen this? Just…wow. It takes a minute to load, but it’s worth it. Courtesy of the unbelievably awesome Cliptip.

A Marvel Renaissance?

Building on last week’s gushing about Quesada’s Alpha Flight and Moon Knight news, my excitement about some of Marvel’s upcoming events continues to grow:

These tidbits from the Marvel Mondo panel at the New York Comic Con sound very interesting:

Brian K. Vaughan is writing a new Doctor Strange limited series with art by Marcos Martin, featuring a slightly tweaked version of the costume. (Despite what I said about Spidey’s new duds, I could do without the costume tweak on Strange—his costume is already magnificent. Still, Marcos Martin is a huge talent and Vaughn on Strange sounds like a great pairing.)

And this sounds absolutely incredible: Two Gun Kid by Dan Slott and Eduardo Barretto. The main story will run 22 pages, and will feature a six page backup by Keith Giffen and Mike Allred starring Hugo, the midget cowboy who appeared in an early issue of Two Gun Kid. (Slott, Giffen, and Allred will no doubt do bang-up jobs, but the real excitement for me is seeing Eduardo Barretto’s work again. I had a hard time adjusting to the transition from Perez to Barretto back when the latter took over art chores on The New Teen Titans, but grew to love his work. A western is a perfect fit—should be classic.) In a similar vein, this also sounds promising: Strange Western Starring Black Rider by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, with an 8-page backup by Joe Lansdale art by Spanish artist Rafa Garres. Cool!

And check out this insanity:

Quesada went on to announce John Romita Jr. will be the artist of Neil Gaiman’s upcoming Eternals limited series, launching in June ’06.
Romita said when drawing Eternals, he plasters his office with Jack Kirby art, and lets loose. Quesada said the Gaiman project will work to tie the Eternals into the fabric of the Marvel Universe. “By the time we’re done, Jack’s creation will be a fertile part of the Marvel Universe. The Eternals will be that ‘other race’ that we need, alongside humans and mutants.” Gaiman will also be setting things up for more Eternals stories afterwards.

I loved Kirby’s Eternals and John Romita Jr. is an outstanding choice for artist. I cannot wait for this, especially having seen some of Romita Jr.’s preliminary sketches. Drool.

Oh, and speaking of cosmic, I seem to be working myself into a bit of a froth about Annihilation by Keith Giffen, Scott Kollins, and Ariel Olivetti. (Thanks to Filipe for reminding me about Giffen’s involvement in this in the comments section to SA 2.3.) This recent Q&A at CBR with Keith Giffen and editor Andy Schmidt should be enough to whet any cosmic Marvel fan’s appetite. Here’s a preview of Kolins’s pretty pictures too.

Finally (and I know this image is old news), there’s something kind of thrilling about this intensely nostalgic cover:

I’ve had a hard time caring about the X-Men since Morrison left (even Whedon’s Astonishing has left me kind of lukewarm); maybe Brubaker and Tan will be the ones to change that. And if not, at least I can drool over Simone Bianchi’s lastest masterworks:

Is it just me, or do these feel like syntheses of Bill Sienkiewicz and Barry Windsor-Smith circa 1984? More please!

Which Superhero Are You? Marriage Edition

Neurotic? Anxious? Married to an amazing woman who is too good for me? Really, could there have been any other result?

Your results: You are Spider-Man

You are intelligent, witty, a bit geeky and have great power and responsibility.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

My wife is never one to resist a quiz (or my transparent attempts at flattery), so when she saw this, she too wanted to play.

Her results: You are Superman

You are mild-mannered, good, strong and you love to help others.

Click here to take the “Which Superhero am I?” quiz…

I’ll never look at an image like this quite the same way again!

rants

Not With a Bang But a Whimper

Have I mentioned how much I hate it when really strong multi-part storylines end up having their climactic chapters illustrated by guest-pencillers? This seems particularly to happen during the final issues of long-running series that are either being cancelled or that are about to be rebooted with much fanfare.

There are too many examples to count, of course, but the most egregious of these for me was the shameful wrap-up of the second Outsiders series back in the early 90s when Erik Larsen was brought in to complete the awful, awful Millennium crossover that brought that book to its excruciating conclusion by revealing Dr. Jace as a traitor, “killing” Metamorpho, and disbanding the team. It was a crummy way to end things, made even worse by the incredibly jarring shift in artistic styles from Aparo to Larsen. (This is a rather idiosyncratic example, I know. I’m sure you can think of better ones.)

I’ve been particularly irritated about this with regard to the (semi-)wrap up of the Jason Todd storyline in Batman. This story represents some of Winick’s best DC work; it is an important story in its own right; and it seems to be significant, too, with regard to setting up the OYL DCU. It should have been Doug Mahnke all the way. And if it couldn’t be (he’s doing such nice work over on Morrison’s Frankenstein that I can hardly complain too bitterly about losing him on this title), then DC should, at the very least, have found someone who drew in a similar style to complete the storyline in Batman—particularly given that it will all be collected as a trade. I have nothing against Eric Battle and Rodney Ramos, but come on! The story may end with an explosion, but I’m feeling a little…I dunno. Pfft.

Please feel free to vent your own “not with a bang but a whimper” gripes below.

SPOILERS ABOUND: an occasional digest of reviews, notes, and rants

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2006 at 4:07 am

Vol. 2, No. 3
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In this issue:
reviews of All-Star Superman #2 and JSA #82 / notes on One Year Later, Frankenstein/Swamp Thing, goatees in Green Arrow, Alpha Flight, Moon Knight, and more Quizilla nonsense / rants about buttons (yes, you heard me: buttons)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

reviews

All-Star Superman #2 (DC Comics)
Grant Morrison (Writer) / Frank Quitely (Penciller) / Jamie Grant (Inker and Colorist) / Phil Balsman (Letterer)

A brilliant follow-up to the first issue—but you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?

There is, surely, enough patented Morrison/Quitely-style “wonder” in Lois’s tour of the Fortress of Solitude to seduce even the sternest critic of Morrisonian future-nostalgia. As always, Morrison’s imagination thrives on breathtakingly simple “hey-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” contrasts of scale that make us gasp precisely because their grandeur seems so elemental. The page on which Superman makes like Hephaestus at the forge to create miniature suns on a cosmic anvil to feed his baby Sun-Eater, for instance, is magnificent. Pure magic.

The heart of this issue, though, is not Superman’s god-like stature (he makes little suns to feed his pet!), but his newly discovered mortal dilemma: how to tell Lois that he is dying from his exposure to the heart of the sun in issue #1. His dinner with Lois aboard the real Titanic—that ultimate symbol of hubris brought low—picks up on the Icarus motif of the first issue and obviously symbolizes Superman’s own impending doom as he tries once again to convince Lois that he and Clark Kent are the same person—to no avail. This is, of course, only a half-confession, pointing in the direction of that ultimate confession that he is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a superman, but merely a man.

The scene where a slouchy Clark Kent looks at his buff Superman reflection in a mirror epitomizes this melancholy situation. “Superman” is now just an image in a glass—only mortal Clark Kent is real.

Superman’s birthday surprise of a temporary power-granting supersuit for Lois is thus particularly touching. Already on page 4, Superman is talking about sidekicks and telling Lois, “I always wondered if I should have taken a partner.” In a very real sense, of course, Lois herself already is Superman’s partner. But this isn’t quite what he means, and we can understand why, even under the best of circumstances, Lois might have some difficulty imagining a “partnership” with Superman that did not seem distressingly unequal. (Under the influence of the paranoia-inducing alien chemicals from Superman’s lab, Lois imagines that he has brought her to the Fortress “to be the mother of a race of deformed superhuman horrors.”) What Lois doesn’t realize yet is that the dying Superman’s handiwork on a super sewing machine with diamond-tipped needles has made it possible for her to be a more genuine partner to Superman (at least for 24 hours). This gift also hints that Superman’s own fantasy is that Lois might one day serve as his replacement. “One day some future man or woman will open that door with that key,” Superman tells Lois on page 9, shortly after Lois has found herself unable to lift the half a million ton key made of “super-dense dwarf star material.”

Lois could well become that future woman, though she would do so, ultimately, as Superman’s heir, not his partner. What we might be watching over the course of the issue is a superman making the first tentative preparations for passing on his legacy in the face of his own impending death. For this reason, (from Superman’s perspective) his presentation of her birthday gift is limned with sadness. He will get his partner—but only for a brief time.

Of course, we may not feel the pathos of this situation viscerally because the story is told mainly from Lois’s perspective, and through this expedient, Morrison and Quitely keep the tone marvelously light. As a reading experience, “Superman’s Forbidden Room” is a sort of ironic variant on the Bluebeard story in which the heroine is lured to a castle owned by a powerful patriarch, given the run of the entire fortress, but forbidden to enter one secret chamber, where she will discover both terrible knowledge and her ultimate fate. (Marc Singer pointed out the Bluebeard connection here.) In the Bluebeard fairytale, as everyone knows, the heroine is the patriarch’s new wife and Bluebeard himself is a sort of homicidal serial monogamist who kills every woman that he marries; the secret chamber contains their severed heads mounted on the wall, and his newest wife is of course unable to resist transgressing the fatal interdiction not to enter.

(Keys abound in that story to signify the protagonist’s acquisition of forbidden knowledge—just as they do in this one.)

In Morrison and Quitely’s version, however, female “transgression” is rewritten as “initiation” so that meaning of events is reversed: Lois is not married to the patriarch but independent and capable; the patriarch’s own power is on the wane and up for grabs (indeed, he sews magical garments, like a postmodern fairy godfather!); the forbidden room is not the location where the heroine will risk losing her life by being beheaded, but on the contrary will be reborn (it is Lois’s birthday) to possess the patriarch’s power. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber hardly does a better job of amplifying the feminist content of the classic Bluebeard fairytale in her own brilliant narrative of female initiation and empowerment!

This is the best series that DC is currently publishing, and Morrison and Quitely will no doubt be remembered as one of the best creative teams on Superman of all time. How’s that for courting controversy?

JSA #82 (DC Comics)
Paul Levitz (Writer) / George Perez (Penciller) / Bob Wiacek (Inker) / Tom Smith(Colorist) / Rob Leigh (Lettererer)

JSA #82 was a real treat. Paul Levitz and George Perez on JSA? Bring on the old guys!

In his generally favorable review of this issue’s return to “traditional” comics storytelling, Paul King of ComicBloc Forums writes:

I want to impress you with something: There are 161 panels in this issue and one splash page. Compare this to Superman/Batman #13 drawn by popular artist Michael Turner which has 73 panels and 4 splash pages. Perez gives us almost three times the story without feeling cluttered. This goes back to my point of being ‘traditional without being antiquated’. Where Perez’s art lacks in dynamics it makes up for in craftsmanship. Each line feels planned with depth and purpose. I long for more modern comics with this level of storytelling on every page.

While I can’t agree that Perez’s art lacks “dynamics” (sacrilege, Paul!), I heartily endorse the sentiment that JSA #82 is an object lesson in the virtues of a high panel-count and “traditional” storytelling more generally. The ten-panel opening page, depicting the city at night as the “camera” gradually zooms in on the JSA’s headquarters, entering through an open panel on the roof and surprising Ma Hunkle on the stairs is a classic and classy way of establishing the story’s setting and tone. The darkness, the storm, and the seemingly violated mansion/sanctuary establish just the sort of “dark-and-stormy-night” atmosphere necessary for the ghost story that is at the heart of the Golden Age story-within-a-story in this issue, featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash battling Gentleman Ghost (one of the most visually perfect of DC’s older villains) . The rainy opening also establishes the emotional tone of the frame-story in this issue, in which Power Girl struggles with the terrible dilemma that Superman and Superboy Prime have placed on her shoulders in Infinite Crisis #3: whether or not to help replace the current Earth with the “original” Earth 2. The storm in the opening scene is a symbol of Kara’s own turbulent emotions, just as the rain anticipates the tears of the story’s final frame.

Both the frame-story and the Golden Age tale are about strong women—Power Girl and Lois Lane—who face difficult decisions. Levitz and Perez make nice contrasts between them, establishing Lois as a tireless truth-seeker and Kara as a someone for whom the very issue of truth (which is the “true” earth? Does the “truth” even matter if it means killing millions of people?) has become a moral muddle, or at least an impossible burden.

In Infinite Crisis, it is the Golden Age Lois (not Superman) who is emerging as the dying and far-seeing “spirit” or moral center of the 1950s DCU, and Power Girl is emerging as a more troubled, untested embodiment of the penetrating moral vision that Lois displays in JSA #82. “You were never too good at knowing the difference between what’s real and what’s not, dear,” Lois thinks, tellingly, about her Golden Age Clark, at the same time that she is writing her “last exclusive” about having dwelt for so long in the false “heaven” Luthor created for himself, Lois, Superman, and Superboy at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths: “this impossible place” where “everything around us is a phony [as] Mr. Mxyztplk’s tricks…just cotton candy illusions in our minds.”

One suspects, therefore, that Lois’s illness in Infinite Crisis is not due to her new proximity to what the Golden Age Superman calls the “corrupted” Earth 1, but is either simply a natural process of dying with which Lois herself is already making peace in JSA #82 (“We’ve been in this impossible place for so long that when I die, I’ll be ready for heaven or hell….I’m content Clark. Content with my life, and with facing the truth…even now”) or a symbol of the corruptions inherent in her own Superman’s black and white Old Testament morality—i.e. it is ironically his actions, spurred on by Luthor, and not the “corrupted” post-Crisis Earth 1, that are (literally?) killing her.

My own current theory is that Infinite Crisis will turn out to be the final nail in the coffin of the four characters left floating on a space-rock at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths, an extended meditation on the need to acknowledge the finality of death and the necessity of mourning. The leitmotif of “legacy” in nearly all of Geoff Johns’s work is not unrelated to this theme, for “legacy” is a secular version of the afterlife that rejects metaphysical consolations like “heaven” as so many “cotton candy illusions in our minds.” Infinite Crisis, in other words, will perhaps provide a more genuinely secular ending to the Golden Age Superman and Lois Lane than Wolfman and Perez provided in the original Crisis. (Though one could also argue, conversely, that Johns and his crew will provide a more religious ending than Wolfman and Perez did, substituting the possibility of a “real” heaven for a fake one.)

At any rate, JSA #82 adds new layers to these and other questions raised by Infinite Crisis, in addition to providing a rollicking good tale of ghostly skullduggery. The scenes where Batman scuffles with the ghost in Bruce Wayne’s library is a highlight, as are the interactions between bumbling Clark and long-suffering Lois.

Oh, and one final point about Lois Lane’s steno pad and the shorthand “code” that Ma Hunkle deciphers for Power Girl. I love the prominence that DC is giving to its female characters in this story. Wonder Woman’s murder of Max Lord brought boos from some quarters, but I loved it, and I love even more the emergence of Power Girl as a major new character and the recuperation of Lois as both the heart and head of an earlier DC era. As Ma Hunkle muses near the end of this issue, “Lois was right. The men. They never get it. For all the battles, all the world-saving… We understand life and death, Karen. And what matters.” Levitz may be accused of a kind of paternalistic romanticism or hollow feminist piety for writing lines like this, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t make for powerful storytelling. How wonderful, then, that this issue is built around the conceit of a secret yet utterly public female “code,” the “secret code” of secretaries, a role, as Ma Hunkle observes, that, once upon a time, extended to Hippolyta herself! (“Imagine, Wonder Woman as Secretary [of the JSA]!” she says on page 4. “Good thing she had a sense of humor, back before she met Gloria Steinem and signed onto that movement of whatever it was.”) Through the use of shorthand, Levitz evokes the paradoxes of female power, historically, in the DCU, and points to the way in which one of the most important gestures of feminist thought has been the recuperation of a powerful feminist tradition that existed avant la lettre, so to speak. Hippolyta as both Wonder Woman and secretary epitomizes the way that powerful superwomen were contained by the sexism of the genre (a paradox that once applied to the Golden Age Lois as empowered reporter/girlfriend-victim as well). However, Lois’s “coded” steno pad turns this old paradox on its ear: not only is this Golden Age Lois an empowered and tireless truth seeker, she writes this truth in a semi-public code that is only interpretable by other women. What Levitz is doing in JSA #82 is glossing (and to some extent reinventing) a buried feminist tradition in DC comics. This is great storytelling, and it is great fun to watch.

notes

DCU OYL: Let Me Get This Straight…

As if the engrossing, wallet-emptying Infinite Crisis weren’t enough, over the next few months I will be enjoying:

The weekly 52 series, written by Geoff Johns (!!), Grant Morrison (!!), Greg Rucka (!), and Mark Waid (!), with Keith Giffen (!) helping with plot and doing breakdowns, illustrated by Joe Bennet (!), Ken Lashley, Chris Batista, Don Kramer, Shawn Moll, Dale Eaglesham (!!), and Eddy Barrows, with covers by J. G. Jones (!).

A huge JSA arc by Paul Levitz (!), Rags Morales (!!), and Luke Ross, with covers by George Perez (!!!).

Justice League of America by Brad Meltzer (!!) and Ed Benes (!).

James Robinson’s (!!) 8-part Batman/Detective Comics crossover, followed by Grant Morrison (!!!) becoming the regular writer on Batman.

Geoff Johns (!!) and Kurt Busiek’s (!) Superman/Action Comics crossover.

Gail Simone’s (!!) new Secret Six series spinning out of my favorite mini from last year, Villains United.

Greg Rucka’s (!) new Checkmate series whose characters include Fire, Amanda Waller and the Suicide Squad (!!).

An ongoing Shadowpact series written and drawn by Bill Willingham (!!).

Kurt Busiek (!) and Butch Guice’s (!!) salmon and sorcery series, Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis.

A reinvigorated Teen Titans in which Geoff Johns (!!) promises a new, more character-driven approach to writing the team and Tony Daniel promises a more polished, realistic style of art (!).

More Birds of Prey by Gail Simone (!!).

All this and a gorgeous-looking, shrouded in mystery, all-new Flash series?

Am I dead? Is this fanboy heaven?

Frankentstein vs. Swamp Thing: Red Mars/Blue Heaven (DC/Vertigo)
Grant Morrison and Alan Moore (writers) / Doug Mahnke and Rick Veitch (artists)

DC’s greatest monsters go head-to-head in a battle for supremacy over monochromatic planets and other, nebulously defined metaphysical stakes. Four issues. Prestige format. Tell me this isn’t gold.

Some Kind of Goatee Measuring Contest? Green Arrow #59

I may be reading too much into things, here, but I find it curious that our goatee-sporting hero is locked in a death match with not one but two villains with ’stacheless Norris Skipper or “petit” goatees.

Is Winick implying some connection between ’stacheless goatee styles and criminality? Is there something “unbalanced” about Merlin and Dr. Light’s naked upper lips that hints at a more disturbing imbalance within?

Alpha Flight: Poised for Takeoff?

Joe Quesada’s weekly (daily?) spin sessions at Newarama usually aggravate the hell out me (exhibit A), but like the proverbial traffic accident bystander, I cannot look away. This time, at least, there was some good news:

Well as you know, Alpha Flight had a little bit of trouble in the most recent issue of New Avengers. Heck, I hear that the entire nation of Canada has declared war on Brian Bendis. Anyway, just so Alpha flight folk don’t spend the entire weekend bummed out, don’t worry too much because there are big plans in the works for our Canadian super team. I think when it all comes to fruition; all our Marvel faithful north of the border are going to be thrilled.

I’m always fascinated to see how Canada looks when viewed from the south, but even more than that, I just flat out like Alpha Flight. In its first couple of years the original title showcased some of the best work of John Byrne’s writer/artist career (certainly some of his best covers!), and the series went on to become one of my favorite second-string Marvel super team books (in the tradition of the Defenders and the West Coast Avengers). I hated—in fact, loathed—the “comedic” Alpha Flight revamp of a few years ago, so I’m very happy to hear that there are plans afoot for a relaunch. Of course, it could always end up being a giant cock-up. Fingers crossed.

Here’s a great Alpha Flight fan site for anyone who shares my excitement.

MKMK: The Moon Knight We Never Knew We Wanted?

And while I’m on the subject of exciting Marvel relaunches, let me just note that I’m eagerly anticipating the new Marvel Knights Moon Knight series by Charlie Huston and David Finch. At first I was disappointed that David Finch was leaving New Avengers after such a short stint, but when Bendis’s writing on New Avengers took such a harsh nosedive I could only think that Finch had dodged a bullet. I’ve never really followed Moon Knight’s previous adventures very faithfully, but I (like everyone else) love the character’s look. (Perhaps his blankness makes him more amenable to our fanboyish projections and pretensions to, uh, y’know…badassishness.) Normally, I don’t go in for the kind of mean streets bone crunching that Huston is promising, but this new series looks too damn cool to resist. For more, check out this interesting interview with Huston at Buzzscope.

More Quizilla Nonsense

Which Peanuts Character are You?

Rerun
You are Rerun!

Which Peanuts Character are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

How Will “Jim Roeg” be Defined in the Dictionary?

Jim Roeg —

[adjective]:

Extremely extreme!

‘How will you be defined in the dictionary?’ at QuizGalaxy.com

I have charm?

rants

Button-Crazy

I went crazy this weekend. Button-crazy. I’m still not entirely sure what happened.

A kind gentleman from Blogflux sent me a link to their free button-maker some time ago and I ignored it quite happily for several months. But then, I was bored and clicking around, and all of a sudden, I was making buttons. Crazy numbers of buttons in every sort of color and design. Once I started, I found it difficult to stop. I set a challenge for myself: to make buttons for all the links on this site. Buttons that would ape the basic color-scheme of the site to which they were attached (something that proved to be more difficult than it seemed as Blogflux’s color choices are not as extensive as Blogger’s). It was a fun process, rather like painting on a grain of rice, I expect. There is something extremely enjoyable about trying to be creative within a fairly narrowly prescribed set of parameters, and working with Blogfux’s button-maker was a prime instance of that. My hope was that, by the end, I would have a set of links that were easier to navigate because the colors of the buttons would remind me of the sites to which they led.

Another part of this reorganization of my links was a switch from listing sites by title to listing them by the blogger’s name. I am, at best, a sporadic visitor of other blogs—mainly because I’m already burning the candle at both ends and never seem to have enough time. I am, unfortunately, a binge visitor rather than a regular reader. I also have a terrible memory. Consequently, except for the very few sites that I do check out on a semi-regular basis, I’m always forgetting whose site is whose and even what each site is about. The switch from titles to names combined with the color coding of each button was designed to identify each site more distinctively and to embed each blog more firmly in my memory as well as in my sidebar.

On the whole, I think the new scheme is working, though with somewhat mixed results aesthetically. The colors are a bit brighter than I’d like, and I will no doubt return to Blogflux to redesign some of the buttons at some point. More talented people than I have also shared some of their own self-designed buttons with me—notably Neil from Neilalien who designed a really cool button for his own site some time ago. (Thanks Neil!)

The main problem with my new scheme is that group blogs get short-changed in the name department: there isn’t room for two names on a single button, so I am forced into a cruel decision: either I must sacrifice the fundamental principle of the new order (names instead of titles) or I must design anywhere from 2-12 buttons for a single group blog to represent the name of each blogger who contributes to it. This would be no problem for a Blog like John Jakala and Ed Cunard’s The Low Road, but would be a nightmare for, say, Snark Free Waters. And what would be the point anyway, since the links are merely supposed to be functional, not actually an index of individuals? For me, this was one of those unusual situations in which my deranged system-building impulse and fascist aesthetic sensibility were actually smashed into submission against the brick wall of common sense. I went with option A and sacrificed the cornerstone of the new regime, resulting in a blogroll made up of a messy combination of the names of individual writers and the (often abbreviated) titles of group blogs. I’m still smarting from this compromise, but learning to live with the pain.

The ultimate appeal of the buttons, for me, is their orderly appearance. I love the symmetry of those two straight lines of buttons in the same way that I love reorganizing the kitchen cupboards or my filing cabinets or my list of Favorites. Real life may feel like a chaotic mess, but at least I’ve got buttons.

And there are more to come. Oh yes.

An Archaeology of Affect: What I Learned About Gender from Defenders #53

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2006 at 2:17 am

In retrospect, it’s clear that the cover image of Defenders #53 (November 1977) was responsible for the my purchase of Avengers #176 (October 1978)—or at least that my attraction to both of these comics stemmed from some common impulse. What was this impulse, I wonder? Why these two comics in particular? What were they to me back then? Why was I drawn to them? And what makes them feel so much like enchanted objects—Spell Books or Arcana—even now?

I should begin by noting that cover compositions like these were something of an obsession for me in 1977—the year I turned five. My fascination with images of gigantic, crackling, energy beings and cowering heroes likely originated with the similarly constructed cover for Fantastic Four #184 (July 1977), on which the Eliminator towers menacingly over the helpless FF. I had acquired this mysterious and thrilling item a few months earlier and had been reading and rereading it with quiet intensity ever since—with a little help from my mom and dad!

Together, these three covers form a sort of triptych of my early unconscious: Fantastic Four #184 is the central panel, flanked by Defenders #53 on the left and Avengers #176 on the right. What was it about this design in particular that made my hand reach out so instinctively and so decisively, again and again?

One possible answer to this question suggests itself when I look at the two most similar of those three covers: Defenders #53 and Avengers #176. They are similar in the way that mirror images are similar—which is to say inverted or complementary: the first cover features the explosive figure of a woman (the Red Guardian), the second, the explosive figure of a man (Korvac, a.k.a “The Enemy”). This relationship of “inverted” similarity is reinforced by the comics’ titles, which are not only complementary (Defenders/Avengers) but have gender connotations that seem actually embodied by the female/male images on these particular covers. By some happy cosmic accident, these absolutely symmetrical covers were published only a year apart, at a time when I was young enough to feel that comics were like signals from the stars, profound messages from a distant planet or from beneath the crust of this one, artifacts, alien or ancient, intended exclusively for me. The messages contained in these artifacts had to do with difference—gender difference in particular—and as I was to discover, these messages were not confined to the covers, but inhered in the conceptual symmetry of the Defenders and Avengers teams themselves.

Once I discovered the Avengers, I was surprised to learn that the Defenders (in both concept and name) was “secondary,” a “sister” book to the former. As I later understood more explicitly, it was the “non-team” to the fully sanctioned, “official,” archetypal Marvel team. (De Beauvoir’s critique of woman as “other” in The Second Sex is perhaps not a frivolous touchstone for the distinctions I was beginning to make). That this difference was reflected through the implied gendering of the teams’ names—the more aggressively reactive, stereotypically masculine Avengers to the more passive, stereotypically feminine Defenders—was not lost on me. (This relation of original and repetition, Adam and Eve, was perhaps suggested as well by the large difference in the two series’ numeration—only at #53, The Defenders had obviously come along quite a bit later.)

What I saw in these two covers, then—what steered my hand to pluck them from the random assortment of other comics on the newsstand—were potent archetypes of male and female embodiment: what seemed, at the time, to be boiled down essences of gender difference—indeed, essences that still boiled in a cosmic soup of Kirby dots. These images became emblematic of these two Marvel series; these series, in turn, became the bearers of a kind of inarticulate affect—a feeling about gender difference—that stayed with me throughout childhood and even beyond. It was here, on the covers of Avengers #176 and Defenders #53 that I mapped most powerfully my early (and, at first, woefully simple) ideas about what it meant to be a boy or a girl. Korvac was my Adam, the Red Guardian my Eve. With the evocative precision of Tarot cards, these covers etched themselves deep into memory as icons of Emperor and Empress.

That the framing of gender in the titles and images of these two covers furnished a rather sexist model of difference (in that it saw the female half as secondary and passive) goes without saying. I’ll come back to this point in due course. There are complications coming that happily change the dynamics of this dubiously “symmetrical” or “complementary” dichotomy quite drastically. I have already written at length about Avengers #176 in a different but (as we shall see) not unrelated context, so I will focus instead on how the initially normative messages about gender difference were scrambled over the course of reading Defenders #53. What did it feel like to “read” this comic at the age of five? Why did it stick with me? And how do the strange power of this comic’s main and back-up stories help to subvert the normative messages about gender that I derived from the juxtaposition of the two titles and covers?

Atlantis: A Diagram of My Unconscious

At the same time that the cover of Defenders #53 was impressing some rather powerful images on my mind, the content of its main story—Part 1 of “The Power Principle,” entitled, “The Prince and the Presence”—was blowing it to smithereens. I mean…Jesus. What on earth was going on in Defenders #53?

I have already described the fantastic attraction that incomprehensible narratives held (and still hold) for me in my discussion of Avengers #176. But the twists and turns of that later comic cannot hold a candle to the bizarre, disjointed content of David Anthony Craft, Keith Giffen, Mike Golden, and Terry Austin’s wild, surrealist canoodling. I know that I can’t help but look at it through the veil of the very affect I am trying to describe here, but even so, this book still strikes me as a thing of unusual beauty and strangeness. Far more than Avengers #176, it was utterly incoherent to my five-year-old eyes—actually impossible to follow.

Giffen’s twelve panel layout for page 2, for instance, despite the establishing shot of the interior of Namor’s ship on the splash page, was completely mysterious to me. Nothing seemed to connect, partly because a number of the panels had no backgrounds, but mostly because Giffen’s jerky panel jumps favored what Scott McCloud later called “subject-to-subject” and “scene-to-scene” transitions that required considerable comic book literacy to follow, and which I experienced as pure non-sequiturs (Understanding Comics 71-72). (The panel in which Namor imagines Atlantis blowing up was particularly confusing.) Matters were not helped by Kraft’s delightfully overheated script, which was incomprehensible to a five-year-old in its own right, and it certainly didn’t help that none of the characters aboard the sub-sea vessel ever carried on a conversation. Each character, like each panel, seemed isolated from the rest: Namor, Hulk, Nighthawk, and Hellcat (not to mention the curiously garbed Atlanteans) all marooned and speaking in monologue. The only character who said anything comprehensible was Hellcat, yet her exclamation, “Cheese and crackers!” was itself puzzling. At five, Hellcat’s swingin’ idiom was lost on yours truly, and made about as much sense as everything else I was looking at. (But oh, how I loved panels 11 and 12, where the Atlantean pilot with the absurdly distended finger points at something—me?—and Patsy shouts her enigmatic message. Was it a warning? A command? I loved cheese and crackers too!)

Giffen’s trippy layouts were, moreover, difficult to read. Quite unexpectedly the protocols of reading would suddenly shift as they do on page 15 where, without announcement, I was now being asked to read vertically, rather than from left to right. I couldn’t quite make the leap (nor I suspect, could my parents, on those occasions where they were good enough to read to me). The shift from hand-lettering to typeface on that page was also unnerving. My comic wasn’t behaving like a comic anymore.

These kinds of sudden formal or stylistic shifts and narrative surprises also furnished one of the greatest of all my comic book mysteries: was page 17 part of the comic book story or not? For literally years, the answer seemed to me to be “no.” It contained no superheroes, and did not appear to be connected either to the page that came before or to the page the came after—even the comic book captions at the top and bottom of the page seemed relatively self-contained. Indeed, with its mock-up of a newspaper report with the headline, “KILLER QUAKE JOLTS EUROPE” and a real European map, I thought it might be some sort of educational supplement. It certainly looked serious—as if some adult was trying to fool me into learning something by making it look like a comic book. But I was too clever for that: I could see that it was just boring. Still…I wondered. It wasn’t until I became a much better reader that I was able to piece together enough evidence to discover my error and reintegrate this stray object into the narrative line of the story. Until that time, it just sat there, worrisomely, like an undigested lump.

What I read in the fractured form of Defenders #53, I think, was a free space of almost but not quite random association—what the unconscious might look like if it were possible to represent: an open yet paradoxically claustrophobic plane, swept by strange conjunctions, ruptures, violence, abrupt breaks and changes in direction, a rush of electrifying non sequiturs. Above all: affect, but not meaning. “Cheese and crackers!”

The art style—Kirbyeqsue strangeness with the Perez-like polish of Terry Austin inks—reinforced this narrative experience of uncanny disjunction and diffused pleasure. In other words: bold and weird, but delicate and dreamlike too. And of course, the story is set in Namor’s kingdom—Atlantis. The Hulk must wear a “fish bowl” over his head to breathe down there, as we all do. A dreamscape, in other words. Underwater.

Two images haunted me. That they are splash pages that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what came immediately before or after was no doubt a significant factor in their hold on me, but the images themselves are unquestionably arresting.

Page 3: Sub-Mariner’s Imperial Vessel. For a child, this is a profound piece of science fiction art, a true alien artifact. Patsy’s exclamation is ostensibly a reaction to seeing Atlantis, but the transition from her panel to the full splash on the next page makes it seem as if she is exclaiming at the astonishing vision of the docked ship from which she has, in fact, just disembarked. And what a vision. That bizarre, golden ship of Namor’s that could just as easily be a helmet or a piece of architecture, or a sentient thing. To me it was a wonder of the world, like the Sphinx or the Pyramids, or Stonehenge. Only much later, would that mad philosopher duo, Deleuze and Guattari, give me the vocabulary to finally name it: desiring-machine. This is what the unconscious looks like.

And this:

The final frame of the story, following immediately upon the enigmatic fake news story of page 17. My god, did this image frighten and fascinate me. “The Presence!” What was it? A robot? A person? An alien? Was there a fire burning in its chest like a furnace? And all that power. Power pouring out of him and into him—or was it her? Despite the obvious phallic symbolism, there was something unnervingly androgynous about this transvestite Being called simply, “The Presence.” All that could be said with certainty was that it was evil. An evil, punishing, nebulous presence that, as David Anthony Kraft inimitably put it, was born at “the heart of the nuclear holocaust…deep underground in this fiery core of sheer cataclysmic chaos.” Evil underground. A strange father. “Presence born of power.” Demon of my unconscious. What else? Superego.

To a five-year-old, the shocks engineered by Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin in Defenders #53 were identical in kind, if not in degree, to the shocks that Max Ernst gave the moderns with his disturbing surrealist collage books like Une Semaine de Bonté or La Femme 100 Têtes. And the techniques of these two media (unsettling juxtapositions and hybrid but eerily familiar monstrosities assembled from popular and advertising illustrations) might not in the end be all that radically different either. In this issue, at least, Kraft, Giffen, Golden, and Austin became pop inheritors of Ernst’s surrealist mantle, bringing the mad disarray of the unconscious into representation to terrify, bewilder, and seduce.

To what end? Hard to say. To me, it was a field of possibilities. A beautiful/frightening place. A place I recognized. Where things come apart…

And what was coming apart in particular? Looking back over the main story of Defenders #53 now, it is remarkable how dramatically it thematizes the breakdown of traditional gender roles.

When the Sub-Mariner officiously brings the antique Atlantean banquet (featuring female “acrobats” and “serving girls”) to a halt, clearing the Council Chambers to converse with the Defenders and the Council in private, “all his subjects…file from the vast chamber, all the performers…and all the women. All the women, that is, with the exception of the happy-go-lucky Hellcat!”—whose reply to the greasy eyeball she gets from the patriarchal Atlantean Council is an eloquent and succinct, “Er…gee! Don’t look at me, fellas. I’m just one of the gang!”

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Clea and Val (later called a “dumb broad” and a “pushy feminist” by disgruntled subway-goers) have a (nearly) consciousness-raising coffee klatch that makes the theme of Hellcat’s wry recalcitrance explicit. While Val contemplates a return to university, she and Clea ruminate on the subject of male caprice. Val puzzles over Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond’s sudden, unexplained disappearance, which has left her worried for the Defenders and Clea expresses her feelings about her secondary role in the life of Stephen Strange: “The uncertainty is something you must become accustomed to, Val. Stephen is also often absent without explanation, such as now. I have learned to live with it—though I do not like it!” Clea’s eye glints menacingly at this conspiratorial admission, and in a hilarious outburst, she commands the dishes to magically “BEGONE!”—an absurd domestication of her power whose “abruptness” and hostility are clearly directed at Stephen himself.

As the heroines of Defenders #53 feel their way through the growing pains of second-wave feminism and struggle to assert their own authority, it is the villain of the issue that reaffirms the most regressive and old fashioned notions of female dependence. Sergei—“The Presence”—appears to have hypnotized the Red Guardian, for she speaks haltingly and faintly of her desire to serve him in the most conventionally gendered terms imaginable: “Never have I known…such sensitivity in a man…my beloved. You are a poet, Sergei…and soon all the world shall be yours to…reshape…I am…proud…to have been selected as your…consort.” Indeed! And the climactic scene of nuclear transmogrification in which “The Presence” appears to absorb not just her energy but her very person dramatically confirms the threat this old-world patriarch poses to an incipient feminist consciousness.


Clea: Defender/Avenger

If the main story of Defenders #53 was a freaky, sometimes disturbing head-trip through Atlantis (that mythical and chaotic sunken island that dwells in all of us, submerged beneath consciousness), it also contained a partial subversion of the message about gender that I read in the cover. At first, the back-up story by Naomi Basner, Sandy Plunkett, and Tony Salmons entitled “Clea, The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to provide a regressive contrast to these developments. It seemed to mark a return both to reassuringly comprehensible storytelling and to the sexist theme of the cover image in which the radioactive Red Guardian served as archetypal “female” Defender. Like the cover, the back-up story seemed to give us a direct, immediately graspable feminine stereotype. Clea: Dr. Strange’s girlfriend, a Marvel “maiden” defined immediately by her body and by her secondary status, and in a “back-up” story no less! In the opening panel of the story she wears an open trench coat with peek-a-boo indifference, half-heartedly covering her sexy magician’s leotard, seemingly eager to shed its encumbrance, which she does, hastily, in panel two. Moreover, at the same time that we seem to have moved back into a recognizable representation of gender difference, the fractured narrative style of the main story is replaced by lovely realistic art and smoother “action-to-action” progressions (McCloud, Understanding Comics 70) that restore its legibility at the level of form.

Significantly, though, this story was inextricably connected to the weird disarray of the main story for me because it seemed anchored in the only half-comprehensible part of that tale: the brief subplot involving Valkyrie visiting Clea at Doctor Strange’s pad, back in Greenwich Village, and then taking the subway uptown to enroll in University classes that I described earlier. (How I mooned over that picture of white-haired Clea gripping the silver coffee pot in a pink mind ray or that off-kilter panel where here eye flashes enigmatically, perhaps dangerously, at Val!).

Legible, yet anchored in mystery—indeed, passing through the latter—this story acted as a critical gloss on the transfixing cover image, deepening and complicating its vision of archetypal womanhood through a naughty and prurient, but nonetheless proto-feminist, rape-and-revenge tale.

In the first three pages of this five-page story, Clea oscillates between capable (self-) Defender and hapless damsel in distress. First, she is attacked by a would be-mugger who threatens first to “cut” and then to “plug” her. Then, effortlessly and gracefully, Clea dispatches her attacker. But she does not realize that he is actually a rival of Dr. Strange’s in disguise who has lulled the Doctor’s girlfriend into overconfidence in order to surprise her, kidnap her, and steal her powers. (A repetition of the Sergei-Red Guardian motif in the main story.) The subtext of rape in the action that ensues is not subtle. There is a suggestively shaped power-stealing machine that zaps Clea with a deadly, power-sapping ray, and just in case we didn’t get the double-entendres of the first four pages, Nicodemus, the sorcerous, pony-tailed villain of the piece, makes the threat explicit on the final page with the promise of “much more pleasant” forms of servitude for our heroine.

Yet, in the end, the story is of the “biter bitten” variety as a now “powerless” Clea turns the tables on her attacker who has ironically lulled himself into fatal overconfidence. Just as he is about to show Clea what her “much more pleasant” function might be, she clobbers him, appropriately, with a small statue of two fighting gladiators. True, the story does end with Clea phoning Stephen to mop up, but the point of the tale—written by Naomi Basner—is obviously to show that Clea is a Mystic Maiden in no need of male rescue. She begins as a “feminine” Defender, but ends as a feminist Avenger.

Deconstruction for Five-Year-Olds: When Team Books Make Gender Difference, er…Dissassemble

Taken as a whole—cover, main story, and back-up—what has happened in this comic?

Well, for one thing, the childish contrast between “man” and “woman” implied by those Avengers and Defenders covers has gotten a lot more complicated. Somehow, in its passage through the chaotic flux of the main story, the cover image of a “female” Defender was (to borrow an Avengers term) “disassembled,” to be recomposed in a back-up story that sprouts from one of its very own subplots into a very different image of femininity: capable, resourceful, and avenging.

In fact, if we look closely, this was the intrinsic message of the cover’s representation of frighteningly “empowered” femininity all along, but with one very significant difference: the cover codes this empowerment as evil and dangerous, the equivalent of an atomic blast. In other words, the cover-image of Defenders #53 has at least two meanings, both of which confirm the adage that what superhero comics really “defend” is an embattled and regressive fantasy of male power. When read in conjunction with the crackling silhouette of Korvac on the cover of Avengers #176, the Red Guardian seems initially to embody the “femininized” secondary status of the Defenders themselves relative to the Avengers’ “masculine” norm (this was my personal experience of the cover). But even when taken in context, the raging Red Guardian is a villain precisely because she is “maculinized” and powerful. Thus, to the extent that we recognize her as a “powerful woman,” the cover also demands that we recognize her as monstrous and unlawful—an anti-feminist message if ever there was one. It is in this context that Clea’s transformation from “defender” to “avenger” (her claiming of the prerogative of “masculine” agency, even when she seems most conventionally “feminine”) is so thrilling. By the end of this comic female power has been recoded: the role of “powerful female” has passed from turncoat or villainess (Red Guardian) to heroine (Clea). The fact that this recoding is accomplished most decisively in a back-up story written by a woman is itself an exciting detail—as if the important changes are all happening in the margins, margins that end up (by virtue of the “back-up” story’s placement after the “main” tale) becoming conclusions, and thus unexpectedly usurp the priority of the “original” narrative out of which they spring, or beside which they appear merely parasitic. “Clea: The Mystic Maiden!” seemed to play the role of “Adam’s rib” to the Adamic main story—literally emerging from a subplot in the latter—only to reveal itself as an Avenging, agential Lilith.

How perfect, then, that the comic’s boy-attracting cover anxiously announces: “Now the Red Guardian Reborn! Will it be as Friend or Foe?” Such a hesitation in a story called “The Power Principle” whose cover implies the rebirth of an empowered female archetype, toys deliciously with male anxieties about the changing nature of female gender roles in the 1970s, when “the power principle” in relation to women was as much a political slogan as the title of a superhero story. In the context of the argument I have been developing here, the cover’s question—“Friend or Foe?”—lends this image precisely the ambivalence that pervades this entire issue’s treatment of gender.

I was born in the early 1970s, so my ideas about gender were being shaped by these profound and welcome changes as the decade drew to a close. Moreover, the disassembly and “rebirth” of the female archetype that I have been tracing in Defenders #53 was not without visible consequences for my understanding of the fluidity and contingency of masculinity as well. Broadcasting the story’s ironic twist, Clea knocks out her lascivious captor, announcing: “Positions have a tendency to reverse themselves Nicodemus!” And indeed they do—much more profoundly, even, than Clea realizes. Just as “defenceless” Clea borrows the stereotypically “male” power to avenge her own assault and reorganize the image of woman as either secondary and weak or powerful and monstrous, so Nicodemus embodies a suggestively effete version of masculine aggression. (He wears a fin-collared pirate shirt for heaven’s sake!) Significantly too, his very plan to steal Clea’s power already seems to hint at a patriarchal anxiety about powerful women that could only stem from uncertainty about the power of his own masculine prowess. Is the villainous (and impotent) Nicodemus perhaps Naomi Basner’s satiric comment on the crisis in the normative codes of masculinity that I’ve been describing?

What would it look like, I wonder, to imagine a new narrative of masculinity, a narrative that was the equivalent to the new narratives of femininity represented by Clea and (in inverted fashion) by the Red Guardian? Do we catch glimpses of such a narrative in elvish-eared Namor, Monarch of the Atlantean Unconscious, master of that most changeable element, the ocean? In “feminized” Batman knock-off Nighthawk, perhaps? Even the normally rampaging Hulk is subdued here, domesticated by his “fishbowl” helmet! Perhaps such a reimagining of gender inheres in the male superhero himself—in the changeability of his identity signified by (frequent changes to) his costume and the radical freedom of movement he enjoys. Are these power fantasies, or are they diagrams? Maybe both. Partly, at least, they are diagrams for some other way of being. Diagrams that bind themselves to consciousness before we’re fully formed, adhering with a bonding agent that is stronger than crazy-glue: the magnet of affect, pleasure, powerful emotion.

For me, at least, conventional gender roles and distinctions were fraying in the turbulent undersea space of Atlantis. And in that non-space of possibility and juxtaposition, their coming undone was a precursor to their rearrangement and reinvention. But there is also a more general dimension to this deconstructive “disassembly” of gender norms that I’ve been describing, and this has to do with team books as genre, and their potential to distribute our processes of identification in surprising and complex ways. Is there a boy alive who has read Uncanny X-Men #168 (“Professor Xavier is a Jerk!”) and not felt, in the deepest core of their being: Kitty Pryde, c’est moi? (Don’t bother denying it, no one will believe you.) The beautiful thing about the Avengers and the Defenders is that, despite the very conventional gendering of these teams (initially projected for me by their cover images), the presence of powerful, appealing male and female characters on both teams made each book a gateway to intensive and contradictory forms of gender identification on the part of the (in this case) male reader. (This is no less true of the “masculine”-coded Avengers than of the “feminine”-coded Defenders. The mutant X-Men, of course, will go a step further, making this complexity of identification into a badge of honour.) In the issue in question, the availability of weird multiple points of identification was further helped by the surreal, disjointed quality of Kraft and Giffen’s narrative, which thrusts us back into the chaotic, fractured world of drives that precedes the assumption of a gender identity. Truth be told, if I “identified” with any character in Defenders #53 at the age of five, it was Patsy “Cheese and Crackers” Walker—Hellcat. Or Clea, the proto-feminist “mystic maiden” herself. As an adult reading this book, it’s all about Val, the would-be scholar. The sequence detailing her claustrophobia on the crowded subway is like a poem. And then there’s Nighthawk, prototype of the male hysteric: grumbling, introverted, and anxious. My twin!

Why Team Books Matter: Some Tentative Conclusions

Did I pick up on the nuances of gender role “disassembly” at the tender age of five? It’s hard to say “yes,” but it’s even harder to say “no.” It would be almost impossible, I think, to overestimate the power of our formative texts. Of course we don’t fully understand their contents at the time, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t cut paths or grooves in the unconscious into which meanings will later pool. That is to say, these stories and images structure our ways of categorizing and seeing what is most basic and fundamental to us, and we don’t necessarily need to understand these structures consciously at the time to feel their effects later. I’m not claiming that these structures automatically produce subversive effects in every reader. Clearly, they don’t. Nor am I claiming that they are a necessary (much less a sufficient) cause for challenging normative binary oppositions of whatever sort. Nonetheless, it does seem that for some of us, such primary experiences of intuitive deconstruction create complex templates or diagrams that make us more prone to question the cultural scripts we are given.

Do all comics have at least the potential to produce this degree of deconstructive complexity? Perhaps. Though even those great Marvel comics of the 70s can be just as guilty of “assembling” and reinforcing normative codes of identity as “disassembling” and reconstituting them. But as I argued in the epic debate with Marc Singer, the mixed messages of pop culture forms are at least as much an opportunity as a liability because the contradictory, double-voiced messages of superhero books make them potential points of intervention into the normative cultural scripts they both echo and distort. Like Defenders #53, the best comics dangle the bait of normative pleasures before us, only to ensnare us; then they spring the trap: cultural scripts, Disassemble! (Gorjus, of Pretty Fakes, aptly dubs this phenomenon of trash culture that “trick[s] as many people as possible into self-reflection” trick candy.)

My own case offers at least an anecdotal confirmation of these claims. As anyone who knows me can attest, the normative set of masculine gender identifications can hardly be said to have taken. An ongoing aspect of the debate between myself and Marc Singer has been whether or not mainstream comics could be said to have genuinely “political” (or subversive) effects. Speaking only from my own experience—the archaeology of narcissism I’ve been wallowing in here—I would say that they can have such an effect, especially at the formative level of affect and identification. To be cute: the effect is in the affect. The question then becomes whether or not our psychoanalytic “objects” and identifications are properly “political.” It depends how you define that vexing word, politics. I think they are. Especially when you consider the profound (and sometimes profoundly disturbing) degree to which desire and affect appear to shape and even largely determine what we commonly refer to as the “political sphere.”

To put it slightly different terms: a friend of mine recently worried that her three-year-old son was becoming too preoccupied with superhero violence (I foisted my DVD of 1960s Spider-Man cartoons on them) and that he identified excessively with Batman (indeed, insists on being addressed as “Batman”!). But then she said that she and her husband were reassured by the fact that most of the comic-reading men they knew were anything but the thuggish rednecks a mother might worry about her impressionable young superhero growing into. (I believe “gentle” is the euphemism she used to characterize the comic-reading guys of her acquaintance.) And so, only the old chicken-and-egg question remains: does our choice of objects reveal who we “are” already? Even at age 5? Do we disclose our identities by the comics we read? Or do the comics we read actually change who we become? And do superhero comics provide an unusually fertile ground for broadening the possibilities of what it is possible to imagine becoming? If the answer to these latter questions is a self-congratulatory “yes,” then we will have to stop believing that superhero comics are just the male power fantasies for which they are popularly mistaken.

A SPOILERS ABOUND Supplement: Links & Updates

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2006 at 8:28 pm

It was a busy January and I’m behind on pretty much everything, including posting some links to these three incredible sites, which I’ve been meaning to plug for awhile now. If you get a minute, stop by and pay them a visit; you won’t be disappointed.

A TROUT IN THE MILK

A great new blog by Plok called A Trout in the Milk is home to a thrilling discussion of classic Fantastic Four. Plok begins by establishing four grades of FF comics (Real, VG, Caretaker, and Shitty); he then goes on, in two joyful, luminous posts, to theorize the relationship between Stan/Jack FF and Roy Thomas FF. The first of these posts, Crisis on Infinite Roys, Part 1, is a Borgesian garden of fascinating insights and forking paths; the second, clarifying post, Crisis on Infinite Roys, Part 2 is a superb sum-up of the previous argument. Plok’s most recent post on shitty FF is a riotious rant, and I agree with every word of it. Oh–and just to confirm his genius absolutely, Plok shares my love of that magical Englehart, Buscema/Pollard, and Sinnott run of the FF, late in the life of the original series. Huzzah!

PRETTY FAKES

Another blog that I can’t say enough good things about is Pretty Fakes, run by Professor Fury and Gorjus. This blog does an exceptionally good job of integrating personal reflections with insightful analysis and criticism of comics and popular fiction, all wrapped up in professionally polished prose. Prof. Fury has just put up a brilliant post on Southern Surveillance and Seaguy that will resonate with anyone who has followed the Roeg/Singer debate on politics and comic books here. His reflections on Complicity, History, and Captain America #292, which focus on “the potential–superhero comics have to foster critical thinking, to defamiliarize moral and ethical contradictions, debates, and hypocrisies that have become so ordinary as to be invisible” are inspiring, as is the essay by Gorjus on how Morrison’s Animal Man led him to become a vegetarian that inspired the Professor’s later post. Recently, Gorjus has also written eloquently about the redemptive power of trash. How else can I put it? Pretty Fakes is a blog after my own heart. A must-read.

BLOO MORFO

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed his creepy Making a Graphic Novel, please check out Ebu Gogol’s awesome new comic art at Bloo Morfo. Be sure to scroll down and read his 9-page comic, The Kill Fee. Beautiful work, as always.

As for me, I’m nearly finished a rather extensive set of musings on a comic that I first read when I was five years old and that was extremely meaningful to me throughout my youth, though I could never say exactly why or how. Turns out, I have some theories… Watch for it later this week.

Till then!