Monday, 30 September 2013

What Went Wrong?: A Woeful Wonder Woman Washout

Start this critique off by watching this little gem: 
This is another one of those things that I've been following obsessively for a few months now. I have Nathan Fillion to thank for that, after he tweeted the first promo image of cosplayer Rileah's costume for this project. I was pumped. Being something of a medieval history buff, especially in the area of arms and armour, I was excited to see some thought being put into interpreting Wonder Woman's garb via her Greek mythical background. The costume looked practical for once, something that could actually serve a hero in battle instead of something that she might be caught in walking sidewalks at midnight on East Hastings. I checked out the studio that was making this happen, Rainfall TV, and was suitably impressed. I decided to keep an eye on this endeavour, and two as often as I could spare them.
Rainfall's promotional images

Rainfall released the video this morning, and I'm still crying a little inside. 
Here's my rant constructive criticism on Comic Vine
It looks like we're all agreed (mostly, at least) that they did a solid job with the costume design. We finally get to see a practical Wonder Woman outfit that still holds true to the original aesthetics. I think that's really cool. But let's not kid ourselves about this being some off-the-cuff fan-made video. No, it's not a licensed DC product (you can tell, because it hasn't caused open war on the internet yet). But the production studio, Rainfall TV out of Los Angeles, can do better than this. They have done better. This project's been hyped on Twitter and their site for months at this point and the promo shots they release were superb. But in the end they churned out a poorly rendered FX demo reel with no story. It's a bit of a letdown.'s a massive letdown. I thought we had something here.
On the upside, we now know it can be done: it's possible to put Wonder Woman on the screen without her looking like a hooker. There's just enough Greek armour in that costume and enough badass in those Amazons to make Themyscira believable. All that's lacking is for those of you who haven't already, check out Scott Lynch's proposed shot-breakdown for the opening scene of a Wonder Woman film ( Read it, and visualize Rainfall's aesthetic (minus that godawful flight scene...), and then join us in kicking DC's tires until they wake up and realize that this is something that's both doable and desired by superhero enthusiasts at large.
Scott Lynch, my disappointment is on your shoulders. If your written vision for a Wonder Woman film wasn't so mind-blowingly beautiful, I might have been perfectly happy with the computer generated plot-less schlock I sat down to this morning. Alas, you set the bar too high. All that remains is for us perform whatever superstitious ritual involving lumber or intertwined digits you choose to put stock in and wait until such time as Grant Morrison releases his graphic novel. With luck we can sit down with a soothing beverage and immerse ourselves in the master's work, eventually emerging content in the knowledge that someone still gets this character. I won't pretend that I understand Wonder Woman, but I like to think I can tell when such an iconic female hero is being done justice (pardon the pun, if you can), and this recent video isn't it.

It's likely Morrison will publish another socially-conscious masterpiece, as is his wont. He will raise the bar yet again, and DC will cower a little lower at the prospect of having to portray a woman with any sort of substance on the screen. Voices will be raised in a cry to have Joss Whedon write the movie, not understanding that he is contracted to Marvel until 2015 and will likely never work for DC. The cycle will go on, and I'll find myself blogging sorrowfully about this every eight months or so.

I apologize in advance.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - "We're not exactly a team..."

Joss Whedon just handed us some of the best (geeky) television you're likely to find...again.

I was going to start this post with "Marvel just handed you...", and then realized that Marvel actually has very little to do with this show. I'm reasonably sure you all now now what I'm talking about here, since a significantly large chunk of the world just finished watching the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. And yeah, it was frakking great. But yes, back to Marvel, and how little we can blame them for the sheer level of awesome on the screen. As we all know, everything Joss touches turns to gold: vampire slayers, Shakespeare, talking toys, you name it. This time, it isn't even just him. This show's credits include Jed Whedon, Jeph Loeb, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch...big guns in the comics industry and brilliant creators every one. This show is going to survive because of the sheer creative force it has behind it. And because it's not DC...

I went there. I have innumerable issues with the way DC Comics is running things these days, and you can read my griping in previous posts. Not all their content is terrible; Jeff Lemire is writing a pretty damn solid Green Arrow storyline right now and giving that title the creative stability it was pining for ever since the reboot, and hell if I don't find myself loving Arrow in all it's artifical CW-ness. I'm a sucker for a Mike Grell homage. But DC has none of the brilliant consistency that Marvel has managed to weave through its properties, and the damage is ever so painfully visible. Marvel is seeing none of the massive conflict erupting over the canonical validity of Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy, which has nothing to do with DC's monthly titles except having influenced a "new" (2008) way of drawing the Joker, and the more recent post-New 52 Man of Steel, making yet more costume changes to Big Blue. Kudos to Jeff Lemire for gradually bringing the Emerald Archer abstractly in line with Arrow, since that's pretty much the extent of DC's storytelling cohesion. If they were on top of their game to the same extent as Marvel, there would be a Wonder Woman movie in the works to complement Grant Morrison's upcoming graphic novel. We'll just keep dreaming...

With the immense success of The Avengers on the silver screen came the launch of the Marvel NOW! event, a regrouping of Marvel's properties into what Skye would call the "brave new world". In a genius move they canonized the events of that most recent blockbuster, moving fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson off the screen and into the comics. He features in the Secret Avengers title, a good read, if you get the chance, with more than a passing resemblance to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. There are obvious differences, of course. The "brave new world" of Agents is new to the idea of superheroes, while the universe in the comics is anything but. I think I understand why this is so effective: Marvel is solving the long-standing issue of new readers in a way DC never considered. New readers approaching superhero comics have long faced a dilemma; with decades of back-issues piling up, where's a gal or a guy to start reading if he wants to get a handle on a character's backstory? Instead of taking their comics titles back to origin and retconning 70-odd years of story coughnewfiftytwocough, Marvel decided to tell their heroes' stories from the beginning on the silver screen and bring their comics to bear on a similar course. It's an elegant solution. In the words of Mike Peterson, it's no longer a disaster, "it's an origin story."

So, yeah. Coulson's back in action, there's a serious Iron Man 3 connection in play, and between the flying cars and witty banter this new show has enough Whedon-level awesome to keep me watching for...well, forever, really. It will be great fun to see how the show leads into the upcoming Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron feature films. As for comics, the show offers a great new jumping in point for those intrigued by the world of superheroes. So with beer in hand I applaud you, Joss Whedon. You've done it again.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Polyphemus' Gaze - Burqas, Superheroes, and the Postmodern Identity


Not my usual choice of topic, but I just walked out of a fourth-year Art History dealing with gender roles and representation in the Islamic world, and I'm a little fired up. Not in a controversial, I'm-gonna-make-a-big-deal-out-of-this sort of way. Don't worry. I just made a superhero-greek-mythology-CBC-radio-burqa connection, and I am going to share it with you. This post has been in the works in my head for a month or two, and it all clicked today. Bear with me.

So, the burqa. And the hijab, niqab, and various other forms of traditional Islamic head covering. The wearing of these items in public has been a hot topic in European and North American countries for years. The governments of France, Belgium, Quebec, and other regions have been in talks over the last decade discussing the legal banning of head coverings. Some say they are a symbol of oppression, and that it is the country's duty to liberate these women. Other parties claim they are a security risk, and that no individual should be able to look at someone without the other being able to see them. No matter whose platform you're looking at, the issue is a matter of gaze. It's a matter of the power afforded to people both when they look at someone and when they are looked at. The Western world, we in Canada and the States and our close cultural counterparts in Europe, has a balance. We have an established visual culture, and our status quo is upset by the relatively new integration of Eastern modes of dress into that culture. I read the intro to Katherine Bullock's book Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil in which she asserts that, far from being a tool of oppression, the burqa can be liberating. It shields the wearer from the gaze of those around her, and in Western culture that affords a woman a measure of protection from the societal pressure on self-image and vanity. It is, Bullock assures the reader, a welcome relief. That in itself upsets the North American balance. A woman is no longer available to be gazed upon, but can gaze at you. The status is no longer quo.

Allow me to jump backwards a couple of months. I was working for the summer mowing lawns and pulling weeds, and my best friend through long, hot work days was an iPod loaded with CBC radio podcasts. I was listening to a past episode of Writers and Company from Sunday, May 5th of this year. The featured writer was Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian-Greek immigrant who was talking about how growing up under a totalitarian regime affected his worldview and his career as a writer. He speaks at length about the importance of media, television and radio shows that could be pulled from the airwaves with hidden aerials. There was always a double aerial system; there was the antenna on the roof that the authorities could see and restrict, and then there was the hidden aerial, channeling truth in from the outside world. The gaze of the regime promoted the development of such duality, even in one's own identity. There was a face that you showed in the public spaces, your face for the regime to know and accept you by, and another self that challenged the regime in private, struggling to escape "the lie of the regime, which sometimes looks very much like the eye of the cyclops Polyphemus." (found at 23 min 5 sec in the cited interview) 

That reference struck me. I had listened to Homer's The Odyssey just the past semester as an audiobook read by Sir Ian McKellen, so I was more familiar with Polyphemus than I might have been otherwise. This is the gist of the story, for those of you unfamiliar with it:

Polyphemus is a cyclops who traps Odysseus and his men inside an island cave with a herd of sheep and proceeds to eat them two at a time. Odysseus tricks the monster into drinking wine later that evening, and when prompted to give his name he tells the cyclops that his name is "Nobody", thus creating for himself a dual identity. Tired and drunk, Polyphemus falls asleep. Odysseus is ready with a fire-hardened wooden spear that he spent the day preparing, and he leaps upon the sleeping giant and plunges the spear into its single eye. Polyphemus cries out for help, drawing his kinsmen to the scene and trying to persuade them that "Nobody" has grievously harmed him. They take this for a joke, and leave. In the morning, the blind cyclops opens the cave to let his herd out to graze, feeling the hide of each animal that passes to ensure that his prisoners are not escaping. Odysseus and his remaining men, however, have tied themselves to the undersides of the sheep and thus escape unnoticed...until Odysseus calls out from their departing boat to taunt the giant and reveal his true name.
As I listened to Gazmend Kapllani talk about oppressive regimes in terms of the Polyphemus, everything seemed to fall into place. I began to think of superheroes in terms of Odysseus. Take Batman as an example. When he first appeared around Gotham City, people scoffed at the description of "a guy dressed like a bat" or "dressed like Dracula", an incredulity shared by the other cyclops listening to Polyphemus' claims that "Nobody did this to me." A second identity was created to guard against the gaze of the authority, and then a physical disguise. Odysseus hides under a sheep the way Bruce Wayne dons the cowl. In that guise, the oppressed can pass under the probing inspection of the regime. The individual has split; a duality has been born while a perceived singularity is maintained, and thus the authority's balance is disrupted. The status is no longer quo.

Duality of identity is generally identified as a symptom of Postmodernism. Ask a student of critical studies to identify whether or not a given text is postmodern, and dual identity is one of the first identifiers they will look for. It is a theme that serves as the very foundation of the superhero genre, and has for some 75 years since the creation of Superman and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, in 1938. Always (with a few exceptions) the hero wears a mask and a suit that conceal and change their outward appearance. Sometimes the concealment is so great that another person altogether can use the disguise and pass as the hero (example: Tony Stark is Iron Man; but his friend Jim Rhodes wearing the Iron Man armour is still Iron Man to those who encounter him without the knowledge that it isn't Tony in the suit). Another common theme is the idea that this public heroic identity is a shield. If an enemy were to learn that Spider-man was actually Peter Parker, then Peter's personal life would become exposed to that villain. That personal life is every hero's weak point; destroy his family, his loved ones, his homes, and you effectively kill the hero from the inside. The mask is all that stands between the destructive powers of the outside world and the delicate internals of the individual's life. 

Oppression...or Liberation?

Let's return to Katherine Bullock. She writes in her book that she finds covering, even in a lesser degree like the hijab (headscarf), liberating. Digging into some of the history of veiling and the East-West clash over the matter, she writes this:

"Colonialists, missionaries, Orientalists and secular feminists attacked veiling as a backward tradition, but it is now known that veiling became more widespread in the Middle East after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and increased during European occupation of the Middle East (1830–1956). Cole writes:
In an Orientalist corollary to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the intrusive presence of Westerners appears to have helped produce the phenomenon [widespread veiling] that they observed. In short, thenotion of tradition as a stable foil for the dynamism of modernity has been demolished, as the diversity and volatility of premodern extra-European societies has come to be better appreciated." (pg. XXI)
I find this fascinating. Every time the Western imposes itself as an authority figure over the Middle-East, people start covering their faces. They start putting up shields between their true lives and the regime. They suit up, and create alter-egos. And this, perhaps, is why we are so inherently nervous when we see Islamic people walking about in what we have decided are our countries with their faces obscured. We understand what it means to put on the mask, because we understand superheroes (perhaps now more than ever, thanks to Hollywood's activity in the last decade). This idea exists in our popular culture, and it has been there since the battle of Troy, so at some primal level we think we know why these people want to be veiled. It disturbs us, then (and I'll not pretend to be making absolute statements here, this is all sweeping hypothesis), because we know a) what masked people who move under the radar can do within a society, and b) because it means we are the regime.

I think that terrifies us a little, and maybe it makes us hate ourselves for what our culture at large has been responsible for through history. Either way, it remains something we must come to terms with. Either we let Islamic people among us wear their veils until they decide, on their own terms, that the coverings are no longer necessary, or we forcibly strip them of their cultural armour and force them out into the open, exposing them to all the inherent oppression of the Western world. At that point, we will know for certain what role we play.

We will have become Polyphemus.

Monday, 9 September 2013

We Got So Angry We Missed the Point - Harley Quinn's Nude Suicide via The Fourth Wall

DC comics blew it this month, and let's be clear: I am far from the only person writing about this.

It started when an editorial team walked off the job. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman announced last week that they are leaving the staff of DC's Batwoman title, citing editorial interference from their higher-ups when it came to the marriage of Kate Kane (Batwoman) to her lesbian fiancee, police officer Maggie Sawyer. Williams' Twitter feedback on the issue was heartbreaking. "We fought to get them engaged," he wrote, "but were told emphatically no marriage can result." DC rep Dan Didio has made it abundantly clear in the past days that DC is steadfastly opposed to their heroes having anything approaching a normal personal life.

“They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. That’s very important and something we reinforced. People in the Bat family their personal lives basically suck….Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon and Kathy Kane. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand.” (Dan Didio, Baltimore Comicon 2013)
I have a lot of feelings about that edict, and you can read about them in terms a different incident here. There's a ton of baggage that comes with the news that DC vetoed this marriage, including their over-the-top publicity when Green Lantern Alan Scott came out as gay last year and the impending writing run of notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card on the Adventures of Superman title. DC has played with cat-and-mouse with homosexuality in the New 52, and all of it has been blatantly non-committal. This last move crossed the line for a lot of readers, regardless of Mr. Didio's assertions that it is in no way related to the characters' sexual orientation. I, and my fellow perturbed readership, refuse to believe that DC is so wholly ignorant of the social climate into which they are dumping comics. And if they are...well how the hell did that happen??

On the heels of that faux-pas came the announcement of a contest. As a young, aspiring comics illustrator I used to dream of opportunities like this: DC holding open tryouts to have your work published in an upcoming issue. And now it's happened, and the comics community at large is somewhat aghast, while the feminist community is downright outraged. I can't really blame them, at all. The scenario is this: DC set out criteria for four comics panels to be drawn and submitted by participants. They depict the mentally unstable character Harley Quinn repeatedly attempting to kill herself using outrageously creative methods. It is the fourth of these panels that has garnered the bulk of public backlash:
PANEL 4Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of “oh well, guess that’s it for me” and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen. (

It blew up in DC's face right off the bat. Talk about the depiction of women in comics is hardly new fodder for the online debate machine, and all the old axes were pulled out of the shed, ready to grind. got their hate on. Twitter exploded with accusations of misogyny and the sexualization of suicide, and Jim Lee (bless his heart) stood forth in a "Twitter Essay" to defend DC and their rationale for the contest. To be fair, he made some good points. There is a lot of wiggle-room in the area of creative interpretation to take those guideline and produce something, if not "wholesome", at least comical. Writer and inker Jimmy Palmiotti thinks so, at least. He allegedly claims that the whole contest was meant to have slapstick, Looney-Toons-esque flavour to it. Whoever wrote the contest guidelines forgot to mention that bit of information. And since Harley has been portrayed in her recent comics as increasingly disturbed and hyper-sexual, it is not unreasonable to assume that DC is looking for submissions with a dark, deranged flavour to them. We are talking about the infallibly devoted lover of a man who recently skinned off his own face and left it spiked to the wall of an asylum for the criminally insane. Kiddy-style Saturday morning cartoons aren't exactly the same realm of entertainment. Now, the kicker...

September is Suicide Prevention Month.

Let that sink in, and know that you are wondering the same thing as everyone else: What the f*** were they thinking?

It is one thing to refuse marriage rights to LGBTQ characters that are, yes, your creative property, and then argue that the decision is in no way connected to their sexual orientation and feign ignorance at the concern of your readership. It is quite another to be so utterly oblivious to real-world issues that you ask the public to participate in a celebration of violence with the tagline "Breaking into comics was never this fun. ;)", and unleash it on the world during a month when real people are struggling with and coming to terms with these issues. This goes beyond mere ignorance, outside the realm of honest-mistake-driven insensitivity. It's at a point where we, the many critical readers of comic books, are starting to wonder if DC is on a campaign of "deliberate self-sabotage."

It should be pretty clear at this point why people from various public camps are miffed at DC right now. Angry. Furious, even. I myself would describe my response as being twofold.

Baffled and disappointed.

Because I don't understand how a massive corporation driven by the consumption of creative product, which must be running research programs to figure out what will go over well with the fans, could possibly blow it on this scale. I mean, isn't that exactly the reason we haven't seen a Wonder Woman feature film yet? At least that's the online speculation: DC doesn't know how to do a film with a complex female lead without pissing people off, and so...they haven't. But let's go ahead and tell people it's going to be fun to draw an emotionally troubled character killing herself during Suicide Prevention Month. This distresses me because I have for several years now been working on a thesis concerning the social relevance of comics. The medium has a history of tackling socially relevant issues head-on, such as drug abuse in the 70s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. So I'm pretty confused. Has comics completely lost touch? Or is this an ass-backwards attempt by DC to touch on Suicide awareness in their own (funny?) way?

Now, something escaping a lot of the critique is the fact that there is a very specific purpose for this contest. The work chosen from the contest submission will be included as a page in an "audition issue", Harley Quinn #0. The character is getting her own title, and the creators have decided to audition a number of artists by having them draw segments of the story and then breaking the Fourth Wall. Harley Quinn herself will be walking through the issue and critiquing each artist's representation of her (in a very Deadpool-like manner, for those of you familiar with Marvel's nefarious character). Jim Lee has weighed in on the intended nature of this exercise, as has Jimmy Palmiotti. If all were to go according to plan, they'd end up with something very similar to the 1953 Looney Toons episode "Duck Amuck". It might, in fact, be a perfect example of what they're looking for. And you know what, good on them. They're thinking outside the box, asking new artists to insert themselves into an artistic tradition in comics that includes Grant Morrison's groundbreaking Animal Man run. It's good to note in all this discussion that Morrison's character Crafty was a "thinly-disguised Wile E. Coyote; even a proponent of comics as influential as Morrison could be seen drawing from Looney Toons as he manipulated fourth-wall precepts. DC clearly had nothing but good intentions, and nobody out there needs any more reminding about the construction work that gets done with good intentions. The wording in the contest guidelines suggests that Harley is conscious but not in control of her actions within this comic (ie "She is looking at us like she cannot believe what she is doing. Beside herself. Not happy.", "...she cannot believe where she has found herself.") With that in mind, I want to re-analyse the request that DC is making of the artists.

The artists are being asked to put a character in self-induced, life-threatening situations, while assuming that said character is unwilling, distressed by these situations, and conscious of what is happening. DC has asked artists to force Harley Quinn into attempted suicide against her will.

Or so it appears on the surface.

Now, I'm a Fine Arts major. There's a lot of philosophy that comes into play at this point regarding Death of the Author, creative intention, and so on. We've pretty much established that DC's intention were pure, albeit grotesquely naive. What is left is fairly simple: what will  be submitted. There are a number of campaigns out there right now to flood the submissions inbox with either inane shit or blatant social commentary, and at the end of all this Jimmy Palmiotti will choose a piece, and some young artist will get a huge break in the world of superhero comics. That choice will say a lot about the effect all this controversy has had on DC's editors and on the artists who chose to still take the contest seriously and put their best foot forward. I myself will walk to my local shop which I love so dearly and buy a copy of Harley Quinn #0, and I'll probably read it with a mug of coffee on a Saturday morning, as is my wont. I want to know exactly who succeeded in breaking down that fourth-wall, because they had some serious nerve.