Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Hercules: Meta-myth and Mockery

I took yesterday evening to watch Hercules, the latest installment in this decade's Greek mythology blockbuster rampage. And it was alright, as a film. It was corny as hell, packed with oiled musculature, two-dimensional characters, and over-the-top, predominantly bloodless violence. It was pretty, that's for sure. It was also an immense disappointment. I watched this film to experience a legend that has existed in the Western consciousness for thousands of years, a core part of the mythology of the ancient Greeks. Even as a modern, Canadian kid the story of Hercules and his twelve labours was one of the first I knew. The Nemean Lion, the Hydra, this son of the gods and the monsters he defeated by his supernatural strength. I could go on, but you know the stories, right? They're with you, too. Those are the stories I expected to see on screen, as I suspect you will as well. The trouble is, those stories aren't there.

What the film offers us is a flimsy frame-narrative-esque structure, introduced and concluded by the voice of a storyteller (Amphiaraus) who is also a character in the main story (a seer laden with stoner references), but including a second storyteller character (Iolaus) whose role is essentially to propagate exaggerated stories about the feats of Hercules. He's the hapless spin doctor for this party of adventurers, all of whom are well aware that they're riding on the legendary reputation of...a man, and nothing more. The movie runs through the Twelve Labours of Hercules in its first five minutes, short, epic bursts of battles with The Nemean Lion, The Lernaean Hydra, The Erymanthian Boar, before cutting to Iolaus who is clearly telling these stories with the intent of putting the fear of the gods into the crew of pirates who have him prepped for a gravity-assisted castration. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that not one of those deeds was what the stories made it out to be. Iolaus only role here as a character, despite his place in Grek mythology as a great hero, is to provide comic relief while making a mockery of the cultural role of Storyteller. That reverential position, this movie says, was actually occupied by hacks and opportunistic frauds. It even mocks the viewer, offering glimpses of real wonder before revealing them for optical illusions or plain old craziness. How silly you were to believe in that! The lion and the boar were nothing but monstrous wild animals. The visions of Cerberus that haunt Hercules are, in the end, flashbacks to a drug-induced hallucination during an attack by three wolves. A scene which has Hercules returning to court bearing the heads of the Hydra in a sack takes a turn for the mundane when he pulls King Eurystheus aside and reveals the severed heads of men wearing snake masks. No wonder, he says, the people thought it was a many-headed monster terrorizing the villages. By the time the film is finished with the Labours of Hercules, the story resembles nothing so much as an episode of Scooby Doo.

It's a wonder that the lion skin doesn't have a zipper on it
The result of all this is that the story isn't offering us true mythology, but rather "meta mythology". This term may already exist in academic discourse, but I can't seem to find a concrete definition of it so I'll adopt it for this article. Rather than tell us the stories that the Greeks were telling the filmmakers have opted to tell us their "what actually happened" version, a behind-the-scenes to Greek mythology. What actually happened, they would have us believe, is that a couple of storytellers pulled the wool over the eyes of a whole culture of suckers, and that the stories those poor saps believed went on to become the most enduring narrative tradition in the Western world. This does the storytellers of old a great disservice; it takes Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesiod and the rest for utter fools. It waters down their tales into propagandist drivel while preaching a modern, individualist message of "the strength within" that has no bearing on the stories it claims to adapt. The film closes with Amphiaraus narrating; he asks rhetorically, "Was Hercules the son of Zeus? I don't think it really matters."

Doesn't it, though?

In the latter half of the 1930s, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel were working their arses off in Cleveland to work the kinks out of a character they were calling "Superman". The premise of the character was that he was part adventure hero, part science fiction wonder, part biblical figure, part sideshow strongman. He was Charles Atlas, Doc Savage, Moses, and Flash Gordon rolled into one. Nobody has ever come along and proposed that these two Jewish kids were delusional and actually believed in the character they were writing, nor that the millions of fans who have grown to love the stories of Superman over the years are all hapless saps who are falling for some elaborate farce. It is well recognized and widely accepted that Superman is two things. First, he is fictional. Second, he embodies the cultural values of his creators and reflects the context within which he was made. Why we can so easily accept this about superheroes and be utterly clueless about ancient myth is beyond me.

Now, imagine a Superman movie that takes the Hercules route. Imagine DC making a movie that starts out as Superman, but slowly reveals that he's not bulletproof, he just wears Kevlar all the time. He's performed some crazy staged stunts in Metropolis to win the favour of the people, making sure nobody gets hurt. As a newspaper reporter he's spinning his own image, expanding his own feats in print to cultivate a legendary persona. He's even hired stunt doubles so he can be reported "saving" people at impossibly separate location around the city. "Was Superman actually Kryptonian? I don't think it really matters." Remember, viewer! Because he believes he's a hero, he really is. Oh, and DC announces at Comicon that this version of the character is now official canon.

People would hate that movie.

At this point, go read this article about the nature of mythology by Joshua Unruh. It's great, which is why I'm going to quote him heavily. Josh focuses on the point that this movie deliberately circumvented, that the power of mythology comes from the values that the stories communicate through their figures.
Mythology’s primary purpose was never to explain how but instead to explain why. To give a meaning to the world outside the window that had absolutely nothing to do with the mechanics of how things worked. 
As I’ve said too many times, mythology is the stories a culture tells about itself. Nobody who does any scholarship about myths sees them as serious attempts to explain the natural world except in the broadest, most philosophical sense. They are educational tools meant to tell someone within the culture how to behave within the culture, how to excel in the culture, and what to beware about the culture...  
To assume that these stories so full of profound cultural relevance and revelation (and constantly refilled and re-revealed for each new culture that discovers them) are just what the poor simpleton ancient people used as “science” is to miss utterly the point of them. It also makes you a bigot against everybody who lived on this world before you.
There is no self-reflexivity in Greek myth. Homer didn't write The Odyssey with quantifying statements of, "or so it is said". It is simply written as though it happened, and when the audience willingly suspends their disbelief the stories become a window onto the world. So, what drives a writer to want to suck the power out of a cultural narrative? Maybe pride, the "Anachronistic Elitism" Unruh proposes (We modern folk can have our heroes, but damned if we'll let you primitive savages keep yours!). Or maybe it's some postmodern need to refresh a story by deconstructing it.  I don't know for sure, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

In the end the film loses any power it could have had by slipping into ambiguity. By this point we all know the monsters were fake, the stories were lies, there are no gods, and Hercules is just a man...but damn is he strong. Like, mythically strong, to the point where he topples a monumental statue of Hera and brings down the temple, just by putting his back into it (remember, he was able to do this because he believed in himself). This is the one moment in the film when you feel like you might actually be witnessing a mythic feat, even if collapsing the temple on top of your wrongdoers with strength granted by the gods feels more like Samson than Hercules. At the same time, it's mundane. The wrath of the patron goddess upon her city is reduced to the sheer ballistic energy of her massive marble head as it careens down the temple stairs and obliterates the corrupt king. The movie ends up being about a war, a people who believe in a bunch of crazy fairy tales, and one really buff guy with a great motivation speaker. The result is nothing short of insulting to one of the richest narrative traditions in human history.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Zack Snyder's Wonder Woman - The Measured Response

Jaime Alexander as Lady Sif
Thor: The Dark Side of the World
This morning, before Zack Snyder tweeted the Wonder Woman photoRose Moore wrote an indignant Movie Pilot article about the heroine's costume titled WHAT? Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is Wearing a SKIRT in Dawn of Justice!?. She is reacting to a "scoop" released earlier this week by which offers details on Wonder Woman's appearance in the new film: a blue leather skirt, silver bracers, a tiara, and multiple weapons. Moore gets hung up on the idea of the skirt right from the get-go, quoting Michael Wilkinson on character history and design intention and responding with, "What we have instead seems to me a poor excuse to make a female character's costume 'feminine', and to try and emulate the looks of other popular 'warrior women' in film and tv". This is followed by photos of Xena and Sif, and then, "We get it, we get it. Putting a woman in a leather skirt and gauntlets and giving her some weapons means that she is a 'strong woman'. God forbid you dig a little deeper."

Lucy Lawless as Xena
Xena: Warrior Princess
God forbid, I'm going to dig a little deeper.

I've read a lot of material in the past months about the much-lauded Strong Female Character. From the now classic Sophia McDougall article, "I Hate Strong Female Characters", to Tasha Robinson's "Trinity Syndrome" a couple weeks back, many good points have been made about plot relevance, screen time, emotional complexity, and clothing choices. My friend Andrew Dyce wrote a great piece for Screen Rant a few weeks back looking specifically at women in superhero blockbusters, wondering when the makers of these movies are going to stop giving the gals defensive, support-oriented powers that stem from some esoteric energy source, mental instability, or nature, and lamenting the bent in screen adaptation to portray female heroes as burdened and/or corrupted by their power. Jean Grey loses control, becomes the villain. Rogue can no longer have personal contact with loved ones. Mystique suffers from something of an identity crisis. And there's Sif, who may be the only on-screen heroine in this 21st century string of superhero films allowed to revel in her power, even if that power comes de facto with being born Asgardian, but in Moore's books she's just another "popular 'warrior woman'", and cannot be upheld as a point of reference. Neither can Xena, whose television reign was more than a little revolutionary in the area of female characters who could hold their own, alongside shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These characters are improper role models because of their...skirts? Is that all it takes?

Do we consider a female character to be a poor example when they exhibit femininity by design?

The history of Wonder Woman has been beaten to death in the course of Strong Female Character debate. She was written by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s. Marston was a psychologist, the inventor of the polygraph test. He was also fond of bondage, and shared a female lover with his wife. All of this made its way into the character we know as Wonder Woman, an icon of feminine strength and liberty who will tie you to a chair and make you tell the truth. Remove femininity from that equation and you gut the character.

A long list of Strong Female Characters was shared with me a little while ago, and it prompted a lot of sound discussion. A friend of mine chimed in with a thought about much she appreciates the character of Isabelle from the Mortal Instruments books, a character who is deadly when she needs to be, girlish when she wants to be, and loves it all equally. It got me thinking about Buffy, slaying demons in and around her love life, always well-dressed and quippy, and about how often resistance of that girlish nature is used in action cinema as a critical plot point. Hanna tries so hard to relax and be a girl (Hanna), but her training ends up being stronger than that desire. Merida's entire shtick is how much she disdains her role as princess (Brave), similar to our introduction to Arya Stark (Game of Thrones). Hit Girl (Kick Ass) and Buffy may be closest to Isabelle, both very much girlish though maybe not finding their strength in that. Now we have potentially the greatest heroine to grace the silver screen, a woman who stands as an equal among the greatest male figures in her stories, whose power is rooted in her femininity. I refuse to believe that whether she wears a skirt is going to make or break that power.

The other question to emerge from that discussion was the matter of violence. Do Strong Female Characters have to be violent, physically capable women? When Man of Steel came out there was a tendency in online response to cite General Zod's ruthless and beautiful right hand, Faora, as a breath of fresh air for female characters, due to the sheer number of times she was able to punch Superman. Kudos. If combat and aggression have become prerequisites for character strength, then it's worth asking: are we defining strong women by traditional forms of masculine expression? It comes full circle, in a way. When femininity by design is frowned upon, perhaps as sexualized but possibly also as simply "weak", then we turn in the other direction and masculinize our female characters. Add to that the fact that most weaponry through history can be interpreted as phallic: swords, spears, guns, and Buffy's stake "Mr. Pointy", which Joss was sure to get full comedic mileage out of. With all of this comes language of rigidity, pointing, penetration, and the rest. It's a mess of double-entendre which some characters have been able to escape. Xena's signature weapon is a circle; Wonder Woman uses, well, rope and the truth. One way this new Wonder Woman may be able to move us towards a true modern superheroine is by presenting a woman who sees the damage humanity does through violence, and exhibits strength and power along an alternative, constructive path.

I should, I suppose, touch on one last thing, a design element I neglected in my previous piece: the heels. Where, many people are asking, is the pragmatism in wearing high heels with armour? You can't fight in that. To which I feel compelled to respond: she's a demigod who deflects bullets, wielding a sword Hephaestus forged as a gift for her...

...who the f**k are you to tell her she can't wear heels?

Zack Snyder's Wonder Woman - The Initial Reaction

About six hours ago, at this little shindig down in San Diego that everyone gets pretty worked up about, director Zack Snyder tweeted this:
(High-res version available here, for those of you who need more detail to whine about)

The internet has come abuzz with critiques of the costume, brief reports from io9 and Variety, and the usual truckload of schlock on Facebook as all of the disgruntled fanboys who couldn't score SDCC tickets strive to one-up each other. I won't touch on comment threads much more than what I've just written, because they enrage me. The stupid burns brightly there. However...

...much of what I've been seeing has been along two lines of critique: 1) "Her body is wrong", and 2) "She isn't American/modern enough". So, let's talk about that a little. I'm more than a little disgusted to see a portion of the comics community vehemently protesting that Gal Gadot's boobs aren't big enough, her thighs aren't full enough, she's too skinny, or her nose looks funny, and "Do you even lift, princess?" You know how many shits Gadot gives about what fans think Wonder Woman should look like on screen? Zero. Absolutely none. Cinema Blend released this article a month ago, your standard "9 Things" internet fare, about the actress, in which she's quoted talking about her combat training regimen (which, as ex-Israeli military, she's no stranger to) and building the body-image of the character. She acknowledges the warrior's need for body mass, which she'll be putting on over the next few months, and cracks a joke about historical accuracy and the Amazons cutting off one breast. She can take the criticism and return the favour. I'm proud of her, in a you-don't-know-this-person-but-they-seem-pretty-rad kind of way.

"WHERE ARE THE STARS??", the fanboys cry in chorus from grease-stained keyboards the world over. "Why is there no colour?" "Why doesn't she look American?". Why doesn't she look American? You know what, that is a terribly hard question to answer. I bet it has something to do with an intricate backstory twist, or an alternate reality, some pseudo-anti-patriotic crossover that Snyder is endorsing. I did hours of research, pored over dusty tomes in secret vaults looking for hidden clues to this mysterious foreigner...

Guys, it's because she's not American.

I think at this point everyone knows that this film is going to incorporate Wonder Woman's origin, one way or another. Snyder hasn't exactly handed us a world flush with heroes who have been operating for decades and formed leagues with space station bases (though, if he threw continuity out the window and dropped a movie on us set forty years after Man of Steel with a fully-formed JLA, I would be thrilled. T'would be a bold move. But it's DC, so that will never happen.). He's handed us a franchise that will be releasing a blockbuster origin story every two to four years for a long while. I'm going to quote myself, from this morning's reaction to initial flood of bullshit:
"I like the Greco-Roman look. It fits her origin, and this is gonna be an origin story. This isn't, "I've been a hero in Metropolis for thirty years, and I wear star-spangled boy-shorts"; this is, "I was formed from mud by the hands of Zeus to be a warrior for Truth, and bitch, I'm here to kick your ass in armour smithed by Hephaestus himself." 
Eloquent, no? I'll stand by most of that statement. The character's background is well-known. She's amazonian royalty. She's either a Greek demi-god by birth or formed from mud and imbued with life by the gods, depending on the backstory you hold to. She protects herself and those around her with armour and weapons forged by Hephaestus (Vulcan, if you're of a Roman mythic disposition); you know, the guy who made Hermes' helmet, and Achilles' armour. Now, American fans, what part of any of that gives you the impression that you are entitled to see your patriotic motifs draped over her body? Maybe it's the fact that the actress is Israeli and you're paying a shitload of foreign aid money, wait, that's a different story.

"It's how I was raised, Hephaestus." 
Art and costume design by Cliff Chiang
These answers are straightforward. Why doesn't she look American? Because she's not. Why does she look archaic and mythical? Because she is. Other answers may be less easy to come by. One thing we all agree on, regarding Snyder's photo...

The jet looks awesome.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Everclear & Los Bros.: Appropriation or Homage? (Warning: May Contain Flippancy)

Let me set the stage for you. Until yesterday morning, I only knew the name "Everclear" as a commercial brand of moonshine. I'd never heard of the alt-rock band from Portland until they made an appearance in a disgruntled post on my news feed. "Lichtenstein would be proud", the article stated, referring to the band's appropriation of art from the Hernandez brothers' iconic comic series Love & Rockets for their Summerland Tour poster. Shortly afterwards I uncovered this post on of Facebook by Seattle cartoonist and Fantagraphics editor Eric Reynolds. Now, brace yourselves: I've never read Love & Rockets. I know, I know, gasping all around. I'm working on it. I just picked up my first Los Bros. Hernandez volume yesterday, and I'm looking forward to an evening when I have the time to crack it open. So while I still count myself among the ranks of the yet-to-be-enlightened, I definitely have a side in this debate which, frankly, I don't think is much of a debate.

Side by side: Jaime Hernandez's cover for Love & Rockets #24, and
the Summerland Tour poster by the artist popularly known as "some hack"
Jaime Hernandez owns the image. Period.

That's the line Reynolds laid down last night, taking no shit from anybody on Facebook when a graphic designer started arguing ambiguities about the work: "The most likely scenario here is that the original L&R poster was a 'work for hire,' in which case the artist gave up any claim on copyright", and "you may say 'Jaime owns his image,' maybe he does, but I would ask how you know this to be true,", to which Reynolds replied, "because I'm the publisher of the image and I'm telling you it was not work-for-hire and Jaime Hernandez owns it outright." BOOM. End of story, far as I'm least legally.

Clearly, the copyright isn't to be disputed. Even so, the Comics Guys and the Music Guys have been at each other on Twitter over this (the poster was released in March; while it's not exactly news it has been reignited in the past 24 hours) disputing the meaning of "homage" 140 characters at a time.

My personal favourite suggestion:
...and all followed by this tool who hates education and the English language.
I don't know who the artist was who whipped up the tour poster for Summerland, and I don't know what they got paid, but Summerland ought to ask for their money back. As an artist, you shouldn't be getting paid to do homage. Homage isn't work for profit; it's personal, a labour of love paying respect to someone you feel ought to be respected. Art Alexakis is the guy in this whole situation who wants to pay tribute to Los Bros., and that's great. So, Art...put your back into it. Write a song. Give them a shout-out on stage during the tour. Invite the brothers to your show, give them backstage passes, show them in your own way through your work that they mean something to you. Or, pay them to draw your poster. What better way to show an artist that you love their work? But paying another artist to recreate their intellectual property as some kind of a subtle nod? That's a slap in the face. Let's go back to Andy Khouri's suggestion there, because it's awesome. I, personally, love the idea of liking an artist's work, wanting to put it on something or acknowledge its influence, and then paying the artist to do work for you. It's such a great concept, it's almost novel. It shouldn't be.

To all the comics folks out there, getting their righteous anger on, chill the hell out. It's not the first time comics have been appropriated, or even mistreated by the music industry, and it sure as heck isn't going to be the last. We all know Roy Lichtenstein; every art school has seen hours of argument about intellectual theft, High vs. Low art, and the true meaning of "appropriate". And if you know the name "Picasso", then you know the heights to which a career can be built on the appropriation of ideas. It's old hat. This isn't Lichtenstein, and it's not Picasso. This is more akin to Axl Rose walking into Robert Williams' studio in '87 to buy a painting, at a time when someone could talk about Axl Rose and someone else would say, "Sorry, who?". Williams sold it to him at street value. That painting became the cover for an album that promptly took top position on Billboard charts and is now the best-selling debut album in history at over 21,000,000 copies. Williams has never seen more than the money Rose paid up front for that album cover.

Appetite for Destruction. It's history, man.
Now, that's a damn shame. A lot of people would say, man, that's just not fair. And obviously it's not, unless you're sitting on the side of the fence that's selling twenty-odd million records, in which case it's totally fair. "Fair" is subjective, right? I'm really hoping Art Alexakis weighs in on this when it goes live, because I genuinely want to hear his thoughts on it. Rose walked into that studio in '87 because he thought that painting was rad and wanted it on his cover. He paid the artist, took the art, and shot off into the stratosphere of metal with it. The Summerland Tour and Everclear thought Los Bros.' Love & Rockets was rad and wanted it on a they paid a different artist.

"Fair" is still subjective, right?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

New Websites and Research Plans

It was never my plan to abandon this blog and all you wonderful readers entirely, but unfortunately, that seems to have happened. I just don't have the time to maintain an online presence in five places at once, and this blog has been pushed to a back burner as I've focused on posting daily visual content to Off the Sketchpad. I don't know how many of you are following that blog. I bought a new domain and everything for the site, and now it's starting to feel like my internet home, at least more than it did. You can now visit the site, and keep tabs on my various projects, new pieces, and whatever beer I'm drinking as I read new additions to my bookshelf, at

That's not the only new domain announcement I have! Clearly, I've been away far too long... Sacred & Sequential has launched our new website at! We're all very excited about this. I had a draft blog post from way back when sitting, unfulfilled, that read,"even if the site doesn't look like much yet, we are developing more content" and now Voila! the site is full of content. A. David Lewis, the mastermind behind Sacred & Sequential, has done a superb job of gathering religion-and-comics-focused articles together into a formidable archive on the site. You can find all our stuff in one place: information on the ISIS death fatwa issued against The 99 creator Dr. Naif Al Mutawa; an interview with Dr. Christine Hoff Kraemer concerning Alan Moore's spiritual philosophy, her interactions with the famed comics writer and Magus, and the "gap in Moore scholarship"; and news on courses in the areas of religion and comics (preferably overlapping), such this one being offered by Dr. Jeffrey Brackett at Ball State University. All this and much, much more. Suffice it to say I have a lot of reading to do to get myself caught up.

In other news, I've pulled out of the 3rd global conference on The Graphic Novel at Oxford. Which is something I never thought I'd hear myself say, that I was letting go of the opportunity to present research at Oxford, yet here I am. It's the downside of being both a student and an independent scholar; when an $1100 conference opportunity comes your way, you either get a grant or you don't go. So that's a shame. BUT...the research planned for that project will continue, and will pick up speed when I return from my year abroad and can settle in again with proper resources and all of my Digital Humanities comrades here in Kelowna. For those of you in the dark, the plans to which I'm referring involve encoding Canadian "Golden Age" comics, the black & white classics known fondly as the "Canadian Whites", using John Walsh's Comic Book Markup Language. Initially, those plans involved only one title, cartoonist Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights, recently collected and reprinted in a gorgeous hardcover volume by Canadian comics historians Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson. Hope and Rachel were wonderfully supportive when I pitched them my idea back in March. Now, with Rachel working on a reprint of Johnny Canuck and Hope tackling the classic Brok Windsor, my idea is...evolving. I'm stepping away from it for about a year while I study in England, and you'll see a new and more fully developed iteration of it sometime down the road. So many ideas, so many grant applications to write...

I think that brings us at least somewhat up to date. I'll try not to be AFK for so long this time. I'm sure I can think of something else to write about. There's always something.