Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Son of Snippets

The B-52s' perennial classic "Love Shack" is at worst a sentence fragment and at best an unfinished conditional statement. It starts out by saying "If you see a faded sign at the side of the road that says fifteen miles to the Love Shack," but never balances that with a "then" statement. It never tells us what to do if we see that sign. Do we continue driving? Do we turn at the light? Have we missed it inadvertently?

It's thoughts like these that keep me up at night.
I was organizing comics the other night, and I came upon a quandary. Does 52 come before or after 1602? 1602 starts with 1, which comes before 5, but 52 comes before 1,602, which is technically the number of the year. Similarly, does JLA come before or after Justice League America? What about Justice League of America? Should I count it as JLA vol. 1 or Justice League (of) America vol. 3 or whatever it is?

It's thoughts like these that keep me up at night.

Which has had more different interpretations, the nature of the Donald Blake/Thor relationship, or the nature of the Anti-Life Equation?

I simply can't imagine what would have given me such an idea, but I started buying Manhunter. I picked up the trade (issues 1-5), got issues 6-9 and 20-22 reserved at my shop, and found 13, 14, 16-19, and 23 at another store. Which leaves 10-12 and 15 yet to be found. And oh, they will be found. No Manhunter escapes this man.

My favorite thing about the series? Reason #4, Dylan Battles.
Limitless possibilities, endless defeats.
Dylan was a professional henchman. That is awesome.

Read Manhunter.

The (walking on, walking on) "broken glass" reference was to an Upright Citizens Brigade skit. I haven't seen many episodes of the show, but what I have seen is brilliant.

My only experience with the comics' Copperhead is from Manhunter and Chase, so I've never seen him in-comic with the outfit he has in the Justice League cartoon. This is too bad, because I really like that costume.
But, this week's 52 has a female Cobra character (according to Stephen Wacker) who sure looks a lot like the animated Copperhead. Seeing that got me to thinking: why is it that, as soon as a male superhero's costume is empty, one of the first thoughts is to put a female character into it? Sure, this Cobra isn't Copperhead, but she looks pretty close, and the trend is everywhere, and it certainly doesn't go both ways. Here's my quick list of the ladies who have raided male heroes' closets.
  • Spider-Girl (Ben Reilly's Spider-Man costume)

  • Strange Visitor (Superman's electric threads)

  • Ms. Marvel II/Sharon Ventura (The Thing's um...body)

  • Jesse Quick/The Flash (Shortly during Terminal Velocity, adopting Wally's costume)

  • Iris West/Kid Flash (Kingdom Come/The Kingdom/Chain Lightning, Wally West's old costume)

  • Dove II (Dove I)

  • Hawk II (Hawk I)

  • Dr. Fate uh...II? III? (Dr. Fate I/II)
And of course, I'm blanking now, after coming up with a dozen or so in the car earlier. I realize that Spider-Girl and Kid Flash are from alternate futures, but they both have spent enough time in comics to be at least considered in the list. Venom was originally supposed to be a woman, who would have been aping Spider-Man's black duds. Wish I could remember the other ones I thought of.

Of course, it's a lot easier to come up with the characters who took a male character's name and altered the costume. Eclipso, Scorpion, Captain Marvel II (Monica Rambeau), Nova (Frankie Raye), etc. Who can I add to the list(s)?

If I ever do a high school movie where they have a big choreographed number during the Prom or other big dance, it's going to be to "Love Shack," grammatical concerns aside. I even know how it's going to go.

Well, the "bang, bang, bang, on the door" part, anyway.

That's it for now. Thoughts? Concerns? Comments?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Conventional Wisdom

Okay, so I haven't been to a Comic Convention since I was ten or eleven, and the ones I went to then were in a Holiday Inn or something in Ohio. I've never been to a major convention like San Diego or Chicago or anything. The closest I've come is two trips to BotCon, the Transformers convention.
This year, however, I plan on going to WizardWorld Chicago, and I'm wondering what to expect. I mean, I know all about bringing a backpack and a sketchbook and bottled water, I know about scheduling things so you can make it to all of the panels, and knowing where the bathrooms are, and not hassling creators on the floor. That's common sense stuff. What I'm wondering is a bit more practical, a bit more financial.
Namely, is everything going to be horrendously overpriced? Will I be looking at $6 for every tattered issue of Power Pack, or might I actually be able to pick up a run on Icon for $20? Will I be able to bring $100-150 and feel like I've gotten bargains and spent money well, or should I just not bother with looking for deals?

I'd like to use this opportunity to polish off my collections of comics-I-discovered-after-they-were-cancelled-or-shortly before, like Young Justice and Icon and Major Bummer and Supergirl and Superboy, but if every table's going to be using Near Mint prices out of Wizard for everything, then I don't think I should get my hopes up.

What's your advice?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

In which I walk on broken glass, as Jesus would have*

I hate sexism. I hate it not just because it's a terrible evil, as bad as any form of discrimination or bigotry, but also because it's extremely hard to write about it without sounding like an ass.
Especially for a guy.
Because, like it or not, most of human society exists in a patriarchical state, and women are oppressed or discriminated against to varying degrees everywhere where there are women, so for a man to complain about sexism is a little like a Republican in 2006 complaining about how little the Democrats allow them to do. We control it all, we're not put down, what room do we have to complain?
And yet, and yet...
Sexism is a complicated issue. Like racism, it goes both ways, I'm sad to say. And while misogyny is a significantly more apparent problem than misandrony (did I just coin that? neat), it doesn't mean there's no such thing.

Sigh, hand me the shovel.

Okay, sexism is complicated, and writing about it is doubly so. Trying to avoid offensiveness when writing about gender issues is like walking a tightrope with no rope. A major part of the problem is that no one seems to agree on what's acceptable. There's no hard and fast definition of "feminism," no Cliff's Notes version of what is "masculine" and "feminine," or even if those terms have meaning at all. So, here are my ground rules for discussing gender:
  1. Don't get offended.

  2. Assume that the potentially-offensive speech is coming from someone who is not sexist, until given clear indication otherwise.

  3. Don't get offended.
Because when it comes right down to it, even if you step on pins and needles and employ every euphemism you know in an effort to have an intelligent discussion about gender issues, you're going to offend someone. And though I hate to say it, it's especially true for men. For many of the double-x-chromosome persuasion, all men are expected to be sexist--it's either genetically- or socially-ingrained--and any discussion of gender issues is immediately read through with that assumption in mind.

Have I hit bottom yet? No? Okay, but I'm going to need a flashlight.

So, take for instance this post by Scipio, or this post where, in the comments, I defend an article that I disagree with. I don't think Scipio is sexist, but he's using what I'd call Chivalric Sexism: Women are better than men, so we should treat them differently and expect different things from them. Putting women up on a pedestal ends up being the same as putting them in a pumpkin shell (or a tent due to uncleanliness). Personally, this is the sort of sexism that upsets me the most. It's hard to disagree with Chivalric Sexism, since it seems so complementary, and since it's often unintended. Hell, you might be able to chalk it up to some genetic or social masculine predilection toward protecting/defending the womenfolk. Hence, the "Chivalric" qualifier.
Of course, the problem with Chivalry is that while women were held up as paragons of purity and virtue, virgin queens and white goddesses and all that, they were also sub-human property, without rights or liberty, beholden entirely to the whims of their husbands and fathers. Chivalric Sexism sets up this contradictory attitude of the superiority of femininity and the inferiority of women.
And it comes (though not necessarily) out of one of the more debated topics in gender issues, which is whether or not there are significant differences between the sexes.
Of course there are differences. As that precocious youth reminds us in Kindergarten Cop, "boys have a penis and girls have a vagina." I don't think anyone's going to deny that there are significant morphological and physiological differences between men and women. When you start moving into psychological differences, there's a little more contention. When you start assigning moral value to those differences, you end up in a firestorm of controversy and disagreement. Much though he dislikes Ronnie Raymond, Scipio fell into just such a firestorm.

Are men and women equal, or different? Do the differences genetically and hormonally imply differences psychologically? Can we make any statements of a general nature regarding these differences? I'd say both, yes, and no, in that order.

We'll hit the second one first: yes, there are gender-related psychological differences between men and women. Various studies play this out (though I'm sure there are studies to the contrary), but it comes down to the fact that gender identity is not a purely, or even necessarily mostly, physiological trait. It comes about as a confluence of physiological and psychological conditions, but ultimately the psychological trumps the physical.

The flipside of this is that those gender-identity differences are not necessarily limited to members of one or the other physical gender. Furthermore, there's such a broad spectrum of psychological traits and gender identities and sexual identities that, while we can say with a good degree of certainty that men and women are psychologically different, a man and a woman may be very similar psychologically.
So, rule number four:
  1. A general statement will not and is not meant to apply to all or any individuals.
Even if there are psychological differences (on the whole) between men and women, those differences do not imply a moral value or moral judgment. "Different" doesn't mean "better" or "worse," or even "smarter" or "more sensible," which is where Scipio made his mistake. Yes, there may be more men in prison than women, even just for violent crimes. Yes, there may be some genetic/hormonal conditions that make men generally more prone to aggression than women. But to say that "women are less aggressive than men" or "women are more sensible/smart than men" based on this circumstantial evidence is like saying "comic books cause juvenile delinquency because all juvenile delinquents read comics." There are other factors that one needs to consider. For instance, men are generally more physically powerful than women, and while women can commit rape, cases of woman-on-man rape go unreported far more often than the other way 'round, and are even more difficult to prove and prosecute than the other way 'round. That's a whole common category of violent crime that women are more or less excluded from. Women are just as likely to engage in partner or child abuse as men are.
The point is that the differences between the genders are not enough to account for the disparate numbers of men and women in prison, and those disparate numbers alone do not allow us to say anything meaningful about those gender differences.

In fact, nothing really allows us to say anything meaningful about gender differences. Is masculinity defined by the machismo of a big, burly, boastful, hairy pro-wrestler, settling matters with his fists? Or is it defined by the loving father who teaches his children how to catch, how to fish, how to bowl? Or is it defined by the soldier who maintains his cool under the greatest pressures and shares a bond of brotherhood with his fellow soldiers? Is femininity defined by the bubbly bleach-blond with perky breasts who dresses in pink and chews bubblegum and owns a tiny little poodle? Or is it defined by the bra-burning activist in birkenstocks who attends every Lilith Fair concert and marches at NOW and NARAL rallies? Or is it defined by the voluptuous sexpot who is completely comfortable with her body and sexuality and sleeps with who she wants, when she wants, for her own pleasure? Or is it the loving mother who cleans and cooks and somehow manages to maintain a professional life and take care of both kids?
"Masculine" and "feminine" are such broad terms as to be nearly meaningless. They'd have to be to encompass the whole of male and female experiences. Once you get beyond physiology, it becomes wholly impossible to make general distinctions between men and women. So, when you start talking about men and women as different groups, you run into the problem of people vehemently disagreeing about what those differences are and whether or not they matter.

Let's get back to that IGN article about buying comics for your girlfriend, which I linked far above. Yes, the authors employ the sort of chauvanist language I would expect from dreck like Maxim or Stuff, but we'll ignore that for a moment and focus on the list they present. With the exception of Ultra, there's not a capes-and-spandex superhero book in the bunch, and all of comicdom's many and talented female writers seem to be conspicuously missing. Yet, the list they present is a veritable who's who of easily-accessible, intelligent, literary comic works and cult treasures. Comics I've loved, like Sandman, Blankets, Runaways, and Y: The Last Man; comics I've always heard good things about, like Bone, Leave it to Chance, and Strangers in Paradise, all made the top ten list. It was more or less a "comics to recommend to people who don't read comics" list, though with a clear aversion to the depressing (Maus) and the spandex-laden (Batman: DKR, Superman: For All Seasons, etc.), and with more than a little slant towards the romantic. The sexist attitude is clear: girls don't want to read about musclemen in capes and misproportioned women duking it out to a teenage boy's power fantasy; superhero comics are a boy thing, girls want to read more mushy, romantic stuff. The one superhero comic on the list is one starring several female characters, in what was at one time described as "Sex and the City" with superpowers. So, the article is sexist, and as Ragnell quite rightly said, the only way to recommend comics to your girlfriend is to find out what she likes and work from that. Clear-cut, right?

Of course not.

See, the thing about superhero comics is that they are kind of a boys' thing. Hear me out. Superhero comics come out of a time when societal expectations of the genders were well-defined and clear-cut, when girls were expected to pick up Betty & Veronica, and not Green Lantern & Green Arrow (anachronistic examples, I know). Boys were trucks and fighting and cowboys and indians and superheroes and supervillains. Girls were romance and Barbie and hair and dress-up and cute girlie comics. So, comics were written toward an audience of male children. Times changed, the audience changed, the market changed, the nation changed, attitudes about gender changed, and comics...comics stayed the same, for the most part. Superhero comics, anyway. Sure, there were more strong female characters as the years went on; women slipped out of the oblivious girlfriend/damsel in distress mold, and into a mold forged in the fires of women's liberation. But the actual stories? Still the same adolescent male power fantasies, with the added element of possibly seeing two chicks in spandex duke it out. By the time superhero comics began developing greater depth and complexity, they had also begun to develop the geek-stigma, that the only people who read comics are acne-ridden boys who refuse to grow up, refuse to leave the basement, and will never know a woman's touch. Whether or not superhero comics were a "boys' thing" by that point, they were seen as such, particularly as a "loser-boys' thing." The fanboys haven't helped the image; too many buy into the stereotype and turn adolescent awkwardness into a reason for social hermitage, developing comic stores that act as safe havens for geekkind, and foreboding dens of poor lighting and leering stares to any strangers, especially female strangers, who happen to enter. And I daresay that this attitude would make any woman a little hesitant to take the plunge into the world of capes and costumes.

Or, from Sandman:
A Game of You

In adolescent male fantasies, they have within them a secret power which they must keep hidden, they are more than they seem to be, but cannot reveal themselves. In adolescent female fantasies, they are secretly special, they are not who they think they are, and someday that secret will be revealed and they'll live happily ever after. Superhero comics rarely follow that latter model, though you'll find that many Disney movies do. Even aside from societal pressures both inside and outside the comics niche, it would seem that superhero comics play out a common male power fantasy, that they are fundamentally a sort of "boy thing."

And again we come to concerns over whether or not fantasy is truly gender-determined. Are the sorts of games we play and fantasies we have determined entirely by gender identity? Might there be a sliding scale or spectrum of such fantasy types? Should we just dismiss this outright since Neil Gaiman, a male, clearly has no insight into the female mind?

And this is about where people start yelling at each other again.

This is rapidly becoming both my longest and my least coherent post to date, and I have yet to make a point. I think that's mainly because there's not much point to make. Any time you bring up gender issues, you're treading on ice so thin that you better hope you can walk on water. Everyone has their own idea of what is meant by "feminine" and "masculine;" just look at Power Girl. Some consider her outfit, her large breasts and their "window," her confident attitude and sexual comfort to be sexist and degrading to women, others see the character as a champion of feminist ideals, an empowered woman who is beautiful, strong, and not defined by any man. I've heard Y: The Last Man described both as powerfully feminist and as a chauvanist male sex fantasy. No matter where you fall in the debate, once you take a stand, you're immediately sexist to someone.

So, perhaps rule five should be a corollary to Godwin's Law:
  1. In an intelligent discussion of gender issues, once you call someone sexist, you have lost the argument.
Sure, there's such a thing as sexism, and sometimes it's easy to see. When the boss pinches his secretary on the ass and calls her toots, when your grandpa talks about "women drivers," when the phrase "throw like a girl" is used in a derogatory fashion, it's obviously sexism. The Corollary to Godwin may be suspended in those moments, since it's clearly not an intelligent discussion of gender issues. But when someone's trying to make an actual point about the differences between men and women, and what those may mean in some context, hold off on the S-word and any other "ists" until Rule 2 ("Assume that the potentially-offensive speech is coming from someone who is not sexist, until given clear indication otherwise") has been thoroughly satisfied. Just because someone sees the line between the genders in a different place, just because they assign a different significance to those differences, doesn't make them necessarily wrong, nor does it make them sexist. Until they come up with clear definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" that satisfy everyone, it's up to everyone to account for the existence of a broad spectrum of such defintions.

Next time you come across a discussion of gender issues, within or without the realm of comics, remember that disagreement doesn't equal discrimination. Don't immediately assume that the person who praises Kitty Pryde as a paragon of female ideals is a sexist pig. At least, not until they say "and I'd totally tap that."

Now, could someone throw me a rope?

*Yes, that's an obscure reference. Five points to whoever guesses correctly!

Dig Deeper!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Thor Loser

If he be worthy...I like Thor. I've recently had the pleasure of reading some of Simonson's legendary run on the character, and I greatly enjoy it. Thor's a fantastic character, one of the pillars of the Marvel Universe. When rumors flew around about a Mike Carey or Neil Gaiman Thor series in the works, I was all psyched and ready to plop down money for Thor, for the first time in a decade or so.

Then, this week's Lying in the Gutters struck:
Warren Ellis would like me to tell people that he's not the writer of the upcoming Thor comic. He's been there, done that, either doesn't want to or hasn't been asked. So leave the poor man alone to write more "NextWave", "newuniversal" or his Icon project that Marvel are eeking out.

Anyway, he can't be writing Thor. Joe Michael Straczynski is.

Well, crap. Not only does this mean that J. Michael Straczynski will be bringing his wonderful combination of "destiny/oodles of convoluted, out-of-place mysticism" and "complete lack of understanding for the characters" to the Thunder God, but it also means that he's writing monthly books for three of the icons of the Marvel Universe (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Thor, for those keeping score at home). Give him an X-Men title and Captain America, and he'll have the quintfecta.

Now, I might be jumping the gun here. After all, Thor's a god, he's always been embroiled in mysticism of one sort or another, and his personality is pretty simple when it comes right down to it. Maybe Straczynski will be a perfect hit for it, bringing the blend of thoughtful characterization, magic, and science fiction that worked so well on Babylon 5 to the pages of The Mighty Thor. Maybe it'll be like the early days of his Spider-Man run, where the characters were well done and the mysticism was downplayed, and Spidey wasn't running around fighting gods and eating heads every other month.

But I, and my wallet, doubt it. Mr. Straczynski used up any goodwill he earned with crap like "Sins Past" and "The Other." Marvel really ought to get some new blood, instead of letting every major book fall under the distinction of a Bendis, an Ellis, a Millar, or a Straczynski. I bet Dan Slott or Robert Kirkman could do a great Thor book.

Edit: In that same article is the phrase "The Melty Man Cometh," a reference to Coupling, one of the finest shows ever to make it from the BBC to my retinas. Fantastic series...wish I could afford to pick it up.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I'm with Quasar

From Quasar #6, 1990:
Ah, sweet precognition.

Did you catch that?
The thought-bubble, ancestor to the internal monologue caption.

Marvel: the House of Recycled Ideas.

Me? I'm with Quasar.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mike Parobeck: 1965-1996

My first Parobeck comicToday is the 10th anniversary of the death of Mike Parobeck, one of the first comic artists I knew both by name and by style. His style predated and presaged the sort of simplicity and sharpness that would come to be associated with Bruce Timm and the animated DCU. I couldn't believe it when I'd heard of his death, and I still can't believe that he didn't live long enough to become the icon he inevitably would have been. His art was well ahead of its time, it's a shame he was as well.

This last year, I managed to pick up the complete run of the JSA series that Parobeck drew, of which I once owned only two issues. That comic introduced me to the JSA, to Jesse Quick, to the Ultra-Humanite, and to the generational aspect of the DCU as a whole. And I never would have enjoyed and read those issues as much and as often as I did without Mike Parobeck's peerless contribution. Do yourself a favor: pick up a Parobeck comic. You won't be sorry.

Oh, and check out what these folks have to say, they know a lot more than me:
Seven Hells

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Pocket full of Parody

Sure are a lot of people naysaying and nitpicking the wonderfulness of Superman Returns. Here's my first response.

Superman Returns (It's Not Easy)
To the tune of "Superman (It's Not Easy)" by Five For Fighting. Duh.

I know men can't fly,
I'm not that naïve.
It's all an effect
Just wires and CG.

He isn't a Reeve,
He isn't a Cain,
Not even that Smallville kid, ol' what's-his-name
And it's not easy
to please...me.

I wish that they could find
A new Christopher Reeve;
You'd think they could try,
But that film will never be.

It may sound absurd, but I want to see
Supervillains, not Kal's progeny.
I may be a nerd, but won't you concede,
That the fanboys should be running things?
It's not easy
to please...me

Superman Returns won't do for me, there are no fights
Inconsistent kryptonite.
I'm not picky...or anything.

I know men can't fly,
I'm not that naïve.
But before my eyes
I'm starting to believe...

He's barely a man,
He looks like a teen.
He's got a tiny 'S' and little red briefs.
He's not Superman,
Or at least not Chris Reeve,
But he has touched something inside of me,
Inside of me...

I feel like a child
With my Superman sheets
I feel like a kid
Thanks to this movie

This IS Superman
That much I believe
And it's not easy, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm...

It's not easy
To please...me

Sing Along!