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Archive: May 2004

“Clark. The Earth Moved.”

Sean Collins on me on Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again:

Steven Berg on The Dark Knight Strikes Again. I’d say “’nuff said,” but it really isn’t, because I’ve got to mention his wondrous description of the role played by the cataclysmic Superman-Wonder Woman sex scene. It beggars belief that people can read a book with something like that in it and think that said book was some sort of play-it-safe corporate sellout. I mean, it has a cataclysmic Superman-Wonder Woman sex scene.

Play-it-safe corporate sellout?

Somebody said that? No way! Who?

“I was sentimental—back when I was old.”

At first, Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again reminded me of Gigli. No, seriously. Gigli is a movie in which some parts are good, other parts are good but you find yourself asking “Why the hell’s that in this movie?” and other parts make you hope they’re an absurdist parody but you have this horrible feeling the director actually wants us to watch that final scene with the mentally retarded kid whose only dream in life is to meet the hot babes of Baywatch and find it touching and heartwarming

So DK2 was like that, except mostly scenes in the latter two categories.

Now I think that’s probably much the effect Frank Miller and Lynn Varley were going for. (Miller and Varley are both listed on the front cover, and Todd Klein is listed just below them on the title page, no information about what each actually did on the book, which I think is neat because the message seems to be “We are all equally authors of this text” but I suppose it would be annoying if you didn’t already know who each author was and which parts of the text he or she contributed. At any rate, hereafter I’m going to go auteur and refer to the “author” as “Miller” and “he.”)

Something just occured to me: the plot, such as it is, of DK2 involves Lex Luthor and Brainiac faking an alien invasion to maintain their control of the populace (and to kill off the pesky superheroes). Sound familiar…? Yeah, Watchmen! An allusion? I think so. And DK2 pretends to be a sequel to Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, but it really doesn’t work as a sequel—it’s more of an extended allusion ot DKR.

How would you feel if you fancied yourself something of an iconoclast in the realm of superhero comics, somebody who’s not so worried about preserving traditions, who in fact likes to kick tradition in the ass and go looking for fun new stuff… and you found that people have canonized a comic you created 15 years ago? You’d feel a lot like Frank Miller must have when he decided to write DK2, I bet. Miller doesn’t strike me as the sort who likes his books to be safe. But DKR is second only to Watchmen in safeness—not that either of these books is safe or comfortable if you read them and pay attention, but they’re safe in that they have such a status among comics readers that they’re practically untouchable and most negative criticism is met with indifference at best, even though many readers would probably be hard pressed to explain just why they’re so great without resorting to mumbling about “deconstruction” and other fancy words they probably can’t define. They’re respectable comics.

Canons and classics are just fine, no doubt about it, but if you revere the canon at the cost of ignoring other good new comics, comics will stagnate. How many times have you heard somebody say “There has never been a comic since Watchmen that was as good as Watchmen” or “Watchmen is the best comic ever written”? I’ve seen lots of people say things like that, and it’s bullshit. There have been piles and piles of superhero comics as good as or better than Watchmen and DKR. Miller doesn’t want to be safe and respectable, he wants to kick tradition in the ass and blow up icons. DK2 is his powerful projectile aimed directly at the reputation of DKR. The projectile is… Superman and Wonder Woman, united in carnal embrace.

If you haven’t read DK2, trust me, you have to read the Wonder Woman-Superman sex scene yourself to grasp its full impact. Superman has just been beaten up by Batman, blown up by the Flash, shot full of Kryptonite by Green Arrow, and had the Atom inserted directly into his brain: he’s in bad shape. Wonder Woman finds him at the site of the erstwhile Fortress of Solitude and berates him, saying among other things, “Where is the hero who threw me to the ground and took me as his rightful prize?” Yes, Wonder Woman, doing a Red Sonja act! Then she and Superman fuck each other’s brains out so hard that, I’m not kidding folks, they cause catastrophic seismic and weather disruptions across the entire world. If your reaction as you read this passage (pp. 111-124 of the trade paperback collection) isn’t something like “What the fuck???” then you are entirely too jaded for your own good. And that’s exactly the reaction Miller’s going for. Whether you think it’s good reading hardly matters (I do not think it is good reading, I think it scarred my poor innocent brain for all eternity). What matters is that Miller has broken free of the limited bounds within which Superman and Wonder Woman had been allowed to operate. DK2 has many other more, dare I say it, subtle ways of breaking free, like giving Superman and Wonder Woman a daughter (who, in one of the book’s best scenes, demands that Superman tell her about Kryptonian sex).

If I haven’t made it clear, I had a lot of fun with DK2, although to a certain extent it’s not a book that was designed to be liked (at least, not liked by everybody). The fact that so many people hate it is arguably a sign of success—I suspect Miller deliberately wrote a book he knew a lot of people would hate, not just to screw with his fans but as proof against it’s ever losing its edge and becoming safe and comfortable.

Why Don’t I Dig This?

I’m home sick from work today but, as my dad always says, too sick to enjoy it, alas. I’m assuming it’s a mild flu (complete with respiratory symptoms!) but it’s annoying. This is all a prelude to ranting, letting you know there’s a mild chance when I come to my senses I’ll think everything I’m saying is insane. But onward!

I’ve been thinking about Barb Lien-Cooper’s opinion piece “Why Don’t Chicks Dig Comics? Well, Why Don’t You ASK One?” and several things about it have been nagging at me.

First, and maybe most importantly, there’s this:

In addition, in spite of the fact that women are made to feel somewhat more welcome in comic book stores, there’s still a slight majority of stores that WANT to be like Floyd’s Barbershop or whatever. Some places REVEL in being the last place on earth a man can hang out without having to deal with women or their objections to how women are treated as customers, as readers, as creators, and as characters in comics. I’ve been to some stores where I have been made to feel unwelcome because of my gender. Those experiences were like accidentally stepping into a men’s locker room.

Relatedly, Alex de Campi said that German comics stores are more girl-friendly. I have no way of knowing whether the German part is true. I didn’t find any specialty comics shops in Turkey, and I suppose the Spanish stores I was in would have been friendly to girls who liked Conan and porn. But I’m bothered by the constant references to offensive behaviors in stores. I’ve never had any myself, but I stand up for myself. The problem is that if these kinds of things are going on, we need to know details. If there are stores with systematic discrimination towards women or where there’s a hostile shopping environment, there needs to be a list of names all over the internet so the managers can explain themselves and improve and be aware that this is a problem, and so that the rest of us who care about this issue can choose to shop accordingly. It seems like the most basic site for comics activism, and yet I’ve never seen anything beyond such vague complaints.

But then there’s the whole issue of why women need to be reading comics anyway. I’ve participated in lots of male-dominated fields and never considered that much of a problem or a barrier, nor did it deter me from following things that interested me. I’m also a knitter, a stereotypically female activity, and in reading message boards and knitting blogs there are plenty of entreaties to remember that men knit too and not to assume that all knitters are women as well as comments to the pattern makers that they should include more clothing for men, but I haven’t seen much widespread activism to get men as a group more involved in knitting. So why do comics readers get hung up on this kind of Affirmative Action, tricks to get women to read comics? As Barb points out, lots of women do read comics, especially manga. So where exactly is the problem?

I have yet to meet a comics reader who’s really just happy with the status quo. Whether it’s wanting writers to conform more closely to their view of the Platonic form of Green Arrow or wanting new writers (or a return of old writers) or different art styles or more or less editorial involvement, comics fans all want to make comics better. So when the thesis of such gender-driven articles invariably is that comics should be written better with more awareness of interpersonal interaction and characterization, why is this in any way special to women? To me, that feels patronizing; it’s not enough to say “Smart, sensible people want comics that read well and make sense,” but you have to add, “and chicks would dig it too!” I guess what I’m saying is that “what women want in comics” always turns out to be about what the writer wants in comics, which makes sense, but might be more useful if given in a more direct manner. The Class of Women is not a good demographic. Barb wisely suggests aiming for women who are already geeks, which I think is one place where comics have made significant inroads among female readers – or at least comics published by Vertigo and Slave Labor Graphics, as well as the aforementioned manga.

And one more gripe:

Right now, we are a hermetically sealed off order from the mainstream, with more terms of art, jargon, rituals, secret symbols, inside jokes, and offshoots than one can shake a stick at. We’re the bloody Masons of subcultures! And, that’s the way a lot of us like it. We make it difficult for newbies to come inside, as we make it so only those who are willing to study the subculture and take its ways to heart feel welcome.

Maybe that’s true. Certainly superhero continuity seems like a ridiculous mess to an uninterested outsider, but that’s not all of “comics.” And I think what’s just been described is true of just about any self-selecting hobby group. There’s a new language you have to learn to be a part of any subculture, and having gone through several, I strongly disagree that it’s harder to learn to speak comics than it is to get into any other subculture. I started reading comics 4 or 5 years ago and have figured out how to get by, and I have absolutely horrible visual skills: it can’t be that difficult. I’ve also seen many people who do welcome new or potential readers, both online and real-life folks in general, as well as organizations like Sequential Tart and Friends of Lulu, both of which are explicitly interested in helping women transition into The Comics Lifestyle, whatever that is.

None of this means that I don’t want more women reading comics! Most of my comics-reading friends offline have been women, and plenty of the online ones are, too. I just don’t look at myself as being somehow special or privileged for being a woman who (gasp!) reads comics, even the superhero kind! But trying to use women as an excuse to advocate the kind of comics you like is stupid and demeaning. In Barb’s defense, she’s not just talking. Her comic Gun Street Girl was created to fill what she considered gaps in the range of comics currently available. And I agree wholeheartedly that sexist discourse among and from comics professionals and fans needs to stop. I’m just sick of reading about what women want instead of reading good comics, and the ones I consider good won’t be good for all women. I’m ok with that. In fact, I think it’s great. But at least Barb didn’t advocate beefcake. Ick!

The True Superman

Hey, I’m back! For now… I’ve been having lots of trouble connecting to the Internet lately (entirely the fault of the awful campus network I’m on, so there’s not much I can do about it except graduate and move someplace with a good network), and given that I am preparing to graduate in about two weeks, I’ll probably be a bit busy in the near future and so the no-blogging trend may continue. I have lots of stuff to write about, but no time and an uncooperative Internet connection.


Superman stands alone. Superman did not become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he is Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S is the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses the business suit, that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race, sort of like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plumpton.

This, of course, is Bill’s monologue on Superman from Kill Bill Vol. 2 (which Quentin Tarantino apparently “borrowed” from Jules Feiffer’s book The Great Comic Book Heroes). This is the most obvious possible interpretation of Superman, and frankly I’m surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered who seem deeply impressed by this allegedly brilliant interpretation. What did you folks think Superman was about?

Actually, I disagree with Bill. Well, certainly he’s right that Clark Kent isn’t the real guy, he’s a character Superman made up so he doesn’t have to be Superman all the time. However! Superman isn’t the real guy either… Superman certainly isn’t his real name, his name is Kal-El. (Or Kal-L on the erstwhile Earth-2.) That’s his Kryptonian name—so is the Kryptonian Kal-El the real guy? But he was never really Kryptonian. Sure, in the pre-Crisis DC Universe (and Bill has us talking pre-Crisis here, the weakling coward Clark Kent is a pre-Crisis artifact), it seems like half the population of Krypton managed to escape, what with Supergirl, Krypto, the bottled city of Kandor, and whatever other obscure Kryptonians were lurking around—but even with all those Kryptonians around, Kal-El could at best get history lessons. He couldn’t ever be part of a living Kryptonian culture. And anyway he certainly didn’t grow up Kryptonian. He grew up American, but his extraterrestrial origin and his superpowers serve as constant reminders that he’s far from a natural citizen. Even his powers aren’t naturally Kryptonian. He’s an emigrant from a place which doesn’t exist and which he never knew, to a place from which his alien genetics always separate him.

Superman has plenty of alter egos, but no natural self. His only nature is alienation from nature. He is, in fact, a metonym of human nature, which is alienation from nature. What Christians call Original Sin, alienation from God. What people are looking for when they give up the hectic bustle of modern life and join a commune or something. The immigrant embodies this alienation physically, and Superman takes immigration to the next level: not only is he from another planet, he’s from another planet that blew up and no longer exists. It’s like Genesis without the moral judgement and without Happy Heaven as a final reward after a life of struggling to get back to Eden. Superman’s only reward for the true selves he tries to cobble together out of the pieces he’s been left with is no more and no less than whatever self he manges to cobble together. His life as Superman, Clark Kent, Kal-El are the closest he’ll ever get to Heaven. (This is one reason I find attempts to make Superman a Christ figure amusing. Or bemusing. He descends from some idealized place and takes on the burden of humanity, right, but then he doesn’t have any Heaven to ascend to! He’s like the first half of a Christ figure, which just means he’s human.)

As long as I’m writing about Superman’s identities I should note that Chris Maka and Ken Lowery are also pondering superhero identities. Ken specifically offers some criticism of the Punisher’s own identity issues, which makes sense but don’t trust me, I’ve never read any Punisher comics.

Apocalytpic or Necrotic?

By which I mean my life at the moment. Somehow these 11-hour workdays are not agreeing with me. But I stole my title from Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book for a reason. I’ve just finished Michael Swanwick’s In the Drift, which I briefly thought meant I was now caught up on Swanwick, but a quick search shows I’m wrong. And it’s a book from 1985 about a post-apocalyptic United States.

There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with such stories, though it was admittedly after 1985, which was the time when I was obsessed with Narnia to the point where I could recite full pages from memory. In the Drift explores East Coast civilization after Three Mile Island, or rather after an accident at Three Mile Island in which, unlike in our history, catastrophe wasn’t averted. I can’t recall other books in which the nuclear apocalypse is not weapons-related, which added intrigue here.

Postapocalyptic fiction as I know it had its heyday in the late 80s, and I hope to revisit some of the titles I remember well. A lot were geared toward young adults, or at least the ones I read. Young adult books seem to be set in the time of the crisis featuring teenaged protagonists trapped in a world they didn’t create, trying to make sense of love and horror, which is to say just normal young adult books. This could be a small sample size problem, though, because the only exceptions I can think of at the moment are In the Drift and A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I reread last month and which seemed much more profound when I was 12. Both have standard future-story problems with pop culture references. It’s 70+ years after Three Mile Island and a journalist’s heroes are Hemingway and Ernie Pyle? Or perhaps I’m just frustrated because I had to reread the chapter of 3001 today in which a space captain in the titular year has a photograph of early 1900s explorers and explains a whole bunch of nonsensical multicentury history that makes no sense in the order in which it is given. Think, authors, think!

At any rate, I plan to come back to this when I’m awake, and I’ll focus on the two books just mentioned as well as the excellent Brother in the Land, which has another title too, and the After the Bomb series and the Tomorrow When the War Began series, which I haven’t finished because they’re really well after my time, as well as the entire phenomenon that was Stamp Out Sheep Press. And more, if I think of them.

I realize I was a grim little girl to be so taken with these stories of destruction and fleeting beauty, but maybe that’s why I didn’t get around to reading comics until adulthood. I don’t think I really understood the Cold War paranoia necessary to accept a lot of the stories as directly applicable to my life, but they were awfully meaningful to me nonetheless. I don’t know if there are books like this for my littlest brother and his classmates, born the first time our country was at war in Iraq. I don’t think they’d think their threats were the same, but I didn’t care about the bombs and not having a clear Red Menace didn’t make the stories less powerful to me, especially because the moral was always that you have to be at least as worried about “our” guys as “theirs,” and most worried of all about yourself and what you love.

A Virus from Outer Space

Last night’s bedtime reading was “Sociolinguistic Attitudes and Issues in Contemporary Britain,” by Paul Alceo, an essay in English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics, which cost me a dollar at Half Price Books and has been well worth the investment. I was fascinated to come across something entirely new to me:

Polari survives in only about 100 words, the remnant of what was probably once a fuller criminal argot derived in part from Lingua Franca, a Mediterranean pidgin. It is a vocabulary, rather than a full language, used by vagabonds and homosexuals in the theater and navy.

In looking at word lists I realize I’ve read many of the words before, admittedly mostly concerning “homosexuals in the theater” rather than those in the navy or vagabonds of any sexual orientation. Still, while I’d known that subcultures, particularly persecuted or marginalized ones, have their own inflections and code words and circumlocutions (something I was rather obsessed with as a teen, in fact) I’d never thought of this as a separate language. It makes me wonder when and how current argots will be discussed and codified, from 1337sprach to stupid cyberknitters’ acronyms to all the other sorts of shared shorthands that the internet and blogs in particular create and nourish. This is something I like to watch while reading message boards and blogs, and I should probably pay more attention and keep track, but I don’t think I’ll ever do real sociolinguistic commentary on it.

As for Polari, the definitive source seems to be Paul Baker, who has written a history and a dictionary (still in print!) of Polari. I intend to hit the library.

“The loaded table made her feel gluttonous”

Before any substance, I apologize for yet more lack of Animal Man, but it’s been a crazy week at work and home and I haven’t gotten around to rereading or getting my thoughts in order. Poor Steven has very limited internet access now, so he’s not going to be posting either until that situation improves.

So instead of comics, I’ll quickly review the book I finished early in the week, sowing that I haven’t actually kept to my plan of just quickly reviewing all the books I read. This was Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, copyright 1969. The copy I have is a paperback from the thrift store, the cover a woman-shaped refrigerator in a dark kitchen with an overflowing sink. The worst thing about it, though, is the blurb on the back cover:

Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can’t eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds – everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she’s being eaten. She really ought to feel consumed with passion. But she just feels…consumed.

That’s not really what the book’s about, but it’s an interesting story itself. I don’t know why they thought a feminist horror book would sell, although perhaps that is sort of what The Edible Woman is, if a strange and ambiguous one. It’s set during the sexual revolution, when nice single women of middle-class backgrounds want to have sex and enjoy themselves and still be considered respectable by the sort of people who don’t approve of such things. At least that’s Marian’s situation when she agrees to marry her dull but functional boyfriend, and then her life gets much more strange. She’s losing her identity, her willingness to say what she thinks or what she wants, but at the same time she’s beginning to arrange trysts with an enigmatic, cadaverous literature grad student. Food becomes a weapon, but she’s not sure how to wield it, not sure how her body will betray her next in refusing to accept various forms of nourishment. She doesn’t know what pleasures are the ones she wants and whether they’ll be pleasures if she takes them.

I read my first Atwood as a very young teenager, Surfacing. The writing was lovely, but I found the story incomprehensible. The only story element I liked was a segment in which an Anglophone character remembers being mocked at school for translating vers libre as “free worms.” A decade later I understand well how educated women make foolish choices that leave them furiously searching for a source for their own unhappiness, so The Edible Woman makes sense. And that’s what I think is going on. It doesn’t matter how great or awful Marian’s fiance is if having a fiance is making her turn into something she hates and doesn’t recognize. It’s not a horror story in which an evil man is the villain, but interaction with a corrupt and confusing society. It’s a story about a quest for autonomy and self-awareness, not exactly achievable goals.

The Edible Woman lacks the poetry of later Atwood writings and its metaphors and trajectory are obvious even to the characters. And yet I liked it enough to stay up too late two nights reading it, though not enough to devour it in one. I still prefer Marge Piercy for frothy feminist novels, but Marian made a compelling protagonist, especially because of her ambiguous and only somewhat self-conscious analyses of herself and her peers. I was especially interested in it as a historical document of a setting where women can retire upon marriage and where even when you can be mistaken for a prostitute while wearing a girdle. The frivolous male grad students are a fascinating group, too, and are smugly excited by how shocking topics like S&M in Lewis Carroll are. All in all, it’s a very quick read and in many ways a frustrating one, but I enjoyed it.