How I Vanished for a Summer, Discovered My Life’s Ambition, and Dyed My Hair Purple (Also: Guild Wars 2)

To those of you who were readers from before June: It’s good to be back! I have missed the blog and all of the kind words of support from our readers.

To those of you who started reading after Joanna’s epic takeover: Hello! My name is BatCat. Joanna’s BFFL and co-founder of geekalitarian. I hope that you continue to reading our blog and help us by shamelessly promoting it to your friends (/shameless plea for promotion)

This summer I worked at a Girl Scout Camp as the Program Coordinator, Art Specialist, and Unit Leader. I have already extensively written about how awesome Girl Scouts is and how influential it can be on girl’s lives. The majority of those articles were for the newspaper The Laurel Mountain Post, but my pro-girl leanings have snuck their way into geekalitarian as well. Going into this experience I thought that working for Girl Scouts and running programing was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My prospects of becoming an art teacher are few, so this was another way to apply the skills I have learned and still make a difference. By the end of this experience, I was really ready for it to end. I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but working 6 days a week (or 7 days on the off-week) from 6 am- 12am with children? Not for me.

But something happened at the beginning of the summer that I didn’t know would lead to one of those course-of-life-altering-decisions. I took my boyfriend to the Carnegie Museums. He had never been to a museum before, and I was practically raised in one. We went to the Natural History Museum first- for those of you who have never been, it’s amazing. There are lots of activities to keep you engaged in the information or the artifacts. There are documentaries, authentic music, a hall of ‘stuffed animals’, and a lightshow explaining the Navajo creation legend.  Then we went to the Carnegie Museum of Art (which is in the same building), and it was a much different experience. As a student of art, I could walk around at a leisurely pace and actually appreciate what I was seeing on a different level. What I have noticed in other people is that they walk really quickly, don’t stand in one place too long, glance at a work, remain completely silent or shush their children, or walk away saying “I don’t understand why that’s art.” Later in the summer on one of my breaks I was thinking about this again and decided that that is it. That’s my life’s goal. Infiltrate the ‘institution’, tear it down, and bring art to the people! I want to make art museums just as engaging and interactive as science and history museums (and I am not talking about making a ‘children’s’ art museum) . Think about it: What is the difference between art museums as we know them and galleries? That you can buy the work. What is the difference between a history museum and an auction house? That you can buy the antiques and the museum provides the public with interactive and informative information. Why can’t art museums be like that?

Of course infiltrating the ‘institution’ will require me to go to graduate school. So I was looking into things and realized that I only have one semester left before student teaching. One more semester to be unprofessional. This was my last chance to do anything crazy to my hair. Thus, I dyed the underneath of my supa-blonde hair purple. End of that story.

This summer I also purchased a HP desktop pretty much exclusively for gaming. Guild Wars 2 comes out Saturday, so in celebration I want to share the infographic below with you. It is about the economy of Guild Wars 2 and has me pretty much convinced that we should elected game developers to Congress and budget committees:


Repost: Superhero Bodies and What Real Athletes Look Like

Here’s a re-post courtesy of Andrew Wheeler at Comics Alliance. It makes good points. Read it.

There are certain phrases that have a special resonance for a Marvel kid like me. “Pocket dimension.” “Lift (press).” “Marital status: unrevealed.” This is the language of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and I used to pore over the pages of those little encyclopedias like I thought there was an exam coming. (I would have aced the Alien Races paper.) One phrase that came up a lot was “Olympic class athlete,” used to describe characters with peak human abilities. For example, Nightcrawler is an Olympic-class acrobat, even though that’s not a real thing unless you count opening ceremonies.

Thanks to the current games in London we’re all getting a refresher on what Olympic athletes actually look like – and they look like a lot of very different people. They look like wrestlers, sprinters, fencers, weightlifters, boxers, shot-putters, rowers, marathon runners, judokas, pentathletes, swimmers, beach volleyball players, cyclists and a lot more besides. In fact, they seem a lot more varied than the characters in the pages of most super-books. So are superhero comics getting it wrong?

A couple of years ago Bongo Comics artist Nina Matsumoto posted scans to her blog from a book called The Athlete, by Beverly Ornstein and Howard Schatz. The scans show photos of athletes standing side-by-side in black underwear; some tall, some short, some wide, some narrow, some ripped, some skinny. Matsumoto headlined the post “athletic body diversity reference for artists.” As with the current Olympics, the book shows that physically fit people come in a range of shapes and sizes – and by showing the athletes side-by-side and dressed alike, it communicates the idea concisely.

For a lot of comic artists these photos were eye-opening. Body diversity is a rarity in comics. There are exceptions – guys like Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Beast stand out because uniqueness is part of the X-Men’s core concept – but most members of the Justice League or the Avengers would be hard to tell apart in silhouette without their costumes. That’s not necessarily an accident. Even when character design is meant to be distinctive, an artist’s style will often take precedence. Uniformity can be an artist’s hallmark.

But it would be generous to assume that uniformity is always a stylistic choice. Over-reliance on the same basic models seems to be a crutch for a lot of superhero artists.

I asked four comic artists who don’t have this problem to help me with a simple exercise. Kalman Andrasofszky, cover artist for X-Treme X-Men; Ramón Pérez, recent Eisner winner for Tale of Sand; Jamie McKelvie, artist on Defenders; and Marcus To, artist on Batwing, all have a track record of making their characters look distinctive. I gave them a list of eight superheroes and asked them to rank them by size and match them to athletic body types to see if there was a consensus about what these superheroes should look like.

The heroes were Batman, Captain America, Flash, Namor, Nightwing, Spider-Man, Superman and Thor. All eight could conceivably be drawn on the same frame. So where did these artists place them on a scale from largest to smallest?

(The images shown here are illustrative for this article. The artists were not provided with any reference.)

Strikingly, Ramón Pérez and Jamie McKelvie gave exactly the same answers, while Marcus To flipped the order of only two characters, Flash and Nightwing. Kalman Andrasofszky looks like an outlier, but he only placed Namor and Spider-Man two places higher than everyone else. All four artists agree that Thor is bigger than Superman, Superman is bigger than Captain America, and Captain America is bigger than Batman. Nightwing, Flash and Spider-Man are all at the smaller end of the scale.

When it came to applying an athletic body type, the consensus among the artists was that Thor is a bodybuilder type. Pérez and To put Superman down as having an American football player’s build, and McKelvie noted, “Logically, of course, Superman’s power has nothing to do with his muscles, but I think an imposing frame on someone who doesn’t use his power to oppress is part of his point.”

Captain America is a boxer or a rugby player, though Andrasofszky suggested a marine’s physique. All three types could be described as compactly muscular. Because Batman is an all-rounder, he was tagged as either a triathlete or a mixed martial artist. Namor, unsurprisingly, was labelled a swimmer-type by three artists, though Andrasofszky’s ranking suggests a bulkier build. The character is more of a brawler than a speedster, so a water polo physique might fit.

Also unsurprisingly, three of four artists labelled Flash a sprinter, though Andrasofszky again dissented, suggesting he would be a speed skater; “little bitty guy up top with these massive, rippling thighs and calves.” Nightwing is typically thought of as a gymnast, but real gymnasts are often shorter and broader than Dick Grayson, so Pérez tagged him as another swimmer and McKelvie classed him as a martial artist. As for Spider-Man; Andrasofszky said swimmer, McKelvie said gymnast – “but on the wiry side,” To said “marathon runner,” and Pérez said “nerd,” which we’re sorry to report is not a recognized Olympic discipline.

The four artists seemed close enough in their assessments to suggest that there’s a clear understanding of how these characters should look, and they can’t all be filed under a single superhero type.

So what about the women? The challenge to distinguish between silhouettes is arguably tougher for female superheroes, because their bodies are subject to a different kind of interest from the typical superhero reader. The female athletes competing at the London Olympics are a diverse bunch, but the women in a Victoria’s Secret catalog are more likely to conform to type, and superwomen have traditionally been modelled more on the latter group than the former.

I asked the four artists to repeat the ranking exercise with eight female heroes; Catwoman, Invisible Woman, Power Girl, Psylocke, Shadowcat, She-Hulk, Supergirl and Wonder Woman. Here are the results:

With the women there’s less clarity and less agreement. Everyone put She-Hulk first, but that seems like the gimme. Everyone put Wonder Woman and Power Girl in second and third, with only Kalman Andrasofszky reversing their order. After that it gets more scattered. Catwoman is either fourth or fifth. Psylocke is fourth, fifth or seventh. Supergirl is fifth, sixth or seventh. Sue Storm is sixth, seventh or last, though three of the artists agreed that Shadowcat is the smallest of the women.

So what athletic types would the artists match these women to? Just like Thor, everyone saw She-Hulk as a bodybuilder. Andrasofszky put Power Girl and Wonder Woman in the same category but in a different weight class, and Jamie McKelvie said that Wonder Woman could do with “a bit more muscle” than she’s usually shown with. Marcus To classed Wonder Woman as a mixed martial artist, while Ramón Pérez said she’s an aerobic gymnast. Power Girl is a swimmer according to Pérez and a weightlifter according to McKelvie.

Psylocke is probably a martial artist, but Pérez suggested figure skater. Catwoman is probably a gymnast, but To offered cyclist. Andrasofszky thought that Supergirl would have bigger muscles than either Psylocke or Catwoman, but that her youth would make her smaller than either of them. Pérez thought she was a swimmer and To thought she was a basketball player. (I can’t help but think of her as a tennis player, but that may just be because of the skirt.) Given that Power Girl and Supergirl are two versions of the same character, it’s notable that only To placed them close together.

Invisible Woman and Shadowcat each come near the end of the list three times out of four, probably because they have non-contact powers. Marcus To had Sue Storm as a soccer player; McKelvie said she’s “just generally in shape”; Andrasofszky categorized her as “MILF,” which, again, is not a recognized sporting discipline. Shadowcat is a rhythmic gymnast by Pérez’s reckoning; To described her as a roller derby jammer.

That there’s less agreement on the women both in terms of ranking their size and determining their type suggests that the comic industry does not do a good job of distinguishing female body types. That’s probably not news worth holding the front page for. Male heroes aren’t always drawn distinctively, but the distinctions are widely understood. For female heroes there’s less of a clear idea of what they’re meant to be, because very few female characters look like She-Hulk or Shadowcat.

The Olympics show us an extraordinary range of female bodies, but even within the Olympics there has been controversy about what women “should” look like. Australian swimmer Leisel Jones was criticized by the media for her weight; American hurdler Lolo Jones was accused of looking too good; and weightlifter Zoe Smith was trolled for not looking good enough. Smith brilliantly hit back by writing “what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?”

Clockwise from top left: Beach volleyball player, wrestler, sprinter, weightlifter, gymnast, shot-putter, all at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Body criticism of Olympic athletes seems especially inane given that these athletes get the bodies they need for the sport they dedicate their lives to. They exercise to be good, not to look good, which makes them very different to actors and models who focus on what Details calls “vanity muscles” rather than work muscles.

Superheroes have the ultimate vanity muscles, because they never use their bodies at all. They exist only to be seen, and their physiques are conjured from an inkwell. That may be why we’ve arrived at a uniform look that’s based more on the men and women we see in ads, on TV and in movies than on the men and women we see on the track, on the court and in the water.

Fantasy and glamour is important to superhero fiction. As McKelvie noted, Superman’s power has nothing to do with his physique. A lot of heroes are artificially enhanced by science, magic or mutation, including four of the women and six of the men on my lists. Superhero comics are not meant to be real. So does it matter that superheroes have diverse bodies?

All four of the artists I spoke to agree that it does, and they all gave the same reason; design speaks to character. As Pérez put it, “The body of a character, from musculature, to lack thereof, to posture, to gait … tell us a lot about the individual. When defining characters I try to make them as unique as possible from head to toe.”

Andrasofszky adds; “A character’s physique tells as much about them as their face or their outfit.” He acknowledges that “some fans prefer generic gorgeousness, and there’s the concept Scott McCloud popularized, that the simpler and more iconic a character, the easier it is for anyone to identify with them,” but for his own art he prefers to vary physiques.

“Superheroes are idealised, but there’s not any one specific ideal, and I think they should reflect that,” says McKelvie. Adds To, “If everyone looked the same I don’t think it would be as visually appealing to the eye.

Superhero characters are products of design. If design matters, there should be some consistency in a character’s look from one artist to the next – and some inconsistency between characters from a single artist. It should matter that She-Hlk is big and Shadowcat is slender. It should matter that Superman is bigger than Batman. It should matter that Power Girl doesn’t look like Supergirl, and it should matter that Spider-Man won’t be confused for Captain America in the dark. If design matters, if character matters, then diversity matters. Superheroes shouldn’t have to look like Olympians, but they should look as diverse as Olympians do.

Race and Fandom Revisited

So, my cosplay post has mini-exploded a few times on the internet. The fat positivity portion of the post has been well-received, for which I am very thankful. It’s encouraging to know that this is an issue people are concerned about, and that people are being supportive of fat cosplayers.

Not so much with the other part of the post, the race part. What little response I’ve gotten about that part has been negative. Basically, I need to relax because we should be over this whole race thing. In short, these people seem to be subscribing to the view that being colorblind solves all problems, and probably that we live in a post-race society.

Now, maybe I wasn’t clear enough about what my original point was when I wrote the post. These responses only related to that particular Zoe cosplayer, not the issues raised by the article, or the fact that we in the geek community should actually think about racial issues for once. This suggests that I may have let my stunned response to that picture overshadow my overall point, which really isn’t about blackface itself.

Blackface isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of it. The fact that people refuse to see what might be wrong with this way of cosplaying reflects a wider problem about race, and the overall apathy (sometimes antipathy) felt towards talking about race in the geek community. In a post that has been viewed over 1000 times, the Racialicious article has been clicked on only 69 times. The fat positivity articles and sites have each been clicked on hundreds of times.

The thing is, if race didn’t matter, if we lived in this wonderful rainbow of a colorblind society, then the author of the Racialicious article wouldn’t be given shit for being a black woman cosplaying as a white character. You can’t defend the rights of white people to paint their skin to look like black people, if you’re also ignoring the rights of black people to cosplay as white characters without receiving rude comments. That’s not being colorblind, that’s using the myth of colorblindness to absolve yourself of any responsibility to think or care about racial issues. (Which, admittedly, is the only point of the colorblind myth anyway.)

But Joanna, you might be saying, a black man is president of the United States! Surely we live in a post-racial society! Would that that were true, dear reader. Yes, we in the US elected a black man as president. This man has then received demands to prove his citizenship, which you can’t really believe has nothing to do with race.

Also, black people in the US are disproportionately impoverished, incarcerated, and affected by NYC’s “stop and frisk.” The struggles and poverty of the Asian community are often ignored in favor of the “model minority” myth. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by alcoholism. The fact that, for some, this nonsense about Gabby Douglas’ hair overshadowed her incredible athletic accomplishments. Just this week, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh temple, and major news outlets responded by explaining that people can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, implying that murdering Muslims is expected and, consequently, less horrible.

In case that’s too “real world” for you, and you’d like examples related to the geek community and fandom (other than, you know, the original article in my original post), this report on the Racebending panel at SDCC should give you some ideas of how race still affects the geek community. Some choice points: “Marjorie Liu talked about being told that she should change her name, and related a story of a friend who was told that her Asian name was ‘ethnically tainted’ leading to the friend changing her name for her professional work… David Gaiden… brought up a truly disturbing fact, that the most popular mod [in Dragon Age] allows the player to change the race of the game’s one black female to a white, blonde… Brandon Thomas shared a story about his mother, when he was writing for a website that asked for him to include a picture with his posts, his mother asked, ‘Do you really want to let everyone know you’re black?’ ‘And she was right’ he followed up with.”

And how about all the racism that popped up on Twitter after black characters in the Hunger Games were played by black actors? Speaking of movies, how many times have you gone to see a Hollywood blockbuster that starred a person of color who wasn’t Will Smith, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman, or Denzel Washington? And there’s the fact that in two seasons of The Walking Dead (set in Georgia, whose population according to the 2010 Census is 30% Black or African American) there have been 2? 3? black characters. Latinos on the show are virtually non-existent, and Glenn functions as Token Asian.

But none of that is a problem, because white people. Or something.

I get it. Race is an uncomfortable subject. Life is much easier for white people when they ignore racism. But life isn’t easier for anyone else in the myth of colorblindness. And suggesting we live in a post-race society is about as absurd as claiming we’re living in a post-gender society. While race and gender may not be quite as oppressive as they used to be, that doesn’t mean that we’re done thinking about these constructs. Just because black people are no longer property and women can vote, doesn’t mean race and gender have no negative effects on people’s lives.

I’d like to reiterate: I didn’t bring up Kendra James’ article solely to condemn blackface cosplay. I brought it up because fandom and the geek community generally aren’t all that interested in discussing race issues. The community is guilty of trying to take the easy way out, instead of facing the harsh realities. And now that we’re talking more and more about gender in gaming, but also geekdom generally, it’s time we had similar discussions about race.

I’m not trying to strip white people of the right to paint their skin to look like Zoe Washburn. I’m trying to foster intelligent, engaged discussion about the place of race in fandom, in terms of both its people and the shows/movies/games/books they love.

I leave you with this relevant video:

(Transcript and background on La Jolla Playhouse can be found here.)


Completely Unsolicited Advice to Storm

Hey Storm,

You might remember me from that last letter I wrote to you a while back. You didn’t respond, but that’s ok. I’m sure you were really busy.

Anyway, I found out about what happened between you and Black Panther. I just wanted to say that I’m really sorry. T’Challa really should have talked to you about it before going ahead and having the marriage annulled. I know you guys were in couples therapy, but that kind of lack of communication is pretty low, in my opinion. I get that being on different sides of a superhero war can really strain a relationship. But I think that T’Challa is just hiding behind this conflict. I don’t think he gave you the respect you deserve, and the way he behaved about this is an indication of that.

Namor destroyed half of Wakanda, you didn’t. You didn’t even know that Namor was going to, because only Emma Frost did. You don’t even know anything the Phoenix Five are doing, because they don’t tell any other X-Men what’s going on. Maybe T’Challa doesn’t know that. But he should have given you the benefit of the doubt. He should have trusted you. You came back to Wakanda because you wanted to help after Namor destroyed Wakanda. That shows you care about your people, and you care about him. You did the right thing.

I also wanted to say that I think you can do better than T’Challa. Maybe that sounds harsh. You guys did only get divorced like yesterday. But I mean it. You deserve someone who will believe that you didn’t know Namor was planning anything. You deserve someone who will communicate with you, let you know that he’s going to give up on therapy instead of getting an annulment behind your back. You deserve someone who will stick with you through this superhero war.

So here’s my advice, Storm: Forget about him. Not completely. The time you two spent together probably affected you deeply, so you can’t just wave the magic wand and ignore that part of your life. Relationships are complicated. Even ones that involved retconning origin stories in order to seem real. But I think you should try not to think about him for a while. You need to do things to take your mind off him, and, most importantly, you need to socialize.

Call up your girls. Have some fun. Talk about relationships, or don’t. I’m sure Rogue’s got a thing or two she could say about Gambit. And don’t get me started on Sue and Rick. Yeesh. But if you’d rather just hang out, drinking Cape Cods and talking about last’s week’s Project Runway or the future of Downton Abbey, that’s fine too.

Don’t let this rule your life. You are better than this behind-your-back-annulment. You are better than the man who did it. Always remember it’s not your fault. He failed to communicate with you, and that is his fault. There was nothing you could do to prevent either Namor’s destruction of Wakanda, or T’Challa’s misunderstanding your role in all this.

Keep on fighting for what you know is right, Storm. You’re powerful, intelligent, and brave. Remember to always be true to your heart, because that’s when the heavens will part, and someone will actually understand the Mulan reference I’m making here.

I know you’ll find someone better, someone who will respect you for being the strong, indomitable force of nature that you are. But if you don’t find anyone else? No problem. You’ll always have the X-Men, and friendship can be just as meaningful as romantic relationships. So don’t stress out about finding a new man.

In short, Storm, don’t get too down about T’Challa. It might hurt to hear now, but he’ll never be half as badass as you, and he couldn’t handle that.

Lots of love and admiration,

Joanna xoxo