One Year After Captain Marvel: A Comics Retrospective

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel. A lot has changed in a year. When we first started the blog, Marvel had one woman with her own title: blog-favorite Alejandra of the ill-fated Ghost Rider, who wasn’t even really the lead after the first few issues. Now, there are so, so many books with female creators and/or characters that are making me remember what’s so great about comics:

Ming Doyle and Brian Wood’s Mara; Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly; Gail Simone’s Red Sonja, and the upcoming anthology that features genre greats like Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Marjorie Liu, Rhianna Pratchett, and Kelly Sue DeConnick; a Matt Fraction-penned genderswapped Odyssey adaptation (file that away under Ideas I Wish I’d Thought of First); the all-female group of D&D-like adventures of Rat Queens; X-Men; Fearless Defenders; Captain Marvel; titles like Uncanny X-Force that feature a mostly female team; the best decision DC has made in a long time: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn ongoing; Greg Rucka’s Lazarus.

And these are just the books I can think of off the top of my head. There are even more than that.

All of this change is obviously good, and I’m hoping these positive alterations to the comics landscape continue. Yet, some things haven’t changed much at all. Most of the women in that list up there are white.

The closest the Big Two are getting to Thinking About Race are Gail Simone’s The Movement and the upcoming relaunched Mighty Avengers featuring Luke Cage, Falcon, White Tiger, She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Blue Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Ronin, and Power Man. Both of these books are trying intentionally to be racially inclusive. Executive Editor of Mighty Avengers Tom Brevoort, “who acknowledged that the idea for the new title was first discussed during Black History Month, cited [Dwayne] McDuffie as an inspiration for the series. The editor said he wanted to help create a team book that McDuffie would have made himself, with a cast comprised of at least 50% non-white and/or non-male characters.” [x]

While the subject of gender has been broached with varying levels of success, no one wants to talk about race. As Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance wrote in his excellent, important piece “Outrage Deferred: On The Lack of Black Writers in the Comic Book Industry,” “So where is our collective outrage about our current situation? Why isn’t any of this being discussed more? There are certainly many reasons behind that, some of which go well beyond the comic industry and reflect America’s current climate and the changing (and perhaps diminishing) discourse on race, but the biggest factor may simply be a lack of voices… In short, the women at the forefront of this discussion, by making their voices heard, have improved the industry.” During the past year, the comics industry has been made just a little safer for white women. While there is still great resistance among some readers and executives against anything they deem “PC,” many others have responded positively to the acknowledgement that women are a part of comics, too.

So how do we make comics a little safer for everyone else? By talking about it. By pre-ordering the titles that are trying. By demanding more that try. We need to normalize the idea that people of color also read comics and also deserve to see themselves reflected not just on the pages of their comics, but in the list of credits. Women have been at the forefront of the conversation changing gender in comics, but we shouldn’t have to wait for the voices of people of color to be heard before white people try talking, too. If you think the inclusion of white women in mainstream comics is important, then you have to feel the same way about the inclusion of people of color. And you have to talk about it, not for people of color, but with them.

As Joseph Hughes is right to point out, the lack of discussion about race in comics is indicative of the country’s disinterest in racial discourse more generally. But wouldn’t it be great if the comics industry could be more progressive than the rest of the country, instead of perpetually right of center? And wouldn’t it be great if in the future, comics movies lead the way in fighting both racism and sexism by making the Black Panther, Carol Danvers, Wonder Woman, Storm movies the world would love? Wouldn’t those SDCC announcements be less disappointing than this year’s? Change starts somewhere, and it doesn’t start with colorblindness or silence.

-Joanna

Pacific Rim: Beyond the Smashing

Pacific Rim met and shattered my expectations. Initially, after seeing the trailer for the first time, I remember feeling disappointed once giant robots showed up. I have a deep ambivalence to giant robots. They are the reason why I will never watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, although I have received multiple lectures on why it is one of the greatest anime ever. But I love monsters, and armored female characters with cool hair, and dramatic speeches performed by Idris Elba. The more I learned about the movie and Guillermo del Toro’s intentions while making it, the more interested I was in seeing it. Del Toro addressed basically every fear I had about the movie.

On my wariness of glorifying the military in every movie about apocalyptic situations: “I carefully avoided the car commercial aesthetics or the army recruitment video aesthetics. I avoided making a movie about an army with ranks. I avoided making any kind of message that says war is good… I am a pacifist. I have been offered movies that have huge budgets that have war at its centre and I said, ‘I don’t do that.’ What I wanted was for kids to see a movie where they don’t need to aspire to be in an army to aspire for an adventure. And I used very deliberate language that is a reference to westerns. I don’t have captains, majors, generals. I have a marshal, rangers . . . it has the language of an adventure movie.”

On my love of well-drawn female characters: “I was very careful how I built the movie. One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads. She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character.”

What I love most about these comments is that del Toro was successful in his goals. He avoided the perils of “army recruitment video aesthetics” (which, by the way, is my new favorite phrase). He featured a complex female character who, although she was unfortunately the only major female character, was also the most interesting character. Period.

There has been some undeserved criticism about the character of Mako Mori. Despite the fact that Raleigh the Typical White Guy was ostensibly the main character of the film, Mako Mori was not just the film’s emotional heart, but also the most developed character. Mako is afraid and vulnerable, but wants to pilot anyway. She faces and overcomes fear and weakness, which is the true meaning of bravery, not swaggering unthinkingly into danger.

There were times I wished that we let Mako comment on the events instead of Raleigh, and I don’t think she got equal screen time during the end’s triumphant battle. Those are legitimate issues. When thinking of the role of women in the film, it’s unfair to criticize the characterization of Mako. What the film really needed was more female characters, not a single “perfect” female character.  This is one of the many problems that arise when a movie only has one central female character: people burden her with the weight of representing a “strong female character.” As other bloggers before me have said, I don’t care if fictional women are “strong.” I want them to be interesting, well-written, and three-dimensional. Mako was all of these things.

(Now get ready for a few spoilers.)

It is very easy to read the film’s emotional conflicts as showing the negative effects of barring women from traditionally male pursuits. While the given reason why Mako isn’t allowed to pilot is that she is Pentecost’s adopted child, it is hard to believe that Pentecost would prevent his adopted son, especially when he has quantifiable talent, from piloting. It is never explicitly addressed, but there is only one other female Jaeger pilot, and the candidates for the job as Raleigh’s co-pilot, all male, clearly underestimate Mako’s abilities in a physical fight. She proves herself, as so many of us do, only to be shut down unfairly by a paternalistic figure. Ultimately, Mako’s persistence pays off, and she and her super-buddy Raleigh save the day. Far from having a  “woman problem,” Pacific Rim warns us against the dangers of underestimating women. I would even go so far as to argue that, after meeting Mako, Raleigh functions mostly to assist Mako on her journey to personal growth, reversing the typical character trajectory that features the token woman functioning to support the male protagonist. The fact that Mako and Raleigh have such a deep, platonic emotional connection is also commendable and practically unimaginable in most movies.

I haven’t even mentioned Idris Elba yet. Idris Elba brought nuance and depth to Stacker Pentecost, a character who otherwise might have alternately bored and infuriated me. Had the role gone to Tom Cruise, as it almost did, I think I would have disliked Pentecost’s controlling nature, his fear of Mako’s power. But as Idris Elba, Pentecost became complex and loveable, a man who I wanted to respect with Mako’s intensity.

Although the importance of the father figure is one of the oldest tropes in fiction, it should be noted that black men rarely get to be fatherly in movies. The complexity of both Pentecost’s love for his adopted daughter and her love for him is remarkable in itself, partly because the reasons behind it are explored at all. In general, when a character has a conflict with her or his father, it is taken as a given that this person would want to love and respect her or his father. Fathers deserve these things because they are fathers. But Pacific Rim acknowledges the complexity of paternalistic attitudes, rather than suggesting that all fathers inspire love and respect simply by being fathers. Pentecost has earned Mako’s respect, a feeling she pointedly distinguishes from obedience. Furthermore, sometimes Pentecost’s paternalism is harmful, resulting in him preventing her from being the pilot she is qualified to be, because he wants to protect her.

While Pacific Rim may seem to be yet another blockbuster about various things smashing each other, it would be unfair to dismiss it as such. It may not have been perfect, but for me the depth of the characters was the true heart of the movie, a judgment I usually don’t make on summer blockbusters. While del Toro may insist that the movie is not a homage to anime or monster movies (Japanese or otherwise), he did take a variety of genre tropes and breathe life into them, giving us the kind of monster movie all monster movies should be.

-Joanna

On Rage and Invisibility: A Reminder

Invisibility is a tricky subject.

On one hand, those who are truly invisible in our culture tend to be the ones who suffer most. Yet the factors that reinforce this suffering are also, by necessity, invisible. If people never see injustice, they will never realize that it is there. If they never know it is there, they will never do anything about it. And so on. Ad nauseum.

For example, take this ordinary, everyday scene. It demonstrates how tiny aggressions, seemingly meaningless moments, can render you invisible.

After meeting Ming Doyle on Free Comic Book Day and getting a quick sketch of Mohawk Storm from her, I showed off my spoils to someone I know. This someone is male, and was with his male friend. He turns to his male friend. “Is that who draws Saga?” I answer, “No, that’s Fiona Staples.” There is a split-second pause. His friend replies, “No, that’s Fiona Staples.” Then, and only then, does he nod and acknowledge this answer. The friend was deemed more knowledgeable solely because of his maleness. He was not the one who had just stood in line, beaming, to meet a favorite artist. He was not the one who answered first.

Taken on its own, this incident is small. It perhaps seems petty to dwell on it, to force upon it some significance about gender and the geek community. But this incident will never exist on its own. It sits among a wide array of minor offenses, all of which made me feel devalued and underestimated because of my gender: in the 7th grade, during a spat regarding The Return of the King, I was told by a boy in my class that I was wrong because I was a girl. On countless visits to Game Stop, staff speak only to my boyfriend, never to me. The same man from the incident above once offered to lend me some comics, thinking he could get me into some books I’d never heard of (although I had), as I was “suddenly into comics.” Despite the fact that the first time I met him, I was dressed as Delirium from the Sandman.

I remember these incidents, because they reinforce and practically verbalize the cultural messages we receive every day: Girls don’t know anything about Tolkien. Girls don’t play video games. Girls don’t read comics. Again and again and again. These words are intended to make me and my lived experiences invisible. They are intended to force me to devalue myself. Sometimes the microaggressions hurt more than the big ones, the obvious ones. When someone says women should shut up about equality until they’re ready to sign up for the draft, or that women can’t be in leadership roles because of their periods, or the countless other overtly hostile messages we hear every day, it is almost less hurtful. Long ago, I conjured an armor made of eye-rolling and quick-witted replies to defend myself against these attacks. But there is a part of me that still doesn’t know how to deal with the smaller offenses. When a comic store employee ignores me waiting in line so he can talk to some boys about Magic: The Gathering, there will always be a part of me that wonders if it is all in my head. I don’t have the right armor for this situation, and I don’t know the best way to forge it.

When we talk about all the factors, micro and macro, that reinforce cultural notions like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and myriad other ills, the burden of proof always lies on the victim. Someone will always ask you if this incident you describe is an isolated incident. It never is, but you can also never explain the compounding of all the insults, huge and small, that has shaped your understanding of this incident. It is impossible to describe, because it is the story of living every day, since birth, in an unequal world. When a stranger says “hey beautiful” to me on my way to lunch, it is not that particular man I want to break in half, but all of the men who have ever, since I was a preteen, shouted things at me or stared at me in public.

The same problem arises when you critique media. People inevitably try to argue that it is an isolated incident, that it isn’t that bad because it’s just this one movie or book. It’s just one employee in one comic shop. Or they rely on individual interpretations: oh, well, when I read that book, I pictured this character’s dark skin as meaning a tan white personHe was just giving you a compliment, you should be happy. These tactics are both themselves invisible, and a method for suppressing complaints, rendering justified criticism invisible. The people who make these arguments do not realize that they are enabling oppression, because most of them would deny that oppression exists.

Some people in the US think racism ended with the Civil Rights Act and that feminism became obsolete after Roe V. Wade. To suggest otherwise is to force people to consider their own, personal relationship to inequality. It is difficult to face reality. Sometimes knowing the truth about our world makes me not want to live on this planet anymore. But it is so much healthier than pretending to be too cool for politics, or whatever bullshit helps people avoid seeing what is happening around them. When people bemoan the apathy of others, they are really upset about the forces that keep us and our lived experiences invisible, and that, in turn, keep the forces themselves invisible.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is important. It is always important. The offenses great and small that remind you of your place in the social stratum. They are real. They are worth talking about. Even if they happen on a TV show, or in a classroom, or in a game store. They matter. If it makes you angry, there is always, always a reason why.

Stay strong. Stay angry. ❤

-Joanna

(P.S. I just needed a rant today. Early next week, expect a post about Pacific Rim: part cogent analysis, part gushing compilation of Guillermo del Toro quotes.)