In the criminally under-discussed miniseries Mara, writer Brian Wood and artist Ming Doyle tell a superhero origin story that explores the consequences of celebrity culture, militarization, and the effects of a world that runs on both.
There is so much I love, that is perfect about this book. I’m an unashamed Ming Doyle fangirl, and am beginning to love Brian Wood as well. The fifth issue (of six) came out this week, and it did not disappoint. Every month I’ve wondered where this brilliant story was going, with its understated tone and thoughtful pacing. How would Mara choose to use her newly-discovered superpowers?
Unlike the superheroes of the Big Two, Mara Prince exists in a stark, realistic version of Earth’s future. When the story begins, Mara is a superstar volleyball player, in a future where athletes armed with billion-dollar endorsements play each other for the glory of their countries.
The first game we see Mara playing is sponsored by Uninational Oil and Gas, the Army, “and with platinum sponsorship by the Grand Colonial Heritage fund, and the Pax Organization for Excellence in Physical Fitness.” These sponsors are an interesting collection of organizations, and their involvement speaks volumes about Mara’s world. The book makes a telling connection between sports culture and the military, one that reflects the realities of our world.
The narration in the first issue sets up the link between corporations, the military, sports, and celebrity culture: “When Mara Prince was a toddler the world was consumed with endless wars, crumbling economies, and destructive racial divides. The nation compensated with an almost hyper-exaggeration on sports and physical prowess… Corporations flourished as advertising and merchandising took off. Enlistment in the armed forces similarly benefitted…”
The world of Mara is one I can easily picture as a future version of our own. There is a lot of dystopian fiction in film and literature right now, and not all of it explores the unpleasant realities of our present through the suggestion of our future (which is kind of the point of dystopias, but I digress). Mara is unafraid to force us to think about how our world might be creating that of Mara Prince, how we ourselves might be implicated in this future. Furthermore, this future seems thoroughly possible, given the way that athletes, militarism, corporations, and the actions of all three seem almost sacred in our world.
Perhaps the most unthinkable aspect of this sports culture is that it includes women. Mara is not simply a superstar in her marginalized women’s league. Mara is the most famous, the most beloved, the most sought-after athlete in the world. Despite how terrifying this sports culture is, I love that Brian Wood envisioned a future where women’s athleticism is valued. And I love that, despite this, this world and its sports and celebrity cultures are still toxic. Worshiping female athletes isn’t necessarily better than worshiping male athletes.
In many ways, the amount of control that corporations and governments (and their militaries) have over their celebrities is best criticized and explored through the usage of a female protagonist. While male celebrities also are forced into a constant spotlight, female celebrities are scrutinized at a more exacting level. This scrutiny is exaggerated in Mara’s world; Mara is trained from the age of 2, and, once she begins showing signs of her superpowers, is coerced into being studied as a weapon for the military.
Eventually, rejecting the commodification and weaponization of her self and image, Mara goes rogue (I’ll leave out the details for anyone who hasn’t read the most recent issue). In a brilliant, chilling monologue, Mara condemns this world for treating her like a “threat,” and for trying to take from her “my body, my soul, and my freedom.” Having a woman assert her physical and psychological autonomy in such a powerful and, frankly, quietly angry way is exciting and refreshing.
In conclusion, pick up this book! It’s a fresh, interesting, beautifully rendered meditation on our world and what it may become.