Mara and Our Toxic Future

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.

-Joanna

Advertisements

Costumes, Costumes, Costumes

Regular readers will probably have noticed it’s been a bit of a ghost town recently around here. My excuse is, holy shit my thesis. But I’m back (today, anyway) for the one-year anniversary post about (what else) comics!

Now, after giving up on AvsX, I haven’t been paying too much attention to what Marvel’s been doing lately. (Again, holy fucking thesis). I do know that Marvel is relaunching Uncanny X-Force, and the updated costumes rock. Storm’s mohawk is back, and Psylocke gave up the bathing suit!

Comics Alliance interviewed the writer and artist about the new costumes, and guess what? They thought about practicality and character personalities when designing the new costumes! I thought the day would never come. Artist Kris Anka had this to say: “I felt that every costume should not only highlight the personality of the character it is wrapped around, but also of the function that the costumes will serve towards.” For this reason, Psylocke was given an outfit she wouldn’t be “falling out” in, and they took away her heels. While I’m extremely supportive of this change, I wish it hadn’t just been made with Psylocke. The other female team members also, despite not being ninjas, need “mobility,” so those wedge shoes need to go. It’s disappointing that in a design so heavily focused on functionality, wedge heels still make the cut.

They look great on Storm’s new costume (which I love! someone cosplay it! immediately!), and emphasize her regal posture, but since realism was a factor in the design, it falls a little short. It’s also one of those moments where I wish someone asked a woman what she thought of the design. Aesthetically it’s wonderful, but, again, these costumes were supposed to be more than just pretty.

Interestingly, the female version of Fantomex has smaller wedge heels than Storm:

This means that they considered that two female characters might choose different heel heights, but still decided that they would both choose heels.

Still, there’s a lot to like about the new costumes and the new team, including the 4:2 female-to-male ratio. Kudos to Anka and Humphries for making my week better after it was ruined by seeing this gross chained-up Storm cover of Wolverine and the X-Men. Also, kudos to commenters on the Comics Alliance article for suggesting Storm’s hair be left natural, and even posting this cool picture of a natural mohawk.

And, in case reading about these costume changes is getting you in the mood for making your own costumes, there’s a great site called Take Back Halloween that catalogs really cool costume ideas and how-tos for women who aren’t interested in the generic Sexy Version of Whatever Men are Wearing style of Halloween costumes.

Til next time!

-Joanna

‘Gambit’ and the Female Gaze

So, I banned myself from writing about comics this week, but here we are anyway.

Before I read the first issue of Gambit, I was curious what I would find between its covers. In an interview with Comics Alliance, writer James Asmus said, “Gambit really is one of the few explicitly sexy male characters in mainstream comics, and that’s a major part of how I envision this book. Luckily, our artist on the book is Clay Mann. And he completely taps into the easy cool and good looks that help make Gambit such man-candy to his fans.” (Also, Asmus said he has actually lived in Louisiana and known actual Cajuns, and therefore won’t have to rely on “other fictional portrayals of the culture,” which is amazing for a whole ‘nother set of reasons, fit for a whole ‘nother post.)

The idea of putting Gambit’s sex appeal at the forefront of the book was extremely interesting to me, for a probably fairly obvious reason: superheroines are primarily sexy all the time, regardless of how much sex appeal their characters actually have, but superheroes are rarely sexy first and foremost, even when their characters have a lot of sex appeal. Also, James Asmus thinks that Gambit’s “fans” think he’s man-candy. This means Asmus understands that not every single comics reader is a straight man. Which blows my mind in the most unreasonable way.

And then there were hints of a shower scene! Be still, my beating heart!

Fast forward to the release of issue 1. What do we open with? Naked Gambit in a naked shower! Hurray, world! Four thousand points to feminism, right?

Sort of. What I find most interesting about the way Gambit is drawn is that his sexiness manages to be both overt and subtle at the same time. His character also manages to be sexy without being objectified.

Let’s go back to that shower scene.  In the first panel, we get all of naked Gambit that’s fit to print. (Meaning, he’s positioned so he isn’t facing us, so sorry, but no genitals.) Then we see various body parts of Gambit as he gets out of the shower, all leading up to the panel where he’s toweling off his hair in the buff, with a picture frame covering (just) his crotch. This panel is extremely erotic, I think, and in part because it balances subtlety and overt sexiness so well. The placement of that picture frame at the same time conceals and emphasizes what we all know is there anyway. And then the final panel gives us a gleaming shot of Gambit’s muscley manly-man back.

First page of Gambit #1

This is all pretty hot-and-bother-inducing, yet, does it differ from superheroine shower scenes? Do I find this portrayal sexy, but not creepy, simply because I’m not a man and am unused to seeing naked men in comics?

I don’t think so. One of the major reasons why objectification of women’s bodies is so harmful, is that it teaches us that women are interchangeable. The eroticism associated with a woman’s body is unrelated to her as a person; she is sexy because she has a cis woman’s body, not because she is a sexy person. And yet, in this first page, this snapshot of Gambit is very intimate, in every sense of the word. It’s not just that we’re seeing him naked, it’s that we’re being introduced to him as naked, and, while he is naked, we are putting together pieces of his life. In the panel with the picture frames, we’re looking at Gambit’s not-penis while also looking at the picture in the foreground of Gambit and Rogue. These things are associated directly. We’re not just looking at a naked attractive man; we’re looking a specific naked attractive man, one who we are trying to get to know. His naked shower scene is actually advancing story and character. This is inherently different to the idea of objectification, which, in addition to being gratuitous, teaches us that women (or men, but usually women) are sexual objects, not sexual people.

Throughout the first two issues, most of the time Gambit keeps his clothes on, and leaves his sex appeal to be channeled through his words and actions. However, even when clothed, Gambit’s posture and placement are much sexier than that of most male comics characters. He’ll lounge topless, looking devil-may-care, while having a conversation about that thing that got stuck in his chest (long story). Which brings me to another distinction between the sexiness of Gambit and the traditional sexiness of women in media, particularly when catering to the male gaze. Women’s sex appeal usually slows down the plot, allows for a pause in the story, and is never used for the advancement of anything, really. But Gambit’s sex appeal functions as part of the story. It keeps pace with the story, rather than slowing it down. Consequently, it seems natural and necessary. I can hardly imagine this book being the same without these poses and angles.

The one reservation, sex appeal-wise, I have about this series is actually his female antagonist/partner. In the first issue, I actually liked how she looked. She had a cute, rockabilly sort of style, and she wasn’t drawn in gratuitously sexy poses or angles.

But, I’m not sure that’s going to stay that way. Issue 2 had a cover which, though hardly the creepiest cover I’ve ever seen, was still somewhat problematic, with the shot of Gambit surrounded by the cut-out silhouette of a sexy woman, presumably his new acquaintance.

Cover of Gambit #2

When we met this woman, she had personality and style, but now that’s she’s on the cover, she’s just a hot body. Next week’s #3 isn’t looking too much better, considering that apparently she decides to wear short-shorts and a belly shirt when they go do secret-adventurey things in Guatemala.

While the objectification of the female character in the series is tremendously less bad than in most mainstream comics, it’s still objectification to some degree. The series manages to make their male character a sexy person, yet fails to emphasize that the sexy woman is a sexy person. It leaves me to feel disappointed and strangely apologetic at the same time. I’m forced to say, “It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, because it’s not that bad, but it’s still noticeable!” Which is an annoying thing to have to say.

My theory is that they excel at keeping Gambit’s sex appeal without objectifying him precisely because he is male. When female objectification is the norm, it’s difficult to make a specifically sexy character without falling back to the same old tropes. And when you’re a man, I imagine it might be more difficult to spot the difference between mild objectification and sex appeal.

I’m not opposed to sex appeal in comics, especially when that seems to be at the heart of the series. And I really am enjoying the “man-candy.” But objectification, male or female, is something comics needs to learn to avoid. My suggestion? Do what you’re doing with Gambit, but do it with the female character, too. Include her sex appeal in ways that are interesting and advance the story or character. Cater equally to the male and female gazes, so that sexiness seems natural.

Or, at least, put Gambit in booty shorts and we can call it even.

-Joanna

Follow-Up Time!

This week’s lazy post is brought to you by A Couple Things I’ve Posted About in the Past Have Updates I’d Like to Share.

First off, remember when I told every single one of you to see the documentary The Invisible War? Well, now no one has any excuse not to, unless they don’t have internet access or $4.99.  The filmmakers are doing a special online screening of the film, with a live chat with director Kirby Dick to follow. Unfortunately I think you have to sign up to watch it by using their Facebook app (so that might be another obstacle), but it’s worth creating a Facebook account just to see this movie. I’m not entirely sure how they’re streaming it, but in any case, head on over to the film’s Facebook page for more info.

I also reposted an article about superhero body diversity. The artists who, in the article, were ranking and discussing the bodies of all the superheroes were male. Andrew Wheeler did a second one, this time with female artists.  It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities in the perception of superhero bodies between male and female artists. I would also say that, overall, the female artists were more unified in their understanding of the superheroine bodies, and more willing to actually think about things like bust/butt sizes based on the characters’ athletic training. I’m really glad that both of these articles happened.

Also by Andrew Wheeler (can you tell he’s my favorite Comics Alliance writer?), is this great look at diversity in comics and why it matters. That’s not really a follow-up, but it’s still great and you should read it.

That’s all, folks! Hopefully next week I’ll have a real post. Til then!

-Joanna

An Unsurprisingly Insensitive Superhero Fight, Domestic Violence-Style

Apologies to the world for my spotty posting as of late. My non-internet life has been pretty busy recently with various things, not least of which is my sister’s conversion to Islam, decision to wear hijab, and the inevitable fragmentation of my family as a result. (Other events include: a planned vacation, an attempt to rid myself of internet addiction, an upcoming concert, the first week of classes, video games, and being really poor all the time.)

My return post is, surprise surprise, about Storm and Black Panther. Specifically, Why It Makes Me Feel Skeevy That Storm and Black Panther Are Going to Fisticuffs.

For those of you who aren’t following the Avengers vs. X-Men, Marvel’s giant summer money-making scheme tie-in event, Black Panther and Storm broke up. By that I mean, BP acted like a jerk and annulled the marriage behind Storm’s back. So now, in the tie-in to the tie-in, Vs., a limited series that showcases plotless superhero fights, BP and Storm are hashing it out.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the underlying reason why this makes me uncomfortable: they’re a recently-divorced couple who are physically fighting each other to deal with their marital issues.

Seriously, Marvel?

I’m not going to say that there’s no way that a comic could use what is essentially domestic violence in a way that is meaningful, insightful, and interesting. But this is AvsX: VS, and that was just never going to happen.

The first thing that could have made this less skeevy-feeling is not allowing Black Panther to prevent Storm from using her weather powers. Without those powers, they’re forced to go to actual fisticuffs, rather than allowing the melee/ranged difference between the character’s fighting styles as a buffer to prevent it from devolving into a husband/wife fistfight disguised as emotional depth.

Another mistake: making it about their marriage rather than about the big superhero war that enabled the divorce.


When Storm says, “this is about you and me,” this issue abandons any hope of not making me feel skeevy.  At that point, we really are watching a husband and wife beat each other up over their relationship. What’s worse, that last panel just looks like Marvel isn’t taking this very seriously. Maybe it’s the art, but to me that punch looks a lot like a punchline, or at the very least an invitation to snicker, or to enthusiastically take a side. I don’t want to cheer on either of these fighters. The whole fight just makes me sad.

Later we get a thought from Storm: “If we’d only had children, maybe things would’ve been different.” Really? Really? This is how the writers are exploring the emotional depths of a woman who just got her marriage annulled behind her back and is now fighting her ex-husband?

And then there’s this page:

I hate how Wakandans show up, just so they can make Storm feel guilty for leaving. As if Storm didn’t look enough like a bully in this issue.

At the very least, there is no winner in this fight. (Vs. normally declares a winner after every fight.) Still, Marvel screwed up an opportunity with a lot of potential to show that it prints writing that actually has emotional depth and sensitivity.

The only way to make this worse is to bring them back together at the end of AvsX. I don’t want two people to get together after they felt the need to go to physical violence to properly end their marriage. That is an unhealthy relationship. So unhealthy that if Marvel glosses over this, should they choose to bring them back together, I will be very upset. If we’re supposed to celebrate their getting back together, expect an angry rant to appear on the blog.

Also, I think it needs to be said that Marvel needs to be careful what stereotypes about black people it reinforces with things like this. Again, not something you need to be a genius to understand. Or, at least, you only need to have a modicum of emotional sensibility to understand.

So, this final death knell for Storm and Black Panther’s relationship hammered the last nail in the coffin for my interest in this series. Fuck this noise, Marvel. Seriously.

-Joanna

 

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

Why We Need a Black Panther Movie

I’m anxiously awaiting actual information about this proposed Black Panther movie. I only know two things for sure: 1) that Stan Lee has said he would like Black Panther to be a part of the Avengers sequel (which would rock) and 2) that Romeo Miller (or Lil’ Romeo, as I will always know him) said he was approached about the role (which makes no sense to me).

In any case, I definitely want him to get his own movie before he gets thrown into The Avengers 2, and I will be disappointed if it gets cancelled. (And with all the Marvel movie rumors swirling, I think they’ll have to cancel some of them, unless Marvel is ok with biting off more than it can chew.) Without his own movie to star in, he’ll just be a supporting character lost in the background with all the other new Avengers. (Which reminds me: I’d also like Marvel to decide and announce who will actually be in the sequel. There are more proposed characters than even Joss Whedon could handle in one cast.)

It’s not just that I like T’Challa and Wakanda and think he could easily carry his own movie. It’s that we, as a culture, need a Black Panther movie.

The first reason is probably pretty obvious: the world needs a black superhero movie, and the world needs it now. Yes, the colorblind casting of Heimdall in Thor (despite the racist backlash), War Machine, and Nick Fury (who is infinitely more likeable as Samuel L. Jackson) are steps in the right direction. But they’re itty-bitty steps. We need a black hero, not just a black character, no matter how important or likeable or complex.

Not only would Black Panther be a hero, he and his movie would subvert typical American notions of civilization, Africa, Western superiority, as well as typical movie executives’ notions about whether or not moviegoers would be interested in seeing a black superhero on the big screen.

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, but I was spurred into action by an article by Costa Avgoustinos called “Black Panther: The Progressive African Avenger.” In it, Avgoustinos analyzes the BET-produced Black Panther TV show (which is excellent, streaming on Netflix, and you should watch it), and how it criticizes the way the West sees the world. As Avgoustinos writes,

“the series asks a big “what if?”: What if there was a country in Africa untouched by Western intervention? What could it look like today? Black Panther presents Wakanda as the (exaggerated for comic book purposes) utopian answer—a thriving technologically/medically/culturally/economically advanced African nation which gained such prosperity, not only from following a strict protectionist policy but by rejecting any imperialist impulses of their own that come with power.”

Wakanda is an (admittedly fictional) African nation that is highly insular as well as extremely advanced. Ever self-sufficient, Wakanda creates and perpetuates its own knowledge and power, not simply relying on paternalistic Western imperialists. America tends to pity Africa, thinking of those poor Third Worlders with their backwards, failing everythings. But, if Wakanda and the United States were to get into a fight to prove who is the most advanced, the United States would get its ass kicked.

T’Challa typifies his country well: he is intelligent, well-spoken, regal, as well as endowed with super-abilities. He would be an excellent fictional ambassador from fictional (though plausible) Africa, an ambassador who might make people re-consider what they think they know about Africa.

However, Wakanda is still semi-tribal. On the outside, Wakanda and its people look like the kind of Africa that the West sees as backwards and uncivilized. The Black Panther is the name for the ruler of Wakanda, who wins his (or her!) title through a physical fight. They’re well-acquainted with magic, and refuse to trade with foreigners. For all their civilization, they still cling to notions that Western culture deems uncivilized.

This mixture of civilized and tribal is what makes the progressivism and independence of Wakanda so inspiring. Wakanda does not teach us that we must abandon the qualities that make the West see itself as civilized. Instead, when both the “civilized” and “barbaric” are joined, a country can be wealthy, happy, and strong.

Because Hollywood tends to depict Africa in a highly negative way, it would be as wonderful and progressive as Wakanda to see a vision of Africa (even fictionalized) that is strong, admirable, and not beholden to Western ideals. A Black Panther movie could help to remove the stigma attached to (black) African men in film, who are usually seen as the angry, violent stereotypes this video points out:

 

Maybe a successful Black Panther movie could change the way we Westerners simultaneously victimize and vilify black Africans. Or maybe I’m getting a little carried away about a superhero movie, as usual. In any case, I hope Marvel gives us the opportunity to find out.

-Joanna