Where is Superwoman? [#33]

Khoi Vinh recently linked out to an article by Amanda Shendruk looking at the data behind female inclusion in comic books. As both Khoi and Amanda state, it should come as no surprise that the overall trend is that women are under represented in mainstream comics (DC and Marvel being the focus here), but the analysis takes a more interesting approach and dives deeper into the roles, powers and names that female superheroes share disproportionately.

Again, there are clear biases and tropes, most of which are definitely problematic but also not unexpected. Female heroes are more likely to rely on agility than strength, more likely to have emotional or mental manipulation powers and are more likely to be a minority character on teams. It does highlight some factors which are slightly surprising (though again, not when you really think about them) and definitely worrying, like the trend for all-female teams to be defined by their femininity rather than their powers, goal or shared history. For example, DC’s Birds of Prey is a fantastic team name: evocative, clever and iconic; on the other hand, DC’s Female Furies is a terrible team name: dull, boring and telling you nothing about who is involved or why the team exists. All-male teams, on the other hand, are rarely named along gender lines. That’s something I feel comics writers can, and should, address right now.

However, I do feel the article points the finger a little too strongly at female hero names. To be clear, I’m not saying that female characters aren’t disproportionately named along gender lines – they clearly are and the data supports that. But the following conclusion, I feel, isn’t supported as well:

Females are more than twice as likely to be given a name that may make her seem weak, less dangerous, less aggressive and not on equal footing with male characters.

The data shows female heroes are twice as likely to have gender-specific names. But it’s a bit of a leap to state that means those names have been chosen to reduce their standing amongst the other heroes; at least, not because of their gender. There’s clearly a problem here, but I don’t think Amanda has correctly identified the root cause.

The issue, as stated in the article, is when gender-specific names use diminutive forms. In other words, when Superwoman becomes Supergirl. By using “girl” rather than “woman”, the character automatically appears weaker and more immature, which seems to match Amanda’s quote above. However, Supergirl is more immature. Her whole character and respective arc is about here being a young Kryptonian developing her powers. Her name hasn’t been picked because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a teenager. The exact same logic is the reason we have Superboy within the DC universe as well.

Possibly a clearer example would be to look at two women in the Batman comics with gendered names: Batgirl and Catwoman. Both play the role of supporting heroes to Batman himself, but the gender forms used directly convey their comparative standing to the titular hero. Batgirl is a trainee, an apprentice; she’s young and immature. Catwoman is a seasoned criminal before we ever meet her, at the top of her game, not just for Gotham but for the world. Hence, one is girl, the other is woman.

Now, to be clear, there are definitely instances where diminutive forms are used to take female heroes down a peg. I’ve already mentioned Supergirl, so it would be wrong of me not to address Powergirl, the name she takes when she steps out from Superman’s shadow and becomes an independent hero. The argument can be made that a total name change would have been more confusing, but lets face it: Powergirl is a pretty terrible name, so why not just drop the gender specificity entirely. The issue of these immature names sticking does become problematic. When Superboy eventually take on the mantle of the red cape, he goes by Superman. When Batgirl dons the cloak in Bruce Wayne’s absence… she doesn’t become Batman (or Batwoman).

I’m not arguing that female naming conventions in comics are perfectly acceptable. They aren’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t think these characters having diminutive forms are necessarily writers trying to keep them trapped beneath a superhero glass ceiling. I think they’re chosen for different narrative reasons, most of the time, and whilst biases likely play a role the intent isn’t as clear-cut. I also don’t think it’s necessarily problematic.

What is problematic is the issue of female protégés never managing to take on the mantle of their mentors. Superboy can become, literally, Superman but Supergirl never has. I accept there are issues with gender naming in general if you’re trying to do this, as it never really makes sense for Kara Starr to be called Superman, but the issue persists even for non-gendered names. Artemis, Green Arrow’s teen titan, never becomes Green Arrow. She-Hulk is never simply the Hulk. There are some instances, such as Zatanna, but they tend to be retconned; the female character having been known first before the ‘original’ is introduced. Really, the only big-name swap I can think of is Captain Marvel, who spent years as Ms. Marvel before finally accepting her proper mantle.

At any rate, the article does make note that the winds, they are a-changing. Female character creation is increasing at all publishers and more female heroes are getting their own on-going titles. I think an easy next step would be to have some gendered-names becoming genderless, especially when it comes to teams, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. Still, Amanda’s research clearly shows that there remains a long way to go before female representation can actually be called representative.

Month in Media: April 2016

Hopefully the first of many. So what have I consumed this month? Well, a whole lot of graphic novels, largely due to a birthday occurring. In case people need reminding, all reviews may contain spoilers, so: Spoiler Warning!

Graphic Novels

The Man Who Laughs (Batman)

I picked up The Man Who Laughs off the back of several recommendations that basically implied that the contained storyline “got” the relationship between the Joker and Batman better than any other run, including The Killing Joke. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it quite lives up to the hype. It’s a great riff on how the Joker operates and a very clever “scheme” that definitely encapsulates the iconic villains methodology perfectly; you’re kept guessing throughout, with the standard “chaos as a smokescreen” the Joker excels at. What it isn’t, however, is a particularly complex analysis of the relationship between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong, as an origin story it definitely hits the mark, but I’d say The Man Who Laughs is more of a primer/introduction to the Joker than the perfect example of Clown v Bat. If anything, I’d say the analysis of Jim Gordon was more on point than either of the “main” characters.

Artistically, however, the graphic novel is spot on. The effects of the joker venom are wonderfully unnerving and force the eye to linger, enhanced by some great colouring that often amplifies the sense of paranoia and fear. Indeed, it is this sense of fear, of mounting tension and increasing paranoia, that The Man Who Laughs truly excels at and I imagine is why it is so upheld amongst fans of the Joker. I definitely enjoyed the novel and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the Batman universe, or who wants a slightly more coherent, though less emotionally charged, Joker heist than the Heath Ledger incarnation.

Special mention, however, must go to “Made of Wood“, an unexpected second part to the story. I have no idea why the two have been paired together for the trade paperback print, as apart from both occurring during the Zero Hour continuity they aren’t at all interconnected. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed the second story, which offered a nice analysis of Batman’s feelings towards other caped heroes (a little similar to that found in HUSH, as mentioned below) and his place amongst them, as well as providing insight into the early Green Lantern’s life. It was a fun romp, well done with some nice twists along the way; altogether an interesting and competent story arc.

Black Science: Vanishing Pattern (vol. 3)

To say I stumbled onto the Black Science series would be too kind. I bought the initial volume because a staff member at my local Waterstones noticed that I had been idly flicking through graphic novels for almost ten minutes and enquired if I needed some help. I happened to be holding Black Science at the time, had just noticed the price sticker wasn’t present and, more out of societal awkwardness than anything else, asked if they could find out the price. I had no intention of actually buying the book, but when they returned and said it was actually on offer and currently less than £4 I thought “hey, why not”? The fact that, two volumes later, I’m considering putting myself down for pre-order of the entire series until the run (which is very much still on going) is complete speaks to how much I am thankful for that odd moment of consumer obligation. Black Science has become the only series I’ve picked up to date that is constantly just whirring away somewhere in my subconscious, cropping up from time to time as random hypothesise as to how the story will play out. The worlds it has created, the central narrative and the characters themselves have all completely captured my attention and imagination. In other words, I’m quite a big fan.

All that said, Vanishing Point is yet another solid step forward for the series. It helps explain a little bit more of the mystery of what’s actually going on, rounds off a couple of key plot threads (particularly the “rough’n’ready”, time hardened versions of Grant and Sara) and sets up the next chapter wonderfully. I mean seriously, can our Grant ever catch a break? And what the actual fuck just happened! Crucially, though it jammed a wrench in the narrative machinery and allowed the characters to just stop for a few pages and actually analyse everything that’s happened. Quite often, I’d probably be annoyed, feeling the pace had been thrown out to shoe-horn in exposition and help the writers out of a tricky spot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth here. If anything, a little space to breath was exactly what Black Science required after two completely frenetic volumes. It was brilliant to see the interrelationships of the crew actually develop and come to some much needed crunch points. I’ve always loved the main characters and how they feel as a group, but they definitely needed a little development time and that’s exactly what Vanishing Pattern has allowed.

Scott and Grant needed that heart to heart; the Shaman needed to take a stand; the readers needed the revelations surrounding Rebecca and why she’s really there. It aired out the original motto of “Every world better than we found it” and gave it actual, substantive meaning (although, again, that ending…) which in turn pivoted the story from one about survival to one about morality. In short, the entire plot has evolved into something more nuanced, the characters have developed in some very intriguing new ways and the stakes have never seemed higher. So yeah, definitely still a very big fan of this series. I cannot wait for volume 4.

HUSH (Batman)

Quite likely the best Batman novel I’ve read to date. HUSH was fantastic, start to finish, weaving a new antagonist into the Batman universe so smoothly it’s incredible to think the titular villain hasn’t been around since the early days, alongside the Joker and the rest of the familiar foils. In doing so, the creative team behind the novel also provide a wonderful overview of the “Bat family”, from Huntress through to Oracle, even touching on the relationship Bruce has with other superheroes (one Boy Scout in particular) within the DC Universe. The result should be an incredibly broad, confusing mess but actually comes together perfectly; you definitely need a little bit of a primer going in as to who people are and rough relationships to the titular hero, but if you have even the most basic level of knowledge of the pre-New 52 universe then HUSH is an extremely accessible entry point into the deeper ideals and plot threads that were ongoing at the time.

More than simply being a meta-analysis though, HUSH is the turning point in several of the characters relationships. It plays off past failures wonderfully, finally putting to bed certain plot threads that may have been a little “up in the air” from previous big events, all without feeling the least bit like fan service. Similarly successful is the whole relationship subplot with Catwoman, which is spot on. A love interest that has been a previous enemy could have overloaded the entire story (too many cooks and all that) but instead becomes central to the plot, without ever feeling forced for either character; particularly masterful is its conclusion, neatly leaving questions open for the next creative team to play with, without leaving readers jilted. The deftness with which the team handle all these myriad characters is truly remarkable, in fact, with each one feeling unique and the plot never truly feeling rushed. Huntress does feel like there may be something else going on off-page, potentially in another comic run, but otherwise the story is paced wonderfully, which is a real rarity amongst graphic novels I find (indeed, a lot of Marvel’s work could have learnt a lot from HUSH in how pacing should go!).

Plus, it would be heinous of me not to point out that the artwork is stunning throughout, the scripting is practically flawless and the colouring, quite simply, blew me away. HUSH has to be one of the best coloured graphic novels I’ve ever come across, with some incredibly clever use of colour washing panels and using digital techniques to really bring out highlights and darken shadows without looking over-contrasted. Just superb.

The Killing Joke (Batman)

Yup, I read the classic Batman paperbacks in the most hipster order possible. I don’t regret it. So I guess the real question is: were the Amazon reviewers correct? Is The Man Who Laughs a better encapsulation of the Joker/Batman dynamic? Well, no, I don’t think so. The Killing Joke (despite having been thoroughly spoiled online for me multiple times over) definitely lived up to the hype. It is a brutal, ceaseless, gut-wrenching analysis of both characters and the definitive outline of the Joker, both as a person and as a villain, in a way that The Man Who Laughs is not. I can understand the comparisons and, perhaps, as an origin story The Man Who Laughs is more complete and more compelling as a result, but personally that feels slightly wrong. The Joker should be an enigma, with the artist behind The Killing Joke even stating that the “origin” portrayed in its’ pages perhaps should be interpreted simply as one of the possible stories the Joker’s fractured mind has coalesced around, without any weighting of truth or fact about it. Personally I feel that may be a step too far, but the ambiguity to the mythology is far more nuanced than the heavily-hinted but ultimately not confirmed origin portrayed in The Man Who Laughs.

Comparisons aside, as both are fantastic stories worthy of anyone’s attention, The Killing Joke is genuinely stunning. I was expecting that to be the case (frankly you’d be ignorant not to, given the level of critical and fan acclaim) but I was still surprised by how much the craftsmanship exceeded my expectations. The script, in particular, was stunning; Alan Moore is regarded as a master of dialogue but I think this is his finest work (that I’ve had the pleasure to read, in any case). Not a single word was out of place and both the opening line and final interplay were exacted with pin point precision that left me stunned and forced me to reread them both several times over. The phrases, puns and linguistic choices throughout were (almost) flawless. My one niggle would be the initial interaction between Batman and the fake Joker, which felt a little out of character, although I will admit that the Batman I know and love must certainly have evolved since the novel was written. Indeed, though this is a Batman story in name, Batman himself is very much a bit player. Truly, this is a story about the Joker, told by the Joker and for the Joker. That it also manages to give an insightful and poignant outline of the core relationship between the two characters only goes to further show its genius.

Personally, the artwork felt a little dated (as I would expect, given the publication date) but its tonal quality cannot be undermined. The Joker’s malevolent gang of carnival stereotypes are truly unsettling in their portrayal and the entire fun house sequence is breath-takingly executed. As I read the modern re-published edition, I can only comment on the digital colouring that was redone for that run, but I would say that the book looked fantastic. The use of colour in the flashback sequences is particularly notable, but the whole story was beautifully done. Perhaps a little garish here and there, particularly for Barbara’s initial scenes, but again a nitpick rather than a true criticism.

Finally, on the note of Barbara Gordon, I feel it wrong not to at least mention that scene. I’ve heard plenty of arguments about it, but ultimately felt it was played very well. The whole story was dark, right from the start, but the shooting of a major character in such cold blood (and so early on) made that tone concrete and gave the entire plot an anchor point. Insinuations that rape was too dark, I feel, are a little overplayed. Each person will read that scene differently and I haven’t researched whether the creators themselves have gone on record as to what happened “off page”, but to me it didn’t read as rape. Declothing her, showing her completely vulnerable and dying, just helped emphasise the Joker’s psychological tactics; jumping to the conclusion of rape occurring is out of character for the villain and also didn’t feel inherent to the script. But that’s just my two cents.

As for the other scene iconic for its ambiguity, the ending shot, I have to say it didn’t quite hit the target for me. The joke was on point, but what happens next, personally, just felt like a writer leaving it open ended because there was no way to end it. Did it work? Yes. I have no qualms with leaving the story without a definitive conclusion, indeed I think it fits nicely, but do I think Batman, there and then, strangled the Joker? No. In fact, for my own personal head canon, I see everything after the close-up of Batman’s face and “heh” dialogue as taking place in Batman’s head; the action he wants to take, feels he should take, but can’t, hence his own maniacal laughing. Perhaps it’s even the Joker’s own desire, the ending he wants, given so much of the story seems to be from his point of view rather than the readers or Batman’s. Ultimately, though, who knows? And isn’t that the whole point?

Movies

We’re The Millers

I really only decided to watch We’re The Millers to kill time; Prime has been suggesting it for a while and I remember it being in cinema without any obvious negative, so heck, why not, right? Well, as it turns out, the suggestion was spot on.

I really enjoyed We’re The Millers, which consistently exceeded expectations. The story isn’t ground breaking, but it was much tighter than I would have presumed and actually a lot more heartfelt. The initial setup, both of the plot and the core characters, is definitely a little “by the numbers”, but I was really surprised that the stereo types really ended there; definitely side characters remain nothing more than comedic over exaggerations, but the core “family” fleshes out very nicely and doesn’t just stick to tired tropes. The stripper has had bad luck in love and clearly regrets some life choices, but actually spends the entire film showing how together she really is, becoming the emotional and moral rock. The drug dealer isn’t just some low life layabout with no desire to engage with life, but a clearly intelligent individual who just became a little trapped and is still unsure of where the next step is. Basically, everyone was far less two dimensional than expected.

Then there’s the supporting cast. Nick Offerman is fantastic, making a number of “could have been awkward” scenes instead very amusing, often via his own brand of understatement (I’m looking at you, “swingers in a tent” scene) and rounded it all off with possibly the funniest action sequence I’ve seen in a long while: big gulps have never been as deadly! Plus, Ed Helms is great. His crime lord buffoon could have been hammed up to high heaven, a la Mugatu in Zoolander, but instead he tread a fine line between caricature and reality that made his character far more enjoyable.

All in all, I have to say, I was really pleasantly surprised. Not sure what they’re possibly going to do in the proposed sequel and definitely don’t think it needs to happen, but as a standalone couple of hours of fun I would recommend We’re The Millers.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe

Yup. That happened. And it was pretty damn clever about it, to boot. I just finished Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, having picked it up recently because I kept on seeing it being referenced in discussions surrounding the recent film, and I have to say that (unlike the silver screen variant) it definitely lived up to expectations. The big ending had, unfortunately, been spoiled for me by the internet about a year ago, so it lacked a little punch – but that is no-ones fault but my own (and that irksome commenter on io9). That said: spoiler warning ahead!

The story is exactly what you would expect: Deadpool kills everyone. However, rather than being just a fan romp where Deadpool goes off the deep end, the writers actually turn this event into a very clever meta-analysis of superhero comic books in general. Honestly, I feel this storyline is the quintessential reason why Deadpool exists, even if it was never really intended from the off; this is the story the character was born to tell. Because ultimately comic books are just a bit… off. We do spend a lot of time revelling in the drama and pain we put these bastions of morality through; we kill them off and resurrect them constantly, making every one around them suffer for our own entertainment. For all the good bits about comics, there are some seriously dark undertones that we, as a society, don’t really pay any attention to. So Deadpool throws them in our face, with blood and gore still attached.

If I was to complain about anything, it does feel a little rushed, although I would argue this is a symptom of the whole “release cycle” that occurs with comics and may even be just another level of meta-analysis (although that’s probably pushing it a little far). A bit more exposition would have been brilliant, the “red box” voice could have used a little more character building (if that term is even appropriate) and they could definitely have spent a little more time playing out (and with) the big reveal, but ultimately it was all well rounded and executed. I think two more issues and it would have been a must read for any comic fan. As it is, it’s definitely a must read for any Deadpool fan and I would say a very good shout if you have the change to pick it up.