Review of Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

Palimpsest | Drawn & Quarterly

Palimpsest is an autobiographical comic or graphic memoir about adoption. I could say it is about the author’s adoption, but the troubling thing about the book is how difficult it is for her to find out anything about how Korean Wool-Rim became Swedish Lisa. In this sense, it is more about the experience of being an adoptee and the contorted and extended attempts to find out anything about the circumstances of her early life. As such the comic is both brutal and bare in its portrayal of a desperate search for answers.

Aside from being a fascinating story of a Korean girl (Wool-Rim) adopted by a family in Sweden (Lisa) and her attempts to reconnect with her past, the comic will be of interest to sociologists for a number of reasons. Most obviously, it is a study of institutions. Hospitals, schools, orphanages, and labyrinthine state agencies all play their part. In fact the dominance of rather anonymous and indifferent institutions is reinforced in the major aesthetic theme of the comic. Throughout, each panel is rendered in the palette of the official, institutional envelope. Characters and scenes are drawn onto a dull brown background reminiscent of the manila envelope or manila folder that carry and transmit the endless communications and decisions of bureaucracies.

The comic actually opens with a letter from the Swedish Adoptionscentrum that mediated the adoption but is now acting to block Sjöblom’s search for information, and the entire story is washed in this colour scheme in a way that adds to the all-encompassing presence of institutionalization. Of course, this also relates to the central metaphor the comic deploys and takes for its title. The manila envelopes and folders hold the myriad forms that have written, re-written and over-written the history of Sjöblom’s birth, her Korean family, the reason for her adoption and ultimately her identity. Quite often the comic breaks from its regular rhythm of panels to devote a whole page to the discovery of a new form offering fresh information or sometimes confusing already accepted knowledge. The book is in effect an archeology of information in which each new layer is at once revealing and infuriatingly obfuscating.

Sjöblom's 'Palimpsest' Is Unlike Most Graphic Memoirs - PopMatters

The book is also a meditation on pregnancy and motherhood as we are introduced to Sjöblom’s own experience of having children and raising them, but it is especially revealing around the question of identity and would work extremely well for any sociology classes exploring our sense of belonging. What becomes acute in the story is the extent to which Lisa is always Wool-Rim to some extent. The physical markers of her ethnicity always situate her as an outsider in Sweden, a fact that she continually reports on, and an issue that becomes one of the main drivers in her search for who she is and where she came from. The most disturbing panel on this theme comes quite late in the book when she and her family have returned from a partially successful but ultimately disappointing trip to Korea only to be sat on a Swedish train to be asked by a fellow passenger ‘where do you come from?’ She has returned ‘home’ only to be made a stranger once more.

This Graphic Memoir About Adoption Isn't Interested in Comfortable ...

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book, though, was its account of the discourse of adoption. Throughout the story, Sjöblom switches between the role of (not-quite) Swedish Lisa and (not quite) Korean Wool-Rim, both of which are the (not-quite) daughter of a biological mother (who we meet only to lose) and a surrogate mother (who almost never appears at all). In these different yet related persona, Sjöblom continually talks about what it feels like to be adopted, to be ‘a person who manifested out of thin air’, or belongs to a family that ‘hides the fact that we ever belonged to another one’. All the time she recounts the adoption liturgy about the need to be grateful or that the adoptive family have given the adoptee a better life, and that nothing must be done to disrespect the love of the adoptive family. I think what surprised me most is just how socialized to that discourse I am. In Sjöblom’s persistence to find her biological mother and in the scant regard she affords her adoptive parents (at least in this book) I found myself responding with the same sense of opprobrium. In this regard the comic is deeply educational and a revelation as to just how much we are conditioned by this discourse of gratitude towards adopters. As a study on how the discourse works and how we might think it from the perspective from those who have undergone adoption I imagine the comic could become a very useful pedagogic tool for this type of analysis.

Palimpsest | Drawn & Quarterly

Returning to the comic’s aesthetics it is worth noting how Sjöblom’s simple and ‘naïve’ style adds to the general theme of childhood and contributes a rather haunting sense of a young woman trapped between adulthood and infancy. The lost and unknown history of her adoption seems to hold her in a liminal mode, and the graphic style and ‘juvenile’ lines of Sjöblom’s delicate drawings effectively add to this sense of temporal and biographical suspension. This is also a really good example of how a more ‘cartoon’ mode of representation adds to rather than diminishes the realism in the storytelling. On the issue of realism it is also worth noting an additional aesthetic feature that adds considerable weight to the difficulty, both existential and emotional, of the story being told. Aside from the general sepia or manila tones already mentioned, the characters foregrounded in the panels are given additional hints of colour—subtle reds and greens, and soft yellows—while the backgrounds are never accented in this way. Intentional or not, the backgrounds of the comics emphasize the emptiness of Sjöblom’s personal background, as a history and biography merely outlined and yet to be substantially completed or filled-in. It produces quite an uncanny effect.

Having said that, the comic can at times seem rather text heavy. It is driven by captions and dialogue in rather lengthy word balloons, and, personally, I would have liked to see the medium used a little more experimentally in its representation of the palimpsest. The formal properties of comics as simultaneously available sets of units on a page offers many possibilities for representing conflicted identity, which I think is insufficiently used, but, overall, the comic does an excellent job portraying the pain of adoption and the often debilitating uncertainty about origins, heritage and a personal journey to achieve understanding. Anyone interested in this subject will find Palimpsest a rewarding read.

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This was written for and published in New Zealand Sociology 35(1) 2020

 

The Cruelty of Joker

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“Some people get their kicks stomping’ on a dream”

Joker is an intriguing character study of abuse, mental health and a world indifferent to both. It is everything the earlier and abjectly terrible superhero film, Dark Phoenix, tried but failed to be. The performance from Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, and the pacing of the film by director Todd Phillips is also strong. The slow reveal of Arthur Fleck’s biography, carefully punctuated by scene’s of escalating violence is handled with great dexterity. In the end, it is hard not to understand that Joker is our creation, a construction of our society’s violence and lack of care.

The cruelty in the film is summed up in Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “That’s Life” where Related imagethe pleasure other people get from seeing others fail or fall is central; but cruelty can also be found in the song’s disconcerting ambiguity. Against the backdrop of Arthur’s mental illness, which resulted from pronounced abuse as a child and marginalisation as an adult, the song, like our increasingly callous society, continues to tell him “to pick [himself] up and get back in the race”. Arthur does this, repeatedly, until he can’t do so any more; or rather, until he takes a different approach to picking himself up and getting back in.

Here, Charlie Mingus’s “The Clown” would also have worked well. The song tells the story of a man who “was a real happy guy, he had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him. And he had just one thing he wanted in this world, he just wanted to make people laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world, he was a real happy guy.” That was until he realised the only thing that really made the crowds laugh was him embarrassing or injuring himself. For Mingus’s clown, that was the end. For Arthur, it was the birth of Joker.

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So, what is interesting about a film centred on DC’s #1 psychopath is that the cruelty in the film doesn’t emanate from him but from wider society. However, Joker, as a film, contains its own cruelty, and this is where I have problems with what is otherwise a very good piece of cinema, and one that, like Logan, will do a great deal for the dramatic potential of the genre. The cruelty of the film takes two forms (and possibly a third I will return to at the end); one pertaining to a specific moment of disturbing scopophilia, the other relating to its general nihilistic message.

The first moment is the death of Randall (played by Glenn Fleshler). Randall also represents the collective responsibility for Joker’s violence as it is him who gives Arthur the gun (in an attempt to get Arthur sacked) that he later uses to kill three Wall Street suits on the Subway. Randall, and another of Arthur’s colleagues, Gary, a man with dwarfism, later visit Arthur to tell him the police are asking questions. Now knowing what Randall had tried to do by giving him the gun, Arthur summarily kills him in front of the traumatised Gary. There is no cruelty here, only swift and extremely violent death.

However, the cruelty in this scene stems from the director’s decision to have Arthur put the chain back on the door when he first lets his colleagues into his apartment, so that when Arthur tells a terrified Gary he can leave he actually can’t because he’s unable to reach the chain to open the door. It is unclear what this part of the scene is supposed to do apart from give the audience a chance to cruelly laugh at a person with dwarfism, which in the packed theatre I was sat in, many people did. Was Phillips intentionally giving us a chance to reflect on our own capacity for cruelty or was this just a cheap joke about disability and someone not like us? Either way, it was horrible.

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The second aspect of the film’s cruelty comes from its nihilistic and hopeless view of politics. The fulcrum for this is the killing of the banking trio on the Subway. They are shown harassing a lone woman and then pick on Arthur whose anxiety has triggered his neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. They proceed to beat him up, only for Arthur to take the gun given to him by Barry and kill all three. We soon learn these were employees of Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s father, who praises them as good men while swiftly denouncing those celebrating the murders as envious, saying those who are not materially successful like him are just losers and clowns.

Here, the indifference and spite of billionaires makes for an interesting political subtext, especially in an age that has seen an increasingly contemptuous oligarchy separate itself from and divest itself of any responsibility for the ills of wider society. At Arthur’s next visit to his social worker, for example, we learn that the programme has been ended and all the funding cut. However, the cruelty of the film is in its own spiteful representation of political opposition which is shown to be nothing but the anarchy and chaotic violence of an enraged crowd that adopts the clown mask as their symbol.

This is an eery reworking of the political message of Christopher Nolan’s third, extremely poor Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, where a popular uprising against oligarchy is represented as inherently stupid and tyrannical. Again, to take a positive view of this we might read it is a critique of widespread right-wing populism where in the words of Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin “the mob is the movement”, but it felt more like a sneering condemnation of popular politics, and a cruel laugh at our expense.

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I said there was potentially a third aspect to the cruelty of the film. This is less explicit, but nevertheless leaves an unpleasant after-effect. Throughout the film there are a number of black women who either don’t properly listen to him, chastise him, or fail to fulfil his sexual fantasy. In the fourth instance a black woman becomes the face of his incarceration, and we are led to believe he kills her when he walks bloodied footprints down the pristine white corridor of Arkham Hospital immediately after his interview with her. As an Englishman living in New Zealand I am perhaps insufficiently sensitive to the nuances of “race” in the US to comment on what these relations tell us, but one thing is very clear even to me, we are not just asked to understand the violence Arthur finally enacts as Joker but are also expected to understand the justified violence of a very white man when the protests of black men are regularly met with condemnation, vilification and exclusion. This seems to be the film’s final cruelty.

 

 

 

Adam: The Legend of the Blue Marvel by Kevin Grevioux and Mat Broome, 2009

Image result for Adam Legend Blue MarvelI recently had cause to reread this excellent book and thought I’d share a few comments about it, feeling it makes a good accompaniment to the discussion of contemporary myth I talked about in relation to Chelsea Cain’s MockingbirdIn many respects Grevioux’s Blue Marvel deconstructs racial myths in a similar vein to what Cain does with patriarchy.

Like all good superhero stories it also reworks ancient myths dealing with the primal division between order and chaos as the Blue Marvel, Adam Brashear, and Anti-Man, Connor Sims, are created from the same experiment with a negative reactor to harness anti-matter. It also plays on the mythical trope of warring brothers as Brashear and Connor who became close friends during the Korean War choose completely different paths in the pursuit of justice after the accident with the reactor gives them superpowers beyond anything then known.

The book also touches on the mythology internal to the Marvel Universe itself as the Blue Marvel is shown to make his first appearance on June 4 1962, the day before Amazing Stories #15 hit the stands and gave birth to the Marvel Universe’s most iconic figure, Spider-Man. As such, this piece of retroactive continuity presents a very challenging statement about the treatment of race in the superhero genre and wider society, both past and present.

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June 4 1962 is the first time Blue Marvel saves the world by defeating his friend and nemesis Anti-Man. However, in the violence of their struggle Blue Marvel’s suit is torn to reveal that contrary to expectations he is in fact a black man. At the end of the fight the onlookers had feared Blue Marvel is dead and call out ‘Blue Marvel. Blue Marvel’ before uttering only ‘Bl…’ as they see the black skin that lies beneath his suit.

The story then shifts to August 1962 and takes the reader to The Pentagon war room where President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, the Secretary of State and various generals and members of the intelligence services discuss what is to be done about a black man with so much power.

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This takes place during the middle of the Vietnam War and at a key moment in the struggle for civil rights, which they believe could be set back by such a phenomenal display of black power. As Robert Kelly of the NSA explains to JKF: ‘I appreciate your sense of “liberty and justice for all”, sir, but you have to understand—we are on the brink of a socio-political watershed in our country’s history. Civil rights will reach fever pitch in the next few years. The presence of a super-powered black man of that level will upset the apple cart.’ The conversation goes on to note how white people have already turned on him, and instead of adulation they hurl rocks.

Eventually it is decided to call Brashear in and ask him to stand down. As a patriot and someone who understands white fear, or what we might today call white fragility, he is all too aware of the possible ramifications for the civil rights movement, and he complies, leaving the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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The full masking or veiling of Brashear’s skin, which also includes gloves, brings to mind the EC Comics story, ‘Judgment Day!’ from Weird Fantasy#18 published in 1953. The story follows an astronaut called Tarlton visiting the planet Cybrinia to see if it should be admitted to the Galactic Republic. Here he finds two ‘species’ of robots that are functionally the same and yet because one species is orange and the other is blue civil rights are divided unequally amongst them.

As a result of their bigoted discrimination Tarlton informs the robots they will not be 799d1-image00010permitted to join the Republic. However, he goes on to offer them hope by recounting how Earth faced a similar problem until humans learned to live together. Importantly, Tarlton wears his helmet throughout the comic, only taking it off and revealing he is a black man when returning to his spacecraft. It was this reveal, and the image of a black man as the source of moral authority—enough for him to be Earth’s ambassador—that was the reason the Comics Code Authority sought to ban the comic.

Returning to the Blue Marvel, the year ‘Judgment Day!’ was published, 1953, was also the end of the Korean War that became a defining moment in Brashear’s life, and throughout the comic the racism that marked that life is explicitly presented via references to institutions of white supremacy such as segregation, racism in the US military, lynchings, and miscegenation, but even in the present day, when the Blue Marvel is called upon one more time due to the return of Anti-Man, he still finds himself in a culture where the authority of a black man is problematic.

In issue 5 he presents the Avengers with a solution, only for Reed Richards to reply: ‘As plausible as your theory sounds, Dr. Brashear, I’m afraid we’ve got to find some other way’. Tony Stark agrees, saying: ‘You heard Reed. If he says it’s too dangerous, we can’t let you do it’. ‘Can’t let me?’, Brashear responds, exasperated; but confident in both his own expertise in anti-matter and his powers he ignores them and heads off to face Anti-Man.

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The Avengers respond by setting chase and after a long battle with them, Blue Marvel exhausts himself and the Avengers take him into what is effectively protective custody. Unconscious, they place him in stasis, but he breaks free from the containment that acts as his ‘cage’. With the Avengers unable to deal with Anti-Man, Brashear’s authority is eventually accepted and he starts directing the other heroes. In the final battle scene, Grevioux then takes on the myth of the white saviour by directly depicting Blue Marvel as a crucified Christ and black Jesus. Here, Brashear assumes the role that supposedly anoints the white man with the divine right to rule and legislate according to his supposed God-given superiority.

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On this topic, it is interesting to also note that the team of Avengers that tries to take down Brashear contains the hero known as The Sentry. The inclusion of this character works on two levels. The first is as a playful moment of meta-narrative because The Sentry was also a character with a completely fabricated past and introduced in a piece of retroactive continuity by Paul Jenkins in 2000, but it also emphasises how, when Marvel introduce potentially their most powerful hero he just happens to be the embodiment of the blonde haired, blue-eyed Ayrian ideal that has haunted the racial politics of the comics for so long.

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A review of EC Comics: Race, Shock and Social Protest by Qiana Whitted*

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EC Comics: Race, Shock and Social Protest by Qiana Whitted

Published by Rutgers University Press, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the sign of a good book is immediately feeling the need to engage with its subject matter, then EC Comicsis a seriously good book. Through a series of carefully constructed readings of what were known as EC “preachies” or what Whitted prefers to call “message comics” (78), the book offers a valuable contribution to the history of EC Comics, and a fascinating lens through which to examine anti-racism in a culture that was so deeply mired in prejudice, discrimination and white supremacy. The fact that these issues are still so relevant today speaks volumes about the importance and the difficulty of the challenge.

Overall, the book is well written and offers a convincing argument about the importance of the interventions studied. It will be invaluable to anyone teaching comics, popular culture, African-American history; and it ought to be compulsory for any media courses on race and racism. The book focuses on what EC called their “New Trend” line that ran from 1950 to 1955, at which point it was briefly renamed “New Direction” in response to the founding of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954. Whitted works carefully to articulate the innovative and distinctive nature of these comics despite the speed of their production, and highlights the very particular EC style that relied on a sense of shock through “snap-endings”, and the immersive use of second person narratives that directly addressed and even implicated the reader in the events that were breathlessly unfolding.

Image result for EC Comics weird fantasy 18Whitted readily responds to critics of EC Comics such as Bart Beatty and Suat Tong Ng, and yet while taking on their criticisms—and adding some of her own—she still effectively argues for the comics’ evident importance and social relevance. While there is so much that is worthwhile in this book, the discussion of the CCA’s attempt to refuse a reprint of the  “Judgement Day!” story that originally appeared in Weird Fantasy#18 in 1953 is indicative of how ridiculous and clearly racist this self-censoring authority was. “Judgement Day!” was a science fiction story set in the future where an anonymous astronaut from Earth, named Tarlton, visits a planet populated by robots that discriminate between the colours blue and orange. The astronaut argues against such prejudice and hopes the robots can find a way to overcome it like the humans on Earth have. Finally, it is revealed that Tarlton is black and it was for this reason that the CCA tried to stop it being reprinted. Gaines persisted and it did appear in 1955, but the episode shows how pronounced the assumptions of white supremacy were.

This then becomes the central focus of one of the four main chapters, which are all organised around a specific theme. Chapter One looks at Gaines’s response to the charge that comics were hazardous for young readers, and how he made every effort to spell out—often quite literally through use of captions—the moral message of the stories. To understand this, Whitted deploys Thomas J. Roberts’s idea that genre reading is “system reading” (27). Here, each element of a story can only be understood in relation to the established rules of the genre; or in this case the internal system of meaning specific to EC Comics that Gaines had worked so hard to develop and that the EC “Fan-Addicts” would have known really well. This chapter will therefore also be of interest to scholars working in media effects theory, where calls for censorship are often based on isolated elements of a media text that don’t reflect the message of the overall narrative or genre-specific modes of interpretation.

Chapter Two then focuses on visualising blackness both in terms of agency, but also in the explicit endeavour on the part of EC Comics’ artists to draw and colour their black characters using the realism usually only afforded to white characters. They intentionally tried to avoid the obvious racist stereotypes that sadly still remain the go-to illustrative device of every lazy cartoonist today—I’m thinking here, of course, about the infamous Herald Sun cartoon of Sarina Williams from 2018. However, Whitted notes that while EC Comics made their black characters visible in ways that broke with the conventional aesthetics of the time they still struggled to give them an actual voice, depicting them too often in “wordless pantomimes” (60). In telling stories about racism, she writes, “they tend to dampen expressions of African American agency, often with the goal of foregrounding the contemptible actions of white characters” (53). At a time when the issue of representation is high on comics’ agenda, especially in the superhero genre, the complexities of representation presented in this chapter are especially thought provoking.

Chapter Three then moves on to what Whitted calls “resolutions and proposed solutions” (78) to racism and white supremacy, noting how “the coercive use of shame” (78) became Image result for EC comics shock suspenstories #16the way in which the message was driven home. The use of sentiment and emotion were integral to the representation of characters that were so clearly on the wrong side of racial justice, but it also worked through EC’s signature second person mode of address that hailed the reader as a potential accomplice to either the racism or its eradication. In particular Whitted argues that Bill Gaines and chief writer Al Feldstein “were aware that the formal antidiscrimination measures unfolding after World War II would be more effective when accompanied by a deeper transformation in the consciousness of white Americans” (82). In light of this, the chapter is also of interest because the discussion makes a significant contribution to an area of comics studies research so far underdeveloped, namely the phenomenology of comics reading and the production of affect; or in Whitted’s words “the thrill[my italics] of seeing unashamed and mean-spirited protagonists brought low by the unexpected consequences of their deeds” (83).

Chapter Four then takes us back to the question of agency. Specifically, it examines the Image result for EC Comics judgement dayquestion of a black character’s authority, but also explores the way EC addressed the wider issue of white hegemony in stories like “The Slave Ship” where abduction by aliens draws out tragic similarities with the horrific historical trade in human beings that the authoritative voice of white America was always trying to minimise. Here, Whitted notes “the value of recognitionas a requisite part of meaningful social change” (126). Specifically, as in “The Slave Ship”, this meant seeing the atrocities of slavery for what they were. Alternatively, it was about acknowledging the persistence of everyday discrimination and social advantage. For Whitted, the truth of a story like “Judgment Day!” is “intended for people who have been shielded from the realities that Tarlton must judge, even if they benefit from its privileges” (131).

On the down side, the one thing I felt was missing in this book was a more substantial introduction that talked about representations of race in other comics and across other media, in particular television and film during the 1950s. The presence of racist stereotypes such as Steamboat in Captain Marveland Ebony White in The Spiritare mentioned, and there were occasional references to films like Intruder in the Dustthat were challenging racist conventions in cinema, but it would have been really helpful to have an introduction that gave a stronger sense of the normative assumptions, “larger ideological contexts” (6) and widespread moral panics that fed the sense of complacency and “vapid conformity” (9) of many Americans at the time.

That said, though, this does not detract from what is a really valuable contribution to comics studies and the growing literature around the importance of EC Comics. It offers really helpful textual analyses of particular stories that will be invaluable to researchers and teachers alike, and documents the “guts” we all need more of now. Apologies for the Image result for EC Comics judgement dayspoiler, but I think Whitted’s final words are the best summary of the book. In conclusion, she writes “EC opened up a space among the monsters and aliens for every reader to act as an accomplice in the struggle for civil rights and to demonstrate that even the most disposable ephemera of American popular culture can have a lasting impact” (136). If that doesn’t make you want to get into the classroom or attend the next conference, I’m not sure what will. After all, this is why we love popular culture and this is why we celebrate comics. Ultimately this excellent book is a wonderful legitimation of what we do.

 

*The final version of this will appear in Studies in Comics volume 10, no.1 published by Intellect

Captain Marvel: review + guide for the non-comic reader

*****one minor spoiler***** A shorter version can be found here.

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Captain Marvel has been a long time coming. Given the popularity and current box office dominance of superhero movies, as well as the widespread assumption that our society has achieved gender equality, it is sobering to think only one of the 48 Marvel-related films since Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 has had a woman in the lead role (the rather poor Elektra from 2005). Since the official Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man there have been no women-led films at all.

If we add to this the latest run of DC films that arguably started with Batman Begins in 2005 we have another 15 films only one of which, Wonder Woman, had a woman in the lead role. Even if we include Catwoman from 2004 that only gives us three films from a total of 65 over the course of 19 years. Interestingly, the fact that Captain Marvel is directed (extremely well, I might add) by Anna Boden also takes the total number of superhero films directed by women up to three. So, contrary to the ravings of one of our radio shock-jocks, this would suggest that “toxic feminism” is certainly not the problem.  Rather, it underlines how traditional gender bias that disenfranchises women remains a significant cultural stumbling block.

Image result for Kelly Sue Deconnick and Kelly thompsonOn this topic, the release of Captain Marvel is also highly anticipated because the character has come to epitomise the long struggle of women writers, artists, and fans to gain greater representation in the comics and the industry. Although there have been some amazing early trailblazers like Tarpé Mills, Dorothy Woolfolk, Marie Severin, and Trina Robbins amongst others, this has been a genre and an industry dominated by (white) men.

Although feminist engagement with and activism in this area has a long history, there has recently been a radical (although still not adequate) shift leading to a larger number of women writers, artists and lead characters. Often linked to the issue of “diversity” there has been an important and sustained challenge to the dominance of the straight white man’s worldview, and Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, has acted as a lightning rod for these concerns. The fact that her taking the title in 2012 also resulted in the creation of “The Carol Corps”, a group of dedicated fans and cosplayers (people who create and wear costumes of their favourite characters), speaks volumes about her status and the importance of the challenge currently taking place around this popular cultural form.

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That these changes have also been met by regressive and aggressive counter moves under the banner of #comicsgate, a manufactured scandal in which readers who identify as “Alt-right”—the new epithet for a collection of very old far-right chauvinisms—attack creators, editors, publishers and fans who they claim are ruining “their” comics says everything about what is at stake here. When the trailer for the film was first released the majority view of this small but vociferous constituency was along the lines of “Does this bitch ever smile?”, an issue that the film directly and knowingly engages.

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So who is Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel? This gets a little complicated, but it does take us into a fascinating piece of superhero history, so bear with me. The first superhero to carry the name Captain Marvel was not published by Marvel at all, but by Fawcett. He first appeared in 1940, but National Periodicals, later to become DC, claimed he was a rip off of their number 1 hero, Superman, and took Fawcett to court. After several years of litigation Fawcett conceded and promised to stop publishing Captain Marvel in 1953, while also paying out $400,000 in damages. In 1972 DC then took out a licence on the name but could only publish under the title “Shazam” (the magical incantation that gave Captain Marvel his powers) because Marvel Comics had cannily jumped in and taken out copyright on the name, quickly introducing their own Captain Marvel in 1967. The Shazammovie that premieres next month is therefore DC’s Captain Marvel movie!

Image result for captain marvel 1967It was in relation to Marvel’s version that Carol Danvers first appeared in 1968. She was an officer and a pilot in the US Air Force where she met the civilian alias of a Kree warrior called Mar-Vell. He had been assigned to monitor Earth by the alien Kree, but in contravention of his own government’s wishes he became Captain Marvel, Earth’s protector. Carol is severely injured in an accident with Kree technology and her DNA is fused with Mar-Vell’s. In the film this moment of Carol’s transformation is beautifully realised, and through a clever twist to the origin in the comic her “rebirth” plays a very important role in the film’s gender politics.

In the comics, it is not until she returns in 1977 that we find out the accident has given her superpowers in the form of the new hero Ms Marvel. A character shaped by second wave feminism—as suggested by the honorific—she demonstrates incredible feats of strength and courage, while in her civilian role as a woman’s magazine editor she replaces pages of recipes with articles on Kate Millet—famous for her book, Sexual Politics, written seven years earlier—much to the annoyance of J. Jonah Jameson the publication’s proprietor. What the film manages to do extremely well is mirror the struggle Carol faced in 1977 as she wrestled with her dual identity and came to terms with her newfound empowerment.

Like a lot of Marvel’s women characters she suffers a patchy publication history after that, and despite taking on a major role in The Avengers the character is marred by her alcoholism and writers who seemingly didn’t know what to do with her. The low point throughout this time undoubtedly being when she was raped in The Avengers#200 in 1980, an incident that was unacknowledged in the comic and only addressed after complaints from fans, with Carol Strickland’s essay “The Rape of Ms Marvel” being seminal in the movement to address the specific types of violence against women within the genre.

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In light of all of this, it was only right that when she was given the chance to become Captain Marvel in 2012 she seized the opportunity in a comic brilliantly written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (who gets her own moment to cameo in the film), with a costume redesign that took her out of her leotard and thigh-length leather boots and put her in a jumpsuit; and while Carol went onto become the “boss of space” her old title of Ms Marvel was passed on to a young Muslim girl called Kamala Khan who became the first Pakistani-American superhero in a comic that captures the best of Marvel’s push for greater representation.

Amazing_Spider-Man_Annual_Vol_1_16Carol, however, wasn’t the first woman to carry the Captain Marvel title. That honour went to an African-American woman called Monica Rambeau in 1982, who later went on to lead The Avengers in 1987. She returned the title to the Kree family in 1996 and has since taken on various codenames, but is now known as Spectrum. Here, the film does another superb job in acknowledging this part of the character’s history. Maria Rambeau, Monica’s mother, is written in as Carol’s best friend and Air Force buddy from before the accident. Once Carol begins to rediscover her past we also get to know the young Monica who is confident, intelligent and determined. She’s full of so much attitude that you just know she is going places. Given the time difference between this film, set in 1995, and the current timeframe of the MCU we might even see a grown up Monica in Avengers 4. God, I hope so!

Anyway, the film is brilliant. The narrative ebbs and flows through past and present gradually piecing the story together. There is plenty of twists and a whole lot of action, driven by a woman completely unapologetic about the power she has and who gradually discovers how to take it to its maximum. In the trailers, Carol was shown at various ages falling over and getting back up, and the scene in which this is all pulled together is the emotional and political heart of the movie. All her life she’s been told to no go so fast or not to climb so high. As a child and a young woman she always needed to prove she could, but in the end realises she doesn’t and never needed to prove herself to anyone. Captain Marvel in full flow is quite a sight, and Thanos had better watch out because she is going to kick one giant hole in his Malthusian butt.

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The signature Marvel humour is there as are the countless little Easter eggs for the comics fans. The film serves as Captain Marvel’s origin story, but it is also the origin story of Nick Fury to some extent, and in a fantastic final scene it rewrites the origin of The Avengers, with Carol Danvers as the first Avenger. A lot of men are going to have a hissy fit about that, but all I can say is “higher, further, faster”. Awesome stuff. I’ve already bought a ticket for tomorrow night and the night after!

On a side note, if you do want to try out the comics, now is a great time. A new Captain Marvelstory, written by the always-excellent Kelly Thompson, is only 2 issues old, and the first issue of a new era for The Magnificent Ms Marvel, written by Saladin Ahmed, is out next week.

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A primer for parents to impress your kids

a. Take a photo of this box with your phone

b. Commit to memory

c. Casually recount the following on the drive/bus ride to the cinema:

1.     The Original Captain Marvel was published in 1940 and was owned (eventually) by DC Comics

2.     He was renamed Shazam, so Shazam is another Captain Marvel film

3.     Marvel’s Captain Marvel was originally a Kree warrior called Mar-Vell created in 1967. He hung out with Drax, Gamora and Mantis from the GotG films, and he fought Thanos!

4.     This Captain Marvel is Carol Danvers who was originally Ms Marvel

5.     Ms Marvel is now a young Muslim girl called Kamala Khan, the first Pakistani-American superhero

6.     The first woman to be Captain Marvel was actually an African-American woman called Monica Rambeau in 1982. She also became leader of The Avengers in 1987. Monica is in the film, as is her mum, Maria, who is Carol’s bestie!

7.     Carol Danvers became Captain Marvel in 2012

 

Mockingbird #3 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk, 2016

Image result for Mockingbird #3This is a little belated, but I’ve recently been trying to think about the relationship between superheroes and myth, having become troubled by analyses found in Umberto Eco’s 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman” and Richard Reynolds’s book Superheroes: A Modern Mythology from 1992 that seem to still dominate current thinking on the issue. Both of them apply a concept of myth that is highly conservative and adds to the sense that the superhero genre is an inherently conservative, if not completely reactionary one, thereby hiding the role superheroes play in advocating social change.

We know, however, that if if myth does have a conservative function, in that it is used to bind and regulate a community, myth has to be able to adapt to changes if it is to maintain equilibrium in that community. This means that while myth might be eternal, or ever-present in human society, it is also historical, evolving and at an important level contestable.

So, myth is historical and flexible, but to really understand this adaptability–and to understand the relationship between superheroes, myth and the struggle currently currently taking place around the politics of representation–we need a more radical conception of it, one that is highly creative. Myth is effectively a sense-making process. It gives meaning to the objects, forces and relations we encounter around us. Myth explains these things and it turns them into meaningful whole we call our world. This world then gives us a place and a purpose within it. As soon as we stop circulating those myths or another group come along with different stories we are potentially threatened with losing what we know as our home and our place within it.

Related imageAt the heart of the politics of representation is a conflict over myth in this sense. The comics are beginning to tell different stories and are helping to realise–make real, substantiate and legitimise–a different world in which women, people of colour, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities have greater visibility and are given a voice. Unfortunately, however, there are people–gathered mostly around #Comicsgate–who believe they alone are entitled to the genre. As the stories and characters change, they also sense their own world and their place within it slipping away. This causes a great deal of anxiety, which is invariably projected outwards as violence.

You see, their sense of entitlement, their sense of supremacy, their claims over history, their views on sex, gender, and ethnicity all come from stories they have been told. If you tell the stories often enough they take on a sense of reality and naturalness. To change the story is then to de-realise a world and expose its fragility.

Image result for Incredible hercules secret war athenaIn The Incredible Hercules: Secret War Greg Pak offered a brilliant example of how myth substantiates a world and how that world can collapse if the myths are destroyed. Amid the Skrull invasion of Earth, Pak has Athena and Hercules visit the Council Elite of Earth’s Pantheons to inform them of Athena’s plan to slay the Skrull pantheon because, she says, “the dead cannot command their followers to conquer this planet”; and in this statement she shows the direct relation between our myths and the way they substantiate and legitimates a world. The symbols of the Skrull religion become the reason for the violence. Without them the reason is lost and the action comes to nought.

The amount of hate targeted at Chelsea Cain was precisely because in her short run on Mockingbird she literally went into “The Pantheon of the Bros” and knocked over as many of the idols as she could, and as they teetered and wobbled on their pedestals the men who depended on them to guarantee the truth of their entitlement and superiority felt their world and their sense of self melt away.

Image result for A-ForceAlthough Cain’s feminist message is light-hearted, it was indicative of what many took to be a seismic shift in superhero comics. Coming on the back of a number of stories such as Gail Simone’s Batgirl, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, and G. Willow Wilson and Marguerite Bennet’s A-Force that carried a clear feminist message, Cain’s Mockingbird showed zero respect for the icons of patriarchy and the myths that sustain them.

The first issue opens with Mockingbird, aka Bobbi Morse, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room along with Howard the Duck, Hercules and Tony Stark. As music plays—“What the world needs now is love, sweet love”—Bobbi reads a book entitled Organic Chemistry while Tony Stark reads a pamphlet on gonorrhoea. Both the choice of tune and the pamphlet’s subject matter immediately undermine the twin pillars of violence and virility so closely tied to male superheroes. When she sees the doctor she responds to the observation she has put on a pound in weight with a sarcastic comment about her brain growing because she read a book.

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In issue 2 she rescues her boyfriend Lance Hunter. Disguised as one of his captors, she is given the opportunity to torture him while he is tied up using a remote control that activates an electric collar around his neck. As she is handed the device she makes the comment “all men should have remotes”. Having saved him she then leaves him handcuffed to a bed in what was to be the prelude to sex, but she is called away. This image of the men in her life being left prone and helpless was no doubt a trigger for those who expect male superheroes to be active and in control. The fact that she treats Clint Barton in the same way later in the run only adds to the comic’s de-realisationof the dominant myth of masculinity.

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In Issue 3, the one that saw the run cancelled, she opens with a direct attack on the idea of merit by suggesting that superheroes, and by extension men, are regarded as special simply because of the privilege of being born male. Cain has Bobbi reminisce about wanting to be a superhero as a child but realised she was being unrealistic. “I could never be like my heroes”, she says. “They all had something I didn’t. A y-chromosome”. Criticism of the idea that men are dominant because they deserve to be has been an important feature of contemporary feminist language, and here was Chelsea Cain saying that all this heroism was nothing more than male privilege. If you’re going to take down the gods of the patriarchy, this is the All-Father.

On the next page, however, she points out that she did succeed, declaring: “No more sexism, no more racism. Female heroes are just as celebrated as their male counterparts. We won the war, ladies!” Before continuing: “Ha! Just kidding. It still sucks” (np). This is precision counter-mythological work. It directly targets the lazy, post-feminist idea that many men use to claim women are now equal. So, in the space of three issues she undermines male virility, activity, heroic violence, merit, and the excuse that enough has been done, but she is a long way from finished.

Issue 3 centres on the appearance of a twelve-year old girl called Rachel Oakley (wearing a “Girl Power” T-shirt) who acquired superpowers on the day she reached puberty, and being confused about these changes has put her friends in a life-threatening situation. At the scene is Dick Profit, a TV journalist more worried about his hair than doing his job, and numerous police officers baffled by the situation. On arrival, Mockingbird laments “how can we have a meaningful dialogue with adolescent girls when we live in a culture that still can’t talk about tampons?”.

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It goes without saying how important this is in relation to the mythic construction of gender. Not only does it signal the struggle over women’s reproductive rights it directly addresses the taboo around menstruation, which is a perfect example of the way myth orders a world through the designation of what is “unclean”, “polluted”, or “dirty”, as set out in Mary Douglas’s wonderful study Purity and Danger. Once more, Cain cuts to the mythological core of contemporary superhero politics, especially as that is organised around the subject of gender. This introduction of the taboo into the the world of superheroes is a significant threat to those who require superhero comics to support the gender hierarchy they avow.

As the issue progresses, Mockingbird undercuts the authority of the police captain on the scene by taking charge without invitation, and when she sits down to talk with the young girl she finds her singing “The Shuyler Sisters” from the Hamilton musical; a song about revolution, refusing “daddy’s” authority, and getting Tom Paine to include women in the sequel to Common Sense. From Mockingbird’s perspective, the young girl just needs someone to talk to, while for the men a menstruating twelve-year old girl is an unknown quantity.

As a perceived danger she immediately fits the role of the villain; a role she fills when she is startled by a helicopter carrying another reporter called John Warmflash. His desire to get pictures exceeds any concern for the girl’s (and her friends’) safety. Rachel panics and brings down the helicopter, killing Warmflash in the process. Seeing his colleague die, Dick Profit shouts that she can’t do this to the media, and then in the now familiar voice of male fragility, he calls out: “I will not be silenced. I will not be oppressed”.

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At this point, Rachel also kills Profit. She has the power to drain colour from things, which Mockingbird notes strips the red from blood cells, thereby causing death. This also has the peculiar effect of turning both Warmflash and Profit especially white. Although Mockingbird notes that “Danger has a colour … and it is red”, the first part of the phrase is placed next to the alabaster white face of Profit, perhaps in reference to the threat of white extremism in the US.

In the end, the issue finishes with another challenge. The final panel has Mockingbird standing in front of four young women wearing Ms Marvel, Thor (Jane Foster), Captain Marvel and Spider-Woman T-shirts in an image that is the inverse of the same panel on page 1 (see above) containing all the y-chromosome superheroes.

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In other issues (it ran to 8 after being cancelled after issue 3, which I believe should go down as one of the best in the history of the genre) Cain shows men ignorantly overruling decisions made by their partners, and raises the issues of both consent and sexual assault, while also showing she is completely in charge of the relationships with Lance and Clint, and is often unable to distinguish between them. The two men are also objectified by being continuously shown in a state of undress, most of the time only wearing their underpants.

Anyway, in the space of three issues, Cain had economically and directly worked every pressure point of fragile masculinity by challenging the myths that ordinarily makes it feel so much more robust. Sadly, we were not given the opportunity to read more and Marvel also cancelled her run on The Vision before a single issue had been printed. Clearly we are in the middle of a mythological struggle to bring a new world into being, and this is the best chance we’ll ever get of being superheroes ourselves.

Aquaman: Home is Calling

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For a long time I’d known that Aquaman was “Coming Soon”, and like the impending visit to the dentist to have a tooth pulled I knew I would have to go. My 14-year old boy was already excited, so it was inevitable. I could play King Canute and try to hold back the tide, but I knew that water would soon be lapping round my feet. Anyway, fast forward to the day we see it and I’m standing in line buying Kapiti Coast ice cream and a frozen Fanta and wishing this was the dentist because at least they do novocaine. I take my seat, a recliner that is just a bit more comfy than a dentist’s chair, my mind wonders to other recent DC/WB movies, and I wait for the pain.

Aside from Wonder Woman, everything that DC had done recently had either been very poor (Man of Steel; Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad) or simply awful (Justice League), so I had no reason for optimism, and yet by the time the film finished I wanted to jump straight back in. Don’t get me wrong, the film has its problems. The dialogue is a bit clunky, the moments of light comedy occasionally misfire, and the climax tends towards the cheesy, but I genuinely loved it.

Visually, it is stunning. Given the amount of CGI we consume today and the imaginative possibilities that technology affords on a regular basis, it is quite something when a film is jaw-droppingly good on that front. Just wait until the scene in the trench…; but it is also thematically coherent, centring around the connection between land and sea with a message that our obsession with nation and racial purity is wrong. With these pernicious ideologies currently in ascendence, this is a message I wholeheartedly endorse. There is a messy and supposedly impossible kinship at work in the film that is the source of the hero’s strength (the very definition of the hero in the film), and I applaud that (and FYI I did actually clap at the end).

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The only thematic element that got lost was the environmental issue that drove Orm Marius to declare war on the surface dwellers. It is strong early on, but is then forgotten about as we descend into the super-villain trope. While the film does well not to turn this into Justice League scale levels of evil tedium, the film could have done with holding onto the the righteous complaint of Orm Marius in order to give both the character and film greater complexity.

What truly surprised me, though, and what captivated me throughout the whole film was the presentation of Aquaman’s heritage. Half-Atlantean and half human, he is the son of Atlanna–Queen of Atlantis, played by Nicole Kidman–and Thomas Curry–played by Temuera Morrison. Morrison is a well known Māori actor, but what was so interesting was how Māori references are placed throughout the film identifying both Thomas Curry and therefore Arthur Curry (Aquaman) as Māori.

332-unique-maori-toki-pendantAquaman wears a pounamu (green stone) pendant or toki around his neck; when he meets his father he greets him with a hongi (a traditional nose-to-nose Māori greeting that acknowledges the breath of life); his fighting style is clearly influenced by mau rākau, the Māori martial art; and most surprising of all he actually speaks a line of te reo. Early in the film as he defeats a pirate in close combat he says “Anā tō kai”, which means “you deserve it” or “serves you right”. If I am mistaken here, please correct me. This line was met with an audible gasp from the young girl sat next to me and is testament to what hearing your language in a blockbuster superhero movie means.

The danger here, of course, is that Māori culture simply becomes the indigenous flavour of the month, the novel bit of exoticism that fills the giant corporation’s “diversity” quota. There were complaints when the lead actor, Jason Momoa, of Hawaiian decent with childhood connections to New Zealand, joined a haka for the film’s premiere. Māori are understandably aggrieved by their culture being used for spectacle and profit, or for it to be constantly linked to some warrior mind-set, and only giving the actor 30-minutes to prepare hardly suggests the event was upholding the sacredness of the dance. Yet the film did seem to treat the elements of Māori culture it used with a certain reverence, and the response of the young girl sat next to me says everything about how important representation is. The virtue of the use of Māori culture here is not for me to decide, of course, but sitting watching it in my adopted home of Aotearoa did feel significant.

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However, the director did miss a trick in not making more of the aforementioned environmental theme. The images of what happens when Atlantis dumps all the plastic we’ve thrown into the oceans back onto “our” beaches, as well as scenes of us butchering whales are powerful ones, and certainly add a sense of legitimate grievance to the Atlantians cause. Maintaining this theme and having Aquaman explicitly address the problem as part of his solution to the conflict would have certainly added to the representation of indigeneity and ensured the film took the much needed stance against the continuing colonial practices of the West. Sadly this was lacking and is probably the film’s major fault.

mera.jpgReturning to the positive, though, one other thing of note is the role of Mera. Amongst all the testosterone of Momoa’s performance and the insufferable rule that only a man can carry the most powerful Atlantean trident (a logic the film itself denies in proposing that a hero is needed, not a king per se), she stands out as the film’s lynchpin. Nothing would really happen in the film without her determination, courage, strength and decision-making. Her roof-top scene as she tries to escape Black Manta’s thugs is worth the ticket price on its own.

All in all, despite its faults, this was a great romp and a film that actually had something to say. It was something of an ode to the oceans that sustain us. We need to look after them.

 

 

 

 

Man-Eaters #1 by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk and Rachelle Rosenberg

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Occasionally events align in such a way that they offer a particularly powerful window into our world and seem to capture the Zeitgeist in an especially disturbing way. This is true of this week in Washington and the launch of Man-Easters #1, written and created by Chelsea Cain, with inks by Kate Niemczyk, colours by Rachelle Rosenberg, and letters by Joe Caramagna. The comic is both hilarious in its satirical take on gender politics,** but also deeply unsettling in its portrayal of society’s attitudes towards women and young girls who show any signs of not accepting the role assigned to them by conventional norms around femininity.

maneaters_issue1_page15-1The central theme of the comic, namely the politics around reproductive rights, is set up in the opening page where we see the young female protagonist, Maude, appropriately attired in a pink women’s march hat acting out a superhero story with two tampons, one of which she’s named Tampon Woman. The comic’s main story involves a mutation in the parasite toxoplasmosis–a variation known as Toxoplasmosis X–that lives in cat faeces and turns young girls into giant-size, wild cats that kill anyone they come across; and continuing the theme around reproduction, the mutation only takes effect during the onset of menstruation, so hormones blocking ovulation have been put in the water.

The artwork is strong and direct, requiring a few re-reads to spot all the wonderful references (including a lovely nod to another Image comic, Bitch Planet), and is arresting in its stark depiction of menstruation-based hate. The writing, as you’d expect, is sharp and to the point, and the story moves very quickly without ever losing the reader. Too often first issues fail to ignite, but this own explodes, cutting to the core of the millennia-old discrimination rooted in the simple issue that men can’t come to terms with the fact that women can give birth. So, the comic immediately gets to the very heart of a visceral fear about women’s bodies.

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In terms of the Zeitgeist, the comic came out shortly after news broke that Marvel had cancelled Chelsea Cain’s mini series on The Vision, just as they had cancelled her brilliant deconstruction of the genre in Mockingbird, but even more disturbing is that the comic came out in the same week that Christine Blasey Ford was forced to testify to a Senate Committee over allegations of sexual assault against SCOTUS nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Not only did the hearing look like something from The Handmaid’s Tale, but it wonderfully encapsulated the gender politics that Cain examines.

imageWhile Ford was expected to be quiet and controlled, helpful and respectful, despite being the alleged victim, Kavanaugh was allowed to shout, rage, interrupt, insult, attack and cry. Of course, if a woman had done any of this she would have lost credibility and been seen as hysterical, but Kavanaugh was applauded for his awful behaviour because, we’re told, it was the righteous indignation of a man falsely accused. Aside from this, however, what was at stake is the fact that a self-confessed sexual predator with a series of sexual assault accusations against him was supported by the Republican Party and is now President of the United States. This man then nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a man that three women have claimed sexually assaulted them, for a lifetime position on the US Supreme Court with the explicit task of taking control of women’s bodies by overturning Roe vs Wade as soon as he gets there.

So, this is the situation, and no doubt Cain will be criticised as some crazy, deluded feminist, and yet what went on in Washington this week is far worse than the nightmare Cain paints. She’s let us off lightly.

**For critical discussions of the essentialism and overt gender-binary at work in the comic, see this article by Jameson Hampton, and this article by Samatha Puc.

Graphic Bigotry: A Toon for the Times

RacistSWcartoon

When I first saw this cartoon on Twitter I retweeted it with the comment “Great cartoons reveal a truth. Bad cartoons impose a prejudice. This is a very bad cartoon”. I stand by that because this is truly awful: racist, lazy, simplistic and bigoted. I’d also stand by the claim that the best cartoons help us see something with clarity or make connections that crystallise a complex issue, making it immediately readable. What I need to correct in that original statement, though, is that bad cartoons can’t do that because this one clearly does. That truth, however, is not what the artist, Mark Knight, thinks it is. The truth presented here is of quite a different order, but it nevertheless expresses something we need to pay attention to because it takes us to the very heart of the dangerous times we live in.

There is a lot of material for a cartoonist in the events of the “controversial” US Open final, not least the way men and women are still expected to conform to different types of behaviour, even different codes of dress. It would have been interesting, for example, if a man had decided to wear a body suit at the French Open, and I’m still intrigued to know if Williams’s choice of a tutu for the US Open was a direct comment on the unspoken demand that she dress more like a lady (and not a Wakandan warrior). There was also the highly-charged matter of deducting her a game for calling the umpire a thief. Again, was this fair? Or was this related to the fact that the male umpire might have wanted to put a female player in her place? From all the accounts I’ve read there certainly seems to be some mileage in such a claim. Instead we get a crude exercise in what is now known as “misogynoir”; a particular brand of hostility directed at black women.

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So what is the truth here? What can we take from this truly bad piece of work. All it seems to say is that Serena Williams is a baby having a tantrum in order to get her own way, but it also clearly taps into the deep-rooted animosity to black people in white culture presenting her as a wild, raging ape. It obliterates the fact that she is one of the greatest athletes of all time. It entirely hides the work that a black woman needs to do to get to the top of tennis. It completely erases how hard she fought to survive childbirth and within a few months be back in Grand Slam finals. It completely denies the grace with which she spoke about her opponent at the end of the game. In other words, the cartoon is a work of idiocy, but it still shows us some truth.

The key to reading this image and getting at that truth is the erasure of the winner, Naomi Osaka. She is sort of in the picture, but also absent. Knight has rendered her hair fully blonde, when in reality it is black with bleached tips, and presents it in a very visible pony tail hanging over the back of her visor. Why has he done this? ra,unisex_tshirt,x2200,fafafa-ca443f4786,front-c,392,146,750,1000-bg,f8f8f8.u3The answer is actually quite straightforward. He did it because this is a cartoon coded as a comment about “white victimhood” that accidentally reveals the fragility of white privilege.

This is more than just crude dog-whistling, then, it is a carefully thought out and arranged scene with very specific visual cues for those who believe they are under attack. The text “Can you just let her win” also speaks to the racist belief that people of colour do not merit anything they claim to have earned. Instead, the argument goes, we (white people) have been forced to give them everything through the largesse of liberal elites, “PC” propaganda, and the twin dogmas of diversity and multiculturalism.

The cartoon was published in a right-wing newspaper that regularly spews xenophobic and racist commentary about non-white people. It’s primary target at the moment is Muslims and other non-white migrants. It is a newspaper that is right-wing in a country where the centre is already deeply racist and white supremacist, and where the First Peoples of that country were categorised as part of the country’s flora and fauna.*

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In recent years there has been significant advances made by women and people of colour that have pushed back against entrenched white male privilege. In this formulation, privilege simply means the unearned social advantages a person has simply by inhabiting a dominant social position. Serena Williams has rightly become an icon for the social and political aspirations of women of colour. It is therefore only logically that she be treated in a hostile manner by the forces for whom the image of black female excellence, success, autonomy, self-confidence and wealth is a threat.

So, this is an image that captures the white fear that gave us Donald Trump, a man, it can be argued, who also represents the last throes of a society premised on white privilege and white supremacy. This fear is the fuel that drove his campaign and jettisoned him into the White House. Knight interestingly also places the whitewashed Osaka next to the umpire, the symbol of law, civility and normality in order to exaggerate the dangerous, feral threat of black self-expression.

We can, in fact, take this further and say this is not an image of Serena Williams at all, but a projection of the cartoonist himself. In the end, the truth in this cartoon is the image of pathological, raging whiteness unable to deal with the legitimate demands of people of colour and women in particular, and if Donald Trump is seen as the solution to this challenge then we all seriously need some therapy.

This has since been picked up and published by Newsroom.

You might also be interested in my critique of Rod Liddle’s defence of Mark Knight.

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*Today I learned there is an attempt to dispel as a myth the idea that Aboriginal people were classified as flora and fauna. While it is true there was no Flora and Fauna Act, the mainstream media in Australia are using this to hide the fact that up until quite recently there were numerous examples of how Aborigines were thought in relation to flora and fauna (not least the Ministry of Aborigines and Fisheries of 1909, and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974 that oversaw Aboriginal cultural artefacts and heritage). What I also learned is that while Aboriginal people were given citizenship in 1949 they were not recognised as part of the human population of the country until 1967. So, what was their actual legal status prior to 1967? Were they just non-beings? Nothing?

I also saw this today on Twitter. Drawn by “Grace” @graveraves

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Also, this was the Herald Sun’s response the following day. No comprehension of the issues whatsoever.

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Finaly, we have Dave Pope’s brilliant response both to the cartoon and the Herald Sun’s doubling down on its racism.

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