Wonder Woman

Wonder

The good news is that Warner Brothers/DC have managed to make a good superhero film again! Yay! The last decent one was probably The Dark Knight, and before that Batman Returns, all the way back in 1992. Anyway, in short, this film is really good. For a start, and because we still live in Man’s World–the risk of a female director, the risk of a female lead–the pressure on this film was immense, and threatened future projects of its kind. In Man’s World, of course, men get the chance to make loads of shitty superhero movies, but women just get one shot, and Patty Jenkins took it, driving a sword through the black heart of patriarchy’s ill-will.

With so much riding on this film I was anxious, but this wasn’t simply because I wanted the film to work, it was because I believe Wonder Woman is such an extraordinary character and has so much to say today. This seems odd when talking about mythological figures from ancient Greece, but she was created as an icon for equality and women’s liberation. As a member of a marginalised tribe living in proximity to the Middle East and North Africa she also has the capacity to address questions of colonialism and subjugation. As a hero from an all-female society she has the potential to challenge dominant sexualities. As an Amazon devoted to a struggle against violence she epitomises an alternative politics that eschews the chauvinisms of race and nation. As someone committed to truth she is a potential antidote to our world of lies, deception and “alternative facts”.

Amazons

Early promotional images from the film (like the one above) were troubling in the apparent lack of diversity, and yet it seemed the issue of representation was absolutely central to the film. This is most clearly signalled when, aside from Diana’s narration, the first Amazon to speak is a black woman. From that point on, Jenkins’s direction suggests she is keen to show how diverse the Amazons are.

A more direct statement on this issue could have been made (and a stronger, more broadly intersectional politics could have been presented), but in numerous other parts of the film Jenkins’ camera can be seen to reveal hidden ethnicities, such as the many crowd scenes of British soldiers where she lingers on the faces of men drawn from across the British Empire to fight. The issue of representation is also evident in the rag-tag group of people that Steve Trevor puts together, which includes a war-traumatised Scotsman, a “homeless” Native American (who points out his people were all killed by Steve Trevor’s people), and a man named Samir, who explains to Diana how he really wants to be an actor, but his “skin is the wrong colour”.

WW gay1The film also touches on the topic of sexuality, and Diana’s (and Amazons’) lesbianism, during a brief and awkward exchange between her and Steve Trevor as they try to get some sleep on a boat. Diana’s sexual confidence is expressed when she explains to Steve that her sexual knowledge is derived from studying all twelve volumes of the Themscyrian treatise on sex, which concludes that men are essential for reproduction, but for the purposes of pleasure are near useless. This theme of female empowerment is also followed through to areas of work and public life. In numerous instances Diana challenges patriarchal norms that exclude women from public office or render them silent, and there is the lovely exchange with Etta where she likens her role as a secretary to slavery. The fact that Etta sees a kindred spirit in Diana, no matter how different they might appear to be, was the one thing I would have loved to see developed further, but let’s hope something along those lines can happen in the sequel. Unfortunately, the “realism” of the film might not afford the kind of fantasy in the comics that allowed her and Etta to travel through time or even inter-dimensionally, so Etta’s mortality might be a hindrance there.

Wonder-Woman-With-Shield

On the topic of women’s rights, though, the film did explain her appearance in the “wrong” war, so to speak. She was a World War II superhero, but here she is fighting in World War I, and yet the setting is perfect due to the struggle for women’s right to vote that was going on at the same time, and Etta on at least one occasion makes a direct reference to that fight. The war also provides THE image of the film as Diana fearlessly drives her way across “No-Man’s Land” (literally the place where men can’t go) to take down a German gun-post. Watching her alone in this space deflecting a barrage of bullets on her shield, I couldn’t help but think about what this would mean for the women in the audience, and just how amazing that scene would have been in a women-only viewing. The fight scene that follows is one of the best I’ve seen in a superhero film, and look out for the way the men support her in that fight by emulating Amazon battlefield tactics. If only men could be allies more often and not lose their shit because women occasionally want to hang out without them.

Hippolyte

So what’s the downside? Personally, I thought Gal Gadot was great in the role, but I couldn’t help but find it difficult to reconcile the performance with her now infamous Facebook celebration of the IDF when Israel was bombing the refugee camp also known as the Gaza Strip in 2014. Hence, when Wonder Woman complains about the killing of children, this dissonance was really unwelcome and disruptive. But that has nothing to do with the film itself. In relation to the film alone, the really disheartening, in fact the really maddening thing was the way Warner Brothers/DC appear to have locked in the dreadful Azzarello origin revision, that I have written about in another post, and which in the film sadly links Diana’s power to a paternal rather than maternal lineage. The film could have maintained fidelity to her proper origins quite easily. Being brought to life by a number of goddesses (especially when that included Athena) would easily have given her enough power to defeat Ares, and what a wonderful political statement that would have been, but it seems you still have to bend your knee to patriarchy in some way.

But let’s finish on a high note. This is a hero that believes in truth and love. Love is her mission, her goal, and truth (along with lots of awesome ass-kicking) is her method. As such the thrust of the film cuts through contemporary politics and offers us an alternative vision for our relations with each other. In the end Diana chooses empathy and compassion over revenge and retribution, which is why she’s still the best. x

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-wallpaper

The second volume of Guardians of the Galaxy had a lot to live up to. The first film was bright, brash and bold, primarily because it was the first comedy-science-fantasy-superhero film, and showed what might be possible in the transition of stories and characters from comics to film. Volume 2 continues with the 1980s nostalgia, and is full of references to old computer games like Asteroids and Pac-man, as well as a species of intergalactic aristocrats whose weaponry is piloted remotely with what look like old ride-on arcade games. There is talk of the inspirational David Hasselhoff, and a continuation of the ’80s soundtrack (Awesome Mix vol. 2), while other references include the kitsch aesthetics of Jeff Koons that seems to have influenced the models we see on the sentient planet Ego, but I’ll leave you to spot your own bit of ’80s memorabilia for yourself.

planet ego

Anyway, the film is a hoot. It is colourful, funny and a genuine tribute to the great storytelling and wonderful imagination that can be found in the pages of Marvel’s cosmic comics. There is the obligatory galaxy saving battle at the end, but all the while the film sticks to its mix of gags and drama and never lets itself slip into the dull spectacle of the endless fight scene that has spoiled other films. What I found so captivating about the film, then, was this ability it has to play as a non-stop comedy romp, yet also find space for genuine drama between Peter Quill and his father, who we find out is actually the planet Ego itself; Gamora and her sister; and in the relations between other characters. These include Drax and Mantis, Yondu and Rocket, and Yondu and Peter. For the comics aficionados there is also an interesting relationship played out between Yondu and a member of a version of the 31st century team, Stakar Ogord aka Starhawk.

Starhawk-Marvel-Comics-Guardians-Galaxy-Stakar-e

As a fun-filled space frolic, Guardians 2 is definitely a family film, but these varied relationships make this a family film in a very specific sense, and this is where I believe it contains a brilliantly timely and wonderfully positive message about kinship and affinity. The central theme is Peter finally coming face-to-face with his father, a Celestial, and therefore a god, who has formed himself into the sentient planet called Ego. In keeping with the early comic stories (the entity first appeared in Thor #132 in 1966) we find that this planet has discovered that its purpose is to extend itself across the entire universe. As the name suggests, Ego wants to see itself wherever it goes, and in this instance has recruited Peter, his “biological” child, to help in this endeavour. Throughout the film we are also continually reminded how this loose collection of bandits and cosmic wastrels that call themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy are also discovering they are family.

What is important, though, is the way the film continually returns to this explicit theme. The characters constantly talk about being family, where they come from and where they belong, as we discover each one of them has come from a broken family or endured a loss within it. There is Drax and his daughter; Garmora and Nebula (who have lost each other as sisters due to the tyranny and sadism of their father Thanos); Rocket who was made by a cruel scientist; and Yondu who was abandoned and abused. In this affinity Yondu finds “brotherhood” with Rocket, a scene that in my opinion is the very heart (and it’s a huge heart) of the film.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-Empire-Photo-of-Yondu-and-Rocket-Cropped

If we add to this the fact that Mantis was abandoned and adopted by Ego we can see how the relationships that Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim calls “elective affinities”, or the relations of kinship we choose, are privileged over biological progeny. Peter’s attachment to his dead mother remains a very prominent feature of the story, but it is the elective affinities and the way the characters effectively adopt each other that is so important here. When Ego engages in adoption, though, his tyrannical impulse results in Mantis becoming his slave, only to be helped to escape through an unlikely and bizarre (and funny, too) relationship with Drax.

Ultimately the characters all discover just how much they belong to each other and how much they are family. However, aside from Gamora and Nebula none of these relations are biological. In the end, what we have is a vision of Ego as tyrannical biological father looking to extend himself everywhere so that nothing exists but him. It is a vision of totalitarian politics based on identity and the exclusive vision that everything should be the same. Coming at a time when nationalism and fascism are on the rise, based on an exclusion of the “other” (foreigner, migrant, refugee, poor), this is not an accidental message. In contrast to this, we have the awesome mix of the Guardians, a bunch of messed up and lost people, all radically, racially different, who come together in support of those differences to offer us a vision of solidarity that is messy, mongrel and radically diverse. This central theme is reinforced by the role the Ravagers play in the film, another loose but tight affiliation of outcasts who are dear to Yondu, and whose coming together at the end shows the ultimate victory of our rag-tag collective. And although there are issues around the persistence of hetero-normativity in these films, I still believe this is important storytelling in our current political context.

One other recurring motif in the film is the way Baby Groot is passed around and lovingly protected by the team, each of whom have a chance to co-parent and cradle the little fella. So, you know, if Drax can look after Groot, I’m sure we can all do a lot better…

baby-groot-guardians

Logan and the American Monomyth

**********No real spoilers, but there is one big meta-narrative spoiler**********

logan-film-header-desktop-p-front-main-stage

Logan appeared in cinemas only yesterday, but I’m afraid I couldn’t wait to write this post. However, due to the fact few people will have had the chance to see it yet I will say very little about it, focusing only on a fascinating aspect of the narrative that I found incredibly exciting. The film is really good for lots of reasons (four out of five stars for me), but I’ll leave everyone else to talk about the details. Here, I just want to pick up on its direct and explicit engagement with what John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett call the “American monomyth” in their book The Myth of the American Superhero. I will try to avoid spoilers, but this is a meta-spoiler that I hope will only add to the enjoyment of a film that gets cinematic superhero stories back on track.

A central and persistent criticism of superheroes has been that they are conservative or right-wing fantasy figures acting out our revenge fantasies. In this respect they are often unfairly reduced to vigilantes operating outside the law. In keeping with this is a criticism they are anti-social. It is true that superheroes are often portrayed as outsiders and loners, but this ignores the regular appearance in teams and families, with these families often going well beyond what we usually think of as the nuclear family. This anti-social behaviour is also said to be evident in their vigilantism that supposedly by-passes the social institutions set up to try criminals and set legal precedents in the pursuit of justice. Wolverine, aka Logan, aka James Howlett is a very good example of this complex issue at work in the comics.

wolverine_marvel_universe_line_by_skage-d4ufnxl

On one level Wolverine ticks all the boxes of the left-wing critique of superheroes. He pursues individual acts of violent retribution on wrong doers without any oversight, and as such encapsulates the proto-fascist tendencies that Frederic Wertham had been writing about since the early 1950s. He was introduced in 1974 by Len Wein and Roy Thomas at a time when superheroes were beginning their so-called drift towards the dark side, exemplified, perhaps in The Punisher’s method of “intercession” who also appeared that year. Contrary to this, however, Wolverine stories, especially in the X-Men comics have been about his betterment within a team and a family and the social institution of Prof. Xavier’s School for the Gifted. In fact, it is quite easy to argue the message behind Wolverine is that social institutions and the relations that hold them together is the goal.

However, when superheroes are accused of being anti-social by Lawrence and Jewett they are referring to a very specific type of story-telling, one based in the epics of ancient Greece, but one that has been given a very specific American character in the great films that make up the genre of the Western. These films often involve a scenario in which society is shown to be decadent or in chaos, or collapsing beneath the law’s inability to contain violence. These “impotent communities” then require a heroic individual to ride into town, sort everything out in a moment of “redemptive violence” and leave again. The departure–the final shot of the hero riding off into the sunset–is a recurring trope and is key to the message that society is weak and somehow insufficient or unsatisfying for the true American hero, who according to Lawrence and Jewett eschews any “permanent social responsibility”.

9780802825735

Logan does, of course, fit this bill perfectly, and despite a number of relationships with team mates and a series of Japanese lovers, a central motif of Logan’s character is the difficulty he has with social and affective bonds. This is written into numerous story arcs in the comics and has become a defining feature of the character in the part of the Marvel/20C Fox Cinematic Universe. This is why it is so interesting that in this film a central scene, and one that unlocks the entire film, involves a seriously ill Professor Xavier watching and explaining the importance of the movie Shane to X-23, who Prof. Xavier has persuaded Logan to protect and transport to a safe haven for young mutants over the border in Canada. In the clip of Shane that we are party to we see the titular character making ready to leave town while a young boy called Joey cries and asks him why he has to go. Shane famously replies: “A man has to be what he is, Joey. You can’t break the mould. I tried it and it didn’t work for me”. Throughout Logan we are reminded of all the times Logan/Wolverine has tried to change and how many times he believes he has failed, or how many times he has tried to make a bond with someone only for him to lose that person. Logan is what he is, and nothing is going to change that.

shane-original1

And yet, at the end of the film when the scene between Shane and Joey is replayed, this time between Logan and X-23, the change does take place. Logan finally understands his place and the power of the social bond, and this is a social bond because while he might be X-23’s genetic father he has no obligation to her other than a pro-social one based on empathy, commonality and love. Over the course of the film, as he moves from mercenary to protector to adoptive father, Logan does understand, but unlike Shane he does break the mould. In this twist on the most classic of Western stories, Logan disrupts the monomyth and reveals the superhero desire to build a better world and share in that society. Despite what critics of superheroes have said, this has always been a cornerstone of X-Men comics in particular, but it is a desire that has been with us since a certain social justice warrior burst into our culture in 1938. This is a great film. Go and see it.

The Unstoppable Wasp #1 by Jeremy Whitley and Elsa Charretier

unstoppable_wasp_1_cover

I’ve had to interrupt what I’m doing to write this because I’m the most excited I’ve been for some time. That might be an indicator of the rather dull and sheltered life I lead, but hey, I’m an academic, so give me a break. Anyway, this is sort of a tale of two comics. I also read Hulk #1 today, and I have a related word or two to say on that, but first things first.

I’m a little suspicious of all the new #1s Marvel is currently putting out. It seems like everything’s a first issue. Even #7s are now packaged as #1s simply because they start a new arc. I seem to have developed an allergy that stops me buying them. Anyway, a new title starring The Wasp looked like it was worth a punt not least because this founding member of The Avengers has always had to take such a back seat while the boys talk most, if not all of the glory. However, this Wasp, it transpires, isn’t Janet Van Dyne (Pym), but a young woman called Nadia who–we find out when she visits the immigration office to apply for citizenship [Fuck you, Trump]–has no surname, but does know she is the daughter of Hank Pym, original Ant-Man and Avenger. Without giving away her back story, being something of a brilliant scientist herself, she was able to reproduce the technique that created the Pym particles and assume the role of The Wasp.

ant-man-and-the-wasp-profileI should also point out early on that the artwork by Elsa Charretier is excellent. The style speaks to the youth and naivety of Nadia. While also being a major contribution to the sheer fun and enjoyment of the comic the pages are very carefully crafted to keep the story moving at a perfect pace, while using some really good page layouts for both story-telling and action purposes. The costuming of the new Wasp is also a delightful nod towards the 1963 original (left). Aside from the art, the joy of the comic is also to be found in her friendship with Ms Marvel–suggesting she could at some stage become one of the new Champions–and their encounter with Mockingbird when they help her in a fight with Monica Rappaccini in a giant robot suit (an allusion to both Giant Man and Ultron, perhaps), a woman best known for stealing lots of experiments from Bruce Banner.

wasp2017001-int2-1

Nadia’s accidental meeting with Mockingbird then becomes the heart of the issue–and it is a very, very big heart–as Nadia discovers that Bobbi is actually one her heroes. After the injustice that was done to Mockingbird when Chelsea Cain’s incredible run was cancelled, this is a truly wonderful way for her to reappear, because Nadia cannot stop hugging her and telling Mockingbird how excited she is to meet one of her all-time favourite adventuring scientists. Bobbi is shown to be genuinely overcome by the recognition and respect shown to her by this young woman, and in turn inspires her to find more girl geniuses by explaining how much the existing S.H.I.E.L.D. list of the most intelligent people on the planet (that, of course, contains the name of Nadia’s father) is compiled by and dominated by men.

the-unstoppable-wasp-2017-001-2017-digital-018-e1483550854833-600x383the-unstoppable-wasp-2017-001-2017-digital-019-e1483550994591-600x343

Like many other current female-led titles it clearly has an avowedly feminist message. With a colleague, I have recently tried to write an article about the success third wave feminism has had in effecting change in the superhero genre, and this is another absolutely wonderful example. While the specific context of current feminist engagement with the superhero genre gives it a particular character, the idea of “waves” is, however, a problematic one because in reality current feminist practice is deeply indebted to and mindful of the past. This comic, then, encapsulates both the attitude of contemporary feminism while also drawing out the link between older characters (feminisms) and how those histories add support and legitimacy to the new heroes. As such, it is a wonderful illustration of the way the continuity of feminist struggle is portrayed in so many of these comics, which leads me on to the first issue of the new Hulk title in which Jennifer Waters has pretty inexplicably lost her “She”. “Shulky” is sadly no more.

Recovering from her near death experience at the hands of Thanos in Civil War II she has lost the ability to control her body and no longer confidently carries her “monstrosity” in public. This was an incredibly important aspect of She-Hulk’s development. The fact that she was proud of who she was and actually chose to present her true identity rather than try to hide it because of what others might think, was a fantastic example of how empowering superheroes can be for others deemed different or “abnormal”. In this comic she is traumatised, and although she is not a broken woman, like the original Hulk (disposed of in that same story) she now struggles to control the raging thing inside her, which consequently appears to need holding back, hiding and repressing. In recent years, Dan Slott presented She-Hulk as a woman totally aligned with who she is (even if those around her didn’t like it). Charles Soule’s run also gave us the confident and collegial, even at times camp She-Hulk (with all the potential she has for deforming expected gender performance), while the A-Force title variously penned by DeConnick, Wilson and Thompson presented her as an amazing mother figure who focussed and directed the strength of all the younger members of the team, Nico and Singularity in particular. She-Hulk has been immense, but this has all been taken away.

hulk_1_preview_3

So, while this is an intriguing study of a woman who has survived a violent assault, and reminded me of Gail Simone’s treatment of Barbara Gordon under the umbrella of the New 52, what troubles me most about this is that Marvel yet again put an incredibly strong female character through a serious case of fridging just because they want her to replace a character they’ve killed off, presumably for no better reason than some men fighting over film licences. The positive thing, however, is that Mariko Tamaki is clearly a good writer. The comic is full of suspense and the fragility of Jennifer’s recovery is handled very well, and will no doubt speak to lots of readers who are themselves trying to deal with a traumatic experience. Aside from a minor error in continuity involving the height of a mirror, the artwork is also pretty good, as you can see from the page on the right. I’m also confident that Tamaki’s qualities as a writer enable her to dig herself out of the hole that Marvel have put her in, so this is probably one to watch.

On the subject of The Unstoppable Wasp, though, just go out, buy it and revel in the sheer delight of its totally positive message. This is a comic that every parent should read to every child, and if you’re a dad with a daughter that counts double for you!

Suicide Squad (the movie)

SuicideSquad

It is miserable, and ultimately pointless. Don’t go.

Moment of social note: Deadshot tells Rick Flag he’s not talking to him, but his boss, Amanda Waller, so nice critique of white privilege.

Moment of aesthetic note: The Joker and Harley in a vat of acid. Nice swirly reds and blues.

The end

Suicide_Squad_(film)_Poster

 

Hydra Cap and the Problem of Privilege

Some thoughts on Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 by Nick Spencer & Jesus Saiz

When Nick Spencer took over the writing of Captain America, with Sam Wilson: Captain America #1, he gave Sam Wilson a definitive and clear identity as the new Cap, something that had been missing until that point. Sam Wilson’s background as a social worker from Harlem lent itself to a hero that would empathise with and defend migrants, which also offered the opportunity for Spencer to directly critique the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump. Over the course of the first arc the comic developed into a sustained engagement with racism, white supremacism and eugenics (a discussion of issue 1 and what Steve Rogers’s Cap meant to me is here – https://multiframe.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/who-is-captain-america/). I loved this new Cap and was troubled to here that Steve Rogers was to be brought back. What better stand could be made against racism and white supremacism, and what better homage to the creators of the character on the 75th anniversary than having a black Captain America as the only Cap? But that wasn’t to be.

4691332-sam_wilson_captain_america_hip-hop_variant_1280

Consequently I picked up Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 with some reluctance. I have always loved Steve Rogers, but I thought it really was time to pass on the shield. That said, I’m very glad I did pick up what I think is a brave & bold, albeit problematic comic. Given the themes of the Sam Wilson story the image of Steve Rogers pledging allegiance to Hydra seemed logical, almost natural. As I’ve said, Spencer was already working on the themes of racism, white supremacism and eugenics, but he clearly wanted to make a much starker statement about the current condition of America. Let us not kid ourselves, over the course of the US primaries a businessman has used the fascist rhetoric of racism and white supremacism to place himself one step away from the White House. I won’t go into a discussion of Trump’s brand of fascism now (I have discussed it here – https://discrepancie.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-comfort-of-hate-and-the-fascistic-turn/), but the language of violence, discrimination, prejudice, and hate fits very easily with that politics.

So what are we to do? Should we continue to portray fascism as something external and alien to the US that Cap has to take down or are we going to face the fact that fascism has arrived at the very heart of the US body politic? What is so brave about the comic is that Spencer chose to address this, rather than shy away from it. In Sam Wilson: Captain America, the bad guys are “over there” still. In Steve Rogers: Captain America Spencer is saying “the fascists are here. The US itself is harbouring fascism. Look!” This is why, when I read the comic on Wednesday I put out this adaptation of that infamous panel with the tag “If it’s #SayNoToHydraCap it has to be #SayNoToFascistTrump”. Hydra Cap is an allegory for the fascism that resides within US society. It is no longer the foreign bogeyman. Fascism now wears a spray tan and a red baseball cap saying “Make America Great Again”. Fascism now says “I’m gonna build a wall” in response to every question asked, and shouts “Look at my African-American over here!” while campaigning for the most powerful office on the planet.

cap

Despite the aftermath I am sticking with this interpretation because it must no longer be denied. We cannot pretend it isn’t happening. But certain things followed amongst the impassioned responses that are also extremely important and mustn’t be overlooked. The day after I posted this I began seeing accusations of anti-semitism against Marvel & Nick Spencer. The charge of corporate cynicism isn’t hard to make stick, but I think it is more difficult to make against Spencer. At the time, my response was frustration, and, to be honest, I was also angry. I felt the accusation was simply shutting down what to me was clearly a critical engagement with fascism, and as such it seemed self-defeating and contradictory.

The charge kept coming, however. It grew to such an extent that by Friday, I believe, even the US Holocaust Museum was receiving donations via #SayNoToHydraCap. The argument was that Cap’s change of allegiance was an affront to the Jewish creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had created the character to fight Nazism and it was a terrible betrayal of all the Jews that died during the Final Solution. It appeared to be a slight, a trivialisation of the greatest horror. To me, this was rather what Spencer thought he was defending. Captain America as a comic was still fighting fascism, as far as I could see. Fascism doesn’t arise as a fully formed movement, but begins with the legitimation of low level acts of violence and persecution; precisely the sort of politics that Trump represents. In my reading, Spencer was trying to address the nascent fascism that Trump is channelling, and in that he was doing incredibly important work.

msmarveldonaldtrump-162564

By Matt Stefani, http://comicbook.com/2015/12/12/artist-recreates-captain-america-punching-hitler-with-ms-marvel-/

On the subject of anti-semitism it was the tweets of one woman that most affected me. I didn’t understand them at first, but I made myself look at what she was saying and eventually came to understand that my reading of Steve Rogers: Captain America was a privileged one. Twitter has been very good at teaching me about privilege and here was another example. When a creator posted a flippant tweet about what Steve Rogers would be shown doing in the next issue she tagged him into numerous pictures of holocaust victims to try and get him to understand that the pictures related to real events that affected her family in real life. Indeed, how could you be flippant or joke about what Cap might be shown doing next? It was wrong, and it became very evident how taking this subject lightly quite easily descends into a lack of respect that verges on racism. Or, indeed how flippancy is potentially just another form of racism.

Her tweets were angry, visceral and moving. My frustration about the charge of anti-semitism was now irrelevant. It became painfully clear that I can make the reading I have offered here because I do not have a family history drenched in persecution and mass murder. I am not part of an ethnic group whose maltreatment and violation goes back millennia in the history of Europe. I am not of an ethnic group where a family in 2016 can talk about its missing members who were brutalised, tortured, dehumanised and then erased only a couple of generations back. I am privileged to be able to read the comic the way I do. Thanks to her I slowly understood what the complaint was about. It is imperative to remember the suffering and the crime, and that it started with small gestures like ethnic registration and the marking of groups as different.

wwII-star-of-david-couple

There then followed the “fandom is broken” article which added nothing to the discussion apart from more anger. From the arguments that ensued I took away the idea that no creator should be beholden to “common sense” or dictated to by popular tastes, but no artist can hide behind some transcendent idea of art as an excuse for insulting people or encouraging race hate. Initially, for me, the article was evidence that #SayNoToHydraCap was a seriously flawed campaign. The article carried a letter that didn’t just threaten Spencer but actually promised to kill him. It seemed outrageous. femfreqBut quickly this became another education in privilege, one that I am getting better at recognising, but of which I still need reminding. It was quickly commented upon that women receive these kinds of threats all of the time. Constantly. Perpetually. Here was a threat against a male creator and there is outrage and condemnation, but threats of violence, rape and murder against female fans and critics that happen thousands of time a day across a range of popular culture platforms are not noteworthy. They are unremarkable. Why is that? More privilege. More lack of thought. More lack of care on my part.

Unfortunately, though, there remains a lot more privilege to unpack in the story of Hydra Cap and the responses to it. Doubly unfortunate is the fact that I’m not the person to do it. I would, however, like to raise some questions that I hope I will get some answers to. The first, of course is Captain America’s whiteness. Although Cap’s biography tells us he’s from an Irish immigrant family–as if every white person in the US is not an immigrant!!–he is remarkably Aryan looking: the white skin, the blonde hair, the blue eyes. Also, and this is something of an aside, if we are to interrogate fascism seriously we have to seriously consider our fascination with the ideology of eugenics such that even two Jewish creators trying to resist Nazism are still drawn to the language of the “unfit” and the “weakling” as if it is a disease that needs “innoculation”. My point is that Cap’s whiteness is certainly a form of privilege. Perhaps, and this is beyond my knowledge, a white Captain America has always represented something akin to Hydra for members of black communities in the US. I would imagine, and this need not be wild speculation, that a white man being held up as an avatar for the essential goodness of American society is even more problematic for Native Americans. I know that when Kirby wrote his bi-centennial battles he included a story in which Cap and Geronimo saw they shared the same spirit, but very clearly they don’t. This representation of sameness arises from the incredible privilege that enables and advances the erasure of white colonial history and the founding of the USA in the dual acts of revolution and genocide.

CapGeronimo copy

Another aspect of privilege that needs unpacking is one that assumes a continuity between the good that Captain America defended in World War II and the good that he continues to defend today. This is related to the complaint that making Cap a bad guy completely destroys the character, but again, if we are talking perspective and point of view, if we’re talking personal history as means for talking about privilege then we have to understand just how privileged this unblemished view of Captain America is. I have always argued he is the antithesis of the zealous, right-wing patriot. Any sustained analysis of the comics supports this, and yet this does not prevent Captain America being used by or inspiring people who are. Something I had to come to terms with in the wake of the Hydra Cap issue, and something that became abundantly clear from the responses I got to the altered panel I posted, was that he remains an icon for American militarism and American empire.

I write from the political left, and in my writing on Captain America I have worked against left-wing criticisms that the ideological role of Captain America is to provide a veil of virtue for America’s military-economic ambition. I kept arguing that the comics do something else. Cap is a liberal, a New Deal democrat often at odds with US foreign policy, but the unadulterated celebration of Captain America as absolutely good and by association America itself as incontestably right was very disturbing, because only by separating out the ideological work done by Captain America in support of numerous unjust and often catastrophic US military adventures can his name be kept clean. Only by denying the link between such comic book heroes and the violence in both the idea and practice of US manifest destiny can we really keep the image of Captain America pure. And doesn’t such a defence of a sacred political icon itself raise a whole set of other issues about the nature of whiteness and nationalism in America?

I suddenly felt I couldn’t wear my Cap t-shirt anymore, not because he’s now Hydra, but because he really is a lightning road for blind nationalism. No matter what the comics do to show he is NOT a nationalist nut job, he remains available for advocates of the creed, and this is dispiriting.

Trump-Is-America

Let’s also imagine for a moment that we’ve been on the receiving end of a US politico-military intervention, that we’ve received America’s boot or the butt of its gun. Wouldn’t Captain America have looked a lot like Hydra then? Hasn’t Captain America existed for a long time as an avatar for a violent, militaristic cult if you live in parts of Central or South America, or certain countries in the Middle East? Looking back through history, the US has been responsible for the instigation of extraordinary levels of destabilization and violence. From the coup it arranged in Iran in 1953 that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a dictator, to the coup it organised in Chile in 1973 that ousted a democratically elected government and installed a dictator. From Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq to Saudi Arabia, America has sponsored or personally delivered brutality, mayhem and death. It is unpalatable, but it is true. It remains invisible to us only because we’ve had the privilege of not living under Manuel Noriega or Augusto Pinochet or Mohammed Reza Pahlavi or Saddam Hussein. Perhaps I, in turn, will be accused of anti-Americanism, but I am simply making the point that if one places oneself as an Afghani or Iraqi it is not difficult to see Captain America as an avatar for something very dark indeed.

Capt Iraq war crimes

Artwork by Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff

Anyway, in light of all this I still maintain that the comic is doing important work interrogating the violence that rests at the heart of the US. If Marvel and Nick Spencer can reflect on how they could have done things differently so as to not cause so much justified pain amongst Jewish readers, this will also be of great service. In the end, though, the comic demonstrates what remains great about America such that its popular culture is able to produce intelligent critiques of its own flirtation with fascism, to which, come November, I am sure the country will deliver a resounding no!

 

 

 

Wonder Woman: Earth One

Wonder Woman: Earth One by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette and Nathan Fairbairn

**********This review contains a number of SPOILERS**********

WWE1 cover

Over recent years I have developed a growing interest in Wonder Woman. This is in part due to a fantastic essay by Ben Saunders in his very good book Do the Gods Wear Capes? in which he carefully explains how Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, filled the pages of his comic with his own psychological theories of the role human desire plays in human society and politics. As an advocate of First Wave feminism, Marston believed that men were brought up to take pleasure from domination, which explained much of the violence that takes place in a world run by men. To counter this, women, whom he argued had been brought up to take pleasure in both domination and submission had an important role to play in countering male aggression and the sadism that accompanied it. Wonder Woman epitomised what Marston called “love leaders” that would change the world through the promotion of loving submission. In all my reading of superhero comics I have yet to find a more radical mission both in terms of imaginative scope and social dissent.

The cover of Wonder Woman: Earth One is consequently a clear statement that Morrison wanted to go back to the politics of bondage that plays such an important role in Marston’s creation. This theme of bondage, however, is not simply about the dangers and liberating potential of sexual desire, Marston also used it to clearly signify Wonder Woman’s kinship with the women of the suffrage movement and First Wave feminism more broadly. He knew the important suffragist cartoonist Lou Rogers whose iconic drawing of a woman breaking her chains (above) is essential to Wonder Woman’s iconography. This can be seen in the wonderful homage to that drawing by the original Wonder Woman artist, H. G. Peter (also above). This, then, immediately raises the interesting question as to how this imagery would play out at a time when feminism has refigured itself into a complex politics often referred to as its Third Wave and when representations of women have rightly become a point of significant mobilization within and around the comics industry (and the superhero genre in particular) known for its male privilege and misogyny. Although I have yet to read any reviews of this book it will be interesting to see how the reception of it compares to the run by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. In that book, which was perhaps the best visual treatment of Wonder Woman yet (at least it is my favourite) the erasure of her origin story and the reassertion of the primacy of the patriach (Zeus was made her father) seem to have been overlooked in favour of the “ballsy”, independent and strong portrayal offered by Azzarello. It is interesting then to place this story that clearly signals its feminist themes from the start alongside Azzarello’s explicitly post-feminist work in which the transformative nature of Wonder Woman’s mission is removed.

WWE1 Herc rape

The opening page of the book clearly sets out the difficult task that Morrison has set for himself and the even more difficult task he has set for Paquette. Overall, Paquette’s artwork is very effective. His page layouts significantly add to the dynamism of the comic as well as to its narrative layering, and his drawing of Wonder Woman in particular offers us a very strong picture of Diana that is very much in keeping with some of the best artwork the title has seen. It also draws heavily on the iconic work of George Pérez whose vision of Wonder Woman is clearly a strong influence on Paquette. Pérez’s 1987 relaunch is also central to Morrison’s vision as this first page attests. The centrality of Hercules’s rape of Hippolyta in that retelling is given centre stage here. Paquette also visually links this interpretation to the original Greek myth in which Hercules’s theft of Hippolyta’s girdle has always been seen as a euphemism for sexual assault and the enslavement of the Amazons that resulted from her “defeat”. Morrison’s attempt to render Marston’s original erotic politics, however, does lead to some problems with the representations of the Amazons. They are often drawn as highly sexualised characters, although this is explicitly done in scenes that exaggerate the homosociality and homosexuality of the Amazons. Morrison is adamant that women living in an all female society would be lesbians and suggests that over a longer run he would have done some very interesting writing around the strong relationship he sets up between Diana and her lover, Mala. This sexualization, however, does turn up on other pages where it seems less appropriate. Most notable on page 4 where one of Hercules’s many violations of Hippolyte suffers from this stylization. Although Hippolyta is shown clearly resisting there remains an uncomfortable feeling that this still satisfies the male gaze.

WWE1 supplication

This sexaulization can also be found in the early scene where Wonder Woman is brought back from Man’s World to Paradise Island to face charges of defying Amazonian law. The bondage is clearly in evidence here and Diana is perhaps rendered too much in the pouting style of glamour photography, but, as I’ve already noted, Morrison is attempting to channel the erotic politics of bondage and masochism that Marston believed absolutely crucial for the social transformation of the world. It is also an echo of the eroticization evident in Rucka’s treatment of ritual supplication in his wonderful Hiketeia story, but it is nevertheless testament to the difficulty of trying to recover Marston’s politics in an age that has rightly become resistant to and justifiably sensitive about this form of sexualization. It should be noted, however, that this affinity to the sexuality of Marston’s early comics does produce some fantastic moments where the original Amazonian eroticism is referenced, as in the scene where Diana watches over a ritual in which some of her sisters are dressed up as deer, hunted down, strung up and stripped. This is a scene that first appeared in Wonder Woman #3, in February 1943.

banquet0001

In terms of Diana’s own sexuality, I also like the fact that Morrison at no time suggests Diana has any interest in Steve Trevor aside from her innate curiosity as to what lies beyond Paradise Island or what the fabled man’s World is actually like. Morrison introduces a black Steve Trevor that Diana saves from certain death or even brings back to life. Aside from the strange panel where Diana seems to grab Trevor’s penis to confirm he is a man–a seemingly needless image that only problematises the theme of sexual assault in way that really didn’t need problematising–this relation is used to reiterate some absolutely central themes in the Wonder Woman mythos. In the first place the Amazons are scientifically advanced beyond anything Man’s World is capable of. WWE1 ThemiscyraAs I’ve already noted, this science gives them techno-medicinal powers over life and death, and in this Morrison is repeating one of the most important inversions of Amazonian powers, namely their power to create life. Hippolyta had that power in Marston’s origin story and Wonder Woman has that power here. As Lillian Robinson noted in Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes this overturned the millenia-old biblical myth that the giver of life was God the Father. The introduction of Trevor also precipitates the iconic scene in which Wonder Woman carries him, something that no doubt shocked readers in the early 1940s, but it also sets up the important theme of Diana’s defiance. Unlike male superheroes who unproblematically assume their mantle as heroes, Diana had to fight for the right to be one, and therefore registers a very important aspect in women’s political struggle for recognition.

WWE1 lionThis resistance, however, takes a very curious form. Not only does Diana have to disobey her mother to enter the competition to return Steve Trevor to Man’s World, her defiance is signified by her taking and wearing the lion’s head that Hippolyta took from Hercules when she freed the Amazons from his tyranny. The lion skin is, of course, a mark of Hercules’s strength and virility and a trophy from one of his labours. Hippolyta’s possession of it is the equivalent of his taking of her girdle, except from the fact that where the girdle was taken in an act of sadistic domination Hippolyta took the lion skin in a founding act of liberation. Nevertheless, Diana donning ‘the mask of the oppressor’ does introduce the central innovation of Morrison’s story, specifically his own attempt to rework her origin that he has always said he found unsatisfactory. After Azzarello’s awful erasure of Diana’s matriarchal heritage I have become allergic to retconning her origins, and yet this is the part of the book that moves beyond some of the limitations brought about by Morrison’s attempt to be true to Amazonian erotics and transcends the artful homage of a masterful student of the superhero genre to offer us something that is genuinely new.

WWE1 origin SimoneMarston’s origin story in which Hippolyta creates Diana from clay (repeated in numerous runs including Gail Simone’s, right) is essential to the matriarchal mythos of Wonder Woman and Paradise Island, and is therefore a central component in the character’s feminism. The importance of this origin is even more clear when we remember that Marston’s lover, Olive Byrne, who lived with him and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Here, the politics of reproductive rights forms the second explicit thread of First Wave feminism in Wonder Woman. Viewed from this perspective Hippolyta’s autonomous, independent decision to have a child, a process over which she has near total control speaks to the something absolutely central to women’s ongoing struggle to reassert agency in relation to their bodies and their lives. I won’t dwell on how Azzarello dismantled this. I don’t think it is worth any more ink, but I’m pleased to say that Morrison is absolutely true to Marston’s original advocacy. Despite offering a new origin and, like Azzarello, introducing a father, at no point does Hippolyta let go of her power over the situation. Unlike in Azzarello’s run in which…oh, honestly, I can’t bear to go over it again (see the post from a while back below). Anyway, Diana’s birth is no accident. At the end of the story Morrison revives an idea first presented by William Messner-Loebs in his run, namely that Hercules is Diana’s father. That story went nowhere in the end, but this one might. Once agin demonstrating Amazonian advances in science, Hippolyta created Diana, ex utero, by taking an egg from her womb and fertilizing it with the seed of Hercules, a process in which he had no consent. Hyppolita’s revenge was to ensure Hercules line would yield no sons, only daughters, Amazons that would subdue and conquer Man’s World. Hippolyta openly admits she created Diana as a weapon, but that Diana’s own character has made her so much more. Diana remains the result of Hippolyta’s complete control of reproduction, but Amazonian culture has made her more than the weapon her mother wanted to create.

In many respects, problems emerge again around gender politics here, especially with the use of the old trope of the vengeful woman, and yet it does maintain a cornerstone of Marston’s original feminism that Morrison has attempted to make relevant for contemporary readers. Diana in the end becomes a powerful mix of her mother’s battle to fight against subjection and her own ability to transcend the context of her creation. In this, Morrison has offered a thoughtful retelling of the myth and plenty of material for future writers to work with should this be taken up as the established origin. Anyway, I’ll leave you with one of Paquette’s wonderful images of an important ongoing struggle.

WWE1 chains

My post on Azzarello’s change of origin is hear:

https://multiframe.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/why-wonder-woman-being-made-the-duaghter-of-zeus-is-a-shit-idea/

A shot post on the awful Finch and Finch run that followed is here:

https://multiframe.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/wonder-woman-annual-1-by-meredith-and-david-finch/