[Interview] Austin Grossman and ‘Soon I Will Be Invincible’.

I interviewed Austin Grossman, author of the critically acclaimed original superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible and graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in early June 2007. Then I got RSI and moved across the Pacific, which is why you’re getting this in August.
My review of the book is listed here; the forum thread regarding it, to which Austin contributed, is here.
KH: So, speaking of superheroes before we talk about the book, who’s your favourite hero? Your favourite villain?
AG: My canonical favourite superhero is Batman. There are a lot newer and flashier heroes but Batman just encapsulates the obsessiveness of superhero life. His origin is constantly recapitulated and he really doesn’t have anything going for him other than his origin and its obsessive force. So yeah, I’m a Batman guy. And his romantic tension with Catwoman is for me the greatest romance [in comics]
Favourite supervillain? I ought to be able to answer that properly! I learned the rhetorical style of supervillainy from Doctor Doom, and he’s really terrific, although I feel like we never really get enough of his internal life. I think we’re a little locked off from [him]. [thoughtful noises] I wish there was a perfect supervillian that I liked. Lex Luthor… I quite like Lex Luthor. I know you’re trying to give me a softball here but really, I got nothin’.
KH: In the publicity information, you mention that you think the angst and drama of superhero comics always comes from the villains; that they are the real figures of interest in a superhero story. I found that really interesting, because I rather despised Doctor Impossible, and loved Fatale. What is that appeals to you in Doctor Impossible?
AG: Well, Doctor Impossible kind of encapsulates this [idea] that villains are so generative, they’re so inventive, there’s so much energy that goes into their creations. They’re the ones who kind of plot a lot of superhero comics. They author what happens. I mean, the villains have set it up. They’re the ones who have to do their homework about what’s going to happen in the next issue.
Villains are figures of thwarted ambition, thwarted passion, thwarted love. There’s just no way I could help gravitating towards their position.
And it’s so elective. They’re people who ought to be Olympic athletes, Nobel prize-winning scientists. They really don’t have to be doing what they’re doing. There’s something so perversely driven and willed about what they’re doing. I find them endlessly fascinating.
KH: Fatale was not exactly an afterthought, but a second thought. Where did she come from?
AG: There was another voice. I mean, at the beginning I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel at all. I was messing around. But there was another voice and another situation going on that I was taking notes on that clearly weren’t [Doctor Impossible]. That’s what developed into Fatale.
I really, really like Fatale. Some reviews don’t even mention her, which makes me very, very sad.
Fatale’s so numb, so traumatised, so not at home in her body, someone who’s not really at home in this war between superheroes and supervillains, someone who has to figure out a place there. Whereas Doctor Impossible seems so naturally placed in the genre. Fatale’s so aware of her body and other people’s bodies, and has a larger range of things to think about and deal with.
There’s clearly something so hermetic about Doctor Impossible that I couldn’t make a whole book about him. There has to be someone open to the world outside, who was walking around and met people,
So yeah, I have a ton of interest in Fatale. Most of the second half of actually writing the book was about [her].
KH: The deconstruction and reconstruction or enhancement of the body is a huge theme in Soon I Will Be Invincible. Doctor Impossible mentions that there’s a price paid for powers, and that price is housed in the body it’s visible within a few steps if you know what to look for. Many of these people are broken in some way or another, relying on drug regiments or painkillers. That’s unusual in superhero fiction, where old injuries usually only turn up for plot-convenience. Why this focus on the body and the price paid in Soon I Will Be Invincible?
AG: One of the things that emerged from the experiment of writing about superheroes in prose instead of in pictures was a much closer description of what it was like to inhabit a superpowered body. It led me to thinking a great deal about how violently altered the normal body is for a superhero.
It seemed to me that in a lot of superhero comics people’s powers are kind of stand-ins for their personalities, or what they have instead of a personality, or extensions of their personalities. It’s probably the graduate student coming out in me, but I see superpowers as a kind of symptom on the body, of some kind of personal bind or situation. The canonical example of this is Rogue, you know, the way her superpower is so distorting for her personality.
It extended to what I think of as the larger theme of superhero life as trauma and recovery from trauma; the way superpowers arise in trauma to the body that one never quite gets over. The trauma impresses itself onto the body but also leads to a hyperfunctioning of the body.
It seemed to me to be a really rich way of talking about how everybody has bodies, and everybody has trauma. The way people hold their bodies or use their bodies , just in conversation or in walking down the street, are deeply symptomatic or deeply related to some kind of origin or personal narrative or physical experience that they’ve had at some point.
It seems like the trauma element gets glossed over a little bit in superhero comics; it gets glossed over even though it’s the motivating, defining attribute of the superhero. I guess it’s kind of the hopeful element of superhero comics; the idea of the trauma that shapes you is not just pain; it’s also the thing that makes you special or makes you superable, superenhanced.
For Fatale it’s trickier with some people she has a harder time with that trauma. And the subject of her story arc is coming to terms with that.
KH: Actually, that’s my next question! Fatale’s story deals with the physical and personal destruction of her previous self, who she doesn’t remember. She has a lot of trouble coming to grips with her reconstructed body, particularly because it’s not conventionally attractive. And yet, she identifies as a hetero woman, and is still a sexual being, and eventually comes to some accommodation with her created self. For these, and other reasons, I read her as a feminist hero. Would you agree? Was this deliberate?
AG: I’m glad that you read her that way. It’s vulnerable to the critique that I made a female character the one who has the most trouble with her body. Honestly, when coming up with the character, I didn’t put in a lot of political feminist thought into what she would be like. I sort of wrote it as I felt it and I didn’t really mark for myself her problems as women’s problems. Obviously, everybody has a body and everybody has to come to terms with that.
I played with a lot of stuff with Fatale. I played with the idea that she was really strong, but part of that was because she was a big person; she weighed a lot, she carried a lot of hardware around.
KH: She’s not a ghost in the shell.
AG: No, she’s not a ghost in the shell. She’s not a fembot. She’s sort of aware that fembots exist, or are supposed to exist, somewhere in the world, and that she’s not one of them.
Writing about her, I didn’t really think of them as female problems. I thought of them as problems everyone has; coming to terms with the events that altered their relationship to their body, and how they have to come to terms with that as an adult. But I didn’t put a huge amount f thought into making that gendered, I just tried to make it human.
KH: What do you think of the treatment of superpowered women in comics, particularly the ‘sexy cyborg’ trope, which you explored through Fatale and her predecessor on the team, Galatea?
AG: Galatea has her tragic death and her legend and Fatale has to kind of step into that role. And she kind of resents that situation, but whatever, it’s just part of another day as Fatale.
Uh, treatment of women in comics… well, obviously, a lot of things are kind of appalling.
KH: You talked [pre-interview] about the sexy new Ultron what’s your take on that?
AG: Oh, I don’t know, I just kind of stare at that. As [She’s Such A Geek co-editor and Techsploitation writer] Annalee Newitz pointed out, somehow that being came from Tony Stark do we know yet, how that actually happened?
KH: No, and we’ve had three issues so far.
AG: So there’s kind of the open question of what that’s going to come to mean. Is it that whatever it is used to be Tony Stark; is it a transexual being what exactly happened there?
I mean, I’m kind of… take as read a lot of the critique that’s already on [Girl-Wonder.org] because it just seems too obvious for me to mention there’s hypersexualisation of bodies, there’s… you would think that it would be getting better, faster, than it is.
And I wonder what’s going to come out of Gail Simone’s run on Wonder Woman whether that will get interesting. Clearly people are feeling their way into more interesting takes on [women in comics].
I’m a Buffy fan… I’m really kind of sorry that Gert from Runaways got killed.
KH: Oh, that was so sad.
AG: That was supersad! I mean, why Gert, of everyone on the team?
KH: I think Brian K. Vaughan said something about how it had to be Gert, because she was the one everybody loved.
AG: That’s just not right.
Uh, well, there are a lot of characters I really enjoy Ms Marvel, Manhunter there are women carrying titles. And they’re still drawn on the same model, but something more interesting is happening with their lives they can have private lives, they can have sex, they can deal with that.
People are not feeling their way in at an incredibly rapid rate.
KH: But you think things are improving?
AG: It seems as if things are improving, just as writing in general in the comics industry has got so much better. It’s a little difficult because… if I could imagine the next step I would take it.
Things must be getting better! They couldn’t get any worse.
The next question and answer contain seriously massive plot spoilers I am not kidding you guys. If you haven’t yet read the book, read on only if you like that sort of thing.
KH: I particularly enjoyed your take on the superhero’s reporter girlfriend archetype, which literally empowered her to save the day. How did Erica/Lily become such an important part of the story?
AG: Lily was already an important part of the story because she was the character who was neither a hero nor a villain. Whereas all of the other characters are obsessed with that divide, Lily, even from the beginning of the book, sense that that’s bullshit. And a bit silly. She’s the person who could consciously walk across that divide and doesn’t really let it define her. So she’s already just about the smartest person in the book.
The late revelation about her real origin that occurred to me late in the writing, but it seemed perfect once it arrived. Writing the book was always tightrope walking between following the genre conventions and investing in them, and stepping outside them, or at least revealing a larger emotional world outside them. It seemed like the seem left to do was to treat with the Lois Lane figure the sidekick girlfriend and do something with that.
I’m not sure what else I can say about it that isn’t said in the book itself. I can just say that, yes, on many levels she’s clearly the smartest person there. And the person best positioned to see well, not quite to see the foolishness of the superhero/villain genre divide, because it’s a divide in which I also deeply invest and have a lot of fun with but at least to sort of see an outside to it. And on some level, all the other characters in the book are obsessive neurotics regarding their role in the superhero world. Lily at least can see outside the obsession.
KH: She seems more relaxed about it.
AG: She’s more relaxed about it, she can see that it’s sort of funny, she can live around it, but not be so trapped in it.
Okay, the spoilers are done!
KH: This is a book steeped in superhero comics mythos, from the knowing winks at characters like Batman and Superman to the chapter headings. And it is also, for lack of a better word, grown-up fiction. Superhero comics have been protesting for a long time that they’re ‘not just for kids’ anymore is this book a step in that direction?
AG: Well, [the book] is a step in some direction. Even as independent or alternative comics became very interesting, I was always kind of the guy who was still super-invested in superhero comics. I totally loved them. I’d go down to the comic book store and I’d see other people who were my age also kind of checking out the superhero comics and I’d think to myself, there’s got to be more to this genre: more emotional range; more expressive work we can do with the tropes of the superhero genre as it exists.
And then Fortress of Solitude came out, and I thought, great, this is going to be it. And it wasn’t really it. I thought, writing it, Letham seemed a little too ashamed of superheroes; not quite trusting enough to fill it out more.
It’s a step in some direction obviously it’s a step that follows the steps of others. It follows Frank Miller, it follows people who are really, really good who are writing now, like Ed Brubaker, Gail Simone.
KH: It seems that many of the people who write best about superheroes have written in reaction to superheroes Miller and Moore have both expressed their dislike for superhero [tropes]. But you love them.
AG: Yeah, I love them. And they love them too. Who are they kidding?
Part of the trick of the book was to write it without subverting the genre entirely, without deflating it, without making it look ridiculous. To write it while still investing in it and loving it and try to make it real, and have the characters function as superhero characters, while also functioning as real people.
I, hm… I wrote the book I wanted to read. The one I wanted to have. I don’t want to say it’s a step in the right direction, like, hey, I’m leading the way! But it’s a step toward what I hope is a more vital literary creation. I guess I came of age as a literary reader in the age of Raymond Carver and [inaudible]: these perfected, minimalist short stories that were so incredibly dry and incredibly controlled and I thought, there must be some other way we can go with this. There must be some way to write the stuff I love in a way that feels more emotionally honest, that feels more emotionally full or fully realised.
Clearly there’s a literature there that wants to happen. And I can’t help feeling that it is happening. I mean, the superhero writers, the comics writers we have right now are really good, and I really enjoy reading comics. And when I look back at the 80s and 90s of mainstream comics I’m kind of appalled; there’s a lot of really bad stuff going on there. They clearly are getting better.
Whether they need to become more like Soon I Will Be Invincible, I don’t know. That would be too much to say.
KH: How did your years of experience as a game designer impact the writing of the book?
AG: I’d like to say somewhat pompously that working in video games was my substitute MFA. That was where I got to do a lot of writing, without very much supervision, and I got to play around with a lot of genre and pulp staples.
KH: What games did you write for?
AG: Oh, mostly games that you don’t know unless you’re a pretty serious gamer. I wrote for Ultimate Underworld 2, System Shock, Deus Ex. I worked on Tomb Raider: Legend, the newest but one Lara Croft game. I’ve worked on a lot of games.
I learned a lot. There are huge formal challenges in the context of writing for video games so it was kind of a narrative formulist education. But it also made me want to write a novel, where I could sort of control everything and not have to collaborate, and sort of stretch myself a little bit, which is what Soon I Will Be Invincible is.
It’s probably boring to most people, but working in 19th Century literature actually had a big influence as well. One of my big literary influences is Tennyson, who nobody reads now-
KH: No, I love Tennyson!
AG: I love Tennyson, I love the way he well, he and a lot of other people take the material of epic and saga and so forth and condense it down into these expanded, intensified lyric moments. Like, ‘Ulysses’, is the favourite example. And I tried to bear the same relationship to this superhero material that those writers did to their classical stuff; updating it, making it feel more human, making it [inaudible] in a way that isn’t always apparent when you’re reading the older epic material. I tried to make the same trick happen.
I don’t normally tell people that because I don’t want to say, ‘It’s like Tennyson! You’ll like it just as much as you like Alfred Lord Tennyson.’
Obviously, working in academic literary studies built up a certain amount of frustration that you get to take out writing about superheroes. The fact that Doctor Impossible is kind of an escaped graduate student, you may freely chalk that up to autobiographical [material].
KH: I’d like to point out that Doctor Impossible isn’t actually a doctor.
AG: No, that’s true. Like many supervillains he granted himself his own degree. There’s a line from Chapter Five that I read last night to a largely academic audience it’s after the lab accident the line is, ‘That was the beginning of Doctor Impossible’s long, impossible doctorate.’
It took me a while to name him, but I knew he was either going to have to be a Doctor or a Professor. Because that’s part of the fun! Supervillains have that sort of scientific or academic gravitas that superheroes never seem to have.
KH: Except [Marvel’s] Doctor Strange.
AG: Oh, except Doctor Strange! Yes, well spotted.
KH: Do you have any plans for a sequel? What other projects have you got lined up?
AG: Yeah, I’m trying to make a decision what to do there.
We’re actually working on a film version of the book, which I can’t really say anything about, which I’m super-enthusiastic about. With one or two exceptions, I’ve actually been really, really frustrated with nearly all film versions of superhero action. It seems always to fall apart when it’s compressed into a two-hour format. The Incredibles is the notable exception to this, but I would be hard-pressed to name another superhero film that I really felt had achieved what it was trying to do. In working on the film we’re working very carefully to ensure that the option isn’t just snapped up.
I’m thinking about what else to do. What I would really like to do is if the book does well, leverage a little bit of that creative capital or credibility and make a really, really good video game. Make a video game that was sort of creatively realised the way we know video games can be but so seldom are. Obviously, the writer’s not the main guy on most video games. But what if they were?
That would be really, really nice to try, if I can line that up.
And of course I’m thinking about a new book… but I really have no idea.
KH: Pantheon has you on a… two-book contract?
AG: Ah, no, they don’t. [laughs] I have to actually think of an idea. But I’m sure something will arrive soon.

[Review] Re-Gifters and Clubbing.

Dear readers, how are you? I am successfully moved to Melbourne, Australia, where I am drinking my way through the local wine shop’s chardonnays and laughing immoderately every time I spot a landmark from Ghost Rider. Also, thanks to a marvelous RSC performance of King Lear, I have seen Magneto’s penis.
Comics! They enrich my life, and now they have enriched yours.
I was going to spend this week talking about why I don’t simply dismiss Tarot: Witch of The Black Rose as ridiculous self-insertion porn that is not my cup of tea and do in fact rather despise it, but my new local comic book store doesn’t stock it*. They do, however, stock the DC Minx line, and my qualms about the name notwithstanding, I’ve been very curious to see what DC thinks a line of ‘comics for girls’ should be like.
If Re-Gifters, (Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel) and Clubbing (Andi Watson and Josh Howard) are any indication, DC thinks like I do.
Re-Gifters:Jen Dik Seong, a.k.a Dixie, a Californian Korean-American teenager, wants to win both the national hapkido tournament and the heart of fellow practioner Adam. The trouble is, her crush on Adam keeps putting her off her game. Must she choose between love and victory? Can she have both? Or neither?
This is no drippy teen romance story. It’s a realistic and moving tale about a spiky, aggressive girl keen on competition and doing, as teenagers do, impulsive, stupid things for less-than-noble reasons in the struggle to please her parents, her friends, herself, and her would-be boyfriend. It all turns out unexpectedly well, but cuts no corners in the journey to a happy ending.
Carey’s plotting is tight and fast-paced, and Liew’s art is kinetic, conveying all the speed and intensity of the many martial arts match-ups. But it’s the characterization that really shines: complex, nuanced, diverse characters who speak and read like real teenagers.
I love this book wicked hard, and I want you to love it too. Highly recommended.
Note: A later review from someone much more familiar than I am with Korean and Korean-American culture has pointed out some disturbing cultural gaffes in Re-Gifters. I recommend you read her review, and keep that perspective in mind when you consider this one.
Charlotte Brook, who is spending the summer at her grandparents’ country home for the youthful sin of forging an ID card, expected to be ‘lazing around and laconically observing the yokels’. Instead she’s put to work at the local pro golf shop.
As the book opens, Lottie is a little snot an arrogant, lying, manipulative brat who hastens to assure the reader that she ‘wouldn’t normally hang out with hayseed goths.’ But she’s also quick-witted and forebearing, more inclined to snarking than sulking when presented with yet another activity she doesn’t really want to do.
Then she and the local young golf champion stumble across a body on the golf course, and it’s time for Lottie to grow up and save the day; tasks she accomplishes with admirable style. I shan’t spoil the story, other than to point out that despite the cover copy, Lottie’s tale isn’t a straight mystery. Clubbing has a supernatural twist to please the more speculative-fiction fan, and all the charm of the traditional English crime story.
These Minx teenagers ring true. They’re bold, independent young women, prone to error and confusion and occasionally calamitous mistakes, but with the courage and integrity to set right what they can. They’re not role models, but reflections. And though neither Dixie nor Charlotte use the word, in their stubborn defiance of traditional roles for women, they’re feminists. These girls refuse artificial limitations.
If heroines and titles like these are the norm, Minx is going to become one of my all-time favourite comics lines.
*Comics R Us on Bourke St. Drop in if you’re ever in that part of the world.

Dear John.

Dear Connor,
It’s been two years now since you’ve been my DC imaginary boyfriend. I still adore you, but I’m afraid I have some serious complaints over your recent conduct and the general atmosphere of Connor Hawke: Dragon’s Blood.
Let me just state first that I love how you look in this series. I love how everyone looks in this series. Derec Donovan should draw you always.
That said, I’m uneasy about some racist and sexist stereotyping in this work.
First, there was the cover where you were kissing daddy’s rapist. I didn’t think the cover could get any worse, but the actual title of that issue turned out to be ‘Wicked Stepmother!’
Shado isn’t actually your stepmother. She’s the woman who raped your dad and one of the results was her son, your half-brother. But, hey, let’s not bother with accuracy when your writer can pull out yet another negative female stereotype out of the bag and slap it on her, right?
You have a legitimate beef with Shado. On top of being an assassin, which is a job to which you, as a hero, object, she raped your father. However, because this still goes unacknowledged by Ollie, or by any other character in the DCU, you instead dodge around it with a lot of stuff about Shado ‘corrupting’ Ollie and ‘turning him into a murderer’ with her sexy evil ways, so:

When you confront the woman herself with this crap, Shado sensibly points out that your dad is (at least technically) all grown-up, and fully capable of owning his responsibility for his actions, but you never actually seem to acknowledge the justice of this argument yourself.
Second, Connor, for fuck’s sake, don’t do this:
The thing is, Connor, you just can’t have it both ways. Either Shado’s a rapist, which is what the canon factually provides, or she’s a beautiful Asian woman seducing upright men into committing evil deeds, which is what the text would have us believe. (That she’s then warned off by your protective older hypermasculine friend and goes back to her redemptive role of mother does not much pacify me.)
Shado-as-rapist would be interesting if it was ever dealt with unacknowledged, it’s misandrist and misogynistic stereotyping. Shado-as-Dragon-Lady is unimaginative writing and offensive stereotyping of Asian women. And just in case we weren’t aware that this is what we’re supposed to take away from her portrayal, your friend/guardian Eddie Fyers spells it out to Shado: ‘I’m here to protect him from dragons… and dragon ladies.’
Connor, please! I am well aware that, being half Irish-American/quarter African-American/quarter Korean, you are conscious of prejudice. (Even though you are mysteriously blond* and the colorists frequently bleach you.)
Surely you can exert some force on Mr Dixon, since he will almost certainly work with you in the future? In addition to this weird desire to have it both ways with Shado, I’m unhappy about all the Chinese characters in this mini being evil or hapless bystanders. Most of the non-white characters don’t get even background lines. And the only good characters who aren’t white are you and a Japanese kyuudo master who turns up to confer his Mystic Old Master Advice and then die.
In memory of all the good times we’ve shared, can’t you do something about this?
Because if not, I’m afraid this imaginary relationship is over.
Yours, with love,

  • P.S. In my head, you dyed your eyebrows in that monastery because you were such a huge Green Arrow fanboy and now you’ve met him and he’s your father and you’re just too embarrassed to let anyone know it’s not natural, but one day real soon Ollie is going to come roaring out of the bathroom complaining about Dinah staining the sink and she’ll say it wasn’t her, she gets hers done at a salon, and Mia will indignantly claim she doesn’t need to bother with dye and then everyone will stare at you as you blush. This is my beautiful vision.

[Review] Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman,
Pantheon Books.
Some time ago I reviewed Jennifer Estep’s superhero romance Karma Girl, which I wanted to like more than I did and suspected I didn’t like as much as I could have because I wasn’t the right reader for it.
Soon I Will Be Invincible, billed as ‘literary fiction’, is a superhero novel for which I am definitely the right reader.
Doctor Impossible, the world’s smartest man, escapes from prison for the twelfth time, positive that this time he will succeed in taking over the world. After all, one must have goals. Unfortunately, he’s being hunted for the murder of perfect, invulnerable, smug CoreFire, a murder he didn’t actually commit. All he wants to do is assemble the pieces of his diabolical scheme if only the heroes will give him some peace to do it.
Fatale is an accident victim turned amnesiac half-cyborg powerhouse. She doesn’t know who she was before the accident or who recreated her afterwards; her secret government work has dried up; and she’s flat broke. Then she’s recruited by Damsel, leader of the Champions, into the world’s premier and newly-reunited superhero team. Their mission: find Doctor Impossible. Is she up to the job?
Soon I Will Be Invincible is their story, alternately told from both sides of the hero/villain divide.
The novel has a slow start. Doctor Impossible’s first section, which opens the narrative, is entirely exposition, and it’s 21 full pages before dialogue appears. (I like a good supervillain monologue as much as anyone, but…) Once the pace picks up, though, the fairly straightforward plot is enlivened by superb characterization, wry humour, a couple of nice twists, and some fascinating meditations on power, fame and infamy, and the trauma superpowers inflict on the body, psyche, and sense of identity.
Grossman is clearly a man who loves superheroes. You might find, as I did, a trio composed of the invulnerable, superstrong, flying CoreFire, the sword-wielding alien princess Damsel and the martial artist/gymnast/tactician/detective/millionnaire Blackwolf to be a bit on the nose. However, there’s definitely a level where everyone writing superheroes is constructing DC-response fanfic and Grossman consciously plays with archetypes and cliches (an autistic Batman! Right on) instead of faithfully replicating them. Moreover, the protagonists’ backstories and casual references to past adventures and other powered people illuminate a more original world as richly imaginative and grandiosely improbable as anything comics have provided.
A more serious drawback is the lack of ethnic diversity among the heroes. There are a few comically ethnic villains, but all the heroes appear to be inhuman Other (catmen! Aliens!), specifically white American, or undescribed. This lack of description easily lends itself to ‘writing in’ people of colour, but since white is normally the default for superheroes, readers would have to work against their usual assumptions to do so. It’s also a very heteronormative world. Sexuality likewise isn’t visible in every character, but when it appears, it’s invariably straight sex.
However, GRC readers will probably appreciate, as I did, the intelligence and complexity of Grossman’s female characters. Fatale is awesome both immensely competent and uncertain about the ‘real’ her, both determined to prove herself and justifiably uncertain of her place in the team. To take one example of how much thought has gone into her presentation, she’s six foot plus, not built like the ‘wasp-waisted pleasure machines’ she knows female cyborgs are supposed to be. She’s Fatale without the femme. Yet she is a sexual being capable not only of fantasy but of acting on her desires. And her uterus is gone in most comic books, this would kick off an arc focused on how awful it is that she can’t have children because that reduces her essential womanliness. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, it’s an off-hand remark that at least she doesn’t have to worry about periods anymore.
The other women are just as marvelous the stressed, superbly competent Damsel, the amused, invulnerable, former supervillain Lily, the bitter, sad teenage idol Rainbow Triumph and the strange fairy warrior Elphin, charged with a mission she can’t remember in a world centuries out of her time. Which isn’t to say that the men are poorly written only that it’s so rare to find female superheroes like this that I finished the book, hugged it, and went back to read Fatale’s parts again.
This is the superhero novel I’ve been longing to read. Highly recommended.

Never-Hads and Should-Haves.

WisCon, the world’s first and largest feminist sci-fi and fantasy convention, is held every year in Madison, Wisconsin in the States. It’s a vibrant three days of panel discussions, paper presentations, readings, karaoke, book-selling, awareness-raising, recruiting, networking and purest, concentrated awesome.
It’s not quite Themiscyra. For one thing, there are men there intelligent, thinking men who never start sentences with ‘What you ladies really should do is-‘ And although WisCon is something of a refuge, it’s not a retreat. People there know the world is fucked up. They want to fix it, not hide from it.
Which is not to say WisCon doesn’t have its own fuck-ups guests bring the world in with them, and occasionally that means the world’s unthinking prejudices are brought in too. And when it goes wrong at WisCon, it hurts more, because WisCon is supposed to be right.
But until I went to WisCon 30 last year, I couldn’t conceive of anything like it. I couldn’t imagine such a gathering: a thousand people; brave, brilliant, angry people, activists and critics and fans and artists; dreamers of enormous dreams; shining word-warriors. I was surrounded, for the first time in my life, by people I could reasonably assume would not judge me according to preconceptions about my gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, or any of those other myriad, stupid conventions.
That’s how the world should be. I’d never had it before.
This year, I enlisted more friends. We went to the costume ball dressed thusly:
Birds of Prey, plus Batman.
I am the blonde with the bangs:
In nearly every shot of me, I am holding a drink.
It was awesome. I had thought I’d feel self-conscious about my belly, my butt, my arms. I didn’t. I felt great the whole night, posing for pictures, promoting Girl-Wonder.org and explaining who the Birds of Prey actually were. And because WisCon achieves near-parity and perfect safety, I didn’t worry about being harrassed. I had the privilege most men have daily of not being automatically viewed as a sexual object. So quickly did I adapt to the privilege of not having to put up with that shit that I didn’t even notice I had it. Until, going to the bathrooms on the second floor alone*, I stepped into the elevator. It was filled with men who were all taller than me, and not wearing WisCon badges. They looked surprised and pleased as I got in. And I felt uneasy and self-conscious before I had time to think of why.
‘Well, hey, now,’ one guy murmured. ‘Hey there.’
‘Yeah,’ another chuckled.
‘Second floor, please,’ I said.
‘Hey!’ someone else said. ‘What’s going on on that floor?’
‘Costume party.’
‘Well, can we go?’
They laughed appreciatively. I said ‘No.’ And I got out.
And that was it. They didn’t say anything foul, they certainly didn’t touch me, and it wasn’t even close to harassment by the standards of our society. So why was I shaky and scared and angry afterwards?
Two things:
1) At the costume ball, my clothing fishnets, black leotard, blonde wig was coded ‘superhero’. In the elevator, it was coded ‘stripper’.
2) Everyone is conditioned to assess women primarily by how sexually attractive and/or available they appear to be. Making that assessment clear is normal. Vocalizing that assessment is normal. Blaming women for others harassing or abusing them based on how attractive they are or what they were wearing at the time is normal.
If you’re gearing up to say something like ‘But nothing really bad happened!’ or ‘Well, what did you expect?’ or ‘Come on, weren’t you looking for attention?’, or ‘They were just being nice!’: don’t.
I know that those men almost certainly meant me no harm; they probably thought expressing a wish to follow me to a party was a compliment. It is entirely possible that none of them have ever imagined being in an enclosed space with a group of big strangers eyeing you up and asking if they can come with you could be a frightening experience. Our culture is set up so that they’ve never had to.
This and like incidents have happened to me, like many women, time and time again: strange men telling me to ‘smile!’; strange men shouting ‘Show us your tits!’ as they drive past; strange men groping my breasts and ass in crowded train carriages.
(Women also buy into the patriarchal imperative to judge women primarily by their physical appearance, and that is also extremely unpleasant. However, as it is far less likely that women will follow such assessment with rape or other violent crime, it is generally much less threatening when a woman says, ‘You look like a whore.’)
If a woman doesn’t want to be viewed for some weird reason as a sex object, her choices are limited. She can be visibly angry or ignore harassment, in which case she is a FRIGID BITCH who can’t take a COMPLIMENT from NICE GUYS. Or she can be pleasant in an attempt to show them she’s actually a human being, in which case she may be ASKING FOR further ‘compliments’ with her MIXED SIGNALS.
Or she can stay at home.
I wore that costume because Black Canary is badass, and the Birds of Prey are heroes. I wanted to join a group of strong women, who, like the Birds, are striving to change their world for the better. It’s sad that I would never wear that costume outside of WisCon not at any other geek con, and certainly not on the street. I’m already female in public; being a scantily-dressed woman in public compounds my crimes and my punishment.
The security I experienced at WisCon, bar those thirty seconds in an elevator, should be a universal privilege. That’s how the world should be.

How can we make it so?

In nearly every shot of me, I am holding a drink.
  • Although I have no idea how Canary fought in a wig for so long. It’s hot and distracting and hair gets in your eyes even when you’re just dancing! Wig-wearing superheroes now also break the suspension of my disbelief.
    ** NOT the easiest outfit to get in and out of in a hurry. I’m just saying, Dinah probably doesn’t drink a lot on missions.

[Guest Column] ‘You’ll Accept Us’: The Younger, Other Avengers.

Notice: Due to life and a bad case of RSI, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide y’all with a column this week, but I am extremely fortunate in my friends, and Todd bravely stepped into the breach with this guest column.
Todd Harper is a PhD student in Telecommunications at Ohio University. He once described his research interests thusly: ‘Look at my papers this year… comic books, video games, He-Man and She-Ra, and gay porn. Who has more fun than us?’ His primary area is game studies, with some representation and queer theory on the side to keep from going insane.
A naturally self-effacing individual (read: a roiling vortex of poor self-esteem), he is not exactly well-published yet. However, you can read infrequent commentary on life, the universe, and everything in his blog.
I had high hopes about opening this column by talking about how superpowers are a metaphor for the Other, especially the sexual Other, in modern comic books. Then I realized this would be a lot like speaking to an ice floe full of penguins and calmly informing them that 1.) water is wet and 2.) my, it certainly is a little nippy here inside the Antarctic Circle. Never mind the fact that Bryan Singer wielded this concept like a sledgehammer and beat us over the head with it two films in a row. He even cast Ian McKellan, for god’s sake.
We get it. So let’s just start with the assumption that the link between having superpowers and being Othered is just sort of a given.
As long as we’re laying this sort of thing out, I should also admit that I am shameless when it comes to being convinced to consume media because they have gay characters. Many of the other LGBT people I know are the same way, and I am going to hazard that we do it because we are deathly curious. Seriously. Writers and creators have been getting it wrong for such a long time that there is a sort of grim fascination in finding out what the hell they’ve done wrong this time.
Oh sure, there’s always a honeymoon period where you go ‘Hurray! Gay visibility!’ and then THE CLICHE drops out of the rafters and crushes you like a meteorite strike. You love Will and Grace until you realize that Will and Jack represent 0.0005% of all the gay men you’ve ever met. You think Queer As Folk is awesome until you realize the characters are annoying caricatures. That sort of thing. I am sure anybody reading this would be happy to supply examples of the Cliche Anvil that they have had to claw their way out from under. I have heard that girls read comics, for example, and are pissed about representations. Shocking, I know.
The point here is that when I first picked up Young Avengers you know it was because of Billy and Teddy and I was on the prowl for the gay. I am honest about this. So that’s the other given.
What I believe we need to look at is how particular comics use this Othered metaphor of the superpowered individual to make a point. People have claimed the X-Men as a metaphor for racism and for homophobia. This very blog is replete with examples of how different comics represent women and gender symbolically and literally through their portrayals. We’re past the point of only saying ‘ZOMG! (x) is totally a metaphor for (y)!’ and nothing else. No duh, ref first paragraph.
A cursory look at Young Avengers reveals that it’s already rife with metaphor. It’s a story about young people with powers that are tied, in some way, to the recently disbanded Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Even if the link is as strong as bonds of genetics, or as simple as the adoption of a codename, the Young Avengers are a mirror for the old ones. The entire thing is a metaphor for adolescence, inheritance, and family.
More importantly, though, the book’s many metaphors were nuanced and multi-dimensional. They crossed over issues of gender and sexuality, age and parenthood, race and class, and brought multiple Others together into a cogent message about the way we think about Otherness socially, especially in regards to teenagers and the whole identity feeling-out process. And that’s really what YA is about: the journey of these teenagers coming to grips with their Otherness, and a world hostile to both that Otherness and to them for being Othered.
Really, that nuance is what I had found missing from other treatments of homosexuality in comics, particularly Marvel comics (I admit to being a little clueless on the DC side; feel free to regale me with your own horror stories from that universe in comments). Northstar, for example, is an awesome character who I love, but I only love him for how terrible he is, if that makes sense. A bitchy high-class queen who is vaguely ethnic (there’s a Quebecois joke here somewhere, I can sense it)… oh my god, it’s too perfect to be true. And yet there he is. You do not even want to ask me about the remake of Rawhide Kid. I mean, I loved that book — the various jokes about how damned nelly the Kid was caused me to crack up regardless of how over the top said jokes typically were — but let’s face it, that portrayal was so two-dimensional it’s invisible if you turn it sideways. Like Singer and the X-Men films, the writers at Marvel tended to use a chainsaw when a scalpel was required.
This idea of nuance is really quite important. While I was working on my master’s degree I did some research on ideal portrayals of gay men on TV by interviewing gay men and asking what they thought such a portrayal would be. Almost to an individual, what they expressed was a desire for sexuality to not be the character’s defining characteristic; it should be part of a three- dimensional person, not the whole point of the character.
How does Young Avengers do that? Glad you asked.
Power Underwhelming: Let’s take stock for a second. There’s eight core Young Avengers over two books: Iron Lad, Billy, Teddy, Eli, Kate, Cassie, Tommy, and the Vision. Well, alright, seven and a half if you slam Iron Lad and the Vision together. But it’s interesting to note that three of these people have no inherent superpowers. Oh, sure, Iron Lad has nifty future tech courtesy of his future self (don’t think about it too hard, Kang gives me headaches too) and Eli takes MGH, but they’re not REALLY superheroes. Even Cassie was ‘born’ normal except for that minor detail of stealing Pym Particles from her dad. In fact, only Billy, Teddy, and Tommy have natural, inherent powers.
Think about that for a sec. We’ve already accepted that superpower = Othered logic earlier on, right? Yet in this book, half the Othered characters don’t have powers. Cassie got her powers trying to get closer to her estranged dad (a reformed criminal and superhero; you bet your boots he’s Othered). Eli started taking MGH because he was ashamed of letting down his grandfather Isaiah, the ‘Black Captain America’ (ZOMG OTHERED OTHERED OTHERED, right?). Iron Lad returns from the future with his nifty technosuit because in the future he’s a royal dork nobody likes and ends up becoming an evil time-spanning conqueror as a result (sort of). And while Kate has no real superpowers, she taught herself puissant fencing and archery skill because she was assaulted and likely raped (a psychosexual and social Othering for sure). In all of these cases Otherness came into these characters’ lives and they embraced it or were deeply changed by it, rather than having it forced on them at birth.
On the other side of the coin there’s Billy, and Teddy, and Tommy. They did have their Otherness sort of thrust upon them, from the get go (in multiple ways for Billy and Teddy). Teddy is a Skrull and a Kree (a Skree?) and has all sorts of nifty powers as a result. Billy has natural magical ability. Tommy is a mutant (the only real mutant in the group, in fact) with all that implies. They didn’t seek out power, they were just given power and forced to deal with the consequences. Billy and Teddy are also gay, which isn’t typically considered a superpower but probably should be.
In discussing his own heroic origins with Jessica Jones, Teddy makes the observation that people can be typical or average, but never normal, because everyone is unique, thus rendering ‘normal’ a useless term. But that characterizes the movement of the naturally powered characters compared to their non-powered peers. Billy, Teddy, and Tommy are constantly moving toward a perceived norm from their starting position of disadvantage, and there’s always something to trip them up: a selfish and exploitative friend, a proto-hominid bully, the fact that you accidentally blew up a schoolbuilding (I mean, look what that did for the New Warriors)… something ready to boomerang them back into Otherness.
The genius of Young Avengers is that those two movements — of the inherently ‘normal’ toward Otherness, and of the Othered toward ‘normality’ — meet in the middle in the form of, well… the Young Avengers. It’s one of the book’s strong points that it has both of these points of view about the nature of power, when you consider that power = Otherness. If they were all mutants they’d just be the X-Men, victims of birth and circumstance. If they were all ‘artificial’ heroes who gain power in some way, the full range of being a victim of your Otherness wouldn’t be conveyed quite as well. And then there’s the margin of the margins, Kate’s case not having powers at all but being Othered anyway by her assault. The various forms of Otherness play off each other. Kate, for example, resists gender roles, sexual norms, and is an enthusiastic class traitor, all in the process of becoming Hawkeye. Eli’s race, social class, and family all come together to make him Patriot. Teddy is the real poster child for this: he’s a gay Kree/Skrull teenage superhero orphan in a single parent home and the Super Skrull kinda sets his mom on fire. But somehow, throw them all together, and it works.
Consider this: when I was doing the textual analysis of YA that many of these points are drawn from, I was focusing mostly on sexuality. There were so many models of dealing with teenage sexuality in the book, and I was dead impressed with the diversity of them. The best part is that even the non-gay characters were working in a metaphoric way to talk about sexuality and the experiences of young gay people. For example:

  • The straight student struggling to understand a friend or family member who is gay (Cassie)
  • The gay teen who changes him/herself to be like the straight majority (Teddy)
  • The gay outcast who flees from or is shunned by society (Billy, Tommy)
  • The gay teen who is willing to give up anything to become normal (Iron Lad)
  • The victim of sexual assault who is suddenly faced with a world s/he never wanted to be part of and is changed forever (Kate)
  • The gay kid who turns to self-abuse and drugs in order to drown out the anger, shame, and sorrow (Eli)
    They’re all rich portraits orbiting this concept of being Othered by power. And while I was focusing on sexuality, you can certainly map this to other sources of difference too.
    Of course, the book’s supporting characters have a role to play here too. Particularly, Captain America and Jessica Jones are the most important: they represent two competing ideologies of gender and parenthood. If the book is a metaphor about being an Other from a teenager’s point of view, Cap and Jess are the Mom and Dad, the patriarchal and the matriarchal, the suppressive protector and the enabling supporter.
    Wait Til Your Father Gets Home: Not to speak ill of the dead, but Captain America spends most of the book as 1.) the patriarchal father figure and 2.) dead wrong. For serious. Oh, his intentions are good, this much is clear. He’s worried about the kids’ well-being, after all. He doesn’t want them to get hurt or inadvertently hurt others, and he’s driven somewhat by his guilt about Bucky. But the key issue in YA is that in his desire to protect these kids, Cap is totally missing the point. He sees their Otherness and he accepts it, truly; but his reaction to it is to shut them away from a world where that Otherness is public and open. For their own good.
    It’s Hawkeye-nee-Kate Bishop who sums the entire thing up fairly well, near the end of the second book. Patriot — ‘Lieutenant America’ in Kat Farrell’s words — is in the hospital recovering from a hit he took to protect Cap from a Kree laser blast. Cap asks the YA if they understand now why he wanted them not to be heroes, and Kate quite rightly replies:
    ‘Sir, with all due respect… the minute Eli is back on his feet, he’ll be chasing down bad guys, powers or no powers. That’s just who he is. It’s who we all are. The same as you. I know you and Iron Man don’t approve of us, but I can’t help thinking… if you guys had supported us — if you had taken the time to train us — maybe Eli wouldn’t be in surgery right now. Maybe Billy’s parents would still have a place to live, and Teddy’s mother would still be alive. That’s how it feels, anyway. So, if you really want to protect us… you’ll accept us.’
    He does, too. That’s the best part. In the end of the book Cap recognizes Kate as the ‘new’ Hawkeye (poor Clint, when he comes back from the dead, but that’s another story entirely). In the Civil War event Cap sees the YA as valuable allies and makes the effort to rescue them, incorporating them into the Secret Avengers as partners in his resistance effort.
    Importantly, though, the ‘opposition’ to the Otherness isn’t some sort of scary social monolith like anti-mutant sentiment. We are invited, through our general approval of Captain America (who’s pretty damn likeable even if he is the standard bearer of American patriarchal capitalist society), to identify with the point of view, and then gently told why it shouldn’t be by our identification with the Young Avengers themselves. It avoids a damaging us-vs.- them mentality and adds an extra dimension to the argument. And the truth of the matter is, Cap is a symbol that not all people of privilege are oppressing the Other out of malice. That sword can cut both ways, of course — Heinberg usefully gives us famously anti-superhero J. Jonah Jameson in the comic’s second panel as a foil — but it’s important, especially given the role of sexuality in the story. Captain America honestly means well and is trying to do what’s right, even if he’s going about it all wrong.
    Mommy Dearest: If you have a father figure, you also have a mother figure, and Heinberg picks the absolute best person possible for the job: Jessica Jones. Your normal host has already discussed Jess at length so I will save myself some embarrassment and not try to top her. Taking everything into account, though, there are few other characters in the Marvel universe who could have as successfully filled the role Jessica plays in Young Avengers as she does.
    And what role is that? Mother figure is sort of the obvious one; the special issue focusing on the origin stories of the Young Avengers features Jess at her most motherly, trying to find out why the kids are the way they are, how they got here, what they want to do. She listens, she offers advice, she shares her own experiences, and most importantly she takes them all seriously. One of the last panels of the issue is Jessica standing with her boyfriend (and the father of her at the time unborn child) Luke Cage. He says that it seemed like Jess wasn’t able to talk them out of being superheroes like Cap wanted her to, and asks what she’ll say when their superpowered daughter wants to be a Young Avenger. Jess simply replies, ‘At this point, I want to be a Young Avenger.’ She makes a particularly strong connection with Kate Bishop in that issue thanks to their shared history of sexual assault.
    In the opening of the book, J. Jonah suggests the assignment of finding and talking to the YA will help Jess develop her mothering skills. Jess replies, sarcastically, ‘What mothering skills?’, to which JJ simply says: ‘Exactly.’ In fact, Jessica is quite concerned about her fitness to be a real mother and expresses that doubt to the various YA members a number of times. Eli gets her back, however; when she claims that she’s not very good at this parenting thing, he responds, ‘Could have fooled me.’
    However, what Jess really does throughout the book is question patriarchy privilege symbol Captain America. When he suggests the patriarchal response to the situation she is always there with the rejoinder, ‘Is that really the right thing to do?’ Of course, this is also one of the more problematic things about Jess in the books; she rarely, if ever, contradicts Cap or Iron Man (the patriarchy sidekick… okay, imagining Tony dressed as Robin now, I need to go lie down), letting them take the lead and contenting herself with working on a more ‘grassroots’ level, as it were. A more assertive Jessica Jones would certainly be more positive, though I’m not convinced it works with the narrative as well. Part of Jess’ ability to connect with the YA is that she is unsure about the right answers. She doesn’t know if it’s right that they’re superheroes or not; as previously said, she doesn’t even know if she’s done anything right herself or not. She only knows that it’s wrong to keep them from exploring their Otherness through heroism and that they need a chance to find themselves.
    The comic also uses Jess as a way to cement its ideological standpoint. We know when Jess appears alone, her ideology has won out. She’s the one who delivers Hawkeye’s bow and Cap’s message to Kate, for example; she is the one who watched over Eli in the hospital, she’s the one who gets the kids’ life stories. The last panel of the comic is interesting in that regard. It’s an action shot, the various YA members heading off into the fray. They are starbursting away, however, from the center point: a statue of the founding Avengers, at the foot of which stands an approving Jessica Jones, holding a hand to her pregnant belly.
    What better way to end the comic? Jessica-as-mother is the perfect symbol for this family that the YA have become in such a short time. A white, middle class woman, a victim of rape, a superpowered individual, one half of an interracial couple. Yet she has not only survived, but flourished, as an Other. The Young Avengers as a group are much the same. They are, as the characters themselves are careful to reiterate over the course of the book, a family. Their disparate backgrounds and their ability to connect give us hope and remind us that there is solidarity in difference.
    I think her words to Luke on the subject are pretty apt:
    At this point, even I want to be a Young Avenger.

  • Commenting on GRC Guest Columns: A Guide.
    1) Please assume good faith on the part of the guest. I invited these writers because I am familiar with their work and I think it’s good. I don’t edit their columns, and I may not agree with them 100% on every subject, but I think they say smart and thoughtful things. You are free to disagree with them, but please consider them my honoured guests in this space that I host, and be polite in your disagreement, as per general forum rules. The columnist, if they respond, is naturally bound by those same rules.
    2) If you have questions for the columnist, address them to the columnist (who may or may not respond). If you have ideas related to the topic, discuss them the same way you would discuss them had I written the column.
    3) Guest columnists may write in styles and discuss topics I don’t or haven’t. That difference is almost certainly one of the reasons I invited them here. If you have objections to the guest’s style or choice of topic, you may voice them politely but you may like to consider whether you are actually adding anything to the discussion, or performing the equivalent of saying ‘Karen, your column would be great if it wasn’t written from the point of view of a girl reading comics and getting pissed.’
    With all that in mind, you may well like to comment on this column here!

Changes: Not Just For The Hulk.

Welcome to WordPress! New year, new look!
It is the one year anniversary of Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), a column I initially wrote for an audience of one. I was so fucking furious about the state of women in comics that I had to get it on record before the festering bile made me ill.
I didn’t really expect anyone would read it, much less find anything in it useful or worthy of discussion.
I was going to spend this anniversary post talking about what an awesome experience it’s been learning I was wrong. And, you know, let’s give that its due, because it has been awesome, and so, dear readers, are you. Thank you so very much. Don’t let anyone tell you that rage doesn’t get you anywhere rage, yours and mine, got this column everywhere, and I wanted to acknowledge and celebrate that.
But over the last few weeks, post-WisCon 31, post-blog-trawling, post-the most recent guest column, something’s been brewing in the underbrain.
It all boiled over into my conscious mind while I was reading Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward this being the Other than yourself, particularly if you largely occupy the unmarked state of privilege known as ‘normal’. If you are straight, white, able-bodied, mid-twenties to mid-forties, college-educated, male, cisgendered and middle to upper class, you are as ‘normal’ as all get out. In reality, there are very few people like you, and yet characters like you overwhelmingly occupy the main spaces of Western cultural artefacts. Writing the Other addresses this discrepancy and encourages change through practical advice and exercises for those who want to write the Other right.
I, not incidentally, fit into all of those unmarked categories except ‘male’. It struck me that while in my creative writing I consciously try to write the Other, in my critical writing, I wasn’t doing much writing about the Other. I went through the GRC archives, and discovered not active discrimination, but inactive inattention.
Here is some stuff I didn’t write about these past twelve months:

  • The absolute idiocy of promoting Kathy Kane in national media beautiful, rich Batlesbian, shining example of DC’s commitment to diversity! then stabbing her (non-fatally) in the heart and shuffling her out of the limelight.
  • The post-Infinite Crisis disappearance of Onyx, possibly the only African American woman in Gotham who was a hero not a victim, prostitute, gang moll or selfish hiphop superstar.
  • The near-universal convention that women who (even given that comics time is awesomely weird) should be in their mid thirties to early forties being represented instead as mid to late twenties, with nary a wrinkle or sagging breast to be seen.
  • The extraordinary and unrealistic lack of older women who aren’t motherly or grandmotherly there-there-son matron-figures and the even more remarkable lack of older woman who aren’t white and/or straight. I can name one older woman who is both non-motherly and non-white one, in two companies worth of superhero comics.
  • The odd case of Maya Lopez/Echo/Ronin, a deaf, Latina woman whose New Avengers story arc focused not on her devastation of The Hand, but her status as distressed damsel to be rescued by able-bodied (mostly) men.
    The facile promotion and then disappearance of queer women; the poor representation specifically of women of colour; the invisibility of age; the mono-characterisation of older women; the peculiar treatment of women with disabilities these are feminist issues. And I, happily writing a column purportedly about feminism and comics, had missed them.
    SHAZAM! Thunderclaps went off in my head.
    ‘Holy crap,’ I realised. ‘Apparently, I’m totally keen on the empowerment of straight, white, mid-twenties-appearing, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class women, and have all but totally ignored discrimination against women not like me.’
    So, first I got guilty (which is not terribly helpful) and then I got drunk (which is even less helpful, but much nicer) and then, finally, productively, I got angry, at myself and at the culture that let me be so oblivious.
    I don’t want to disassociate from the work I’ve previously done because it was good work, and it’s sparked discussion and debate. It’s illuminated discrimination within a field of vision narrowed by blinkers, but it has helped. So what I’m trying to say is ‘Yes, I’ve written some stuff that I and other people found useful, and I’m proud of that. But also, I have fucked up tremendously by ignoring all this other stuff outside what I saw in the mirror.’
    I don’t want forgiveness for how offensive that was, (or for the offences I’m going to inevitably commit in the future). I’m apologising not requesting pardon for what I’ve done and haven’t done, and promising that I’m going to try to get better.
    Henceforth, this column is dedicated to a wider range of feminist issues in comics. This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the poor treatment of straight, white etcetera women just like me in comics, because god knows there’s still plenty to write about there. But I’m going to try to look past my own reflection.
    I am cringingly aware that as a straight, white, etcetera woman, my speaking about the poor treatment of women in comics who are not like me runs the risk of being horrendously inappropriate and offensive. I’m in that stage analogous to the one new male feminists go through when they start recognising gender discrimination. ‘But… that’s WRONG!’ they exclaim, while everyone who already gets it either nods patiently or rolls their eyes. I know I’m going to make mistakes. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. I want to speak but I can only do so as a privileged observer, not with the authority of experience.
    What does it mean to speak as a privileged observer?
    It means that I don’t see a lot of stuff because I never experienced it or had to see it. Related, but not exactly the same: it means that my feminist education overwhelmingly concentrated on white feminist liberal theory, and didn’t pick up on much of anything else. I need to listen, and research, and do my own damn homework.
    I don’t want this column to be read as breast-beating or a plea to console me and tell me I didn’t do that badly or a request for congratulations on finally realising my mistake. Screw that; it was a huge mistake! Recognising that isn’t grounds for applause.
    I’m going to do my level best to do this better, while realizing that my best intentions are still privileged, and thus still open to totally justified criticism. It’s not anyone’s job to educate me but if anyone is so inclined, when I misstep I’d really appreciate hearing about it.
    I’m privileged. I can’t avoid being part of the problem. But I want to be some of the solution, too.
    Welcome to WordPress! New year, new look!
    New direction.

Science Heroism

The second GRC Guest Columnist is Terry D. Johnson, a lecturer of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. During his graduate work at MIT, he was almost bitten by a radioactive spider.
He is essentially a machine that takes in caffeine and alcohol and outputs hair, paralyzing self-reproach, posts about science at his
blog and the occasional PowerPoint slide.
It ain’t easy being a comic book scientist. You’re either a convenient deus ex machina, or you’re cleaning up after your own spectacular lack of common sense. Despite being undeniably brilliant, you will find yourself carrying the idiot ball more often than any of your teammates. It takes a mind like Reed Richard’s to invent a rocket capable of carrying The Hulk and a giant bomb to another star, and an entirely different kind of mind (looking at you, authors and editors) to think that someone as smart as Reed would consider that a fine idea.
That said, there are some advantages.
There is a fine tradition of science heroism, dating back to the early 1900s with Tom Swift (after whom the modern taser is named). Danny Dunn continued the juvenile tradition well into the 1950s while Doc Savage and his entourage brought two-fisted science into the pulps. These fellows, others like them, and their scientifically-inclined arch-nemeses have been around long enough to merit homages in Planetary, Buckaroo Banzai, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
What makes a science hero? Set aside mentalists like The Shadow or Professor Charles Xavier. A science hero acts with the assistance of technology, not through sheer application of will. I’m also not including anyone using gear they weren’t essential in the construction of. Stargirl smashes evil with a cosmic rod, but so did Ted Knight, and he built it.
Iron Man and Steel are successful industrialists and inventors by day; exoskeletal fashion accidents by night. Dr. Ray Palmer and his protege Dr. Ryan Choi fight tiny crime by manipulating white dwarf matter to their advantage. Forge invents things by instinct, Mr. Terrific by design, and Brainiac 5 by sheer, unadulterated arrogance. Hank McCoy cures plagues between flea baths. Batman’s utility belt is more complicated than my HMO. Blue Beetle (the dead one) built a flying bug and a strobe gun.
When I was a kid, I really wanted a strobe gun.
(I still do.)
There’s also Dr. Henry Pym, who discovered the Pym article along with an entire menagerie of mental disorders. (I have it on authority that there is a Pym Appendix to the DSM IV). Spider-man has the proportional speed and strength of a spider, but he also had spider-tracers and web-shooters of his own design.
I haven’t even started on the villains yet! Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, Doctor Sivana, The Green Goblin, T.O. Morrow, Wizard, The Scarecrow, The Lizard, Mr. Freeze…
…not exactly ladies’ night, is it?
Oracle is a peerless programmer, though I see her as more of a mastermind than a science hero. The Authority’s Engineer is also a possibility, but she was technically given her trademark technology by the previous (male) Engineer. Top Ten’s Toybox uses her father’s inventions I don’t know about Irma Geddon, and frankly, I’m afraid to ask. Agatha Heterodyne…and already I’ve drifted far from the mainstream. There are few women in the science hero biz, and even fewer who would have their name on the patents for their gear.
Why the disparity?
I would suggest several reasons. Sexism is the easiest to identify. Gender stereotypes adversely affect real female scientists during their
schooling and well into their careers; it is reasonable to assume that those stereotypes act similarly to reduce the role of fictional females in science heroism.
I also suspect that we’re living in the “age of female badasses”, a consequence of an industry-wide correction of the weak female stereotype. Even insensitive
creators are now aware that they will come under attack for overtly sexist portrayals of female characters. An aggressive, martial heroine counters the fading (yet particularly galling) stereotype of the meek, submissive female, and a lazy writer can easily fall back upon this as a defense of other failures by
saying, “How can my writing for this character be sexist? She’s strong!” It’s a mistake to think you can earn credit to exploit certain stereotypes by contravening others.
I’m a nerd that went pro. I own a lab coat, am currently surrounded by white boards filled with equations, and occasionally engage in recreational math. My adolescence was as awkward as those facts would suggest, and having heroes who shared my interests and put them to glorious use meant a lot. Later, when I was inaugurated into the complexities and difficulties faced by a working scientist, I had the optimism the can-do spirit of those gentleman bricoleur I had
spired to become to carry me through the rough patches.
I think it would be cool if women had that, too.

For Those Playing Along At Home

EDIT: Hello! Have you been linked to this card and are now confused/angry? Explanations of why these bingo points are considered ridiculous or insulting can be now be found here!
Following Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town, Betty and I felt it necessary to create Anti-Comics-Feminist Bingo.
Clearly, some things are just Meant To Be.

Just read manga like the rest of the girls.
You’re only jealous because you don’t look like that.
So you want comics full of ugly fat chicks?
If you don’t like them, don’t read them.
That’s censorship!
But doing martial arts in high heels is perfectly reasonable!
But super-strong women don’t need bras!
But she’s from an alien culture with no nudity taboo!
But girls often wear skirts. Why wouldn’t they go flying in them?
But that costume suits her personality!
No one wants realism in comics!
But rape happens in real life too!
But men are drawn unrealistically too!
Men can’t help themselves! Why are you punishing us for our biology?
Women just don’t get comics.
If you don’t like it, shut up and write your own.
Why are you complaining about comics when women in Muslim countries are oppressed?
This is just fanboy entitlement… from women!
There aren’t many women working in mainstream comics because they’re just not good enough.
…I mean, because they’re just not interested.
Sexism is a convention of the genre!
Are you calling me a misogynist!?
My girlfriend never complains about this stuff.
But male characters die too!
Comics are never going to change. You’re wasting your time.

The Body Beneath: In Which the Author Ponders the Reality of Our Fictional Heroes

The first of the GRC Mystery Guest Bloggers is Amy Reads, a feminist academic with a penchant for popular culture. This includes books, television, movies, and, of course, comic books. You can read more of her thoughts thereon at her exceptional blog, Arrogant Self-Reliance.
Are you familiar, Gentle Reader, with the Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer, Connie Willis? She is, without question, one of This Humble Author’s Favorite Writers, sharing a list with such heavy hitters as Elizabeth Bishop, Charlotte Bronte, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Thackeray. In an authorial preface to her short story ‘Even the Queen,’ Ms. Willis responds to criticism that claims her stories do not focus enough on feminist issues by presenting said story, which she claims deals with The Women’s Issue. No, Friends, not the right to choose, but rather, Ms. Willis’s story details a futuristic society in which women worldwide are united by one common goal: the right Not To Cycle.
The Woman’s Issue, Ms. Willis says. An essentialist issue, one that manages, in the pages of Ms. Willis’s text, to unite almost all women, worldwide. Ultimate control over one’s body. Because the truth of the matter is, Friends, that bodies are intrinsically messy, by their very nature. Because bodies function without any real help from Us. Because bodies function, every day, ad nauseam, and when they stop, we do, as well.
I begin not with a comic book example but a science fiction one because when Ms. Healey asked me to Guest on This Delightful Blog, Ms. Willis’s quote was the first that came to mind. Because despite the fact that I speak, Long and Hard, about Women in Comics, sometimes—just sometimes, Gentle Reader!—I forget that there are real bodies on these fictional pages.
That is to say, I understand, perfectly, that the characters I adore are not real. Dinah Lance, Diana of Themyscira, Kitty Pryde, even Selina Kyle are not My Friends, and we do not, I’m sorry to say, call each other up on the Telephone and chat about, well, our BFFness and Other Such Oddities. But I know these women, because I have read them, for years. I know these women, because Great Writers and Artists have breathed life into them, given them wonderful stories and histories. I know these women, because I have laughed and cried with them. I have been outraged on their behalf. I have commiserated in their moments of misery.
I know these women, because I am A Reader Of Comic Books.
And because I Read Comics, I also know that with Super Heroes come Super Bodies, and to be honest, Gentle Reader, we don’t often see the messy sloppiness on our brightly colored pages.
By recognizing the Body Within, that Very Real Body that is ruled by messiness, by sloppiness, by fragility and strength and everyday-ness, by understanding that if struck, they will bleed, we begin to understand that Saving the Day is somewhat different for Our Super Heroes of the Double-X Chromosome Persuasion. By seeing Selina Kyle struggle back into her catsuit postpartum, we remember that a woman’s body changes, forever, after childbirth. We remember, Gentle Reader, a woman’s capacity for pregnancy. With that remembrance, we begin to understand The Body Beneath.
The Body Beneath fascinates me, but not in A Naughty Way, and not for the reasons You Might Think. Rather, the idea that a Super Hero must save the day, and save it while experiencing acid indigestion, or a headache, or a pulled muscle, or, yes, other aches and pains unique to men or to women, is to understand what it means, truly, to Be A Hero. Because being a hero is understanding fear, and facing it head on, anyways. Being a hero, Gentle Reader, means sometimes forgetting The Body Beneath and focusing solely on The Body In Peril. That Body is rarely the hero’s, and if by some chance it is? The Hero will ignore her pain in favor of someone else’s safety, always.
The Body Beneath is fragile, even when it isn’t. Even when it’s Kryptonian, or Made of Clay, or Fueled by Suns or Gods or Stars in the Sky. There is always a weakness, is there not? There is always a trick to be shared, a role to be played, a chance for defeat. And most fragile yet, the Human Body, to which Barbara Gordon can attest. Broken, beaten, most assuredly hurt in the most obscene manner by the Joker and his men.
But, and there is a but, Gentle Reader, Barbara Gordon came back as Oracle. She came back even more powerful than before. She didn’t move beyond body but rather moved beyond the dependency society swears for The Body Beneath. Because the Brain is still housed in The Body, yes? As are the Hands part of Said Body. As are The Eyes, the Mouth, the Heart. Rather than discount our belief in the Super Hero’s need for The Body Beneath—for who needs Body more than the Super Hero?—Barbara Gordon as Oracle redefined it.
This seems, to This Humble Author, at least, an interesting statement on society’s constant association of women with their bodies.
Have you noticed, Gentle Reader, the amount of Feminist Issues concerned with Women’s Bodies? That is to say, many of the more political, heated, and/or controversial issues in Feminist Debates Today are concerned with The Body Beneath. The right to Choose, the right To Choose Not To (a la Ms. Willis), the right for Freedom of Expression and Freedom from Fear. The right to work for livable wages, equal wages for equal work. The right to Maternity Leave and the freedom from Heterosexual Imperative.
‘The personal is political,’ Second-Wave Feminists said, demonstrating that women’s concerns are so often personal concerns. Women’s Rights so often discuss Women’s Control over Their Own Bodies.
‘The personal is political,’ my Big-Sister Feminists said. To which we Third-Wavers responded, ‘So, too, is the Political Personal.’
That is, we draw our Movement inward as well as continue to push outward. We see the Pain and Despair of Our Sisters on the faces of those sitting Right Next To Us. We see the struggle of Choice, say, on our television screens, in our theaters, on the pages of our comic books. The Body Beneath reminds us, again and again, that despite our fragile flesh, we continue onwards, striving to be the Heroes We Know We Can Be.
Or, perhaps, because of that assumed fragile flesh. The Body Beneath, then, becomes a reminder of the Very Real Struggle for Equality Across The Board: in real life, in popular culture, and yes, even in Comic Books. Our Great Writers remind us, again and again, that even the strongest of Super Heroes suffer from the Difficulties of Super Bodies. Superman consistently holds himself back, because he knows what his strength can do to fragile flesh, but so, too, does Wonder Woman, does Big Barda.
And further, we are reminded, Again and Again, that some wish Never To Divorce Women From The Processes Of Their Bodies. That is to say, there are some people in the world—just some, Gentle Reader!—who believe because a woman has Certain Anatomy that she is Certainly Weaker, or More Coy, or, the most blasphemous and outrageous of sentiments, Deserving Of What She Has Gotten, Whether Good Or Bad (but mostly Bad). With the recognition of the messy sloppiness of the Super Hero Body comes the recognition of the constant association of Women With Their Bodies.
But over the past few years, three characters have come into play who truly redefine the gendered boundaries placed upon Super Bodies. From the Marvel Universe, the new Hawkeye, and from the DC Universe, the new Manhunter and the new Question.
Kate Bishop, Kate Spencer, and Renee Montoya all take mantles previously held by male characters, but rather than experience a Batgirl to a Batman—a precocious youthful protégé who cannot exist without the moniker the elder man made so famous, so feared—these women truly own their mantles. They do not struggle to fit in as girls or women usurping a traditionally male role, but instead become the role, and Damn The Gender.
Perhaps that is not fair, Friends, because these three women in fact revel in Their Gender, and don’t ever make allowances for their womanhood. Rather, what these three characters demonstrate is that Super Heroes need not be divided by gender. Super Heroes need not be divided into Boy and Girl Camps. Renee Montoya’s recent transformation into The Question is a transformation into an identity that is, by its Very Nature, Absent of Identity. It is a mantle that depends solely on the mantle, solely on the heroism, solely on the worth of the person, male or female, beneath. It is a mantle that, Truly, Friends, depends on a complete redefinition of The Body Beneath.
What Renee Montoya’s The Question ultimately demonstrates, to This Humble Author, at least, is that if a redefinition and a reclamation of The Body Beneath can occur successfully in our Literature, in our Popular Culture, then it can in our ‘Real Life’ as well. Renee is a strong woman and a strong hero, and neither identity is dependent on the other.
With the reminder that even Catwoman’s Catsuit is a Tad Too Tight Postpartum, we are reminded that these Super Heroes, despite their fictional status, are painted from real life. That despite what happens on the pages of our fictional texts, or in the episodes of our fictional television series, or in our movies, our music, our toys, that Impact Does Happen. That Recognition Does Take Place.
Ms. Marianne Moore, one of This Humble Author’s Favorite Poets, begins her text entitled ‘Poetry’ (1921): ‘I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle’ (line 1), which is rather a Contentious Thing To Say About Poetry when one is both a poet and beginning a poem about poetry, no?
With these lines, Ms. Moore acknowledges that there are more important things in the world than poetry. Certainly, there are. Every moment on this Earth someone needs help, whether Emotional, Mental, or Physical. Why, then, her poem asks, do we concern ourselves with trivial things such as poetry? But the next two lines insist that once you understand this uselessness of poetry in the face of More Important Things, once you understand it with ‘perfect contempt’ (line 2), you can find in it, after all, ‘a place for the genuine’ (line 3). This place for the genuine, the poem ultimately argues, is in the presentation of ‘‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’’ (line 24).
‘Imaginary gardens,’ Gentle Reader. The face of Fiction. ‘Imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ is the face of Real Life as presented in Fiction. It is the moment we connect with literature, with popular culture, with each other.
It is the moment we see The Body Beneath, or the Cause Within, or the Expectation of Change and Triumph in Reality.
It is the moment Our Entertainment Reflects Us.
And in that moment, we are challenged to Reflect Back. What we say to those ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,’ then, is ultimately Up To Us.