Invisible Women

Hello dear readers! How are you? I am grand!
I am also busy, because, for those of you who didn’t know, my current livelihood is writing a dissertation about superhero comics and fandom. It is super-fun, and also providing plenty of fodder for this column.
Like, for example, why, even in academia, is the superhero comic ‘fan’ nearly always assumed to be male? Female fans (like female creators and scholars) are treated as special outliers, and are usually described parenthetically or in a way that marks them as a special interest group. That is, when they’re acknowledged as existing at all.
There are, of course, presently far fewer female fans than male of the superhero books, although precise numbers are hard to come by. There used to be many more. But, like female creators and scholars, they do still exist, and in not insignificant numbers, as hitting any message board, comics blogroll or most comics shops will clearly indicate. And yet, we get situations like the following e-mail from a colleague of mine:
So I’m doing this Batman essay for a book, right? My editor just sent me the proofer’s comments, and he refers to the author (me) as ‘he’ throughout it. Despite my name being RIGHT THERE.
Of course, it’s difficult to assign a gender to some names, but ‘Mary’ is not generally considered to be one of them. Had the proofer been genuinely confused about the writer’s gender, he could have used gender-neutral language. Instead, I suspect that, despite the evidence to the contrary, he assumed the writer of a Batman essay was, naturally, male.
Or, how about this: in a recent collection of essays and interviews, Inside The World of Comic Books, edited by Jeffery Klaehn, there is an interview with artist and industry legend Bob Layton.
JK: The American superhero has endured for almost a century, sustaining both commercial and cultural relevance. Why do you feel this has been the case?
BL: … The struggle of ‘gods and mortals’ in comics is a theme as old as storytelling itself. Comics are the modern mythology that we, as a society, template our fears and dreams onto. It’s the universal power fantasy we all dream of to have the ability to soar above our problems or pummel them into dust.
Wonderful stuff! That’s certainly one of the reasons I love the superhero genre. But later:
JK:Why don’t more women read comic books in North America, in your view?
BL: Because they’re not written for women. Why don’t you read Harlequin romance novels*? I would speculate that they simply don’t appeal to you.
So superhero stories are modern mythology, the template for society’s fears and dreams and a universal power fantasy and not for women. If women don’t read comics, as Layton believes, yet society’s fears and dreams template onto the superhero comic, as Layton also believes, then there is implicitly no place for women in society. Women are simply excluded from the universal ‘we’ Layton envisages.
He could have, perhaps, made a case for superheroism as an exclusively male fantasy an argument that I deride as bull, but would at least have been logically consistent with his other claim but he doesn’t define the universal dream that narrowly. Instead, women are outside, Other, invisible to the ‘we’ that all dream of soaring over ‘our’ problems.
Incidentally, though Inside The World of Comic Books does a fair job of raising the question of women in comics during interviews, and the cover features a small boy and small girl both reading superhero comics, there is not a single contribution by a female author, nor a single interview with a female creator.
This follows a general trend. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on female creators are called things like A Century of Women Cartoonists or She Draws Comics: 100 Years of America’s Women Cartoonists. Books and exhibits that focus exclusively on male creators are given titles like Artists On Comic Art or Inside the World of Comic Books, or the unintentionally honest Masters of American Comics. Like every other goddamn thing in the world, exclusively male productions in comics are assumed to be universal.
A universe that excludes you is not a welcoming place. There are comparatively fewer female superhero fans, but they are there, and they are increasing. Perhaps they would increase a lot faster if the industry and the academy could stop treating us as invisible women.
Leslie Caribou, on the history of female fans.
Comment on this column here.

  • By the way, I am so sick of this comparison. There are, in fact, plenty of romance novels written for and enjoyed by men. They’re called ‘novels’. If we’re insisting on ‘romance’ as ‘stories written to formula with a focus on erotic or romantic encounters’, my father’s Westerns were just as formulaic and included as many erotic situations and resolutions as the Harlequins I’ve read, with the caveat that they were somewhat more limited in period and setting. Romance widely appeals to men if it’s not described as such and thus stigmatised as unmasculine.

Misfit Reads Your Mail Forever.


Karen was sitting in the corner reading through stacks of thick books with weird titles and when I asked if I could help she looked at me blankly and said ‘Can you translate Michel Foucault into comprehensible English?’
So I said ‘Um, okay, ‘Michael Phooko’?’ and she walked straight into the kitchen and pulled down the top-shelf whiskey. I guess she won’t be writing a column tonight. That! means! MAILBAG!
Dear GRC,
I understand what it’s like to have evil in one’s family, since my own brother-in-law killed my husband and my two beautiful children. Thus, I feel it appropriate not to berate my occasional teammate Captain Boomerang on his own unsavory family connection.
However, I also understand national pride and identity. While I have also taken the name of a weapon as my own, mine is the traditional weapon of my people. When my nationality was revoked, I discarded the costume that was based on its flag, but my name is derived from my cultural heritage, and remains. Captain Boomerang II is a white American appropriating the traditional weapons of a culture his white half-Australian father regarded with racist hatred and contempt.
How should I bring this matter to his attention?
Dear Katana,
First, I am super sorry about your kids and husband. Losing your family sucks majorly and I’m glad you have a team to be your family because that is helping me a lot even if Oracle makes me babysit and I am way too old for little kid games and it’s totally not because I’m ‘too dense to comprehend the laws of battle’ so there Barda!
Re: Boomer, um, tricky, but you’re right, that is totally not cool. I think a wicked awesome way to tell someone something they don’t want to hear is after you give them lots of snacks. If someone’s all sugared up and saltified then they’re way more likely to be in a good mood. I’m always in a good mood when I write these letter columns!
So stuff him full of ice-cream and give him the bad news. Also, is he going out with Supergirl? ‘Cos I heard a rumour that he might be and if she’s embarrassed about older guys maybe that’s why she hasn’t called me yet.
Let me know!
Dear GRC,
A fictionalised account of the life of an acquaintance of mine is to appear on film, directed by one Mr. F. Miller. I understand that in such circumstances one cannot expect the strictest adherence to the facts, but you can imagine my shock and outrage when I discovered that the part bearing my own name is that of a ‘sexy and intelligent secretary with a vindictive instinct.’
I am both a surgeon and a nuclear physicist, and I worked exceptionally hard to gain both those qualifications in a time when women were firmly discouraged from pursuing either. Is my disappointment justified?
Dr S. Floss.
Dear Dr Silken Floss, Ph.D., M.D.
It totally is! There’s nothing bad about being a secretary, but casting a doctor (times two!) as a secretary, especially to make her the secretary to some guy, is way skeezy. It’d be kinda like if someone made a movie that had Ms. Vicki Vale in it, but said she was a gossip columnist gadfly. Or one about me that said I was a klutzy ditz instead of a super awesome crimefighting machine!
I hope this Miller guy comes to his senses and gives you the credit you deserve!
I mean, surely, right?
Dear GRC,
Recently, I formally adopted a girl I met overseas while I was training to be the world’s greatest martial artist. She’s a really great kid, but she had a violent upbringing, so finding her a school was pretty hard. She was finally settled in when she was kidnapped by assassins, who I naturally kicked the holy hell out of.
The point is that my boyfriend faked her death and sent her out of the country without telling me about it until after the fact. I hadn’t slept, eaten, or changed my clothes for three days, which was when he finally let me know she was safe in another country. By then I was hallucinating all kinds of crap, and apparently said I’d marry him.
The picture enclosed portrays my reaction when I worked this out:
Obviously, I can’t get married to someone who would make a secret plan for my daughter without telling me about it, kidnap that daughter, and let me believe she was dead for three days! How should I break off the engagement?
One Angry Bird.
Dear Canary,
He says he hearts you but he acts like he anti-hearts you? That is the wrongest thing ever! E-VA!
Put the ring in pig food and feed it to some pigs and when he says ‘Hey, pretty bird, where’s my ring?’ tell him, ‘I gave it back to a pig, PIG.’ Then kick him in the head. Nothing says ‘The wedding’s off!’ like concussion.
But first maybe you’d better make sure he wasn’t mind-controlled by a vengeful sorceress or being impersonated by conniving New God or actually a Skrull. There’s been a lot of that going around and it would explain a lot. Or maybe you were a Skrull! Are you feeling Skrully?
Love (but not the kind that lies to you),
Well, you guys, Karen has faceplanted in the middle of her desk and is snoring like you wouldn’t believe, so I’m gone! Like all the nacho chips. Catch you next mailbag, same Misfit time, same Misfit channel!
Misfit out!

You’re Fucking Hilarious.

Occasional Superheroine lists the reasons she thinks Dan DiDio is on his way out.
Dirk Deppey of Journalista responds:
Valerie Dorazio counts down the many mistakes of Dan DiDio and DC Comics:
[quotes from Occasional Superheroine omitted*]
Now, if she could just get over her fear of ck. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Classy. But hey, he’s just kidding! Folks, there’s nothing to liven up a link like a witty joke about women criticising the status quo because of their fear of the almighty peen! Especially when you’re talking about a woman who was hospitalised when she suffered a torn cervix during penile intercourse! That’s almost like a double entendre or something! Dirk follows this example of what passes for wit with: Seriously, while I might quibble with a statement here or there — Time/Warner taking an article in Mother Jones seriously? In what universe is this supposed to be plausible, I wonder? — the piece is still interesting enough to make it today’s must-read article. Oh, but seriously, folks, good stuff from the little woman. Whose position he has already invalidated as cock-fearing. While joking about her penis-related injuries. Jeez, girls! It was only a deeply traumatic experience! Don’t you HAVE a sense of humour? *Edit: To clarify Occasional Superheroine refers to ‘ck-ups’[sic], and Deppey says that ‘the joke had nothing to do with anything outside of typography’. I have no trouble believing that was his intent. However, in so saying, he 1) ignores that the joke has no meaning without an appeal to misogynistic stereotypes about frigidity and 2) appears to believe that ‘I had no intention of saying a shitty thing’ absolves you of having actually said it.

Let’s Play Spot The Editor

Birds of Prey #109 spoilers, so skim down if you don’t want to know.
Tony Bedard’s filling in for a couple of issues, and good for him. There are several things I love about this issue Barda and Sin playing Pokemon, for example, which made my morning. Then there’s something I hate the murder of Knockout which is editorial mandate, not Bedard’s fault. GOD and/or DIDIO, could we keep both members of a non-same-sex couple alive? Just ONCE?
And then there’s this, which combines so much wrong and so much right in one panel:

Okay, let’s just count to ten while we reflect on the gorgeousness of Nicola Scott’s pencils.
Now, all together: What the FUCK? Shado is not Connor’s mother. Connor’s mother is a Korean-African-American woman named Moonday who has appeared in the comics many a time before. Oh dear God, please say this is a terrible writing error combined with a sleepy and overworked editor, not a post-Infinite-Crisis retcon? Because, while Connor kissing Daddy’s rapist is exceptionally gross, Connor kissing Daddy’s rapist (his mom) would break my fragile, girlish spirit.
But on the side of awesome, a DCU character, and Dinah, no less, acknowledges that Ollie was raped by Shado. And she used the specific word ‘rape’ not ‘forced him’ or ‘didn’t ask him’ he was raped. Oh, Tony Bedard, I forgive you your glaring continuity error! You’ve fixed a persistent little misandrist/misogynist thorn in my side that went so long unacknowledged I thought no one would ever pull it out.
My fragile, girlish spirit is in transports of delight.
Also! If you are into ‘Karen writes about things’, I’ve recently written a couple of things in other places.
In the August edition of Cerise, the online gaming magazine for women, I write about becoming a gamer.
And at Blog@Newsarama, I contribute to the I Heart Comics series with I Heart Teenagers.

The Reprehensible Resurrection of Gor.

‘… of Gor’, like ‘in my pants’, is one of those delightful suffixes you can add to any phrase for giggles and fun. ‘Cyclops can never take off his visor… of Gor!’ ‘Superboy Prime broke the continuity… of Gor!’ ‘I’m the goddamn Batman… of Gor!’
‘… of Gor.’ As a pastime, it provides minutes of wholesome delight!
As a puerile fantasy novel series that promotes rigid gender roles, idealises the emotional and sexual slavery of women, and demonises women who assert control over their own sexuality, it’s much less entertaining.
The Gor series, by John Norman, dropped off the reprint lists some years back. Being anti-censorship, I was much enheartened by the natural demise of this despicable work.
Now comics publisher Dark Horse is reprinting them in omnibus form, possibly because they have seen the pot of gold at the foot of the misogyny rainbow, or possibly because our culture just isn’t replete enough with fictional examples of women who really honestly! want to be raped.
Fantasy and comics writer Tamora Pierce ably summarises the series’s repugnant ideology on her journal:
Briefly, [hero] Tarl Cabot travels from our world to its opposite, circling the Sun just across from us, so we never know it’s there! Gor is a fantasy world, where men wear leather harnesses and carry swords, and women wear flimsy outfits. Most women also wear steel collars and steel bracelets, because they are slaves.
You heard me.
Every bed has a slave ring attached to it. If a woman misbehaves, she gets locked to it and spends the night sleeping on the hard stone floor to teach her manners. (Gorean nights are cold, too.) Not all women are slavesthere are Free Companions, free in that they don’t have to wear collars. That status is flexible:
’ … when she has been irritable or otherwise troublesome, even a Free Companion may find herself looking forward to a pleasant night on the stones, stripped, with neither a mat nor a blanket, chained to a slave ring precisely as though she were a lowly slave girl. … A taste of the slave ring is thought to be occasionally beneficial to all women.’ Why do the men do this? ‘It is the Gorean way of reminding her … that she, too, is a woman, and thus to be dominated, to be subject to men.’
(For the curious and strong of stomach, Bellatrys has a plentiful selection of extracts with commentary collected here.)
Some people adore these Gorean ideals of female bondage and male supremacy so much that they try to live them. Oddly, the Gorean community has been plagued with a reputation as cult-like and abusive! Who’da fucking thunk.
However, the allegations of book-inspired abuses, distressing as they are, aren’t so much my concern. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if all Goreans were totally innocent of these accusations, making the adult, fully informed decision to live out repulsive misogyny by choice. Mildly surprised, yes. But I’d still object to the books.
The books are vile. (Also, poorly written and didactic. But mostly, just plain sick-making.) Our hero is meant to be a gentler being than the native Goreans, with a truly touching concern for the rights of women. He thinks they should be better treated! And maybe not branded and enslaved if they really don’t want to be, although sometimes they do secretly want to be enslaved, or they don’t but they’d like it if they just tried, so how can you tell*?
Bitches, man.
An extract from Outlaw of Gor (the second Gor novel, and thus the middle chunk of the forthcoming omnibus) provides the musings of this noble-minded saviour on Tharna, a city where women (atypically) rule:
[I]n Tharna both the men and the women came eventually to believe the myths or the distortions advantageous to female dominance. …
Yet this situation, socially viable though it might be for generations, is not one truly productive of human happiness. … In a city such as Tharna the men, taught to regard themselves as beasts, as inferior beings, seldom develop the full respect for themselves essential to true manhood. But even more strangely the women of Tharna do not seem content under the gynocracy. Although they despise men and congratulate themselves on their more lofty status it seems to me that they, too, fail to respect themselves. Hating their men they hate themselves.
I have wondered sometimes if a man to be a man must not master a woman and if a woman to be a woman must not know herself mastered. I have wondered how long nature’s laws, if laws they are, can be subverted in Tharna. I have sensed how a man in Tharna longs to take the mask from a woman, and I have suspected how much a woman longs for her mask to be taken.
Indeed, the female ruler of the city secretly dreams of a strong virile man just like our protagonist raping her into happiness.
And how is Dark Horse promoting this anti-feminist claptrap?
Part science fiction, part adventure novel, the stories in the world of Gor would unfold to show Tarl Cabot’s growth from a novice to a man whose fate might determine the course of every man, woman, and child on Gor.

John Norman’s Gor Omnibus 1 collects the first three novels in the series. Prepare to take a journey to a land of passion and sorcery.

Hear that, kids? Passion and sorcery! Not slavery, rape and abuse at all! These are perfectly lovely sci-fi adventure novels with swords and stuff.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… of Gor.

  • In case you thought I was joking about the branding from Tarnsman of Gor, the first in the series:
    I have known of several cases in which a proud, insolent woman, even one of great intelligence, who resisted a master to the very touch of the iron, once branded became instantly a passionate and obedient Pleasure Slave.
    Even mouthy smart bitches really honestly! want to be raped.

[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 [] 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 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.