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Monday, March 24, 2014

Tolkien's Women

This week I finished Tolkien's "The Fall of Arthur" and noted, in the obligatory Facebook capsule-review, that Tolkien's portrayal of Guinevere is entirely unsympathetic. This led Friend of the Blog Kody Lightfoot to suggest that Tolkien "succumbs" to a patriarchal habit of writing women solely to articulate a male "Heroic Journey." Accusations of misogyny or patriarchy in Tolkien are not, of course, new, and Kody (with whom I share a deep abiding love for the character of Eowyn) was not trying to indict Tolkien's body of work so much as this particular text. I think she's basically right, even if I am hesitant to use the phrase "Hero's Journey" with Tolkien because, as soon as we do, we have entered The Land of Joseph Campbell, where every tale is essentialized and we lose everything that makes LotR unique in favor of an all-consuming monomyth. But Kody's prompting has led me to confront Tolkien's portrayal of women in his published fiction, by which I mean Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Readers of Tolkien know that the problem is not that Tolkien writes poor female characters; Galadriel, Eowyn, and Arwen have personal, moving, and very compelling stories, even if Arwen's is largely limited to the Appendices and Galadriel's saw print only after Tolkien's death. The problem is rather that there simply aren't enough of these women. If we add Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Goldberry, Shelob, Rosie Cotton, and Ioreth, the "eldest of the women" who serve in Gondor's Houses of Healing, we may have covered every single female character who actually appears in LotR's primary narrative (that is, who isn't dead or mentioned only in the Appendices). Consider for a moment the staggering size of the male cast in this novel.

It will surprise no one to know that I have a theory about this. What I see when I look at LotR is great psychological anxiety around the creation of female characters. That is to say, Tolkien seems unwilling to create female characters that are not burdened with great meaning. He is reluctant to create a woman with a supporting or cameo role, especially if the character's female gender is not essential to that role. There are no female characters in LotR or The Hobbit who just happen to female, and whenever a minor character does appear, that character is presumed male. Male is the "normal" in Lord of the Rings, and that's a textbook definition of anti-feminist literature, but the female characters we do have spit in the face of misogyny and patriarchy in very obvious and even confrontational ways.

Quite simply, I think that Tolkien was nervous about his female characters. I think he lacked the confidence required to write women "naturally," and he was more than a little uptight about making sure the women in his book all "say something." I think he felt the eyes of potential critics in a way which he himself would have almost certainly denied. And this led him to, whenever he needed a new character, assume that character was male unless he had a really good reason for thinking otherwise. Knowing what we do about Tolkien's Roman Catholic faith, Tolkien grew up and embraced the worldview that men and women are not fundamentally the same, but that they are fundamentally different, that God gave women different virtues and graces than men and that feminism, in what is often and mistakenly perceived as a desire for gender blindness, is misguided. (1) In our post-feminist era it is often possible for a male writer to skate by female characters by relying on their human-ness rather than their woman-ness -- by showing the things we all have in common regardless of gender -- even if the harder task of grappling with their woman-ness is judged too difficult or, mistakenly, inappropriate. But Tolkien is writing from a religious understanding that emphasizes the differences between men and women, and I think that although he wanted to present admirable and compelling female characters, he didn't have the confidence to write them casually. If they weren't serving some Higher Purpose, he cut them.

Lets use some examples.

Fans of LotR know that the introduction of the character of Strider was fairly spontaneous. Originally a hobbit who wore wooden shoes and who was named Trotter, Strider is mentioned in a letter Tolkien wrote to his son confiding that this new character had suddenly appeared in the novel, and Tolkien didn't really know what his story was, and was more or less making it up as he went along. Now, we have a tremendous advantage when we write about and analyze Tolkien's writing because we have so much material relating to his drafting and revision process. And we can see now, with hindsight, that the revision process was absolutely critical to Tolkien and frequently included major changes to the plot. It is hard to imagine LotR without Aragorn, the King Elessar, whose origins grow out of this humble hobbit named Trotter. And there are many more examples of Tolkien doing this: introducing a new character who, over the process of revision, gains a distinctive voice and character and role in the story.

Compare the character of Idis. Most of you are not going to know who Idis is, with good reason. In the first draft of "The King of the Golden Hall" -- the chapter in which Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Gandalf arrive in Rohan -- there are two women, not one. Eowyn is Theoden's niece, his "sister-daughter," but there is also another woman, Idis, who is Theoden's actual daughter and, therefore, a princess, Theodred's sister. Again, this is from a very early stage of the work, and you can tell because, in this version, Aragorn and Eowyn eventually marry. That's because Arwen has not been invented yet, and the whole Tale of Aragorn and Arwen cannot exist. In any case, Idis has no lines in this first draft of "King of the Golden Hall", and exists for only a few pages before she is summarily written out and merged with Eowyn.

Imagine for a minute what we might have gotten if, instead of excising her, Tolkien had left Idis in and worked with her, given her the same time to develop and change as a character that he gave to Trotter or to so many other male characters in the book? We would be celebrating Idis alongside Galadriel and the rest. But, instead, Tolkien cut her. Why? I believe (and it's only a theory) that he just wasn't sure what to do with her and, rather than leave her in, let a good idea come to him, and risk her being boring -- as he was confident doing with male characters -- he felt it was safer to cut her entirely. He just could not risk a female character that wasn't compelling. It was better to have no women than boring women.

There are plenty of moments in LotR where we could have gotten more female characters, either as walk-ons or in supporting roles. There are no female servants anywhere in the book, for example. Wouldn't Eowyn have a female servant, and wouldn't a conversation between those two women have been illuminating? Wouldn't Galadriel or Arwen have a lady's maid? Remember Bergil, son of Beregond, who kept Pippin company after he arrived in Minas Tirith, and who stood on the walls with him as the Muster rode into the gates. Would that chapter have been richer or poorer if Bergil had been a daughter instead of a son?

I have a confession to make: the first time I read LotR, I thought Merry was a girl. In my defense, I was only 12 and "Mary" is clearly a girl's name. Other than the fact that everyone kept referring to "Mary" as a he, the novel worked perfectly well with her in it, even at the Scouring of the Shire when that kick-ass girl "Mary" summoned the hobbit folk and routed Sharkey's men. I liked that book. I still love it today. And whenever I write fiction, I invariably begin with a female protagonist, something Tolkien never seemed to have the confidence to attempt. But although contemporary authors are far more comfortable writing female characters, that doesn't mean Tolkien didn't do it well when he felt he had something worth saying. For Tolkien, men are allowed to be without meaning, but women -- recipients of a divine grace a man can recognize but never own -- cannot.

(1) EDITED: It is absolutely important to clarify that "gender-blindness" is not the goal of feminism, and critics who maintain that feminists want to tell stories in which "It doesn't matter if a character is male or female because the story will read exactly the same" are misrepresenting feminism. The fact is we live in a world in which being a woman has enormous consequences, and telling a story in which a woman's experience is not affected by her woman-ness is just as fantastic and imaginary as a novel with Orcs, Elves, and magic rings. My thanks to Kody Lightfoot for helping me to attain better clarity on this point.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mark Millar, Shakespeare, and the Topic of Rape

Comics Alliance editor-in-chief Joe Hughes published a blog post on Thursday taking Mark Millar to task for his insensitive attitude towards rape. You can read it yourself here. Hughes' began with quoting Millar's own argument that rape is just another act which an author inserts in a book to show that the bad guy is bad. It's equivalent to decapitation. Millar's argument is that, to show a bad guy is a bad guy, you need to have the opposite of the Pet the Dog scene, and it doesn't really matter what that scene entails as long as it achieves its purpose: showing that the villain is villainous. Hughes went on to argue that this was incredibly insensitive considering how many women are raped in our country. He argued that rape and decapitation are not at all the same, because none of the people reading a comic book today have ever been decapitated. And Hughes ended with the suggestion that, if we really want to know who the bad guy is, Millar is that bad guy.

Hughes's article prompted some passionate exchanges on my FB page. One friend of mine argued in defense of Millar and invoked the Big Giant Head himself, by which I mean Shakespeare. The argument is pretty simple: "Look, Shakespeare depicted rape. If we're going to stop reading Millar because he depicts rape, we should stop reading Shakespeare. But that's silly; no one is suggesting we stop reading Shakespeare because he depicts rape, and so Millar should also not be shunned just because he depicts rape."

It's an easy argument to understand and, considering the status Shakespeare enjoys in our culture, it is probably an inevitable one. So let's look at how valid it is.

Rape appears in precisely one of Shakespeare's 40 (or so, depending on which you count) plays. Well, that's the first crack in this argument, isn't it? Because a great many of Millar's works feature rape; in addition to the Kick-Ass 2 scene which began this conversation, we might also include the time when Thor was sodomized with a jackhammer or the time the protagonist of Wanted compared his own comic to fucking you, the reader, up the ass. (One day I will write a paper comparing the end of Wanted to the end of the Tempest, when Prospero pleads with the audience to release him from bondage through the power of applause, but not today.) If we just run the numbers, Shakespeare is not a very good defense of Millar.

There are a couple of other plays which threaten rape, but the only one in which the act is actually completed is, of course, Titus Andronicus. This is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. Today, we might call it his first tragedy, but Shakespeare's audience might not have thought of it that way, since they had already seen Richard III. Regardless, it's an early work. And it's pretty interesting. But let's be honest: very few people would argue that it is Shakespeare's best work. For Mark Millar, maybe we could compare this to his voluminous work on 2000AD, where he wrote Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper and many other characters. Good stuff maybe, but it's not what people talk about when they talk about Millar. If we were defending Millar by quoting King Lear, Hamlet, or Twelfth Night, well, now that would be persuasive. But trying to defend Millar by talking about one of Shakespeare's least-read and least-performed plays is not persuasive.

Very briefly, it's worth pointing out that the criticism of Millar began with his comics, but it continues through his own personal statements, wherein he explains that rape is just another violent act inserted in a book to shock the reader and illustrate the villain's evil-ness. Defending his work by invoking Shakespeare's work is fine in principle, but this does nothing to defend Millar's authorial statements. (Now, some of you out there are ignoring those statements precisely because they are authorial; after all, we have no idea if Millar is sincere when he says them and, even if he is, Death of the Author, right? This blog is not for all of you. You can skip to the end.) If we were defending Millar by citing Ben Jonson, well, we'd be fine. Because Jonson wrote long pages explaining his own work. But Shakespeare never did. Shakespeare never wrote, "Prithee, to portray rape in a play beeth no shame, for ever and anon it shall prompt the groundlings to hate the villain, and thus cheer all the louder for his fall." Shakespeare didn't say that; that was Millar.

Now it's time to get to the specifics of the rape in question. It occurs off stage. Two wicked brothers are persuaded into gang-raping Titus's daughter, Lavinia. In the process they also cut off her tongue (so she can't tell anyone who did it) and her hands (to keep her from writing down her story). It occurs right after Lavinia has pleaded with the mother of the two boys -- who wields significant power over them, and who gives her to them -- to kill her instead, because she would rather die. This is a particularly long and eloquent speech, which is vitally important to understanding the scene because it contrasts violently with Lavinia's silence for the entirety of the rest of the play. Lavinia lives in a society where women have very little power; what power she does have is in her voice. When Demetrius and Chiron rape her, they don't just perform a violent act on her. It's not like Othello smacking Desdemona across the face. (This seems relevant: Note that in one of Shakespeare's much later, much more read, plays, rape is not required to make us hate a man we began the play admiring.) They strip her of her power, her literal and metaphorical voice. And, to a great degree, the entire rest of the plot hinges on her getting that voice back. Because the villains cannot be caught and punished until they can be identified, and the only person who can identify them is Lavinia. It is not until, holding a stick in the stumps of her hands, Lavinia writes out the names of her rapists in the dirt that Titus learns what has happened, and resolves to secure his revenge at any cost.

In other words, rape is not used casually. It is not used just to shock the reader. It is not just like decapitation. Shakespeare did not just spin a wheel lined with awful deeds ("Kick the hero's dog" "Burn down the hero's house" "Smack his mother around"), watch it land on "Rape!", and then write a rape scene. The entire plot hinges on the rape. The rape is important.

And, therefore, quite in contrast to Millar's expressed attitude towards depictions of rape.

So, in brief, excusing Millar's use of rape in comics by citing Shakespeare fails on three counts.
  • Shakespeare uses rape in only one play.

  • Shakespeare's use of rape occurs in one of his earliest and least mature works, not the works for which he is best known and read today.

  • When Shakespeare does use rape, it is critical to the plot and directly addresses the feminine voice. Millar argues that rape is no different than any other awful deed performed by a bad guy.
And that's about the end of that.

But! If you really want to defend Millar, you're really doing yourself a disservice by citing Shakespeare. I realize he is the Big Giant Head, the apogee of literature and all that, but c'mon. This was easy.

If you really want to defend Millar, you should be saying, "If Alan Moore can do it, why can't Mark Millar?"

And that is a much, much better question.

Update: Bleeding Cool is already going there.

Update 2: And here's the New Republic article that started the conversation. I think the author of that piece has fallen for Millar's self-hype a bit too much, frankly. But the piece does at least give Millar's and Hudson's quotes in context.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Comics, Gun Violence and the Hunger for Narrative

In May, thanks to the good graces of Christina Angel, I was able to present at the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels. Our topic was depictions of violence and healing in comics and there were a great many brilliant people there presenting extraordinary work.

And then there was me. This is my presentation. It's called "Drinking the Sand: Comics, Gun Violence, and the Hunger for Narrative"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

V for Vendetta and Alan Moore's Oeuvre

This, too, is the fault of Hannah Menzies. Hannah is working on a much-anticipated (by me, at least) book on Alan Moore the magus and as we sat in a panel a couple weeks ago in lovely Denver, she leaned back and casually asked, in that way of hers, "How do you think V fits into Moore's body of work?" I rattled off some top-of-my-head answer, but the truth is I have not been able to stop thinking about that question. I think it's a really good one.

Because if you think about it for half a minute, you could probably list a dozen ways in which V for Vendetta is unlike everything else Moore has written. Most obviously, it is an aggressively political work. At least on the surface, it seems to argue for a pretty specific agenda of armed revolution. This is one of the reasons students eventually get into it (once they get past the large cast of characters and Lloyd's art style), and it's one of the things emphasized in the big-screen Hollywood adaptation. Is there anything else in Moore's work which is as polemic as V for Vendetta? And the book's glamorization of the charismatic Great Man leader-hero is so much at odds with the rest of Moore's work that it kind of boggles the mind if you think about it. Even the little bits are tremendously out of character; one of my favorite bits from V is the short story called "Vincent," but it is hard to imagine the infamously-verbose Alan writing another story without any text at all.

I want to acknowledge from the get-go that this is an extremely problematic text, to use the academic slang. And by this, I mean to say this book is pretty fucked up. Imagine a scene, before this movie came out. Imagine a grad student trying to explain to his seminar how V kidnaps Evey, interrogates and tortures her, and when it is all over, she thanks him for it. Imagine the weird looks on everyone's face. Yeah. That was me, trying to explain the most problematic scene in V, back in about 2002.

It will never cease to be a mystery to me that the filmmakers kept that deeply troubling and problematic sequence for the film and then cut everything else, material which was not nearly as offensive, and replaced it with pap. In the film, Evey goes from being an aspiring prostitute working at a match factory (a match factory!) to a cog in a network media machine who is just out after curfew visiting her gay friend. And this is just one obvious example of the way V has been sanitized for a popular audience. But they kept the craziest scene, the scene that must have drawn them to the book in the first place, because it is just so grossly offensive.

But I maintain that the book does have a conscience, and that you can see that conscience at the end, when V enlists Finch to help him perform assisted suicide. V is a wicked man. He's doing some good things, but he remains a wicked man. And according to his own code of behavior, a man must be responsible for his own actions. And that means that the wicked must be punished, and V must die. He knows this. He has judged himself and found himself culpable, and he does not "die" at the end so much as "allow himself to be executed" -- by Finch, the good man who has done wicked things, by the real hero of the story who is V's mirror opposite. But Evey, who has rejected that way of life, deserves to live. And so live she does.

Some have argued that David Lloyd had far more influence over the book than Moore's other creative partners, and I recognize that Lloyd came up with things like the Guy Fawkes connection and so on, but I am not entirely convinced that we should just throw our hands up and blame Lloyd. Moore's collaborative process has had more light shed on it than many other creators and while he does seem to be the only person who writes his scripts, he's not been shy about giving credit to creators on Watchmen or elsewhere.

Let's try to get specific with the question: What does V have in common with Alan's other work?

It's Literate: V is a highly literate text and character. Indeed, at some points in the narrative, V for Vendetta seems to be about Art itself, if not about literature. This begins with V's opening speech from MacBeth, it continues through physical props like the Shadow Gallery and V's frequent quotes from culture high and low, to the theater, Valerie, and "Vaudeville," and finally to the Viking funeral. Perhaps it is better to say that, at times, V is about Artifice more than Art: it is about masks and drama, but that's not what I'm getting at here. What I'm trying to zero in on is the way Moore invokes everything from Shakespeare to the Stones as muses, as badges of honor. But it comes too early in Moore's life to have much (any?) reference to Blake, as From Hell, Promethea, and Angel Passage all do.

In the End, It's Optimistic: Readers don't usually associate this with Moore, but most of his work is affirmative and positive in its estimate of human nature, though it often requires us to work through a lot of crap to get there. Watchmen feels like a post-modern ode to deconstruction until suddenly, at the end, Dr. Manhattan comes to understand that every human being is a kind of miracle, that life is worth living, and that it takes us to strange places and makes us do crazy things. Reading From Hell feels like living in a claustrophobic meat locker, but by the time we reach the end, there's William Gull wheeling around as a confused and impotent ghost while Mary Kelly gives him the finger. A lot of the people in League are tortured and in pain, but ultimately the book is a celebration of creativity, of Art and imagination, of powers so potent and immortal that they outlast even their creators. And V has some really ugly, grubby, awful people in it. Sometimes it seems like there's no one in this book worth cheering for. But when Evey says, "Let it grow," she breaks out of that crappy world to become the best person in this book, and when she accepts the role of V, we at least know the nation is in good hands -- even if the charismatic hero-leader is an anomaly in Moore's book, and one we instinctively mistrust.

It's On Drugs: Seriously, Moore's experiences with LSD are public record and drug use informs multiple texts in his oeuvre, including Swamp Thing and virtually everything he wrote after he became a practicing magician, because hallucinogenic drugs are required for that trade (unless you are William Blake or, like him, see angels sitting on haybales without chemical assistance). The drug use in V is pretty self-contained and it enables a revelatory experience, Finch's epiphany, mirroring V's own and that which V inflicts on Evey. It is a very short jump from this to plant-sex with Swamp Thing.

It's Got Rape: As others (Grant Morrison is only the most notable) have noted long before me, Moore writes a lot about rape. Indeed, it can be a challenge to find one of his texts that does not have rape in it. Now, you can phrase this as, "Moore is obsessed with rape," or you can phrase it as, "The topic of rape is important to Moore," depending on how much of a pejorative you want this trait to be, but no matter how you say it, we have to acknowledge it's there, and V is no exception. The book starts with attempted rape and prostitution (another Moore theme, especially since he became a magus), acts no less central to the plot than the rape of Silk Spectre I or Janni Dakkar.

Personally, I find V for Vendetta a very teachable text. It works well in the classroom because it provokes discussion. There are inevitably some government-hating students in the class who get into it without thinking about it very much, the interrogation of Evey gives us a lot to think and talk about (including Aristotelean notions of catharsis, pity and fear), and the literacy of the entire book rewards close readers, who find additional meaning. YouTube videos of the song's musical numbers bring some great diversity to the classroom space. It uses symbolism and metaphor in some pretty rock solid ways. roses/Rose being only the neatest example. And it comes without a lot of the Cold War baggage that Watchmen brings. If I ever get the chance to teach a single author Alan Moore course, I am not sure I would include it. His early phase is perhaps better represented by something like Ballad of Halo Jones, and the completion of V for Vendetta was contemporaneous with Watchmen, which would presumably be on the syllabus. But when I only have time to teach one Moore comic, it's not a bad choice. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Religion and Superheroes


I spent last week at the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels and the subsequent Denver Comic Con. It was an enormously fun and profitable time. I got to spend the first two days learning from some very smart people working on comics across the spectrum, and then I got to spend a couple days geeking out (not like I don't do that anyway) and visiting with friends like Mike Lafferty and my sister Suzanne, her husband Chris, and my nephew Jake. Long live Arrowman!

I think it was on Thursday when Hannah Menzies and Doug Singsen began talking about religion and superheroes, and Doug graciously suggested I might have something to contribute on this topic. Not that anyone has ever been able to get me to shut up in the first place, but it was kind of him to invite me.

The first thing we should acknowledge on this topic is that no one is better qualified to opine on it than A. David Lewis, who has been writing comics on, and studying superheroes with, religious themes for years. And A. Dave, as he is known in these here parts, besides having a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature and being an accomplished scholar, blogger, and comics creator, has a skill at self-marketing which I am openly envious of, so the fact that I am plugging him here is just demonstrating how well he has cornered this particular field.

There are also several books on the topic, most of which I have not gotten around to reading yet. One that I have read is The Gospel According to Superheroes, but I don't especially recommend it, because while some of its arguments are interesting, it typifies the biggest problem with books of the "Comics And ..." variety, and that is that while the "And..." part is always well researched and documented, backed up by theory and criticism, the "Comics" part is not. The only book or article about comics referenced in The Gospel According to Superheroes is McCloud's Understanding Comics, and as those of us in the field know, that is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I have, however, heard rave reviews of Do The Gods Wear Capes, including from Kent Worcester, who is no slouch in this department, and I look forward to reading it. We should also acknowledge Reynolds' Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, which I think most of us can agree was published ahead of its time, and which has stood up surprisingly well over the years. It's also very approachable by students, and that is no small thing.

With the necessary preamble out of the way, we can get back to the question, which I believe goes something like: "So: Superheroes, Religion; Discuss."

It seems to me that religion intersects with superheroes in the same way that most things intersect with superheroes, and that is in the world of metaphor and allegory. Some people -- like Tom the Dancing Bug and his God-Man strip -- have had a lot of fun suggesting that superheroes are filling the role of God or gods to us these day, but I think this is a bit of a deceptive trap. The superhero is an American invention and Americans do not pray to or worship Superman or Captain America. Mentally healthy individuals do not believe Superman or Captain America exist in the same way they might believe God exists, even when they do decorate their bodies with indelible Superman symbols.

But what superheroes are really good at is telling stories in shorthand; using symbols we all recognize in order to tell a powerful and resonating story with great economy in six, or eight, or twenty-two pages. So, for example, when we see Superman's father send his only son to Earth, we get it. When that infant from one world is rescued by parents of another world, where he is raised in ignorance of his true heritage, only for it to be revealed later in a moment that forces him to choose which of his pasts he is going to embrace, we get it. When Superman sacrifices himself for others and then falls back down to Earth with his arms extended, we get it. And the reason we get these stories, the reason we feel them in our gut, is because they are using the vocabulary of religion as a kind of shorthand for some very complicated ideas. When Clark finds out that he was born on another planet, that the parents that raised him all his life are not the ones who gave him life, and he is forced to choose, a good writer can tap into Moses's personal dilemma and can even play with it. So when, in some stories, Clark embraces his Kryptonian heritage, he's more like Moses, who embraces the fact that he is a Jew and becomes a champion of the Jewish people. But when Clark says no, no, I might be biologically Kryptonian, but in my head and in my heart I'm an American, it's almost like a reverse-Moses. Superman becomes Bizarro-Moses, the Moses who chooses to be Egyptian after all.

Let's take the New Gods for example. If ever there were superhero characters who seem to be about religion, it would be the New Gods. I mean, it's right there in the title. And yet, Highfather and his kind are never worshipped. When worship happens in the New Gods, it is always directed towards Darkseid and is always portrayed as a deeply awful and compromising thing. Orion, Mr. Miracle, Lightray, Metron and the other characters are deeply symbolic, but they are no more gods than Paul Bunyan is a god. What they do is allow us to talk about God in a new, fresh, way. When it is revealed that Highfather does not call the shots on the planet of New Genesis, but in fact answers to a parliament of children, we are reminded that the meek shall inherit the Earth, that the powerful should always answer to the needs of the lowest among us. When Mr. Miracle escapes from yet another enemy without ever throwing a punch, when he is "surely killed" only to rise again in a daily miracle, we are reminded that peace and non-violence are the heart of Christian teachings. The New Gods are, in fact, not the ultimate power in their own setting; there is a disembodied hand which writes on a wall, and that hand belongs to the Uni-Friend, a symbol so obvious that Kirby didn't have to say anything more about it. Ultimately, the New Gods aren't gods at all. They're people of faith, who revere something more powerful than they, something without form but all-loving and all-knowing, something they struggle to understand and live up to. They're us, basically.

Faith is an important part of American culture and I don't see that changing any time soon. It seems to be perfectly appropriate then for superhero comics to use the symbols and language of faith in their stories, because these are symbols and language that most Americans recognize. Which means those scenes work, and will continue to work, for a long time. But in superhero comics, faith has generally been a secondary topic. When it is directly addressed, such as in Frank Miller's Daredevil or Claremont's Nightcrawler stories in X-Men, it was usually an eye-opener, because these sorts of stories were so unusual. Stories like Starlin's Infinity Crusade, Denny O'Neill's Question, or Starlin and O'Neill's Batman story The Cult, were considered "edgy" at the time, because they used the language of Christian religion in morally ambiguous ways.

But filmmakers have been much less hesitant to use religion in superhero films. Personally, I blame the crucifixion pose for this. That damn pose is easy to do, common in films from Superman to Alien: Resurrection, and directors have gone to it so often and so repetitively that I'm always surprised to see a falling action star who does not adopt it. And because these films have made a huge commercial impact on the superhero business, the frequency with which Christian religious symbols have been used in films has bled over into superhero comics, so that now Nightcrawler has, in the comics, become a priest.

I'll leave with one last observation, and that is that some of the best writers working in superhero comics have used their names and reputations to tell stories which give intensely personal stories about faith. In this bucket, I place Morrison's All-Star Superman as well as his non-superhero book The Invisibles, and also Alan Moore's Promethea. All-Star and Promethea are not books which could have been published when their creators were young. Morrison and Moore had to attain a certain invulnerability in the marketplace first. In All-Star, Luthor is converted to good when he sees the face of God. He acquires Superman's powers and, in this state, physically perceives a single intelligence which organizes the universe. We don't see it. But Luthor does and, by necessity then, Superman has. And this explains much about Superman's faith that "there's always a way," in his unshakeable confidence in the innate goodness of all human beings, because he knows there's a God, and God would not allow the world to be a fucked up and unjust disaster. Superman is not at all a being of faith, because he doesn't need faith. He can see God!

And I could unpack Promethea here too, but honestly, you won't read it anyway. Which is a real shame, because it's an amazing book. But when the protagonist goes on a metaphysical tour of the universe in which the Kaballah is represented by subway stations (that's just one issue) and she meets Jesus, God, and the Devil (that's another issue), and has Solomon decide whether or not she gets to keep her powers or cut them in half (a different issue), well, let's just say it's a book about religion and leave it at that.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Journals, Comics-Friendly

Orion, a long time regular on the Comics Scholars Discussion List, began a thread that ended very profitably, with a list of journals focused on or open to comics scholarship. My thanks to Mike Rhode, who helped me locate this list. 

- peer reviewed
- open access (online)
- submissions required to be "grounded in theory"

International Journal of Comic Art
- not peer reviewed 
- subscription (print)
- ToC available online
- very international

European Comic Art
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- ToC available online
- English-language papers but European content

The Comics Journal
- not peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- non-academic but fan-scholarly (?)

Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)

Journal of Popular Culture
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)

Studies in Comics
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- interested in comics as "unique art form"

Image [&] Narrative
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- in English and en Française
- "visual narratology and word and image studies in the broadest sense of the term"

SANE Journal
- peer reviewed
- subscription
- education oriented

Studies in Graphic Narratives
- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- early history of comics/sequential art

- peer reviewed
- subscription (print)
- ToC and some content on Amazon
- manga, animation, and Japanese visual culture

Games and Culture
Game Studies

- peer reviewed
- online
- French, English, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
- "dedicated to the study of popular literature and media culture"

- peer-reviewed
- online
- en Française
- "entend interroger la spécificité ainsi que l'évolution des modes d’expression, de production et de réception de la bande dessinée, de l'illustration, de la caricature, du dessin animé"

Deutsche Comicforschung
- not peer reviewed
- print
- ToC only online
- im Deutsche
- specialized in early German comics

- peer reviewed 
- print

- not peer reviewed 
- print 
- im Deutsche
- fan-oriented

Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art
- peer reviewed
- online 

- not peer reviewed
- online

The Comics Grid
- peer reviewed
- online/print

Revista latinoamericana de estudios sobre la historieta (since 2001)
- peer-reveiwed
- print

- not peer reviewed
- print

Transformative Works and Cultures
"TWC publishes articles about transformative works, broadly conceived; articles about media studies; and articles about the fan community.We invite papers in all areas, including fan fiction, fan vids, film, TV, anime, comic books, fan community, video games, and machinima. We encourage a variety of critical approaches, including feminism, gender studies, queer theory, postcolonial theory, audience theory, reader-response theory, literary criticism, film studies, and posthumanism. We also encourage authors to consider writing personal essays integrated with scholarship; hyperlinked articles; or other forms that test the limits of the genre of academic writing."
- peer-reviewed
- en Français

- not peer reviewed
- en Français

Nona Arte: Revista Brasileira de Pesquisas em Histórias em Quadrinhos
- peer reviewed
- Portuguese 

The Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art 
- peer reviewed
- open access online:
English language
- focus on Nordic countries, but not limited to them

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Kill Shakespeare

My latest article is out.

It's at ImageTexT, a wonderful journal published by the University of Florida. I remember when this journal started, and I have wanted to be published in it since that day, so this is kind of a six-year career milestone for me. I'm deeply indebted to Katherine Shaeffer and Richard Burt for including me.

The issue is organized around the special topic of Shakespeare and Visual Rhetoric. Shakespeare's connection to comics has been a special interest of mine for a long while now; I briefly even tried to organize an essay collection on the topic. I eventually realized that perhaps I ought to finish my dissertation before doing any essay collections, and the work I was going to put in that collection wound up as the fourth chapter of my diss.

For this issue, I focused on "Kill Shakespeare," a 12-issue series published in 2010-2011. It's a very interesting work which earned both condemnation and praise when it was published but which, in my opinion, has not gotten credit for the very interesting ways it goes about defending its own existence, the nature of meta-text, and revisionism in general. I had a lot of fun writing it and I'm indebted to the original authors and artists who cooperated with me by sending me original scripts to a few issues I wanted to examine in detail.

You can read the entire issue on Shakespeare and Visual Rhetoric here.

And my article is here: "These are not our Father's Words: Kill Shakespeare's Defense of the Meta-Text"