10 April, 2014

Revisiting Wonder Woman

While I no longer buy anything but Tiny Titans I used to be an avid fan of the DC Comics line. I subscribed to 20 or 30 titles a month (sometimes more) though the 80's and 90's and read extensively in the back issues of the decades prior. DC has gone to great lengths to throw my business away, so I'm raising my kids to be Marvel fans. There's still a tiny corner of my heart that desperately wants a Wonder Woman movie. Walking out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier I wondered why. Marvel is doing so much to be inclusive. What is there about Wonder Woman, a character I never followed as avidly as the JLA or Batman, that still tugs at me? Was it all based in Linda Carter's television series? (If that's the case why is my dream casting Lupita Nyong'o?) I decided to go back to the beginning - Wonder Woman's second appearance in DC Comics, Sensation Volume 1.

If you're a modern Wonder Woman fan, this is long before she became Superman's love interest, a pairing I have always had problems with. Back in the beginning Wonder Woman had no concern over being more powerful than her man. Diana focuses on Steve as the first man she's seen in her hundreds of years of eternal life. She's fascinated by him and falls in love. But Diana doesn't give up her immortality just for a boy. Yes, she's intrigued by him (and pressures her mother to allow access) but she doesn't leave the island for passion alone. The island is threatened by the global conflicts that will become WW2. The goddess instructs one of them to escort the fallen pilot back to the world to serve her there. Diana volunteers for the suicide mission. Her mother, obviously, says no.
Check Out His Fedora!

 Diana disguises herself to compete in a physical challenge designed to find the most physically adept of the Amazons. These women have not lived lives of lazy indulgence. For hundreds of years the daughters of Aphrodite have challenged themselves to continually improve. They strive to run faster, aim truer and defend themselves confidently. When Diana's deception is revealed her mother's reaction is not one of anger but of pride. Of course Diana is the most qualified, and of course she should be the one chosen to protect her people. Her mother presents Diana with her uniform and Diana pilots her invisible plane back to America.

Steve is badly injured so she leaves him in the hospital and explores her new world. She dress shops, she scandalizes the town by the scanty nature of her costume, she encounters (and defeats) low level criminals. In so doing, Diana comes to the attention of a P.T. Barnum type who offers her a job playing "Bracelets and Bullets" on the stage. Diana confidently accepts. She has time to kill so why not earn the currency of this nation? It is Wonder Woman's complete assurance that strikes me about this early appearance. She lacks the self doubt of other super heroes. Diana expediently assesses her options and selects the best routes open to her. She's a problem solver who refuses to be intimidated or exploited, even by people above her in power (her mother) or experience (her employer). When offered more money, Diana declines. She is driven by her personal goals, not fortune. When her manager attempts to cheat her she apprehends him and regains her pay.

Street Harassment Stays In Style
It's not only Diana's confidence that reminds me why Wonder Woman endures as an icon despite the mishandling of her copyright owner. It is the unequal power dynamic between her and Steve. In this first appearance Steve has nothing but respect for her abilities. When he sees her perform physical feats outside of his own he's not threatened. He laughs when she returns to rescue him and acknowledges her superiority.

The book closes with a reiteration of her femme identity and an establishment of the dual life that will carry her through the next several volumes but the bones of Wonder Woman are laid. Diana is an intelligent soldier impervious to the opinions of others. She is living her life without apology or explanation. If DC is interested in doing justice to the original conception of Wonder Woman then Lupita is exactly right for the role.

08 April, 2014

Review: Fall Guy For Murder by Johnny Craig

Johnny Craig is one of those artists we'd call mid list if he was an author. Prolific, talented, a cult favorite, but unable to adapt to a new publishing house. Tales From The Crypt, the Crypt-keeper, if you're a child of the 80's you may not recognize these horror icons as originating in the comic aisle. EC Comics was a casualty of the CCA but back in the day it was up there beside Marvel and DC and a host of other companies as a major player for your Saturday dime. Craig was one of their best artists, but he was also one of their slowest and least adaptable. When the horror line folded he wasn't suited to cross over into superhero work. With the 1950's on the rise, I hope work like Craig's gets a second life. Fantagraphics is doing their part by issuing a number of EC collections based on specific artists instead of specific titles or years.

Fall Guy For Murder and Other Stories is focused on Johnny Craig. Artistically, Craig was a very precise artist. His characters are ugly-pretty in the popular noir fashion of the day. As collected in Fall Guy they are predominately white, which was typical of the books as well. Craig's women have sharply angled faces with slashing brows and nipped waists. They're angry gold diggers looking out for themselves, taking the steps necessary to get what they want. His men are a series of failed Don Drapers, tired of the nagging, unable to meet the demands placed on them. Domestic violence is part and parcel of the murder plots. And yet. Craig's women are also sympathetic. They're placed in worlds they may have little control over and they lash out because of those limitations. Many of them are deeply loved by the men they are exploiting. Some of them reciprocate.

Craig generally worked on his own scripts and adaptations, giving his work an unusually cohesive feel. While his tales of vampires and schemers are fairly predictable to a modern reader, they are ruthlessly logical. Craig foreshadows his reveals with precision and care. He thought about his panels, the placement of objects or people. He thought about his twists, how they worked with their set up and the emotional payouts they contained. Even when the story reads as tediously familiar the art draws the viewer in. His work still pulls you into rooting for his poor doomed underdogs.

While Fall Guy For Murder focuses primarily on white characters there was a very interesting piece set in Haiti. I'd like to see if Craig had more non-white characters in his horror because what looks on the surface like a typical colonization story turns into something far more interesting. I'd like to think it's by design, but the few pages of the tale don't support a wide reading of his intent. The early depiction of the childlike Haitian people so eager to please their "B'wana-Steve" is typical of the period. They speak in childlike and imperfect english. They beat their drums and dance in joy while the white people marry. Their joy is in serving the white man as completely as they can and yet... In the end, he is betrayed. In itself, this isn't so interesting. The black servant shown as duplicitous is typical. Even the method of betrayal fit established stereotypes. What gives me pause and made me wish for more to examine was the reasoning behind the betrayal. The Haitians give "B'wana-Steve" exactly what he claimed to want. They don't inform him of the horrific repercussions of his desire, they only fulfill it. His word is his bond. Even his death won't free him of his fate as they solidify his punishment into an eternal sentence. They deliver him into hell with a joyful heart. I think Craig offered this revenge fantasy deliberately, and I'd like to think it brought a moment of pause to the young readers who encountered it.

07 April, 2014

Review: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote a pretty excellent review of Julio's Day. You should probably click through and read it first. My experience is less with the text of this specific book and more with the Hernandez brothers body of work. Love & Rockets is so popular there's an even more popular band named after it. Any best of comics selection invariably includes a few pages of Hernandez work, invariably featuring murder or sex (generally non consensual).  Their art falls into the stylized realism end of graphic novels. The lingering focus on physical imperfections lets you know this isn't some lightweight superhero stuff. The grunts come off the page when they fuck. This is how you know it's literature, darling! Life isn't pretty!

Julio's Day is the work that finally convinced me I just don't like the Hernandez's work individually or collectively. No matter how much critical acclaim they accrue, they leave me feeling bamboozled. In the case of Julio, the conceit is that we're going to follow this man through the hundred years of his life, a page at a time. (His mother lives to about one hundred and thirty because that's how Gilbert rolls.) We hit all the predictable points for a Hernandez work. People will be molested, people will be murdered, ugly diseases will strike, sex will be shown, women will go mad. It's all so meaningless in it's meaning laden run through history. The plot twists are cheap and random, unearned left turns taken for the sake of exploration looping back into pulled punches of revelation.

Darling, listen, life is filthy. It's a filthy place. The very earth we depend on for our food will send parasites to kill us and poison future generations. The mud will rise and destroy our homes, obliterate our families. (Often at the exact moment the plot demands inexplicable random deaths to smooth over pointless truths.) Death cannot be sanitized. The past is a place where everything was left unsaid, the forefathers kept their secrets in their chests, their loves silent, their desires repressed. It has to be that way! If it isn't then our glorious open freedoms are nothing but brightly colored flags waving in the hot breeze of self satisfaction! What's the point?

Literature requires a point. Too often dark themes are mistaken for depth. There's no depth to Julio's Day. A man is born and a man dies. In between he is a witness to other's lives, living almost none of his own. His experiences are alluded to, they are suggested, where the experiences of those around him are flung out like depressing offerings to the fates. When Julio's great-nephew urges him to walk out of the closet and embrace the sun I wonder whose sun is he referring to? In their family legacy of early death, molestation, abduction, murder and madness where does Julio's great nephew see himself? His casual devaluation of the sum of his great uncle's scarcely examined life is the ultimate rejection of Julio himself. Julio's true day is being lived inside himself, away from the reader's eyes. The parade of anguish that we're offered is to let us know we're reading something capital-I important without rising to the challenge of really showing us the depths of the man.

28 March, 2014

Review: Secrets And Saris by Shoma Narayanan

After reading The One She Was Warned About I wanted to check out another book by Narayanan. Secrets & Saris surprised me by being having some fairly controversial content. Shefali Khanna is a recently jilted bride overseeing a child care center in a new town. Neil Mitra is a television personality with too much baggage to start a new relationship. This is a conventional start for Harlequin so I wasn't prepared for where the story went. Narayanan bit off more than the page length allowed her to fully chew. The relationship between Shefali and Neil felt as though I were watching them through a zoetrope, their conflicts circling back as quickly as they'd cleared.
Shefali is a very traditional woman. She was prepared for an arranged (but not hasty) marriage when her fiancé leaves her at the altar. Never having planned for a life beyond wife and mother, she breaks with her family to explore what she wants from life. Shefali is confident, capable and engaging. She also ends up with a HEA despite her best efforts. Shefali spends way too much time telling Neil what he thinks, feels or wants and far too little time protecting herself. She repeatedly agrees to things she knows will make her unhappy. Passive aggressive might be her middle name.
A confident woman of Indian heritage looks skeptically out at the viewer
Mills & Boon cover
For his part, Neil is an enigma. His heritage is brushed over as irrelevant, except for two odd scenes. The first, an obvious plot device, involves him not being expected to understand Bengali. The second has Shefali ruminating that Neil's mother appears more culturally conservative than her own. This was a point I would have liked to explore. Neil's family was less traditional than Shefali's, so why did she interpret Neil's mother that way? Was it only her clothing, or was it in the fetish/appropriation sense? In a way Neil serves the same role the half-Indian hero does in most of his appearances. His heritage makes him mildly exotic without informing much of his personality or the plot. Unlike most, Neil is culturally identified as Indian, not English.
The major conflict between Shefali and Neil involves abortion. I suppose you could say it's Shefali's uncertainty about Neil's commitment or their inability to fully express their feelings. I'd disagree. Neil's hangups are tied directly to children, as are Shefali's. She's ready to start a family and he is not. Shefali decides to marry Neil with the hope of changing his mind over time. (Oh honey, no.) In the end I admired Secrets & Saris more than I enjoyed it. While I liked the ambition, at the book's close too much was swept aside. 
Spoiler Zone: Neil has a child from prior relationship. He pressured his former partner into having the child instead of terminating the pregnancy. Shefali is surprised he is raising his daughter alone, apparently expecting Neil to have then asked a female relative to raise her. Although a devoted father, Neil decides not to have more children. Narayanan lightly touches on how Neil feels entitled to dictate how both women use their wombs but shies away from the point by book's end.
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

27 March, 2014

Review: Unforgotten by Tohby Riddle

This is a somewhat atypical graphic novel. Instead of a full narrative, the images are used to illustrate what is essentially a poem. The fairly simplistic text furthers the narrative of the images along without really integrating into them. I'm not certain the text is needed at all.

There's a deep sense of history in Unforgotten, mixed into a dreamlike state for the angels to move through. Riddle has created a lovely mixed media rumination about caregiving. The message is portable to caregivers, parents or protestors. It is not easy to care for others, to work toward good. Self care suffers. The caregiver's needs can be invisible against the chaos and clamor of the needy.  Eventually, we all need external care to move forward. A lovely but not essential book.

24 March, 2014

Review: Concealed In Death by J.D. Robb

Ok, so the 38th book in the In Death series is out and… guys? Hey, where's everyone going? Wait! Come back! Eve goes to Africa! (I am totally lying. But come back anyway.) I liked this one! Well, mostly. Anyway, Eve catches a cold case. (By book 38 we all know what In Death is about, right? Abused street kid turned murder cop marries Irish abused street kid turned thief and business tycoon, together they hit the sheets while chasing murderers. There. You can skip books 1-37 if you want.) Early on I was concerned that the flaws of the last few books would mar the reading experience of Concealed In Death but Roberts / Robb has moved back into the sweet spot. It's crime time.
Roarke buys a building, and with it he reveals a fifteen year old murder. While his outrage at the crime happening on his turf was tedious (the guy is like dogs and trees, I swear) having Eve work a cold case was an interesting angle. Although lacking the rush against time urgency of an active serial killer, the department still lets her focus on a single case. Mavis, a character we've seen too little of since the earlier books, is brought back for a pivotal plot turn. She is a welcome figure in Eve's world. Mavis loves but does not idolize her. In fact, Eve's almost pathological inability to consider living people is highlighted throughout Concealed In Death as she struggles to make connections with those she values. Eve is a terrible friend, but people stay in her life anyway.
Without giving away the storyline, the cold case touches on aspects of Eve and Roarke's own youth. Eve has moved past her childhood flashbacks, now she dreams of her victims. Conversations with annoyed dead people is a surprisingly satisfactory way to push the plot along, making Eve's intuitive leaps seem more natural. The resolution is no mystery, but In Death has always been more about the journey than the destination. There are some dropped points, astonishingly long memories, and a few characters built up only to disappear at the close. I'm on the fence about everything related to Africa. It's quirky and a little post-colonial. Ultimately I went with it. Roberts continues to provide diverse side characters without making an issue of their ethnicity. Eve's New York is not a single class or color, even if the core characters often are. Concealed In Death is one of the better books in the series and a good entry point for the curious.
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

21 March, 2014

Review: Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

Sometimes I wonder why I stopped reading Neil Gaiman. Surely, I think to myself, it can't all be carryover from his wife? Luckily, I had the opportunity to read Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch. It's not just the wife. Gaiman and I, we broke up for me. Finch neatly encapsulates so many things I dislike. I can't even say "We'll always have Sandman" because I hear he's started writing it again. In keeping with tradition, because I loathed Facts In The Case Of the Departure Of Miss Finch and it's an older release, spoilers will fly.

J'accuse: Self Importance

Exhibit One: Gaiman has cast this tale with himself, Jonathan Ross and Ross's wife Jane Goldman as the main characters. As a narrator, Gaiman is so important that he must hide himself in a hotel room in England so he can finish his film script. If people knew where he was they'd call. Of course, Ross finds out and therefore invites him out, proving him oh-so-correct!

Exhibit Two: Ross and Goldman want Gaiman to add some pleasure to their evening. They are stuck with, saddled with, insert your choice of adolescent eye rolling here, the person of Miss Finch. they find her skin crawlingly boring and want Gaiman to help them endure her company. This depersonalizes Finch and sets her up as a joke. Miss Finch does not enjoy what they enjoy (sushi) and therefore is a unbearable. They get her title wrong repeatedly and dismiss her expertise in her field of study. Miss Finch is less than them, but they endure. Oh, how they endure.

Exhibit Three: Why does Miss Finch accompany them? What charm does she find in the company of those who disparage her and snigger behind her back? The reader doesn't know. Who wouldn't want an evening with Gaiman, Ross and Goldman? Isn't the answer evident? Isn't Miss Finch lucky to be taken up by such? Why would the reader care about how she sees events? She's a stodgy bore, she is.

J'accuse: Elitism, Gatekeeping 

Exhibit Four: Our party has decided to take Miss Finch to an underground theater presentation. They clearly consider themselves to be slumming, having a laugh at the artistic pretensions of the troupe. Ross suggests perhaps one script borrows from Gaiman's work, Gaiman suggests no, perhaps Rocky Horror Picture Show? Ross wonders if the sideshow performer was once on Ross's television show. Who can recall? There must have been so, so, many forgettable faces in the other chair.

Exhibit Five: Our party is fairly bored with everything they see. Oh, a trick knife to slit her throat. Yawn. Chopping off a fake hand. Hmm. Planting your partner in the audience to gull the rest. What a chore. Moving from one tired room to another, jaded. Until they aren't. Even then they wonder how one could achieve the same results with proper lighting and a larger budget.

J'accuse: Sexism, Objectification

Exhibit Six: We've established that Miss Finch is a killjoy. In fact, Miss Finch is not her name. It's a name Gaiman has chosen to apply to her, because to give her a real name would somehow make her a real person and she is not a real person, she is a fictional character in a fictional book. That Gaiman the character feels free to take this woman's name from her is treated as a natural event - her name isn't important, Gaiman's story is.

Exhibit Seven: When Gaiman gets her alone and bothers to really listen to Miss Finch she becomes softer, more attractive in his eyes. Less pinched, less tedious. As a reader, we are supposed to care about this. How our fictional Gaiman views Miss Finch must be of importance to us. He doesn't realize he's been a complete tool toward her, of course.

Exhibit Eight: The magical realism kicks in and Miss Finch is unwillingly granted what is stated to be her secret desire. This manifests as a member of the acting troupe grabbing her without permission and taking her into the set piece while Gaiman and Ross and Goldman not only do absolutely nothing, they move into a different room. Let's stop for a second. a protesting member of their party has been taken by persons unknown to them and their reaction is to shrug and seek further entertainment.

Exhibit Nine: Miss Finch returns without her clothes. She is now a sexual fantasy instead of a person. She's topless, her conservative clothing discarded for a scant loincloth. Her hair is unbound, her demeanor sexual and wild where it has been pinched and disapproving. Her glasses are no longer needed, her body is muscular and fetishized. She has been recreated as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with her saber-toothed pets.

J'accuse: First Against The Wall

Exhibit Ten: Miss Finch concerns the party not at all. Gaiman imagines that Finch looks at them consideringly before leaving into the mist. The party moves to an empty room and sits, awaiting the actors. The actors fail to arrive, their cash box untouched, the hall seemingly deserted. They leave. Let's say that again, THEY LEAVE. Gaiman gives himself a moment by asking the others if maybe, possibly, they should wait for Miss Finch? The others say no. After all, why bother?

Exhibit Eleven: The book opened with them sitting around a table of sushi (of which Miss Finch, being versed in parasites and disease disapproved) considering how they've not talked of this for years because who would believe them? That's what is important. Not Miss Finch. Not her fate. Who would believe them? A troupe of actors who fetishized blood abducted their companion and appeared to recreate her as a highly sexualized fantasy and the concern is who would believe it. Right. It's really weighed on them, it has.

Exhibit Twelve: They've never been questioned in her disappearance. Miss Finch was a woman with no one to mourn her, no one to miss her. Whatever purpose she had in England was of so little matter that the last people to see her alive are free to eat sushi and ruminate on that crazy, crazy night. No police. No loved ones. No employers. Whoever put her in their path long forgotten. A woman was entrusted to them and abandoned and they ease their minds by telling you about her, as they perceived her, without even the courtesy of leaving her with her name.

Right. That's why I stopped reading Gaiman. His art became about the status quo and how to uphold it.