Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Supergirl & Mom

I watched the Supergirl pilot last night. Mostly I liked it. There's a lot to be said about the show, positive and negative, and certainly some judgments should be put off until they have a few more episodes under their House of El coat of arms and find their feet (so to speak).

But given what I've discussed on Read 'Em & Weep!, I would be remiss not to mention immediately: here we have the rare, and well-done, example of the Maternal Narrative for a major superhero.

Conventionally Kara Zor-El owes most to her father Zor-El, brother (and thematic twin) to Jor-El, Superman's father. In the earliest version of Supergirl as an ongoing character, Zor-El was, like his brother, a brilliant scientist. He saved Argo City and its inhabitants from the destruction of Krypton, and, when even that remnant was doomed, he put young Kara in a spaceship he had created and sent her to Earth. Her mother did nothing of note, and the amount of thought that went into her characterization can be seen in her name: Alura. She was alluring. Presumably that's why Zor-el married her. We get it. (Later it turns out that Zor-El also invented a Survival Zone Projector, twin to the Phantom Zone Projector, and saved himself and his wife.)

On Earth, Superman immediately takes charge of his younger cousin, insisting she not use her powers in public, treating her as his "secret weapon," and subjecting her to a series of tests (which she undergoes willingly or unwittingly) before he permits her to take on a public role as Supergirl. She accepts this with little or not complaint - he is, after all, an older male relative, and therefore in loco parentis.

Subsequent iterations of Supergirl rearranged a lot of these details, but Zor-El's preeminence was rarely threatened. Alura did get her shot in the New Krypton arc of Superman stories (2008-2009), ruling the Kryptonians of New Krypton after her husband's death, warring with Earth, and generally being unpleasantly aggressive. (Yes, I would use the same phrase for a male in her position. And I feel like I should add "Not that there's anything wrong with that....") In my opinion, the story was a disaster on several levels, especially showcasing Superman's utter failure - finally given a second chance to "save Krypton," he bungles it completely, a fact that leaves him oddly unaffected. Alura dies along with virtually all the other New Kryptonians, and this more commanding and influential depiction of her sinks without a ripple. (Fun Fact: Zor-El has his own Wikipedia page. Alura appears in the List of Minor DC Characters page.)

If I remember the origin of Supergirl in The New 52 correctly, Zor-El - although very different in personality - once again builds a spaceship and sends Kara off in it. I believe Alura was a little more active than usual - fighting violently with her husband to stop him. It didn't make much of an impression on me. In any case, Zor-El survived in an amnesiac state as the supervillain Cyborg Superman, so he's still around. Alura? Not so far.

The TV pilot takes a completely different approach which centers Alura and her relationship with her daughter Kara. It appears that Zor-El is still a scientist and built the spaceship, but in the departure scene Alura seems to be calling the shots; she has the plan, and she's explaining things to Kara. Years later, when the inevitable hologram-from-Krypton appears, it's Alura talking to Kara about her hopes for her daughter, and her pride in her.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Selina Kyle-Wayne: NWM*

(* Not Worth Mentioning)

From Earth 2: Society #2 (2015).

Bruce Wayne vs. Healing: H'ood Win?

I understand that stories require conflict, including interpersonal conflict. Superman and Batman (much like McCoy and Spock) are often used to represent different points of view: Superman, trusting and hopeful; Batman, suspicious and pessimistic. Sometimes, however, this simple (sometimes simplistic) scheme gets twisted, and supposedly smart characters wind up saying absurd, out of character things.

In JLA #2 (2105), the Kryptonian god Rao, newly arrived on Earth, sends his prophets into hospitals across the country (America first?), where they fully cure thousands of people, including those who were considered terminal. Most people see this as a good thing.

Bruce Wayne does not. Now, I would expect him to say: We don’t even know what Rao is, much less his motives. Are there side effects or hidden costs to these cures? Will there be an expectation of payment later on? 

Or even, maybe: What if there were suddenly no illness in the world? Could the world handle the overpopulation, the increased use of resources? 

And I’d credit a general distaste for anyone arrogant to call himself a god. Although Bruce’s friend Diana seems to get away with it.

But Bruce goes a different way.When Alfred says, “They seem to be healing everybody, no matter how sick or injured,” Bruce complains: “Yes. Everybody, Alfred. Good and Bad. Thieves. Criminals. Rapists. Worse. The world would be better if they died as they were supposed to. What kind of church gives that kind of evil a second chance?”

Really, Bruce? That’s where you’re going to draw your line in the sand? Because by the same reasoning (and I use the word with some doubt), he should be opposed to all doctors everywhere. After all, doctors also try their best to save people, usually without considering whether those people are “supposed” to die (whatever that means), or even whether they are good people or bad people. Ordinary doctors may have a worse win/loss record than prophets of Rao, but certainly Bruce Wayne (whose father was a doctor) does not believe that - through luck, fate, or karma - only the good people are saved, and the bad ones thankfully die.

Further, Bruce should be opposed to himself as Batman. Metaphorically, Batman is a kind of doctor - he saves people who would otherwise die. Does he investigate their morals first? When Batman prevents the Joker from killing another 10,000 people, or helps the JLA stop an alien menace from destroying a city, some of the people he saves might very well be: “Thieves. Criminals. Rapists. Worse. The world would be better if they died as they were supposed to.” What kind of superhero gives that kind of evil a second chance? But I don’t actually remember Batman actually taking this question into account. It’s a standard by which he will judge Rao and his followers, but not himself or his do-gooder friends.

When Alfred talks about the Biblical concept of a kindly and forgiving god, Bruce goes further: “Who was God being kind to when my parents were murdered? If Joe Chill was [sic] dying, I’d fight every single one of those prophets to stop them from saving him.”

This is utterly out of character. As a rule, Batman doesn’t even let his worst enemies die if he can prevent it - even if it means risking his own life. We have seen him reach out a hand to stop the Joker from falling to his death. If a doctor were treating Joe Chill for life-threatening injuries, would Batman actually stop the doctor? 

Doctors are supposed to treat everyone in need, regardless of their moral or legal status, and then let the legal system take its course. Even convicts on death row get medical care. Bruce Wayne has never tried to put a stop to any of this. Why would he treat the prophets of Rao any differently - lacking any proof that Rao has evil, ulterior motives?

As for “Who was God being kind to when my parents were murdered?”, I can’t provide an answer for the Abrahamic God; Bruce will just have to devote more time to the study of theodicy for that. But as for Rao, Bruce knows the answer. Rao makes no claims to being omniscient or omnipotent, and he has been traveling the universe. He wasn’t around when the Waynes were murdered - any more than Superman or the Flash was - through no fault of his own. So it’s not really a fair basis to judge him on. 

On the other hand, if Rao is really what he says he is, then perhaps he can help people create a world in which another young child is less likely to lose his parents to the next Joe Chill. Or his prophets can come along and save the parents as they lie dying in the street. Bruce might want to consider this possibility, when he’s done feeling sorry for himself.

Look, I understand Batman looking a gift horse in the mouth; it’s his nature. And, comics being what they are, I’m sure there’s something hinky about Rao’s seeming generosity, and ultimately the JLA will have to take him on, after fighting amongst themselves for a while.

But to condemn Rao for saving people simply because some of those people may be bad guys, when Batman and his friends save people en masse for a living? To say that he would stop someone from saving Joe Chill from dying, when we’ve seen Batman save his most evil and murderous enemies from certain doom? To dismiss the possibility that Rao is genuinely kind, because where was he when Bruce’s parents were killed, huh??!?

That’s crazy talk. It’s self-contradictory, irrational, unfair, and petty. And therefore - I would hope - out of character.

But then, I don’t know which Batman I’m reading about. Now that DC has adopted the policy of “story over continuity” (whatever that means), maybe this Batman has never saved an enemy. Maybe this Batman follows up on all his rescues to make sure they’re fine, upstanding citizens, and acts accordingly. Maybe this Batman is irrational and petty. Who can know?

Will he be the same way for the next JLA story arc? Or even next issue? What are you, a continuity freak? 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Are You Ready For The NEW DC UNIVERSE?

Well, THAT explains a lot!
I am not.

I wasn’t even ready for the last one.

About five years ago, the DC universe had experienced years of major upheavals, including retcons, all the way through Infinite Crisis. I was anticipating seeing what it would look like when the dust cleared.

And we had Blackest Night and Brightest Day, which set up a whole new set of mysteries, conflicts, and the beginnings of story arcs. (Brightest Day was more set-up than story.) They introduced the first new Aqualad in fifteen years, and I was intrigued. They changed Hawkgirl into some lost air elemental thing that Hawkman had to find, and I was annoyed - Hawkgirl deserves better than to be an off-panel damsel in distress, the object of some “important” character’s quest - but I was curious about how the issue would be developed and resolved. (I’m a fan of the JSA Hawks.) So they had my attention - and my expectations, which I think it is fair to say they had set.

And then DC said: Nah. We’re going to junk all that. And they created The New 52, with its own set of mysteries, conflicts, and the beginnings of story arcs. Because they were bored with the ones they had just created? I don’t know.

When The New 52 was created, it had a built-in overall story arc. A new character, Pandora - depicted as some sort of cosmic weaver or multiversal puppet master - apparently leveraged off the Flash’s failed attempt to fix the evil changes to history made by the Reverse-Flash and restore the pre-Flashpoint timeline (the one I had been primed to explore) to merge three universes - DC, Wildstorm, and Milestone - into one, because the heroes from all those universes would be needed to counter some vast, approaching threat that she could see coming. And so we had the 52-verse.

Now, merging fictional universes is a very difficult thing to do well, at least if you want the result to be an interesting and coherent fictional setting. It takes a great deal of careful thought, and, if multiple writers and editors are involved, a great deal of coordination. I’ve rarely seen a good job of it. It’s one thing to incorporate something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the Marvel Universe - the Dracula setting and backstory is narrowly constrained, so you can make it fit. But, just for example, combining the histories Earth-1 and Earth-2 into a single timeline post-Crisis on Infinite Earths - that’s much harder. Especially since (i) they are already versions of each other, with overlapping characters and events; (ii) some heroes basically started over from scratch, but others (who were interconnected with the former) just kept on keepin’ on; (iii) the creative staff did not nail down what they wanted to do with certain (problematic) characters, and used them before their status was determined; and (iv) some writers and editors were obviously committed to the project, but others seemed to have a attitude of Really, Who Cares, It’s Just Comics.

Which is why the post-CoIE DCU, despite its charms, was at least as messy as the universes that had come before, if not more so. And why writers kept returning over and over again to disparate versions of previous events, as though obsessively scratching at scabs, rather than let the universe develop forward.

Reading The New 52, I get no impression that they learned anything from their previous attempts. Or maybe they learned: Don’t Bother. It didn’t feel to me like they were creating a fictional setting, a shared universe, a timeline (whatever phrase you prefer). It felt like they were throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what would stick. The immediate contradictions, the incoherent characters (if you can explain how an amnesiac alien with no academic credentials quickly became one of the most renowned archaeologists on Earth, feel free), the complicated but unexplicated backstories, the constant eventification, the jump to Future’s End, the destruction of the fledgling Earth-2 - there were some good stories mixed in, but taken as “the DC Universe” (which is, after all, how it was marketed and sold), it was just a mess.

As for the merging of the three universes, which was supposed to give the whole project some shape…. Pandora reappeared, but with a character, backstory, and powers that seemed disjoint from her role at the beginning of things. Milestone was reduced to a poorly-handled Static Shock (with Hardware in the background), quickly - and, in my opinion, sadly but appropriately - cancelled. (I was a big fan of Static in the Milestone era. One of the things I liked about him was the relatively normal, grounded  setting of his family and school friends. They tossed that entirely.) Hey, where was Icon? He might have helped out against the Crime Syndicate. Or anything.

The Wildstorm Universe? Mostly represented by Stormwatch, with a connection to the DC Universe given by a very confused Martian Manhunter - was he a superhero, or did he have contempt for superheroes? Had he ever been in the JLA, or was that a typo? Anyway, cancelled. As was Voodoo. Every now and then there would be a Daemonite story, but it never felt like they belonged there. The idea that the universes were brought together for a reason? It seems to have faded away. Quickly.

Look, on one level I’m easy. I love superheroes, always have; I grew up on them. And with the characters I’ve known and liked for decades? I’ll give it a try, I really will.

But on another level: I’ve got standards. For comics, movies, TV shows, books. I want to read about characters, with personalities, who react to their experiences in character, and are even changed by them. I want to read stories that have been thought through - stories where the writers seem at least as interested as they want me to be. And if you’re going to create a fictional setting, especially a science fiction/fantasy setting, I want to to be an interesting one, a coherent one, one that is worth exploring. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings too, and Dune. I don’t expect perfection, really and truly. But I expect a good-faith effort.

This is particularly true with serialized fiction, where presumably they want me to come back month after month. There I expect the writers to follow through. If they create a mystery and give clues over time, the mystery should ultimately be solved, and in such a way that the clues are meaningful. If they set up a character’s quest, we should be able to see the quest succeed or fail. If they start a story arc, the arc should be continued, not dropped like a hot rock. When I trust that the writers will follow through, then I will come back month after month - even though not every month is a home run.

At DC, they seem to have lost all interest in this. Frankly, they seem bored. Bored with their characters, bored with their stories, bored with their universe. They keep breaking things, like kids with an old toy, rather than developing them over time. They create mysteries, conflicts, arcs - and then just abandon them. They use frequent and arbitrary retcons to make things easy on themselves. Why should I be interested? What’s the payoff?

Look, I’m not a little kid. I understand that the so-called “DC Universe” is not a real place, and not primarily a work of art (although it can be) - it’s a marketing tool, plain and simple. But just because something is marketing doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be truth in advertising.

THE NEW DC UNIVERSE! New characters! New mysteries! New story arcs!

Why should I be interested? Spend money, time, emotional investment? I’ve been there before. And the payoff is smaller and smaller each time.
MISSING: Have You Seen This Man?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mom And I Would Read Books Or Play Board Games Until He Was Done

Gotham is kindly offering me another example of the ubiquitous Paternal Narrative.

Both of young Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, and he is obsessed with finding out by whom and why. Increasingly everything he thinks, says, and does is focused on his father. A Wayne Enterprises exec tells him that Thomas Wayne and Grandfather Wayne knew all about the company’s illegal activities, and accepted them. Lucius Fox says Thomas Wayne was a stoic. Alfred insists that, if Thomas Wayne had a secret life, Alfred would have known, and also that Thomas Wayne was a good man. “Even good men have secrets,” says Bruce, and sets out to find them in his father’s study.

He doesn’t even think about his mother, who was also murdered. Did she know what was going on at Wayne Enterprises? Was she a good woman? Did she share Thomas’s secrets? Did she have secrets of her own?

Apparently that’s too absurd to even be considered. I’m not even talking about the fact that the plot points ceaselessly at Thomas Wayne, as Bruce adds his father’s picture to the Murder Wall and searches through his books. The plot will go where the plot will go. It’s that Bruce, and Alfred, and Selina, and, of course, the show itself doesn’t take out a single moment to suggest, hey, Martha Wayne was also killed, maybe we should think about the possibility - if only briefly - that it had something to do with her. Even if that line of investigation leads nowhere, shouldn’t it be on the Wall?

We get a glimpse of Martha Wayne’s life from Bruce. When his father was in the study, the door locked and everyone forbidden to disturb him (and when, it turned out, he was descending into his secret Batcave), “Mom and I would read books or play board games until he was done.” In this scenario Martha is quite precisely reduced to the level of a child, doing the same things as her pre-teen son while her husband, a Master of the Universe, pursues his important and hidden goals. Although maybe she was reading a more sophisticated book. Maybe.

Thomas Wayne actually had a very busy public life. He was a medical doctor - I don’t know what kind of practice he had, but it’s hard to imagine him letting his M.D. go unused while there were people out there who needed treatment. And he was the CEO of a major multinational corporation - the number of meetings and business trips that implies is enormous. Let’s just imagine the possibility that Martha Wayne, in her free time - after young Bruce went to sleep, or while the highly reliable butler was watching him - had a secret life all her own. Maybe she investigated the nefarious dealings of Wayne Enterprises, while her husband maintained a false front to keep his criminal executives distracted and unsuspecting. Or maybe Thomas is building equipment for her down there in the cave, and at night she goes out as a vigilante, protecting the poor people of Gotham from the crime and corruption that infects her beloved city. Maybe this is what got her killed (with her husband as collateral damage), and she is the good, stoic, determined, secretive hero that Bruce should aspire to be. Imagine!

But that’s silly. She’s just someone’s mom.
And Mother... Mother!... Where did you leave the meatloaf recipe?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wonder Woman and the Paternal Narrative

Author’s Note: This is a long one. At first glance it may look like a critique of Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman. And it is, although there are many aspects of his work I don’t touch upon. But it’s actually a discussion of the almost-universal Paternal Narrative, the scarce-as-hen’s-teeth Maternal Narrative, and the way female-centric stories are represented (or not) in DC Comics and elsewhere - all seen through the lens of Wonder Woman #1-35.

Wonder Woman and the Paternal Narrative: the Rise of Wonder Woman, the Fall of Women

“We’ve cleaned her up. You can describe who she is now. She’s got the specific description now just like Batman or Superman. She’s the daughter of a god.” - Brian Azzarello

In heroic literature there is a tradition called the Paternal Narrative, also known as “Luke I Am Your Father” Syndrome. (I’d say Patriarchal Narrative, but that word is used in so many different contexts that its meaning gets overloaded.) It states that, if a hero’s parents are important to his story, the father will be of most importance; the mother will be secondary or even irrelevant. The father may be a powerful man - heroic or villainous - from whom the hero gets his skills, personality, or powers. The hero will try to measure up to, oppose, reconcile with, or redeem his father. The mother may be given some interesting backstory, often after the main tale is told - or not - but mainly exists to link child and father.

This is, of course, common throughout the primary tales of Western literature (Hercules, Jesus), modern popular culture (Luke Skywalker), and certainly mainstream comic books. It’s rife in DC Comics, and always has been.

As  a child, Hal Jordan sees his test-pilot father deliberately and heroically crash his plane to save innocent people on the ground. Jordan goes on the become a test pilot, and then, as Green Lantern, a great hero, overcoming fear and risking his life for others just like his father did. Can anybody tell me what Hal Jordan’s mother did? Did she have a job? Raising three sons as a single mother is an eminently respectable and difficult thing to do, but the Hal Jordan story does not highlight or even depict this in any way, or suggest how it causes Hal to become the hero he becomes. It does not drive the narrative or the characterization.

If you read Superman over the decades, you see Jor-el as the most brilliant scientist on Krypton, who predicts Krypton’s destruction when everyone else gets it wrong. He is the creator of the spaceship that takes the infant Kal-el to Earth, as well as virtually every important invention on Krypton, including the Phantom Zone projector. In some stories he gets to come to Earth briefly before Krypton explodes and be a proto-Superman. Silver Age stories traced his ancestry through a lineage (all male) of amazing scientific minds. Throughout all this, Lara is… his devoted wife.

Modern stories may try to flesh out Lara a little more - she’s a member of a warrior clan, she comes from an important family too. (She’s even given a maiden name!) But it doesn’t add up to much, and it doesn’t stick. Read this description of Jor-el from The New 52’s World’s Finest #27 (“The Secret History of Superman & Batman”), published in the “post-feminist” year of 2014: “[He] strode across the giant planet like a titan, a last genetic remnant of the ancient days when their sun was strong, their lives long, and their deeds a song of glory.” (Admittedly Lois Lane, telling the story, mentions that this is Clark’s version, and he “always did tend to overdo the melodrama.” But she doesn’t contradict him.) Here’s Lois’s report on Clark’s description of his mother: “---“. In this particular story, Jor-el’s attempt to save Krypton results in its premature destruction, and Lara has to suggest that he use the tiny rockets he has built to save some children. But none of this is played for irony; Lara and Lois still praise his brilliance, courage, and integrity. Certainly nobody thought the story might be centered around Lara instead.

"And your mom - I hear she was nice."

In every version of Krypton that we’ve seen, children take their family names from their father - it seems to be a default for all worlds in the DC multiverse. And so we have Kal-el, Kara Zor-el, and characters who wind up being named Kon-el and H’el despite their more tenuous relationship to the family. There are countless references to the House of El. The House of Van? I can’t tell you much about that. 

Bruce Wayne sees both his parents murdered before his eyes, and admittedly the image of his mother’s pearls falling to the ground is common. But when he sits in the Frank Miller chair in Wayne Manor, bleeding to death, he calls out to his father - not his parents - for a supernatural sign that he shouldn’t die. And he constantly encounters busts of his father in the house; they must have had a mold made. In some Silver Age stories, Thomas Wayne dons a costume and acts like a proto-Batman. Martha Wayne, like Lara, has been given a little backstory in recent years, but the idea that in any version of Batman - Earth 1, Earth 2, New Earth, anywhere - his mother would be the admired doctor from a wealthy family, and his father a helpful sort who uses his spouse’s money for philanthropy, seems outside the character’s mythos. And would inevitably be condemned by some as “too P.C.”.

The Paternal Narrative applies to female characters as well. Kara Zor-el’s father was, for most of his existence, a literal twin of Jor-el, both biologically and as a character. He saved Argo City, created the Survival Zone, and built the rocket that sent his daughter to safety and her superheroic role. If you want to know how much thought went into her mother’s role, look at her name: Alura. She’s alluring, we get it. (In some stories, especially the New Krypton saga, she gets to do more. These are not typical or lasting.) Helena Wayne, the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths Huntress, is the daughter of both Batman and Catwoman - but is generally known as “the daughter of Batman,” as he is a far more important and better-known character than Catwoman, who is essentially a member of his supporting cast. (The Huntress’s origin, including the death of her mother, was built around Selina Kyle’s fear that her husband Bruce Wayne would judge and reject her for unwittingly killing someone in the past. He judges, she fears.) After CoIE, Helena Bertinelli’s origin as the Huntress was based on the fact that her father was a Gotham City mafia boss; her heroism is defined in opposition to his criminality, and her struggle not to be as brutal as he was. If her mother is anything other than “the wife of a mafia boss,” I’ve never heard it. (In one storyline Helena discovers that her father was actually a different mafia boss, who had an affair with her mother. This revelation is a key point in the plot. Her mother is still a cipher.) In The New 52, the Huntress is again the daughter of (Earth-2’s) Batman and Catwoman. But count the number of times she mentions her father compared to mentioning her mother. She was Robin to his Batman. Batman’s life on this Earth is, as usual, of vast importance; he, Superman, and Wonder Woman died saving the world, and there is a grand statue celebrating their sacrifice (Earth 2: World’s End #1). Catwoman is unceremoniously blasted out of existence by a parademon, and people don’t really talk about her after that. When Huntress, corrupted by an evil New God, confronts her grandfather Thomas Wayne, she screams “Where were you when my father died?” Presumably she remembers that her mother died too, but she doesn't mention it. (Oh, yes, it turns out that Helena’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Wayne, is alive, and takes on the Batman identity after his son dies. Catwoman’s remaining family, if any, is not part of the narrative. It’s all daddy stories around here.)

Jade was a popular (and much-missed) DC superhero, the daughter of Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern, and Rose Scott (nee Canton), the briefly reformed supervillain Thorn (the Golden Age “Rose and Thorn”). Jade’s powers, down to their color-coding, were taken entirely from her father, and her storylines were heavily influenced by her relationship to him - their finding each other, accepting each other, becoming truly father and daughter. Her mother, believed to be dead, showed up for one arc and then conveniently died. There was a single 8-page story that toyed with the concept of her having some of her mother’s plant-based powers, but it was immediately forgotten because it didn’t fit in with the character concept: Green Lantern’s Daughter. (Her brother Obsidian’s powers - shadow-based rather than light-based - were not derived from their mother either, but from the influence of either the villain Ian Karkull or the alien force Starheart, depending on the story. And his stories also heavily Alan-Scott centric. Really, their mother could have been anyone.)

My examples are taken from DC superheroes, but they don’t need to be limited to them. From my earlier days reading Marvel, I know a great deal about Reed Richards’ father Nathaniel - his time machine, his disappearance, his schemes. I know nothing about Reed’s mother. Indiana Jones spent an entire movie having an adventure with his father, leading to their reconciliation. I suppose he had a mother at one time. For three “episodes,” Luke Skywalker yearns for, recoils from, and is finally saved by his father, from whom he inherited his midichlorian powers. His mother is not even mentioned until the following three prequels, where she exists mainly to explain Anakin’s character development; she dies in childbirth, and her specific character traits and history have no direct impact on Luke’s story - and she has no powers to pass on. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr…. Well, you get the point.

There are some exceptions. Aquaman inherits his powers and royalty from his mother, although I feel sure that readers are far more likely to remember his lighthouse-keeper father; Atlanna’s fate - and powers, if any -  were always so vague and mutable to making it hard to say exactly how she influenced her son’s heroism . (Another aquatic hero, Namor the Sub-mariner, was more influenced by his mother. These stories were inspired by old legends of human men taking mermaid or selkie brides.) Some second-generation heroes avoid the father-based narrative - Infinity, Inc.’s Fury (Hippolyta Trevor) was the daughter of Wonder Woman and the entirely human Steve Trevor; after Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was ostensibly the daughter of the earlier Fury (Helena Kosmatos), although there are large gaps in that story that never got filled in. (Digression: this is one reason I was unhappy when The New 52 took hold - mysteries from the previous continuity would never be resolved.) Other legacy characters, however,  such as Jesse Quick, were based on their fathers even when both parents were superheroes. In any case, these examples pale in comparison, in both number and narrative strength, to the far more common Paternal Narrative.

And now I’ll tell you a secret: I am not opposed to the Paternal Narrative. I’ve used it myself sometimes. It’s familiar. It resonates with stories familiar to us from childhood, from Greek myths to Biblical tales. (Admittedly those stories stem from sexist cultures, but most of us are not about to throw them out.) It is useful in some cases precisely because it does not challenge assumptions that a writer may not wish to engage with in a particular story. It even has a (weak) “bioliterary” excuse: given the facts or pregnancy, it’s easier to write a story in which characters are surprised by who their father is than by who their mother is. Although I’m not sure “easy” is always the best storytelling choice.

What I am opposed to is the Paternal Narrative’s relentless ubiquity, the way it can be expected to pop up in almost any story. It is so standard, so easy to make a key element of a story be:
  • “The hero’s father was a hero/villain/adventurer/inventor,,,,”
  • “The hero wishes to live up to his or her father’s example; or is afraid of becoming just like his or her father....”
  • “The hero’s life changes when he or she discovers that his or her real father is….”

Fathers, in these stories, have significant traits, character arcs, influence. Mothers are generally far less well defined, mainly used for their biological function: she gave birth to the father’s child. Not much more needs to be known. The message this communicates is that the hero’s father has a vital and specific role in his child’s narrative, the mother a generic role that could be played by any non-specific woman. Men’s personalities drive the narrative, whether the hero is male or female; women give birth, and don’t need much of a personality. (A mother with a strong personality would often get in the way in a story like this. It’s no surprise so many die in childbirth, or not long after.)

There was exactly one well-known, easily recognized - “iconic” - DC superhero (not second-generation, not a legacy) that not only avoided the Paternal Narrative, but subverted it, presented us with a real counterpoint to it. Exactly one, and that was Wonder Woman.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Doctor Bifrost Tells More

Hartley addresses Wally's question: isn't the Joker gay? 1991

If you read my intro piece, you know that I believe in the value of worldbuilding. Yeah, I’m one of those. A Consistency & Continuity Freak. Although in fact I think that continuity and consistency are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to decent worldbuilding. And I also accept that worldbuilding can’t be the be-all and end-all of a story, and that there are sometimes trade-offs with the other important aspects of storytelling: dialog, pacing, character, theme, and so on. Mainly I look for a good-faith effort.

Here’s something else I believe: the stories we tell one another are important. They reflect how we feel and they reflect our culture. And they influence how we feel and they influence our culture.

And stories don’t exist in a vacuum. When I read a story, I don’t experience it in isolation. I read it in context: as a part of all DC Universe stories, as an example of a genre, as a continuation of - or a response to - all the stories that came before. That’s not really a choice on my part; it’s just the kind of reader I am. I think stories (and the people who read and write them) are in a constant, churning conversation with each other, and I’m aware of that in the same way that I’m aware of whether a new Green Arrow costume looks cool or whether the pacing of a story arc is expertly done. It’s all significant to me as a reader.

So when I see Starfire in the first issues of The New 52 Red Hood and the Outlaws, and someone quickly says, “Hey, she just happens to be an alien from a planet where the girls are really hot and don’t like to wear clothes much and will have sex without strings with you and your buddy both, ‘cause it’s an alien planet, bro!” I can think, yeah, she’s just one character, she just “happens to be” that character. But I also think of the character in the context of how women have been portrayed in DC Comics over the years, and the roles of women in adventure stories, and how women are treated more generally in our culture. And then I have a somewhat different reaction. And I am aware of the choices that the author and artist and editor have made, and that they haven’t made them in a vacuum.

Or when I look back on my much earlier days as a reader - a gay kid who didn’t want to admit that even to himself, and saw no (apparently) gay characters in superhero comics at all - or for that matter in the movies and TV shows I was watching, or most of the science fiction and fantasy I was reading - and I remember that the first characters I saw in a superhero comic who could be thought of as gay were two brutal, campy thugs in a public shower room who threatened to rape Bruce Banner (poor choice of victim, that)... well, I can think, hey, there are bad, violent gay people in the world, and these just happen to be two of them. Or I can think, in a larger context, that comics creators have chosen for years to avoid showing any gay characters in comics, and these two violent, ugly stereotypes are the first ones who want to present? In a society where many people already have negative stereotypes about gays, and violence against gays was all too common, what message is the writer communicating with this choice?

Because stories have messages. And themes. And communicate ideas. Sometimes these are explicit, and sometimes implicit. Sometimes they are deliberate, and sometimes they are subconscious - just “business as usual.” Even the status quo communicates a message, and has an agenda.

Yeah, I’m one of those. You can call me a Social Justice Warrior if you want, I won’t flinch. I know it’s usually meant derisively, but it’s not a bad thing. And I grew up on Star Trek: The Original Series, and remember how quietly amazing it was that the bridge crew were not all white male Americans. And I understand now, as I didn’t then, the impact that the presence of Lt. Uhura had on the young African-Americans watching the show, who had never seen a person who looked like someone from their community in a role like that. (I also know that when Kirk and Uhura kissed - even though they were forced by a mind-controlling villain - that some stations in the South wouldn’t air the show.) And I know that none of this was an accident - it was a choice on the part of Gene Roddenberry, who had to fight with the network and the advertisers and even the audience to make this happen. I look to JRR Tolkien as my earliest mentor in worldbuilding. And to Gene Roddenberry as an early Social Justice Warrior in the pop-culture science fiction world. And I don’t forget either one of them.

I think this stuff is important. And interesting. (Also: complex, nuanced, and not at all obvious or easy, even with the best of intentions.) So if you don’t want to read a feminist analysis of The New 52 Wonder Woman, or an essay on the representation of marginalized groups in superhero comics, or why I thought that the Pied Piper had the best coming-out scene in mainstream comics - well, there’s a lot of other blogs out there. I wish you well.

But if you are interested - well, here we are!