Fears for a Female Film Hero

Before Captain Marvel was slated to join her fellow avengers in the MCU I had secret hopes that she would stay on the pages of her comics and not make the jump to the big screen. Why? Because Carol Danvers is my favourite female superhero, obviously.

That seems like an odd thing to say. Before his solo film debut, I was eager to see Wolverine get his own arc. I couldn’t wait for Cap to lead his Howling Commandos on the silver screen, and well, there was just not enough patience in the world while I waited for Thor to wield his mighty hammer. But Ms. Marvel, I had my reservations. And here is why, I was worried Carol would be less super and more sexy.

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It’s not easy being a female comic fan. On the one hand, I feel like I have to qualify my interests for others in the geek community. I have heard some iteration of “Whoa, are you sure you’re a girl?” more than I can count, and all because I can carry a conversation about superheroes with a predominantly male group of friends. Even at my favourite comic book store, (which I love and consider to be one of my favourite places in the world) I did not feel as welcomed, as I know my seven year old son felt, until I was able to assert my geekery to one of the male staff by throwing around artists and writers names, plot details, and, ironically, little known facts about Jem and the Holograms. On the other hand, I feel like I have to qualify my feminist ideals to myself every time I read a comic.

In the comfort of my own reading nook, I don’t care what Emma Frost wears, how Spider-Woman poses, or how ridiculously high Ms. Marvel’s boots are. I see past it, just as I look past Namor and the suspenders he wears over his bare chest, or T’Challa and the way his panther suit is practically painted over his body. Neither male nor female character are safe from sexual innuendos, and most all are presented with a degree of sex appeal. Maybe Emma Frost and Spider-Woman don’t ring true to me the way Danvers does, and in that sense I am not bothered by their attire. But I do identify with Danvers, and knowing that she was to be taken from the pages of a book and portrayed by an actual living person made me uncomfortable. Let’s face it, when a male actor buffs up and starts saving the world, he is usually well covered from head to toe, and I have yet to see one wear ridiculous footwear. How can a woman prove Carol Danvers has the same world saving tenacity in four inch heels and a body suit permanently on the verge of giving her a wedgie? How does a studio give her character credibility without overtly sexualizing her?

The answer: release a Captain Marvel movie instead. 145a5714d278c1e0b35275e6a0092b2e

Captain Marvel is the hero Ms. Marvel subconsciously longs to be (as seen in House of M), and subsequently, the mantel she inherits. With the new title remains her strength, tenacity, leadership qualities, and a kick-ass jumpsuit. Small thing to get so excited about, but now Carol Danvers looks like the soldier we know and admire. Seeing Carol Danvers grace the pages of her own series looking like the woman my younger self would have liked to be affirms that my feminist ideals are, in fact, intact. I want to see a strong woman save the earth, but more importantly I want to see a strong woman who looks (more or less) like a real woman save the earth. I want her intellect and capacity for emotion not to be clouded by skimpy suites, unattainable flowing hair, and boots that would make it awfully hard to round-house kick.

Marvel’s choice to release Captain Marvel has eased my mind and demonstrated a respect for their female fans. So far the MCU has done well promoting both strength and femininity in their female characters: Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow is significantly less sexualized than her comic counterpart; Gwenyth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts radiates strength beyond measure, both physical and emotional; and Agent Carter and Lady Siff have proven that women have a place in the chaos and forefront of the battleground, and that even women can devastate in times of war.

In the books, Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, is exactly the kind of superhero I want my daughter to know, to imagine and pretend to be. Same goes for Gwen Stacy in her run in the new Spider-Verse (the thought that a girl could be bitten by a radio active spider is not just a figment of little girl’s imagination anymore!). Browsing the covers of comics women are everywhere, from the characters on the title page to the artists and writers bringing them to life.

The spotlight on women in comics is starting to brighten. They have been standing on the stage for sometime, but waiting for their moment to shine. Now it’s happening. It’s time to lift the curtain and watch women stand tall as comic giants, not just on the shoulders of others.

It’s time for Carol Danvers to shine on the big screen, too.

I am ready.

 

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Comics: A Gateway to What I Should be Reading

James Joyce’s seminal post-modernist masterpiece, Ulysses, has been collecting dust on my bedside table for five years. Occasionally it changes location from under the lamp to the top of the pile, but there it remains, spine un-cracked, pages pristine, metaphors and ambiguities unearthed- unread.

I can hear the guffaws of my peers in the literary community as I type this. That strange comic book reader calls herself an English graduate?! Blasphemy!

I am a fraud.

My entire degree in English literature is a lie because, not only have I not read Ulysses, I don’t really want to.

At least I didn’t, until a comic book changed my mind.

I was late getting around to Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical, Fun Home. In fact, I was late getting around to autobiographical comics, in general. When I did, Fun Home didn’t pull at my inner historian’s curiosity like Maus, nor did it make me want to self-evaluate my own anxieties like Marbles. Like Ulysses, Fun Home was a book I knew I should read, a contemporary classic (a game-changer in the world of comics), but I was in no hurry to pick it up, and it took me years, collecting dust on the shelf below Joyce.

Now, I guffaw at myself.

image Fun Home just may be the most important comic I have ever read, but not for the connections I made with the characters. I have very little in common with Alison, the young protagonist who comes of age in a home devoid of outwardly affection, who watches her parent’s marriage deteriorate behind a velvet facade, brought up in a house that is both staged for beauty and death. Sure, I cheered for her as she reached her milestones and personal enlightenment, I joined her on her quest for identity, but the connection to the character was not what kept me up reading all night. I was connected, instead, to what sustained her.

Bechdel’s intimate relationship with English literature is enviable and, I would argue,  the crux of her book. This is where she got me. Hook, line and sinker; the way to a literature junkie’s heart (even one that hasn’t read Ulysses) is through reference and allusion. I could not relate to Alison’s plights and conflicts, but I could relate to the way she engaged with books to get her through each major event in her life. Like her, I lost myself to works such as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Taming of the Shrew, An Ideal Husband, The Wind in the Willows, The Great Gatsby, and poetry by Wallace Stevens. Here was a protagonist, an author, pulled between her love of great literature and her desire to live in a world of comics- such is my plight!!!

I could’t put Fun Home down. In the panels of a graphic memoir I saw my own reflection- someone filled to the brim with literary passion, but someone who did not quite belong. A poet and a comic. An essayist and artist. I may not have seen myself in her story, but there I was front and centre in the medium.

Fun Home has broken barriers across genres, has incited discussion for gender identification and sexual orientation. It has shed light on the secrets between family and the darkness of both life and death. But for me, much more simply, it has validated my love of reading, most especially my love of reading comics.

As my foray with Fun Home came to an end I realized Bechdel likened herself and her father to the two main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. For the first time, ever, I had the urge to read Ulysses, not because it belongs in the pantheon of books I am supposed to read, but because the characters suddenly became real to me. Joyce didn’t do this. Alison Bechdel did. Not a seminal novel, a graphic one. But hey, no matter the medium that is what a good book does; it encourages a reader to read on, read more, and read unabashedly. It is time to dust off Ulysses. Fun Home, on the other hand, will never collect dust again.

Freedom to Read Comics

This is the week to read. No, wait, this is the week to read a comic. No, no, even better- this is the week to read a questionable comic. Simply, this is the week to read a banned comic book. 🙂

My favourite week of the year, Banned Books Week kicks off Sunday, September 21, and runs until the 27th. The purpose of the annual event is to celebrate literature of all kinds, and most importantly the freedom to read. Banned Books Week is a celebration because it showcases titles that have been challenged and restricted but have stayed on the shelves because of the tireless efforts of the literary community who pursue the promotion of freedom to read.

This year spotlights the too often disgraced genre of comics.

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To say that I enjoy reading comic books is an understatement; I love them and read them voraciously. I advocate for their inclusion in classroom curricula, for community book clubs for youth and adults alike, and I encourage those who are foreign to the medium to pick one up and give it a try. But in my endless promotion of the genre I am faced with constant criticism from people who think comics are basic, juvenile,  and simple-minded. If you are someone who believes likewise I urge you to educate yourself, for if you sit down with a copy of Persepolis, Maus, Saga, The Long Halloween or Essex County I sincerely believe you will change your perspective- at least you will if you are someone who likes to be challenged by literature and can handle a little unorthodoxy.

Comics are both literary art and graphic art. They extend far beyond the realm of superheroes and address social and moral dilemmas, history, war, love, friendship, and coming of age. Comics challenge the reader to read on multiple levels. Unlike an illustrated  novel where the image captures a description of the narrative, the images in the comics are narrative themselves. They are as equally important as the text, often times more so. Learning to follow panels and paying attention to the intricacies of splash pages takes patience and practice. For some, reading a graphic novel can be as time consuming as reading one of full text because the subtleties and metaphors are often found in the drawings not in the words.

Seeing the story unfold before you is a powerful experience. The first time I read Maus, by Art Speigleman, I had to keep putting it down- this is very unlike me. Maus, the first and only pulitzer prize winning graphic novel, is the biographical account of the author’s parents enslavement at Auschwitz; the tale is anthropomorphic, with Jews represented as mice who are chased down and entrapped by Nazi cats.  Each character is given a distinct voice, each nationality a biting commentary through artistic representation. It is haunting and honest and from the point of view of the author, it is true. This is not a book to devour in one sitting. Nor is it a read to take lightly. But it has been challenged for being too graphic and for the misrepresentation of ethnic groups. This is not a simple minded piece of literature. The reasons for its ban do not conform to the base outline of comic discrimination, and sadly this is the case for the majority of banned comics across North America. Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Fun Home, The Killing Joke, Sandman, and Maus have been challenged in schools and libraries, not because they are simple stories, but because they are complex and mature.

No one has the right to tell someone what they can or cannot read. Sure, parents can choose to monitor their child’s reading habits, but to take that monitoring a step further and to protest the inclusion of a book on the shelves of a school or a library is violating someone else’s right to engage with literature. As a parent I understand wanting to protect children from potential harm, but it is our duty as parents to ensure children learn how to interpret the information before them and address how this information affects them. Reading is the gateway to knowledge. When we allow books, of any kind, to be banned we limit knowledge.  My role as a mother is to encourage a love of learning in my children. If they are exposed to something that may seem questionable to me, them, or society at large it is my duty to discuss the reading experience. Not to limit it, pretend it did not exist, or prevent the experience in others.

Banning books is taking away choice. As adults and role models we should promote choice. It is our duty to guide our children through this world, to teach them that sex, profanity, violence and different points of view exist. If we try to keep them from learning about these things, we are putting them at risk and worst of all, not giving them the opportunity to discuss and to feel safe to ask questions. Books often provide answers, but most always prompt critical thinking. Even the most basic stories have the potential to cultivate thought. I am reminded of the sophisticated artistic devices in Maurice Sendak’s wonderful children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Max, who was naughty and sent to bed without supper, dreams of a wild world of fantastic beasts where he can escape the confines of reality and revel in fantasy. This classic has been frequently challenged for being too scary- but it need not be scary at all. Instead, why not marvel at the wonders and endless possibilities of imagination? Kids can be encouraged to think critically. In fact, without knowing it most do. Why cannot many adults?

At the end of the day your kids are going to learn about sex, they will fill their vocabulary (even just in thought) with profanity, they will be overwhelmed by different religions and ways of thinking. One day kids will learn that The Joker is a murdering lunatic, that sex is everywhere and death can be devastating. The more we try to censor our children from the realities of the world in their youth the less we prepare them for adulthood. Instead of banning literature, we should be exploring it and having conversations about it, all the while enlightening ourselves and them with the myriad of ideas that exist in this world.

Banned Books Week starts today, and as always, I am clearing my schedule to delve into the pages of “questionable” book. I wonder what I will learn this time?

Parents and Teachers: Superhero Responsibly

* This post is an extension of a radio interview that I participated in addressing the presence of superheroes in the classroom.

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The board and faculty of a private school in my hometown has, with the support of many parents, endeavoured to ban superheroes from its halls. As both a teacher and mother I cannot condone these choices. It goes without saying that as a comic book enthusiast I am deeply disappointed. To the parents and teachers willing to censure superheroes I have this to say: please, superhero responsibly.

With the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) And recent DC films, superheroes are at a cultural peak. Those who do not understand the broad scope of superhero literature, its many facets and depth, choose to select this medium as a scapegoat for undesirable behaviour and disinterest in reading. Superheroes are not the problem; disrespect for the power of comics is the problem.  Arguments against superheroes in the classroom and hallways of schools range from being too violent, addressing only very basic story lines, and stamped with the label “bad” literature. There are many adults in the education system who still devalue the worth of the graphic novel as a medium for teaching literature. It is not only a question of misunderstanding superheroes, but of graphic storytelling and art as a whole. A paradigm shift needs to occur to eradicate this archaic perception.

I do not, under any circumstances, want my six year old son watching violent television, film, or reading violent books. So he doesn’t, but he watches and knows all about superheroes. As the responsible adult in our relationship, I monitor what he reads and watches to ensure its age appropriateness. The popular films from the MCU, along with the Christopher Nolan Batman films and DC’s burgeoning Justice League films are not for children. Nor are the majority of graphic novels and weekly and monthly single issues at your local comic book store. Superhero comics are largely targeted towards young adults and adult audiences. The characters are targeted to children. Books, comics and films for children do not touch on the same themes as the films you watch or hear about in popular culture. The Superhero Squad, for example, treat themes of friendship, teamwork and personal growth. Doctor Doom is always bested, sometimes with Iron Man’s blasters, but more than the fighting are the plot driven discussions about why the problem at hand exists. Often the show ends with a moral. My son can watch this show. He is not violent as a result. He uses his words, not his actions when faced with a disgruntled friend. He wants to be as good a friend as Wolverine and as strong a leader as Iron Man and Captain America are. It is ok that he doesn’t know exactly what Wolverine is best at, but when he does find out later on he will already know that Wolverine is a character that can be counted on- a leader who makes tough choices. Wolverine will become more believable as my son’s world becomes more real. My son lives in a violent world. He doesn’t need comics to teach him that. If anything, they can help him escape it.

Superheroes are only written into simple story lines in the minds of the uneducated people who don’t read comics. I would argue they are full of substance, figurative language, advanced vocabulary and rich plot detail. I have a degree in English Literature, a degree in education, and soon I will have a degree in library sciences. I know good literature when I see it, or read it; and I read A LOT.

As a teacher I would often use superhero story lines in my English and senior history classes. For example, Superman: Red Son is the story of Superman’s crash landing in Russia. In my History 12 Global Studies class, we consider the outcome of the Cold War if Superman had been raised in the Soviet Union. The purpose is to encourage students to think outside of the box. To buoy their curiosity as they consider what they take for granted as normal and look at it from another perspective. Our role as teachers is not to indoctrinate our beliefs and ideas, it is to inspire youth to acknowledge their own. If I use Superman as a vehicle to get them to think of the world from a soviet lens, then I have granted them permission to reject, momentarily, what they know for what could have been. Similarly, in an effort to make Hercules more interesting to a disinterested World History 10 student, I suggest All Star Superman, where our protagonist takes on Herculean trials as the student realizes his hero is a flawed being; god-like, but not a god.

Superheroes are flawed. Stripped bare of their powers and technology they are flawed men and women who do not conform and fit into conventional society. The X-men are spokesmodels for the marginalized. Batman is constantly seeking an outlet for dealing with the death of his parents. Captain America struggles in vain to ensure morality, ethics and values in a world saturated in corruption. Readers, every single one of us, are flawed beings. Each of us longing to belong. Why not let our young readers engage with the stories of their cultural icons and heroes who reflect the very struggles they endure?

The role of the parent, the teacher, and the educational system is to provide mentorship for our students. To enlighten a future society to appreciate and concede to the perspectives of others. Teaching them that the literature and the characters they admire and love are not appropriate, unacceptable, or rubbish is teaching them to censure what they do not understand. Censorship is fundamentally backwards in a society where we value free thinking and education.

I will continue to teach with superheroes. When my students walk into my classroom they will be greeted with a poster of Spiderman and a collection of comic figurines lining my desk. I will discuss the movies they watch, the comics they read, and in turn students will continue to ask to be in my homeroom; the space they feel safe to express who they are and where they see their interests proudly positioned on the walls around them. My son will be encouraged to learn more about the superheroes he loves, he will be praised for the comics he himself creates, and when the time comes, with his mom and dad as excited as he is, he will watch superheroes on the big screen.

Banning superheroes is an act akin to the malevolence of super villains.

Don’t be a villain. Superhero responsibly.

So, You’re Just Getting into Comics?

To the thirty year old newly defined geek there is nothing more stinging than the question, “So, you’re just getting into comics?”. Ugh. It’s like piercing my heart with a jagged dagger, twisting until breathless. If you want to make me shudder and cower into a corner, here is how to do it.

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Some of the most interesting people I know, and people I would gladly listen to for hours on end, are true bonafide savants of the comic genre and industry. They work in comic book stores, give presentations at conventions, choose the reading materials for the city libraries, and have been fans of comics most of their lives. They, and the comics they read, have a history together. They don’t need movies to entice them into a comic book store, they are the people who have kept the stores afloat. They are the genuine article, and I feel like a poser.

This is a hard time to be a comic fan and to find footing in the vast clubhouse of the Comic Reader Brotherhood. Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe imploded and Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy skyrocketed to success, comics have become the “it” thing. Everywhere you go someone is wearing a Spiderman t-shirt, children dress up as Captain America (I anticipate many Star Lord’s this Halloween), and the superhero and the actor portraying them have become synonymous (Nick Fury, anyone?). Comics have never been cooler, and it is at this juncture that I have jumped on the bandwagon. Or is it?

Let’s rewind. It’s 1987, I am only five, but I am glued to the television set at noon to watch Jem and the Holograms. Soon after, She-Ra and He-Man come on. In the evening, I cap off the day with The Amazing Spiderman and Adam West’s beautifully drawn eyebrows in Batman. When I reflect on my childhood, these shows, their action figures and costumes resonate in my memories. I still watch reruns and introduce these characters to my children. My Little Pony, ThunderCats, and Transformers were as much in the books I read as they were on the screens I watched.  These characters hold a very important place in the hearts of the geek community. Mine too.

As I got older, I would watch Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson spar over and over until we needed to buy a new VHS. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my raison d’être every Thursday, then Sunday night. I read Spiderman comics and The Incredible Hulk, at first because they reminded me of a favourite cousin, but soon after because they were coming of age stories, and I was coming of age myself. Even the first Sam Raimi Spiderman left me speechless as my friends and I drove home from the theatres. I was completely engulfed in the story- despite their choice of using Mary Jane over Gwen Stacy. Tsk, tsk.

So for a while, I knew some stuff.  And then I kind of cut out.

I still watched movies and read all the time, but I tried to be too classic, too artsy, too grown up. Could comics be grown up? I wasn’t so sure. When my son was born, very stereotypically, superheroes crept back in. Then I met Alex, who gave me a world of graphic literary possibility on a jump drive. I joined book club. I read amazing graphic novels that had nothing to do with superheroes. I fell in love with reading and storytelling all over again, in the most visually stunning and visceral way. And yes, I have read (almost) every major Marvel event from the 1990’s onward, but I just did it a little late. Batman, we still have some road to travel, you and I.

In the end, I believe, to be taken seriously by a community driven to explore, accept and promote the wonderful world that is comics (and seriously awesome ’80’s cartoons) you just have to love them. Read them. Reflect on them. And not be afraid to engage. Some of the best people I will ever know are still out there for me to meet, to discuss comics and the things labeled as geeky that they and I love. And even though I might wonder if I am just a poser looking to fit in, the terrific people I have already met lead me to believe I’m not. Maybe I am on my way to being one of you, too.

“So, you’re just getting into comics?”

No. As it turns out, I have always been into them. Maybe I didn’t know it at the time. But in these last five years I have been consumed by them.

Maybe that’s the better question to ask, next time you meet someone like me.

“So, you’re consumed by comics, too?”

 

How Comics Saved My Life

Ok, so comics didn’t actually save my life.

There were no major catastrophes, no near death experiences, no apocalyptic-this-is-the-end moment of truth. Quite simply, I just felt lonely, and I desperately needed an outlet. Then one day, out of the blue, I serendipitously stumbled upon a call for participants in a new book club- Graphic Novel Book Club.

I thought to myself that it had been years since I really immersed myself in any comics. A year prior I had given a lecture to a Children’s Lit class about the profound story telling, stunning visuals, and intricacies of reading the comic genre. A year before that I revisited Riverdale because my childhood friend, Archie, found himself simultaneously engaged (albeit in different dimensions of reality) to both Betty and Veronica- obviously I needed to see how that one played out. But being immersed in comics was not part of my ordinary, everyday experience.

The first book we read was Maus, by Art Spiegleman. *Disclaimer* If you have never read Maus, and you are one of those critics who see little value in the genre of graphic novels and comics, put your prejudices aside and read it. It is a pulitzer prize winning work of art. READ IT*. As I was saying, Maus not only rekindle a love of reading the comic genre, the book club itself breathed new life into me.

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Most people, if not all of us, struggle to accept who we are. No, let me rephrase that, we struggle to understand who we are. I have spent my whole life choosing paths and feigning interests because I am predisposed to be concerned with what others think of me. When I joined this book club, I was surrounded by a (small) group of people who loved what they loved and knew a hell of a lot about what they loved. And what was so amazing was that they aired their love and knowledge openly without concern for what others thought- and I was so envious. After the first meeting I realized I had more in common with these five strangers than most of the friends I had had my whole life, but I was too shy or too scared to embrace who I was.

As the months went by I read more than our reading list; I read books that looked good on the shelves, books that had stellar reviews, titles that were popular, titles that were less so, and with each one, I was enraptured-even with the ones I didn’t like- Ahem, Black Hole. Sorry again, Alex.

But the best part, aside from the hours and hours suspended in disbelief between the pages of a good book, was that I started to love something- passionately. As I got to know my new friends better I realized that I have been geeky all along. For the first time, here were a group of people willing to openly discuss the awesome cultural impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,the consequences of (possibly) inventing a flux capacitor, and superheroes- from their internal struggles to their morals and ethics- all things I had loved or dabbled in my whole life, but without much company. All at once I was openly geeky and above all I was completely comfortable and at ease with myself.

It has taken me a long time to realize that it is ok to love what I love. That I can be the academic person I have always been- the avid reader of Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, Austen and Whitman- to the eight year old, whose first crush was on Marty McFly. My youth came flooding back to me in a torrent of comic related memories, an abundance of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and it was here that I found myself. Here I am at home.

So no, comics didn’t technically save my life. Their presence brought me back to myself, pulling me out of a swelling sea of self doubt. But hey, that sounds like being saved to me.