I’ve been enjoying the new Supergirl series much more than I expected. There are a few places where it’s overdone, but that’s to be expected in any show while it’s still finding its legs. One of the things that I love is the costume: It actually looks like it can stand up to intense battles with robots or aliens and the stresses of high-speed flight. The fact that the costumes no longer look incredibly silly on screen is a big part of why the modern crop of superhero media can actually be taken seriously.
For my most recent piece at the SF Weekly, I wrote about the controversy that’s been boiling up around a new Tumblr Blog, The Hawkeye Initiative. In a way, it’s a blog that I’d like to applaud. It’s based on a very real and serious criticism of superhero comics for depicting female bodies in really weird, oversexualized, and distorted ways. The most famous example is the “boobs and butt” pose, which has become ubiquitous in superhero comics. A few examples of female characters contorting their spines in order to give the viewer tits and ass are seen below:
The Hawkeye Initiative has tried to critique this over-the-top aesthetic by having fans submit redrawn versions of comic book art that substitutes the Marvel character Hawkeye for female characters, in the hopes that it would make the absurdity of the poses more visible to people who take the boobs and butt approach for granted. And at first, there was a lot of positive response. The Hawkeye Initiative became the meme of the month for December of 2012, with media coverage from Wired, Geeks Are Sexy, Bleeding Cool, and i09, among others. But there’s also been an increasing amount of criticism on grounds that Hawkeye Initiative is using the very old trope of mocking effeminate men to make its point.
Transfeminist blogger Natalie Reed has been a very vocal critic of the Hawkeye Initiative. She was one of the first people I interviewed for the SF Weekly piece, and in fact, her thoughts make up the bulk of the quoted material in there, along with the ever-fabulous Kitty Stryker. One of the most painful parts about writing the article was figuring out just what I could cut and what to leave. She has a lot to say, and says it very well, and with her permission, I’m posting the full text of the interview here. There’s a lot to think on here; not only about gender and how we perceive it, but also about how to build and maintain truly intersectional analyses, instead of fighting one evil by building up another.
Chris Hall: First of all, could you summarize for me your criticisms of the Hawkeye Initiative?
Natalie Reed: So, my main concern with the Hawkeye Initiative, and related strategies of critiquing the representation of women in comics by placing men as substitutions in the poses, costumes or anatomy of female characters, boils down to how much of this strategy is based in the basic idea of “But it would be ridiculous if Hawkeye / Batman / Iron Man / Captain America were placed in this pose”, which is the suggestion that a male character being placed in the same pose/costume/anatomic-style will be perceived as more ridiculous than the female character, or make the ridiculousness more obvious while obviously the basic “point” here is to expose the ridiculous, impractical or anatomically impossible nature of the way female characters are represented, that point ends up falling over pretty heavily into transphobia and femmephobia by imagining these representations become more ridiculous by placing men in them. Frequently, in the Hawkeye Initiative or similar strategies, you see things like word balloons saying “I’m so pretty!”, or caption jokes about “look at Tony Stark’s seductive face!”, wherein the humor and “ridiculousness” of the drawing comes not from the basic preposterousness of the female representation itself, but from the way our culture perceives it as innately or intrinsically ridiculous, funny, disgusting, absurd or frivolous for a man (or person whose body we perceive as male) to dress, behave, or perform in “feminine ways.” This idea that it’s somehow inherently comical, or ridiculous, for a man, (or someone so designated), to do “feminine” things is one of the cornerstones of both trans-misogyny and femmephobia (the idea that femininity is inherently more superficial, silly, ridiculous, weak, or impractical than masculinity). [Read more…]
Since Randall Munroe is on an extended leave of absence from XKCD due to family illness (something I can relate to all too well), I’ve recently been inspired to dive deeper into his archives than I normally would. Here’s one of my favorites: if we could all take this one to heart, we’d be a much saner society and I’d be getting a much different kind of spam in my email every day.
Good luck with your family’s health, Randall.
A lot of the stuff that streams out of Twitter every day is meaningless nonsense that is only barely above the level of white noise. I have literally known people who regularly tweeted about their bowel movements. BDSM Bad Advice is one of the things that makes the whole thing worth it. Run by Jonathan Byrel Moore since August, the Twitter feed regularly gives exactly what it promises: concise tidbits of really, REALLY bad advice for BDSM which unfortunately skates the line between satire and reality. A few of the helpful hints from the Twitter feed include: [Read more…]
As if just being Susie Bright didn’t make her cool enough,everyone’s favorite sexpert has an interview with one of my other literary heroes, Alan Moore, about The Lost Girls, which I blogged about before. Susie gets to have all the fun. Dammit. She’s also put together a Flickr gallery of Melinda Gebbie’s work. I’ve never seen Gebbie’s stuff before, but the excerpts from The Lost Girls are breathtaking examples of erotic art. The problem with trying to portray eroticism is that you’re trying to capture an incomprehensible mix of contradictions; our society is big on the idea that mind and body are two entirely different things; the body is just a meat vehicle for the mind, which is the real “you.” Sex gives the lie to that. Men’s tendency to name their cocks and call them the “little head” is a good example of how divorced our sense of self is from our physical being. Gebbie’s art — for instance, her depiction of Dorothy captured in a swirling orgasmic “tornado” that turns her sense of reality upside down — is sensual, colorful, and shows how sex merges the fantastic and the real, and how inseperable it makes your body and mind.
This is going to be a hell of a book. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Just in case I haven’t made it clear, I love Ethan Persoff’s web page. It’s one of the Internet’s best resources for finding strange bits of pop culture ephemera, especially comic books. The stuff he posts is like a secret history of comic books, and his most recent addition to the site is a great example. In the 1940’s, cartoonist Milton Caniff, best known for manly militaristic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, did a propaganda piece for inclusion in a U.S. Army handbook called “How to Spot a Jap.” It stars the characters from Terry and is unabashed racism depicting the supposed differences between “the Japs and our Oriental allies.” For instance, “the Chinese strides…. the Jap shuffles.” The strip is now infamous among comics historians and rarely seen, for obvious reasons. It’s not actually that great a departure from Caniff’s ordinary stuff; after all, one of the most pervasive Asian stereotypes is named after one of his characters: the Dragon Lady. But it’s not just a product of Caniff, but of official policy of the U.S. Army; the strip was probably of little practical use in helping U.S. soldiers distinguish between Chinese and Japanese, but it was probably more effective at helping them to see the enemy as cowardly and subhuman. It’s a remarkable piece of history.
Like a lot of comics fans my age, I had my view of what comic books could and should be completely changed when Alan Moore took over Saga of the Swamp Thing in 1984. Moore took a character that was at that time a bad joke, in a book that was slated for cancellation, and recreated it from the ground up, resulting in one of the most critically-acclaimed titles of the time. Moore’s Swamp Thing stories are still damn good, but they’re dwarfed by the body of work he’s done since, such as Watchmen, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, not to mention V For Vendetta, which had been published in incomplete form in England before DC hired Moore for Swamp Thing, and should be considered one of the classics of modern anti-authoritarian literature.
Once upon a time, copyright was something that allowed writers and artists to profit from the fruits of their labors, hopefully allowing them to become even more fruitful and live a life that didn’t follow the classic path of struggling to make money for someone else in a badly-lit counting house or clerk’s office until they died of consumption or syphillis at an early age. Once upon a time, it was a tool for intellectual liberation. In the last twenty or thirty years, however, intellectual property laws have become the engine driving Orwell’s nightmare to fruition. They are increasingly the measure of how much our culture is being handed over to corporations. The most perfect example of this cropped up lately when the two big boys of comics, Marvel and DC (the former owns superheroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, the latter originated the superhero genre with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) teamed up to claim trademark on the term “superhero.” In other words, they claim to own the word that’s roamed free and unmolested through the fantasies of generations of kids has been corralled, doomed to graze forever on the (admittedly large) ranches of the two big companies. Todd at Briefs on the Outside does a good job of explaining what the trademark does and doesn’t mean:
The trademark registration does not mean that only DC and Marvel can use the phrase “super heroes”. It means that only they can use it commercially. You and I can talk about “super heroes this” and “super heroes that” all we want. We can fill a whole book with the phrase. That’s because this is a trademark, not a copyright. (The differences between copyright and trademark are pretty substantial. I could go on for kilobytes about it.) I could even revive my childhood team “the Union of Super Heroes” and publish a series featuring them. DC and Marvel couldn’t do a thing to stop me.But I couldn’t put that name on the cover, because DC & Marvel’s trademark prevents me from using “super heroes” as part of the marketing of a comicbook (or a costume or a toy figure or a belt). And the title is obviously a big component of the marketing. That’s where creator Dan Taylor and “guerilla publisher” GeekPunk ran afoul of Marvel and DC’s legal departments. I suspect that this is part of the reason why Malibu Comics decided to refer to the heroes of their Ultraverse comics as “ultras”, so they’d have freedom to use this term wherever and however they wanted, including the books’ covers, action figure packaging, etc.
The trademark also doesn’t mean that you can’t use just “Super” or “Heroes”. In fact, trademark registrations routinely declare that they’re not claiming the exclusive right to use some subset of the phrase they’re using. Putting this disclaimer on it makes it easier to get the registration approved, because it means the US Trademark Office doesn’t need to research whether anyone’s used “Super” as a brand of comicbooks. So you could publish “Super Comics” without conflicting with this trademark. (Of course you’d probably run into some problems with DC alone, who’d argue that it conflicts with their trademark on the name “Superman”.) (link)
As the Boing Boing story notes, this has been a long-term campaign by DC and Marvel to shut out relatively insignificant competitors. But it also shows how “intellectual property” in the modern world makes our intellectual space smaller. Superman may be the most important pop-cultural creation of the 20th century; the instant Siegel and Shuster created him, the superhero dug into our consciousnesses and never let go. But the corporate powers are holding on to their property with even more ferocity, and how we talk and write about that part of our imaginations is apparently their legal perogative.
Technorati Tags: comics, copyright, trademark
The eroticism of superheroes was always most evident in the expression of their powers; there is always such a lot of straining, groaning, and bursting when heroes and villains meet.
Cloak and Dagger was a shitty comic series in the eighties that combined liberal hand-wringing with a racist concept; Cloak’s powers were inherently sinister, and needed to be held in check by Dagger, a whitegirl from an upper-class background. The whole character conception was wrapped around bourgeois sexual fear of black/white romance, and the near-orgasm of the panel below, as Dagger tries to save her “light” for Cloak, shouldn’t seem odd at all.
Is nothing sacred? Is no corner of my treasured childhood comic memories safe from this moral taint of perversion and smut?
When I was a kid, I used to wonder how Casper became a ghost: who he was and how he died, etc. Lisa Simpson once theorized that he was the ghost of Richie Rich, who committed suicide when he realized how hollow the happiness from his material possessions really was. Judging from this, I think the real story is a little more sordid.