Where no girl has gone before

I hope my last post of female superhero comics proves that the feats of a fictional role model don’t have to be achievable to be inspiring. Likewise, I hope the following list of science fiction and fantasy comics proves that a story’s setting doesn’t have to be real to be familiar.

A literary garden signpost project to to instill young minds with a wanderlust for fantastical destinations.

A literary garden signpost project to instill young minds with a wanderlust for fantastical destinations.

To young readers, the strange worlds, bizarre creatures and alien civilizations encountered in the following eight works of graphic fiction may seem only slightly less intimidating and mystifying than the journey into adulthood that real-life children have been making since the dawn of human history. But the heroic examples set by the female protagonists of these stories are not just useful in exploring other planets, dimensions and magical realms. The models they provide of courage, selflessness, compassion, ingenuity, curiosity and strength are just as valuable to young people for overcoming challenges that aren’t extraterrestrial or supernatural in origin.

Or, as award-winning Sandman creator and bestselling fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman put it:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

[Quote compliments of a Facebook post from A Mighty Girl, which acts as an online clearing house for girl-positive books, movies, clothes and other merchandise.]

I’ve read more than half of these series, which include one of my all-time favorite works in comics, and all but two of them appear on A Mighty Girl’s recommended fantasy/science fiction reading list. Although a majority of them were created by male writers and artists, all of them feature female heroes who face adventures fraught with mystery and peril with as much (or more) bravery and determination as any male character in fiction. Although you might not have heard of them before now, the names of these young ladies deserve just as much recognition for their  heroic exploits as any Tom Swift, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter.

Princess Nausicaä
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Vol. 1Few works of literature, graphic or otherwise, have engaged and moved me like Hayao Miyazaki‘s manga masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. The story is set in a world whose environment has been devastated by the Seven Days of Fire, a global war that took place in the distant past. Nausicaä is the princess of a settlement on one of the last areas of land still inhabitable by humans. It is located near the border of the Sea of Corruption, a dense jungle of fungus that constantly releases a miasma of poisonous spores deadly to anyone but the giant insects who live there. When her beloved Valley faces invasion by the imperial forces of Torumekia, Nausicaä must embark on a journey to save not only her people, but also the world.

Nausicaä is a remarkable character and born leader. She is a pacifist in the truest sense of the word, not only rejecting violence and war as a means of solving problems, but having a calming effect on any being she encounters. She possesses an uncanny psychic ability to communicate with animals — from her faithful fox-squirrel companion, Teto, to whale-sized armored caterpillars known as the Ohmu who live in the Sea of Corruption. Her powerful charisma gains her the unwavering devotion of friends and the admiration of her enemies. Despite her commitment to peace, she is also an accomplished fighter, which is evident on the rare occasions when her anger overpowers her. Lastly, she is an expert wind rider, sailing through the clouds in her jet-powered glider and performing aerial acrobatics no other pilot would dare to attempt.

This eco-feminist sci-fi fable is a tale of courage, honor, compassion, the folly of tampering with nature, and the power of love and friendship. English translations of this epic adventure have been collected into seven trade paperback volumes and one deluxe hardback slipcase edition that preserve the same back to front, right to left reading format of the Japanese originals.

Courtney Crumrin
Courtney Crumrin and the Night ThingsSurly teenager Courtney Crumrin hates it when her air-headed yuppie parents relocate to the upper class suburb of Hillsborough and the musty Victorian mansion of her Great Uncle Aloysius to care for him in his failing health. But her disposition quickly brightens when she discovers that her uncle is a powerful member of the local community of warlocks and witches and that the nearby woods are full of goblins, fairies and other supernatural creatures. Uncle Aloysius becomes Courtney’s mentor in magic and surrogate parent and she excitedly begins to explore the eerie — and sometimes dangerous — new world around her. Creator Ted Naifeh‘s utterly charming art and writing on this series bring to life such memorable characters as the goblins Butterworm and Butterbug, talking cats Boo and Quick, and the Twilight King and Dreadful Duchess. Courtney’s adventures are perfect for any girl (or boy) who isn’t afraid of making friends with the things that go bump in the night. Originally published in black and white, the series is now available in a set of full color hardback special editions.

Aliera Carstairs
FoiledIn Foiled!, New York City high school fencer and role game player Aliera Carstairs is another teen-aged girl thrust into an otherworldly realm. One day in Grand Central Station, she happens to put on her fencing mask and suddenly sees herself surrounded by ogres, pixies, dragons and other supposedly mythical creatures. Eventually, one of these beings explains to Aliera that the second-hand foil her mother bought her at a tag sale is actually an enchanted weapon, and that as its bearer, she has been chosen as the Last Defender of Faerie, champion of Helfdon. Foiled! was written by multiple award-winning children’s and young adult author, Jane Yolen, and illustrated by Mike Cavallaro. To learn more about the story, see the  book trailer.

A mighty girl armed with a plastic sword and a copy of Foiled!

In the sequel, Foiled Again, Aliera faces even greater dangers in her role as the Defender of Faerie, all while trying to balance her duties in the mystical world with those in the mundane.  To do this, she must face adversaries including the wicked ogress/witch, Baba Yaga, and the evil Dark Lord, who is preparing his troll armies to overrun Helfdon. At the same time, she has to deal with personal betrayals and friends who aren’t what they seem. In both books (a third volume is forthcoming) all the action set in the mortal world is presented in black and white, while the denizens of the magic realm are rendered in full color to emphasize their fantastical nature.

These two graphic novels would make great gifts for any girl (or boy) who loves fencing and/or faeries, or is a swashbuckler at heart.

Agatha Heterodyne
While Aliera Carstairs relies on her skill at combat to overcome the challenges she encounters, Agatha Heterodyne uses her talent for technology. A struggling student at Europa’s Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha learns she  is one of the last living members of a line of powerful “Sparks” who possess a nearly supernatural knack for creating machines of seemingly impossible complexity and ability. Taken aboard the airship of tyrannical Baron  Klaus Wulfenbach, Agatha expands her developing genius for invention as she faces the political intrigue and danger of an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution escalated into full-scale war.

Girl Genius is an example of “gaslamp fantasy,” a term coined by Kaja Foglio, the series’ co-creator (with her husband Phil). As explained on the Girl Genius website:

Influences include Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard. Expect big, clanking Victorian-style tech, old-fashioned clothes, Frankenstein monsters and airships. Lots and lots of airships. Is it magic? Is it science? A little of both, I suppose–it’s Mad Science.

This fun-loving, humorous series should appeal to any reader with a passion for early science fiction, modern steampunk, or real-world applications of robotics and engineering. Begun as a webcomic, Girl Genius can be read online, in digital format or in a set of collected print editions.

Amelia Cole
Amelia Cole and the Unknown WorldWhere Agatha Heterodyne uses science to achieve effects that seem like they could only be accomplished by magic, Amelia Cole comes from a place, or rather places, where these disciplines are literally worlds apart. Amelia is able to step between two nearly identical but completely different realities, one that runs on magic and the other built on technology. When the barriers between these dimensions begins to crack, Amelia’s Aunt Dani takes drastic measures that send her niece into a new, unknown world. Alone and confused, Amelia finds herself stranded in a strange land facing threats she doesn’t understand. Her only defenses are the monkey wrench she uses as a makeshift magic wand, a handful of teleport balls and a golem named Lemy she created from junkyard scraps.

Amelia’s adventures so far have been collected in a pair of digital and print editions, written by Eisner and Harvey award-winners Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride, drawn by Nick Brokenshire, and lettered by Rachel Deering. Fans of Harry Potter who were annoyed by the Boy Who Lived’s frequent bouts of indecision and self-pity, and/or thought Hermione Granger was the story’s true star, will be pleased by the strength of character and sense of responsibility shown by this magical young woman.

Princess Adrienne, Cleopatra and Zita
I haven’t yet read any of the following three series (one fantasy, two science fiction), but they’ve all been acclaimed for their girl-positive messages.

Princeless: Save YourselfIn the series Princeless, written by Jeremy Whitley and drawn by Mia Goodwin and Emily Martin, Princess Adrienne gets tired of waiting for a prince charming to rescue her from the tower she’s imprisoned in, and frees herself instead. Befriending – rather than slaying – the dragon who had guarded the tower, Adrienne and Sparky set out on a series of adventures, along with a girl blacksmith named Bedelia. Whitley explained in a ComicBook.com interview that he created the series with the specific goal of providing his daughter with a strong and relatable role model unlike those “Disney princess types who have no agency and can’t do for themselves.” The series so far has been collected in two trade paperbacks.

John Carter, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon are just a few of the many male science fiction characters who have been suddenly and unexpectedly transported from their native earth to the far-flung future and/or reaches of the universe. Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space and Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl add two welcome female names to that list of time- and planet-hopping heroes.

Cleopatra in SpaceAs a teenager, young Cleopatra is instantly whisked from her home in ancient Egypt to the distant future, where earth is engaged in a centuries-long war against the tyrannical rule of Xaius Octavian and his legions of Xerx warriors. When it is determined that Cleo is the prophesied hero who will be the savior of the Nile Galaxy, she is sent to school for the education and training she’ll need to fulfill her destiny. Struggling with academic subjects, Cleo discovers she’s a natural sharpshooter with a ray gun. Soon she’s off on her flying sphinx-shaped space bike on a mission to save the planet, accompanied by her talking cat adviser, Khensu.  Originally created as a webcomic, the story was revised and recently released in a print edition.

Zita the SpacegirlWhile playing with her more timid friend, Joseph, Zita accidentally activates a strange device she discovers in a meteor crater and the two children are transported in an instant to a strange planet a galaxy away.  When Joseph is captured by an alien doomsday cult, Zita immediately sets out to save him, aided by characters including the loyal, bumbling, huge doll-like Strong-Strong and the giant speechless Mouse, who communicates through a ticker tape printer worn around his neck. Also started as a webcomic, the adventures of Zita the Spacegirl have been collected in three printed volumes.

 

PG-13 PREVIEW: The Sirens
It appears that the soon to be released and eagerly anticipated science fiction adventure series, Sirens, by fan favorite artist/writer George Pérez, will be more grownup in its tone, subject matter, attire and depiction of violence than the other titles described here (with the possible exception of Nausicaä). Still, based on Perez’s history of portraying strong and authentic-seeming female characters, such as his acclaimed take on Wonder Woman, I expect Sirens will be more than suitable for mature tween and teen girls — as well as for their older comics-reading sisters, aunts and moms.

The Sirens are a fighting team from the distant future made up of the time-spanning Highness; former assassin and weapons maker, Ammo; battle-loving brute, Agony; energy-blasting powerhouse, Bombshell; electricity-wielding Skywire; doll-sized Figurine; living computer virus, Interface; dragon-controlling mystic, Fanisha; and sword-wielding spirit warrior, Kage (pronounced KAH-Jeh). At the beginning of the story the Sirens have gone into hiding at various points in Earth’s past, and since forgotten their former identities, after having been unjustly branded as criminals. The periods and places of their exile  include ancient Rome, the Old West, Viking-era Iceland, feudal Japan, Victorian London and 1980s New York. Eventually, they return to the future where they must regain their memories to save Earth from intergalactic slavers.

George Perez's Sirens

George Perez’s Sirens: (from left) Fanisha, Kage, Interface, Bombshell, Agony, Figurine, Ammo, Highness and Skywire.

What makes these characters unique as comic book heroes is that all of them, as well as members of the supporting cast, are based on actual women Pérez knows personally, ranging from his wife and niece to cosplayers he’s met at conventions over the years. Pérez sees this as enhancing his art and storytelling. As he put it in an interview with Comic Book Resources:

I do take some pride in the positive reaction I’ve received throughout my career in my handling of female characters. The great thing about using so many real women as my models is that it allows me the pleasure of including heroines, and villains, of varying races, sizes and ages. I didn’t want to simply draw the typical Barbie doll heroine. While many of my models are indeed beautiful, I hope I can show that beauty, integrity and personality, as well as heroism and villainy, come in all forms. And that also includes the male cast members as well.

As publisher Boom! Studios puts it, this is the series for you “if you like strong female sci-fi characters like Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck, Star Wars’ Princess Leia, and Alien’s Ripley.” The first installment of the six-issue mini series is scheduled to be released on September 17.

Posted in Character lists, Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fight like a girl

The world of comic book heroes has always been a boys club. Although it doesn’t enforce a strict “no girls allowed” policy, the few female members it accepts are rarely able to break though the clubhouse’s glass ceiling  — despite some of them being able to fly. A female hero in comics is often labeled with a condescending “ine” at to the end of her gender-neutral title, depicted as a passive pinup rather than as a woman of action and even subjected to vicious sexual assault. This kind of hazing keeps them in their place as less important, less powerful  supporting players  — or worse, mere points of character development — for their male counterparts. It also deprives real-life girls of easily relatable role models for traits like strength, courage, resourcefulness, perseverance and daring.

Having good role models is an essential part of growing up, and boys have no shortage of them, including men who model behavior traditionally considered feminine, such as cooking and making clothes. The reverse is not the case for girls. The achievements of women who excel in what have been traditionally considered masculine fields are often undervalued or even ignored.

The world's highest scoring soccer player, Abby Wambach.

The world’s highest scoring soccer player, Abby Wambach.

Case in point: during the current World Cup finals, sportscasters have continually identified soccer player Landon Donovan as the “all-time U.S. leading goal scorer,” with 57 goals in international competition. As Valerie Alexander corrects in a recent Jezebel article, Donovan actually ranks sixth after Abby Wambach, with 167 goals (she is #1 not just in the United States, but the world). The top U.S. scorers after her are Mia Hamm (158), Kristine Lilly (130), Michelle Akers (105) and Tiffeny Milbrett (100). Donovan is the “all-time leading U.S. men’s goal scorer.” Leaving out this important footnote to his accomplishment continues to skew the popular perception that boys and men are doers, while girls and women are spectators (or at best, cheerleaders).

mighty girlThis may be one reason that the self-confidence of girls plummets during puberty, as they begin to get the message of how little society really expects of them. In response to this, the company Always has created a video and Twitter hashtag in a campaign to reframe the phrase “like a girl” as a compliment rather than an insult — as in, “scoring soccer goals like a girl.” The like-minded website, A Mighty Girl, similarly seeks to empower future women with stories of real-life female heroes and other resources for inspiration, including a recommended list of graphic novels. These include fictional exploits of adventurers, superheroes, geniuses, princesses and thieves that redefine acceptably feminine behavior.

Below are comics about female superheroes (and a couple of rogues) recommended by A Mighty Girl and/or me (I will follow this with a list of recommended science fiction and fantasy comics). All of these stories are either personal favorites of mine or are on my ever-growing must-read list. And with one exception, all of them were created, wholly or in part, by women.

I encourage you to share these stories not only with the young ladies in your life, but with any boys who you want to grow up seeing and treating girls (and eventually women) as their equals. Maybe one day, they’ll even be man enough to accept being bested  — or even saved — by one.

Nameplate on the Friends of Lulu newsletter. FOL was an organization, sadly defunct since 2011, whose mission was to promote the increased presence of girls/women in comics—as creators, characters and consumers.

Nameplate on the Friends of Lulu newsletter. FOL was an organization, sadly defunct since 2011, whose mission was to promote the increased presence of girls/women in comics—as creators, characters and consumers.

Superheroes
Captain Marvel #1Two of the most popular superheroes in the Marvel Universe right now are a woman and a girl who both bear the publisher’s name: Captain Marvel, whose adventures are written by the critically acclaimed fan favorite, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and the teen-aged Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson.

Captain Marvel, the original Ms. Marvel,  is former Air Force pilot and military intelligence officer Carol Danvers, who gained  super strength, near invulnerability, and the power to fly and fire blasts of energy from her hands after being caught in the explosion of an alien machine. Starting her career 37 years ago as a scantily clad female knockoff of the then male Captain Marvel, it wasn’t until DeConnick rebooted the character in 2012, giving her a title and uniform befitting her military background, that the new Captain Marvel really came into her own as a hero. In fact, the covers of her comics proclaimed her “Earth’s Mightiest Hero.”

Ms._Marvel_(2014-)_003-000Just this year, G. Willow Wilson launched the career of a new Ms. Marvel, who made world headlines more for her secret identity then her costumed one. When Kamala Khan, a 16 year-old Pakistani-American Muslim, discovered she had shapeshifting powers, she adopted a superhero outfit and name inspired by her idol, the current Captain Marvel. Only five issues into the series, Wilson is being praised for her sensitive portrayal of Kamala’s efforts to balance her culture and religious beliefs with her desire to fit in as an average American teenager, all while striving to live up to the standard of her unofficial superhero mentor. And Kamala isn’t the only person inspired by Carol Danvers’ example.

Yaro Jane Photography

Earth’s Mightiest Girl.
Yaro Jane Photography

A legion of real life girls and women have joined together to form the Carol Corps, fans who meet at comic book conventions dressed as Captain Marvel to show their love for the character and her heroic ideals. One of the youngest members of the Corps is the daughter of photographer Yaro Jane, who posed in costume for a series of shots her mother took during a trip to the National Air and Space Museum, including this one mimicking the cover of the above Captain Marvel comic. And for less self-assured fans who aren’t ready to go out in public wearing full superhero regalia, a line of Captain Marvel and Carol Corps t-shirts officially sanctioned by Kelly Sue DeConnick is available  from We Love Fine.

The impact Carol and Kamala are having on mainstream superhero comics can not be overstated.  Together, Captain and Ms. Marvel are changing the face of both the comics industry and comics fandom.

While Marvel’s two flagship female superheroes have been making international headlines, several digital comics featuring female superheroes have been quietly gaining fans and critical acclaim on the worldwide Web.  Strong Female Protagonist, written by Brennan Lee Mulligan and drawn by Molly Ostertag, and My So-called Secret Identity, written by Will Brooker and illustrated by Suze Shore and Sarah Zaidan, both present a more mature and less sensational approach to superheroics. SFP follows the life of Allison Green, the former Mega Girl,  a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility and a crippling sense of social injustice. MSCSI focuses on Cat Daniels, a doctoral student whose the smartest person in a city full of celebrity superheroes. Always taught that her remarkable mind was something to keep hidden from others who’d feel threatened by it, Cat finally gets sick of pretending and becomes a superhero herself. Thanks to successful Kickstarter campaigns, graphic novel editions of both SFP and MSCSI will soon be available.

The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks, is a much more lighthearted series that’s already available in a print edition. The title character in this story can leap tall buildings and defeat alien monsters with her bare hands, but has to buy her capes at secondhand stores and has a weakness for kittens.

SFP, MSCSI and TAoSG

Rogues
Not all female protagonists are heroes. For some, the thrill of adventure and conquering a challenge against all odds are more important than always staying on the right side of the law or adhering to social decorum. Still, the following two characters provide great examples of a girl and a woman living life to the fullest and on their own terms.

Bandette Vol. 1: Presto!Bandette is the nome d’arte of the world’s greatest thief, a costumed teen burglar living and stealing in swinging Paris.  Her exploits appear in an Eisner Award-nominated digital series, written by Paul Tobin and illustrated by Colleen Coover, that was recently published as a hardback book.  As the back cover explains, “Gleefully plying her skills on either side of the law, Bandette is a thorn in the sides of both police inspector Belgique and the criminal underworld. But it’s not all breaking hearts and purloining masterpieces when a rival thief makes a startling discovery.  Can even Bandette laugh off a plot against her life?”  Despite her penchant for robbery, Bandette has some admirable qualities in her criminal repertoire, such as showing kindness to stray cats. And the first printed volume of her adventures is educational as well as entertaining, with an appendix providing historical background on some of the pilfered objects featured in the story.

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish LieutenantTony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is another Web series that has also been published in a print edition, and is the only book listed here without a female contributor on the creative team. Despite this disadvantage, it was selected last year as a Best Children’s Book by Publishers Weekly and Best Teen Book by Kirkus Reviews. It chronicles the latest chapter in the exciting life of nineteenth century ne’er-do-well Delilah Dirk, a lovable, smart and foolhardy adventurer who’s traveled to Japan, Indonesia, France and even the New World. In this story, Delilah plots to rob a rich and corrupt sultan in Constantinople, with the aid of her flying boat and her new-found friend, Selim, fighting her way past royal guards and pirates in pursuit of her prize.

Posted in Character lists, Fiction, Superheroes, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Misogyny unmasked

Superheroes: A Never-Ending BattleTonight PBS is airing a three-hour documentary, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, which, among other things, promises to examine how caped crusaders have addressed “contemporary social issues” throughout their 75-year history in comics, radio, television and film. Hopefully, this will include battlefield reports on the unfair representation of women carried out by the mostly male troops who have historically served in the trenches of the comics industry. However, from comments recently made by some of the foot soldiers interviewed for this program, I don’t expect anyone to break ranks in the ongoing cover-up of a full-scale War on Women currently being waged against female superheroes and civilians in the pages of mainstream comics.

Fortunately, while the industry refuses to police itself, reports from embedded journalists Noellen Clark of the Los Angeles TimesAlyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress and Joseph Hughes of Comics Alliance, are creating a growing backlash from outraged comic book critics and fans.

Overdeveloped and underdressed
During an August 7 press event for the PBS documentary held by the Television Critics Association, an all-male panel of comics creators displayed an astonishing ignorance of gender issues and their own industry. As reported by Alyssa Rosenberg, according to Image Comics co-founder and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane:

As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.

Does someone really have to explain to McFarlane that hyper-exaggerating the pectoral and bicep muscles of male superheroes is not the same as depicting female superheroes with ridiculously protruding breasts and backsides? Has he or any other comics artist ever drawn Wonder Woman bending a steel bar with her cleavage or butt cheeks? A truly equivalent portrayal of Superman or Batman would have them showing off enormous bulges in the crotches of their spandex trunks. Yet if anything, given how little their skin-tight costumes leave to the imagination on every other part of the body they cover, the groin areas of most male superheroes are modestly under-emphasized.

Sexy Sexist Superheroes

The female superhero aesthetic equitably applied to Wolverine, Batman and Superman. Image by SymetryIsArt

And what does McFarlane mean by “a little more skin”? The costumes of most modern super women look like they belong in a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog rather than a comic book. Comparing the costumes of male superheroes to those of their female counterparts is like comparing police, firefighter or EMT uniforms to the “sexy” costume versions marketed to women (and girls) every Halloween. This is not the sort of apparel anyone would choose to wear for fighting vicious and powerful super villains (or for going outside in temperatures below 80 degrees). Even though he’s invulnerable to harm, in Man of Steel, Superman didn’t fly into earth-shaking battle against General Zod dressed like a Chippendale dancer.

But the physical endowments and skimpy costumes of female superheroes are only part of the problem. While male superheroes are constantly depicted striking heroic and even menacing poses, women superheroes are always presenting themselves like models in a  Playboy centerfold. The attitude towards female superheroes apparently shared by many male creators and fans is that they serve a very different purpose from the super men with whom they patrol the streets and skies. Super women aren’t here to inspire and protect but to titillate and arouse.

Sexist superhero imagery

Gender identity
Another member of the Television Critics Association panel was Len Wein, writer of many of my favorite comics growing up as a kid and creator, with various artists, of such famous characters as Wolverine, Storm and Swamp Thing. Rossenberg’s  Think Progress piece reported this perplexing statement by Wein about addressing women’s issues in comics:

 I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character.

No disrespect intended (despite how the following is going to sound), but spoken like a true straight, white male (stereotype).

Of course, focusing on any one aspect of a character to the exclusion of all others is most likely going to result in inauthentic and uninteresting storytelling. But claiming that race, gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t relevant to the way people perceive and interact with the world, and the way the world perceives and interacts with them, demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness of sociology and human psychology. It also seems to me to be based on an assumption that everyone’s life experiences are fundamentally the same. This can lead to some incorrect and potentially harmful conclusions when the assumption is being made by someone who has won the genetic trifecta of gender, race and sexual orientation that has directed the course of human civilization for millennia.

Male privilege (as well as white and straight privilege) tends to be invisible to those who benefit from it (and to many who don’t), and this seems especially true in the disproportionately male- (white- and straight-) dominated world of the comics industry. Despite having created the first black woman superhero—or perhaps because of it—Wein doesn’t see any need to have his characters acknowledge the institutionalized injustices perpetrated against women, or any other demographic in our society. He and the other members of the panel intend this willful disregard of cultural context as a great equalizer, when it is really a (likely unintentional) dismissal of the challenges faced by anyone not born into their favored caste.

And the continued failure (or refusal) of creators and publishers to acknowledge this fact contributes to even greater and more offensive expressions of misogyny.

Hate crime
The day before the above statements were made during the TCA panel, another of my favorite comic book writers disappointed me with his quote in a New Republic article. Mark Millar—author of Superman: Red Son, The Authority, The Ultimates and the much less-known Superman for the Animals (on which I served as Creative Consultant)—was asked about the frequent use of rape scenes in his stories, to which he replied:

The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.

That analogy is so flawed it took one outraged reader less than 140 characters to refute it in a tweet that pointed out victims of decapitation don’t live through/with their violation and aren’t blamed for bringing it on themselves.

Or, as Wired columnist and former Comics Alliance editor Laura Hudson put it:

It’s using a trauma you don’t understand in a way whose implications you can’t understand, and then talking about it as though you’re doing the same thing as having someone’s head explode. You’re not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t be writing rape scenes.

Male trauma

Was it a lack of commitment to good story telling that had the World’s Finest superheroes killed and crippled in combat rather than raped?

Certainly Millar must understand this. Rape is experienced differently by its victims, and viewed differently by society, than any other violent crime.  A rapist is deliberately choosing a form of assault that will often—undeservedly—generate the greatest sense of degradation and shame in its victim while simultaneously generating the least sympathy and support from the public. If his goal in Kick-Ass 2 was to make the evilness of his story’s villain glaringly obvious through the commission of the “ultimate” “taboo,” why didn’t Millar have him and his henchmen gang rape Kick-Ass rather than the hero’s teenaged girlfriend? When male superheroes suffer the “ultimate” violation at the hands of their arch nemeses, they get to go out fighting heroically. In epic battles with Doomsday and Bane, respectively, Superman was killed (at least temporarily) and Batman’s back was broken—they weren’t bent over a table with their tights around their ankles and sodomized* (as infamously happened to the Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibney, in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis).

Despite assertions from members of the TCA panel that art only ever imitates life— never vice versa—the normalization of rape culture in comics and other media can’t help but have an impact on society. Millar’s and Meltzer’s depictions of rape might not inspire real-life rapists, but they contribute to the attitude that sexual assault is no different than any other violent crime. As Joseph Hughes put it in his ComicsAlliance post:

In a culture in which rape is undeniably endemic, Millar’s steadfast refusal to consider the potential ramifications of his work remains astounding, infuriating, irresponsible, and sad. In the United States, where the majority of Millar’s comics are published and sold, one in six women has experienced an attempted or completed rape, only 16% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only about 5% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. In Scotland, where Millar resides, incidences of rape and attempted rape increased by 15% from 2011-12 to 2012-13. These are not statistics one typically associates with decapitation.

This diminishing of rape as a crime and rapists as criminals has been repeatedly played out in real life in the past year. Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, the two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio, convicted in March of raping a 16-year-old girl, received one-  and two-year sentences for their crimes. Meanwhile, Deric Lostutter, the man who brought the case to the world’s attention by leaking incriminating tweets and Instagram photos posted by the rapists’ friends, is facing charges of computer hacking that carry a possible 10-year sentence. In August, Montana judge G. Todd Baugh gave 54-year-old former high school teacher Stacey Dean Rambold a one-month sentence for repeatedly raping 14-year-old student Cherice Moralez, who committed suicide before her assailant was brought to trial. Judge Baugh explained his leniency by saying that the victim was ”older than her chronological age” and ”as much in control of the situation” as Rambold.

Harley QuinnPerhaps once again attempting to reflect society without influencing it, DC Comics announced in September that it was holding a public artist audition that sexualized suicide. Applicants were required to submit drawings of female Joker sidekick Harley Quinn about to kill herself by various means, including lying naked in a bathtub with an array of electric appliances dangling above her. Showing a sick sense of humor the Joker would have appreciated, the contest announcement was made immediately prior to National Suicide Prevention Week. After being subjected to a week of vocal public outrage, DC Comics eventually apologized.

No woman left behind
Even though the ongoing War on Women being waged in superhero comics takes place on imaginary battlefields like Metropolis and Gotham City, it’s inflicting mounting casualties among real-world readers. When I imagine the level of betrayal felt by girls and women constantly subjected to the sexual objectification of the female characters that have helped shape their concepts of personal achievement and heroism, I’m reminded of another military analogy: the sexual assault of female members of the armed forces by their supposed brothers-in-arms.

I made this connection after hearing victims share their stories in the documentary, The Invisible War, and then reading a 2011 post by Laura Hudson condemning a trend in DC Comics toward increasingly pornographic portrayals of female superheroes. The sense of loss Hudson expressed over the demeaning of her fictional role models seemed strikingly similar to that of military women betrayed by those who’d sworn an oath to have their backs. It’s the heartbreak of learning that not only is the relationship of love and respect you thought you had with someone not mutual, it’s a sham being exploited by someone who holds you in contempt. Or as Hudson put it:

 I’m so, so tired of hearing those messages from comics because they aren’t the dreams or the escapist fantasies or the aspirations that I want to have. They don’t make me feel joyful or powerful or excited. They make me feel so goddamn sad that I want to cry, because I have devoted my entire life to comics, and when I read superhero books like these I realize that most of the time, they don’t give a sh*t about me.

Of course, it’s the generals of the comics industry—the real-life writers and publishers— who are responsible for this betrayal, not the fictional foot soldiers who are just following orders. And if the comics industry doesn’t have the backs of fangirls and fanboys equally, we need to have each others’. Male readers need to call out comics that promote sexism and misogyny and let publishers know we’re not interested in superhero stories that lift up one half of their audience while trampling on the other.

UPDATE
As I expected, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle spent no time examining the rampant misogyny going on in the pages of superhero comics today. The issue of feminism was addressed almost exclusively through mostly positive interviews with Lynda Carter and Gloria Steinem about the iconic stature of Wonder Woman.

Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book CultureIn contrast, the 300-page companion book to the PBS series, Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls and the Creation of Comic Book Culture, does a much better job than the three-hour documentary of exposing the sexism still alive and well in superhero comics. A three-page section, “Women in Refrigerators: Battle of the Superheroines,” takes its title from the disturbingly frequent tendency—identified by comics fan-turned-bestselling writer Gail Simone—for (mostly male) writers to have female characters brutalized, killed, raped and/or stripped of their powers. The name of this syndrome comes from the kitchen appliance in which Green Lantern once found the dismembered body of his girlfriend. (The book also devotes more coverage to comic book racism and homophobia.)

* To be fair, Mark Millar did write the only instance of male-on-male superhero rape I’m aware of in comics, but both the act and the victim’s reaction to it were so subtly depicted as to be easily missed.

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Comic Book Justice (Part 6)

During WWII and the Korean War, superheroes fervently proclaimed our country’s moral infallibility (while the non-superhero stories of disreputable but brilliant EC Comics exposed the nation’s seedy underbelly). The 1954 comics industry-imposed code that prohibited any show of “disrespect for established authority” forced superheroes into service as unquestioning cheerleaders for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. But because superheroes were born out of disrespect for established authority, this indentured servitude was ultimately doomed to failure. As the 50s gave way to the 60s and 70s, and Americans were asked to fight in yet another Asian war, questioning authority soon became the norm.

Super power to the people
The first sign of change came in 1961, when Marvel Comics revived its superhero line with the release of Fantastic Four #1. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a dysfunctional team of characters more in touch with the real world than the staid and virtually interchangeable superhero personalities of DC Comics, which had initiated the Silver Age superhero Renaissance in 1956. The headliners for the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee referred to Marvel’s chief competitor) were all staunch supporters of the status quo and law and order. Someincluding the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkmanwere actually law enforcement officers (either in their costumed or civilian identities). Marvel, on the other hand, was fast developing a reputation for characters who behaved more like James Dean than John Wayne.

Amazing Spider-Man #68

Amazing Spider-Man #68. Cover art by John Romita.

Created in 1962 by Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the most popular Marvel superhero because he was the one with whom readers were most able to identify. Peter Parker was a high school student when the bite from a radioactive arachnid gave him the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. What made him unique among superheroes was that he was often just as concerned with getting a date or good grades as he was with defeating super villains. But as Peter grew up, along with his audience, his personal concerns became more political. In The Amazing Spider-Man #68 (January 1969), he lends his sympathies, though not his actual support, to fellow college students holding a protest for affordable campus housing.

But while Marvel may have made the opening bid in what’s known as the “relevance” trend in comics, DC quickly upped the ante.

Green Lantern was one of several Silver Age superheroes DC created by borrowing the name of a fallen Golden Age star and applying it to a wholly new character. These revised editions reflected the idealism and fascination with science that exemplified post-WWII America. While the Golden Age Green Lantern had wielded a magic ring, the ring of his Silver Age successor was created by an advanced alien race that enlisted him into their intergalactic police force. When sales of this new Green Lantern’s comic book began to falter, DC Comics brought in writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams to try a radically new storytelling approach.

O’Neil first added Green Arrow, turning the formerly nondescript superhero into a revolutionary, more in keeping with his Robin Hood roots. Using Green Arrow as a cranky liberal foil to Green Lantern’s traditional law and order morality, O’Neil began a lively debate on a variety of pressing social concerns.

It started in 1970, the year many comics historians mark as the beginning of the more mature Bronze Age of Comics.  In Green Lantern #76, an elderly African-American gentleman poignantly asks the title character why he devotes so much time to protecting the many-hued inhabitants of planets throughout the universe while ignoring the plight of people of color on his own world. Bowing his head in shame, Green Lantern is really taking the fall for comic book publishers, writers and artists who had failed for decades to reflect the racially diverse reality of the world in which comic book readers lived.

Panels from Green Lantern #76

From there, Green Lantern spent the next two years addressing such topics as political corruption, Native American rights, sexism, overpopulation, and pollution, and introduced a militant African-American Green Lantern, John Stewart. In one issue, O’Neil and Adams presented veiled commentary on the trial of the Chicago Eight, who had been charged with conspiracy in the aftermath of  police-incited riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

During the convention, the evening news televised nightly scenes of cops brutalizing protesters—along with journalists, convention-goers, and anyone else who carelessly got within nightstick-reach. The defendants accused of deliberately orchestrating the riot were social justice activists and community organizers David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. During the trial, Black Panther Party co-founder Seale was gagged and bound to his chair after repeatedly disrupting the proceedings by demanding (in a sometimes less than respectful manner) his right to represent himself (he was eventually removed from the proceedings entirely, leaving behind the Chicago Seven).

The trial concluded February 18, 1970, with all seven defendants being found not guilty of conspiracy (but convicted of contempt of court and other charges). The cover of Green Lantern #80, which went on sale about six months later, showed its title character and his two companions bound, gagged and also on trial for conspiracy. (A similar image that appeared two years later on the title page of The Incredible Hulk #153 made doubly sure the allusion wasn’t lost by including lyrics from the Graham Nash song about the Chicago Eight trial.)

Bound and gagged

O’Neil’s innovative writing and Adams’ realistic art received favorable reviews in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, gaining national attention for Green Lantern and a new air of respectability for comic books in general. This led to something of a “relevance race,” where publishers tried to find more controversial social issues to tackle in their comic books. Nothing at the time was more controversial than the Vietnam War, which, as it happened, was directly responsible for the creation of what today is one of Marvel Comics’ most famous (and lucrative) superhero characters.

Iron Man #78. September 1975.As I explained in my post on comics of the 50s and early 60s, anti-Communism was once the driving force behind the origins of many Marvel superheroes. In the case of millionaire munitions magnate, Tony Stark, he was mortally wounded by a landmine while conducting a field test of one of his latest weapons in Vietnam. Captured by Chinese guerrillas who demanded he make weapons for them, Stark instead constructed a mechanized suit of battle armor to make his escape as the invincible Iron Man. In his 1963 debut, Iron Man showed no mercy to the “Red Menace” and no doubt in his government’s noble intentions (and actions) in Southeast Asia. But by 1975, Vietnam protesters had gained the upper hand in shaping public opinion against the war, aided by disturbing events such as the My Lai Massacre and the release of the Pentagon Papers. Suddenly, Iron Man, the former poster child for the might of the military-industrial complex, was now deeply conflicted about his personal role in the war and his government’s true motives behind waging it.

Panels from Iron Man #78

Tony Stark has a change of heart. From Iron Man #78. Written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by George Tuska.

The Amazing Spider-Man #96

The CCA-seal-less cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #96. Art by Gil Kane. See the upper right corner of the comics covers above for comparison.

The changed public attitude about the Vietnam War and the government expressed by Tony Stark were reflected in relaxed provisions adopted by the Comics Code Authority four years earlier. After Marvel editor Stan Lee accepted a request from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to have Spider-Man address the issue of drug abuse, he was told the CCA prohibited any mention of drugs, even if it was in a negative light. Lee decided to run the anti-drug story anyway, without the CCA’s seal of approval, in The Amazing Spider-Man #s 96-98 (cover dated May-July 1971). The positive publicity this brought Marvel finally forced the CCA to acknowledge that there were as many college students as kids reading comic books, and it revised its Standards accordingly. An addendum to the prohibition against encouraging disrespect for ”policemen, judges and government officials” allowed it only on the condition that, “If any of these is depicted committing an illegal act, it must be declared as an exceptional case and that the culprit pay the legal price.”

But unlike the Manhattan-based “Big Two” publishers DC and Marvel, the independent creators of the Underground Comix movement that had sprung up on the opposite coast in San Francisco weren’t bound to the draconian dictates of the CCA. These twenty-something artists and writers used comics to promote their counterculture values of drug use, free love, rock music and rebellion against authority. Most of the stories they created didn’t deal with superheroes, and the few that did used them to confront the traditional values and institutions upheld by their mainstream peers.

Larry Welz’s Fillmore Grinchbottom is a powerless nobody until he chugs a can of magic beer and is transformed into Captain Guts, “raging avenger of the establishment.” For three issues (1969-71), Captain Guts brutally dispatched hippies, minorities and other imagined threats to straight, white, Christian America. In contrast, Spain RodriguesTrashman (1968-85), is a counterculture James Bond who uses mystic powers gained through his training by the anarcho-Marxist Sixth International to fight the fascist U.S. government of a near-future dystopia.  Probably the most famous Underground comix superhero is Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog (1968-90). This snout-faced, hyper-patriotic powerhouse satirically exposes the hypocrisy in our democracy by furiously defending it. In the 1970 story “Believe It or Leave It: You Don’t Know How Good You Got It Here in America, Bub,” Wonder Wart-Hog points out how lucky readers are to live in a country free of corrupt political bosses and secret police, while the panels his narration appears on show caricatures of then President Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Underground Heroes

Captain America #176

Disgusted with his government, Cap calls it quits. Captain America #176. Cover art by John Romita.

Wonder-Warthog’s implied criticism of Nixon and Hoover was something beyond the capabilities of mainstream comics publishers at the time. The Comics Code Authority’s revised 1971 Standards still didn’t allow stories to “promote distrust of the forces of law and justice.”  That’s one reason why, in Captain America #175, published in the wake of Watergate (July 1974), it is a fictitious, unnamed and unseen U.S. President who commits suicide after his part in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government is exposed to the public. This traumatic event leads a disillusioned Captain America to temporarily abandon his costume and name, adopting the identity of Nomad, The Man Without a Country. (For the full story, see the “Love it or leave it” section of Part 3 in my 2011 series of posts on Captain America.)

It wasn’t until 15 years after Spider-Man first loosened the Comics Code’s stranglehold on creative and political expression that mainstream superhero comics would portray Nixon, and another iconic Commander-in-Chief, in the less than flattering light many people felt they deserved.

Stay tuned for Part 7: All the President’s super men

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Hooded injustice

Zimmerman justice by George Danby

Cartoon by George Danby. danbyink.bangordailynews.com
Of course, most of the public outrage over the verdict comes from a perception that it was “the American Way.”

If Trayvon Martin had lived in Gotham City, he’d still be alive.

Because in comic books, vigilantes are never wrong.

That’s really the most remarkable and important thing about a superhero (the comic book term for “vigilante”).

X-ray and microscopic vision, golden lassos of truth and hyper-senses empower superheroes to infallibly sort the guilty from the innocent. If a superhero ever does falsely apprehend someone, it inevitably turns out to be the result of an elaborate frame-up masterminded by one of his or her arch nemeses.

 

The Dark Knight

From Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

But even in such a rare case, no real harm is done, because comic book vigilantes—at least the ones I grew up with—don’t use guns and never kill. Even those without the advantage of invulnerability, super speed or super strength are so skilled in unarmed combat that they are able to subdue any miscreant humanely (that is, if you consider it more humane to beat people unconscious than to shoot them).

Unfortunately for Trayvon Martin, and all those who loved him, he lived in Sanford, Fla., not Gotham City, and George Zimmerman isn’t Batman. He was a real-life alleged vigilante armed with a gun, poor judgement and most deadly of all, his state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives any citizen the right to use lethal force against anyone they see (or claim they saw) as a threat.

Full disclosure: I didn’t meticulously follow every minute of testimony shared with the world by the media, and like virtually everyone else expressing an opinion about this case, wasn’t in the courtroom. And like all but two people, one of whom has been forever silenced, I wasn’t there when Zimmerman killed Martin.

But he did kill him. The armed and adult Zimmerman followed the ”suspicious” teenager despite being told by the police* that they didn’t need him to. It seems certain that Zimmerman was frustrated and perhaps hostile, being fed up with crime in his neighborhood and that, as he said on the 911 call that night, “These assholes, they always get away.” Maybe Martin was frightened and hostile about being followed by, as he allegedly told a friend on the phone moments before his death, “a creepy-ass cracker.”

However the confrontation unfolded from there, because of its outcome, I think the failure of the Florida legal system to hold Zimmerman at all responsible for his actions sends a truly horrible and hurtful message, on two counts.

Trayvon by Nick Anderson

Cartoon my Nick Anderson. blog.chron.com/nickanderson

First, Zimmerman’s acquittal means that in the eyes of the law, he was justified in killing Martin. From this, it’s only natural that some people—including Martin’s loved ones—might infer that the state essentially found Martin guilty of having done something for which he deserved to die. Although Florida’s racially-biased Stand Your Ground law put the burden on Martin to posthumously prove his innocence, the burden should have been on Zimmerman to prove that Martin’s actions on what turned out to be the last night of his life merited a death sentence.

Stand Your Ground Law by Mike Keefe

Cartoon by Mike Keefe.
www.intoon.com

Second, Zimmerman’s acquittal may just encourage future copycats who put themselves in similarly hazardous situations to make sure they always shoot to kill. As demonstrated here, being the only person left alive after an alleged self-defense confrontation does away with the possibility of any rebuttals to the shooter’s sole eyewitness testimony. In this case, Zimmerman admitted that he’s the one who made the conscious decision to set his life on a collision course with Martin’s. Had the 17-year-old survived the impact of that decision, he could have just as easily invoked the Stand Your Ground defense to justify attacking Zimmerman.

The failure of the jury to find Zimmerman guilty of even the lesser charge of manslaughter has inflicted yet another terrible wound on Martin’s family, the town of Sanford, the state of Florida and the nation as a whole.

Racist profiling
Another truism of comic books is that the villains are wholly and irredeemably evil.

We’ve established that George Zimmerman isn’t Batman. He’s also not the Joker.

Yet the almost gleeful enthusiasm and vulgar expletives with which some people have denounced him as a racist seem disturbingly similar to the way a member of the KKK would refer to Trayvon Martin.

This sort of one-dimensional character analysis is beneath even some comic books.

In the first issue of Grant Morrison’s comic book series, The Invisibles**, King Mob, leader of a freedom fighting band of revolutionaries, breaks into an evil indoctrination center to rescue the latest recruit to his team. In the process, he shoots several armed and helmeted security guards, putting a bullet right through the visor and between the eyes of one of them. Eleven issues later, Morrison interrupts the ongoing story line in the series to suddenly reintroduce this random guard and flashback through his entire life. We see a boy named Bobby being raised by an abusive father and growing up to be a struggling working class veteran in a troubled marriage who eventually makes the fatefully fatal decision to take the security job as his only means to support his wife and special needs daughter.

Suddenly, this faceless and all-but-forgotten character from the first issue seems less like a thoughtless thug, and King Mob seems less like a hero.

There is at least a reasonable doubt as to what motivated Zimmerman to follow Martin (granted this is partly because the other participant in the altercation is dead).

Reducing someone to a single negative character trait or bad behavior is something people throughout the centuries have done to outcast those they perceive as “Other” from the rest of humanity and absolve society from having to regard them as individuals.

And it’s exactly what caused this tragedy in the first place.

The bitter irony is that, in setting out to watch over his neighborhood, George Zimmerman may have become its greatest threat. Ultimately, he ended up killing Treyvon Martin not because of the color of his skin or what he was wearing, but because he chose to see him as an Other when he should have seen him as a neighbor.

* I realize that the outcome for Trayvon Martin may well have been exactly the same had he been confronted by the police. In fact, giving George Zimmerman a badge might have been the only thing that could have made him more dangerous.

** It is impossible to adequately explain this mind altering, spy thriller, roller coaster ride of conspiracy theories, metaphysics, graphic violence and slightly less graphic sex, but I give it a shot here.

 

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Standing up for women

Texas state Senator Wendy DavisTexas Senator Wendy Davis walked right out of a Frank Capra movie and into the world spotlight when she stood on the floor of her state senate for more than 11 hours June 25th to filibuster a bill that would severely (and unconstitutionally) deny Texas women access to safely performed abortions and other healthcare services. Senate Republicans practiced parliamentary chicanery to end the filibuster one hour short of its midnight goal, but motions made by Davis’ fellow Democratic senators and thunderous chants of “Let her speak!” from the (mostly female) observers in the gallery helped run out the clock on the special congressional session and kill the bill (temporarily).

Sen. Davis’ heroic stand for women’s rights was an instant social media sensation (it was overshadowed in most mainstream media outlets by the news of the following day—the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of DOMA and California’s Prop. 9).

What heroes WearAppropriately and unsurprisingly, superhero memes featuring Davis quickly began to populate Facebook and Twitter. The image that caught my attention was one by Steve Marmel likening the bright pink sneakers the senator wore during her filibuster to other examples of famous superhero footwear. The comparison between Wendy Davis and Wonder Woman seemed particularly fitting to me given the impassioned defense of women’s reproductive rights the Amazonian ambassador once delivered before the United Nations (as depicted by writer Joe Kelly and artist Phil Jimenez in the July 2001, Wonder Woman #170 [Copyright DC Comics]).

Panel from Wonder Woman #170, July 2001. Written by Joe Kelly and drawn by Phil Jimenez. Copyright DC Comics.

protect reproductive rights in Texas. We can Do it!When Governor Rick Perry called yet another special session of the Texas legislature July 1 to once again try to push this bill through, I took the opportunity to carry on the Wonder Woman/reproductive rights meme. To show support for Sen. Davis and her allies as they geared up for battle again, the group Stand With Texas Women asked people to post orange pro-choice profile badges on their Facebook pages. In response, I created some of my own designs by merging SWTW slogans with repurposed Wonder Woman images. Another of my badges uses concept art for a contemporary series of DC Comics collectible statuettes inspired by WWII pinup art to create an homage to the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster of that period. What I like about this image is that it evokes the era that Wonder Woman was originally created, and when the seeds of modern feminism were sown by real women who were cutting their own apron strings and entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers to do jobs traditionally assigned to men. I also appreciated the chance to recast this image from its intended purpose as fanboy erotica into an icon of female liberation.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that has plagued Wonder Woman and other female superheroes for more than 70 years. Almost exclusively created by men for consumption by male readers, they have constantly been presented as objects of male fantasy. While comic book super men are depicted in costumes and stances meant to convey power and inspire great deeds, super women are often drawn in impractically revealing outfits and centerfold poses meant to arouse and titillate. Even a feminist icon like Wonder Woman, who psychiatrist William Moulton Marston created as an alternative to what he saw as the “blood-curdling masculinity” of male superheroes, is often depicted as more bathing beauty than Amazon warrior. (In fact, I began this site three years ago today with a post about the controversy over DC Comics’ decision to replace Wonder Woman’s bikini bottoms with a pair of proper pants–which were quickly stripped from her.)

Abortion rights protest at the Texas state capitol building in Austin. 7/1/13
Photo by Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of real-life women in Texas right now modeling the sort of truly heroic behavior that has achieved seemingly superhuman feats against impossible odds throughout our country’s history. Inspired and mobilized by Sen. Davis’ actions, thousands of orange-clad warriors descended on Austin over the past two weeks to fight for justice. They demonstrated outside the capitol building and testified before the state Senate and House. And out of this popular uprising, more heroes emerged.

Sarah Slamen (who goes by the Twitter handle, @VictorianPrude) used the time she was given to address the members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to call them out on their hypocrisy and graphically describe the suffering individual senator’s would be inflicting on women and children throughout the state by pushing their extremist religious views and bad science on the people of Texas. As intolerant of free speech as freedom of (or from) religion, just two minutes into Ms. Slamen’s testimony, presiding Sen. Jane Nelson had her forcibly removed from the building by three troopers. Despite this thuggish effort to silence her, Ms. Slamen got to deliver the rest of her remarks to a national audience two days later on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Today will most likely be the last stand of Sen. Davis and her supporters–at least for now. With weeks still left in the congressional session and another filibuster out of the question, the anti-women bill championed by Gov. Perry and the Republican legislature will almost certainly pass this time. But that will just be the beginning of the next series of battles against state-enforced misogyny, which may even end with Wendy Davis taking Rick Perry’s job.

Regardless of the obstacles or final outcome, Wendy Davis, Sarah Slamen, and thousands of other Texans remain committed to waging a never-ending battle for truth and justice that will guarantee women the right to protect their health and that of their families.

And hopefully they’ll show comic book publishers and readers that this is exactly the sort of cause that any self-respecting superhero should stand up for too.

Posted in Activism, Non Fiction, Personal heroism, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sometimes, the good guys wear black

Cover to The Liberator #1. Copyright Matt Miner. Cover art by Tim Seeley.

On my birthday this Wednesday, June 19, publisher Black Mask Studios will be presenting me with a very special gift that combines two of my favorite things—animal activism and comics. Even better, it’s a gift that will go out to everyone reading this as well.

Conceived and written by Matt Miner, with art by Javier Sanchez Aranda, Liberator # 1 introduces Damon Guerrero, a fictional version of many real life heroes who are willing to take direct action, and risk arrest, to free hundreds of voiceless victims from misery and eventual death inside factory farms, fur farms, vivisection laboratories, puppy mills and other production lines of institutionalized animal cruelty. The story opens with the black-garbed Guerrero (which is Spanish for “warrior”) sneaking onto the grounds of a dog fighting ring under cover of darkness to free its canine captives and torch* the empty trailer where the owners run their illegal gambling and drug operations. Guerrero is another kind of Dark Knight; defending otherwise invisible victims of heinous crimes that violate the laws not just of the courts, but of nature and basic humanity. And in setting himself above the laws recognized by society, he follows in the tradition of literary freedom fighters—like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro—who inspired the creators of Batman, Superman and other modern comic book superheroes. As stated by ComicBooked.com:

“Unlike any comic book project to date, Miner delivers a message about the world of animal abuse from the point-of-view of someone with expert knowledge on the matter, while blending it with a gritty protagonist in the vein of Batman or The Punisher.”

I encourage anyone who loves animals, and is outraged by the injustices routinely inflicted on them by humans, to pick up a copy of Liberator #1 when it arrives at your local comic book store this Wednesday. And if you’re going to be in New York City on Wednesday, please stop by JHU Comic Books for a 6 p.m. release day signing event with Matt Miner and Liberator editor/letterer Vitto Delsante.

Not only will you be supporting a new comic book creator and his efforts to tell a very important story, you’ll be helping to take direct action on behalf of animals, since 30% of the profits from each copy sold will go to support pit bull rescue.

Because justice shouldn’t just be something you read about in comics, and it shouldn’t just belong to those of us who can read or write them.

*A disclaimer about arson

Although I commend the extralegal actions of others who responsibly free and relocate animals being imprisoned, tortured and killed by humans; confiscate evidence to expose the barbaric activities of animal abusers; and destroy instruments used to carry out such cruelty, I condemn the use of arson (or bombs) to destroy whole buildings and other structures where animals may be housed and or exploited.  Despite Guerrero’s claim in Liberator #1 that he’s “careful nobody dies, nobody gets hurt,” as an animal rights activist, that would require that he make sure any indigenous rodents, insects or spiders were evacuated from the trailer before he set fire to it. In addition, firefighters responding to the blaze will risk their lives trying to put it out.

Fire and explosives are uncontrollable and pose too much of a threat to innocent people and animals for me to consider them legitimate tools in the cause of any social justice movement.

Posted in Activism, Animal advocacy | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Metapocalypse now

MorrisonCon program

MorrisonCon program cover. Art by Chris Burnham.

What if Grant Morrison hosted a comic book convention and it changed the world?

That’s exactly what happened nearly two weeks ago at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, although you probably haven’t noticed any difference yet.

But if Grant Morrison is right, you will.

The brainchild of James Sime, Kirsten Baldock and Ron Richards, and curated by Grant (with his wife Kristan), MorrisonCon was designed to tear down traditional comic book conventions (in both senses of the word) and rebuild them from the ground up into an intimate salon experience promoting an exchange of ideas and creative visions about the comics art form. More than 400 people made the pilgrimage to the Nevada desert to attend panels and participate in activities developed by Grant and featuring his nine hand-picked collaborators and co-conspirators: Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Thief of Thieves), Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, Happy!), Jason Aaron (Scalped, Avengers vs. X-Men), Jim Lee (X-Men, WildC.A.T.s, Justice League), Gerard Way (The Umbrella Academy), Jonathan Hickman (S.H.I.E.L.D., The Manhattan Projects), Frank Quitely (The Authority, WE3, All-Star Superman), J.H. Williams III (Promethea, Wild Girl, Batwoman) and Chris Burnham (Officer Downe, Batman Inc. ).

The diverse panel discussions addressed comics-related topics such as writing and drawing; connections to music and movies; the worlds of science, metaphysics, magic and myth; Jungian archetypal imagery; and the hastening evolution of human consciousness and technology as we approach the predicted Mayan apocalypse on December 21, 2012.

Expect maximum rock 'n' roll, chaos magic, mind-bending esoterica, sharp suits, surprise guests, and once-in-a-lifetime performances, all wrapped up in the glory that is comics, comics, and more comics.  Grant Morrison

As fascinating and exhilarating as I found all these discussions, they’re not the sort of subjects I usually address on this blog. But even though it wasn’t the topic of a panel, one of my favorite qualities of Grant Morrison’s work is that it has often pushed the boundaries of society’s accepted notions of justice.

I first got hooked on Morrison reading Animal Man, which, besides being an amazingly well-crafted work of metafiction, sought to expose one of the most pervasive and least acknowledged abuses of power in the modern world (as it was in the ancient one): the human exploitation, enslavement, torture and mass killing of the other animals with whom our species shares the planet. The Invisibles was a metaphorical representation of the eternal struggle for individual freedom, self-expression and self-identity against the authoritarian demands for conformity enforced by governments, corporations and religious institutions.

Animal Man #26

Animal Man meets his maker. Words by Grant Morrison, art by Chas Truog and Mark Farmer.

But when Grant left Animal Man in issue 26, donning his first fiction suit to enter the comic book reality he’d created and confront its title character, he explained that his decision was based in part on a feeling that his animal rights story lines had become too “preachy.” By the time Grant’s epic The Invisibles reached its conclusion, the messianic Jack Frost had realized that the battle between freedom and control was a false dichotomy. At MorrisonCon, Grant explained it in Buddhist terms—that we are all as one, both oppressor and victim, villain and hero.

Grant’s decades of work in comics led him to conclude that superheroes are not well-suited for resolving the infinite crises that plague the real world. In his book, Supergods, Grant wrote that “The presumption that superheroes could literally show us how to end hunger or poverty seemed as naive as a belief in fairies.”

I asked Grant during a Q&A session at MorrisonCon if he still felt this way. He replied that he didn’t like to be dogmatic and encouraged creators to express their passion for social causes through their comics. His personal feeling is that pointing fingers at people is one of the surest ways to turn off readers and is never a very effective way of inspiring change. I conceded that his powerful and emotionally riveting WE3 did a much better job than Animal Man of arguing the cause of justice for all beings (in equal part due to the beautiful art of Frank Quitely), even though no one in the story ever mentions the subject of animal rights. (On a related note, I was happy to hear Grant say that he still cares about animal issues and supports animal charities.)

Grant also shared, repeatedly during the weekend, his belief that it is not any one person’s responsibility to save the world. His advice was to just be the best you can be, at whatever path you are called to pursue. Be kind. Be a good friend and neighbor. Be a positive influence on others. Of course, it follows that, if everyone takes this advice, the world will no longer be in need of saving.

That, to me, was the most important and profound message to come out of MorrisonCon. And the most revolutionary.

Justice in our society (and in our comics) has always been retroactive. Someone commits a wrong against someone else, and police and the courts (or superheroes) step in to right it. Unfortunately, that’s inherently impossible. Once the scales are upset, they can never be fully balanced again. Even if the perpetrators of injustice are apprehended and sent to prison, and losses or damages are compensated for, nothing can undo the harm that was done to the victims (unless they can find the inner strength to forgive and move past it on their own).

The only real justice is preemptive. Living a life of tolerance and compassion so that the scales are never unbalanced in the first place.

The Invisibles Omnibus

Weapon of mass deconstruction

And that was the true miracle of MorrisonCon. It turned Las Vegas into the testing ground for a meta bomb (-physical and -fictional) with the potential to send out shock waves that could change the consciousness and conscience of society. The event was a neon hand grenade primed to remake the world in the image of anyone willing to pull the pin—like one of Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects opening a portal to J.H. Williams III’s Immateria. Based on most of the comments my fellow attendees have been tweeting since then, the explosion of creativity, good will and camaraderie generated that weekend has already changed the worlds of the 400-plus people who were caught in the blast.

And now we have scattered from the Nevada desert to the far reaches of the globe, rippling outward in a chain reaction that will continue touching other lives—through art, personal relationships and activism—triggering more explosions until a critical mass is reached that can rewrite the story of our collective future.

And eventually the whole world will be changed, the only way it ever has been—one heart and mind at a time.

My road to MorrisonCon

1990: Working as a correspondent at PETA when Grant finishes his run on Animal Man, I write and send him (via DC Comics) a letter from the organization officially commending his animal advocacy (and exceptional storytelling). I don’t know if it was ever forwarded to him.

1996: After reading Flex Mentallo, I write my second letter to Grant (via Vertigo Comics), this time thanking him for rewriting a happy ending to a personal tragedy in my life. Again, I don’t know if he ever received the letter.

1999: Working with DC Comics as the Director of the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program, I try unsuccessfully to get Grant, who is writing JLA at the time, to write our educational comic book, Superman for the Animals. (The assignment is instead given to Mark Millar.)

2002: Consulting with Marvel Comics on my second Comics for Compassion project, I make another unsuccessful attempt to get Grant, who at this point is working on New X-Men, to write the story that will eventually be published in X-Men Unlimited #44. (In the end, the Genesis Award-winning story, ”Can They Suffer?”, is written by Chuck Austen.)

2005: In April I give a PowerPoint presentation, “Images of Liberation: Comics, Cartoons, and Graphics,” which focuses heavily on Animal Man and WE3, at the Grassroots Animal Rights Conference in New York City. An excerpt from that presentation is the basis for my article published the following month in Satya magazine, “United Animal Kingdom: Grant Morrison’s All-Species Comics.”

2007: I meet Grant for the first time in NYC after he appears on a panel discussing superheroes as part of that year’s New Yorker Festival. He signs my first issues of Animal Man, The Invisibles and WE3 and I give him a printed copy of my 2005 PowerPoint presentation (and, I think, a copy of the letter I sent him while working for PETA).

2010: Our house is broken into and, along with more traditionally stolen items, the thief takes several of my Grant Morrison comics, including the three Grant signed for me. (Several months earlier, almost my entire run of The Invisibles—excluding issue #1—was destroyed in a basement flood that claimed hundreds of my comic books.)

Me and Grant Morrison2012: Trying to find a way to replace my Grant-signed comics, my wife Vicki stumbles on MorrisonCon, which I somehow have not heard of, and buys me a ticket as a 50th birthday present. During my encounters with Grant at MorrisonCon, I get several items signed, have my picture taken with him, and finally get to thank him in person (as well as Frank Quitely) for Flex Mentallo.

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Dynamic Duo (Part 2)

Jack Kirby, known as the “King of Comics,” brings a visual dynamic to the duo of iconic figures I’m celebrating for their influence on my life. Kirby, who would have been 95 today, is one of the founding fathers of the comics industry and one of the art form’s greatest masters. He defined the graphic vocabulary of depicting superhero action, was instrumental in building the world’s biggest comics publishing empire, and his seemingly limitless imagination introduced generations of readers to countless worlds of awe-inspiring visual majesty and wonder. Unfortunately, unlike social justice icon Howard Zinn, I never got to meet Kirby, but his lifelong passion for graphic storytelling was crucial in kindling my own.

The Cosmic King
The man who would be King was born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were Austrian Jewish immigrants, and his father earned a living as a garment factory worker. The young Kirby drew as a way of escaping from the impoverished conditions of his neighborhood (he sometimes used the hallway walls of the tenement building his family lived in as a sketch pad). Essentially self-taught, in late 1939 he began working for the movie animation company Fleischer Studios, and then, as the Golden Age of comic books took off, he began writing and drawing for the comic-book packager, Eisner & Iger Studio. Working in all comic book genres under a variety of pseudonyms, in 1942 he legally changed his name to Jack Kirby because it reminded him of actor James Cagney (and not, as some people claimed, to hide his Jewish heritage). This was the same year that Kirby married Rosalind Goldstein, with whom he would eventually raise four children (another coincidental similarity between Kirby and fellow New Yorker and son of Jewish immigrants Howard Zinn, was that both men married women who went by the name “Roz”).

One of Kirby’s earliest and most famous contributions to comics history was creating Captain America in 1941, with partner Joe Simon, for the company that would one day be known as Marvel Comics. Simon and Kirby soon moved to DC Comics, where they produced the kid gang comics Boy Commandos and Newsboy Legion and eventually went on to create the romance comic genre.  In 1958, Kirby (without Simon) returned to Marvel Comics, where he drew everything from westerns to giant monster stories (which were one of my early childhood favorites). Then, starting in 1961, Kirby and Marvel editor Stan Lee began a nearly 10-year creative collaboration that is widely regarded as the most significant and successful in comics history. During this period, Kirby co-created characters and groups including the Fantastic FourThor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer and Nick Fury (in his roles as both leader of the Howling Commandos and as a later agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). But despite Kirby’s contributions to the success of Marvel Comics, which became known as “The House That Jack Built,” he left the company for the second time in 1970 to work again for DC Comics, due to disputes over creative control, credit, compensation and ownership of his original artwork.

This is where I come in. At eight years old, 1971 was my first full year as a comic book reader, so my first exposure to Kirby was the amazing array of comics he began writing and drawing for DC at the time. These included his epic Fourth World saga, which chronicled the conflict between the super-powered celestial beings of New Genesis and the demonic denizens of Apokolips, led by the evil Darkseid. Consisting of New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle, these titles were Kirby’s attempt to create a modern mythology that would present primordial archetypes with superhero style.

Over the next year, Kirby also introduced readers to a centuries-old Arthurian demon doing battle in the present with equally ancient witches and warlocks; the last boy on a post-apocalyptic earth ruled by mutated anthropomorphic animals; a meek everyman in a soul-numbing future utopia transformed into a One Man Army Corps by a sentient satellite; and a superheroic master of Dreams protecting sleeping children from marauding nightmares. This was unfettered Kirby unleashing the full force of his imagination on impressionable young eyes and minds like mine in images so full of energy that they could barely be contained on the page.

Despite this outpouring of ideas at DC, in 1975 Stan Lee coaxed Kirby back to Marvel. In addition to working on his superhero creations Captain America and Black Panther, Kirby explored more cosmic concepts in series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, ancient astronaut theories, and anachronistic prehistory.  But perhaps predictably, after just three years, Kirby’s continued dissatisfaction with Marvel’s treatment of him, including the company’s refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, caused him to leave the publishing house that he built for the third and last time (See the Comics Reporter for an impressive sampling of Kirby’s art throughout his career).

cinema a la kirbySince Kirby’s death in 1994, DC and Marvel have continued to profit from the characters and worlds he created. Although neither of the two comic book publishing giants ever gave Kirby the compensation he deserved, his mistreatment by Marvel, which I described in a previous post, is legendary. Adding insult to injury, over the past 12 years, movies based on characters and stories Kirby created with Stan Lee have grossed $6.5 billion worldwide. Marvel and its parent company, Disney Studios, have fought Kirby’s heirs in court to prevent them from receiving one cent of that money and, perhaps worse, to deny their father’s contributions to the original works that generated all this wealth.

One of the biggest disappointments over Marvel/Disney’s actions for me as a comic book fan, and the greatest betrayal to Kirby and his family, has been the credit his longtime collaborator Stan Lee has taken as the primary architect of the Marvel Universe. Immediately after the big bang that started it all in 1961, and during the years of expansion that followed, Lee was explicit about Kirby’s role in Marvel’s success. In a 1968 interview, Lee admitted:

Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Doctor Doom” . . . or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing . . . I may tell him that he’s gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.

But when he testified on Marvel’s behalf during the copyright lawsuit, which the Kirby heirs lost, he made it seem like he was the captain directing every element of story production:

STAN LEE: Well, it was my job to dream up new characters or to continue with the characters we had and to pick the best artists and the best writers unless I wrote something my — I had the privilege, which now that I think back, it was rare, but I could either write stories myself or I could hire writers. I couldn’t write everything. And it was my job to hire the artists to draw the stories. And I did that for quite a number of years.
Q. And did you give instructions to the artists as to how you wanted the story to go?
STAN LEE: Oh, yes. That was my job as Art Director.
Q. So in addition to writing, you were also the Art Director?
STAN LEE: Yes.

More shocking to me were statements Lee made during an interview this year to promote both The Avengers and an autobiographical documentary released by Lee’s own production company. After expressing confusion as to why Kirby’s name should appear in the movie credits for The Avengers,  Lee tried to pass the buck, saying that (despite his status as Editor Emeritus of Marvel Comics and Executive Producer on every Marvel Studios film) he had nothing to do with deciding who got credits in the movie. Then he complained that he thought he was going to be asked about his documentary, ironically titled, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.

This title is taken from Lee’s most quoted line as a comic book writer (from the 1962 first appearance of Spider-Man), “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” Lee enjoys the adoration of millions of comics fans, international fame as a pop cultural icon, and millions of dollars on Disney’s payroll. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to risk losing all that by speaking out against the House of the Mouse in Kirby’s defense. But Lee would have none of those things in the first place if not for Jack Kirby. Lee is the only person who can set the record straight about Kirby’s co-authorship of the Marvel Universe and help his heirs get at least some fraction of the recognition and compensation that the King never got during his earthly reign. I just hope that Lee finds the power to live up to that responsibility, before it’s too late.

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Dynamic Duo (Part 1)

Starting today, I am celebrating the birthdays of two iconic figures who are among the most well-known and loved men in their respective fieldssocial justice and comic art storytelling. Even though these two sons of working class Jewish immigrants were born only five years and about six miles apart in early 20th century New York City, to my knowledge they never met or even had any awareness of each others’ existence. In contrast, not only was I aware of both of them (and eventually met and frequently corresponded with one of them), but they have been instrumental in shaping the two great passions of my life. That makes them largely responsible for the existence of this blog, which makes it fitting that I remember them as the superheroes they were, and are, to me.

Professor Z
Howard Zinn was born on August 24, 1922, in Brooklyn, where he grew up during the Great Depression. Both his immigrant parents were factory workers with limited education when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the series of apartments where they raised their children. Zinn’s love of reading started when he picked up a discarded copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar that someone had tossed in the street. His parents further encouraged his interest in literature by sending 10 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens’ collected works (which provided his first introduction to the long history of class struggle). He also studied creative writing in a special program at Thomas Jefferson High School.

At 18 he became a shipyard worker and then flew bomber missions during World War II. These experiences helped shape his opposition to war and passion for history. In 1944 he married Roslyn Shechter, with whom he would raise two children. After attending college under the GI Bill and earning a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, he taught at Spelman College, where he became active in the civil rights movement (one of his students, Alice Walker, would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Color Purple). After being fired by Spelman for his support for student protesters, Zinn became a professor of Political Science at Boston University, where he taught until his retirement, as a Professor Emeritus, in 1988 (his young neighbors in Boston, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, became Zinn’s lifelong admirers).

I first became aware of Howard Zinn in 1990, when an anarchist coworker introduced me to his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1980, and been featured on The Sopranos and The Simpsons, and in the film Good Will Hunting (written by and starring his since grown protégés, Matt and Ben). Reading that book gave me a new appreciation for U.S. history, which at a mere 200-plus years, I had always considered too short to be of much interest. It also demonstrated to me that “history isn’t what happened, but a story of what happened,” and that with very few exceptions, the story of our nation’s history has been told by rich, white men of privilege. A Peoples’ History (along with the several others of Zinn’s more than 20 books I later read) taught me that the great leaders of history, usually credited with directing our country’s sometimes agonizingly slow journey toward the pledged goal of “liberty and justice for all,” seldom really led so much as they were dragged toward it—sometimes kicking and screaming—by outraged masses of common people. The most valuable lesson I learned from Professor Zinn was that true patriotism requires an honest examination, and sometimes criticism of those leaders’ past actions and motivations, because if you believe your country has done no wrong, it’s easy to believe it can do no wrong—which inevitably results in it committing truly terribly wrongs.

I met Howard Zinn for the first time at a 1995 book signing at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., which coincided with the release of a revised and updated edition of A Peoples’ History. Shortly after that meeting I began corresponding with him, eventually sending him my proposal for an as-yet-unrealized book on the history of social justice issues portrayed in superhero comic books.

Me and Howard Zinn at Politics & Prose in 1995Howard wrote to me that, although he had been a fan of pulp magazine heroes such as Doc Savage (also one of my favorites), he “never followed the superheroes in comics, though of course I was aware of Superman and Batman and the others.” (He was about 16 when the Golden Age of Comics started in 1938, which was probably just old enough to avoid getting caught up in the comic book craze that was enthralling young readers across the nation.)

Despite his lack of personal experience with comic books, he appreciated their potential for conveying important ideas. He wrote this endorsement for Joel Andreas’ 1991 graphic exposé, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism:

“Addicted to War is a witty and devastating portrait of U.S. military policy, a fine example of art serving society.”

One of the proudest moments of my life was reading the endorsement Howard emailed me for my own work: “I think your book proposal is ingenious, unique, important — could be a real contribution to our cultural history.”

Of my opinion that superheroes should be champions of social justice, Howard said:

Sure the dogmatic view of the socially conscious superhero would say: aha, more dependence on individual saviors — not really democratic. On the other hand, kids need heroes, and better an anti-war, anti-Establishment hero — as a transition to a more sophisticated view of [how] social change occurs.

Although comic books had never much influenced Howard, his work did eventually have an influence on comic books. It was a major source of inspiration and information for  Uncle Sam, a two-issue miniseries by writer Steve Darnall and artist Alex Ross, originally published in 1998 by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. In it, a homeless man dressed as the title character stumbles through an unnamed American city struggling to remember who he is, while experiencing vivid flashbacks of being present at various moments throughout our nation’s past.

In the second issue, a triptych shows three historic scenes of government violence witnessed by Uncle Sam: Shays’ Rebellion, the Haymarket massacre and the Kent State shootings. Due to my own education from Professor Zinn, I noticed the middle panel mistakenly indicated that the Haymarket incident took place in 1893, rather than the correct year of 1886. I had met Steve Darnall prior to Uncle Sam‘s release at the Small Press Expo I attend every year, so I emailed him to let him know about the error. The date was corrected in the hardback edition collecting the original two issues that came out the following year. Later, I arranged for Steve and Alex to send an autographed copy of the hardback Uncle Sam to Howard.

Panels from Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross

A People's History of American EmpireI had once suggested to Howard that a graphic adaptation of A People’s History would be a great way to reach a whole new audience of readers. I don’t know if he remembered my suggestion or not, but in 2008 that graphic adaptation became a reality. Actually,  A People’s History of American Empire adapts both the original A People’s History and Howard’s 2002 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (which was later made into an award-winning documentary narrated by Matt Damon). Edited by Paul Bruhle, scripted by Dave Wagner and illustrated by Mike Konopacki, Empire primarily focuses on the history of U.S. military expansionism, but also shares  important incidents in U.S. labor history, such as the 1894 Pullman Strike involving 250,000 railway workers across the country and the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which Colorado National Guardsmen opened fire on a tent-colony of 1,200 striking coal miners, killing 19 men, women, and children.

Here’s an eight and a half minute video preview of the book, narrated by Viggo Mortensen.

Jasper Meets Howard Zinn

2010 cartoon by Angelo Lopez featuring Howard Zinn. (Click to enlarge.)

Sadly, Howard Zinn died on January 27, 2010 (he would have been 90 years old today).  Despite this, his presence continues to be felt in the world of comic art, thanks to the works of cartoonists who were among his unofficial students. He was eulogized shortly after his death by Keith Knight, creator of the syndicated newspaper strip, The K Chronicles. Nearly a year later, Howard payed a visit from beyond the grave to political cartoonist Angelo Lopez‘s character, Jasper the Cat, to lift his spirits about the possibilities for meaningful social change and to remind him that President Barack Obama, like all politicians throughout history, must be held accountable to the people (be sure to visit Angelo’s Web site for the second page of this cartoon).

Although the world is greatly diminished by the absence of Howard Zinn from it, I take comfort in knowing that the many people inspired by his work and educated by his writing continue to carry on his struggle for social justice.

Tuesday I will share a post commemorating Jack Kirby, the other half of my Dynamic Duo.

Following that, I will continue my Comic Book Justice series (which is based on the proposal I sent Howard).

 

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