Feb 22, 2017

Colleen Wing and X-23: Stars in Waiting

Colleen Wing and X-23: Stars in Waiting
Ben Smith

We truly live in a wondrous age of movies and television, when Colleen Wing and X-23 are poised to become household names in 2017.  As I’ve covered previously, Colleen Wing is one of my favorite supporting characters, and she is set to make her live action debut as part of the Iron Fist series on Netflix.  Wolverine was probably the second superhero I ever considered my favorite character, after Spider-Man, but he has only gotten worse over the years.  X-23 more than fills that void of the tortured assassin with a heart of gold deep inside.

I really don’t know what it is I love so much about female superheroes (yes, I know for our society to ever fully achieve gender equality, there will be no need to quantify characters by gender, but I am only human. I do my best).  I really don’t think sexual attraction plays into it at all, even subconsciously, considering they aren’t real women.  X-23 obviously has a Lolita quality that could appeal to some creepy fans, but I really don’t do the creepy old guy lusting after a younger woman thing (except with Taylor Swift, and that’s only because she’s so damn talented).

As a guy that’s almost always been the shortest male in the room throughout my entire life, I think I’ve always been impressed by those that defy expectation.  (It was always one of my favorite things to step on a basketball court with new people, and completely surprise them with my ability to not completely suck.)  No matter how far we advance as a species and a society, most males are still always going to underestimate the ability of a woman to physically kick ass.  Combine that underdog aspect with some pathos and a dash of excellent writing, and you’ve got a recipe for making me care about a character.  (See also Batgirl, Elsa Bloodstone, Spider-Gwen, Ahsoka Tano.)  If I can care about a character as if they’re a real person, then it’s all over for me.  I’m hooked.

X-23 was created and trained from birth to be an emotionless, mindless weapon of destruction.  As a parent, I think my heart goes out to any child that is forced to live a life without love or positive encouragement.  X-23 was even forced to kill her own surrogate mother, and has spent every moment since struggling to find a way to reconcile with the killer inside her.  Along the way, she’s had her heartbreaking setbacks, forced to send her cousin (who she became close friends with) and qunt away to protect from the people that would harm them because of her.  I love the way people believe in her, trust that she can find a better path.  Captain America turned her loose rather than handing her over to S.H.I.E.L.D. because he believed she deserved a chance to be a real person, not a weapon.  Sadly, Wolverine always been the best mentor, recruiting her into his black ops X-Force assassin unit, when he knew it wouldn’t be good for her.

This breaks my heart

Currently, X-23 has graduated to the role of Wolverine after the death of Logan.  Her sister-like relationship with a younger clone of herself is one of the primary reasons All-New Wolverine is my favorite series being published by Marvel right now.    

Colleen Wing’s appeal is more about visceral kung-fu badassery than it is any defining character trait.  She’s the most beautiful woman in the room (as many characters have noted) but she’ll also kick your ass or cut your head off with her katana.  As a child of the ‘80s, raised in the age of kung-fu/ninja movies, I’ll always have a place in my heart for some good martial arts action.  Colleen was raised and trained by her grandfather to be a Samurai, and considering I have Usagi Yojimbo tattooed on my arm, it goes without saying I have a great amount of love for the legendary Samurai.

As great as the A-list characters like Spider-Man, Batman, and the Avengers are, it’s always good when the B-list (or lower) heroes get a chance to shine.  Usually, with less editorial and merchandising restraints, these characters really get a chance to grow and change and develop in more unconventional ways.  It’s in the margins where things get truly interesting.  It’s been that way in comics, and I think it’s steadily been proven out in live-action as well.  It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy has maintained its status as my favorite Marvel movie.  From the early clips, it doesn’t appear like Colleen Wing or X-23 will be any different.  I expect nothing less than superstardom for both.    

Feb 19, 2017

Three for Three: On Race- and Genderbending

One of the most oft-argued points in any adaptation these days is when the race and/or gender of an established character is reversed. I am and have always been a proponent for diversity, and, let's just say, my life wouldn't really be where it is without the cause of diversity being championed. Representation is important, representation has power, and in some cases, representation in fiction has saved lives.

It gets very contentious for some people, though. Just over a year ago, Noma Dumezweni, a black actress was cast to play Hermione Granger in a theatrical production of Harry Potter, and a faction of fans were mad that they were making a white character otherwise. It got a reaction from JK Rowling on Twitter:

See, here's the thing with these things: "white" and "male" (and let's just throw in "straight") tend to be the default with our global fiction. When Neil Gaiman wrote Anansi Boys, he did it because it bothered him that in fiction, "white is the default." When you read novels and when the ethnicity is never stated, what skin color do you think of immediately? And a lot of the time, as in the case of Hermione up there, it's never actually stated.

Which brings us to comics. Now ideally, there'd be no need for movies and TV shows to take established characters and change them around on a racial and gender level, but we are talking about characters that were created in, shall we say, less enlightened times. (Although we are talking about 2017 here, so who knows.) As a result, the landscape, already very tilted towards straight white males, who control most of these media corporations and therefore control who appear in it, becomes even more tilted by the fact that already existing characters who are icons are mostly straight and white and male. And if you don't believe me, here's a picture of the Justice League of America from the late 50s/early 60s.

And here's a picture of the Justice League of America coming to theaters this year.

The inclusion of Cyborg there bugs me, not because it's an act of diversity, but because it's such an obvious "throw a bone" token type of diversity that I believe Geoff Johns even had to fight for just to get in there. It's still a bunch of white people and it's still a bunch of dudes, and somehow we're supposed to see that as progress in 2017.

To be fair, I'm also kind of a purist fanboy with the Justice League, and would basically like to see the icons represented instead of one of the Titans. So couldn't we have Hawkgirl and the John Stewart Green Lantern, just like in the cartoon? (It's not like anyone would miss Hal Jordan. No one likes Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan doesn't like Hal Jordan, and he's Hal Jordan. Or can we have Kyle Rayner? Is he still half-Hispanic? He's much better than John or Hal Jordan. Seriously, no one likes Hal Jordan.)

Still, I get why Cyborg is in there. Ideally, we could just create black characters, Asian characters, gay characters, new female characters, or any other character who's not a straight white male and have them reach the same heights as Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman. But that hasn't happened, because the way these things work is you're either a phenomenon (think of Wolverine in the early 80s, Deadpool in the aughts, Harley Quinn now) or you piggyback on what's currently successful. Yes, ideally we should create new things. That isn't happening, so let's mix up the old things so everyone can play fair.

Now, Hollywood has a major diversity problem, and a long way to solving that problem is to have diverse parts. If you're working off a mostly-white playbook, then you're gonna need to change things around a bit. I dunno about you guys, but I would like everyone to have a fair chance of getting screentime. Let's be fair, when 66.5% of spoken dialogue is by men, and 71.7% of it is by white people, then you need to scramble things around a bit or you're literally looking at shutting out non-white, non-male actors for particular jobs. At the same time, I don't think we need to be too strict with it, and I do still believe in the principle of meritocracy. If we take some arguments to logical extremes, then Gal Gadot should never be Wonder Woman, as she's Israeli and not Greek, or Chris Hemsworth shouldn't be Thor since he's Australian and not Nordic, and... you get the point.

Pictured: An Australian known for playing a Nordic Thunder God
and an Israeli known for playing a Greek Amazon

Side side note: Did you know that the dude who played Ando on Heroes wasn't Japanese? He was Korean, and he basically read his lines in Japanese phonetically — he didn't speak Japanese. The extreme end of the purist argument would say that he shouldn't have been cast as Ando, but he was perfect.

Side note: I actually know someone, a husband of a very close friend, who played Gaston in a theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast. This guy is of purely Filipino descent. It's already hard for him to get parts because of that descent. I don't think we should make it harder for him or people like him. Also, if we're taking the "only people of a certain race can play characters of that race, or only people of a certain gender can play people of that gender" thing to the extreme, then we need to ignore virtually all plays done during Shakespeare's time, that time Kenneth Brannagh played Othello, that Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and every time a non-American production is done of an American show.

So with that, let me talk about racebenders and genderbenders in TV and movies that were either rumored, actually done, or talked about, and talk about three I'm not cool with, three I'm on the fence about, and there I am cool with.
Three I'm Not Cool With:

Luke Cage: This is most "purists"' immediate example when defending the skin color of any racebent white character — that it's the same thing as if you made Luke Cage white. Which, it isn't. Luke Cage is a victim of systemic racism, growing up in a poor black neighborhood and being framed and immediately convicted for drugs, something that, in America, is an actual racial problem, and was continually targeted by a racist cop in his jail. Luke Cage is black. So much of what he is is a microcosm of what happens to black people in America. This is not to say that people from other races do not go through what Luke Cage goes through, but for black people, it's a reality. To change Luke Cage's skin color removes that power from black American readers.

That's another thing you should ask: does changing the race of this character remove power from the race I am changing it from? Also, is the race represented by this character already well represented that we can "sacrifice" this one character this time around? In the case of Luke Cage and other very ethnocentric characters like the Black Panther (king of an African nation) and Storm (African weather witch), the answers are yes and no, respectively.

Iron Fist: On the other hand, we have Iron Fist, the very white rich guy who went into the mystical land of K'un L'un and learned all sorts of martial arts. Before casting Finn Jones, some fans were clamoring for diversity and were asking to make Iron Fist Asian. This doesn't sit well with me. Look, I'm not Chinese (mostly) or Japanese (at all), but I am Asian, and racebending someone to be an Asian martial artist doesn't feel like progress to me so much as stereotyping. I can get that we don't really need yet another series where a white man goes into a non-white region to play the role of savior (Matt Damon is doing that right now, to virtually no critical or commercial acclaim), but the stereotype here feels almost backwards to me. I would feel uneasy.

Also, from a pure marketing perspective, I dislike it when the change is made to an existing character when another existing character can actually fit the bill. If we really want an Asian martial artist on the airwaves, we shouldn't be looking for a racebent Iron Fist; we should be campaigning for Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu (and spoiler: it seems we're gonna get him).

From a visual perspective as well, Iron Fist is supposed to be the outsider, and making him Asian, although he'd still be an outsider, would de-emphasize the point.

But for me, Iron Fist should remain white in 2017 because the single most poignant thing about Iron Fist and Luke Cage is this: they are best friends. Despite their couldn't-be-any-more-different backgrounds, despite their almost irreconcilable philosophies, Danny Rand and Luke Cage are best friends. One is white, the other is black. And that's a beautiful thing, and in 2017, I think that holds more power, especially across states that voted red, than simply making Danny another Asian martial artist.

Captain America: No, I'm not talking about passing the shield over to Sam Wilson, the Falcon, who is a black man. I'm talking about making Steve Rogers anything other than a white man. And the reason for this is simple: amidst all the super soldier serums, the radioactive spider-bites, the gamma-irradiated hulks, it would still be a stretch of suspension of disbelief for me (and I'm going to bet, you) to believe that anyone other than a Caucasian male would be able to bring 1940s America together.

When half the country couldn't accept a black president in 2008, to the point that they elected a president endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan in 2016, a non-white Captain America in 1941 would have major repercussions.

Okay, so actually, that sounds fascinating. I'd actually like to see that done in an alternate reality storyline, but for me to believe that you could just switch Cap's ethnicity — or even gender — like that and have it play out the same way? That's a wild stretch, even for superhero comics.

It would have to be something like this.

While we're at it, Superman's a similar case. Yes, he could be any other ethnicity, but if you're going to change it, it changes the landscape of the world he's in, and you should be prepared to commit to that.

Three I'm On the Fence With:

Peter Parker and the Cast of Spider-Man: When Zendaya, who is half-black, half-white, was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming, I immediately thought she was playing Mary Jane. Ethnicity doesn't matter to me with Mary Jane Watson, a character who is best known for being a wild party girl with red hair. Those are qualities that could apply to anyone regardless of race.

Then I found out Zendaya isn't playing Mary Jane, and immediately thought she was playing Liz Allan, Peter Parker's high school crush, who was racebent by the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon in the late aughts to be Hispanic.

Then I found out Zendaya is playing "Michelle", whose last name, I can only hope, should be Gonzales. And I realized, wait, why does she need to play a "name" character?

I like Michele Gonzales. I have an irrational love for Michele Gonzales. Why does every one of Spider-Man's movies need to have either Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson? I know one of them is endgame, but in the meantime, can't we build up the other characters in our stable? How can other characters gain the recognition and status that these other characters already have if they're never given the chance?

A while back, there came an edict from Marvel saying that Peter Parker should always be straight and white, a decision that frustrated many. I am a big fan of alternate versions, and agree that in some alternate versions there are universes where Peter Parker isn't straight and/or isn't white, but for movies? If they ever decided to just racebend Peter Parker, I would, as a brand/marketing person, see it as a colossal wasted opportunity, because this guy exists.

That's Miles Morales. He's a brilliant teenager with family problems. And he happens to be Spider-Man.

I think "bending" is at best a momentary stopgap in the fight for diversity. Ideally, we should be able to create new characters altogether and have them stand on their own. When someone like Miles is already there, living and breathing, just waiting for a shot to break out, we should give him that shot.

And no, I don't think the name "Peter Parker" is enough to sell people on Spider-Man. I think the name "Spider-Man" will sell people on Spider-Man. The whole point is that Spider-Man can be anyone — and that makes it all the more important, if we're going to have a non-white Spider-Man, to use Miles Morales.

By extension, this applies to any character with an already existing counterpart. Don't racebend Hal Jordan, use John Stewart or Kyle Rayner — partly because they already exist, and partly because no one likes Hal Jordan.

Everyone in Dr. Strange: Dr. Strange got under fire for changing the Ancient One, typically portrayed as a Tibetan monk, into a Celtic woman. Less spoken about was how Baron Mordo, typically Strange's arch-enemy, got racebent into a black man.

I quite honestly have no problem with either, and I can say I'd rather watch Tilda Swinton kick ass as the Ancient One than wizened wizard. In the end, I was indifferent to the changes, but then I don't know how I feel about the fact that they killed the woman and turned the black dude evil.

Ghost in the Shell: I'm just gonna start this paragraph off by saying that Scarlett Johannson is playing The Major, and the Major's name is Kusanagi. Major Kusanagi is supposed to be Japanese. Ghost in the Shell is supposed to be set in Japan. So I try to imagine if we took a Filipino property (like, say, Darna) and if we cast a white actress in it, and I probably would be annoyed at first, buuuuuuut.....

When Sam Yoshiba, director of the international business division at Kodansha's Tokyo headquarters, says, "Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place. This is a chance for a Japanese property to be seen around the world," it speaks to a reality in Hollywood. You're only going to get made if they believe you can make money, and with the rare number of actresses who are seen as A-list (is there really anyone at the moment behind Scarlett), you have to ask, do I or do I not want to see a movie headlined by a woman? And in a male-dominated industry, my answer to that is always, "Yes, yes I do."

So I actually have no problem with Scarlett Johannson playing Major Kusanagi, and I like to imagine that I'd have no problem either if a Darna movie were to be made and they cast a white actress (but who knows?). My issue with Ghost in the Shell is that most actors in it aren't Japanese at all. You'd think that this kind of movie would open up the jobs to Japanese actors, but somehow that isn't the case here. If a movie sourced from Japan and ostensibly set in Japan won't open up the casting gates for Japanese actors, then doesn't that say something about Hollywood altogether?

On a related note, I liked Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It's established that he's crazy and that Native Americans aren't savages. I really think that movie got unfairly judged before it was even seen. And again, it's a movie that wouldn't have been made without Depp's commitment to it.

Three I'm Cool With:

The Human Torch: So we had a hot mess of a Fantastic Four movie in 2015, and right smack-dab in the middle of it was Michael B. Jordan, a black actor, playing the Human Torch. He was also the best actor in the cast. Sometimes it comes down to this: the best actor for the job is the best actor for the job.

Johnny Storm is a character who sets himself on fire and is cocky, letting celebrity into his head just a bit too much. In 1961, it would have been unheard of for this set of characteristics to be heard of in the black community, but in the 21st century — have you seen NBA players?

Where this casting decision gets me, however, is in the discussions it spawned. See, Johnny and Sue Storm are siblings. Now, I grew up in a multiracial school. One of my very best friends in the world has a Filipino mother and a white American dad. And she and her siblings have different skin tones, with one looking whiter than the rest of them. And even with that knowledge, the only thing I could think of was, "So I guess one of Sue and Johnny is adopted?"

That turned out to be the case, but that was irrelevant — I knew that it was possible that they were biologically related. I had witnessed that kind of gene-mixing with my own eyes, and I still defaulted to a prejudiced bias. I thought that was amazing. And then you see things like this, and you think, the world really is an amazing place.

These two are twins.

Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch illustrates two reasons why I would approve of racebending: (1) sometimes the best person for the job is the best person for the job, and (2) it makes us face our own biases, and in fact, knock them down.

Having said that, I still don't recommend you actually watch Fantastic Four.

Ghostbusters: This isn't a comic book, but since way too many people felt the need to protest this movie, I feel that it should be mentioned. The 2016 Ghostbusters movie is my favorite Ghostbusters. Look, fellas, I hate to burst your bubble, but Ghostbusters 2 sucked and Ghostbusters 1 was only funny in the 80s. (Don't worry, Ghostbusters 1, you still have the best single scene, with the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man.) The 2016 Ghostbusters didn't take either (overrated) movie away, and wasn't made for fans of the original Ghostbusters. It was made for these fans:

I saw people complaining that it was just an ad for women in STEM, and to that, I say... so what? We need more women in STEM. When women are discouraged at a young age to go into the sciences, we need our pop culture to show them that they shouldn't be.

Also, Kate Holtzmann is the best Ghostbuster ever. I know it, you know it. We all know it.

And while we're at it, Extreme Ghostbusters was pretty good too and was better than The Real Ghostbusters.

Side note: Anyone have a list of movies that you'd actually like to see a complete gender reversal of? I actually would like to see a female-centric version of Stand By Me. Why? I don't really know. I think it'd be interesting though. 

Everyone in Riverdale: I have a love/hate relationship with Archie comics when it comes to how they deal with diversity. In June 1971, they introduced Chuck Clayton, known for being Archie's close friend and was pretty much good at almost everything, including athletics. Over the years, he was treated as a token character, and was given a black girlfriend, Nancy, who was known as nothing else but Chuck's girlfriend. Most recently, of course, they introduced Kevin Keller, Archie's first openly gay character, who of course is also good at just about everything.

I have zero issues with the fact that Archie is always trying to push diversity; I just dislike how every minority character they introduce is instantly good at everything, and also that they're only ever the only character who fits that demographic in Archie. In his notes to The Archie Wedding, editor Vic Gorelick continually notes that Nancy should be in Betty and Veronica's bridal party, because she's African-American, which would be fine if we knew anything else about Nancy. We don't. Traditionally, Archie Comics has treated minority characters in a token fashion, with side minor characters such as Ginger Lopez and Maria Rodriguez being kept to, well, the side.

On the other hand, Archie Comics is the same company that continually published stories about how the older generation should learn to understand how their kids are into punk rock, or how they shouldn't judge the new fads the kids are into because times change. So Archie Comics is an earnest company in the push for diversity and inclusion, just not one known for subtlety.

Enter Riverdale, a TV show that takes all of Archie Comics and turns it on its head. Archie is still your redhead heartthrob, but one that sleeps with Ms. Grundy, now a teacher in her 30s instead of an old woman. Betty is still, on the surface, the perfect blonde girl, but one whose family has a history of mental illness (yet another underrepresented or, at best, misrepresented demographic). Mr. Weatherbee and Pop Tate are black (black authority figures are on the list of things you wouldn't have seen in 1940s America. when these characters were first created). Reggie Mantle and Dilton Doiley are Asian. Veronica Lodge, the best character on the show for my money, is Hispanic. All three of the Pussycats are black.

It's weird for me to say I like this show, because I didn't really like Afterlife with Archie and I'm not really enjoying Mark Waid's "more realistic" Archie series, but I actually am loving this show. How much of it actually has to do with Archie, I don't know, because it's so different from core Archie that it feels silly to even really talk about the racial changes when there are so many changes. From Archie being jailbait to Jughead Jones not being asexual (which is fine, I think), the racial changes all seem secondary. Still, Riverdale is traditionally a white town with four black people (Chuck Clayton, Coach Clayton, Nancy, and Valerie, who is almost never in Riverdale) thrown in, and then your random other non-white character thrown in from time to time, that scrambling things around to make it more representative of America was necessary. But with that, let's talk about Veronica Lodge and the Pussycats.

Veronica Lodge is the best character on the show, and in fact the only one who I still see, after four episodes, through the lens of the comics from which they came. In the comics, Veronica half the time has a heart of gold, and the other half of the time is the bitchiest bitch of the west. Camilla Mendes portrays her as one who could easily shift back and forth between the two. She does it perfectly. And like I said before, sometimes the best person for the job is the best person for the job. Does the fact that she's Hispanic change it for you?

The Pussycats on the other hand seemed almost destined to be fundamentally changed from the start. Here's the challenge with the Pussycats: they are traditionally a distinct property from Archie and the gang. When the Pussycats meet with the Archies, it's an event. And if you'd kept it as it is, then Josie would really just be a genderbent Archie, lacking her own identity on a show that already has its redhead musician.

By making the Pussycats an all-black female trio, it introduces a racial component about how they had to claw their way up to success in this suburban Middle America town. In America 2017, I think that's poignant.

In America—and the world—2017, all representation is poignant. It's not always cut and dry. There are nuances. And sometimes it's up for debate. These are things I'm fascinated by. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Who's changeable enough for you, and who can't ever be modified? Let me know in the comments.

The Best of Marvel 2099 (or How I Learned to Like What I Like)

The Best of Marvel 2099
Or, How I Learned to Like What I Like
Travis Hedge Coke

I can, with little doubt, narrow down where I learned that there could, easily, be a dramatic difference in quality between two things marketed together. When I was a little kid, anything Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was good. Because, it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Any issue of Fantastic Four was gold, whether it was really amazing or just so-so. I was satisfied by the imprint or the big concept.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, when I was twelve or thirteen, pointed out that the main story in a comic was terrible, or at least, blah, but the backup was good stuff. That was Marvel 2099 Unlimited, an anthology book in the Marvel 2099 line.

An imprint, published back in the 1990s, taking place in and after the year 2099 in what could be the future of the traditional Marvel Universe, Marvel 2099 consisted of a variety of ongoing monthly series and the occasional oneshot. Within months of the first wave of comics, I think the idea that you could distinguish quality, that an imprint or world wasn’t all of one quality, was truly crystalizing in my brain. At the same time, I was aware that my friends liked different comics than I did, even in the same niche, and I had to reconcile their tastes and mine being different without anyone being wrong.

Prior to this, if my friends liked something I probably did, too. At most, we’d like different characters or like it for different reasons. But, there could be a crap comic and a great one in the same anthology? In the same line?

Punisher 2099 cracked me up, continuously. Tony Skinner (co-writer) and Tom Morgan (penciler) were great, and Pat Mills is rightly a legend. In retrospect, that Mills was on a normal Marvel book (Marvel also published the US release of some of Marshall Law) is alone an amazing event. At the time, I just knew it read like nothing else at Marvel and was making fun of things I wanted to see mocked and generally did not.

Upping the machismo and the apologist nature of the action story to ridiculous levels, Punisher 2099, was balls to the wall satire where everyone was horrible and everything fell into place because there was a social system that rewarded horrible everyone and everything. A police officer who moonlighted as a vigilante, the comic featured a psychiatrist being tasked to our protagonist, highlighting how dangerous he was, and while confirming his instability, she started sleeping with him and became enamored with his hard-on action star bull.

Other than my younger brother, who argued with me that it wasn’t meant to be funny, no one I knew preferred it to Spider-Man 2099, except for me. My friends liked the Spidey title and, while I tried to, I’d read part of an issue and get tired. Or, I’d make it through three issues and feel unchanged, feel like I’d just slept, basically, through reading them. For me, Spider-Man 2099 did not and would never matter. It didn’t do anything

And, I wanted comics that did stuff to me. That changed me. That moved me or twisted me around and reshaped my life. I was not hugely demanding, but I had a limit.

So, were my friends wrong? Were they mistaken about the quality of this comic they preferred?

They were getting changed, or at least, getting rewarded by the Peter David book they liked. My not enjoying it could not change this.

By the time Warren Ellis took over on Doom 2099, there was no chance something as safe and lazy as a Spider-Man who has a romance with his artificially-willed woman-shaped doorbell was going to click with me. Heck, Doom 2099 under Ellis chased off the penciler he inherited, and since I hold one of his covers as an example of the lowest Marvel can sink in terms of quality, this was good. The book was getting better all the time. But, it was immediately a jump ahead from the previous writer, who was not bad, but also was not amazing.

Len Kaminski’s Ghost Rider 2099, with Chris Bachalo on art, made me wonder, even then, if they were trying to get fired. In an early issue, Ghost Rider charges off to assault fascist police with the declaration that it is “time to carve some pork.” The Comics Code Authority was asleep at the wheel or something. Something. Something was up.

Dr Doom was taking over America from fascists and unveiling Captain America to pacify the people. Punisher was a huge criminal, but you knew he was never going to fail, never going to get busted for real. And, there were short comics in Marvel 2099 Unlimited that were just crazy good. Brutal, weird little shorts that would not fit anywhere else at Marvel. R Gang, a goofy, almost Troma-esque Our Gang pastiche written and drawn by Bob Fingerman. Ned Sonntag’s Kid Current, Online! about more literal-than-usual cyberspace cowboys, complete with digital horses. The Warren Ellis, D’Israeli, and Marie Javins Metalscream stories, with folks in leathers named Painqueen, Necrosis, and, naturally, Metalscream, aka John, aka (in his wishes), Please, Master Don’t Hurt Me, or by his assistant, Litany Kirkpatrick, “Ashtray Head.” Ian Edginton wrote Lachryma, about a holy order of vampire nuns. Kyle Baker drew a Duke Stratosphere short.

These, like the other 2099 comics were edited primarily by Joey Cavalieri, until he was fired and the bulk of the talent left all the books immediately. But, there was Spider-Man and there was an X-Men 2099, other 2099 comics that just didn’t keep me. X-Men had some interesting hooks, but it was a collection of names and designs without a point. The satire of a future Vegas was old to me by the time I was barely in my teens. The possibility an old black woman could be Storm didn’t hold much for me. So what? And, if so, why is the only black woman Storm? That seemed weird to me. Like they were so rare and mythical if you saw one a hundred years later, it had to be the same person.

I didn't care. It was liberating to realize, during those years, how little it mattered. That it, in fact, did not matter.

Not only could I like the stuff I liked, I was under no obligation to understand or keep up with what did nothing for me but bore or annoy me. I did not have to learn it, or retain it. I did not have to get worked up over its events, no matter how “earth-shattering” or “must-buy” they were sold as. The next issue, even, ultimately did not matter as much as the issue I had in my hands, when I had it in hand.

I wasn’t there for comics. I had no duty to be a good consumer. They had to step up to me. Comics, entertainment, media had to give me the time of day. They had to get my attention and reward my time. Or, I could let them go and focus on what did.

Feb 11, 2017

Messages in Maps: Psychogeography, Cultural Ecology and the Prefigured Place

Messages in Maps
Psychogeography, Cultural Ecology and the Prefigured Place
Travis Hedge Coke

Ta-Nehisi Coates rewrote the map of Wakanda. Of all his work on Black Panther and related comics, the new map impresses me the most. It is, while not wordy, the most literary action. While seemingly nonjudgmental, the most political. He de-anglicized some of the place names and outright removed those with - at best - unfortunate connotations, such as the Primitive Peaks and what is listed on earlier maps as Domain of the White Gorillas (Mostly Uncharted). He concretized Wakanda’s six major cities, in opposition to earlier versions of “mostly uncharted” or generic “Woods” surrounding a centralized city that counts.

In passing, this might not even register with the average reader. Some people jump over extras, anyway, but more than that simply don’t sight-read everything and put it into an orchestrated context with a story set in the place a map is illustrating.

People do not often interpolate place names, nearness to waterways or distance from agriculture as even purposeful decisions made by an author. We do not consider it when we know the map is a fiction of a fictional place. We don’t question it when we know it’s an engineered clarification of a real space. And, to be fair, we really aren’t taught that we should, or taught how we can.

Sidenote: Coates and Stelfreeze are talking to something like seven different completely-formed and articulate audiences with every release of Black Panther.

Our primary introductions to maps probably presented them to us as objective and inarguable. It would feel different if a person went around naming everything and claiming it, in real time before us, as theirs or belonging to this ally, etc. Walk up to a local and go, “This thing you call _____ is now _____ because that’s my language and this is about me and what fits well in my mouth,” and the sense is very different than when it’s been done quietly, beforehand, without our witnessing.

The authorship of a map is usually entirely erased by the time we peruse it. That there was an author is obscured from us, in the case of real maps, so they will have the power of truth, and in the case of imaginal lands, so they have the power of conviction. To read a map without questioning the choices of labels, boundaries, or distortions is to be as colonized as the land is as the map is drawn.

We grow up reading maps and we spend year after year in school, most of us, learning cultural ecologies in History, in Cultural Geography, World Cultures, what have you, and yet, don’t consider these systems and narratives to have an angle. We expect the explanation of city life in Italy or rural life in Uganda to be as objective as the multiplication tables in Math class. We extend this to maps of fictional locales the same way we do not anticipate the math or science in a story will be false unless it highlights its falsity.

Sidenote: Anecdotal facts couched within otherwise pure fiction are still treated as objective truths by many in any given audience.

A smart author and in this case I am considering all major contributors as authors, visual artists, wordsmiths, anyone making a significant choice in regards image or text. Of course, not all comics - not all of any media - is up to the nominal authors, and sometimes you’re tasked with something, as Eliot R Brown was. A former technical artist and designer for Marvel, the first serious effort at a map of Gotham City was Brown’s first work for DC. And, it was a work where revisions seem to have piled onto revisions to the point where the work may be said to have lost any cohesive authoring, and not really, even, a steady hand stitching the piecemeal together.

In fact, the map as it has been published and republished/reused (in movies, advertisements, comics, etc) does not line up with the final version that Brown turned in.

Further down the control-scale we have the map generated for Marvel's Age of Apocalypse, which just knocks out South America and the Middle East as “Atrocity Zone” or just irradiated wasteland, but also gives us San Francisco, Dallas, and Chicago while the “Human Settlements” in Africa (which, in comics scenes, plenty of exoticism and nonsense) are given no names or clarification.

Sidenote: A cognitive map is a mental representation (and thereby a useful distortion) of the relative locations and attributes in a spatial environment. All maps of Wakanda, in print, are representative of cognitive maps.

The anglocentric nature of the map, that the only details are given over to the United States and to England, even in an anglophone comic, seems to run contrary to the intent of a map of the world, illustrating a world issue. It’s a serviceable map, but barely even that. And, even some people who worked intimately on the comics seem unsure how the map really came to be what it is. While the Gotham map may lack an authoritative author, it has authority, while this map does not even have that.

I mention these, primarily, to show the strength of the authorship and cohesive intent of the Coates and Manny Mederos map. But, divers hands or not, cognizant expressions or not, all of these maps are subject to the purviews of cultural ecology, behavioral geography, psychogeography, implicit history and the privileging of information and assumptions. Just because the Coates and Mederos map uses the phrase “political geography,” right on it, does not mean it has more of a political geography than those generated by cartographers or authors who did not use the phrase.

Not intending something is never the same as not doing something. Intent does not govern effect. Warrior Falls and Black Warrior Creek to the east of “Mostly Uncharted” and north of Primitive Peaks, no matter how well-intended, had certain effects back when that map of Wakanda was created, and it has different, and perhaps more sharply-felt-by-a-wider-audience effects when considered today. Knocking out all of South America as “wasteland” and leaving Australia completely off your word map has effects. The AoA map isn’t a map of the world, but a map of an embarrassingly childish American perspective of the world. The Gotham map is articulate and full, and its use by storytellers as a setting

Sidenote: Cultural ecology is the study of human adaptations to social and physical environments. But, in fiction, the near-opposite occurs, and social and physical environments are adapted to primary characters and prefigured plots.

All maps are representative of cognitive maps. Presence and repetition, familiarity and novelty encourages our reflex perceptions and tells us our left from right, our uptown from downtown, why Australia is a continent and why Europe is one (and why some people expect Central America to be one). Maps aren’t topographies and geography. Maps, illustrate.

How we describe worlds describes us. What we accept, how we engage with maps, with the cultural and political ecologies drafted and concretized by authors can define us as readers. When I refer disparagingly to aspects of some of these maps, when I question or beg questions, I am not trying to insult, or even accuse the cartographers and authors. I am grateful for their good work, and for them having done it. Having done their work, the maps are - in many significant ways - no longer about them.