Oct 30, 2016

The Ex Never Goes Away: Mockingbird, Hellcat, Twin Peaks and Me

The Ex Never Goes Away:
Mockingbird, Hellcat, Twin Peaks and Me
Travis Hedge Coke

Mockingbird (Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al) and Patsy Walker: AKA, Hellcat (Kate Leth, Brittney Williams, et al) are the two best things Marvel has published in the last year.

Patsy has been largely concerned with doing right by people, making friends of enemies, accepting when a friend becomes an enemy, and people that come in and out of your life whether you want them to, or not. It just launched into a new storyline concerning the lead character's two ex-husbands, the physically abusive, perpetually jealous Buzz Baxter, and the self-loathing, narcissistic son of the Devil, Daimon Hellstrom.

Mockingbird just finished a surreal, cerebral run that became increasingly about ex-lovers haunting you and the idea that, maybe, there aren't necessarily good exes. There are the exes you would like to have around more, now, and the ones you would rather be done with, but even if they can't show up on a ghost horse to harass you on a cruise, your exes haunt you, and your life. Even the good ones. Especially the bad ones.

Meanwhile, in real life, an ex wrote me just recently, striking up a conversation by leading with, “I’m only writing you because there’s no one intelligent left to talk to.”

Patsy and Mockingbird are cool and hot comics, respectively, in the media studies sense. They are not dissimilar, but I can’t really say they’re very much the same, either. Both have a sense of humor, and action, and both have a predilection for background jokes, but Patsy is a light read if you want it to be, with a basic, generally emotionally-driven and focused-plot emphasis. It’s a sitcom comic. Mockingbird is what, I think, everyone wanted me to get from Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye that, I kinda did, but also I didn’t. It’s so tonally simple and visually loaded that it makes your brain start running laps in the space provided. It’s a puzzlebox, as I believe the writer described it, and a very engaging one. At no point with Patsy, do I feel a need to overcomplicate or think two moves ahead; it's there, in the present, the way a good sitcom on TV is omnipresent but noninvasive. Mockingbird makes me want to outthink it, to at least have my strategy as a reader in the realm of possibility, to counter what's probably coming a move or two later.

Those two sets of engagement methods, if combined, are how I feel about Twin Peaks, which is making its televised comeback and already started the comeback, really, with the Mark Frost novel and the edited-from-leftovers The Missing Pieces para-movie. While more diehard fans seem to prefer the non-TV-like, high contrast hot material, the stuff that demands a more rigid and immediate attention to the visual or audiovisual experience, the formula-happy, ambient cool elements, tend to bug them. I love - and crave - both. I like the genre-fit noir or soap storylines in Twin Peaks for the same reason I like when a good comic dips into them; the same reason it’s nice to have a soap opera on the tv set when you’re sitting in a laundromat with two more loads to go from washer to dryer yet.

(Like Umberto Eco, I’m not comfortable with hot and cool mediums, while hot and cool works, scenes, or aspects seem reasonable to me. McLuhan pushes movies as a hot medium and television as a cool medium based in how theatrical showings and home showings worked in the 1960s, but that’s half a century ago and even then it was remarkably reductive. McLuhan positions comics as essentially a cool medium, implying that they are more trope-heavy than movies, and require more generalized active involvement from the audience, which simply is not borne out by either medium, as a whole catalogue or works, or either audience, taken in its multi-person entirety. If comics have taught me anything, it’s that unless you are listening to this article via text-to-speech software, you are, right now, engaging in a visual medium, and you can also jump to one of the five to fifteen tabs you also have open right now, or go back to the game you have paused behind this.)

Mockingbird and Patsy serializing (in part) concurrently meant I could switch off from one to the other, reading a new issue of one before the other, or in the reversed order, based simply on what I felt like at the moment. Both comics implicitly and explicitly acknowledge that characters and audience are aware of both history and of a wide world surrounding and affecting the microcosm that is each individual story or protagonist. No woman is an island, and even islands have water around them and land underneath that spreads out below the water, the air reaching above, et cetera. They are enmeshed in worlds, spatially, socially, and temporally, and they relish in this. They splash around in it.

I came into the current Patsy series, going, “Where the hell is Nancy? Will there be Nancy? Is there?” Nancy Brown had not been seen since the oldest, and longest running Patsy Walker comics were redefined as fiction-within-fiction, comics made by Patsy Walker’s mother in her likeness, replicating her friends, but giving them fantastic, exorbitant lives, while in the really real world of the Marvel Universe, she was selling her daughter to the Devil and making a fast and prolonged buck off the faces and names of a bunch of kids. And, within the first issues, alone, characters from those stories were making comebacks, with Nancy eventually having a visual appearance in the comic, if not actually walking around in a scene yet. (Where’s my Nancy scenes, Leth and Williams? I love you. I love the comic. But, where is my Nancy?) Other people were waiting for Buzz, husband turned supervillain, or Valkyrie, or… well, lots of characters that Patsy has had a history with and potentially could make a reappearance.

For some reason, I didn’t expect Mockingbird to tie into too much. That it did was great, and I like what it did with preexisting characters and situations, even down to the Phantom Rider retcon that seems to have burned almost as many concerned folks as the cover use of the other f-word.

If you have the Marvel Universe, you may as well use the Marvel Universe. While neither book redefined the universe, it does use the cosmogony and organization of that universe to rearrange the microcosm of each comics’ scope into something that is niche in the best sense of the term. A home ecology. Somewhere functional and thriving and suited to what is living there, which in this metaphor, is both the characters and the stories.

Your history is an ex as much as a former lover or a friend who isn’t a friend anymore. You remember it. You have to deal with the fallout. The impossible promise it imprinted in your life. The fears or frustrations they left you with. This is all as true of your history as it is any one person. And, your other friends, your other lovers, your family and coworkers - that is to say, interested parties - know lots of this stuff, whether you even remember it as clearly or not. An interested party might remember a bad boyfriend easier than you do. An interested party might recollect you walking dumbly into trouble, whereas you have obscured it with rhetoric and goodwill. Or, loads of excuses.

So, when Twin Peaks brings up minutiae from an episode that aired over twenty years ago, or Mockingbird redirected events first published thirty years ago, and Patsy deals with characters who haven’t appeared in over forty years, the authors know that the audience will comprise those learning all of it entirely anew, those who have secondhand familiarity, and a range of firsthand and perhaps nostalgic awarenesses. Especially today, in the wiki and search engine era, access is keystrokes away. At most. Cain and Leth, Williams and Niemczyk know that all we have to do is reverse image search for similar images or ask Siri a name to get all manner of information handed to us. Both comics use this as a strength, but neither is going to get credit for that the way that Twin Peaks’ authors traditionally have, or in comics, Grant Morrison usually does.

Williams is an amazing artist, interpolating various styles and whole sets of tropes and visual cache, changing gears subtly between humorous or heartbreaking scenes, adjusting the level of cartooning or the techniques of expression for different characters or beats. She is going to get nowhere near the credit for that, that someone showier and more loudly “artistic” will, for the same reason we don’t tend to think of Gil Kane as an amazing layout and expression artist, even though he blatantly was.

Mockingbird has been a rodeo ride, an endurance spectacle, for eight straight issues, and that’s down to the writer and the art team refusing to let us get a firm hold on the reins and keep that hold. This isn’t our show, it’s the bucking broncos; we’re just there to add weight and maybe collect the prize if we can hold on enough. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of if you get thrown, just when, and that’s okeh. That is what you sign up for.

The aggressiveness of all sides, after the blow up against Chelsea Cain that primarily took place on twitter, as ugly and horrifying as it has been, has also caused a reexamination of the whole comic and what Cain brought to comics. I hope it means a rise for her star, some critical love from some corner. She’s earned it. The book deserves it. The furor against that final cover, was not the same as the criticism against a recent J Scott Campbell Iron Man cover, most obviously because one was really, really ugly and the other, as far as I can tell, had nobody actually threatening Campbell at all. But, I notice that the title of the second Mockingbird collection is actually set to be My Feminist Agenda, and I cannot tell if that came about before or after the cover featuring the main character in a t-shirt reading, “Ask me about my feminist agenda,” inspired such vitriolic rage. Either way, I’m thrilled to be part of an audience that’s marketing to. And, I don’t want it changed.

I don’t like to see entertainment live long enough to be diluted, but dilution of a work of entertainment or art is impossible to objectively judge. What I find to be the heart or working engines and gears of Mockingbird may not be what the next reader or the next potential fan does. I’ve read enough interviews to know that actors, directors, even David Lynch didn’t particularly care for some of what I think are some brilliant moments for Twin Peaks. Some of you are still hung up on why I have these big parenthetical clauses in this article, or when I’m getting back to exes and others understand that I’ve been talking about exes the whole time and that’s why the parentheticals are necessary. What those readers understand makes it necessary may not even be why I feel they should be there. This is the nature of how we read, how we engage.

The world is bigger than we can take in, and touches us more intimately than we care to think about on a regular basis. History is always with us. You lose threads. You pick them up. Our history is apparent to others, but in different forms than it appears to us. And, you should buy Patsy Walker: Hooked on a Feline, The Secret History of Twin Peaks,  Mockingbird: I Can Explain and/or Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda immediately. Right now. (Go. Buy. Read. Why are you still here?)

Oct 23, 2016

What’s So Wonderful About Wonder Woman

What’s So Wonderful About Wonder Woman
Travis Hedge Coke

Remember, when I said I wouldn’t write about Wonder Woman? I changed my mind.

A prestige format 100 page Wonder Woman comic by a transvestite magician (Grant Morrison) was released this year. We’re deep in a twice-monthly comic by a returning ongoing writer, Greg Rucka, who has said, “I’m pretty content being biologically male. But… I’ve always identified far more as female than male.” And, the original creative team, often credited as one joint pen name of Charles Moulton, included a polyamorous triad, the two women of which get ignored almost every damn time. Stylish gay men and fantastic straight women and Bob Kanigher killing a proxy of the former editor, Dorothy Woolfolk, in the first pages of his return to the Wonder Woman ongoing in the 1970s.

Batman is a rich American WASP. Superman may have been born an alien, but he was raised pure American and, in general, hides his ethnicity and family culture away in museums and his big private rec room. Wonder Woman is not American, not Christian, probably has a funny accent, and never really hid her foreign holidays and traditional games from anyone. Superman had to really trust somebody to let them into his Kryptonian world. Batman hides everything of himself. Wonder Woman would see you were having problems and immediately be all, “Where I come from, we have a better way” and break out the kangaroos and ropes.

Rucka has done something with the queerness of Amazonian culture and with Diana’s sexuality in recent issues and interviews, and yet again, a bunch of folks (who aren’t buying or reading these anyway) have got bent out of shape over it. Bisexuality has been an element of nearly every major run on Wonder Woman in the last thirty years. Queerness, more broadly, has been an aspect of every run in those decades, and goes straight back to the origins of the character, the concept, and the comics.

Wonder Woman’s original oath, “Suffering Sappho” is often credited to Olive Byrne, the domestic partner of William and Elizabeth Marston. We have so ignored and sublimated and erased that these three people seem to have had an awesome romance that continued between the women for forty years after William Marston’s death in 1947. It is easier to pretend, or to “believe” that the oath was a case of Silver Age naivete. They couldn’t possibly know… Because it makes absolute sense that three highly-educated, remarkably literary individuals in the middle of the Twentieth Century could be that ignorant, even if they were straight.

We are desperate to tamp it down, and of course, the three of them did their part at the beginning, too. Byrne wrote an article for The Family Circle, interviewing the Marstons under a pen name of Olive Richard, to hype Wonder Woman and promote the two loves of her life. In that write up, Elizabeth Marston is credited with the decision to make Wonder Woman a woman, William is credited with much, but Olive leaves herself out. It was the 1940s, though and virtually no one in comics were even working under their own name, mostly because they were all a bunch of Jews and Italians and other disparaged ethnicities, or, y’know, women. Stan Lee. Jack Kirby. Bob Kane. Being out nationally, in a relationship such as the three of them (Marston, Byrne, and Marston) were, even inviting that speculation… was not going to happen.

But, we don’t live in the 1940s. To ignore them, now, to ignore their sexuality and their situation, or that they damn well knew what “Suffering Sappho” indicated is bullshit. If you can’t talk about these things without giggling or hiding your head in the sand, or - like a certain NPR interviewer - suggest the relationship, by nature, should be suspected of inherent sexism, you need to grow up.

I think this is why Steve Trevor has been much more morphable than Lois Lane or Alfred Pennyworth. Steve is us. He’s the idea of us. He’s going to be a guy, because we live in a masculine-themed, male-gaze, male-are-default society. But, he can be an old man, a black man, a young soldier, a white barista. He’s American Man, however we happen identify American Man at that moment, from which angle the authors choose.

Wonder Woman, the character, and Wonder Woman the comic both interact as much with real people and real objects as with ideas. Maybe more, even, with ideas. When you’re fighting Ares, praying to Aphrodite, championing freedom through submission and throwing off unfair shackles, you'd have to deal directly and openly with ideas and idea-complexes.

What ten ideas appeal to me the most, about Wonder Woman?

In no real order (scrambled to be even fairer, or more imbalanced):

She makes Superman feel like a farmboy from a small town. - Whether dating him, married to him, or just working together, Diana makes Superman feel like Clark more than any other superhero. Like he’s some small town guy with talent who broke into a bigger world. She’s worldly, she’s experienced, she’s daring and ready to change things in ways he, traditionally, is not.

She’s willing to call her mom or go visit. - Batman’s parents are dead. Superman’s parents are usually dead. Peter Parker’s parents, uncle, et al. Even sometimes his Aunt May. Dead. Diana talks to her mom regularly, in most incarnations, and goes home to visit a lot.

She plays sports. - From wrestling and rodeo riding to Bullets and Bracelets, where they ricochet bullets fired at them off their jewelry, Wonder Woman is into games and sport. And, part of a culture who independently invented firearms solely for play and harmless entertainment.

She has a goofy ass sense of humor. - When Silver Age Wonder Woman got her lasso of truth, the first thing she did with it, was make her doctor and friend stand on her head.

She’s (sometimes) made of clay! - Stone Boy was a huge thing for me, growing up, one of my favorite stories. And, the Adam myth always appealed to me too, for that matter. I like stone people. Stone breathed to life. Clay wished into people.

She’s impossible to de-queer. - Wonder Woman’s basic situation makes her and her people non-heteronormative.

She’s her own sister! - Donna, who we all love, is Wonder Woman’s identical twin or her magic mirror reflection. She’s her, but she’s not. She’s her own best friend.

Liberty! Equality! Education! - Wonder Woman, book and character, show us that it’s okeh to stand apart, to isolate yourself from bad people or bad elements, and that education is more important than nationalistic solidarity. But, freedom, which requires liberty and equality, should be paramount for all.

Big, heroic science/magic! - Traditionally, Wonder Woman’s world contains both super-magic and super-science. Blessed lassos and high-tech healing rays.

She’s a princess philosopher warrior ambassador! - Rather than being a “normal” person who dresses up, or a superhuman who dresses down, Diana is a person who has jobs and hobbies that just happen to be awesome.

Giving strength to concepts and tackling their ideation head on does lead to pretty much every Wonder Woman comic being accused of having agendas, of Wonder Woman writers and artists having agendas.

This cools off, some, when there’s a notably straight man at the helm of the comic. The more gay the talent gets, the more women are onboard, the more likely it is to see the fear creep in and the ranters come out. People who can’t tell education from indoctrination, or representation from enforcement.

“Greg Rucka has an agenda writing Wonder Woman.” “Jill Thompson has an agenda drawing Wonder Woman.” Etc, etc. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that Phil Jimenez is gay (and yes, I have had that argument, both in a comics shop and online), we’re ready to get mad and defensive over his “agenda.”

Wonder Woman was created out of an agenda. So was Batman. Wonder Woman was created to fulfill a certain niche and promote certain ideas. Batman was created, appropriate to his brand-strength and personal fortune, to get some money. The differences are that Wonder Woman was created to promote agendas, as well as out of one, and that the comics were, in the earliest days especially, handled by people who realized they had agendas. Bill Finger, the real creator of what we love about early Batman, was a talented guy, but I don’t think he analyzed his own work much or the agendas at play in the work.

Tearing out all the women in Wonder Woman’s life to make room for men, shoving her into an American “secret” identity so she can have an American job, American boyfriend, and act like a proper American woman… this is BS. We know it is. And, more to the point: It is an agenda. Just because it’s a straight, WASPy, American heater dude agenda does not make it not one.

Rather than getting mad at the existence of agendas, we need to look at them, look at the facets and flaws of them, the shine and strength. Rather than being bent out of shape and angered by the existence of ideas, how are the comics dealing with those ideas? And, how are we?

Oct 10, 2016

Life, Love, Comics, and WIP

Howdy, folks. We're turning the Cube over today to Cube friend Migs Acabado, who's got some really personal stuff to say about Filipino Comic, WIP. Take it away, Migs!

Life, Love, Comics and WIP
by Migs Acabado
Out of Nowhere

It’s so nice to have someone who can share your hobbies or your passion with. Especially if that someone is the love of your life. Imagine going to a comic convention together or attending Free Comic Book Day together. I don't think anything is more satisfying than that.

I always have this fantasy of meeting my dream girl on a comic book shop. I know it’s kind of cheesy but it would be nice if you meet the love of your life in a place you both like going to. It would also be fun when you share the books that you are reading or who your favorite comic book characters are.

What I will be sharing with you is a comic book with the same story as that fantasy that has helped me overcome problems in life.

It was Komikon 2011 when my youngest brother told me what comic book he wanted to read. He showed me this local comic book from the Komikon pamphlet, entitled WIP or Work In Progress.  It originally started out as a webcomic. I found the synopsis interesting, so I went on to hunt the comic book.

This comic book is about a fanboy named Eli meeting the girl of his dreams in his favorite place, his local comic shop. Eli had a hard time adjusting to the real world when he graduated college, missing his old life and not ready to embrace reality. Eli and his college buddies used to make comics together, but they stopped because their last work didn’t do very well and life happened. Eli also has feelings for his friend, but he got friendzoned, which was a wakeup call for Eli to move on and embrace the reality. One fateful day, he visits his favorite comic book shop, where he met his dream girl, Kaitlyn, whom he eventually becomes close with. After Kaitlyn registers Eli and his friends for a contest at Komikon, Eli manages to convince his friends to make comics once again. But as they approached the event, Eli learns Kaitlyn already has a boyfriend, getting friendzoned and having his heart crushed once again.

I got the first 3 volumes of this comic book during Komikon 2011 and got the final volume the year after. I thought it was just your typical Rom-Com comics, but I was wrong. The storytelling was superb and the art looked great. Writer Hub Pacheco was able to deliver the story in a natural way. He didn’t exaggerate it or he didn’t go over the top, really making you feel you are reading a fanboy’s life story, Artist Ted Pavon crafted the art that fit the story. This comic is wonderfully drawn. The facial expressions of the characters look fantastic.

This comic book will always have a special place in my heart because I can relate to some things that happened to Eli.  After graduating college, I also had a hard time adjusting to my new life. I missed my college buddies and my school a lot. I spend most of the money that I earned on comics, and I want to make my own comic book as well. Lastly, I also got friendzoned more than once. I once lent the comic book to a friend and she said to me: “Am I reading your life? Because the main character is so you.” There are also your friends who stick with you no matter what crazy situation you have entered. I may repeat the same mistake all over and over again, but they are still there for me when I needed them.

Despite those bad things that happened, one thing that I learned from this book is to never give up on your dreams. You may be down today, but it's not the end of the world for you. The girl that you like may never like you the same way, but you just need to keep going with your life. You can go emo all you want or drink as much as you want to. But when the chaos is over, prepare for your comeback and make that dream come true.  Whatever negative things life throws at you, your hobby can also help you recover. In my case, reading comic books help me get over those things.

We may never get the girl of our dreams from the comic book shop, but if there is a girl who likes you and has accepted who you are, then I guess that can be your dream girl since she supports you and your hobbies. We’ll never know what life has in store for us but we should always remember to enjoy life, love, and comic books.

Oct 4, 2016

How DC Talked About Talia in 2005

How DC Talked About Talia in 2005
Travis Hedge Coke

Talia Head has been the major villain of a Batman movie (though she was a bait and switch for the large, imposing man who got more of the big time villain screentime). She’s been a fixture in comics for longer than I’ve been alive. Beloved by many. Written and drawn by some of the finest talent in comics. So, why, in the 2005 Batman Villains Secret Files and Origins, while perhaps at the then-height of her supervillainy and power, was she limited to sharing an entry with her sister, that is ultimately about her father’s success and agenda?

Written by Andersen Gabrych (miscredited as Anderson in the issue), as were all the write ups on villains that supplement the issues two comics stories, I think it is fair to compare his treatment and by extent DC’s of Talia and Penguin, Manbat, and Red Hood, who also received entries in the issue. Of course, the editorial hand in these sort of guidebooks is often heavily in play, so I’m going to try to remain fair and put the culpability primarily on the trademark owners and publisher, DC Comics, over Gabrych.

One of the standard bits of information in each entry is “occupation.” Penguin is cheekily called a “legitimate businessman.” Black Mask, “crime king.” Killer Croc, “mind-controlled slave,” which doesn’t seem to even make sense as that’s not remotely a job. Red Hood, Jason Todd, the former Robin who was beaten to death with a crowbar and a real life call-in game sponsored by DC, is called a “criminal mastermind.” Psychos who can’t hold down a job get this factor left out, but you know, they’re killing people and then sleeping at Arkham Asylum; it’s all they can do.

Talia does not have an Occupation: slot. It is mentioned in her entry that she controls both a global criminal empire and became the CEO of Lexcorp, a multi-billion dollar company founded by Lex Luthor, but she doesn’t have an occupation worth mentioning. To be fair, calling Jason Todd a “criminal mastermind” and Black Mask a “crime king,” because of their small efforts in one city would look pretty stupid if Talia was given that stat, and given it in earnest. “Criminal mastermind,” “mindless slave,” “in charge of crime on Earth (with her sister), weapons dealer to nations, and CEO of the largest producer of MP3 players on the planet.”

Did I mention Talia does not have her own entry, but shares one with her sister? Which is dominated by their father?

The other entries are the names of individual men, about them. Starts with them. Ends with them.

Talia is under “Daughters of the Demon.” The accompanying image is her father’s face, first, then Talia below, then her sister in a headshot at the bottom. The opening paragraph is about their father, Ra’s al Ghul, and how he “always hoped to produce an heir who would continue his plans. He wound up with two,” and continues on about “the centuries-old villain’s plans for” his daughters.

The article also refers to Talia’s chosen surname, Head, as an “American last name,” which… what the fuck does that even mean? As a colony that has self-governed for a few hundred years and famously is composed of immigrants, descendants of immigrants, slaves, descendants of slaves, and the indigenous peoples who couldn’t be genocided entirely away, what is an “American last name”? She chooses a British name, and a British pronunciation, so much so she clarifies this in dialogue in other comics.

This is how DC addressed Talia Head in 2005. It’s not necessarily how the comics in which she was featured around that time show her. This is a guidebook entry. It’s a promotional piece. Hype. And, this is how they hype her. She’s someone’s daughter and oh she has an American surname now, and by American, we mean anglo. (Andersen Gabrych, let me remind everyone, wrote this.)

The article ends, as it began, with their father. It begins with his dreams, it ends with their father.

Can we imagine a Penguin article that begins and ends with his mother? Batman, one page, some stats, by no occupation, shared with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, who also has no occupation, beginning and ending with Dr Thomas Wayne? It could happen, but what’s the good in it? “Thomas Wayne always wanted a little boy… Although Bruce thinks he’s lived his own life, he has succeeded in becoming the kind of man his father raised him to be.”