Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Before Watchmen, Jack Kirby's Avengers, Creators, and Characters

I'm going to ramble for a bit here.  Forgive me.

If you pay any attention to the goings-on in the comics industry at all you'll already know that there have been ... goings-on.

You can read a good opinion piece on both by David Brothers here.  Whether you end up agreeing with Brothers' opinion or not, I think you'll get a good sense of the issues.

In a nutshell, both DC and Marvel are currently reminding the world that they have never cared too much about creators or their rights.

In the Marvel world this is revolving around The Avengers lately.  The central characters of The Avengers were mostly created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, (not always together) and the team itself was created by Lee and Kirby.  This is a problem because Jack Kirby was, by any standards, treated badly by Marvel.  They may have (and probably did) behaved legally, but they definitely did not behave ethically toward him, the upshot is that Kirby's estate will likely not receive any royalties from the Avengers movie, Kirby's name has not been tied to promotion of the film in any way, and it's unclear whether his name will even appear in the credits.  The rhetoric about Kirby by Marvel defenders has basically been "he signed a bad contract; that's his problem."  It's not that simple, but even if it was the contract defines Marvel's legal obligations, not their moral ones.  It is obvious that giving Kirby credit, control, and money would have been the right thing to do.  You can read more about Kirby and Marvel here.

In the DC world the kerfuffle revolves around Watchmen and Alan Moore.  Watchmen, published in the mid 80s, is one of DC's most profitable and critically acclaimed assets.  It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and it was his sense that he was treated poorly over Watchmen that caused Alan Moore to break with DC.  DC has decided to write a series of prequels called "Before Watchmen," over Moore's objections, but with Gibbons' approval.  The comics-focused parts of the internet have been buzzing with debate about Before Watchmen.  The issue is clouded at first by a few factors, including the fact that Moore can be kind of a dick and that some of the creators who are working on Before Watchmen (especially Darwyn Cooke) are really good.  But really, the situation is much the same as Kirby's.  Moore signed a contract and DC isn't breaking it, but they're acting against his wishes.  The publisher is behaving legally, but not morally.  They are not demonstrating respect for the creator of the property.  Whether Moore is behaving well or not is kind of a separate issue.

And here's where I become conflicted.  I side with the creators.  They should be able to exert control over and to profit from the success of their creations.

But one of the things I really like about mainstream comics is the way it is so often character-or-plot-oriented rather than creator-oriented.  I actually really like that hundreds of people have written Superman, some well and some badly.  I'm a fan of adaptations and re-imaginings, and I do not think that a bad Watchmen prequel is capable of taking anything away, artistically, from the original.  I'm really looking forward to seeing Joss Whedon's take on The Avengers.  I wish Alan Moore would give his blessing to spin-offs and continuations and sequels and prequels of Watchmen and V for Vendetta and whatever else. But in Moore's case I think that ship has long since sailed.  He doesn't trust the industry (with good reason).   What I'd like to see is the publishers treating the creators with enough respect that creators can start to trust the publishers.

I recognize that it's difficult for a company to part with money if they can avoid it. But can you imagine the goodwill DC would have generated if they'd just given Watchmen back to Moore and Gibbons? Can you imagine the goodwill Marvel would generate if they publicly apologized, wrote up a new contract with Kirby's estate, and gave him, say, an honorary credit in the film?

Anyway. I'm rambling.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women and (super)Men

Let's try to take a look at Action Comics #1 (the 1938 one, not the New 52 one) from a feminist perspective, and see what we come up with.

The first thing to note, of course, is that Superman is gendered.  That might seem like a stupid thing to point out; of course Superman is gendered. Isn't everyone?  There's no such thing as a gender-neutral person, is there?  But there are two important things to notice here.  Firstly, the division of all of humanity into one of two gender categories is not necessarily as obvious as it may seem--we'll leave that point to the side for now--but secondly, there's no reason that the "man" part of Superman has to be there.  Superman has had such an influence on superhero nomenclature (Batman, Spider-man, Aquaman, Hawkman, Plastic Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Giant-Man, X-Men, not to mention Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Power Girl, etc) that we can easily forget that there's no inherent reason why a superhero's name needs to be gendered.  But Superman is not just a super person, he's a super MAN, and it is implicit in his identity from the beginning that whatever else he is he is a figure of idealized hyper-masculinity.

Superman's first real appearance in the comic (real appearance as opposed to a brief expositional flashback) shows him carrying a woman who has been bound and gagged.  The gender politics of that first image should be clear, the (super)man is in motion and has full agency, while the woman is completely powerless.  We later learn that this bound woman is a "murderess," and Superman's hurry here is to convince the governor to pardon an innocent woman who is about to be executed in favour of having this blonde woman arrested.

A few pages later Superman has a second--indirect--interaction with a woman.  Clark Kent, in his role as a reporter, has been called to report on "a phoned tip" of "a wife-beating."  He arrives as Superman:

The paradigm set up here is of woman as either criminal or victim.  Although it is true that Superhero comics tend to be populated with many criminals and victims in general, by this point in the comic we have seen sixteen male figures of whom one is a criminal and four female figures of whom two were victims and one was a criminal. Women here mostly conform to the "damsels in distress" trope, and they exist fundamentally so that the figure of hypermasculinity will have someone appropriately weak to rescue.

Lois Lane is both a famous example of this tendency in Superman comics and also a subversion of it.  On one hand here and for much of her presence in Superman stories in all media Lois is Superman's built-in damsel-in-distress.

On the other hand Lois' character is, even in this first outing, a more developed character than are the other damsels/victims, and her relationship to Clark/Superman is not limited to being rescued.  Lois is one of the vertices of a love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman.  Clark loves Lois, but she spurns him. Lois loves Superman.  In this first comic the love triangle is barely developed--certainly Lois' affection for Superman is not yet established.  But here is what we do see:

Lois is established here as symbolic of an unattainable woman.  Clark pursues her--and the "for once" line lets us know that he makes a habit of it--but he is usually ineffective.  She's cold and aloof yet desirable, and while we might say that this is partly because she is not a human character but an object Clark wishes to possess, we might also note that she is given real agency and a real personality here.

Lois avoids Clark because he's a coward, and we see here that Lois' strength is one of the things Clark admires about her.  The preoccupation with strength is a theme in Superman comics, especially as created by Siegel and Shuster.  The emphasis on strength is part of an emphasis on masculinity, and Siegel and Shuster define manliness as strength.

And there you have it: a preliminary examination of some of the gender politics in Action Comics #1; a feminist reading of Superman.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Feminist Superman

Feminist theory covers a lot of ground and a lot of approaches to literature.  The simplest way to understand feminist criticism is to say that a feminist reading of a text is one that focuses on women.

Sometimes that means focusing on books that were written by women--often as a way of correcting a historical inequality.  For most of the history of literature most of the books that have been seriously studied have been written by men--but men were never the only people writing.  Feminist criticism is a way to try to fix what we read and who wrote it.  This kind of feminist reading would point out that there have proportionally been very few women who write comics for DC, but would draw our attention to women like Dorothy Woolfolk, Mindy Newell, and Gail Simone.

Sometimes that means focusing on female characters in stories--again often as a way of correcting historical inequality.  Focusing on female characters in a feminist context can mean a lot of different things, but in brief it always has to mean focusing on the female characters themselves, instead of just focusing on how they relate to male characters.  So talking about Lois Lane is a start but if we're talking about Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane then we're still defining her as a character in terms of her relationship to a male character. A feminist reading might instead want to talk about Lois Lane herself.  Or even a focus on Superman can be feminist in this way if it is a focus on Superman as Lois Lane's boyfriend.

Sometimes that means focusing on gender in general.  Certain strains of feminist theory have stressed that "woman" as a category is invented by culture, and that it is defined in contradiction to "man" as a category.  So a reading of Superman that focuses on how Superman is a representative of masculinity, especially when that reading emphasizes the way masculinity is socially constructed and the way that it simultaneously constructs femininity, might also be a feminist reading.

Those are only three of many ways to do feminist criticism, but I hope you are getting a picture of how much scope there is in feminist criticism.  I'll be back soon with a second post on feminist criticism, where we will actually do a (brief) feminist reading of Action Comics 1.