Understanding Horror Through the Lens of Watchmen

Whether you love the idea or hate the idea, a lot of people are talking about the return of the Watchmen in Doomsday Clock. With this return, I have been thinking about the original story’s relevance and the way in which we can examine our cultural anxieties through popular media. Previous examples of this include the resurgence of the Flash’s popularity during the Cold War, which could be seen as a response to popular hopes and fears, as well as when Spider-Man experienced a resurgence in popularity after 9/11. Watchmen’s resurgence may point to other responses. Just as hopes and fears rise, there can also be a rise cultural fatigue and cynicism and this is something Watchmen strongly connected to. There seems to be more to this though. One page that keeps coming back to my mind  is found within the mind blowing fifth issue titled “Fearful Symmetry ” 

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Like much of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, this page has a classic nine-panel grid, although every other panel on the page shifts back and forth between a one sided conversation set in present time and a story found within the comic one of the two men on the page is reading within that present time. The page is set up in a radiating pattern around the center panel. This works because of the comic reader Bernie’s statement, “Hey, man, I’m reading” in that the panels that share a full border with the one in the center are those that contain the comic that he is reading and the ones in the four corners of the page, the farthest away they can be, contain Bernard, the news vendor, who is trying to have a conversation with the him. This is also the only time that Bernie stops reading his comic and engages with Bernard on this page. Going from panel to panel, the images, at first, seem completely unrelated. But while the images appear to be non-sequitur, what is actually going on is two essentially action-to-action storylines that are intertwined with one another in a back and forth pattern that pulls the reader forward across the page.

The first panel introduces the first storyline. The main focus is on a newspaper with the headline of “Afghanistan: is Pakistan Next?” which is being held up with two hands. The panel is drawn with a slightly unstable line and fair amounts of shading with muted yet classic comic colors to create a very sun bleached urban feel. The next panel shows the second storyline. Even though the overall line style is the same, there are more shadow lines overall making them look more ragged and dark whereas the color is much more striking showing a dramatic contrast between the two. The change in the overall color to a bright and dingy orange, green, and yellow palate also emphasizes a particularly nauseating mood and environment. This is a twisted mirror image of the former panel in that here again is the motif of the two hands holding on to something on each side that is taking up almost the same amount of space in the panels, but instead of a newspaper, here it is the bloody mast of the man’s makeshift ship. We cannot see who is holding either item as we are placed in the position of the characters thus allowing the reader to assume the position of each character. 

It is the shockingly similar outlook between the storylines and the images that make this seemingly disjointed page work. In the first panel, the vendor talks about “a funny feeling inside” along with there being a raw seagull in the stomach of the castaway. This moves onto the vendor stating, “It’s like, I dunno how long we can hold on,” and the illustration of the castaway growing faint. We then start with the castaway remarking, “I’d swallowed too much horror,” in conjunction with the first full view of both men on the street corner reading their own versions of horror. This pattern of back and forth parallel storytelling continues through every panel firmly establishing that, even though they are very different storylines, the men’s horrific viewpoints are the same. It is also the reader’s viewpoint. This page is even more resonating in 2017 with these types of statements being shared across various mediums. 

The final two panels make the meaning of the page clear. The first panel in this two panel sequences shows an image of the castaway looking at his inverted reflection in the ocean below him. The reflection of him is green with yellow eyes that strongly contrast against the blue water. In this moment, the castaway’s eyes look straight out of the panel to meet our own as if it is our mirror as well as his. Along with this image, is the news vender’s ever present voice reaffirming, “See, news vendors understand. They get to see the whole picture.” The final panel shows Bernard’s perspective, just the same as the first panel of the sequence, with the two hands holding a newspaper. Only now the lively group of people is gone leaving small groups along with a sign reading “The End is Nigh.” The cumulative effect of this manifold conjunction shows us that while popular media can shed some light on issues, it is not fully elucidative. Whereas, Bernard has the ability to see a bigger picture because of his wider consumption habits. It should be noted that the word balloons are often not connected to the person speaking them and instead have a connection to the panel borders. This makes the words bleed into the gutter which gives them a sense of timelessness and wider application. It encourages us to see the similarities between the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter, the realistic world of Watchmen, and our own lives. This page reveals that as terrible as the horror based pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter is, being in the real world is much worse.

Both Watchmen and Tales of the Black Freighter provide a touchstone through which the reader may find catharsis and commonality. That said, it is important to stay informed and do what we can to avert our potentially impending crisis. Unlike other midnight releases, Doomsday Clock was released three minutes early as a reminder of how close we are to end times.  This was sadly optimistic as we are currently at two and a half minutes to midnight. With the real-life Doomsday Clock looming in the back of our minds after the 2016 election, which was the inspiration for the new series, maybe we need this kind of reminder. It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe to bring us all together, but maybe by providing popular media to start the discussion, it will remind us of the stakes and encourage us to do what we can to help out. Just maybe we need the sequel after all.

Works Cited

Moore, Alan. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986. Print.

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A Spotlight on Johnny Craig

While Entertaining Comics, most often referred to as EC, featured some of the best writers and artists in the comic book industry then and even today, there are a few that stood out from the rest. One of them is Johnny Craig. Today, he is most famous for his crime and horror comics, but he also did westerns and even romance. His only problem was that he was known to be slow and meticulous, which prompted the caricature Marie Severin did of him that I photographed at ALIENS, MONSTERS, AND MADMEN: THE ART OF EC COMICS exhibit and used as the photo for this blog. This isn’t a terrible thing though as he always, eventually, delivered quality work in his clean uncluttered style that remains immediately recognizable. Additionally recognizable, whatever the genre, were his iconic sweat droplets, dashingly handsome men, and glamorous women. The women especially shared many similar features making them a primary means of identification when looking at his work. That said, as gorgeous as his comics could be, they could also be truly gruesome. He is known for his explorations of madness and a preference to make the reader anticipate the impending doom his characters were to face instead of directly showing it. For better or worse, Johnny Craig will always be strongly connected to EC. One major reason is that he worked at EC longer than any other artist in the company. He often both wrote and drew his comics and he also drew all 29 covers of Vault of Horror making him the only artist to draw a complete run of a New Trend title. Those covers were not the only covers he drew either. This cover work leads us to another big reason that his name is synonymous with EC that is not so great.

It seems that one cannot talk about EC without at least a brief mention of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. In 1954, there was a huge anti-comics backlash that finally came to a head and EC was right in the thick of it with its more adult content and themes. The reason that Johnny Craig often gets a specific mention is that it was his cover for Crime SuspenStories #22 that, in many ways, the entire proceeding hinged on. The cover featured a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head, which has been severed from her body. The point at which her head had been severed is not visible on either the head or the body, but there was famously a little bit of blood coming from her mouth. Compared to some horror comics, it was almost tame.

As such, Bill Gaines, who was well past the point of exhaustion by this time, defended the cover and said it was in good taste for what it was. This proved to be a huge miscalculation and the moment became the linchpin of EC’s downfall. When EC closed most of its doors, Craig more or less ended his career in comics and moved on to advertising. MAD was the only surviving piece of EC and the major reason it survived was the fact that it had become a magazine in the mid-1950s. Interestingly, it was this unrelated magazine that led me to my discovery of Craig in my teen years.

MAD was an experimental humor comic that often focused on parodying popular culture. My stepfather was a big fan and I remember loving his Spy vs Spy book. One day, he started up a conversation about how it was actually a parody of Cold War era political ideologies and it totally blew my mind. This conversation prompted the first time that I remember close reading a comic to look for the deeper meanings therein. I couldn’t get enough of it! This led me to search out more works like this and when I found Johnny Craig’s horror stories I fell in love. While many of his works contain a sense of poetic justice, social commentary is not always present; however, when it is there, it was simply masterful.

One of my favorite Johnny Craig stories is The Vault of Horror’s “A Stitch in Time.” This story takes on the sweatshops that were unfortunately common at the start of the urbanization of New York City. It contains all the things that make a Craig story including the recognizable female faces with drops of sweat pouring down their faces, the way that he would let the reader’s imagination fill in certain graphic details, and situations that cannot be relegated to just hyperbole. Another fascinating aspect in the story is the way that he describes the conditions as slavery and then draws the woman experiencing a mental break much like the pre-Ramoreo zombies he loved to draw.

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The story features ten women jammed together in a dingy, foul-smelling loft located in the factory district working fourteen hours a day six days a week with “dangerously obsolete sewing machines.” And dangerous they are. When one of the machines literally shatters and damages a seamstress’ hand bad enough that she can no longer do her sewing work, her “employer” becomes outraged. He even takes the price of repairs out of her salary, which is only six dollars a week. Even worse, instead of taking her to the hospital, he sends her to the “scrap box” to sort out bits of thread that had been thrown there for re-use. The broken woman quickly snaps and he kicks her out for it. Things get worse from there and this causes the other women to finally rise up against his cruelty. The fiery ending, presumedly caused by one of malfunctioning sewing machines, is gruesome even for Craig, but the revenge the girls get is quite apt and satisfying. This is a perfect example of Craig at his best. Much of his horror is grounded in real life situations and desires, which makes it even scarier. In fact, aside from the grisly actions of the women who were finally pushed too far, something similar did happen in real life.  In 1911, a particularly deadly fire dubbed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred in New York City. The fire killed mostly female garment workers. Interestingly enough, Craig claims that he never heard of the incident until years after he wrote the story. Another related tidbit is that 1911 just happens to be a notable year for me because it is also the year that Gardner Fox was born.

Without my love of Johnny Craig, I may not be writing a biography on Gardner Fox because it was my spotting of a Craig comic in the Gardner Fox Collection that made me wonder what other treasures might be waiting there. While I was already very excited to see the archive the first time I had the opportunity, I admit I only knew of Fox’s DC work and fantasy novels at that point. When I walked into the room set up for our viewing, I saw the expected superhero comics covering several tables, but stopped short when I saw True and Terrific Saddle Justice #4. I am not the biggest fan of westerns, but I knew a Johnny Craig cover when I saw one. I excitedly took down detailed notes about it connecting the way his style functioned within the genre he was working with. For example, on page nine of the story titled “The Lady who Rode with Death,” I wrote about how the circular panel containing the death of yet another man keeps this moment at the forefront of our minds by breaking the traditional format of the page. I also commented on how much bleeding was on the page with the horses, dust, and even the woman herself invading the circle and the surrounding panels. While the notes themselves are not too out of the ordinary, my handwriting betrays just how excited I was. This was not just a Johnny Craig comic. It was a comic that was once owned by Gardner fracking Fox! I knew at this point that I had to find another excuse to get into the archive. When a class on archives popped up on the list in my Master’s program, I jumped at the chance and the rest is history.

When I first seriously considered writing a blog, I asked the Twitterverse what type of content they would like to see. The two most popular answers were artist spotlights and things I really cared about. Johnny Craig definitely fits both categories. While Johnny Craig may no longer be my favorite EC artist (that honor now belongs to Wallace Wood), he will always have a place in my heart. Furthermore, no other artist captures my path into comics scholarship quite so perfectly.

Source

Craig, Johnny, Al Feldstein, and Ray Bradbury. Fall Guy for Murder And Other Stories Illustrated by Johnny Craig. Fantagraphics Books. 2013.

Harley Quinn: A Survival Story

To say that Harley Quinn is currently a very popular character is an understatement at best. That said, there are a lot of versions that depict her as just some crazy sexy clown woman. This is a simplification of her that is actually quite damaging to the character she was in Batman: The Animated Series, of which she originated. At that point, she was a quirky and impulsive bisexual animal lover with a doctorate who happened to fall for a guy who made her feel special. He seduced her to be sure, but she chose to put on that makeup regardless of how misguided that decision was. Every time we saw her without her makeup, we were reminded that she was still her own person and that she could indeed leave him behind. She just didn’t know how. Yet. This is what I connected with. This is why I love her. Harley Quinn is an empowering character who represents abused women and their journey moving past that experience; she shows us that abuse is not the end of the story.

Now, I know that many people will disagree with me on this assertion because Harley Quinn showed a pattern of doting on and returning to the abusive Joker for a long time. We are currently seeing several storylines that replicate this; however, this pattern is something that those who have been abused can quickly identify with. The victim may try to leave many times, but there is still this little piece of them that holds on to the hope that the abuser really does care for them. The anger the abuser expresses in these moments only solidifies these feelings as the victim sees it as confirmation of the abuser’s love and attachment. Anger can feel like fear and obsession can feel like loyalty. When coupled with the way that an abuser breaks down their victim and makes them feel like nothing, it can become really hard for them to see themselves as deserving of anything more than what they are currently getting. This is even further complicated by the fact that Harley Quinn built her whole life around the Joker. Every time that he was nice to her, she fell for it because wanted to believe that she made the right decision. In other words, a woman’s reasons for staying are very complex and so were Harley Quinn’s. Instead of being a reason to dismiss the character, the fact that she doesn’t just leave Joker makes her a more relatable character. Superheroes are often figures that represent power fantasies and seeing her finally find the strength to leave him for good can easily be seen as empowering for those in similar situations. 

This subject is directly explored in the second season episode titled, “Harley & Ivy.”  This episode features Harley leaving Joker and meeting up with Ivy for the first time. The relationship that these two forge is immediate and strong because they are both highly educated women who have experienced trauma caused by men they trusted. Ivy simply has had more years to process and move on. Ivy sees what Harley is going through, and does assertively interject her concerns, but she knows that the decision to leave him has to come from Harley herself or it will not last. Ivy knows how to help things grow. She is a non-conditional support system for Harley and they become so much more than just friends. The lack of conditions placed on their relationship is extremely important here as their non-monogamous romantic relationship is based on trust and love. Ivy shows Harley that love doesn’t have to be controlling and all consuming. This is a huge step for the character, but the end of this episode does end with her going back to Joker. A journey never ends after the first step.

Another episode that is key to understanding the character of Harley Quinn is “Harley’s Holiday” from season three. This episode is almost completely Joker free and opens with her getting out of Arkham and trying to go straight. It is everything that Batman and Harley Quinn should have been. One of the moments that most resonated with me was when she runs into Veronica Vreeland while shopping. Harley recognizes her and excitedly asks: “Hey remember me? That big charity bash a few years back? The one the Joker robbed? I was the clown girl holding the gun on yah!” This shows that she may be “over the crime thing” but she still owns that part of her life. She doesn’t feel ashamed. Her past is a part of her that she embraces because it has led her to where she is now. This enables her to wear the Harley Quinn moniker without a connection to Joker. The episode also shows the relationship she has built with Batman. After she inevitably goes back to the asylum because of her impulsive tendencies, he tells her, “I know what it’s like to try and rebuilt a life. I had a bad day too… once.” Batman sees exactly what Ivy sees in Harley. They both see a woman learning to survive. Interestingly, like in Batman and Harley Quinn, the episode ends with a kiss. While Harley’s kiss could be seen as sexualized, as the music suggests it should, the hyperbolic kissing sound that she makes and the smile she gives him at the end of it tells a different tale. Furthermore, both Batman and Ivy give a knowing smile showing that they see it as her being her playful self in this moment. There was no need for it to be made into more than that and I would like to point out that it is particularly problematic to objectify a figure who is a representation of abused women like they did in that horrible misrepresentative movie.

I would like to believe that regardless of the depiction, including those that wear a completely disempowering “Property of Joker” jacket, there is still some part of her popularity that is related to what women experience in their daily lives. As a woman, even walking to school or work can be dangerous and many women have unfortunately been abused by the men around them. I would like to believe that her fans are able to see how she represents a realistic portrayal of a journey beyond trauma and abuse. More than anything, I would like all women to realize that have it in them to be survivors too. Comics are a medium based on these types fantasies after all. My Harley Quinn is compassionate, quirky, and smart. She shows us that we can face down the nightmares of our past, with or without Scarecrow’s fear toxin, and come out even more ourselves at the end. She reminds us that, sometimes, it is ok to just focus on the right now. The past doesn’t limit us and the future is unknown. Why not try using a cannoli to take down a helicopter? This September 23rd was going to be Batman Day, but this year Harley Quinn is taking it over. Let’s make sure we show everybody that she deserves that honor by celebrating and appreciating not just the character, but what she means to the women who look up to her.

Sources

“Harley & Ivy.” Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini, Warner Brothers, 1993. 

“Harley’s Holiday.” Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini, Warner Brothers, 1994. 

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The Whedon Conundrum

Before commenting on the recent news about Joss Whedon, I want to make my position clear. I am one of those people who quite literally credits Buffy the Vampire Slayer with saving my life. The very fact that there are so many people who feel the same way exemplifies just how powerful this show really is. I have followed Whedon for 20 years as is evidenced by Buffy’s 20th anniversary this year. I celebrate her birthday every year, as I too was born on the cusp between Capricorn and Aquarius, and Buffy was the first show I put on after I gave birth to each of my children and was moved out of the delivery room. To say that Buffy has had an impact on my life is an understatement. That said, I have seen problems in the Whedonverse for a long time now. With every viewing, loveable Xander bothered me more and more. I didn’t want to see it, but I did. I saw touches of the same kind of veiled sexism in Angel, Dollhouse, Age of Ultron, and the Wonder Woman script. I am not saying that there is a complete lack of feminism in these works, but it was complicated by passing comments and plot points that were clearly running counter to it. Recently, The Wrap confirmed my worst fears when a guest blog from Joss Whedon’s Ex-Wife Kai Cole titled “Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals'” was released online. As I scrolled through Twitter reading the reactions to it, my heart continued to drop. Assuming these statements are truthful, his ability to label himself a feminist is greatly diminished, but for reasons much more complicated than the fact that he cheated on his then wife.

While cheating on a partner is indeed awful, feminists can and do cheat. The problem starts when the person does not own up to their mistakes and make appropriate reparations. According to Kai Cole, Whedon made an even graver error in judgment. What Cole describes is gaslighting. This is quite frankly abusive. Gaslighting is when an abuser wears a victim down by making them question their sanity.  They are known to lie to their partner whatever evidence the victim may have. They also confuse, project, and exaggerate. In other words, their actions do not match their words. This can and does cause PTSD. Cole describes being uncomfortable with the attention that Whedon would give to other women and questioning why he had so many female friends. His response was to use feminism as a shield. In a letter which we are told is from Whedon himself, he states: “As a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous. And as a husband, I wanted to be with you like we had been. I lived two lives.” This not only reveals that the gaslighting appears to be a conscious effort, it directly calls Whedon’s feminism into question. His desire for them to be like they had been before caused him to make egregious decisions for them both without her consent; furthermore, this objectifies her emotions by making them into some desired goal. On some level, He stopped seeing his wife as a person who had the right to make informed decisions. In his famous Equality Now statement he says, “You Either Believe Women Are People Or You Don’t.” If we apply this sentiment to his actions, we can see just how separated from his ideology he had become. Now, it should be noted that he did send her this letter showing that he did come to some kind of realization about this, but the letter reveals something else that is also painful to discover.

We are only given excerpts from the letter to go off of, but it appears that there is a theme of placing the blame on society itself running throughout it thereby creating a distance between himself and his guilt. He even goes as far as to mythologize it. Calling it a Greek myth to be surrounded by desirable women that he can’t touch makes any effort he made in not touching them sound somehow heroic, when, in fact, it is just the decent thing to do. He was in a position of power and should have acted accordingly. Additionally, it makes his eventual surrender to his libido sound inevitable. Thinking back on Xander’s exclamation that “Nothing can defeat the penis!” makes me cringe even more now. Making excuses such as these perpetuates rape culture. Turning once again to the letter, Whedon states: “In many ways I was the HEIGHT of normal, in this culture. We’re taught to be providers and companions and at the same time, to conquer and acquire — specifically sexually — and I was pulling off both!” This is the part the bothers me the most. There is a sense of pride at the end of this that just hurts. He is basically saying that society made him that way, but he did it better than society expected him to. We need better from our male allies. For more on this particular subject, Ash Darrow, a marvelous colleague and fellow Buffy lover, wrote a companion piece that I encourage you all to check out:     https://www.cinereusdarrow.com/blog/2017/8/23/a-watcher-watches-on-whedon-feminism-and-being-an-ally

This information is hard to process considering I have spent so much of my life idolizing Joss Whedon. There is an editor’s note following Kai Cole’s guest blog including a statement from a Joss Whedon spokesperson about how there are “inaccuracies and misrepresentations” in this account and that he is not commenting out of concern for his children and respect for Cole. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much it matters what she got wrong or right. We now know for a fact what many of us worried was true: Joss Whedon is not the man we wanted him to be. At the very least, he is a feminist in its most abstract form. He knows the points he is supposed to make and he has spent the last several years doing just that. His personal decisions, while deeply flawed do not ruin what he created. The feminist characters he wrote in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, X-Men, Runaways, Cabin in the Woods, and others are still the powerhouses they were before. We just have to remember to stay attentive. We need to separate the good from the bad and continue to call out the bad whenever we see it. For example, even when he was known as a feminist writer, producer, and director, he did not appropriately include nor address the issues women of color face and his works suffered from multiple instances of bierasure. Critiques like these remain a crucial tool in our attempts to make real social change. In the end, I still hold out hope for Batgirl because he is an excellent writer who does make amazingly feminist characters. As such, Whedon needs to come out and make a statement. This is an opportunity to help others who have done similar things learn why their actions are wrong, and, more importantly, show his fans that he knows what real feminism is. This doesn’t have to keep being a bad day for Joss Whedon or his fans.

Source:

http://www.thewrap.com/joss-whedon-feminist-hypocrite-infidelity-affairs-ex-wife-kai-cole-says/