An Exploration of Extremes in Comic Form

 

A number of years ago, I was given the assignment to either write an essay or a comic that explored topics related to the modern American superhero. I am far from an artist, but this was not the first comic I had done as I have a long history of taking on more complicated and experimental options when it comes to final projects. The main jumping off point for me was the question: what would our heroes look like if taken to their extremes in relation to the way they function within society. I decided that the first thing to do was to make the society itself extreme in a way that these traits would be drawn out. With this in mind, the setting quickly became a nice neighborhood being impacted by a long term zombie-like monster breakout. From there, I created a Batman-like character, who was focused on eliminating the threat and doing whatever he felt would be necessary to further that goal on an individual level. In contrast to this, I created a Wonder Woman like character, who was focused on creating an egalitarian society through the rebuilding of a community. There are many influences that can be seen including manga and horror comic aesthetics along with the consideration of how some of these key questions have already been explored in superhero comics. I don’t want to spoil the end, but suffice it to say that I decided neither group would have the skills needed to deal with the other’s societal positioning when the society itself was so broken; the Wonder Woman-like character’s community was unprepared for the Batman-like character’s methodology and the Batman-like character methods are not sufficient enough to serve his ultimate goal. While I normally just write about comics, making comics has been very beneficial to me because it has helped me develop a better grasp of what each creator must consider and the way that each person’s work impacts the final product. I thought I would share this short self-made comic not only because it is a fun departure from my normal blog posts, but also because it shows another way that comics can be used in an educational manner. Enjoy!

IMG_9493

IMG_9494IMG_9496

IMG_9497IMG_9498

IMG_9499IMG_9500

IMG_9502

Advertisements

Gardner Fox: Scrapbooker

Every book project starts somewhere and my biography for Gardner Fox started in a place that might be surprising: his scrapbook. Fox was a researcher who spent many hours reading through the materials in his extensive collection at home, at the Mount Vernon Public Library, and anywhere else he might come across something in between. He would keep careful note of anything he thought might be useful for his writing in various locations including his file cabinets, plot genie, and scrapbook. This scrapbook, currently residing in the Gardner Fox Collection, was a touchstone for my work as it gave me a much better understanding of his writing process and what he saw as important. My research keeps coming back to scrapbooking as well with relatives talking about a missing scrapbook containing Fox’s high school newspaper work and the Keene Public Library scrapbook that was likely created by his sister Kay Fox who was Head Librarian there for twenty-nine years. Scrapbooking was a fairly common practice in the 19th century among both men and women, who used it as a way of filtering through the surplus of newsprint and other media at the time in order to follow a trend or track a story. They could also serve as a method of preserving personal and family histories. As scrapbooking was already an established activity for Fox, it would be natural to apply that methodology to his research practices too. He made himself several reference books, including the scrapbook, that he could refer back to during the many steps of his writing process, thus ensuring the best quality of work he could manage in the time frame allotted to him. It also allowed him to contextualize his stories in the most accurate way he could, thereby sharing his knowledge with his impressionable readers. More than a tool created to maintain his written output, the scrapbook allows us to see the value of the knowledge Gardner Fox collected as part of his research process thereby elucidating the educative nature of his writing style.

The many materials he preserved serves a dual purpose in that they not only helped him to construct his stories but also shows us who Fox was as an author. When talking about what kinds of scrapbooks different types of people make, Ellen Gruber Garvey, in Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, singles out authors specifically when she states: “Authors clipped records of their work and made scrapbooks intended for reference, keeping accounts of publications” (10). The Gardner Fox Collection contains those many examples of Fox’s written works as well as business correspondence and the like therefore making much of the archive supplemental to the scrapbook from this perspective. Gardner Fox collected these materials to help him become the best writer he could be. We can look at the clippings he saved as essential to his creative process because of the very fact that he saved them. The wear and tear of the scrapbook is also revealing as it showcases the frequency of use throughout those demanding years. As he read through the many mediums he clipped from, he selected things he found the most inspiring for his writing, thus building his own media source that could have functioned much as the internet does for artists now. Returning to Ellen Gruber Garvey, she explains that: “Many scrapbooks are diaries of sorts — a form of writing that may or may not be chronological but records and preserves elements of life experience and memory cues” (15). He was a well-educated man, and throughout his career as a writer, he makes many academic references that reveal his love of knowledge and these are made possible through the use of his scrapbook. References include everything from current events, literature, mythology, history, and even scientific theories. This kind of biographical information can be incredibly important to understanding a person’s scrapbook because it provides a context, thus making the scrapbook more legible.

In looking at the actual content of the scrapbook, it is useful to keep in mind the title he gave it: “Local Color.” The definition of local color which he later provides within the scrapbook under the section labeled “writing hints” is something that “can create mood for reader, for character, can help to characterize.” Much of the scrapbook is made up of titled pages with many types of paper scraps attached to them. Most of the clippings are taped onto the note pages while others are hole punched and added in as if they are additional pages. Some of these add-ins even have things written on them and yet more clippings taped to them as well. Almost all the clippings are pictures of some sort. Unfortunately, a large number of clippings feature women, which is troubling in the context of his definition of local color. Potentially useful information is also clipped and saved such as the answers to quizzes titled “How much English do you speak?”  and “What’s in a name?” both of which test readers’ knowledge of English slang. Clippings with historical context such as “Life in a Medieval Castle” are included as well.  Fox got most of his clippings from newspapers, magazines, advertisements, comic strips, and other mediums such as the many pages from The Bulletin Presents. He took these clippings and taped them in layers to the pages in the scrapbook to create something he could flip through when he needed to describe the “local color” he wanted to invoke in the panels he was envisioning. After this section, there are many handwritten notes, illustrations, and bits of information he might need, all organized by a table of contents. The table of contents includes things like: tables, loot, lingerie, occupations, and superstitions. Within those groupings, many repeated contexts appear such as: Western, Viking, Medieval, Oriental, Classical, and Roman. These categories do have some overlap regarding picture type and information type; however, there seems to be no specific relation between the first two sections, organizationally speaking. Lastly, after the written aspect of the scrapbook, yet more clippings are taped onto pages to flip through.  As a whole, the scrapbook exemplifies what makes Fox such an effective writer, what is important to him as a writer, and points to some of the issues that are often brought up when looking at his writing. Namely, the racism and sexism that was unfortunately common in Golden and Silver Age comic books. Fox included a lot women in his stories when compared to his contemporaries and the women he wrote were agency filled and knowledgeable. Still, to include so many women in the context of local color speaks to the way in which female characters were (and still are) often used to inform our understanding of male heroes and the situations they are put in. It is also worth noting that the category of Oriental is problematic; however, the term was much more commonly used in the time that he was writing and he saw all people as more or less the same regardless of their ethnicities. These topics will be covered in much greater depth in my book when I talk about the Justice Society of America.

When it comes to the use of the scrapbook, it is fairly easy to see how helpful it would be in the construction of more true to life stories, but reading through the scrapbook with the perspective of comic studies on my mind was an enlightening experience. On their most basic levels, both comics and scrapbooks manipulate a juxtaposition of words and pictures to convey a larger meaning that is then further influenced by their placement on the page. The transitions from item to item even mirrors the transitions from panel to panel as the reader must construct the narrative from those available items and the placement of them on the page. The two most common transitions found in scrapbooks includes subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect. Fox’s scrapbook functions slightly differently as the pages were not made to look at but to physically flip through. This makes the meanings beyond the title become clear in the action of flipping instead of simply looking at them as a whole. Using the page labeled “Medieval,” the first clipping the reader flips past is an ornate medieval saddle clipping from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next layer is another piece of information, from the same source, that details a joust stating: “Here two knights are tilting at the barrier with their blunt-headed lances ready for the encounter. The winner will be the one who breaks the most lances by well-directed blows on his opponent’s armor, or unhorses him.” This switch between the saddle to the information about how a joust is won, along with another larger image depicting a joust behind these two pieces, is an example of a subject-to-subject transitioning, where the panels transition from one thing to another while remaining within a scene or idea, requires a certain amount of effort on behalf of the reader to make the transition meaningful (McCloud 71). Here, we can see the theme of how a joust looked and worked as well as what kind of saddle the knights might be using for the horses they would be riding during that joust. This is the kind of obscure detail that Fox often included in his work. Another type of transition common in both comics and scrapbooks is aspect-to-aspect which is described as being similar to a wandering eye in that each panel shows different aspects of a place, mood, or idea mostly outside of the timeline of the narrative (McCloud 72). An example of this is the shift from explicitly jousting materials such as a clipping of a knight in armor, to a worrisome scene showing a man restraining a woman. In order to understand what is happening in between this, and the other clippings, the reader must use closure which is defined as: “The phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud 63). In other words, as the reader’s eyes travel from one panel across the gutter and into the next, the reader mentally builds a narrative that fills the gap and completes the story. When looking at this page of Gardner Fox’s scrapbook, a possible narrative that can be pieced together is that of a woman being captured, which results in a joust and ends with a knight receiving some kind of reward from a king as the reader can just make out a clipping with a king on it under the most recent clipping I was focusing on. Closure is needed for any scrapbook just the same as it is used in comics as the individual pieces inform everything around them and it sometimes takes work on the behalf of the reader to sort out what the key theme or story arc is on any given page. The term most often used to describe the closure occurring in the kind of reading methods used when analyzing a scrapbook is finding a through line. Further research into the commonalities of these mediums could prove useful to increase our understandings of how each of them functions narratively speaking.

Fox wrote well over 4,000 comics stories and his scrapbook would have been a useful resource to help him with both the panel-by-panel descriptions and providing authentic contextualization via local color. The latter was of personal importance to him. Fox was a very educated man who did a lot of research and felt that education is essential. This scrapbook allows us to see the research Fox found most useful to his writing, and using the scrapbook as a lens to read his many works reveals the application of that research. With this scrapbook, Fox created an archive of historically correct inspiration. A place where he could go for reference; an external form of his own memories. He saw value in the knowledge contained in the clippings and the functionality of its application. This spreading of knowledge was something mentioned in several letters he exchanged with fans, including notables like Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas, showing us how it was rewarding for both him and his fans. The scrapbook he created not only aided his writing process, but gives us the chance to catch a glimpse of who he was as a creator and as an educative propagator of the next generation.

Works Cited:

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics The Invisible Art. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Print.

Guest Blogging

I was hesitant to start writing a blog considering how many other writing projects I always have. That said, I have enjoyed exploring some of the little ideas that don’t fit anywhere else here and plan to keep producing something once a month or so. Interestingly, this side project has already opened up a few other opportunities and I have gotten to practice this form of writing other places too. To make up for the months where I didn’t produce a blog post, I thought I would share a couple of guest blogs I did:

In honor of the twentieth anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sheffield Gothic (a blog ran by a group of gothically inclined postgraduate students at the University of Sheffield) put together a blog series that explored each of the show’s seven seasons. I contributed a piece titled “In Defense of Season Four: Identity Crisis” where I argue that the big bad in season four is not the main villain that the Scoobies must face, but the struggle to take that first step in finding one’s identity:

http://sheffieldgothicreadinggroup.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/in-defence-of-season-four-identity.html

The Middle Spaces (name taken from Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude) is a largely academic blog that put together a round table on Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s comic book series Bitch Planet, and I was given the opportunity to pitch an idea that could be formulated as a response to one of the questions therein. I chose Dr. Rebecca Wanzo’s titular question, “What is the Liberatory Potential of Bitch Planet’s Exploitation Aesthetic? In response to her question, I argue that, by placing the reader in the position of the male gaze, DeConnick and De Landro draw out the way in which this positionality is wrongly normalized within our current patriarchal society and enables them to provide a means of neutralizing the power in the gaze:

https://themiddlespaces.com/2018/05/08/countering-the-gaze/

You can also find my thoughts and opinions in many of the reviews I have done for Comic Crusaders:

https://www.comiccrusaders.com/author/jennifer-deross/

As a final link, I recently made a Ko-fi Page because I figured it couldn’t do any harm. If you feel like sending me a few bucks to help fund my research for the Gardner Fox biography, you can find my page here:

http://ko-fi.com/jenniferdeross

I will continue to see where this project leads me and, if I do any further guest blogs, I will be sure to post them here so that you can all easily find them. In the meantime, thank you for going on this journey with me. 

Thor’s Modern Masculinity

As a feminist, I have had many conversations about how damaging the patriarchy is to other genders. Something less talked about is how the patriarchy negatively affects men too. I have become hyper aware of this raising two boys as a single mother. With this in mind, a certain sequence stuck out to me when reading Fantastic Four’s “The Flames of Battle” for another project a while back. This is a notable issue as it is the very first cross-over story in a Fantastic Four comic. The storyline picks up after a Daredevil and Doctor Doom bodyswap storyline ends. Now back in his body, Daredevil goes to warn the Fantastic Four of Doctor Doom’s next scheme. Unfortunately, they think he is still Doom, so DareDevil recruits Spider-Man and Thor to help him. Of course, the Fantastic Four think they must be imposters as well thus resulting in a giant battle between the two groups of heroes. It isn’t the best issue as it skips around a lot and overly relys on reader familiarity, but we do get some very elucidating moments between Thor and Thing. This sequence started rattling around in my brain again after my youngest son’s reaction to Thor: Ragnarok. The interactions between these two men point to a way in which two very different expressions of masculinity can be understood and helps pave the way for Thor to be a positive role model for boys as we move away from gender associated rigidity.

Debuting in the Silver Age of Comic Books, both characters were products of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee with Thor coming out roughly a year after Thing. They are both considered physically powerful men and, while Thor has many adventures on his own, are both members of key Marvel teams. At first glance, Thing appears to conform very strongly to gender norms. He is an aggressive fighter pilot who becomes the embodiment of hard masculinity. That said, he is often bullied by the Yancy Street Gang, who even go as far to draw him in a tutu with a rose in his mouth at one point, and many of his side stories are romantic in nature as his main focus is often on his struggles to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Alicia Masters.  Regardless of his hard exterior, he is the emotional center of the team and his insecurities are often explored. As for our other contender, Thor is heavily based on Norse mythology of which Kirby was a fan.  Because of this, he stands out from most other superheroes. Thor is also depicted as having many hypermasculine traits, but Thor is eloquent, long-haired, and his costume is often remarked on in a way that is unusual for a male character as well. His confidence prevents him from seeing any of this as emasculating regardless of how many men around him insist on making comments about the way he performs his gender. His most common storyline involves him becoming worthy or unworthy of his hammer Mjolnir. This can easily be seen as an analogy to the right kind of manliness. In some ways, these two characters function as inverses of each other. Thor is inwardly very masculine but expresses it in ways that do not match with our modern society’s codification while Thing outwardly expresses his masculinity in a way that is very much coded accordingly but inwardly struggles with feelings that he believes he shouldn’t have. 

In “The Flames of Battle,” the two men are matched up specifically because of their simmilar size during the start of the battle. One of the first things that Thing says to Thor in this issue is, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear ya really are ol’ Goldilocks!” This is a domination attempt through the establishing a hierarchy of masculinity where Thing is at the top and Thor is at the bottom based off of Thor’s long blond hair that is likened to a girl’s. That said, this is a common nickname that even Spider-Man uses to hail him in this same issue. What makes this particularly interesting is that the emasculation attempt is not the part of Thing’s statement that bothers Thor. He is only upset that Thing doesn’t automatically know he is the real deal as is evidenced by his single retort, “What?!! Thou dost take me for a base imposter?!!” As the battle ensues, Thing becomes more desperate to assert his masculine power asking, “What’s Keepin’ yah on yer feet, curly?” When I belt a guy, he’s supposed to stay belted! You tryin’ to gimme a complex, or something?” This complex is left undefined, but one can assume it is a masculinity complex. This is similar to an inferiority complex only it is based on a lack of self-worth and uncertainty due specifically to a perceived lack of ability in measuring up to masculine standards. From a very young age, those that identify as male are made to believe that real men must be stoic and strong; showing emotions or any deviation from the previously established masculine modes of expression is seen as weakness. For example, being communicative and eloquent is seen as weak because of their feminine associations. This is lightly touched upon when Thor asks, “Think you we be less than what we seem?” to which Thing responds, “How’s a guy to know what to think – – with you talkin’ like a refugee from a road-show Hamlet!” The everyman is not supposed to like Shakespeare either apparently as this comes up in the MCU as well. Thing’s confusion continues until Thor makes a comment about the Fantastic Four turning to “craven savagery” and Thing, still not knowing what exactly Thor is saying, rallies his attack because he feels as though his team has been insulted and he cannot take any more blows to his ego. Thank goodness for him, they are shortly broken up by Susan Storm putting up barriers and explaining that they are all who they say they are.

This sequence came back to mind as I tried to figure out why my youngest son is so obsessed with Thor: Ragnarok. Even if it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, Thor: Ragnarok is a surprisingly feminist film with strong female characters and a glorious commentary on the erasure of women from history. At the same time, it also recognizes the horrors that conquering nations are built on. The kind of dual moment I am referring to is so effective because one of the things that masculinity has been based on is material symbols of power and this movie features Thor losing both his hammer, which can be seen as a metaphor for his manhood, and even Asgard itself.  Furthermore, his overt displays of masculinity are consistently infantilized going as far as to turn them into a running joke throughout the movie. One example of this is the way that Hulk and Thor each childishly attempt to one-up each other, just as we saw in the battle between Thing and Thor, only here, Thor engages in the power struggle which inevitably proves ineffective. Subsequently, he is forced to improve his interpersonal communication skills and this is how he finally gets his team together. This kind of community building is something that has long been seen as a traditionally feminine role. Because he makes the shift to fighting for the good of the community as his primary goal, we finally see him claiming control of his full power. He is now fighting for Asgard because he is a part of it instead of for Asgard and his precious imperial honor. 

Thor has always been my youngest’s favorite hero and he has a lot of good traits to look up to. Thor’s self confidence may often be his downfall, but it is also his savior; the mockery that surrounds him does not seem to negatively impact him; he is very willing to try new things even if he might not be good at it; and he has a tendency to never give up even if that means he might not succeed every time. While neither of my boys fits the traditional masculine role, my youngest is much more comfortable experimenting with gender expression and, much like Thor, he is self confident in a way that he can ignore the message that men cannot enjoy things that are coded as feminine. Thor: Ragnarok connected with him in a way I had never seen before. This has gone as far as to become a game of sorts in the house. He runs around asking, “You know what my favorite (insert literally any noun here) is?” To which he promptly, and joyfully, exclaims “Thor: Ragnarok.” I believe that part of this obsession is based on the fact that, the Thor we see in this movie is very much a Thor who is comfortable enough with who he is that he can reject the traditional ways of measuring his masculinity and focus instead on using his words and making friends. We are in an interesting time right now where our understandings of gender expectations are being challenged more than ever before. Thor just might be the hero little boys need right now. 

Works Cited:

Kirby, Jack and Lee, Stan. Marvel Comics Essential: Fantastic Four Volume 4. Marvel, 2005.

From My Desk: Comics in the Classroom

By those outside of the community, comics are still often thought of as simple superhero stories for children. This is very far from the truth as the target audience and subject matter is just as varied as any other medium. It’s time to treat comics like any other academic text. And I am not just talking Maus, Fun Home, and Persepolis. There are so many reasons for this. First of all, comics are fantastic for English language learners, whether English is their first language or beyond, because they provide more context clues through which the reader can deduce the meanings of words they previously did not know. Comics also make the reader construct their own meaning at the pace they learn best at making them particularly useful for complex and challenging issues. Some of the issues regularly covered in comics include sexism, drug addiction, nationalism, war, homelessness, mental health, racism, and many others. Combined with icon theory, which posits that the simplification and abstraction seen in comics allow for greater possibilities for identification, comics can be instrumental in building empathy for the people dealing with these issues. This is especially important in conversations about current events. Because of how fast comics can be produced, current events are often a key source and major focus right from the beginning.

Thankfully, this perception is beginning to shift with more and more comics making their way into English classes and beyond. They have even started to sprinkle into the writing classroom. One clear sign of this is the inclusion of an excerpt from “The Influencing Machines,” by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld, in the commonly used They Say/I Say! In it, common criticisms that have been made against various forms of media are explored, which I like to take in a meta direction to talk about how rare it is for there to be an inclusion of a comic into a writing text book and what it means that it is there. One of the things that I feel makes me unique as a college level writing instructor is my background in comics and I love to find ways to bring that in. Excitedly, this is something that my students have really enjoyed as well.

One of the things that is particularly wonderful about our community is our willingness to share. In the hopes that my ideas might be stolen, I am going to share some of my more successful ones. First off, I often use a one panel comic related to the materials we are covering to start the class discussions. I find that giving them a five minute free write focused on the comic makes the rest of the discussion run much more smoothly. As far as the related readings, a consistent favorite is “Why Using the Dictionary Definition of Racism Just Doesn’t Work” (https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/03/dictionary-definition-racism/). The fact that the author is listed as Robot Hugs opens up fabulous discussions about how we read works differently based on various characteristics we assume an author to have.  It also makes a reading about the creation of the dictionary and why definitions may or may not applicable into something that students actually want to read. It is one of the most common sources they use in their papers.

Another way I incorporate comics is methodologically based. I am a big believer in copia as it encourages flexibility and experimentation in writing that can result in different ideas and different ways of thinking about them. It also helps students to discover more precise or effective vocabulary and structure as well as forcing them to grapple with what each piece is actually saying instead of just how it is being said. I talk about the multiverse as an example of modern day copia in that many of the heroes in the different universes are essentially the same, but one key aspect in their lives changes the way in which their heroism is expressed. From there, I encourage them to turn their enthymeme into a short comic strip. This can be a very difficult task, but all the students who have attempted it have found it to be very helpful. They go into writing their paper with a much clear idea of what they want to express and that makes their papers better as a whole.

Finally, I was lucky enough attend Nick Sousanis’s “Alternative Formats in Dissertation and Career Paths outside the Academy” where I learned about his grid gestures and modified this concept into my own assignment. The comics making exercise he named grid gestures is designed to make people think about visual communication. To prompt this line of thinking, he had us draw out what our day looked like without the use of words. I took this idea and turned it into a second essay preparatory assignment. After I hand them back their first essays and do a quick review, I ask my students to think about what was more or less successful in their writing process along with what they want to change for their next one. I then give them 10 minuets to draw out what that will look like. Without the use of words, students are prompted to think about their process in a different way than they normally do. It draws attention to each individual step in their essay writing process, helps them visualize and commit to their personal plan for the next essay, and encourages them to think creatively.

We are entering a brave new world in academia and I, for one, am very proud to be a part of it. The more we work to include comics into our pedagogy and into our studies the less resistance future comic scholars will face. There could be a time where we can bring in our favorite X-Men comic and nobody would blink an eye! Great literature is great literature and we can learn just as much from working with comics as we can any other source.

Have any of you incorporated comics into your classroom? I would love to hear what others have come up with in the comments!

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 ” 

CAscjp7f (1)

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.

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.

IMG_4439

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.

Works Cited:

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.

Works Cited:

“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. 

17361467_1463259440371027_1161721073_n

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.

Works Cited:

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