Thursday, February 07, 2008

Captain America, lesbian superheroines, Spoiler, X-Men and hobos (but no kitchen sink)

—Waste not, want not. Here’s a piece on the latest issue of Captain America that got bumped out of the paper for space, and won’t be relevant any more before the next issue. So I figured I might as well post it here, rather than let it go to waste. It’s written for a general audience, rather than the regular EDILW readers, who tend to consist of Newsarama readers and contributors and women with crushes on The Winter Soldier...

Marvel's Captain America comic got another jolt of mainstream media attention—Good Morning America! NPR! The Colbert Report!—with last week's release of #34, the issue in which a new character inherits the still-dead Steve Roger's shield and superhero identity.

It's often amusing (and sometimes cringe-inducing) to watch the “civilian” media react to the goings-on within the wonderful world of comics in the occasional instances that they notice.

In the case of last April's "death" of the original Captain America, it lead to tons of media coverage and a rush of people to comic shops snapping up what they were sure would be a collector's item, the last issue of the 67-year-old superhero Captain America's comic book.

Of course, superheroes die pretty regularly, and they tend to come back to life. Death has relatively little meaning in stories in which superpowers, clones, time travel and magic are so heavily involved.

When a big-time superhero does die, he of she is often replaced by another hero using his or her name, and often times the new character is a darker version of the original. Rather than a noteworthy event, then, the intro of the new Cap is really just Marvel following the well-established formula in the superhero cycle of death and rebirth.

What is fairly unique about this case, however, is how well writer Ed Brubaker has been able to maintain the quality of the monthly book after the title character was removed from it.

Almost a year has passed and, if anything, the book's gotten stronger and stronger, as Brubaker focused on Cap's traditional second bananas and antagonists, making it more of an ensemble drama. Brubaker’s completely mastered potboiler thriller and espionage, to the point where even when things happen exactly as one expects them to, they’re still exciting anyway.

Captain America #34 sees Cap’s former sidekick Bucky finally becoming the new Captain America, something that seemed a foregone conclusion the second the original was declared dead. The new Captain has a new costume, and a gun, which he uses to kneecap his terrorist enemies.

While the symbolism of a guy named “America” switching from a defense-only shield to a shield and gun combo may be groaningly obvious, this same issue sees Brubaker proving himself eerily prescient.

It opens with CNN talking heads decrying the price of oil, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the sudden sharp downturn in the economy. In the Marvel Universe, this has all lead to street demonstrations and rioting outside the White House.

What's behind this economic chaos? Captain America’s archenemy, the incredibly well preserved Nazi villain known as The Red Skull. Considering the lead time in comics—generally six months—Brubaker is either damn good at trend-spotting, or the real world is more and more following the gloomy imaginations of fiction writers purposely trying to think of melodramatically negative scenarios. Either way, it’s disturbingly in tune with today’s headlines.

In the ‘40s, Captain America used to punch out Hitler on the covers of his comics. I look forward to a cover in which the new Captain punches out the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

—Okay, anyone who wants to give Matt Brady and crew shit for laying into creators during profiles and interviews at Newsarama, please turn your attention to this Advocate article on all the lesbian superheroines in the DCU (Link totally stolen from Dirk Deppey’s Journalista).

It starts out on the wrong foot, mentioning Judd Winick’s gay-bashing issue of Green Lantern as the start of gay characters in super-comics in the DCU (I probably would have mentioned Vertigo easing super-comics readers into it, but whatever).

Most of it consists of talk about Renee “The Question” Montoya and Kathy “Batwoman” Kane, who appear in little-read miniseries Crime Bible: The Five Lessons of Blood, and some questions with Dan DiDio.

The writer does seem passably familiar with the DCU, saying this:

Batwoman and the Question aren’t the only sapphic superfolks stalking the streets of the DC Universe, either. Lovers Knockout and Scandal are both members of the Secret Six, while Amazonian powerhouse Grace and the density-altering heroine Thunder have a sexual relationship in the pages of The Outsiders. And when Catwoman, now more of an antihero than a villainess, retired to raise her newborn child, her lesbian friend Holly took on the guise of the ferocious feline.

Are these queer avengers here to stay—and stay gay? Knockout was recently murdered and, in a recent issue, it looked like Thunder was evicted from the Outsiders. But DiDio promises both Question and Batwoman will have "prominent roles" in 2008, after the current
Crime Bible series wraps in February.

Hmm. I don’t know that Batwoman and the Question are exactly terribly prominent. Batwoman in particular seems to have disappeared. Cameos in Countdown and a guest-appearance in Crime Bible aside, she has a very low-profile for a hero who was set to appear in her own monthly, one that two different writers worked on at some point and a logo was already designed for. It’s odd that a character with a bat on her chest is less-seen in the modern DCU than, say, Booster Gold or the Metal Men or Geo-Force or Mogo the Green Lantern who is also a planet, you know?

Knockout and Scandal appeared in two miniseries; the former is at least temporarily dead (Although, unlike some of the Fourth Worlders, she’s a minor and modern addition, and not exactly guaranteed to return in the same way that, say, Orion and Mr. Miracle are). There are no plans for another Secret Six series announced at this point, and the team’s writer seems too focused on Wonder Woman for other books at this point, having dropped the rest of her workload.

Grace and Thunder are pretty awful examples of lesbian heroes, as both were just suddenly announced as gay; the former having had several sexual relationships with men prior, and a rather icky sexual history that I don’t imagine many gay advocates would be happy to hear about (“What are you trying to say, DC? That being repeatedly raped as a child turns you gay?”). They’re also both being written by one of the few mainstream super-comics writers who has actually came out and announced he foun gay content in super-comics to be completely inappropriate.

And Catwoman II was only temporarily carrying the Catwoman monthly; she’s been stripped of her cat-suit and sent to co-star in Countdown, a rather severe punishment for any DC superhero.

So, I don’t know…hooray for Sapphic superheroes?

As Deppey also snidely points out, they’re all buxom, Barbie doll-figured women in skintight costumes, with the exception of Montoya, who is a buxom, Barbie doll-figured woman in a trenchcoat. I was pretty disappointed to see how poor Holly swelled up into a cookie-cutter smexy super-girl in the pages of Countdown and in Adam Hughes’ Catwoman covers, as she used to be short, thin and rather gamine.

—Speaking of Dirk, everybody already read this essay of his, right? The one about the comics blogosphere’s sometimes misplaced feminist causes and superhero decadence and the super-comics markets? I’m afraid that a lot of the good points he makes are going to go unread or undiscussed simply because it is a long piece which a few pundits who should know better seem to have either not read or not understood and/or because some of the people who get name-dropped are going to take some personal offense to it, and respond to that stuff instead.

I think, for the most part, Deppey’s analysis is right…or at least seems right to me. However, Lisa Forturner, who provided the quote that got Deppey’s rhetorical ball rolling, is right about something too—DC is definitely paying attention.

Between Dan DiDio’s Christmas list, Chuck Dixon’s current Robin story arc, complete with memorial case gripe, and Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel’s one-panel case appearance in a dream sequence, it’s pretty obvious that DC hears this group of fans and is making attempts to respond.

Does it matter? I suppose that depends on who’s answering the question. (I said my piece on it here). Certainly it’s a drop in a bucket, and perhaps not a very important one, but, again, it depends on the person. Personally, I’d be happier to see less of Ed Benes drawing Wonder Woman and Black Canary, and a gradual shift towards returning more of the DCU line to books that are truly all-ages, with perhaps a couple reserved for more grown-up stories (Like, remember when New Titans, Green Arrow, Legends of the Dark Knight and a few others were kind of more for grown-up fans, but most of the line would be fine for a ten-year-old to read?)

See, I don’t mind people being torn in half in the comics I read, or rape being a plot point, but I really don’t think Superman, Robin or Mary Marvel need to be in those comics. I think it’s rather telling that probably the two best comics that DC published featuring superheroes last year were Grant Morrison and Frank Quiteley’s All-Star Superman and Jeff Smith’s Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, both of which were all-ages in the truest sense of the word.

—If I were the person at DC responsible for deciding what old comics get released at what point in time, I would have made damn sure 1988 miniseries Millennium was in comics shops just before Marvel’s big Secret Invasion storyline kicked off.

I don’t remember Millennium being a terribly good story, and like Armageddon 2001, it’s really weird to read it this deep into the 21st century, but despite its disastrous ending (Has any new initiative ever fallen as flat as fast as The New Guardians?), it’s still head and shoulders above the worst of the DCU crossovers (Genesis and Countdown, by my reckoning). Plus, Ian Gibson does the finished art, and man, you haven’t seen the Martian Manhunter until you’ve seen Ian Gibson draw him.

The plot involves a centuries old scheme by the Manhunter robots, the Guardians’ first attempt at a universal police force before they decided on the Green Lanterns, infiltrating the DCU with sleeper agents, all timed to strike at once, so that the supporting characters that our heroes had come to trust over the years suddenly revealed themselves to be alien menaces.

In addition to the eight issues of the main miniseries, I believe just about every single DC comic at the time tied into it, even All-Star Squadron, which was set 40 years in the past. So a trade would have a lot to choose from, but I’m sure there’s a lot of unimportant chaff that wouldn’t be needed (Maybe a trade would look like the one for DC One Million, with the main series and then the more important tie-ins included).

Now, I don’t think Brian Michael Bendis found these in a dollar bin and was suddenly, “Hey, a great idea! Yoink!” or anything, but the surface similarities are such that DC could give their rival a good nose-tweaking by getting it out there and letting the partisan crowd draw their own conclusions. (And, besides, DC’s hardcore fans are all atwitter about things involving the Guardians, GL Corps and suchlike at the moment, aren’t they?)

Of course, if I were in charge of those things, I would have rushed to make sure Legends, in which the U.S. government outlaws superheroes, was available in trade ASAP as soon as I heard the first rumors about Civil War, and that The Flash: Hell To Pay was in trade as soon as I heard the first rumors that Peter Parker was contemplating selling his marriage to the devil in “One More Day.”

—This new X-Men cartoon looks pretty cool. My introduction to the characters was in an episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and then that pretty awful ‘90s one, which I loved in the way that one loves horrible cartoons. Like, every single character’s voice in that show was absolutely hilarious to me…it was a guranteed twenty-minute giggle-fest.

I thought X-Men: Evolution was pretty great. It took me a while to get used to it—or else it got more awesome towards the end.

This looks like a neat mixture of the two.

The ‘90s version had much better music, though:

In fact, the only way to improve upon that theme song would be, I don’t know, to sing something in Japanese, and set a bunch of images of speed-lines and gravity-free battles to it:

—Wonkette column “Cartoon Violence” is always worth a read, but this hobo-centric column is triply so. I may not know much about comedy (as the attempts at humor on this page should readily attest), but I do know that there is nothing funnier than hobos. Hell, just the word is hilarious.

Speaking of which, I believe this is a very strong contender for my occasional attempts to isolate the greatest Captain Marvel cover of all time:


Mike Lorah said...

I'm still totally perplexed by the Steph Brown/Spoiler rage. She's a sucky character killed in a sucky story. That DC won't give her a memorial in the Batcave has nothing to do with misogyny, and everything to do with nobody wanting to remember the little twit or the trash story that removed her from our lives.

Consider: If Anarky had been Tim's temporary replacement rather than Steph, and been killed in equally idiotic ways, would he have a memorial?

I suspect that no, he wouldn't.

There are a lot of problems with how women are portrayed in superhero comics, but Robin's after-school special girlfriend not having a token glass case in a dank, cold cave is not one of them.

John Foley said...

mike lorah
Yeah, it's a little mystifying to me too. I must have just missed out on how cool the Spoiler was or something. Was she really that great? Maybe it's kind of an interesting idea for a character (teenaged daughter of a super-villain dresses up as hero to piss off Dad)but it's weird to see how this has become a big feminist rallying cry. Is Jean-Paul Valley next in line for a glass case?
I just can't get that jazzed about Spoiler. I guess it's possible that I missed out on all the really awesome stories featuring her, but the feminist icon thing is really a stretch. She never exactly struck me as the second coming of Promethea or anything.

jheaton said...

Speaking of superhero hobos, check out Action Comics no. 337. One of my favorites!

jheaton said...

Hmm, the hyperlink got messed up somehow. Try this:

Anonymous said...

John Foley, your point about Azreal's costume not having its own case in the Batcave is a good one, and that guy WAS Batman for a while. And, like Spoiler, he too went against Batman's orders.

Scott said...

So, which Spoiler costume do they want a memorial for? One of her original purple costumes? Or one of the various Robin costumes she wore in the four motnhs she was Robin?

She couldn't even maintain a look for an entire year, why should she get a Batcave memorlal that will last for fifty years?

Jacob T. Levy said...

"In addition to the eight issues of the main miniseries, I believe just about every single DC comic at the time tied into it, even All-Star Squadron, which was set 40 years in the past."

and also including Legion, set 1000 years in the future. That and JLI (E?) were the only "X is a Manhunter" crossovers I much liked. But a lot of the Manhunter-fighting crossovers were good, and they provided the added bonus of getting the Byrne Superman (who had never been in the JLA) interacting with the rest of the DCU in a big cosmic story for the first time.

Malpractice said...

The 90's X-Men cartoon was bad ? Granted it's been a long time since i have watched it but i remember it being good.

Genevieve said...

....Not really familiar with the Stephanie Brown issue here? I don't really read Batman.

Re: All the executive decisions you would make at DC, I agree entirely. I'm not a huge DC fan to begin with, but I'm all for more stuff like the JLU TV show-- good is good, you know? Marvel should really do the same, but I know they are supposed to be "edgy" and about social commentary in various series to a certain extent (even though they aren't doing too great a job with it lately), so they certainly won't be the first ones.

Didn't ever watch X-Men: Evolution, but I was surprised to discover that X-23 made an appearance in the show?! I didn't find out about her until just last year, man!! I loved the X-Men 90s TV show, and the Spider-Man 90s TV show. In fact, I.... I have X-Men on my MP3 player right now. *ducks* That Japanese opening is horribletastic though.

philippos42 said...


I'm not a huge Batman fan. I did, however, read a fair bit of Chuck Dixon's Robin, in which Steph was a semi-regular character.

I strenuously object to any characterization of Steph as "sucky." She was a perfectly respectable character, at least in comparison to Batman himself. Killing her off was in bad taste.

Then not acknowledging the character at all, which had gained fans through the Dixon Robin issues, because of an ill-advised arc in Batman by a different writer, was more than some fans could stand quietly. Mostly this was due to writer reshuffles & general retcons circa "Infinite Crisis"; Robin's series was in flux, & the character's personal continuity got lost.