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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: November 2016

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Are words necessary?

One of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers #1 (1990), opens with a wordless eight-page sequence, culminating with some punk kid throwing a rock through a moving train window. On page nine, a sleeping passenger startles from a dream and screams, “AAA! SHIT!” Then the elderly couple seated across from her say, “I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”

Get it? They mean profanity, but Moore means language in general–does a comic book really need it? I’ve been spending my fall semester plunging into a deeper study of the comics form and am finding that some of the very best graphic novels are wordless: Lynd Wards’ Gods Man (1929), Thomas Ott’s R.I.P.: Best of 1985-2004, Renee French’s H Day (2010), Daishu Ma’s Leaf (2015). I teach creative writing fiction in our English department, so it makes my wife (and former department chair) nervous when I say words are just clutter. There are endless exceptions of course, but too often dialogue and captions in comics are visually ugly and narratively redundant.  Images can do almost all of the talking.

But when I look at that Big Numbers scene now, I don’t think about comics. I think about our President-elect punk throwing his majority-losing rock through the TV screen of America’s napping leftwing voters.

America: “AAA! SHIT!”

Elderly Trump Voters: “I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”

I responded to the election by creating a political cartoon based on the Batman villain Two-Face, a caricature of myself now that I’ve disavowed all moderate political perspectives in favor of uncompromising leftwing extremism. Since I’m currently drafting a creative writing textbook on creating comics, it’s both cathartic and practical. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at comics art, analyzing the relationships between words and images, style and subject, line and concept, but it’s an entirely different thing to understand those ideas from inside the creative process.

It wasn’t until I decided my cartoon character deserved an origin story that I began to fully understand that elderly couple’s prejudice against language. I started with this wordless sequence:

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I liked it fine, but it felt incomplete. Maybe it deserved some dialogue, and so I added talk balloons, but without knowing exactly what I wanted George Washington to be saying. I just liked the talk balloons as visual elements offsetting the quarters. I even made them from the same image by whiting out their centers. But I still assumed I’d have to fill them in eventually. Stan Lee hired writers at Marvel in the 60s based on how well they filled in empty talk balloons from a Fantastic Four issue, so I started writing a script to do the same. I titled it “How the Radical Right Turned Me into the Radical Left.” It looked like this when I was done:

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It’s probably revealing that I like the illegible words best. The phrases double then quadruple, turning into a visual representation of meaningless noise. Which is how I feel now about political statements that fall short of absolute condemnation of Donald Trump and anyone who voted for him. “It worked” is darkly ironic–I’ve become a mirror version of the kind of Tea Party extremist I hate–but that falls short for me. All I want to hear is the uncompromising blackness of that final talk bubble.

As I watched news agency after news agency call the election for Trump, words failed me then too. The wordless version is better. It’s not only its silent self, but it also contains the scripted version, plus a range of other unwritten but evocatively present versions too. No words somehow allow for all words.

Or should I set aside my anti-word extremism and try to compromise? Would a bipartisan combination of the two work best?

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Like the GOP, the word-version controls almost the entire sequence, but no words get the all-important final word. Which is also the script I’m writing for America. My next cartoon is silent too. I’ve literally put myself inside that two-faced quarter, and I will stay there until Trump and all of his rock-throwing GOP punks are gone–via resignation, impeachment, or nuclear Armageddon, I really don’t care. If you would also like to make a Two-Faced version of yourself, I’ve included step-by-step instructions at the bottom of the page.

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Step 1. Watch country elect pussy-grabbing bigot for president.

Step 2. Stop shaving.

Step 3. Shave right half of face.

Step 4. Take selfie.

Step 5. Shit around with selfie in Word Paint while country plummets into moral abyss.

Step 6. Vow vengeance in 2018.

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In 1996, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sent a memo to GOP candidates in response to their plea: “I wish I could speak like Newt.”

“That,” Newt humbly explained, “takes years of practice. But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created … a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used.”

In the “Contrasting Words” section, he added: “Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party:

  • abuse of power
  • anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs
  • betray
  • bizarre
  • bosses
  • bureaucracy
  • cheat
  • coercion
  • “compassion” is not enough
  • collapse(ing)
  • consequences
  • corrupt
  • corruption
  • criminal rights
  • crisis
  • cynicism
  • decay
  • deeper
  • destroy
  • destructive
  • devour
  • disgrace
  • endanger
  • excuses
  • failure (fail)
  • greed
  • hypocrisy
  • ideological
  • impose
  • incompetent
  • insecure
  • insensitive
  • intolerant
  • liberal
  • lie
  • limit(s)
  • machine
  • mandate(s)
  • obsolete
  • pathetic
  • patronage
  • permissive attitude
  • pessimistic
  • punish (poor …)
  • radical
  • red tape
  • self-serving
  • selfish
  • sensationalists
  • shallow
  • shame
  • sick
  • spend(ing)
  • stagnation
  • status quo
  • steal
  • taxes
  • they/them
  • threaten
  • traitors
  • unionized
  • urgent (cy)
  • waste
  • welfare

Any of those words sound familiar? Gingrich, one of President-Elect Trump’s most vocal supporters during the campaign, is on the short-list for cabinet positions in the next administration–though not Communications Director. Apparently after twenty years of practice, no one in the GOP needs any training to “speak like Newt.”

Before the election, I had a vision of the U.S. coming together. I fantasized that Clinton would announce in her acceptance speech that she would fill half of her cabinet positions with Republicans and challenge Congress to send her only bills co-authored by Republicans and Democrats or face her veto. I was imagining a Democratic-controlled Senate too, but instead of shoving a leftwing Justice down the remaining throats of the GOP (as they so deeply deserved for refusing to vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee last March), I wanted Clinton to renominate moderate Merrick Garland in a show of compromise and goodwill. I wanted this despite the fact that my personal political beliefs are over there with Bernie Sanders and the rest of those Socialist-hugging, LGBQT-loving, Wall-Street-regulating, Climate-Apocalypse-fighting do-gooders. I actually believed that being part of a democracy meant accepting and even celebrating that fact that I should only get what I want about half of the time. That even some of my cherished principles come second to the national need for our government to work from the center, to bridge extremes and find common ground. I was a Radical Moderate.

Until November 9th.

The problem with being a liberal is in the definition of the word. Politically it means “0pen to new behavior or opinions,” and educationally it means “concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience.” The second refers to the Liberal Arts, the kind of college I teach in, though politically it amounts to same thing: broaden your understanding by being open to as many opinions as possible. Even and most especially your opponents’ opinions, since there’s nothing broadening about listening to ideas you already agree with.

Liberalism by definition is built on compromise and goodwill, which  means not using “powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast.” And that’s a pretty bad campaign strategy. You may notice that “compromise” and “goodwill” are not on Speaker Gingrich’s list. They’re not the kind of words that get angry villagers waving pitchforks as they march to the voting booth.

But Donald Trump took the Gingrich rhetoric primer even further. He wrote the playbook into a superhero comic book. I posted last summer how a dozen political commentators had likened Trump to a superhero, often to a certain other fascist-leaning billionaire. Jeet Heer wrote: “Trump is indeed a type of Batman: To his fans, he, like Bruce Wayne, is a brash, two-fisted billionaire playboy who uses his wealth to fight against a corrupt system.” Terry Brooks lampooned Trump’s speech at the Republican Convention: “He is your muscle and your voice in a dark, corrupt and malevolent world.” Trump even said it himself, telling a child lined up for a ride on his private helicopter at the Iowa State Fair:

“Yes, I am Batman.”

So that’s why I’ve invited guest blogger Harvey Dent to my site this week. Harvey, AKA “Two-Face,” was invented by Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane back in 1942, and he’s been one of the Dark Knight’s baddest bad guys since.

Law-abiding District Attorney Dent became a supervillain after a thug threw acid in his face. Which is also how Donald Trump cured me of Moderatism. Though technically I don’t think Dent ought to be labeled a supervillain, since half of his actions should end up doing good. When faced with a tough choice, Two-Face flips a two-headed coin. I know that sounds like a rigged decision-making system (something the majority-losing President-Elect no longer talks about), but Two-Face carved a giant “X” through one of George Washington’s faces. Which is a perfect metaphor for the U.S. right now.

I’ve also asked Mr. Dent to serve as Communications Director to liberal candidates. Democrats need a strategy for talking to voters. Liberals, being liberal, have a tendency to express themselves in complicated terms–because how else can you think about complicated issues from multiple perspectives, all of which a good liberal wants to understand and bridge? But liberalism is the wrong langauge for communicating to someone who doesn’t already speak and think in it. Like Two-Face, Trump voters keep things simple. They believe in a static world of black and white, of absolute good and absolute evil. The last thing they care about is a gray world of ever-changing spectrums.

So I’ve asked Two-Face to speak from both sides of his head today. Candidates facing election in 2018 are welcome to select whichever set of words they think will be most effective for them.

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And here’s a condensed version to print and keep in your wallet for quick reference. Be sure to hand out copies to family and friends:

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Thanks, Harvey.

Oh, and by the way, which of George Washington’s heads came up today?two-face-bad-side

Yeah, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of that guy for the next four years.

[Gingrichspeak Update:

What Gingrich said on Twitter:

“The arrogance and hostility of the Hamilton cast to the Vice President elect ( a guest at the theater) is a reminder the left still fights.”

What Trump said on Twitter:

“Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!”

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

“The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

What Hamilton actor Brandon Victor Dixon actually said at curtain call:

“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.”

Mr. Dixon, who plays Vice President Aaron Burr, apparently prefers the unscarred side of George Washington’s head: “hope,” “inspired,” “diverse,” “all of us”?  Mr. Two-Face, could you please translate that into GOP for us?

Two-Face:

“We are the enraged American majority who are horrified and disgusted that your hate-mongering administration will persecute us and those we love. If you keep desecrating our American values and working for only the bigoted and the greedy, we will damn sure make you regret it.”

Which do you prefer?

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“Demographics may also account for Marvel’s decision to withdraw a variant cover of the then-upcoming Invincible Iron Man #1 that featured a sexualized depiction of fifteen-year-old Riri Williams. After the comics site The Mary Sue criticized the image for promoting the attitude that the character was “not a true female superhero until you can imagine having sex with her,” Artist J. Scott Campbell responded on Twitter that “‘sexualizing’ was not intended,” though he added, “Is it THAT different?” The character’s crop top and low-cut leggings would be unremarkable by 90s standards. The issue was released November 9, the day after Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump to become the first female President of the United States.”

I wrote that paragraph a month ago, thinking it would appear next year in my book Superhero Comics. I went back to the manuscript on November 10 and deleted that last sentence. The chapter is about gender, how superhero comics have represented female characters for the last 75 years, and it had been nice to end the section on an upbeat note. Yes, comics have traditionally defined strong male heroes in relation to weak female victims and love interests, and, yes, comics have created strong female heroes through hypersexualized images that still paradoxically suggests the characters’ physical weakness, but those norms have begun to change, probably due to the rise in female readers and the larger cultural shift away from sexism.

I guess I should delete that last bit too: “cultural shift away from sexism”? Is that still a thing?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the book manuscript, and had recently added another paragraph to the gender chapter:

The 90s also coincides with Gail Simone’s identification of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope encapsulated in Green Lantern #54 (August 1994) in which the hero discovers his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in a refrigerator by his arch enemy. In 1999 Simone published an online list of dozens of female characters who had been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her.” Simone hypothesized that the “comics-buying public being mostly male” was a reason for the trend:

So, it’s possible that less thought might be given to the impact the death of a female character might have on the readership. Or, it’s possible that there’s rarely a fan outcry when a female is killed. Or, maybe since many major female characters were spin-offs of popular male heroes, it was felt that they had to go to keep the male heroes unique, and get rid of “baggage”. Or maybe many of the male creators simply relate less to female characters. Or maybe it’s a combination of these.

Whatever the reason, she asked:

if most major women characters are eventually cannon fodder of one type or another, how does that affect the female readers? … Combine this trend with the bad girl comics and you have a very weird, slightly hostile environment for women down at the friendly comics shoppe.

Many online responses to the list confirmed that hostility, but most comics creators responded sympathetically, including Ron Marz, who wrote the Green Lantern episode that inspired the list’s title:

Comics have a long history as a male-oriented and male-dominated industry. … I do think comics can and should be more sensitive to female characters. But these are times in which the general editorial mindset is “cut to the fight scene,” in which half-naked women on covers spike sales.  Publishers are unfortunately more concerned with survival than with sensitivity to women. And that’s a shame. If we want to save our industry, maybe we should stop ignoring half the population as possible readers.

Dwayne McDuffie responded with that hope that “maybe more women will be inspired to take the reins and write some female characters who aren’t plot devices to complicate the hero’s life.” Simone would later write Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey, which featured Barbara Gordon, a character prominently featured on the WiR list.

See how naively upbeat I like to be? All it takes is one white women like Simone and one black man like McDuffie, and superhero comics are saved. Never mind the reactions I got when I posted about superhero gender norms at the very-weird-slightly-hostile-toward-women-environment of the friendly Reddit comicbooks subgroup. Here are some highlights:

“I see someone is finding out that sex sells. You act like this hasn’t been going on forever in every medium man has ever invented.”

“Power Girl isn’t even human so it doesn’t matter what she looks like.”

“men are hyper visualized as much as women if not more, and are probably more unnatural and unrealistic than women. While women in the comics don’t wear that much clothes, women in other competitive sports don’t wear that much either. While the big tits seems unrealistic, there are others who would beg to differ (Gina Carano for example, [the chick in deadpool])”

“Heterosexual males can’t ignore boobs. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean we start a campaign to stop it.”

And my cringingly least favorite:

“This shit gets me so hard.”

But, hey, it’s all just locker room talk, right? Hostile workplace environment? What’s that? When President Trump reduces or eliminates the Department of Education, all of those Title IX coordinators hired to comply with former President Obama’s anti-discrimination mandates will be fired, and we can go back to old school norms.

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 72% of Trump supporters feel that America has changed for the worst since the 1950s. Were things THAT different then? Well, in 1950, 34% of women worked outside the home. In 2002, 60% did. In 1977, 74% of men and 52% of women believed husbands should earn money and wives stay home. In 2008, only 40% of men and 37% of women held those minority views.

There was also only one female superhero in the 50s: Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter, who played her in the 70s, guest-starred last month on Supergirl. Instead of an Amazon of Paradise Island, Carter was the President of the United States. The show is goofy as hell, but I actually find it moving sometimes–the portrayal of so many strong women and, even better, how both other women and men look up to them as role models. One episode featured a twelve-year-old boy whose hero wasn’t Superman but Supergirl. We watch the show with our sixteen-year-old son, and I was proud that he was growing up in a world where that was normal. Why wouldn’t everyone look up to a woman as a leader?

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But you know me. Naively upbeat. I guess I’ll delete that last assumption now too, since according to our next Reddit-minded President, a woman is not a true woman until you can imagine having sex with her. Or, as Trump explained to Fox News anchor Sean Hannity last March after the first round of groping allegations:

“I was so furious about that story, because there’s nobody that respects women more than I do, Sean, you know that. And I treat women with respect. And I have — we all have fun. We all have good times.”

It’s hard even for me to imagine that more women will be inspired to take the reins after last week. America has a long history as a male-oriented and male-dominated nation, and it looks like those fun and good times are back again. (Refrigerators sold separately.)

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Is there such a thing? Some scholars object to the anachronistic use of the 20th-century term “comics” applied to anything that predates its etymology–especially when the predating is by centuries not decades. But I’m less sure. Look at this illustration from the 1490s.

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The small angel in the upper right corner displays a scroll that reads:

“Gedenck der /lestē zÿt so / sündest du / nÿmmer”
[Think of the last days; then you will never sin]

Although it wouldn’t have been called a “caption box” in its day, I’m not sure how that word-filled square is any different from the caption boxes that appear in contemporary comics. Medieval scholars call the two other word-filled shapes “speech scrolls”:

“‘Sun gib mir din hercz /den ich lieb hab · Dem läß ich sträf nit ab ·’”
[“Son, give me your heart. I do not remit the punishment of the one that I hold dear”

“‘O herr das will ich · das / beger ich darumbe / so soltu ziehē mich’”
[“Oh Lord, this I want, I desire it, for this reason thus you pull me”]

There are no “pointers,” so the speakers are indicated by proximity and the curve of the scrolls toward each figure’s face. But that we can understand these words as a command and a response spoken by the two figures at the moment depicted means a “speech scroll” and a “speech balloon” differ in shape and not much else.

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But comics, even contemporary comics, aren’t defined by speech balloons and caption boxes. Those, arguably, are just elements that can appear in a variety of images including a comic or a book illustration (whether 21st century of 15th) but don’t require the image to be classified as a “comic.” Though it produces problems for such apparent “comics” as Far Side and Family Circle, it’s a reasonable point. When we call something a comic book, we typically mean a visual story that’s divided into rows of panels across a page.

Maybe something like Valerius Maximus’ Memorabilia: intrigue and murder in Ancient Rome?

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Chantry Westwell considers that 1470s piece a comic, writing about it and other “Medieval Comics” for the British Museum’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog in 2014. Steve Ditko favored the same three-row layout:

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The top image was sent to me by graphic novelist Kevin Pyle after he and I met at a comics symposium in NYC last month. Martha Rust, an associate professor of English at New York University, was lecturing on the use of wheels and roundels in Medieval manuscripts. I was struck by how much the roundel functions like a panel in contemporary comics.

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When discussing the early fourteenth-century Psalter of Robert de Lille, Rust notes that a “circle divided into wedges by means of its ‘spokes’ depicts a sequence”–a  style still seen in some comic book page layouts:

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The roundels also appear “to rest on the roll of parchment rather than to inhere in it and thus to have a notional manipulability–as if we could pick them up and move them around.”

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While roundels make a “visual allusion to disks or coins,” many contemporary panels are more like irregular playing cards with their edges overlapping as so have that same “notional manipulability”:

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And the occasional roundel still shows up too, though usually only one per page:

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The Psalter of Robert de Lille’s wheel of fortune also captures how a comics reader views each panel one at a time while also being aware of the page layout at a whole. The image of God at the center declares: “I see all at once; I govern the whole by my plan.”

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But whether you want to classify this and similar Medieval manuscripts as “comics” or simply “image-texts,” they are useful for revealing things about the current comics form because they are not constrained by the conventions that came to dominate the medium. For instance, this image from the twelfth-century illuminated encyclopedia Hortus delicarium (Garden of Delights) doesn’t rely on panels and gutters to tell its narrative:

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Because, as Rust notes, the six figures represent “the same person at different points on Fortune’s wheel,” the illustration is equivalent to six panels that could (to worse effect) be drawn as six separately framed wheels with only one figure on each wheel at a time. More interestingly, Fortune, the figure turning the wheel, is present at each of the six moments in time–and yet she is a static image too. She’s both in time and out of time–an embodiment of the gutter.

Her paradoxical relationship to the six turning figures is easy to see because the image doesn’t use panels to organize story time or page layout. But compare that to the first page of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s 2016 Black Panther:

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Like the Hortus delicarium illustration, this image represents multiple moments in time. And, like Fortune turning the wheel, Black Panther is present in all four scenes. Divided into conceptual units, the implied sequence looks like this:

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And, because Black Panther is recalling these three memories as he crouches in a present moment:

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This, frankly, is more than I would have expected from a writer approaching the comics form for the first time. But maybe that fresh eye helped Coates, with the aid of comics veteran Stelfreeze, get here. Like Medieval illustrators, they weren’t as bound by 20th-century comics conventions that make the panel the primary conceptual unit.

So while I’m happy to welcome the category of “Medieval Comics” to the multiverse, I’m even happier to view contemporary comics through its fresh eye.

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