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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: March 2017

Short answer: you don’t.

Or at least I didn’t. Not in the sense of talking back and forth with another human being face to face. Or even talking back and forth Skype face to Skype face. Or voice to voice via Skype’s widowed aunt, Phone. I did type back and forth email to email with Senior Communications Manager Joseph Taraborrelli. Though not because I wanted to. No offense to Joe, but I was dialing Editorial, not PR.

Joe Taraborrelli

There are many wonderful things about pre-tenure leave, and a research trip to NYC is near the top of the list. My northern itinerary included the Society of Illustrators, the comics holdings at the New York Public Library, an evening New School lecture on text-images, plus guest lectures of my own at Marymount University. But it was the visit to Marvel that most curled my former fanboy toes.

135 west 50th Look! Up in the Air! Marvel Has a 60K Foot Sublease!

Sadly, Marvel doesn’t give tours of its corporate headquarters (135 W. 50th Street). But I didn’t really want a tour. I wanted to talk to people. I particularly wanted to talk to editors. Not Axel Alonso, editor in chief, but regular in-the-trenches editors. And not just editors, but lowly even-deeper-in-the-trench-mud assistant editors. The creation of a comic is a complex business, involving writers, pencillers, inkers, colorists, letters, and, of course, editors. The first five categories I have a pretty good handle on (even though “writing” at Marvel used to mean filling in Jack Kirby’s talk balloons with witty banter and “pencilling” meant figuring out the entire story moment for moment and writing “suggested” dialogue and narration in the margins for the “writer” to use later), but the how-what-where-whens of editing is pretty much a mystery. One I want to solve.

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So I wrote an email to Sana Amanat. She edits, among other things, Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel, and she also can be heard on the podcast Women of Marvel. So I wrote to her via, asking if I could interview her while I was in town. I also wrote to Kathleen Wisneski, who had been featured with several other assistant editors on the podcast and confessed a near-miss career path in comics studies–so she might even understand why an English professor in Virginia is writing a book called “Superhero Comics.” I found her gmail and also tried her on Facebook–having not yet had the Sherlockian realization that Marvel employee emails (like the vast majority of company employee emails across the known universe) consist of first initial (a theory confirmed by Joe’s

I think KWisneski hit delete and Samanat forwarded me to JTaraborrelli, as per apparent Marvel policy. The Senior Communications Manager said he would be happy to help me out by forwarding some specific questions to someone other than Sana, who wasn’t available, especially right now, and could we maybe revisit this in November? Since that would be two months after my two-day stop in NYC, I kept trying, sending new emails when previous ones hit their one-week expiration date in Joe’s Inbox and/or Deleted file.

Unfortunately, Joe could not grant an in-office interview. No problem, I’ll meet anywhere. Like the lobby. Or the sidewalk out front. Seriously, anywhere. Like many skilled managers the world over, Joe is artful at evasion, answering by not answering and instead offering again to forward some questions. So I sent him some questions. And, after the next email expiration date, asked again for a face-to-face, eventually getting an “email is easier for us” and another offer (the third) to forward some questions to an unnamed someone else. So I sent him my questions yet again.

Oh, and you can’t phone anyone directly at Marvel. All calls go through the main switchboard (212 576-4000) where the operators know how not to give out individual extension numbers. Or to connect you to anyone in any department other than PR–where Mr. Taraborrelli’s line goes to phone mail when my Virginia area code appears on its screen. Which is all perfectly reasonable. They’re busy people. Plus imagine the onslaught of enraged fans and non-fans demanding to see the people responsible for turning Captain American into a HYDRA-hailing Nazi last summer. Of course they don’t offer “tours.”

But still, Joe, is fifteen minutes with Ms. Wisneski talking nuts-and-bolts editing really such an impossible request? My questions could well be winding their way through the internal Marvel ether to the screens of any number of editors or assistant editors as I type, but should they have vanished through some off-continuity wormhole, here they are yet again:

1. How are story ideas developed? Do ideas typically originate with writers, artists, editors, or other individuals–or does it vary with each story?
2. Do writers typically write panel-by-panel scripts, or are page-by-page or even scene-focused scripts common too? If panel-by-panel, how much detail is preferred? Does this vary according to the writer-artist relationship, or do editors maintain a standard approach? Is there a standard Marvel script format?
3. At what stages do editors enter the creative process. For instance, does an editor always see a script before the artist receives it? What kinds of scripts revisions might an editor ask for before passing the script to an artist? How many revisions might a typical script undergo at this pre-art stage?
4. Once the artwork has begun, when do editors typically view the products–per page? per full story? Given current technology, is the creative process still defined by a strict pencil layout followed by inking? At what stages of completion does an editor enter the art process? What kinds of revisions might artwork undergo? In past decades Marvel maintained a house style. To what degree is that still true? How is artwork evaluated in terms of whether a pre-existing character is drawn to match expectations?
5. Does the artwork ever cause alterations in the originating script? If so, are those changes made by the writer or the editor? Do they entail rewriting the script itself, or are they only incorporated into the comics pages?
6. How are writers and artists assigned to a project? How often are the pairings initiated by the creators and how often are they assigned to each other by editors? How are pencillers, inkers, and colorists assigned?
7. Given the serial nature of comics, how far in advance of publication are issues scripted, drawn, and completed? In past decades, there seems to have been roughly a four-month production period. Is that still accurate? How might reader response, including sales, influence the process? Are scripts and art ever changed mid-course as the result of reader reactions to current issues?
And these are the ones that apply specifically to Sana Amanat:
As editor of Ms. Marvel, you oversaw the art of Adrian Alphona, whose style for the series was a major departure from his earlier work on Runaways. I would like to ask about that and also the equally distinctive and highly divergent art of Dexter Soy, Emma Rios, and Filipe Andrade in Captain Marvel. In the past Marvel has emphasized visual continuity, and so I would like to ask about that change in editorial control. Does she and Marvel in general now prefer artists with individualized and often less naturalistic styles?
And here’s my NYC hotel, where I was while in town when I wasn’t somewhere else in town, including when I was not interviewing absolutely anyone at or in the general vicinity of Marvel headquarters:
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Guest blogger, Madeleine Gavaler:

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Greek mythology is, at its core, about rape. This makes a gender-flipped telling of the Odyssey an interesting endeavor.  In ODY-C, two white boys, Matt Fraction (writer) and Christian Ward (artist), depict Odyssia and her gals’ long, intergalactic journey home after the war in Troiia (yes, even the city of Troy gets a fun gender change).

At its surface the book is a retelling of the Odyssey, but Fraction’s own convoluted gender mythology overshadows any deep engagement with the source text.  ODY-C turns out to be a little more complicated than a binary-implying gender swap—Homer’s male characters become women, but the meager supply of female characters doesn’t all become men. Instead, Fraction has a very busty and plus-sized female Zeus kill all the boys.

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In Homer’s vision, the Trojan War was fought because men think they can own women. All of this violence was inspired by rape culture, so giving the characters vaginas doesn’t suddenly turn the Odyssey into a fun, feminist adventure—the story is still about rape, only its object is (very subtly) not Helen but He.

Instead of an innocent gender swap, Fraction chooses to have a very powerful woman violently destroy all men out of her own greed and egocentrism:

“I am Zeus, who murdered her own father in violent spite, in Olympus itself, on his bloody throne from which he created all things… To make sure no child could ever be born to a woman again that might come for my head the way I came for my father’s… I destroyed all men.”

Womankind can still reproduce, however: Prometheus-turned-Promethene, rather than giving fire to man, gives women a new gender to fuck: Sebex, “who could implant the released ovum from a woman and fertilize it within its womb.”

Instead of there simply not being men, or women being able to reproduce by themselves, Fraction finds it necessary to introduce a new slave-sex gender and make men the victims of a bloodthirsty female tyrant. Women rule the galaxy, but Fraction implies that this is not of their own merit but rather Zeus’s villainy. Girl Power is overshadowed by the injustice of the men Zeus destroyed.

There are still a few men left however, including “He” (Helen). He walks on all fours, with his wife yanking on the leash around his neck. Riffing on Faustus, Fraction writes “Thousands of swiftships once launched in his name.”Image result for ody c comic

Odyssia asks He, “Was that face of yours really so beautiful?”

“Once, maybe, yes,” Ene (Menelaus) admits. “Yet across it I carved my own name so that no one could want him again.”

In both Ene’s treatment of He and Zeus’s destruction of man, Fraction highlights the politics of gender and violence that are central to Homer and Greek mythology. After all, Menelaus abusing and disfiguring Helen to show his rapey power of her would not be entirely out of character or out of place for Homer. Nor would Zeus’s actions—Greek gods, especially Zeus, are known for being petty and violent and deeply flawed. Homer is violent and weird and even upsetting, and Fraction ends up being more honest to these themes of the poet than his awkward attempt at matching Homeric syntax.

Fraction (partially and problematically) hits on what has always fascinated me about Ancient Greece and its deities: the mythology is so deeply misogynistic, and yet occasionally incredibly feminist and liberating (not to mention incredibly gay). Athena and Artemis, some (arguably sapphic) bad ass bitches, have always been role models of mine, and even Homer’s more male-focused masterpieces feature empowered women: Helen might fall short (although I’ve always liked her), but Athena, Hera, Penelope, and Circe are each certainly more deserving of an epic than Aeneas.

ODY-C isn’t a feel-good story about female empowerment, but it is a fascinating exploration of gender and power in Homer. By villainizing characters such as Zeus and Menelaus far more than Homer or Virgil ever did, Fraction acknowledges the unspoken horrors of our beloved classic literature. Still, depicting genocide of the boys is a convoluted way to criticize rape culture.

Fraction makes a valiant feminist attempt to reveal the ugly gender roles in the Odyssey, but by both feminizing the characters and making them more villainous, his result is anti-feminist: he implies that if women were in charge, they would be more possessive and violent to men than men were to women in the Odyssey.

When asked about the book’s inspiration, Fraction said, “I wanted to write a classic mythological hero for my daughter.” Seeing Odysseus as one of the original heroes, he made her Odyssia and went from there. He hoped that his “inversion of the patriarchal structure” would “show how women have been treated for 26 centuries.” However, creating an evil matriarchy didn’t exactly serve that end.

He had sweet intentions, but Fraction’s daughter is better off reading Bitch Planet.

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As we enter week 8 of the Trump multi-media reality show, 1984 parallels continue to abound. Congressman Bob Goodlatte is also taking a leading role in my political memes, with his most recent hypocrisies making him a top contender for Minster of Truth. Goodlatte held another “telephone town hall,” dodging all questions about his contradictory positions on Trump spending and a balanced budget. His support of the Obamacare replacement bill also earned two memes last week. I took the photo of his office pillow myself, but credit goes to a 50 Ways Rockbridge member who took the amazing shot of the rally outside Delegate Ben Cline’s office. And the last image is an update for my daily Dear Bob blog. My personal favorite though is the RESIST meme, so let’s start there:



















Trump promised to make America great again. But when it comes to African American representation and authorship, that Golden Age started during the Clinton presidency and has only begun to peak right now. This is my fifth and final installment in this series exploring African American superhero history.

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The presence of black superheroes continued to expand across the comics industry in the 90s. Former sidekick Shilo Norman assumed his predecessor’s identity in Miracle Mister—though in a costume that entirely obscured his racial identity, as had the Jim Rhodes Iron Man five years earlier. Former characters continued: Don McGregor wrote another Black Panther mini-series with artist Dwayne Turner in 1991, John Stewart starred in Green Lantern: Mosaic and Luke Cage in Cage in 1992. Darryl Banks penciled a new Green Lantern series beginning in 1994, and Tony Isabella renewed Black Lightning in 1995, the same year newcomer Doug Braithwaite began penciling at Marvel. New characters debuted: Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee introduced Bishop to The Uncanny X-Men in 1991, Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove’s Steel first appeared in The Adventures of Superman in 1993, and Marvel’s Night Thrasher series began in 1993.

The most influential new character, however, came from Image Comics, a creator-owned company that formed a year before Milestone. Todd McFarlane’s 1992 Spawn altered the unchallenged domination of Marvel and DC in superhero comics, with reports of the first issue selling 1.7 million copies. Where Black Panther’s skin-covering costume might have been an avoidance of race in 1966, Spawn’s equally skin-covering costume might suggest the altered significance of race as a comparatively incidental characteristic a quarter of a century later. Svitavsky, however, argues otherwise: “This concealment is yet another way of soft-pedalling black superheroes to resistant readers,” noting the costume pattern in nine black characters (2013: 159).

Less commercially successful, Ania, a consortium of Dark Zulu Lies Comics, Africa Rising, UP Comics, and Afro Centric Comic Books, released a number of short-lived titles in the early 90s (Poole), and Dawud Anyabwile and Guy A. Sims’ Brotherman Comics debuted in 1990 and ran for five years. Pioneering artists Jones and Pollard both left comics in 1995 after co-penciling Daredevil #343. Ania folded shortly after its formation, and Milestone began cancelling titles in 1995, before closing its comics branch in 1997. McDuffie moved to TV animation, writing for Teen Titans, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, and beginning in 2000 his Milestone character Static starred for four seasons on the WB’s morning cartoon Static Shock. McDuffie returned to DC for a Milestone Forever mini-series in 2008, and after 2008’s Final Crisis, the Milestone universe was merged into DC’s main continuity, with Static joining the Teen Titans, while Icon, Rocket, and their team members appeared in a Justice League of America story arc. After McDuffie’s death in 2011, Milestone Media and DC continued their partnership with a Static Shock reboot as part of the initial lineup of DC’s company-wide New 52 reboot in 2011 and with the Milestone universe entering DC’s multiverse as Earth-M in 2015.

Other superhero comics by black creators continued through the 90s. Jimmie Robinson founded his Jet Black Graphiks imprint in 1994, soon expanding into Image Comics and later Marvel. Kerry James Marshall presented Rhythm Mastr as an art installation in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art and weekly in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beginning November 1999: “Marshall’s comics propose an alternative to mainstream superhero culture by introducing protagonists taken from African archetypes and African American cultural life” and spirit powers “which once guided enslaved Africans to insurrection and freedom” (Carnegie). Jim Owsley, having changed his name to Christopher Priest, developed the new title character Xero for DC with artist ChrisCross in 1997. Xero continued the black cyborg motif of the 70s Misty Knight, the 80s Cyborg, and the 90s Deathlok, now with a black man “reconstructed of chemically-dependent bio-mechanical implants” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 21), earning Marc Singer’s praise for “its richness and complexity, free of the tokenism and erasure which have dominated the genre” (2002: 116). Though introduced and drawn as “a 6’6” blond man” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 7), Xero removes his light-skinned face and wavy hair to reveal dark skin and a black goatee near the conclusion of the first issue (19). Priest wrote all twelve issues, before beginning yet another Black Panther series in 1998. This iteration proved to be one of the most commercially successful, with Priest writing the final 62nd issue in 2003.

Aware of the dearth of black superheroes in the first several decades of the genre, 21st-century comics have literally rewritten superhero history. The 2004 miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black retconned a black Captain America into a super-soldier variation of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, followed by the character’s grandson joining Young Avengers in 2005. In 2008, Blue Marvel was retconned as a 1962 superhero forced to retire when the public learned he was black. For the revisionist Young Allies Comics in 2009, Whitewash Jones was renamed Washington Carver Jones, with an explanation that the World War II comics produced by the Propaganda Office “exaggerated the story” and that the “art was all caricature,” with Jones made to “look like something out of a minstrel show!” (Stern & Rivera 2009), Cyborg also received a miniseries in 2008 and was retconned as a founding member of the rebooted Justice League in 2011, and starred in an on-going Cyborg title in 2015.

Black representation continued and in some cases has increased in other 21st-century titles. DC recreated its 1930s Crimson Avenger as a black woman in 2000. Alex Simmons and Dwayne Turner premiered Orpheus in DC’s Batman: Orpheus Rising in 2001. Marvel’s 2002 The Ultimates introduced an alternate Earth Nick Fury based on Samuel L. Jackson, who would play the film version of the character beginning in 2008. In 2003, the daughters of Black Lightning became the duo Thunder and Lightning, and a black teenager assumed the title-role of DC’s Firestorm in 2004. Reginald Hudlin wrote a new Black Panther series beginning in 2005, giving the title to the sister of the original character in 2009. Luke Cage joined as a permanent member of The New Avenger in 2005, before becoming team leader in 2010 and finally leaving the team after 95 issues in 2012. Coordinating with the animated TV series Young Justice, DC introduced a new black Aqualad in 2010 and added an African Batman Incorporated character David Zavimbe in 2011, giving him his own Batwing series the same year, before passing the Batwing identity to African American veteran Luke Fox in 2013. Beginning in 2011 Ultimate Spider-Man featured Miles Morales, a mixed black and Hispanic teen, as title character. Marvel’s Storm was featured in 2005 and 2014 miniseries, and in 2014 Marvel introduced its fifth Deathlok series, with a new black character in the title role. Continuing the John Stewart Green Lantern and Jim Rhodes Iron Man tradition, the final December 2014 issue of Captain America introduced the Falcon as the new Captain America, launching All-New Captain America the following month, followed by the ongoing series Sam Wilson: Captain America in 2015. As a result, four of the seven members of the 2016 All-New All-Different Avengers are characters of color: Sam Wilson Captain America, Miles Morales Spider-Man, Sam Alexander Nova, and Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. The five-member 2016 Ultimates include one white woman, Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, and four characters of color: Monica Rambeau, Black Panther, Blue Marvel, and Miss America Chavez. 2015 also saw three new black lead characters: Lunella Lafayette of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur; the first black Robin, Duke Thomas in a team of Robins in We Are Robin; and a new black female Iron Man, Riri Williams Ironheart, who assumed the title role with Invincible Iron Man #1 (January 2017).

Fifty years after Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther premiered in Fantastic Four and coinciding with the introduction of the film version of the character, renowned journalist Ta-Nahesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther debuted in spring 2016, selling roughly 300,000 copies, one of the year’s best-selling superhero comics—a reversal of Roy Thomas’s early 70s lament that it is hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character is black. The change in representation, writes Carolyn Cocca, reflects “how much the fan base has changed just over the last several years,” one that includes readers who, “due to changing population demographics and gains of civil rights movements, are not only more diverse but also more vocal with their desires and their dollars”; “The superhero genre,” she concludes, “has come far in a number of ways, but has far to go” (2016: 2-3). Laura Hudson draws a similar conclusion in a 2015 Wired editorial, acknowledging that “the faces on the pages [of] popular comic books have steadily grown more diverse,” while also critiquing a “demographic imbalance” in which “the editors and creators of mainstream comics remain overwhelmingly Caucasian” (Hudson 2015). According to Tim Hanley, roughly one of every five comics employees was non-white in 2014 (Hickey 2014). As editors Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II write in their introduction to Black Comics, “comics are still only peppered with representations of the multifaceted Black experience by Black artists” (2013: 4).

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