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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Carolyn Cocca

Superheroes Decoded

The History Channel is airing a two-part documentary Superheroes Decoded next Sunday and Monday, April 30 and May 1, at 9:00. It’s the first superhero documentary I know of since PBS produced Superhero: A Never-Ending Battle in 2013, which was basically a two-hour advertisement for the DC and Marvel film franchises. I apologized after showing it to my class and then listed the errors and misleading statements. I’m hopeful the History Channel has done significantly better.

According to their press release, superheroes “embody America’s deepest fears and greatest aspirations.” I agree—though in On the Origin of Superheroes I use slightly different adjectives: “our most nightmarish fears, our most utopian aspirations.” I have no idea what I said while on camera. Though the “interviews with dozens of experts” include me, who knows what if anything wound up in the final edit.

I started pretty low on the list, way way under George R. R. Martin—though his interview immediately preceded mine. He must have strolled past the open green room door while the make-up artist was brushing my eyelids.  She also trimmed my eyebrows, which I admit have gotten surprisingly unruly in recent years. Worse, a cyst had spontaneously blossomed on my neck a couple of days before. They assured me it wasn’t visible on camera, which I seriously doubt. It felt like it was about to start talking and contradicting me—like the evil boil in How To Get Ahead in Advertising. Another reason to tune in next Sunday.

The documentary company flew me in from Virginia and put me up overnight in Manhattan. The film set was the fifth floor of a dilapidated warehouse in Brooklyn—the kind of location where thugs tie up their kidnap victims before someone in a cape swings through one of those open windows. I suspect it will make a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the ceiling was open to the sky in places and that corner of Brooklyn is apparently under a JFK flight path. We had to stop every time the sound tech picked up too much background noise on his headphones. The rumbling elevator didn’t help either.

I spent about two hours in the interview chair, with not quite a dozen people attending literally to my every move. The make-up artist swooped in every time my forehead glistened under the spotlights. The sound tech kept reaching into my shirt to adjust the remote mic or the cord snaking down to the antennae unit clipped to my belt.  A larger mic on the end of a hand-held rod bobbed above my head. They used two cameras too. Another crew member paced back and forth, sliding one along a two-yard track. The other was stationary, and, to help interviewees speak directly into it while having a conversation with the director, they mirror-projected his face onto a see-through screen in front of the lens while he sat on a stool behind and to the side. Only then it looked like he had two faces—the second in his right armpit—so they jerry-rigged a curtain too.

The director said afterwards that I give good soundbites—though I knew they would have sounded moronically brief in any other interview situation. His voice won’t be in the film, which meant every time he asked me a question I had to include it in my answer. “How do superheroes compare to gods in ancient mythology?” “Superheroes are very different from the gods of ancient mythology.” By the end of the second hour, I was parroting gibberish. I assume they didn’t make an outtake reel, but if they did, my scholarly career could be in jeopardy.

He also complimented my lack of ums, but then said that didn’t matter since the two cameras allow them to edit them seamlessly out anyway. I’d paced for a half hour before hand, muttering calm, sensible sentences for the few questions I was expecting. I memorized what I could memorize and then just practiced speaking slowly and clearly and confidently and succinctly—and so like someone almost nothing like me. I’ll find out Sunday if it worked.

A good friend and fellow scholar interviewed right before George R. R. Martin, so we grabbed lunch before my interview. I was especially happy to see her since I’d recommended her to the documentary company when they’d asked about other “experts” to interview (and to be accurate, Carolyn’s Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation is the high mark in superhero gender analysis). Another good friend and fellow scholar, Pete Coogan, had done the same for me. I recognized the other experts on the interview list too, so another reason to have high hopes.

I apparently don’t wear make-up often enough, because my eyelid was infected the next morning. So I flew home with not one but two disturbingly visible growths. My other souvenirs were better: print-outs of the fan letters Martin wrote to Marvel Comics in the 60s and read on camera for the documentary. They were his first publications. I would excerpt a bit here, but I have no idea where I put them. June was a long long time ago.

Superheroes Decoded was originally slated for last November or December, and the two parts described to me were different from the two parts currently advertised, so I assume, to no surprise, all kinds of interesting things happened post-production. Maybe that includes a few, non-humiliating seconds of me.

 

Image result for r. r. martin

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McFarlane's Angela

“We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies,” says Image Comics artist Todd McFarlane, explaining that the portrayal of women as sex objects in comics is a natural byproduct of the genre’s generally exaggerated style. “As much as we stereotype the women, we also do it with the guys. They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype both sexes.”

McFarlane was trying to plug the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never Ending Battle (it starts October 8), but his comments, and those of Kick-Ass writer Mark Millar trivializing rape (“I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy”), pissed off plenty of fans. Garth Ennis combines the two approaches—rape and lady skin—in The Boys when his Superman stand-in Homelander compels newcomer Starlight to give him and his teammates blowjobs before taking a Sharpie to her costume and drawing in navel-deep cleavage: “New costume concept for you. They want something a bit more photogenic.”

McFarlane co-founded Image in the 90s, The Boys premiered in 2006, Kick-Ass in 2008, so that might be the problem. These Cro-Magnons are behind the times. Todd thinks he’s just obeying the testosterone-driven norms that give him no choice but to draw scantily clad, super-breasted, Barbie-legged uber-women. But if that’s true, why is the comic book population of anatomically impossible porn gals in decline?

A friend of mine, Carolyn Cocca, spent her summer staring at T&A. She studied 14,599 comic book panels, adding a checkmark to her tallies only if a particular tit or ass cheek “was just about to fall out.” She didn’t count mere cleavage or skintight curves unless they included a panel-dominating breast “larger than a woman’s head.” The results? “Female characters,” she reports, “were portrayed in more panels and less likely to be objectified in the early 2010s than they were in the mid-2000s or mid-1990s in the same titles.” Carolyn is also chair of Politics, Economics & Law at SUNY’s Old Westbury College, so her expertise in quantitative analysis is larger than Todd, Mark, and Garth’s breast-sized heads combined.

Professor Cocca’s not alone in critiquing the absurd poses male artist inflict on their female subjects. The internet is busting out with parodies of McFarland inhabitants:

Alexander Salazar asks what if male superheroes were drawn like female superheroes with some very bare-chested and shorts-bulging results.

Kelly Turnbull refashions the entire Justice League in Wonder Woman style.

Steve Niles has similar fun with the Avengers.

Multiple artists take aim at Hawkeye.

Michael Lee Lunsford dares the impossible by drawing superheroines fully clothed.

John Raptor’s “reality”-based superheroine includes “practical underwear” and “legs like tree trunks.”

Ami Angelwings’s Escher Girls documents a disturbing range of anatomical impossibilities.

The list goes on, and for good reason. Though Carolyn’s sample shows a decrease in objectification, practically all of the comics she looked at show at least some. “Had I counted each depiction of cleavage or of extraordinary shapeliness in spandex or of focus on clothed curves,” she explains, “this number would have been almost exactly the same as the number of panels depicting women.”

If you’re wondering how things got so far out of proportion, you need to travel back to the Dark Age of the late 80s. This was a primitive time, when the dictates of the Comics Code still ruled the multiverse. As far as “Costume,” it decreed “Females shall be drawn realistically without undue emphasis on any physical quality.” That’s what the Comics Authority had been saying since 1954, only with the phrase “undue emphasis on” swapping out “exaggeration of” in 1971. It wasn’t much of a reboot, which might explain why the 1989 revision stripped off so much more. Under the new heading “ATTIRE AND SEXUALITY,” the update declared: “Costumes in a comic book will be considered to be acceptable if they fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions.”

Doesn’t sound very revolutionary till you see Wonder Woman in a 1994 thong. In his defense, artist Mike Deodato Jr. said he preferred drawing monsters.

WW thong

The superheroine bikini cut deepened again in the 2000s as the Code teetered toward collapse. Marvel dropped it in 2001. Image never had it. Either way, we’re looking at plenty of T&A for Carolyn’s tally sheets during the two decade range. Arguably, this was the multiverse before the cleavage-confining Code trussed up the free market. Breast abounded in the early 50s, enough to alarm the U.S. Senate into holding hearings and the industry to impose self-censorship.

But lest you think this is a plug for big government regulation, the current superheroine fashion trend suggests the post-Code market could be growing out of its prurient adolescence all on its own. The new changes aren’t being imposed from above but grown from below. Welcome to 21st century grassroots feminism.

Though there’s still reason to show a little skin. “Reality”-based runner Camille Herron was the first female finisher in an Oklahoma marathon last year—a feat all the more impressive since she was wearing a full-body Spider-Man suit at the time. She also beat the previous Guinness Book record holder for a women’s marathon run in a superhero costume by twenty minutes. Imagine how fast she’d be in shorts.

Camille Herron

My daughter’s running role model, 23-year-old Alexi Pappas, wins races in a Spider-Man singlet. And yet she, like any professional female runner, just happens to wear the equivalent of a bikini bottom below it.

Alexi Pappas in Spider-Man singlet

Why? I have no idea. But I don’t see male runners at my daughter’s meets in anything as revealing. You can call them all beautiful, but the female-half of her high school track team races in skintight short shorts. They’re apparently regulation-sized and yet also a violation of the school’s dress code—which means her half of the team can’t practice in the uniforms they compete in.

I bought her a Flash t-shirt for her sixteenth birthday, “fitted” because she stopped wearing baggy tops in middle school. Except now wishes she hadn’t given them all to Goodwill. Forget fashion, she says, they’re perfect for running.

running girl

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