'Yaoi Fangirls' by inukagome134
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, LGBTQ, Manga, Pop Culture

Does ‘Boys Love/Yaoi’ Manga Have A Gender And Sexuality Problem?

‘Boys Love’ manga presents gay men for the pleasure of straight women – so why does it represent both so badly?

[Contains spoilers for ‘Ten Count’ and ‘Raising a Bat’.]

In hit anime series, Ouran High School Host Club, twin brothers Kaoru and Hikari always make sure to treat their female guests at the titular club to quite a show of “brotherly love”.

For viewers popping their proverbial anime cherry, these scenes must be a bit of a culture shock. For those more familiar, it translates as both serving and gently mocking the shounen-ai (‘boys love’ or BL) genre; fulfilling its target audience’s expectations whilst cheekily representing them as easily manipulated girls with nothing better to do than fawn over bishounen (‘beautiful men’).

As a life-long otaku with a soft spot for said beautiful fictional men, I can’t say that I don’t see a little of myself in the squealing guests of the Host Club and niether do I see anything wrong with it. The level of eye-rolling that follows the success of things like Magic Mike or Fifty Shades of Grey or any other cultural product that caters unabashedly to female sexuality is getting pretty tedious.

Haruka from Free! getting out a pool

I mean, Free! doesn’t exactly owe it’s success to the big cross-section of anime and professional swimming fans does it? Source: Giphy.

At the same time, I also know that BL is a genre unfortunately beset with complicated problems in the way it represents gender and sexuality.

The fact that the majority of BL stories are created and read by women binds the genre in both positive and negative baggage. On the negative side, far too many stories that occupy this particular genre of storytelling promote unhealthy and harmfully unrealistic depictions of gay men through a female heteronormative gaze. This is especially true of ‘yaoi’ stories, a sub-genre of shounen-ai that features more sexually explicit content, and one in which gay men are even more in danger of being objectified and fetishized by this gaze.

Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata

A page from popular BL manga, Kuroneko Kareshi no Aishikata, by Ayane Ukyou.

There’s also, I’ve noticed, a perpetual conflict between BL character’s sexuality being unfairly dominant in defining their personality, yet strangely absent in their lifestyles. Even the out and proud BL characters who are doggedly obsessive in their romantic pursuit of other men hardly ever self-define – verbally or otherwise – their own sexual preference by name. More to the point, I have yet to see one of these characters to go a gay club or Pride parade. Instead, they always seem totally isolated from their own community – a community that is notoriously familial, IRL. In these tiny, pocket universes dedicated to man-on-man action, the ‘G’ word seems either be taboo or redundant.

If we go with the latter description, you could argue there’s something progressive in enjoying romance stories without ‘seeing’ gender. As Lin-Manuel Miranda poetically put it: “Love is love is love is love,” after all. But, when we’re talking about BL, we know that’s simply not the case. It’s right there in the name after all: boys love. And since heterosexual love stories are still a dime a dozen, there’s a kind of voyeur curiosity for the straight consumer attached to ones told from an LGBTQ perspective.

Regular couple, yaoi couple, yuri couple. I see no difference, love is love.

I wouldn’t ever use the word ‘regular’ to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but the right sentiment is there all the same. Source: Pinterest.

In fact, that ‘exotic’ aspect of BL’s appeal is also part of its fans’ defence of it. After all, so much of romantic fiction – particularly erotica like yaoi – operates within a realm of fantasy so great that their realism may as well be discussed alongside the The Lord of The Rings books. And as more women prefer to read erotic fiction rather than watch porn, thinking of BL in this context grants it more leeway to cater to women’s depoliticised fantasies of gay men rather than how they really are. It’s not a full exoneration as such, more of ‘reasonable doubt’ defence.

BL certainly contains some questionable depictions of gay men, but perhaps equally troubling is its representation – or often lack there of – women. This is also particularly strange for a genre that is so female-focussed from inception to readership. The literary world is still dominated by men and the comic book industry is no exception. For this reason alone, the space carved out by women in the Japanese market for shojo and shounen-ai decades ago was downright pioneering. Just read this extract from Mark MacWilliams’, Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, for further proof:

“The production of Japanese comics has always revolved around men – male artists, editors, and publishers – and they reacted to yaoi comics with revulsion, which caused a sensation. The mass media criticised such stories as decadent and degenerate, using hyperbole to characterise these kinds of stories as a “violation” of manga. However, this issue of homosexuality also stimulated the industry creatively. Today, one can find many successful female artists and editors in Japan. The continuing popularity of yaoi comics also suggested that Japanese women are not shocked by gay themes.”

Knowing this revolutionary history of the genre, it seems surprisingly counter-intuitive that so many BL stories are so misogynistic in their tone and representation of women. Female creators too often either vastly underrepresent their own gender, or cast them as antagonistic forces standing in the way of ‘true’ male love. The latter of which I found to be a particularly troubling aspect while reading Takari Rihito’s Ten Count manga – one of the highest selling BL manga in Japan since 2014.

Ten Count covers

Cover art from volumes 1& 2 of Ten Count by Takari Rihito.

Ten Count could best be described as the yaoi market’s version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which would make shy and inexperienced protagonist ‘Shirotani Tadaomi’ [pictured right, above] its ‘Anastasia Steele’. Shirotani has been plagued by misophobia (a psychological fear of being contaminated by dirt) for almost his entire life, which also inadvertently suppressed the truth of his own sexuality. Suppressed that is, until he meets a tall, dark and handsome doctor named Kurose [pictured left, above], who just happens to specialise in treating psychosomatic illnesses, and vows to cure Shirotani.

So far so yaoi, until it is revealed through flashback that the root of all Shirotani’s ails was… guess what? A woman! A woman by the name of Ueda, who – when Shirotani was a little boy – drove a wedge between him and his father (her school professor) by pursuing a sexual relationship with him. On one particularly traumatising occasion, Ueda tricks Shirotani into hiding in a closet while she has sex with his father. On the cusp of puberty, Shirotani feels confusingly aroused and tries to ‘relieve’ himself, which is the exact moment that Ueda pretends to discover him:

Shamed by Ueda, Shirotani desperately washes himself over and over again, unable to feel properly ‘clean’ after what happened. Subliminally, he starts to conflate arousal with dirtiness, becoming obsessively paranoid of any foreign contact from the outside world – especially human.

Equally troubling later on is Kurose’s treatment of Ueda in the present day, when – upon a chance encounter with him and Shirotani – Ueda antagonises Shirotani into storming out of the trio’s lunch date, and then tries to fruitlessly hit on Kurose. Kurose’s reaction to this unwanted attention is, um, well see for yourself:

Pages from 'Ten Count'

Ouch.

Obviously Ueda is not a supposed to be a warm, sympathetic character in the slightest, and every melodrama needs its moustache-twirling villain… but is the slut-shaming really necessary? And why does the only female character in the entire story have to be characterised as a man-eating sociopath? Considering that gay and female culture often go together like PB and J, this hostile ‘battle of the sexes’ trope is yet another negative aspect of the genre that is weirdly inconsistent with reality.

Look, the truth is: I criticise because I care. Ten Count is a deliciously guilty pleasure to read, which is why this blemish on its otherwise stellar quality riled me so much. As a feminist and a fangirl, I want the media I love to do a better job at serving its fans, which is why I’m going to end on a more positive note.

Raising A Bat (Bagjwi Sayug) is a Korean webcomic (or ‘manhwa’) that puts a supernatural twist on the problematic ‘seme‘/’uke‘ (dominant/submissive) relationship dynamic that most BL falls into. ‘Park Min Gyeom’ [pictured left, below] suffers from a rare blood disease called hemochromatosis, meaning his blood absorbs too much iron forcing him to regularly donate to keep healthy. This condition makes him the perfect source of food for his classmate, ‘Kim Chun Sam’ [pictured right, below] – a half-vampire. I guess you could call it the BL answer to Twilight. Interestingly, mangaka (creator) “Jade” refuses to let their dynamic fall into the standard ‘prey/predator’ one that you’d expect. Human Min Gyeom is in fact the one who calls the shots, deciding when and where vampire Chun Sam is allowed to feed off him, while Chun Sam – the burlier of the pair – falls into a more submissive role, visually evidenced by the cover art:

Cover art from 'Raising a Bat'

Cover art for Raising a Bat by “Jade”.

Abused and abandoned by his father, Min Gyeom has had to grow up far too quickly with his younger half-sister being his only source of genuine affection. He’s guarded, plucky and full of self-loathing. Chun Sam, on the other hand, was born to a rich and loving vampire/human family and babied by a watchful mother (who also served as his food source [insert Freudian analysis here]). He’s sensitive, naïve and painfully shy. Things get even more complicated when the two start to develop romantic feelings for each other, with their emotional baggage blocking them from being able to healthily express this.

Not only does Raising a Bat manage to subvert the troubling seme/uke trope in an unexpected way, it features a cast of positively represented women in supporting roles, and even a self-defining bisexual male character (Jung Won Hyung) whom Min Gyeom pursues a dysfunctional relationship with. Even better, when Jung Won betrays Min Gyeom’s trust by ‘forgetting’ to tell him he has a girlfriend on the side, “Jade” is clear in placing the blame squarely on Jung Won rather than make an enemy out of his girlfriend.

Page from 'Raising a Bat'

Uh-oh…

The drama all comes to a head when – homeless, rejected and hopelessly alone – Min Gyeom considers ending his life. Self-harm and suicide are also reoccurring themes in BL stories, often in the damaging context of glamourising abusive relationships. Yet, the strong writing and starkly minimalistic artwork of Raising a Bat make this moment one of real grit rather than cheap shock value. Especially when you take into account that suicide attempts are 4-6 times higher in LGBTQ youth than they are in straight youth, and 8 times higher in LGBTQ youth who come from “rejecting” families – as Min Gyeom does.

Min Gyeom's descent into depression is captured beautifully in his expressions.

“Jade” captures Min Gyeom’s descent into depression beautifully through his subtle changes of expression.

BL can be smutty, endearing, funny, poignant, trashy and fun. What it shouldn’t be is offensive, harmful or insulting to its subject matter or audience. Raising a Bat goes some way in raising the bar on what we should expect from BL, but there’s still a lot more ground to cover yet.


Header image by inukagome134.
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Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes

The Lois Lane ‘Batman V Superman’ Doesn’t Think You Can Handle

[WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE]

First published on the Fanny Pack blog, April 6th 2016.


Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may have been a disappointment to many, but I think most comic book fans – and feminists – can agree that Gal Gadot’s strong performance as Wonder Woman was a much-needed bright spot. It’s a shame, then, that the film’s other significant female character – intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) – doesn’t get the same treatment. Though she plays a fairly significant part in advancing the story, and enjoys some (weird) bath-time fun with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), that’s pretty much all she’s there for – little more than a plot device, a shoulder to cry on, and even worse, a constant distraction to Earth’s greatest hero.

This may seem like a trivial complaint but as someone who fell in love with comic books before feminism, Lois Lane – along with Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Storm – was instrumental in shaping my understanding of what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world. And in a world filled with Gods, magic, time-travel and President Luthor, you’ve got to be one heck of a dame.

Here’s why The Daily Planet’s ace reporter is far more than just Superman’s victimised girlfriend.

A DAMSEL (NOT) IN DISTRESS

Disney's Hercules, Meg:

 The ‘woman in peril’ theme is one that has unfortunately persisted throughout literature and pop culture, from ancient Greek maidens like Andromeda and her hero Perseus, right the way through to Princess Zelda and her hero Link in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda. It’s no surprise then that the Superhero genre – the modern-day equivalent to Perseus – has also been oversaturated by the damsel/hero dynamic.

Superman is the world’s first Superhero and Lois Lane his eternal damsel in distress. No matter how many Pulitzers she wins or oranges she juices at her Daily Planet desk in her personal war on cigarettes, that core underpinning will never change. But throughout her 75-year history, her determination to fight this definition has never waned.

'Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane' #85

‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #85

From her solo comic title, ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ (1954-1974) to her top billing in TV’s ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ (1993-97), and recent YA novel series ‘Fallout‘ by Gwenda Bond, Lois has proven that she is not only a superior journalist to Clark Kent and Superman’s equal partner, but can carry a story on her own. More often than not, when Lois finds herself in need of rescue from the Big Man in Blue, it’s from a sticky situation of her own making. Rather than wait around to be scooped up by a dragon like a hapless medieval maiden, Lois seeks out trouble in the name of journalism.

Lois Lane, Girl Reporter Newspaper Strip

Lois also starred in her own newspaper strip, ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter’, 1943-44.

Even better is when – thanks to a mix of her “military brat” upbringing and some Kryptonian martial arts – sometimes she gets to even save herself.

‘COS FEMALES ARE STRONG AS HELL

30 Rock. Jack to Liz:

Ever since William Moulton Marston blessed us our first feminist superwoman, Wonder Woman, the Superhero genre has been filled with gutsy, gladiatorial women. But whilst these goddesses represent a masculinised ideal of brute force, Lois Lane represents a more achievable kind of strength for us mere mortals. Tenacity, self-reliance, and quick wits – these are the weapons of choice for the archetypal career woman bent on “having it all”.

Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane in 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.'

Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane in ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.’

But Lois Lane’s fierceness didn’t just grow from the necessity to reflect the changing role of women in society; Shuster and Siegel embedded it within her character from the very start. Her personality was borrowed from fast-talking fictional reporter (and owner of The Most 1930s Name Ever) ‘Torchy Blane’ who starred in a series of Warner Bros. films in the 1930s. Her tagline was ‘The Lady Bloodhound with a Nose For News!’ and she was one of the few positive examples of career-driven women on American cinema screens at the time that rivalled – or bested – her male equivalents.

Glenda Farrell as ‘Torchy Blane.’

Also woven into Lois’ DNA was real-life pioneering journalist and inventor Nellie Bly. Not only did Bly famously travel the world in a record-breaking 72 days, but also she feigned insanity in order to write an exposé on life inside a mental institution – redefining investigative journalism and making the rest of us feel desperately lazy.

From Meg in Disney’s Hercules to Spider-Man’s Mary-Jane Watson, every “feisty” damsel worth her salt owes a debt of gratitude to Lois.

LOIS ISN’T HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO

Lois Lane breaks up with Superman

‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane’ #121

Saying that Lois and Clark are one of your favourite couples in fiction is kind tantamount to saying the same about Romeo and Juliet. In other words, woefully mainstream. But as much as I really do believe they deserve a place amongst literature’s greatest love stories, Lois has proven many times that she can function perfectly well without her fated other half, as the panel above illustrates.

This was exemplified on-screen recently in the much-maligned Superman Returns (2006). Picking up after Superman II (1980), the film starts with Superman (Brandon Routh) returning to Earth after a 5-year absence to find that Lois (Kate Bosworth) has not only moved on to someone else, but also raised a son with him.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in 'Superman Returns'.

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in ‘Superman Returns’.

Inevitably as the story progresses, Lois finds that her feelings for the Man of Steel are not as buried as she’d thought, and I’m sure the abandoned sequel planned for 2009 would have seen my favourite reporting duo back together. Nonetheless, I was still impressed that rather than pull a ‘Bella Swan’ and throw herself off of a cliff in a fit of angsty despair, Lois Lane wipes away her tears, wins her damn Pulitzer, finds another great guy, raises a child, and foils Lex Luthor’s dastardly plans.

Because not even Earth’s strongest hero can break her that easily.

 

KEEP LOIS OUT OF THE REFRIGERATOR

Lois Lane's death in Superman Annual #2

‘Superman Annual’ #2

Despite her development over the years into a competent and important player in the DC Universe’s canon of heroines, too many landmark stand-alone stories in Superman’s history hinge not on the strength of Lois Lane, but on her death. Kingdom Come, Superman: Kal, Flashpoint, and Injustice: Gods Among Us all sacrifice Lois (in some pretty fucked up ways) simply to motivate Superman to lose his shit. And judging from the teasers nestled in Dawn of Justice, we may be in danger of seeing one of these stories on screen soon.

This is a variant of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope known as ‘Women In Refrigerators’, coined by comics writer Gail Simone to “describe the trend of female comic book characters who are routinely brutalised or killed-off as a plot device designed to move the male character’s story arc forward.” (The term originates from Green Lantern #54, in which Green Lantern discovers his murdered girlfriend’s body in his fridge.)

Green Lantern discovers his girlfriend's murdered body in his fridge

‘Green Lantern’ #54

Look, I get it. Superman only has two weaknesses: Kryptonite and Lois Lane. (Well, three weaknesses if you include his susceptibility to magic.) Same goes for practically every other superhero trying to balance saving the planet with getting laid. It’s a character-building shortcut that’s become inherent to the genre. But the problem with this is that while the male character (and they are nearly always male by default) benefits from this dynamic by having his big, brooding ego balanced with a touch of human emotion, the female character gains nothing other than baring the weight of the inevitable choice he will have to make between her life and the lives of others. What does it tell you about the value of a female character if she adds more to the narrative in death than in life? Plus, this constant stream of stories that use violence against women as a plot device harmfully perpetuates the real-world stereotype of women as helpless victims and men as their patriarchal saviours.

Any writer that reduces Lois Lane down to little more than human Kryptonite thoroughly misrepresents her rich 75-year history as an important pop cultural icon to women. I can only wait and hope that Snyder’s future Justice League movies treat her a little better than just a sacrificial lamb with a reporter’s badge. In the immortal words of Kate Beaton (of ‘Hark, a Vagrant‘ fame): “If Lois isn’t super rad all the time, then I don’t even want to hear about it.”

'Lois Lane, Reporter' by Kate Beaton, 'Hark, a Vagrant'.

‘Lois Lane, Reporter’ by Kate Beaton, ‘Hark, a Vagrant’.


IMAGE CREDITS:

Featured Image: Screenshot from ‘Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘, Geek 101 Podcast.

  1. Screenshot of Megara from Disney’s Hercules, Trembling Trimble.
  2. Cover of ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane‘ #85, Superman Wiki.
  3. Newspaper strip, ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter‘, Strippers Guide.
  4. Clip of Lois Lane fighting from Smallville, season 6, episode 17 ‘Combat’, You Tube.
  5. Screenshots of Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Entertainment Weekly.
  6. Trailer screenshot of Glenda Farrell as Torchy Blane in ‘Smart Blonde‘, Wikipedia.
  7. Panel from ‘Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane‘ #121, Women Write About Comics.
  8. Screenshot of Lois Lane and Clark Kent from ‘Superman Returns‘, The Skinny Stiletto.
  9. Panel from ‘Superman Annual’ #2, Comic Vine.
  10. Panel from ‘Green Lantern’ #54, The Artifice.
  11. ‘Lois Lane, Reporter’ comic strips by Kate Beaton, Hark, a Vagrant.
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30 Day Anime Challenge Cosmic Anvil
Anime, Comics, Manga, Pop Culture

30 Day Anime Challenge: Day 0 (Introduction)

To promote our Kickstarter campaign to get the first volume of our comic book series printed, me and the creative team at Cosmic Anvil will be taking part in the 30 Day Anime Challenge over at the Cosmic Anvil Blog. Scroll down for the Day 0 Introduction post, and please also be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign too – every pledge (no matter how small) will help us massively!

The Cosmic Anvil Blog

Over the next month starting from today, the Cosmic Anvil team are going to be undertaking their greatest challenge yet: a 30 Day Anime Challenge running alongside our Kickstarter campaign, which is aims to raise enough money to get the very first collected volume of Age of Revolution printed. This is a little different to our normal review posts, but don’t worry – we will also try to keep our regular content such as ‘N00b Reviews‘ going as well.

Here’s the list of challenge topics that we – Jess, Huw, and Hannah – will be posting about over the next 30 days:

Day 1: Very First Anime You Watched
Day 2: Favourite Anime You’ve Watched So Far
Day 3: Favourite Male Anime Character Ever 
Day 4: Favourite Female Anime Character Ever 
Day 5: Anime You’re Ashamed You Enjoyed 
Day 6: Anime You Want to See But Haven’t…

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Wonder Woman
Comics, Feminist/Gender Theory, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

A Female Character’s Waistline Should be as Realistic as Her Job Description

Originally published on the Fanny Pack Blog.


There’s no denying that body image is a prickly issue within Feminism and our cultural landscape in general. As women, we live in a confusing world in which certain cosmetic companies *cough Dove cough* tell us to love our imperfections whilst simultaneously selling us products to fix imperfections we never realised we had (dry underarms, anybody?); in which we are apparently dicing with death when we order diet pills from the Internet; and in which our most shamed body parts one month could become our most fantasised about the next, depending on which female celebrity ranks highest on Google.

Dove Advert

Dove ‘Beautiful Underarms’ Campaign

It is no surprise then that our precious imaginary worlds, both on page and on screen also suffer from the same real-world problems. A recent trend happening online that has caught my attention has been identifying and even ‘fixing’ the unrealistic proportions of our favourite super heroines and Disney princesses. From hair, to historical accuracy, to waistlines – if there’s something to be changed, there’s someone with a Photoshop brush poised to change it.

Disney princesses with realistic waistlines

Disney Princesses with ‘Realistic’ Waistlines

The reason is certainly well-intentioned. These fictional characters – however much we kid ourselves – are intended for the consumption of younger audiences, and as such, impractical standards of beauty can have a negative impact on their perception of it and their sensitive self-confidence. But, does that mean that every ridiculously proportioned female character rendered in ink or animation is a problem waiting to be fixed? I would argue no, or at least, not in certain circumstances.

This thought struck me after I came across this particular image of Wonder Woman from Bulimia.com, whose creative team came up with the idea of giving superheroes ‘realistic waistlines’ after seeing people do the same for Disney princesses.

Wonder Woman Parody Bulimia

Wonder Woman Parody from Bulimia.com

The incentive was completely worthy: highlighting to young people that these fictional characters sport similarly fictional body shapes. Whilst it’s pleasing to see that adding a few extra pounds has certainly not lessened these super heroines’ appeal in the slightest, I did take issue with this treatment being performed on Wonder Woman specifically, and let me explain why.

I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s glued to the exploits of small-screen action heroines like Buffy and Xena as they high-kicked and shrieked their way through their improbable lives. They may have worn short skirts and metallic bras, but they were, and still are, hugely empowering to me, and their athletic physiques were a big part of that.

Xena Warrior Princess

“‘Sup, Bro?”

As the grand matriarch of all our pop cultural warrior women like Buffy and Xena, Wonder Woman still looms large today as the physical embodiment of female strength; the kind of strength that enables her to go toe-to-toe fearlessly with her muscular male equivalents. She is a warrior, a Goddess, and a champion of women’s rights. She’s the comic book answer to Rosie the Riveter.

The crux of what I’m saying is thisA female character’s waistline has to be as realistic as her job description.

If she was raised on an all-female island of warrior women, then she should have a warrior’s body. However, if she was raised in a fairy tale castle where her only physical activity was to sweep the floor and cook dinner for an ungrateful and demanding surrogate family then there is no logical necessity for her to sport a 24” waist and tiny slipper-sized feet. The same goes for nearly every princess in the Disney school of character design, in which being impossibly slim is as requisite as singing to birds and having at least one dead parent.

Not only can excessively small waistlines be a problem, but excessively sexualised ones too. And whilst exaggerated idealisation can be acceptable for certain characters as I’ve discussed, exaggerated sexualisation is often totally unnecessary and voyeuristic. This usually comes through not in the way that certain female characters are built, but how they are clothed and posed, and one that has attracted a lot of scrutiny recently is Starfire from DC’s Teen Titans.

Starfire Bikini

Starfire, from Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, 2011

Like Wonder Woman, Starfire is a warrior princess from a faraway fantastical place and as such she is pretty darn ripped. Her idealised toned body poses no problem to me, and her hyper-positive personality makes Starfire one of my favourite members of the Titans. However, her wrestling-inspired barely-there costume and the leering angles artists often choose to draw her at distract from her ungendered qualities as a powerful crime-fighter to make you constantly aware that she is a woman with very womanly parts.

There is of course nothing wrong with female characters utilising their feminine wiles. Poison Ivy and Catwoman, for example, use the femme fatale shtick as part of their villainous arsenal, and Starfire is in fact a very playful and flirtatious character – she even worked as a model at one point in the 80s. But I refuse to believe that even such a body-confident beauty like Starfire would decide that an outfit that risked her boobs popping out every time she threw a punch.

The Bulimia.com parody artwork was of course not intended to criticise comic book art as a whole, but it did unintentionally hit upon the solution to the problem of unrealistic proportions in fictional characters: Diversity. As I said earlier, if we want our heroines to look more positively ‘realistic’ then the parameters of their realism need to be defined by their individual lifestyles just as we real women are defined by ours. If a female character is a brawler that spends every night kickboxing street thugs, give her a six-pack and killer thighs. But if she’s just rocked up as a new student at the Xavier institute with the power of telekinesis then she could be either over, under, or of an average body weight and it wouldn’t make any difference to her abilities or our ability to connect with her as a character.

Thankfully this positive change towards body diversity is already alive and well in pop culture as exemplified by excellent comics such as Rat Queens and excellent cartoons such as Steven Universe, which both feature refreshingly female-orientated super-powered teams of diversely powered and sized heroines to love and relate to.

Rat Queen

Rat Queens

Steven Universe

Steven Universe

In terms of costume, it’s also pleasing to see the small but significant changes made to powerhouse heroines recently like Wonder Woman, Ms. Marvel, and (yay!) Starfire, whose idealised but practical bodies are finally matched by practical clothing.

Wonder Woman, Starfire, and Ms Marvel Costume Re Design

(From left to right, clockwise) Wonder Woman (2015), Starfire (2015), and Kamala Khan, aka the new Ms. Marvel (2014)

We still need our Goddesses, warriors, and sirens, but there’s more than enough room for our chunky, scrawny, or just plain averagely shaped heroines to inspire us as well.

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Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes

Make Your Ultimate Disney-owned Property Team in #TheBigFour Game!

This started as a little time-waster game at the comic book company I work for (Cosmic Anvil – producers of the Age of Revolution comic book series) but we found it so much fun I decided to spread it out into the wider world!

To form your team, all you have to do is choose ONE character from each of these Disney-owned properties:

1. Disney

2. Pixar

3. Marvel

4. Star Wars

OR you can upgrade your Big Four to a Big Five by adding a Kingdom Hearts character, which is Disney-affliated, not owned, with Sqaure Enix.

Here are my picks:

1. Elsa (Frozen) frozen-elsa-wallpaper-1-desktop-what-happened-when-these-kids-mistook-daenerys-for-elsa-from-frozen

2. Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story) 94 3. Rogue (X-Men) Rogue-rogue-9885636-1280-960 4. Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) Qui-Gon-Jinn_d89416e8

My optional fifth pick bends the rules a little, but I couldn’t resist!

5. Vincent Valentine (Final Fantasy VII) Vincent_Valentine

WARNING: This game could consume the rest of your day. Maybe even week.

Let me know what your picks are!

Plus, send your ultimate team to me by tweeting #TheBigFour to @AoRcomics or posting it to the Age of Revolution Facebook page, and I will draw the best ones over the next couple of weeks and send them to their creators. Get thinking, Mouseketeers and True Believers!

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Comics, Pop Culture, Superheroes, Visual Cultural Theory

Superman Returns & Man of Steel: Man vs. Myth

alex-ross-s

“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Regions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth.”

–       Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

A few years ago I got a book for my birthday from my parents about the life and work of the comic artist Alex Ross. It was called Mythology. They are both great art fans, so I presume they picked it because of the fine art quality of his illustrations, or perhaps because it had been favourably reviewed in whichever left-leaning broadsheet they were reading at the time. Whatever the reason, I remain eternally grateful that they made that probably random purchase as that biography came to fundamentally change not only my view on what comic art could or should be, but what the entire concept of superheroes means to pop culture and our society in general.

Through the eyes of a child, these characters and stories feel very much ‘of the moment.’ Incidental and individual. I used to travel back and fourth from my local library borrowing as many comics as I could. It didn’t matter who the character was, who the writer or artist was, which year it was from, which publisher it was, or even if they were age-appropriate or gender-targeted. It was just the love and curiosity of discovering a new world for the first time, but a world that I felt was somehow aimed at me alone. Mythology changed everything. Suddenly, the bold and zappy characters I loved from the DC, Marvel and Dark Horse universes had a weight behind them: a sense of history, a sense of evolution, a sense of myth. Like the fables and fairy tales of old, I discovered that these characters had been passed down through generations of storytellers charged with the task of keeping their legends alive and preserving their histories.

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 “A glorious place, a glorious age, I tell you! A very Neon Renaissance – And the myths that actually touched you at the time – not Hercules, Orpheus, Ulysses and Aeneas – but Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman.”

–       Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Although Ross has worked for nearly every publisher out there, Mythology focuses on his work for DC, whose characters sparked his initial love for the industry as a kid (same for me, too.) Whilst Marvel comics’ universe can be broadly characterised by modern, witty, street-wise and usually ‘accidental’ heroes, DC’s universe – as the only publisher with claim to the originals – is populated by characters of inherent myth, purpose, and God-like stature.

Superman, more than any other character in the DC or any other comic book universe, embodies these qualities. He is our modern-day Hercules. He is biblical, mythological, and iconic. He is the original, the most enduring, and without parallel. No surprise then that he is also Ross’ favourite. 

“I very much wanted to create the new standard by which Superman should be drawn […] Of course, that didn’t happen […] Superman should never reflect any fashionable trend or other affection of a specific era – hairstyle, speech patterns, etc. He is beyond that. He is out of time.”

–       Alex Ross, Mythology

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 With all this in mind, let’s turn to his cinematic appearances. I must confess first of all that I am a huge Christopher Reeves fan, and he will forever cast a very long and caped shadow over any actor having to follow in his red-booted footsteps. This is both impressive and unfortunate for subsequent films. Even if you are not fond of the original Superman films in the 1970s – 1980s that he starred in, I don’t think you can deny how brilliantly Reeves portrayed not only Supes, but also his alter ego Clark Kent. Bumbling, awkward, but deeply well meaning and sweet, Reeves pitched his performance as the Daily Planet reporter with superb comic timing. It also made his transformation into the man of steel that much more dramatic. Right down to the little greased curl of hair on his forehead and that glint in his blue eyes, he was completely believable. The first two of that series of films certainly capture the spirit of the comics faithfully whilst expanding their appeal out to the wider less comic-literate audience. They set the benchmark right from the start to which all superhero movies should strive to reach.

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Now let’s skip forward to 2006 and the release of Superman Returns. I have to say I felt negatively about this film before it had even been released. It took director Bryan Singer away from the X-Men movie franchise that I loved so much, and the result was an unforgivable mess of a finale to an otherwise great trilogy. However, when finally seeing the film, I understood why he had chosen to jump ship. Returns is bright, bold, and…apparently controversial. I have had countless arguments with friends and seen many, many angry reviews about it, and honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever understand why. I really love that film, and while everyone is of course welcome to hold his or her own opinion, I almost get a little tired of continually having to defend it. The hatred for it seems to be grounded in several things: one is that it pays homage to the original film series too much; another is the casting of Brandon Routh as Supes, but perhaps the biggest complaint is the love-triangle between Supes, Lois Lane, and Lois Lane’s husband Richard, as well as with their son. And by ‘their,’ I very much mean all three characters, as the film would have us ponder over.

As a fan of the original series (well, the first two at least…) I wasn’t bothered by the unmistakable nods that Singer gave to them. After all, there is a significant gap between 2006 and 1987 when Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was released (the less said about that one, the better) so I don’t think it was unreasonable to remind the audience of not only the history of the character, but also of his history as a pop cultural icon. In our postmodern landscape, self-referential stories are as much about depicting the context of a myth as they are about its content. As for the casting, I will begrudgingly agree that Routh is unfortunately too youthful-looking for the timeline that the film sets itself in. This is a film that is a sequel, not a reboot, as the premise is that Superman has returned to Earth after he left to search for rumoured remains of Krypton at the end of Quest for Peace. Therefore, this is the same Superman from the Reeves movie-verse. It is also true that Routh is eerily similar looking to Reeves…I mean, like, spookily similar. However, the themes of returning, of time passing, of change, and of maturity, calls for a slightly more weathered and older-looking Supes, which Routh’s pretty-boy face just doesn’t possess. That being said, this is merely a cosmetic weakness. I genuinely thought his performance as Supes was believable and empathetic whilst still retaining that inherent weight of otherworldly strength, wisdom, and conviction that we associate with the character. In fact, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (ugh), the rest of the cast is also stellar – especially Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comical sidekick with her sneering red lips and yappy fluffy puppies.

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That leaves us with the final controversial element: the plot. How can there be a Superman movie where Lois is married to another guy? How can Superman have a son? Again, I find myself referring back to Mythology:

“Writer Jerry Siegal and artist Joe Shuster’s creation was nothing less than the Golem of their time – an all powerful mythic being brought into our realm to solve our injustices, to defend the defenceless. In this sense, Ross takes the next logical step by rendering him in what appears to be actual flesh and blood […] The effect was like finally meeting someone you’d only ever heard about.”

–       Chip Kidd, Mythology

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In this quote, and in the plot of Returns, the interesting tension between myth and man is revealed, as well as the overarching rule in storytelling that a myth must always evolve or be re-examined to survive. How do we connect with a man who is essentially a God? By giving him human frailties. In flesh and blood Kal-El is an enhanced Kryptonian warrior, but in spirit and emotion, Clark Kent is a sensitive and loving human. He is an alien immigrant living the life of an American man, and as such, it makes sense that his cultural heritage and destiny conflict with his sense of adopted human purpose. His militaristic call of duty forces him to abandon his human life with Lois, and in the intervening years, like a war widow, she is forced to move on and continue with her own life – not unreasonable, really. Upon his return, Superman finds that his world is not as he left it. He has lost a companion, yet gained a son. I found this idea radical and refreshing and would have loved to see where Singer would have taken it should he have had the chance to helm a sequel. ‘The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son,’ Routh as Superman whispers to his sleeping son, echoing the words of his birth father, Jor-El. This is very much the heart of the film: the preservation and transference of legacy.

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Whilst I have been speaking of the ‘weight’ of his myth, that is not to say that the world of Superman is a particularly ‘heavy’ one. On the contrary, Metropolis is a city of gleaming urban modernity from the 1930s, and Superman – who draws power from the sun – is a being of supreme lightness in every sense of the word: Both in his charming charisma and unwavering belief that humanity is a species capable of great and good deeds, and, physically, in his soaring and effortless movement through the clouds. In Superman Returns, through Singer’s signature vibrant palette, snappy dialogue, and tentative inter-character relationships, this lightness undeniably shines through.

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This leads me on to the comparatively darker tones of 2013’s Man of Steel. First of all – I enjoyed this film. Unlike Returns, this film was very much a reboot of Supes’ cinematic legacy, and I was certainly very excited for it before its release, especially knowing that Christopher Nolan would be heavily involved in its production. It’s almost a given that everyone is a Christopher Nolan fan. The man is a master of the cerebral blockbuster, which sadly cannot be said for his partner on Man of Steel, Zack Snyder. Certainly though, Snyder is a great stylist, and luckily their partnership on the film seemed to work well – Snyder’s lightening-fast and heavily-saturated visuals tempered by Nolan’s Arthouse sensibilities in storytelling and mood. Again, it does well in establishing the mythic qualities of him as a superhero and counterbalancing them with the relatable qualities of him as a real man.

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I recall the trailer – a young boy racing through the cornfields of Smallville with a red cape fluttering behind him. It was so subtle and so poignant that I distinctly remember a fluttering in my stomach akin to what I felt during that after-credits scene in Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson uttered the words ‘Avengers Initiative.’ I also really loved the opening act set on Krypton – we have never been able to really spend a long time on his home planet in his cinematic outings, so this was a real treat for hardcore fans.

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The cast is also strong: Henry Cavill is powerful and convincing, yet weakened and emotional where he needs to be; Amy Adams (who I adore) makes a pretty good Lois Lane, and Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner are believable as Kal-El/Clark Kent’s fathers. Michael Shannon is perfect casting as General Zod: cold, imposing, and unforgiving, he wears that Kryptonian armour like he was born into it. (The only thing that lets him down is some occasionally clunky dialogue.) What I was surprised about in terms of the audience’s reception of this film was how uncontroversial everyone seemed to find it.

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Unlike the waves of animosity aimed towards the ‘secret son’ plot of Returns, the most controversial part of Man of Steel – the death of Zod – has not attracted any of the same kind of hatred that I expected it would. This is not the first time Superman has been forced to take a life in his character’s long history. However, it still shocked me to see it. After an epic and ridiculously destructive brawl, a quick and brutal snap of the General’s neck ended it all. Superman let out a cry of anguish and dismay at what he had done, and what he had had to endure. It haunted me for days after seeing it. Not because I am hyper squeamish or adverse to violence, but because I couldn’t work out how I felt about it. Or about Man of Steel in general. Was it totally brilliant or just had moments of brilliance? Was it the right direction for a reboot? Clearly, the decision to bring Nolan on to supervise proceedings was due to Warner Bros.’ trust in him to produce a great superhero film after the phenomenal success of his Dark Knight trilogy, and what made this trilogy so spectacular was his ability to rightly ground Gotham in gritty reality without losing the comic book larger-than-life punch of the characters. Stylistically, the Arthouse aesthetic he brought to the Batman films was something he was expected to bring the Man of Steel, and evidentially did.

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Personally, I see no problem with DC films to start being more stylistically linked as this enables the audience to connect the dots between different character’s universes better, as well as separate them from the colourful and witty Marvel style. It is almost as though the two are attempting to create differing auteur personas in their approach to on-screen adaptations, which makes sense from a marketing perspective. My only issue with this being done to Superman and Batman is specific to their characters as a duo.

I wrote a blog a while back entitled Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity in which I discussed why these two opposite sides of the same superhero coin are both inextricably linked by their polar disparity. To summarise: whereas Batman is a being of darkness and unflinching realism, Superman is a being of light and romantic fantasy. Every single subsequent superhero ever created is an ancestor of one of them. In this respect, I feel that Nolan’s darker brushstrokes didn’t fit as well into the mythology of Superman as they way that they fit with the mythology of Batman. In recent years there has been a resurgence in all things gothic and existential, which – with the dark knight as my favourite superhero – I am a great fan of. However, there is an often-misplaced expectation that if something is ‘dark’ it must be automatically more mature and intellectually weightier than something comparably ‘light.’ Compared to Superman Returns, the action in Man of Steel is more brutal, the characters seem older and more grounded, and the style is faster and bleaker. The whole thing is heavier and grittier and the level of devastation to both Metropolis and Superman’s usually sunny disposition is far greater. The idea that Superman is forced to take a life to save the innocent is supposedly a more mature theme that what has come before. This is how Snyder and Nolan think that his myth must stay relevant in the current zeitgeist.

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But, although lighter in temperament and aesthetic, the theme of eternal struggle between myth and man and the wedge that this drives between Clark and Lois, as well as the painful estrangement from his son, should not be discounted as an equally mature and logical evolution of the Superman franchise and of his character. The love triangle dynamic of that film is realistically tense and complex, with no ethically right or wrong way to solve things. Lois’ heart is split both ways, and Clark must bitterly respect this as the noble personality he is. The glimmer of hope comes from the revelation that her son is also his. Even if they cannot be together romantically, they are bonded forever by this physical result of their past relationship. This subplot, to me, is incredibly adult and oddly domestic for what we expect from most superhero films. It is the interruption of modern life in an otherwise romantic and soaring myth. The neck-snapping moment from Man of Steel is still shocking and interesting, but it is just that: a moment.

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“I often wonder, Clark: Do you know what you are? You are the original myth. The one we’ll always believe. What would we ever do without you?”

–       Batman, The Trust, Chip Kidd & Alex Ross

Myth vs. man, the fact is, one cannot live without the other – Superman cannot live without Clark Kent. The myth of the God-like saviour collides with the myth of the American dream. This was one of the great successes of Reeves’ portrayal: he understood and embodied both the polarity and unity of Kal-El’s alter egos. Alex Ross also understands this. In his unique, hyperreal painterly style, we can see every wrinkle on Superman’s forehead, every fold in his cape, and count the lashes around his eyes, and yet, the sweeping dynamism of him in flight, the proud way he holds his head up, the clenching of his wrists as he bursts through metal, and the effortless strength he uses to rescue victims from beneath fallen buildings also shines through. We believe in him as a man and we believe in the myth and fantasy he exudes. If one is overplayed at the expense of the other, something crucial is lost. This is the balance that any live-action interpretation should strive to achieve, and I look forward with baited breath to the next instalment.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

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