Why don't female action stars look as strong as male ones?
Body Image, Comics, Fashion, Pop Culture, Superheroes

Why Have Female Action Stars Lost Their Muscles?

First published on Fanny Pack on 6th December 2016


I have nothing against Gal Gadot. Really, I don’t. She’s a beautiful woman, a fine actress, and I had the biggest grin on my face watching her knock ten shades of shit into Doomsday in the otherwise gloomy mess that was Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

She’s got the lasso, she’s got the armour, she’s got the red, white and blue, and she’s even got that hard-to-place exotic accent that a Themysicaran warrior woman really would have, IRL. Her hair is flowing and dark and her gaze is steely. She mostly looks perfect in the role. Mostly. It’s just that… there’s something that’s been bothering me ever since the first photos of her on set came out. The muscles, or I should say, lack thereof. I mean, I know Wonder Woman is super strong. But looking at Gadot – I just don’t believe it.

Wonder Woman: Film vs Comic

As soon as you put Gal Gadot’s slim arms up against the source material’s bulging drawn ones, the muscular difference is clear straight away. Source: Warner Bros/DC Comics.

This is in no way meant as a body-shaming thing. I mean can you even body-shame a 5’10” model? Yeah, that’s right – you’ve probably seen in her that dumb TV commercial for Gucci Bamboo where she, amongst other things, plays a piano naked. (A scene that sticks in my mind because it always makes my mum crack up laughing whenever she sees it, and now me every time I see it too from the memory of her cracking up. Mum’s are the best.)

In addition to modelling, Gadot has High School basketball, two major pageant titles, and two years of military service in the Israel Defenses Force on her CV. Clearly, this ridiculously well-balanced mix of brawn and beauty is what helped her land her first most notable acting credit in the Fast and Furious series. Since being cast as DC comics’ strongest superherione, she’s now a firmly established a modern female action star in the mold of Angelina Jolie, Zoe Saldana, Mila Jokovich and Scarlett Johansson. Read: beautiful but deadly. These women are all fit, toned, flat-stomached and ready to fucking kill you as soon as kiss you, and I love each and every one of them for that. But there’s also a part of me that feels continually dissatisfied with the slighter frames these actresses sport compared to their male counterparts. It’s the part of me that sorely misses watching Linda Hamilton’s sweaty biceps bulging from the strain of doing pull-ups in Terminator 2 for the first time.

Twenty-something years later, Chris Evans performed this tangible feat of Herculean strength in Captain America: Civil War, sending a million Tumblr users into a sexually GIF-ed out frenzy.

Captain American helicopter pull

Nothing artificial in those arms. Just 100% BEEF. Source: Tumblr.

But we’ve never gotten anything remotely similar from his female co-star, Scarlett Johansson. Sure, as Black Widow she does great stunt work and she can sashay away after dropping a dude like nobodies’ business, but do you believe she’s as strong as all that clever wirework is tricking you into thinking she is? No, of course not. And yes, this is probably an unfair comparison considering the differences in fighting style and skillset between these two characters. But, if we’ve ended up with such a lithe and slinky Wonder Woman – a woman who can go toe-to-toe with Superman – how likely do you think it is that we’ll get the beefed-up version of the alien-strengthened Captain Marvel from Brie Larson we deserve in 2019? How long will it be until we get another Sarah Connor?

Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2

This is still the best scene from Iron Man 2, though. Source: cinesnark.

You could chalk it up to the biological fact that women aren’t as strong as men – 52% as strong in the upper body and 62% in the lower body, to be exact. But just because women can never look equally muscly as men, doesn’t mean they can’t get pretty damn close. You only have to turn your TV on during Olympics season to get a eyeful of lady abs, or switch over to Wimbledon in the summer to marvel at Serena Williams’ glorious man-crushing thighs. Or, just buy yourself a copy of 1996 TV action movie, Raven Hawk, to see body-building star Rachel McLish – the “female Schwarzenegger” – putting her real oiled-up muscles to real good use.

Rachel McLish in Raven Hawk

Don’t mess. Source: Amazon.

I don’t for one second believe that it’s any of the actresses’ faults either. The Ripleys, Sarah Connors and Raven Hawks of the machismo-charged late 80s and early 90s have sadly died out along with tube socks and hair blow-dried to Heaven. You only have to read a handful of interview extracts with the female action stars of today to realise that the majority of their training goes towards squeezing into some kind of catsuit rather than looking like they can comfortably take down half a dozen S.H.E.I.L.D agents in an elevator.

Mother Russia from Kick-Ass 2

What’s this?! The rare-spotted muscular female action star in 2013’s Kick-Ass 2? Unfortunately, though ‘Mother Russia’ was a breath of muscular fresh air, her appearance was played off as a source of comedy rather than strength, exemplifying how “ludicrous” we’re supposed to find it that women who look like this exist. Source: ComicVine.

Suitably, this trend may have started in the movies with Catwoman – one of the very first female characters in superhero comics. “We’d go in my trailer, powder me down, put on the suit – and then they’d put this silicone goop all over me,” Michelle Pfeiffer reminisced on Inside the Actor’s Studio about playing the cat burglar in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992. “You get vacuum packed, but it sort of starts to squeeze you.” She also said that kickboxing lessons helped, but in reference to fitting into the suit, not for looking like she could kick any Bat-butt. Similarly, when Halle Berry played the character in the ill-conceived, Razzie-showered Catwoman in 2005, Berry resorted to the infamous ‘5 Factor Fitness’ plan formulated specifically for her to look her best (Read: skinniest) in the bra and belt combo she had to wear. Fast-forward to Christopher Nolan’s applauded redemption of the character in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, and Anne Hathaway says on Regis and Kelly that Nolan’s comparatively modest version of the iconic suit was, “unforgiving… It had to be a lifestyle change to get into that suit.” Compare these accounts then to Chris Hemsworth’s preparation for playing Marvel’s resident magical hammer-wielder, who bulked up so much he couldn’t fit into his Thor costume. I don’t think Halle Berry would have been let off the hook for that.

Halle Berry as Catwoman

Lest we forget. Source: Pinterest.

Once again, we could dismiss this as a circumstantial to different characters. As a cat-inspired thief, Selina Kyle needs a slim rather than bulky frame; as a femme fatale she needs to be sultry rather than butch, and that catsuit is far too iconic to ditch completely. Thor, on the other hand, needs to look every inch the Godly pillar of strength we know from myth and pop culture. And yet, even Paul Rudd packed on muscle to play the normally trim and averagely proportioned Scott Lang in Marvel’s Ant-Man in 2015.

Paul Rudd as Ant-Man.

I mean, I won’t complain THAT hard about it. Source: Marvel.

It seems you really can’t get away with playing any male character in an action movie without bulking up, but when it comes to female characters, Hollywood seems to have taken far too many queues from the Catwoman School of Heroine Design and deviated very little. You can see it echoed everywhere from Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, to Kate Beckinsale as Seline in the Underworld series, to Carrie Ann Moss as Trinity in The Matrix Trilogy. Unlike her male counterpart whose sexiness is a by-product of his muscular appearance, a modern female action star’s muscular appearance is restricted by an expectation of sexiness. In fact, you could argue that because the films they star in are mainly marketed towards men, the actresses’ believability as sex symbols has to supersede their believability as strong women, or producers worry there might not be enough ‘eye candy’ to sell tickets. I mean, are we really supposed to buy that Zoe Saldana’s tiny arms can possibly lift a 7lb military rifle?

Columbiana

Source: YouTube.

Even the tagline for 2011’s forgettable Colombiana can’t help emphasising Saldana’s attractiveness over her strength for fear of fragile male egos feeling threatened.

Black Widow and Catwoman are supposed to be slinky catsuited heroines. I get that. But Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are heavy-hitters. There’s no excuse for not making them look as nails as Superman and Captain America.

Unlike her male counterpart whose sexiness is a by-product of his muscular appearance, a modern female action star’s muscular appearance is restricted by an expectation of sexiness.

But there’s something else outside of Hollywood’s control that might be a deciding factor here, too. A huge amount of these actresses also cash cheques from modelling on the side. Charlize Theron may shave her head for Mad Max: Fury Road, but next month she’s got to paint herself gold for a Dior ad. Scarlett Johansson can cause psychic chaos in Lucy, naked-dive off buildings in Ghost in the Shell and roundhouse-kick super villains in The Avengers films, but after shooting wraps up she has to go Marilyn Monroe-it-up for Dolce & Gabbanna or lay still like a lifeless sex doll next to some Louis Vuitton handbags.

Scarlet Johansson for Louis Vuitton Fall 2007

Pretty dead. Source: Fashion Gone Rogue.

Is Chris Evans also the face of Gucci Guilty? Sure. Does Gerard Butler growl his way through commercials for Hugo Boss’ Boss Bottled? Yep. And Ryan Reynolds? You betcha. But they don’t have to worry about sporting the same bulky physique they did for Captain America, or Deadpool, or 300 because there’s only really one way a man at peak physical fitness should look: muscular. Doesn’t matter whether he’s punching Nazis in the face or staring wistfully into a sunset to sell you eau de parfum.

Angel Dust in Deadpool

2016’s Deadpool gleefully tore up the superhero movie rulebook, including the slim female action star trend by casting muscular, MMA fighter Gina Carano as villainess ‘Angel Dust’ to take on X-Men heavy-hitter, Colossus. Source: 20th Century Fox.

This brings us full-circle back to the lovely Gal Gadot, who – if you remember – was, and still is, a model as well as action star. Do you really think that if she chewed her way through a gallon of protein pills and weight-lifted truck tires for 6 months for BvS:DoJ like Batfleck, Gucci would have still let her film that dumb naked piano scene that my mum finds so hilarious? Of course not. Because most of us don’t consider muscly women to be conventionally beautiful. Sorry – most men don’t consider muscly women to be conventionally beautiful, not outside of the funny pages, anyway.

Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

Emily Blunt’s push-up in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow invokes the spirit of Linda Hamilton… But only in spirit. Source: Tumblr.

But you know what? Wonder Woman wasn’t created as a champion for men. She was created for us – for women. She’s our champion. Not just in fiction, but in real life now too. This year, the UN (controversially) named her as ‘Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls’, and whether you agree with that choice or not, no-one can deny that Wonder Woman has been a purpose-built feminist icon for the past 75 years. The very least Hollywood and the beauty industry can do to honour her and her history is to let us have a version of her that looks like she really can kick the teeth out of our oppressors. We know she’s strong on the inside. It’d just be nice to see it on the outside too.


For more on fictional heroines and their body shapes, check out ‘A Female Character’s Waistline Should Be As Realistic As Her Job Description.’


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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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Pop Culture

6 Kids Cartoons Adventure Time Fans Should Be Watching

The Cosmic Anvil Blog

It’s a cartoon special this week! Thirsty for more adventure? More wackiness? More epicosity? This week we’re taking a break from the world of comics and manga recommendations to count down our top 6 (because 5 just wasn’t enough…) kids cartoons – other than Adventure Time – that you should really be watching right now:

Bravest Warriors Bravest Warriors

  1. Bravest Warriors

Channel: You Tube/Cartoon Hangover

Creator: Pendleton Ward

If you’re already an Adventure Time fan, then Bravest Warriors is a pretty easy sell when you realise that they share the same creative talents of Pendleton Ward. Set in the year 3085, the show revolves around Ward’s version of the Teen Titans as they travel around weird and wonderful parts of the universe having weird and wonderful adventures. Although it is aimed at a more mature audience than Adventure Time – with references to beer and a cheeky elf named, um, ‘Wankershim’ –…

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Comics, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Disability Visibility in Comics & Manga

 

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Roughly a year ago now I started reading a manga called Gangsta online and became pretty much hooked from the first few pages. I lapped up every chapter that was available, and every subsequent chapter that was painfully slowly uploaded by the scanlators (I would explain what a ‘scanlator’ is, but the clue really is in the title.) A year later (the present) the manga has FINALLY had its first volume released in English and I didn’t hesitate to order it, despite having already read the first 20 or so chapters, and I can’t wait to re-read it again in print.

What is it about this manga that grabbed me so much? Honestly, I can’t put my finger on one single thing. Gangsta has just got that magic formula of great characters, plot, artwork, and writing that sing off of the page for me. Overall it tries very hard to keep away from the usual trappings of its genre, but there is one element that I find particularly unique: it has the first deaf character I’ve ever encountered in manga.

Disability, whilst still hugely underrepresented, is by way no way unheard of in comics and manga. The most obvious example is Daredevil – the blind lawyer by day and the blind superhero by night. His is the classic tale of turning what most would view as a disadvantage into an advantage – his lack of sight is compensated (or overcompensated, perhaps) by superhuman hearing. And he can also kick the shit out of you. Another is of course Oracle. Oracle, aka the original Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordan, was dealt horrific spinal injuries by the Joker and rendered unable to walk ever again. Again, rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up entirely on superhero life, she became Batman’s technological eyes and ears as Oracle.

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There is also the alternate tale of continually struggling with disability. Cloak – of the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger – suffers from a terrible stutter which, as a teenager, prevents him from being able to warn his friend of the oncoming car that hits and kills him. His ability to literally engulf himself in darkness represents his own longing to disappear in silence from the world.

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Other examples are more allegorical. Bruce Banner’s ability to transform into a raging green giant when angry can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a mental health condition. Maybe he is just a guy who loses control over his emotions so extremely that he also loses control of reality. The Hulk could all be in his own head, and we see what he sees because the story is told from his point of view. I doubt I’m the first person to make this point either. The X-Men, who have been born with their abilities rather than gained them, are classified as Mutants, which automatically has an inherent linguistic negativity.Image

They are the embodiment of every feared and misunderstood ‘abnormal’ or minority group in our society, and similarly vary between defensive separatism and active outreach. Every single mutant has a unique mutation in the same way that every disabled person has a unique disability. There may be some general similarities or common characteristics, but ultimately the severity and the effects of that mutation/disability depend on the individual.

Returning to manga, I have to say I can think of far less examples. Very often, if a character is in a wheelchair – which is the most common visible example I’ve seen – they are very much defined by that disability to the detriment of their characters. Nanalie in Code Geass, who is both blind and in a wheelchair, is presented as being so emotionally and childishly weak as direct result of her disability that she borders on being pathetic. She cannot go anywhere without being nursed by someone. It infuriates me so much I wish she wasn’t in the show at all. Sometimes just being representative isn’t enough when that representation is so profoundly negative.

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Implied mental health problems are a bit more common in manga. Light in Death Note is quite clearly a high functioning sociopath and – by the end of the story – develops megalomania to boot. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is an undiagnosed manic-depressive who happens to also be trapped in the most bleak and apocalyptic world imaginable. His frequent declarations of ‘I might as well be dead’ and ‘I really don’t care about anything’ seem to enhance the intense melancholia and crushing sense of hopelessness that hangs permanently over the story of Evangelion. Luckily his initial reluctance is slowly purged by a latent heroism that develops partly thanks to his confused yet affectionate feelings towards one of his co-pilots, Rei. Shinji is a protagonist who discovers the will to live as the world around him conversely ebbs closer to destruction. Never mind, Shinji.

So… in light off all of this waffling contextual analysis, how and what does Gangsta do differently to represent disability? In the first few pages in which the two central characters – Nic and Worick – are introduced, there is nothing to suggest Nic’s hearing impairment. And why would there be? The only way you would know if someone was deaf would be if there was a physical indication – you might see that they have a hearing aid, for instance. Nic’s physical presence is that of the strong, silent, and vaguely disinterested type. The revelation of his disability is not revelatory in the slightest. So much so that I actually missed it on the first reading – which I think is a good thing. Rather than being the be all and end all of his character, it is simply presented as a different way for him to communicate. This is partly due to the constraints of the medium itself. If it were moving images, or perhaps even a book, his deafness might have been instantly apparent in the scene in question. As still images it is a little harder to grasp.

This is how it goes: Nic taps the hood of the car he is sat on to get the attention of the other characters around him who are all having a verbal conversation. His hand gesture is drawn to suggest movement. His speech bubbles are black with white text – the inverse of everyone else’s speech bubbles. As this is the first time I have ever seen a deaf character in a comic/manga, I don’t think there is a standard method of presenting one – I had no reference point to think ‘ah yes, he’s signing’ in the cartoonish way that you often see a blind character drawn with sunglasses and a stick and get that they are blind, for example. I think I just assumed his speech bubbles were different to make him seem cooler or something.

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It is not until much later on that his disability is specifically made reference to and that was when I clocked it and the ‘Wha-?’ moment happened. In the scene, Nic becomes angry, and his speech bubbles suddenly became white with black text. But the shape of the bubbles is jagged and the text is all in capitals and differently sized.

 “Wait! Nicolas, did you just speak?” One of the male characters asks him in surprise. “Say something again!”

Nic taps his chest.

“Sorry I…don’t know sign language.” The man replies.

“He says he’s too tired to do it again.” Worick interprets, and he exits the scene with Nic.

Given my ignorance in realising that Nic had been signing the whole time, I think it was good that the creator – Kohske – added this little bit in for other thick people like me, but I was also impressed that she managed to avoid being too expositional. Nic chooses to verbally speak only to vent his frustration directly to the characters that are non-sign language fluent, but refuses to indulge them again, completely fitting with his ‘fuck you’ character (which I am completely in love with, btw.) Without going into too much detail, Nic does have superhuman abilities in strength and speed, but unlike your average Daredevil or Hulk or X-Man, these have nothing to do with his disability. He is a superhuman assassin who just happens to also be deaf. It does not define his character, but merely adds another ‘FYI’ layer to it.

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In fact, the only time in the story so far when his deafness is central to his characterisation is possibly my favourite bit of the manga so far. The word ‘bromance’ gets thrown around a lot lately, and very often is used to comic effect with not-very-subtle-and-borderline-offensive-gay-jokes scattered around, because how else can heterosexual men express love for each other without it being (tee hee) a bit gay? Well, let me introduce you to Nic and Worick: a truly legit bromance. I don’t want to give too much away because I genuinely want people to go out and buy this manga, so all I’ll say for context is that Nic and Worick share a pretty traumatising childhood together. At first, Nic is totally alone – silent and illiterate (which I ironically just misspelt about 5 times…). He has absolutely no way of communicating with people other than vaguely miming, and none of the adults around him are remotely interested in making an effort to understand or reach out to him. He is emotionally blank. It is Worick – an equally isolated child of similar age – who teaches him to not only read and write but to sign (he discovers the language in a book). It becomes not only Nic’s communicative liberation, but also their own private language, and this special world of two stays with them into adulthood and remains beautifully impenetrable. Worick is also Nic’s connection to the outside verbal world, but there isn’t any point that you get the sense that Nic is dependant on him. He stalks rooftops alone, disappears around corners, and sneaks down alleyways while Worick struts his stuff down main roads and runs his prostitution racket – (yep, Worick is a gigolo) on the side of their delivery business.

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Before writing this I did a quick Google search on the author and manga but failed to find much on either of them unfortunately. Specifically, I wanted to know why she had decided to make Nic deaf, but then I realised that just by asking this question I was being discriminatory. Why shouldn’t Nic be deaf? It would be the same as asking why a character was a woman, why a character was gay, or why a character was non-white. The answer is they just are. There could be a reason why Nic was an assassin. There could be a reason why he decided to only wear black. There could be a reason why he possessed superhuman abilities – and all of these are answered in Gangsta (except the black clothing thing, I think its just to make him look like real dude tbh.) There doesn’t have to be a reason why he is deaf unless it is a crucial factor in understanding his character – which it isn’t. The proof of this is that I read the first few chapters not realising he had an impairment and still understood his character; still empathised with him; and still wanted to read more. When I became aware of the impairment, my feelings towards him did not change. If anything, I warmed to him even more. This is a real testament to the story-telling abilities of the author, Kohske, and if Gangsta gets popular enough, will hopefully encourage the creation of other more positive and well-balanced disabled characters in this medium.

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You can buy Gangsta Volume 1 now from Amazon and Forbidden Planet. And you really should.

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Comics, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Comic Lore: Batman, Superman, and The Third Identity

 “As you know, I’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique…Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

Bill, Kill Bill Volume 2

 

So far so good, Bill. Except I would dig a little deeper into this.

Superman’s origin story is so cemented into pop culture history that I know I needn’t even bother re-telling it…but I’m going to anyway. Superman, as you’ll know, was not born Superman. He was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton. He did not have super special powers on Krypton. He was just your average Kryptonian baby. It was not until he was (luckily) jettisoned into space just before Krypton exploded and arrived on Earth that he started the transition to become super (due to the effects of our yellow sun on his physiology, as opposed to the red son of his birth planet). He did not, however, become Superman. Not right away anyway.

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His identity as Kal-El was temporarily lost as he grew up. Instead, he became Clark Kent – a human identity – the adopted son of Martha and Jonathon Kent. He eventually rediscovered his original identity as Kal-El from the ingrained knowledge within his fortress of solitude from his birth father, Jor-El. Kal-El is what evolves into Superman: the human translation of his Kryptonian heritage. And what does Clark Kent become? A caricature. As Bill rightly says – the suit, tie and glasses are the mask. Bumbling and stumbling around the Daily Planet by day and soaring through Metropolis’ skies by night. The mortal vs. the God.

But what happens when neither the Clark nor Superman personas are needed? Which role does he play when he is sitting at home reading Lois’ articles? Or buying dog food for Krypto? Or visiting Ma and Pa back home on the farm? Clark Kent the country boy becomes Clark Kent the reporter; and Kal-El the fallen alien becomes Superman the world’s first superhero. This fracturing of two identities leaves behind a third persona that could be the true identity of the character. This is his private self – Supes with his guard down that only his nearest and dearest will see.

We can see this puzzling trinity of identities in one other comic book character. And it so happens to also be Superman’s direct counterpart – Batman (Who is also my favourite. Sorry Bill.) Again, his origin story is well imprinted into pop culture lore. And again, I’m going to re-tell it.

Bruce Wayne was the son of Martha and Thomas Wayne – Gotham City’s foremost philanthropists and gothic mansion-dwellers. Just like Superman, their sudden deaths triggered the birth of Bruce’s superhero persona – Batman: a physical manifestation of his childhood fears. But unlike Superman, Batman witnessed the death of his parents firsthand. Their killer was not the natural demise of an entire world. Their killer had a human face. Something to punish. Whilst Superman learns of his birth planet’s death in a history lesson, Batman’s knowledge of his parent’s murder is a memory he can never forget. Hence the dramatic contrast between their identities as crime fighters. Justice vs. Revenge. Light vs. Darkness. This binary opposition between the World’s Finest seems to always bind them together like Yin and Yang at the forefront of DC Comics’ empire.

This mysterious third identity draws a distinct parallel. Because just as Clark Kent becomes a secondary costume to Kal-El, Bruce Wayne projects a fabricated public persona of himself to protect his identity as Batman. The Hugh Hefner style billionaire playboy. Clark Kent was created to assimilate, but Bruce Wayne was created to hide in plain sight. And the Bruce Wayne that returns home to the mansion where Alfred is always on hand with a sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate (or a first aid kit) removes the mask or the tuxedo and becomes…what? The third persona. The face beneath the mask beneath the mask. The real Bruce Wayne.

Another option is one that has probably been argued before: That Bruce Wayne’s identity died with his parents. The Bruce that could have been if they had lived. Batman becomes his true identity and the version of Bruce Wayne that shows up to all the charity galas with a model on his arm is the costume. I believe this is interesting but too simplistic. What about all those times that Batman has ‘revealed’ himself to those he trusts? When the mask comes off, Bruce Wayne – the real Bruce Wayne – is what is underneath, very much alive. Not a promiscuous rich kid or a psychotic detective, but a world-weary man.

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But does the celebrity face of the Bruce Wayne identity have hidden depth as well? Is it the way Batman thought he would have turned out should his parents have lived? Or could it be seen as a form of escape…from his original form of escape? Batman was the coping mechanism that gave a grief-stricken child a purpose to go on living for. But as time goes on this mechanism becomes bigger, heavier, and darker. Sometimes it even seems like a burden. This certainly makes the lazy and debouched costume of Bruce Wayne certainly seems like a lighter and easier one to play. But the fact that he constantly returns to the cape and batarangs tells us that – even if it is the harder road to walk down – it is one he can never turn back from.

These two characters, as I hope I’ve shown, are far more complex and intricately built than first meets the eye. As our oldest comic book superheroes, they could have faded into obscurity, but thanks to the strength of their characters and unique origin stories they instead became the two templates of practically all subsequent heroes. The first being those who were born with powers, and the second being those who were given/created their own. The stories of their creation have become our modern day myths and folklore – continually re-told and re-packaged in hundreds of different voices, pens and languages but never straying away from their original formulas.

(And yes, Batman is a superhero. Could you do any of the cool shit that he does? I don’t think so.)

* More of my illustrations and arty stuff can be seen on my tumblr page*

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