Saturday, September 24, 2011

Women in the New 52: Catwoman, Starfire, Wonder Woman

First, a confession.

I did not read Catwoman #1 or Red Hood and the Outlaws #1. I didn't read them because I didn't buy them. I didn't buy them because I didn't think they'd be any good. And based on the reactions I've seen online and on the several scanned pages from both books that have been circulating on blogs, I think I was right.

I don't need to have read the books to see some of the problems with them. But since I didn't read them, I won't review them. And rather than offer a big rant about them, I will just link to two very excellent and well-argued pieces about them:

Read them both.

Meanwhile, at Newsarama, Judd Winnick defends the sex scene in Catwoman #1 with this:
This is a Catwoman for 2011, and my approach to her character and actions reflect someone who lives in our times. And wears a cat suit. And steals. It’s a tale that is part crime story, part mystery and part romance.  In that, you will find action, suspense and passion. Each of those qualities, at times, play to their extremes.  Catwoman is a character with a rich comic book history, and my hope is that readers will continue to join us as the adventure continues.
Well, I hope they don't. Ugh.

But seriously, I'm baffled by how tone-deaf this writer can be about the character. It's weird, because when I first started following comics closely about two years ago, I kept hearing about this writer that people online really seemed to hate. I hadn't read any of Winnick's books, but the constant complaint about him on message boards was that he was using comics as a soapbox, constantly writing about gay or HIV-positive characters, and pushing his annoying liberal agenda down readers' throats. Those complaints made me really uncomfortable. It was the first time I started to realize just how conservative and bigoted comics fandom can be. There was something creepy about how much hate this guy was getting for writing about gay characters.

Now, two years later, I feel like his bad rep was largely unjustified. I haven't read a lot of his work, but he just seems like an average writer who sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong. Or at least that was my impression before this whole Catwoman debacle happened. From the early interviews in his whole take on the character boiled down to "sexy sexy sexy," to the awful pages I've seen from the actual comic, to his add-insult-to-injury response quoted above, I'm starting to think maybe he's just a terrible writer who doesn't know how to write female characters. And this is a guy known for his liberal politics?

I guess this serves as a useful reminder that even liberals can be sexist. (Or, if that sounds too much like an ad hominem attack, at least say or do or write sexist bullshit.)

Another thing that bothers me about this controversy is the way people who don't see the problem respond to it by caricaturing the criticism and reducing it to prudishness. I've seen dozens of comments in response to blog posts that go like this: "What's the big deal? They're two consenting adults. What's wrong with them having sex?"

There's nothing wrong with Catwoman and Batman having sex. None of the criticism I've seen has been anti-sex. It's about how this was portrayed, not the fact that it happened. It's about characters masquerading as "strong female characters" when they are actually male fantasies. It's about pandering to the lowest-common-denominator male fanbase, when this relaunch is supposed to be about attracting new (and potentially non-straight-male) readership.

While I was commenting on some of these issues on Twitter this week, someone told me I was basing my rants on two comics only and that, in fact, this doesn't reflect any widespread problem in DC's New 52. But, first of all, no, it's not just two comics. Do I need to remind you of Harley Quinn's new costume in Suicide Squad? Or Amanda Waller's sexy new supermodel look? I'm not saying every single book DC has put out this month has treated women like sex objects, but there's enough of a pattern here for us to really call them out on their shit and ask how that much-touted commitment to diversity somehow resulted in this.

Still. It's worth remembering that DC is also putting out some good books this month, including quite a few that feature really good female characters. I'm pretty sure that Batwoman is one of those books, but unfortunately I wasn't able to get my hands on a copy of the first issue. I had mistakenly left it off my pull list and it sold out within hours before I could make it to the store. I've ordered the reprint.

I did, however, get a copy of Wonder Woman #1, written by Brian Azzarello with art by Cliff Chiang, and I thought it was fantastic. I've seen some complaints about the level of gore and violence in the book, but I personally didn't have a problem with it. It's too bad that there isn't an all-ages Wonder Woman book that people can give to their kids and I agree that DC should publish such a book. But just because that book doesn't exist doesn't mean there's anything wrong with this one. It's violent and creepy and weird, and I loved it. The opening issue sets up some interesting villains while firmly establishing Wonder Woman's character, and Cliff Chiang's art is absolutely phenomenal. This might very well turn out to be the best looking book out of this month's 52 first issues.

So DC is getting it right some of the time. And I'm very thankful for that. Those books that I enjoy are all going on my pull list and I will continue to support them. But I'm not going to stop criticizing them when they fail. (And, no, the fact that "Marvel's not going any better" is no excuse either. I'm not "singling them out" by pointing out DC's failings. I'm just concentrating on what I know. How well Marvel is doing has nothing to do with it.) If we want DC to finally get the message and stop putting out books that alienate their (real and/or potential) female readership, we have to stay vocal about it.

Finally, check out this alternative take on Batman and Catwoman's relationship, by Mike Hawthorne. I like it a hell of a lot more than those last few pages of Judd Winnick's book.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Two Robin sketches from Montreal Comic Con 2011

First, Dick Grayson (animated version), by Ty Templeton:

And then Tim Drake, by Marco Rudy:

I waited three hours in line to get these. (And to say hi to Gail Simone.) Good times.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Diminishing returns (re: Amanda Waller and other stupid shit)

(Part of this post is adapted from a late-night rant on Twitter while everybody else was apparently asleep.)

(This is in response to this.)

Okay, look, I don't know what goes on behind closed doors at DC Comics. I don't even know what goes on behind open doors. I'm just trying to understand. I know there is a reboot-that's-not-a-reboot going on. I know they want to make things different. And I know that every change potentially will anger some fans, and if DC worries about that too much, they won't be able to get anything done. But still. Just explain to me, somebody, please. What reasoning could possibly have led to the decision to make Amanda Waller skinny?

How did this come about? Did DC editors sit together at a meeting and say, "Yeah, that fat bitch Amanda Waller, gotta do something about that"? Or, "Amanda Waller is a great character. We should do something with her." "Hey, what if we made her skinny?"

I just don't understand. What purpose does it serve? Does it make the stories better? Can people relate to her better if she's thin? Does it make the character more marketable or recognizable or relatable or new-reader-friendly or fresh or edgy or whatever? What is it? Explain it to me, because I just can't make any sense of it. It seems utterly useless and wrong to me.

I can only think of two possible explanations.

1. Total ignorance at a level so incredibly high that it makes me embarrassed to imagine.

2. Done on purpose because it will piss people off and make them talk, and controversy is better than apathy.

I'd like to believe that DC editors are not the kind of disgusting filth that would actually go for #2. So I guess I'm going to have to assume that this was a result of ignorance and stupidity. Unless someone else can suggest another possible explanation that I'm missing. But whatever the reasoning was, I just find this extremely sad.

I've been a good sport since the launch of the New 52. I was a very vocal critic of a lot of DC's decision, but when the relaunch finally came, I cheered for it despite my problems with some aspects of it. I was onboard. I bought books I hadn't originally planned to read*. I was surprised by some of them. I wrote positive reviews (and meant every word in 'em). I shared my enthusiasm on Twitter and elsewhere. Yeah, I still think making Barbara Gordon Batgirl again was a terrible idea, but if Gail Simone is making a good book out of it, I'll give it a chance.

But then I see this kind of bullshit and it's like DC is thanking me with a slap in the face. It makes embarrassed for supporting this company. Being a fan of DC lately means constantly being ashamed of the stupid shit they pull EVERY FREAKING WEEK, it seems.

It almost makes me regret buying all those books the last two weeks. I was going to jump off the bandwagon with this relaunch, but like a well-trained spineless little fanboy, I marched to the comic book store and gave them my money in exchange for those overpriced little colourful pamphlets full of incredibly stupid characters doing incredibly stupid things for the sake of our entertainment. And now I feel ashamed.

Ultimately, what they did to Amanda Waller is no worse than what they did to Barbara Gordon or any of the other characters who were negatively affected by the reboot and lost some of what made them special in the first place. So why is this the change that inspires this rant? I don't even know. I'm just sick of DC shitting on the characters and the fans who love them. And I just know that if anybody asks Dan DiDio about this at a convention, he's going to roll his eyes and yell out, "Next question." And maybe if people bitch about it on Twitter and Tumblr enough, then the following week, they're going to put out an official statement saying that, no, in fact they really really care what people think and diversity is important to them and blablabla. I don't care anymore, DC. I can already imagine all your half-assed attempts to spin this into a positive thing because I've read them a thousand times over.

What am I going to do about it besides posting this rant? Am I going to stop buying comics? Well, no. I'm just pointing out that it's one more blow, and every time something like this happens I care a little less about these characters and this company. There have been a lot of blows lately. And it almost came to a point where I completely lost interest. But then somehow the excitement of the New 52 won me over. But it's a case of diminishing returns. It may not be today, it may not be this week, it may not even be this year. But at some point, I'm going to say, "You know what? Fuck this shit. These books are not worth spending my money on anymore." It's even possible that this has already happened and I'm just in denial about it, holding on desperately to my own illusions because I WANT TO LIKE COMICS more than I actually like them.

(* Yes! I actually buy every comic book I read, not like a lot of other people who cry foul on Tumblr and Twitter and who download all their books for free on torrent sites.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reviews: DC New 52, week 1

(no spoilers)

Action Comics #1
Written by Grant Morrison; art by Rags Morales and Rick Bryant

I wonder if this title is going to outsell Justice League #1. We've all been told last week's crap-fest by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee was the big launch of the New 52, the one that would set everything up for the rest of the line, but I have a feeling the book most people were really excited about was this one. I showed up at my LCS at noon today and they had sold out, whereas last week they still had dozens of Justice League issues lining up the walls. (Though I didn't ask how many they had ordered.)

In any case, this a much better first issue than Justice League #1. It's fast-paced, full of action and information. You get a good sense of how this world and these characters are different from the old DCU, dropping in on important supporting characters like Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and General Lane. There are references to Clark Kent's work as a reporter and how Jimmy and Lois fit into that. It establishes that Superman has started helping people around Metropolis, that the citizens are starting to notice and to appreciate it, and while the authorities are treating him as a threat, you get a good sense of their motivations and understand why they'd be freaked out by this powerful alien among them who seems to be getting stronger every day.

The art is always way better. Rags Morales' art is clean and elegant, two terms I would never use to describe Jim Lee's scratchy mess of over-detailed and cluttered panels. Maybe some of it has to do with inker Rick Bryant or colourist Brad Anderson, but this looks just how you would expect DC's flagship title to look - professional, dynamic, clear, but also very "house-style-ish," meaning it doesn't really take any risks the way some of the other books reviewed below do. And certainly if you think about the amazing work that Frank Quitely did on All-Star Superman, this seems a bit bland in comparison.

I'm not really convinced that this is a book I'm all that excited to keep reading. I'm just happy that it's not awful, I guess. It's a good start and unless there's a significant drop in quality ahead, fans are probably going to get a good Superman story over the next few months. Oddly, in spite of some of the continuity changes, this feels more true to the spirit of the original Superman than some of the garbage we've gotten lately from JMS's "Grounded" debacle.

But will I, personally, keep reading? I haven't quite decided yet. It will probably depend on the quality of the other New 52 books I sample this month. If I end up adding a lot of them to my pull list, for budgetary reasons, I might drop this one. Especially considering the extra dollar on the price tag.

Verdict: Good, but somewhat underwhelming.

Animal Man #1
Written by Jeff Lemire; art by Travel Foreman and Dan Green

Prepare to have your mind blown.

Jeff Lemire's mainstream super-hero work at DC has been a little hit-and-miss for me. There were a lot of good ideas in his Superman run (and it looked like he was building up to something that could have really paid off with the subplot involving Psionic Lad, which was unfortunately cut short by the arrival of the New 52), but the execution never quite gelled. The pacing was awkward (in part because of the Doomsday crossover hijack, maybe) and I kind of got the impression that he was phoning it in.

With this first issue of Animal Man, I feel like I finally recognize the work of the man responsible for what is currently my favourite ongoing series, Vertigo's Sweet Tooth. The writing on this issue flows perfectly. There's not an awkward beat. The dialogue feels natural. The characters immediately come across as real people. It's obvious that Lemire not only has a good grasp of the characters but also is excited about the story he's going to tell.

And the art. Holy shit, where the hell did this Travel Foreman dude come from? I love his style and it's exactly the kind of visually stunning work that Jeff Lemire's storytelling requires. These two are a match made in heaven and I hope the book continues with this creative team for a while.

Verdict: The best New 52 book so far. Add it to your pull list right now!

Batgirl #1
Written by Gail Simone; art by Ardian Syaf and Vincente Cifuentes

If you read this blog on a semi-regular basis or follow my rants on Twitter, you know that I've been a very vocal critic of what DC decided to do with this book. As a fan of both Bryan Q. Miller's excellent take on Stephanie-Brown-as-Batgirl AND the well-established status quo of Barbara-Gordon-as-Oracle, this felt like getting stabbed in the heart... twice!

I've said what I had to say about all that. I've said it loud and I've repeated it a million times. And all those issues I've brought up before are still valid. To the point where I had made up my mind that no matter how great Gail Simone's new series turned out to be, I would not buy it and I would not read it. I felt bad about it, because I love Gail Simone's writing and I know how excited she is about this book. But I just didn't think I could do it. I didn't want to send the message to DC that I was supporting this move with my money.

As it turns out, I ended up throwing all those convictions out the window when someone asked me to participate in a podcast to review this book (among others) (and more on that later, by the way). I was happy to use that as an excuse to justify my purchase. And I'm glad that I did, because as it turns out, this is a fantastic first issue. Gail Simone's writing is pitch-perfect and I'm convinced that there is not another person alive on this planet that could have pulled this off and done the impossible: get me onboard with this move. I'm serious.

I don't want to say anything more because I don't want to spoil it for anyone. But this is a good book and I'm looking forward to the next issue. Ardian Syaf's art is very nice, too, and I have my fingers crossed that he will stay on the book at least for a full story arc. (I will not put up with unsolicited fill-in artists in DC books anymore. I've had enough.)

Verdict: Shed a tear for Oracle, then give this a try. You won't regret it.

Stormwatch #1
Written by Paul Cornell; art by Miguel Sepulveda

This was strangely disappointing. I read through the whole thing not really caring about any of it, up to the very last moment when Midnighter shows up and I got a bit of a chill at the thought of the lover story that was about to begin between him and Apollo.

In a way, I'm kind of annoyed, because that just might be enough to get me to continue buying this book, even if I'm not all that excited by any of the other characters or the premise. I can't say I'm a huge fan of Miguel Sepulveda's art either.

I don't know. Will this gay love story even pay off ultimately? I think it's worth sticking around for a few more issues to find out. Plus, Paul Cornell is usually a pretty funny writer and there were little hints of his trademark style in the dialogue. ("--and certainly the horniest!") That's an added plus.

Verdict: Meh. But I'll keep reading I want Midnighter and Apollo to have sex.

Swamp Thing #1
Written by Scott Snyder; art by Yanick Paquette

Yeah, this was pretty much everything I expected (and wanted) it to be: creepy, well written and beautifully drawn. I believe this is the best work I've ever seen by Yanick Paquette. (Although I noticed how ugly Superman's padded costume is when I saw his rendition of it. What an awful, awful design. Please do not let Jim Lee design any more costumes, ever again. Urgh!)

When I found out that Alec Holland was coming back to life at the end of Brightest Day (which I wasn't reading - I found out on the internet), I was extremely skeptical of this new direction. It just seemed like such a departure from some of the coolest aspects of Alan Moore's run (Swampy's struggle with whether or not he was once human, etc.). It wasn't until I heard Scott Snyder talk about this in an interview, about how it was his idea to begin with and how it was specifically a set-up for what he was planning to do in this series, that I got onboard with it.

With this first issue, I still don't know exactly where it's going to go, but I'm definitely intrigued and excited to find out.

Verdict: Excellent. Along with Animal Man, this is the other must-buy of the week.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review: Justice League #1

Justice League #1
Written by Geoff Johns; pencils by Jim Lee; inks by Scott Williams; DC.

(Spoilers here.)

When you've been told repeatedly for several months that the issue you hold in your hand is "historic," that it sets the tone for the relaunch of an entire line of comic books, and the creative team behind it includes two of the three people who conceived of and orchestrated the whole relaunch, yeah, it sets up a certain set of expectations.

Add to that the normal expectations that you have for any first issue of a new series. And the expectations you have for a comic book that features Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Batman, Flash and Cyborg on its cover.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I expected it to be awesome. In fact, I wasn't even sure I was going to buy it. The guy at my local comic shop was like, "Come on, you're not even gonna try it?" So I picked it up just to show that I had an open mind about this whole relaunch business. I'm also not a huge fan of either Geoff Johns or Jim Lee, though I think both have done some good work in the past. So, no, I didn't think it was going to blow my mind.

What I did expect, though, was... I don't know, some kind of hook? Something, anything, that would make me want to read the next issue? A hint of how awesome it is to have the "big seven" (well, big six, really, since Martian Manhunter has been replaced by Cyborg) reunited as the core members of the Justice League?

There is none of that in this book. What we get are Batman and Green Lantern being arrogant macho assholes full of themselves. And then on the last page, Superman shows up and hints that he's as much of an arrogant macho asshole full of himself as they are.

Basically, the theme of this book is MY COCK IS BIGGER THAN YOURS.

And that's pretty much it. There's no story. Batman meets Green Lantern. Cops in Gotham are shooting at them and the two superheroes are boasting that they can handle it and don't need help. Then they find a box and Green Lantern's ring is unable to identify it, which he says is impossible, but just by looking at it Batman is able to deduce that it's some kind of alien computer. From this, they deduce that this guy in Metropolis they've heard about might know something about it, so Green Lantern flies them there, and then Superman comes out and is like, "So, what can you do?" Then he pulls out his cock and Batman and Green Lantern's jaws drop.

Okay, I lied about that last part. What you actually get is a teaser that says, "Next: Batman vs. Superman." Because apparently this is what new readers are going to be interested in, a bunch of testosterone-filled frat boys fighting amongst themselves for the alpha dog title.

Yeah, it sucks. It's worse than anything I could have imagined. It's a steaming pile of burning caca. And if this is meant to set the tone for the New 52, things are about as grim and hopeless as I feared they might be when I started seeing some of those awful costumes redesigns several months ago.

The good news, for me anyway, is that I don't think that's true. I don't think the tone or quality of this book really has anything to do with what we can expect from the books that I am looking forward to. So I'm not going to give up on the New 52 because the flagship title sucks. Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Batwoman and the few other titles I'm looking forward to will succeed or fail on their own merit.

But what's depressing is that DC had so much riding on this book. I don't know whether non-regular readers of comics came into the shops last Wednesday to check it out like DC was hoping they would. But if so, are they really going to get sucked in by this? Are they going to come back to buy Action Comics #1 next week, or Justice League #2 next month? I find that incredibly hard to believe.

What would have made a better first issue? Start with a bang! Start with the Justice League already assembled and show us how awesome it is to have all these classic, iconic heroes kicking ass together. Show us how much FUN a comic like that can be. There's no fun in this comic. Just a bunch of angry dudes banging on their chests and asserting their dominance.

It's garbage.

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