Saturday, July 24, 2010

How Does She Fight in That Thing?

There are so many ways Wonder Woman is being fucked up, that it seems irrelevant to point them out. But that is not the point of this rant of mine.

Sure, the new costume is awful, but I don’t feel too threatened (or worried) about it. This latest reboot has “to be retconned” printed all over it in large capitals. And I don’t believe Straczynski and Jim Lee aren’t aware of this simple fact, considering the central gimmick they chose to launch it. Come on, after such a major event as BLACKEST NIGHT, one would expect any reboot of WONDER WOMAN to be tightly linked with it or BRIGHTEST DAY. Instead we get a silly, overused and deeply contrived alternative reality plot-device that either a) throws all these last 70 years of continuity down the drain; or b) is destined to be just a footnote in the DCU. My bet is on the later.

However, there’s one thing, I think, that merit a few comments, and that is the excuses presented for such a radical redesign of Wonder Woman’s classic outfit. And, in brief, there’s two of them: a) A higher level of realism (the so called “How does she fight in that thing?”), and b) the felt necessity to bring the character up to date with a new readership. I don’t buy either of them, although I believe the second one is meant to hide the truth.

So, how does she fight in that thing? Considering the following images, scanned from Wonder Woman, Vol.3 #1 and Wonder Woman #600, apparently not bad at all, irrespective of what she’s wearing.

But I guess that wasn’t the point of Mr. Strackzynski (although, that’s where the hub lies). What Mr.S. seems concerned with, probably in an attempt to please the feminists that constantly deride the sexualized representations of super-heroines, is that Wonder Woman should not have to look sexy (although she does, even in this new outfit, with ample bosom and skintight trousers (view images above). The contention here seems to be that the star spangled shorts and bustier exist solely to please the ominous “male gaze” of WW’s main readership.

In this view, Wonder Woman’s traditional costume is an instrument of titillation, forever drawing the eye to the breasts, buttocks and naked legs of the Amazon Princess, the reader’s imagination constantly fired up by the dynamism of the fights. Consider, for instance, the following panel from Guy Gardner #20:

Beaten and defeated, she seems about to fall out of her bustier; the reader expects at any moment a glimpse of a nipple, the promise of a naked breast. But, alas, not so. Because the only answer to the “how does she fight in that thing?” is just the same as it would be to “How does Supergirl land without flashing her panties?” or “How does Superman change direction so swiftly in flight without being affected by inertia and centrifugal force?”. And the answer is, obviously, because in the specific rules of the rich fantasy world that is made up by the DCU or the Marvel Universe, the reader is willing to suspend his disbelief as to such clamoring violations of the rules of logic.

And being so, super-hero costumes go beyond the simple function of clothing and its practical considerations, to reach into that of symbols and identifiers. That’s why Batgirl could fight so well in high-heels or Wonder Woman in such a skimpy outfit without causing the reader’s eyebrows to lift an inch. Because in the specific logic of mainstream comic-books, particularly issuing from the main houses, the universe is mainly asexual. I don’t intend to mean that super-beings don’t have sex-lives: they do, although, it seems, only by force of habit and to satisfy reader’s expectations. If Superman is married to Lois, it is natural to expect they should have a sex life. But in the larger scope – that of the so-called “realism” that Mr. Strackzynski seems to be purporting – the universe is devoid of a sex drive. You could pitch Superman at the core of a nuclear explosion that his uniform would come out with only a few tears, none of them indecent; you could pitch Wonder Woman against Wolverine’s adamantium claws and yet be sure that as torn as her (skimpy) costume could get there would be no show of nipple or pubic hair. And as dastardly and villainous the super-villains may be one can rest assured that they would never, ever, think of molesting or raping any of their captive super-heroines. And it is this asexuality, this sexlessness of the universe(*) that allows Wonder Woman (or any other super-heroine) to wear such a skimpy outfit and never to show more than decency allows, even in the fiercest of battles. That’s why superheroes wear capes and underpants above their trousers, without any loss of “realism”. That is also the reason why some comics – and I am thinking of IDENTITY CRISIS, or THE EVIL THAT MEN DO – cause such an uproar: because in such examoples, this asexuality is being broken and the comic universe becomes, simply put, too real.

If we accept this, at least I some degree, it becomes obvious that a character’s costume is more than mere accoutrement; it is an essential part of the character’s being and personality. In fact, due to the particular nature of the comic book’s medium, it is to a strong degree the character’s identity. It’s the identification of the character with its uniform, both diegetically and non-diegetically, that allows for the workings of the so called secret identity. It is because of the costume’s significance that we pretend to believe that a pair of glasses can transform Superman’s face into that of Clark Kent. Otherwise, how could one explain that when both Superman and Clark allowed their hair to grow to fashion in the early nineties, nobody ever suspected the coincidence? And the same fact accounts for the universal dislike for Wonder Woman’s 60s mod run: the character was the same, ditto her personality; but not the costume. And that made all the difference.

And that is something neither Mr. Strackzynski, nor Mr. Lee understood. In Behind the Scenes: The New Costume (Wonder Woman #600)Strackzynski says that “While other characters, from Batman to Superman and others throughout the DC Universe, have undergone substantial changes over the years, Wonder Woman has remained pretty much the same in appearance.” Well, one has just to look at Action Comics #1 or Detective Comics #27 to confirm that both Superman and Batman look pretty much the same as well. Sure, there have been minor changes, more like minute refinements of their costumes, a process of natural evolution throughout the decades, but they remain perfectly identifiable. And if both Superman and Batman went through strange costumes in the post-Superman’s Death period (oh, those dreaded nineties), they quickly reverted to the familiar look. Because their look, as well as that of Wonder Woman, have universal appeal. That’s why in Wonder Woman, Vol.3, #1, after the reader is treated to the appearance of several “avatars” of Wonder Woman, all of them seeming real, all of them familiar from prior adventures, this image hits the reader like a punch:

That’s why this reboot will fail and Wonder Woman will revert into her old outfit as soon as Strackzynski’s run is over, if not sooner. The only way to achieve a different result would be for the writing to be of such a high quality that allowed the reader to shift his identification from classic Wonder Woman to this new undistinguished look. And that, I’m afraid, is not in the grasp of Mr. Strackzynski’s talent, if this first taste of the new WW is something to go by.

But I’ve said this last point was meant to hide the truth, and the truth is simple; acording to Mr. Strackzynski, on creating the new looks for Wonder Woman, this was the question they were trying to tackle: “If we were to design her today, without any prior history… What would she look like?” Well, one thing is certain: she wouldn’t look like Wonder Woman… because she wouldn’t be Wonder Woman.

(*) I guess a Freudian would say that the constant frustration that such a scenario provokes makes all the titillation even more sexual, and I sure wouldn’t disagree with that; but in no way that invalidates the lack of “realism” of the diegesis.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Up, up... and away!

I guess that the first question on starting a new blog is what to do with it. In my particular case, it is a bit more complicated, demanding that I address two additional queries: why start a new blog when my maiden effort is so seldom updated? And why a blog about comics, something that I must stress from the first moment, I know nothing about?

Well, the answer is not really that difficult to grasp: this is not a new blog; this is just the comics version of HOUSE OF SIN. Not that I will spend much time dallying on the sexual lives of female super-heroes (moreover, because they don’t seem to have one), or braving the complex issues of those comic characters’s inherent sexyness (although I’ll do a bit of both). But, just as I enjoy the thrills of the “damsel in distress” in film and literature, I enjoy them as well in comic format. And like a great philosopher should have said, “with great power, comes great risk of being in distress”.

So… on to the second question. And to that one, there is a tad more complex answer. I’ve always enjoyed reading comics, although I had stopped doing it in the early nineties. Besides the usual European bandes dessinées, like Blake & Mortimer, Michel Vaillant, Bruno Brazil, Ric Hochet, Luc Orient, Tanguy et Laverdure, Morbus Graviis and the superb graphic novels by François Burgeon, I got hooked on Marvel and DC super-hero comics. Particularly on Berni Wrightson’s SWAMP THING, Win Mortimer’s SUPERGIRL (yes, the hotpants version), Claremont’s X-MEN, Miller’s DAREDEVIL and BATMAN, Byrne’s SUPERMAN and, above all else, Windsor-Smith’s CONAN and Frank Thorne’s RED SONJA. With the nineties and the ascension of the politically correct mentality, I found super-hero comics becoming too tame, bloodless and sexless, and became annoyed by the manga-derived visual style and the hyper-muscled and ultra-chiseled characters being drawn by almost every artist in DC and Marvel-land. So, with SUPERMAN’S DEATH I bid goodbye to comicbook-reading.

But, alas, with Bendis’s take on Marvel's ULTIMATE UNIVERSE and such events as ANNIHILATION, CIVIL WAR and SECRET INVASION, I became once more addicted to the four-color super-hero adventures. In order to get updated, I started reading older comics and browsing the net in search of more information. And that’s where I noticed something strangely familiar: just as it had happened with the detective, science fiction and horror novels, the great popular success of comics had drawn upon them the eager eye of ACADEME. Suddenly, comic book adventures are supposed to have a HIGHER MEANING, and a HIDDEN MEANING, usually pertaining, one or both, to the comic’s perceived deep seated misogyny and latent homosexuality. There seems to be a war being declared by pompous academics on large-breasted super-heroines, rape-fantasy fixated fanboys and aggressively anti-feminist comic-book writers and artists.

And I want to be a part of that war. Fighting on the side of the underdog. So, my voice will be the voice of the forever enthralled fanboy. Yes, I appreciate meaning in comics. But I don’t believe that such a meaning should have to be found in procrustean readings or the absurd application of dead Freudianism and stupid Lacanian pseudo-psychiatry. Comics, as is the case with any other form of popular entertainment, have great relevance as a corpus of works that embrace the whole imagination of the human race: its aspirations, dreams, desires, fears and nightmares. And besides that, it is entertainment. It is a way to free one’s inhibitions from the chains of social mores. The greatest battle of the super-powered individual is not the one against his foes, but the one he must do with his own inner demons. The ones that keep urging him to use – to really use – his powers to do as he deems fit. The reader doesn’t have to fight that fight. No, the reader can indulge. WE can indulge.

And we don’t have to be brow-beaten because of that. We don’t have to be told by some pompous and condescending “critic” that “Personally, I can’t in general understand how people who read superhero comics in general manage to do so without constantly pointing at the art and laughing out loud.” And we don’t have to tolerate the infantile moralizing that considers that a woman (and even a super-woman) is a “slut” because she participates in a threesome.

I guess, more than anything else, it was these two comments that made me put my fingers to the keypad again, for such voices cannot be allowed to speak alone. Somebody must point and laugh and deride, and debate them.

Fortunately, the internet is also awash with great and intelligent writing and criticism about comics. I can’t and don’t intend to single out all the ones to whom I feel most grateful for their insights, devotion and effort to keep interesting blogs (sooner or later, they’ll all be right there on my blogroll). But I cannot go without mention Gene Phillips’s THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE. It was Gene and his brilliant insights that made plain to me that you can understand comics, enjoy comics, and recognize the value of comics without having to bend their true meaning and without the need to distort the creator’s intentions. You can be at the same time enthusiastic and objective about a comic-book joys and limitations. Gene certainly is that.

And so, here I am, and here are my intentions. I’ll be writing about the comics I enjoy, not with any academic pretentions, but only in an attempt to translate the joy I derive from comic-book reading. I don’t know how frequently I’ll post here. I do know I’ll be wrong many times. I hope you’ll enjoy it if you care to visit here from once in a while.

(And yes, I do love big-breasted and scantly-clad super-heroines.)