My mind is clearer now… Reassessing @Marvel’s #XMen: Is Magneto right?

Between Marvel and DC, Marvel’s comics tend to be better informed philosophically.  Bigger issues and subtle treatments, in general.  The complaint is — and, I imagine, always will be — that Marvel sets up philosophically amazing scenarios and then doesn’t quite nail the issue to the wall.  Avengers v X-Men, for example, tackles the fascinating world of minority rights and the extent to which communities under threat (represented by the X-Men) should be able to protect themselves from policies which advantage the privileged (represented by Captain America and the Avengers).  The setup is dynamic and engaging, but the final exploration of the idea — with the authority of the author all but telling us that Captain America is correct in the dispute — feels a bit weak.

Similarly, the exploration in Civil War.  The dispute is between Tony Stark and Captain America, and the quarrel regards whether or not vigilantism should be tolerated in the Marvel Universe.  The legitimacy to use force against a criminal has a head of power within the legal framework of a society, but superheroes act outside that legal framework.  Does this mean their use of force is illegitimate?  Can the State use force against people anonymously (as it does with some superheroes within the Marvel Universe)?  Again, the set up is amazing and intricate, but the exploration drifts away when it’s just easier to paint Iron Man as a jerk.

I know they’re writing comic books and not philosophical essays, but I really wish they would sometimes hand over the first half of a story to an ethicist, political philosopher, or legal theorist to give them some deeper insights into the issues hidden just under the surface of their plots.

Still, they’re trying.  And it leaves room for the rest of us to write up interesting articles about the philosophical frameworks of the story.

But there’s one story that Marvel will never be able to explore.  A question that is so taboo that to explore it in the comics would be treasonous.  A fundamental principle of the Marvel Universe upon which its narrative structure is founded.

Are the X-Men really the heroes?

There are a few stories where individual characters — particularly Professor X — are brought into question.  Was it moral for Xavier to form the X-Men?  Can Xavier’s manipulations of the X-Men be justified?  Even when it involves lying, manipulating, and outright deceiving people?  Really?

But the X-Men themselves, as an abstract idea, are never brought into question.  Let’s see why.

Despite being extraordinarily gifted and supernaturally talented, mutants are marginalised by the non-mutant community.  Overt forms of marginalisation include abuse from members of society and the secret use of force by the State to ‘manage’ the mutant community, while invisible prejudices have been quite cleverly woven into a few different stories.  Mutants are often taught to be ashamed of their powers, and are encouraged to hide them.  To challenge the invisible prejudices, the X-Men promote a message of tolerance, waiting for the time when mutants will be accepted in society.  More dramatically, they also fight literally with the overt forms of prejudice, usually represented by Sentinel robots.

They are not the only ones to fight back against anti-mutant prejudice.  Magneto formed a group of mutants — called the ‘Brotherhood’ — to take more direct action against human oppressors.  ‘Direct action’ here means ‘violent’ with the ambition to topple human control over the machinery of State and replace it with ‘homo superior’.  Magneto’s Brotherhood are not only confronted with physical force but are also attacked on ideological grounds: deemed ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’, and other characters refer to Magneto’s group as the ‘Brotherhood of Evil Mutants‘.  The Brotherhood are not only weaker than their opponents, but their views are denied legitimacy within the public discourse on mutant oppression.

In the Marvel Universe, the X-Men often battle the Brotherhood in order to defend human society against the mutant threat.  The X-Men are presented as a ‘middle path’ between the status quo and progressive realisation of mutant rights.  Although they defend mutants against the overt attacks from the human society which fears and hates them, they also defend the oppressors against mutant attacks.  It’s this latter function which is problematic: the X-Men actively fight in the interest of their oppressors.

We understand intuitively why we see the X-Men as the heroes of the Marvel Universe.  They are trying to find a non-violent route towards equality, but this idea of voluntarily enforcing non-violence in reaction to State violence (such as marginalisation) should be questioned.  In the future, a powerful psychic mutant called Rachel Summers is brainwashed into hunting down mutant threats.  She’s disfigured, demeaned, and branded a ‘Hound’ by the humans she serves.  Although the audience is appalled at her treatment, it never occurs to Marvel Comics that the X-Men perform the same task of hunting down mutant threats to human society, but without the need to be brainwashed.  Like an obedient watch dog, the X-Men go and fight the Brotherhood, hoping that they will earn the gratitude and adoration of their human oppressors.  ‘Thank you for protecting our oppressive society against mutant attacks, X-Men,’ they expect them to say.  Instead, all they hear is, ‘See?  Mutants are a threat.  Look at them fighting like savages.’

Up until the modern period, we have been inclined to make heroes out of people who responded to this state of affairs with violence.  Robespierre, for example, was happy to use the language of terror as a legitimate tool during the French Revolution.  But we are uncomfortable with this idea in the modern political debate.  Our heroes are people like Gandhi who use non-violent forms of resistance to draw attention to their cause.  We like people like Gandhi because they are, ultimately, non-threatening.  You can imagine the Gandhi analogue in the Marvel Universe who absolutely refuses to use violence, but is absolutely and utterly ignored by the human community who is left fully capable of continuing the banality of oppression.

We can think about times in the real world where we disapprovingly tut-tut at rallies which become violent.  ‘Why don’t they just use their words!’  But we rarely take the second step in that thought process: are we sure that the language of politics, &c., is fair and equally accessible to everybody?

For all the speeches and delegations to the UN, the X-Men have not influenced public opinion in the same way that the Brotherhood have.  Violence and the fear of violence are effective political tools, particularly where social structures need to be disrupted and especially when all avenues to non-violent political debate are cut off or rendered ineffective.

In the Marvel Universe, the X-Men struggle to get their voices heard in the political debate.  Even in Avengers v X-Men, they get absolutely no say in the management of their own affairs — the comparisons between the Avenger’s activities and the Northern Territory Intervention are quite amazing, yet the Avengers are ultimately considered morally righteous for their act.  The X-Men repeatedly attempt to play the political language game to progress their cause, and yet are routinely rebuffed.  They simply do not have equal access to the political institutions of their world.

Marvel Comics never entertains the idea that the Brotherhood might be correct and the X-Men wrong because that would conflict with the dominant ideology of our culture: that violent reactions are illegitimate, and only those protests which makes the ruling class feel safe are acceptable.  The Marvel Universe is liberal, not radical, and so establishes its philosophical framework upon these comfortable, familiar ideas.

But make no mistake, no group has done more to slow down the mutant rights cause than the X-Men.  And when the Brotherhood finally succeeds in toppling the corrupt, violent human society which oppresses them (and we can only hope that they succeed), who will thank that X-Men for routinely opposing progress?

Who rides the wrecking ball into our rock guitars… Grab @Beginnings_A while you can… #reviews #comics

It seems like only yesterday that Gutenberg invented/stole the idea for the printing press.  On that day, the printed word was set free (for a price) to reduce the barriers between writers and readers.

It would be nice to think that Gutenberg thought to himself: ‘One day, my printing press will break down the traditional barriers between professional writers and amateurs; between professional artists and amateurs; and between professional publishers and amateurs.’  Gutenberg, of course, would be aware that the word ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin for ‘lover’, and his musings which I have falsely ascribed to him would use that understanding: what if people could create things indistinguishable from the professionals, motivated only by their love of writing, art, and publishing?

The Beginnings Anthology, published by the ACT Comics Meet, shows we’re nearing the singularity where non-professionals match the skill of pros.  My faux-Gutenberg would be impressed.  Hell, even the real Gutenberg would be impressed.

Anthologies are difficult to review.  They’re like smorgasbords: a wide collection of tiny samples, each part appealing to a different taste.  Nobody goes to a smorgasbord and says: ‘I enjoyed every dish.’  Similarly, an anthology will vary wildly in its content, each part appealing to a different kind of reader.

This is no less true for Beginnings Anthology.  Some parts of it are breathtakingly good.  High concepts are matched with near flawless execution.  Risks pay off.  Quirks find niches.  Conventions are thoroughly messed with.  There are parts which make me wonder whether something this beautiful could only be created by somebody who lost a few too many sanity points on double demerit weekends.

On the other hand, there are bits which don’t work or aren’t as ambitious or don’t inspire the same feeling of awe.  Which — as part of an anthology — is fine.  I’m sure the Mark in the Universe Next Door is writing a review where he comments on how much he liked the staple, conventional, meat-and-potatoes comics but couldn’t really get into the pretentious high art stuff.  Smorgasbord.

Further, there are parts which seem uncomfortably confessional.  More than once I was overcome with the feeling: ‘Should I be reading this?  Who would want me to know this?  Did they accidentally publish somebody’s diary?’  Part of that is no doubt the personal and private nature of good art: you reveal a part of yourself to others.  Do some parts of Beginnings Anthology start to slip into the swamp of indulgence?  I’m not sure.

But regardless of the relatively minor criticisms I might charge against individual pieces, the overall curation of Beginnings Anthology is superb.  There are two ways to read it.  You can either jump to individual pieces which seem interesting (as I did on my first read), or you can read it from cover to cover.  I nearly skipped doing the latter and I am very glad that I didn’t.  Individual pieces are enhanced by the context of their fellows, even though they were created in isolation.

The first piece, ‘In the Beginnings’, is made up of four pages, each on a different idea of ‘Beginning’.  The result is a very effective microcosm of the entire anthology: how you begin the next page is directly influenced by the way you ended the one before.

If you removed the preface, you would find it a challenge to identify it as a labour of love.  I have collected works and anthologies on my bookshelf which are significantly less sleek and stylish than Beginnings Anthology.  With production costs reducing every day, it is my very great hope that we will see more productions like it.

(Disclosure: I sometimes hang out with some of the creators)

You came home for the endless summer… Comics, misogyny, and mythologising Claremont

Oh, you non-nerds have it so easy.  Up there in the mainstream, you only have to deal with the ordinary misogyny, homophobia, and racism which passes off as daily interactions or popular entertainment.  Down here in the nerd sub-culture (and, in truth, it is beneath culture) we invent whole new ways to be terrible human beings.

I recently ranted about Batman: Arkham City and its weird, weird, oh-so-weird inability to be women-friendly.  There was a game based on a popular franchise that went out of its way to make misogyny fun.  But there’s no need to rehash that.

Circulating the various nerd-blogs are two videos by The Escapist video-blogger, Movie Bob, which tries to discuss some of the big problems with Marvel superheroine, Ms Marvel.

The videos aren’t really worth watching (Movie Bob is insufferable and unfunny), but they cover a few issues which are worth discussing at length.

Quickly, here’s a run-down of the videos:

1.  Ms Marvel was a superhero in the Marvel Universe (the two big comic publishers are Marvel and DC: DC has all the characters you know — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, &c. — but Marvel has the better movies — Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man… lots of men).

2. To celebrate a milestone in Marvel’s publishing history, they decided to centre a story around Ms Marvel.  Ms Marvel wakes up one day and discovers that she’s pregnant.  She doesn’t know how it happened.  The foetus undergoes rapid development, is born, then matures to adulthood quickly.  The child explains that Ms Marvel was kidnapped by a villain, put under mind control and impregnated.  For reasons unexplained, she had her mind wiped and was returned.  Due to cosmic woo-woo she gives birth to the guy who kidnapped, brainwashed, and impregnated her.  Ms Marvel falls in love with her rapist/child and they go off into the sunset.

3. Nobody in-universe thinks (2) is weird.

4. The video then makes a bunch of funny noises which might be the author trying to make a point.

5. One writer at Marvel, Chris Claremont, thought this treatment of Ms Marvel was rubbish, so wrote a story where Ms Marvel returns and lectures everybody for treating her rape like it was romantic.

6. Video declares Chris Claremont to be a hero (‘Joss Whedon 1.0’).

The broader issue is the portrayal of women in comics.  I recently hosted our monthly book club meeting, and set Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta as the book under discussion.  I am the only regular comics-reader in our group, and I thought it would be interesting to choose a book from a radically different genre.  The feedback from the others was that the format was alienating, and then when you overcame that hurdle, the story had a fundamental problem with women which was further alienating.

There’s a recurring set of storylines for women in comics: they are raped, tortured, or have babies. It’s the only way the characters develop.  In V for Vendetta, Evey has to be tortured in order to have her character develop.

The Ms Marvel plot is not incongruous with the pervasive misogyny of comic books.  There have been concerted efforts to stop this from happening but, as I discussed in the Batman post, whenever there’s progress, the comic book publishers regress back into their adolescent boy stage.

From the videos, you’d think that Chris Claremont was somehow a revolutionary progressive of the industry.  Described as ‘Joss Whedon 1.0’ (and, well, it’s not like Whedon doesn’t have his problematic years when it comes to the portrayal of women), Movie Bob explains how Claremont reclaimed Ms Marvel for womens lib and lovers of non-rapey plotlines everywhere.

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that nerds had found new ways to be terrible human beings.  Chief inventor was Chris Claremont who, during the dark times of the late ’80s and early ’90s (long story short: DC and Marvel tanked the industry by running a weird scheme where they thought printing comics was basically the same as printing money…), was given free reign to print story after story dedicated to his women-degrading fetishes.

Whoa.  Those are some lawsuit worthy words right there.  I better have some good evidence to back them up.

Claremont’s stock plot is: ‘Courageous, empowered woman with large muscles and larger breasts combats a character with some sort of transformation power.  Said character uses transformation power on the courageous woman, making her some sort of slave or object.  Courageous, empowered woman is either saved or becomes a recurring character as a slave or object.’

Case in point: Spiral.  Spiral was originally a woman called Rita who was kidnapped by the interdimensional being Mojo.  Despite being brave and courageous and in love with her partner, Mojo performs magical surgery and brainwashes her to become Spiral.

Case in point: Rachel Summers.  Rachel Summers was born a super-powered mutant (daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey in a future timeline).  She’s kidnapped by the government, brainwashed, tattooed, and forced into some sort of fetish wear.  She’s called a ‘hound’ and is used to hunt down other mutants.

Case in point: Spiral and Rachel Summers.  Mojo uses Spiral to kidnap Rachel Summers and manipulated her into working for him.

Case in point: Storm.  Storm battles Magneto who uses his ability to manipulate metal to encase Storm as a statue.

It’s not just me who thinks Claremont might be on the wrong side of the strong female character debate.  TV Tropes handwaves some of his other exciting storylines (all women are bisexual, for example).

If Claremont invented a female character, he’s found a way to tie them up or brainwash them (or both).  He’s creative in his misogyny.

Really, the only thing that can save comics is to get women into top jobs in Marvel and DC.  In 70 years of Marvel’s publishing history, there’s never been a female editor and only one female editor-in-chief (Bobbie Chase was part of the one-year experiment where there were several editors-in-chief; she headed up Marvel Edge which was basically ‘Tales from the Universe Next Door’).  There’s never been a female executive of Marvel.  DC fares slightly better.  Diane Nelson is the president, but I can’t think of any female editors or editors-in-chief.

The spheres are in commotion… the other side of Free Comic Book Day

I love Free Comic Books Day.  It’s a great time of year for publishers to advertise and attract new readers.  For example, I didn’t know that The Tick was still in print (or that Chris McCulloch’s published stuff was available in trade paper back.  Oh yes it is).

At the same time, there’s something which makes me feel awfully uncomfortable about comic books.  Think of any superhero, then think of a superhero from Marvel, and then one from DC.  Bets are on you either thought of a white guy or a female known for impractical clothing.

As a bit of a proof, I went to the Marvel Database and hit random until a person of colour appeared.  I gave up after 12 attempts.  More than twelve in thirteen comic book characters (even including all the minor nobodies) are white.  At least until it gets edited again, Wikipedia says that only 75% of people in America are white (7.5 out of every ten, so by the time I got to 10, I should have had at least one POC).  So either there is a disproportionate number of whities getting superpowers in the Marvel Universe (making it eerily like the Harry Potter universe), or the Marvel team aren’t proportionately interested in writing about non-whites.  [Okay, it’s also possible that the Marvel Database is lacking in data about all the hundreds of POC superheroes they’ve had.  I’m happy to be corrected]

I chose Marvel because I like Marvel a lot and rather wish it had performed better.  I doubt I’d get a better outcome from DC.

You could argue that Caucasian-dominated comics sell better and that there is little appetite amongst the comic book audience for non-white stories.  You would, of course, be arguing that comic book audiences are jerks.

And, frankly, I’m rather willing to agree.  News circulated this week about the ‘nerd rage’ regarding Idris Elba (a black actor) playing Heimdall in the new Thor film.

My favourite line of that article:

Some of the Elba’s staunchest – although ostensibly not racially motivated – opponents accuse Marvel of left-wing social engineering, noting that it attacked the Tea Party movement in a recent issue of Captain America, and that Stan Lee is known to support left-wing politicians.  Other complainants, who are more directly racist, talk about the “filthy culture of judaism [sic]” and how Elba’s casting is an attack on “White Culture.” While the latter accusation is both disgusting and ridiculous, the former – that the left wing is using the media, and especially Hollywood, as a vehicle for propaganda – is not new. It was also leveled at DC Comics following the news that Superman was going to renounce his US citizenship.  [Source: ‘Black Thor Actor Talks About Racist Comic Book Fans‘, The Escapist]

Could there be any more deliciously stupid position?  Oh, the real racists complain that it’s an attack on white culture (and that’s disgusting and ridiculous) but the totally ordinary fans think it’s left-wing social engineering?

How is ‘Darkies can’t play my white hero’ not racially motivated?  In what universe do the words ‘disgusting and ridiculous’ not apply to both positions (and not just the latter)?  This is a baffleplex and I am baffled.

And don’t you go confusing me for one of those socially sensitive, well-meaning lefties either: I’m a conservative and even I think it’s outrageous that people are getting upset that an African American is playing a comic book character.

Damnit.  Back in 2004, the very first episode of Boston Legal preached:

Judge Rita Sharpley: No one is denying this little girl an education, sir. She just can’t play Annie.

Reverend Al Sharpton: You may think this is a small matter. But this is no small matter. This child is being denied the right to play an American icon because she doesn’t match the description. Those descriptions were crafted 50 years ago! We’re supposed to be in a different day!

Judge Rita Sharpley: Reverend…

Reverend Al Sharpton: You talk about racial equality, how we’re making progress. The problem with that progress is it’s always a day away. Tomorrow, tomorrow-you love that!-because it’s always a day away. I’m here to stick out my chin today! Today! Give us an African-American Spider Man! Give us a black that can run faster than a speeding bullet and leap over tall buildings in a single bound! Not tomorrow-today! Today! The sun needs to come out today! Not tomorrow, your Honor! God Almighty! Give the American people a black Orphan Annie. It’s just not good enough to say she doesn’t look the part.  [Source: 1×1 ‘Head Cases’, Boston Legal]

The preoccupation with protecting ‘white characters’ from the evil machinations of sinister left-wing producers is obscene.  It’s a fictional character being reinterpreted for a new media.  If ever there’s a time to shift the framework, surely it’s when comic books are trying to reach out to mass audiences.  With any luck, we’ll see Heimdall represented in the comics the way he ought to be: as a freaking awesome black guy.  Like Spock’s skin tone being doctored post-production from yellow to white, I like to think that Heimdall is actually a Nordic-African but his skin colour keeps getting doctored post-production to white.

But it’s not even like there’s a lack of precedent for this kind of thing.  Meet this guy:

Ultimate and the best

Nick Fury was a WWII vet who then became the super-spy head of SHIELD.  He was the poster boy for bad ass, punching Nazis and then taking down supervillains.  Few characters were as awesome as he was.

Oh, and he was white.

When Marvel started up the Ultimate Universe, they decided that Nick Fury was far too awesome to be modeled on anybody other than Samuel L. Jackson.

Where was all the pathetic whining then?  Where were all the fanboys rabidly protecting the treatment of their white identity then?

Despite being about people who surpass human limitations and who live in a futuristic world just around the corner, the comic book world seems intent on living in the distant past when it comes to issues of racial identity.

And here I am fighting, fighting… but I still wouldn’t fight Batman.

Over at io9.com, they’ve made the ridiculous assertion that Superman would win in a fight with Batman.  Given that I’m doing some extreme procrastination today, I figured that I would do what every nerd does deep down in his blackened nerdy heart: get really worked up about a trivial bullshit matter.

We can imagine a number of things which might slow Batman down.  He is not impervious to, say, bullets shot from a gun.  But it’s never a one-shot fatality with Batman.  Why?  Because Batman is hyper-aware of his vulnerabilities and never allows anybody to come close to them.

Superman, however, has only one vulnerability and it seems that everybody in the DC Universe knows what it is.  I was watching The Batman this morning which — coincidentally enough — involved a fight between Batman and Superman.  Superman had gone evil, so Batman loaded him up with Kryptonite.  After Superman crashed to the ground with the Kryptonite, a few teenagers passing by noticed Superman and the Kryptonite.  ‘Kick the Kryptonite away!’  says one kid to the other.

Yup.  Even adolescents know all about Superman’s one-shot kill vulnerability.

So unless Superman can somehow take Batman out first shot and completely by surprise (which, as we noted earlier, is impossible), Superman’s stuffed and cannot possibly win.

In other news: http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=3306

I dislike Superman. Despite the fundamental problem with his character — that he is invulnerable to everything except magic and concrete magic — he’s boringly one-dimensional.

Indeed, the only time he’s a good character is when he’s starring in one of those ‘What if…?’ tales.  For the best example to date, check out Red Son: instead of landing in the Bible Belt, Superman’s infant pod is knocked off course and he lands in Soviet Russia.  Instead of protecting America from supervillians, he protects the proletariat from the evils of American capitalism (headed by none other than Lex Luthor).

Then again, the only time Pingu is awesome is when he’s communist.

So when it’s reported that Chris Nolan might be rebooting the Superman movie line, I die a little bit more inside.  Superman is inextricably woven into the idea of the Ideal American.  For three generations, he’s been the ideation of the white, Protestant, American male: he’s always good, he’s always right, he always wins, and he always brings hope.

While Batman has strong links with the capitalist fantasy of dominating the underprivileged who threaten their power structure (he’s a wealthy industrialist who dresses up in fetish wear to punch up escapees from a psychward — Arkham Asylum — who threaten their power structure), Batman’s become a lot more interesting since the ’80s turned him into an antihero.

You can’t have a canonical antihero Superman.  That might not be a bad thing: we’ve become a little bit too absorbed with antiheroes over the past two decades and it gets a bit tiresome.  Oh look at you, you edgy outsider who doesn’t care for the rules but is determined to seek justice.  P.S. Your featureless mask is terrifying, Rorschach. Continue reading

This morning, I woke up with this feeling I didn’t know how to deal with… and 2009 was awesome

I voted in triple j's Hottest 100, have YOU?

My top ten songs for the year (in no particular order):

BAT FOR LASHES – Daniel

DATAROCK – Give It Up

EDITORS – Papillon

FLORENCE and THE MACHINE – Drumming Song

FRANZ FERDINAND – No You Girls

KAREN O AND THE KIDS – All Is Love

LA ROUX – In For The Kill

METRIC – Help I’m Alive

THEM CROOKED VULTURES – Reptiles

FLORENCE and THE MACHINE – Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)

Best movie of the year:

Where the Wild Things Are

Admittedly, I’m yet to see District 9 (I bought the DVD yesterday) and MoonStar Trek was more awesome than anybody could have expected but still didn’t manage to be as absolutely perfect as WtWTA.

There were some right stinkers this year as well.  Coraline was probably the worst new film I saw this year.  Everything that WtWTA did well, Coraline managed to foul up (even though both films were largely exploring the same territory).  Dragonball Evolution managed to be disappointing despite the already low expectations (it wasn’t even fun).  And Up! was an exceptional waste of time.  I still can’t work out what the plot was.

The biggest disappointment was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  What a bafflingly confused pile of crap that was.

Favourite meme:

Boxxy.  It was a good start to the year.

Best new book:

It was a bit of a shitty year for fiction.  A new Dan Brown novel and Eoin Colfer’s attempt to impersonate Douglas Adams rather ruined the year for me.

Unseen Academicals by Pratchett was a lot of fun.  It’s interesting to see the continuing development of Vetinari, and I wonder if there’s much more development in store for him.

In comic books, I really liked Messiah War.

Best new video game:

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.  It won’t break any records and it probably won’t go down in time as a classic game, but it is so much fun.

For sheer brilliance, special mention should be made of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  I bought it for my younger brother (who has an XBox) and it’s mesmerisingly good.