Monthly Archives: October 2018

Monster Culture

I thought Cohen’s Monster Culture was a really interesting analysis of culture in general, and I liked that he used the lens of monsters as a cultural product to talk about larger cultural ways of thinking. Although he brought in nuances, I felt like a lot of what he was talking about was concerned with the narratives we create both symbolizing and enforcing fear, whether it’s fear of the Other, of the unknown, of breaking boundaries, etc. I thought his use of the constructed monster as insight into the values and fears of a culture was interesting, especially thinking about the monsters he brings up that are more than folk tales and fictions, such as the monsterization of gay and trans folk during the first AIDS epidemic in the US, or the use of racial features as monstrous features to demonize the Other.

While I liked that he brought in so many examples and made a lot of connections to analyses of culture done by others like Said, I thought his perspective was really limited to narratives by and about Western culture, especially because his claim was one of universality, and because part of his argument talks about the alienation and Othering of those not in the ‘correct’ or dominant group but then participates in that process by only considering certain kinds of culture in his theses. Even the incorporation of non-Western cultures is only in a Western context, where the Other is made a monster of to justify colonization and dominion. One telling example is in his second thesis, where he claims that “vampiric figures are found almost worldwide from ancient Egypt to modern Hollywood”. He uses ancient Egypt as a claim to a global perspective, but the narrative arc of cultural history was constructed by the West, especially in art history, to connect ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome to the Renaissance. It was used to lend credibility and weight to a Western narrative; rather than serve Cohen’s point of universality, it highlights a limited scope. Incorporating myths and monsters from non-Western contexts would not only have better validated some of his points, but might have complicated some as well. For example, when he talks about (in thesis 3) the somatic body that is made up of various parts acting as a metaphor for the fear on non-hierachical or binary classification, he leaves out a lot of religious and mythical figure for whom the combination of diverse parts is a strength rather than something monstrous (such as Ganesha, whose elephant head that his mother gave him after his dad cut his first normal head off- long story- actually benefits from the qualities of the elephant). Also, Cohen’s theses are based off a baseline of ‘normal’ that is itself constructed; the fear that monsters cause is culturally situated, and some monsters aren’t feared by groups that may be outside the ‘norm’. A great example is Deer Woman, who must be terrifying to rapists but is a hero for the Native American or First Nations woman. The monsters that are born out of a fear of hierarchy are only monsters to the top of the hierarchy, not to those at the bottom.

In thinking about how Monstress fits into all of this, I think the idea that monsters are situational and rely on the fears of not only the whole culture but the fears of those in power, Maika’s monstrousness makes a little more sense to me. At first, it seemed like she didn’t fit neatly into an category, and she really isn’t considered a monster by the reader. But the idea of complicating a monster by adding nuance and character calls into question the constructed nature of the monster, so it kind of feels like Liu and Takeda are working to explore not only what makes monster, but what the power of a monster is.

WWLS? What would Lamb Say?

The themes and ideas presented blog post “Superman is a White boy” by J. Lamb are applicable to several of the comics we have read in this class and can be useful to further interrogate representation of women and people of color in comics. One of Lamb’s main points that he begins his piece with is that superheroes represent a white male power fantasy. He also asserts that “humanity is white and human variation is very heroic.” In terms of representation of people of color in comics Lamb says that often POC superheroes are just later, low budget forms of white male superheroes.

The golden age Wonder Woman comic that we read demonstrates some of these things. As we learned from our guest speaker, the original writer or Wonder Woman, William Marston had an elaborate sort of white male power fantasy. He believed that women needed to have dominant sexual power over men so that men could realize their submissive potential. Though Marston’s beliefs translated to a comic that is often empowering for women, it still was the direct result of a white male power and sex fantasy. In addition to this issue, all of the women in Wonder Woman are white and have essentially the same body type. This a normative portrayal of women and and even continues in wonder woman comics.

On the other hand, Monstress fights back against some of the forms and stereotypes. In Monstress “humanity” as Lamb defines is is not white and the immense variation between characters allows them to act and be portrayed as heroic. All of the main characters in Monstress are female and have a variety of skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, making it a more representative text. However, Monstress is set in a fantasy world and so I am guessing that Lamb would not find this an acceptable way to include people of color because it is more removed from the human and political world. Monstress also plays into power fantasies because of the way the women are often sexualized. In the opening panel in particular we see the main character shirtless with chains around her neck. This plays into sexualized violence against women, specifically women of color and white male fantasies around this.

Ms. Marvel, the most recent comic that we read includes a young woman of color becoming a version of a superhero that already exists. As Lamb argues in both of his pieces inserting people of color into the characters of existing superheroes does not to them justice. He states that these are simply cheap, less popular knock-off versions that are not as valuable as new storylines and characters. Kamala Khan takes on the name Ms. Marvel as her superhero name but also questions and redefines what it means, to her, to be a superhero. Kamala still feels like an outsider to the world of powerful superheroes as she is discovering her powers. While Ms. Marvel is not a new superhero character, this comic still does a good job showing the complex and realistic life a Muslim teenager growing up in New Jersey.

Lamb’s blog posts offer a perspective that encourages us to think critically about when and if people of color are portrayed in superhero comics and the intersection of racism, sexuality and power.

Nostalgia and White Supremacy

Snoopy Jenkins acknowledges how the dominant, racial and patriarchal ideals of Western culture have been implemented in comics books and more specifically, the tales of American Superheros. For example, Jenkins states, “In our world, the most famous, most powerful, most influential superhero ever devised is a straight White man… The superhero concept is a racial construct…” The fact that a extreme lack of representation has existed for such a long period of time shows in fact that it is the familiarity of superheros that readers long for rather than a newer, more diverse comic. Jenkins also addresses this idea; “Diversity does not sell superhero comics- nostalgia does, and this nostalgia hearkens back to postwar America, with its effervescent, bubbly nationalism, cleanly delineated racial hierarchies and obvious, unquestioned gender roles.” This idea of nostalgia interests me because it indirectly shows how values of white elitism have been the dominating force of American culture since its foundation.

We, as a human race, are attracted to simplicity. And in this sense, simplicity reflects nostalgia for White, American males who subconsciously benefit from institutionalized systems of inequality. Jenkins states, “everyone drawn and colored and inked and lettered in panel conducts themselves in accordance or in conflict with mainstream, middle-class White American social ethics. The ‘right thing’… [is] a moral good defined in panel by rural Midwestern Protestants…” Further, the idea of ‘the right thing’ that these superheros usually perform are depicted by these systems of inequality and are therefore very bias in nature. The ‘right thing’ is never culturally diverse and constantly instills the public with the assumption that western culture is the only ‘moral’ culture.

There is no room for diversity, racially, culturally, or sexuality wise due to the fact that most white, male superheros exist as a product of wartime America. They gain their power from the military and dominate war related tasks. Jenkin illustrates this idea, “superheros use violence to solve problems, foreign and domestic… [they] show unsophisticated, immature White males who wrest manhood from their military experience, who telegraph masculinity by glorifying war.” Thus, there is no room for diversity of the character due to the specificity of what people expect and the idea that people want to read nostalgic comics. People keep existing in this “a world where humanity is White and human variation is never heroic.” Addionally, “Every Wednesday, superheros seduce the innocent with disturbing commentaries on justifiable public conflict, acceptable casualty rates, and unspoken racial hierarchies. Superheros are White male power fantasy distilled to narcotic purity…”

 

Dear Kamala Kahn and the Reinvention of Super Hero

Lamb’s “Super Man is a White Boy” and “Dear Kamala Kahn” put in conversation offer very different perceptions of the potential of super hero comics given their racist and sexist origins. Lamb argues that the “most famous, most powerful, most influential superhero ever devised is a straight White man. Here, meaningful diversity in superhero comics is not possible. The superhero concept is a racial construct, used primarily to derive profit from printing White male power fantasies.” Lamb’s historical perspective no the origin of super heroes as straight white males is undeniable. However, I feel conflicted about the idea that “meaningful diversity in super hero comics is not possible.”

For example, Lamb claims that super hero comics is “an industry dependent on White male consumer support”.However, I wonder if this is entirely true or if it is a misconception of the true consumers of comics—such as the unrecognized female fans that recounted their experiences in “She Makes Comics.” There are also whole comic conventions just for women, whole subgenres of comics directed at women readers. I also wonder if more comic authors and artists of diverse perspectives were embraced by big-name comic publishers if the genre would be redefined.

I also feel that the subversion of genre could be an even more powerful way to empower. I feel like the underlying principles of super hero comics: morality, a superhuman force for good, fighting evil, are all principles that people find universal enjoyment in.

In putting this piece in conversation with “Dear Kamala Kahn,” the author finds meaning in seeing a representation of herself in place of who would traditionally be a white, male character. She feels the definition of who is an “American” expanding when she says “Yes, it is OUR country! Right, Kamala?” which is in part due to Kamala’s reinvention of a genre that came to represent “Americanness” in the mainstream eye. She is empowered to see herself in Kamala when she says, “Yet, you broke the concrete ceiling and became who you wanted to be. You give me a ray of hope because if you can, so can I.” She identified with the character and super hero to feel empowered and emboldened in her real life. Finally, she says, “I don’t have to change my color or my values to be an influential figure to the world.” In this instance she references both seeing herself represented by the character of Kamala and the role of a super hero in being a force, of having the power to effect change.

Therefore, while I agree with Lamb on what the super hero genre came to represent, I feel there is also subversive power in reinventing who a super hero is and what it means to be a super hero.

“Diversity is bodies. Inclusion is culture.”

“Superman is a White Boy” takes a critical view on the systematic process of creating superheroes and critiques POC substitutes/versions of existing Superheroes. Delving slightly into the Netflix, straight-to-video reboots of “diverse” stories, he argues that offering up POC replacements for these constructed-as-white-and-free-of-intersectionality characters are “conformist cries, conservative activism from patient racial integrationists” that await a life that assimilates to Whiteness. Stuffing POC into these roles is tokenizing, using their physical representations as merely enough for diversity.

Last year, Deray McKesson was our Keynote speaker for the Power & Privilege Symposium. He said something that has stuck with me as the school, and texts like this, bring up diversity without ever defining what it is. Deray said, “Diversity is bodies, inclusion is culture.” Texts like Ms. Marvel and the recent Black Panther movie handle this delicate balance with grace and poise. In Ms. Marvel, we understand that Kamala Khan’s mantle is more than just a Xerox copy. The story weaves in her culture; She is a person with a family and a history before she is a superhero. Ms. Marvel praises and embodies Deray’s definition of inclusion more than diversity. Ms. Marvel shifts the superhero narrative of one that centers their hero life to one that marries the personal life as a catalyst for their superhero roots, beyond the supernatural occurrence that turns them into the hero. It is special that Kamala struggles with the thing that she always wanted. Idolizing Captain Marvel and The Avengers, Kamala struggles with the possible dream-crushing reality of being brown, in a role never meant for brown people, let alone a 16 year-old Muslim girl. Although being brown is a limitation on her dreams, it doesn’t prevent her from existing. It actually fuels her existence.

There is a need to humanize Kamala and make her story worth being heard; there is work and planning and execution and thoughtfulness that went into creating the complex character of Kamala. Although it is not the end-all and be-all of women of color as superheroes (as it shouldn’t be), it increases the chances of seeing more complex characters that marry their racial identity with their superhero purpose and origins. However, Lamb points to the problematic thinking of visibility as activism.

According to Lamb, “some nerds of color are more concerned with being seen than with being seen as human.” Visibility is simply not enough in the world of comics or in popular media.  Even saying that visibility is a start is a poor place to start; placing the foundations of representation in “good enough” is not the way to make change. We must create with the intention of a holistic representation via the integration of the culture. Black Panther could not have been as successful without its integration of Black culture into every fiber of its being; diversity of the story is not bound by location, language, or food, but rather is represented and highlighted in the soundtrack, costume design, and jokes. References to shoe game, intentional color mapping in scene choices, and Kendrick Lamar’s contracted studio album helped cement a larger cultural importance than the token black hero. Black Panther was written and performed by a black cast, for a black audience. There is immense importance of putting the power of creation in the hands of people of color is also instrumental in the creation of diverse stories and characters.

We cannot expect those who do not share our experience to reflect our experience.

To put this responsibility on large companies like Marvel and Sony and Fox to do so is dangerous. I want to separate my own dreams of Diversity in animated movies from Disney, as I believe and have experienced that working with predominately white institutions to create change is ineffective. I believe that while Marvel and DC have the largest platforms to create diversity, there is not an internal commitment to diversity. Black Panther is awesome… but when corporations do not celebrate this achievement on a cultural level and celebrate it within the realm of capital success, POC representation is tokenized all over again.

I want to be a part of a studio that in its roots, is committed to creating a more equitable media environment. Anyone want to help start it?

Comparing old and new art forms

I thought that these articles were very thought provoking in the way that I have never thought about comics in the way that Lamb refers to the social and racial constructs that superheroes and comics in general ensue. While reading these two articles, I feel as if it started off with thoughts that we have either talked about in class or that I have been thinking about since we have not only started reading superhero comics in this class but ever since I have been watching superhero movies such as avengers, captain America, iron man, the list goes on and on. These thoughts include “Token women and people of color bestow selfless assistance, and our protagonists foil their deranged nemeses’ dastardly plans” and “The superhero concept is a racial construct, used primarily to derive profit from printing White male power fantasies ad nauseam for a core audience of ostracized children. Nostalgia generates revenue.” We have analyzed these thoughts many times in class but I feel as if the white male superhero, which there seem to be so many of, is always the topic of the conversation. However while reading these two articles that were centered around the racial constructs of comics, I couldn’t stop thinking about the role that white women play in comics. I wonder if Lamb would have the same outlook on the racial constructs seen through comics if these articles were focused not on white male superheroes like Superman but instead analyzed the role that white female superheroes like wonder women play Lambs outlook on comics. When Lamb started comparing comics to early paintings, I had never thought they these two forms of art could be compared in such a way that Lamb did, but I think that he did it in such a way that not only gave background on the paintings of Charles Stanhope, Bartholomew Dandridge, and Arthur Devi but also was able to compare it to the much more modern form of art, comics. It was really interesting reading Lambs take on how these paintings and comics compared regarding the white Anglo-Saxon man which is the main topic of both art forms and which the art during this time revolves around.

Marvel minority heroes

I agree with Lamb’s feeling that a lot of minority superheroes are copies of other better known characters and those that are not are often written in ways that don’t highlight their complexity. Most of my knowledge of superheroes comes from my reading of Marvel comics, and so my knowledge is limited, but this is a trend that I have noticed as well. There has been a tendency for writers to create interesting heroes of color and then when the next writer comes in they are rapidly simplified down to a few “core” elements that the new writer thinks are interesting or popular. Marvel in particular has been capitalizing off any sort of character popularity by giving them the BBC Sherlock treatment and turning them into flanderized caricatures. This often happens to minority heroes that people latch onto, after an interesting run filled with depth of character and nuance (that made them interesting in the first place) they are quickly cut down to a couple buzzword-y lines and some unnecessary quirks. One unfortunate example of this is Kamala Kahn (Ms. Marvel) in the Champions, Kamala is a really interesting character, her solo books show her flaws, her challenges, and her unrelenting commitment to making others lives better. At the same time outside of her solo title she has a tendency to get tokenized and broken down to a few irrelevant traits. She often appears in leadership roles but never feels like she has weight behind her. She leaves the Avengers because she doesn’t feel like they take care of people after their fights, but it doesn’t have the same impact as her disillusionment with Carol after Civil War II; in fact to many of her interactions with “adult” superheroes, just end up being an excuse to talk about her fan fiction. Kamala is held up as an ideal, but without the backing; she is the moral compass without reason or sacrifice. There is no best of us moment (https://www.reddit.com/r/marvelstudios/comments/4ygvkz/the_day_i_hear_cap_recite_these_words_to_spider/), no explanation for her actions, no moment where she shows how much she is willing to do to help others, instead we get quirks and cardboard innocent idealism and I feel like that really weakens the character in a way that doesn’t give respect to what Amanat started. I feel like a lot of this comes from a lack of diversity on the writing teams, part of the reason that there are so many white superheroes are there are so many white writers. At the end of the day the hero is supposed to be who you want to be, who you are on your best day, and lives with your flaws and your struggles. I think its intimidating for writers to come in and portray someone like Kamala who has her culture as such a integral part of her character, and hard for them to put themselves in her shoes to tell the nuanced emotional stories she deserves; instead they fall back on what they took away from her character that’s safe off the top of their head, nice, nerdy, infallible moral compass. Unfortunately without nuance there is no weight, without history there is no growth, so one characters of color are separated from the writer who got them right it can be a while before they become more than just cardboard cutouts of themselves.

To another theme of these articles, I don’t think that superheroes are always proactive and violent, and I think Spider-Man is a really good example of that. What makes Peter Parker special is his sacrifice, at the end of the day Batman and Tony Stark are billionaires, Captain America represents his country, Superman is invincible; but Peter has no money, barely any friends, no free time, and no one really likes or respects him. What makes Spider-Man a great character is that he doesn’t do it for himself, that he doesn’t feel like his job stops when he rescues the woman from the exploding car. One incredible snippet from a relatively recent Spider-Man run shows that Spidey even watches out for his villains (https://imgur.com/gallery/7N3Nz), hell for a while Spider-Man was a teacher (and tutored a kid who was a lookout for a robbery https://www.reddit.com/r/Spiderman/comments/9jd7sh/spiderman_is_a_good_dude_a_kid_who_was_a_lookout/), just recently he gave up his dream job and company to help others. Daredevil is a similar character, he has a complicated relationship with the justice system because he is a lawyer and will put the law before some of his own vigilante activities. I think these sorts of characters who focus more on the effects their actions have on society are in an interesting place to explore the stories and characters Lamb feels cannot be shown with characters like Superman.

Progress to Diverse Heroes

I found the two blog posts to be incredibly fascinating when considering the role of representation in superhero comics.  I was primarily struck by one major theme that was present in both Lamb’s Superman is a White Boy and Figures of Empire: On the Impossibility of Superhero Diversity: the notion of superheroes as created from White ideals.

Within American society, white men are the norm and standard for seemingly everything.  With superheroes as a distinctly American genre of comics, it is no surprise that these heroic characters have historically been white men.  While I knew this to be true, and anticipated this to be the primary point of discourse within the blog posts, I was shocked to find that it wasn’t.  Rather, the posts focused on the idea that the creation of superheroes as figures that were based upon American ideals were then inherently based around white men.  Lamb argues that, even when a person of color may play the role of Batman, this scenario is still not representative of diversity.  Although people of color may rally in support for characters like this, desperate for any drop of diversity they can find, a racially diverse Batman is still not progressive. Why? Because he is still parading around and promoting white ideals.  Lamb even takes this argument as far as to say that characters of color that are specifically created for representation, like Black Panther, are still not progressive enough.  Often these characters are still fitting into white tropes and values.  Additionally, these characters never gain the mass amounts of popularity that white superheroes do.

Although I have read few superhero comics, I am led to believe in Lamb’s arguments.  It would seem that our superheroes are all too simplistic.  Simply, they are immensely powerful beings who are celebrated in society and represent the image of a perfect human being.  While this concept sounds nice in theory, it can only be spread so thin amongst the wide range of superheroes that are present today.  While Lamb seems skeptical in the idea that we could ever achieve diversity in superhero comics, I would argue that it is possible to see diversity in superhero comics in a wide variety of ways.  We simply have a long way to go in terms of this progress.

For one, I think that a more genuine effort needs to be made of creating unique superheroes of color.  I think Ms. Marvel is a great start to this project.  We need to see more authors and artists of color incorporating their genuine experiences into characters of color, so as to avoid any whitewashing.  By creating a genuine Muslim-American girl, who wears a burkini and speaks urdu, readers are exposed to a new image of what a hero can look like.  For one thing, a superhero can be a teenage girl! For another, she can be a woman of color! And a woman of faith! Beyond these highly essential factors, Kamala offers another great and unique example of a superhero with a sense of humanity.  She is often self-conscious, awkward, and maybe a little bit scared.  Seeing genuine human emotion and even flaws within a superhero vastly expands our definition of a hero as we know them.

I believe that efforts are starting to be made with regard to representation of a true and genuine diversity in superhero comics.  Comics like Ms. Marvel and America have recently been created.  Black Panther took movie theaters by storm. The first Shuri comic just came out and was written by a Nigerian-American woman! It would seem that progress is starting to be made in the right direction, we just have to keep it up.

Toward Nuance and Away from Collateral Damage

I should preface this by saying that I have never actually read or enjoyed Superhero comics. As J. Lamb points out, there is a tendency to actively avoid nuance, the grey area between right and wrong, and the notion of ‘not wrong, but different,’ such that the superhero story has never really called out to me.

That said, I think J. Lamb could be a little easier on the nerds of color they so viciously tear to bits in both of these essays. I certainly agree that if we have a character with the face of a person of color who does not bear the cultural values their appearance/origins would imply, that’s not really representation. However, I think it’s also important to recognize that the people of color yearning so earnestly for characters like a black Superman are looking for something. There is a yearning in their hearts, and that yearning is specifically for a superhero. A person of color who can do anything, and does the right thing always. When Lamb says the superhero has outlived its usefulness, it’s entirely possible that superheroes as they understand them may have. But must the superhero be abandoned entirely? Or could an extremely powerful, highly moral, (and yet mortal) being still wander the streets of our cities, just with more diverse and nuanced quests? Could there not exist a permutation of the superhero with more moral grey areas and less collateral damage?

I would argue that we have already seen these figures in the faces of Ms. Marvel and of Wonder Woman in “Hiketeia.”

We see Kamala use her own morality, a morality rooted in the Muslim Pakistani culture she learned from her father, to decide that she needs to save Zoe, even though Zoe is a terrible person. Here we have a grey area, and the decision is that even a really thoughtless and cruel person’s life is worth something. Kamala is still a superhero – she has a moniker, a disguise, super powers, and most importantly is driven by a strong sense of moral good. The thing is that in the book we read for class, she’s working on a smaller scale. She’s working with people she knows, in places that she’s familiar with. She’s responsible for whatever mess is made here, because it’s her place. Her family and school are here. As long as I’m talking about her family, I also want to say that Kamala definitely represents her culture, as opposed to just being an essentially white character painted with a “veneer,” as J. Lamb describes.

Wonder Woman’s “Hiketeia” also works a lot with moral grey areas and different value systems. The system of revenge in ancient Greece is what Wonder Woman’s charge pledges by, but she can’t escape the modern moral system of Batman. Is killing for revenge okay? Is killing for any reason wrong? Wonder Woman is caught in the middle, forced to mediate between these two value systems under the threatening gaze of the furies. The eventual death of the girl (I believe her name is Danielle) is of course tragic, and we never really do know what’s right and wrong – only that it’s a shame. In this situation, we have to acknowledge that the decision Wonder Woman makes is blatantly partisan – she takes a side. And that side is not necessarily the side of ‘all things good,’ but rather a) the side that aligns most closely with her own values, and b) the side she is pressured to take by the furies. Having made her decision, she acts on it, even though it’s a messy situation and nothing is perfect.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think fans calling for superhero diversity are so misguided that they need to pack their bags and move away from the fandom. I believe there’s a way the genre can give them what they so yearn for it to give, because the genre seems willing to be flexible in its understanding of what a superhero is and does.

 

Where do we go from here?

While I agree with much of what Lamb is saying in her two blog posts, they gave the sense of hopelessness. She argued that superheroes were created to appeal to white male audiences through their very nature, which I found to make a lot of sense. She then argued that anything that strays from this white hero format will not be successful because the white male audience will be less interested in buying these types of comics and they are the backbone of the comic book industry, so making comics with a POC as the lead would have consequences. She states that Nostalgia generates revenue, which is why we will never get out of the white domination in comic books. Though I agree with these statements to a certain extent, I would like to see more optimism. Superheroes are so embedded in our culture and so popular that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So while they were founded on a perhaps problematic basis, we need to come up with ways to work with what we’ve got. Society has a demand for superheroes, so given their problematic nature, what can we do to fix this? A large portion of comic fans are white boys, but not all of them, so there is still a workable audience. As seen in the “Dear Kamala” article, representation for comic readers is huge. It can change lives. There are audiences that need this, and white boys need to know that they’re not the center of the universe and need to be reminded that they are not on a deity level just for being white men, like most superhero comics might imply. They would also benefit from more diverse superheroes. And while I personally don’t have answers for how to create diverse and sustainable superhero comics, I wish that Lamb would have at least hinted at ways in which we could try and improve the superhero industry, instead of leaving the reader with such a defeated outlook. Superheroes aren’t just going to disappear out of the blue, so what shifts can the industry make to evolve to a more inclusive universe?