No Riesman, making Captain America a dick isn’t interesting

Abraham Riesman gets Captain America all wrong, because he’s ignorant:

cover of Captain America Comics #1, with Cap punches Hitler

Let’s think about that core story for a minute. Imagine someone frozen in the 1940s being dropped into the 2010s with no experience of the intervening decades. Someone still high on ’40s social norms, righteous wartime adrenaline, and super-serum. Would he be the gentle, sensitive man we see in Marvel’s films and comics? It’s certainly possible. But isn’t it more likely — and more interesting to imagine — that we would find him difficult and reactionary? That he’d be uncomfortably macho and out of touch with modern values? In other words: Wouldn’t he be more John McCain than Barack Obama?

No.

Because Captain America isn’t just “someone frozen in the 1940s”, he’s a premature anti-fascist who grew in the Brooklyn of the 1930s, in Roosevelt’s New Deal America, who cared enough about the growning menace of fascism to volunteer for a dangerous, dodgy experiment after every draft board in New York had rejected him. He punched out Hitler in his very first cover for heaven’s sake, a year before the US would declare war on Germany. He let himself be made into an ubermensch just to fight those who actually think in terms of unter and ubermenschen. That was there from Captain America Comics #1, put in there by his Jewish-American creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

And when Lee and Kirby brought him back in the sixties, it was clear from the start that no matter how much trouble he had adjusting to the modern world, intolerance and machismo wasn’t part of it; the first actual African-American superhero (the same as in the new movie) debuted in Captain America. What Cap struggled with instead was with having his friends and family aged or gone, having to adjust to a world that went through several decades of change without him.

Riesman’s idea of a man out of time being an ignorant, reactionary dick is about the most dull and obvious you can have and it’s no wonder he takes his lead from the execrable Ultimates series.

Norman Rockwell: The Problem We All Live With

I like Lawyers, Guns and Money commenter Sly’s view of Captain America much better:

The best way to understand Captain America is that he is “weaponized Norman Rockwell.” And not just the Norman Rockwell who painted Boy Scouts, Santa Claus, and baseball games, but the Norman Rockwell who painted Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter, and little black girls being escorted to desegregated schools by Federal marshals.

Both Rockwell and Cap were actually much more lefty than their sanitised images — pushed by the sort of conservatives who imagine the American flag is theirs and theirs alone — allow for. Rockwell’s art, before, during and after World War II had a political, liberal left content that’s been ignored since. That iconic image of the townhall meeting from the Four Freedoms series of paintings has so often been appropriated as a nostalgic vision of America’s small town roots, stripped from the context that made it radical.

The same of course goes for Captain America, who can look so easily like just another jingoistic symbol of America, for those who can’t look past his star spangled uniform. But Cap only works when his writers acknowledge the fundamental decenty and honesty of the character, his genuine Roosevelt Democrat beliefs.

Moar book loot

slightly too many books bought

So on a whim I decided to go to my favourite secondhand bookstore in Amsterdam, only to find they’d just gotten a shedload of science fiction/fantasy in as well as added a new comics section. This led me to getting slightly more books than I’d counted on.

But at least I got a lot of books I’d been looking for for donkeys. Tricia Sullivan’s Maul for one, as well as Dreaming in Smoke, sound Mind and Someone to Watch over Me. There’s Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Robert Reed’s Down the Bright Way, as recommended by Jo Walton, several Bruce Sterling books (Crystal Express, Zeitgeist and A Good Old-Fashioned Future), the last in a John Meaney trilogy (Resolution) I needed, two Greg Egan books: Quarantine, Oceanic and one of K. W. Jeter’s steampunk novels (Infernal Devices).

I also got Tanya Huff’s complete Blood … series, a lot of Elizabeth Bear’s Promothean Age novels (as well as her science fiction novel Undertow) not to mention some more Gwyneth Jones books: Rainbow Bridge, White Queen and Divine Endurance as well as a Juanita Coulson novel, Star Sister to try out and perhaps review for SF Mistressworks.

Comics wise it was a mixed bag: two Pete Bagge collections of early, Neat Stuff work, an Marvel Essential Hulk collection, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, two volumes of Russell: the Saga of a Peaceful Man, A Smithonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, a thick slab of Strontium Dog, Oscar Zarate’s It’s Dark in London, a Samuel Delany adaptation, Bread and Wine and finally, Kyle Baker Cartoonist Volume 2.

And then I got home and the latest volume in Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was waiting for me…

DC called this a “fun Easter egg”

this is what dc calls a fun little easter egg

Before Watchmen was of course a moral and artistic travesty, amply documented in William Leung’s Who whitewashes the Watchmen review at Hooded Utilitarian, but what really struck me were the “homages” or “fun Easter eggs” as DC comics called them in their promotional material.

Even on their own merits these easter eggs are tone deaf, considering how much Alan Moore loathes and despises DC and Before Watchmen, so you must be pretty clueless as artist or writer working on it to think, “hey, I know, I’ll show my respect by putting in a little wink to the original series”. Worse though, when, as Darwyn Cooke and/or Amanda Connor did, the “homage” is to the rape scene where the original Silk Spectre was attacked by the Comedian in the first issue of Watchmen, here reimagined as her daughter beating up a pimp. That he’s a huge, fat black man (with all that implies, considering all those racial fears about what black men want to do to white women and how that worked out in real life) is just the racist icing on this particular sexist shitcake.

I do hope it was Darwyn Cooke who thought of this, because it’s exactly the sort of half-clever idea he tends to come up with and I think more highly of Amanda Connor, though you do wonder what she thought when drawing it. Cooke on the other hand is the epitome of the conservative fanboy turned professional, with no ideas of his own, spreading his bland nostalgia over everything he works on, in that sickening cutesy style of his.

As Leung calls it:

Wearing smiley earrings and a cute pout on her face, Laurie is a badass chick delivering rough justice to a mean black dude. Like father, like daughter. It is blatantly obvious what effect Cooke and Conner are aiming for here. But the question they apparently didn’t have the wits to ask themselves is what on earth led them to think it’s okay to use Moore’s serious critique of misogynistic violence as a vehicle for their shallow indulgence in kick-ass theatrics. Cooke may do all the talking he wants about respecting female characters and Conner may present herself as a champion of her gender in a male-dominated industry (e.g. Zalben, “FanExpo” pars. 4-7); but to take the most well-known rape scene in mainstream comics and turn it into a celebration of the rapist’s progeny bespeaks gross insensitivity and moral blindness, not to mention being deeply offensive to the spirit and intelligence of the original Watchmen.

Then again, the whole idea of the Comedian as unseen father figure watching over Laurie goes so against the spirit of the original series that it’s not that surprising DC, Cooke and Connor see nothing wrong with paying homage to a rape.

Show Bill Mantlo some love



Are you getting excited for the Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Stoked or curious to see Rocket Raccoon, the most unlikely of Marvel’s cosmic superheroes on the big screen? Then you might want to throw some love to Bill Mantlo, Rocket Raccoon’s creator.

Bill Mantlo was one of Marvel’s more prolific writers in the late seventies and eighties, being their go-to guy when it came to adopting existing properties into the Marvel Universe e.g turning Rom from a crap plastic toy robot into one of the more fondly remembered cult Marvel eighties titles. He also had a lengthy run on the Hulk, together with Sal Buscema (amongst others) during which he had the Hulk visit a strange alien world filled with strange furry creatures, including a certain Raccoon.

Mantlo left comics in the late eighties to become a lawyer, but unfortunately in 1992 suffered from a hit and run accident that left him crippled. Because America is barely a civilised country, the vast majority of medical costs that caused this he has had to pay himself, so any donation to help with those is welcome.

A fair point, well made

Over at Mighty Mighty Godking, John Seavey raves about the new Ms Marvel and how it’s a really great comic. As you know Bob, the new Ms Marvel is a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl, first time a Muslim hero has had her own Marvel comics and as such has been a Big Deal before the first issue came out. Seavey is at pains to point out that despite its “worthiness”, Ms Marvel is a great comic in its own right. This annoys one commenter to go on a bit of a rant how it’s never allowed to just enjoy seeing somebody like you in comics

I bring this up because I have actually had straight people bitch me out for telling them that I like a book or a movie JUST BECAUSE it has queer characters. They get so incredibly offended by this, the idea that I might derive enjoyment from nothing more than seeing myself existing in the world of fiction, this blessing that they’ve taken for granted all their lives.

So I wouldn’t actually be bothered if Ms Marvel sucked. It’s THERE, in the midst of a sea of white, white, white superhero books. Its mere existence is heroic. If nasty little white fanboys have an issue with that, maybe they shouldn’t have created the problem in the first place.

Comics have always had a problem with showing heroes other than straight, white males, something that has been slowly changing. Because so many of the attempts to change this, to showcase somebody else for a change were godawful, done by well intentioned but clueless white men and because that meant any “minority” book is judged extra harshly by fans, I can understand why Seavey felt the need to emphasis that Ms Marvel first and foremost was a good comic. But I understand tickstander’s irritation even better. There are so few heroes of colour or queer heroes or even heroines that even get their own titles and when they do they largely get ignored or written off as “politically correct”; certain “fans” do seem to hate these titles just for existing.

Truth is, a greater diversity can only help comics and attempts like Ms. Marvel should be applauded for just existing. What helps is that the writer, G. Willow Wilson is herself Muslim, though through conversion, so has some sympathy and experience with what she writes about.

Cartoonists urge Angoulême to drop Sodastream

Dozens of well known cartoonists, including Joe Sacco, Tardi and Baru have signed an open lettre urging the Angoulême Comics Festival to drop Sodastream as a sponsor:

We, cartoonists, illustrators and authors from all countries, are surprised, disappointed and angry to find out that SodaStream is an official sponsor of the Angoulême International Comics Festival.

As you must know, SodaStream is the target of an international boycott call for its contribution to the colonization of Palestinian land, due to its factory in the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, its exploitation of Palestinian workers, and its theft of Palestinian resources, in violation of international law and contravening international principles of human rights.

Angoulême has had an important role in the appreciation of comics as an art form for over 40 years. It would be sad if SodaStream were able to use this event to whitewash their crimes.

We ask you to cut all ties between the Festival and this shameful company.

Sincerely,

This fight against Sodastream, for having established a plant in a Israeli settlement on stolen Palestian land in the West Bank, a plant Sodastream itself has admitted was a mistake, is just one small battle in the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) struggle against the Israeli Apartheid State. It’s similar in fact to that long struggle against South African Apartheid in the seventies and eighties and hopefully it can lead to similar results. Certainly the Israeli government fears the movement:

The movement’s economic impact is also becoming evident. The recent decision by the $200 billion Dutch pension fund PGGM to divest from the five largest Israeli banks because of their involvement in occupied Palestinian territory has sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment.

To underscore the “existential” danger that B.D.S. poses, Israel and its lobby groups often invoke the smear of anti-Semitism, despite the unequivocal, consistent position of the movement against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This unfounded allegation is intended to intimidate into silence those who criticize Israel and to conflate such criticism with anti-Jewish racism.

Getting Angoulême to drop Sodastream sponsorship, though welcome, is of course not going to change Israeli policies but seeing conservative pension funds start to drop Israeli investments, as much out of conviction as for legal concerns, that’s a game changer.

Comics by mail

mystery envelope

It’s always a nice surprise to come home and find an international mail envelope on the doormat, especially when it comes with a drawing on the outside (barely visible above). Who was Sophie Yanow and why was she sending me mail?
three comics by Sophie Yanow

Well, it turned out this mystery envelope contained three comics and then I remembered. Back in december Tom Spurgeon had linked to her because she had her laptop stolen and was holding a sale to replace it. I’d looked at her site, liked the comics I saw so the choice to get some comics from her wasn’t too hard.

What made it even easier, and which is something I would like to see more professional publishers do, is the way Yanow has set up her online shop. No bother with setting up accounts, just let paypal handle everything. Shipping charges, often horrendous when dealing with importing comics from the US (their annual sale is the only time I can actually afford buying directly from Topshelf), were reasonable as well, only six dollars.

Meanwhile the comics themselves are none too shabby. I like Yanow's drawing style on display in them, rough and sketchy, sometimes so sparse it becomes abstract, her figures rendered in a minimum of thick, black (felt tip?) lines, while occassionally she almost overwhelms her characters with frenzied, thin scratchings. This is the work of a cartoonist exploring her potential, playing around and that's what makes this interesting.

Because you keep buying them

J. Caleb Mozzocco notices a common and annoying problem with DC Comics collections:

What they ultimately decided on was collecting it as Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis (collecting Justice League #13-17 and Aquaman #15-16) and as Aquaman Vol 3: Throne of Atlantis (collecting Justice League #15-17 and Aquaman #0 and #14-#16). The “Throne” storyline thus appears in both books, the colletctions having about 100 pages of identical material in them. Given that they are about 140-pages of story content apiece, that’s a pretty significant story overlap, and given the price of these hardcover editions $24.99, that’s gotta be maddening if you read both books in trade (And, again, these are both by Geoff Johns and both feature Aquaman; chances are, a lot of folks who read one in trade also read the other in trade).

[...]

I’m not sure why DC does this (I suspect this is also what happens with some of the Green Lantern books and will happen once the three-book Justice Leagues crossover “Trinity War” starts showing up in collections). It may be to encourage purchase of the monthlies in the future, by punishing trade-waiters, but that seems rather unlikely. It may simply be that the folks in charge of the comics and the crossovers don’t really worry about how they’re collecting, and then a different set of folks has to try and make sense of some way to collect them while still having generally complete-ish stories in each collection.

Or they do it, because, you know, publishing two twentyfive buck collections of the largely the same material makes them more money than one and who cares if that means you end up buying the same material twice. It’s just an advanced form of the variant cover edition game. (May also help in bringing down costs if you can just slap in a chunk of ready made material in a second or third trade like this…)

Now DC could make sure that their trade collections don’t overlap this way, or create one or two collections per crossover, rather than slot them into each of the series involved, but as long as people keep buying them, why would they bother?

Brian Hibbs: boldy marching forward into the past?

I have my doubts about Fantagraphics doing a kickstarter to finance their 2014 lineup, but Brian Hibbs response to it misses the point entirely. First:

But my twinge came from the place of pragmatism. This is at least the third, and maybe the fourth, time that FBI has come to the market, hat-in-hand, needing a cash infusion to continue publishing. This is a bad habit, and one that I very much want FBI (and almost all of their contemporaries) to avoid going forward.

No. Instead of avoiding Kickstarter, it would actually make a hell of a lot of sense for Fantagraphics to continue using it as a funding mechanism. For a successfull Kickstarter you need to have a potential audience that’s familiar with and interested in what you’re offering, which has both the faith that you will deliver that and the disposable income to back you; all of which Fantagraphics has in spades, therefore they’re uniquely suited to take advantage of Kickstarter’s funding possibilities. Whether or not this funding model is good for comics as a whole, for Fantagraphics it could be a good way to remove a lot of the risk in publishing, or at least shift it towards their fans. The morality of this is another story, but it makes a lot of business sense and you see this model being used in a lot of geek hobby fields.

But as said, Hibbs rejects this in favour of a much different, much older publishing model, serialisation:

From this point of view, even a serialization even loses a small amount of money is worth pursuing — if it costs $4000 to produce a work in the first place, and $500 to make the same work ready for collection, even if you only make $3000 from the serialization, you’re still in a better place for the collection than you would be if you had gone straight to OGN — you only have to make another $1500 to start making a profit on the book, not the full $4000 you’d need to recoup without it.

Which is of course the model Fantagraphics (and all other comics publishers) have historically followed, up until about a decade ago (curiously enough the last time Fantagraphics got into financial trouble). These days however almost all art comix publishers like Fanta, D&Q, Top Shelf etc have largely abandoned this format in favour of the comics album or “original graphic novel”. Is that because they’re all idiots and like leaving money on the table, as Hibbs suggests here?

That seems unlikely. Isn’t it more likely that while the serialisation, then trade paperback model does make sense for “mainstream” projects, it has long since ceased to make sense for art comix? Even fifteen, twenty years ago publishers like Fantagraphics struggle to get their comics noticed in the direct market, depending on a handful of stores for most of their sales; heck, Fanta had to resort to publishing porno comics to keep themselves afloat at one time. It wasn’t a fad that made these publishers start publishing for bookstores rather than comics shops, but pure necessity.

Now, you could argue that in the current climate, it does make sense to go back to an older model of publishing comics (and as Tom Spurgeon says, it’s hard to argue with a hypothetical), but the track record for serialisation of the sort of comics Fanta publishes isn’t great. Hibbs’ suggestions sounds a lot like that of well intentioned fans twenty years ago who were convinced comics could become a mass medium again, if only they’d get back on the newsstands and out of the direct market.

Exclusion in comics

So Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collin discuss comics criticism, mentioning in passing the lack of women in this, prompting Heidi MacDonald to write a piece arguing that actually, they and the Comics Journal were part of the problem, in turn inspiring Annie Murphy to talk about what bothers her about the Journal’s culture:

So I’m saying, all this relates to the environment of comics at large, the confidence of women artists, and the inclusion of people besides just straight white men. Groth’s comment about what is ‘good’ or not is the rule, not the exception. I cannot tell you how many women, queers, people of color have told me that they used to draw but stopped completely after someone told them their drawing was not ‘good’, because it did not look like what the straight white men were drawing. I’ve heard this from dozens and dozens and dozens.

What Annie Murphy talks about here struck me as not too dissimilar from what we’ve seen in science fiction fandom, gaming or the skeptics community in the past couple of years, which is not too surprising as these all share the same DNA, the same makeup. These are or were all male dominated spaces, where women (and everybody not white and male) have always been treated with a certain hostility, tolerated if they fit in and pretended to be one of the boys. Some of this is done consciously, by the more meatheaded parts of comics fandom, but much of it is systemic and built into how the industry and the critical community are established and operate.

There’s a lot of unexamined privilege, a lot of systemic racism and sexism at work in the comics industry and not just at the big, commercial publishers; people who point that out are not always welcomed with open arms. In science fiction fandom similar problems are slowly being addressed, but I feel that comics fandom and the comics industry are years behind at this point

To get back to the Journal specifically, it’s culture has always been aggressive, from the Blood & Thunder lettercolumn to the famous Groth editorials. It’s an environment that punishes mistakes harshly and where people take pride in their toughness, again not dissimilar to e.g. programming culture, where it’s long know that this contributes to the lack of diversity within programming.