A Day of CAKE

CAKE BookletSeveral months ago, I learned about the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo or CAKE for short. It’s a “weekend-long celebration of independent comics, inspired by Chicago’s rich legacy as home to many of underground and alternative comics’ most talented artists – past, present, and future.” The main event is a massive room full of publishers and creators, and you go to it to buy comics, talk shop, or just fangirl out. There are also workshops and panels, but those are few and far between and didn’t have much room for too many attendees (It was a bit of a let-down.).

This year they had some amazing guests and exhibitors including Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets, Jillian Tamaki of This One Summer and SuperMutant Magic Academy, Liz Prince of Tomboy, and my personal hero Lucy Knisley of Relish and French Milk. As soon as I heard that my favorite independent comics creators would be attending, I knew I had to attend. Unfortunately, the event was June 6 and June 7, and my friend Devon was getting married on June 7th. For a long time, I tried to resign myself with not going, but as the wedding date neared and Devon gave no indication that she wanted to do anything that weekend or even that week, I decided that I had to make the trip up to Chicago Us at CAKE(which is about 6 hours away). Me, my girlfriend Sam, and my sister Jenny would leave work early at 1:00pm that Friday, dash up to Chicago, get up bright and early and spend the whole day at CAKE, and then leave at about 6:00am Sunday morning to screech back into town no later than 2:30pm. The wedding wasn’t until 4:30pm so we could totally make it on time.

Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out quite as smoothly as we’d planned. We ended up having some unscheduled appointments on Friday and didn’t arrive at our hotel, which was about an hour out from the convention center, until maybe 10:00pm. We were exhausted and hungry, so all we did that night was get pizza at Aurelio’s Pizza, a cool pizzeria with really delicious jalapeno poppers and loaded pizza (totally recommend). Then we settled into our thoroughly underwhelming Super 8 motel.

A quick aside on hotels/motels. When the floor is hard, the room smells like mold, there is no Wifi (How is that even possible???), and you’ve got ugly yellow light bulbs that cast everything in a sickly pall, it’s hard not to feel a bit down. Growing up, staying at a hotel was always a treat. It represented going on a vacation and getting a little pampered. Now I can’t afford to be “a little pampered” (i.e., getting Wifi, a three-equipment “gym,” and a room that’s regularly aired), and I find it incredibly disappointing that getting a decent room costs over $100 a night bare minimum. I’m not asking for sumptuous beds with 1200 thread count sheets and duvets like clouds or giant TVs and room service and sitting rooms all for the low, low cost of $19.99. But for $73 a night, shouldn’t I have gotten Wifi and an aired-out room? Shouldn’t someone have put a carpet pad under the moldy carpet? Shouldn’t someone change the light bulbs so I can actually see if I’m putting on a red T-shirt or a brown one? I’m just asking for a slight amount of service here, guys.

But no matter. We survived, and the point was to spend the whole day at CAKE anyway (Plus we had a ton of books and two smart phones. We dealt.). The hotel was decently close to the convention hall, and we got to spend less than $100 a night on it. No one broke into my car, and Aurelio’s was actually really good. So whatever.

In-On ThaiIt was a bit of a trial to get to CAKE, which was located in the Center on Halstead in northern Chicago, a winding, labyrinthine area with a lot of angry drivers and no public parking. However, it’s pretty nice and has a strong PRIDE community as well as several ethnic neighborhoods. It’s clean, has some cool architectural and artistic features, and when you’re not in a car trying to turn left, people are generally quite helpful and nice. There was this great Thai restaurant we had lunch at called In-On Thai that I highly recommend. It wasn’t too pricy, but the food was amazing and the woman who served us was very sweet. I had the best Thai Iced Tea I’ve had in my life, and the Massamam Curry was perfectly prepared – great blend of meat and veggies, lightly sweet and spicy sauce, and perfect sticky rice. Their Pad Thai with beef was also really good as was their Pad See-Ew with beef. Basically, everything we tried was excellent, so if you’re in the area, go, eat, enjoy.

Liz Prince SigningCAKE itself I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it was amazing getting to meet the artists I so admire and to meet new artists like the incredibly talented screen printer Estrella Vega and the funny, sometimes irreverent Isabella Rotman. My sister and I talked with Liz Prince for quite a bit, and she was personable, friendly, and helpful. She also drew very cute little pictures on the books we bought, which made the whole thing even more special. Honestly, all of the creators were like that like Spiro Dousias, who talked to me about Greek mythology for a bit, and The Ladydrawers Comics Collective, who do amazing social justice comics and were interested in my own work. The venue also wasn’t too crowded so you could really stop and talk with all the artists and get to know them. It wasn’t like we became best friends or anything, but I thought it was so sweet that people like Corinne Mucha were willing to give me tips on how to run a comics workshop. I have nothing but love and respect for those amazing creators.

The negative aspect was that there wasn’t enough room at the panels and workshops. On Sunday (when I wouldn’t be there), the Hernandez brothers were hosting a panel called “A Conversation with the Hernandez Brothers” about their lives and work and the influences they worked from and the influence they created. I was pretty bummed to miss it but so excited to see that Jaime Hernandez, my favorite of the two, was hosting a workshop on Saturday titled, “Jaime Hernandez Inks Live!” It would have been so incredible to see him work and try to figure out how he does what he does. Unfortunately, the workshop was in a room that only sat 35 people – 35! By the time I got there, the doors were closed and the room was full. Alongside me were at least a dozen other disappointed people, and as we lingered many more came and went. The same thing happened at the “Doodle Dash” workshop a little later. I understand the need to keep workshops relatively small, but to my knowledge, neither of these had an analysis component. The first one just had Jaime showing what he does, and the second had everyone sitting at tables, drawing a picture, and turning it in when they were done. There’s really no reason why they couldn’t have been in another room, which is what I told the organizers on the survey they sent out. Hopefully, they’ll fix that oversight next year.

What We BoughtSo as I left CAKE, I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed that I never got to attend a workshop or panel, and I was disappointed that the organization of the event seemed geared towards solely selling things. If I hadn’t come to event armed with far too much cash and an insatiable desire to buy comics (of which I bought way, way too many), I might have left a touch disillusioned.

Lucy Knisley SigningHowever, the prevalent feeling I had when leaving was elation and excitement. I absolutely got to meet my heroes and tell them how much their work meant to me. Lucy Knisley drew a quick picture of me in the book I bought from her, Stop Paying Attention. Print Ninja, one of the sponsors, was giving out ninja balaclavas, and I got one. I have a comic about animal sex. I have a beautiful book about the Devonian period. Jillian Tamaki drew a penguin for me. I met this amazing woman who wrote This Party Really Sucks, which is about being forced to go to her senior prom, and we talked about how great that comic was and her whole face lit up. I may not have walked away from this event with lasting friendships or a book deal, but I got to be rejuvenated by contact with people who love what I love. It was absolutely what I wanted, and I’m absolutely going to come back next year. I really can’t wait for it.

Me at CAKEI think all of us felt that way because when we got back to the hotel we spent a long time looking through each other’s swag, delightedly pointing out the cute signatures, laughing at the comics, and repeatedly reorganizing our piles. We’ve spent the past week passing everything all over our apartment, and I’ve started following several new Tumblrs and blogs. It was a great weekend, and we had a great time. What more can I say?

Perhaps one thing: it was absolutely the right call to drive home immediately instead of staying another night. It would have been hell getting up at 6:00am and hauling ass home. Instead, it was only mildly irritating driving from 7:00pm to 2:30am. So next year I hope no one’s getting married on CAKE weekend. You hear that, friends? CAKE weekend is off-limits.

My Response to the Rachel Dolezal-Caitlyn Jenner Conflation

*Note: Originally, I was planning on turning this topic into Monday’s Daily WTF, but I have spent about 20 hours thinking and arguing about it, so strap in, kids.

As of right now in history, racial divisions are a social construct but skin color and race are hereditary. People are not transgender because their parents were, but they almost always are black because their parents were (Obviously, as biracialism and multiracialism tend towards one race, there is greater maneuverability for children, but their race is still determined by their parents.). Race is also part of culture and ethnicity whereas gender is not. A child adopted from China by a white couple is still Chinese even if she was “raised white” or “identified white.” Perhaps in time that will change, but until we understand race as something that doesn’t hinge on heredity, race is hereditary.

Continue reading

The Normalcy of Genocide

normalcyThursday, October 23, 2014

Something that has always made the Holocaust – or any form of extreme violence and hate – seem distant is understanding how people could go through with their actions. When studying the Holocaust in schools, we focused on the Jews, both the survivors and the victims, and shied away from the individuals committing the atrocities. That made it easier to deal with because we could claim that people just got swept up in their actions, that the killers were faceless masses, and that they had lost their autonomy with the rise of Hitler, the one true villain in this tragedy.

What makes the Holocaust and the death of six million Jews (among the 12 million victims) easier to understand is how Ms. Lower in Hitler’s Furies identifies individuals involved and how or why they became involved. It suddenly becomes clear that, yes, thousands (if not millions) of people were involved in the systematic degradation, humiliation, torture, and murder of millions of Jews and that these people were normal human beings like you or I who every day had to face what they, their country, and their colleagues were doing. How then did anyone manage to do what they did day in and day out and not go thoroughly insane? Continue reading

Humanity

naziladiesWednesday, October 22, 2014

Hitler’s Furies continues to be a fascinating read, especially as we move into individual portraits of specific women, their backgrounds, their reasons for joining the Nazi party and directly/indirectly participating in the Holocaust, and their reactions upon coming face-to-face with violence and genocide. As I read, I am both appalled and fascinated by these women and the people who made up the regime and continue to see parallels for modern-day attitudes and actions. Continue reading

Initial Thoughts on Hitler’s Furies

Hitler's FuriesMonday, October 20, 2014

Today I started reading Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower. The book seeks to understand German women’s roles in World War II, especially in their work perpetuating the Holocaust and moving east following Operation Barbarossa. According to Ms. Lower, research on women’s roles during World War II is lacking, and it is has been the historical habit to downplay their roles in search of prosecuting men for their war crimes. Nazi women have even become martyrs, considered apolitical and long-suffering and known for cleaning and restoring Berlin after the Allied victory.

However, according to her research, about 1/3 of all German women (which was 40 million during the war) actively participating in Nazi activities, including as concentration camp guards, doctors and nurses who participating in medical experiments, secretaries, censors, and teachers, among other jobs. As can be guessed, many were not on the periphery of the great Nazi Aryanization scheme but were instead right in the thick of things – such as the approximately 200 women who worked with a Nazi doctor to choose and liquidate Jewish children who might become future criminals. Continue reading

Allow Me to Educate You, Mr. Jones: A Brief Defense of Modern Comics

Climate ChangedRecently, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian called out modern-day comic book artists for being “banal”, “unenthusiastic”, “dull”, and, at best, “merely serviceable” in their art and expression. According to him, comic book artists have forgotten that they are in fact artists meant to test the limits of the medium and have strayed too far from such celebrated artists as Alan Moore, Joe Sacco, Robert Crumb, and, most bizarrely, William Hogarth, an 18th-century English satirist most known for his engravings. Evidently, modern comics have entered a dark period.

Such an opinion is, quite frankly, bullshit, especially if you’ve been reading any of the nonfiction comics that have come out in the past twenty or so years. In Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, French cartoonist Philippe Squarzoni uses his considerable skill in portraiture and layout to turn a 400-plus page tome about climate change into an intellectually terrifying visual delight.

Canaan White, the illustrator of Max Brooks’ historical fiction Harlem Hellfighters, chose to create in black and white, rendering emotion more stark and profound while increasing the impact of certain scenes through his keen sense of direction.

Guy Delisle, the creator of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Jerusalem, uses simple lines, minimalistic backgrounds, and caricature to make more accessible the horror of totalitarian and martial regimes that reduce their citizens to pawns.

AgeofLicenseLucy Knisley, a rising cartoonist who has recently published a two-part travelogue, Age of License and Displacement, experiments with layout to allow the reader to experience the anxiety and uncertainty of a questioning young adult.

Craig Thompson also uses layout to express uncertainty, displacement, and spiritual awakening while simultaneously varying his line work to draw the reader to emotional heights.

Nate Powell is currently illustrating Representative John Lewis’ trilogy March, and it is his use of light, space, and perspective that are making Representative Lewis’ words so powerful, so insightful, and so inspiring.

Need I go on, or do you finally have to good pull list, Mr. Jones?

The fact of the matter is that comic book art is changing and undergoing experimentation of a type almost unseen in the past 100 years. On one end, you do have more minimalistic artists like Scott McCloud, Liz Prince, and Raina Telgemeier. On the opposite spectrum, you have the wild, almost uncontainable art of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre’s Amanda Conner, the inestimable Craig Thompson, and Deadly Class’ Wes Craig. Boom!, Image, The New 52’s Harley Quinn series, and Batman: Li’l Gotham are all experimenting with style mixtures, character designs, coloring, layout, and subject matter in a welcome change from DC and Marvel’s rigid, formulaic house style.

lilgotham_cover_rvsdThen we have the new focus on story as opposed to art – which is where you find the minimalistic artists and nonfiction comics. No longer is the purpose of comics to entertain, to reel in the same decades-old fans, or to give people what you’ve already seen that they like. No, now artists and publishers are taking a chance to educate their readers, to make them more informed citizens, and to help them form an emotional connection with the artist and writer. And sometimes, just sometimes, telling a really good story and passing along information means not letting the art interfere with the message. I mean, have you seen Frank Miller’s newest work, Holy Terror? Miller’s obsessive, anal focus on the art and disinterest in the story make it almost unreadable.

It is ironic that Mr. Jones ends his article, “When Did the Comic-book Universe Become So Banal?” by calling modern comics “both pretentious and simplistic” because the only way you could think modern comics banal is by suffering from an overabundance of pretentiousness and simplicity. Maybe instead of telling talented, hardworking artists, writers, publishers, and editors that it’s “Time to go back to the sketchpad,” you should go to your local library and educate yourself. Hogarth is dead, Mr. Jones, but comics still live on.

The Existential Dread of Radically Changing Your Hair

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMyrh0TvV2w

For months now you’ve been eyeing your hair with distaste. It is too limp, too dark, too dingy. Its ends are brittle and cracking. It does nothing for your face or form and even less to convey that you are aggressively, unapologetically feminist. ‘How will anyone know I’m capable of castrating a meninist at a glance with this lifeless mop?’ you think to yourself for the umpteenth time. Jane Fonda would never put up with this embarrassment.

So you trawl the Internet, looking for the perfect haircut, and you find Natalie Dormer’s Hunger Games ‘do. Her hair is still long and glorious, like a sunbeam spun into silk. It is feminine and enticing, perfect for luring prey, but the other side is naked and bold, reminding you of teeth being bared. You look at your head. Your turn your chin to the left and then to the right. You tilt it up and then down. You get out the hair ties and bobby pins. You nod. You could do that, you think. You could get an undercut.

And so you do.

But now you wonder if you should. As elderly men gasp and clutch at their rapidly failing hearts and women flock to you, touching the baby chick fuzz on one side of your head and saying wonderingly, “Where did you get this done?” you wonder if you’d taken the change too cavalierly. You don’t have enough stylist cards to pass around. You’ve lost six patrons just today, and your boss is too awestruck to come talk to you about the upcoming program curricula. There are no meninists to castrate with a glance as all of them have suddenly and without prior notice vacated the city limits. You are, through the change in your hair, creating a feminist utopia, but where’s the challenge, where’s the joy?

Fortunately, there are always men to destroy, even if they are no longer in your city. As you power up your computer, men across the world shiver. They know you’re coming.

Angry, Spoiler-Tastic Age of Ultron Thoughts Part I

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterTuesday, May 5, 2015

Let me start off by saying that I didn’t want to see Age of Ultron on its opening weekend. I have a great fondness for Marvel films and have eagerly looked forward to many of them, but I’m not one of those people that just have to see something the moment it comes out. I don’t count down the days until something opens. I don’t go to midnight openings. I don’t crow triumphantly when comparing box office numbers between DC and Marvel. I go to see a movie because I want to, and I see it when I want to – usually a couple of weeks afterwards when the crowds have died down.

However, I felt forced to see Age of Ultron its opening weekend – that’s right, forced. Marvel, social media, and various clusters of the Internet have been hyping this movie basically since an Avengers sequence was announced (if not before). Every Marvel movie made between Avengers and Age of Ultron only heightened the eagerness and anticipation. Its worldwide release a week and a half before the US release and the series of cast interviews released on a near hourly basis only made things worse. Trying to avoid spoilers meant a social media shutdown and CONSTANT VIGILANCE to scroll past spoiler-y posts. It was exhausting and irritating and gave me a fair amount of anxiety.

But my irritation at media’s seemingly inability not to spoil every book, movie, and moment if you’re not the first to view it should be the topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t appreciate Marvel’s media inundation and entered the theater feeling less like a willing and eager audience member and more like a victim of subtle and state-sanctioned harassment.

Shitty ShotThe movie started out horribly with the worst CGI I’ve experienced since Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Clint and Natasha were being thrown around in a Humvee like a couple of kids in a rollercoaster car, and the vehicle stood out glaringly against the computer-generated background, not even producing the right shadows, indentations, or dirt. The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man were whipping around so fast that I had flashbacks to the shaky camera in The Hunger Games. You couldn’t see any of the action, and there was no sense of irony about this, no understanding that we were all just unskilled mortals and thus couldn’t see them – it was just poor editing. It was no where near comparable to the final battle in Avengers where the characters were fast but still visible and the camera changed its pace, lingering or even stopping to give us a full understanding of the power of these characters and their personalities.

I immediately didn’t like the movie. I immediately didn’t care about it. I immediately wanted to leave. And this all in the first two minutes of the film.

Then we came to Captain America’s infamous, “Language!” line (Context: Tony Stark says, “Shit!” and Captain America immediately says, “Language!” to remind him to watch his language.). I groaned. I actually groaned. Not only is rebuking someone for swearing such a tired action that irritates anyone over the age of 15, it is also completely out of character and completely inappropriate for Steve Rogers to say.

Captain UltronLet me remind you that Steve Rogers grew up in the Bronx as a skinny little kid that wouldn’t put up with injustice or disrespect and habitually got into fights he knew he couldn’t win. Let me remind you that Steve Rogers had chronic pain and illnesses and went through a series of physical tests and an incredibly painful medical procedure. Let me remind you that Steve Rogers is a World War II veteran who saw active combat and worked with other active duty soldiers (including Peggy Carter who I can’t imagine ever minced words or watched her language). Let me remind you that Steve Rogers and everyone on the Avengers team is above 30 years old. Finally, let me remind you that at this point in the movie the Avengers are in an active combat situation bad enough that it necessitates them needing the Hulk. Do you honestly think that Bronx-native, World War II veteran, grown-ass man, currently trying not to get shot or blown up Steve Rogers would give a good Goddamn if Tony Stark, a man in his forties, said, “Shit!” in a combat scenario? Do you really?

The only reason that line got in the script was to give the movie a running gag – and it wasn’t even a good running gag. The running gag of Tony trying to piss off Bruce Banner and see what would happen in Avengers was much better, more mature, and actually consist with the character. The running gag of Steve writing down pop culture to learn about in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was much better (as was Natasha Romanoff’s efforts to get him a date). A better running gag would have been making fun of Tony for being arguably the smartest man on the team but still being the one who repeatedly shoots first, asks questions later, and continually engages in experiments without fully thinking them through (and then gets into a ridiculous amount of trouble). That would be something to make fun of him for. Or if Steve insisted on using a flip phone instead of a smart phone because flip phones look more like what he’s used to and Tony keeps trying to give him a smart phone but Steve keeps giving it to Clint because Clint is poor as hell and has two girls who keep begging him for a phone. That could have been funny, Tony repeatedly trying to slip Steve a phone and Steve repeatedly tossing it to Clint (who probably wouldn’t even look when he caught it). Or everyone could keep trying to get Steve a date because Nat told them about her efforts (so the second Wanda Maximoff showed up, someone could say, “What about her, Steve? She’s cute.” Tony could even bring up F.R.I.D.A.Y. as a potential suitor – “Well, you both have such engaging personalities, Captain.”). Or anything, really, other than making a veteran of active combat chide another veteran of active combat in a war zone about his language. Anything.

Joss-Whedon-Avengers-Age-of-UltronThis brings up the movie’s main problem: inconsistent characters and cheap thrills/laughs. And I’m going to hold Joss Whedon accountable for this because by and large, he was the main writer and director for Age of Ultron. I’ve read his interview where he was unhappy with some of his disagreements with Marvel and Disney (which you can read here), but what he defends is ultimately what I hated the most. I also haven’t heard from anyone that Whedon didn’t have the final say or that someone rewrote his script or that he was forced to portray the characters in a certain way. Basically, it seems like executives just wanted him to move faster, to turn this lumbering two hour and twenty-one minute beast into something palatable for younger ages and shorter attention spans. I have no problem with that as I was consistently bored, unimpressed, and irritated with the plotting in the movie. So all my complaints are leveled at Whedon.

black ultronLet’s start with what Whedon did to Natasha Romanoff.

He took everything that Natasha was in the previous Marvel movies and completely negated that, turning her into an archetypal figure: The Mother. Natasha, Steve Rogers’ wingman in Captain America: Winter Soldier? Gone. She barely talks to him in this movie. Pepper Potts’ right-hand gal, a certified badass, and the one person capable of shutting down Tony? Gone. Master manipulator capable of seeing through the most adept liar in the universe? Gone. A tactician that sees the big picture and sacrifices dead weight to get it done? Okay, I’ll give you some of that, but she seemed more desperate, less willing to do what she had to survive, and more willing to go down with the ship. In other words: the woman that gets sacrificed so that the man can be motivated.

(I would also argue that her actions didn’t necessarily move the plot along – what happened to her did. But I’ll let everyone keep her riding on a motorcycle out of the bottom of a plane and wearing a glow-in-the-dark suit that probably made all of her espionage training cringe. You need something.)

The scene I’m referring to, of course, is the now infamous “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” scene where Nat reveals to Bruce that her greatest horror was not learning to kill or torture a man or having her childhood stripped from her to become a killer or learning about the horrible things she had done when she was still a Russian spy but was instead the moment she was sterilized.

Calling Nat a monster for being sterilized is gross, cruel, and obscene. It means that women are only worthwhile human beings when they have functioning ovaries. It takes a personal event and a woman’s desire to have children and turns it into a spectacle. It makes Nat responsible for her sterilization when she absolutely was not. It says that the worst thing that can happen to a woman is that she becomes incapable of bearing children – not rape, not torture, not being forced to have her body regulated, not being told that she isn’t a woman because her body is biologically male, not going through war or famine, none of those. A woman’s greatest nightmare is to be rendered sterile.

Women already have a complicated relationship with their bodies without this kind of bullshit. I can pretty much guarantee you that every woman has felt betrayed by her body at least once whether it was from getting her period at an inopportune time to being curvier than she’s comfortable with to not being able to carry children to having too much or too dark hair on her face and arms to having debilitating period cramps to being born with incompatible genitalia. Women suffer through these things every day and have to figure out how to negotiate their body’s demands with society’s. We don’t need “famed feminist” Joss Whedon and the largest cinema franchise in America telling us that not being able to have children makes us monsters. We really don’t.

Everyone keeps telling me that Whedon means well. They remind me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably one of the most influential feminist TV series in television history (Well, in the ‘90s.). They bring up Firefly. They tell me how he’s a certified, card-carrying feminist. They show me this interview where he talks about how awesome women are, how cool it is that women can create life, and how there totally needs to be more female-centric media for his daughter to see. They say he has the best intentions.

At this point, I absolutely do not care. I will not give him a free pass on this. I am not a magical creature because I have functioning ovaries (that I know of, anyway). I am not a magical creature at all. I am a human being, and if I am worthy of admiration and respect it is because of what I do, often in spite of my biology.

That is how Whedon should have approached Natasha, not as a stereotype to be given all of woman’s main attributes – the Coy Flirt, the Mother, the Fierce Warrior Woman – but as a human being with personal dreams, drives, and fears.

The LullabyHowever, that’s not the full extent to how gross the portrayal of Natasha was. It gets even worse when you realize that Natasha is supposed to be this Mother figure but, specifically, she’s supposed to be the Mother to Bruce, the man she loves and probably wants to sleep with.* At least twice in the movie she sings “The Lullaby,” a weird, let’s-touch-skin-and-allow-everyone-to-reference-“Beauty-and-the-Beast” moment where she calms down the Hulk. Many find the Lullaby intimate, even erotic, which brings forth allusions to Oedipus and Jocasta, the woman he marries and fathers children with before knowing she’s his mother. Then, overcome by horror, he rejects her and tells her the truth. She hangs herself, and he blinds himself with her broach. But in this instance Natasha, the Mother, is pursuing her “son,” and he must show that he possesses the strength and foresight enough to reject her. So it all boils down to the man making the right decision.

I am really tired of this gross, completely inappropriate and completely unrealistic trope where the Romantic Interest doubles as the man’s mother. We saw it in Guardians of the Galaxy only last year when James Gunn decided that Peter Quill needed to have his mother die to give him a tragic backstory and then, when he was about to die and needed something to anchor him, he imagined Gamorra, the woman he was actively trying to have sex with during the entire movie and one of the least maternal creatures in the galaxy, morphed into his mother, which gave him the fortitude to hold on. Why is this a thing? Why do the Romantic Interests have to be mothers and why do we have to turn every woman into a Mother figure? It’s unnecessary, incongruous, and I’ll say it again, gross. Stop making grown men lust after their mothers. Just stop it, Hollywood.

But let’s move back to Nat and Bruce.

Overall, the Natasha-Bruce relationship was just embarrassing, even painful. Every time they came up, my girlfriend groaned and hid her face in my shoulder. My sister left during the cringe-worthy, “Maybe I should have joined you in the shower” scene. I yelled out, “Come on!” when Natasha said dead-eyed and flat-voiced, “I adore you.” They could have been an interesting couple, even a good one, but nothing in the script supported that or even made it probable. Why was Natasha doing a weird speakeasie voice at the bar? Why was she, the most direct person on the team, dancing around being in a relationship with Bruce? Why did she get abruptly serious when Bruce joked, “I guess we missed our opportunity”? Why did she, the most focused person on the team, the one most committed to righting past wrongs and making the future a better one than she grew up in, ask someone to run away with her and abandon the mission? None of that sounds consistent with her character. She should have been direct. She should have told Bruce what she wanted and what she was willing to do to get it. She should have pulled him back from his self-loathing by letting him know that she couldn’t have kids either and it wasn’t a big deal. She should have been funny, capable of emotion, and at ease with herself. That’s what she’s fought to achieve all these years. And Whedon takes that away, turns her into an archetype, and calls her a monster? And he wonders why fans are mad at him?

Bruce ultronThis brings us to another problem: Bruce Banner’s complete regression. One of the most surprising and touching things about Avengers was how Whedon wrote Bruce’s character. Instead of being fragile, tortured, and constantly worried that he was going to Hulk out, Bruce is cautious, focused, and fully in control of himself. Throughout the movie as almost everyone dances around him and worries that he’s a ticking time bomb, he demonstrates his control by being supremely confident and not allowing himself to be baited by anyone. It literally takes a preternatural event to make him Hulk out. In the final battle, he is not an unstoppable wave of destruction but a member of the team. He is still, by and large, a tool, but he’s capable of channeling his rage and pain to hurt those deserving of it and save his comrades. He is fully capable of recognizing people, and he has gained a greater measure of self-confidence in knowing he can unleash himself in public and still keep it together. By the end of Avengers, we saw him as one of the (if not the) most powerful, in control, and moral characters in the entire movie. I had nothing but respect for him.

Then we get to Age of Ultron and, much like Natasha’s main attributes, all of Bruce’s get thrown out the window in favor of converting him into another archetype: The Man Who is Really a Lost, Little Boy in Need of a Mother Figure. Even though he’s attacking precision targets in the opening battle scene, he still requires Natasha to come and sing him a lullaby and put him to sleep. Bruce is now literally incapable of putting his inner demons back inside or getting them to listen to him. His years of meditation, control, and self-restraint have completely evaporated, turning him into a tortured, self-loathing, insecure man-child who huddles in his baggy sweaters and shivers against the dark. In the Avengers, he had come to terms with his condition. He didn’t want to use it or let it out, but he was dealing with it. He could laugh at another scientist trying to provoke him. He could soothe a man who thought he was a monster. He could be the voice of reason in a group of arguing demigods. He was a new, mature Hulk, the kind we had yet to see in any Marvel movie in the past ten years. And he was wonderful.

Now I’m glad that he’s leaving. Obviously, being the Hulk so often has severely damaged him emotionally and psychologically. He no longer trusts himself around other human beings. He is no longer confident in his abilities. He allows Tony to run roughshod over him performing an experiment he knows is fundamentally flawed. He is so worried about his inability to control himself that he actually consents to the building of Veronica, otherwise known as the “Hulkbuster Suit” (and how telling is it that Bruce needs another woman to subdue him when he has a temper tantrum? “Veronica” is not canon. It’s an Archie reference and a weird Whedon joke.), whose sole purpose is to beat him senseless when (not “if”) he Hulks out. He’s allowed Tony’s paranoia to infect him, and he needs to go off on his own to get back to himself.

Now if Bruce comes back and he’s himself again, I have no problem with him and Natasha getting together – provided it’s done in a way that’s consistent with their characters. None of this, “Oh, I’m so tortured, we could never be!” or, “I’m damaged, you’re damaged, we’re a perfect fit,” or “We’re so star-crossed!” nonsense. They’re adults. They’re confident, controlled, focused human beings. Their love story should be sweet, direct, and just in the background. We should see them leaning against each other talking. We should see Nat briefly resting her hand on Bruce’s shoulder before she goes off on a mission. We should see Bruce leaning against her catching a few moments of rest between missions. We should see all the normal signs of coupledom between them without any painful Oedipal complexes or star-crossed lover clichés. And if Whedon had done that, I guarantee you he’d still have a Twitter account today.

At just over 3,300 words, this concludes Part I of “Angry, Spoiler-Tastic Age of Ultron Thoughts.” Stay tuned for Part II where I rip into Whedon for thinking that PTSD is cured by a plucky ten-year-old sidekick and how the script’s plot should have gone back to Scriptwriting 101. Until then.

*Note: I think we can make a case for Natasha being asexual. She’s never seen (at least, in the movies) in an overtly sexual relationship that she’s chosen for herself. She will use sexuality as a weapon and means to an end, but I’ve yet to see her want to engage in sex or be sexually attracted to a person for herself. But, as asexuals are only 1% of the population and Whedon has yet to show an asexual character on any of his shows, I’m going to assume that she experiences sexual attraction. It’d be cool if she didn’t though.

The End of Girls with Slingshots

Girls-with-Slingshots-Wallpaper-web-comics-24456202-1024-768Friday, April 24, 2015

Almost a month ago, Danielle Corsetto ended her long-running web comic, Girls with Slingshots. According to this post, Ms. Corsetto had been planning the ending for almost a year. She knew what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it, and she felt that it was time to move on from the comic’s current format. She also assured the readers that this wasn’t the end of Jamie and Hazel and that we should simply think of this as an indefinite sabbatical.

I, like many readers, was shocked to hear that Girls with Slingshots would soon be ending. I’ve been reading it almost as long as Ms. Corsetto’s been writing it (I think I started fall of 2005 or spring of 2006) and while the subject matter and the way it’s treated have occasionally made me feel squeamish (Oh, Hazel, you and your weekend of intense jacking off.), I still really loved the comic. It was funny, well-drawn, consistently-updated, had an amazing cast of characters (including one of the very few openly asexual characters in comics – or anywhere), and kept me entertained. It was also really nice to read about twenty-somethings trying to find themselves as I was a twenty-something trying to find myself. I surprised myself with how personally and how hard I took the news of its ending.

Since then, I’ve had some time to adjust. I’ve continued my daily habit of checking for updates and have completely re-read all the comics. However, coming to the ending again I have to admit that I feel dissatisfied. While Ms. Corsetto says she planned this ending far in advance, it feels rushed and non-sequitur [SPOILER ALERT]. Hazel goes to give up Goopy Kitten, who had been randomly popping up every time I forgot he existed, and then suddenly decides to see her dad. She remembers that he’s a weird, creepy asshole, goes home, her car dies, and the possible love of her life Zach shows up to take her to a gathering of friends so they can learn about a baby that was just born. The end.

I dislike ending on the dad meeting and the reconciliation between exes. I know it’s not my choice, and I admit that I was caught up in the bathos of the script the first time around, but now I can’t help but feel dissatisfied. Hazel’s dad played almost no role in the ten years the comic was around, but in the last year or so Ms. Corsetto starting writing in some references such as these two from her mom and Jamie’s weak comparison of Hazel to him. However, by giving him the final arc in the story, Ms. Corsetto places him as the cornerstone of Hazel’s entire life. We have to start re-evaluating Hazel’s actions and attitude in relation to him and how he treated his family. We have to psychoanalyze Hazel and wonder if her desire not to get married (which is perfectly valid and a great piece of her personality) is related to how her dad treated her mom and if she’s going to treat Vincent the same way or pull a complete 180. Hazel gets subsumed by this archetypal figure of the Negligent Dad and loses a lot of her agency – especially since she’s going to write her book about him and this meeting. Hazel writing a serious book with serious feelings about relationships? I can’t imagine it.

Then Zach deus ex machinas just as Hazel needs him, and Hazel – who apparently has become much more emotionally mature in the space of 24 hours – tells him that she loves him and misses him and wants him in her life again. I have no problem with this reconciliation (Their breakup and subsequent lack of contact always struck me as weak and unlikely.), but I don’t like how easy it is. I don’t like that Hazel didn’t struggle to make this confession. I don’t like that neither of them actively sought each other out. I don’t like that these two have been pining for each other for two years, have finally reconciled, will probably have some sort of relationship in the future, and I don’t get to see it. I want something especially if we’re going to get a new Hazel who will actually talk about important things instead of just trying to sex, joke, or drink her way out of it. It feels so cheap and anticlimactic not to let the reader see that.

I hate to say all this because, contrary to my bitching, I really love this web comic. I really do, and I’m going to keep following Ms. Corsetto’s work wherever it takes her. I love her art, her humor, her characters, and the way you can see her grow as a creator. I definitely want to be along for the ride, and I absolutely wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings with my criticism.

That being said, I really hope she feels up to working with Jamie and Hazel again soon. They deserve so much more than Zach and Hazel just walking off into the sunset. At the very least, it should be Jamie and Hazel doing so because at its core, Girls with Slingshots was about friendships in general and theirs in particular. For me, the real ending came at strip #2003 when Hazel finally admitted how much she loves and needs Jamie. That’s what I think Hazel should write her book about – how one woman’s friend helped her get through some horrible and hysterical times. Everything else was just filler.

gwsUntil Ms. Corsetto returns to the Girls with Slingshots world, I’ve just got to say my good-byes and move on. So long, Jamie, thanks for being so bubbly, silly, sweet, and honest. Bye, Hazel, thanks for being you (even when you were a complete dick). I hope I’ll see you soon.

Not for Me

R Gay recommendation screenshotThursday, April 16, 2015

Whenever I read an author who’s been recommended to me as a good model for essays or the great essayist or something more hyperbolic, I’m always struck by two things: one, how subjective the phrase “a good essay” is and two, how I almost never like the author.

A couple weeks ago, writer Roxane Gay took to Twitter to answer questions not only about what she’s looking for as the editor of The Butter but general writing advice. One of her many Tweets included a short list of writers people should read if they wanted to understand essay writing better/know what she personally preferred in her submissions. Among the books was The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

The Empathy Exams coverBeing a scant 56 pages in, I probably shouldn’t judge Ms. Jamison’s work or Ms. Gay’s recommendation, but I’m absolutely going to. While Ms. Jamison’s writing is intense and almost lyrical and the thought she puts into her work is both sympathetic and focused, it borders on being dense and melodramatic, even hysterical. Part of that is the nature of the two essays, “The Empathy Exams,” which includes information about her abortion and heart surgery, and “Devil’s Bait,” which explores Morgellons disease and the people who attended a conference about it in Austin, Texas. Part of it also seems to be her personality, something that is just a bit fragile and vulnerable but aches to help others in an effort to heal herself. Or at least, that’s what I’ve come to understand.

However, her writing doesn’t seem to be for me. I am not nearly that intense, lyrical, thoughtful, pleading, or meticulous, and I don’t want to be. Those words have negative connotations for me and are not things to imitate. I prefer Ms. Gay’s writing, which is more robust and straight-forward and not nearly so exposed. I don’t want to see the writer naked, pinned to a slab with a harsh light shining on her and illuminating all of her flaws, hopes, and secrets. I want to follow the thread of a thought, the exploration of a topic, not wade through an author’s haze of reaction.

Much of essay writing seems to exist between these extremes: straightforward, plain-speaking prose and intense, introspective prose-poetry. Growing up as a writer and attending writing workshops, I was always led to believe that the latter was the most important, the most skillful, and the one that you had to replicate if you ever wanted to sell your essays (which, in itself, would be highly unlikely). Periodically, I would make an attempt, sitting in my desk crammed in my closet, shielded by my clothes, typing rapid-fire on my type writer. I would set my lips in a thoughtful moue and lower my eyebrows and quirk my eyes into a squint as I attempted to peel back the layers of reality in search of whimsy, thought, and epiphany. Without exception, my efforts were melodramatic and laughable, and I almost never finished one. I certainly never turned one in as an assignment. So I put essays next to poetry in my Box of Writing I Will Never Pursue.

Then I entered my mid-twenties and started casting about for some writing that I could do. My fictive efforts were drying up. Poetry held absolutely no appeal. I didn’t know how to break into pop culture and its ancillary media. I wasn’t yet set on graphic novels. Thank God I found the group Binders Full of Essayists.

I am a silent partner in this group, but I am present. I note the “Brag Your Byline” weekly events and click on the links of people’s published essays. I learn so much about so many different women and faucets of life and, most importantly, I learn that the published essayist can be so much more than lyrical, introspective, and emotional. I learn that I can write an essay (and maybe even get one published).

Discovering that there is a market for straightforward, plain-speaking prose at a time when I seriously doubted my ability to contribute as a writer was so meaningful. It still is. It helps me drive back the jealousy when I see old high school friends succeeding. It helps dampen the self-doubt when I read some of Ms. Gay’s favorite authors and realize I’m nothing like them. It lets me respond to disappointment and criticism with anger and humor instead of depression. It encourages me to write every day even if the result goes nowhere but my permanent draft folder.

It also allows me to keep reading writers I don’t necessarily have anything in common with. It encourages me to be supportive and open-minded (to an extent). I plan on finishing Ms. Jamison’s essays, if for no other reason than to see if there’s something I can learn from them. Although I don’t particularly care for her voice, I can see past her writing to the hours of thought and revision she put in each essay. I can see restless patience as she pulls and tugs each essay into shape. I can see courage where she goes to a conference of people she has nothing in common with and attempts to get to know them and their pain. I can see strength where she forces her pain into writing. I may not want to write like Ms. Jamison, but I certainly want to possess the same strength of character and that’s reason enough to keep reading.