Thursday, February 26, 2015

Idiot Box Pull List - Week of February 22nd

Like most humans of the developed world, I enjoy television moving pictures on a screen. As most of the shows I watch are derived from the comic books I study, it occurs to me I should probably start thinking about them somewhat more critically. This is a first attempt.

. . .

The Walking Dead S5 E11 – The Distance
After Rick’s monologue last week, I was afraid not even an act of God could derail the grim train of thought the survivors have been on since Atlanta. It looks as though I was wrong and things are on the upswing.

Summary: Rick is not convinced that Aaron’s invitation to join a walled community is legitimate – after Woodbury and Terminus, can we blame him? Michonne provides an optimistic counterpoint to Rick’s paranoia. In order to verify the newcomer’s claims, Rick decides the best course of action is to take a car and an RV – which Aaron and his unseen accomplice have so generously provided – for a midnight drive. The writers stuff Aaron’s dialogue chock full of ambiguities and equivocations to stoke the fire of our suspicion. After splitting off upon encountering setbacks (and by “setbacks,” I mean: “shambling hordes of the undead”), team reconnaissance-car eventually reconvenes with the rest of the survivors in a decrepit warehouse. Aaron is reunited with his partner Eric whom the survivors apparently saved off-camera after he signaled his distress with a flare gun. The next morning they make their way to the gates of fabled Alexandria and everything is coming up Milhouse. (Or is it?)  

Notable line: “Even though you were wrong, you were still right.” Carol’s only line packs enough character to fill an entire episode.

Memorable moment: I wish I could say the most impactful scene was Aaron and Eric’s reunion, but I would be dishonest if I did not confess how I was overcome with perverse glee at the sight of a flare lodged into a walker’s face.

♀♀♀: Michonne is clearly a key player in this week’s episode.
RRRR: As a comic-reader, I had been looking forward to Aaron and Eric’s introduction; I continue to be grateful to the writers for keeping walking clichés out of my Walking Dead. Ross Marquand’s performance is no bit part; Aaron’s role as the instigator of this week’s plot was clearly established a week ago, before any details about his character became known to the TV audience. All things considered, this character introduction was remarkably on-key.
πππ: Both incarnations of The Walking Dead feature people of colour in positions of considerable agency. This episode is no exception.
. . .

Gotham S1 E17 – Red Hood
An object lesson on the fickleness of loyalty.

Summary: Five simultaneously-occurring, non-intersecting plots unravel over the course of this episode. Gordon and Bullock’s weekly investigation focuses on a series of high-profile bank robberies by the Red Hood Gang; the case pretty much cracks itself as in-fighting over the trademark hood tears the gang apart. A depressed Barbara Kean plays host to Ivy and Selina; Fish Mooney uses some unorthodox negotiation tactics at Dr.Dollmacher’s organ farm. Penguin receives unexpected help from Butch to get liquor for his failing club. Alfred Pennyworth is paid a visit by a guilt-ridden fellow veteran with questionable motives.

Notable line: “Perhaps it’s not our friends but our enemies that define us.” The Penguin, quoting U2’s Cedars of Lebanon by way of Arkham Origins.

Memorable moment: The final seconds of Fish’s negotiation session.

♀♀♀♀: Jada Pinket-Smith continues to shine as Fish Mooney. Selina’s cuttingly cynical response to Barbara’s lecture on the power of allure is almost subversive. Dr. Leslie Thompkins is sadly absent from this episode.
RRR: Showing LGBTQA characters (Barbara) in “ordinary” situations is an important aspect of representation.
πππ: While Fish Mooney steals the show, only one other person of colour gets a line. Chief of Police Sarah Essen, detectives Crispus Allen and Renée Montoya are all absent from this episode.

. . .

Agent Carter S1 E8 – Valediction
A season finale, hopefully not a series finale. 

Summary: Howard Stark and Edwin Jarvis surrender to the authorities in the aftermath of Dottie’s gas attack on a theater. The SSR sets up a trap for Dottie and Dr. Fennhoff using Howard Stark as bait. Dottie and Fennhoff outsmart the SSR, sending  a hypnotized policeman to capture Stark. The SSR rush to Stark’s secret hangar, arriving too late to prevent a hypnotized Howard from taking flight with a payload of deadly, psychosis-inducing gas. Carter and Dottie exchange words (and blows) in the control room where Fennhoff keeps feeding Stark hypnotic suggestion. Carter prevails; Fennhoff slips away; Carter talks Stark out of gassing Time Square and the day is saved. Meanwhile, Fennhoff’s words fall on Sousa’s deaf (err, plugged) ears and the latter serves the former an all-American knuckle sandwich. Later, at the secret SSR headquarters, Peggy Carter receives unanimous applause but Agent Thompson gets all the credit when the top brass drops in. Jarvis sets up Peggy and Angie in one of Stark’s houses and they all lived happily ever after.  

Notable line: “I know my value; anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” Margaret Carter’s post-conventional wisdom: applicable regardless of gender or creed. 

Memorable moment: Hayley Atwell’s sense of timing for repartee has been nothing short of stunning throughout the series.

♀♀♀♀: More than just a clash of female agencies, Agent Carter’s skirmish with Bridget Regan’s Dottie Underwood is a carefully choreographed articulation of conflicting philosophies.  
0: This episode is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
ππ: The only person of colour in this episode is the black policeman whom Fennhoff hypnotizes.

. . . 

Arrow S3 E15 – Nanda Parbat
The plot thickens as the series’s women approach center stage.

Summary: Against Oliver’s wishes, Thea confesses to Laurel how Sarah really died. In the aftermath of this conversation, Thea tips the League of Assassins as to Merlyn’s whereabouts. Laurel tracks down and engages Merlyn as Black Canary; he proves the superior fighter until Nyssa and her acolytes descend upon him. Oliver fails to prevent Merlyn from being taken away to Nanda Parbat to face the League of Assassin's draconian brand of justice, though he does manage to capture Nyssa. Nyssa gladly discloses Nanda Parbat’s location, fully expecting Team Arrow to fail in their rescue attempt. Oliver and Diggle borrow an ARGUS jet from Lyla, lead a two-men assault on the League’s headquarters, and are captured. Instead of executing them, Ra’s al Ghul makes Oliver an offer he can’t refuse. Meanwhile, back at Team Arrow’s headquarters, Thea frees Nyssa and tells her – a professional killer – how she murdered the her lover, because airing grievances is part of the healing process and there is absolutely no way that could go catastrophically wrong. Oh, and Felicity stops Ray Palmer from blowing himself up while building the A.T.O.M. suit and they have CW sexy-times.

Notable line: “This whole situation has gone from endearingly eccentric to creepily not okay.” Felicity, putting her foot down.

Memorable moment: Ray Palmer’s post-coital epiphany which leads to the creation of Iron Man’s the A.T.O.M. suit’s first flight.

♀♀♀♀: This week’s plot is more or less entirely precipitated by Thea and Laurel’s conversation near the start of the episode. Both Thea and Laurel show remarkable strength of character standing up to Oliver, just as Felicity demonstrates the use of cool reason and moderation is more productive than Ray Palmer’s obsessiveness. Male characters still pull most of the strings, however.
RRR: Nyssa al Ghul’s conversation with Laurel about the moment she fell in love with Sarah gives us crucial insight into her character’s emotional depth. 
πππ: It is simultaneously refreshing and touching to see Diggle – the action hero – interact with his infant daughter.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing and Drawing the Dark Knight

Writing and drawing are two very different crafts. When a creator takes it upon himself to do both, the resulting fusion of art and storytelling can take the reader to unexpected places.

In Batman: Odyssey (2010-2012), Neal Adams attempts to show up James Joyce by making Bruce Wayne his very own Leopold Bloom. Like his modernist predecessor, the DC veteran takes a great deal of liberty with classical tropes: catabasis and cyclops make the cut, empowered female characters do not. The Homeric journey is stretched to cover less familiar territory where the reader meets Neanderthals, trolls, mutant Egyptian gods, and jive-talking mages.

(Matt Fraction’s gender-swapping Ody-C exhibits radically different sensibilities).

Thematically, the product of this collision between ancient inspiration and the modern male power fantasy is predictably uneven. At times Odyssey reads more like a retrospective of Neal Adams’ contributions to the Batman mythos than anything else: Deadman, the League of Assassins and Man-Bat all feature very prominently. As a spectral guide to the underworld, Deadman’s responsibility to Batman and Robin is like that of Virgil’s to Dante. The underworld in this case is a hollow earth overpopulated with dinosaurs, a fantasy cliché which, while satisfying in a gee-whiz sort of way, cannot help but remind the wary reader of Neal Adams’ climate-change denying theories of Earth’s expansion.

While Odyssey is all over the place when it comes to plot, themes and characterization, its narration is certainly very consistent: every episode is introduced and narrated by beefcake Bruce Wayne sitting across a table from an unseen interlocutor whose point of view the reader shares. Inexcusably, most of the frame story’s dialogue takes place in front of a computer-generated backdrop which could not have seemed less contrived even at the height of the nineties. Adams’ layouts masterfully integrate text, the flow of which is most easily intuited on his splash pages. The writer/illustrator's script is unfortunately not on the same level as his artistic vision: I frequently found myself looking back to previous frames or pages for fear of having read them out of sequence only to find out my confusion stemmed not from misleading layouts but rather from awkward or repetitive pieces of dialogue.

Diversity score:
:  None of the series’ fourteen issues depict a woman who is not under the direct and complete control of a man. Even Talia al Ghul is merely a pawn in her father's schemes.
0: The series is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
ππ: While Sensei, Ra's and Talia Al-Ghul all have significant impacts on Odyssey's plot, they tend to conform to the common stereotype of the scheming "oriental" mastermind. Moreover, the physiology of the craven primitives whom Batman and Robin must beat into compliance is worryingly reminiscent of caricatures based on racial stereotypes.

. . .

Walter Simonson's The Judas Coin (2012) tells six stories happening around the same cursed object: one of the thirty shekels of Judas Iscarioth's reward. The first tale is but a brief introduction, an account of Judas' last days which, instead of making a religious statement of any kind, focusses on the convoluted circumstances through which the coin came to line the pockets of a murderer. The second story skips 40 years forward as the coin travels to Celtic Europe by way of Roman legionnaires; the third takes place some 900 years afterwards, when Northerners go a-Viking on Welsh shores. The fourth episode follows the coin upon the High Seas during the golden age of piracy; the fifth, featuring Bat Lash, has the cursed piece of silver land in the Wild West. The sixth takes us at last to the "present day," where Batman has a run-in with Two-Face at the Gotham Historical Museum. The seventh and last tale, something of an epilogue, tracks the coin into the far future when it crosses paths with a certain Manhunter.

Simonson uses each self-contained story as an opportunity to explore a radically different artistic style. The sixth episode especially is a bit of a formalist experiment, forcing the reader to view the album at a 90 degrees angle and interspersing comic frames with ersatz newspaper clippings. Every story exhibits the creator's concern for setting: where Adams would be content to use a blur in lieu a background, Simonson gives us careful recreations of historical environments.

Diversity score:
:  Two of the seven stories show women exerting agency: in the second, we meet Ardra, a leader of the Celts;  in the seventh, the thieves Ledora and Fenette give Manhunter a run for his money.
0: This graphic novel is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
0: People of colour are alluded to once in flashback sequence, but are not otherwise represented in this graphic novel.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Bechdel Test + The Vito Russo Test + The π Index

I believe it is not scandalous to suppose popular imaginaries contribute to the shaping of social reality: consequently, inclusive representation in fiction should be a matter of consideration in criticism. I have decided to formalize my appreciation for diversity in the form of a variation on two popular sets of criteria (the Bechdel test and the Vito Russo test). Going forward, all of my reviews will feature a short section rating fictions between and ♀♀♀♀ based on the following standards (with each criterion being worth one ):

1. The fiction features a woman who "has a name," or who is "tied into the plot in such a way that [her] removal would have a significant effect."
2. This woman talks about something other than a man ...
3. ... to another woman ...
4. ... who also "has a name."

The answer as to whether or not a fiction passes the Bechdel test will therefore take one of the following five formats:

0, or ♀♀: Fail: this fiction does not explicitly represent women's voices or women's worlds.
♀♀♀: This fiction comes close to representing women's voices or women's worlds.
♀♀♀♀: Pass: this fiction stands out for its representation of women's voices and women's worlds.

I will also consider whether the fictions I review pass the Vito Russo test for LGBTQA-inclusiveness. I will be taking into account the following criteria, each worth one R.

1. The fiction features an identifiably LGBTQA character.
2. This character is not "solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity."
3. This character is "tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect" (i.e.: the character is not there merely to support a heteronormative character's story).
4. Supererogatory: This character interacts with at least one other identifiably LGBTQA character; this criterion cannot be met if 2 is not also fulfilled.

And so: fictions will receive one of five possible R scores:

0 or R: The fiction is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
RR: The fiction is somewhat LGBTQA-inclusive.
RRR: The fiction is noticeably LGBTQA-inclusive. 
RRRR: The fiction stands out on account of its LGBTQA-inclusiveness.

Lastly, I propose to adapt the Vito Russo test to assess the representations of people of colour using the following benchmarks:

1. The fiction features a character who is a person of colour. Non-human sapients do not count unless the issue of their rights and/or integration factors significantly into the plot.
2. This character cannot be summarized by popular stereotypes about people of colour.
3. This character is "tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect" (i.e.: the character is not there merely to support a white character's story).
4. Supererogatory: This character interacts with at least one other person of colour; this criterion cannot be met if 2 is not also fulfilled.

I will grant one π for each criterion, for a possibility of five different ratings on what I have termed "the π index":

0 or π: The fiction is not explicitly PoC-inclusive.
ππ: The fiction is somewhat PoC-inclusive.
πππ: The fiction is noticeably PoC-inclusive.
ππππ: The fiction stands out on account of its PoC-inclusiveness.

I understand none of these yardsticks provide a perfect measure of inclusiveness: meeting most (or all) of the criteria does not automatically place a work above criticism  nor is a fiction which does not conform to any of these standards necessarily bereft of aesthetic merit. These tests can nevertheless be used to jump-start a critical discussion; nuances which cannot be summarized by a four-point scale will have to receive more detailed attention under the relevant headings. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Metanarrative as a Roadmap to Parallel Universes: "Multiversity" and "Black Science"

Ahead of Convergence – the event which will bring about “an end” to the current phase of the DC multiverse, but not (we are told) to its New Earth setting – Dan Didio has announced changes in editorial guidelines intended to put diverse storytelling approaches before such paltry things as canon and continuity. Whereas there is little doubt that 75 years of contradicting narratives might stick in the craw of a new reader intent on getting acquainted with the DC multiverse, it would be a mistake to operate under the assumption that a more streamlined setting might make complex exposition unnecessary. To be sure, comics’ most celebrated stories rarely depend on the reader’s acquaintance with lore: following the principle of Chekhov’s gun, writers tend to incorporate only the most relevant references to previous works. Be that as it may, crises and retcons would not have become a genre unto themselves if they did not speak to the interests of a significant portion of the comic-reading audience.

It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that genre readers experience anagnorisis differently than the audiences of other fictions – the comic-reader, looking for coherence beyond the episodic plots, embarks on a personal quest to piece together the metanarrative of an expanding fictional continuum. The editors at DC have not been particularly consistent about providing clear directions on this journey: the original crisis (On Infinite Earths) is the only one of its kind to have a substantial metanarrative epilogue (History of the DC Universe, in which Harbinger details the consequences of the event on continuity). While Final Crisis is certainly a metanarrative – a story encompassing stories – it also raises more questions than it answers.

Grant Morrison’s Multiversity (especially its latest issue, the Guidebook) harkens back to Final Crisis, in part to tie up some of its loose ends, but mainly so as to connect disparate narratives within a coherent, purposeful whole. Despite the inadequate prose of some of its entries, the Multiversity Guidebook conveys a powerful sense of the explosion of narrative into metanarrative, forcing a reflexion on the relevance (or irrelevance) of canons in fiction.

combines metanarrative with metafiction: multiple elements of the setting call attention to the artifactual character of stories, up to and including the metanarrative. Resuscitating a trope from The Flash of Two Worlds, Morrison shows the DC multiverse is held together by the comics medium in a kind of holographic structure: every realm is represented in every other realm in the form of a comic (interestingly, Batman comes to this realization the same way we do: by reading the Guidebook). Metafiction permeates the whole of DC's metaphysic down to its very nomenclature: the orrery of worlds is suspended in an aether called the Bleed, which is to say, in comic-book parlance, the image that runs off the page.

Metanarrative does not have to be an explicit or central element of plot. Most of the exposition in the first volume of Remender and Scalera’s Black Science is not metanarrative per se: the reader is instead made to dance around the story’s chronology, beginning in medias res (as is customary) before witnessing the chain of events leading to the plot trigger in a series of cleverly interspersed flashbacks. Grant McKay and his fellow dimensionauts are adrift in the quantum eververse, the maelstrom of all possible worlds. Though the action of Black Science focuses on a singular narrative thread (that is to say: it does not have to cope with the narrative entropy of a shared universe) it nevertheless has a highly ingenious way of intuiting that other narratives beyond the purview of the reader are equally relevant, especially insofar as they involve alternate-universe versions of the protagonist. The “reality” of the story is thereby shown to be derived from an arbitrary impulse of the reader, a fortuitous consequence of the inclination to make the first given information the central point of any interpretive scheme.

Friday, February 06, 2015

"There is no good side here." – Gail Simone's "The Movement"

In May 2014, the Tumblrs groaned: Gail Simone’s latest team-book was scheduled for cancellation with what seemed at the time like very little editorial fanfare. New characters at DC have not had very much luck this past decade; I was holding out hope The Movement might break the pattern. I was disappointed, if not altogether surprised.

(The title of this review is shamelessly lifted from the second volume of the series.)

As the protectors of their benighted urban setting of Coral City’s low-income neighborhood, the superpowered members of the Movement assume more complex roles than typical vigilantes. Between scenes of violence, our heroes work alongside muggle allies at improvised soup kitchens, shelters, and classrooms; while these vignettes certainly give the book some grassroots credibility by providing a moral counterpoint to the more straightforward style of problem-solving promoted by the superhero genre, the Movement’s political endgame remains exceedingly vague. Altercations with a plethora of unrelated antagonists are made more complex than necessary by dissension within the ranks, creating a kafkaesque climate of all-against-all which tends to undermine the book’s message of pacifism and class solidarity. 

The Movement’s roster of misfit heroes boasts more diversity than the Planeteers: four of its six members are women, three of whom are women of colour. Virtue (née Holly Ann Fields) is a powerful empath capable of tapping into all of the energies of the emotional spectrum. As the practical, street-smart leader of the titular group, Virtue knows how to attract people to her cause: she is aided in her social justice mission by the geokinetic Tremor (Roshanna Chatterji, a transfer from Simone’s pre-Nu52 Secret Six); Katharsis (Kulap Villaysack), a former cop with a flight-suit and a very large collection of grudges; Vengeance Moth (Drew Fisher), a self-effacing wheelchair-user with energy-construct powers; Mouse (Jayden Revell), a kooky rat empath; and Burden (otherwise known as Christopher), a troubled teen with the ability to change into any one of the many demons that haunt his fervid religious imagination. 

Burden’s perspective as an inexperienced newcomer to seedy Coral City often serves as the reader’s way into The Movement’s fallen world. Though Burden’s naïveté is at times an excellent pretext for entertaining pathos, I suspect it also proves a very awkward fit for many readers; I was grateful for Batgirl’s cameos for providing a different, less obstructed point-of-view.

Ultimately, The Movement does not really break away from the conventions of the bourgeois power-fantasy: despite the book's emphasis on social issues, Coral City's beleaguered proletariat is not given any alternative to standing in a crossfire. Be that as it may, it would not be entirely fair to suggest Simone plays up class struggle as a shortcut to thematic substance. We must take into consideration the fact that The Movement’s storytelling style is consistent with its overt gospel of diversity: instead of a singular view of a narrative centered on objective violence, we are given multiple angles on a plot elaborated around interpersonal drama. While there is some evidence to suggest The Movement bit more than it could chew – tackling too many issues without giving any of them the nuance and attention it deserves – it is not unreasonable to suppose the need to wrap things up before cancellation affected the pace. When all is said and done, DC Comics should have given The Movement a much longer run in consideration of Simone’s concern for inclusiveness: cancelling the series on account of underwhelming sales flies in the face of the socially-progressive values the publisher professes to uphold.