Disrupting Some Tropes and Reinforcing Other Tropes

Disrupting Some Tropes and Reinforcing Other Tropes

A review of Jeff Lemire’s The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds (Marvel Comics, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Superhero narratives tend to have clear boundaries between heroes and villains. They tend to play with the duality between civilian identity and hero identity, but tend to privilege the hero identity. Like most of his comics, in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds, Jeff Lemire disrupts these easy binaries, creating a super powered person who lives in moral greyness while trying to push himself to live in a world of good and bad, to conform to the ideas of the superhero. Sentry has given up his superhero identity because every time he becomes a hero, The Void (a dark entity within him) becomes active and conducts evil deeds that far outweigh Sentry’s good ones. Instead of being a superhero primarily and wearing his civilian identity, “Bob” is a civilian who has to enter into a world inside of himself to become Sentry to fight The Void in order for that internal evil not to spill out into the world. He is trapped in his civilian identity with the constant desire to become his superhero self and relives his golden days only in a world in his own mind. Lemire calls into question the tropes of the superhero narrative, inviting his audience to ask critical questions about the way their superheroes are generally presented while also giving readers a powerful narrative of internal struggle and suffering.

Bob works at a greasy spoon restaurant with his former sidekick Billy, who also no longer has powers. The two of them share old stories constantly, pining after the life they lived as superheroes. Yet, Misty Knight and Tony Stark view Bob as an embodiment of danger, as a threat contained within a human body and Bob feels the prison walls around him even though he is technically free. He has to go into his inner world to fight The Void at specific times, not given time to live his life and the constant threat of permanent incarceration surrounds him even though Bob and those around him think of him as a superhero. His danger outweighs the benefit he can bring to society, so he is contained. There is no simple morality in Lemire’s tale of Sentry and heroism doesn’t always mean social acceptance or freedom. Bob has to challenge the simple morality of his Sentry persona in order to find a way to exist in the world completely and without constant suppression of parts of himself.

Although Lemire challenges tropes around superhero narratives and opens up those narratives, he unfortunately (like many authors) perpetuates problematic tropes of disability. Like many authors, Lemire presents a disabled character (Billy, who had his arm ripped off by The Void) as a threat and a villain. This is a common portrayal of disability, often predicated on the belief that disabled people are “self loathing cripples” and hate the world because we are disabled. It is a far too common portrayal that has unfortunately meant that disabled people like myself have frustratingly again and again seen ourselves only conceived of as self hating and villainous. Of course there are real-world implications of this such as the general public seeing disability as a problem and therefore disabled people as a problem.

Lemire further brings in an additional trope of disability – the disabled person who is “powerless” and therefore craves power. This trope tends to be related to the first one as these “powerless” disabled people frequently become villains in stories because they seek out the power they are believed not to have as disabled people. Billy in Lemire’s story craves superhero powers since he views himself as broken and powerless as a disabled man. The real world issue with this trope, of course, is that it portrays disabled people as powerless and this imagery often gets internalized by people in the disabled community and shapes our perceptions of ourselves.

An additional, and perhaps more damaging trope that Lemire incorporates into his narrative is the trope of disabled men using their disability to manipulate care-giving women. This trope dangerously suggests that disabled people abuse their care-givers and use their disability as a way of getting “sympathy” that manipulates others. The problem with this, of course, is that because this narrative is so prevalent, society picks up on it and it is common for people to view relationships with disabled people as being one-sided, only benefitting the disabled person and not the care-giver. Like most of these tropes, I have witnessed this in my own life where people frequently ask my partner how much work he has to do to care for me while looking sympathetically at him, or tell him that he is too kind for looking after a disabled person. In addition to this problem in the trope, this trope also portrays disability as inherently manipulative, which has repercussions around the way that people view disability and assume disabled people are constantly out to gather sympathy (rather than the fact that we generally find sympathy frustrating and wish people would treat us like anybody else while also respecting our accommodation needs). Lemire presents this trope in The Sentry: Man of Two Worlds when he has Billy date a girl only to steal from her, saying to another villain “turns out said grandniece is a real bleeding heart for wounded young men. especially blue-eyed blonds with one arm”.

Lemire also repeats the “better dead than disabled trope” that is so frequently seen in disabled narratives. I have spoken about this narrative repeatedly before and the danger that it poses for disabled people – including society not viewing disabled lives as worth the lives of others or thinking that euthanasia and dangerous surgeries that can kill patients are better than letting us live while disabled. Lemire not only kills off the disabled character as so many people do, but also has him internalize this idea of being better off dead. Billy is told that the serum that is made for him could kill him or give him power and billy responds “it could. But living another day like this is death anyway”. These statements are dangerous, especially since many disabled people are repeatedly told that our lives have no worth. It presents the idea that we are better off risking death than living while disabled.

It’s important to note that, like most people in our society, Jeff Lemire isn’t intentionally seeking out to harm disabled people. Instead, he is replicating the images of disability that he (and the rest of us) have seen repeatedly in popular culture – which is why they are tropes. He is not portraying his character in this way to do harm to disabled people, but, unfortunately, these tropes and these portrayals DO harm disabled people. I would encourage him and others to get to know people in the disabled people who look critically at popular culture and the impact that it has on social perception of disability and political decisions around disabled people. I hope that in the future, Lemire brings his critical, creative perspective to disability and pushes the boundaries of the way disability is portrayed beyond simplistic, problematic tropes

Flipped Worlds

Flipped Worlds

A review of “Flip” (Markosia, Enterprises, 2018) edited by Jack Briglio and featuring work by Derek Kunsken, Wendy Muldon, Eleonora Dalla Rosa, Miguel Jorge, Hugh Rockwood, Alberto Massetti, Marcello Bondi, Francesco Della Santa, and Salvador’s Coppola.

By Derek Newman-Stille

The comic “Flip” offers a series of flashes through different worlds filled with different possibilities, inviting readers to turn the world on its head and look at it differently. Like most Speculative Fiction, even when it is set on a different world, in a different reality, or in the future, it is really about our own world and the things that occupy our imagination, thoughts, and perspectives. “Flip” invites readers to delve into those imaginings, to ask critical questions, and imagine what is not in order to think anew about what is.

The stories in “Flip” bring the reader into worlds where credit card debt is paid back with death, inviting us to think about credit card companies as loan sharks; worlds where people are forced to divorce after only 7 years of marriage, evoking questions about matrimony; worlds where luchadors meld their bodies into those of gorillas to fight, inviting questions of animal violence, human fear, and corporate control; worlds where pensions are saved for the young and people work later in life, inviting questions about age and ageing. There are tales of people meeting between flipped worlds and of choices made and the impact of choices that weren’t made. It is a comic about possibility and change. 

“Flip” is a collection of stories that are meant to unsettle, to disrupt, to FLIP reality and let us see it from another angle. 

Dreaming of Justice

Dreaming of Justice

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Dreams of Doom” in Take Us To Your Chief And Other Stories (Douglas & McIntyre, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dream catchers have fascinated the cultural imagination and been used by white authors as a plot feature in their stories (such as Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher), so it is powerful that Drew Hayden Taylor, an aboriginal person, reclaims the image of the Dream catcher in his fiction. “Dreams of Doom” is a story about government conspiracy connected to Dreamcatchers. Pamela Wanishin, a writer for a small, Aboriginal newspaper, gets mailed a thumb drive full of secret government documents and finds herself at the heart of a conspiracy by the Canadian government to control and further oppress Indigenous peoples.

This is a common tale of a reporter who finds herself followed by government agents who want to silence her, but Hayden Taylor puts a spin on the tale, combining the traditional story with aspects of the Canadian government’s oppression of Aboriginal people. Hayden Taylor uses metatextual approaches to point out the way that he has played with a common text by putting an Indigenous slant to stories, even referring to some of these stories in his tale, but with names altered to highlight their Indigenous connection like All the Prime Minister’s Men, Ojibway Holiday, The Blue Heron Brief, and The Girl with the Orca Tattoo. He also connects the events of his story to other aspects of Canada’s oppression of Indigenous people, bringing up attempts in the past to pacify First Nations through things like the White Paper, the Oka Crisis, Ipperwash, and Idle No More.

Hayden Taylor disrupts Canada’s image of itself as a “Just Nation” by illustrating the history of injustices the country has perpetrated as well as the country’s ability to hide its injustices and erase them from history or wash over them. As for the connection to Dream catchers, I will leave that for Hayden Taylor to tell you all about in “Dreams of Doom”.

To discover more about Take Us To Your Chief, visit http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/book/take-us-to-your-chief

To find out more about Drew Hayden Taylor, visit https://www.drewhaydentaylor.com

Decolonized Space

Decolonized Space

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “Lost in Space” in Take Us To Your Cheif (Douglas & McIntyre, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Lost in Space”, Drew Hayden Taylor explores the first Anishinabe man to travel into space. He is travelling as part of a mining operation set out amongst asteroids. Hayden Taylor uses the imagery of being Lost in Space to explore how an Anishinabe man negotiates his connection to Earth and to the four directions when he is in space, without a reference point. Although he knows exactly where he is in space, he ponders his relationship to his planet and to his people. He explores the sense of disconnection with home.

Hayden Taylor shapes these questions partially through a conversation between Mitchell and his grandfather. His grandfather invites critical questions about what space will mean for Mitchell: “But being Native in space… Now that’s a head-scratcher. Think about it. We sprang from Turtle Island. The earth and water are so tied into who we are. There’s an old saying, ‘the voice of the land is in our language'”. Mitchell seeks to find his own language and his own connection to his culture while away from home, having been denied his hand drum, which scientists said would put too much vibrational pressure on the hull, he needs to find new ways of expressing who he is and expressing his connection to family and home.

To discover more about Take Us To Your Chief, visit http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/book/take-us-to-your-chief

To find out more about Drew Hayden Taylor, visit https://www.drewhaydentaylor.com

Colonialism

Colonialism

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor’s “A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon Part II: Old Men and Old Sayings ” in Take Us to Your Chief And Other Stories (Douglas & McIntyre, 20160.

By Derek Newman-Stille

Indigenous people have been accustomed to alien invasions and the decimation of land and culture and Drew Hayden Taylor adapts the history of colonialism to new frontiers of science fiction in his book Take Us To Your Chief and Other Stories. In A Culturally Inappropriate Armageddon Part II: Old Men and Old Sayings, Hayden Taylor focusses on an old man, Willie Whitefish, and his experiences of care homes, but, beyond that, he explores Willie’s history of surviving residential schools and his unique ability to see potential warning signs when he hears about an approaching alien space ship. Willie’s history of dealing with a violent, colonial government has prepared him for what he (and the rest of the world) is likely to experience.

Although ignored by most of the PSWs in the care home he is living in, Willie reflects on his knowledge of history “everything from Columbus straight through the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, to the Traill of Tears, to the impact of the sale of Alaska on the Inuit and the Aleutians”. Willie is aware of what happens with the arrival of strangers from a distant place and that it traditionally means mass murders of the indigenous people of a region and the cultural genocide of those people in following generations. He points out that people should know better, but, then again, most of the people welcoming these visitors from the stars have been the colonizers, not the displaced and colonized people and therefore that the people excited about visitors from the stars haven’t paid enough attention to history from an indigenous perspective.

To discover more about Take Us To Your Chief, visit http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/book/take-us-to-your-chief

To find our more about Drew Hayden Taylor, visit https://www.drewhaydentaylor.com

Chrysalis

Chrysalis 
A review of Lena Ng’s Love Transcendent in We Shall Be Monsters (Renaissance Press, 2018)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Lena Ng’s Love Transcendent is a belle mort tale of transformation. Exploring the Ancient Greek image of the soul represented as a butterfly, Ng explores the idea of death itself as a process of beautiful transformation, as a chrysalis in which the caterpillar of life becomes something majestic and winged after life. 

This beautifully macabre tale explores the role of a young doctor seeking to understand the body, who ultimately becomes fascinated with what exists beyond the physical. As much as he is fascinated by the inner workings of the body, he is fascinated by the aesthetics of embodiment. Life evokes a passion for discovery in him that is all-consuming, a desire to understand things that are unfathomable. 
This is a tale of a doctor’s obsession born of death and his desire to catch glimpses of the uncanny.
Ng’s tale is a meta tale with a young doctor seeking answers beyond science by picking up the text of Frankenstein, detailing Victor’s success in resurrection and using it for his own model. Yet, Ng complicates the text, illustrating the limits of science and that there is some ephemeral otherness that occurs in death and in resurrection.
This is a tale of a surgeon’s battle between professional detachment and love. 

To find out more about We Shall be Monsters, visit Renaissance Press’ site at https://renaissancebookpress.com/product/we-shall-be-monsters/

The Religion of Mystery Literature

The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.

One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.

One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.

Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.

So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?

I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.

Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.

I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?

Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.

So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?

Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father BrownMurder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.

* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,