Loa in Dreamland

Loa in Dreamland
A review of Nalo Hopkinson and Neil Gaiman’s House of Whispers Vol 1: The Power Divided (DC Vertigo, 2019) 

By Derek Newman-Stille

For those of you reading Speculating Canada over the past few years, you have probably noticed that I am a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and of comics, so I was extremely excited to find out that the two collaborated on the comic series “House of Whispers vol 1: The Power Divided”, set in the Sandman Universe and to see their voices mingle in an exploration of the potential of that imagined universe. 

Hopkinson and Gaiman have always demonstrated a continuing fascination with border crossing and the implications of the collision of the physical and spiritual world and “House of Whispers” happens at that point of contact when the spiritual realm of the Loa (Afro-Caribbean deities) is partially pulled into the world of dreams and the goddess Erzulie finds herself outside of her space of worship and cut off from the world she knows and her ability to help her worshippers.

At the same time, a spiritual virus is released amongst the human population, making the infected feel as though they are dead, yet alive. Medical practitioners can’t see anything wrong with the infected people, but they are left without feeling or joy or connection to the physical world. Their spirits are sent to the world of dreams and they are left empty, wandering meaninglessly across the world. This virus is spread by words, through a phrase, and this instantly reminds me of the Canadian film Pontypool where a zombie virus is coded in language. It makes me wonder if there is a trend occurring where people are both recognizing the power of language and also questioning what language can do. Hopkinson has always demonstrated a fascination with the power of language in her novels and short fiction, linking words to magic, exploring the way that language shapes us, and playing with the sounds and taste of language. 

The description of the living death that Hopkinson describes not only evokes the idea of the zombie, but also evokes depression. Most of our society looks at depression as a form of sadness, but for those of us who experience clinical depression, we often feel a sense of emptiness, a disconnect, and a hollowness that strongly differentiates depression from sadness. The feelings of the characters in House of Whispers evoked this sense of depression. This depiction is as powerful as it is painful to read. I could feel myself resonating with the sense of loss and pain that the characters were experiencing. Hopkinson’s creative energy wound itself throughout this powerful narrative, giving it life.

As always in her work, Hopkinson highlights diverse bodies and identities. The majority of her characters are BIPOC, which is a fantastic change from the normally excess of white characters in comics. Moreover, her narrative focuses on diverse body sizes and Erzulie, for example, is represented as fat, which is an exciting shift that allows for the recognition that fat is beautiful (especially since Erzulie is the Loa of love, desire, and beauty. Hopkinson also features disabled people and LGBTQ2IA relationships including lesbian couples and nonbinary characters. This is a comic that engages the multiplicity of human experience, and it is so much stronger for that reason. Her characters are highly developed, relatable, and carry so many waiting to be told stories in their every sentence. This is a rich comic that is filled with the potential of narratives yet to come. 

Like most comics, House of Whispers: The Power Divided is a collaborative work, both with other writers such as Gaiman and later with Dan Waters, but also with artist Dominike Stanton, whose artistic talent brings Hopkinson’s words to visual life and adds to the power of the story she tells, particularly by emphasizing bodily diversity and evoking the beauty of the human (and magical) form. Set partially in a dream world, this comic is a form of dreaming given physical form.

To read more about House of Whispers Vol !: The Power Divided, go to https://www.dccomics.com/comics/house-of-whispers-2018/house-of-whispers-1

To find out more about Nalo Hopkinson, go to https://nalohopkinson.com/index.html

‘Twas The Night Before Krampus

‘Twas The Night Before Krampus
A review of Sam Beiko’s Krampus Is My Boyfriend
By Derek Newman-Stille 

As a folklorist, the figure of Krampus has fascinated me for years. Krampus is the devilish companion of St Nicholas and while the saint passes out gifts to good children, Krampus passes out beatings to the bad ones. He’s got a Pan-like look with goat legs and horns and he often is depicted carrying a switch for beating children and a bag or basket for carrying them away. 

Originally a figure from Austria and the Bavarian regions of Germany, Krampus has gained popularity in North America as the “anti-Santa”, and Sam Beiko’s Krampus from her comic “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” is inspired by that image of the creature. In fact, when the German exchange student at St. Gobnait’s Academy first mentions the demon, she is greeted with the response “he’s the anti-Santa Claus, right?” 

Beiko’s use of the graphic format is a powerful part of the narrative since Krampus is a visually stimulating figure. But, more than just the striking image of the demon himself, Beiko evokes the demon’s character through her comic pages, often featuring chains and vines binding one scene to the next and wrapping them all up in her image of Krampus as a pagan deity that pre-dates Christianity. Her motif of the natural world reinforces the pagan origins of Krampus, making him something connected to the forest even though he operates in an urban environment.

Beiko situates “Krampus Is My Boyfriend” in a tale of teen bullying, connecting the demon to ideas of childhood and youth, but also to ideas of punishment for bad behaviour. The demon is summoned by high school student Olga when she is bullied at her prestigious private high school by wealthier students. She is described as a “bursary kid”, denoting her poverty and is mocked for her weight. 

Beiko plays with the notion of importing a custom from Germanic tradition by having a German exchange student first mention the demon, but also plays with the notion of Krampus expressing something intrinsic to all youth by having Olga call out the Krampus ritual as if she knew it. Beiko explores the notion of traditions extending beyond their place of origin and moving to a new location, which mirrors what has occurred with Krampus as a folk entity. Krampus has begun to be a figure celebrated in American holiday traditions with people gathering at celebrations dressed as the demon, and even importing the tradition of the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run). Beiko explores the way that Krampus in North America occupies a strange space of both tradition and newness, being from another country’s traditions, but, also, new to this region. Beiko reinforces this collision of tradition and newness by having mythical creatures use technology to track Krampus while having this tech connected to trees. 

While drawing on the legend of Krampus, Beiko creates her own mythology – one intimately connected with aspects of science fiction – to create a fascinating new take on the Christmas devil.

To discover more about Krampus Is My Boyfriend, go to http://krampusismyboyfriend.com

Consider supporting Sam Beiko on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/smbeiko

Find out more about Sam Beiko and her work at https://www.smbeiko.com

Intertextual

Intertextual

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1 (Dark Horse, 2019)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Throughout the Black Hammer series, Jeff Lemire has been experimenting with intertextuality, playing with his knowledge of Golden Age comics while adding modern comic sensibilities and skepticism about the genre. In Black Hammer: Age of Doom, Lemire’s superheroes, who have been thrust into a world without superheroes, begin to see the patterns around them slipping. They begin to see through the idyllic world that has been their home since their battle with Anti-God. Their world starts being full of plot holes that, as much as they try to ignore, become far too apparent for them.

Lemire plays with the idea of story itself in Black Hammer: Age of Doom, examining authorial intent and the role of characters in shaping their own narratives. He examines the idea of suspended disbelief, so essential for the superhero genre, but twists it so that his characters themselves are the skeptical readers, reading their own narratives and noticing what is missing. In a powerful meta-narrative that is evocative of the comic Fables, Lemire even has a character enter a world with personifications of types of narratives, having young Black Hammer meet Mystery, Romance, The Editor, Grammar, and The Pagecounter. These are elements of writing made physical and they guide Black Hammer on her narrative. Lemire even plays with his own writing history by having Black Hammer open a doorway into one of his other graphic worlds – that of his book Sweet Tooth.

Lemire points out his love of story in Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1, having Mystery tell Black Hammer “It’s all real because stories are real”. In this statement, Lemire blurs the lines between reality and fiction, pointing out that stories have substance, meaning, and that they are important.

To find out more about Black Hammer: Age of Doom Part 1, visit Dark Horse’s website at https://www.darkhorse.com/Comics/3002-552/Black-Hammer-Age-of-Doom-1

To find out more about Jeff Lemire, visit http://jefflemire.blogspot.com

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. 

Queerly Ever After

Queerly Ever After

A review of Ricky Lima’s Happily Ever Aftr (Lime Press, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

She grew up in a kingdom filled with toxic masculinity… perhaps that’s why she thought she could make a princess love her by kidnapping her.

Happily Ever Aftr explores the traditional fairy tale motif of a princess locked in a tower… but adds a twist. The princess is imprisoned by another princess. Princess Gretchen grew up in Castle Grimhold as part of a family line of kings who have kidnapped princesses to be their brides. So, what else was there for her to do but carry on the family tradition and kidnap a princess to be her bride. Once Gretchen reveals that her intention is to marry Princess Emily, her family takes issue not with the kidnapping, but with Gretchen’s desire to have a bride instead of a groom. Gretchen begins to learn ideas of consent from Emily and explores her own identity and its relationship to her role as the princess of Grimhold.

Ricky Lima uses the image of cell phone dating apps and texting to shape his tale of princesses in love (or captured by love), exploring ideas of princes who believe that they are entitled to women’s bodies and perceive princesses as objects and damsels in distress. With this use of dating apps as text, Lima makes a parallel between antiquated notions of masculinity and femininity and how these are played out on dating apps. Happily Ever Aftr uses a magical, fantasy setting to point out realities of how men objectify women on dating apps and the toxicity of “bro culture”.

Although Princess Emily keeps asking for suitors to rescue her, she is more than able to save herself through her own quick wit and tough attitude, but first goes through numerous suitors who are beheaded trying to rescue her. It is only when she encounters a prince who needs her to rescue him that she is able to finally express her own power.

Happily Ever Aftr calls into question the many “happily ever after”s offered by many traditional fairy tales that portray a passive princess being rescued by a prince and marrying in perpetual heterosexuality. Instead, the comic plays with assumptions about gender, assumptions about power, and assumptions about sexuality.

To discover more about Happily Ever Aftr, visit https://www.limepressonline.com/product/happily-ever-aftr

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A Green Monster Who Isn’t Envy

A review of Morgan Sea’s “Abominatrix” in We’re Still Here: An All-Trans Comic Anthology (Stacked Deck Press, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In “Abominatrix”, Morgan Sea plays with the notion of Marvel Comics’ She Hulk and produces another gamma powered superhero. Sea’s hero is a Trans woman who adores She Hulk, and decides to take a shot of gamma infused chemicals as part of her transition. Instead of ending up looking like She Hulk – a green-skinned, powerful, beautiful woman, she ends up looking more like the Hulk villain, the Abomination. Instead of becoming a villain as Marvel comics characters tend to do when they have lived a life of oppression and don’t become beautiful superheroines, Trixie tries to live her life as she always has. She reminds herself “They’ve always treated you like a monster. They’ve always wanted you to hide”, so she decides to practice radical self love instead. While out on the streets, she continues to be subject to social violence – insulted by passers by, having drinks thrown at her. While being subjected to violence, she has to constantly reassure other people that they are safe from her instead of being concerned about her own safety. Even when she wants to use the washroom, she is told that she would need to use the men’s toilets instead of women’s toilets.

When Trixie finally decides to act back against all of the social violence she experiences, she ends up fighting another gamma powered hulk and the two of them end up crashing through spaces of oppression like a pharmacy where a doctor is refusing a Trans person their meds, a bank where a Trans person is being denied a loan for their electrolysis machine, and a classroom where a teacher is trying to force children to believe only in binary genders and that gender is unchangeable. This is a comic about smashing heteropatriarchy and Morgan Sea reminds us that we can’t accept violence and sometimes we need to act back to prevent that oppression.

Sea plays with some meta fictional elements of her comic, writing Trixie’s inner dialogue with the awareness that she is a comic character. She uses language like “Just got to take it step by step, day by day, panel by panel” and “See you are almost off this page!” to remind readers that this is a self-aware comic, a comic that is purposely raising questions and critiques about the mainstream comic industry. “Abominatrix” invites us to ask questions about the absence of Trans characters in most superhero comics (where Trans characters often only appear as villains) and asks us to question the portrayal in comics of a character who is done being subjected to violence and decides to speak back. As I mentioned above, the characters who act back against social violence in comics are generally treated as villains and the role of heroes is often to reinforce the status quo. Sea’s comic is about challenging the simple narrative of mainstream superhero comics and inviting an awareness of the absences and vilifying of characters who stand up for social justice. She asks us to think about how we create our monsters and the ideologies that go into producing those monsters.

To find out more about Morgan Sea, visit her website at https://morgansea.wordpress.com

To find out more about We’re Still Here: An All Trans Comics Anthology, go to https://stackeddeckpress.com/product/were-still-here-an-all-trans-comics-anthology/