Small Town Ontario Bodies

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (Top Shelf Productions, 2009)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Jeff Lemire’s Essex County provides a fascinating look into small town Ontario life. Rather than just fixating on the lives of the young in this coming-of-age narrative, Lemire explores the multiple times in our lives that we come-of-age and expresses the idea that we are constantly coming of age as we change and our social and bodily circumstances change. 
Lemire explores ideas of escape and settlement in small town Ontario life illustrating the way that home is something that constantly shifts and changes and is something that is made up as much of relationships to others and to traditions as it is about a physical space. Lemire complicates notions of home, portraying his characters as constantly trying to fit in but also feeling a sense of longing when they leave. 
Lemire’s exploration is about the people in Essex County, but it is also about their bodies since many of the characters become disabled at different points in the narrative, shifting their understandings of their own bodies and their bodily identities. As bodies change and shift, relationships are also altered and changed, pointing out the ways that our bodies are complicit in our understanding of our world. 
The graphic novel format of Essex County brings attention to the ways that bodies occupy spaces and the absence that they leave in the spaces they cease to occupy. 
To discover more about Essex County visit Top Shelf Productions at http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/essex-county/640

To find out more about Jeff Lemire, visit his website at http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/ 

Psychiatric Survivor Superhero

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight Vol 1: Lunatic (Marvel, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

lemire-moon-knight

 

Writing about mental illness tends to be challenging and most authors tend to reify disempowering tropes of mental illness, projecting people with psychiatric disabilities as villainous, problematic, dangerous, and incompetent. Jeff Lemire’s 2016 rewrite of Moon Knight challenges some of the assumptions about mental illness. Although still unclear about which psychiatric disability Moon Knight has, Lemire explores the idea of Moon Knight as a character with mental illnesses (which was first established by Alan Zelenetz and Chris Warner’s mini-series about the character). Whereas Zelenetz and Warner described him as schizophrenic because of his multiple identities (which is actually more characteristic of dissociative identity disorder), Lemire avoids specifically mentioning what the superhero’s mental illness is and complicates the idea that he is mentally ill.

 

First set in a psychiatric institution, Lemire’s Moon Knight encounters a fractured reality where the psychiatric institution may actually be a prison construct by Egyptian gods. Moon Knight experiences a multiplicity of possible realities and Lemire resists telling the audience whether his realities are actual visions of real worlds or whether they are manifestations of his own delusions.

 

This trope of “is it a manifestation of mental illness or is this person seeing the reality that is hidden” has been played with in numerous science fiction media (including the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again” and the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”), asking the reader to question the nature of reality. This trope in Sci Fi normally portrays the asylum as a space for the mental breakdown of the character, encompassing the idea that asylums are places of escape from reality.

 

Lemire questions and criticizes the construction of the asylum as an institution, illustrating the horrors of life in an asylum and portraying the asylum as a form of prison. Lemire’s characters want to escape from the asylum, to find new possibilities in the world outside, but Moon Knight is constantly questioning and critiquing his reality and the world around him, inviting critical questions about the nature of the mind and the nature of psychiatric institutions. Lemire doesn’t provide answers about which of Moon Knight’s realities is authentic, but instead invites the reader to look at the world through multiple lenses, with multiple different possible realities. Moon Knight even shapes his own mask from a straight jacket that is draped over his face with a moon drawn onto it, and when he wears this mask, he experiences a second vision of the world, which he believes to be true.

 

Lemire’s exploration of multiplicity in the world is augmented by Greg Smallwood’s art, which frequently plays with multiple different visions of the world overlapping. Smallwood brings attention to the character’s vision by constantly focusing on the expression in his eyes, devoting several panels to the expressions that Moon Knight projects through his eyes. This is a comic that is focused on vision and multiple ways of seeing the world, transforming the world into a shifting, changeable plane.

 

To discover more about Jeff Lemire, visit http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/

 

 

 

Aw Nuts!!

Aw Nuts!
A review of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: Squirrel Power (Marvel Comics, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Rather than creating an origin story for Squirrel Girl in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson create a story of Squirrel Girl seeking to create a civilian identity for herself, something challenging to do when you have a tail and squirrel teeth… and even more difficult when your squirrel friends insist on talking to you while you are attempting to have a normal, civilian life at college. 

North and Henderson play with comic book expectations not only by having a reverse origin story, but by having Squirrel Girl create her own theme song (a slight modification of the Spider Man song), having her talk to villains to convince them of better opportunities for them, and this desire to play with genre expectations is highlighted by the small text at the bottom of each page of panels where there is a critique of the panels and choices in them and by the ending of each comic with a series of tweets between Squirrel Girl and her enemies and other heroes. 

Squirrel Girl, despite being preoccupied by the small acts of heroism that enhance people’s lives, keeps getting wrapped up in bigger problems, having to battle villains like Galactus when she really wants to keep other college kids safe from muggers, protect squirrels from animal violence, and deal with bullying. Oh, and of course these battles get in the way of the things she really wants to be doing like going to classes, choosing clubs to belong to, getting to know her roommate, eating nuts, and hanging out with her squirrel sidekick/overlord Tippy.

Squirrel Girl is fun, able to critique the superhero genre while participating in creating it, and is a superhero that people can relate to. With her battle cry of “Let’s get nuts!” and her playful approach to superheroism, Squirrel Girl is a character who can climb into our hearts faster than a squirrel can climb into a bird feeder. 

To find out more about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, visit Marvel Comics at http://marvel.com/comics/series/19750/the_unbeatable_squirrel_girl_2015_-_present

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are

Home is Where the Chicken Legs Are
A review of Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant (Candlewick Press, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Masha’s tale begins with stories from her grandmother about the witch Baba Yaga. Her grandmother was once kidnapped by Baba Yaga and had to outwit the witch in order to gain her freedom. Masha, delighted by these tales sees her grandmother’s life as one of adventure and wonders why she would have ever left Baba Yaga.
Masha’s father has recently been re-married and she discovers that although he never seemed to have time for her outside of work, he has time for his new wife and daughter. She feels out of place in her own home and when she runs away, she discovers a new home, but one that is unsettling and unsettled both by its strangeness and its propensity for walking around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga tests Masha to see if she is clever enough to get into her house before she is willing to take the girl on as an assistant. 
In order to cope in the fairy tale setting of Baba Yaga’s world, Masha must call upon all of her folklore and fairy tale knowledge to outsmart beasts, magic, and impossible tasks. Her life is one that has become enmeshed in the reality of fairy tales, shaped by their premises that have a logic all their own. 
Emily Carroll’s artwork weaves the mythical with the modern, blending the strange with the modern. She uses comic frames and backgrounds that meld and mesh the magic of a grimoire with the magic of needlepoint (an appropriate mixing because Masha tells us that her own grandmother acquired a needle and thread from Baba Yaga’s hut in her youth). For Masha’s remembering of fairy tales, Carroll switches to strong, simple colours with silhouette-like qualities to paint the tales with a sense of otherness and a sense of reverie. 

As much as this is a tale of wandering, it is also a tale of locating oneself, of finding oneself through tales and adventures. McCoola and Carroll’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant is a tale that reveals the power that fairy tales have to make us look at ourselves and our lives anew. It is a tale of self-discovery and a reminder that fairy tales can unlock doors of self discovery as easily as Masha opens the doorway to Baba Yaga’s hut. 
To discover more about Baba Yaga’s Assistant, visit Candlewick Press at http://www.candlewick.com/essentials.asp?browse=Title&mode=book&isbn=076366961X&bkview=p&pix=y 

Hawkeye’s Deafness

Hawkeye’s Deafness
A review of Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez’ “Hawkeye #5: All New Hawkeye” (Marvel Comics, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

  
As a disability scholar and a fan of Jeff Lemire’s work, I was extremely excited to discover that Lemire had taken on the writing of the Hawkeye comics. Hawkeye has been recently reinvented as a deaf character (I use the small “d” deaf here because Hawkeye doesn’t engage with many aspects of Deaf culture). Rather than using sign language, this Hawkeye uses a powerful hearing aid created by Tony Stark (Iron Man) that allows him to hear. Fortunately, at various points in the comic, Lemire has Hawkeye lose the use of his hearing aid to illustrate his deafness. Hawkeye’s deafness is rendered in Ramon Parez’ illustrations by showing empty speech bubbles, having the reader take the role of Hawkeye in trying to discern what is being said. This is an effective way of conveying Hawkeye’s deafness since the static form of comics doesn’t allow for the movement of lips. Further, the choice not to make Hawkeye capable of reading lips in the midst of battle is an effective one since lip reading is largely not effective when bodies are static let alone during the movement of battle. 

Lemire covers the early life of Hawkeye, illustrating when the character becomes deaf through the abuse of his father. This narrative links Hawkeye’s deafness to his early life and represents the intersection of two bodily identity narratives – the abused person and the deaf person. Lemire resists the temptation of making Deafness into a symbolic medium that many able-bodied authors fall into. Instead, Lemire presents deafness as a bodily experience and one that is only part of the multiplicity of experiences and identities Hawkeye experiences.

Lemire avoids the narrative of the “supercrip”, where a character with a disability is given superpowers to compensate for his or her disability (like Daredevil). Instead, Hawkeye has gained his skills through practise and doesn’t have any additional superpowers. The focus on vision for Hawkeye is significant since deafness normally means a focus on vision as the medium of communication and interaction. Indeed, the deaf community has been referred to as the “people of the eye”. The link between vision and Hawkeye’s name, indicating both accuracy, but also a precision of vision makes a firm link between his deafness and his focus on developing his visual skills. 

In addition to exploring Hawkeye’s deafness, Lemire explores the character’s role as a mentor and the complicated relationship between mentor and mentee, bringing attention to the role of aging that is generally elided in superhero narratives. Hawkeye is shown preparing the next generation of heroes for the future of the role. 
Lemire’s reference to Hawkeye’s history as a circus performer brings attention to the way that Deaf and disabled people have been involved in the circus industry, finding a place of belonging amongst other people who have been socially discriminated against. This role in the circus plays with the notion of the circus community and the disabled person as both being figures who are stared at in a society that constructs difference as pathological. Lemire examines the way that this intersection shaped Hawkeye’s experiences, propelling him to develop his skills in circus performance (particularly his role as a bowman) that eventually will lead to his role as a superhero. 

Lemire’s Hawkeye is represented as fundamentally shaped by his history of experiences, illustrated to be a composite of his past and his present understanding of his role as a superhero. 

To discover more about Jeff Lemire’s work, visit his website at http://jefflemire.wix.com/jefflemire.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 53: A Discussion About the Work of Jeff Lemire

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I discuss the work of Canadian comic book author and artist Jeff Lemire. Jeff Lemire has written for DC comics, working on titles such as Animal Man, Justice League Dark, and Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Lemire combined his writing and ilustration abilities for the comic Sweet Tooth, a post-apocalyptic tale of human-animal hybrids and the spread of a pandemic. Lemire also wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Trillium about time travelling, pandemics, and encounters with the alien. 
I explore Lemire’s use of intertwining narratives, the relationship between image and text, his use of pandemic narratives, his exploration of notions of humanity and the animal, the dangers of science, and his examination of the human potential for cruelty. 

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

  

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Golden Age Superheroes in Modernity

Golden Age Superheroes in ModernityA Review of Epic Canadiana Volume 1 by Cloudscape Comics, edited by Bevan Thomas.

By Derek Newman-Stille
Epic Canadiana volume 1 delightfully connects the golden age of Canadian comics (the origin of the Canadian superhero comic) with modernity, creating a link through Canadian comic book history. Epic Canadiana re-introduces readers to an aged Johnny Canuck, modelled after Leo Bachle’s WWII era Canadian golden age comic hero, creating a parallel between these two ages of comics by imagining that the character was part of Canadian history and art of an early age of superheroes who withdrew from the superhero business. Possibly drawing inspiration from Darwyn Cooke’s DC New Frontier comic which envisioned a McCarthyist witch hunt on superheroes, Epic Canadiana imagines a period if time when the population became suspicious of superheroes and turned away from them. Superheroes in Canada are now called upon to return to the business and begin fighting against villainy in the nation. 
Epic Canadiana is told as though it is a persuasive argument to Johnny Canuck to encourage him to return to superheroism and is structured as a series of mini comics (each with different authors and writers) that each showcase a certain hero’s tale. These tales are historically diverse, with comics set at various periods in Canadian history, and serve to create his link between Canadian comic book history and the present by featuring characters scattered across that time frame. Several of the characters also pay homage to golden age comic characters. The character Ikniqpalagaq, for example, is a modern-day re-envisioning of the Golden Age comic character Nelvana of the Northern Lights, maintaining her connection to the Northern Landscape, her Inuit heritage and her role as a demi-goddess. Yet this homage also allows for adaptation and Ikniqpalagaq more closely connects with Inuit cultural imagery than Nelvana (who was often assumed by onlookers to be white). Ikniqpalagaq provides the character with an Inuit name, a costume inspired by inuit regalia, and Inuit facial tattoos, more closely identifying her with her cultural location. Similarly, the golden age comic character The Penguin (not to be confused with the DC comics villain of the same name) is re-envisioned as The Loon, a character who still has the bird-like mask of The Penguin, but instead identifies with the loon, a bird that has a Canadian connection (where penguins do not). The Loon also becomes a mantle that people at various points in history assume, taking on the character’s identity to battle crime and this use of the figure of The Loon at different points in history similarly expresses the idea that Epic Canadiana is creating a thread of the superhero myth through Canadian history, reminding readers that the concept of the Canadian superhero is not a new one and underscoring the importance of being aware that the Canadian superhero has been part of the Canadian imagination since WWII. 
At the same time that there is a connection to these historical figures, there is also an acknowledgement that these early imaginings were products of their time and were texts that erased a diversity of Canadian experiences (particularly those of Canadians from groups who were not in positions of privilege). Some of the stories in the collection try to provide some further cultural diversity to their character by, for example, re-imagining Canadian historical figures like Canada Jack as a closeted gay man and the inspiration for a new LGBTQ superhero Jacque de Canada, who takes on an activist role as well as superheroism by battling against the forces of homophobia. 
The use of different authors and artists for each of the superhero tales in the collection lends it an eclectic feel, letting the reader feel as though they are experiencing each superhero’s narrative with a distinct voice and expression. 
Epic Canadiana represents an elaborate historical and expressive tapestry of Canadian comic imagination, winding a thread of history through diverse imaginings of what a Canadian superhero could be. The heroes in these pages are born of magic, mutation, a call to action… but more importantly, they are born of a Canadian imagining of what it means to be heroic and speculation about what a Canadian superhero would consider worthy of battle.
To discover more about Cloudscape Comics and Epic Canadiana Volume 1, visit their website at http://www.cloudscapecomics.com/comics/ .