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

Advertisements

Not Malfunctioning

Not Malfunctioning

A review of Fiona Patton’s “I Am Not Broken” in Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In our ableist society, disability is treated as a flaw, as a malfunction. In “I Am Not Broken”, Fiona Patton explores the problematic assumptions about disability by abstracting the image of malfunctioning onto a robot who has been deemed to be malfunctional and is preparing for disassembly. By making this parallel, Patton explores the way that our society assumes that disabled people are “broken” and not capable of fulfilling a social role. Patton critiques ideas of bodily conformity by pointing out production lines and challenges ideas of standardized testing by pointing out that it can’t encompass the complexity of individual value. Her tale is a challenge to power structures that try to force a singular normative system and fail to recognize the power of complexity.

Although using a robot for her tale, Patton’s tale is wholly folkloric. She evokes the feel and experience of folklore by using repeated phrases and a cyclical story structure. As much as this is a story about a robot’s transformations and learning about themself, it is also a tale of animals and the teachings that they impart on a wayward traveller.

Patton breaks the bounds of simple definitions of folklore or fairy tales by brining her story into the galactic realm and teasing her story out with science fictional elements.

Patton opens up the potential for empowerment through diversity and of power through communal activities and working together toward resolutions that work for a wider number of people. “I Am Not Broken” is a story of resistance and reflection that invites the reader to expand their understanding.

To discover more about Fiona Patton, visit http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?796

To find out more about Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins, visit https://overtherainbowfairytale.wordpress.com and Exile Editions at https://www.exileeditions.com

Beyond the Pale (Vampire)

A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

One type of vampire story tend to flood the market – the sexy male vampire who is iridescently pale, wealthy, and feeds on women in an erotic embrace. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has again and again demonstrated her love for horror, but also her desire to shift the tired old narratives, dust off the layers of racism and sexism to find new narratives. Certain Dark Things is a revitalization of the vampire narrative, allowing it to kick off the detritus of the past to tell some new stories. 

Moreno-Garcia sets her story in Mexico City in contrast to the vast number of vampire narratives set in the United States or the United Kingdom. Her vampires are not the pale, white European figures of vampire romances, or, at least not all of them are. Her narrative focuses on Atl, a Tlahuihpochtli, an indigenous vampire of the Mexico region who can trace her lineage back to the Aztecs. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires have multiple different subsets, each with different characteristics and hailing from different geographies, and often the only thing they share in common is their hunger for blood. There are European vampires in her narrative, calling themselves Necros and fitting most of the characteristics of the vampires that generally populate the pages of paranormal romance novels, but these vampires are not sexy, otherworldly beings. They control human beings through their bite, which can turn human beings into slaves, without any will. 

Moreno-Garcia explores displacement narratives in her interactions between the Tlahuihpochtli and the Necros, exploring the way that the European Necros brought diseases with them when they came to Mexico and have been trying to push the Tlahuihpochtli out of their native landscapes. She makes connection between this displacement by Europeans and historical displacements of human indigenous populations by Europeans. The Necros brought pathogens with them that made the blood of many humans intolerable to the Tlahuihpochtli, and with the rise of a new disease Croneng’s disease, the government has decided to create sanitation groups whose goals seem to be as much about harassing the homeless population and institutionalizing people with disabilities as they are about dealing with the spread of a pathogen. 

Health is a huge part of Moreno-Garcia’s narrative. Uniting the vampire with ideas of health is powerful since the vampire is often a figure of excessive health, and yet, in most vampire narratives, vampirism spreads like a pathogen. In Certain Dark Things vampirism is an ethnicity, a genetic group and cannot be passed from one person to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the health narrative Moreno-Garcia explores. She examines the role of institutionalization and its impact on populations in poverty, exploring the way that health and wealth often go hand in hand. The bite of the Necros vampires, although not able to turn someone into a vampire, does take away all of their agency, turning them into a slave through a viral contagion in their saliva that will eventually kill the human host. All vampire species are hard to kill and long-lived, but one of the other vampire species is especially known for its interaction with health – the Revenant. The Revenant subspecies is exceptionally long-lived, and can feed on both blood and the life force of others. These Revenants seem to de-age when they are infused with enough life force, appearing younger, and in creating them, Moreno-Garcia plays with the traditional narrative of the person who gains eternal youth by becoming a vampire. These vampires always look somewhat disabled no matter how young they become, still having a hunched appearance, complicating ideas of the excessive ability of the vampire and the ableism that often comes along with this portrayal of the vampire. Many of the governments in the world of Certain Dark Things perceive of vampires as a plague even though they are a racial group, and this complicated relationship between ideas of health, illness and race bring attention to the way that in our own world there is often an assumption that illnesses come from outside, which affects travel, immigration, and often means that any pathogens that arise are eventually believed to come from other regions. 

Certain Dark Things doesn’t create a romantic story of wealth, but rather explores poverty. Her central human character, Domingo, is a street teen who has made his living collecting and purposing garbage. Domingo relishes his invisibility, the way people work to ignore him and pretend that he isn’t there because it is easier to do so than to admit that there are homeless young people. Yet, in pointing out the invisibility of homeless Youth, Moreno-Garcia brings it to the reader’s attention, reminding us of how hard we work to ignore social inequalities. This is a story of drug cartels, poverty, government and police abuses of power, and the monstrousness of corruption itself, which is a far more dangerous monster than Atl or her vampire cousins. But, she does use the figure of one Necros vampire, Nick, to point out the excesses of privilege that come with wealth and whiteness, having Nick frequently prioritize himself over anyone else, having him eat in excess, and showing the ease with which he exercises his power over women around him, particularly marginalized women. 

Certain Dark Things disrupts the Eurocentrism of vampire tales, providing an under-represented tale that needed to be told. 

To discover more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work, visit her website at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com/blog/ 

Valuing Care

A review of Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As a society, we undervalue care and undervalue care workers. We tend to assume that people who do care work are doing it because they like helping people and we assume that the job is compensation enough. Even in the home, we de-value family members who provide care, viewing their care work as something that doesn’t need compensation. Care work is consistently treated as though it is not real labour and isn’t valued or compensated for. 

Part of this lack of value for care work stems from patriarchal beliefs that position care work as a feminine labour and therefore de-value it the same way that patriarchy de-values anything viewed as feminine. 

Care work has been in need to reimagining for some time. It has needed a fundamental disruption of social assumptions and a re-evaluating of the meaning of this labour. Using the medium of speculative fiction, a genre devoted to asking questions, Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law’s The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound brings together stories that critically interrogate the way that we imagine care and care-giving. These stories take a broad exploration of what care can mean, looking at parental care, long term care homes, social responsibilities for care, foster care, maternal care, elder care, medical care by doctors and nurses, the care relationships of pets, and even the care roles of insectile species’ (since care isn’t just a human trait). These stories examine complexities of care that are critical to this culture moment such as what is the value of care?, what difference does quality care make?, what is quality of life?, is care the role of home or the state?, what are the gendered dynamics of care-giving?, why do we de-value care-givers?, how much responsibility should parents have in the care of their children?, and what is the role of robotics in care? These are all critical questions that are in need of complex and creative answers and The Sum of Us invites readers to think critically about them. It doesn’t introduce easy answers about care-giving, but instead invites readers to explore often contrary ideas about care, asking readers to come up with their own critical questions and creative answers to the meaning of care.

These are tales of robots, aliens, insects, future wars, supervillains, nanites, other worlds, plagues, and mutants, but at their core, these are all tales about what caring means, and these are real, human questions. They may be explored through the lens of the alien, but they are fundamentally about human values and what care means to us. Sometimes the only way to get us to ask critical questions about the way that we value (or de-value) caring labour is to project our modes of care onto another, onto the future, onto another society, onto the inhuman so that we ask ourselves “if this makes us upset when we see an alien doing it, what does it mean that we are doing the same thing?”

To read some of the reviews of individual stories in this collection, see my review of:

Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/25/skating-on-the-thin-ice-of-sports-masculinity/

Juliet Marillier’s “The Gatekeeper”

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-reaper-cat/

Edward Willett’s “The Mother’s Keeper”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/08/insectile-intimacies/

Sandra Kasturi’s “The Beautiful Gears of Dying”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/06/exposing-the-caregiver-within-the-human-suit/

A.M. Dellamonica’s “Bottleneck” 

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/06/10/caregiving-at-war/

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Dreams as Fragile as Glass” 

https://disabledembodiment.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/breakable/ 

Kate Story’s “Am I Not A Proud Outlier”

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2017/07/28/what-is-means-to-be-an-outsider/
To find out more about The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, visit http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/ 

Skating on the Thin Ice of Sports Masculinity

A review of Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Laksa Media Group, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Speculative Fiction stories about hockey are relatively rare in English Canada, although Amy Ransom has illustrated that they are a popular motif in Quebecois SF. That makes Claire Humphrey’s “Number One Draft Pick” a rare treat, particularly since it deals with the complexities of hockey culture and its complex relationship to gender and disability. 

Humphrey’s story explores hockey culture from the outside, examining it from the perspective of a care-giver who is providing support to a hockey player with a disability. Reshma is the trainer for a service dog named Zuzu, whose specialization is sensing the onset of seizures. In this near-future fiction story, Zuzu’s abilities are augmented by a collar that assists her in monitoring the health of her human. 

Sports masculinity tends to be hostile to the idea of disability, viewing athletes with disabilities as less capable, and often as somewhat feminized, particularly when the require the use of care-givers. Sports masculinity is about hyper ability. Although a team sport, hockey, like many sports, relies on the idea that athleticism is a product of individualism, an independence that pretends that the star athlete has accomplished everything on their own. The idea of needing care and support can disrupt this illusion. Humphrey explores this in her story by examining the complex secrecy around hockey star Ty’s disability. The hockey association wants to keep Ty’s disability a secret, projecting him as a star that doesn’t need support, and even his team engages in the complex veil of secrecy, pretending that they don’t know about Ty’s seizures even when they have witnessed them. Secrecy is part of the cohesiveness of the team and the maintenance of the team’s sense of sports masculinity, willfully ignoring anything that doesn’t match their ideas of ability.

“Number One Draft Pick” simultaneously places women in nurturing and supporting roles and men in active sports roles while also pointing out that this dichotomy is totally artificial and that the gendered reactions around sports are social constructs, created by the team and their supports to model the idea of the independent athletic hero. Humphrey uses science fiction and disability to complicate sports masculinity, pointing out the complexities in the construction of athleticism and its relationship to the body. 

To discover more about Clare Humphrey’s work, visit http://www.clairehumphrey.ca

To find out more about The Sum of Us, visit the Laksa Media Group website at http://laksamedia.com/the-sum-of-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause-2/

Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

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/