A Squirrelly Comedy Duo of Doom

A review of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 3 (Marvel, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In addition to continuing to be incredibly adorable, Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol 3 continues to play with narrative in fascinating ways. The comic continues to use elements of commentary at the bottom of each page, playing with the messages given on the comic page itself. It employs twitter feeds as a method of conveying dialogue and interacting with the wider Marvel comics universe (though most of the tweets are directed at Iron Man). This method allows for a different engagement with ideas of speech beyond just the typical speech bubble. Background narratives about characters are provided by cards that Squirrel Girl keeps with her that outline the stories and abilities of various baddies in the Marvel universe, and of course these cards are created by Deadpool to create a connection between these two characters that defy the conventions of superheroes and add a comical meta-narrative to their stories. North and Henderson add on different tech features of storytelling in this narrative by including things like Wikipedia pages and “While You Were Out” notes that allow for a different engagement with narrative, allowing the character to speak to those who aren’t present on the page and will likely not acknowledge these notes. They are an opportunity for the character to engage in a frustrated soliloquy about her experiences.

I am always incredibly impressed by the way that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl achieves her victories through negotiation and conversation rather than the traditional superhero method of “punch until villain is incapacitated or accepts your viewpoint”. For this volume, Squirrel Girl first makes a mistake when encountering a villainous character and attacks him, but later questions his intentions and whether she should have attacked him in the first place. She later revisits an old enemy, Doctor Doom. North and Henderson play with the idea of Doom, exaggerating his narcissistic personality by having him rename everything after himself, creating DOOMipedia, DOOMhenge, and even a programming language that consists of variations on the name Doom. Squirrel Girl’s sense of play comes up against Doom’s utter seriousness in a comedic duo trope of the comedian and the straight man that accentuates the humour of the situation. 

To discover more about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, visit http://marvel.com/comics/characters/1010860/squirrel_girl 

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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

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 12: Alpha Flight

Continuing the comic book theme, this week James Kerr and I discuss Marvel Comics’ Alpha Flight, the superhero team that the American Marvel Comics designed for Canada. James and I talk about some of the positive things that Marvel Comics did with their Canadian superhero team such as including the first gay character (Northstar), indigenous characters (Shaman, Talisman), French Canadians (Northstar, Aurora), characters of short stature (Puck), and characters with disabilities (Box, Aurora). We discuss the history of Alpha Flight, and its development in the context of other comics, the history of the Marvel universe, and the context of Canadian comics. … And… of course, we discuss the wonderful cheesiness of American visions of what a Canadian superhero would be.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

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