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

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Stealing Resources From Indigenous People

Stealing Resources From Indigenous People

A review of The Champions: Northern Lights (Marvel Comics, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Although an American comic created by Marvel Comics, The Champions: Northern Lights is set in Nunavut and features some distinctly Canadian elements.

Firstly, the superhero team Champions comes into contact with Alpha Flight, another Marvel Comics creation – a superhero team set in Canada and created by Canadian John Byrne. It is extremely exciting seeing Alpha Flight continuing to appear in Marvel Comics since they haven’t had a series of their own in many years. The current Alpha Flight appears to be under the control of American Captain Marvel and features figures like Puck, Snowbird, Talisman, and Sasquatch.

Beyond just the Alpha flight connection, the comic features ideas of The North, setting the story in the winter and connecting the story to critical questions about global warming and the Arctic thaw, engaging questions about Canada’s relationship to the North and the idea of Canadian paternalism of Northern landscapes. The comic raises questions about the relationship between English and Inuktitut language, and explores the invasion of Inuit lands by a white man who believes he is doing the right thing and who steals resources from the landscape. As often happens, indigenous protestors mobilize to protect the landscape from continual colonial oppression and exploitation and from illegal resource extraction and attempts to assert white authority over indigenous land.

Champions raises critical issues for current Canadian issues around the attempts by the Canadian government to build a pipeline through unceded indigenous land. Currently, Wet’suwet’en protestors are seeking to protect their land from the Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that is being built through their territory and once again, a white, male, colonialist power is seeking to invade indigenous land for a nonrenewable resource.

In the Champions: Northern Lights comic, the colonialist, white person invading indigenous land calls himself The Master, highlighting ideas of power hegemonies and the exploitation of indigenous people. Moreover, the nonrenewable resource that he seeks to exploit in this case is the literal “Soul of the North”, a goddess named Sila. Indigenous protestors in the comic call out The Master, telling him: “face your crimes, corruptor!”.

Champions: Northern Lights brings up key critical questions about power structures, indigenous rights, exploitation of resources, and conflict over the landscape

To find out more about The Champions, go to https://www.marvel.com/comics/series/22552/champions_2016_-_2019

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/

Next Top Villain

Next Top Villain

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Thanos Vol 1: Thanos Returns (Marvel Comics, 2017).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Canadian comic book writer and artist Jeff Lemire has worked on independent comics, but has also worked with the comic company giants DC and Marvel. He tends to take his Canadian interest in grey areas and ambiguous endings into his comics for DC and Marvel, allowing for complex plots and characters.

In Thanos Vol 1: Thanos Returns, Lemire takes on one of the big villains in the Marvel universe, trying to add moral complexity to a character that has often appeared in comics as irreconcilably ‘bad’. Lemire is able to introduce some pathos for Thanos by portraying the villain in illness, creating a ‘god’ obsessed with Death… who is, himself, dying. Thanos is viewed as and views himself as a personification of strength, and Lemire explores what it means for someone who takes so much of his identity from his strength… to suddenly have to deal with vulnerability, with something that he would consider weak in others and would likely kill them for.

But what does the death of a powerful tyrant mean for others? This is a universal race to grab power in the perceived power vacuum that Thanos will leave, and Lemire uses this comic to comment on political power and the discourse of vulnerability on a universal scale. Revenge, the lust for power, and the desire to be significant are all wrapped together in the people who race to fill the perceived void that Thanos will leave. Lemire creates a race between villains to secure their place in a changing universe.

To find out more about Thanos Vol 1: Thanos Returns, visit http://marvel.com/comics/collection/62231/thanos_vol_1_thanos_returns_tpb_trade_paperback

To discover more about Jeff Lemire, go to http://jefflemire.blogspot.com

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 

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