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

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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

Power Dynamics

Power Dynamics

A review of James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, 2017)

By Derek Newman-Stille

In All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, James Alan Gardner creates a world of heroes and monsters to explore ideas of identity. In this world, the wealthy have bought the magical ability to become Darklings through a pact with otherworldly entities. They have become vampires, demons, ghosts, werewolves, and other things that haunt the magical imaginations. But, this world also touches on the heroic realm and therefore there are Sparks – beings that are created (at least to some degree) through “science” (or some semblance of it). Many of these Sparks become heroes, acquiring powers… but also acquiring the need for secret identities and costumes.

Superheroes are the perfect space to explore the fluidity of identity, especially since the idea of the costume and the secret identity are so intrinsic to the superhero mythos. In Gardner’s world, characters who gain powers need to take on a superhero identity and keep their ‘normal’ identity a secret as part of the complicated rules of the world. And when they use an superheroic name and wear a costume, they BECOME different, adopting new personality traits and radiating an aura of respectability. Yet, there are characters who are already accustomed to switches in identity like Kim Lam, who, in her search to find herself, has used multiple different names and personality characteristics. In fact, Kim refers to her previous identities as being dead like her identity as Kimmi, the goth girl who had a fascination with Darklings, her childhood name of Kimberly, or the name her father chose for her: Kimberlite (after the igneous rock). Kim is a genderqueer person (using she/her pronouns), existing in a nonbinary space, and Gardner is influenced in this idea of the death of identities by the Trans population and the use of the term “deadname”, referring to a previous identity that no longer reflects the person using it. Kim has had fluidity in her own identity, exploring different aspects of herself until she became Kim. Gardner makes a connection in his novel between gender fluidity and the superhero narrative, exploring the spaces of multiplicity of identity and the generative potential of this multiplicity. Identity and secret identity are interwoven in a way that allows for character complexity.

Transitions become an important factor in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault not just because of Kim’s transition to a genderqueer identity, but also because this world is made up of transitions – the change from wealthy to Darkling (which is marked by a ritual) and the transformation into a Spark (which is marked by an origin story). Transformation is part of a living story in Gardner’s world, something invested with power. In fact, even the powers of the Sparks need to be narrated and characters need to create a story to explain their powers in order to increase the likelihood that the universe will grant them those powers. In this way, the author plays with the idea of stories within stories and the importance of tales for creating new possibilities.

In addition to exploring identity and fluidity, Gardner offers a critique of the logic of wealthy people, literally turning the rich into vampires. In fact, the wealthy still suggest that there is a “trickle down economy”, but instead of just buying businesses and claiming that hiring people will allow their wealth to trickle down, the Darklings use “trickle down” to refer to the money that they give to others when they take their blood. There is a literal feeding off of the labour and bodies of the poor by the wealthy in this world. Gardner uses literal consumption (of blood) to comment on capitalist consumption of resources. He borrows from right wing pundits who try to justify hoarding of wealth by the 1% when creating speeches by the wealthy who use rhetoric like “”We manage sources of prosperity to maximize their return” and “We bought our powers legitimately through a mutually beneficial, clearly defined argument”, and “I didn’t just fluke my way into undeserved privilege. I paid”.

Gardner uses speculative fiction in order to bring up critical questions, inviting readers to interrogate the status quo and think about the way that power and exclusion work in our society, while also illustrating to the reader that change is possible.

In addition to being a fun superhero versus monsters narrative, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is a social text, exploring possibilities through storytelling.

To find out more about James Alan Gardner, visit https://jamesalangardner.wordpress.com

To discover more about All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780765392657

Coming of Age With Super Powers

Coming of Age With Super Powers

A review of Mariko Tamaki’s Supergirl: Being Super (DC Comics, 2018).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Canadian comic writer and artist Mariko Tamaki has frequently explored coming of age and that fascinating experience of being between childhood and adulthood in comics like Skim and This One Summer. She shows an incredible ability to draw her readers into those moments in our own past where we were in that awkward state of transition between childhood and adulthood and we sought out our own identities. in Supergirl: Being Super, Tamaki unites the awkward time of questioning identity in our teen years with the figure of the superhero… another figure for whom identity and transformation are a central issue.

We all remember what it was like to be a teenager and feel like we are in the wrong skin and like we don’t fit into our society… but that is magnified for Kara Danvers, a girl who just got her first pimple and exploded it all over her bathroom…. literally. Along with her friends, the young lesbian Dolly and track star Jen, Kara is seeking out what it means to be a teenager… but she is still holding back a secret from these friends. It turns out that her feeling of alienation comes from actually being an alien. Kara is from another planet.

Tamaki frequently explores the idea of being an outsider and what it feels like for a teen who is treated as though she doesn’t belong… as though her entire existence is at conflict with the world around her. In Kara Danvers, Tamaki is able to explore what it means to ‘pass’, keeping an identity secret from friends, teachers, and all of those around her, what it means to worry about being a danger to everyone around her, coping with post traumatic stress, exploitation, rejection from family, and the death of a classmate… along with the desire to do something to make this world a better place. Tamaki’s Supergirl is someone who holds onto the idea of hope that people will become better even when she is constantly faced with disappointment from a human race that is still shaped by bigotry, intolerance, exploitation, and hate.

To find out more about Supergirl: Being Super, visit https://www.dccomics.com/graphic-novels/supergirl-being-super-2016/supergirl-being-super

To discover more about Mariko Tamaki, visit http://marikotamaki.blogspot.com

Golden Age Girls of Canadian Comics

A review of Kalman Andrasofszky and Blake Northcott’s Agents of PACT # 1 (Chapterhouse, 2017)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Many of the new Chapterhouse comics seem to be focussed on the narratives of men, so it is exciting to see that Agents of PACT is focussed on women. As a fan of the original Northguard comics by Mark Shainblum, I was extremely excited to see that Agents of PACT # 1 opened with the Northguard character Fleur de Lys. This flash from the past set the tone for the comic as one that is bringing back a golden age of Canadian comics, exploring figures from Canadian comic history and newly revised versions of these characters. 

Agents of PACT #1 interweaves narratives from Chapterhouse’s new Captain Canuck narrative with figures like Fleur de Lys, bringing in new narratives with characters that speak to a history of Canadian comics. Chapterhouse portrays a world on the edge of transition and change, with new powers arising in different people, organizations fighting over political power and the ability to shape the future, and the intrusions of further paranormal activity. 

This is also a comic about what it means to be a superhero, a question that is poignant for the Canadian comic book fan since frequently comic book historians like John Bell have suggested that Canadians are uncomfortable with the idea of the superhero, particularly given the superhero’s highly individualistic and self-aggrandizing nature. Marla is a character who has developed abilities to control liquid gold, but doing so causes her physical and emotional pain, and she is still trying to figure out what it means to be a superhero and if she, herself, counts as a superhero. Andrasofszky and Northcott draw on aspects of Mark Shainblum’s Northguard in producing a superhero who is self-critical and self-questioning, a character who invites questions about what it means to be a superhero. 

To find out more about Agents of PACT, visit https://www.chapterhouse.ca/collections/agents-of-p-a-c-t 

Superhero Psychology

A review of Michael Johnstone’s “Missing in Action” in OnSpec # 105 Vol 28, No 2 (2017).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Can a superhero retire? Is it the sort of lifestyle that can be surrendered? Michael Johnstone’s “Missing In Action” is a tale of a superhero who is experiencing PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) after the murder of his son. He surrendered his position with the League of Canadian Heroes because every day on the job reminds him of his loss and re-traumatizes him. He has sought to keep his identity a secret, hiding from public life, and avoiding people who could recognize him, burying himself in a new civilian identity because he wants to be a normal human being. 

But the world isn’t that simple, and the cape and cowl aren’t as easy to give up as it seems. Jason Park can’t stand by and see a girl be abused by her father, especially since he is trying to excuse his abuse of his daughter on the fact that she is “a freak”.

Johnstone brings out aspects of the superhero mythos that are under-represented. He asks what would happen if there were vigilante justice in a world where abuse continues to happen and police rarely do anything to stop it. He reminds the reader that the sort of experiences superheroes have are not ones that can be easily shrugged off and that there would be long term psychological consequences for loss, not a short hate spiral that only lasts the length of one comic issue. Johnstone’s “Missing in Action” is a story about complicating the superhero narrative, and taking it into areas that are less simple than good vs evil.

To discover more about OnSpec, visit https://onspecmag.wordpress.com/ 

Beyond the Masks

Beyond the Masks

A review of “Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe” Edited by Mark Shainblum and Claude Lalumiere (Edge, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

So often the superhero genre is treated as infantile, low brow, and therefore as un-valuable. Yet, the superhero has become our modern fairy tale, a transposition of the magical into the urban, replacing fairy godmothers with scientific experiments gone wrong. They still construct the brave princes and princesses facing off against the evil witches and corrupt kings – and they used to follow that simple binary of morality – good versus bad, hero versus villain. Yet, the most powerful way that superhero tales mirror fairy tales is through their adaptability, their ability to change, modify, and alter themselves to fit the concerns, issues, and ideas of each age for which they are re-written. 

Yet there is nothing simple about Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe. Lalumiere and Shainblum present us with morally complex superheroes, challenging the simple ideas of hero and villain. They share stories that complicate the figure of the superhero by presenting the wanna be superhero who ends up causing problems for the police, sharing tales of characters who literally reshape the comic tropes themselves, villains escaping to visit ailing grandparents, retired superheroes, superheroes who behave like villains, but the thing that all of these tales have in common are questions – interrogations of the genre and its tropes and opportunities for re-thinking the superhero for a new age. 

Superheroes are often portrayed as figures in masks and these masks allow them to be changeable, to play with identity and invite readers to question what lies beyond the facade. The authors in Tesseracts Nineteen challenge, question, and complicated the superhero while still presenting us with the tales we adore and have come to associate with the genre. As much as these heroes hide behind secret identities, there’s nothing more revealing than tights, and Tesseracts Nineteen reveals all of the potential within the superhero genre for thinking about our society in new ways through that lens of abstraction. 

To discover more about Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe, visit Edge’s website at http://edgewebsite.com/books/tess19/t19-catalog.html
To discover more about the work of Claude Lalumiere, visit his website at http://claudepages.info

To discover more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com
To read some of the reviews of short stories in the collection, click on the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/07/03/greys-superanatomy/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/06/19/super-psychiatry/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/06/12/outside-the-panels/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/11/superficial-government-superhero-programmes/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/09/multiverse-history/