DIY MFA Book Club: My Storytelling Superpower

I’m participating in the DIY MFA Book Club this month, and one of our daily prompts asks us to consider our Storytelling Superpower.

I took the Storytelling Superpower quiz at the DIY MFA site, and after a few quick questions, it told me my result is The Protector.

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“Your superpower is writing superheroes!”

This means my characters tend to be self-sacrificing and selfless (even to the point of martyrdom…).  They have a strong sense of duty and “superhuman fortitude.”  They strive to protect the people and things they love.  It gives Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, and Iron Man as examples.

I had never thought of my writing this way!  For the result of a goofy little quiz, it does seem to fit my characters pretty well.

I love superheroes of all kinds.  I see superhero comics as a kind of modern mythology, a reflection of cultural aspirations and values.  Even though I’m drawn to grey characters, I don’t write a lot of them (at least not yet…).  Most of my characters have a Lawful Good bent, which I think mostly goes along with the superhero concept.

My last NaNoWriMo project is a great example of this; it features a healer who’s trying to free the spirit of a goddess (while possibly losing herself in the process), and a gladiator-turned-personal bodyguard who gets sucked into her quest.  They may have different reasons for doing what they do, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are both Protectors in their own way.

At first, I thought that another NaNoWriMo project, Ash and Team, threw a wrench in this scheme.  However, although the titular characters Ash and Team don’t really fit this superhero mold, the narrator Meg does.  Meg is Team’s older sister and a friend of Ash, a protector to them both. Way back when I started conceptualizing the retelling, it wasn’t until I looked through her perspective that the story really took shape.  She’s really the heart of the story, despite not being the “main” character.

You can take the Storytelling Superpower quiz, too!  Let me know what your result was 🙂  You can also join the DIY MFA book club here or get a copy of the book here.

 

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The Spirit of Wonder Woman

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Honestly, I haven’t historically been a big fan of Wonder Woman.  My first exposure to her was really the DCAU Justice League cartoons (which is the reason I can ship her with Batman hehe).  While I liked her character there, she never really stood out to me.

This began to change last year, when I read The Secret History of Wonder Woman for our GeekyNerdy Book Club, and then attended a symposium for the 75th anniversary of her creation.  I still haven’t read any of her comics, but I feel like I have some understanding of her character.  And from that perspective, I was really pleased with the Wonder Woman movie, and I’m sure her many fans around the world are, too.  The movie definitely stayed true to the spirit of Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman did a great job mixing in her famous symbols while at the same time creating a new story for Diana.  I liked the nod to both her “traditional” origin (a clay statue made by Hippolyta) as well as her New 52 origin (daughter of Zeus/demigod).  Her outfit has been nicely modernized, and her headband even has a special meaning within the story.

We get to see plenty of action with both her traditional, defensive weapons (bracers and Lasso of Truth) as well as her newer, offensive weapons (sword and shield).  I think both of these aspects are important to Diana’s character.  For once, we get to see a superhero fighting to defend regular people, in the form of a Belgian village caught between the two sides of WWI.  Wonder Woman always seeks to defend the innocent, and sometimes that requires going on the attack with confidence.

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Diana also has many talents that are not combat-related.  We got to see the Lasso of Truth used not just as weapon but also a tool (WW’s creator was the real-life inventor of a blood pressure lie detector test).  She presents herself ably as a diplomat who speaks many languages, seeking to increase communication across nations.

One frequent symbol over Wonder Woman’s history is bondage…not in the kinky way.  Early feminist propaganda used images of breaking chains to symbolize the struggle of women for equal rights, and Wonder Woman comics often co-opted this imagery by having Diana be bound or chained and have to break free.  There was a nice nod to this during the climax of her fight with Ares where her body is completely wrapped in sheet metal as she’s struggling to overcome her doubts about humanity as well as deal with the loss of Steve.

One thing I kept going back to constantly when thinking about this movie was how it correctly presented Diana as a “superheroine” instead of a “female superhero.”  (Check out this post for more on this distinction.)  These two narratives are quite different.  Instead of trying to defeat and expel the villain, Wonder Woman always seeks to turn her antagonists back into the fold of society.  In movie, she says something like, “If I kill Ares, the Germans will be good people again.”  In her mind, she is not fighting against the Germans and their allies; she is fighting against war and conflict itself (personified as Ares).

Wonder Woman also does not keep herself separate from humanity; she doesn’t go back to isolation on Themyscira at the end of the story.  Though we don’t yet know exactly what happens to her after the events of the movie, she appears among Western society in the present day.

Overall I was thrilled with the treatment of Diana’s character, and I really enjoyed the movie as a whole as well.  Do any big Wonder Woman fans have more thoughts on her characterization in the movie??  Feel free to share in the comments!

 

Wonder Woman Symposium recap

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Wonder Woman, and to celebrate the Cleveland Public Library hosted a symposium last weekend featuring speakers on a variety of topics.  Guests included current comic book authors and artists, academics, and a few people with an even more personal connection to golden age DC comics.

Although I’m not a big Wonder Woman fan or anything, I was interested in this symposium because I’ve been reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore for our next GeekyNerdy Book Club (stay tuned for that next week).

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At the Cleveland Public Library

I live about 45 min from Cleveland, but I heard about the event because it was co-sponsored by Kent State University (to which I live much nearer).  The symposium ran over three days, but I was only able to make it up on Saturday afternoon.  I dragged my husband along, too, and we both enjoyed it.  Here are the sessions we attended.

Laura Siegel

Daughter of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel

Clevelanders are very proud of our Superman connection; Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were attending high school in the Cleveland area when they met and later teamed up to create the most iconic superhero of our times.

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Laura Siegel speaks in front of a picture of her father, Jerry Siegel

What I did not know was that Laura’s mother (known alternately as Jolan, Helen, and Joanne) was actually originally the model for Lois Lane, both physically and in spirit.

Laura Siegel was a very engaging speaker, taking about how her mom met Jerry and Joe when she advertised for a modeling job and they were looking for a model for their independent “girl reporter.”  (Interestingly, Jerry, Joe, and Joanne were all the children of immigrants.)  Joanne went on to have a variety of jobs all over the country, embodying the go-getter spirit of Lois Lane; she wasn’t one to let being a woman stop her from doing anything.

Peter Coogan

Director of the Institute for Comic Studies

Now the discussion turned a little more academic; Peter Coogan is one of the pioneers of the field of study of comic books, and his talk sparked a lot of discussion between my husband and me.  His talk was centered around the idea that Wonder Woman is a “superheroine” and not a “female superhero.”  This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but he gave support for the idea that Wonder Woman’s original storylines have a completely different narrative than a typical superhero like Batman or Superman.

The superhero narrative is American mythology, and can be traced back to Daniel Boone.  Typically, the hero goes away to develop his powers, returns and then steps up to fight an external evil (when it can’t be repelled by normal societal means), and then having expelled the evil, steps back into solitude.

Wonder Woman, as her creator William Moulton Marston intended, is instead based on early feminist propaganda narratives.  There is no “going away;” she already has her powers.  Her weapons, bracelets and lasso, are defensive and restraining, not really offensive.  Instead of repelling the antagonists, she seeks to help them solve their problems and blend back into society.  And instead of retreating to a Batcave or Fortress of Solitude, the story ends with her taking part in society with her friends.

This talk was really fascinating to me, and I may do a whole post about it later if anyone else finds it interesting.

Christie Marston

Granddaughter of William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman

Christie Marston, wearing an awesome Wonder Woman robe, took questions from the audience.  I was particularly interested to hear her, since I’ve just finished reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which talks a lot about her family.  She was dismissive of the book, calling it “fiction,” especially the parts about the Moulton family.

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Christie Marston answers questions

She spoke about how her grandmother, Elizabeth Holloway, was the real-life Wonder Woman.  They both had the same attitude: do what needs to get done, and be kind.  She spoke enthusiastically about Peter Coogan’s descriptions of Wonder Woman’s “superheroine” themes from his talk, and said she hoped the upcoming WW movie would show those themes.

We weren’t able to stay for the round table discussion, but we enjoyed what we did get to see, and the rest of the audience seemed to as well.  There were plenty of people wearing comic shirts, and even some dressed as Wonder Woman (I think there was a cosplay event during lunch?)

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Symposium swag

I’ve really come around to Wonder Woman since my first introduction to her in the Justice League cartoons, and I think this event was a great way to celebrate her and her important role in comics and American culture.  You’ll definitely be hearing more about her here soon!

The “right” way to do diversity

The Internet has come as close to agreement as it probably ever will over one point: it’s 2015 and we’re ready for more diversity in our fiction.  No more will we accept straight white males as the default character lens through which to view our movies, comics, video games, and novels.

What no one can agree on now is how to accomplish this.

Don’t let my click-bait title fool you; I don’t have any answers.  How to best reflect our culture’s many facets is an issue that itself is multifaceted.

For example, as comic books are being turned into movies, studios must walk a line between staying “true” to the source material and giving modern audiences the diversity they want.  The only superheroes that have achieved any kind of permanence in mainstream popular culture include a couple of white guys (Batman, Captain America, etc.) and one white woman (Wonder Woman).  So comic books, and the movies based on them, have started adding diversity to their line-ups in two basic ways.

This is a drawing of Batman I did with my eyes closed...
This is a drawing of Batman I did with my eyes closed…clearly the Batman:TAS version.
  • Gender/race/etc. bending

Straight-up changing an established character’s racial/gender/sexual identity is sometimes called “bending,” as in, here are pictures of gender-bent Disney princesses.  For comic book properties, race bending is most common.  Both Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) and Nick Fury were originally drawn as white men, but their most recent movie incarnations are both black.  The new DC Justice League movies have cast an Israeli woman as Wonder Woman and a man of native Hawaiian descent as Aquaman, both of whom generally appear very “Northern European” white in most of their iterations.

Why can’t we do this for all the famous superheroes?  Sometimes, certain (some would say all) aspects of a superhero’s identity are essential to his or her character.  Changing Wonder Woman to a man, for example, would negate the entire idea of her coming from the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons where men are not allowed.  But portraying her as more Mediterranean in complexion makes sense with that traditional, Greek myth-related backstory.  As another example, Captain America’s Aryan features made an interesting statement at the time he was created, considering that he was fighting Nazis in WWII.

But is this statement still culturally relevant?  American society has changed in many ways since WWII.  When Batman was created in 1939, it would have been quite rare for an “old money” family like the Waynes to be anything but white.  But nowadays, the idea of upper-class minorities is not so crazy, and I don’t think an African- or Asian-American Batman would be either.  For Bruce Wayne, I feel his social/economic class is the defining characteristic, more than his race.

Another issue is whether these kind of changes would be too confusing for a large audience.  People who read superhero comic books generally get pretty good at not getting too hung up on continuity.  So Nick Fury was white in the last series, and now he’s black.  Ok.  It’s the same way that Rogue can sometimes fly, and Jubilee is now a vampire.  But for the general public, it might be confusing as to why Bobby “Iceman” Drake was into Rogue and Kitty for 4 movies but now likes boys.

In any case, the corporations who stand to make lots of money from superhero movies are going to be extremely hesitant to make even “superficial” changes to cultural icons, no matter how good it makes the story.  Instead we could try…

  • Making new diverse characters

So, if we can’t mess with cultural icons, whether because we like their stories as-is or because they’re super profitable,  then we’ll just have to make some new superhero characters that are not straight white males.

Comic books have been doing this for decades.  Some of these characters are now being brought into the cinematic universes, such as Falcon, who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics when he was created in 1969.  We’ve also seen Warpath, Blink, Bishop, and Sunspot, with varying ethnic backgrounds, appear in X-men: Days of Future Past, and Skye/Daisy, who is arguably the main character of Agents of SHIELD, is a mixed-race woman.  Cyborg, another African-American, will be included in the Justice League movies, despite never having been considered a founding member of the League prior to the New 52.

Chloe Bennet as the mixed-race hacker Skye in Agents of SHIELD (abc.com)

Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel) will be getting her own movie in a few years, the first of the MCU to feature a solo female superhero.  Though she’s been around under various aliases since the late 70s, Carol has really been leading the way for female superheros recently with a new (fully-clothed) look and very popular comic series as Captain Marvel.  We can see why Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, looks up to her.

But the truth is, no matter how many Captain Marvel movies they make, I don’t really believe that Captain Marvel will ever be as popular or well-known as Superman.  I guess time will tell.

  • Door Number 3: A little bit of both

The strategy that DC and Marvel have both been using quite successfully lately combines these first two ideas:  having a new character take up the mantle of a famous superhero.  (It doesn’t seem too crazy considering the frequency with which comic book heroes get killed off.)  Marvel’s new Avengers line-up includes Sam Wilson (Falcon) as Captain America, Jane Foster as Thor, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, and Miles Morales as Spider-man.  Kamala and Miles specifically have been a huge hit, being brand new characters featured in well-received solo series titles who are now being incorporated into Marvel’s headliner team.

Although Ms. Marvel is not a particularly well-known superhero persona in the general public, Kamala has received huge amounts of press for being a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who deals with typical teenage problems (like strict parents) as well as dealing with criminals and saving citizens of Jersey City.  Her solo series has been selling very well.  Having just read the first collected volume of Ms. Marvel, I liked the way Kamala’s religion was represented: it is an essential part of her life (she would be a slightly different person if she hadn’t been raised Muslim), but at the same time it is only one part of her character, and neither the plot nor her superpowers revolve around it.

Miles has even more visibility, as Spider-man is one of Marvel’s signature heroes and was ranked 3rd behind Batman and Superman on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heros of All Time.  In fact, many fans have suggested that Miles be the Spider-man of the MCU (because, do we really need a 3rd teenage Peter Parker rendition?), but the actors rumored to be in contention for the role look decidedly like young Peter Parker, so the powers-that-be at least feel that the general public is not ready for Miles as Spider-man.

First appearance of Miles Morales in Ultimate Fallout #4 (wikipedia)

In the DC universe, the Green Lantern Corps is a perfect opportunity to introduce various characters and still call them “Green Lantern,” including an African-American (John Stewart), a gay man (Alan Scott), and several women.  I was very happy with the choice to use John Stewart as the Green Lantern of the DCAU Justice League cartoon (despite the fact that Kyle Rayner had already been introduced to the DCAU in Superman:TAS).  Why they made the (terrible) Green Lantern feature film about Hal Jordan instead, I’ll never know, but I still hold out hope for John Stewart to be the Green Lantern of the new Justice League movies.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the only “right” way to increase diversity in comic book fiction is in a way that tells an interesting story with compelling characters.  Character traits shouldn’t be simply boxes checked on a list; they should be used to tell a story that reflects the experiences of audience members.  As both creators and consumers of fiction, we must think carefully about character diversity both on an individual level and as a whole.  The answers are not simple, but we continue to work towards a goal of inclusiveness.

Here are a few more thoughtful discussions on this and related topics; feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments below:

Big Hero 6, reigning champion

My quest to see all the 2014 Oscar-nominated animated movies starts with:

Big Hero 6

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Disney

Don Hall and Chris Williams, directors

Viewing Source: local public library Blu-ray

I was disappointed when I missed seeing Big Hero 6 in theaters; I had been so ready for this convergence of Disney, Marvel superheroes, and Japanese culture.  And it turns out that was the correct sentiment because I did love this movie and watched it twice before returning it to the library.

It was the top grossing animated movie of 2014, plus the Oscar winner, so I think a lot of people agreed with me.

Big Hero 6 has plenty to love.  One of my favorite parts was the setting of San Fransokyo, with a blend of Californian and Japanese culture.  I may have paused once or twice to practice reading katakana on the signs.

It also is impossible not to love the inflatable healthcare companion robot Baymax, and his lines like “Haaairy baby” to the cat and his special fist bump have become staples around our house.  And the rest of the (diverse) cast of superheroes are pretty great, too (Go Go is my favorite).

Big Hero 6 - Sketch by GabiBarbosa
Sketch of Big Hero 6 cast by GabiBarbosa on Deviant Art, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

The plot slightly weak, partly due to a bunch of stereotypical superhero-group-origin-story stuff and some predictable twists.  But it does have a great heart.  Like my Pixar favorite Up, Big Hero 6 is very much about loss and the grieving process.

Also, I’m a huge Fall Out Boy fan, and they did the great song “Immortals” for movie, which plays during the testing-superhero-tech sequence.  So that was cool.

It may not be the best Disney animated movie, or even the best Disney animated superhero movie (that would be The Incredibles), but Big Hero 6 is a great addition to both the Disney and Marvel lines and I think both kids and adults will find it very enjoyable.

P.S. It honestly would be worth checking this out just to see the animated short “Feast” at the beginning, which coincidentally won the 2014 Oscar for Animated Short Film.  So many feels.