Monday, February 23, 2015

(Audio)book review: The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid

The Supergirls; Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines

Written by: Mike Madrid

Read by: Colby Elliott

Published: 2009

Synopsis: A much-needed alternative history of American comic book superheroines—from Wonder Woman to Supergirl and beyond—where they fit in popular culture and why, and what these crime-fighting females say about the role of women in American society from their creation to now, and into the future. The Supergirls is an entertaining and informative look at these modern-day icons, exploring how superheroines fare in American comics, and what it means for the culture when they do everything the superhero does, but in thongs and high heels.

Has Wonder Woman hit the comic book glass ceiling? Is that the one opposition that even her Amazonian strength can’t defeat?

What do you do when you're a book reader who has gotten into comics but are too lazy to read the years and years of back issues? You read a bunch of non-fiction books about said comics instead. And since just about everyone can already recite the history of many, many, many male heroes you obviously leapfrog over those non-fiction books and instead set your sights on the ones that are about the ladies and that dastardly F word (dare I say it?), feminism. Females don't get an easy ride in comics. They get an even rawer deal when it comes to female fans. It seems like whenever a fight breaks out between comic fans online there's a female superhero at the centre of it, and it's typically male fans (self-proclaimed REAL fans) versus female/feminist readers. Take for instance the Milo Manara Spider-Woman variant cover controversy. It got to the point where it was near impossible to explain your dislike for that cover without "real" fans shutting you down for pushing the *ahem* feminazi agenda.

The over sexualisation of female characters is a huge issue for a lot of female readers. The Hawkeye Initiative is a brilliant art project that exemplified just how sexualised female heroes are compared to their male colleagues. Not only are women posed to best flaunt their breasts and ass, but their costumes, complete with boob and stomach windows, knee high stiletto boots and g-strings, are impractical and bordering on the absolutely absurd. But it's amazing to see how much we've internalised this type of characterisation of females, because it's often only when a male is replicated in those poses and costumes that the absurdity is actually evident.

Which is where Mike Madrid's book comes in. It's primarily a historical account of female heroes in comics but as the subheading suggests it also explores feminism and fashion as it relates to this history. I saw a few complaints on Goodreads which suggested that the focus on fashion was at the expense of a feminist examination of female superheroes but that's not how I experienced the book at all. When Madrid describes the changes in Wonder Woman's costume, whether that's the longer hems during the 1950s when the comics code authority came in or the elimination of just about all of her clothes sans g-string and bodice during the 1990s,  he does so in the context of the particular era. He isn't describing the g-string to be salacious but because the fact that the costume incorporated a g-string instead of a skirt or pair of pants is intimately tied to the sexual politics of comics at the time. The g-string wasn't just a random choice of the artist drawing Wonder Woman at the time, it was a requisite for female heroes during the "babe" era as Madrid describes it. Or at another point in the book Madrid points out that after J-Lo wore her scandalous Gammys dress every article questioned whether she could actually sit or walk in it while nowhere near that amount of attention has been paid to the accidents waiting to happen that so many female heroes are costumed in while they attempt to save the world and wrangle the bad guys. I did listen to this as an audiobook though, so perhaps the reader's inflection and tone made it clear that Madrid wasn't salivating over the ladies but critiquing a very important component of the character, while that distinction isn't quite as obvious in the text.

This book is fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it's interesting to see how the real world impacted the comics world, especially when it came to the female characters. When WWII hit and women were needed in the workforce, super-heroines suddenly became a lot stronger and were all about helping with the war efforts. But when the war ended and the men came home, the female heroes were also relegated to smaller roles and positions as side kicks again much like the women who were forced to become secretaries and housewives again. Even Wonder Woman, everyone's go to feminist superhero icon was relegated to being the freaking secretary of the early Justice League even though she was stronger and more powerful than most of the men! However it's frustrating to see how secondary women have always been in comics. It wasn't that I was surprised by this really, even today female characters are left off of merchandise and relegated to support positions, but I hadn't ever really considered how rarely female heroes were written for women. With the exception of Wonder Woman, a great number of female heroes began as female sidekicks to their male characters. They were occasionally included to draw in female readers in the 1940s and 1950s, but they were essentially a sexy way to hook young boys into keeping up their subscriptions to Superman or Batman. Or, in the case of Batwoman, they were included to dispel rumours of a homosexual relationship brewing between Batman and Robin. It's really no wonder then that female characters are still considered secondary to many male (and female to be honest) readers with origins like that.

Even though this book is about female heroes Madrid often used the dominant male heroes of the era to anchor his discussion of the females. While I felt like he occasionally spent too much on these parts, I actually think the book succeeded best when it was comparing the female characters with the male. A prime example of this was when he talked about the female iterations of popular male characters. Not only were the women always called 'girl' or 'miss' in their titles, automatically infantilising them and setting them up as secondary to the men, but their powers were often weighted towards female attributes. Case in point: Mary Marvel is Captain Marvel's twin but where he had a military title and powers like speed and stamina, she had the power of grace. A similar strong point of comparison was made early in the book where Madrid highlights the fact that while male heroes were heroes because they believed in justice, their female sidekicks were heroes because they were in love with the heroes. Talk about setting the females up to fade away into obscurity.

So if you are a fan of females and superheroes this book is made for you. It's not perfect and it does seem to skew heavily towards the first half of the 20th century (the 70s/80s/90s seem to race past) but if this is a subject that interests you I think it's probably a great book to read in collaboration with a number of other books on the subject. And at the very least it's a book full of delicious trivia and historical facts with a nice frosting of feminism which I know I always enjoy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #30

Saga (volume 2)

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by: Fiona Staples

Published: 2013

My thoughts: I'm finally reading Saga again! After the first volume I decided to quit it for awhile, not because I didn't enjoy it but because sometimes the pain of waiting for the next issue is just TOO MUCH. It took me a few pages to recall what happened in volume 1 (which apparently I never reviewed?) but once I got back into the rhythm of it, I was back in a big way. This series is, sort of, space Romeo and Juliet, at least in the sense that the two main characters (who loooove each other) are from two warring species and their togetherness and the procreation of their teeny tiny adorable baby is causing major problems.  Except in this volume these problems are magnified when Marko's parents and ex arrive on the scene (separately, and with very different intentions). It's hard to know where the series is going to go, other than forward and away from the people who wish this trio harm, but I'm enjoying the great writing and art nonetheless.

Fables: Sons of Empire (9)

Written by: Bill Willingham; illustrated by: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Gene Ha, Joshua Middleton, Inaka Miranda, Mike Allred.

Published: 2007

My Thoughts: This volume is a bit of a placeholder. It lays the groundwork for the upcoming Fabletown war and provides a little insight into the Adversary's war council but most of the volume is actually short 1-3 page stories featuring a bunch of the fables characters that has very little, if anything, to do with the war. I could imagine this being annoying to some, especially with the war teasers at the top of the volume, but I really liked the vignette style glimpses into life as a Fable. It's nice to see what life is like for them away from the calamitous fears of war and sadness over their lost homelands.

Princess Ugg (Volume 1)

Written by: Ted Naifeh; Illustrated by: Warren Wucinich

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: Princess Ulga finds herself completely out of her element when she leaves her mountain home to attend a princess finishing school. Gone are the battle axes and war helmets and in their place instead are musical instruments and princess gowns. While she knows she needs to attend the school if her mother's wish for her family to find peace with the frost giants is to be accomplished, she's alone and lonely and ridiculed by her fellow princesses. There is a lot to like about this book, like none of the princesses bar one are you standard blonde, white Sleeping Beauty type. There's the beautiful watercolour art used for flashbacks or dream sequences. And there's Ulga (or Ugg as the other princesses call her) who accepts herself in spite of being completely different, is freakin' ripped and determined to make princess school work. That said, I'm not totally sold on the series. There are some moments where the story lags or the writing is a little awkward, so I think I'll wait to get volume 2 from my library before decided whether I'll proceed or not.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

January in review

Happy first month of 2015!


What I Read:

*Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
*Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (my review)
*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (my review)
*A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

*Saga (2) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
*Saga (3) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
*Fatale: The Devil's Business by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips (my review)
*Fables (9) by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
*Princess Ugg (1) by Ted Naifeh, Warren Wucinich


40% male / 60% female
80% American / 20% International
80%white/ 20%POC
25% ebook / 50% audiobook / 25% physical
75% fiction / 25% non-fiction

**A quick note on stats. I've decided that this year I'm going to include artists in the stats as long as it's a single artist attached to the volume. The comics that tend to cycle through a series of artists within a volume will be left out completely because ugh, too complicated.**

80% male / 20% female
80% American / 20% International
80%white/ 20%POC
20% ebook / 80% physical

I decided to separate my comics from my books in 2015 because while I'm trying to diversify my reading, I'm not really trying as much when it comes to comics.  And since comics are still such a male and American dominated field it's really throwing out my stats and that's just not helpful. I'm feeling pretty good about my efforts to up my diversity though. I still need to work on the non-white/non-American angle, but I'm happy to see so many ladies up above. Also great? That I really loved all of my January reads, except Will Grayson, Will Grayson which was fine but not as shiny and great as the other three. I've almost finished Jason Mott's The Returned, and after that I think I might read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel. Feb will be a HUGE month for me uni-wise, I start teaching and I finally submit my PhD to the faculty, so I think aiming for finishing more than two books is probably incredibly unrealistic, so let's just go with those for the time being.


What I saw:

*Birdman - directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
*Taken 3 - directed by Olivier Megaton, starring Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen
*Into the Woods - directed by Rob Marshall, starring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt

2015 doesn't hold a lot of excitement for me, movie wise. I'm looking forward to the new Mad Max and Star Wars, but I'm going through a little superhero fatigue, so I'm not as excited for Avengers or Antman as I would have been 2 years ago. Birdman was one of the films I was excited for (ugh Australia and our eternal wait for movies) and it really delivered. I thought Michael Keaton was amazing and Alejandro González Iñárritu is an amazing director. I loved how the use of a single tracking shot translated the chaos of a play backstage, as well as the dysfunctional nature of most of the characters. I'm really pulling for them to win at least a couple of the Oscars, regardless of how pointless the Oscars have actually become. Into the Woods was alright, I thought the performances and staging were pretty good, but cutting Repunzel's story took a lot of the thematic edge out of the film. And while I loved Meryl Streep, I think Bernadette Peters will always be my witch.


Like I mentioned above, I'm getting ready to submit to the faculty. After I present at the end of February they'll provide me with some feedback to implement before my proper submission in May. Here's hoping they like what I've done and done tear it to shreds. To give myself a reason to keep living, I started learning German using the Duolingo app. I'd really wanted to pick up Japanese again, but they don't offer it unfortunately. If you've been thinking of trying to learn a language, or are even travelling overseas and want to pick up some basics it's pretty fantastic. It's free to use and I really like the way it teaches. I feel like I've picked up more in 2 weeks than I did in my first four years of Japanese in school.


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