My Week in Comics: Secret Wars – Tidying Up the Multi-Verse.

Secret Wars

With Marvel’s Secret Wars event in full swing, the entire universe is slowly beginning to pull together, with whole new #1’s tying up loose ends and planting new seeds. These multi-crossover titles add extra depth to the Secret Wars scenario, but are they worth jumping on board with?

Secret Wars #3

Completely bewildered by the events of Secret Wars so far? Join the club! Lucky for us, all begins to become clear in issue three of the eight-part series.  Universes are colliding, and the past is starting to resurface for the characters under Doom’s rule. Having re-read the first three issues together, it’s obvious that by the time Secret Wars finishes, it will be epic in scale. Now that the multi-verses are undergoing huge upheaval, I cannot wait to see how and where things end, and where new beginnings lie for so many beloved characters.

The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1

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With our Secret Wars heroes facing little but destruction and devastation at the moment, Peter Parker has a tough choice to make. Now a husband and father, he begins to question his duty as Spider-Man. Is risking his life to aid the Avengers worth it if it means possibly losing MJ and Annie? In an event which is primarily an examination of survival, it’s an interesting perspective to see Parker struggle with this choice. Either way, he is heroic. He can actively save lives by being in the Avengers, or he can hang up the suit and save his family. It will be interesting to see how his final choice affects him, and everyone around him, in upcoming issues.

Is it worth picking up as a Secret Wars tie-in?: Absolutely. A completely new take on the complexities of being a superhero during huge events, where we’re reminded that they’re also human. It’s a question of priorities, and the flux of what great responsibilities really are as heroes grow older and their lives begin to change.

Armour Wars #1

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You’ve probably guessed it already, but Armour Wars is centred on the Starks. Set in Technopolis, we see a world which relies primarily on technology for advancement. Opening with Albert Einstein’s quote, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. The human spirit must prevail” is a powerful sentiment which echoes throughout the whole book. In a completely armoured world, where humanity and technology appear to have merged into one, and memories of running free without being encased in metal are distant and melancholic, it’s a haunting examination of how reliant humanity has become on technology. It’s also disturbing to imagine a world which feels it needs to be encased in a world of armour.

Is it worth picking up as a Secret Wars tie-in?: It’s a very interesting idea, and sets up for a much larger storyline. Establishing a feud within the ever turbulent Stark family, it’s raised a number of questions which are yet to be answered. A fun tie-in for Iron Man fans, or those with a particular interest in the human relationship and reliance on technology.

Giant Size Little Marvel: AvX #1

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Skottie Young strikes gold again with his adorable and hilarious take on the characters of the Marvel Universe. Giant Size Little Marvel plays exactly to Young’s strengths: his unique artwork and tongue-in-cheek writing style makes a comic about tiny avengers and x-men appealing to audiences of all ages. Filled with quick-quips, subtle jokes which make you linger over every panel, and over-the-top references, there’s something in this book that every Marvel reader of all ages will enjoy.

Is it worth picking up as a Secret Wars tie-in?: If you’re looking for light relief from all the fighting and universe upheaval, Giant Size Little Marvel is the book for you. Any Skottie Young fan will be delighted with his latest work, and its self-aware silliness only adds to its appeal. Full-on fun!

Old Man Logan #1

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Alongside creating brand new stories, Marvel are revisiting some of their older renowned stories to see how their universes are coping under the stress of Secret Wars. Old Man Logan is one of these titles. With Bendis picking up the powerful pen which Mark Millar once wielded, we return to the gritty world of Old Man Logan. Much darker than most of the titles on offer from the Secret Wars range, it was a fascinating read which enthrals and entices the reader. Exploring a desolate wasteland after the heroes are gone, Logan is determined to discover more of what’s going on. With the tone of a dark Western Gangster movie, with absolutely stunning art and colours from Andrea Sorrentino and Marcelo Maiolo, it’s a welcomed return to the comics-verse for the old man.

Is it worth picking up as a Secret Wars tie-in?: Yes. Dark and gritty, not only is it stunning to look at, but it’s a compelling read which carries the tone of a Japanese vengeance movie in the grim underworld of the wild west. Bendis is a worthy successor, offering a much more personal view of how Secret Wars is impacting the multi-verse.

Years of Future Past #1

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The mutants are never going to have an easy time of it, and alongside the death of so many during the Secret Wars, it’s inevitable that humans have once again pointed their finger-of-judgement towards those they fear for being different: mutant-kind. This time, we follow Christina Pryde, Kitty’s daughter, in the struggles against the Sentinels that are hunting the few remaining mutants. It’s a very powerful book, which brings the haunting history of the holocaust crashing into the modern era. Yes, it retraces a lot of Days of Future Past’s steps, but seeing it through new eyes, it’s an interesting examination of right and wrong, and what makes people “human”.

Is it worth picking up as a Secret Wars tie-in?: All fans of X-Men will undoubtedly enjoy this tie-in, and it’s a good one for anyone not keeping up with Secret Wars. Although there are a few references, it’s easy enough to follow without having to know the entire back story. With the style and tone of its predecessor, Years of Future Past is a great read with a lot of potential.

Outside of Secret Wars

It’s not all one big Marvel mish-mash of stories tying into one – many of our favourites are still continuing as usual, as well as a few new additions!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6

If you hadn’t already guessed, I adore Squirrel Girl, and it’s only getting better. This issue, we meet some new characters, our narrator is wittier than ever, and there’s a Girl Squirrel talking chiit to people. Charming as ever, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl goes from strength to strength! You’d be nuts to miss it!

Princess Leia #4

Princess Leia also seems to be finding its stride, and with astonishing sales figures each month, it’s great to see so many people invested in following her solo adventure. I cannot get over how gorgeous the art in this book is, and each issue I continue to admire Leia’s strong will. There’s an interesting parallel between Leia and women in comics and sci-fi, in that she is constantly being underestimated by everyone. Yet, she knows her own power and continues to fight to do the right thing. A new hope in comics!

Groot #1

On the back of Rocket Raccoon’s solo story success, the loveable tree-rogue, Groot, now has his very own series. It’s very sweet, and an interesting idea which will undoubtedly face challenges. How do you keep a character who only speaks three words from becoming boring? Surely the novelty will wear off? Yet, for having limited vocabulary, Groot is astonishingly expressive and emotion-filled in this first issue. There’s character beneath the bark. It will be fascinating to see if Groot’s roots can plant itself firmly in the comics’ universe.

The First Rule of Fight Club…

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The long awaited sequel to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club has arrived! Being an overly-obsessive Palahniuk fan, I was excited yet wary to see how the sequel to his smash hit novel (although, apparently more people disappointingly recognise it from the Fincher movie) would work in comics form. It’s fantastic that Palahniuk is penning the story himself. We are not forced into an adaptation, but to the natural continuation of the story by the man who knows it best. What happened once we closed the final chapter of Fight Club?

We return to the life of our unnamed narrator (now named Sebastian). He is now on multiple medications for his ‘mental-illness’; is married to Marla and is father to a child; and is unhappy as hell. His life is falling apart. Palahniuk confronts the return to ‘normalcy’ as bluntly as possible: Sebastian’s life is crap – he’s unappreciated at a dead-end job, he feels very little, and he’s very aware that his wife is in love (or lust…) with his alter-ego. Tyler Durden is both the best and worst thing about himself.

Not all authors can transition their work from book to comic, but Chuck Palahniuk’s writing suits the comic structure perfectly. The timing, tone and tension are masterfully crafted. This is only enhanced by Cameron Stewart’s fantastic artwork. Combined, each panel is carefully and cleverly structured to add depth to the undoubtedly unravelling mind of Sebastian/Tyler. The distortion and disruption of panels by pills and petals demonstrate a sense of disarray in everyday life. Clever and gripping, Fight Club 2 looks to be a promising work of art, in both the literary and visual sense.

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Mad Max: Furiosa’s Road

Since first seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. Now, after multiple viewings, a week of blaring nothing but the soundtrack, and raving about it with anyone that will listen, I’ve talked myself out of shaving my head and driving a war rig across the desert, and have finally been able to put my thoughts into coherent words. Spoilers lie ahead!

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What a lovely day!

The latest Mad Max sequel/reboot is a full-throttle triumph, kicking into high gear and keeping its foot on the accelerator until the credits roll two hours later. A beautiful piece of cinema which is only heightened by breath-taking live-action stunts and a rocking soundtrack, Fury Road hits you like a sudden adrenaline rush, becoming everything you want in a summer popcorn movie, and then some. Behind the fast cars, the stunning scenery, the outlandish explosions and high-flying stunts is real depth. After two viewings, I still barely feel as if I have scratched the surface. But what I can tell you is there are lessons to be learned from this blockbuster.

Who killed the world?

Mad Max: Fury Road would surely have served better being titled Furiosa’s Road, because that’s exactly what it is. George Miller’s return to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the future is Imperator Furiosa’s story – Mad Max is merely along for the ride. In fact, his one big heroic action scene in which he confronts and kills the Bullet Farmer happens off-screen as the audience stays with Furiosa and the girls.

Charlize Theron steals the show as Imperator Furiosa: the one-armed badass on a mission of redemption. Lesson One: George Miller knows how to write women – like they’re people. Usually in action movies, the heroine is either hyper-feminised: running in heels and firing weapons without a hair out of place; or masculinised until it may as well be a guy in drag. Not in Fury Road. Instead we have a whole host of amazing characters who are surprisingly fleshed out in a movie with such a lack of dialogue.

Furiosa is not held back by her femininity. Instead, it pushes her forward: it is her source of power. In a world where everything has died, where warlords rule the roads, she cares about making a change; about pursuing a non-barbaric life. Her mission to rescue Immortan Joe’s wives and take them to the fabled Green Place is not only a maternal drive, but it is one which longs to create new life.

This is true of all the women in the movie. Their hope and capability to start again keeps them driven under extreme circumstances. It’s a responsibility. From their ability to have children – which “will not be warlords” – to their carrying of seeds. New life lies within these women, and they’re capable of making it happen. They just need to win the world back from the warlords.

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It’s repeatedly asked throughout the movie: “who killed the world?” The answer? Toxic masculinity. (That is: a harmful patriarchy which is violent, unemotional, and sexually aggressive). This is clear from the nature of the movie itself: the thrill the warboys get from brutal kills, the excessive violence, the extreme explosions. Joe’s son, Rictus, expresses anger by firing bullets repeatedly into the air rather than communicating. Indeed, it’s interesting that male characters, including Max, are muzzled during the movie, and many communicate in little more than grunts. Perhaps a comment on the modern day approach of attacking first and asking questions later. Max himself recognises his place in this new world. At the end of the movie, Max doesn’t stay with the girls at the citadel. Why? Because he knows he doesn’t belong in their new world of creation, growth, and renewal. His “world is one of fire. Of blood.”

It’s incredibly refreshing for a movie to portray a variety of women, each representing different things, but are definitely more than just a body to ogle at. When the wives are originally revealed, unclipping their belts, freeing themselves from Joe’s ownership, an unnerving sense of ‘here we go’ settled over the room. Eye-rolling ensued. Max is going to have to save them there bimbos. But no. Fury Road gives a big middle finger to typical action movie tropes before darting off in the opposite direction. We know the terrible circumstances these women are running from without having to be shown. You don’t need to abuse women on screen for entertainment: the idea should be – and is – bad enough. There’s no relationships or romance, only compassion and respect. These girls are completely competent in handling themselves, stepping up when it’s needed. Because that’s what Fury Road is about: survival.

Just as the stereotypical roles of women in action movies veers into the unexpected, the tropes of the male action hero are also confronted. Max is not the lone soldier, punching his way through a world alone. He can’t be. His solo escape attempt failed. In this world, survival is the only objective. Gender, race, class, sexuality – none of it matters. Instead, it’s people helping other people escape from unthinkable circumstances. If Furiosa needs to use Max’s shoulder to steady her gun, so be it. Get the job done, no matter what.

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The Anti-Seed: “Plant it and watch something die.”

In a post-apocalyptic world, where little but sand and salt are left on the earth, bullets are in ample supply. The destructive nature of humanity takes hold, and the power-hungry thrive. Fury Road acts as a warning. Who killed the world? We did.

It’s no surprise the higher up the power-chain you see in Fury Road, the more grotesque people are. The literal fat cats. War destroys beauty. But it also makes beauty valuable, hence Immortan Joe’s pride in his wives. These girls will help him father healthy male heirs whilst being his prized possessions – one even has all of her teeth!  Their value is particularly well demonstrated when Splendid uses her pregnant body as a human shield. She knows Joe will not sacrifice his favourite wife, particularly as she is carrying an heir. This idea is paralleled in the warboys, who are portrayed as being ultimately disposable. As one anonymous warboy dives in front of a bullet to save Immortan Joe, his body is shaken from the car, and his sacrifice goes seemingly unnoticed. He is deemed less valuable than Splendid, or any of the other wives.

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I cannot fully express my admiration and adoration for Mad Max: Fury Road, but I do believe it has opened doors for a new wave of action movie, and that’s a great thing. We may now see the rise of the realistic female action hero; a new portrayal of how men and women can work side by side, no matter their gender, for a common goal. Fury Road has blasted right through the expectations that men won’t go and see female-fronted action movies, or that they’d hate every second of it. And it disproves that women just don’t like that kind of thing. Well, Hollywood, I for one would much rather sit through Mad Max: Fury Road multiple times a day than Pitch Perfect 2 just once (I imagine it’s just more laughing at the fat one, but it’s okay, cause she laughs at her being fat as well, right?!). Who killed the world? We might. But there’s still time to save it.

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Agent Carter

I was rather sceptical about watching Marvel’s Agent Carter, given that it was heavily promoted as ‘Peggy’s life after Cap’. Perhaps I was afraid I was going to be offered 8 episodes of sulking and crying, with some other soldier swooping in and showing her it’s okay: there’s still a fella out there for her! But with all the Age of Ultron backlash, I was determined to find something out there that Marvel had gotten “right”. And boy, have they got Agent Carter right!

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I instantly fell in love with the series. Instead of being everything I feared it would be, it was everything I was hoping it would be – and then some! Yes, we pick up Peggy right where Cap left her, and of course she’s upset. But this dame ain’t got no time for wallowing, see. We’re whirled straight into post-war 1940s America, where the boys are returning home and the women are being pushed out of their jobs. The one and only left clinging onto the SSR, in hope of making some kind of difference, is Agent Peggy Carter.

Agent Carter tackles a lot of the issues post-war America faced, particularly focusing on how the people were effected: everyone, not just the women. Injuries merely scratch the surface in this show, as Marvel delves deeper into the impact of emotional trauma and mental stress that soldiers faced in the warzone: seeing their friends die, killing – and all for what? It’s brave for a television show, particularly one led by a female, to focus on men being afraid, or startled, or upset by their experiences. But it only adds to the power of the show. It’s okay for boys to be upset, to feel frightened, or to need help. It’s not weak – it’s human.

Similarly, the show focuses heavily on the consequential return of women to the home as men return from war looking for work.  As Peggy continues to boldly walk into work every day, she not only faces the challenges of being an agent, but being a woman in the workplace. Instead of being given assignments, she’s told to make the coffee or get the lunch order; to do the paperwork and maintain the files. She’s reduced to little more than a secretary despite her capabilities. But it’s not only in the workplace that we see these changes – it’s also demonstrated in post-war accommodation for single women who no longer lived with family in women’s hotel, The Griffith. The ‘independent’ women living within these walls were anything but. Governed by an old crone who dictated their visitors, commanded their eating hours, kept a close eye on all of their actions and comings-and-goings, it was incredibly difficult to be your own woman in the 1940s. Luckily, the girls in Agent Carter have that fun rebellious side, mimicking the naughty adolescent behaviour you’d likely see in a classroom as children sneak sweets in class as their headmistress’ back is turned.

“No man will ever consider you as an equal… It’s sad, but it’s true.”

My biggest admiration in regards to Agent Carter was how apt, appropriate and relative it was. Despite being set in the 1940s, much of the message felt rather familiar. As Peggy battled daily to be taken seriously, to do something right, and to live her own life, she was continually undermined and ridiculed. Despite her amazing abilities as an agent, she just could not break that glass ceiling.

One episode I found to be particularly poignant in subtly reflecting the portrayal of women was in the second episode, throughout which the popular radio show: The Captain America Adventure Program was frequently ‘aired’. In it, Betty Carver (Peggy’s pop-culture portrayal) was a weak, whimpering woman: the damsel in distress the media so often enjoys portraying ladies as being. However, during one broadcast, as Captain America beats up the Nazis to save Betty, Peggy is busy beating up the real bad guys in real time to save the world. The parallel yet paradoxical nature of this scene was incredibly effective. We see the real woman pitted against what the media wants us, the audience, to perceive as real. And it’s through this power the media holds over us that our preconceptions of gender are born. But here we see the reality, head on confronting and contradicting what we’re supposed to believe – and it’s amazing.

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“There’s a difference between being an independent woman and a spinster.”

There is no love interest for Agent Carter. Her heart belongs completely to Steve Rogers, and he’s sadly on ice. But that means Peggy is not driven by love, or trying to impress a boy. And how refreshing that is! Instead, she’s determined, driven by her desire to honour Captain America’s memory, do the right thing, and uphold democracy. That’s not to say heroines don’t need a partner to be awesome. Let’s just look at Black Widow in Age of Ultron (yes, I went there. And I think the above quote is particularly apt in that argument!). But to not be solely driven by the desire to impress a mate is so rarely seen in film and television, particularly those targeted at a female audience, that it added a whole new dimension to Agent Carter.

Any hints of objectification are also absent. The show is so classy, I could see my face in its neatly polished shoes. Hayley Atwell is absolutely stunning, and it’s amazing to see that she has a figure. Not just a stick in a dress, there are actual curves which accentuates the gorgeous style of the 1940s. I aspire to one day pull off wearing a skirt suit like her! In the one scene where Peggy is caught changing, there’s no creepy lingering on her body, or a close up of her backside, or anything remotely sexualised. Instead, it focuses on her battlescars. Women can be beautiful with ‘imperfections’, and they don’t need to parade around half naked! So many healthy life-lessons!

One of my favourite aspects was the stereotype-swaps in the series. Two of our leading male protagonists, Howard Stark and Jarvis, donned the typical roles of women in TV series. In Howard, we found the damsel – the man needing to be saved. Of course, he also embodies the ‘slut’, but that’s the Starks for you. And in Jarvis, we have the whipped house-wife with a strict routine of cooking and cleaning for his wife before they settle down and listen to their radio shows before a prompt bedtime. He even knows how to sew buttons. The bumbling butler stereotype has been done before, but Jarvis in Agent Carter presents something truly different. And although he may take on the guise of the ‘weak’ house-wife figure, he also emerges a hero, empowered by his adventures with Peggy, proving anyone can be a hero as long as they’re fighting for the right thing.

I would urge every person reading this to please watch Agent Carter. Watch it yourselves, pass it to your friends and family, show it to your children. Only eight episodes long, with a second series on the way, it is vital this show gains and maintains the support it deserves. Not only is it a thrilling adventure series about spies and secret agents, but it’s potentially the strongest piece of work Marvel has created for the television or movie theatres so far. A charming show with class, style, and sophistication, its characters are more than punching bags: they’re complex – the men and women – showing the difficulties and trauma caused by war. What this show does for everyone is open doors. It’s okay to be upset, or need help. It’s okay to be a man, and it’s okay to be a woman.  There’s been a lot of outcry online recently about how poorly represented women are in the Marvel cinematic universe. Well, here she is. Agent Carter is right at the other end of your remote control. A woman who is strong, in control, and a role model to anyone: I’d say Marvel have got this totally right.

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My Week in Comics: Thor Almighty!

“Raise Hel, Goddess of Thunder. And let the rest be damned.”

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The big reveal has happened! Through the twists and turns of Thor #8, we finally learn who now wields Thor’s hammer – and she’s more than worthy!

The opening panel of issue 8 is astonishing: breathtakingly beautiful as Marvel’s army of females strike their battle poses as they attempt to destroy the Destroyer. I’ve really loved the depiction of women in this female-led Thor run. Never are the superheroes posed in an awkwardly sexualised manner or as skinny stick-figures, but as strong warriors. You can really believe that Thor is Thor, because she has the arms to hold Mjolnir. Athletic, not anorexic.

The story has also been consistently strong, and the anticipation building in the panels leading up to Thor’s true identity makes the reveal all the more powerful. The good news: the first trade collection of Thor: Goddess of Thunder is out NOW! The bad news: you won’t get far on the internet without the reveal being spoiled, so catch up soon!

Heroes in the Modern World

One of my favourite things about modern comics is seeing them fit into the modern world. Many of these superhero characters have been around for decades, so it’s always fun to see them adapt to the modern world. One example of this was found in Silk #4, where we see Peter Parker and Johnny Storm playing video games together. However, as Silk goes on to prove, we sometimes you can’t beat a good ol’ fashioned superhero hang-out as she and Johnny get their flame on during their first date by beating up bad guys.

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Perhaps this is what is so appealing about the new Howard the Duck series (with #3 being released this week). Howard the Duck is the modern approach to the idea of the “funny book” – a comedy adventure story which really does not take itself seriously. But its constant tip-of-hat to various pop-culture references both inside and outside the Marvel universe makes it all the more entertaining. The Spiderman joke in #3 had me laughing like a lunatic, whilst I nodded in appreciation at a Scott Pilgrim reference. It’s things like this that keeps comics fresh, and adds that extra connection with the audience.

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The Walking Dead #141

The twist between leadership styles was cleverly portrayed this issue: but who’s got it right?

“Lad culture is based upon the unscientific premise that women are genetically identical to Kleenex. It’s like creationism.”

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The first issue of Giant Days, I was unsure. Issue 2, I was willing to keep going. Issue 3: I am totally on board! This issue confronts lad-culture (and the usual female response) head on, and it is fantastic. It’s a popular trend these days for young men, or “lads”, to shame others they don’t see as being quite up to their standards on the internet. For example, girls are usually “sluts”; homosexuals are usually “fags”; and obese people are, well, usually the butt of all their jokes. And lads are usually the young men who sleep with as many “sluts” as possible, and make amazing jokes about minorities which they call “banter”. I don’t think I need to go much further in explaining how disgusting and derogatory “lad-culture” is. Luckily, Giant Days #3 does this for us!

In this issue, Esther has been on a night out, got a bit hammered, and ended up in a top-ten list on a University ‘lad/banter’ website. Humiliated, she understandably wants to crawl in a hole and die. Who wouldn’t?! And when her reports are ignored by the University as ‘harmless fun’ (which actually happens in real life – really, it’s a thing. Google it!), she loses all hope of ever regaining dignity.

Not only does Giant Days highlight the absolutely disgusting and objectifying nature of lad-behaviour, it also goes on to question that ‘fine line’ between feminism and misandry. Susan, in hope of avenging her friend, goes on a man-hating rampage, canvasing the campus about how terrible all men are because of this lad-culture.

Ultimately, Giant Days is a funny, but eye-openingly aware look at our modern society. All too easily is this newfound ‘lad-culture’ dismissed as ‘banter’, when in the harsh light of day, it’s bullying. It’s a free pass to objectify women and humiliate anyone who doesn’t fit into the ‘lad’ club – one I won’t be applying for membership for anytime soon. The fact that Universities and education systems tend to dismiss this kind of behaviour is awful: why let discriminatory behaviour go unpunished when it can lead to quite devastating effects for its victims? “It’s just a bit of fun” is exactly what Giant Days calls it out as: “Bad explanation!” But similarly, to combat this kind of behaviour, us ladies can’t go around pointing the finger at every male on the planet. It’s everyone’s problem.

The CW Sneak Peeks

The trailers for The CW’s Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have been released, and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about each of them! Admittedly, when Supergirl was originally announced, I had many reservations: they’d need to get it just right since it’s Supergirl – and that’s a big deal. Plus, how will an alien story fit in with all the very human (or meta-human) groundwork Arrow and The Flash have already established? Will it fit?

But the trailer looks promising, rom-com soundtrack aside. The work the CW has done on Arrow and the Flash has been brilliant, so I look forward to seeing how they handle Supergirl. Provided it stays more “I can stop the bad guys, lift aeroplanes over my head, and stop Earth from being destroyed” rather than “Golly, how do I juggle work, clothes, saving the planet, and boys?!”, we’ll be onto a winner. I’m on board for the pilot, at least!

As for Legends of Tomorrow: it may have a ridiculous name, but it looks anything but! A ton of fun bundled up into a TV series! A gigantic team-up on a small team! Because “sometimes the world needs a team” – or as close as it can get to one. And, Hawkgirl has landed– yay! Our heroes (of sorts) are teaming up to take on Savage. I can see a lot of bumps in the road to a smooth team-work approach, but I really can’t wait to see the story unfold, even if miniaturised Atom does look a little like a Lego man…

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Fiona Staples

This week let’s take a look at Fiona Staples, the multi-award winning artist best known for her ground-breaking work on Saga.

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Penciller, Inker, Colourist.  Staples has been actively involved in every aspect of comics’ art since 2005, where her project Amphibious Nightmare was published in an anthology collecting the very best of 24 hour comic day.  Her back-catalogue has since grown to an impressive collection.  After meeting Andrew Foley through Maple Ink Comics’ message board in 2006, she worked on her first series, Done to Death, a clash between vampire and hunter, published just as she was graduating from art school.  Staples also became part of the illustrator team behind the Trick r Treat graphic novel adaptation, as well as working on The Secret History of Authority: Hawksmoor with Mike Costa, and Button Man for 2000AD.  Finally, Staples has worked on North 40 with Aaron Williams and on Mystery Society with renowned horror writer Steve Niles.

Staples’ background in these sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and adventure stories undoubtedly set her in good standing for her most notable work to date; Saga.  Niles introduced Staples to Brian K Vaughan, which sparked the beginning of a hugely successful creative relationship, beginning with issue 1’s release in March 2012.  Co-owning the series, Staples was granted the opportunity to design all the characters, spaceships, and alien races, providing a huge sense of creative freedom in the comic.

An advocate for digital production, Staples has mastered the blend of traditional and digital techniques, hand-inking her characters before finishing the image on screen.  Her full-colour images are greatly inspired by anime and the worlds portrayed in video games.  And with the vast, detailed environments created in Saga, it’s no surprise she finds colouring digitally preferable!  However, Staples hand-letters her narration and paints the cover of each issue, creating a unique sense of freedom and elegance for each comic.  It is not only the covers and narration which escape the use of modern technology; we can see in the book itself Staples’ attempt to steer clear of traditional sci-fi tropes, as our protagonists travel in a wooden rocket ship, and much of the resemblance of traditional architecture and buildings in her scenery is certainly not accidental.  By mixing the traditional with the technological, Staples’ artistic style has helped to create a completely new fantastical world which defies the usual genre stereotypes; ultimately adding weight to why ‘Saga’ is one of the most popular sci-fi comic series today.

This distinction has not gone unnoticed.  Staples, Vaughan and ‘Saga’ have received huge critical acclaim, and been nominated for many awards.  In 2013 alone, ‘Saga’ won nine awards ranging from Eisner’s to Harvey’s to Hugo’s; two of which were awarded directly to Staples for Best Artist and Best Colourist.   And the nominations continue to roll in, with Staples being nominated for Eisner awards yet again this year.  The competition is tough, but my fingers are crossed for her!

Consequently, Staples is now one of the most recognised and respected artistic names in the comics industry, and rightly so.  Her constant hard work has allowed her to participate in a variety of projects.  Her variant cover art for the big companies like DC and Marvel are highly sought after, and her participation in the new Kickstarter Archie Comics series has been hotly anticipated by fans.  Her distinct style has ultimately led to her being part of a creator team producing one of the most popular fantasy comics of our generation, and this undoubtedly is due to the presence of her own creative voice.

So there we have it; a talented woman who has made a strong name within the comics industry; recognised by both fans and critics.  Who say’s girls can’t like comics too?!

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The Brilliance of Birdman

Subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman is anything but. A fully self-aware work of art, Birdman is an astounding black comedy which resonates strongly in our modern culture. Birdman follows Riggan Thompson, a has-been superhero movie-star who has put everything on the line to pursuit ‘real’ art and prove his true talent as an actor, desperate to leave his life as Birdman firmly behind.

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It’s rather odd that leading actor Michael Keaton delivered the best performance of his career in a movie where he depicts a man desperate to give the best performance of his career and prove his worth as an artist. Keaton delivers a very honest role, embodying the frantic determination of a man who has dedicated his entire being to proving he is worth more than a bird suit as he struggles to shake the feathers of his past from his shoulders.

His supporting cast is just as powerful in their individual roles. Edward Norton’s portrayal of an egotistical broadway actor with an increasingly unpredictable temperament acts as a dark mirror for Riggan: Mike is everything Riggan hopes to become with his broadway success story – relevant, talented, a ‘true artist’. But the harsh reality is Mike’s celebrated artistic status comes at a cost: his true self can only be found onstage. This becomes increasingly complicated when you begin to think about the many roles an actor may take in his or her lifetime. Does this mean Mike can never really be his true self? Similarly, Emma Stone perfectly personifies our disinterested generation, pretending they don’t care when they really do. Disconnected from reality by living through viral videos and social media, it’s no wonder people feel increasingly smaller every day.

Birdman is beautifully shot, seemingly in a single take, which gives the movie the fast-flowing pace of reality. We follow characters from one scene to the next, rarely stopping for breath. Indeed, we’re literally following these characters on their journey, observing in ‘real time’. The decision to film in this manner added to the film’s unique sense of oddity. It revelled in seeming a little too close to home, trying to be as real as possible whilst being completely aware that it’s a story. This is only added to by the bizarre jazz drum soundtrack, which occasionally falls off-beat.

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What struck me most about Birdman is its relevance, and how haunting an echo of modern society it is. The movie presents an interesting paradox: power no longer lies in art. It lies in the viral videos, the Kim Kardashians and Miley Cyruses of the world. It’s about controversy and money; ridiculing and belittling; franchises over substance. Today’s audiences: “They love blood – the love action.” We no longer pay the overpriced cinema tickets to see an independent art movie: we want the big, the bold, the obnoxious exploding onto our screens. Yet, to make this point, Birdman is everything modern audiences shouldn’t love. The very thing that cannot thrive within the movie’s universe is the thing that holds the power in our own, which drives home the message that art is not dead.

Riggan’s struggle is relatable on many levels, but most importantly, the fear that we will be forgotten. When we leave this earth, what do we leave behind? Stone’s passionate outburst directly – or indirectly – tells us what we all dread to hear: “You don’t matter.” In a world as fickle as ours, it’s hard to believe that that’s not true. It’s so compelling that Riggan continues his battle to complete his play, to get a good review, to mean something more than the birdsuit. And in the end, is he defeated? Well, that’s open to personal interpretation.

Birdman is a triumph, and deserves every ounce of praise it has received. It’s passionate, funny, moving and intelligent, with layers upon layers of connotations and deeper meaning than purely a black comedy about a failing actor. And what has become of Riggan, we don’t know. The ambiguous ending parallels the ambiguity of the artist: do they live on after their life is complete, or are they simply forgotten in the next wave of cinema history?

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My Week in Comics: Secret Wars and Not So Secret Awesome Titles

Secret Wars and Swords of Sorrow

Summer’s officially kicking off in the comics’ world, with crossovers a plenty.

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First up is Marvel’s big event, in which the company is pressing the big red reset button, shaking up the multi-verse, and condensing it. It all starts with Secret Wars #1. Admittedly, there’s a lot to take in with this, even for a regular Marvel reader. This ultimately means that the “biggest event in the Marvel Comics Universe” may not be the friendliest jumping on point for new readers. Worlds are ending, but it’s not entirely clear who survives. Perhaps it will work best as a completed series. That being said, Jonathan Hickman’s writing is fantastic, and feels epic and poignant. The book is visually beautiful, with wonderful art by Esad Ribic and Ive Svorcina, with an eerie grace to the violent, catastrophic events that unfold. But from the ashes of Secret Wars, a new universe will arrive. In June 2015, a whole new range of #1’s will be released, marking the beginning of a new era for Marvel. We have Guardians of Knowhere, Years of Future Past, Korvac Saga, X-Tinction Agenda, Groot, Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde, Thors, Marvel Zombies, 1872, Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos, and Future Imperfect – to name but a few! I, personally, am most excited for Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps #1! Thus, Secret Wars could essentially be considered as the big Marvel tidy-up event, where they tighten up their universe, make it more manageable and new-reader friendly. But who are we going to end up saying goodbye to on the way?

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Also on the crossover list was Swords of Sorrow, Dynamite’s big crossover event which teams together their toughest ladies in a fight which is yet to be properly revealed. Having never read any of Dynamite’s female led series, I entered fairly ignorantly. This, combined with little but set-up for the event, sadly opened the doors to criticism rather than curiosity as I struggled through the issue. Swords of Sorrow teams up the likes of Red Sonja, Vampirella, Jungle Girl, Irene Adler, and Lady Zorro (amongst others), which you would think would make a riveting read, particularly when penned by Gail Simone. Unfortunately, it didn’t read that way.

I hoped the cover image of four women dressed in nothing but, well, no, actually – not really anything at all, would be a sales gimmick to attract a male audience to read a female-centred event with a female creative team. Particularly with the awkward poses – Jungle Girl has gone a little Manara Spider-Womany, and the black woman in the silver (I have no idea of her name, as there’s no one resembling her within the pages of the comic?!) has gone for the red carpet ‘over-the-shoulder’ pout. Red Sonja might be wielding a sword, but with her stomach held in like that, she looks unhealthy, and kind of like she’s holding in uncomfortable wind. Unfortunately I quickly discovered that this is, in fact, standard costume if you are to be a leading lady in Dynamite’s comics, Irene Adler, Lady Greystoke, and Kato aside.

So, impractical clothing for warrior women to one side, does this comic show these women kicking ass? Standing up to a real villain? Proving that girls are just as powerful and awesome as boys without waving a big red flag that reads “HEY, GUESS WHAT?! WOMEN ARE GOOD TOO!”? Well, not really.

First of all, it appears that the villain of the piece is an egocentric male, who thrives on controlling women who ‘love’ him – probably not in the true sense of the word, but in that ‘worship-me-so-I-feel-like-I-have-power’ kinda way. And do you know what he does? He calls forward ‘the shard men, the soulless victims’ to ‘Avenge me…against ALL women’. Wow. Literal woman hating. To me, this seems a bit like one guy who’s been hurt by one woman, and is now on a tirade against all of woman-kind. Something that can be considered a bit too close to home in today’s world – admittedly, Elliot Rodger’s vendetta against women in May 2014 sprung instantly to mind –  and potentially stands as a more dangerous idea to be playing with than standard ‘world domination’ for wanting to be a villain. I expected better from Simone, and frankly I was disappointed by the underlining themes running throughout the issue. Surely there’s more reason than a misogynist for women to team-up in comics? And surely they can do it whilst wearing clothes? It will be interesting to see how the all-female Avengers A-Force bring a team of women together to save the day: will Thanos be peeved about being dumped and wage war on all womankind, or will they band together simply to try and make the world a better place for everyone?

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #5

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How do you continue a series after defeating the biggest bad in all the galaxy? Luckily that’s not an issue The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has to worry about. SG manages to continue being a truly entertaining read whilst openly mocking its own position in the comics’ world. In #5 we take a step back from the action and hang out with some hostages whilst heroes of NYC try to save them from a dinosaur attack. In their time together, the hostages discuss tales of Squirrel Girl which they’ve heard in attempts to prove that they know who she is, prodding fun at the comics’ own position on the store shelf: the Unrecognised Squirrel Girl. As per usual, hilarity ensues, and I’m fairly sure Simon Pegg made a guest appearance. If you’re not reading Squirrel Girl, #5 is a perfect place to jump on board – don’t end up like the losers in the Statue of Liberty, confusing Squirrel Girl for Spider-Man (doy!) – be someone who knows Doreen Green is the real deal!

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I think Silk might just be my favourite of all the spider-women just now (sorry, Gwen!). It’s such a beautiful comic in all senses of the word. It’s captivating, relatable, and intriguing. We’re beginning to learn so much more about Cindy’s past, and it doesn’t look to shiny and happy, which helps her to not only stop the villain, but try to convince them to turn their life around. Silk is so much more than beating up the bad guy. It’s a voyage of self-discovery for a young woman AND a super-hero. And Cindy is so easy to sympathise with. Perhaps it’s her tone, or her bewilderment by a lot of things now she’s back in the world, but she’s got something a lot of superheroes tend to miss.

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Similarly, Spider-Gwen has developed a truly accessible connection with its audience, particularly in its fourth issue. We really slow down and get a peek behind the mask. It’s clear Gwen’s been dealing with a lot of guilt, and not dealing particularly well… But this issue confronts that head on. We see her return to some sense of normal life. She visits Ben and May, and they discuss the loss of Peter in some particularly moving panels. I loved the connection between Peter and Spider-heroism: something he’s always drawn to, no matter which universe – the freedom to do the right thing.

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This is exactly what makes these female-fronted spider comics so appealing. It’s not all about punching the bad guy, but about being complex, flawed characters who make mistakes and must learn to get past them. And by getting closer to the character behind the mask, it’s increasingly obvious that you don’t need to wear a costume to be a hero.

Non-Compliant

Bitch Planet is quite possibly the most important comic book out there right now. Kelly Sue’s no prisoners approach to confronting feminism, conformity, and the corruption of power in the Western World is second to none, and truly eye opening. And these issues extend further than the strip itself. The back cover of every issue is covered with fake ads like this, which almost translate the real ads we see on magazines into its true blunt language:

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And perhaps the most important thing we can take from Bitch Planet is that the powerful reputation it has built, with a strong fan-base after just four issues, shows that it isn’t about the book.

And it really isn’t about the book. It’s about everything it stands for. It’s about oppression of the true self, the struggle minorities face every day. And the fact someone is speaking out about this so bluntly in a medium that is accessible to everyone is fantastic. It’s why so many have already got non-compliant tattoos; why cosplayers are dawning BP overalls. The message is powerful, and the demand is great. If anything, it shows there’s a real issue of equality in modern society when a fan-base reacts so passionately so quickly towards a confrontational comic. Bitch Planet has the power to initiate change, and it’s getting the message out there. It’s up to the non-compliant to carry the message forward.

Not far behind Bitch Planet in the world of strong feminism in comics is Rat Queens, and the second volume is out now! Another no-nonsense comic when depicting it’s female characters, Rat Queens is the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy comic you ought to be reading!

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In this second volume, we learn more about the fearsome four’s history, adding further layers to their histories. It steps back slightly from the reckless romps of the first volume and gives the world a lot more heart, building upon the foundations already set. The humour, action, adventure, sex, and drugs are all still there, but this time there was something more – something complex.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Rat Queens is the fact it depicts real women. Yes, they’re in a fantasy world and battle orcs and do magic, but these women are as real as they come. They have all the lumps and bumps in the right places. Their hair is regularly out of place. They are athletic, not anorexic. They are themselves, despite being social outcasts from their hometowns. And the message portrayed in Rat Queens to female readers is spot on. Vi’s father congratulates her on looking “strong.” Not beautiful, not slim – strong. Hannah’s mother encourages her to have “not a fear of knowledge, but embracing every facet of it.” Even the addition of eyeliner in the costume-wearing montage scene is bad-ass, because it’s not vain, it’s a sign that femininity is strong. And I love that: women can look beautiful, embrace themselves for who they are, be smart, and tough. These are the women who are true heroes, in the comics’ world and the real world.

A comic which depicts a man as the damsel in distress being saved by an army of women that is still popular by both male and female readers is an amazing feat, and shows that female warriors are not emasculating. And the fact that said comic is created by men?! Hallelujah! I think we’re making progress!

Now is the perfect time to read Rat Queens if you haven’t already: with the first two trades available you can catch up quick! For fans of fantasy adventure who aren’t easily offended by bad language, nudity, and straight talking women.

Age of Ultron: Upon a Second Viewing

I have been to see Age of Ultron again, and with the ‘feminist’ (I use the word loosely) outrage fresh in my mind, I decided to really pay attention to those issues which sparked such an angry response towards the movie.

First, we have Black Widow’s declaration as being a monster.

The online argument: the fact she can’t have children makes her a monster. How dare you, Joss Whedon!

Upon a Second Viewing: In this scene we see a frustrated Banner emotionally explain to Romanoff that he “physically can’t have kids”, desperately upset that he himself cannot father children. This is Natasha’s chance to open up. Her choice to have children has also been taken away. The word ‘monster’ does not leave her mouth until she states that the sterilization project is meant to make it “easier to kill”. Now, it might just be me, but I think her monstrosity is referring to that red on her ledger Loki mentioned in the first movie: all that blood on her hands. The fact that everything she worked towards in her life prior to the Avengers was to make it easier to kill. Let’s look at this further.

Black Widow seemingly joined the Avengers to redeem herself, to clear her ledger and wash away the red. And that’s what she’s doing. Scenes where she opens up shows progression. We see that she’s not the stone cold assassin she was trained to be, but is capable of being loving. Empathising with Banner’s loss doesn’t make her weak, it makes her human. And that’s progress. She’s more than the quick-quip, relatively cold spy of the Avengers, and more open than the “whoever you want me to be” Natasha of the Winter Soldier. Here we see her lay herself bare: someone who has been raised to keep secrets and kill is opening up and experiencing empathy. The sterilization was meant to remove any kind of maternal-instinct, that loving tie to humanity us ladies are lucky to have built into our very bodies, has clearly not killed off this capability of caring and emotion in Natasha. We see that through her connection with Barton’s children, and how fantastic she can be as “Auntie Nat”. Yes, perhaps a mistake was made in sterilizing Romanoff, but I think we have to remember that her choice was removed: not her desire. She’s not calling herself a monster because she is infertile. She’s calling herself a monster because she then chose to continue killing for years.

Second, we have Vision saving Scarlet Witch from certain death.

The online argument: Why did Vision have to save Scarlet Witch? I bet she could’ve made it out alive by herself. How dare you, Whedon!

Upon a Second Viewing: Absolutely nothing about this scene is ‘weak’ or misogynistic. Nothing. Scarlet Witch had literally just torn the heart from the strongest Ultron body with her bare hands. The world was caving in around her, and with no ability to fly, or run at super speed, it’s pretty certain she would have been crushed: particularly in her state of mind. Having just lost her brother, it’s unlikely she would’ve been in the best state to try and save herself. Vision swooping in wasn’t some kind of Prince Charming move: it was what any of the heroes would have done if any of the others had been in the same position. Example: Quicksilver swooped in to save Hawkeye from being shot. Case and point.

My biggest issue with this argument is that it suggests it’s weak to ask for help. It’s not. It’s absolutely not. I understand we’re in a position where women, particularly women in film and media, need to be increasingly portrayed as being tough and independent, because that’s what real women are, but everyone needs help sometimes. Do we really want to teach the next generation that they have to struggle through life alone? That having a problem or worrying about something or nearly being crushed to death by falling debris is something you have to deal with by yourself, because otherwise you’re weak and always being saved by men? No. It’s important to be tough, and independent, and to believe in yourself, but girls: listen up: IT’S OKAY TO ASK FOR HELP – YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO THROUGH LIFE ALONE.

Age of Ultron is a fantastic movie, but I can’t help but feel that people are expecting too much from it. It’s an action movie. If people were just a third as passionate about issues like equal pay, objectification, and equal representation as they were about Whedon’s “destruction” of the Black Widow character, and absolute sacrilege of having Scarlet Witch even being helped up by a man (who is an android anyway, guys!) never mind actually having her life saved, we’d probably be far more successful in solving real world issues.

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