Secret Wars and Swords of Sorrow
Summer’s officially kicking off in the comics’ world, with crossovers a plenty.
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?
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
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!
The Spiders Web
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.