Current mood: In a shared motel room in the dark, laptop open, earbuds in, listening to a new Pod Save America podcast of the guys live at a healthcare demonstration in D.C., just talking to people. They keep bumping into Democratic lawmakers just wandering through the crowd being part of things.
That was recorded yesterday, and is the soundtrack for my morning Twitter reading:
There have been some more disturbing local happenings lately. A Tukwila mother of 4 snatched by ICE. An Asian teenager shot by police, an ink pen in his hand. But I have been more reluctant to catalog these things after seeing a wedge of black Twitter doing a joking lament of Shaun King being a one-stop shop for black trauma. I’m not saying that’s fair to Shaun King (although I have plenty of criticism of my own to level at him for the way he wrote about HRC in 2016). But the point is, am *I* some kind of perverse bower bird collecting baubles for my bower? Am I serving any purpose? But then, if you don’t gather together and pin down some of these local incidents, you feel like you’re glossing over what’s happening to people.
Anyway, there’s been a flurry of inescapable (to me) chatter over the comic book artist Howard Chaykin and his series The Divided States of Hysteria. There’s been a drumbeat of response to the book’s treatment of trans people for weeks now. The cover of Issue #4 showed a hate crime against a person of color, and things are boiling over. Image issued an apology full of soothing pretzel talk about how this book is a cautionary tale, and it’s “revenge fiction.” They’re sorry that we’re too neurotic to tell that this book is on OUR side. The thing straight white comic book guys never realize is, we can gauge the ratio of a) fun you’re having drawing this shit to b) personal investment in the subject matter. When the ratio doesn’t come out right, then you’re just kind of a shit. Sorry. True story.
And to people who vaguely agree with the critics of Chaykin but think there is just too much outrage these days: Patience is worn to a nubbin and will be from here on out. It’s like this for me every day in my real life. I was putting up with sexist bullshit all day under President Barack Obama too. But now that we have DJT, I don’t have enough energy to exist in that guy’s U.S.A. *AND* deal with your sexist bullshit all day. So if I seem bitchy and irritable, well that’s just the way it’s going to continue to be. And my experience is Tip Of The Iceberg compared to women of color and others who have been living in an untenable bullshit reality always and who have even more pressure on them to “act nice.”
I’m having a big familyish 4th of July weekend, so I thought I’d better knock out some kind of TOWOIT entry early and get that out of away. Thanks for listening. Good luck out there. I hope in your personal “Was that fireworks or bullets?” game, it’s always fireworks. And I hope your dogs and cats have safe hidey-holes and sources of comfort during these bewildering days.
Mirror #1 begins a story of colonization, animals with human qualities, and a mixture of science, magic, and politics. Emma Rios and Hwei Lim give Mirror #1 confidence. Confident stories don’t rush to explain, defend or demonstrate. They trust that we will see the whole picture before we lose patience. They trust in their own ability to give us the information in the order we’ll need it. There’s a lot going on, but we’ll get there. And we can latch on emotionally from the first pages.
There are two main things to grab hold of in Mirror #1. First, the dog-girl Sena and the mage Ivan loved each other as children and now they aren’t even friends. Sena’s dogness makes this undone loyalty cut to the quick. A flurry of scenes give us a glimpse of catastrophe in their adolescence. A phrase rings out twice, first as a threat: “I’ll turn invisible and run away.” Then, a plea: “Turn invisible and run away!”
The second thing to latch on to is that the little rat-woman Zun has to be brave and take on hard and dangerous tasks for the greater good.
Hwei Lim’s watercolors underwrite the floating, trusting confidence of Mirror. She gives us circus imagery and sadness. Softness and primary colors. The love of a boy for his dog against a sterile backdrop of cages and lab gear. Strong black lines that are rounded, incomplete, floating in white space and washes of color.
Lim’s figures have the quickness of costume designs–unassuming, economical, fluid. Then the figures speak and Rios nails us to the wall with clean, simple dialogue.
Scarlet Witches #3 was written by James Robinson (who has been ok at best on this series) with art by Steve Dillon and Frank Martin (Scarlet Witch has a different art team every issue).
Things I like about Scarlet Witches #3:
1.) I kind of like how Steve Dillon (with Frank Martin on colors) plays it as it lays. After more heavily stylized Wandas in #1 and #2, now we have a standard comicbook Wanda. Cleavage, check. Hair that’s sultry but without a lot of personality, check. Pouty comic book lady face, check. I kind of like this cranky, low-affect Wanda, and I like that she is darker-skinned and darker-eyed in this issue. She was looking downright WASPy in #2.
2.) My favorite thing Dillon and Martin do is a few landscape panels that go farther than anything else in the issue (definitely including the writing) to transmit a spooky mood and a sense of place.
3.) The teaser for Scarlet Witch #4 at the end, with Chris Visions’s pages, is a sight for sore eyes. It looks really rich and individual, full of red hues and expressive lines. It looks like we might be getting back to the early promise of Scarlet Witch #1, by Vanesa Del Rey and Jordie Bellaire.
4.) James Robinson leaning into Irish brogue is the best opportunity he’s given us so far to work on enjoying a badly written story. Sometimes I’m jealous of the women in my book club who seem to experience novels not as artifacts crafted by a mind but as gossip and folklore that has been downloaded directly into their brains.I enjoy the feeling that we are sitting around a fire talking about people we know. It curbs some of my natural over-thinking. If they were like me, we would kill the novel and take it apart. Most of these women just want to talk about how a character reminds them of their ex-husband, and then there are more details about the ex-husband and everybody forgets about the book for awhile. There is a strong argument to be made that their way of consuming stories is more valid than mine.
At the end of the day: Yes, let’s talk about the end of the day. Lately they’ve been a certain kind. The last three weeks have been long work days full of problem-solving and fire-dousing in the middle of a lot of emotions, politics, and uncertainty. I leave the house at 5:15 in the morning, get home about 12 hours later, skip dinner, and crawl in bed with comic books. I can’t keep up this pathetic routine too much longer without permanent damage to my self-esteem, but for now my total lack of ambition outside of work has been getting me through. So you know, what does a comic book like Scarlet Witch #3 do for me in a situation like that? In my bed with a fried brain? All in all, Scarlet Witch #3 is like a candy bar you used to like as a kid, but now they make it with slightly different ingredients and it’s not as good, but you go through the motions. Hoping that flipping those flimsy pages will make you feel better, that you can recapture some of that magic just from the gestalt of what a comic book is instead of the comic book itself.
Mirror #1 by Emma Rios and Hwei Lim on the other hand? This book met me halfway; this book met me more than halfway. This book came gliding over to me, fresh and intelligent and full of authentic emotion. It was a balm I didn’t have to work for, a revelation. We could have a debate about whether Scarlet Witch #3 justifies its own existence. But when our brains are too tired for debate, its a book like Rios and Lim made that has the power to restore.
Island is an Image project that Brandon Graham and friends put together. It’s part anthology and part comics magazine, and it’s full of treasures. Island #6 will be in comic shops next Wednesday (January 27) but today I’m looking back at the first and second issues, which included the chilling, warming, red-inked tale “I.D.” by Emma Rios.
I.D. opens with three strangers meeting in a coffee shop in a future that feels familiar. They are all part of a pilot program to have their brains transferred into new bodies. The story quickly zooms out to show a Mars colony beset by political unrest, then zooms all the way back in to the insides of each character’s mind, and the smallest moments between them, and the touch of their skin against surfaces. All of it is in red. Some of it is in the stark red and white of a china pattern. Some of it is in the dusty pinks of Mars. In the first panels, the two men learn that prickly 50-something Charlotte is a writer. Themes of the wry, observant writer are spun throughout I.D., turning the story into a fantastic literary mic-drop by Emma Rios, a woman who is largely known as a visual artist.
Charlotte, Mike and Noa start to talk–with awkwardness, diffidence and sparks of chemistry.Each has his or her own reasons for wanting a new body–and none of them thinks the others would understand.
The world beyond their restless broodiness soon comes crashing in–on the television, and through the glass windows of the coffee shop. Rios’s art pivots from quiet eavesdropping to slashing, furious shapes and lines. After a dizzying stream of action panels, the three manage to get away from the protesters and militarized police. It’s the chaos, not the conversation, that makes them intimates. And this leads to a strange night in Charlotte’s apartment, with more conversation, emotion, and hi-jinks. It’s the ultimate sleepover, really.
But all the while, there is this bone-chilling awareness that they are planning to let their bodies die. It’s a cold current running underneath the human warmth we see developing between the three. When they part the next morning, Rios wraps us around Charlotte alone in her apartment. We curl like Charlotte’s fingers around her cup of tea. Every solitary, visceral moment is allowed to pass in real time. And then she begins to write.
One of the things that makes this story immediately great is that Rios has the restraint to go small when everything big is happening. It’s taking place on a partly terraformed Mars, in a time of popular uprisings against an oppressive class system, in a future where science has advanced to the point where your brain can be extracted and put in another body. It is terrifying. And still everyone is just locked in their own skin and in their own experiences, trying to connect through a hailstorm of identity issues.
(I accidentally lapsed into re-cap mode, but there is much more to the story beyond what I described–the disturbing political and scientific details of the program, the outcomes of the psychologically and physically risky surgeries, and of course the arcs of the relationships between Mike, Noa, and Charlotte. Which is all to say, go get Island #1 and #2, and generally get into Island because this is the caliber of work that the series includes.)
In Ody-C #6, beautiful “He” reads history books about wronged goddesses and queens who are raped, slut-shamed, killed, and so on. It’s unclear what they mean to him. The stories are inter-mixed with He having a bad time as a sex slave who has been first rejected, then cut loose. He is the stand-in for Helen of Troy in the Odyssey. We know He is considered beautiful, but his stance is meek and uncertain. He as awkward as a male stripper at a bachelorette party in a library. We never see his face. His butt cheeks hang out in a shiny gimp suit. There’s also some kind of fancy dongle on his dick. A window in his suit showcases his Adam’s apple, like a nod to the boob window in female superhero costumes. It is sad.
Christian Ward’s art and Matt Fraction’s writing are vigorous, ambitious, intertwined. The colorful, swirling silliness and mythological mash-up of Ody-C is as glorious as ever. There’s a lot to love, but it’s hard to unsee the ridiculousness of these male creators gender-bending the Odyssey, loading it with women, giving the human species a whole new female-ish sex to exploit (the sebex), and then patting themselves on the back for caring about what it all means. As earnest-seeming as Fraction has been about his intentions with Ody-C and what the story “reveals” about society—he is just a kid in a sandbox playing with toys, and his toys are colorful scraps of rapey mythology.
Ody-C was more fun in the first arc, when women warriors were tearing up shit, behaving badly, and marauding across the universe. It’s less fun to follow a male sex slave in a gimp suit in Ody-C #6. Except it’s actually mawkish and wincingly funny—so was it supposed to be more fun? Is Fraction making a point about sex slavery in general? Are the creators… making light of sex slavery? A thing that women and children all over the world are enduring right now? Maybe we weren’t supposed to laugh at He, but we do because we recognize. The shock of relating more—on a real, everyday level—to a powerless man in a stupid gimp suit than to the woman warrior Odyssia makes it hurt to laugh.
It’s hilarious when He is all primped to spend time with Ene, but she’s too busy to think about sex so we just see his little slumped figure standing alone, with his upper thighs bare above his tall boots. It’s ridiculous the way he looks, as a three-quarter-sized man marching along in a strange city in his gimp suit. The way he cocks his head to the side like a dog when the woman at the whorehouse asks him if he’s buying or selling. He has to work as a janitor in the whorehouse because no one is interested in paying to have sex with him, and then we see his little shoulders as he sweeps up—pathetic. Ward keeps pulling the frame away from him dramatically, making him look small and alone.
If Fraction and Ward think this is what it means to turn women’s prettified servitude on its ear—well, we consider ourselves more than this. We consider ourselves something strong anyway. We think of ourselves as clever survivors. We do not see ourselves as pathetic shells. So if a large point of this book is to say something about gender issues by flipping the genders – WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY? So far it just seems that women are magnificent when they are dominant and have masculine traits. Men are ridiculous and pathetic in a feminized role. We are invited to laugh at He. There’s nothing subversive about him to make up for it.
Forget ancient, theoretical times. Forget fiction and mythology. It’s happening now in Iraq and in Kirkland, Washington. Forget even sex slavery itself. He being left on the shelf and then cut loose resembles nothing so much as the actual lives of housewives. Forget housewives even. It’s just women, expiring and being left on the shelf. Every day. Fading away and becoming invisible. Told it’s happening to us, told to fight it, then shoved to the side.
Once Fraction made a claim to making a societal statement about gender (in his commentary in the back matter of earlier issues), he put himself in a bind. He should have stepped off with that nonsense, because it’s not his place to step back and forth across the line of poking fun and being deadly serious. Or he’s not doing it right. We women can chortle along with Amy Schumer’s skit of Julia Louis Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day.” People who survived ghastly divorces as children can laugh grimly through a dark movie about a family falling apart like The Squid and the Whale while their spouses from happy homes might find the whole thing “too depressing to enjoy.” Stephen Elliott can auto-eviscerate in his novel Happy Baby about being submissive to an abusive woman after being raped by a guard in juvie as a boy, and we can respect this truth of his as a man who has had bad things happen to him. It’s an authentic experience of someone shoved into submissive roles and then seeking them. Elliott’s not trying to play a game with the sexes.
In the notes at the end of Ody-C #6, Fraction seems to be trying belatedly to step back from the more serious, grandiose language he used in the back of earlier issues—now he’s just noodling around guys, no big deal. He ends by saying, “The good news is I have no idea what I’m doing. The bad news is I have no idea what I’m doing.” As if some part of him knows he already over-played his hand. As if he knows he’s painted himself into a corner.
So what do you do if you feel the way I do, but like me are hooked on Ward’s art and don’t want to give up on Ody-C? Just step back yourself. Reduce it to the patterns and lines on the page. The words don’t even need to be read. The letters are just objects. The word boxes are just another design feature in these busy pages. A gimp suit is not a gimp suit. It only reflects light differently than the patterned folds of cloth on the servants who help to make He beautiful for his mistress. We are children and know not of sex. We are Virginia Woolf stream of consciousness. We are sensations. We open the hatches of our eyes and let the shapes and colors fall in.