All the Scarlet Witches: The Writing

Dear James Robinson,

After reading Scarlet Witch #4, I can’t ignore your writing anymore. There’s no shame in needing to get better at writing. I need to get better at writing. My blog posts need editing, but I don’t get paid and I only have a few readers. You, on the other hand, have a lot of readers. As a writer for Marvel, you’ve achieved more writing success than I have. You’ve hustled to get where you are, you’ve put yourself out there, you’ve met your deadlines and you’ve completed your task. You’ve given it a shot. You’re a writer.

You’ll need to work harder if you’re going to keep up at Marvel, though. Matt Fraction, Willow Wilson and Tom King have been roaring down the tracks. They’re making it look easy. They’re telling stories so tight and seaworthy that Marvel can say “suck it, Image Comics intelligentsia.” Your writing on Scarlet Witch is like Marvel saying “Comic book readers are kind of idiots anyway.” Or maybe just “No one gives a shit about Scarlet Witch. Let’s really phone this one in.”

After reading Scarlet Witch #4, I put together a list of things to work on:

Words: how many and which ones.

Scarlet Witch #4 is loaded with words, but the ratio of words that mean something to total words is low. This clogs up the works and makes you look like an amateur. Here are some filler words and phrases that you lean on heavily: Although, though, certainly, if I’m truthful, oh, it does seem as if, most notably, it seems, it would seem, I confess, here is where, honestly, that is, I suppose, more accurately, I imagine, as I recall, actually, I’m sure, whereas, apparently. This kind of speech is common in the office world, especially when someone is a) insecure about their intelligence or b) trying to obfuscate their true meaning and avoid being held accountable. So you’ve got a case of business-ese. I think you thought it would add a nice razzle-dazzle of formality or authenticity but you are wrong. It reads as if you originally thought you would make Wanda’s speech biblical or Shakespearean, and then someone was like “Wait. Hold on. Wanda is Roma, and she’s a witch, and this is a comic book. So let’s make her sound like middle-manager in Toledo who is trying to sound more educated than he is while breaking the bad news to the team about health insurance benefit changes.”

arch-encounter

Try limiting the amount of word balloon space you’ll allow yourself per page. Usually when a writer is forced to make something shorter, it winds up being better. Then we could see more of the art and the art could do more of the talking.

Working dialogue to death.

The wordiness I mentioned above seems to be your way of trying to make people talking sound like people talking. But it’s backfiring. Agatha trails along endlessly dumping exposition into her dialogue. It’s exhausting. Wanda over-reports Every Single Feeling she has. She and Agatha have known each other for a long time. Agatha can probably read non-verbal social cues. And so can the readers. Let the art do some of the storytelling. Let Wanda and Agatha’s relationship breathe. And if you’re using dialogue as glue to make your plot followable, maybe your plot isn’t very sturdy.

diagonal bla bla bla
Interesting art from Chris Visions

P.S. When your villain says “I love power” that is what they call “too on the nose.”

Overdoing an accent.

Just because someone is Irish doesn’t mean we want to be beaten about the head and neck with a brogue.

barny

SW 2

The second example also shows an annoying sexist trope without proper sense of irony. So powerful and yet so flawed and broken, yadda yadda yadda.

Tone-deaf tone shifts.

Wanda has JUST had a jarring, life-changing encounter with the ghost of her mother. She’s beside herself. Two seconds later she’s saying “You mean bitch” saucily to Agatha. Makes no sense. Maybe, after getting silly on sidecars, Hellcat says “You mean bitch” in a teasy way to She-Hulk. MAYBE. And even then, I could see it landing with a thud. This just shows that you’re not feeling your own story beats (and maybe that you don’t know how women talk to each other, girlfriend).

you mean bitch

Notice how Agatha shifts right into dialogue as exposition again.

Neglect and mis-use of available themes.

This run of Scarlet Witch could mean a lot to a lot of people. Aging. Personal demons. Mother-daughter relations. Friendship. Sacrifice. The passage of time. Mortality. It’s so rich with potential themes that all you have to do is get out of the way.

And that’s the hardest thing—learning how to get out of the way. It takes imagination, restraint and skill. If you can learn to get out of the way of your artist, of your characters, of your themes, of your own writing, then you’ll finally be making it look easy. If you can’t learn to get out of the way of all that stuff, then you’ll have to get out of the way of someone who writes sharper and snappier than you do.

 

Ody-C #8: Haunting and Unambiguous

With Ody-C #9 coming out in a few days, I decided to jot down a few thoughts on Ody-C #8.

Ody-C #8 cover

When I wrote about Ody-C #6 a few months ago, I suggested that there was something off or untrustworthy about the storytelling. It felt so surreal and gimmicky, and the treatment of gender issues seemed… flip and baffling. Are we supposed to laugh at the dejected He in his gimp suit, because it read as silly, whether it was supposed to or not. Alternating his glossy little form with the stories of rape and death he was reading just made the whole issue into a confusing stew of uncomfortable images.

Ody-C #8 is a story within a story again, but it’s easy to follow its one faithful thread all the way through. We learn about these blood-thirsty brother kings and how they perform the ritual rape and slaughter of virgins. The country’s young people were being raised up like livestock to fulfill this bloodlust. Fraction and Ward are straightforward about showing that the victims of this are both male and female. They convey that men and boys are rape victims too without getting cute about gender-bending and gender roles.

Ody-C #8 queue

Ward illustrates the humanity of the victims clearly — from the fear on their faces, to the way one woman reaches down to help the person behind her who has fallen. When one of them actually tries to run, the furious reds and pinks are replaced with the cool blues of night time and the coldness of both the prey’s fear and the predators’ focus.

Ody-C #8 #2

Her vivid, fearful face is contrasted with the expressionless, featureless faces of the men who are just watching, from lighted windows above. These aren’t even the men who are going to rape and kill her. They’re just the ones watching and doing nothing.

But what this issue does next is close this circle of humanity. The brother-kings have turned into deranged, power-hungry killers and they have created an entire rape culture that the men are enmeshed in as well as the adolescents victims of both sexes. Because this girl happened to be descended from a god, the men are haunted by what they have done. Now Ward draws their faces not as animals but as humans.

Ody-C #8 haunted #2

One man is shown lying awake next to a woman, like a normal man and wife. This perfectly brings home the point that rapists are normal people, normal husbands and fathers and boyfriends. And rape culture is perpetuated by an even wider circle of completely normal people. In these moments, Fraction’s high-flying prose and Ward’s fantastical art both circle down to earth. The quietness is more powerful than the screaming red slaughter scenes that I didn’t want to include here (though of course they are beautiful too, because: Christian Ward).

The prose and the illustrations both lift off again as we see the men obsessively digging up the girls’ bones, which have multiplied to become an infinite number of bones. They are compelled to build towers and walls out of the bones — monuments to rape that also serve as a prison that the men can never leave and never stop building.

This is the hardest-hitting comic book treatment of rape that I’ve seen, including in more overtly feminist series like Bitch Planet. It feels unstintingly brave and, frankly, magnificent.

Ody-C #6: When you identify with the sex slave, it hurts to laugh

Ody-C #6: This issue is about He, but he didn't make it onto the cover.
Ody-C #6: This issue is about He, but he didn’t make it onto the cover.

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.

All feathers, no strut
All feathers, no strut

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.

Our first glimpse of He back in Ody-C #1
Our first glimpse of He back in Ody-C #1

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.

Lost and alone like Holly Golightly's cat
Lost and alone like Holly Golightly’s cat

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.

Gorgeous.
Gorgeous.