Comic books and Spider-Woman: a little rant

I heard an episode of the Double X Gabfest podcast the other day in which Noreen Malone of New York Magazine claimed that superhero movies were only made for teenage boys, or nerdy men, and that women didn’t go to see them. (Even though she lives in Brooklyn! That just seems improbable.) Superhero movies are for everyone, and I for one have never stopped loving them.

On the other hand, I’ve lost touch with superhero comics, because the flood of titles is too bewildering to make sense of in a crowded basement comic-book shop full of teenage boys and aggravating booming-voiced hipster idiots bent on impressing their rolling-eyes female companion with their dudey-frood bearded sneery nonsense about ‘all that Wonder Woman shit’ (I paraphrase). I visit Forbidden Planet periodically to browse the shelves but rarely buy comics, because most of their cover art all looks much as it did when I sold the things in Aberdeen’s first comic-book shop in the 1980s.

spider-woman-oldlookI’m also put off by the incessantly pneumatic mammary glands that have been de rigueur for comic book cover art since the 1950s, when the Marvel artists saw Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell on screen and thought, ‘that’ll bring the boys in’. In that respect, yes; most comic-books are drawn for those attracted by flimsily-covered bouncing female secondary sexual characteristics. The rest of us: BORED. Look at the old 1972 Spider-Woman costume, which is basically a naked woman in body paint. It makes me irritated, especially as it was drawn by a woman, whose brief must have been ‘breasts’, not ‘action hero’. Don’t these artists realise how much cantilevering these female superhero costumes must need to support so much weight? And how impossible it must be to run, swing, thwack, rebound, and leap with a double weight of monstrously outsized cannon-balls suspended from the chest by straining muscles and spandex? Asking for logic in a superhero world feels pointless, like wondering how Banner finds his trousers again when the green guy disappears.

spidey 4So, if the cover art doesn’t pull me in, the story doesn’t stand a chance. I look for the clear-line style that Hergé invented, which continued all the way to the Hernandez Brothers with Love and Rockets, and in the new Spider-Woman series. I love what Javier Rodriguez and Veronica Fish do with the new(ish) Spider-Woman universe to make it clean, frightening, compelling and focused. I also love Spider-Woman’s new look, originally designed by Kris Anka: neat, practical, washable, undistracting, and unsexualised. Obviously she fills it with curves, but they’re in proportion, there’s nothing to get in the way of vigorous, physical crime-fighting activities, or swinging from skyscrapers.

spidey-2The uniform also comes in a maternity version, because Jessica Drew – for it is she – is a single mother crime-fighting superhero. I’ve written about her here and here on Vulpes Libris. Go take a look. And then write to Kevin Feige and ask him when Spider-Woman can join the Avengers on screen.

 

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories

Here’s a conversation I had with Brad of The Neglected Books Page, about Laura Riding’s short story collection Progress of Stories (1935). This American author is most well-known for her marriage to the poet Robert Graves, and for her own poetry.

 

Riding 2KM: I didn’t like them. Well, I did like quite a lot about quite a lot of them, but her style did not work for me. The book was republished with an additional 13 stories in 1994, with not one but two prefaces by the author, both largely incomprehensible. And that’s the problem; you have to really buy into Riding’s reputation and oeuvre to enjoy these stories. They are modernist, surrealist fairy tales, written in a flat, disassociated style that hides wonders and makes the remarkable ordinary. Leonora Carrington did something similar with her collection The Hearing Trumpet (1960), but her prose is magnetic. I didn’t find that reading Riding. Her style is mannered and determined to keep the reader off-balance. At least, that’s what I thought.

RidingBB: Like you, I have mixed feelings about this book. There are a handful of stories that I consider just stunning in their refusal to be like anything else I’ve ever read (I must confess that I’ve not read Leonora Carrington’s stories). Certainly there is that deliberately abstract and absurdist approach that we all know from Kafka, where a man transformed into a cockroach overnight is taken at face value. But unlike Kafka, Borges, and others, Riding has no problem inserting herself into the story, commenting upon the narrative, at times almost poking at it like some odd specimen she’s examining with her magnifying glass.

I’m thinking in particular of the long story, ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’, where she interrupts her narrative with such asides as:

Exactly what the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady was, then, is a matter standing in the way of your ultimate enjoyment of this story as a thing of your own. It is—how shall we say—the pious tediousness of the author, who, in telling a story, must always observe the fiction that to tell a story is to persuade people of something entirely true, or publicly actual; this side of a story is called its verisimilitude.

It is, of course, obvious that to tell a story is to persuade people of something almost false. We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case. And this is why some matters secondary to the story must be brought in, such as the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady, to make the story seem true as well as, quite frankly, a story.

I find these asides rather marvelous and funny. On the one hand, Riding is both reminding us that we are engaged in an illusion – reading about these characters in this strange town called Port Huntlady – and shattering that illusion. It’s a bit like telling yourself you are speaking while you are speaking: many people find this quite disconcerting, sometimes so much that they can’t go on speaking. On the other hand, it’s also in the fine tradition of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, where the author provides a running criticism of his own work.

The many prefaces and other commentaries by Riding that clutter up the collection are truly awful, though – or perhaps I am insufficiently abstract in my reasoning to reach whatever ethereal plane she was operating on. I found, however, by coincidence, something she wrote in the mid-1950s for her entry in Twentieth Century Authors that may offer a clue to what she was trying – and help explain why it’s unlikely that it would make sense to anyone but herself:

We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled – and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.

I would imagine that this would be a particularly difficult challenge when one has chosen writing as one’s profession.

Did you manage to extract any sense from the prefaces or did you skip them entirely, as I quickly decided to?

Riding 3KM: I could not be bothered after the fifth page of garbled nonsense in the first preface. It didn’t tell me anything other than she had a lot of mixed feelings about the process and intent of writing, but neither preface was interesting enough to try to untangle.

I have to say that I don’t share your amusement at ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’: that was the first story I gave up on. I quite liked the fable about Miss Banquett creating the world in her own image, but it palled. I liked ‘Socialist pleasures’ a lot, and found ‘Schoolgirls’ very interesting, but less enjoyable. ‘Three times round’, about the extraordinary life of Lotus which the narrative voice is deathly bored by, is a story you have to read by effort of will.

It’s Riding’s narrative style that kills the pleasure for me. It’s determined to BE stylised, and uninterested in the fiction. Aggravating and irritating, saved from complete annoyance by the brilliance of the subjects and small things slipped in unexpectedly, like fireworks during a boring play at the theatre. So the effect is to make the reader sit up and ask ‘Wait, what was that?’, and then IGNORE the reader’s needs. It’s a contemptuous way to tell stories.

*

Brad will be posting a more detailed post on Progress of Stories sometime next week. I don’t have anything left to say!

Wonder Woman, screenplay by John Buchan

JL_Wonder_WomanI saw Wonder Woman last night, and have things on my mind (there will be SPOILERS if you read on). There were only seven people in the cinema (Tuesday night, 17.40 showing, my own private cinema), but by god the Dolby surround was loud, we needed more bodies to absorb the boom.

The Themiscyra parts were epic and idyllic, but the Amazon civilisation seemed only to consist of a warrior elite and ruling class: where were the farmers? stonemasons? armourers? weavers?  bakers? brewers? (Though, no-one is actually seen eating or drinking: did they not need sustenance?) They may have been self-sufficient for most things (silk-worms?) but where did they get the twelve books that told Diana all she wanted to know about sex? Written on the island? There was a suggestion that some applicants for the soldiery might be rejected if not good enough, but we weren’t seeing much more than a Bronze Age hierarchy. Fantastic workmanship from their leather-working tradition, by the way.

The Amazons fighting, training, performing their military exercises were epic. I read a snatch of an Entertainment Weekly article about how the Amazons were played by real-life police officers, soldiers, stuntwomen, athletes and so on, and how much fun they had training to be an elite fighting force. It shows: those women were magnificent, and totally believable.

Then Steve Trevor crashes into the sea, followed quickly by the Germans in hot pursuit. What sea, exactly, is Themiscyra in? I’m happy to accept that it’s protected by a gods-given dome of opacity that lets the sunlight in to create a Mediterranean climate, so if Steve stole the notebook from a location in the Ottoman Empire (I will come back to geography), and then flew away with it in a stolen plane (with a fuel range of what?), it’s the Adriatic. (Updated after correction in the comments, below.)

At this point Reason raises her head and says ‘It’s a story. Diana is a god. She’s fighting Ares. Does it matter where the bloody plane crashed?’. Yes. Yes, it does. The film is set in an alternative history of the world, so gods and mortals can walk the earth together. But if the First World War is part of that alternative history, with all its domestic detail and the social codes of the period (there will be much more on this), then that’s a part of alt hist that needs grounding, to be attached to the mythic elements. And it’s fuzzed over.

Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra (can she ever go back? options for sequels abound) and next morning are sailing up the Thames underneath London Bridge, because they ‘caught a ride’. If the Adriatic is where they started sailing, it would take DAYS to get to the Thames. It’s also not explained from whom they ‘caught’ (horrible anachronistic vocab) a ride: or whether the fishermen boggled at seeing an American in German uniform and a black-cloaked woman in leather armour on a Greek ship in their waters.

wwDiana is met by a helpful woman (the very funny and tonally perfect Lucy Davis) who shows her how to buy suitable clothes for 1918 England. Very good scene, but why did no-one in the shop notice, laugh, object, or gather in crowds to see this strange woman with a sword? Also, women of the class that Diana is placed in did not try on clothes openly in public view. Her eventual outfit is pretty good, on the whole, as an approximation of what might be worn at the time, though the collar would not have been open, but buttoned high. Her glasses are wrong (‘you’re … too distracting’), but they’re soon to be crushed in a fight.

Diana arrives at a high-level military meeting, and goes into the room as if by right, which is fine characterisation, but astonishing: soldiers would have been on duty, far more people would have prevented her getting in. I don’t know what rank Steve was (Captain?) but he is too low on the military ranking to have attended meetings with generals, let alone be allowed to walk about the room berating them. I did like the repeated line ‘There’s a WOMAN in the room’, but this was one of the few historically plausible details.

At this point I was powerfully reminded of John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), in which the lone hero addresses the military bigwigs about his secret mission. Bells began to ring. When Steve and Diana gather a group of trusted colleagues to go on a secret mission behind the Front, I was reminded of John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle (1916), in which exactly this happens, German disguises and all, AND Buchan’s heroes foregather in Constantinople and have much to do with the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Their mission is to find the secret German laboratory that is creating a deadly poison gas: see John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast (1919), in which EXACTLY the same plot point, deployed on the eve of the Armistice, creates the thrilling end to that excellent novel of British and American espionage. Wonder Woman‘s script-writers clearly knew their Buchan, usefully long out of copyright, but it’s quite astonishing that no-one else has noticed. Perhaps I can help writing the next First World War action thriller.

Geography and linguistics time. Diana is taken to a Flemish part of the Western Front, and speaks perfect Flemish to a distressed civilian in the trenches (no civilians would have been allowed anywhere near the trenches, or would have been blown up trying to get there). She has already shown off her language skills, but this was very pleasing: a war film that acknowledges geographic reality, that the Western Front was not all francophone. The photographer in the village has a French accent: again, perfectly plausible, the Belgian professional and upper classes used French habitually. But the Germans have thick German accents when they’re speaking to themselves, whereas the Flemish speak Flemish when they’re in their own village. Where’s the consistency there?

ww3.0By this time, as Steve and Diana and friends weave their way through the trenches, I’m beginning to wonder whether, as a god, Diana simply isn’t noticeable by mortals, whether she assumes invisibility. Otherwise why is no-one groping or whistling at her, why aren’t officers and sentries forcing her back to the supply lines, and how did they get to the trenches in the first place? One does not simply walk into Passchendaele. And then she magically appears in full leather short-skirted kit (where did the nice grey clothes go?) and climbs the ladder over the top into No-Man’s Land (good reasoning, Eowyn). It’s magnificent, the most splendidly heroic part of the film, but really? She isn’t ripped apart by massed machine-gun fire and mortars because she’s got a shield? Reason throws up her hands and stalks away.

The summit, the pre-Armistice gala thing that gets Diana into a blue evening dress with the sword shoved down the back of the dress like an ornate jewel: where did that come from? And why were women allowed so near the Front? German women in stealable frocks too? What part of Belgium are we now in, close enough to allow German civilians to arrive in evening clothes, all the way from, ooh, let’s say Aachen to Antwerp, to attend a party, in a war zone?

Other historical niggles: I was dubious about the four-engined bomber that Steve flies at the end, because I thought they only came in during the Second World War, but I’ve been corrected in the comments, below. Diana is given an ice-cream on the station, in a cone, from a station vendor. The ice-cream cone was in existence at the time, but ices were generally taken in glasses and eaten with spoons, ladies didn’t eat food in public while walking along, and women always wore hats in public too. When Diana loses hers she doesn’t bother with a replacement, and consequently breaks a major sartorial rule in society for that time. Even girls wore hats in public, if they had them.

However, Diana is a god, she’s fighting a god (David Thewlis’ ‘tache is perfect for the period, a superb Adolfian nod to the further future, but looks totally stupid on a Transformer-like Greek god), and none of this matters. It’s a film, it’s a fabulous fantastical creation, Patty Jenkins deserves many more film projects, and I’m almost tempted to see that Superman Batman film that everyone hated so I can see more of Gal Gadot, who is the best thing in Wonder Woman by light years. She is the most well-rounded authentic superhero character in cinema for years, certainly the best female hero since Imperator Furiosa. Go see it.