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!

Borrowed fire at sea: Mark Twain and Arthur Ransome

Ransome 1Missee Lee (1941) is an adventure novel in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, one of the two novels in the series whose extraordinary places and events really could not have happened. I don’t know how the Arthur Ransome Society would feel about this theory, but I’ve always held that Missee Lee, like Peter Duck (1932), is a story told by the children to each other, off the page, whereas their many sailing adventures in the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads and off the mud near Harwich, are realistic events that could happen to anyone, which is half of their charm.

In Missee Lee these six children in their early teens, their parrot and Gibber the monkey sail around the world with Captain Flint, the uncle of the two of the children, in a two-mast schooner, the Wild Cat. The ship is burned at sea, and the two life-boats, the Swallow and the Amazon (this really proves that this is a fantasy: nobody would have transported two elderly Lake Coniston sailing dinghies to Portsmouth, or wherever, as lifeboats for a voyage around the world: come on) are separated during the night. The story of how the two parties land on the Chinese coast, get mixed up with pirates, mandarins, the slave trade and Latin lessons, in an interwar China wholly unlike the People’s Republic of China of the time, is one of the most magical and satisfying of all of Ransome’s novels.

Ransome 2The loss of the Wild Cat at sea by fire is a quickly described but searingly detailed episode, a rare moment where the children’s lives are threatened by spectacular events told in Arthur Ransome’s signature flat style. The most intense feelings, the most desperate moments, are given power by the quietness with which we are told the details. Something I don’t think anyone has noticed before (but Ransomeites can prove me wrong: I don’t have access to the Arthur Ransome Society’s publications) is that Ransome borrowed this episode from a newspaper account by Mark Twain of a real-life disaster at sea, nearly eighty years before.

In 1866, the clipper ship Hornet sailed from New York, around Cape Horn, and was heading for Australia across the south Pacific, when it was lost at sea by fire. The crew and passengers escaped in three boats but were separated at sea, and only one boat, containing thirteen men and two teenage boys, made landfall, drifting ashore at Hawaii after forty-three days at sea. [1] Mark Twain was at that time working as a journalist for the Sacramento Union, and had decided to spend some time in Hawaii, from where he had been filing reports in the form of letters to the Union since March. On hearing of the arrival of the shipwrecked sailors, Twain interviewed the Hornet’s third mate John S Thompson, and some of the men. His account of the loss of the Hornet was the first account to be printed, in June 1866 in the Sacramento Union, and shortly afterwards in other North American periodicals. [2] This disaster at sea and the survival of some of the shipwrecked sailors became a well-known story in nautical history.

Twain 1On reading Twain’s account and immediately recognising its similarities with the episode in Missee Lee, I did some literary detection. It seems clear to me that Ransome borrowed freely from the account as Twain gave it, and from which subsequent accounts of the disaster were drawn. Twain’s account may not have been reprinted in the twentieth century until 1939, in Letters from Honolulu, although this was in a limited edition of 1000 copies by an American publisher, unlikely to have come Ransome’s way. [3] It is most likely that Ransome first read about the Hornet’s end in a secondary publication from the nineteenth century, but the closeness of his account to Twain’s makes me think that whatever he read pretty much repeated Twain’s account in its details and structure. Both disasters happen on a day of no wind and tropical heat; both are caused by an ‘open light’ igniting flammable liquid in the hold. The last correlating point, of the emotion felt by the sailors on seeing their ships slip underwater, is particularly telling. Twain positioned this as a natural observation in his linear account, as did Ransome, and both conclude their dramatic, realistic accounts to remind us that to sailors, ships are people too.

The evidence is given below in two columns, in the order given in Twain’s account, and in the novel.

Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60 Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee (1941) (Harmondsworth: Puffin, 1976), 27-37.
  The crew are dozing on deck in the long tropical afternoon heat, on their way from Japan to the China coast.
Chief mate and two men go down to the hold to draw some ‘bright varnish’ from a cask. Captain tells them bring the cask on desk as it’s too dangerous in the hold. The mate disobeys this order and draws the varnish in the hold first Captain Flint ‘was passing full petrol tins up through the forehatch’. The crew help him pour the petrol from the cans into the engine tank on deck.
The liquid ignited from the ‘open light’ in his hand Gibber grabs Captain Flint’s lit cigar, and, chased by the crew, dives down into the hold through the forehatch opening. ‘A sheet of flame shot upward.’
The ship goes up in flames very quickly The ship goes up in flames very quickly
The crew and watch were idling in such shade as they could find, ‘and the listlessness and repose of morning in the tropics was upon the vessel and her belongings’  
Captain Mitchell ordered the three (life)boats to be launched instantly Captain Flint orders the boats to be launched immediately.
One boat’s bottom was stove in in the hurry, but was patched with a blanket *  
‘Not a thing was saved, except such food and other articles as lay about the cabin and could be quickly seized and thrown on deck’ ‘There was time to save very little’
‘Forty minutes after the fire alarm, the provisions and passengers were on board the three boats, and they rowed away from the ship’ ‘Get the boat clear,’ shouted Captain Flint […] ‘Pull clear,’ shouted Captain Flint angrily.
‘Twenty minutes afterward the two masts I have mentioned, with their rigging and their broad sheets of canvas wreathed in flames, crashed ito the sea’ ‘Deckhouse and galley were gone. The mainmast rose out of a mass of flames, its shrouds hanging loose, their lanyards burned through. There was a loud crack and then another. The mast swayed …’
‘The sea was illuminated for miles around and the clouds above were tinged with a ruddy hue’ ‘The sun was dipping now below the sea in the west and the sudden dark of the tropics was sweeping out of the east. The Wild Cat flamed against the dusk like a row of torches.

‘Two sunsets at once’, said Titty.

‘the ship went down, and the crew of the Hornet were alone […] “We felt as if somebody or something had gone away – as if we hadn’t any home any more”’ ‘There was a long drawn hiss as the sea swept through her and the last flame went out as the little schooner disappeared for ever.

John, Susan and Roger heard Titty’s gasping sob and hoped it had not been noticed by the others.’

* Notice the shared event with Swallowdale (1931).

Christina Hardyment gives an account of two notes written by Ransome during his planning of Missee Lee as he was writing it from 1939 onwards. The first rough outline includes a shipwreck and Gibber with an oil can. The second, dated February 1941, notes ‘the dreadful burning of the Wild Cat’, which differs from the ‘shipwreck’ in the earlier, undated note. [4] By then Ransome had clearly firmed up his outline, and perhaps had come across Twain’s account, and used it to create the defining moment in Missee Lee that generates the plot.

If anyone has written further on this point, I’d be glad to hear about it.

[1] Mark Twain, ‘Honolulu, June 22 1866’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 137-60, 137, 139.

[2] A Grove Day, ‘Introduction’, Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (1966), ed. A Grove Day (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975), v-xvii, x.

[3] Day 1966, xvii.

[4] Christina Hardyment, Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint’s Trunk (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 170, 174.