Category Archives: Graphic Mythology

Recovering Ideals (2)

Immature idealism, while not without value, has some problems. Perhaps greatest of these is that it is self-aggrandizing. The immature often turn their ideals back toward a pride in themselves. As an example, helping others can be done with the aim of seeing oneself as one who helps others rather than out of a genuine concern for others. Many who claim to love the masses do not love the individuals of whom the masses are composed.

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Consider the following quote from The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis:

“She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”

It’s not until we get to know individuals and connect names with faces that we can experience a more genuine compassion. Superman: Peace on Earth, the first story from The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (DC Comics) by Alex Ross and Paul Dini,  begins in this way when Superman rescues a starving girl and delivers her to a shelter where she can receive food.

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This leads him, as Clark Kent, to do some personal research into the problem of world hunger and its causes. Based on his recent experience, he is particularly moved by photographs of starving individuals, particularly children, and, as Superman, he becomes motivated to seek world-wide cooperation in gathering food and solving the problem.

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Initially, his efforts are gratifying.

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One panel that impressed me shows him descending past Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), the huge Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, with a large container of food held above his head.

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A second problem with immature idealism is impatience. This often stems from pride and the related desire for the singular, heroic act which, in turn, feeds that pride. Within the one day that Superman set aside for his task, he realizes that it will not be enough. The problem he is attempting to solve is simply too great.

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Even he can’t be everywhere at once, day after day. He discovers the host of complications which frustrate efforts at charity in the real world: fear and suspicion among intended recipients, bottlenecks imposed by corrupt governments (some of which use starvation as a tool for controlling their populaces), and the unwillingness of those who are capable of lending assistance. It had been his hope that the world would follow his example, but much of the food goes to waste.

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A powerful being can control humanity about as effectively as a human can control ants. They just don’t follow orders very well. Should one leave the ants to work out their own issues or choose to crush them? This hints at the difficulty absolute power might face in persuading people to receive help and to stop harming and exploiting each other. This reminds me of when I was in track practice at my high school and saw a friend of mine being jumped. This had happened to me one year earlier, and I had ended up with my jawbone being kicked into three pieces (prior to having it wired shut by an oral surgeon). A teammate and I rushed to break it up, and we were joined by a star player from our state-ranked basketball team. The three of us had a devil of a time getting the attackers to stay off of their intended victim. We simply didn’t have enough hands, and they kept going around us. To use our fists would have been to become what we were fighting. A passing motorist even tried to help us, and we eventually succeeded. My teammate and I were not small, but I remember feeling inadequate despite our superior size and strength (one of the young thugs only came up to my shoulder). I wonder what God must think whenever we act out. I’m glad he doesn’t just crush us.

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Solving human problems requires the coordinated and persistent effort of other human beings: human beings with ideals, the courage and commitment to act in accordance with them, and patience for the long haul. Even at that, we can only help and influence those we can, and some still might not respond. Using this as a major component of a superhero story is a challenging approach because it puts responsibility right back on us, including those of us who believe in, and pray to, God.

Recapturing Ideals (1)

I’d like to expound on the DC Comics Universe of my childhood. I realize that we all have different perspectives and that reality as any one of us sees it is not necessarily reality as it is.  At the age of ten, my friends and I were idealistic. Police and soldiers were good people who protected us and only used violence when justified. Authority figures were also good and acted in our best interests. We read DC Comics, especially Superman but also Batman and Wonder Woman. Back then, heroes were heroes, and we believed in “truth, justice, and the American way.”

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We were children of the Silver Age of Comics. For capes, my friends and I wore towels either tucked into our tee shirts or carefully safety-pinned around our necks, and we argued about who got to be the real Superman. Well, yeah, sometimes we squabbled or even fought, but we were good kids. My best friend and I volunteered to be traffic safety crossing guards (the diagonal belt and badge were cool), and our group in general befriended and stuck up for the little guys and the outcasts. One of our friends was so overweight he looked round, but we never made fun of him. We defended him when others picked on him. We had empathy and conscience, and our pre-adolescent society was one of inclusion and safety.

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Then came junior high school, high school, and increasing social pressure with its trademark betrayals and altered values. We became overshadowed by an awareness of racism, riots, the protests against the war in Viet Nam, abuses of power by our government, and the Kent State shootings. Resistance to the status quo became the new coin of the social realm. Some of my friends’ parents started getting divorces. With this greater awareness and disillusionment, we lost a good many of our childhood ideals.

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Even now, society tends toward the sarcastic and the cynical. We’ve been let down so many times that our first reaction is often skepticism when we are confronted by something good. I have noticed a trend in which people discard ideals on the basis of other people failing to live up to them. Very recently, I have had to remind myself that the ideal society of my youth never really existed, but that isn’t the whole story. I knew people, including my own parents, who truly lived by their ideals, and there were enough of them that they made the world better. The value in an ideal is that when people reach for it, society is better off. When a good ideal is discarded, too many people stop trying.

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Getting back to my DC aspirations of the Silver Age, I recently purchased and read a graphic novel that brought all of it back. The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by Paul Dini and Alex Ross does a masterful job of combining the historical ideals of perhaps the most iconic superheroes in comic book history with a modern awareness that the world we live in is indeed a very flawed place. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel are featured in narratives which apply their virtues to real world problems with understandably mixed results. What I like about these stories is that they use fictional characters to focus our attention on the potential hero within each of us and that they do this without being heavy-handed.

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This is one of my favorite graphic novels, right up there with Kingdom Come and Marvels (my opinion, of course). And guess who the illustrator for both of those was? The panels are visually satisfying, the writing for the most part substantial, and the stories entertaining. In upcoming posts, I will examine some of the individual stories in this impressive collection.

Oh, and fifty-three years later, my buddies and I are still close.

The Pressure Of Being Wonder Woman

One of my daughters once played the part of Wonder Woman in a humorous skit put on by our church youth group. This same daughter got on well with the popular girls in her middle school, and she relayed to me a revealing conversation she had with a couple of them. The word they used was “horrible” when they described the pressure of keeping up the right appearance – pressure to have their hair just right, their clothes just right, their conversation just right, their facial expressions, their skin… I think you get the idea.

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Artist: Adam Hughes

You might wonder why I would choose this as a way to begin a post about the depiction of Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes. I think this will become evident later. Let me first say that I in no way mean to denigrate the work of this very talented illustrator. Here, for example, is his rendition of the first Wonder Woman cover ever done:

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This is obviously clever and well executed, as are the following:

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Here is a self portrait of the man himself.

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In regard to my first paragraph, some of his images somehow strike me as glossier and perhaps more sexually overt than the work of Alex Ross. I won’t go so far as to call them objectionable because I respect the skill and imagination of the artist, and I like his work. But they do remind me more of the cultural stereotypes to which women are often pressured to conform in modern society.

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By the way, and for those of you who were not aware, adherence to modern standards of appearance places a considerable amount of pressure on men to measure up as well. Stereotypes of attractiveness for men and women often distort the expectations of both sexes. This can have the effect of erecting barriers to healthier relationships, and I describe our current situation as isolation within association. We as individuals can choose to adopt more natural social standards that leave us and others feeling less threatened.

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Without walking into the minefield of what is or is not appropriate when it comes to clothing, let me say that I do not criticize women who choose to conform to modern standards of appearance as long as this is what they genuinely like to do. Nothing else should be read into them at first glance. Rather, people should make the effort to get to know one another and to be more accepting. Reputations, good or bad, should be earned rather than conferred on the basis of surface impressions.

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As a type of footnote to what I have said this week, consider the Venus de Milo:

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For millenia, this was a standard for feminine beauty in western culture. I think a good many women resemble this sculpture in one way or another while feeling negatively self-conscious about how they look. I think we need to expand our definitions of beauty.

Looking Like Wonder Woman

So you’ve no doubt heard the criticism that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Okay, let’s get something out in the open before going any further. As a general rule, the DC cinematic universe has made some questionable choices as to the visual appearance of its characters. Many of them strike me as a cross between oversized plastic toys and clothing models despite the enlistment of some good actors to play them.  Marvel Studios, on the other hand, knows their product as well as their demographic, and they usually get their visuals right. Let me add that these are my impressions as a viewer and that I don’t mean to be critical in a negative way. I just think DC can do better than they’ve done so far.

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Having said this, I don’t think Gal Gadot is a bad choice to play Wonder Woman. She has been criticized as being a former model with too delicate an appearance, but she was in the Israeli military. During her term of service, she completed a rigorous course of physical training, evidently in impressive fashion. On that count, let’s not be too quick to judge on the basis of appearance. Let’s see how the movie turns out.

So, in response to the statement that Gal Gadot doesn’t look like Wonder Woman, I must ask an obvious question. What does Wonder Woman look like? I’m trying to limit my pictures to faces as much as I can. Here’s her original conception (enlarged from the first cover, even) by H. G. Peter:

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Her likeness was allegedly based on that of Olive Byrne, the mistress of Wonder Woman creator William Molton Marston…

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… but she could just as easily be said to resemble Jane Russell (top) or Rosalind Russell (bottom), who were actresses from that era.

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If you look at enough panels of the original issues, I think you will notice that Wonder Woman’s physique was far less muscular than in modern portrayals.

Here’s a panel by George Perez…

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… one by Adam Hughes…

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… and one , if your mind is not sufficiently stretched by now, by Darwyn Cooke:

Does Linda Carter look like Wonder Woman, or (perhaps more appropriately) do we think of Wonder Woman as looking like Linda Carter?

Wonder Woman Complete Series DVD UK Box Set Lynda Carter (Pictures by dvdbash.wordpress.com)

Was Alex Ross thus influenced? Well, yes. He admitted as much, but even he has portrayed this character with slight variations.

Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

So does Gal Gadot look like Wonder Woman? Well, I’m beginning to think that  Wonder Woman doesn’t look like Wonder Woman. Provided this more recent actress is given a decent script, I’m willing to leave a little room for creative adaptation.

WONDER WOMAN

Portraits of a Lady

I  did more than my average amount of writing in last week’s post. This week, I’ve decided to be lazy and rely on eye candy. I will simply say that I don’t think anyone has portrayed Wonder Woman with as much dignity and respect as Alex Ross. Consider some of the evidence:

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
At the door to the invisible plane...
At the door to the invisible plane…

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Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)
Artist: Alex Ross (Credit: DC Comics)

You may have some other favorite artist(s) and therefore beg to differ, but I think these images are the most eloquent statement of my case. I find the artistic representations of Wonder Woman by Alex Ross to be the most commendable from a standpoint of feminism and stimulating our imaginations for expanding the roles of women in society.

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Graphic Mythology: Wonder Woman Revisited

It has been over six months since I have discussed this character from comics/graphic novels, and I have had sufficient time to reflect on comments made by my readers back then. A mainstay of DC Comics, Wonder Woman is truly iconic and immediately recognizable. In trying to come to grips with her true significance, I have found the task more difficult than I originally imagined.

Wonder Woman by Alex Ross
Wonder Woman by Alex Ross

Her history is nuanced in that she has been given very admirable qualities along with what I consider some serious flaws. All of this, of course, indicates the mindsets of her original and subsequent creators. First conceived by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with fetishes for bondage and spanking, she was often used to portray and legitimize his obsessions. Since then, I would have to say that her various representations have covered the range from heroic dignity to sexual exploitation. All image credits go to DC Comics.

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Were she, in all her manifestations, a real woman, I would say that she has a history of repeated abuse. She has been spanked and debased, allegedly playfully.

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She has been bound repeatedly. The following image particularly concerns me because it represents a real danger of asphyxiation for anyone foolish enough to participate in imitating it.

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She has been physically assaulted as a matter of routine, although one could argue that this is an expected consequence of being a superhero who combats villains. Some of the more recent imagery, however, makes me wince despite the fact that the associated story lines attempt to justify it in context, especially in the case of superheroes fighting one another. By the way, I have noticed some disturbing comments on-line which indicate unquestioning approval of the violence portrayed in some of the following  pictures. I know, I know… there are plenty of frames which show her dishing it out as well as taking it, but these  images collectively show an underlying motive which I will address a little later in this post.

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To date, she has not been sexually assaulted in any DC issues (although a story involving this very topic was once in the planning stages by one of their writers), but what do  illustrations such as the following suggest nonetheless? Visuals can easily overpower accompanying words.

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It is in no way inaccurate to say that all of the imagery to which I have objected was designed to arouse male readers. So, in a sense, those entrusted with the representation of this female character have repeatedly pimped her out for several decades. The use of feminist rhetoric to prop up this kind of imagery strikes me as rather flimsy.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

A woman’s body is not a piece of candy. It sweats, bleeds, and eliminates. It suffers through sickness and injury. It gets pregnant and gives birth. But much of the imagery I have included in this post is the candy, a sugar-coated version of violence and exploitation which lessens the severity of such treatment in the minds of less discriminating readers by not adequately showing its consequences. We live in a society which has a widespread problem with the negative acculturation of boys and young men, and I see this as a driving factor in the rape culture which plagues college campuses and other settings as well.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

I know I have said much of this before, but I don’t think that repetition of criticisms and warnings in this area is unjustified. In summary, I regard Wonder Woman as a character with a nuanced history of publication. As such, she has served as a lightning rod for discussions about feminism. Due to her importance in popular culture, I think she deserves better treatment than she often has received. I have included the panels by Alex Ross as evidence of how this can be done without mitigating the impact of this character. If anything, these examples have just the opposite effect.

Artist: Alex Ross
Artist: Alex Ross

 

Graphic Mythology: Kingdom Come

I bought Kingdom Come (DC Comics) because I appreciate the artwork of Alex Ross and because of the concepts behind the plot. The story was written by Mark Waid. This effort was an interesting combination of superhero imagery with quotations and themes from the book of Revelation. The first person POV character, a minister named Norman McCay, makes the storytelling approach distinctive. He is based on Clark Norman Ross (the real life father of Alex Ross and a minister himself).

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Biblical accuracy is not the purpose of this story, but Ross did want to honor his father’s character and profession. I noticed nothing disrespectful or blasphemous as I read through it. Philosophical implications concerning the extent of human and divine responsibility add depth to the plot.

In a couple of posts four and five weeks ago, I questioned the validity of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon. Last week, I qualified that by saying that this depends on which version of her is being used. She is treated much more respectfully in this series. This time around, she and Superman are portrayed as an eternally young, middle-aged couple – an approach which I found refreshing.

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Even their arguments seem more mature…

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… and their relationship develops over time.

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Another character with mythical dimensions is Captain Marvel (whose name confused me because of the Marvel character by the same name). I looked up his origin and found that a boy named Billy Batson was endowed with the powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury to become “Earth’s mightiest mortal.” His appearance in the story is connected with the coming of Armageddon.

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But the characters that impressed me the most were the Spectre and Norman McCay (who play the role of the two witnesses from Revelation). The Spectre’s origin is hard to describe because he went through several incarnations/revisions since first appearing in 1940. He is essentially the undead spirit of a murdered policeman named Jim Corrigan, but he takes on or enters physical form. He seems to be in between the states of human and angelic beings in Kingdom Come.

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One of my favorite panels shows a more human Jim Corrigan having lunch with Normal McCay as Diana Prince (Wonder Woman), Bruce Wayne (Batman), and Clark Kent (Superman) walk by.

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I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to this year’s series on graphic mythology.

Graphic Mythology: Comparing Feminist Superheroes

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It occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare feminist superheroes who also have some kind of connection to mythology. In saying this, I would like to emphasize that qualitative comparison need not equate to a ranking system. We are free to choose different favorites, and I think I have betrayed some of my preferences already. This post , then, is a kind of summary.

I made a lot of negative noise about Wonder Woman, and I really did little to nuance my statements. This was a deliberate attempt to stimulate discussion. What I must say now is that the validity of promoting or denouncing Wonder Woman as a feminist icon depends on which Wonder Woman you are talking about. My complaints centered mostly on certain aspects of her Golden Age portrayal by William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter.

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Others have criticized her apparent domestication (i.e. adherence to more traditional female roles) in the Silver Age.

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More recent portrayals have often shown her as angrier and darker and have given her a more unreasonable body image.

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It should be noted that most of these representations are neither purely good nor purely bad. Critics can’t even reach a consensus on what good and bad actually are. Certain aspects of overall emphasis are what have drawn fire from different camps in different periods. In terms of her feminist record, this is a character with a checkered past. She even did a stint for a few years under the influence of Gloria Steinem. Like her or not, she is one of the most iconic images in comics.

Then, of course, there is her portrayal by Alex Ross and Mark Waid in Kingdom Come. I found nothing personally objectionable in this version, and I will write more about this next week. Of course, what satisfies me, might not satisfy someone else.

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I have already intimated that Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson strike me as more reasonable feminist characters, and I appreciate the balance and maturity of their portrayals.

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Two weeks ago, I cited Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki as another good example. Although she has her weaknesses, she is compassionate and gentle, and she has a spiritual connection to nature and the supernatural. She is also a capable warrior as well as an expert pilot.

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So now that you’ve seen four of them side by side, so to speak, do you have a favorite?

Graphic Mythology: Creative Responsibility

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What I have to say this week applies not only to comics but to writing in general. A couple of weeks ago, I lamented negative portrayals of women and children in graphic novels and used early issues of Wonder Woman to exemplify my arguments. While it might seem irrelevant to get upset about something that is obviously dated and silly in retrospect, I deliberately used images that would seem tame or even harmless. To be honest, some of the more current  images are so graphic that I felt it would have been in bad taste to include them in my post. I contend that the points I made are valid, and using seemingly inoffensive examples might actually encourage readers to take a more careful look at how they and the rest of society think. Fantasy isn’t real, but it has real consequences, good and bad. Keep in mind that Wonder Woman is often uncritically regarded as a feminist icon because she is a superhero and because she is a woman. It is good to read thoughtfully and to choose one’s heroes carefully.

Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.
Color illustration from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.

Our modern mythology in western society is embodied primarily in movies, comics, and popular fiction. The key here is writing. For something to be seen, it first must be written. Our culture in general and fantasy entertainment in particular are saturated with damaging portrayals of women. Those of us who write have the opportunity and the responsibility to help reverse this trend. Compelling characters and stories can have tremendous influence on the attitudes of many people. I am not suggesting we write propaganda at the expense of story quality. This takes too low a view of our respective readerships. These are people who can and will think for themselves, but they will choose from available options. Let’s offer them something better.

Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J. J. Abrams.
Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), directed by J. J. Abrams.

It isn’t enough just to have lead characters who are female. This can lead us into an insipid numbers game which actually defeats our purpose and continues to feed the beast. We need to take a more qualitative look at what we are doing and why. The following comments are based on my own limited experience, so I would appreciate any additional insights you might care to contribute.

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I have noticed some trends which have been lauded as steps in the right direction in fantasy writing. Most with which I am familiar simply involve the raising of awareness by describing unsettling societal issues and incorporating them into plot and character development. It is fairly easy to describe the mistreatment of women, somewhat harder to shed light on the internal suffering this causes them, and much more difficult to create solutions which can show us a way forward. For example, a plethora of female superheroes have been written with backstories of abuse and discrimination. If I can say anything about them as a group, it is that they are portrayed as damaged and often angry. Internal conflict is the base from which they combat evil, and they have a tendency to remain hurt, angry, and conflicted as they unsuccessfully try to exorcise their personal demons. In other words, they don’t often get better.

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The challenge for fantasy writers, as I see it, is to begin with characters who are damaged and then make them believably whole. In doing this, care must be exercised to prevent the story from devolving into a predictable morality play. Some would argue that healthy characters aren’t as interesting, but I respectfully disagree. Would you rather have a conversation with a disturbed stranger or with one who is more balanced? Healthy characters can have as many, if not more, interesting facets to their personalities as those who are damaged. The trick, and it is not trivial, is to make them interesting in their damaged condition and then to make them even more interesting when they are whole. Then, of course, there is the type of female character who starts out from a good place and ends up in an even better one. These are relatively under-utilized roles in current fiction, and they represent considerable literary potential.

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Folks (and especially guys), we don’t have to keep our female characters in chains. They can also be more fully clothed. Superheroines are good for more than ogling, DTR talks, catfights (and other girl-on-girl drama), sexual abuse, and even social statements. They and other female leads are deep wells with many unexplored possibilities. As in relationships with real women, we have only scratched the surface.

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Graphic Mythology: A Good Example

So after all my carping, can I point to any positive examples of the portrayal of women in graphic novels? I hope I don’t sound too much  like Mr. Rogers, but sure I can. In fact, I already did (Winged Victory and Cleopatra from the Astro City series). So let’s do another this week.

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (written and illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki) is a manga comic that offers a very imaginative blend of environmentalism, militarism, sociology, political intrigue, and religion. Some reviewers have claimed that it mixes Christianity with Japanese animism. I personally enjoyed this series even more than I did Watchmen. It took me a lot further into a story which is relevant, sometimes gritty and fatalistic, but still inclusive of ideals.

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The title character is one of the best female leads I have ever seen in a graphic novel. She is honorable, heroic, physically capable, intelligent, compassionate, and spiritually sensitive. And … she is dressed. This is not an over-sexualized character. Women in general are treated well in this series.

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Let me state emphatically that this is more than just a comic. In terms of plot, theme, character development, and setting, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is truly a graphic novel. At over twice the length of Watchmen, it provides an engaging read. The view from the high road is indeed a good one.

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