This comic and others are best viewed on our Patreon Page, where we are collecting pledges to continue doing this work.
This comic and others are best viewed on our Patreon Page, where we are collecting pledges to continue doing this work.
Ad Astra Comix, in cooperation with Zubaan Books has officially opened pre-orders for “Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!” here in North America. If you have already ordered your copy off our Kickstarter but can’t wait to see what’s in store, here’s a little teaser to keep you going! Below you’ll find an exclusive sneak preview of the beauty and power of ‘Drawing the Line’, which connects issues of gender, sexuality, shade/race, class, and inter-generational dialogue in one exciting volume. In short, we feel that this book includes a little of everything that North American feminism needs: international and intersectional perspectives on the ‘every day’ of womanhood.
Continue reading Drawing the Line: An Exclusive Sneak Preview!
This past May, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (or TCAF), we joined 20,000 other comic and art fans at the Toronto Public Library. Dozens of publishers traded, hundreds of artists talked, and literally thousands of books changed hands… but how many of them were about social issues? Very few. And if that was the case, why? Do people not care about social issues? If they do, which ones to they care about?
What people told us, and how they responded revealed some interesting answers…
Continue reading If You Could See a Comic About Any Social Issue, What Would it Be?
As we write this for Indigenous Comix Month 2015, Elizabeth LaPensée (Anishinaabeg/Métis/Irish) is fast becoming a household name across a number of communities: from academics promoting indigenous methodologies, to tech gurus taking to all avenues of social media to promote diversity in pop culture. From comics to video games, feminism to decolonization, Elizabeth LaPensée is a leading voice suggesting that, if we don’t see the kind of cultural tools we need for ourselves and our communities, we damn-well should have the right –and the joy—of making them.
Ad Astra: Your biography is… impressive! I feel as though your education and credentials read like a natural progression of someone really following their dreams. How did you get involved in gaming and interactive arts and media?
Elizabeth LaPensée: I grew up playing games like King’s Quest, Street Fighter, Turok, and many more. I was looking for characters to identify with and I was always hoping for something more than characters who were just “the keeper of their people” or the “protector of their people.” Who are their people? There were no Anishinaabeg or Métis characters, that’s for sure. I recognized that the games I wanted to play myself, I’d have to make myself, so I started on a journey to be able to help that happen.
AA: I feel like Ad Astra Comix began under similar circumstances. I guess that means you went into school and the gaming industry with a political mindset? Or is that presumptuous?
EL: I don’t consider myself political, but as Anishinaabekwe and Métis, it seems there’s no way to not be political. I do my best to focus on my own work and to help others in their work, and whatever that means to other people is about their experiences. I definitely feel like I’m a hacker from the inside when it comes to academia. I went for a Ph.D. to provide the research side for getting support for indigenous games and game development education for indigenous communities. I’m more recently taking space for myself to work on purely my own games, but intend to jump hardcore into the academic world. The more indigenous voices are published, the more “validity” we have as far as the academic system goes, which leads to being able to reference other indigenous scholars and continue our work.
AA: As an indigenous woman, which environment felt more alienating – academia or gaming?
EL: Ha ha! Academia’s rough because I had to create safe spaces and it’s something I just had to survive through to continue contributing to a system that’s already not working for me. I don’t know, day to day, readings or projects might come up in a class that demean my communities, especially in technology. The worst is the thinking that indigenous people are all only about oral storytelling and had no written language. Uhh, not true. It’s just that our birch bark scrolls were taken and burned.
To get through it, I was involved in a weekly gathering of indigenous women in school that was held at my home. We could talk openly there and support one another.
With gaming, I’ve felt community because I got directly involved in making community. My first job was running the text role playing community Advocates for Collaborative Writing on America Online, where I created Story Line Role Playing (SL RP) to encourage people to, ya know, write out some sentences for our sparring matches. Ha ha! I was also a member of the Shadowclan Orcs in Ultima Online. We spoke our own Orc language and stood by very strict rules that required us to really work together or we’d just get killed. I stayed away from the problems that come up, for example, in chat during first person shooters (FPS) and found ways to again have fun, creative spaces. I always kept an eye on indigenous representations and there are definitely missteps, but I’m glad to see more recent efforts in industry to listen to indigenous people when it comes to representing them.
AA: From a mainstream perspective, with very few exceptions (I’m thinking of work like Never Alone) indigenous gaming is an unknown world. In 2015, from your perspective, what does that world look like? How would you compare it to when you first entered the gaming industry?
EL: There’s a lot happening and I feel we’re on the very edge of a rise in indigenous games. Never Alone from E-Line Media has made a strong path. Games like Spirits of Spring from Minority Media show how indigenous art can influence game design down to mechanics. Forthcoming games like Renee Nejo’s Blood Quantum promise to further expand the indie game scene. I’m working on a few games right now, some of which are mainly for passing on teachings, some of which are just games I am compelled to make. I’m excited to see games from more developers, like Manuel Marcano as he continues his path stepping away from AAA development into indie development.
I am constantly meeting new people who have either made a game, are in the process of making a game, or are in school to make games. It’s all underway!
AA: You have so much going on, as a voice for women and indigenous people in games. But you’re also a full-time Mom, yes? How has that effected your vision as a gamer / game developer / creator?
EL: I’m grateful for how my children have opened up my life. They really make priorities very clear. Ha! I’m a sole support single mom to my six year old son and three year old daughter, so I had to find ways to involve them in my work. We’re constantly doing things together. I have a kid-friendly game paper prototyping kit just for them that’s mobile so we can take it anywhere. My son, entirely on his own, makes comics and draws basic animation walk cycles. They see what I do and I’m able to do a lot of my work with them or around them. Some of my work is made for them, some is for me, some is for healing, and some is from freelance contracts. It’s true that I pull a lot of late-nighters when I work on more mature pieces, like the forthcoming comic “Deer Woman: A Vignette”! Soon they’ll be older though, and the more time I have to myself, the more I can put into this work, whether in games, comics, or otherwise.
AA: That’s really incredible. So, you mentioned Deer Woman. Could you tell us more about this and any other comics you’ve worked on?
EL: Definitely! “Deer Woman: A Vignette” is a 16-page comic that will be printed and distributed online as a free PDF. It is with deep thanks to Anishinaabe artist Jonathan Thunder and my dear friend and editor Allie Vasquez that this comic is underway. It’s the first project I’ve had able able to have all indigenous collaborators and to truly lead myself. It’s based on true stories, both personal and shared by communities, and includes genuine self-defense teachings and advice by Patty Stonefish from Arming Sisters, a traveling self-defense workshop for Native women that helps us reclaim ourselves.
AA: …That sounds so very awesome. We would love to help promote that when it comes out. Do you have an expected release date?
EL: We are launching in Portland, Oregon at Space Monkey Coffee as well as distributing the link to the PDF on June 12, 2015!
And thank you!!! It’s a moment for me for sure, and I hope it will help people.
I’m also contributing as a writer of two comics to Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection. ‘Copper Heart’ reflects on a man’s childhood experience with the memegwesiwag (also known as little people or water spirits) who are seen by his sister before she becomes ill and he looks for a way to help her.
‘The Observing’, with art by G.M.B. Chomichuk, tells of an unexpected encounter while hunting. (It’s a secret but it’s a traditional story that warps space/time). Ha ha ha!
AA: Beautiful. I’m glad to see that your work is getting out there – and glad to know that projects like Moonshot are getting the attention and funding they deserve.
I want to thank you so much for your time. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about your work and your perspective. I hope I can pass on that impression with the interview
EL: Wonderful! Thank you for thinking of me and noticing my work.
…How could we not??
For more on Elizabeth’s work, check out her website and follow her exciting posts on Twitter. Open yourself up to the incredible world of indigenous gaming!
And, for folks in the Northwest, consider attending the launch party for ‘Deer Woman: a Vignette‘!
Contributions by Kate Barton, Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, and Nicole Marie Burton
Somewhere in rural India, a young girl named Priya turns to the goddess Parvati for help after her life is torn apart by gender-based discrimination and violence. Hiding in the jungle after being rejected by her family, Priya is approached by Parvati, who tells her that she has the power to follow in the footsteps of India’s history of revolutionary women, showing her images of the Gulabi Gang and women who protested for India’s independence. The people in Priya’s village aren’t so quick to mock her when she returns, riding on an enormous tiger and preaching the virtues of gender equality. With the guidance of Parvati and other prominent figures in the Hindu pantheon, Priya sets out on a journey to spread her message to all of humanity.
Priya’s Shakti is currently fundraising to reach a broader audience. You can check out their crowdfunding page for more information!
Shadoweyes, AKA Scout Montana, is a gothed-out, perpetually grumpy queer black teenager with bad asthma and a pressing social conscience. A shelter worker by day and shape-shifting superhero by night, Scout roams the dystopian streets of a fictional city called Dranac with her best friend Kyisha. Scout may be a powerful, ass-kicking supernatural being, but she’s also very human- she doesn’t have the rippling muscles or Barbie-doll build of traditional superheroines, and the first time she actually tries to fight injustice she gets smoked in the forehead with a brick. Like Campbell’s other works, Shadoweyes is centred around the lives of young queer women and features a beautifully rendered array of different body types, hues, and abilities.
Ms. Marvel’s latest incarnation is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenager from Jersey City, and thanks to a strong readership that has once again proven that the mainstream comics industry has a lot of catching up to do in terms of diversification, the entire universe is now aware of her awesomeness. Kamala engages in conflicts with super-villains as well as more personal struggles. In many ways, Kamala is a realistic teen: she enjoys superhero culture and writes Avenger fan fiction; she is conflicted by what her parents expect from her, and feels the impact of coming from a Muslim family in a majority non-Muslim community. When given polymorphic powers, she grapples with whether she truly wants them, offering dialogue on rejecting the prospect of losing one’s true ‘self’. The narrative also echoes of a common theme for children from immigrant families, where one struggles in accepting the privileges that weren’t available to generations before them. Marvel’s first headlining Muslim character relays religion as a positive, helpful guide, creating space for religion within the superhero comic genre, as well as representing Islam in a manner that challenges oppressive media depictions found elsewhere. The power of this kind of imagery in popular culture was exemplified masterfully in a recent guerrilla posting of Kahn over top of anti-Islam bus ads in San Fransisco, much to the delight of the internet.
Although Alysia is only a supporting character in Batgirl, her mere existence as a transgender person is an anomaly in the world of mainstream comics, and that in and of itself deserves a mention. The artsy young bartender and self-described activist is Barbara Gordon’s roommate after the heroine moves out of her dad’s house, and ends up dating her brother, James Gordon Jr. Unlike other trans characters who have appeared in mainstream comics in the past, Alysia’s persona isn’t laden with stereotypes. With her choppy black hair and downplayed style, she doesn’t conform to the image of hyper-femininity which is often expected of trans women. The fact that she’s trans isn’t tied to a superpower or other supernatural intervention, which has been the case with past comic characters who have switched genders, such as Sir Tristan from Camelot 3000 or Shvaughn Erin from Legion of Superheroes. Other characters are not constantly questioning her gender, as is the case with Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, and unlike Wanda she also does not need to die a tragic death to serve the plot. In a world where the media is crowded with stereotypical and dehumanizing portrayals of trans women, the fact that Alysia is just a cool, likeable young woman who likes painting in her free time and dreams of becoming a chef is pretty groundbreaking.
Stephie, the cute-as-a-button protagonist of the independent webcomic Assigned Male is a grade school-age girl who speaks with the vocabulary of a womens’ studies major, and vehemently refuses to take any flack from parents, peers, or society at large about the fact that she’s transgender. Caught between a well-meaning yet sometimes misguided mother and a clueless, insecure father, Stephie’s everyday woes highlight the diverse issues faced by trans people in general, and trans women and girls in particular. The fact that Stephie speaks with an adult voice yet still has the desires, interests, and naivety of a child highlights how aggressive and unnecessary enforced gender expectations are. Her perspective challenges the reader to see a world which is not yet coloured by mainstream social mores; when we strip away the assumptions and cynicism of our conditioning, cis-normativity seems just as sad and illogical as many of the other things which adults take for granted without stopping to question why.
“I can hear it–the sound of misogynistic TRASH!” That first statement in the first installment of Qahera pretty much sums up what Qahera is all about. On one end of the comic book industry, there is a struggle for the female characters who already exist within largely male-constructed narrative universes to be more complex and less a mere portrayal of sexy body parts. And yet, on another side of this is the push for more content–whatever it may be–from female comics creators, whatever their stories or experiences. One thing I love so much about Quahera is that she actually is a pretty one-dimensional character, but that dimension of kicking patriarchy’s ass is pretty, well, ass-kicking! Qahera also challenges Western/white notions of what it means to be a feminist, by showing that the hijab, like other clothing, is a cultural and religious choice and should not flag an individual for scrutiny any more than any other article of clothing. Quahera dons her hijab and dark robes, and proceeds to prowl the streets of Egypt, hunting down male privilege, wherever and however is may arise. Qahera reminds us that diversifying comics is about diversifying creators as much as characters. We can learn a lot from her short adventures!
Tefé Holland came into being when her father, the earth Elemental known as Swamp Thing, possessed the body of the occultist John Constantine, so that he and his human wife Abby could conceive a child. Tefé is a supernatural being like her father, but being born into a partially human body gives her the ability to control both plant life and flesh. After a long estrangement, Abby reunites with Tefé to find that she has been using her powers to punish humans for their destruction of the natural world. While Abby herself often has to depend of Swamp Thing for protection, Tefé is more powerful than her father. Among other things, she uses her powers to create gory punishments for those who harm the Earth and at one point comes back from the dead to kill her abusive ex boyfriend, who she later replaces with a female lover.
A tough yet compassionate do-gooder by nature, Julie Winters is a freelance social worker who sticks up for the vagrant population of the dystopian city which she calls home. Her companion, The Maxx, is a quasi-human street person with a lampshade for a head who she often has to rescue from trouble. Julie has a curvaceous yet realistic physique, and often expresses anxiety over her body image. Usually drawn in a tiny crop-top and some ripped up bluejeans, the fact that she has some stomach chub but still dresses revealingly is seldom seen in comics, or mainstream media in general. Julie is also a rape survivor, and one of the main villains in the series is a serial rapist named Mr. Gone, who is capable of telepathically invading the alternate reality which Julie escapes into to deal with her trauma. Julie’s character is groundbreaking in the sense that it humanizes survivors of gender violence, and offers a portrayal which goes beyond the stereotype of victimhood.
When DC Comics artist Jeff Lemire learned about the untimely death of Shannen Koostachin, a teenage Cree activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario, he felt inspired to create a superhero based on her legacy. Equinox, whose real name is Miiyahbin Marten, is drawn in a blue, black, and white outfit reminiscent of the regalia which Koostachin is wearing in a popular picture of her. Equinox’s powers are based on the seasons, and she has the ability to defeat powerful evil beings by shouting “Keewahtin”, which can be loosely translated as meaning “Northern blizzard”, and creating a blast of blue energy. While Equinox seeks the help of the Justice League in order to learn about and control her powers, she also depends on the traditional knowledge and guidance of her beloved grandparents. Justice League is attempting to avoid the “cookbook” style of creating diversity in comics (“Diversity: Just add people of colour!”) and is actually working to make Equinox’s character the sum of her experience and cultural heritage. We just hope that her character doesn’t fall down the well-worn rabbit hole of indigenous comic book characters designed by settlers.
Okay, so, Erika Moen is both a character in comics and IRL! But let’s not forget that her illustrated identity, appearing every Tuesday at Oh Joy Sex Toy! does so much to teach us about feminist approaches to relationships and sexual health. Something that makes this web series so important for the genre is that the comic industry has traditionally suffered from sporadic yet pervasive plagues of overt sexualization of female characters. With sex underpinning so much of the female form, how is it that these comics rarely (if ever) touch on any meaningful conversations about healthy sexuality? This problem has created something of a stereotype in feminism that women, and feminists in particular, don’t like sex (WTF, right?) when in fact, we may love sex but question its depiction as simply a mechanical or male-driven act. As feminists, we want our sexual identities to be on our terms, as something that empowers us. With her work in this field, Erika Moen takes on a subject that resists rudimentary generalizations (we’re all different when it comes to our preferences and discomforts), Moen has carefully balanced education with inclusiveness, which means there’s plenty of room for humor and fun! Understanding our bodies and our emotional needs is essential for having healthy sexuality, and healthy sexuality is a big step toward having healthy, fulfilling lives.
Alison Bechdel is a lesbian American cartoonist, with her primary work being the syndicated feminist comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For that ran from 1987 to 2008. Her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) represent the intersections of her personal and familial narratives — the first focusing on her father, and the second, her mother. While dissecting the tangles of her relationships with her parents, the memoirs reveal Bechdel as a deeply reflexive, intellectual character. Bechdel’s self-representation depicts a woman who has a rich inner life, remaining a relatable character thanks to her humble wit peppering serious subject matter. In an increasingly anti-intellectual climate, Bechdel offers a refreshingly expansive analysis of how families affect our identities and how we engage with the world.
It can be frustrating as all Hell to revisit some classic comic book characters that you considered revolutionary, only to be… slightly disapointed. I recently looked into the background of Big Barda (who I love for her size and strength) only to discover that she was modeled after a photograph in Playboy magazine. A lot of female comic book characters have similarly disappointing origins, filling X-chromosome quotas in a universe’s character board. But of all of them, I wanted to take a moment to talk about She-Hulk. The name would have you easily dismiss this character as yet another “girl version” of an already established Marvel or DC character. As the cousin of Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters certainly was an echo of another character when her story began. But unlike most superheroes who hide their true identities during their meh day jobs, She-Hulk embraces both identities. In addition to her super-strength, She-Hulk battles crime with her ideas in New York City’s district attorney office. Her cases form the backdrop of many issues, as she takes on criminal activity in the city.
Like most mainstream comic superheroines, She-Hulk was the creation of male industry writers. Big Barda, Storm, and so many others fall in to this category. But their legacy is not so much their sensational back stories or one-dimensional dialogue as the memories we have of them from our childhoods: these strong, intelligent and assertive women were nonetheless an improvement against the backdrop of other characters we learned about as children: damsels in distress and princesses who waited for a prince to marry them.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, we feel like some of the strongest female characters in comics are as strong and multidimensional as they are because they’re largely autobiographical in nature! In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (referred to as Marji in the comic) articulates a complex identity beautifully–of growing up as a girl who speaks her mind in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and later seeking asylum in Europe where she not only has to confront patriarchal norms, but also people’s xenophobia and Orientalist views towards her. Marji’s family raised her to be critical of the state, but nonetheless fear for her safety as she resists the Guardians of the Revolution’s policing of decadence and modesty. The comic’s high-contrast ink style lends itself to the rigidity of public atmosphere under regime, but also Marji’s perceptive clarity as a narrator. Though she often does not have all the answers to what is occurring around her, her convictions to be herself and resist assimilation persevere in nearly every event that unfolds.
Naima Pepper is one of the main characters of (H)Afrocentric, a comic that follows a group of undergrads of colour through their time at Ronald Reagan University. The comic describes its characters as each representing political archetypes, navigating issues of identity and gentrification. Naima Pepper self-identifies as a radical black feminist, and works through the various contradictions in her own life while actively ranting to her friends about racism, apathy, and gentrification. Naima is a strong representation of the critical, politicized undergrad that seeks to resist and overcome the oppressions brought about by white supremacist power structures, not frequently seen elsewhere in the comics medium
Cousins Mariko and Jilian Tamaki’s ‘Skim‘ follows Japanese Canadian, Wiccan teen Kim, as she lets the reader in on her struggle of being different, unrequited love, and depression. The nickname “Skim” is thrusted upon her by schoolmates, a play on her name and also a reference to her, comparatively, not being as slim as the others. Kim shows strength in her introversion, by quietly maintaining independence in her opinions and desires, as well as perseverance through feelings of isolation. This is relevant to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by their emotional situation, Kim’s commentary on high school life adds another clear voice to the “coming-of-age tale” genre.
Suzie is a cute, nerdy, indie-rock-looking librarian who has the strange ability to freeze time whenever she has an orgasm. When she hooks up with a guy named John who has the same mysterious ability, they naturally conspire to use their powers to wreak havoc upon the world, starting with a bank heist to save her under-funded library. Although her superpower is sexual in nature, Suzie doesn’t come off as a hyper-sexualized character, and her appearance and behaviour don’t cater to mainstream standards of feminine attractiveness. She rocks her nerd-girl style with pride, and has no problem telling John to fuck off if he’s being annoying. Combined with her brash sense of humour and general lack of inhibitions, Suzie is a female figure who’s capable of being brazenly sexual on her own terms, without it detracting from the other facets of her complex and well-rendered character.
‘Rent Girl’ is an autobiographical graphic novel by Michelle Tea about her experiences as a young, counter-cultural lesbian woman working as an escort in San Francisco. Beautifully illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, ‘Rent Girl’ challenges stereotypes of sex workers on a number of levels. Michelle neither loves nor hates her job; she doesn’t consider it to be an empowering or necessarily feminist act, but she also isn’t a victim. Sex work serves as the colourful backdrop to her day-to-day trials and tribulations, including ex-girlfriend drama, social alienation, and searching for meaning as a young queer woman in an urban environment. Because sex work is neither her burden nor her embodiment, Michelle helps folks outside of the field break through the stigmas and even the more positive stereotypes to see that sex workers, like all workers, are so much more than their services or labour.
Finally, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the personification of Death is drawn as a moon-faced, eyeliner-laden goth chick with voluminously teased black hair, a classic 80’s death-rock style reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux, and a nearly constant cheerful disposition. The second child in a family of immortal beings who personify various archetypes, Death is often portrayed as being more powerful than her siblings, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Her character departs from the classic Western image of death as a fearsome, skeletal male figure with a dark robe and a scythe. Death is always genial and funny, and shows compassion for the souls who she guides from this world into the next. She is present when people pass away, but also when they are born. Her almost maternal-seeming nature can be interpreted as a nod to age-old archetypes, from Kali to Mab, of female deities who personify not only the destructive force of death, but also its regenerative power and necessity in the balance of the universe.
Great initial sketch that I’d reblogged here from artist Deena’s TUMBLR – of a Muslim superheroine. She needs to run with this!
Ad Astra: You’re in the final stretch of your Indiegogo campaign! How would you describe the experience so far?
Rodrigo: Running my first Indiegogo campaign has definitely been a huge learning curve, especially for someone like myself whose knowledge (not to mention enthusiasm!) for the ins and outs of social networking platforms is not always up to par. Definitely my eyes have been opened to the idea of crowd funding- there is so much potential for doing advocacy and charitable work on the Internet, but so much time and effort to be invested as well. The sheer diversity of initiatives and ideas being funded right now through crowd funding, however, is mind-blowing and it’s exciting times for people with new and innovative ideas. I very much see our indiegogo campaign as the humble first steps taken in a longer path of development.
AA: The concept of a web comic about a subject matter like domestic abuse must have been new for some people.
R: Yes, definitely new, although it seems that’s been a positive thing for most people learning about the project, especially for those already working in the field of violence against women in a supportive capacity. There seems to be a thirst for new approaches to raising awareness of the topic. Violence against women is a very difficult subject to broach because it makes most people uncomfortable and it’s not the sort of thing one hears brought up in day-to-day conversations. For the most part, there’s been an unwritten code of silence that underlies the topic of violence against women in society. I think comics and graphic novels have a lot of potential, because if you can’t confront people directly about it at first, you can at least have them read about it in a format other than news reporting or statistics and if the story is compelling enough, they can and hopefully will talk about it with others. Expressing the subject in the form of a story allows for discussion in a manner that’ s a little less direct but hopefully still engaging. That’s the theory anyway!
AA: And what kind of spectrum of feedback have you gotten?
R: The feedback I’ve received on through our CWAC campaign has been overwhelmingly positive and for the most part people (including individuals working for organizations) have demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. There seems to be a notion that a comic series addressing violence against women has a lot of educative potential as well (i.e. lots of comments about using this in the classroom and with younger audiences). I’m flattered by this sentiment and indeed part of me hopes “BRANDED” does one day make it to classrooms but admittedly there is also a small part of me that is wary of it. And that’s because there may be an assumption underlying this that comics/graphic novels is something for kids. Of course, audiences already familiar with the medium know that this limiting stereotype was broken a long time ago and that many of the most successful graphic novels have handled very serious or political subjects in very unconventional yet compelling ways and in a manner that is unique to the medium. The other thing is that when we slap the word ‘education’ on something, it can carry a lot of baggage with it, just as the term ‘entertainment’ can. This comes from outmoded ways of thinking that equate learning with textbooks and grading and entertainment with passive consumption. I think there’s a lot of room for unpacking these terms and exploring comics as more of a liminal space.
AA: Let’s go back a bit. Where did the idea of “BRANDED” originate from? Were you inspired by other comic books already out there? What about the subject matter?
R: Like many others, the clincher for me in terms of what comics are capable of accomplishing was reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus and works by Alan Moore and Marjane Satrapi. Regrettably, in terms of raising awareness of violence against women, my familiarity with the phenomenon (also like many others) comes from knowing someone who has experienced sexual assault and having an intimate understanding of the traumatic and dispiriting effects that accompany it.
My idea for writing “BRANDED” in particular came from attending a panel on National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women last December. Part of the event featured an installation where about a hundred black cut-out silhouettes of women were positioned everywhere and each one featured a short real-life account of a woman’s experience with male violence. These were collected by crisis line workers over the period of a single month. There was something about the immediacy of these stories that I found staggering and that spoke to just how obscured the phenomenon of violence against women is– here were all of these horrendous real-life accounts of violence against women, and the majority of them never reach public consciousness. During the subsequent panel discussion, the question was also raised, “What is the role of men in ending violence against women?” That was very much my own personal call to action and for whatever reason, the idea entered my mind– I’m going to make a comic series addressing violence against women–and I just knew from that point onwards this was something that I was going to have to do. From there, the premise and most of the characters basically spilled out of me in one brainstorming session shortly afterwards.
AA: “BRANDED” includes a figure known as “The Brander”. Comics have expanded so much since the first
days of caped crusaders. What inspires you to continue on with the inclusion of a ‘caped’ hero–someone with a secret identity and extraordinary abilities?
R: Well, the first thing is that I don’t really consider “BRANDED” to be a superhero story per se, nor will The Brander have any extraordinary abilities (although the secret identity trope is very much a part of the character). That’s because she or he is very peripheral to the story and only gets minimal page time. Instead, most of the story centers on a group of characters whose lives are impacted in different ways by The Brander’s actions, which are at best controversial and morally not so easy to justify. Readers familiar with the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon (sparked by Gail Simone a number of years ago) will be familiar with the argument that too often in comics, we see female characters maimed, raped, incapacitated or killed off ruthlessly and abruptly, usually in order to provide a motivation for the protagonist/superhero. “BRANDED” eschews such shock-value devices and instead depicts women as survivors (not just victims) of male violence and its consequences. The presence of The Brander–a vigilante who has decided to seek redress for women survivors of male violence because the law has been deemed incapable of providing this-is meant to provoke readers into thinking about what sort of factors would actually drive somebody to adopt such a role. In real life, it’s estimated that only a fraction of sexual assault incidents are reported to the police by survivors and of these statistically only a fraction result in a conviction or imprisonment, so I think this theme of absence of redress or lack of justice is a very real one for many survivors of violence. My idea was to have a vigilante who went around branding the faces of perpetrators of sexual violence in order to expose them and place the burden of shame and stigma on them rather than the survivor, which is what we tend to see too often in real life. The Brander, despite only having a minor role in the story, is meant to embody the response (albeit a dramatic one) to this absence of redress and there’s a certain inevitability to the character’s appearance that I hope comes across when we bear the statistics in mind. When we recall the example of the vigilante group “Anonymous” and their intervention in the recent Rataeh Parsons case, The Brander isn’t too far a stretching of reality.
AA: What advice would you have for others fundraising for projects with a similar interest?
R: It’s important to build a community around your cause or project. For me, even though I decided to go ahead and launch an Indiegogo campaign for “BRANDED,” I’m still very much in the formative stages of building a community or audience for the comic. This can only happen over time but I think when it does, the comic will really start to take on a life of its own. Also, for any men becoming involved with speaking up on violence against women, such as myself, it’s important to inform yourself to the best of your ability and remain ever sensitive to your position relative to the phenomenon of violence against women while not adopting the role of someone speaking on behalf of survivors. Too often in so many spheres the voice of women is marginalized and the last thing we need is for this to happen in raising awareness of violence against women. I can’t pretend to have fully learned how to negotiate this dynamic, but I can certainly
remain cognizant of it.
AA: After your Indiegogo drive is over, what can supporters expect to see from Comics with a Cause in the months ahead?
R: The if-everything-goes-according-to-plan picture is: We will finish finding the funding to produce about 85 pages of script to be illustrated by Reetta Linjama, our current illustrator, and hopefully hire somebody who can colour all the pages too. Our aim is to start releasing the comic series episodically (perhaps weekly) beginning early September and I would like to take it right up to December 6 which is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. This will depend though on how much funds we can raise for the project. Right now the best way to help out is through our Indiegogo campaign which ends June 22, but we may try and figure out a way to allow people to keep donating after that, ideally on a new website dedicated to the comic series. In the meanwhile, any news and updates can be found on our Facebook Page.
Of course, the other question people always bring up is, when do we see the printed or graphic novel edition? Like most comic artists/writers, I’m all for that! But let’s get the thing made first…
AA: Thanks, Rodrigo! Best of luck as these final days!
We’re nearing the end of Week Two over at Ball State University’s Gender Through Comics, (Twitter hashtag: #SuperMOOC), and we’ve been reading Superman Birthright by veteran comics writer, Mark Waid. I enjoyed listening to Instructor Christy Blanch’s interview with Mark last Thursday, which actually led me to pick up Birthright again–I’d put it down after 1 1/2 issues on Wednesday night, cause I just couldn’t get into it. But it definitely started to come together for me, and I’m glad that I’m now much more acquainted with one of the world’s oldest superheroes.
I’ve developed my own thesis by which to tackle Superman: he reflects our evolving notion of masculine idealism. A lot has changed in terms of how we perceive the “perfect” man or woman in the last 100 years. Superman keeps getting re-invented to reflect this. But what connects them? How is the Superman of the 1930s’ Action Comics still Superman just as much as Clark Kent in Superman Birthright? Maybe, to do this, we should look at what is noticeably different?
This is an interesting update–one that Mark Waid touched on in the interview, explaining that this wasn’t intended to just be New Age mumbo-jumbo, and I agree. I think he is effectively exploring a higher understanding by way of Kent’s alien super-abilities. I believe this to be one of the many positive effects of sci-fi culture on modern pop culture, equivalent to Christianity’s influences of divine idealism on the Renaissance, if that makes any sense. That is, we as humans develop notions that don’t actually exist, but come into existence by us imagining them as notions of God or another higher being, like an alien. Thus we develop interpretations of inalienable rights, Utopias, …. and, well, places where we don’t have to kill other living things just to survive. That is an idealism entrenched in lots of Sci-Fi, and Waid has selected it as a “Superman” trait. I think this was an excellent decision, and emphasizes that an ideal masculine trait, now, is to be able to empathize and connect with life around you.
Kent begins his identity as Superman by travelling the world and searching out knowledge and adventure. This is compared to Pa Kent’s time in the Army in Issue #3 of Birthright, but it reminds me a lot of Che Guevera in the chapter of his life when he wrote his Motorcycle Diaries. It reflects a deliberate and positive step in the maturation process.
This ‘search for himself’ is coupled with the reality that Kent struggles with his identity and the gap that exists between himself and his [not-so-fellow] man. He describes that it never takes long for his relationships with other people being to break down, once his abilities become known. “Invariably, they freak,” he says. “They become retroactively paranoid, wondering what else Clark Kent is hiding from them.”
In my mind, this narrative runs parallel to the concept of privilege. In addition to being an alien with superhuman abilities, Clark Kent also happens to be an able-bodied white male, who was raised in the most powerful and militarily aggressive country on Earth: the United States. It shows him attempting to make friends with non-Americans in his travels, to no avail once they discover just how much more powerful [privileged?] he is than they are.
He struggles with balancing his desire to help people without isolating himself from them. He longs to be accepted as a human.
When Kent tries to advise a local African leader not to march because he foresees violence against him, the villagers are right to point out that he is a white outsider trying to dictate to them. It doesn’t mean Kent has bad intentions, and some readers may think that this objection makes the characters simple and petty, but there is real history and politics there that he is not, or has chosen not to be, aware of. If anything Waid downplays this in the story; in real life, I think a man like Kent would be facing serious trust issues well before he started lifting buildings.
On this note, I can’t help but point out that a summary of this plot line smells a bit of “white man’s burden”. Kent wants to help people who need help the most, so he goes to help a minority tribe in Africa. Some of the images depicting this are particularly noteworthy, like this one to the right, which could also be critiqued from a perspective of gender as well as race. What can I say? It’s hard to write realistic stories without touching real-life issues like politics, gender dynamics, race relations, histories of colonialism and imperialism, etc. Comics have traditionally been comfortable in their own universe[s], but that is slowly, slowly changing, and I think panels like this are an indication of both an attempt to be more real, while also clinging to old stereotypes. (I mean, really, how long has Abena known Kent? Two weeks? If I were her and this guy came out of no-where with mega perception and rock-hard abs, I’d think he was CIA–hands down.)
Waid uses a great term in the #SuperMOOC interview: comics are a “visual short-hand” form of storytelling. I acknowledge that it’s hard not to simplify human conditions and relationships. Duly noted, but I wouldn’t be doin’ my job if I didn’t point this stuff out.
A side-note: The epitomy of “cheeziness” is the absence of believability. Superhero stories are in a constant struggle to maintain believability. To do that, Superman is all about depicting things on the edge of what we can sense and understand: that means everything from the constant introduction of new concepts (logically), to the depiction of senses that we find difficult or impossible to detect, such as superhuman sight, hearing, and movement. The illustrations in Birthright are vital to this, and really carry the story.
Superman crying: this is part of the evolution of masculine idealism, as well as the creative struggle for believability. The idea that men are supposed to hide their emotions is thankfully falling out of date as a prejudice that is both detrimental to men and world around them. Furthermore, emotion is an essential element within the anatomy of epic narrative: battles where life and death hang in a balance must make emotional connections. Crying , at least for any writer worth their salt, is not a sign of weakness in a character, but an indicator that they understand and are intimately connected with that world. As well, we ideally expect to see story characters crying around the points in the story when we, the readers, feel like crying. This connects the protagonist not only to the world around them, but to their audience as well, and creates a better story experience.
Part of Superman’s modern-day struggle, invariably, becomes one of masculine idealism vs. realism: can a near-perfect man exist in an imperfect world? Since man can influence the world through his abilities and actions, and this man does, despite the world remaining imperfect—is he still a perfect man / an ideal? Is he still “Superman”?
Superman has traditionally had a strong father-son bond. This is a part of masculine idealism: ideal men come from ideal father-son relationships. This explains the place of prominence for Kah-el (Clark Kent’s birth father) in previous Superman narratives—as well as Pa Kent.
Pa Kent and Clark struggle to understand their connection, now that Clark wants to explore his extraterrestrial roots.
Superman is always an optimist. This distinguishes him from new superheroes, who are often expected to take on a “more realistic” perspective on the world, as well as old superheroes who have been reinvented within the modern “anti-hero” framework.
What to make of Lois Lane?
Superman is as much a reflection of the evolution of gender perceptions as just about any pop culture icon that outlasts a generation. But what do we make of Lois Lane? In the very first Superman comics, Lane was a very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. In the most recent remakes of Superman, we see Lane as…. A very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite ALSO having the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. Despite some subtle changes, (and one really confusing case of Lois Lane turning Black for a day), the woman has remained much more glued to her original form.
If Superman has changed so much over 75 years, why not Lane? Was Lois Lane classic, at in her inception, already a progressive enough reflection of the female gender? Are comic creators’ notions of women and their ‘social evolution’ simply stagnant—it just doesn’t get any better? I’m unsure about this one, and want to give it some future thought. I actually think that it presents an interesting argument: gender perceptions of men have changed more than women in the history of comics. This is despite massive social, political, and economic changes in the status of women in that time.
I’m looking forward to reading others’ thoughts on this, as we continue with the #SuperMOOC class. Thanks for reading. More to come with Week 3.