Sunday, December 21, 2014

Batgirl and high expectations

Off and on I wrestle with the idea of blogging about recently released comics. I enjoy going through older issues, sharing the weird foibles that they have, the occasional brilliant artwork, and the usual awful world-view. But these stories from the last 30 years or so are specifically targeted to 12-year old boys with spending money. It's obvious that I'm reading these as an outsider socially, as well as being slightly dis-placed in time. Reviewing contemporary titles leads to a different problem of context.

Within the last ten years a remarkable consumer shift has taken place, particularly in the loss of a gender-specific readership. Comic-books have always been an odd part of American culture, portraying fantasy male characters to an assumed male readership. Other mass media outlets such as pop music developed sex fantasies for young women that doubled as consumable images for young men to emulate. Until recently, the female fantasy characters in mainstream comics held appeal for the hormones of young men, but weren't expected to be emulated by women.

If you poke around on the internets, it's easy to see that a new generation of female fans have taken to the perceived power and heroism in super-hero stories. And with this expansion of comic books to a new gender, there appears to be an expectation of higher quality. And of getting away from older stereotypes and simpler characterization. The current discussion over Batgirl is a great example of this.

In large part, this is probably due to the rise of a better educated generation. The combination of more students getting a college education mixed with the ability to look up any older form of media in online archives has led to a greater awareness of how writers and artists for mass media have inherited characters that express archaic hopes and fears. Batgirl is a trademarked variation on the idea that a superior man needs to perform vigilante actions to combat a weak-willed and corrupt society.

And this leads to a problem that seems to be more inherent to the industry than lack of representation. The dominant storyline is one in which Batgirl has to dress up in a costume and beat up someone else in a costume. No matter what the intentions of the writer or artist, every month a way must be contrived to allow this event to occur. Thirty years after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns supposedly changed the industry by showing this un-ending aspect of comic book heroism, theatrical battle is still the order of the day.

There is a place for using the graphic format to explore modern ideas, but I don't see how there can be any future in attempting to use genre characters grounded in a 1940s philosophy to do that. Most attempts, such as the 1970s Green Lantern/Green Arrow run, end up being embarrassingly bad and impossible to read on a serious level. And the best examples of the genre don't measure up against "real" books, or even non-genre titles such as Fun Home, in terms of their ability to delve into human nature.

And that's not what their function is. I would place titles such as Batgirl in the same category as wrestling or football. It's something that people read in order to feel a sympathetic victory with one "side" over another. And that may be where the conflict arises. No one expects to "agree" philosophically with a quarterback, but fictional characters seem to attract a higher degree of identification. And when that identity clashes with the readers' sense of self, the disconnect is felt as a betrayal by the writer or artist.

Perhaps my point of view reveals more about my being a jaded, cranky old man than anything else. I don't expect Disney or Warner Brothers to think of me, or any "outsider" as a target audience. I'm enjoying some of the new voices, and slight attempts at parodying the form that pop up in titles such as Ms Marvel or Secret Avengers, but in the end all protected trademarks will revert back to their original forms. Instead of "making" ethnic or gender-based variations on Captain America or Thor, I'd rather see new characters, owned by creators who feel secure enough in their jobs to honestly express their view of the world.

Then, at least, if they still put out books about scantily-clad people fighting other scantily-clad people, it would be more out of love for the weird genre than out of commerce. And criticisms of the text would actually apply to the author, instead of having to add the context of corporate editorial control. Otherwise, we might as well be trying to apply literary criticism to our toasters.

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