Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pilot Season - Fall 2013

It has been a long summer with record heat and almost nothing to distract me from it. On the plus side, I have subscribed to a lot of new YouTube groups. Fortunately, I no longer have to rely solely on talented amateurs because the new fall season has begun!

I was actually completely unprepared for this season with all of my attention on just one show. So when pilot season came around, I was entirely surprised by how many intriguing new shows were available.

I picked the best of the lot, six shows that sounded most interesting, and decided to review them. Since this is a pilot season review, I will be evaluating the series more for its potential rather than how the episodes stand on their own.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
   starring Clark Gregg
   created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, & Maurissa Tancharoen

This is the one show that I had been looking forward to since it was announced months ago. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is Marvel Studio's first foray into live-action television with a spin-off series set in the larger, cinematic Marvel universe. The show stars Clark Gregg reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson who appeared in all of Marvel's "Phase 1" films.

In the pilot, Agent Coulson has recently returned to duty following his death in the Avengers. His rebirth is left a mystery. He seems convinced that the entire thing was all a deception created by him and Nick Fury, yet an enigmatic conversation between Maria Hill (Colbie Smothers) and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass) indicates a darker secret that he can never know.

Aside from Coulson himself, the episode centers around superstar Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and a well-meaning cyber-anarchist named Skye (Chloe Bennett). Ward is clearly the young alpha male hero, but the script is quick to show that he is also sensitive and caring through a clever reverse-interrogation scene. Skye herself is a mystery even to S.H.I.E.L.D. as she has deleted all trace of her original identity. This makes me wonder what sort of dark history she had. Perhaps a super-criminal parent?

Rounding out the cast are Melissa May (Ming-Na Wen), an experienced field agent who has voluntarily taken herself out of action, and the technical genius duo of Fitz and Simmons. They both work in a support capacity with Fitz as the chemist and Simmons the engineer.

The plot revolves around Mike Petersen, a hard-working, blue-collar single dad who volunteers for an experiment that gives him superhuman powers. Despite his good intentions, the experimental device that has been grafted to his arm is increasing his anger and paranoia. Since it is based on unstable technology, if Mike doesn't calm down, he will literally explode.

After watching the episode, I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed. Sure, the dialog is clever, there are some great gags, and I like all of the advanced sci-fi spy tech that reminds us that they are actually in the Marvel Universe and not a contemporary intelligence organization... but I can't help but feel like this is the junior team.

Aside from Coulson and Melissa May, the rest of the cast is really young and I can't get that out of my head while I'm watching it. It just screams "television." Unfortunately, Colby Smothers was only in the pilot as a guest star, but I'm hoping that Dr. Streiten will become a regular part of the show, if only to increase the median age of the crew.

The script immediately sets romantic and sexual tension between the two most charismatic young people on the show. He's a tough, pragmatic government man; she's a smart, anarchistic woman. It works a little too well and you feel that inevitable magnetic draw of two polar opposites... and yet I'm already tired of it.

All in all, I would recommend Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if you are a fan of Marvel Comics, Marvel Films, or high-tech spy adventures a la Mission: Impossible. The script is clever and the characters are familiar yet unique.

To close out, I would like to acknowledge a response from S.H.I.E.L.D. artist Jim Steranko who said the the show “needs to be much tougher, much stranger, much edgier to reach it’s potential.” I would agree with this. This story tepidly uses elements from all Marvel films to inform the powers of its hero. I can see a lot of reasons why this is a good idea, but ultimately, Steranko is right. I want the show to be weirder in both plot and structure. I want the reality bending, sci-fi pinnings of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and X-Files. Not merely a "freak of the week" but a science fiction mystery that makes the viewer question their presumptions of reality. Fortunately, I see the potential for just such a show.

The Michael J. Fox Show
   starring some guy
   created by that same guy

Michael J. Fox plays Mike Henry, beloved New York City news anchor who left the air after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. From the start, it is clear that the show is semi-autobiographical. We are introduced to Mike Henry at home with his family. It is clear that he has been retired for too long because he is annoying his family by being overly involved in their life. Consequently, they are always on the go and never sit down to a meal. When Mike bumps into his former segment producer, he is easily convinced to return to work where he is all too enthusiastically welcomed.

The emotional core of the story is how Mike Henry and the people around him deal with the effects of Parkinson's on their lives. Everyone is supportive, but they all handle it in their own way. His close friends joke about it and his children seem oddly used to it. At one point, his daughter even tries to exploit her father's condition (both physical and societal) to get an easy grade on a project. The plan fails only due to her complete insincerity and she is forced to redo the project more honestly, but the fact that she would try this at all makes her instantly unlikeable. On the other hand, Mike's segment producer, Harris Green, uses his condition to sensationalize their promos and bump up their ratings.

If you can't tell already, I didn't like this show. The premise has promise, but the issue is with the execution. Michael J. Fox seems to have the only fully developed character and even he isn't that interesting. The situation is interesting, and certainly original, but none of the characters around Mike Henry are particularly memorable.

What's curious is that the show knows that we love Michael J. Fox, but in the character of Mike Henry, it questions whether that love is sincere. Do we like Michael J. Fox for who he is, or because he is a celebrity with a debilitating condition? I find that premise very compelling and personal, but there is also a dour tone set over the series. Characters are always negotiating around Mike Henry and his condition, so there is an inherent awkwardness. Awkwardness can either create a comedic situation (The Office) or drain any semblance of humor from a scene (The Office), and unfortunately, the awkwardness in this show is more of the latter.

The Crazy Ones
   starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar
   created by David E. Kelley

Available on

This show came completely out of the blue for me, which is surprising since Robin Williams is such a prominant actor and David E. Kelley is one of my favorite writers. In fact, I didn't even know Kelley was the showrunner until his name popped up in the opening credits

But the theme tonight is "Not funny enough to be a comedy; not serious enough to be a drama." Don't get me wrong. Blending comedy and drama has been used to great effect since before Shakespeare, but goofiness undermines the tension in a dramatic scene... and that brings us to our main actor.

Robin Williams plays Simon Roberts who runs an ad agency that he is in the process of relinquishing to his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). In this episode, they are in danger of losing their top client, McDonald's, unless they can pitch them a great idea. Evoking one of their own classic commercials, Simon promises a major talent to sing the jingle. This leads us to a cameo appearance by Kelly Clarkson as herself eager to change her image to something sexier. Simon agrees to change the wholesome family jingle into a sexy pop song, then tries to convince her back to the original idea.

Honestly, Robin Williams is given too much screen time and too little to do. He ends up running his mouth with constant jokes and voices which are funny about... 30% of the time... and I'm probably being generous. If you are already sick of Robin Williams, this show won't help.

I can't help but compare this show to Boston Legal, David E. Kelley's previous show and one of my personal favorites. That show starred James Spader and William Shatner, with Spader as the protagonist and Shatner as an enigmatic crazed savant. Simon Roberts has the same qualities of Shatner's Denny Crane and Williams certainly has the acting ability to deliver that, but he lacks a competent foil. Zach Cropper (James Wolk) is his dashing and charismatic protege, but he never gets a chance to show much genuine character. Lauren Slotsky (Amanda Setton) is a typical David E. Kelley female archetype of a sexually forward yet self-possessed woman. There is a brief hair sniffing moment between her and Simon that is typical of Kelley's playfully fetishistic humor and she sells it well, but aside from this moment and the occasional off-camera laugh at Simon's jokes, we don't get much out of her.

Finally, Sarah Michelle Gellar... I didn't like her in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and my opinion hasn't changed much. She plays the stern daughter who had to grow up responsible and serious because her father was wacky and unreliable. By the end of the episode, she learns to get what she wants by being more like him. I'm not sure what it is about her, but Sarah Michelle Gellar makes me feel awkward. When she is in a tough situation, I don't feel sympathy or humor; I just feel uncomfortable. Since she is going to be the heavy in this show, I don't suspect I'll ever get used to it.

Hopefully this show will develop their secondary characters, but I doubt it can last long based solely on the father/daughter relationship of two leads that are both pretty annoying in their own way.

The Goldbergs
   starring Jeff Garlin, George Segal, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and the voice of Patton Oswalt
   created by Adam F. Goldberg

When I heard about this show, I immediately thought it was a remake of the 1949 sitcom series about first and second generation Jewish immigrants trying to adapt to New York City. Then I realized that was stupid and found out that it was like The Wonder Years: an autobiographical, nostalgic family sitcom.

The comparisons to The Wonder Years are obvious from the first line of voice over narration by comedian Patton Oswalt. The show was created by Adam Goldberg and the lead character shares his name, as well as a love for video. He is constantly following his family around and recording their antics. The show is set in the eighties, which really does seem as quaint as the fifties did to us back then.

A large part of my interest in this show came from Jeff Garlin, perhaps best known as Larry David's best friend in Curb Your Enthusiasm. And while he is the best part of the show, most of the humor just doesn't work. The main joke around his character in this episode is that he doesn't say what he means, but just says something insulting instead. This is then subtitled for those of us who don't "speak dad." Unfortunately, Garlin's good-natured presence kind of undercuts the joke. Not to bring up The Wonder Years again, but the father in that series, played by Dan Lauria, was a far more threatening figure. He was a mean, scary dad who you had to struggle to relate to while Murray Goldberg is more like Homer Simpson. He is a good-natured oaf who loses his temper and it plays out pretty predictably

The grandfather, Albert (George Segal), takes Adam under his wing in order to play the cool grandpa, teaching him things like how to flirt with girls. It's a nice relationship and, with proper development, I could see this being the strong point of the series.

Beverly Goldberg is played Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911, Bridesmaids) who is the strong matriarch of the family. She reminds me a lot of Lois from Malcolm in the Middle but without the high-strung intensity that made her stand out. Honestly, McLendon-Covey has never been a standout actress/comedian to me. I liked her well-enough in Reno 911 as the trampy woman who thinks she has class, but as a mother of three, I'm not so sure.

This show has potential, but like the others on this list, I found it awkwardly straddling the line between comedy and drama. If they focused more on one or the other, I could see it becoming much more interesting.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine
   starring Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, and Terry Crews
   created by Dan Goor & Michael Schur

I have to admit, I wasn't expecting to like this show at all, but it greatly exceeded my expectations.

I've never particularly liked Andy Samberg. I think its that dopey grin of his. It's not that I think he's a bad actor or comedian or even that he has done bad work; he just has a very punchable face. And I haven't changed my opinion, yet I like this show and I'm looking forward to the next episode. That should say a lot about the quality of the show in general.

Andy Samberg is Detective Jake Peralta, the department's lead detective who never managed to grow up. Despite his constant jokes and pranks, he is actually a very good detective and can often spot clues that others might miss. Detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is his main competition with the two holding a bet over who gets the most arrests. Jake's best friend is his co-worker, Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), who has a crush on the overly aggressive officer, Detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Rounding out the cast, we have Sergeant Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) who left field duty to sit behind desk because he had two daughters, Cagney and Lacy, and the Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti) as the civilian administrator.

The first episode features the replacement of the old precinct captain, Captain McGintley (Mike Hagerty), with the new precinct captain, Ray Holt (Andre Braugher). Mike Hagerty is a character actor best known for looking like a walrus and even though he only appears for a single quick scene, it is hilarious and I hope he comes back from retirement soon. But Andre Braugher is magnificent. He brings a kind of gravitas to the role that grounds the entire show. He's the perfect straight man for Samberg, not merely absorbing his abuse, but deftly turning his pranks back around on him.

All that said, this still feels like a show that hasn't found its footing, but that's not much of a criticism since I've only seen two episodes. The jokes are a bit flat. They use cut scene flashbacks to limited effect and its a bit jarring. It reminds me of 30 Rock, but somehow it comes off more cartoony, like Family Guy. Hopefully this is just a result of being a new show and soon they will find their own pace and style.

In the unused potential category, I'll put Terry Crews and Chelsea Peretti. These are both fantastically funny actors and they get very little to do in these first few episodes. You'll probably recognize Terry Crews as Herbert Love in the latest season of Arrested Development, but I'll always think of him as President Camacho in Idiocracy.

If you like Andy Samberg or police comedies, you should check this out. And if you don't like it now, check back in a year or two, if Fox doesn't cancel it. This is a great cast and I suspect the show will be fantastic, if given the chance.

The Blacklist
   starring James Spader, Megan Boone, and Harry Lennix
   created by Jon Bokenkamp

I have goosebumps. By far, the winner of pilot season is The Blacklist. In fact, seeing the trailer for The Blacklist was what started me on this pilot binge in the first place.

If you are the daring sort who likes James Spader and/or intense international crime dramas, just stop reading this review right now and go check it out. You will probably enjoy it more if you just go into it cold without any information. If that isn't enough for you, I'll try to explain without spoiling too much.

James Spader is Raymond Reddington, a former high ranking Naval officer who went AWOL only to become an international criminal who brokers deals with other criminals. After decades on the FBI's most wanted list, Reddington has surrendered, offering information on all of his clients, but only if his demands are met, the most important of which is that he will only speak with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a new FBI criminal profiler with absolutely no experience. Keen claims that she has no connection to Reddington, but clearly he knows her quite well. The title of the series comes from a list of names Reddington has compiled of criminals and terrorists so dangerous and sophisticated that the FBI doesn't even know who they are.

The foundation of this show is James Spader's performance as a charismatic, sociopathic genius. It's easy to compare Reddington to Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter, particularly in his scenes opposite Keen. Although Reddington is usually in manacles and surrounded by armed guards, it is clear that he is in charge of every situation he is in and that makes for fantastic drama.

I like seeing Harry Lennix (Dollhouse) in the role of Harold Cooper, the man overseeing the entire operation. He brings a quiet and reserved confidence that is appropriate for a man in his position. While the other characters are easy to intimidate, Cooper is always cool, calm, and collected. I'm hoping we will get plenty more scenes with him and Spader, despite Reddington's insistence that he will only talk to Keen.

Now, I have to address the action in this episode because it is phenomenal; in fact, it might even be too good. The villain, Ranko Zamani, plans an abduction of a congressman's daughter... and while the FBI arrives in time to get her first, the kidnappers manage to turn the tables on them in a scene that reminds me of Joker in The Dark Knight. At first, the scene appeared absurdly convenient in how well it is organized, but I wonder if this wasn't all planned. The scope of this action scene alone makes me wonder how much the show will conform to realism versus action. Will we be facing realistic criminals or supervillains?

In fact, there is even a scene where Reddington is imprisoned in a giant glass box that reminds me of Magneto at the end of X-Men. I understand that Reddington is dangerous and crafty and all that, but he doesn't have superpowers so it seems unnecessary. On the other hand, it is so visually compelling that I can't really object that strongly.

But ultimately, this was the best show of the new season. It was the only show where all of the characters felt real and complex (save that one blonde agent), and I was completely absorbed from start to finish. I can't wait for what comes next.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Feminism, Sexism, & Captain Mary Sue

Women have always been misrepresented and underrepresented in comic books. Its sad but true. Even a shining icon like Wonder Woman was created in a male image, empowering but also sexually desirable.  Over the years, there have been many writers who were sensitive to the rights and injustices facing women, but these were almost entirely male writers. Even the great Stan Lee, who introduced a smart independent female member on every team, would still give women non-combative powers and write shocking male-female dialog that would be clear examples of sexual harassment in the modern world.

The Politics

Ever since the release of DC's New 52, women (and those who like them) have been riled up by their new interpretations of some of the characters, most notably Catwoman and Starfire, who were both highly objectified by the artwork and script. While Catwoman was depicted in gratuitously sexual situations, Starfire had her entire personality altered to become the willing sex object for her male teammates. Since then, there has been much debate and demonstrations of what crosses the line.

Predating the New 52 is "Women in Refrigerators" which takes its name from an infamous scene in Green Lantern where his girlfriend was chopped into pieces and put in his refrigerator as a threat. This event was used by Gail Simone as just one very obvious example of how female characters are abused in comics to motivate male characters. It wasn't because the character was physically damaged (since she is clearly fictional), but rather that the reader's connection to the character was damaged. If a reader had previously identified with this character more so than her male love interest, that identification became abusive for the reader due to her gruesome death. Rather than identifying with the hero and feeling the desire for revenge, the reader simply feels the violation and humiliation of a meaningless death.

Another popular example of sexism in comics is the T&A spinal contortion. This is where a female character is positioned in such a way that her tits and ass are visible to the viewer. This often requires the artist to bend or even break the spine for the proper angle. Consequently, it becomes quite horrifying... not only just to look at, but even more so when you consider that someone thought this was sexy.

One popular method of dramatizing the sexism inherent in female costumes has been to crossdress male figures in female costumes (i.e. The Hawkeye Intiative). While this is a fun and harmless demonstration, I also think it is a bit silly and ineffective. Obviously, any muscular man is going to look ridiculous in women's clothes because he has a masculine shape. It doesn't matter whether the clothes are modest or immodest. If you are going to suggest all costumes to this criteria, we will end up with a bunch of boring androgynous costumes. Men and women shouldn't necessarily look the same, and because this is an escapist medium, the majority of them will be pretty people in sexy clothing. But the clothing should always inform the character. If the character dresses like a slut, she should be a bit slutty. If she's not, that costume is disrespecting her character. It isn't a choice she made, the artist forced her into that outfit to parade her in front of sexually immature men. That's why its sexist.

Furthermore, is this movement fair to transgendered people? Yeah, I'm going there. You are essentially saying men look ridiculous in women's clothes. You are using their masculinity, their body mass and body hair, to contrast outfits designed for elegant female curves. You are making a mockery to try to shame men into creating more conservative outfits for women, but aren't you also perpetuating the shame in crossdressing? By parading your crossdressed superheroes as a freak show, what kind of message does that send to those who are not cisgendered?

Far more effective are the images which use male characters to show the unnatural way women pose in comic books. Although, again, men and women move differently and position their bodies in different ways, these images draw attention to the unnatural positions female characters are frequently placed in. They are often posed in a sexually suggestive manner in scenes where that doesn't make sense. But again, they often don't really distinguish between what is contextually appropriate and what is inappropriate. So when they place a muscled dude with his ass suggestively in the air to replicate a scene of seduction, of course it looks gay (example). You are putting him in a submissive homosexual position, but that didn't really prove anything. You are just doing it for the sake of humiliation and exploiting the possible homophobia of your audience. It is only really effective in cases where the body language is not contextually appropriate for the scene. If Hawkeye were trying to seduce a guy, that would be entirely appropriate. The only way this would be heterosexually appropriate is if he was seducing a woman who is really into pegging.

So between being regularly used as a plot device, wearing ridiculously sexually provocative clothing, consistently being positioned in a sexually suggestive manner, and having their personalities drastically rewritten to suit male needs, women have a lot to be angry about and publishers really need to stop playing stupid and start taking the female reader base into consideration if they actually want to have them.

The Disclaimer

Now, despite my name being Sydney, I'm not a woman, but I am a big fan of women. My mom is a woman, my sisters are women... why, half the people I know are women! So I have a vested interest in the well-being of women. I hope to be married some day and I don't want my wife to make 75% of what her male co-workers make. I'll need that money so I can be a stay-at-home dad.  I'm also a liberal and women are largely more liberal than men, so I have a vested political interest in having more women in government. And while I have many reasons to hate women, I have even more reasons to hate men.

As a comic reader, I also have a vested interest in having better female superheroes. I want a book I can hand to my niece so she can have a unique hero of her own. Unfortunately, there aren't many of those. There are plenty of superheroines, but most of them are bland superhero titles: unfocused and detached at best, sexist and insulting at worst. So I always get interested whenever comics market directly to women. I'm always hopeful, but usually, I end up with some sort of misshapen monstrosity where the only fun anyone can get out of it is dissecting how they ended up at this mess... which brings me to the new Captain Marvel!

Now, just a disclaimer, if you love this title, you may want to just skip the rest of this article. I have no desire to take away anyone's hero. That would just make me an asshole of the highest order. I've also only read up to issue #9, so I maybe my opinion would change if I read more. So here is your chance to bale now and not work yourself up by hearing my opinion. I know this title is really popular amongst a core group of fans, and I don't want to rain on your parade.

Still with me? Okay.

The Gist

The new Captain Marvel series is one of the worst things I've ever read. This is not an exaggeration. I've read some of the most pointless, ugly, inarticulate comics that were ever vomited out of the 90s, but even those comics never aspired to be anything more than the trash they were. Captain Marvel tries to be so much more and the failure to do so is just embarrassing for everyone involved. It is embarrassing for the writer, the artist, the character, the readers, women, men, and anything in between.

If you aren't familiar with the character of Carol Danvers (AKA Captain Marvel AKA Ms. Marvel AKA Warbird AKA Binary), check out this two-part video series to bring you up to date (part 1, part 2).

Despite Marvel Comics being known as the publisher for more grounded and realistic characters, they have never had a prominent female superheroine. While DC has had Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and Zatanna, Marvel superheroines could never hold a series for very long... and when they did, it was mostly due to the strength of the creators rather than the character herself (i.e. John Byrne's She-Hulk).

Carol Danvers has always been the closest thing they had to Wonder Woman, ever since she gained her powers in 1977. However, Carol was actually introduced nine years earlier as a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series. Introduced as the "Head of Security" for the Air Force's space flight program, Carol is introduced as "Miss Danvers." It is ironic given her later preference for the title "Ms." and also sexist considering that she is also an officer, therefore should have been introduced by rank. When she gained her own series in 1977, her powers were conferred upon her by a "psyche-magnetron" which essentially grafted Captain Marvel's powers onto her. Consequently, she has never had a dramatic and unique origin story to serve as her motivation.

Since this was the late '70s and third-wave feminism was making strides, Carol Danvers was dubbed Ms. Marvel, reflecting the preference of feminists not to be labeled by their marital status as well as the title of the popular women's magazine. Carol was also made editor-in-chief of "Woman," New York's leading women's magazine, perhaps attempting to model the character on feminist activist Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. Magazine.

However, as third wave feminism faded into history, the "Ms." on Carol's title seemed anachronistic. It was no longer a bold feminist declaration, but rather a sad remnant of a bygone era. The title no longer declared herself independent of men, but instead, it identified her first as female and secondly as a superhero. But this generation of women had grown up thinking of themselves as independent by default. They didn't need a title to show it. They wanted the female to be secondary to the character. They wanted her to be a hero first and a woman second.  That's what it meant to be feminist in the '80s and '90s.

The Pitch

After flailing in public interest for numerous years, we find ourselves in the present day. The original Captain Marvel is now long gone (killed by cancer in The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel) and there have been a few successors, but none of them had much longevity, so the name was up for grabs and Carol took it.

It's a smart move. Despite using the title "Ms.," Carol is a Colonel in the Air Force, so switching to a militant title makes sense for her, even if the rank is completely arbitrary, and it doesn't put her gender before the character. As Steve Rogers says, it makes her no longer an adjunct. Also, you have to take into account the significance of the "Marvel" title. Sharing that word with the publisher of the entire line of comics is an implicit statement that this is some sort of flagship title. She is the Captain of the Marvel line.

It is brilliantly sublime marketing, but the next step was to fix her costume.

The Costume

The old costume was sexy and unique, but the thigh-high boots and black leather were incongruent with Carol's character. It placed her sexuality in the forefront, but Carol is a feminist with a military background. Overt sexuality was inappropriate for the character.

Designed by Jaime McKelvie, the new Captain Marvel costume recalls elements of her previous costumes, but in a completely original design. It is a conservative, militant design, but it also uses a lot of primary colors to reinforce that she is a superhero, not a vigilante. The mask is gone, indicating a more intimate public identity.

The blackish-blue costume is tight but it does not emphasize her breasts, crotch, butt, or hips. The sash tied to her hip is a call back to her previous costumes. It breaks up the empty space in her outfit that is usually occupied by underwear or a belt. On her chest is a yellow star which recalls both her original costume and Mar-Vell's classic costume. It's definitely a conservative look, but it suits the character and it is still sexy.

It actually reminds me of the uniforms in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Voyager. The high collar, shoulder stripes, red gloves, and boots all evoke an old-fashioned, European colonial period of military look. Again, its a beautiful design, but there are some fascistic overtones. It is similar to the Centurion outfit of the original Captain Marvel. It suggests a conqueror, which I find compelling, however this aspect is not reflected in the character so I find it a little misleading in a purely iconographic sense.

Finally, the costume has an adjustable setting: a headset and mask option that can be projected on command. Although the image of the cowl is compelling, I don't think they ever came up with a reason for its existence. It seems like they liked both designs, so this was a way to how Carol's face like a proud superhero, but she could also look like a hardened warrior. That's all fine and good, but it isn't clear how or why the costume does this. Is Carol's suit alien in design? Is it made of unstable molecules? Does the mask protect her from harsh environments? Is it a form of armor, like boxing head gear? Does it provide communications abilities? If so, she never says and seems to only use it when she feels like it. So I guess its more like a hoody...

The Writer

The problem with this title is the writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. I'll give her credit for trying really hard to undo the gender problems endemic in comics, but unfortunately, that's also the way it reads: like she's trying really hard to undo the gender problems in comics. It doesn't encourage you into thinking in new ways, but rather it just says, I'm a strong woman, deal with it! Now, I love strong women, but there is nothing less strong than declaring yourself so followed by dismissing any argument to the contrary.

Reading Captain Marvel is like taking a freshman college poli-sci course and listening to someone who is incredibly stoned try to advocate for marijuana decriminalization. It's not that I disagree. In fact, I support your conclusion, but that's why I want you to shut up because you are not helping the argument, you are hurting it.

Captain Marvel is a feminist rant. That it is a "rant" is debatable, but that it is "feminist" is not. The book very clearly and deliberately sets out to be about gender, female empowerment, and the oppression of women. The reason I call it a rant is because it is unfocused, self-aggrandizing, and lacks any real self-examination. I have no problem with a feminist book or even a writer going off on rant, but when you really want to prove something, you need honesty, not rhetoric. Women deserve a superhero grounded in honest characterization, not the gender politics of their era.

While the title and costume of the new Captain Marvel serve to make her gender secondary to the character, DeConnick's approach is 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Every interaction with any character is about gender, but even worse than that, Carol Danvers is diminished to a Mary Sue. She is a broad, idealized character who possesses no real flaws, is loved by good people, and hated by bad people. She doesn't challenge her character or her readers by questioning Carol's methods or motives, even when her methods and motives are highly questionable. In short, she is so eager to create a strong female figure that she isn't willing to risk her looking weak or stupid or petty, yet those qualities are necessary to inform a complete character. If Peter Parker wasn't a little selfish, Uncle Ben would still be alive. If Batman weren't obsessively driven, he wouldn't be Batman. Without any tangible flaws, Carol Danvers is just boring.

But this is all prelude... mere thesis to set the stage. Below is an in-depth breakdown of the first three issues in Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel run, beginning with her two-issue debut in Avenging Spider-Man.

Avenging Spider-Man #9-10

[Read here for $1.99 per issue]

The new Captain Marvel debuts on the cover of the Avenging Spider-Man, shielding the title hero from bulletfire while non-chalantly wagging her finger in matronly dismissal (as though she were dealing with silly children at play). The tone is set. Spider-Man is playing backup in his own book. This is reinforced in the first two panels.

The first line in the book is Peter's: "Carol Danvers! Wait up!" From the very first moment, Peter is playing second-fiddle to Carol in his own book. "You almost missed the free flight to Boston, Parker," Carol replies, briskly walking away as Peter runs to keep up. "Am I late?" he asks. "Yes," she replies. In the next shot, Peter asks, "Are you mad?" with genuine concern on his face. "No," Carol replies. "Really...? 'Cuz I'm pretty late. That whole 'Am I late?' thing was a ruse." Carol raises her sunglasses, smiles back at him, and says, "You're not going to get a rise out of me, Parker." Like any scene she is in, Carol is in control and everyone else orbits around her. She is Sherlock, he is Watson. He is there as her sidekick. He is there to make her look better.

The scene continues as Carol reveals her new small engine plane ("Bought and paid for her myself"). Even before going up, Peter is nervous and scared. He says its because he has no buildings around to swing on if he fell, but considering his lifestyle, it seems out of character. Maybe he's being self-deprecating as a joke to lighten the mood, but he doesn't have a punchline. He's just the straight man, setting Carol up for the joke.

Here Carol displays one of her two known personality traits. She loves planes. Its why she went into the Air Force. "I'll tell you a secret about me," she says. "I never understand my place in the world better than I do from right here. No alien tech, no magic. You pull this lever and that happens, plain old everyday aluminum, fiberglass and steel, and yet --- here we are -- flying." It's a nice line, and you get the sense that Carol loves planes in the way a sailor loves to sail. In a world of superheroism, where her life and her world are constantly turned around, she feels ironically grounded and human when flying a plane. Sure, under her own power, she can fly faster than any plane built by man (even into space), but that isn't the same. While this is humanizing, it makes her status as a pilot seem like quaint hobby... which works for this scene, but less so later on.

Carol then dares Peter to admit something personal about himself. In the shot, she looks disinterested... like she doesn't want to get to know him, but she wants to challenge him. The body language tell us that Carol is strong and confident while Spider-Man is flustered and awkward.

The scene is interrupted by a girl wearing a rocket pack flying by and nearly hitting their plane. This turns out to be a completely random encounter. It is an incredible coincidence given the vastness of the atmosphere and that they were not near an airport or anything like that.

The rocket pack is losing fuel. Carol declares she is going to stall the engine, to which Spider-Man replies "On purpose?!" Rather than trusting a colonel in the Air Force to fly her plane, Spider-Man freaks out and forces Carol to explain herself. This again raises her profile at the expense of his. Of course, if he's anything like me, he's seen pilots stall their engine in movies and on television all the time, so he should be aware that this is a normal thing to do in an emergency. Also, he understands physics and that you can stall a plane without immediately crashing into the ground. What did he think was going on? Did he think Carol was just suddenly suicidal?

He asks her why she doesn't just fly outside the plane and catch the girl. She replies that she'd have to catch both the girl and the plane. If she caught the plane, there is a chance she would bust right through it. Uh, okay... that makes sense, although I would expect her to have more control over her strength. Why can't Carol go rescue her and Spidey can fly the plane? He doesn't need a pilot's license. You don't need training to hold the plane level. And he only needs to do it for, what? 30 seconds tops? Pilots routinely invite children to do that!

So instead, Spider-Man walks out on the wing as Carol expertly pilots the plane just to create a contrived action moment. I've seen this mid-air rescue many times before and its considerably less interesting in a comic book, but it shows that Carol is a good pilot and Spider-Man follows her orders.

No sooner is the girl rescued than Carol is dodging missiles. A voice comes on the radio to inform them that they have interfered in the apprehension of a known felon. The voice identifies itself as "Blackbird Boston on the Zakim Bridge."... I don't know what that means. Is his name Blackbird Boston? Is the Zakim Bridge an actual bridge or just a weird name for some organization with authority over felons? Do pilots typically take orders from Blackbird Boston on the Zakim Bridge?

Carol responds, "Boston local, this is Captain Marvel. Garrison Alpha Mike Mike Three. Is there a temporary flight restriction on the Zakim?" A voice replies, "Confirming emergency protocol... Garrison Alpha Mike Mike Three, negative. No TFR on the Zakim at present."

This moment informs us on Carol's character. She does not reply to the man issuing the order, but rather checks with "Boston local." I don't know anything about piloting, but I'm guessing that means contacting flight control at the local airport. Or maybe the local military base? Still, it seems odd. Clearly she is deferring to a legitimate authority rather than trusting this organization she's never heard of, but what can Boston local really tell her? Shouldn't she know if there is a flight restriction before she flies there? "Blackbird Boston" also didn't say she was in restricted air space, they said she was interfering in the apprehension of a known felon. Also, why identify herself as Captain Marvel? Does that get her faster service? As an Avenger, isn't she empowered to arrest felons?

On a pet peave note, did your reading pace slow down at the Garrison Alpha Mike-- etc. part above? Writers often do this sort of thing to sound more authentic, but it really can ruin the flow of the dialog. In spoken dialog, it can work. A good actor knows how to just breeze through those lines with just the right pace and inflection. Its just a rhythmic sound that adds to the mood of a scene, but in a comic, it can often become tedious to read code, particularly when it is repeated... and it is. In this book and others. Eventually, my internal narrator just gives up and skips those parts of dialog. This can also happen when using foreign or made-up language (technobabble, alienese, or magical incantations). If it isn't fun to read, just don't do it. Find a better way to relate that information.

So even after hearing her declare herself as Captain Marvel, a giant mech on Zakim Bridge fires another missile at the small plane while "Rocket Girl" explains that Blackbird Security is a private agency "currently in cahoots with National Federal Bank in a plot against the American people!" Spider-Man asks, "National Federal? Are you a bank robber?" She proudly replies, "No, sir! I'm a cameralistic liberator." Spider-Man replies, "A what?" To which Carol interjects, "Cameralistic, of or pertaining to public finance... she's a bank robber!"

This is where the script broke me. While everything before this moment could be justified by promoting the character and establishing her strength within the context of being a pilot, suddenly we are to believe that she also has a stunning vocabulary. I'm not saying its impossible, but generally, I don't expect pilots to have a better vocabulary than brilliant scientists. I also don't expect them to produce dictionary definitions of a word I've never heard in my entire life. At this point, Carol is just showing off and DeConnick is clearly giving her any attributes or knowledge needed to do so.

In the next two panels, Carol continues to talk to Boston local on the radio. She says that she is descending on a bridge, but not why. The operator instead of saying "Don't land on a fucking bridge!" just says "Affirmative" and asks if she needs assistance. In these two panels, Carol's clearance code is repeated four more times. I might be able to forgive this nagging annoyance for the sake of authenticity, but the dialog itself is incredibly inauthentic. After repeating "Boston local, Garrison Alpha Mike Mike Three" she replies, "Affirmative. Someone is shooting at me! Suggest three-mile no-fly zone." Was that a joke? Is she joking? Why be emotional in the first line, then calm in the next one? I don't understand this character. Is she flippantly playing by her own rules, or is she a professional, by-the-books, career military woman? I don't think the writer knows.

Carol lands on the bridge as the mech yells at her, "Warning! You are under suspicion and will be detained! Warning!" Carol walks straight up to him, confidently, dismissively saying, "Yeah, yeah." She tackles him. He warns her again (even though she just hit him) and in response, she punches him. Only when the surrounding police (all men) turn their guns on her does she begin to talk. This whole scene just equates to posturing and threats that gradually expose the politics of the situation.

This moment, while immature, is not atypical in comics. I could easily see this scene happening with any number of male characters, but it still isn't good. By relying on violence when the enemy was clearly no real threat to her, Carol comes off like a thug, justified perhaps, but a thug nonetheless. While DeConnick makes an effort to fix the gender moral problems in superhero comics, she makes no effort to address the moral issues of superhero behavior. This scene would work much better if she effortlessly and non-violently tore off the armor around the pilot. It would actually demonstrate true power, confidence, mercy, and moral superiority... but instead, they went with the cheap action.

Also, I'm no expert on law in Marvel Comics, but it was my understanding that, after the repeal of Super-Hero Registration, Captain America became empowered to personally designate superheroes recognized with SHIELD authority and any Avengers automatically qualify. So doesn't that outrank a private defense company who has a contract with the mayor? Isn't there someone she can call about jurisdiction issues?

So the male cop calls Carol "lady" and gets reprimanded for it. "Don't you lady me, son. I'm an Avenger," she says. (Was he supposed to know who she was? She is wearing a new costume, after all.) He explains this situation is the result of budget cuts, so there is nothing he can do. Like most males in this series, he is powerless. The man in the mech suit shows his face and yells, "Got that, lady? I've got two kids and 15 grand in bonus money riding on bringing that chick in -- dead or alive -- and there is no penalty for body-bagging her accomplices--"

This short interaction shows the only two kinds of male characters in DeConnick's Captain Marvel: the ineffectual and the sexist. The ineffectual is a good man who is limited by his situation and defers to the power of Carol. The sexist is a selfish oaf whose every line serves to remind you that he is not only bad, but more specifically, misogynist. If this wasn't clear from his behavior, it is made clear with words like chick, babe, and bitch or with lines like "Come to papa..."

And why does he sound like Robbie the Robot yelling "Warning! Warning!" in the beginning but now he's more like Archie Bunker? And what kind of actual person would yell at someone "Warning?" None. That's who. No actual person yells "Warning!" when someone is running at them. That is what a robot does. An actual person says stop or halt or stay where you are. And, even based on that one line of dialog, we can tell that this guy is definitely going to say something more emotional than "warning." It like a completely different character before the helmut comes off, like he will just be whatever the writer needs him to be in that moment. Before, he was just a physical threat; now, he's an emotional one. Yet in both cases, he is clearly not a serious threat to either.

"Accomplices?!" Carol replies, apparently just now realizing the insinuation he's been making from the beginning. The sexist replies, "Could be for all I know! You're not a cop -- Hell, I don't even know if you're human." Carol begins, "All you need to know is--" But he interrupts her "All you need to know is I take my orders from the bank, the mayor and my girlfriend. And with all due respect, lady... I ain't into blondes." Apparently, that's the last straw, because Captain Marvel blasts him with an energy bolt, grabs him by the neck, and says "On behalf of blondes everywhere -- we're not so fond of you either."

*sigh* Where do I begin? This guy is not just bad, he's a total fucking moron. Does he really think his bank is a more legitimate organization for superheroing than the Avengers? Also, does he think he can fight an Avenger? Is he that delusional? Does he really think he can beat her up "because she's a chick?" That's not just misogyny, that's outright stupidity. Especially since he just fought her and lost badly. He's been shooting at her in a freaking small engine plane and hasn't even hit her. But more importantly, why did Carol shoot him in that instant? Is it because he objectified her or because he insulted her appearance? I assume it is the former, but either way, that's a terrible reason to hit someone. He is clearly not a threat to her. That was pure indulgence. She is just taking revenge. And the narrative doesn't admonish this behavior, it celebrates it!

Again, this is nothing we wouldn't see in a male lead comic, but that's kind of the point. The writer is deliberately trying to elevate the depiction of women, but not the depiction of the superhero. She gives her character all the visceral glory of hitting a bully, but then doesn't even question the necessity or efficacy of violence. A male character would at least have other characters trying to restrain him or tell him that he's crossed a line. Carol doesn't even get that because anything she does is justified by the misogyny of the world around her.

So then rocket girl (now known as "Robyn Banks") begins to rant like crazy, spewing the talking points of the Occupy movement in a gleeful pseudo-intellectual rant. Its hard to tell whether the writer is parodying the movement or not, but she has a clear motivation and a sympathetic spirit. While Carol is the hero, Robyn is the victim.

Suddenly, the sexist mech operator shoots Robyn, even though Captain Marvel is standing not two feet away. This shows remarkable incompetence on Carol's part. If he had insulted her shoes, she would have taken that fucker down.

Inexplicably, the energy blast causes Robyn to grow to giant size as the other mechs of the Blackbird Security force arrive to contain them all. "Anyone moves... you die!" they proclaim. Does that include the cops? Does private security have a license to kill that extends past their private property? What the fuck kinda contract did this mayor sign?

That is the end of the first issue. The following issue begins with Captain Marvel bickering with another guy in a mech suit who butchers common expressions like "We round 'em up, and we let somebody else sort 'em out."

Now giant Robyn begins flying into the air... despite her jet pack being broken only moments earlier. Spider-Man tries to follow her on a webline, but when he falls, Captain Marvel catches him like Lois Lane before firing energy blasts at Robyn. "Don't blast her! She'll grow!" Spider-Man warns. "I know!" Carol replies.  Spider-Man is confused but Carol confidently adds, "Wait." The rocket pack begins to sputter as Robyn falls to the ground. "How did you know the rocket pack would fail?" Spider-Man asks. Carol replies, "Aren't you some kind of genius? You'll figure it out." Spider-Man thinks about it then says, "Square-Cube Law! Of course! Nice. I didn't know you were into physics." Carol replies, "I'm a pilot. You want to stay in the air, you get into physics."

Spider-Man explains this concept loosely by rambling to himself later, but essentially, the idea is that when her size increased, the mechanics of her propulsion system no longer followed the laws of physics on that scale, therefore the rocket failed naturally. That makes sense... if you don't really think about it... because the entire concept of size changing does not make sense. How can you even breathe when the size of oxygen molecules have changed relative to the hemoglobin in your blood? Do the molecules that make up your body change in size? Because that doesn't really make sense. Molecules don't vary in size, at least, not much. Also, why does she change size when she absorbs energy and how does this even apply to her rocket pack?

More importantly, though, this is another situation when Carol looks smart at Peter's expense... and its in Peter's field of expertise! Now, I understand that pilots need to understand the physics of engine mechanics, but DeConnick really didn't need to write the scene this way. It only serves to needlessly diminish Peter. Would the scene have been any less effective this way?

Spider-Man: Don't blast her! She'll grow!
Captain Marvel: I know. I thought you understood physics...
Spider-Man: ... Square-Cube Law! Of course! Nice.

This way, Carol still has the idea, thus proving her intellect, but Spider-Man observes her actions and figures it out for himself instead of having her lead him to the right conclusion like a dumb ass.

So Spider-Man deduces that the size change has also made her rocket fuel unstable and she is about to explode. Not entirely sure how he knows that, but it seems to be related to the aforementioned Square Cubed Law. At this point, Carol has her first mature line of dialog in the story. Frustrated with the political stalemate, she says, "Look. I'm going to assume you learned to pilot that thing because at some point you wanted to help people. [Why would you assume that? He's a private contractor for a bank in a giant robot suit.] Maybe pay was a factor, and given your people skills, possibly a lack of other options [Because people just kinda fall into the "Giant Mech Operator" position?], but ultimately you wanted to be a good guy. This is your shot! Right now, there are a few thousand lives that need your protection. You don't have to like me to be a hero, Agent Adams.  Just be a hero." He stops talking, swallows his pride, and obediently turns around to do as she suggests just as Carol mutters, "Or I will pump enough energy into that suit to microwave your liver." He turns his head to look at her. "Did I say that out loud? Sorry. Blonde! Now go."

Again, I'm very confused by this dialog and consequently, the character. She humbly appeals to the man's better nature and, just when she has won, she throws in a threat that lacks even the semblance of humor. She says this to herself, but loud enough for him to hear. When he reacts, she makes a joke about being a dumb blonde, but then she follows that with an order. I guess she wants to make him mad because he's been a jerk, but I thought she wanted him to act like a hero? Does she care more about the situation or about winning the argument? She already shot him for the blonde comment. Does she really need to rub it in even after she got what she wanted?

Soon the bank lawyer (male, of course) shows up to tell Carol that Robyn is an artificial being and therefore bank property. This is when the third female character in this story appears: Shelly Godwin, the hip young grad student who designed the Robyn. The lawyer threatens to sue Shelly if she talks, but she does anyway. He asks her if her laptop is company property and she replies, "This is my personal laptop, Frank, and if you so much as breathe on it, I'll forward your entire email archive to your wife." Once again, in the world of this narrative, all women are nobly struggling in a world of angry, sexually-depraved men. Even the best male characters, including Spider-Man and the unnamed cop, aren't challenging anything. They are merely sympathetic toward the females of the story.

In the end, Spider-Man gives Robyn a noble speech before she decides to sacrifice herself. With hardly a word spoken, Captain Marvel hurls Robyn into space before she explodes. In the epilogue, Carol repeats her request that Peter tell her a secret, but he whispers it into her ear. Carol replies "Huh." Peter: "Not the kind of thing you were looking for?" Carol: "No, not even close." Peter: "Right. Okay. Well, I should probably go." Well what was the point of that? Do you realize that the point of foreshadowing is payoff? Was that ambiguity supposed to be some sort of payoff? Because I don't get it. Was that a joke or did you just not have an answer?

The final page features Shelly at her new job. On her computer it is revealed that Robyn survives in data form as she refers to Shelly as mother.

Captain Marvel #1

[Read here for free]

Following her "cameo" appearance in Avenging Spider-Man designed specifically to attract interest, Carol Danvers premieres in her new series wearing her new outfit. This takes place before the Spider-Man appearance, but it debuted after so I'm reviewing it that way. Avenging Spider-Man was just a tease, an appetizer; this is the main course. These days, Marvel puts the first issue of a series online for free to tempt new readership, so this should contain everything possible to draw in an audience.

Featuring a beautiful cover by Ed McGuinness, this unfortunately just draws attention to the awfulness of the art by Dexter Soy. I don't know who colored this issue, but it is embarrassing. Every page is filled with clashing colors and uninspired layouts. The best I can say is that it has a decent sense of pacing and there is a nice flow that guides the reader's eye effectively, but its the meat of it, what happens inside the panels themselves, all of that looks terrible.

Captain Marvel and Captain America are fighting the Absorbing Man who delivers the opening line: "Lucky me! If it ain't Captain America's secretary, Mrs. Marvel!" DeConnick does not waste time. She sets the tone from the start. This series is about Carol being underestimated and abused for being a woman. It was done twice in that sentence alone. He called her a "secretary" as though it were still the 1950s and that's all women do. And he also called her "Mrs." as if to imply that she should be married.  These stereotypes are from half a century ago! I'm not claiming to know what its like to be a woman in the 21st century, but this sounds like dialog Stan Lee would have written... and probably did.

While the scene is drawn as a fierce display of kinetic action, the dialog is flat and whimsical. Both heroes and villains exchange bad jokes that undermine any tension. Of course, the outcome is never in any doubt. Crusher Creel is tough, but either of them could defeat him. Together, he doesn't have a chance. This might not be such a big deal if this weren't the only real action scene in the comic.

In the heat of battle, Carol sees some civilians behind Cap who are in danger of falling debris. She screams, "Behind you! The shield -- NOW!" Confidently, Cap spins and throws with a curt, "Yes, Ma'am" as he saves two people. Creel shouts, "You lettin' the little missus give the orders now?! Wouldn't catch me gettin' bossed around be no broad." Carol replies, "This 'broad' left the service a full bird colonel. So technically, I outrank him." Cap replies, "I've been trying to get you demoted for years." Carol shoots back, "Don't I know it."

This brief moment has so many problems. Again, Creel can't say one sentence without it being blatantly sexist. He's so exaggerated that he isn't possibly believable. He isn't just sexist; he is an MP3 collection of sexist dialog set on shuffle. Second, if Captain America is just treating her like a soldier because they are both soldiers, he should have referred to Carol as "sir" instead of "ma'am" since that is military tradition. Third, DeConnick makes the point of saying Carol outranks Captain America. She is essentially riding Cap's coat tails while saying she is better than him. Just to underline this point, Cap makes a snarky, out-of-character joke about getting her demoted. Its clearly a joke, but it only serves to make Cap look petty and Carol look better by comparison.

Next, Cap and Carol make a bluff that would do William Shatner proud when Carol says, "Say, Cap -- what would happen if Creel were to get his hands on that shield of yours?" Cap replies, "No stronger substance on the planet... Why, I can't imagine how powerful he'd be... sir." While its nice to hear Cap switch to formal address (however inconsistent), hasn't Absorbing Man already absorbed Cap's shield before? Like a long time ago? Maybe more than once? I'm sure this isn't the first time anyone has thought of this, yet dumb old Crusher Creel never even considered this in the many times he fought Captain America?

Anyway, somehow this enables Carol to smother Creel with her sash. She says its "Stark designed and impermeable" which explains how it chokes him... but does "Stark designed" mean unbreakable? Does Stark design a lot of fabrics? And does a man made of rock or metal even need to breathe?

The next scene opens with Captain America trying to convince Carol to take the name of Captain Marvel. I find it a little strange that she has the new costume from the beginning, but not the new name. I'm not saying its illogical or anything, but usually they come together to symbolically represent them as a new person in the eyes of the reader. Carol is reluctant. She says "no" several times, but Cap insists. Carol replies, "Captain Marvel is dead, Steve. He was a good man and a real hero. Too many things were taken from him. I would take one more--" Cap replies, "His name wasn't Captain Marvel. His name was Mar-Vell. And I don't mean to be unkind here, but you took his name a long time ago." Carol is still reluctant so Cap presses the point, "Bottom line is this: You have led the Avengers. You have saved the world. Quit being an adjunct... Take the mantle. Unless you don't think you can handle it." Carol replies, "Wait. Did you just dare me?" Cap answers, "You're Air Force. It always works."

It's unclear why Captain America is forcing this issue. Why does he care in the slightest what name Carol uses? Is this more of a psychological thing? When he says "quit being an adjunct," is he saying that she has been acting like a sidekick or just that she is perceived as one? Generally, Steve has never cared about how the public perceives him or anyone else, so I don't think he would suggest the name as a PR stunt, but there is also no sign that she needed a psychological motivation.

I think they just had Captain America bestow the name upon her as the unofficial "king of superheroes." If Cap says its so, then no one may question it. This is a common strategy when passing the torch from one character to another. There is a tradition of the legacy superhero, and often the readers will reject a new hero as unsuitable to bare the name, but if an established character with unquestionable judgement were to approve the name transfer, then the audience would have to defer to their judgment as well. Yet rather than trust the audience to accept that Carol chose the name for herself on her own merits, DeConnick takes the easy route and it undermines her character. Rather than taking the name and costume on her own, they came from Captain America and Iron Man respectively. When given a chance to make a genuine feminist statement about the character, she instead falls back on the kind of tired, old writer's trick that created many of these problems for female characters in the first place!

The scene is followed by a quick sparring match with Spider-Man. Like in his own book, Peter is meek in the presence of Carol. When he notices her haircut, she says, "Tread carefully. I could vaporize you on a whim." Peter plays along with the joke and mentions how he doesn't want to be vaporized. He mentions this three times in four panels. Again, its out-of-character. Peter likes to joke, but he usually isn't so meek unless he's around someone savage and unpredictable like Hulk or Wolverine. Even then, he will eventually try to provoke them, because its in his nature. He acts afraid of Carol, but while she is definitely more powerful than him, she isn't prone to irrational outbursts. His meekness only serves to contrast Carol's strength and this is further driven home by the sparring scene where Spider-Man blocks Carol's attacks while wearing thick pads, yet still he winces in pain, shuffling back with each blow, all while Carol ignores the obvious pain she is causing him. These moments are all designed to make Carol look better at the expense of her more established and popular male counterparts, but they do little to convey any true strength on the character. So far, she hasn't faced any threat that she couldn't easily handle.

The next page begins Carol's first-person narrative as she rockets through the city and the atmosphere before entering space. She begins informing her backstory with first-person narrative exposition. Her heroes are her father and a pilot named Helen Cobb who broke fifteen speed records. "I'm not prone to envy," she says, "but those records. I envy those records. I can fly fast. Real fast. But these 'abilities' come at a cost. For one thing, I'll never be allowed to hold a record like Helen's. I can't compete. Wouldn't be a fair fight... It's a hell of a reward... but it erased what I loved most... the risk."

It's nice to know she isn't prone to envy. Just another flaw she doesn't have.

Of those two heroes she mentioned, we will see a lot of Helen Cobb, but barely a mention of her father. However, she also laments that her powers prevent her from competing for records. We've seen this before when superheroes love sports, but can't play them... Superman, Spider-Man, Rogue, Beast... but I don't understand why Carol misses flying so much... especially when she is currently flying much faster and freer than before. Does she miss the challenge of proving herself better than other non-powered people? Does she want to set records for fame? Because she's publicly known as Ms. Marvel. Surely that has to be more rewarding? Does she want to be inspiring for young women? Because, again, superhero. I just don't get why she is so obsessed with flying planes. It doesn't make sense to me. I understand why she was obsessed with it, but Hal Jordan doesn't spend all of his time talking about planes. Your priorities and interests should change when you get powers. Your old world should feel smaller, even if it was already pretty cool... because again, superhero.

But this scene is also the first to mention that Carol loves danger. She's an unapologetic adrenaline junky. And if you think that will lead to a major downfall and some intense character building, you haven't been paying attention. This is a flaw that isn't a flaw. It's like when an employer asks you what you think your flaw is and you say, "I think I just care too much about my work sometimes." She gets all of the motivation of a risk taker, but none of the self-destructive baggage.

As she reaches space, the mask option in her suit deploys. "One minute, fifty-eight seconds from Broadway to the end of our atmosphere. A new personal best." I have no idea how she knows this. Even if her mask has a digital HUD, she put that on halfway into flight, and she seemed to be thinking too much to count the seconds. As she reaches orbit, she muses more on her pilot idol: "I know that Helen would have given her entire world to be able to reach out and touch the edge of space. And I know she'd grab me and tell me that right here, right now, whatever the price I paid, it was worth it. Helen damn sure wouldn't stare into the face of eternity and think about what she'd lost. Helen would punch holes in the sky."

She suddenly begins to fall back to Earth. "It's a long way to fall," she says. "I hit the atmosphere at about Mach 3 [Again, how does she know? Can she feel it? Isn't it hard to tell with low gravity and few points of reference?]. The friction alone is enough to turn kinetic energy into one hell of a heat. I absorb heat. I consume it. The race is on. Cue adreniline rush. This... this is what 'lucky' looks like. Decision made... I'm taking the damn name." She flies into space as she takes off the mask to reveal her face.

So... why did she take the name again? Because... Helen wouldn't bitch about having superpowers? Because... she is lucky? Because... adrenaline? Isn't this an important plot point? Only moments ago, she strongly disagreed with Captain America.. but because he doesn't think she should be an adjunct... or because she had a pilot role model... or because she likes danger... she should be Captain Marvel. Its not even like she explains this more later. That's all we get.

And what was with the mask? I might think it was for traveling in space, but it doesn't cover her nose and mouth. More importantly, she takes it off at the end when she flies into space. So, why did she put it on at all? Just because they thought it would look cool? It's only on for a couple panels. Explain shit! Don't just try to look cool, because it isn't. This is three pages of exposition! You could spare a sentence to explain the fucking mask... unless you just don't have a reason.

The next three pages introduce us to Carol's cranky old roommate, Tracy, who has cancer and likes to say things like "I'm freezing my balls off." She is clearly supposed to be a loveable crank, but they seem to have left out the "loveable." She is bitter and rude to anyone who helps her, even though everyone treats her very kindly. She seems like a familiar archetype but usually that type of character is funny or threatening like Lou Grant, Blind Al, or J. Jonah Jameson. We are introduced to them in stages. First they are mean and rude, then they are vulnerable and sympathetic, then they are mean and rude again.  In a single scene, we've established that Tracy is mean, rude, vulnerable, and sympathetic... but it all feels rushed and it is explained through clunky exposition and bad jokes.

The scene ends with the Daily Bugle headline reading: "New Captain Marvel! And He's a She!" I know the Bugle is famous for sensationalist headlines, but that looks like it was written by a 3rd grader.

The next two pages flashback to Carol being introduced to Helen Cobb by her kid brother and the following two are at Helen Cobb's funeral as Carol releases her ashes into space. There is nothing all that remarkable, positive or negative, in these scenes, but the book is strangely balanced. After the superhero fight and identity crisis in the beginning, the last seven pages of the book consist of morning coffee, a drink at a pilot's bar, and a funeral. It just kind of quietly meanders until the end.


Unarguably, this comic is a feminist text. This isn't to say it represents feminism as a whole, but rather uses the issue of female empowerment at its core. But while feminism typically teaches that women are as good as men, the narrative of this title awkwardly and insecurely insists that Carol is better than men... even the best of them. Not only in some ways, but in all ways. The script does not concede any weaknesses to her character and her motivation is explained only in the admiration of an Amelia Earhart knockoff who serves only to set up the next story.

If I may defend my gender for a moment, I don't mind DeConnick having a feminist viewpoint, but I do have a problem with her representation of misogyny. It seems to be grounded in old cliches and juvenile expressions. It lacks any nuance or subtlety. There is plenty of legitimate sexism in the world, but DeConnick's heavy-handed approach is beyond parody. The world she creates is a paranoid feminist fantasy that has little resemblance to the genuine problems of gender politics. Every male character is either a blatant, one-dimensional misogynist with a host of related character defects or they are meek, "enlightened" males only used to show the female characters in the best possible light.

Now, its entirely possible, even likely, that this is a deliberate choice. Women were abused as plot devices for male characters, so turn about is fair play, right? But male writers were never doing it intentionally, and good male writers weren't doing it at all. And many of your readers weren't reading those unintentionally misogynist books, so exactly who is benefiting from this depiction? This just has the tone of a book written from spite... and that might even work for an independent title, but not for the mainstream. You can't afford to alienate half of your possible readers on a mainstream title, particularly when those people took a chance on an unproven title just because they wanted to support female character and/or writer. As a male reader who likes to support more strong female characters, I just felt insulted by DeConnick's broad and self-serving approach to gender politics. I think men deserve better, I think women deserve better, and I think Carol Danvers deserves better.

It cannot be argued that Kelly Sue DeConnick is a woman in a male dominated industry, an industry that frequently objectifies women and manipulates their character in service to a male lead. Likewise, the new Captain Marvel is a female superhero in a genre where few women ever achieve sustained success.  That's what makes DeConnick's approach so depressing to me. By making feminism the central issue, she is asking us to judge both Carol and herself the same as any man. In doing so, I expect her to find the core of the character, find truth in vulnerability, and build organically from there; DeConnick didn't. I would expect a leading character to have strong motivation, a complex personality, and an interesting environment; Captain Marvel doesn't.

In fact, I don't see any evidence that DeConnick really tried. All I can see is that she clearly wanted to fix a lot of the problems with women in comics and show strong female role models. That's well and good, but as far as priorities go, the story should always come first. Characterization and plot need to take precedent over social engineering. And if you can't depict your social agenda with complex, multidimensional characters in an honest world, then it is just empty propaganda... and that doesn't help anyone.

Friday, June 7, 2013

10 Recommendations for Marvel's Leading Superheroines

Its no secret that women are underrepresented in comics. While there are many great female characters in supporting roles and team books (even in lead roles), there are far fewer capable of supporting their own titles.

In a team book or as a supporting character, you only need to help advance the story, playing a small role in an overall team dynamic. However, a lead character needs compelling personal motivation and a personality well-rounded enough to keep readers coming back for more. It also doesn't hurt to have a place to call home, some friends, and a personal life. These are important details that are either missing or poorly developed when most supporting superheroes begin their own ongoing series.

To survive competitively as an ongoing title, these women will need to create the proper context to showcase the most compelling aspects of their character. It isn't easy to do. Regardless of gender, creating the proper context for your characters is a sublime art that sometimes takes years to develop, and that's time you don't have in the modern marketplace.

However, I think Marvel can create successful ongoing female lead titles if they just find the right character and build the proper context for them. Below are some of my recommendations:

Captain Marvel

Potential: Highly recognizable, great costume, military background, diverse connections throughout the Marvel universe

Problems: Lacking strong motivation, generic power set, history of victimization and dependency

Enemies & Allies: Kree, Mystique, Rogue, Mar-Vell, Wolverine, Starjammers, Avengers

Recommendations: Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes cast Carol Danvers as both superhero and agent of SWORD, similar to Captain America's arrangement with SHIELD. I think that makes sense with both her powers and background. Also, placing her in the role of Earth's first line of defense against alien threats to Earth gives her a unique place in the Marvel universe. Working with SWORD would give her an interesting supporting cast that could consist of aliens (like Mantis) or other unusual creatures (Vision), offering the advantages of both a team book and a solo series. I would build up to a conflict with a Kree to connect to Carol's origins and explore their culture in more detail. Although Carol has a history of victimization and dependency caused mostly by poorly executed stories, this could be a source of strength in the story if you are willing to explore her self-destructive nature and fears of inadequacy or abandonment.


Potential: Strong motivation and origin story, espionage

Problems: Un-spider-like powers, no actual connection to Spider-Man is confusing, bad costume

Enemies & Allies: HYDRA, SHIELD, Lindsay McCabe

Recommendations: Experimented on by her father and given to HYDRA as a superhuman spy, Jessica Drew works best with her back against the wall. Created by deceit and manipulation, she should live in the shadowy, fugitive world of superhuman espionage. Contacted by SHIELD to act as a freelance, unofficial agent, she works with minimal support to investigate superhuman experimentation and terrorist organizations, sent to investigate superhuman threats before they can become Avengers level catastrophes. However, the deeper she gets into her work, the more she suspects that she might not be working for SHIELD at all.


Potential: Highly recognizable and respected, interesting powers, African, thief, claustrophobic

Problems: Lacking strong motivation, has little identity outside of the X-Men

Enemies & Allies: Shadow King, Forge, Yukio, Black Panther, Morlocks, Adversary, X-Men

Recommendations: Ororo has a lot to draw on through the death of her parents, her days as a thief, being worshipped as a goddess, joining the X-Men, claiming leadership of the Morlocks before their slaughter, and marrying the Black Panther. Unfortunately, her nobility and lack of relateability are impediments to supporting her own title. I would team her up with Yukio, the free spirited Japanese thief who ignited Storm's original mohawk phase. For her arch villain, it only makes sense to use the Shadow King, the first villain in her life who essentially enslaved her. He could attack her where she is most sensitive, through Forge, Black Panther, and the Morlocks, drawing Storm through some of her most painful memories while simultaneously informing the reader to her backstory (while avoiding the context of the X-Men). Considering how adrift the character has been and the bad decisions she has made (namely marrying Black Panther), it would make sense if she lost her confidence and needed time away from the X-Men and the Shadow King took advantage of this moment to get back at her. I would also relocate Storm to the X-Men's briefly used Australian base to call back to her original mohawk days, include the mutant teleporter Gateway as a spiritual guide, and just to evoke that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome iconography. Maybe Storm could even become an Australian national hero.


Potential: Interesting power, highly popular, dark and mysterious past

Problems: Power is no longer out of control, phonetically reading her accent can become tedious

Enemies & Allies: Mystique, Gambit, Brotherhood of Mutants, Magneto, X-Men

Recommendations: Rogue has long been a victim of circumstance who has learned to redeem herself through the X-Men, even leading her own team on several occasions. We know that she was raised by Mystique and Destiny, and that her power first manifested when she kissed a boy, but we've been given very little insight into that experience. It would be interesting to know what it was really like for her growing up with two mommies who were also international terrorists training her to be the same. When she was first introduced, Rogue had no reservations about using her power, so it would be fun to see that Rogue... one who is constantly borrowing a piece of other people's individuality. I would like to see a story that brings Rogue into a confrontation with a victim of her terrorist activities, perhaps someone seeking revenge. This could convince Rogue to personally atone for some of the mistakes she has made and, at the same time, find a new direction in life. Just avoid bringing Gambit into the story; that sleezeball brings her down to a Twilight level of insipidness.


Potential: Ninja, highly popular, interesting power, diverse connections

Problems: Convoluted backstory, lacking distinct personality

Enemies & Allies: Kwannon, Spiral, Captain Britain, Slaymaster, Jaime Braddock, Archangel, X-Men, the Hand

Recommendations: With a backstory as complex as Psylocke's, I think the best approach is to embrace the absurdity as a motivating factor in the story. I was always a fan of the original version of Betsy, so I would bring back her bodyswapped Caucasian counterpart Kwannon (particularly because she was blind at the end and a blind psychic is a cool idea). It could be the work of her omnipotent and insane brother, Jaime. The unnerving part is that Kwannon (who insists on being called "Betsy") has revealed to Psylocke that their original minds are re-establishing themselves. Kwannon has forgotten most of her martial arts skills and Betsy is forgetting details of her childhood in England. The difference is that, due to Kwannon's tragic background, they would both rather be Betsy. [Naturally, this could get confusing fast, so you would have to resolve the name issues quickly. Maybe call them Betsy and Liz...]

Black Cat

Potential: Thief, great look, popular, strong backstory

Problems: Lacking strong motivation, frequently plummetting neckline

Enemies & Allies: Spider-Man, Kingpin

Recommendations: Thieves can be difficult characters to write in a superhero books because they are either anti-heroes or Robin Hood-type altruists. As a hero, Black Cat would be fairly generic, but if someone like the Kingpin were to blackmail Black Cat, she could return to the life of crime by stealing from SHIELD, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, thereby sinning in a manner that cannot be easily forgiven. The trick is finding the right McGuffin. Perhaps someone she loves is taken hostage or there is special information she can't get anywhere else. It should be something that drives her. If she is burning her bridges in the superhero community, she will be a fugitive, but that is just the threat. We also need a goal.


Potential: Great look, simple but compelling powers, great for heavy action

Problems: Lack of identity outside of X-Force and Cable

Enemies & Allies: Cable, X-Force, Copycat, Deadpool, Mutant Liberation Front

Recommendations: With luck powers, Domino seems like a good character to explore fate and freewill, particularly since her ex-boyfriend is a time traveler from the future. Perhaps Domino is told of a horrific fate that's destined to occur and with her luck powers, she is uniquely skilled to prevent it... even though she is told that is impossible. Since Peter David's X-Factor is almost over, if Layla Miller is still available, she could play the oracle who is trying to use Domino to avert the Days of the Future Past timeline. It might start off with some very practical attacks on anti-mutant hate groups and mutant terrorists, but Layla begins to ask Domino to do hurt innocent people without clear consequences based on what will happen in the future. Essentially, they are trying to knock down the dominos before fate can get there first.


Potential: Great look, strong iconography

Problems: Generic mythological entity

Enemies & Allies: Thor, Asgard, Defenders

Recommendations: Simply put, Valkyrie is Brunnhilde of the Ring of the Nibelung cast into the world of Thor. It would be fun to take the traditional silver age Thor backstory of being cast in mortal form and use it with Valkyrie. Without a mortal counterpart, Valkyrie doesn't have much to ground her, but if average woman Barbara Norris were to suddenly discover that she was a Valkyrie, drawn inexorably toward death, it could be a very interesting series. Although initially resisting the macabre pull of the dead, she comes to have sympathy for the deceased and takes pride in both comforting the dead and avenging those who deserve it. At the same time, the reason for her resurrection into the mortal world is a mystery to her and, though she is certain it is the work of the gods, she does not know if they are friend or foe.


Potential: Great costume, compelling backstory

Problems: Unrecognizable, powers are somewhat confusing

Enemies & Allies: Thunderbolts, Moonstone, Baron Zemo, Genis-Vell

Recommendations: Of all the reformed criminals of the Thunderbolts, Songbird has always been the one who showed the most potential of being a true hero and she seemed destined to become an Avengers. However, the story of the Thunderbolts has always been a tragic one and their downfall has repeatedly taken her down too. It would be interesting to see her at her lowest, confined to a superhuman prison ("Jailbird" or "Why The Caged Bird Sings") while Baron Zemo and Moonstone run free. Although initially she had intended to serve her time, she soon realizes that she has a life sentence and no one cares about her time as a hero... except the other inmates. Realizing that redemption can only come from within, Melissa decides to break out of prison and with the help of her old teammate, the Fixer, she sets out to bring Baron Zemo and Moonstone to justice.


Potential: Powerful magic user, tragic backstory, dark alternate personality, popular

Problems: Complicated backstory

Enemies & Allies: Belasco, Colossus, Storm, Kitty Pryde, N'Astirh, Madelyne Pryor, Darkchylde (herself)

Recommendations: Illyana has always struggled between her kind nature and the horrors she experienced in the demon realm of Limbo. Struggling to be the hero Magik, she has often succumbed to her dark side by transforming into her demonic counterpart, Darkchylde. Although she has tried to find a home with her brother in the X-Men, she keeps bringing the evil of Limbo back to her to threaten her friends and family. It would make sense for her to leave them all to learn how to control herself and overcome the pain of her childhood. Provided he is not otherwise engaged, I would have Illyana study at the foot of Doctor Stephen Strange. Not only is he the foremost expert in magic, but he is also a doctor and she is in desperate need of healing. He could guide her on a journey through the mystic realms that could considerably develop this side of the Marvel universe.

Honorable Mentions

These characters didn't make it to the list because I honestly couldn't think of a solo series concept that they could support. Usually its an issue of poor motivation or lacking the right context for their character, but in the right hands and with the right concept, I believe these characters could all lead their own successful title:

Black Widow, Hellcat, Phoenix, Jewel, She-Hulk, Wasp, Elektra, Mystique, X-23, Shadowcat, Banshee, Echo, Emma Frost, Crystal, Tigra, Daughters of the Dragon, Firestar, Dazzler, Namora, Jubilee, Shanna the She-Devil, Rescue, White Tiger, Mockingbird, Mantis, Monica Rambeau, Scarlet Witch, Polaris, Sersi, Moonstar, Clea, Surge, Blink, Diamondback, Snowbird, Spitfire, Nomad, and even Squirrel Girl.