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.