Doctor Strange was pretty good!

(Mild spoilers herein, but no spoilers for the ending or major conflict.) As hard as it is to pay attention to anything but our new Russian overlords, I actually have done a few things besides fret about politics and bug my reps in the past week. Like hang out with my dad in Manhattan and watch the new Marvel movie Doctor Strange. The character of Doctor Strange was my first exposure to Marvel comics, and I still have a soft spot for him, and the latest movie was far more fun than I had any reason to expect.

I am still annoyed that Oded Fehr didn’t play Strange (a common fancasting on tumblr), and thought that maybe switching Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting would have made for a more interesting movie. I’m still not sure what to think about casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. The Ancient One in the comics is a bald-faced Asian stereotype–the inscrutable zen master–and it was pretty cool to have all the men in the movie looking up to a woman instead. On the other hand, the world does not need more white-washing.

I was also not thrilled about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange because while I think he is both charming in interviews and a good actor with more comic chops than he’s usually allowed to show, he is a bit typecast as the arrogant jerk whose arrogant jerkiness is valorized because he’s good at his job (House, Sherlock in the new incarnations, a million cable news dramas), but the movie undermined that and taught him humility and how to be less of a jerk. Critics have said that Dr. Strange is a low rent Tony Stark, but I think this is a far different character and story than that. When has Tony Stark ever learned humility?

The movie has a low-grade humor that reminds me a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy, and a high-grade weirdness that reminded me of what Inception could have been, had it been more truly about dreams and less of a heist movie. The humor, though, really helped sell it for me. This movie has a goofy premise, and the humor keeps it from feeling too portentous. Perhaps the writers made it funny on purpose to avoid it being unintentionally funny–whatever the reason, it worked, and made this odd world seem more lived-in.

They also remade the character of Wong, another Asian stereotype (this time the pidgin-speaking, totally loyal servant) into a good character in his own right, who is in no way subservient, or even serving, Strange. Rachel McAdams was also wonderful as Strange’s former love interest. She evinces a lot more self-respect and understandable reactions than female love interests often do in Marvel movies. I love me some Pepper Potts, but in the first Iron Man movie, she’s fairly foolish about Tony, and Jane Foster in the Thor movies is cartoonishly silly sometimes. McAdams’s character gets hilarious reactions to the bonkers stuff going on around her that don’t diminish her in any way.

The weirdness in this movie is so great. Fairly early on, The Ancient One forcibly sends Strange on a vision tour that is incredibly trippy and unsettling. CGI often makes movies feel sterile to me; this used CGI to do things that are mind bending and impossible.

There is a fantastic fight scene between a powerful villain and Strange when he is still very much a beginning sorcerer that is so much better than, say, a fight between Iron Man and Captain America, for one because you are actually rooting for one of them, and, more importantly, because the character you’re rooting for is over-matched.

I liked how this movie provided a reason for a wise sage to want to train the arrogant former surgeon who barely believes in magic. It’s not out of the goodness of her heart. In too many stories, jerks find their teachers and their teachers mold them into better people out of the goodness of their hearts, or because, as we’re told but rarely shown, the jerk has a heart of gold somewhere under his prickly exterior. Instead, the Ancient One trains damaged people with nowhere else to turn, making them into her army that holds back chaos and destruction. She doesn’t save people because they deserve it, or save them at all. She takes people who have no other meaning, and gives them meaning so they will serve goodness.

The movie was not without its problems–some pacing issues, and some personal transformations that felt vague or un-earned. Still, it was better than it had any right to be, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m hoping Doctor Doom vs. Doctor Strange: Triumph and Tragedy, one of my favorite super-hero comics of all time.


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Gods and Themes

Last night I finished reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, the second book in Divine Cities series. This, along with the previous book, are some of most interesting, sophisticated fantasy novels I have read in the last few years. Speculative fiction (and historical fiction too, really)  is at its best when it uses its fantastical or otherworldly elements to explore a real world problem. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite examples of this. Vampires, magic, curses all serve different purposes, but, especially in the first three seasons, they always explored the problems of growing up. Buffy’s status as a Slayer stood in well for a teenager discovering that she’s not who she’s always tried to be, who her mother and her peers want her to be. When Angel’s curse makes him turn evil after they sleep together, that is a heightening of the more prosaic drama that many teenage couples enact.

Bennet’s series proposes a world that used to have gods in it, but doesn’t anymore. An oppressed, enslaved people threw off the yoke of their oppressors, and in the war, killed the gods that kept their oppressors in power. In the first book, Bennet used the death of the gods, and the artifacts they left behind to explore the uses and abuses of religion. He tackles the problem that an involved, powerful deity can’t escape being a villain, at least to someone. If a god helps your sports team win, then he’s helped someone else’s fail. A god that does not fall into this trap has to cease to be a god entirely.

In the second book, Bennet explores war and violence through the aftermath of the death of the goddess of war. Different characters approach the uses and necessities of violence, what justifies it, if anything, and how civilized societies can and should use it. This exploration is very powerful–perhaps even more so than the first book, because our protagonist is a retired general who has committed atrocities in her past, and who can hardly live with those memories. She embodies one aspect of the cost of violence, as other characters do in different ways.

Mike Carey’s Lucifer series of graphic novels is one of my other top fantasy “novels.” In this series, the titular character, Lucifer, has abandoned hell, and is forging his own path. He is an uncompromising and mostly, but not entirely, inhuman character. The books explore Judeo-Christian and other mythologies, and invent new ones, while Lucifer rails against a problem that even a being as powerful as him cannot escape: a person cannot be his own creator. Lucifer cannot stand the fact that God created him and gave him a purpose. He cannot stand the idea that everything he is comes from his creator.

This is a totally different, yet still incredibly fruitful way of using the idea of gods and an all-powerful creator God to tackle the central problem of growing up and establishing one’s self as an adult. If Lucifer cannot escape his creator, who can? Sometimes I look at my life and the ways that I am like my parents, shaped by the things they showed me as a child, and think that I have not fallen very far from the tree, though I went farther and deeper with the ideas they gave me than they ever could have imagined. Who knew that D’Aulaire’s book of Norse mythology would take such root?

At the same time, it explores the question of whether a literal, all-powerful God can exist and not be a villain (theodicy) in a very different way from Bennett’s work. Lucifer shows, more than once, what happens when a creator gets too involved with their own creation–it is even more dangerous and destructive than not getting involved at all, and so an all-powerful God must be very remote.

Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite (and one of the most profane) writers on writing, and I very much agree with his statement that theme is what gives a work of fiction staying power. I agree with his definition too, that theme is the book’s central statement. What it is trying to say. City of Blades says, explicitly and implicitly, that the only just way to use violence, to be a soldier, is to use it in the service of greater good and expect no great rewards in return. To be a servant, who does the terrible things that are necessary sometimes to protect. Lucifer says that no one can be their own creator–and no one can escape their origins entirely.

If theme is well-realized, it grounds every conflict in a piece of work, whether the conflict is specifically about that theme, as most of them are, or serves to illustrate, in this case, the cost of violence, the cost of making a stand on one side or another of the argument.

I also agree with what Wendig says about theme being a statement, not a question. So far I’ve begun my works with a question, but by the end of this trilogy I will have answered it. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Either it will come through or it won’t.) Theme can be hit too hard, but a work without a theme, or with disorganized approach to its theme will not come together. Speculative fiction gives writers the opportunity to explore themes in a more literal way than the internal struggles of real-world fiction do. I hope one day to write speculative fiction and try my hand at it as well.

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Loving comics (and other “bad” things)

There have been some pretty dumb posts going around lately about whether you should be ashamed of reading YA, (recap at the New York Times). The answer, in my opinion, is no. You should not be ashamed about anything you read. If you’re bored, or feel stuck in a reading rut, branch out. Read widely, read happily, read intellectually, read emotionally, read to experience lives that you would not otherwise get to experience.

An aside: when I was in college, I witnessed the accidental death of a friend and housemate. For about a year after that, I couldn’t watch violent movies, and I started reading Oprah’s book club selections. They ran the gamut from “easy” fluff to much more literary offerings, but what they all had in common was that they took human dramas–including violence–seriously. It was what I needed, when I felt like the world around me refused to take seriously this terrible thing that I had witnessed.

Books are medicine, entertainment, uplifting, thought-provoking, and sometimes silly as hell. Never more than comic books. There are graphic novels like MausPersepolis, and Fun Home that are literary novels as much as any non-illustrated books. There are graphic novels that start in the land of common super heroes, but have something different to say, like Watchmen by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books.

And there are there are super hero comic books, still going strong since they were invented in the first half of the last century, still showing us larger than life heroes and villains and super-powered people in between. Sometimes they tell subtle stories, but sometimes they do not, and I always love them, more or less. Here are some reasons:

1. They are shameless. I remember putting down an X-men book from the 1970s and realizing that it contained: an American and a Canadian team of mutants, an alien (maybe? never super clear on that) named…wait for it…The Corsair, who was the father of one of the mutants, shamanic magic warring with other kinds of magic, gods from several pantheons, alternate dimensions, alternate universes, space travel, and domestic drama, all going on in one 15-page comic. No idea is too crazy or too mundane for super hero comics. As long as there is drama, it belongs.

2. The physiques. Not particularly the 1990s style with muscles everywhere like cancerous growths, but a well drawn body in spandex doing something athletic? I love it. Give me male and female power fantasies, and I’m happy.

3. The drama. And the self-dramatizing. This is more of point 1, because there is no aspect of comics that is not shameless, or soaked in drama. Everyone’s drama is the MOST DRAMATIC. The pain is the worst! The betrayals are the deepest! The love is the strongest! Comics are soap operas in spandex, with magical powers. Fortunes reverse on every page. Everyone sleeps with everyone. No one is ever permanently dead.

4. The humor. The best super-hero comics never forget to include some kind of humor. It makes the drama easier to take. From quips to fourth wall breaking to slapstick to dark and twisted humor, super hero comics usually know not to take themselves too seriously.

5. The visuals. I am someone who likes movies, but who definitely appreciates them on a narrative level more than on a visual level. It takes someone pointing out things like the color scheme of Pacific Rim for me to get it. But comics let you take in the visuals for as long as you want, to see the beautiful compositions, the interesting things done with color and perspective, the visual jokes. The last 15 years of comics have showcased some extraordinary artists (pencillers, inkers, and colorists). I’ve opened two page spreads and had my breath taken away. Comics artists are profligate with their beautiful creations, almost giving them away at $3 per issue.

And finally 6. it is a unique and complicated sort of storytelling. It does remind me of oral traditions, how cycles of tales were built up over centuries around Greek heroes, Norse heroes, the heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but it is more directed and less organic than that. Though canon is reset from time to time and alternate universes exist, there is also attention paid to interlocking story lines, to universe or even multiverse wide events. The writers are given a huge canvas and many players to work with, but it is not infinite. The stories have to stay within certain lines dictated by characters and by the world-wide events. Sometimes this can feel stifling even for the reader, but the scope and ambition of it, and the coherence of it is rather impressive as well.

I do understand why some people don’t read comics. They are SILLY. They are childish. They can feel simplistic, and the soap opera aspect can grow repetitive.

But they are also a fascinating medium, a medium best suited, I think, for grand, dramatic, visual stories. Super heroes are like heroes and Gods from our old pantheons. They have to do everything big.

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Little Yellow Boxes: Why Deadpool Is Awesome

After She-Hulkmy next favorite discovery in Marvel Unlimited is Deadpool, specifically, at least so far, the Deadpool of Cable and Deadpool, which title teams him up with a mutant from the future named Cable, who has a messiah complex. Cable wants to make the world a better place by any means necessary, and he has the power to do it.

So the plot conspires to throw them together, and I get to meet Deadpool, one of Marvel’s weirdest creations. He’s an expert mercenary, a gifted fighter with any weapon who came out of the Weapon-X program, the same one that grafted all that adamantium to Wolverine’s bones. Deadpool got Wolverine’s healing factor, which coexists with a cancer that is trying to kill him, leaving his skin incredibly scarred. Like many Marvel characters, he’s the victim of torture at the hands of evil scientists. (The ratio of evil scientists to good scientists in the Marvel Multiverse is, like, 100:1. Sorry, Mom.) His healing factor means his brain is constantly rebuilding himself, which makes him crazy. Bonkers. Also immune to telepathy.

He never shuts up, which is one of his superpowers, because he annoys the hell out of his opponents. And like my beloved She-Hulk, he breaks the 4th wall. He knows he’s a character in a comic book. His 4th wall breaking is of a different flavor than She-Hulk’s. While the entire She-Hulk comic has in-canon references to comics and comics tropes, and She-Hulk complains about her portrayal in comics written about her, Deadpool seems to know that he is a character in a comic, not that there is a comic about him that coexists with him in canon, but that he himself is a character. Or he’s just bonkers. But like many jesters, he sometimes speaks the truth.

It seems like most of the characters in Marvel’s stable have some sort of tragic back story. Some turn it into heroism, some turn it into villainy, but Deadpool’s reaction to it, to be crazy, is one of my favorite. His life sucks. Without his mask on, he’s pretty physically unattractive to most people, and even with his mask on, he’s annoying and unhinged. He wants to do good, but often he can’t get his brain together enough to figure out what that is. His banter is  hilarious, and he makes fun of everyone, but in the hands of his best writers, that comedy is the funny icing on a rather tragic cake.

He’s one of the most interesting characters because the thing that stands in the way of him getting what he wants: mayhem, doing the right thing, friends, is usually himself. His healing factor means he can’t die, which means gross things happen to him. His personality makes him difficult to get along with. He and Cable were an interesting partnership because Deadpool, in his weird way, believed in what Cable was doing, and Cable liked to be believed in. Cable was a king in need of a hyper-violent court jester, and Deadpool was that jester. Cable, perhaps, saw Deadpool as someone that, if Cable could win Deadpool over, and make him better, make him use his powers for good, then Cable could do that for the whole human race.

Because Deadpool is extremely human, for a super-powered Marvel character. He does terrible things for the right reasons, and good things for the wrong reasons, and blunders around, not knowing what he’s doing, with inconsistent logic, going on flawed instinct more than reason, and annoying everyone while he does it. Doesn’t get much more human than that.

And Cable and Deadpool is funny as hell. I may have undersold that by talking about how much I like the pathos inherent in Deadpool’s story, but it has hilarious juvenile humor, offbeat humor, and intelligent brilliance.

But the character walks a difficult line. He is crazy. He does awful things. He’s cruel to people. He doesn’t always see people as people rather than entertainment. He’s violent and nearly immortal, and when super heroes do have to deal with him, they try to contain him, or point him in a helpful direction. When villains have to deal with him, they usually find that using him is more trouble than it’s worth. Because of that, I think he’s hard to write well. Or, the version that I really liked, the specific balance weirdness and whimsy and humor and violence and pathos and gross-out moments that Fabian Nicieza wrote for Cable and Deadpool is not the balance I find in other titles, and so I don’t enjoy them quite as much. They’re still funny, but missing the underlying reason for the humor that made Nicieza’s series work so well for me.

Comics fandom is challenging that way. Since characters are nearly immortal, the world is so sprawling, and the writers so varied, it can be exciting to see a new writer take on your favorite characters and bring them somewhere unexpected. Or it can be challenging to watch someone take characters in a direction that doesn’t work as well.

Oh well, Deadpool. We’ll always have the little yellow boxes.

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She-Hulk is the Best and I Will Tell You How

SheHulk_COVER_IN_LIVIN_COLOR_by_BroHawkI’m graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing MFA program in a few days, and as a present for myself, I bought a subscription to Marvel Unlimited with the plan to read Marvel comics and nothing else until my eyes fall out. I’ve been reading great and wonderful literature for two years, and it’s time to have some fun.

So I was reading all the comics I’ve always meant to read, the famous Captain America arcs, Joss Whedon on The Astonishing X-men and I decided I needed fewer dudes, and more lady action (though Joss’s X-men had a nice selection of ladies and I will write about how I love Emma Frost later). Enter She-Hulk. (2004-2009)

All I really knew about her was that she existed, but what I discovered was my favorite super-hero to date. Of course, part of why I love her is that I am a tall muscle-y lady, and she is a tall muscle-y lady, but there’s so much more than that. Jen Walters, She-Hulk…I will just have to list all the things I love about the comic (minor spoilers):

  • Look at that picture! Look how she’s drawn! She and all the other women in the comic are usually drawn in power poses, not sexy, ass and boobs poses.
  • She is strong and loves to kick ass, and she is also gorgeous and feminine. Not that a big strong woman has to be, but it’s nice that she can be both, that her strength and ass-kicking are never shown as something that makes her less than a woman.
  • She’s not a rage monster like Bruce Banner. As She-Hulk, she is less inhibited than in her human form, but she’s not out of control.
  • She has sex with a lot of the hot dudes of the Marvel-verse, while being taller than all of them, and complains about the double standard, but it’s never shown to be a bad choice. For a little while she decides not to hop into quite so many beds while she figures out why she’s doing it, but then she bones Hercules, because they like each other and she wants to.
  • It’s playfully feminist and wonderfully 4th wall breaking. There’s a whole subplot about the comic-book archive at her law firm. People complain that things are so crazy, “It’s like every time I come in I overhear someone saying, ‘Weren’t you supposed to be dead?'”
  • And when She-Hulk is briefly a member of S.H.I.E.L.D., she’s on a team with a Life Model Decoy (lifelike robot), the scantily clad Agent Cheesecake, trained for combat and seduction. Then when She-Hulk leaves the team, she’s replaced by the virile LMD Agent Beefcake, also trained for combat and seduction, who makes the dude leader of the team veddy uncomfortable. Heh heh heh.
  • Romance is important in the early arc, and there’s an interesting storyline about how much people should change for the people they love. Then women friendships become very important in the later arcs, which is also wonderful. Both types of relationships can and should be important.
  • Jen, She-Hulk, begins as a lawyer, which she loves, and has spent all of the comics grappling with how to be a super hero and a lawyer (or some other things), and what kind of super hero she wants to be. She’s not tortured, she’s frustrated, by the world’s injustice, and by the limitations of what she can do, even as a super strong fighting machine.
  • The comics don’t neglect potential real-world conflicts of being a super hero who causes a lot of destruction. There’s a moment when Jen’s in jail and talking to her cellmate, who has had a far worse life than her, and they commiserate, and it’s poignant and wry and wonderful. And then the (female) cellmate grabs her ass as their both leaving, because when is she going to get the chance again? To which Jen says, “Okay, but the next one’s gonna cost you.”

I could go on and on. I love comics. I love the brooding and the world-ending consequences and the bottomless tragedy, but I love even more She-Hulk’s lighter touch. Everything doesn’t have to be doom and gloom all the time. Jen is an optimistic, wonderful, ass-kicking lady, who makes mistakes and grapples with her place in the world, and we should all try to be more like her.

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