Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Sunday, March 28, 2010

War Machine 1 & 2 Graphic Novel Review: Military-Angst Complex

The Jist: When James " Rhodey " Rhodes was a lower-middle class black boy growing up in South Philidelphia, expectations for what he'd grow up to be were low. But as an adult, Rhodey's been a decorated US Military hero, the private pilot and bestest boyfriend of Tony Stark, a substitute Iron Man for years, and eventually his own armored hero as War Machine. Now, rebuilt with cybernetic parts after being blown up on a mission, he's a literal machine. And as his name suggests, he wants to declare war-- in this case, on every petty warmonger on the planet.

The Crew: Greg Pak ( writer ), Leonardo Manco ( artist Vol. 1 and issue 8 ), Wellington Alves, Mahmud A. Asrar, Allan Jefferson, R.B. Silva, and more( artists vol. 2 )

The Verdict: To start with, I want to say that War Machine's redesign for this series may be the least inspired costume design I've seen yet. Not the worst, mind you, but the least original and unique-- it's basically a greyscale Iron Man with an assload of weapons hanging off his back. Which is the most exact description you can give of War Machine's looks, but I would have liked to see a bit more thought than " Iron Man with attached 90's style armament porn ". He looks like a robotic version of Big Shot, the Punisher spoof from the Tick cartoon who carried a huge box of guns on his back and fired at anything until he ran out of bullets, in which he'd start sobbing about how his mother didn't love him. Re: A SPOOF character, not appropriate for a comic that takes itself seriously.

Of course, there are a lot of things I would have liked to see from this series that I didn't. That description of Leonardo Manco's War Machine design describes how I feel about the book in general-- it's not_that_bad as a whole, but it's definitely an underperformer, especcially given the quality of the creative team.

The central problem with this comic is that it's trying for a balance of real-world commentary and Marvel Universe exploration, and doing it in a very sloppy fashion. This is most obvious in the first trade, where Rhodey takes his cyborganized body to several Marvel Universe third-world military juntas to kill all the " real " bad guys. I'm not terribly opposed to seeing guys who torture and kill innocent civilians getting a bullet in the head, but these are a shamelessly superficial rendition of real-world despots. " Santo Marco " is not Columbia; it's the country Marvel writers use when they want to say something about Columbia ( or other South American nation torn apart by civil war ) but don't want to bother researching the complexities of real-world Columbian politics. So they bring in Santo Marco with its endless supply of two-bit genocidal thugs, and have Rhodey try to solve the country's problems by killing every person with a " kill number " ( something that his cyborg operating system attaches to everyone he sees, based on how many deaths they've willfully caused ).

If you're wondering how flying in to cap warlords in the head is a heroic action ( or even one with any long-term benefit; is the word " power vacuum " even in Rhodey's databanks? ), it's not. Greg Pak has called his approach to this series " Iron Man meets the Punisher ", but he's still playing Rhodey as a sympathetic character, one who is trying to do the right thing, even justifying it by talking about how his cybernetic brain won't let him even temporarily forget every murder and rape he's witnessed. Except that the Punisher isn't a sympathetic character, and especially since Garth Ennis got to him, he's been portrayed as a monster who happens to point his bullets at other monsters. Ennis' stories with the character, especially the ones where he was involved in real-world struggles ( most notably the Irish civil struggles of Ennis' own background ), never suggested that Frank's solution was the right one or even a right one.

Also worth noting about Ennis' real-world commentaries in the Punisher is that he didn't bring in other Marvel characters to make them-- his Frank Castle existed in an independent space, and whenever superheroes wandered in, they were embarrassingly ill-equipped to deal with it. Rhodey, on the other hand, is dealing with military juntas, tribal genocides, and frequent rapes in the Marvel Universe. In Santo Marco, one tribe uses a hacked Sentinel to genetically weed out and kill members of the other tribes. In Aquiria ( a.k.a Marvel's ersatz Middle Eastern theocracy ), he's fighting a private military contractor named " Eaglestar " using appropriated tech from the alien robot Ultimo. And in the opening strip from Marvel's website, Rhodey fights a Roxxon ( a.k.a. Marvel's ersatz corrupt oil conglomerate ) executive trying to eliminate Inuit tribes from ideal drilling space with cyborg bears. Pak wisely knows to have occasional asides from the characters where they recognize how absurd this shit is, but we're still getting world politics shoe-horned into the Marvel Universe in a manner that can't be taken seriously-- and when you have open acknowledgement that one of the female characters was beaten and raped by prison guards, following with a dramatic entrance by Ares, Greek God of War, seems horribly inappropriate.

If I seem overly upset with this comic, I have to admit that part of it is because I really like Jim Rhodes as a character, and think that everything I like about him is absent here. When Rhodey debuted as Tony Stark's best friend, he was a perfect and immediate fit because he offered an intrinsically human counterpart to Tony's ubermensch futurism; he was Wilson to Tony's House, down to the unfortunate enabling of Tony' addiction. As the substitute Iron Man and even as the ( unfortunately named ) War Machine, he was a likable character, because he was a hero as a soldier long before he met Tony, and wearing Iron Man armor was a right that he genuinely earned. His conflicts came from the fact that he was deeply uncomfortable with making the kinds of hard moral decisions that Tony has to make on a regular basis-- but all of that's absent here. He can't appear in regular human settings because he's a disfigured cyborg, but if you're wondering how much his condition lowers his quality of life ( and from the looks of it, his new body has all the " armament " of a Ken Doll ), we don't get any answers. All we know is that he's ugly, he's mad, and he's taking it out on everyone his databanks give a kill number. Quite the character reduction.

To the War Machine creative team's credit, the book improves dramatically with the second and final collection, when Rhodey sets his sights on Norman Osborn and his Dark Reign. It doesn't become great, mind you, but it develops the makings for an enjoyable mid-tier superhero book. The supporting cast is expanded on, bringing a " Team War Machine " together from various Iron Man supporting characters, including Rhodey's mother. The opposition is shifted from one-dimensional takes on real world monsters to Norman, and while it's hard to ever believe that the substitute Iron Man is going to be the one out of all the heroes to take Norman down, the guy's scenery-chewing brand of theatrical villainy is always entertaining. And while the art team shifts from Leonardo Manco to various fill-in pencillers and inkers, that actually works to the book's benefit. Manco's dark, gritty style was great when he was working with Andy Diggle on the urban fantasy Hellblazer, but his more realistic rendering only served to illuminate how ridiculous the stories were. The more conventional superhero art the later teams offered played well to the series' tone.

But as they said about J. Edgar Hoover's attentions to the economy-- too little, too late. The book's first arc was an obnoxious throwback to the worst parts of 1990's comics*, and readers picked up on that. It's luck that let War Machine last a whole year, and even with the character getting a big push thanks to Iron Man 2, it may be a while before Rhodey gets another solo series. On the plus side, Pak started the series by showing that Tony Stark had cloned Rhodey a fresh body, and ends it by transferring Rhodey's mind there. No longer a scowling, trigger-happy eunuch, War Machine is in a position where a new creative team can do something really good with him.

While there are some merits to the series and it picks up in the second half, overall it was a failed experiment that left a bad taste in my mouth, so I'll have to give it a Not Recommended.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How To Write Autistic Characters ( With Examples From Ruby's World )

Much has been made of the " autism epidemic " in the media, either as a consequence of more precise diagnostic methods, or some overblown, unsubstantiated consequence of vaccination poisoning. As a result, autism has become a more frequent issue in fiction, be it the popularity of the novel " The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time ", the recurring Aspie kid Max on the new family drama Parenthood, an autistic man being the main character i the movie " Adam ", or Jodi Picoult using autism as set piece for her latest legal family melodrama " House Rules ". There are certainly more examples to recite, especially if we factor in isolated episodes of procedural shows ( like the episode of House where the doctor has a lower-functioning autistic boy as a patient, and it is speculated if House himself has Asperger's-- though it's later concluded that he just wishes he did so he would have an excuse for being an antisocial jerkass* ).

Unfortunately, most of these portrayals of autism as the hot topic for fiction forget to develop one little part of the situation-- the individual with autism. Many of these stories focus on the families of the autistic character as tragic figures, giving their all to function for a developmentally stunted morality pet. The autistic character, on the other hand, is displayed by the Rain Man stereotype, having talents that are portrayed as math genius parlor tricks, and being completely ineffectual in every other area. Rarely do you see autistic characters as major players, and if you do, it's often as a storytelling gimmick.

For example, Jacob Hunt in House Rules, the autistic boy suspected of murdering his social skills tutor. In this story, we see that Jacob is obsessed with criminology to the point of watching the same Crimebusters episodes over and over ( and always taking notes as if he didn't know how it would end ), obsessed with dinosaurs, a genius with computers to the point where he can do Hollywood hacking, incapable of eating foods that don't suit a corresponding day/color combination, repetitively listens to the Bob Marley song " I Shot the Sherrif ", incapable of understanding human emotions, incapable of lying ( except in the case of sins of omission ), incapable of understanding non-literal idioms, uses movie quotes to express emotions he can't communicate, and is prone to catastrophic meltdowns. Certainly real people on the spectrum would show one or more of these characteristics, but not all of them at once. This is like having a Jewish character who's a thrifty greedy neurotic hypochondriac devout Kosher sarcastic Hollywood executive. And it's certainly not helped by the fact that Picoult's other characters all spout extremely narrow-minded opinions about autism that are confirmed by Jacob's existence.

But Jodi Picoult and her ilk don't seem to notice that, instead perpetuating the notion of the autistic people themselves being helpless victims, with their families given martyr status ( despite the fact that Jacob's mother, as many critics have wisely pointed out, has infantilized him to the point where he never even had a chance to function independently ). Since the positive representations of autistic characters, especially those written by autistic authors, are so few and far between, I'm taking it on myself to write a primer on how to write autistic characters as actual characters. The examples are from my webcomic Ruby's World which has two prominent autistic characters in the ensemble cast, and an overall disability rights message. I use examples from my own work being specific only to this particular topic, because there's so little material that would offer a positive representation of autism in fiction**, especially by creators on the spectrum.

Here are the five simple rules that I hope are obvious...

1.) Don't Get Hung Up On Labels

There are plenty of words that are used to describe autism spectrum disorders. These are mostly fine as diagnostic criteria. They are, however, extremely poor at describing a person in their entirety. Unless you want a flat character like Jacob Hunt, writing a character with autism requires going past the stereotypes and thinking of what other characteristics they have-- or, at the very least, to portray the stereotyped behaviors associated with ASDs in a unique way.

The two autistic characters in Ruby's World are Jiro Sasaki and Alexis Deveraux. Both are science fiction characters who portray the " Organic Android " Trope ( Defined well here by NightStorm ), but do so in unique ways. Jiro is the mechanical side of autism, as a cybernetically enhanced being, but he's completely aware of his condition and often bemoans the limitations of his computer brain ( mostly due to internalized prejudice, the belief that he can't move past his label ). Alexis represents a more organic side, a hyper-empathic character with psychic abilities that defy explanation, even in a world of genetic engineering and nanotech-- her issue is with not fitting into any category, and feeling isolated as a result ( she's also bi-racial, with no idea who the non-white father is ). It should also be noted that while I intended both characters to be autistic, I didn't confirm either as being on the spectrum right off the bat-- it took me until Chapter 9 for Jiro, where it just slipped out in a conversation.

Language is inherently limited, but that shouldn't prevent you from stretching it as far as it can go to make a character seem three-dimensional. I should also note that if you do write a story with autistic characters, you shouldn't feel the need to mention every aspect of the condition, especially the vaccination debate ( as it suggests that the anti-vaccine side has a leg to stand on )

2.) Acknowledge the Character's Feelings About Their Condition

Just because autistic people tend to be very internalized doesn't mean they aren't aware of what they're " missing ". In some cases, the internalization may make them even more likely to dwell on their challenges. Characters like Jacob and Christopher Boone in the Curious Incident tend to be portrayed as so emotionally cut-off that they have almost no idea how their actions come across, or even enough self-awareness to associate feelings with their responses. Unless your character is extremely " low-functioning ", they're not going to take being autistic for granted, not when they're reminded of it via the challenges they face every single day. And even if they are " low-functioning ", just because someone can't communicate doesn't mean they don't have something valid to say, especially when it concerns the way they're being treated.

In Ruby's World, Jiro is a unique case because though he has always been autistic, he used to be on the " lower-functioning " end ( As seen in the backstory ). Thanks to some medical testing he volunteered for, he was upgraded to a bio-mechanical body, and his abilities far surpassed normal humans. But he still has all the experiences of being treated as disabled, and still maintains his old personality ( right down to the nervous tics as a stress response ). He's got a lot of bitterness about his condition, which is entirely justified; just because he's able to catch flies with his fingers doesn't mean he forgot about the time when his coordination was poor, or the way people treated him.

Autism is a neurological condition, but disability is a social construct. And even a person who can't read others well is going to pick up on being treated as persona non grata. If you're the writer, you have the opportunity for them to voice their dissatisfaction.

3.) Connect Their Problems To The Basic Human Condition

The worst stereotype seen in fictional autistic characters is the Oblivious Sociopath, the character who has so little understanding of human society that they can't tell right from wrong. House Rules presents this, and while it doesn't actually make Jacob the murderer ( he was covering for his brother, the one and probably only saving grace of that wretched book ), it still establishes him as someone who doesn't think about his motivations and their ethics, living simply for rudimentary human needs ( made worse by him being portrayed as unable to take care of himself ) and a steadfast adherence to routine. We don't get much about what Jacob wants to do with his life, we don't hear him talking about any plans to better himself, and only in extreme cases do we see him show sympathy for anyone else.

Just because it's hard for someone to understand and express the basic emotional needs that human beings have-- love, acceptance, success, honor, etc.-- doesn't mean that they aren't there. I use this scene from Ruby's World where Alexis is talking to her friend Jens about the notion of them having casual sex as an example-- she isn't really thinking about the consequences such an act would have, and expresses it just as a pragmatic release, but is responding to her need for connection. For a person on the spectrum, the problem is often that they want what other people want, but they're comparatively ill-equipped to acquire it from others.

The metaphor of autistic people being space aliens is a commonly used one, but that implies a completely different nature, so much so that they don't even belong to the same species paradigm. A better one might be to think of an autistic person's brain as a Mac, with the neurotypical brain being a PC-- same basic principles, but different architecture that often but not always leads to compatibility problems. ( This would also suit the " thinking in pictures " trope associated with autistic people, and why I've always felt more comfortable working with the interface-heavy Macs ).

4.) Do Not Treat Them As Saints

For anyone who gets the impression that I want to read about, and thus write, infallible characters on the spectrum, nothing can be further from the truth. My tastes in fictional characters tend towards the damaged, the characters who have problems and make mistakes on a regular basis. Just because a character is autistic doesn't mean they're not responsible for their actions. Everybody will act favoring their impulses over their conscience now and then ( though some more than others ). Autism may make certain impulses much harder to control, but to treat a character as helpless to their compulsions is just as wrong as treating them as being inherently selfish and irredeemable for having those compulsions.

This grisly scene involves Jiro and one of the main villains, Pierre Buzarde'. Buzarde' has just savagely attacked Jiro and Ruby ( the star of the strip and Jiro's girlfriend ), and they barely managed to fight him off. Now that he's had all his bones broken, the heroes need him for evidence against Beagle Labs and their vivisection, but that doesn't mean he's going to be treated humanely. Jiro stopped Ruby from killing Buzarde', but he's not going to stop himself from torturing the bastard. What Jiro did is best left to your imagination, other than the fact that it was extremely painful to Buzarde'. And while it was something Buzarde' certainly had coming, it was an unethical act. That Jiro is autistic doesn't excuse it; it's just spite, something that people on the spectrum and neurotypicals all feel.

Perfect characters are boring. Portraying a character in a minority group as being flawed has its risks, even if at the end of the day they're basically a good person. But if your story is safe from controversy, it's probably not worth the effort.

5.) There Are No Rules For Writing Autistic Characters

While this may seem like a cop-out, it's a basic summary of the previous four points, in that writing an autistic character shouldn't be any more exotic than writing any other kind of good, engaging, three-dimensional character. If you're writing an autistic character, you certainly will be informed by real-world diagnostic criteria, but if you're doing a good job you won't be using the DSM-V as your only reference. Racial, cultural, gender, and even neurological backgrounds only go so far. The rest is up to the writer to do something creative and sympathetic.

I close with the following panel from Ruby's World, with Jiro and Ruby in the heat of passion...

Ruby isn't autistic, but she is nine-foot-two-inches and two-hundred-seventy pounds of genetically engineered super-weapon, and no stranger to hardship herself, so they are able to understand each other well. Which I think as a good metaphor for the most important task of the writer; being able to humanize a character from a different background by relating your experience to theirs.

* ( In a note related to the comic-reading audience of this blog, I should mention that Reed " Mr. Fantastic " Richards of the Fantastic Four was speculated as being autistic in Grant Morrison's mini-series 1234. He fits the criteria excellently, and he would be a positive representation of an autistic character if he achieved the diagnosis-- a superhero, a genius surpassing even other Marvel geniuses, and a man capable of being a loving friend, husband, and father despite taking the absent-minded professor trope further than his cosmically-irradiated body can stretch.

A recommendation would be Elizabeth Moon's excellent sci-fi novel The Speed of Dark, about an autistic man who actually does subject himself to an autism cure. Possibly the best treatment of the subject in genre fiction yet.

Friday, March 12, 2010

From The Author: Freelance Pet Blogging at YeePet.Com

In the strange space known as " real life" , things have been going well for me lately. For one, I completed all my requirements for my MA in English. For another, I got a job writing for, a nice community site about animals and their people. If you love animals, you might wish to check it out Here. ( And if you don't love animals, you don't have a soul, so don't talk to me until you receive a gypsy curse. )

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How To Do Superhero Costumes Right: Hawkeye

With their costumes, superheroes create an easily digestible image of their character, what they're trying to say, and why we should care about them. In this way, the costume is a microcosm of the superhero genre in general, something that is inherently outlandish and will come across as either completely ridiculous or completely awesome to an audience. The clothes don't make the man, but for the spandex set they're a strong contributor-- Aquaman's long-tarnished name has not been helped by the fact that his iconic look is a scaldingly orange goldfish shirt. At the same time, Naruto ( a Japanese comic character who is very similar to a superhero ) is a ninja in a scaldingly orange jumpsuit, who has made it work in a capacity that not even Tim Gunn could have forseen.

With June's Hawkeye and Mockingbird series, artist David Lopez gives us a good example of how to do a superhero costume right. Clint Barton is a character who really relies on his clothes for his look-- he has no powers beyond his skills with archery and hand-to-hand combat, and most super-villains aren't going to be intimidated by him. At the same time, he needs a costume that's convincing as something he'd wear in a fight. Lopez gives us a design that shows a lot of thought, with the following traits--

* The classic Hawkeye color scheme and mask. The winged mask draws attention to his eyes ( and being " Hawkeye ", that's kind of important ), while the mix of blue and purple has become Clint's traditional colors. Clint is one of the most brash, ballsy-to-the-point-of-stupidity members of the team, and the fact that he's a manly man in purple cements this. It's a garish scheme, but he sells it. He even has a loincloth ( albeit one that is shortened so it doesn't look like he'd trip over it )

* The chainmail armguard. Since Clint relies on archery, it's important that the design call attention to it. So the arm he uses to grip to bow has extra protection, and gives a bit of interesting asymmetry.

* The quiver. The quiver is a flat shape that holds to his back in a nice diagonal fashion. The bow also folds conveniently inside the quiver, in a feat of design brilliance-- it all works. There are also some small wrist pouches for custom arrowheads, nothing

* The wrist cross-bow. I'm not sure this is entirely necessary, but it's a nice touch-- if Clint loses his bow, he can use the little wrist darts to maintain some semblance of effectiveness.

There's a lot of thought to function as well as form here, and it looks convincing while maintaining elements of the character's history. Easily the best Hawkeye costume he's had yet-- certainly better than his angst ninja look.

( EDIT: Somebody has reminded me that much of the design was taken from Olivier Coipel's Hawkeye design pre-Disassembled. Lopez stills deserves credit for the wrist-mounted dart-launcher and the foldable bow, but the armguard design is the invention of Coipel. My apologies ).