Ruby Nation

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Drax Isn't Autistic, And Applicability Isn't Enough

I assume that the readers of this blog, like most of America at this point, has seen or at least heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy. I also assume that readers of this blog, like most people on social media within some sort of fandom, have seen this widely circulated post about how a fan's autistic little brother connected strongly to Drax the Destroyer, as he also had difficulties with figurative language. This is a heartwarming vignette in microcosm, that a boy who has difficulties relating to people found solace in a superhero character who also has difficulties with metaphors (albeit due to his species and not his neurology). In macrocosm, unfortunately, it means little for representation of autism in popular fiction and only serves to underscore Hollywood's exclusion of difference, except on carefully controlled terms.

Because while Drax the Destroyer may have similarities to autistic spectrum traits, most notably his inability to grasp metaphors but also his restricted interests; his abilities in battle can be best described as savant-like. Unfortunately, none of that was intentional. In the movie*, Drax is an alien from a species who, like most alien species in fiction written by human beings, has a very restricted civilization with limited diversity of personality. A lack of figurative language is apparently universal across his species, and in the movie it serves as little more than a running gag. Drax no more represents an autistic experience than Groot represents a nonverbal experience, because both are completely fantastical characters who only connect back to real disability experiences if the audience is actively willing to apply those experiences to the characters.

The boy mentioned in the post was able to make the connection because Drax's quirks overlap substantially with his own life experience. The majority of people without autism (including those who have autistic loved ones; would the boy's sister who made the post have made the connection if her brother hadn't brought it up first?) would just see Drax as a big green dolt with some funny lines at his unwitting expense. Other people with autism might also not connect Drax's experiences to their own; I certainly did, even though I completely understand the desire to see other autistic people in fiction (and have even speculated about some characters being on the spectrum). It's incredibly unlikely that Drax would've adapted as an autistic character for this movie, and even if he were, he probably would've manifested as the usual stereotypes of the nerdy and physically incapable savant, who represents a constant burden on his loved ones. He likely would not have gotten any meaningful character development**, such as Drax's admission that his desire for revenge was ultimately just a cover for his grief over the death of his wife and child. An explicitly autistic character probably wouldn't get a wife and child in the first place, instead swearing vengeance for a long-suffering mother or a destroyed model train or any other stereotype that only reflects a disinterested outsider's willfully shallow understanding of the autism spectrum experience.

Of course, that's the larger problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe; even if it has diverse characters, it's still subservient to the Hollywood Narrative, and demands a straight, white, male, and neurotypical star. Dave Bautista proved in this movie that he's a talented actor as well as an imposing physical presence and MMA fighter, but they wouldn't make him the protagonist of a movie that cost so much to make and was advertised so thoroughly. They'd probably be even less likely to put him in the lead if he weren't covered in green and red paint, and instead appeared as his mixed-Filipino-Greek self. Same goes for Zoe Saldana's Gamora, a Dominican actress whose biggest roles were as a blue elf giantess and as a green alien warrior***. The Marvel Studios movies may have had strong results by casting unlikely choices, but the movies, like the comics before them, still started with all attractive white guys. It might've been a strange casting choice to have Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation (a.k.a. Chris Pratt, a.k.a. BERT MACKLIN, FBI) as Peter Quill, but it was a million times more likely that they'd cast Chris Pratt than Aziz Ansari****.

There's still a clear heirarchy of what the producers funding these multimillion-dollar special effects orgies will allow. Handsome white dudes first, women and racial minorities second if at all, disabled characters never (unless as villains). They think audiences are willing to accept raccoons and trees as star characters before the physically and/or mentally "infirm". If audience members with disabilities identify with those characters, bully for them, but it's not going to make a green alien brute anything more than a green alien brute for the rest of the world-- least of all for the people actually making this stuff.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, and I should be grateful that we even got this little story doing the social media rounds. Perhaps that's just the way representation works, that baby steps are all that can be expected from media aimed at a wide audience. You don't get to complex and sympathetic gay characters like Hulkling and Wiccan before you do the heavy-handed " Northstar is gay and is yammering on about AIDS" story, just like you don't get to Chris Claremont's powerful and alluring Storm before you get years of Stan Lee's***** useless, weepy female love interests. But social media has, for better or worse, made conversations of representation and privilege much more relevant now than they've ever been. And at some point, when real life gives you enough shit and the fiction in which you would normally find solace now appears all too complicit, you just gotta say-- Not. Good. Enough.

* Yes, I'm aware that Drax in the comics is a human spirit placed in a powerful body like Thanos, but that's not really relevant to the films. Just like Thanos in the comics is Jim Starlin's avatar of Freudian themes in love with a literal personification of Death, instead of a generic Big Bad who's yet to actually dirty his own hands.
** In so far as the movie had character developments. As a film, it's extremely predictable, and the humor is its saving grace. Similar to the Pirates of the Carribean films, the absurdist nature of the humor and the talents of its cast are all that stand between it and banality, though at least GotG has more to rely on that one Johnny Depp.
*** Yes, I'm also aware that Saldana was also Uhura, as well as Columbiana, Aisha from the Losers, and plenty of other roles that don't involve explosions, but my point still stands.
**** I would pay so much to see Tom Haverford as Star-Lord. Aziz Ansari has the "Small Name, Big Ego" character down to a science.
***** Edited because I've been aware that Stan Lee did write some great female characters as well, such as Medusa

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Of Course The Cripple Is Evil: Iron Man 26 Thoughts

In the latest volume of Iron Man written by Kieron Gillen, it was revealed that Tony Stark is actually adopted, picked up to play the public role of the Starks' child while the real son of Howard and Maria was in hiding. This is because that boy was genetically modified in vitro by an alien super-intelligence to be a super-genius behind a new intergalactic order, but resultantly ended up with an irreparably damaged respiratory system and had to be kept in seclusion. That boy grew up to be Arno Stark, who's recently come out of hiding while still requiring life support to keep his lungs working (be it a literal iron lung or an Iron Man exoskeleton).

Many readers guessed that Arno would end up evil. The name is a dead give-away for any Marvel history fans, given how the previous Arno Stark was the evil Iron Man of 2020. There's also the long tradition of villains being handicapped or otherwise deformed, because of course people who look or function differently are the Other and are cast under suspicion. There was some hope that Arno would end up being a nice guy, since he seemed pretty amiable and he even referenced the "Evil Cripple" trope when talking about his reticence over becoming a public figure like his adoptive brother.

These hopes were dashed in the latest issue, when it was revealed that Arno was working on a new serum of Extremis. Yes, Extremis, the super-deadly biotech serum that weaponizes human beings, and often makes them monsters. The kind that temporarily infected Tony's body, saving his life and boosting his performance as Iron Man (as well as giving him wacky super-powers like mind-controlling satellites and healing from injuries to the point of being able to reattach a severed heel) but also driving him mad with the traumatic flow of new information, to the point of entering fugue states where he talked to "ghosts". And the kind that Tony's tried to eradicate in this very volume, seeing its grotesque potential for misuse even by people with good intentions.

It's possible that we're meant to sympathize with Arno, because of Extremis also has potential for beneficial medical applications. But all that potential means nothing given the circumstances, such as...

1.) Arno isn't doing this to help other people. He's doing to help himself, so that his lungs can be fixed and he can live without external support. Never mind the fact that his external supports give him far more capability than most people, since he's at least as smart as Tony and builds his own powered suits. He wants to be cured, even if he has to use a super-deadly monster-serum to do it. Basically, he's using Curt Connors logic. 

2.) Arno has no real identity outside of being a genius and being disabled. We don't really get much indication of Arno's thoughts and feelings beyond what the plot demands. Even though he spent most of his life in seclusion, he could still think, feel, and dream. Even without an exoskeleton that gives him mobility, he's got all those capabilities. But we don't get to see those capabilities, because all we get from Arno is what he does with Tony Stark, and now what he's doing to undermine Tony Stark. The hints of Arno's life outside technology and envy of working lungs, such as his interview with ultra-leftist reporter Abigail Burns, are only told and not shown.

3.) "Magical" sci-fi cures tend not to end well. This may be so common it's become cliche, but there's a reason writers don't often write stories where there are pills that can fix all ailments. Fiction is the place where people, creators and audience alike, work out their anxieties and achieve a meaningful catharsis. Sometimes it's the place where people hide from reality and go straight to escapism, but certainly Kieron Gillen is a savvy enough writer that he wouldn't just go with "Arno uses serum to fix his lungs, succeeds in doing so, then uses serum to fix world, and creates a Candyland Utopia where nobody feels bad".

Some have criticized this mentality as anti-progress and anti-science. Certainly that's a result of the bizarrely static nature of the Marvel Universe, which has to remain similar to our reality and can't allow the super-scientists to radically change our infrastructure. But the implications of the alternative are much more troubling. If this form of super-science solving everything is a reflection of a desires, that means we see a world of easy answers. Where every problem has a solution, and those solutions can be universally applied across all kinds of problems. Where we get to see the happy ending while skipping past all the hard work and tough decisions needed to get there. Where we trust that we can take a pill to make ourselves happy and healthy, and not have to worry about the side-effects. And worst of all, where we see being infirm and disabled as something that has to be completely eradicated, and can't comprehend the notion of people being okay with the way they are (or at least being okay enough with their disabled lives that they wouldn't risk their lives on a potential cure. I'm not downplaying the challenges that come with physical and mental disabilities; I'm saying that they AREN'T fates worse than death, the fate that gives you absolutely no other options. They're certainly not worse than "dying" by virtue of turning yourself into a monster and losing all sense of self).

 Arno says he wants to use Extremis as a universal cure, one that can be applied to all medical problems. Arno is confident that he can work out all the bugs, even though no previous scientist has done so. Even if he does avoid that particular consequence of his hubris, Arno's still making himself the authority on what should be cured and what shouldn't. Perhaps Arno will decide that homosexuality is a disease that needs to be cured? Perhaps he'll decide that darker colors of skin should be swabbed away by Extremis? And perhaps when people such as Tony Stark, a man whose adult life has been defined by physical and mental weaknesses but hasn't let that stop him from doing the right thing and avoiding the easy way out, oppose Arno's mentality, he'll decide to use force because his will is more important than anyone else's?

I know that it's a slippery slope argument, but by all accounts Arno's slope currently is devoid of any and all friction. I sincerely hope that the next issues will prove me wrong.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Response To The Michael B. Jordan Fantastic Four Casting

In response to the news HERE, though the Michael B. Jordan casting was known well before it was finalized today.

I do have misgivings with the castings (namely that Sue Storm was cast as Kate Mara, a white woman, when there are plenty of talented black actresses that have a harder time getting work and would've looked more like Jordan's sister), but the inevitable, often-racist shitstorm that comes with changing the race of 1960's characters for film is usually entertaining (if depressing) to watch. Especially when it's related to the Fantastic Four, a book that has struggled to be interesting and relevant ever since Jack Kirby left the book, barring a few standout periods (such as Byrne's run and the Waid/Weiringo stuff). 

Friday, January 17, 2014

I Got Issues Comic Reviews for 1/15/2014: Velvet, Miracleman, Amazing X-Men, and Ultimate Ultimates

Another week, another stack of comics (though unfortunately I couldn't find a copy of Voice in the Dark #3).

AMAZING X-MEN #3: The art by Ed McGuinness is an absolute dream, full of excitement and energy in every panel. The story is at this point mostly an excuse to give Ed McGuiness exciting things to draw. It's a Jason Aaron X-Men comic, which means it's full of wacky high-concept stuff first and characterization second. The interactions between the characters are perfunctory, especially with the obvious character shipping (and the revelation that Nightcrawler and Storm have always been in love with each other, and didn't Aaron just pair her up with Wolverine? Either she's polyamorous, which I wouldn't mind, or pairing her up is the most interesting thing Aaron has planned for Ororo, which I would seriously mind)At least this doesn't have any overbearingly wacky stuff like the 12-year-old Hellfire Club (literally the most annoying team of villains in Marvel history, from my perspective at least), but it's still a comic about the X-Men joining Nightcrawler in the afterlife to fight Satan and his pirate crew. In other words, it's the Axe Cop of the X-Men. But again, great art. RECOMMENDED.

ULTIMATE COMICS CATACLYSM: THE ULTIMATES #3: The Ultimate comics have stuck around far longer than they should have, the promise of a simpler, more relatable Marvel Universe long since expired in favor of a bunch of earth-shaking cataclysms. Galactus eating the world is the third time we've seen this happen, but this tie-in by Josh Fialkov and Carmine di Giandomenico has been surprisingly entertaining. It takes the rather predictable doomsday set-up and uses it to do a fast-paced, snappily-written story with a snarkier take on the formula. Since the story has Nick Fury's Ultimate Howling Commandos (re: a bunch of second and third stringers, such as Ultimate Stature and Ultimate Hercules) on an essential doomsday mission against a techno-organic Gah Lak Tus cult. The characters are suitably dysfunctional, but there's a bit of pathos too with Danny Ketch's dying words, and his eventual fate. It doesn't really end, but it's interesting enough that I'll actually try the Ultimate FF book that follows. The art by Carmine di Giandomenico is exceptional too, which nearly matches the widescreen detail of Bryan Hitch but has a fluid, expressive line more appealing than the usual "photo-realism" we see in this sort of book. RECOMMENDED.

MIRACLEMAN #1: It's 12 pages of the Alan Moore/Garry Leach run padded out with old Mick Anglo strips for childred and extra material for a price of $5.99. The great lost work of Western comics is why people are here, but it's not even the majority of the product; Marvel's gouging the audience who'd buy this for all they're worth. I'd never read the original Miracleman stories, so I can't really judge the overall story. This prologue is beautifully drawn by Leach, but the script is extremely familiar in its portrayal of the superhero as an outlet for a mid-life crisis-- though that's be due to its influence, both on Moore's later works and the genre in general. Still, this issue itself is an expensive curio, so I'd have to give it a MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

VELVET #3: It's great that Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, two creators perhaps best known for the Winter Soldier story of Captain America, can now do their thing unfettered by Marvel franchises and apparently make a living at it as well. In this case it's Velvet, a.k.a. "what if Moneypenny went on a rampage to avenge a dead James Bond". It kind of defies belief that Velvet can be such a strong action heroine at her age (at least in her fifties) with her long retirement from field work, but given how my favorite spy story involves a man physically in his seventies fighting against mooing robots and nanotech vampires, I'm in no position to complain. This is the sort of story that seems like a perfectly natural take on the high concept, but still comes across as novel and exciting. Velvet's perspective as a woman offers her a distinct insight in to the Martini-flavored spy game, as she's a PROTAGONIST who uses the Honey Trap techniques instead of a love interest/femme fatale. Everything about this book, from the script to the art to the coloring to the basic magazine design with the white gutters, just works. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Top 10 Better Alan Moore Miracleman Reprint Credits than "The Original Writer"

Marvel has enough brass to reprint Miracleman against Moore's wishes without actually putting his name on the book, but why stop there...

--Jordan Elliott
--Alan Smithee
--Storybook Smith
--Mallan Oore
--Captain Adam
--The Occupier
--Kid Moore
--Sodam Yat
--Alan Morrison

Friday, January 10, 2014

I Got Issues Comic Reviews Week of 1/8/2014: Sex Criminals, Kamala Khan, Sad Wolverine, and the Colonial Iron Man

Trying a new format for reviewing comics, so these aren't going to go over two paragraphs each; I'm going for expedience as well as quality critique. So here's what I read this week...

Sex Criminals #4: Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's painfully realistic story about people who stop time when they fuck continues. In this issue, Jon and Suzie meet even more people with their "condition", albeit a peacekeeping force who apprehend the Quiet's so-called "Sex Criminals"(TITLE DROP!). While I'm not entirely sold on the world-building of the Sex Police, that's not really the point; this is still Suzie's story, and about how her condition adds even greater complexity to the already nigh-incomprehensible territory of human intimacy. The best parts are still Suzie's narration, as she talks about her past and what sorts of things she did during the Quiet (including her first illegal activity, using the time freeze to frame her friend's rapist college boyfriend for marijuana possession-- a morally ambiguous approach with a similarly ambiguous outcome).

With Fraction's script and Chip Zdarsky's expressive art and detailed backgrounds (including some of the greatest ambient detail ever depicted for a store called "Cumworld", Sex Criminals continues to be the frank, mature sex talk the medium so badly needs. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

Wolverine #13; The finale of Killable, setting up the new direction for the supervillainous relaunch. As expected, Wolverine has no chance against Sabretooth without his healing factor. Sabretooth doesn't kill Logan, but instead takes the opportunity to rub Logan's mortality in his face, lecturing him on how they're not so different and how Logan's moral hypocrisies are unavoidable without his regenerative crutch. It's a brutal scene, and one of the few effective uses of the Origin continuity that I've seen, since Sabretooth calls attention to the fact that underneath his stereotypical man's man demeanor, Logan was still born as sissy nobleman's son James Howlett, and his attempt to be the blue collar hero falls apart given his privilege (both the initial wealth and the later, now absent mutant indestructibility). I hope that Sabretooth gets his not-so-inevitable comeuppance from Logan, though; similar to the Joker or the Green Goblin, Sabretooth is the kind of Complete Monster arch-villain who enjoys the kind of invincibility only a shared universe allows, and the fact that such rotten characters haven't been killed (in a permanent manner, at least) demonstrates an inherent futility to the nature of the shared universe superhero. At least Logan's killed Sabretooth before (though it obviously didn't stick), but the guy is one of the most successful characters in the Marvel Universe, and he owes it largely to his complete lack of moral restraint. "The best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with passionate certainty", as Yeats would put it.

Perhaps once Logan becomes a super-villain himself, he'll learn that being a bad guy is the way to go in a world where nobody important to Marvel's bottom line really dies, healing factor or not. Until then, it's a powerful story, made all the more powerful by the choice the badly injured Logan is given towards the end. It's another moment that's simultaneously easy to predict in terms of logic but difficult to prepare for as an emotional response. Another great issue from Paul Cornell, and sadly the final issue with Alan Davis drawing-- there's a reason he's a legend in comics, and that reason is seen in effortless nature of this issue's storytelling. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

IRON MAN #20: Easily the weakest book I read this week, though that's partly because everything else was so great. Still, the Kieron Gillen run on Iron Man continues to underperform, competent but not at the level I'd expect from the one writer to make modern Cyclops into a sympathetic character.  There have been many extenuating factors, most notably the immediate shadow of Matt Fraction's brilliant run, the wretched Greg Land art plaguing the first year or so, but also the fact that most of it was stuck out in space due to the Guardians of the Galaxy status quo, and the fact that the Secret Origin story was resultantly told light years away from Tony's home planet. Not to mention thirtysomething years away from a point where the events within the origin story might have actually been relevant, as Tony had plenty of nurture to overcome whatever hypothetical genetic tampering would've been done to him in vitro, but I digress.

This current storyline is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there's the strong central idea of Tony building his own city over the ruins of the Mandarin's old regime, trying to create a test-bed for modern living. But it's told in such a way that it's hard to sympathize with Tony's goals. It's clear that Tony's overcompensating with this project to avoid dealing with the news that he was adopted, but we haven't really seen anything to indicate why the city is so great, other than Tony telling us that it is The City of the Future and not just a way for him to hide from his real problems within his toybox. There's the obviously problematic symbolism of Tony building a city over foreign soil without foreign consent, and the story itself acknowledges this-- but through the mouthpiece of Abigail "Red Peril" Burns, a one-dimensional anarchist strawman villain, devoid of anything but buzzwords and firepower. There's an impressive fight scene with Tony facing her using a battery of remote units (with the help of his new "brother" Arno Stark), as well as Tony cleverly wearing an invisible Iron Man suit over his street clothes. The art by Joe Bennett helps as well, and not just because it's not Greg Land. Bennett offers a strong cinematic flair reminiscent of Bryan Hitch.

I think my central problem with the current Iron Man volume is that it's obviously using a movie-style take on the character, where we're supposed to interpret the protagonist's complete disinterest in the consequences of his actions as roguishly charming. I'm much more interested in Arno's story, and the implication that he chooses not to rebuild his Iron Lung into something capable of mobility. Perhaps he's reticent to go out into the world after spending his entire life hiding, due to his comment earlier on how people tend to see people like him (i.e. handicapped geniuses) as villainous. Then again, that may be in part an excuse for the fact that such a transition would be frightening. It's a believable and sympathetic approach to a character potentially "overcoming" a disability, even if it's in going from an Iron Lung to an Iron Exoskeleton. Too bad it's not the main story. Overall, MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

ALL-NEW MARVEL NOW POINT ONE: Now this was a pleasant surprise. Six strips, and not a stinker in the bunch. I'm not going to buy all of these books, but all of the prologue stories were strong examples of craft. I'm probably not going to get the Invaders series by James Robinson and Steve Pugh, given my lack of interest in the Invaders, but it did look like a good hook for a traditional super-team comic. The Black Widow story by Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto was also pretty good, especially the art, even if the script was a bit predictable in its portrayal of Natasha as a conflicted assassin. I'm more interested in the Loki series by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett, which has a strong grasp of the character (at least the Tom Hiddleston version that will likely be the default take from here on out). And the Avengers World strip by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Spencer, and Rags Morales could lead to something really great, provided that the writing is influenced more by Spencer than Hickman. Spencer has a strong flair for character work, which can be true for Jonathan Hickman but usually isn't, due to his greater interest in writing stories as meticulous chess games with complex plotting and strategizing taking precedence over a dramatic hook. (His Avengers is especially guilty of this, but it was foreshadowed in his Ultimates series, which started strong but quickly regressed into a demonstration of how awesome the villainous Reed Richards could be).

The two books I will definitely be buying after reading this comic are Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Michael Allred, and especially Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. I enjoy Dan Slott's writing quite a bit, and I like the idea of Silver Surfer getting a Doctor Who-style companion so he has someone to talk to besides his crippling sense of self-pity (and Slott uses it to his advantage by playing the Surfer's seriousness as comical in contrast to everything around him). The art by Michael Allred is beautiful as always, and the pop art charms are most important when we see the Surfer fighting a bunch of anthropomorphic sea-predator pirates. The Ms. Marvel story deserves special praise, and not just because it pisses off the right kinds of people. New 16-year-old Muslim superheroine Kamala Khan immediately shows the kind of conceptual strength right off the bat that most teenage heroes only dream of acquiring. She's a shape-shifter as a metaphor for a child of multiple cultures and demands, growing up in New Jersey under Pakistani-American parents, with both mother and father having their own sets of well-intentioned demand (the mother for the right marriage, the father for the right career). She's definitely an eccentric young woman who's immediately figured out creative uses for her powers, but there's not much room for her to express her abilities; her first superfight is limited to a monster in a junkyard, and even that's interrupted by a call from her mother. The art by Adrian Alphona is perfect, as I would expect from the artist of Runaways; he's especially good at showing Kamala's powers in action, and how awesome being able to stretch one's body and limbs can be. Too bad it doesn't help her larger identity issues, or in Kamala's words; "I can change my face, but I wear a mask instead. There are LAYERS of unpackable crazy up in here."

Based on the overall quality but also the strength of the Ms. Marvel story, STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.