Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Women as Superheroes

"Wonder Woman is certainly an icon, an inspiration, and a role model--but not necessarily someone with whom you'd want to sit down for a meal. She seems pleasant but not really all that interesting.

Buffy would be fun to have dinner with."

Came across a new book called Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, by Danny Fingeroth. I read the chapter, "Amazon Grace: Wonder Woman, Xena, and Buffy." The author talks about the evolution of women superheroes, with emphasis on their historical rarity, and uses the differences between WW and Buffy to measure the progress we as a society have made. He's optimistic, but his arguments are fairly plausible. I think we have come a long way, at least some of us. He mentions the phenomenon of men who can enjoy the character Buffy and identify with her, despite the fact that she's a woman. (Of course, women have been able to identify with male characters forever.) Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Peter Parker--we can all relate to the pangs of adolescence and early adulthood. Interestingly, Fingeroth cites Phoenix (formerly Marvel Girl, aka Jean Gray) as one of the major female superheroes. Do you know that X-Men story? If the ending of the movie X2 is any indication, the sequel will be all about that character. Fingeroth argues that in the past, powerful women characters weren't trusted and had to be seen as evil (the powerful Phoenix quickly became "Dark Phoenix"), but I wonder. When you have so few major characters to analyze, is it fair to claim trends? The Phoenix story is about the corrupting influence of absolute power, a timeless theme. And can guys relate to Buffy because times have changed or because she's such a well-written, compelling character? Probably both. I'd like to think men are getting cooler about women heroes. (I don't think you can chalk up the failure of Catwoman to male bias, at least not completely. It was stamped "turkey" on arrival.)

On a related topic, I'm fascinated by the whole issue of superheroes managing their secret identities and their lovers at the same time. Apparently there are now iterations of the Superman and Spiderman comics where the heroes are married (to Lois and Mary Jane, respectively), but there are concurrently runs of the series where the heroes are younger, sans wives. Readers get both. I was pleasantly suprised by the ending of Spiderman 2--I didn't realize that in the comics, Peter "came out" to Mary Jane ages ago.

I learned some interesting tidbits from Superman on the Couch. Aside from a list of women superheroes I'd never heard of (Mary Marvel is supposed to be one of the more famous?), I had no idea that Supergirl wasn't created until after there'd already been: superboy, a super horse, a super dog and a super monkey! I also learned some fascinating things about the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, a lawyer/psychologist who invented the lie detector. Apparently the man had two children with a wife, two children with an assistant who lived with them, they all got along well enough, and after he died, the two women brought up the four kids. Wow! That aside, Fingeroth tends to dismiss Wonder Woman as a character who may have been iconic but who has always been a bit antiseptic, one that had a "good-for-you" quality built in. With the release of the new DVDs of the first season of the television show, I'd like to look again at the show (esp. the early "origins" episodes) which I liked very much as a tyke.

Browsing the rest of the book, which is uneven, it struck me that Fingeroth was onto a good idea, writing about superheroes. Along with that wave of books looking at various pop culture phenomena and philosophy or religion (a few examples), this book is part of a popular wave of interest in critical thinking. Considering the audience superhero movies and tv shows and comics reach, it's encouraging to see some good solid works like this getting people thinking a bit. I'd like to see more of this kind of work to balance all the academic litcrit that comes pouring off the presses (maybe I should say "trickling off the presses" since the runs must be small) and which is dry, unimaginatively political, jargon-filled and, in short, alienating.

Speaking of superheroes and comics, the first collection of The Escapist (inspired by Michael Chabon's novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) was, to my surprise, delightful. Basically, it's a set of short stories which put the characters through a bunch of clever different scenarios, eras, and styles, the writers fully taking advantage of the freedom they have to enjoy this fictional superhero. The collection includes a fun story involving librarian-by-day, superwoman-by-night Luna Moth. I'm excited about the Daredevil spinoff featuring Jennifer Garner as Elektra, a character with, apparently, quite a history in comics. And if you haven't seen it, I recommend the dark but funny comic book movie, Hellboy, newly out on DVD. Daniel Clowes, as one might expect, has a strange take on the superhero in the latest issue (#23) of his Eightball comic book, and it's well worth checking out. (Anything by the author of Ghost World is worth reading. Can't wait for the new movie, Art School Confidential!)

Also, Marjane Satrapis' fascinating (if rather mediocrely drawn) autobiographical story continues with Persepolis 2. And I've seen some interesting write-ups of the intriguingly titled, Trucker Fags in Denial. Hmm.



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