Thoughts on Deep Space Nine Season One

As someone who never really “got” Star Trek growing up (I was one of those misguided people who believed in the dichotomy of Star Trek and Star Wars; you liked either one or the other, never both), I’ve been caught up in a long, slow process of becoming acquainted with the material associated with the franchise long, long after it was shiny and new.  I’m by no means a superfan, or that particularly dedicated to seeing the entire library of Star Trek episodes that exist across five extant television series.  If you asked me to complete a checklist, I’d mark three or four episodes from the original series, about half of The Next Generation, a couple seasons of Voyager and most of the movies (I may have actually seen all of the Next Generation movies in theaters, including the really bad and forgettable ones).  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has generally eluded my attention for the last twenty or so years.

The thing with Deep Space Nine is that I’ve heard two very different opinions on it over the years.  When it was first airing and in the time immediately afterward, I heard that it was sort of the black sheep of the Star Trek franchise.  Generally, Star Trek is a series focused on exploration; you got a ship, you got a crew, you got an intrepid captain to lead everyone into the unknown and find out what’s there.  Deep Space Nine eschews the majority of that formula.  It’s set on a space station; there’s no captain at all; our crew aren’t explorers but administrators.  This third iteration on an idea was a hard sell because it decided to radically alter the formula for what made Star Trek popular.

The other opinion that I’ve heard over the years is that Deep Space Nine is a very special sort of Star Trek show.  It’s darker, more morally ambiguous.  Because it sticks to one location for its entire run, there are opportunities for long form storytelling that had been very rarely attempted previously.  The Federation, that organization which both Kirk and Picard’s crews have faithfully represented to the best of their abilities, doesn’t always come out looking like the good guys.  Deep Space Nine is the Star Trek series for people who aren’t really that into other Star Trek series.

So Rachael and I recently decided that we would watch some Deep Space Nine.  At this point we’ve completed the first season, and while the pilot was a little shaky (what pilot isn’t?), I’ve been impressed with just how consistently good the show is.  The cast establishes itself very firmly within the first few episodes, and there’s a remarkable lack of idiot plot (the first couple seasons of Next Generation have a bunch of really bad episodes).  We’re introduced to the ongoing conflict of Deep Space Nine: the tensions between the recently independent planet of Bajor and the Federation, which has offered to provide support to Bajor’s fledgling government in exchange for access to a stable wormhole that connects Federation space with the Gamma Quadrant some ninety-thousand light years away.  This is a complex status quo, and there’s a lot of politicking that has to be done by Commander Sisko and his senior officers to keep relations stable.

Now, there are naturally other bits of silliness thrown in; Star Trek has an incredibly goofy side to it, and the setting on the edge of a new frontier for the Federation allows for some weird stuff to happen, like First Contact with an alien race that loves games and drafts the crew to be pawns in their favorite pastime.  You get subplots about the children on the station being children, and unlike the obnoxiousness that is Wesley Crusher, boy genius, Jake Sisko and Nog’s adventures are delightfully low stakes affairs that highlight their struggles to mature in a place where they’re constantly being exposed to new ideas and different cultures.

All of this is really refreshing, and honestly I was surprised to find so much complexity in a television series from the early nineties.  If you set aside the look of the show, which absolutely dates it, it feels like something that would have been created at least a decade later.

In some ways Deep Space Nine does disappoint.  The Ferengi, while I generally love their plot lines for trying to explore in a value-neutral way how a purely capitalist culture would operate in a post-scarcity society, are uncomfortable racial stereotypes.  Their large ears and noses combined with their unrepentant greed and extensive business empire evoke the worst of Jewish caricatures.  I’m glad for the complexity that’s allowed in characters like Quark and Nog to undermine these caricatures, but the initial impression is still off-putting.

Also troubling is the way that the show approaches certain stories.  Easily the most complex character in the first season is Major Kira Nerys, a former Bajoran rebel who spent years fighting against the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and who is now serving as Sisko’s second-in-command aboard Deep Space Nine as the chief representative of Bajoran interests on the station.  Kira gets a wealth of development in this season as she comes to terms with her shift in role from rebel to establishment figure (perhaps the best episode of the season is one where Kira has the unpleasant job of forcing an old man out of his home in order to make way for a major mining operation that will provide power to thousands of others), but her past constantly haunts her.  In one of the last episodes of the season, she’s faced with the problem of what to do with a Cardassian who appears to be a wanted war criminal although there is no firm evidence that he is who she suspects.  This episode is clearly modeled on the history of Nazi concentration camps, and it asks questions about how much guilt should be assigned to those people who were complicit in genocide but not directly responsible for the actual killing.  The ending comes down clearly on the side of absolving complicit individuals if they are remorseful enough, but this resolution feels facile in the way that it lays blame only on people who commit direct physical violence against others.  The man at the center of the episode’s conundrum was a filing clerk at a concentration camp whose duties never involved interacting with the prisoners.  In-universe he’s not technically guilty of war crimes, and this judgment bothers me to no end.  There’s a complete failure to examine how his complicity contributed to the deaths of others even indirectly.  It reminds me particularly of the ending of Schindler’s List where Schindler resolves to contribute absolutely nothing to the German war effort despite his role as a munitions manufacturer.  He understands that any sort of work that supports a system of violence is immoral and tries to resist as best he can, even while still feeling immense guilt over his inability to do more.  You get something similar in the Deep Space Nine episode, but it’s too quick to dismiss the man’s personal feelings of guilt as misplaced.

On the whole, I’m really pleased with what I’ve seen so far of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  If it shows this much promise in its first season, then I suspect there’s a lot more to enjoy about it, and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into its story and characters.

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Reading “Generation Why (2 of 3)”

Issue #8 left off with Kamala in a tight spot as her high school is under attack from a giant robot that tracked her with the help of a smaller homing robot.  In the middle of the school day, Kamala lacks her costume, and she’s so exhausted from her fight with another robot that morning that she finds she’s unable to use her polymorph abilities to change her appearance.  Fortunately, Lockjaw is the guest star for this story arc, so he teleports in and provides a distraction so that Kamala can save the school without revealing her powers to anyone.

Lockjaw is such a bizarre character concept that even in-universe other people are immediately distracted from all other chaos to ponder the imponderable Lockjaw. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

What we quickly learn is that Kamala’s exhaustion doesn’t just extend to her shape-shifting; after a couple of rounds with the robot she finally defeats it, but she also collapses in the rubble where anyone could find her.  We get a moment with Bruno does a Nice Guy(tm) attempt at saving Kamala, but only succeeds in being close enough to go along for the ride when Lockjaw teleports Medusa, Queen of the Inhumans, in to save the day and get Kamala to safety.

Bruno’s attempt to help out his friend here is an interesting character moment; it tracks with the previous issue’s scene where he quietly grumbles that Kamala gets to do all the cool stuff while he’s just living a superhero-adjacent teenage life.  There’s a significant risk of Bruno becoming a little obnoxious, particularly with the ongoing subplot that he has a huge unrequited crush on Kamala; still, he’s generally written as someone who understands that he’s out of his depth when superpowers come into play.  Beyond that, we can forgive a little bit of whingeing from a teenage boy who just really wants the girl he likes to think he’s cool.

Kamala’s face tho. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

The middle act of the issue takes place in New Attilan, which is apparently located in the Hudson River, where Kamala is recovering from her exhaustion.  We get a lot of talking heads stuff in a vaguely futuristic clinic setting (which isn’t too boring because Alphona does wonderful faces) and there’s a huge data dump about things that the reader has already figured out, but which Kamala needs to catch up on.  Medusa explains to Kamala that she’s an Inhuman, not a mutant (bummer), and that she’s always welcome to come to New Attilan for help whenever she needs it.  Medusa also implies that Kamala is particularly special, though I can figure out if there’s anything to this line other than the fact that out of all the Inhumans created by the Terrigen Cloud, she gets her own solo series where Wolverine decided that she was special (in other words, because editorial said so).  There’s also a bit of clarification of Kamala’s powers (because a polymorphing hero without any limits isn’t very interesting); when she gets injured and has to use her powers to heal herself, Kamala can’t shape-shift.  The logic goes something like because she’s using her powers to make her body morph to a healthy state, her powers are already in effect, and so morphing into a different shape would undo the healing.  There’s a heavy dose of comic book logic at play here, so don’t think too hard about it.

“…It’s a dog.” “Why is it wearing a tuning fo—aaaggghh it’s gonna eat us!” (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

Following the data dump, Kamala decides that she needs to take the fight directly to the Inventor, and so she recruits the help of none other than… Vick, Bruno’s screw up brother.  We never get an explanation in this issue for exactly why Kamala needs Vick to come along back to the house where she narrowly rescued him before; things go weird too quickly for that (or for Vick to give any explanation at all of what’s going on with the Inventor’s plot to use teenagers as human batteries).  There’s some superhero action, including a fun sequence where Kamala gets trapped inside a bubble and so shrinks her fist down so she can reach through the force beam into the machine that’s trapped her and rip it up from the inside.  The day is saved, and the harvest is stopped, although there is a giant explosion (because what robot fight isn’t complete without a giant explosion), and we get the issue’s ending stinger where the teens that Kamala has just rescued explain that they volunteered to be turned into batteries.

This is a weird plot point that we’ll get more information on in the last issue of the arc, but I keep dwelling on the question of why.  The theme that Wilson’s exploring in this extended arc (including the two issues with Wolverine) is the question of how the younger generation fits into the larger plan of society.  She’s playing specifically with the ongoing conversation of the last decade that’s been centered around saying that Millennials are terrible and fundamentally changing the fabric of society in scary ways.  We’ve all read the tired think pieces complaining that Millennials don’t buy fabric softener or patronize certain restaurants.  The sources of these bits of intellectual fretting are almost invariably folks hailing from the older generations.  It’s “kids these days” redux, and most people who are targeted by this kind of stuff know better than to take it seriously.  Social trends change over time, and it’s asinine to blame a generation for not living exactly the same way as their parents.

Given all that, I’m just stuck trying to figure out what it is about these kids that the Inventor has recruited that makes them think being a battery is the best way to support society (and also why they trust the word of a clone of Thomas Edison with cockatiel DNA).  It feels like a really weak part of the overall story here, and it bugs me.  It will probably continue to bug me.  The good news is that after the next issue we’ll move on to a new story arc and will not have to think about these easily brainwashed youths again.

ABC’s

  • The kid in the “Relax” shirt who sleeps through the entire robot attack at the school
  • Pink Panther chilling on “Relax” kid’s desk
  • Hand sticking out of rubble directly behind “Relax” kid
  • A duck
  • “Free Wi-Fi”
  • “Ye Local News”
  • “Snow Mexico”
  • “Rainbow Toots”
  • “How to English”
  • “Coles Academ”
  • “Asbestos Removal”
  • “Scheduled For Mond”
  • “Volunteer Kids Neede”
  • Cop eating steamed dumplings while he’s on duty
  • Hand sticking out of rubble giving the victory sign
  • Medical displays all showing pixel art of Kamala in her Ms. Marvel costume
  • Dude walking a Lockjaw clone that has an eating fork on its head
  • Kamala sitting on Lockjaw’s belly while her parents lecture her about safety
  • “Olmec donald’s” fast food bags
  • “Toads Legit Cricket Club”

Adjusting to a New Normal

In a recent conversation, Rachael described the sequence in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale where Moira, after escaping from Gilead, finds herself struggling to cope with her newfound identity as a refugee in Canada.  The social workers who help Moira settle in give her new clothes, some money for groceries, an apartment to stay in, and leads on finding work; they ask her for a list of friends and family that they can be on the lookout for and notify her about if any of them also cross the border.  Moira’s entire identity shifts from being a brave, ruggedly self sufficient survivor under an oppressive regime to someone who has just escaped a long horror and is in serious need of assistance.  Moira has transitioned from a “save yourself” society to a “let’s help each other” one.

In describing this sequence, Rachael was trying to illustrate the way she was feeling about our move from the South to the Pacific Northwest.  We had a lot of reasons for making this move, but it’s undeniable that one of the big ones was our wish to live in a society where community cooperation is more highly valued and human rights are protected.  We get to experience that on the West Coast in ways that it never seemed possible in Georgia.  The most obvious way that Rachael picked up on before me (because she started training for work about a week earlier than me) is in our work as educators.  We had realized things were going to be better in terms of our quality of life (we’re going to be earning significantly more as a family than we have for most of the last decade while we’ve been going through graduate school), but we didn’t quite grasp how much better our quality of work could be.

Our health benefits are superior; we get better pay; we are treated as educational professionals in a way that you never see in the South.  The reason for this is pretty straightforward: Oregon is not a “right to work” state.

Some clarification of terms.  The phrase “right to work” is code for legislative policy that is designed to be unfriendly to workers’ unions.  The way it’s typically used rhetorically is statements like, “You have the right to work without interference from those overbearing, inflexible unions.”  It’s a stance that grew out of the fact that unions, because they are about pooling resources in order to accomplish collectively what individual workers lack the power to do, can sometimes overlook the specialized needs of individuals (this is a reality that occurs in any organization of sufficiently large size; it just gets turned specifically against unions because they work to take power away from the power centers that are favored under a capitalist system).  In places where unions are strong, there’s a lot of social pressure for workers participating in a given industry to throw their weight behind the union.  This reality has historically been used as a wedge to discourage unionization with an appeal to individuality.  The logic goes that the government should protect you from that oppressive union so that you have a right to work under whatever conditions you find acceptable.

This rhetoric is extremely popular in the South.  I was raised to have a pretty significant distrust in unions as wastes of time and money.  In college, when I spent a summer working as a clerk at Kroger, I was required to pay dues to the workers’ union there; I remember complaining to my parents that that money was coming out of my paycheck for benefits that I wasn’t really receiving.  When I started working in education, I accepted that I would be joining a teachers’ union.  In Georgia your union is the way that you get access to affordable tort insurance and legal aid in the event that there’s a conflict between a student’s family and the school where you could be personally found to be at fault.  These are important benefits to have, but they’re about all teachers’ unions in Georgia provide (everything else beyond that is pretty much just discounts on financial services and other things, which are great, but they assume you have enough money to need help managing it; I’m still waiting for that stage of life).  With this sort of model, I never had much of an opinion of the unions that I joined at the two schools where I worked in Georgia.

The reason for that unions work like this in Georgia is, again, the “right to work” legislation.  This sort of legislation is designed to prevent collective bargaining, which is the big benefit that strong unions provide to their members.  In Georgia, when you get hired as a teacher you are given a standard contract that the district has written, and you have no power to negotiate the terms of that contract; you either accept it or you decline the job because the district can always just look for another person to fill the vacancy.  This preliminary assumption that prospective workers have no ability to dispute the terms of their employment falls under the umbrella of a “right to work.”

Flash forward to Oregon, and Rachael and I are in the process of learning just how much negotiating power our respective unions have in acquiring benefits for its members (we work in different districts and so belong to different local associations within the larger state- and nationwide organizations).  The contract under which educators work is still standardized, but it’s a document that the district and the union work together to come up with on whatever terms they can mutually agree to.  In my district, as I’ve recently learned, we don’t have a current contract yet; the previous one expired in June, but its terms continue to be in effect until the union and the district come to a new agreement.  I’m writing this post up on the first full work day for all employees that the district has had, and part of our kickoff agenda was a meeting among the union members where the committee in charge of negotiations gave us all an update on what is being asked for in the new contract and how close the district and the union are to coming to an agreement.

This collective cooperation, both in terms of the good-faith negotiations and the way that everyone is on board with supporting the union’s efforts because they benefit everyone in the district, is something that’s really new to me.  It takes a little getting used to the union culture, but the effects are really positive so far.  This is one of the ways that we’re gradually coming to realize just how much better life is going to be for us out here.

Learning About Comics

I think I’ve mentioned recently that I decided on a whim to pick up some books on the mechanics and critical theory behind comics so that I could discuss one of my favorite media with a bit more authority than I have in the past.  So far that’s going great; the last few posts I’ve written about comics that I’m currently reading have felt in small ways more technically proficient than previous things that I’ve written.  I’m especially thrilled that I’m slowly developing a vocabulary for discussing how the art plays into the storytelling, because I’ve read for years from various folks that one of the most egregious things that comics critics do is overlook the importance of the artist’s work to the story.  Comics is, after all, an illustrated medium, and without an artist the story would just be a script.  Being able to discuss what the artist is doing beyond saying, “I like this panel,” or, “The characters’ faces are so expressive here” is really gratifying in much the same way learning how to discuss literature through various critical lenses was back when I was in college.

The two resources that I’ve looked at so far are Scott McCloud’s comic on comics, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Will Eisner’s instructional book Comics and Sequential Art.  McCloud’s work is much more interested in exploring the critical theory behind comics; each chapter heavily discusses the relationship between the creators and the reader as a necessary part of what makes comics work as an art form (it’s actually very reminiscent of Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading, though I doubt McCloud explored her work as part of his research for his book, seeing as she’s a thinker in the field of educational theory).  Eisner’s book is designed to teach artists how to use the tools and conventions of the comics form to tell effective stories; he doesn’t go into deep detail about critical theory beyond explaining the function of a given technique and how it encourages a specific form of cooperation from the reader.  I’m not finished with Eisner’s book yet, but it’s really informative on a technical level that McCloud’s theoretical book doesn’t quite match.

Of course, with Eisner there’s a small hitch.  It feels weird to point this out, but because Eisner almost exclusively uses his own work for examples (this is a perfectly fair practice if you want to have visual aids but don’t want to jump through the copyright hoops of reproducing other artists’ work) of what he discusses, there are a multitude of pages from Eisner’s famous The Spirit comic book of the ’40s and ’50s.  On the one hand, this is kind of cool; Eisner is one of the biggest names in Western comics, and I’ve always heard about the genius of his work without ever actually seeing any of it myself.  There’s an undeniable quality to Eisner’s art and storytelling, especially when you compare it with work from his contemporaries.  The uncolored versions of the stories that appear in Comics and Sequential Art are especially sharp.  Still, these examples are very clearly uncritical of larger social trends of the time when they were produced.

In multiple strips the Spirit has a friend named Ebony who bears all the classic marks of Black caricature: disproportionately large lips; a stunted, apelike body that isn’t reproduced in any other characters from the stories; garishly tailored clothing; a pidgin English dialect meant to evoke low intellect and poor education; et cetera.  I assumed at first that Ebony was only an idiot character in the first story found in Comics and Sequential Art before it occurred to me that he was probably meant to be Black (without coloring, I mistook Ebony’s large lips for a particularly pouchy jaw with a small mouth).  Once Ebony’s identity clicked into place, the stories featuring him became much more uncomfortable to read.

Similar to the problem of Ebony, Eisner is not above using casual sexism to underscore humor in many of his stories.  In his story “Hoagy the Yogi” (which features Ebony as the main character), the punchline for Hoagy’s travels across the world end with him fainting after he’s shocked to meet a veiled woman who has a curvy figure but an extremely masculine face.  In another story where Eisner is illustrating a technique for panel layout that allows the reader to engage two parallel stories in tandem, he makes use of the old trope of the domineering wife to underscore a story about a convict escaping from prison meeting a worse fate when he switches places with his doppelganger and gets caught and returned to the wife who has reported her husband for abandonment.  Beyond that, there are also the various depictions of women (when they appear in Eisner’s stories at all) as weak and excessively emotional.  It’s not a good look.

The confounding thing about these poorly aged elements is that they’re not explained or acknowledged in the text.  Eisner writes and gives these examples because they help illustrate a point unrelated to the content of the story, which is fine as far as that goes.  It’s still bizarre to encounter this book that is so widely praised as a primer in understanding the narrative techniques of sequential art and find depicted uncritically in it these poorly aged elements.  Eisner’s insights are good; I just wish that the examples chosen had been more carefully curated, or barring that at least had addressed the more problematic elements of the stories shared.  Given that Eisner passed away in 2005 and can no longer update his text, it would be nice to find resources that help teach the same techniques, but without the racial and sexual insensitivity that Eisner’s work contains.

Reading “Generation Why (1 of 3)”

After the two issue arc that Jacob Wyatt illustrated featuring Wolverine, the return of Adrian Alphona to regular art duties is a very welcome sight.  Generally speaking I enjoy the guest artists that Ms. Marvel has when Alphona needs to break from the series, but his art does so much to define the feel of the book with its slightly surreal, wistful quality that I’m generally hard pressed to enjoy issues by other artists in quite the same way.

This issue continues the larger arc of Kamala’s struggles with the Inventor, a mad clone of Thomas Edison with cockatiel DNA (comics!).  Wolverine has gone off on his merry way, and we’re back to featuring just Kamala without any particularly egregious guest appeara–

The best expression Alphona puts on Kamala is her smiling with her mouth wide open. Fight me. Also, there’s a dog. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

 

Oh yeah, Lockjaw’s a guest star in this arc.

As someone who generally doesn’t give a flip about the Inhumans in the Marvel Universe, I am not super up on what makes Lockjaw special.  He’s clearly a giant dog modeled on a cross between a pug and a British bulldog, has a tuning fork sticking out of his forehead, and he can teleport.  If you want to know more about the character beyond that I can’t help you, but that’s probably enough to get any reader on board with him as a character.  The way Alphona draws him, with a perpetual dopey smile, is certainly endearing even for someone like me who can take or leave dogs in general.

The fact that Lockjaw is an animal (albeit a very intelligent one) gives his appearance here much less potential to be egregious than Wolverine’s appearance had.  There’s no threat of Lockjaw upstaging Kamala as the most interesting character on the page at any given time; his stated role in the story is to keep an eye on her for Medusa, the queen of the Inhumans, and to help her get out of trouble.  There is no showboating to be seen.

Anyway, Lockjaw’s presence in the opening pages of this issue provide an opportunity for some nice rumination on one of the major themes of this arc.  Kamala’s inner monologue is inset over panels from Lockjaw’s perspective depicting his spirited rush down the streets of Jersey City in search of Kamala.  She reflects on how young people tend to get pulled into conflicts that aren’t theirs because older folks are too wrapped up in their own problems to notice other things going on.  From there, Kamala segues to thinking about what it takes to be a hero; half of it, she observes, is just noticing what’s happening around you.  The other half is “not being afraid.”

This sequence is delightful because while Kamala is thinking about recent events (and providing a small recap to readers), we see each beat of her thought process play out with Lockjaw’s journey to her location.  First he nearly runs over an older couple who are obliviously walking their dog without noticing Lockjaw running up behind them, then he bounds towards Kamala as she turns to see what’s coming towards her, and finally she smiles wide as she embraces the giant dog that has scared off everyone else on the street.

The technique used here is what Scott McCloud describes as parallel combination of words and images.  Kamala’s thoughts are related to Lockjaw’s journey on a subtextual level, but they don’t directly elaborate on what Lockjaw is doing from panel to panel in these first two pages.  It’s a neat trick, and one that I think G Willow Wilson employs regularly to help connect the action of the story with the larger theme that she’s exploring in any given arc.

The bulk of the action in this issue, following Lockjaw’s dramatic introduction, revolves around Kamala going off to do recon on one of the Inventor’s hideouts with Lockjaw in tow as her sidekick.  There’s some fun punching and kicking with a giant robot sentry that turns out to be powered by a teenager in an egg, similarly to the mutant girl that Kamala and Wolverine saved in the previous issue.  It’s some Matrix-type stuff, though not gruesome, and in this case when Kamala wakes the guy in the egg, he mutters something about being “part of” something and “giving back.”  In all the commotion, Kamala fails to notice a tiny robot hitch a ride in her boot, which at the end of the issue results in another much larger robot showing up and wrecking her school while she’s in the middle of class.

Speaking of class, it needs to be said that Kamala’s teacher in the final scene of this issue is my hero.  She’s not amused by Kamala’s tardiness, but her approach is to try to pull Kamala and Nakia into participating in class instead of directly punishing them for having their own side conversation.  I get the sense that she’s supposed to be read as a mean teacher, but she really doesn’t strike me that way at all in this little bit we get to see her.  The fact that she totally takes control of the situation when a giant robot crashes into her classroom just lends credence to my theory that she’s a total badass teacher.  It’s really refreshing to see depictions of educators in a teen-oriented story who aren’t totally incompetent or clueless (this is especially significant in this arc where Wilson’s exploring in-depth the tensions between younger and older generations from the perspective of a teenager).  New Media teacher, I salute you.

This panel has Alphona doing a fun trick where time passes from the left to the right of the frame. The teacher marks Kamala absent on the left, and as the reader’s eye scans right, Kamala slides into the room. (Artwork by Adrian Alphona, colors by Ian Herring, letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna)

ABC’s

  • “Huy!”
  • “Do Not Kick Sign”
  • “Hello My Name Is Lockjaw I Like Hugs”
  • “Science in Yo Face: Jersey Edition”
  • “The Pedantic Monthly: Generation Dumb?”
  • Fluffwood the Lizard
  • Bruno’s gigantic hamster habitat in his bedroom while his hamster sits on his shoulder
  • “Beisbol! Beisbol!”
  • Beware of racoons are Great!”
  • Soul glu
  • Ralph’s Wedding Cakes
  • A cute little beaver
  • “Private Property: Seriously, Keep Out!”
  • “Go Away”
  • “New Jersey”
  • “Snow Mexico”
  • “Teens and the Media”
  • That one girl in the front of the class with a “The Math” book instead of a “Media” book
  • The knife casually lying on the teacher’s desk
  • “Meow.”
  • “Keep Calm. I Am Persian Like the Cat.”
  • The goldfish that appears out of nowhere in the classroom
  • The couple from the start of the issue walking their dog by the school
  • “Free Wi-Fi”

Our Collective ’80s Moment and Paper Girls

On a whim, I recently checked out some books from the library about comics theory and criticism.  Regular readers know that I really like reading comics, and because I have an English degree and a blog, I tend to write critiques and analyses of the things that I read.  Doing that with books and short stories is easy; I spent four years learning how to churn out a paper examining a piece of written text.  What’s more challenging for me is offering comprehensive critiques on more visual media like comics and cinema.  I can appreciate good cinematography and artwork when I see it, but I fundamentally lack the vocabulary and theoretical foundation that is necessary to speak intelligently about aspects of a creative work that don’t have to do directly with elements of story and language.

So I got some books, and I’m currently reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is one of those foundational theory books about the art form.  I’m only two chapters in, and it’s blowing my mind.  The theory that McCloud presents on the various spectra that exist between photo-realistic and cartoon artwork is stuff that feels intuitive and revolutionary to me at the same time.  I’m really excited about applying more of what I learn going forward.

In the mean time though, I’ve been thinking about another comic that I picked up because I’ve had positive experiences with the writer’s other work (like with The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram).  Even before I was aware of Brian K Vaughan as a comics creator, I was familiar with at least a little bit of his work.  I’ve read a decent chunk of his Marvel series Runaways (this was way back when I was in grad school and what I read in comics was determined entirely by what was available at the small local library near my house back in Georgia), all of Y: The Last Man (that was a fun series to pull apart), and most of his current comics hit Saga (y’all know I love Saga, so let’s not rehash that here).  I trust Vaughan to tell a good story and work with excellent artists.

So I picked up the first volume of Paper Girls from the library.  To sum up its premise briefly, because I had no idea what it was about other than that tonally it would be reminiscent of Stranger Things, this series is about a group of girls who deliver newspapers in their neighborhood getting caught up in some weird stuff on the morning after Halloween 1988.  Some things are a little more clear by the time you get to the end of the first volume, but I honestly can’t give any more details than that without spoiling some of the fun.

According to what I’ve read in Understanding Comics, Chiang’s slightly cartoonish style helps the world of Paper Girls feel grounded in a recognizable reality but still leaves room for the reader to identify closely with the characters. (Artwork by Cliff Chiang, colors by Matt Wilson)

The fact that this is a weird ’80s story about a group of children explains the Stranger Things connection.  Eighties nostalgia is really big right now, and it’s clear that Vaughan and his co-creator Cliff Chiang are cashing in on that trend a little bit in Paper Girls.  Thankfully, Vaughan and Chiang are smart enough to avoid the pure nostalgia that seems to underpin various other ’80s throwback endeavors like Ready Player One (which I haven’t read, but have heard much discussion thereof) and Stranger Things.  This is a work that does not view the ’80s through rose-tinted glasses, with small nods here and there to the social conservatism of the time that made things miserable for a lot of people who weren’t in the American mainstream.  Furthermore, Vaughan and Chiang set out to center an Asian-American girl, Erin, as the series’s protagonist with a supporting cast of other girls from Erin’s neighborhood.  You generally get enough of those small touches to let you know that this is not going to be a simple rehash of what some thirty-something white dude loved most about his childhood.

All of that is particularly refreshing since I’m personally very much over the “I love the ’80s” moment that we’re having in pop culture right now.  I joked with some friends that I’ll be all in on ’90s nostalgia in a few years as long as it only consists of pastiches of the Nicktoon Doug, but otherwise I’m not exactly loving the nostalgic moment that we’re experiencing presently.  It seems like we’re collectively retreating into the sort of reverie that Alan Moore discusses through Adrian Veidt in Watchmen as a way for societies in troubled times to cope with all the stress of the present.  I shudder to think what sort of nostalgia we’ll be dealing with in thirty years for the ’10s.

Representation Matters

While reading some comics from the library recently, I had a thought: I wonder if Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and Princeless have Black creative teams.  I read the first volume of each series recently; they both prominently feature a Black girl as the protagonist of their respective stories, and they are generally delightful.  However, something about the writing and art left me wondering how much involvement either series had with Black creators.

The short answer is that Moon Girl is illustrated by Natacha Bustos, a Black Latina artist, and Princeless is written by Jeremy Whitley, a white man in an interracial marriage with a Black woman who together have a biracial daughter.  There we go, curiosity satisfied, now I can feel slightly less weird about these series.

The first volume of Moon Girl is preoccupied with the struggles of Lunella Lafayette, a precocious nine-year-old who knows that she has the genetic predisposition to become an Inhuman if she’s exposed to Terrigen mist, who has trouble fitting in at school because she knows more than her teachers in all the areas that interest her.  Being a Marvel all-ages book, there isn’t a ton of pathos over societal issues; Lunella is just a misfit who accidentally befriends a time-travelling dinosaur while dealing with her anxieties about growing up.  The fact that she and her family are Black is incidental to the story being told, and that’s fine.  This is a series that’s at least doing positive representations of people of color in fiction, and it’s giving work to an artist of color.  Marvel’s track record with diversity has been more than spotty in the last few years when it comes to their use of writers and artists of color, and it’s good to see that Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur corrects that negative trend at least somewhat.

Princeless is a more complicated case.  Another all-ages book, Princeless is extremely tongue-in-cheek with its critique of European fantasy tropes.  Jeremy Whitley clearly has a solid understanding of applications of intersectional feminist theory to his storytelling; in the first volume he establishes that the protagonist Princess Adrienne has no patience with traditional fairy tale narratives, wants adventurer’s armor that is designed to fit her and offers real protection, and thinks that European obsessions with fairness of complexion as a standard of beauty are idiotic and exclusionary.  Each issue tackles a specific fantasy trope and deconstructs it, which is delightful, but the overall effect is something that I might write; it shows an understanding of what’s wrong with the old tropes, but a lot of it feels academic rather than pulled from personal experience.  Whitley’s storytelling comes across as that of a white guy trying to tell a feminist story based on what he’s learned, which is exactly what it is.  In this case, his decision to write a comic that features a Black girl protagonist as a way of providing more role models for his daughter is noble and needed; it’s still positive representation, but it leaves me wondering what it might have crowded out by another creator of color.

Both series are definitely fun reads, but they each feel a little lacking in strange ways.

Conversely, I also read the first volume of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s run on Black Panther, and I loved it enough that I immediately put the second volume on my hold list at the library.  I don’t have much to say about that book specifically at this point (it looks like the entire run is one continuous arc, and you can’t effectively judge a story like that until you see how it ends), but it contrasts well with Moon Girl and Princeless as a book that’s written with a Black voice and which centers issues of Black identity and feeling betrayed by the power structures of one’s homeland.  Coates goes hard into the internal politics of Wakanda, but so much of what he explores with citizens’ distrust of their government and the fallout from a state failing to provide protection to its population feels like it’s distinctly drawing on the unrest among the Black community in America.  There are some unfair comparisons here, naturally; Black Panther is an adult targeted geopolitical thriller while Moon Girl and Princeless are much more personal stories written with younger readers in mind.  Still, it feels like a book that both features a multitude of Black characters and explores issues of Black identity that are intimately personal to the author.

All of these books run a sort of gamut of representation, and they all fall positively along the spectrum to varying degrees.  I’m pleased with Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur for its centering of a protagonist who isn’t a generic white guy, and I love that Princeless deconstructs sexist fantasy tropes while providing a power fantasy for young girls, and I’m thrilled with the difference in perspective that Black Panther brings to a superhero comic.  There’s certainly room to criticize works that only diversify on the page but not with the creative team, but the representation that all of these books provide matters in some way.