Learning Sketchbook 13: Life Drawing and Inks

I took a couple weeks off from blogging early in July because there was a bit of travel going on (it’s hard to write on the road) and because I got really engrossed in practicing my drawing.  In the last week or so, as I’ve been dipping my toes back into writing regularly, I’ve realized that drawing, while a very different activity, seems to pull from the same creative well as blogging.  I was feeling a little bummed about my writing output until I had this realization, but now that I recognize it, it’s okay.  What it means in the long term is that I expect I’ll have a slightly more sporadic posting schedule on the blog depending on how much I feel like drawing at any given time.  I hope what that means is that when I come back from little hiatuses like the one in July, I’ll have some new art to share, which is definitely the case this time.

The major development with my drawing practice of the last month has been attending life drawing sessions at a local art studio.  A frequent piece of advice I run across when I’m reading about visual arts is that the most efficient way to get better at drawing specific objects is just to draw them a whole lot.  Because I’ve spent much of the last eight months focused on learning how to draw bodies with relatively realistic proportions, life drawing is a huge boon for getting to do exactly that.

The place where I’ve been going does three hour sessions with a model where they begin with fast gesture poses meant to be drawn in only a minute or two and then gradually extend the time spent with each pose to allow artists to develop more and more detailed pieces.  In the five sessions I’ve gone to, I’ve noticed that there’s been a definite improvement in my confidence with sketching out the forms of the body; the last session I went to was unusual in that I found myself with significant amounts of extra time at the end of the long poses to play around with shading and coloring where before I typically was working right up to time just getting everything to look the way I saw it.  Below I have some of the sketches that I like best from the last month.


This is the earliest 30 minute sketch that I did at the studio. There are parts of it that I really love, like the hand resting on the thigh, but other parts are super rough.


This one was from the second session I went to. I really like the shading and expression of the face. The model had this wonderful locced hair that I never really effectively captured.


By the third session I felt like I was starting to get the hang of using shading to better convey depth. What I like best about this drawing is that there are almost no strong lines through the torso, so the shape of the breasts and the abdomen all had to be done with shading.


This one was from my most recent session. The model’s poses weren’t quite as interesting as what I saw in some of the other sessions, but I had way more time to play around at the end. Here you can see that I used some colored pencils to try to add some colored highlights. It’s kind of a mess in conjunction with the graphite shading, but it was still a lot of fun. Also, I think the feet on this one are really cool; most of the longer poses are extremely relaxed so it was nice to have one where the foot was flexed in an interesting way.

At the same time that I’ve been having so much fun with life drawing, I’ve also been playing around with more comics-influenced stuff.  It would be silly to pretend that I didn’t start drawing at least partially because I want to be able to draw my favorite superheroes, and one frustration I’ve run into regularly has been the fact that pencils just don’t pop in the way that an inked picture does.  With all the practice from life drawing, I’ve noticed an uptick in the quality of the imagined poses that I do on character sketches, even if the anatomy of them remains significantly more simplified than when I’m drawing from a real subject.  Rachael gave me a pocket sketchbook that has some really nice card stock paper in it, and I’ve been using that to play around with a few superhero drawings that I then inked.  I have a few of those below, of varying qualities.


The first thing I drew after I got some nice pens was Spider-Man. The first attempt wasn’t very good, but this one turned out way better than I could have hoped.


Following Spider-Man, I thought it’d be fun to do an Iron Man (I’ve never drawn him before), but I wanted to do something weird with the perspective, so I imagined a view of him hovering overhead. I think it turned out okay, although it feels very plain after all the webbing on the Spider-Man costume. It was weird doing a deliberately blocky shape for the limbs.


I’m not super happy with this Squirrel Girl, mostly because the face looks weird. This was the first character I did at this scale who doesn’t wear a full face mask, and I think the difficulty I had shows. I’m actually pretty pleased with the body proportions though; Squirrel Girl is not a petite superhero.


After all the fun doing inked drawings on small cards, I wanted to try inking a larger image. This one’s in my primary sketchbook, and I had a lot of fun thinking through the composition. The upper figure went through a couple revisions when I was drafting as I had to keep adjusting for the angle of the sword relative to the arms and the legs. I might be a little obsessive about making sure I can understand where all the hidden body parts are placed in a picture. I did learn from inking this one that the paper in my sketchbook isn’t really meant for pen, because it’s pretty visible on the other side of the paper. I won’t be inking in that book anymore. For anyone curious about the characters, this is supposed to be Illyana Rasputin (Magik) and Quentin Quire (Kid Omega) of various X-Men teams.

So I Just Saw Deadpool

My diet of superhero movies has really dropped off in the last year; I skipped Captain America: Civil War (but I am excited to watch it on Netflix in December); Dr. Strange has no appeal for me (the whole whitewashing thing is kind of a turn off); Batman v Superman is still a no-go (I said what I said); even X-Men: Apocalypse didn’t get me to go to the theater this summer (to be fair it’s not supposed to be as good as Days of Future Past).  Deadpool, the R-rated, super violent, superhero comedy, didn’t register as something that I’d bother with (though I did get an earful from my students about it at my last job because they love dumb, violent movies), but then Rachael and I borrowed a login for HBO from a friend, and I was looking through the movie catalogue, and I thought, “what the heck, I’m on vacation.”

Deadpool Poster

To be fair, this movie does feel super faithful to the character. (Image credit: IMDb)

So here’s the short version of my opinion of Deadpool: it revels in violence, has some genuinely funny bits, is casually homophobic, maintains a pleasantly small scale story, and tries to sell a paradoxically cynical and idealistic moral about heroism.  I enjoyed it as a movie that’s not as self-serious as other superhero stories, but the core conceit of Deadpool as a character is that he’s both extremely goofy and extremely violent.  He makes jokes about graphically dismembering nameless goons.  His relationships are all predicated on a dynamic where he insults, threatens, and generally mistreats other people, and in this particular incarnation of the character there’s not really a strong backstory to explain Wade’s dysfunction (he’s terrible to Weasel before he goes through the mutation program, and the details of Wade’s history are left extremely vague).  He’s a jerk before he gets tortured for months, and he’s a jerk afterwards.  This Wade is only sympathetic when he’s juxtaposed with worse people (that’s kind of the movie’s schtick; Wade is a scummy mercenary, but when you compare him to Francis he seems okay), and it’s a sort of relativism that doesn’t quite work for me.

Probably the most off-putting thing about the movie is the way it uses Colossus as a laughing stock.  I quite like Colossus as a character; he’s unshakably earnest about everything, and his sense of idealism, while often unrealistic, instills a sense of hope that I don’t often see in other superhero characters (sometimes you just want your heroes to be heroes).  Deadpool takes that template and applies it to Colossus in a context where he’s totally unable to defend rhetorically defend himself.  He advocates for mercy against enemies, being respectful to others who want to hurt you, and just being a generally stand up person.  Of course, there are dimensions to Colossus’s characterization that might be easily overlooked like the fact that he’s literally impervious to harm, so it’s easy for him to be magnanimous (contrast that with Wade, who can recover from any hurt but feels it all fully, and Francis, who is desensitized to pain so he’s able to inflict it more efficiently on others).  Colossus advocates from a position of strength, and while I legitimately want to buy into that philosophy, he’s also clueless about how trauma informs a person’s decision making (only in this movie though; Piotr Rasputin has been through a lot of personal trauma in the comics, and I adore his character for it); he’s a steel straw man who’s set up so Wade can easily knock him down with studied cynicism.

Other aspects of the movie are just weird.  Much of the material for the story are pulled from Joe Kelly’s run on the original Deadpool ongoing series from the mid-’90s.  That series introduced Weasel, Blind Al, and the backstory with Francis; these side characters are mostly left aside in more recent Deadpool stories (Weasel was the first in a series of sidekick-like friends who would occasionally backstab Wade for personal gain) because they’re very much of the ’90s, and most superhero fans would rather forget that time in comics history.  Blind Al doesn’t translate well here; she was always a problematic character (her relationship to Wade in the comics was much more prisoner than disgruntled roommate), and it just doesn’t read as funny to see Wade picking on a blind person (on reflection the comics had some major problems too, but at least there Kelly would take time to present Wade’s treatment of Al as dark and seriously messed up).  Francis is a really minor character from the Marvel universe who seems, like everything else, to have been adapted for the movie because he calls back to Deadpool’s ’90s history.  It’s all a bunch of very odd choices for a character whose highest prominence in comics comes a decade later when most of that weird history had been jettisoned.

Overall, Deadpool isn’t a bad movie.  Some of it is genuinely entertaining.  For me though, it feels like too much.  The glorified violence, the sneering cynicism, the jokes that pick on people who simply shouldn’t be targets; it’s not appealing.

Reading “The Judge of All the Earth”

The third issue of Watchmen escalates the stakes of the plot set forward in the first issue.  Up to this point, Rorschach has been operating under the assumption that someone is targeting superheroes, but the scale of this kind of scheme hasn’t seemed particularly grandiose.  Murder is foul stuff, but it’s entirely possible that it could be a personal vendetta.  With this issue, we see how Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan, the only actually superpowered person in this reality is targeted, and we’re given a sense of how serious this plot could end up being.

We’ve had glimpses up to this point of background details about Watchmen‘s world that indicate how different it is from our own.  In the 1985 of Watchmen, Nixon was never forced to resign the presidency (he’s actually managed to get re-elected multiple times), the Soviet Union isn’t on the brink of economic collapse (Cold War tensions are remarkably high), and America has continued to push its luck on the global stage.  These events are all implied to be the result of the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan’s work as American operatives (though never stated explicitly, it’s reasonable to assume that much of the Comedian’s work was to cover up Nixon’s dirty dealings; Dr. Manhattan’s powers are such that he’s become a key part of America’s global defense against the Soviets).  The purpose of this set up is to explore the implications of how the existence of superheroes actually would influence events in the real world (one of the pervasive absurdities of the superhero genre is that superheroes exist in a world that’s very much like our own, but they never have any impact on society outside of their own fantastic adventures); what Moore and Gibbons imagine is a pretty bleak picture where the equilibrium of the Cold War never came about because America had a persistent edge, preventing both sides from choosing to de-escalate for fear of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Despite all the melodrama going on in the superhero plot, the arc between these two feels much more emotionally resonant. They’re stuck in a story where what they do doesn’t affect anyone, but everyone else’s actions impact them. (Artwork and letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

This issue ends with the backlash that comes from America losing the keystone of its global power structure.  We start with the introduction of a pair of characters that Moore is going to revisit regularly throughout the series: the news vendor and the Black teenager who passes the time reading comics by the vendor’s shop.  We get the sense quickly that the news vendor is a bit of a blowhard, but he’s generally a benign figure.  He’s polite to the doomsayer that we’ve seen pop up in each issue, and though he grumbles about the teen reading comics without paying for them, he never chases the boy off (you get the sense that he’s just happy to have some regular company).  The news vendor mentions that one of the local magazines, the Nova Express, is holding its edition until the evening; from there we jump to the offices of Nova Express where a woman, Janey Slater, is giving an interview about her history with Jon Osterman and her recent diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.  It happens that on this same day, Osterman is scheduled to give a live television interview, which gets interrupted by a reporter from Nova Express, Doug Roth, breaking the news that there appears to be a link between close association with Osterman and the development of virulent cancer.  Everyone seizes on this story and presses Osterman on it until in frustration he sends them all away (he can do that) and exiles himself to Mars.  The issue closes with the news vendor getting the evening edition of the New York Gazette which announces on the front page that the Soviets are advancing into Afghanistan following Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance.

Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that it’s meant to have worldwide implications.  What’s most interesting about this issue though is that while you have scenes flashing back and forth between Jon’s evening and Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg’s (Laurie walks out on Jon after she discovers that he’s been working on an experiment at the same time he was attempting to have a threesome with her and a copy of himself–he can do that too–and ends up spending the evening catching up with Dan by way of beating up a gang of would-be muggers), the emotional core of the issue is with the news vendor and the teen.  Alan Moore’s said multiple times over the course of his career that he thinks superheroes are an immature story genre; his contempt for the concept comes through here, but it’s counterbalanced by the presentation of these normal people who don’t really have any control whatsoever over the situation.  Superheroes do things that should have massive, often catastrophic consequences for other people, but it’s rarely addressed.  Moore makes a point, beginning with this issue, that the things superheroes do would really impact normal folks.

And that’s essentially the theme of this issue.  Forces that are outside the control of most people in the world shape our lives constantly.  The only thing left available to us is the determination to try to be kind to one another when we realize we’re all that each other has.

Reading “…Faster…”

To balance out the unrelenting cynicism of Watchmen, I’ve decided to alternate entries in that series with analysis of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s 2006 series All-Star Superman.  I think it’ll be a nice counterbalance.

Some background: In the early 2000s Marvel launched a line of reboots of their most famous properties set in an alternate universe freed of the decades of continuity that bog down most mainstream Big Two comics.  This was their Ultimate line (I was an ardent fan of the Ultimate X-Men book for many years before Marvel reduced and restructured the line; as a teenager it looked like my best opportunity to jump into comics).  The popularity of the Ultimate books eventually got DC to respond with a line of their own that would involve telling stories of their big heroes divorced from their own snarled continuity.  All-Star Superman was the first in this line, and it was pretty universally acclaimed though the relentless weirdness of the follow up All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder killed enthusiasm for the project (I’ve never read any of that Frank Miller and Jim Lee train wreck, though I wouldn’t be opposed to it if I ever wandered across a collected trade at the public library).

The irony of the All-Star line’s intent is that at least with All-Star Superman continuity isn’t so much jettisoned as remixed and reveled in.  Grant Morrison’s main schtick as a comic writer is that he adores Silver Age comics goofiness but he has more contemporary storytelling sensibilities.  That comes across in the first issue of All-Star Superman where we open on an intrepid explorer and his genetically engineered assistants attempting to collect a sample of the sun as their vessel’s heat shielding starts to crack and one of the assistants reveal that he’s actually an organic time bomb planted on the expedition by Lex Luthor to sabotage everything.

Yeah, this stuff is bananas.

In another comic you’d probably set this crisis up as the main event, the thing that the hero needs to resolve in order for the story to be complete.  Morrison sets this up as the opening act and immediately diffuses the tension by cutting to Lois Lane writing a headline about Superman saving the sun expedition.  Other reporters at the Daily Planet point out that he hasn’t actually saved them yet, but we get the sense that there’s really nothing to worry about.

This episode? Superman does it while his boss is counting down to firing Clark Kent for being late. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant)

This is a major motif that Morrison and Quitely push throughout the entire series: whatever bad thing is going on, Superman has got this.  He’s the original superhero, and attendant with all the god-like powers that he has, we get to rest in the fact that he will always do the right thing, at the right time, to create the right effect.  There’s no room for cynicism or grittiness in this story (which is why I think it pairs nicely with Watchmen).

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story without some kind of conflict, so we learn in the aftermath of Superman saving the explorer Leo Quintum and his expedition to the sun that his body has been overloaded with energy from up close exposure to the solar radiation that gives him his superpowers.  It’s too much even for Superman’s body to metabolize, and he’s given a terminal prognosis.  In the meantime, however, his powers are vastly expanded (Quintum runs strength tests when assessing Superman’s health and finds no discernible upper limit).  Receiving this news puts Superman in a position to decide how he should get his affairs in order, and the issue ends with him revealing his secret identity to Lois as Luthor is taken into custody for his crimes.  We have our great tension for the remainder of the series: will Superman find some way to reverse the cell death, or will he die and have to leave behind a world that must go on without him?

Overall, this is a super comfortable comic to read.  Superman’s a character who is at his best when he’s acting like a paragon of a superhero.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman to fit the Messianic archetype with echoes of Moses and other Jewish leaders who tried to enact the will of God.  It’s this tradition that Superman appeals to, as an agent who acts with perfect judgment, and that prospect is comforting.  He’s not a fallible human in the way that the characters of Watchmen are revealed to be, and while the world he inhabits isn’t realistic, it’s not meant to be.  All-Star Superman is a series that explores the Ur-superhero in a way that highlights what’s best about the genre.  Superman’s supposed to be an inspiring figure, and the conflict at the center of the book is the question of what the world will look like in his absence.  Where Moore and Gibbons ask, “Wouldn’t the world be terrible if we really had superheroes,” Morrison and Quitely ask “Wouldn’t the world be worse if we didn’t dream of them?”

So I Just Saw Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

There was a period a few years back where Warner Bros. had a deal worked out with Netflix that involved the streaming service getting access to a pretty big variety of DC animated movies.  Now, I’m generally more of a Marvel fan, but even I have to admit that when it comes to animated features, DC’s films are the far and away superior product.  I think I watched every DC animated movie that was available on Netflix back then, and I was admittedly sad when the contract expired and they all went away.

If I have any complaints about the visuals, it’s that all the characters have the same body type. I understand superheroes being fit, but after watching the live action Flash television show, I never want to see a version of the character who isn’t built like a sprinter. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Cut to this month, when I’m perusing the Netflix library for things that my students might enjoy watching during lunch time (we eat lunch in our classrooms every day, and sometimes the kids get antsy once they’re done with their meal).  Lo and behold, I spied three new DC animated movies that I’ve not seen before.  I was ecstatic!  I was overjoyed!  I was met with indifference from my students even though several of them love the Flash and Batman.

Needless to say, my students have not seen these movies yet, though I’m sure the time will come in the near future when they’ll be intrigued enough to check them out.  In the mean time, I decided to watch one of them on my own at home.  I figured I’d go in order of release date, just on the off chance there might be some minor continuity nods between films (DC’s animated library has become more self contained over the years, with each movie doing very little to reference plot lines of other movies, but I still figured better to be safe).  With that metric, I settled on The Flashpoint Paradox, the 2013 adaptation of DC’s major comic event Flashpoint that launched their recently ended New 52 continuity (DC continuity’s a complete mess).

Now, I feel like it’s important for me to emphasize here that I am not a continuity nerd for DC the way I am for Marvel (and even that’s only for Marvel heroes that I really like), so I don’t have any real opinions regarding the plot of Flashpoint and its impact on the DC universe.  My interest in The Flashpoint Paradox is purely as a consumer of superhero stories and animated film.

On those metrics, I like it.

The interesting character bits here revolve around Barry Allen, the most prominent of the three major characters who have held the mantle of the Flash.  After saving Central City from an attack by the Rogues (an assortment of Flash villains who like to team up against him) with the help of the Justice League, Barry goes for a run that leads him back in time to the point where his mother was murdered when he was a child, and he saves her, altering the timeline in the process.  Now, apparently the Speed Force, which is the source of all speedsters’ powers in the DC Universe, is also the source of all do-whatever-you-want-with-the-plot devices as well, as Barry’s interference in one event has a retroactive effect on the timeline that totally alters the history of all the members of the Justice League.  Superman’s captured by the government when his rocket crash lands in the middle of Metropolis, Cyborg’s the chief national security adviser for the United States, Hal Jordan wasn’t there to inherit his Green Lantern power ring from Abin Sur, Aquaman and Wonder Woman have destroyed Europe in the course of an ongoing war between their respective nations, and Batman is actually Thomas Wayne who saw his son fatally shot on the night when he and his family were mugged (Martha Wayne also survived and apparently became the Joker, though we don’t get to see her in action).  Oh, and Barry doesn’t have his powers anymore.

This whole set up is clearly playing on the idea of dark alternate timelines and the unforeseen consequences of our actions.  If you’re even vaguely familiar with the core members of the Justice League, the differences are pretty stark (and thankfully, the movie begins with an extended sequence that shows the Justice League as they are in Barry’s regular timeline just in case you aren’t).  I’m generally inclined to quibble about Barry’s decision to save his mother being the nexus from which all other major events in the history of the Justice League’s members collapse (I just have a hard time buying that it’s this tragedy that holds cosmic significance).  The problem that I have with all of this though is that Barry’s unaware that he’s done anything wrong for most of the movie’s run time.  When he wakes up in the new timeline, he doesn’t even remember going back to save his mother in the first place, and the late revelation that the whole thing was orchestrated by the Flash’s arch nemesis the Reverse Flash (I think it’s pretty silly too, but just go with it) really strikes me as a major missed opportunity.  Barry’s decision to save his mother from her murderer should have carry some significant ethical consequences, but structuring everything so that Barry can’t remember that he did it in the first place (let alone knowing he was going to change the entire timeline both before and after that point) lets him off the hook.  Naturally, he’s a superhero and he decides to undo this mistake as soon as he’s capable again (there’s an extended sequence where Barry has Batman help him get struck by lightning–twice–to reacquire his powers; I can’t for the life of me figure out why the movie bothers to have the first attempt be a failure other than for the sake of fidelity to the original comics story, which I’m guessing had the initial failure as an end-of-issue cliffhanger), which isn’t particularly interesting.  Being fully informed of the consequences, of course Barry makes the right choice; I wanted to see the conflict of him making the initial decision when he didn’t fully know the ramifications.

In the way of animation, Flashpoint Paradox is a remarkably beautiful movie.  It has multiple high quality action sequences, and they’re all animated with excellent fluidity.  Really, it’s the visuals that are the movie’s strongest point, and the thing that I ultimately enjoyed the most.  While the plot’s solid enough, and competently structured, it doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that this kind of story should.

There’s A Lot of Superhero Television These Days

Back in the early ’00s when the first X-Men movie came out, I was ecstatic.  I had really been into the X-Men for years at that point (like many children of the ’90s, I discovered an abiding love for them after watching the cartoon), and a live action movie was pretty much the best thing that could have happened in my nerdy world.  It’s important to remember that this was back before superheroes had proven themselves as a viable subject for live action cinema; the previous successful comic book adaptation had been Blade, which had the advantage of being grounded in supernatural horror, which audiences were a little more inclined to take seriously than the four-color world of conventional superheroes.  I was hungry to see more of what film studios could do with superheroes, so I was a pretty voracious consumer of every comic book adaptation of the early ’00s (my greatest claim to shame is the fact that I owned a copy of Daredevil and thought it was objectively a good movie; the only defense I can offer is that it’s clinically proven that teenagers have the worst taste in everything).  This was a rare breed of cinema, and I wanted to drink it all in, just in case the fad passed and there was never another superhero movie beyond Spider-Man 2 (fortunately, by the time Spider-Man 3 came out we had all figured out that Hollywood was going to bleed superheroes dry before moving on to something else, so I gradually learned to have more discerning tastes).

Flash forward a decade, and now we not only have two or three superhero movies coming out every year, but we also have a full range of television shows to choose from as well.  You can indulge yourself in capes and cowls on a weekly basis instead of just as an annual event.

It’s a good time to be a comic book nerd.  The fact that I sometimes still have trouble shaking that nagging feeling that this really is just a pop culture fad that’s going to run its course in a year (particularly on the television front) means that I’m having flashbacks of my youth when I wanted to see everything because it might be all we get.

I have never claimed that being a genre fan is an entirely rational experience.

Of course, being a good deal older this time around, I do try to engage with the media that I’m consuming and evaluate what’s good and what’s problematic.  Enjoying something doesn’t mean you can’t question its presentation.  So in that vein, here’s a (very brief) rundown of my thoughts on the superhero series I’ve been watching on a regular basis for the past few months.Arrow Logo.png

Arrow – I’ve written a few times in the past about my thoughts on Arrow, and much of my earlier assessment still stands.  Arrow is a show about a very rich guy who feels guilty about his unearned privilege and decides to make himself feel better about that privilege by becoming a vigilante who targets white collar criminals.  The later seasons have given in to slight mission creep as the conflicts have shifted towards fighting organized crime (which often fails to explore the implications of a justice system that’s focused only on punishing crime instead of trying to correct the circumstances that lead to the crime in the first place), but the general attitude of the show is still very engaging.  As someone who has never been a major DC Comics fan (aside from the various adaptations of Batman that have popped up over the years), I’m surprised with how much I enjoy watching this series, though I’d chalk that up to it being a generally good action-drama rather than just being a superhero show.TheFLASHlogo.png

The Flash – This show’s still in its first season, and in some ways it’s still incredibly goofy (I want to giggle whenever I see Grant Gustin in the Flash costume, just because he looks so gangly in it; of course, then I think that he actually looks like he has a runner’s body, and I get over my giggles because a hero who’s all about moving fast probably shouldn’t look that buff anyway), but I have to say I’ve been taken with it from the first episode.  If Arrow is a show that’s trying to explore the pathos of vigilantism, Flash is a show that’s trying to explore how much fun it would be to be a superhero.  The two shows inhabit a shared universe, and I think that connective tissue went a long way towards helping me get into Flash.  One thing I particularly love about it is the cast’s diversity.  Of the show’s seven principle actors, three are people of color, and interracial romances are treated as nothing unusual (I know it’s weird to be praising something like this in 2015, but I’m having trouble thinking of other shows that have diverse enough casts to even make such a plot possible).Agents of SHIELD logo

Agents of SHIELD – I’m playing catch up on season 1 at the moment, so I haven’t seen very much, but generally I like it.  Though the main cast is a little white-washed (aside from Ming-Na Wen), the half dozen episodes I’ve seen do a good job of integrating people of color into the stories so that they’re significant players instead of just background.  Of course, this show has Joss Whedon as a guiding influence, so it does slightly better in the realm of gender representation (the six principles are evenly split between men and women, and there’s an even distribution of skills across both sexes).  If they introduce a recurring trans character who’s not a villainous stereotype, then I’ll be pretty happy with the casting.  Plotwise, I know that there’s apparently some drag in the first season as they spend way too long circling the reveal that the shadow agency they keep running into is HYDRA and that it’s infiltrated SHIELD (thanks Captain America: The Winter Soldier!); I’m hoping that because I’m bingeing the season it won’t feel so aggravating for me.AgentCARTER.png

Agent Carter – I’ve only seen the pilot episode at this point, and generally I liked it.  My biggest complaint at this point is probably reflected in my assessment of the other shows that I’ve been watching: this show is white.  Yes, it’s doing some great things depicting an independent woman who’s allowed to be competent at her very dangerous job, but it’s also running into the period piece pitfall of assuming people of color didn’t do anything in the 1940s.  There was a nice bit in the pilot where they made the owner of a swanky nightclub that Carter investigates for fencing one of Howard Stark’s inventions a black man, but then they killed him off once his scene was over.  I was disappointed that he didn’t turn into a recurring character (and from what I hear, he’s the last black person you see until episode 4, so that’s not very encouraging).  I’m hoping for great things from Agent Carter, but I worry it’s going to be end up disappointing as it falls into the trap of pitting one axis of feminism against another.

So I Just Saw Batman Returns

Every December, Rachael and I get in the mood for Christmas movies.  This is not terribly unusual for anyone who celebrates Christmas.

We go through several standards every year: The Muppet Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and if we can find an easily available copy, A Christmas Story (this one’s not as good as the first two, so we don’t sweat it if we don’t get to watch it).  The other night we had finished up with A Christmas Story when I decided it was time that I sit down and wrap some presents.  Being the media junkie that I am, I opened up Netflix and browsed through the selection for something appropriate for background noise.

Batman returns poster2.jpg

Theatrical release poster. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I found Batman Returns.

After making the obligatory quip about finding a Christmas movie more my speed (Rachael’s initial reaction was, “It’s a Christmas movie?”), I settled in to wrap some gifts and revel in some Burton era cheesy Batman (I have come to the realization since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy came out that all previous Batman movies are filled to the brim with camp; we just never realized it because Burton’s take looks downright grim next to Schumacher’s).

In a lot of ways, this movie’s still really fun.  Burton’s signature style revolves around juxtaposing the grim with the playful, and there’s plenty of both in Batman Returns.  I mean, this is a movie where you have a scene in which the villain bites a guy’s nose so that it’s gushing blood, and also a scene where Batman’s remote controlled batarang gets foiled by a toy poodle catching it in midair.  Both scenes are absurd, but they shoot in opposite directions on the scale of visual levity.  Add in the fact that Christopher Walken plays the tertiary villain of the movie, and you get a tone that’s really delightful in its zaniness.

Unfortunately, this movie’s not perfect.  It’s not perfect, because it has Catwoman.

As Rachael remarked while we were watching the movie, “It’s a shame that Catwoman’s such a great character, but she never gets portrayed well.”

capntightpants submitted:Has this one been submitted yet? I’m worried Catwoman will be relaunched with her spine already broken. :( This has been submitted to me dozens and dozens of times today. XD  So I should probably put it up and replace the image that was in queue.

In honor of the fact that Catwoman never gets treated right, and was probably never meant to be treated right, here’s that infamous cover from her relaunched book that features her broken spine as a shoutout to “Knightfall.” (Image credit: Escher Girls)

I’m inclined to agree, though I think poor portrayals of Catwoman stem more from her nature as a character.  Bob Kane’s on record as saying that he and Bill Finger designed her to represent the fickle and distant nature that he felt was inherent to women (Kane did at least have the good sense to admit that people would find his opinion sexist, which it is).  She’s always been intended as an anti-villain, someone who dangles the possibility of redemption out there, but who never quite crosses the line into heroism (which was apparently supposed to be a metaphor for how women can almost be actual friends with men, but never quite get there; thank God sensibilities evolve, right?), and I think this nature is her weakness as a character.  Catwoman is based on an idea that’s false and sexist all the way through, so she’s going to take some serious re-imagining in order to become a less problematic character.

Batman Returns fails on pretty much every level to fix those problems.


And just because this amuses me, a spoof of that cover if the pose were drawn from a different angle. (Image credit: Escher Girls)

In this movie, Catwoman takes her villainous turn after her boss murders her, and through Burton magic, she’s imbued with the sensibilities and extra lives of a cat (I don’t think Catwoman has ever been portrayed as superhuman besides in this film, and it’s really out of line with the general subtext of Batman stories that involve a lot of psychologically damaged but otherwise normal people running around in funny costumes fighting each other).  Apparently, in this universe, the sensibilities of a cat mean that she becomes a hypersexual straw feminist who relentlessly teases every man and berates every woman she interacts with.  Given that a majority of the movie delves into the weird repression of its three main characters (well, the weird repression of Batman and Catwoman, anyway; the Penguin is completely unbound id, which makes him a particularly pathetic character when you think about his motivations for ultimately attacking Gotham), this treatment kind of makes sense, but where Batman’s struggles with his identity have some element of nuance, and the Penguin’s utter failure to assimilate into society has lovely tragic undertones, Catwoman’s motivation boils down to the fact that she has no stable man in her life, and that enrages her to the point of having a psychotic break.

So to review, the guy who dresses up as a rodent and drives around town in a fancy car fighting crime is a complex person who has doubts about his own reasons for what he does, the guy who’s an outcast because he was born with a deformity and never properly socialized gets to have a tragic character arc, and the woman who runs around in vinyl and tries to kill a bunch of people just really needs to get laid by a man who doesn’t have megalomania.  Glad we got those character concepts straightened out.

Merry Christmas.

Let’s Talk About Deadpool

In the scheme of the X-Men universe, there are a lot of different teams and characters to follow.  Even though it’s a subset of the larger Marvel universe, it’s very easy to think of the X-Men and their related characters as their own thing.  There’s certainly enough diversity in the cast with multiple team books aimed at different types of superhero stories (the X-Men for straightforward heroics, X-Factor for something with a bit of a detective bent, any incarnation of X-Force for higher grade violence and action, Wolverine for smaller scale stories featuring a lone wolf hero against impossible odds, and so on).  The major unifying element of all these different brands is that they’re high on melodrama and angst over the mutant issue.

I’ve read through all the back issues and trust me, angst is a big part of X-Men history.


So when I was reading through the stuff from the early ’90s (you know, the period when X-Men was starting to get some major mainstream visibility thanks to the Saturday morning cartoon), I was really taken with the introduction of Deadpool.

For anyone who’s not familiar, Deadpool is a character created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld (Nicieza is a competent comic book writer whose material can probably best be described as fun, and Liefeld is a hack artist with no sense of human anatomy who was inexplicably popular during the ’90s).  He was originally conceived as an antagonist for the New Mutants (who would soon become the first version of X-Force; I don’t think I can stress enough what a disappointment X-Force was as the follow-up from the first volume of New Mutants), but the fact that he was also an inside joke at Marvel as a copy of DC’s villain Deathstroke eventually led him to be re-branded as a comedic anti-hero.  Eventually he gained enough popularity to earn his own solo book, which has forever after been associated with other X-books, even though Deadpool isn’t a mutant and his personal connections to other prominent mutants (primarily Wolverine and Cable) is tenuous at best.

Yes, Deadpool is punching out zombie Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes this comic can be really tasteless. Cover of Deadpool Vol. 3 #4 (Image credit: Comic Vine)

And even though there’s not a whole lot about Deadpool that fits thematically in with the X-Men, his various solo series (he’s currently starring in the third volume of his ongoing series, and has had way more spin-off and mini-series than is healthy for a solo character) have generally been a welcome change of pace.  Deadpool’s definitely a tragic character in his own right (he’s horribly disfigured by his healing factor, which was developed as a cure to his cancer, and he’s also insane due to the rapid regeneration of his brain matter), but most of the time he’s played for laughs as a comic book character who knows he’s in a comic book.

My opinion of him vacillates between enjoyment and annoyance, based mostly on how his books compare with other X-books that run contemporaneously with them.  The early stuff, like Joe Kelly and Christopher Priest’s runs on Deadpool Vol. 1 are generally good stuff with plenty of comedy and just a hint of pathos thrown in.  Later entries are more mixed; while Fabian Nicieza’s Cable & Deadpool was fun, it was never anything I was terribly thrilled to be reading, and Daniel Way’s run on Deadpool Vol. 2 was pretty much in the same category.  The various spinoff series typically strike me as far inferior works that rely on extra violence and toilet humor to get by.

That brings me to Volume 3, which has been co-written so far by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan.  I’m not familiar with any of Duggan’s other work, but Posehn’s notable for his career as a stand up comic and character actor.  I’ll be honest when I say that I was exhausted with Deadpool comics by the time I came across this one.  Where I’m generally positively disposed towards the creative teams on the X-books for putting up an effort in the last decade to tell interesting stories without trading on lowest common denominator things (like absurd violence, sophomoric jokes, and poorly written, ludicrously drawn female characters), Deadpool’s series just never hit the same bar of expectations.  I mean, the first major arc of Deadpool Vol. 3 revolves around him killing zombie U.S. presidents (all of them) that have been resurrected to take over the country.

This is not just silly stuff, but also stupid in multiple ways.

At the same time, Deadpool is a character that occasionally gets stories that do pour on the pathos.  The most recent arc that I read from Volume 3, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly,” was surprisingly poignant, and has instilled in me some kind of hope that future issues will maintain the level of quality from that story.  Of course, that one isn’t perfect either, since much of the pathos comes from the fact that Deadpool learns he has a daughter by way of a woman that he slept with only a couple issues prior to this arc as part of an extended gag (the issue where that happens is branded as a flashback story of one of Deadpool’s adventures from the ’70s; it’s full of ’70s pop culture cliches and all around ridiculous).  The woman gets no further development besides being an obscure sexual conquest from Deadpool’s fictional history, and then she’s unceremoniously found dead at the climax of the story arc to give Deadpool mounds and mounds of angst (the only way this could be more classic women in refrigerators is if her body was found in an icebox instead of a mass grave).  And I just don’t know what to do with that.  It’s really problematic as a plot device, but the way Deadpool’s portrayed in the issue that follows his discovery is also extremely compelling.

And that probably best sums Deadpool up.  He has a lot of potential to be a very compelling character, both for drama and comedy, but he’s wrapped up in so many narrative problems endemic to superhero comics.  It’s a difficult puzzle to unwrap, because his point within the Marvel universe is to be someone that all the regular heroes have trouble getting along with because of his distasteful personality and penchant for unrestrained violence.  Unfortunately, characters who are written that way have a tendency to attract certain kinds of narratives, and the devices that come up in those narratives are always going to be difficult to separate from interesting characterization and lazy, grotesque, sexist writing.

Time Travel and Superheroes

Time travel is kind of a popular plot point in superhero fiction.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an understatement.

Time travel is a really popular plot point in superhero fiction.

After one too many irritating lava deaths in Minecraft (I feel that as someone who takes on the persona of a dwarf whenever I play that particular game, it is my responsibility to not only dig, but always dig too deep), I recently jumped back into reading X-Men comics in my spare time, and in the couple days I’ve been binging, I’ve read three separate stories by different writers that revolve around time travel.  When I write that down it seems excessive since the span of issues that I read were probably all published within the same twelve-month period.  Of course, then I think back to all the really famous X-Men plotlines (“Days of Future Past,” “Age of Apocalypse,” anything relating to Cable) that involve time travel, and I realize that there’s just a very strong superhero tradition of mucking around with the time-space continuum (at least with the X-Men).

And I can see why it’s such a popular plot device too.  Comics are a highly visual medium, and in the superhero genre part of the appeal of the format is that you get to show off a lot of rad looking pictures of your characters doing incredible things.  Introducing time travel to a story gives the artist more or less free reign to reimagine however they like existing characters as alternate versions of themselves.  In many ways it’s a visual feast because superhero fans love to see new character designs.

Besides the visual element, it’s also just a lot of fun to play what-if games with characters in ongoing series where the writers don’t have the editorial freedom to enforce change and growth in their characters (who must be handed off to other writers in the publisher’s stable relatively intact).  If you do an alternate future (or present, because sometimes changing stuff in the past happens too) then it’s cool to go weird places because nothing has to impact the core continuity when the story’s over if the editor doesn’t want it to.

So the three stories I recently read about time travel also happen to take three different approaches to the format, which is pretty nifty.  Two of them fall into a pretty standard “beware the future” structure while the third takes that whole thing and inverts it.  What I mean is that the typical “beware the future” plot revolves around the heroes’ exposure to a potential timeline where something goes horribly wrong (typically related to a recent bit of drama in whatever book where the story is being featured).  Fairly often a major villain has come to power, or someone on the team has been corrupted and taken over the world (superheroes are rather vulnerable to future corruption; the whole genre might fall apart if someone ever found a way to just make the alternate future evil versions of everyone jump back into the past at the same time).  In both “Fight the Future,” the final story arc from the third volume of New Mutants, and “Final Execution,” the final story arc from Uncanny X-Force Volume 1, the respective teams get confronted by future evil versions of themselves and have to make decisions about the way they are handling their missions that will impact whether or not they become what they’re fighting against.

In the New Mutants’ case, they’re trying to prevent a future Doug Ramsey (calling himself the TrueFriend) who has taken over all of humanity with a cybernetic virus that allows him to control everyone who’s infected from reaching into the past and eliminating all possible future timelines except his own.  There’s a good bit of pathos poured into present Doug, since much of that series deals with the ramifications of him being rather unceremoniously resurrected (as a villain) during a previous major crossover event for the X-books.

For X-Force, the future timeline involves the team’s decision to take over the world as a totalitarian police force that executes all known criminals and then resorts to executing potential criminals through the use of precognitive technology (you know, like Minority Report).  The problem here is the apparent escalation of X-Force’s stated mission (to kill the enemies of mutantkind) to the point of becoming fascists (the story brings up a recurring theme in superhero fiction of the dilemma between being reactionary heroes or pre-emptive enforcers).  The whole alternate future hinges on decisions that the team will have to make only hours after it returns from that timeline, and I think it works pretty well as a bit of drama, even if it’s really nothing terribly new (most of the stuff in superhero fiction isn’t anyway).

Those are both pretty typical examples of how the convention tends to work, and I honestly thought they were both perfectly serviceable stories that capped off some character threads that the authors (Daniel Abnett for New Mutants and Rick Remender for Uncanny X-Force) had been working on for most of their runs.  Pretty good stuff.

Now, the third example is still kind of blowing my mind, mostly because of the way it’s been framed.  In the first arc for All New X-Men, the book that replaced Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 (Volume 3 apparently started up in 2013, but I haven’t gotten to those issues yet), Beast is dying (he gets better) from something in his secondary mutation (the one that turned him into a lion man way back at the start of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men in 2001) going haywire, and he’s despairing over the thought of dying while the X-Men are in shambles with Cyclops a fugitive terrorist and Charles Xavier dead (because of Cyclops, naturally).  Beast is so desperate, in fact, that he decides to go back in time and persuade the teenage versions of the five original X-Men to come see how the world has turned out and, he hopes, persuade Cyclops to see just how off base he’s become.

Alright, so that’s a little convoluted and involves a lot of stuff that happened in the Avengers vs. X-Men event that happened about two years ago.  The important thing about this time travel story is that we’re following everything from the perspective of Beast in what we would think of as the present.  When he goes back and we see him juxtaposed with the young, clean cut (still absurdly white and affluent) original X-Men, it hits home that unlike every other time travel story involving a bad alternate future, we have the full context of how Beast got to where he is now.  There’s fifty years of history leading up to this point in continuity, and (if you’re obsessive like me) we can read it.  The X-Men’s present is a bad alternate future from the perspective of their past selves.

Oh, and that plot arc ends with all the teen originals deciding to stay in the present until they fix things (whatever that means), which is just fun and nifty because it means that the continuity that’s been the primary one for Marvel since the ’60s has just been turned into an alternate future.  Also, it’s probably the most elegant way to bring Jean Grey back into regular continuity that I could imagine, since it has absolutely nothing to do with the Phoenix, and it creates a nice tension between the immense history of the character (both in-universe and out) and this new iteration who hasn’t experienced any of that stuff.

I think that’s a pretty cool twist on time travel.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 7/11/13

Back from vacation, and finally caught up on all the stuff that’s been going on since the last roundup.  Look for thoughts on my vacation tomorrow, and for now, enjoy these links!


Lightning (Photo credit: Pete Hunt)

1. A student of design at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem has come up with a design for a compact living space that’s made from two sheets of fabric stitched together.

2. Over at i09, we get a history lesson on a time when the Pope decided everyone was going to skip ten days on the calendar, and some people didn’t like that.

3. Fred Clark at Slacktivist has an answer to Richard Beck’s post about mattering that I discussed today.

4. The Avant/Gard Diaries recently published an interview they did with the Seattle vigilante Phoenix Jones.  I’m doubtful that what this guy is doing is really safe for the public, but I have to admit that he seems to have a real conviction about improving his community.

5. I love The Simpsons.  I enjoy Game of Thrones.  I adore Game of Thrones Simpsonized.

6. Rachel Held Evans is taking a break from the internet for a few weeks, but before she left, she posted this excellent rumination on the problem with biblical literalism as most people understand it.  Evans is a truly remarkable person in the blogosphere, because she very adeptly walks the fine moderate line.  Even if she’s not posting anything new for a while, take some time to check out her older content.

7. I am quickly becoming a fan of Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology in a big way.  Here’s a post he wrote two days ago in regards to an ongoing series he’s doing where he reads through the complete works of theologian William Stringfellow (that’s an awesome name).  There’s so much that’s interesting about this post, but if I have to pick out one thing to draw your attention, read the section regarding Stringfellow’s thoughts on prayer following his diagnoses with a debilitating disease.

8. A write-up on an incident that happened recently at a convention where someone thought it would be funny to slap stickers that said ‘fake geek girl’ on the rear ends of women attending the convention.  The behavior of the person who did this is reprehensible, but I can’t help feeling that Harris O’Malley, who blogs as Dr. NerdLove (his schtick is that he gives dating advice to nerds) and who originally created the stickers that the perpetrator used, made a misstep in trying to satirize the issue this way.  It probably speaks more to my own ignorance, but just looking at the sticker I couldn’t tell that it was meant to be making fun of the issue.

9. This one’s a downer, because it’s a story about how a child recently died after she had received a highly experimental trachea implant that was grown from her own stem cells.  The implant appears to have been a success, but other complications eventually killed her.  Despite the sad end to this story, I’m glad to know that treatments like this one are being researched and that the state of our healthcare technology is always getting better.

10. This couple had a Batgirl/Nightwing themed wedding, and it looks classy as heck.  Also, the photography’s really good.

11. Another brief post from Experimental Theology.  There’s something profound about boiling your understanding of the world to “sin and mercy.”

12. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons in the past with some very good friends.  It never threatened to harm my immortal soul.  Mostly there was just a lot of goofiness and endless attempts to frustrate the DM.

13. This one’s mostly just a horror story, but it’s a true one.  I’d put it in the same category as the above link regarding the unfortunate girl with the trachea implant as something that saddens me because it happened, but also leaves me happy because people continue to expand and refine our scientific knowledge so that better, more effective treatments for all the malaise in the world can be found.

14. Striking a blow for gender equality, this guy’s taking a firm stance that he is not doing anything special by being a stay-at-home dad.  I love that he rejects the hero rhetoric by pointing out that he can’t lose no matter what he does while his wife can’t win with the same set of choices.  Kudos for writing the article, now get back to work; your children need you.

15. Following up on the last trailer for Sharknado we have this new one featuring a guy slicing a shark in half with a chainsaw.  The made-for-TV movie airs tonight, and for once, I regret that I don’t have cable.

16. I’m sharing this mostly because it references Watchmen heavily in its discussion of the different kinds of intelligences that humans display.  They make a good point that what we typically emphasize when we talk about intelligence relates to logic, while if we’re looking to enhance human capabilities in order to improve society, we should be thinking more along the lines of improving empathy.

17. Yet another post from Experimental Theology (just go read Richard Beck’s blog yourself; it’ll save me time sharing all this stuff), this time discussing the issue of gender dynamics within the Church.  Beck’s response to the whole mess is very thoughtful, and he cuts through the arguments to one simple question: are we grasping for power when we enforce gender roles, or are we seeking to serve one another as Jesus commanded?

18. And to wrap up, something amazing.  Rachael and I recently had our own personal experience with the awe and wonder of lightning, and I can say that seeing it this way is much cooler.