Friday Feature: Womanthology

A few weeks ago we had a strong feminist week here at the Playground and I was honored to be a part of it. It made me really proud to know the women I know and to read about the places they find support in the face of geek misogyny.

But this week I was reading some articles about DC character redesigns, women in video games, and the future and past of the comic book industry. The articles themselves are pretty innocuous, but I made the horrible mistake of reading the comments sections – and I’m once again pretty disappointed with a certain subgroup of fans.

It seems that for many male geeks in 2013, the treatment of women at conventions, the negative/detrimental portrayal of women in big industry products, and the dearth of female creators are just not problems.

To these fellows, I’ve noticed, all stories are written for them and since they’re not women, video game and comic book creators really shouldn’t worry about creating stories that feature women positively (at the expense of some aspect of their favorite male character). And why should they care if their industry of choice made any effort at equality behind the scenes? One particularly insulting comment indicated that women should really lower their expectations and stop making demands of a culture that just wasn’t for them.

It’s enough to make me and those like me literally angry with rage.

But enough rambling, on to the good news of this week’s Friday Feature: Womanthology!

It began as a kickstarter campaign with the express purpose of doing a comic anthology collection that featured only female creators throughout. They succeeded in their goal (and then some) and ended up with over 140 talented women in the final edition – and the creators run from the already-famous (such as Gail Simone, Ann Nocenti, and Fiona Staples) to the never-published.

The full cover of Womanthology: Heroic

The first volume, Womanthology: Heroic, was geared toward the theme of (as the title indicates) hero stories. A second volume, Womanthology: Space, features sci-fi tales.

My hardcover edition of Womanthology: Heroic, is bigger than a normal trade hardcover. It’s sort of “coffee table book” size, and it’s format suits that – most of the stories are just a couple of pages and can be read quickly amid the conversation you’ll start by having it on display in your living room.

As with any anthology, it’s hit-and-miss as far as stories you’ll like and stories you won’t, but there are a few stories I encountered in my copy of Heroic that were created by relatively no-name creators that I really hope I see more of in the future.

The full cover of Womanthology: Space

The big deal about Womanthology is that it’s still a big deal. A world where there are just as many lady geeks as dude geeks needs to also be a world where there are just as many lady creators as dude creators.

On the day that literally no one else cares that there’s an anthology of comics created by just women, or the day when a book with an all male creative team is just as surprising, then we can look back on the day that Womanthology began and smile, saying “Gosh. Remember when that guy said this industry wasn’t for women? What a joke!”


Why Comics Growing Up Means Universes Have to Die…

Spoilers for New Avengers

What makes modern day comics so interesting in the “gray” areas in which they decide to tread.

In the medium’s early years of “flight and tights” stories, it was all about truth, justice, and the American way. Everything was black and white; you knew who the good guys and the villains were, and you knew the outcome every time…

The heroes would do the “heroic” thing, and win.

There wasn’t a discussion of the morality of the action. There didn’t need to be. Captain America just had to punch Hitler or Superman just had to save Lois one more time. This was the norm.  No one questioned it either. It was a lovely naivete that we all accepted, and we enjoyed the stories that came with it.

Yet, as the years went by, comics grew up along with its readers. Nowadays, things are not so clean cut for our heroes. Yes, there is still Cap, Superman, and all the other classics, but they are put into situations that would never have crossed the minds of their original creators. They force the reader to question their own ethics and morality, and to examine these “heroes” in a different light.

This brings us to New Avengers…


New Avengers focuses on the Illuminati of the Marvel universe, a secret cabal formed to take care of the universe ending threats that may come upon Earth. Its membership includes Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange, Black Bolt, Namor, Black Panther, Captain America, and most recently Beast (who took the deceased Charles Xavier’s position.) These men shape the Marvel universe from the background, and safeguard existence without anyone’s knowledge.

Since its relaunch, the group has been dealing with “incursions” into our universe. These incursions are where a parallel universe starts overlapping with our own, and if not stopped, destroys both in the process.

The group spends the first couple of issues trying to find ways to stop this from happening; even to the point of using a reality warping deus ex machina (the infinity gauntlet) to “push” one of the encroaching universes back. Of course, this only works once due to the gauntlet’s destruction, and the Illuminati are left to wonder what they need to do next.  This invariably leads them to a singular conclusion…

Destroy the other universes.

It is a terrifying thought, but a completely rational conclusion. If nothing is done, both universes will be destroyed; so why not destroy one in order to save the other? It is the classic ethical debate, the moral quandary that has been discussed by Ethicists and Philosophers for years.  Do you kill the one to save the many? Do you let some people die, so that not all will?  Yet, instead of reading it in a textbook, we get it played out in our comics…

This type of discussion forces the reader to confront his or her own feelings on the issue. As you read the page, you find yourself naturally drifting to one side of the argument or the other.  As the reader travels deeper into the story, they too find our more about themselves in the reading.

How far would you go to save your planet? What lines would you cross to what you believe is right? We are able to live vicariously through some of our most iconic heroes as they play out their own answers to those very questions…

Sometimes doing things that we didn’t think they would…

This is what differentiates modern comics from most of the Gold and Silver age stories. Those were written to make you feel good, to experience a bit of escapism, and maybe some pro-America propaganda (lookin’ at you, Cap.)

Now, there are many mainstream comics out there that exist not only to tell a good story, but to make you think along the way. This, of course, leads to much more adult and darker story beats; not for the sake of being edgy but for greater narrative depth.

Long gone are the days of yore where your heroes were always the “good” guys. We live in a world where people get their hands dirty when trying to do the “right” thing; where even our heroes are living in shades of gray in the name of protecting all of us. Modern comics have given writers the opportunity to discuss these types of philosophical and ethical issues in a medium whose typical reader wouldn’t be normally interested in such discussions.

Because comics have “grown up,” they have become an open forum to discuss topics like racism, sexism, morality, ethics, sex, philosophy, religion, and so much more. Writers today don’t want your comics to just be about escapism, they want you to use your mind in the process.

The flipside to all of this is the fact that there has been an innocence lost in our comics. Now that we culturally have crossed some line, there is no going back to that old way of doing things.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means things are different now, and different can be good.

The age of the morally ambiguous hero is upon us, and the stories that will come out of this will be incredibly interesting. Whether it is the questionable actions of the Illuminati, Superior Spiderman’s gang of spider-thugs, or the ENTIRE concept of the Suicide Squad; these stories would have been impossible to tell before; at least in their current form.

Only time will tell if we ever find our way back to the “flight and tights,” days, but until then all we can do is look back, remember who we were and wonder where our heroes are going next.

Friday Feature: Cosplayers

This week’s Friday Feature is actually more of an anti-feature.

After having watched almost all of two episodes of SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay show, where manufactured drama rules the day and 3/4 of the conversation is about how much cleavage is too much, I’ve decided to feature:

10 Better Cosplay Costumes Than You’ll See on SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay!

In the Video Game Character Category:

Gaige from Borderlands 2

Corvo Atano from Dishonored

In the TV Show Character Category:

Princess Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Zoe from Firefly

Marcy and Simon from Adventure Time (If you know the episode these cosplayers are referencing, feel free to take a moment to tear up now.)

In the Movie Character Category:

Merida from Brave

Bounty Hunter Leia and General Grievous from Star Wars Episodes VI and III respectively

And finally, in the Comic Book Character category:

Old School Animal Man (Who wins every costume contest I’m judging.)

Alana and Marko from Saga

And as bonus:

Brokeback Pose Hawkeye (A True Believer in the Hawkeye Initiative.)

This week’s Friday Feature is here to save you some time. Don’t bother with SyFy’s lame attempt at geek fan-service and sex appeal. Most of the images from this post are lifted from Comics Alliance’s “Best Cosplay Ever (This Week)” column. If you’d like to see great quality cosplay from ordinary folks that love what they do, do yourself a favor and go there instead.

The Term is Companion: Sex Work on Firefly

Geek Lord and feminist extraordinaire Joss Whedon is well-known for creating interesting and complex women characters. Even non-nerds are familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the girl hero who showed us that being an ass-kicking demon hunter and having a talent for accessorizing butterfly clips with chunky heels are not mutually exclusive characteristics.

Another Whedon character that was just as revolutionary, though less prominent in the popular consciousness, is Inara Serra, the beautiful and sophisticated “companion” aboard the spaceship Serenity on the short-lived but brilliant series Firefly.

Inara is respected, well-educated, kind, independent, and clever. She also happens to be a sex worker.

Actually, “The term is companion,” as ship’s mechanic Kaylee tells brash Captain Mal when he refers to Inara as a whore.

In the universe of Firefly, prostitution is a well-regulated and respectable business. Companions belong to a guild that protects the health and safety of sex workers, and which places the power to define the parameters of an encounter firmly in the hands of the sex worker.

“A companion chooses her own clients. That’s guild law,” Inara explains.

Of course, even when a companion has the opportunity to screen her clients, there is still the possibility of encountering danger. In episode #6, “Shindig,” Inara is threatened and verbally abused by a client who turns out to be less charming than he initially seemed. But the Companion’s Guild empowers Inara to protect herself and others from his abuse.

Atherton: Get ready to starve. I’ll see to it you never work again.

Inara: Actually, that’s not how it works. You see, you’ve earned yourself a black mark in the client registry. No companion is going to contract with you ever again.

By networking through technology that allows them to easily communicate with each other, companions are able to ensure that clients who pose any threat to their safety – or who simply do not treat them with respect – will never be clients again.

Inara searches an online database to screen potential clients

While Firefly takes place some hundreds of years in the future, the technology to make a “Companions Guild” a reality exists right now. By harnessing the power of 21st century technology, we can create a world in which the abuse, exploitation, and murder of sex workers becomes a thing of the past.

In his study “Prostitution 3.0,” University of Chicago professor Scott Peppet observes that the internet has already had a positive influence on the too-often dangerous world of prostitution. As new technology has enabled sex workers to find clients online, street prostitution has decreased. Pimps are becoming a thing of the past as sex workers have gained the ability to book their own clients online, decreasing the risk of physical, emotional, and financial exploitation.

What still needs to be developed, says Peppet, is a system that, like the Companion’s Guild, verifies the STD status, criminal history, anti-trafficking credentials (which verify that the sex worker is of age, a legal citizen or resident, has no history of drug abuse, etc.), and biometric identity (which verifies that the individual is who s/he says s/he is online) of both sex worker and client.

Inara chats with a potential client from her shuttle

With current technologies at our fingertips, these systems would be simple to create.

However, the illegality of prostitution has prevented the development of technologies that would ensure the safety of consenting sex workers and keep underage people and victims of trafficking from being abused and exploited. In many states, any actions that “advance or promote prostitution” are criminalized – which would include the development of the technologies Peppet envisions.

While moralists may claim that laws against prostitution are intended to protect women and children, in practice they often have the opposite effect. The fact is that making prostitution illegal does not make it disappear – it usually just makes it much more dangerous.

We can turn back to Firefly for a picture of the darker side of prostitution – in episode #13, “Heart of Gold,” the crew is called on to help save an unauthorized, illegal brothel from powerful local Rance Burgess, who abuses and exploits the women who work there. He has threatened to kill Petaline, a prostitute who is carrying his child, as well as the rest of the workers in the brothel, if she does not hand the baby over to him.

Rance’s despicable speech to a riled up mob encapsulates his attitude towards the women:

“Sharri here, [a prostitute who has been bribed to help Rance] she understands a whore’s place, don’t she? But…those others, they spit on our town.  They’ve no respect for the sanctity of fatherhood, or decency, or family…we will show them what power is.  We will show them what their position in this town is. Let us all remember, right here and now, what a woman is to a man… [to Sharri:] Get on your knees.”

Illegal prostitution keeps sex workers disempowered, with no one to turn to when they are victimized by clients, pimps, police, and other authority figures. Because in the real world, there are no heroes showing up in a spaceship to defend them from exploitation.

But the same tool that allows me to share in-depth articles about cancelled sci-fi shows can also serve as a tool to prevent the exploitation of sex workers. If an online “Companions Guild-esque” system for sex workers were legalized, they would be empowered to  lead lives that are safe, healthy, and fulfilling.

While many people believe that sex work is harmful or immoral –  even many feminists – a major goal of feminism is to give women full agency over their own bodies and lives, to trust women to make choices based on their own personal morals. The online sex worker’s networks that Whedon and Peppet envision respect women’s ability to, like Inara and  the other fictional women that we admire,  safely and freely live the lives that they choose.  

Friday Feature: Arkham Asylum

So this week’s primary post talked about how mental illness is presented in horror fiction and how Batman comics in particular have handled it. In the article I said that using mental illness to create horror and suspense was a trope of the horror genre. I still believe that’s true, but I wanted to add a little bit to that statement.

Just because a story utilizes a genre trope doesn’t mean it is a bad story or that it was badly written. 

On the contrary, most tropes only become tropes because they began as very effective storytelling tools.

With that in mind, I am going to strongly recommend Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. It’s a phenomenal and evocative story that touches on some very primal and some very cerebral fears.

The cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum.

The story that Morrison and McKean tell is unlike a true Batman story in almost every way. By Morrison’s own admission we know that the story is meant to be a dream sequence taken out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares.

We witness very little of the Batman we know and love in this story. Instead, we a see fear-plagued pawn in the Asylum’s game. Morrison and McKean manage to present a Batman who is both ineffectual and strikingly cruel – both self-doubting and self-righteous. 

An example of this Batman’s cruelty: He kicks the wheelchair-bound Dr. Destiny down what appears to be a flight of stairs.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the comic than I already have, but it is full of symbolism: religious, literary, historical, and psychological. All of it provokes strong reactions (at least from me). In the midst of McKean’s striking surrealist art style, and Morrison’s disturbed writing, a chilling psychological thrill emerges, and it’s well worth the read.

An expositional encounter with the Mad Hatter.

Finally, I want to note that this comic is definitely not for everyone. It’s a psychological horror story in a super-hero’s cape. It contains suicide, self-mutilation, implied sexual assault, and is sometimes graphic in its depiction of violence.

If you’re a horror fan and you’ve always found yourself wondering what would cause Gotham’s Dark Knight to wake in a cold sweat, then Arkham Asylum should sail to the top of your must-read list.

Asylum and Cage

What does “asylum” mean?

For comic book enthusiasts the word may primarily be tied to a big mansion on the outskirts of Gotham city: Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.

The history of Arkham Asylum has been explored in comics and, if you count them, video games. In the strongest telling of it, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the late Amadeus Arkham, who watched his mother slowly lose her grip on her mind, founded the Asylum in the old mansion belonging to his family to provide help for those for whom, according to his own words, “their only crime is mental illness.”  Batman notes in this story that the Asylum’s imposing, dark architecture and rumors of haunting by Arkham’s ghost make it hard to imagine that any healing happens there.

If you’re a loyal Batman reader, then this past month you were treated to Batman Annual #2 – a chapter entitled “Cages.”  It was a story of Arkham Asylum’s oldest and newest residents.

Batman Annual #2 (2013).

The oldest, a character called “Anchoress,” committed herself to the care of the Asylum before the days of Batman and the super-criminals. She’d killed her parents in what was either an accident or a fit of rage, and chose the safety of the Asylum over the harsh terrain of judgement found in Gotham.

The newest is Batman himself, who is there to try and escape, testing the new security measures in the facility.

Anchoress brings to light several issues that are not often considered in reading stories about Gotham’s darkest criminals.

She makes it clear what her definition of asylum is: a space of safety and, for her, healing.

But she blames Batman for what the Asylum has become: a cage for dangerous people. You see, when Batman came along and started locking up the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and the other Gotham super-criminals, none of the well-meaning doctors of Arkham had time to help people any more. All of their time was devoted to trying to keep the super-dangerous from the general public.

This point is punctuated by Batman’s presence in Arkham for this issue. His purpose in the Asylum on that night is to ensure that the facility can keep the criminals in, not to see that the Asylum tries to heal patients.

On the other side of Arkham, however, a plucky new Arkham employee tells his more seasoned supervisor, “I don’t think anyone’s beyond help, or saving.”

In Morrison and McKean’s tale of Arkham Asylum, we see the Joker and Batman competing with any narrative of healing that the founder or the well-meaning doctors may have wanted.  Joker, true to form, taunts the doctors, Batman, and the other patients with sexual innuendo, and blackmail , while Batman actively works against some of the doctors who are trying to help Two-Face.

His doctor had been recognized his neurosis as being tied to his signature coin. The polarization of all of his decisions down to “yes” or “no” was hurting his perception of the world – too much duality. She worked him up to a die, with six choices instead of two, and then to a tarot card deck, with 72. Batman, seeing no progress, but rather a man who was paralyzed with too many choices, returned Two-Face his coin saying, “it’s only the madness that makes us who we are.”

Mental illness is often a trope of writers who want to create horror and suspense. Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is certainly frightening, it uses symbolism tied to Batman’s rogues gallery and the troubled journals of Amadeus Arkham to create the Dark Knight’s nightmare.

But behind every eerie sensation and disturbing image is the ghost of the mental illnesses that plague these characters.

Joker’s tauntings from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).

Mental illness is incomprehensible for those of us who don’t have it and, I would imagine, mortifying for those who do. Even one of my favorite horror authors, H.P. Lovecraft, concluded most of his stories with a character slipping into insanity. (Trivia: Arkham is the name of a fictional New England town in Lovecraft’s universe.) Many horror and fantasy writers reference Lovecraft as a significant influence.

But where do we draw the line between horror fiction and exploitation? Does the consistent use of mental illness as a tool of fear create real-world fear of people with mental illness? It’s easy to see why people with mental illness would seek an asylum – a place away from the dangers of judgement and fear.

This concept of asylum is important. As the Anchoress would say, people facing mental illness – if they’re to have any hope – need to have a safe place to heal.

But Batman’s methods take away the safety that the asylees need by turning it into a glorified prison for super-criminals, some of whom probably don’t belong (Would the Penguin really count as “criminally insane” or just criminally greedy? The Riddler may be criminally prideful, but insane?).

In the case of Arkham, Batman offers asylum to the Gothamites. They’re made safe from those people they can’t control. But the actual denizens of the asylum are made to live in cages. They’re denied any chance at healing because the doctors can’t be both healers and wardens.

Friday Feature: The Flog

Earlier this week, Ramsay highlighted the significance of subtle feminism (which would make a great band name, by the way) on Parks and Recreation.  For today’s Friday Feature, I’d like to introduce another misogyny-free, woman-empowering, geek destination: Felicia Day’s vlog, The Flog.

The-flog_slider_1Queen Geek Felicia Day (of Dr. Horrible and The Guild fame) is a true fangirl’s fangirl.  In addition to the cred that comes with having played recurring roles on shows like Supernatural, Dollhouse, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Felicia has done a huge part to represent for women gamers, both through her role as girl gamer Codex on The Guild and in the male-dominated gaming community at large.  the-guild-season-three-20100225040839390-000She’s also the founder of Geek & Sundry, a YouTube channel featuring shows that star other nerd notables like Wil Wheaton as well as less well-known but equally entertaining bunches of comic book lovers, cosplayers, comedians, and geeks of all stripes.  Like most women who produce content on the internet, Felicia has been at the receiving end of sexist and negative comments from misogynistic trolls, but has overcome the haters by creating an online community where creativity takes precedence over criticism.unnamedMy personal Geek & Sundry fave, The Flog reinforces what seems to be an overarching theme in Felicia Day’s life: nerdy girls can do anything.  In each episode Felicia unlocks real-life achievements, from parkour to blacksmithing to milking a goat.  Her nerd-thusiasm for every new activity is infectious, and makes you want to go out and try something new, too…as soon as you can stop watching YouTube videos.