Writing Sexy Well

99% of the time, when someone talks about the sexualization of pop culture, they mean it in a negative way. I’m guilty of this negative thinking, of course. I get annoyed when characters (especially female) are included in stories just to be sexy counterparts to the main character. The writer of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DeConnick, calls this the “sexy lamp” paradox — if a character could be replaced with a nice looking lamp and not really change the story at all, then you have a problem.

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t want a comic culture completely devoid of sex (or sexiness). After all, sex is a pretty natural and (nearly) universal aspect of humanity. It’s valuable to have art and stories that address sex in a comfortable and honest way, while still dealing with the strange social conventions (and shame and discomfort) that come with it.

That’s what Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky does.

When the book first began it’s monthly run, I was resistant. First of all, I had just read a book by Matt Fraction that I didn’t really like, so I was suspicious of all the hype he was getting as a writer on a new Image title. Secondly, there was just so much hype. After a while, reading comic journalistic outlets became frustrating. “We get it, already, Sex Criminals is starting soon…” Thirdly, I thought the concept of the book sounded kind of lame. The back cover reads: “Girl meets boy, girl hooks up with boy, and for the first time in their lives they find themselves alone, together. So they do what any new young couple having sex and freezing time might do: they rob banks.”

That summary is eye-roll inducing at best.

But I waited a few months and the hype didn’t die down. Every month Sex Criminals was getting rave reviews and was earning more and more buzz in the comics community. The first issue went into 5 print runs. That means it sold out at least 4 times before they quit selling it.

I wasn’t even convinced by its popularity until I saw the 4th printing cover of issue 1.

When I saw it, I was ready to pony up the dollars to check it out. Unfortunately my local comic book shop at the time sold out of that printing and so I didn’t get to read it until this past month when Volume 1 of Sex Criminals was released. It collects issues #1-5.

I don’t want to spoil the comic too much because it’s worth reading on your own another time but here’s the core concept: whenever Suzie (the female lead) or Jon (the male lead) orgasm, time stops around them. The first volume is mostly about the conditions under which they meet and decide to attempt the “crime” that earns the book its title.

Despite the setting, the majority of the book is actually a realistic (or at least believable) look at how adolescent-to-teenage people encounter sex. In Jon’s words, “Back then sex was everywhere… and, like, nowhere at the same time. Right?”

Suzie and Jon are introduced to sex in different ways. Perhaps both in ways that women and men can identify with respectively. Suzie “stops time” before she understands what sexuality is, and is met with resistance whenever she asks questions from those who might know. Her mother refuses to answer anything and offers only shame, her doctor dissuades her from experiencing (or asking about) sex until she’s married, even her peers can only offer more confusion – since they are equally uninformed.

Jon doesn’t get it either – he just understands sex as something adults did “like doing your taxes,” and then doesn’t understand why he wants so badly “to do his taxes.” Instead of seeking answers from someone who might know, Jon goes to the next best authority figure: porn. For both of them, sex is a secret and opens them up to a world of more secrets.

Suzie calls it “the Quiet” – the period after sex when the time stops around them – because the rest of the world stops making any sound. (Jon calls it something else, decidedly NSFW.) The Quiet seems like a good metaphor for the way adolescents and teens are exposed to sex for the first time. It’s secret, but it’s all around them; it’s private, and it’s weird; it’s confusing and it’s unfathomably desirable.

Suzie and Jon’s first time together in the Quiet.

Aside from the way Sex Criminals handles the attitudes of each character toward sex, and the development of each one’s sexuality, the book also does something impeccable. It is honest about how funny sex is! Let’s think for a second and be honest with ourselves – sex is weird and fun and awkward and it makes us giggle. While the humor in this book doesn’t always stem from sexual encounters, it’s disarming and makes the whole book feel more authentic.

When you pick up Sex Criminals, keep an eye out for the subtle (or not so subtle) jokes in the background. Plenty of the porn titles seen in the background of a sex shop had me laughing outloud while I read.

It’s refreshing to see a comic book that is so comfortable with sexuality. I was suspect of the campy, B-Reel movie plot that is teased on the back cover, but this book has a lot more going for it that can’t be summed up in cover quotes and blurbs. Pop-culture has a love-hate relationship with sex – it either falls into the trap of feigned maturity (masking immaturity) that oversexualizes characters and situations (usually female characters), or it avoids the topic of sex entirely. It’s not that every comic book has to mention sex to tell “real” stories, but telling stories about human experience must sometimes require acknowledging our sexual natures.

Sex Criminals is definitely the exception to the rule. It’s disarmingly tongue in-cheek, but without belittling sexuality; it speaks seriously about social conventions of sex, but without being a treatise on sex-positive child-rearing.

Comics have grown up. For real this time. Instead of pretending to be grown-up by being ridiculously violent, now they’re effortlessly comfortable with their own sexuality. That’s a good thing, and I’m interested to see if it’s a new trend or just a flash in the pan.

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Yorick Brown and Women After Mass Descruction

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So, I was a little late to this game.

Nearly 12 years late, to be more precise.

But I finally was introduced to Y: the Last Man, a comic book series that follows the story of Yorick, the last man on Earth after a mysterious plague wipes out every other male on the planet in an instant, and his Capuchin monkey (also a uniquely surviving male), Ampersand. He’s hoping to find his fiancée who was in Australia when the “plague” hit, but before he can get there, he’s obliged to let top scientist & cloning expert Dr. Allison Mann trace what might’ve made him & Ampersand immune; and secret agent “355” is assigned to help them get from D.C. to Mann’s lab in California.

The comic (created by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra) is apparently was originally released as monthly & bimonthly serials from September 2002 through March 2008. But, I blazed through the 10-volume edition in about 2 days.

(This would explain my initial confusion over the pacing — it takes place over the course of about 5 years, but it took me a little while to grasp that).

The series is referred to throughout the interwebs as “beloved”, and mixed sighs of relief & groans of despair emerged this January when the years-long attempt to turn it into a movie seemed to have officially failed. It has a strong, loyal following, and many fans have since endorsed Vaughan’s current series, Saga (including our very own Stewart Self).

However, I was completely unaware of its fan following, reputation, or that Vaughan was at all involved with Saga when I picked up Volume 1 last week. My boyfriend had been suggesting it for months, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

The scenario propelling the story really is fascinating — it asks us, what would literally happen to modern society if all the males died? As the kind of “foreword” to Volume 2 points out,

  • 495 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are now dead
  • 99% of all mechanics, electricians, and construction workers are now deceased
  • Israel is the only country with a wide range of skilled soldiers still alive (none of the US army’s 200,000 female troops have ever participated in ground combat, and only 13 nations besides Israel trained them to see any)
  • Worldwide, 85% of all government representatives are now dead
  • Though 51% of the planet’s agricultural labor force is still alive

In the series itself, these statistics & the “plague” create some interesting specifics:

  • The new US president is the former Secretary of Agriculture — everyone above her in the line of succession was male
  • Supermodels have found new jobs — one is a mortician & body collector for the government
  • The US congress is now suddenly almost entirely Democrats (though the wives of deceased Republican congressmen want to change that by succeeding their husbands’ seats)
  • Geopolitical power is determined almost entirely by what military roles women happened to be allowed into before the plague
From p. 48 in Volume 6

From p. 48 in Volume 6

I was intrigued, for sure. The first volume piqued my interest, enough even to carry me through some eye-roll-inducing moments in 2 & 3 (“[Motorcycles] are tougher to score than Double-A batteries for your vibrator, lady.”) and straw-man feminists (the Daughters of the Amazon cult is especially noxious, but in hindsight maybe it’s realistic & interesting that terrorists would co-opt such a loaded title).

Even with the eye-rolls I endured at moments in Volumes 2 & 3, I was hooked by the end of Volume 4.

Despite the comic’s title, the story isn’t really about Yorick, the “Last Man”. And, to be honest, he isn’t even the most interesting character (I rank him at #4 on my personal list). In this way, he reminds me of Piper Chapman on Orange is the New Black — he & Piper are the trails we follow as the reader (or viewer), but they really serve as a conduit to introduce us to other, more interesting characters’ paths along the way. The series is really about women; not men, or even one man.

And what a well-developed, complex, and compelling bunch of women they are!

My top “interesting character” is Agent 355, a sort of extra covert agent from a historic government security ring who is escorting Yorick & Dr. Mann in their journey. Through multiple flashbacks sprinkled believably throughout the 5-year story arc (and this is another way it reminds me of Orange is the New Black), we come to understand a fair bit of what made Agent 355 who she is today. Her personality and her motives are not neatly packaged & served up as an inevitable product of her experiences, however — she has her own agency and makes her own choices as an individual, not just as an agent, nor just as a woman. We see her character turn from reluctant to willing killer, and then in a way circle back again.

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Next on my list would be “Alter” Tse’elon, an Israeli Defense Forces Colonel who becomes the de facto Chief of the General Staff, and appears up throughout the series, across multiple continents. Her motivations are mysterious; she makes up her own moral code and refuses to deviate from it, to the point of becoming a very flawed character (but flawed is real; realer than the Strong Female Character Trope, I’d say). And I think she is her own unique, complex brand of disturbed. Think Dexter Morgan or Macchiavelli’s Prince, perhaps.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Alter discusses her plans with her compatriot Sadie on page 61 of Volume 3.

Third, I choose “Beth #2” on my “interesting character” list. She’s a determined survivor, and uses her well-honed savviness & empathy to successfully interact with potential threats & allies around her. She’s a former flight attendant and a lapsed Catholic, yet she shelters herself in a church through most of the series. And, honestly, she just seems cool.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

Beth isn’t exactly religious these days, but she isn’t ready to dismiss everything the Church ever stood for.

There are other characters I found fascinating — Dr. Allison Mann, who was on the verge of cloning a human when the plague struck and may be the only way to figure out what spared Yorick; Yorick’s confused, angry-yet-penitent sister Hero; a lesbian Australian spy named Rose, and even the aforementioned ex-supermodel-turned-mortician, Waverly. But those earlier three are at the tip-top of my list.

Yorick himself is not a flimsy character, I should point out. Yes, he can be immature & annoying at first (he is just a 22-year-old when it starts, after all), but if you read further into the series (ahem, Volume 4…) you realize this is an intentional and temporary choice by the creators.

An element I find fascinating about Y the Last Man is how humans need to find a cause & reason for this “plague” — to the point of even creating a new mythology to explain it.

The Daughters of the Amazon (my least favorite part of the series, as I found them to be rather straw-man feminist-y with weird, brainwashing/predatory lesbianism aspects) have concluded that Mother Earth saw fit to purge herself of the mutant males. The newly populated “Sons of Arizona” believe it’s a conspiracy by the Federal government in order to usurp states’ rights, and that a shadow government is lying in wait. A tiny, ancient Vatican order believes God wants the church to pull the world out of this new “dark” age through a second Virgin birth.

The remaining populace seems desperate to find a way to explain, and maybe even justify, what has happened — and to justify their own responses to the crisis.

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

355 trying, unsuccessfully, to reason with the new “Sons of Arizona”

The way women choose to react — or react despite their best efforts — to this new world varies widely. Looting & pillaging is rampant at first across much of the world, but some communities (like the released convicts from a women’s prison) shape a successful society almost immediately. Many women turn to self-medicating or suicide. Some attempt to (almost literally) fill the exact roles that men filled (like the women joining the “Sons of Arizona” or the Republican congressmen’s wives who want to take over their seats). Others proclaim to reject everything about patriarchal society, but seem to fail miserably at doing so (the Daughters of the Amazon). Still others are content to take what they like from the old world & abandon what no longer works, without worrying over anything but what feels right to them in this new time.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

Waverly, the supermodel-turned-mortician, decided to create new traditions for her new job & society.

What I appreciate about Y: The Last Man is that the comic doesn’t say that there’s a “right way” for women to respond to the tragedy, nor a “right” way to shape the new society. We don’t get the answers to all our questions in the end, and therefore we don’t get the easy out of knowing who to blame. Life was complicated before all but one of the men died, and it stayed complicated and confusing after. Everyone is still a little bit right and a little bit wrong (well, maybe some people are a lot a bit wrong) yet it’s clear how everyone can believe they’re the hero of their own story — not just Yorick. He’s just the vehicle to let them tell their stories.

Sacrificing Peter; or Why the Amazing Spider-Man may not be so Amazing

I’m a fan of superheroics. Whether it has been Superman, Captain America, Batman, Green Lantern; I’ve always had a soft spot for those sorts of stories. Yet, despite my ever changing tastes there has always been one character that will always stick with me…

Peter Parker.

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Let’s rewind a little bit…

Growing up, school was always rough for me. By the time I had reached middle school being picked on had become routine, and the question had become whether or not I was going to get beat up in the process. I didn’t have many friends, and the fact that I was into video games, computing, and Star Wars sure didn’t help my case any. Most days ended with me getting home and wondering if I should ever go back to that place.

I dreamed of escape. I prayed for some way to fight back. I hoped for a way to make it all end.

It was about that time that I ran into Peter.

To this day, I can’t remember what exact series of events led me to stumble into Spider-man’s adventures, but it was just what I needed at the time.

Here was a story about a kid in high school, not too unlike myself. He was picked on, beat up, and could talk to girls just about as well as I could. (Which was not at all.) He was completely powerless until one day when some spider bit him. Then everything changed…

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It was complete and utter wish fulfillment for me. I saw myself in Peter Parker and took hope that if this nerdy guy can make it, albeit with superpowers, maybe I could get through this as well.

I firmly believe that Peter Parker is one of the reasons I made it through those rough years. Many, many years later now, I can still look back and read those comics and feel that connection to the character.

It’s probably why I was so shocked to see Peter as a skateboarding hipster in the newer film, The Amazing Spider-man.

My initial reaction was that my own nostalgia was getting in the way, but the more I thought about it, the more it got to me. This Peter was cool, a social outcast, maybe; but cool nonetheless. This Peter saves a nerd from getting beat up in the film, a role classically reserved for Peter himself. This Peter could charm Gwen Stacy.

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Everything had seemingly flipped upside down.

The Amazing Spider-man was a good action movie and did well enough that the sequel is coming out this summer. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t feel like a Spider-man movie.

The CG may be better, and Andrew Garfield’s body build looks better in the suit than Toby Maguire’s did, and the fight scenes may be a heck of a lot cooler; but there’s something missing.

What made Peter Parker so wonderful for so many of us was that he was just some kid thrown into unimaginable situations. He had the same problems that we all had; being picked on, school, girl trouble, plus the added stress of super-heroics and all the problems that caused.

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In this new film, Peter might has well have been destined for fights and tights. His parents were scientists and if the trailer for the sequel is to be believed, it’s implied that his father is responsible for many of Spider-man’s classic foes.

This cheapens his hero’s journey and takes away something that made him so amazing (pun intended.)

It is not heroic to fix your father’s mistakes, nor to solve your own. What makes Peter great is that he was an average kid, with un-average powers, that decided to put life and limb on the line for others for no other reason than he believed it was the right thing to do.

It is the fact that Peter is just, “one of us,” that makes his choice to don the mask truly incredible. He’s not just another guy in tights fighting super villains. He’s our “friendly neighborhood Spider-man!” For better or for worse, the new film seemingly loses that amidst the spectacle.

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It’s ironic that my last post here on the Playground was about the dangers of nostalgia and how it can effect our experiences; and one could argue that I need to listen to myself on this one. The difference here is that unlike other “re-interpretations” [see Transformers] that keep the spirit of the original, The Amazing Spider-man completely changes the core of the main character.

This is not the Peter Parker who inspired me to survive. This is not the nerd who had to be set up on a date with the prettiest girl in school by his aunt, because he was too busy with science projects. This “new” Peter is hip and trendy and coming from a totally different place. He’s the outsider, the underappreciated genius, the teen with the charming smile. Growing up, I would say I want to be this Peter; yet I look to the classic interpretation and know I am him.

As I have said in previous posts, I am glad we are getting more Spider-man stories. Nerd culture is better for it, and they always make for a good summer blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that we had to sacrifice Peter Parker to make that happen.

 Parker 7

 

Friday Feature: Pretty Deadly

I’ve briefly mentioned Pretty Deadly before on the blog, but it’s never been the subject of a Friday Feature. Part of my reasoning behind not featuring it until now was that I wasn’t certain about where it was going or how I felt about it.

Before issue #1 came out, Pretty Deadly had already experienced a higher-than-average hyping up. Part of this came from writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who was excited to be working with artist Emma Rios on an all-female creative team.

Who can really blame her? Female creatorship is still pretty rare in the industry and having a creative team that passes the Bechdel test is even more unusual than having a book that does.

But the other side of that coin is that a lot of the hype came for this book just based on her excitement to be working with another woman. Again, not a bad thing, but we didn’t really know anything about the story (unless you dug deep through comics journalism) until after the book debuted.

Plenty of people ordered the book just because of the creative team with no other information. I was one of them. I wanted to support these creators (and publishers that support their creators and let the creators keep ownership of their work).

But when I read issue #1, I was a bit confused at the end of it. I liked what I saw, but I didn’t really have a good idea of where the story was headed. Debut issues of new comic titles are difficult – you have to both sell the audience on a new story and end on a compelling enough cliffhanger that they feel like they’re going to get their money’s worth out of the next issue.

I’m not totally sure that Pretty Deadly #1 did that. But after finishing issue #5 this week, I’m certain that despite my early misgivings Pretty Deadly is a solid book that lives up to promises it made in issue #1 that I didn’t even realize it was making.

DeConnick and Rios create a new mythology of the wild west in Pretty Deadly. With characters like “the Mason,” his wife “Beauty,” Death and his Daughter, Molly Raven and Johnny Coyote – this book his strongly on prototypically mythological beats. Gods or godlike characters clash with one another in a cosmic drama that plays out before us, with ramifications on a human scale.

One of Pretty Deadly’s mythic story beats: Beauty asks Death for her freedom.

Pretty Deadly is still somewhat of an all-or-nothing book. Most people either love it or hate it. The haters out there are saying that not enough happens, the characters are too vague, or that DeConnick is trying to mask a lack of drama with poetic writing.

They’re outright wrong about not enough happening. The pace of the book is variable, but there’s never an issue when the plot doesn’t advance. As far as vague characters and poetic writing go, these are characteristics of mythologies. No one story can tell you everything about a deity, why should we know everything about Ginny (Death’s Daughter) after one comic arc.

The art of Pretty Deadly is unparalleled in the industry. One of its primary colors is orange – which paints beautiful sunsets and assigns color to the arid feel of the western plains. Aside from the use of color, Rios’ penciling is beautiful, detailed, and emotional.

All in all, I think Pretty Deadly is one of the best books on shelves these days – but it does appeal very strongly to my taste for the mythic. Many will think the art is worth the cover price, and I would agree there, but if you look for story in your comic book purchase, know what you’re getting into.

Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

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According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.