The Hero with a 1001 Faces

ActionHeroineThe Hero with a Thousand Faces was first published in 1949. With it, author Joseph Campbell established the monomyth, a theory that all heroic stories followed a single and common narrative. Some people consider it to be the most influential book of the 20th century. Surely George Lucas would agree.

Campbell was a smart guy who devoted his life to studying literature and world mythology. But his treatise on the hero’s journey had one conspicuous flaw. It never acknowledged a woman’s unique monomyth.

“Women don’t need to make the journey,” he infamously said at one point. “In every mythology, the woman is already there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

In other words: sit tight, ladies. Your hero will return to the hearthfire when he’s done squashing Grendel (Beowulf) and the Galactic Empire (Luke Skywalker).

Sadly, it’s true. The list of female action heroines who are at the center of their worlds and carry the largest burden of agency throughout their narrative is pretty short.

We can’t blame Campbell for this, of course. But we can blame him for the idea that “women don’t need to make the journey.” The belief that female stories do not matter has led to the disempowerment of women as a social group.

The female voice is horrendously absent or muted in the most influential forms of global cultural expression. Think about it. If women’s stories don’t matter, how easy is it to conclude their dignity and even their lives are equally irrelevant?

That’s the argument made by Satine Phoenix and R.K. Syrus, the authors of The Action Heroine’s Journey. Part writing manual and part feminist dialectic, Phoenix and Syrus (with the help of Christopher Vogler) revisit Campbell’s 17-step hero’s journey and whittles it down to 12 basic elements that are specific to the female monomyth.

The guide takes writers from the heroine’s initial awakening (her call to adventure) to her hierarchy of needs and to her ultimate “boss fight.” It ends when the action heroine builds her sheltering love.

Throughout the process, the authors compare and contrast the heroine’s journey to the hero’s journey. They’re careful not to negate Campbell’s initial theories, but they vigorously argue for the action heroine’s place in mythic storytelling. “Action heroines have it the same, but different,” they conclude.

Says Phoenix: “Like Ellen Ripley (Alien), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Sarah Connor (The Terminator), our champions will have many identities and guises. She will have 1001 faces, and that is how we will recognize her each time she appears to us.”

[The Action Heroine’s Journey / By Satine Phoenix and R.K. Syrus / First Printing: June 2016 / ISBN: 9781910890035]

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Every Line Tells It’s Own Story

drawthelineThink back to when you were in high school. What type of kid were you? A nerd? A jock? A kamikaze girl? Were you quiet and invisible? Or were you the captain of your school’s pep squad? Maybe, perhaps, you were a superhero?

Sixteen-year-old Adrian Piper wasn’t exactly a superhero. But he was an artist with a webcomic. To him, drawing comics was liberating and empowering. “My art is my superpower,” he says. “And I’m not afraid to use it.”

Adrian’s webcomic was about a character named Graphite, a “weird, sexy superhero/Renaissance hybrid creation.” Unlike other comic book heroes, Graphite didn’t fight criminals or smash monsters. In fact he didn’t do very much at all. He was simply a dreamy bishi boy who lived on the moon in a palace filled with art and beauty.

Graphite was also gay, and Adrian used his creation to express his own sexual orientation. As such, Draw the Line is a huge corker of a novel about secret identities, wish fulfillment, transformation, and sexual awakening. It’s a great example of how superhero fiction is able to rise above genre restrictions.

Eventually Adrian has the confidence to embrace his sexual identity. But at the beginning of the novel he’s a lonely, confused, and frustrated kid. “I’m outwardly gay on the inside, but inwardly gay on the outside,” he tells his friends. Truly, the only way he felt comfortable expressing himself was via Graphite, his idealized superhero avatar.

However, after witnessing a group of drunken football players beat up a flamboyantly gay classmate, Adrian decided he couldn’t stay in his bubble of silence any longer. Not only does he orchestrate a wildly convoluted plan to derail the jock hegemony at his Texas high school, but he also unleashes his inner gay superhero. He even attends an end-of-novel Halloween bash dressed as Graphite, the bishonen boy wonder.

Draw the Line suffers from patchy writing here and there, but the book is filled with a handful of truly great moments. One of the best involves Adrian’s first sexual encounter. Writing sex scenes isn’t easy, but author Laurent Linn takes special care to do it properly. The tussle between the sheets is sweet and awkward and will undoubtedly resonate with readers who are gay, straight, and non-binary alike.

Linn also does a good job of punctuating Adrian’s plight with 86 pages of supplemental artwork. Not only do these illustrations mark Adrian’s struggles and achievements, but they also speak directly to the power of comic book sequential storytelling. Linn quotes artist Gillian Redwood at the beginning of his novel, and we think her quote is also a fine way to conclude this review: “Every line tells its own story, even the very tentative ones.”

[Draw the Line / By Laurent Linn / First Published: May 2016 / ISBN: 9781481452809]

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Curse of the Black Widow

redvengeanceHere in Margaret Stohl’s terrific second Black Widow novel, our favorite raven-haired superspy was still suffering from a lingering existential crisis. Was the Black Widow a person? Was she a brand? Was she a secret weapon? The last hope of humanity? A lunch box? A Halloween costume?

Natasha Romanoff had known what she was before S.H.I.E.L.D. begat its Avengers Initiative. Back then her life followed a clear linear path. She was a Russian, an orphan, a widow, a spy, a killer, a defector, an American, and a weapon.

But after saving humanity numerous times, the mighty Avengers had become celebrities. For Natasha, who had been trained for the secrecy of black ops and stealth fighters, the whole thing was untenable. For one thing, she wasn’t comfortable in the public’s eye. And for another, it was hard to pull off covert ops when your face was on billboards and cereal boxes.

These issues combined with shocking revelations from Stohl’s first book (Black Widow: Forever Red) put Natasha in a tailspin. Her fate – and her future – was just a tragic web spun by the deadliest of friends and the deadliest of assassins. From the Red Room’s Black Widow program, to S.H.I.E.L.D., to the Avengers, she was never truly in control of her own destiny.

One thing she could count on, however, was the infrastructure of violence – the bomb maker’s workshop, the terrorist’s hideout, the sniper’s abandoned rifle. These were things that she couldn’t escape. They were her job and her life. “Death and destruction. Loss and pain. That’s what my dreams are made of,” she tells Phil Coulson at one point.

Stohl has written another fractured spy thriller with a big chunk of buried Black Widow backstory. Despite being a decorated superhero, Natasha still couldn’t escape her formative years enrolled in Russia’s secret spy school. Pain was power, she told herself every day. Keeping her wounds fresh was the only way she knew how to be the Black Widow.

With a little help from her friends Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, and the Red Widow (no spoilers from us!), Natasha shuts down a nuclear threat and a chemical-weapons attack in Manhattan. As always, the Black Widow was able to complete her mission impossible.

But the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. Author Stohl is on the hook for a third Black Widow volume, and that means Natasha Romanoff, Avenger, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, hero of the people, woman of steel and stone, will have to face her demons one more time. “I’m Russian,” she says with a shrug. “Taking a punch is in my DNA.”

[Black Widow: Red Vengeance / By Margaret Stohl / First Printing: October 2016 / ISBN: 9781484773475]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , ,

Live! In the Link Age 11.08.16

bloodfinal2Who doesn’t like a mad monster party? Not us. From Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man to Destroy All Monsters to Freddy vs. Jason to Hotel Transylvania, we love all sorts of monster mash-ups. The werewolf-vampire crossover, in particular, is probably the most enduring hook up of all time. In Matthew Phillion’s latest Indestructibles short story (“Blood and Bone” / First Printing: October 2016), Titus Whispering, the group’s 300-pound teen wolf, encounters a vampire for the first time. “Our kind used to be enemies, you know,” says the porcelain-skinned bloodsucker during the pair’s graveyard rendezvous. “When the world was young. Our purposes were antithetical, instinct and manipulation, rage and desire, meat and blood, living and dead. But time makes for strange bedfellows, doesn’t it?” Yes it does. After discussing mortality and morality, the two creatures of the night join forces to battle the “real” monsters (hint: the human kind). In the end, Titus couldn’t decide whether he’d just made a friend or gained a nemesis. But that’s the way it goes when werewolves and vampires get together. Same as it ever was time immemorial.

The Refrigerator Monologues is an upcoming mosaic novel about superhero wives, girlfriends, and anyone who’s ever been stuffed into a refrigerator (By Katherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu / First Printing: June 2017 / ISBN: 9781481459341). The publisher calls it “a ferocious riff on women in comics” and we have no doubt that it’ll be awesome. Both Valente and Wu are solid creators who have impressive backlists. Look for this one to be high on our Best Of 2017 list.

Author Lisa Yee is obviously having a blast writing novels based on the DC Super Hero Girls franchise. She’s already written two books featuring Wonder Woman and Supergirl (see our reviews here and here). And next year she’ll be releasing two more: Batgirl at Super Hero High and Katana at Super Hero High. In our opinion, Yee is doing a great job with this ongoing series. “Super High” five! Hopefully she’ll stick around long enough to write novels about the entire cast. In particular, we’d like to see her tackle a Big Barda story sometime soon.

Not surprisingly, Marvel is releasing a raft of Doctor Strange related publications to supplement the Sorcerer Supreme’s movie debut. We’ve previously talked about Devin Grayson’s prose novel, The Fate of Dreams. Here are some other titles worth mentioning: Doctor Strange Little Golden Book by Arie Kaplan, Michael Atiyeh, and Michael Borkowski, Doctor Strange: Mystery of the Dark Magic: A Mighty Marvel Chapter Book by Brandon T. Snider and Chris Sotomayor, Phase Three: Marvel’s Doctor Strange by Alex Irvine, Color Your Own Doctor Strange by Steve Ditko, Frank Brunner, and Chris Bachalo, and Doctor Strange: The Art of the Movie by Jacob Johnson.

Raised by a robot, an android, and the disembodied brain of a renowned scientist, Curt Newton grows up to become a high-flying superhero named Captain Future (Avengers of the Moon / By Allen Steele / First Printing: April 2017 / ISBN: 9780765382184). “A rollicking golden age sci-fi good time,” says Hugo Award-winning author David Brin.

Ben Langdon (author of Small Sacrifices) talks about how important diversity is in superhero fiction. “In the past,” he says, “superheroes were generally white, middle-class, and American. But that’s definitely changing.” Shout hooray. Check out Langdon’s video chat here: Representing Diversity in Fictional Heroes.

Captain Superlative is the story about a quiet kid who becomes obsessed with the masked superhero at his middle school. Expect to see J.S. Puller’s novel in the fall of 2018.

Submissions alert: “The Supreme Archvillain Election is a superhero prose fiction anthology open to anyone, tentatively until May 2017,” says publisher and editor, Den Warren. “It’s the perfect vehicle for published authors of prose superhero fiction to promote their work. New writers are also welcome. Stories and characters must be original or public domain. No fan fiction.”

Interviews: Margaret Stohl, author of Black Widow: Red Vengeance (here and here). Devin Grayson, author of Doctor Strange: The Fate of Dreams (here). Shea Fontana, author of DC Super Hero Girls: Hits and Myths (here). Michael Bailey, author of Action Figures (here).

Reviews: Black Widow: Red Vengeance by Margaret Stohl (here). Star Wars: Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston (here). Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee (here). Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley (here). The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar (here). “Outlaws of Olympus: Black’s Magic” by C.E. Martin (here). Zeroes and Swarm by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti (here).

For your reading pleasure: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory. I Want Superpowers by Steven Bereznai. Caped: The Omega Superhero by Darius Brasher. Men in Tights by Danielle Banas. Power Game by Christine Feehan. Horror Heroes 2 by Travis Hiltz, Nicholas Ahlhelm, and Darrin Albert. Team-Ups and Crossovers by Marion G. Harmon. Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro. Guys Read: Heroes & Villains edited by Jon Scieszka. Justice Is Red: Dawn of Red Eye by Peter Mckeirnon. Artemis: Wild Goddess of the Hunt by George O’Connor. “The Short End of the Stick” by David Perlmutter. “Capeless” by John Ryers.

Coda: We’ve been thinking about changing the format of this link page. What do you like about our semi-regular newsy roundup? What do you hate? Do you have any ideas on how to make it better? Send us your thoughts at esearleman [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Every First Day Is a Weird Day

charliecontiEven though Charlie Conti grew up surrounded by supervillains and mad scientists, she had no interest in taking over the world or challenging the Celestial Knights to a battle royale. All the 14-year-old girl wanted was to have a normal life. “I wanted a chance to grow old without having to worry about dodging laser beams and undead Vikings,” she said.

But Charlie’s father was the Undertaker, a professional (and unionized) henchman. Because of his dubious career choice, Charlie’s life would always be filled with messy complications.

Recently relocated from Melbourne to a small coastal town, Charlie and her eight-year-old brother Luca were determined to make a fresh start. They wanted to meet some friends, go to school, and avoid the ongoing drama created by their father.

Unfortunately, things don’t exactly work out that way. After exactly one day in Henty Bay, Charlie’s father accidentally zaps himself with a ray gun and shrinks to the size of a LEGO mini-figure. Uh-oh.

The kids don’t freak out too much. This wasn’t the first time one of their dad’s crazy inventions backfired. “He wasn’t an inventor,” said Charlie. “He was more of a tinkerer. And nine times out of ten he was simply a destroyer.”

Charlie, on the other hand, was sort of a mad genius (“Like in the comics,” she said). She promised her dad that she would reverse engineer his ray gun and mitigate the damage. In the meantime, she kept him in a glass jar for safekeeping.

You’d think that with her accident-prone father out of the way, Charlie’s life would settle down a little bit. But that didn’t happen. She quickly got swept up in a crazy plan to resurrect an ancient goddess named Chalchiuhtlicue. Despite her family’s proclivity for villainy, Charlene Bianca Louise Conti knew she had to keep Henty Bay safe from the Aztec she-mummy and her preternatural pandilla. In other words, she had to become a superhero.

Ben Langdon has been responsible for some enjoyable books in the past. As an author (The Miranda Contract) and editor (This Mutant Life and This Mutant Life: Bad Company), he’s proven to have a keen eye for superhero fiction. Now, collaborating with his daughter Eliza, he’s helped create a character with a dash of Studio Ghibli spunk. Like Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Charlie moved to a brand new city to discover her place in the universe. And like Chihiro from Spirited Away, she traversed a strange and confusing landscape to rescue her parents.

Small Sacrifices is a novel about big sacrifices. With an absentee mother and a father on the wrong side of the law, Charlie was the glue that held her family together. That’s a heavy burden for a young girl to bear. Her journey from nanny and surrogate mother to teenage superhero was Miyazaki-like in every way.

[Small Sacrifices: The Adventures of Charlie Conti, Book One / By Ben Langdon and Eliza Langdon / First Printing: May 2016 / ISBN: 9780987530882]

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Lord of the Rings

gauntletIron Man has been around since 1963, but he didn’t have an ounce of cultural vibrancy until he burst onto movie screens in 2008.

Now of course he’s a big deal. Tony Stark, the quip-y billionaire with a mecha suit of high-tech ammunition, was arguably the most popular superhero in the world.

But after 53 years of comic book adventures, Iron Man still didn’t have one memorable archenemy. Madame Masque? Whiplash? The Grey Gargoyle? Who were these meatballs? Unlike Batman or Spider-Man or the X-Men, his rogues’ gallery was conspicuously deficient.

The Mandarin was probably Iron Man’s most famous adversary. But that’s not saying much. If you didn’t know, the criminal mastermind was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and he unabashedly called himself “the greatest agent of chaos the world has ever seen.”

He’s mostly known as the guy who wore ten rings bursting with superpowered alien technology. One ring, for instance, unleashed an ice blast. Another ring was a mento-intensifier (look it up). Other rings could manipulate electromagnetic energy, project concussive shocks, and rearrange molecular matter. Truly, he was the Lord of the Rings.

In this adventure, the Mandarin travels to Ireland to disrupt an international eco summit. His mad plan was to control the fate of the world’s environment and use Iron Man as a stooge. In other words: “World domination through sewage.”

That’s not how things turn out of course. The Mandarin’s terrorist plot was easily undone. He may be a student of Sun Tzu and the descendant of Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, but he’s easily defeated by Tony Stark, a teenage girl, and a small group of Irish police officers. He had rings on his fingers and bells on his toes, but he was still a C-list supervillain with zero charisma.

Stark, on the other hand, had a war chest filled with charisma. As a teenager, his father thought he was “irrepressibly cocky.” And over the years he gained a well-deserved reputation for being smart, pompous, arrogant, sarcastic, and stubborn.

But he was also witty, charming, and funny. And these qualities help author Eoin Colfer produce a novel filled with non-stop jokey banter, crazy shenanigans, and irreverent non-sequiturs. Stan Lee would undoubtedly call Iron Man: The Gauntlet a Merry Marvel Masterpiece. Emphasis on the word “merry.”

Colfer, best known for his Artemis Fowl series, even has fun with an old goat like the Mandarin. For example, in the morning while doing his daily tai chi exercises, the Chinese terrorist freely adds a little disco hustle to his routine. And when he has Stark on the ropes, he indulges in a maniacal and self-conscious laugh. “Ha-ha-haaaa!” he cries, shaking his fist for good measure. He even has the wherewithal to spout capsule reviews on all sorts of pop culture ephemeral. He doesn’t care for the The Hunger Games books for instance.

Never mind that the world’s “most infamous terrorist” is reading YA novels and listening to old Bee Gee’s music. It’s not worth thinking about too much. The whole thing is daffy business. But how can you not enjoy a book where Iron Man is outfoxed by a teenager from the Saltee Islands and Team Mandarin is defeated by a hurley stick and sliotar? In the end, Tony Stark and his archnemesis never had a chance. Nobody messes with the Irish.

[Iron Man: The Gauntlet / By Eoin Colfer / First Printing: October 2016 / ISBN: 9781484741603]

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DC Super Hero Girls: Hits and Misses

hitsandmythsLion-Mane is causing trouble in Metropolis at the beginning of Hits and Myths, the latest graphic novel by Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat. But DC’s Super Hero Girls are on a tight schedule. “We don’t have time for your silly games,” says Batgirl to the rampaging cat man. “Yeah,” agrees Wonder Woman. “We have to get to school.”

And so it is with everyone enrolled at Super Hero High School. Katana, Poison Ivy, Hawkgirl, Supergirl, Harley Quinn and all of their classmates are busy juggling the demands of homework and hero work. Everybody is on their best behavior because they don’t want to get in trouble with principal Amanda Waller and vice principal Gorilla Grodd.

After they dispatch Lion-Mane, the girls discover their poetry teacher (Professor Etrigan, aka the Demon) has been kidnapped by big daddy Trigon from the Under Realm. The rescue mission includes a rock’n’roll subplot with cameos by Cheetah (our favorite), Beast Boy, Flash, Ravager, Silver Banshee, Black Canary, Lobo, and Raven. We especially liked seeing Hawk (of Hawk and Dove) pop up in reoccurring panels throughout the book. He never says a word, but he’s always lurking somewhere in the background.

Nothing tickles us more than the ongoing success of the DC Super Hero Girls franchise. The toys, the cartoons, the comic books, the T-shirts, the Halloween costumes — honestly, we love the whole darn thing. The supplemental novels by Lisa Yee, in particular, are quite good (see our reviews here and here).

But we have to admit the graphic novels are not without problems. The scripts by Shea Fontana are undeniably fun and packed with good-natured spizz energy. But her panel-by-panel storytelling is weak. It’s obvious to us that she’s struggling with the format.

And the artwork by Yancey Labat is troublesome too. His drawings are so perfectly on spec they look like clipart. Gone are the days of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Comic Book by Evan Dorkin and Clerks by Jim Mahfood. Back then, companies gave their creators a little more freedom to do as they wished. The results, in our opinion, added substantially to our enjoyment of the source material.

These days comic book tie-ins must conform to strict licensing and approvals guidelines. Everybody wants to keep things consistent across all platforms. It’s a shame really. To us, it looks like artist Labat is being forced to trace animation cels. We understand that DC has a lot riding on this franchise. The company doesn’t want to mess around with a successful brand recognition/product strategy. But we think the girls of Super Hero High are a strong bunch. Let them fly without the weight of a multimedia-marketing blitz holding them down.

[DC Super Hero Girls: Hits and Myths / By Shea Fontana and Yancey Labat / First Printing: November 2016 / ISBN: 9781401267612]

Posted in Comics, Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , , ,