Sorting Out Fair Play Across The Universe: Doctor Who, Gender and Empathy

The following contains spoilers for the Doctor Who Season 11 premiere, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’.


Doctor Who is back, and we couldn’t be luckier. With a new Doctor, showrunner, production team and composer, it’s a truly new era for the 55-years-young franchise. It’s also helped by the fact that the new era has all the indications of being quite good, if Episode 1 of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker’s tenure – rife with sinister ambience, warm characters and a sonic screwdriver made of spoons – is anything to go by.

Beyond that, we’re lucky, ironically, because of the time in which this new era has begun. Whittaker’s casting as the first canonically female Doctor enters a tapestry of discourse centred around spotlighting women who are being further enabled to stand against the damage inflicted by masculine, misogynist hegemonic power. From the #MeToo movement’s ongoing efforts, to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony against incumbent Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to the release last week of Clementine Ford’s book Boys Will Be Boys confronting the ideals of toxic masculinity, we are within a flashpoint where the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor couldn’t have come at a better time.

To say Whittaker’s Doctor is an empowering character – for any gender – is a truism. Each Doctor, going all the way back to 1963’s first incarnation in William Hartnell, is intended to inspire the audience of its time: a figure of ultimate good faced with challenges and finding a way through the moral morass to the best solution. In this sense, Whittaker’s Doctor immediately establishes herself as the successor to thirteen(ish) lives worth of heroism, embodying the Doctor’s best in terms of wit, wisdom and concern for wellbeing.

Whittaker’s casting came in part as a proviso of producers Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens, who made casting a female Doctor a mandatory condition of their taking over showrunning duties, and is deservedly lauded. Much has already been written on the inspiring effect Whittaker will no doubt have for young girls, finally able to see a woman playing the role of their childhood hero. What’s worth highlighting here, too, is the benefit Whittaker and the women of Doctor Who can have – and, hopefully, have already started to have – on young boys.

There’s a scene towards the end of Whittaker’s first episode that’s stuck with me since I watched it Monday night. Grace, the headstrong would-be companion and grandmother to new main character Ryan, dies following a confrontation with the monster of the week. At the prelude to her funeral, Ryan stands at the doors of the church, waiting for his father – Grace’s son – to arrive for the service. The Doctor waits with Ryan, opining that his father’s just running late. Two hours late seems unlikely, says Ryan. You can see the Doctor thinks so too. But still she waits with Ryan, before attending the funeral as Grace’s husband, Graham, delivers the eulogy.

The scene lasts maybe twenty seconds. Little dialogue is exchanged, and it largely serves to show Ryan’s absent father is a deadbeat. But it left an impact, because it was something few other Doctors could or would have done with the same simple degree of empathy. Though they showed compassion in their own ways, certainly none of the recent Doctors, keeping in mind I love all four of them, would’ve reacted the same as the Thirteenth. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor would’ve offered a brooding, gloomy acknowledgement, or otherwise stalked off. David Tennant’s would’ve profusely apologised with a grim expression and mournful eyes. Matt Smith’s might’ve offered an awkward hand-on-the-shoulder, whilst Peter Capaldi’s likely would have stood with Ryan and not said anything at all. I’m also dubious as to whether any of them would’ve actually attended either the funeral or the wake on the stairs afterwards; maybe Tennant, but he might’ve borrowed a page from Eccleston’s book and brooded while he did it.

By contrast, Whittaker stands with Ryan – and with new companions Graham and Yaz – as one of them, a supportive, empathetic colleague who doesn’t fall victim to the cliched writing of a maternal stereotype. The funeral scenes cap an episode where the Thirteenth Doctor shows care for the corpse of an unfortunate victim of the monster, praises her new friends for their initiative in defeating said monster whilst consistently inviting them in as collaborators rather than followers, and asks the monster to “please” leave Earth rather than flat-out command it. Granted, that “please” is still loaded with plenty of forceful intent, and the Doctor demonstrates later that she’s no slouch when it comes to dealing with aliens who reject her compassion, but the way she does it all is distinct from her male counterparts. Even David Tennant’s Doctor, well known for always offering his adversaries a way out before subjecting them to fates worse than death, largely demanded rather than discussed.

Beyond the Doctor herself, the episode bears examples of women being lauded as role models. Grace comments on teenager Yaz’s employment as a police officer, noting the young woman’s done well for herself at such an age, in contrast to the demeaning dismissal of Yaz’s older male commanding officer. The book-ended cold open of the episode shows Ryan’s YouTube video honouring his grandmother as the best person he’s ever known, a notion further unpacked by Graham’s touching eulogy to his wife. Without beating its audience over the head, Doctor Who signals a keen focus on demonstrating the inspiration of women, not just for young girls, but for anyone watching. It’s a focus I want to keep seeing as we go further into the season and into Whittaker’s tenure (given that at least one future episode will feature Rosa Parks, this seems likely).

Which, as I said, couldn’t have come at a better time. The global conversation right now is situated around the ongoing strive for gender equity and recognition of women, shifting the balance away from oppresive male paradigms. Part of that shift must inevitably occur within the minds of the next generation of men and boys, those who will hopefully embody greater ideals of empathy, equality and respect than what many of us currently represent. Doctor Who is a show for everyone, attracting one of the most diverse viewerships in popular culture, and that should entail that the values of the show – and thus, what is taken away by audiences – be universal.

With that in mind, Whittaker can only be a good thing for everyone watching. Not only can the Thirteenth Doctor help to inspire the girls and women seeing a new heroine taking charge on-screen, but the boys who watch now – who will grow to be the men that can best embody the ideals we need – can absorb the kindness, support and sympathetic candour their hero displays.


All images are property of the BBC and used here for illustrative purposes only.

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Separation of Sleeve and State: Adaptation and Altered Carbon

This post contains spoilers – including the endings – for the Altered Carbon book and television series.


Without question, Altered Carbon is my favourite book. I first picked it up thirteen years ago from my uncle’s garage sale, mostly because my 15-year-old visually-oriented self thought the shiny cover looked kickass. Turned out the words inside were pretty great, too.

The cover of my original copy was really, really shiny.

Today, I can’t count how many times I’ve read it (my Goodreads profile has it pegged as at least 5 since I joined the site in 2012, and I’m currently undertaking a sixth). Sure, there are things about it that don’t work no matter how hard you squint, and some problematic scenes that were, thankfully, spared from adaptation. Some of the prose is overly flowery, itself a habit of author Richard K. Morgan’s writing at large, and the conclusion to the overarching murder plot is a wee bit convoluted; even with at least five documented rereads, bits of the how and why elude me. But I still get a funny little jolt of joy whenever I crack it open, from the first pages of Takeshi Kovacs’ gruesome death and imprisonment by the Protectorate, all the way to that note perfect final exchange between Kovacs and Lieutenant Ortega. Morgan’s world is immersive, layered and brutal, at once an exotic depiction of a technology-rampant future and a strident polemic against our path towards it. The sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies, though not quite as beloved as the first book, are also fantastic stories in their own right, flitting Kovacs fluidly between genres and settings without being overly jarring.

That meant the recent Netflix series had a tall hill to climb with me. I was intrigued by the trailers, which seemed to nail the visuals but miss the mark on some of the characters and dialogue. A cursory trawl through the accommodating Altered Carbon subreddit yielded no shortage of folks just as skeptical as me. But I did my best to remain optimistic, hoping against hope that the final result – enthusiastically endorsed by Morgan himself – was closer to a success than a failure.

In the end, it was an even split. There are parts of the series I love as well as the visuals; Joel Kinnaman is Kovacs, no question. I had my doubts on his casting, but they were quickly allayed by the end of the first episode. Ditto for Kristin Lehman’s turn as ancient seductress Miriam Bancroft, and Byron Mann’s far-too-brief appearances as Kovacs’ original sleeve.  The revamp of the Hendrix hotel into a Victorian, Edgar Allan Poe-styled parlour with AI to match – played with aplomb by Chris Conner – was an inspired choice, even if it was one presumably dictated in part by estate licensing rather than pure creative divergence.

And my goodness, that Nemex gun is a thing of beauty. Not since Blade Runner has there been a sci-fi gun this immediately cool.

But there are just as many parts I hated. Though actress and fellow Aussie Dichen Lachman kicks ass, the careening curves of Reileen Kawahara’s new storyline – shifting from corrupt corporate executive in the book to a yandere long-lost sister to Kovacs in the series – doesn’t sit well with me, not least of all because it hamfistedly wrecks the ending. Much of the dialogue, aside from lines cribbed right from the book, is devoid of subtext, preferring to (over)tell rather than show. Some of the violence and nudity steps right over the line from stylistic to exploitative; Taratino, this ain’t (and yes, I’m fully aware a lot of the book is ruthlessly vicious and overly sexual, but I’d argue the show goes a tad far in places).

But I still enjoyed the show, despite the above – and many other – flaws that gnawed at me throughout. It is, simply, an imperfect rendition of a personally-beloved book. The reason I liked it comes down to one thing: this is not my book.

I’d definitely have been kinder to the Altered Carbon TV series if it had had an entirely different name and characters. Granted, the hyper-violence would still be an issue, but a clean break from the roots of the story would’ve substantially changed my opinion for the better, not least of all because of how personally attached I am to the book. A number of the storytelling choices would’ve sat better if it weren’t my favourite story playing them out on screen. The show is an incarnation of the words on the page, bringing Kovacs, Ortega, Kawahara and all the rest to life (except for Trepp who, in a missed opportunity for the show, never shows up to go on a coke-fuelled rampage with Kovacs like in the book). But it’s not a perfect recreation the way something like the Watchmen movie tried to be – and look how that turned out.

What it is, is someone else’s interpretation; a new text of its own making that draws from the well of an established story. Series creator and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis read the book, had an idea for a TV show based on it, and the result is now sitting in your Netflix queue, quietly waiting for you to press play on Episode 1. Though both texts share the names of characters and places, plot turns and worldbuilding, the TV show is not Altered Carbon the book on screen; though it’s an adaptation of the book, it’s not a recreation of it.

Which, when I frame it like that, means that no version of this series – irrespective of how well it lifted scenes from the book, like Kovacs and Miriam Bancroft’s long, slow, intricately detailed and deeply discomfiting sex scene – could ever pass muster as an adaptation of the book. Even if we got Watchmen-esque levels of textual worship, slavishly bringing Morgan’s words to the screen with the kind of attachment to the book that would shame an industrial magnet, we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment. However, if we read the book as one thing and the series as another then there is invariably a disconnect between our expectations as book readers and our enjoyment factor as viewers. At the same time, to dismiss the show’s connection to its source material is a fundamental error, given that it is those words (or a version of them) that are brought to life in 4KHD.

The Altered Carbon series fulfills a number of needs, beyond Kalogridis’s desire to tell a story based on another story. For an existing fan, it truly is viscerally enjoyable to see these words made flesh, watching Kinnaman’s Kovacs stomp down the streets of Bay City or weave through the twisted Star Trek-esque hallways of the flying brothel Head in the Clouds. It also caters well to newcomers, as the show’s reasonably warm online reception indicates. In a world dominated by the visual, it’s handy to provide viewers a way into a story if they’re not able or willing to sit down and read the book. Business-wise, the show offers Netflix an outlet to compete in the ever-increasing prestige genre television ball game (even though, despite claims to the contrary, it is definitely not Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones), compounded by the now-franchised nature of the story across the show, novels, audiobooks, social media ARG content and upcoming comic books, just for a start. Using that adaptation as a jumping-off point for more franchising options, potentially including another original novel from Morgan, suggests lots of exciting possibilities (I’d recommend everyone read Clare Parody’s awesome article, ‘Franchising/Adaptation‘, to get an idea of what those options might enable).

But more than anything, the adaptation of Altered Carbon firmed up something for me: there needs to be a disconnect. Not a complete divorce – as I’ve said ad nauseum in this piece, the book and the show are obviously and inextricably linked – but a separation. The series might be a visual incarnation of the words Morgan penned sixteen years ago, but it’s still just an incarnation. One version, potentially of many, where being able to separate those versions from one another could ultimately lead to a lot more enjoyment.

For me, the interplay between series and book hit that separation point with Episode 7, made almost entirely of content original to the show. I won’t mince words; I hated that episode, not just for completely misfiring with Kovacs’ backstory from a bookreader’s perspective, but also because it was a clunky, overwrought, predictable and thoroughly unsatisfying hour-and-change of television. But it was also the point where a little switch in my brain went from seeing the series as “text-on-screen” to more “version-of-text-on-screen”. It made the last three episodes – which maintained the skeleton of the book’s climax but veered off-script more than once – more enjoyable to watch, even if my inner book fan wasn’t quite happy with what I was seeing.

Though I was *really* happy when I saw this in Episode 1.

We’ve already seen so many screen adaptations of beloved stories since prestige television and internet streaming became widespread, and we know we’ll continue to see more. Hell, who’s to say there won’t be a reboot or a Battlestar Galactica-esque reimagining of this adaptation thirty years down the track? Would it be compared to the first Altered Carbon show from 2018, or the novel from 2002, or a combination of every Altered Carbon version made – every sleeve worn, if you will – up until that point? Or would we be able to take each version as its own, separate incarnation, tied to the same source but fundamentally distinct from one another?

Anecdotally, I know a lot of people who can’t read The Lord of the Rings anymore, feeling that the film trilogy has displaced it as the ur-text of the story (not so much The Hobbit films, though). The notion of a dominant version that overshadows all the others is certainly one you could argue. However, rather than preferencing one over the others as the key representation of the mother narrative, I choose instead to read them as the films being a superlative adaptation of an existing story, a version I happen to subjectively get more pleasure out of than the book, the same way I enjoy the reimagining of Battlestar over the original show, and the same way I prefer the book of Altered Carbon rather than the series Kalogridis and Netflix made of it. By separating the book and the show, rather than prioritising either or seeing one as a true embodiment of its source material, it’s easier to experience both as their own things, even if there’s one sleeve I like more than the other.

“A Jedi, like my father before me”: The Star Wars films have an Identity Crisis

This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.


Attack of the Clones is the most ironic Star Wars title of all.

Episode II ranks regularly as one of the worst films of the franchise. It’s stodgily acted, goes hell for leather on the CGI, has an at-times nonsensical story and is not an intellectually or viscerally satisfying movie. Even as popcorn entertainment – which is, by and large, the franchise’s stock in trade – the film doesn’t do well, at least until that last twenty minutes of Clone War ‘splosions and far too many lightsabers.

But at least, compared to both what came before and after, it’s doing something different. Not necessarily well, and most of its storytelling decisions are drawn from a well of dumb, but different nonetheless. The political intrigue on Coruscant and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s secret mission to Kamino and beyond don’t really have antecedents within the films that came before, and there’s certainly no other Star Wars film that puts as much of a focus on the romance (which is, provably, for the better). For a movie that’s part of a franchise dedicated to reliving and copying what’s already been done, I’d argue that Attack of the Clones is the least similar of its brethren.

We know that Star Wars lives and dies on the power of its nostalgia. The sequel trilogy was bankrolled by Disney as a deliberate throwback to what made the series great back in the 70s and 80s; no more of this Clone War crap or any trade tarriffs and dry political bullshit. The Force Awakens, for all its innovations and social progression – for starters, having a central trio with no white guys as the heroes – is more or less treading a lot of the same ground that A New Hope spent its time on. There’s even a lot of that at work in the new expanded universe, with classic writers like Timothy Zahn being enlisted to give us the origin story of the character he made his name from back in the 90s, in an attempt to draw old-hand readers into the new continuity.

It might seem like I’m taking Disney’s work to task, but the truth is I love the majority of their output since they acquired Lucasfilm. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and loved The Last Jedi (not as in love with Rogue One, which gets progressively worse every time I watch it). The novels and comics are (mostly) quite good, and do a great job filling the space left by the absence of the original expanded universe. There’s every reason to love the nostalgibaiting Disney use as their primary approach to the galaxy far, far away.

But at the end of the day, what does that make Star Wars about?

That’s a dumb question; of course we know what it’s about. A decades-spanning space opera about the eternal struggle between good and evil, mostly centred on a prophetically-powerful bloodline created by immaculate conception. We’ve known since 1977 what Star Wars is about.

What we don’t know, and what Disney are going to have to decide, is what the franchise is about.

Say what you will about Attack of the Clones and its wooden acting, bad romance and overuse of CGI. Speak ill of the prequels as a whole if you like, since Lord knows I do at every opportunity. But at least they, and the original trilogy they were connected to, had a purpose: the prequels told the story of Darth Vader, which informed the original trilogy’s story about Luke Skywalker, all taking place within that eternal good and evil struggle. The identity of the franchise, at least as far as its films were concerned, was clear and readily understood.

So when The Force Awakens dropped in 2015 as an almost point-for-point retread of A New Hope, the immediate thought was that we were in for more of the same. Not only did director JJ Abrams smash the nostalgia button with a mallet, we also knew this was the start of a Disneyfied franchise. We’d already had seven years’ experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point, and those films are more or less copies of each other in terms of structure, tone and plot developments (though if early buzz is any indicator, it seems Black Panther might buck that trend a little). The following year saw the release of Rogue One, a standalone story that drew much of its audience power from being a literal prologue to A New Hope by featuring almost every element of that film, up to and including Darth Vader’s original voice actor. As I said before, I like a lot of what Disney’s put out since 2015, but it was all comfort food. Familiar, safe, warming.

The two films were coupled with the announcements of not only Episodes VIII and IX, but also of a Han Solo standalone film, another about Boba Fett, and rumours of a third involving Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latter even potentially starring Ewan McGregor back in his Jedi robes. It served at the time to make one thing clear: the Star Wars film franchise identity was now firmly rooted in sanctifying those original six films and the story they’d created. If Marvel can make cookie-cutter capefilms with little substantial variety between them, then why can’t George Lucas’ magnum opus? Those copies, explicit and derivative, sell like hot cakes, so there’s no reason to break from that mold.

That made the surprises of 2017s The Last Jedi all the more potent. Yes, it copped a lot of the same accusations as Awakens did in being a derivative film; a friend of mine likened it to a hybrid of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and to a point he’s not exactly wrong. But the film seemed to consciously buck that nostalgic security blanket that Awakens and Rogue One hid beneath, dismissing almost every callback or hint at a replica of the original mythology that JJ Abrams introduced in the previous film. Given the mystery surrounding her parents, the prior movies had trained us to expect Rey to be a Skywalker and to follow a similar path to Luke; turns out she’s a nobody whose late parents were drunkards. Kylo Ren seemed primed to turn back to the Light Side, in a confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke that near-completely copied the climax of Return of the Jedi; nope, Kylo’s full evil, yo. A confrontation with the First Order on a white planet seems like a distracting tactic so the Rebellion can flee, a la The Battle of Hoth; nah, the Rebels are making their last stand on Crait and, until Luke shows up, are pretty sure they’re going to lose (also, Hoth had snow and Crait had salt – differences, people). Part of why I loved the film so much was because it had a foot in both camps, giving me the nostalgic pandering that I expected along with the newer twists on the formula that I didn’t.

The similarities between The Last Jedi and its forebears are inescapable, but I’d argue that the film does enough that it hints at new directions for next time. Director Rian Johnson is a creative storyteller and a huge Star Wars fan, so those little hints of transgression from the replication of the past convinced me that he’s more concerned with newness, rather than nostalgibaiting, even if the former comes disguised within the latter. One could almost call Johnson as the leader of a rebellion in and of itself. Retroactively, that made the announcement of his own Star Wars trilogy a welcome one.

But that potentially fresh approach directly refutes both the model that Disney have fashioned with Star Wars and Marvel, and the road map they’ve laid out for Star Wars‘ future. Abrams is back for Episode IX, and while I have no doubt it’ll be great, chances are good that it’ll go back to the well for its story rather than forge one of its one. If the recently-released Solo film teaser shows us anything, it’s that the film looks content to soak in the same nostalgia bath that Rogue One wallowed in. This morning’s announcement of DB Weiss and Dan Benioff also getting their own run of Star Wars films – earned off the back of their work as Game of Thrones showrunners – hasn’t really told us anything, but if they’ve been hired to put their Thrones-style sensibilities into the Star Wars universe, we could potentially be looking at a franchise content to not only copy itself, but also to copy other franchises. I apprehensively await the gore-spurting lightsaber fights and Wookiee sexposition.

To call Star Wars derivative is nothing new; most good stories are ones that borrow from others. At length in his fantastic book, Chris Taylor documents the filmic, artistic and structural influences that went into George Lucas creating the original films, some of them blatantly ripped off from the source material. We also expect a franchise to keep creating new texts for both its fandom and its stakeholders; the MCU will probably be making films and TV shows long after the heat death of the universe. But Star Wars right now is in a period of awkward transition, where one of its tentpole installments hints at a desire for change while the others contently remain in the familiar. A franchise spawns a lot of replicas, but there’s nothing to say that it can’t make something aberrant, either.

Going forward, Disney needs to decide what kind of identity the Star Wars film franchise is going to have. Will it be content to make copies of copies of copies of itself for as long as we’re keen to throw money at them, or is there a genuine impulse to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new civilisations? (shit, wrong franchise) All of this might be conjecture, since we have no idea yet what kind of narrative thrusts that Johnson and Benioff & Weiss’ respective films are going to have. But they’ll undoubtedly be a good indicator of the kind of film franchise Star Wars is going to end up being, for better or worse.

 

Secret Empire

Please note there are a few spoilers in this review, but given that it’s for a story that ended months ago, I don’t feel bad about including them.


I’ve actually been in the process of kickstarting (not Kickstarting) a new occasional feature I want to write here. It’s called “The Rundown”, looking at notable superhero comic book runs by specific creative teams, analysing the good, the bad and the ugly of the Big Two. The first cab off the rank, until this week, was going to be Nick Spencer’s conflicted, controversial take on Captain America, which I actually ended up kind of enjoying.

I already did a preliminary look at his Captain America: Steve Rogers run by pulling apart the first issue, concluding that for all the kerfuffle surrounding Cap’s turn from hero to Hydra agent, the book wasn’t all that bad. Having read Spencer’s three volumes of Steve and five concurrent books on Captain America: Sam Wilson, I found that the former had lots of problems while the latter had lots of impact. Both stories did make me a little more confident going into Secret Empire, billed as the culmination of Spencer’s Cap run(s) and the Marvel mega-event for 2017. That confidence was needed, because every comics journo and their mums were tearing this thing to shreds.

Rightfully so.

Captain America is now a Hydra agent, and has been all along. Turns out that the history we’ve known for close to a century got it all wrong; every Cap story since 1940 was just the Allies manipulating the canon to make it seem that Steve Rogers, our eternal paragon of virtue, was always on the side of the angels. Wanting to set things right, Hydra have used their MacGuffin du jour, the Cosmic Cube, to rewrite history correctly, showing that Steve was a Hydra sympathiser from a young age. Now, at the height of his powers in modern-day America, Steve has assumed control of the entire United States with the intention of spreading the authoritarian control of Hydra to every corner of the map. The Avengers are split in half; the street-level heroes reside in a darkened New York under the fascist oppression of Hydra, whilst the cosmic-powered heroes are barred from Earth by a globe-spanning forcefield. Both sides need to work together to overcome Cap’s control and set things right.

There’s no nice way to put it – Secret Empire is a complete mess. It’s at once better and worse than my expectations, the manifestation of every best and worst impulse Spencer has had as a Cap writer, whilst also being a textbook example of the prosaic, predictable and (almost) utterly disposable work Marvel now calls an Event. That parenthetical “almost” is important, though, since Secret Empire – much like its predecessors Avengers vs. X-Men, Original Sin and Civil War II – would be entirely forgettable if not for the utter damage that Spencer’s work has already inflicted upon fans.

Despite what vocal minorities on the internet might spew, Captain America – like all good art – is inherently political. This feels like trying to explain to a child that water is wet and Tide Pods are not for eating, but it’s true. Of all the superhero books in circulation, Cap is easily the most recognisable as an inherently political character. So when he’s the central figure of a crossover where the good ol’ golden boy of the USA turns out to be corrupted and evil, things can’t not be politically charged.

Unfortunately, those politics are delivered and unpacked here with all the subtlety and nuance of a Godzilla rampage. Steve Rogers as a Hydra ruler is, arguably, meant to represent the Trump presidency and the rise of the alt-right. Sure, I get that. But whereas the ascendancy of Trump and his ilk comes with a lot of social, cultural and political baggage that enabled it, Cap’s control of the world basically boils down to, “Hydra was here all along and we’re evil so we’re going to take over now thank you bye”. There are no layers to any of the storytelling decisions made here, and the narrative makes no attempt to show Steve as the least bit understandable in his vile rhetoric. At least with Trump you can trace lines between him and his supporters to see the reasons why they like him and how they can validate him, even if those reasons are detestable. Steve Rogers is just evil because the plot says he has to be; while some interesting decisions were made about that in Spencer’s Steve Rogers series, nothing about that characterisation here comes across as anything other than a gimmick.

The result is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. At least in the past, Marvel crossover events were clear on their intentions: Avengers vs. X-Men was a dumb schoolyard fantasy brought horribly to life, while Infinity was both a climax to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers runs and a sweet blockbuster throwing most of Marvel’s main cast into outer space to fight aliens. By contrast, Secret Empire can’t decide if it’s a mega-event superhero crossover of heroes vs. neo-Nazis, a thinly-written anti-fascist polemic, a comment on the Trump presidency, a marketing stunt designed to draw readers in, or just all of the above. The focus is scattered between these elements to an uneven degree, creating a book that is a mixed bag of politics and punchouts. There’s spectacle throughout, handled by an army of artists who do decent work but lack consistency, and the climax relies on a predictable deus ex machina that counters Marvel’s insistence that Hydra Cap is the real Steve Rogers. All of this is delivered alongside persistent, badly-written narration boxes that give Chris Claremont a run for his money in the field of over-explaining things.

Though their styles are at odds with one another, the artists here do as well as they can. The bulk of the main duties are helmed by Andrea Sorrentino, whose distinctive style – reminiscent of Jae Lee – brings an appropriately washed out, nasty look to the story’s early, despairing chapters. The rest is handled by Steve McNiven, himself no stranger to a Captain America story, Leinil Francis Yu, Jesus Saiz and Daniel Acuña, all of whom acquit themselves well. There are moments where the disparate styles manage to pull off great work on their own; McNiven’s vivid style, made whole by inker Jay Leisten and color artist Matthew Wilson, ably illustrates the bravura final clash between Hydra Cap and our heroes. Similarly, cover artist Mark Brooks delivers sterling work through a number of images which each deserve a framed place on your wall. Otherwise, there’s little cohesion with the artwork, giving the impression that the shifts were done out of editorial necessity rather than narrative decisions.

But at least the illustration comes out looking better than the scriptwork. In addition to those damnable narration boxes, there is little in the dialogue that doesn’t come across as immensely clunky. Given the sheer size of the book’s cast, many main characters lack their distinctive voices, used only for exposition delivery. Those who do get given focus are largely blunt and bland, lacking even the barest hint of Marvel’s now-trademark Joss Whedon snark. The most egregious case, besides our headlining villain, is Black Widow, who attempts to be a hard-nosed spymaster in teaching some of Marvel’s younger heroes how to fight a cold war – because the political allusions weren’t alreayd blatant enough – but largely comes off as an insensitive and needlessly callous bully. There’s also a lot of schmaltzy scripting about the need for hope in times of peril, which unfortunately ramps into overdrive as the story reaches its disappointment of a climax.

About the only time Spencer gets it right with the words is in the final issue, Secret Empire: Omega, an issue-long conversation between Hydra Cap and a spoilery character, intercut with scenes of the Marvel Universe rebuilding in the wake of Hydra’s demise. This, coupled with the decent work he did for his issue of the follow-up anthology series Generations, works better as a resolution to Spencer’s twin runs on Captain America than the entirety of Secret Empire. This is Spencer bidding adieu to the characters he’s spent nearly two years writing (or ruining, depending on who you ask), and it’s easily the most satisfying moment of the entire book. But as good as Omega is, it doesn’t save a story that is almost universally reviled.

I honestly can’t remember the last time a book was as hated as the works Spencer did for the Star-Spangled Man. If the internet’s reactions are anything to go by, Secret Empire seems like a culmination of that hatred, the apex of every bad narrative impulse that both Spencer and Marvel Comics have had for the past two years. Without question, the book has a lot of problems, many of them indefensible but most of them endemic to the problems of writing and marketing crossover events to begin with.

For my money, Secret Empire is both a failure of an ending to what could have been one of the most interesting Marvel experiments of their history, and yet another predictably disappointing superhero crossover comic. Even if you took the politics out of it – which would be like taking the blue out of the sky – it’s still a narrative trainwreck, not quite as offensive as I was led to believe it would be, but nowhere near the gold standard either.

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3/5

DIALOGUE: 1/5

OVERALL: 5.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “I know some part of you might want to give up hope. But this is our moment. Our chance to turn things around. I know we’ve been divided. Torn apart. Broken – for so damn long – but now it’s time to assemble.” – Sam Wilson

Clear Eyes, Driven Hearts

Just give me a second to blow the dust off.

That’s better.

A self-managed website is, in many ways, tougher than writing for someone else. The only person holding you to account is you, and if you can’t do the work your boss sets you, well, you can expect a stern talking to yourself later.

For a while, I found it impossible to write here, and not just because work/wedding planning/moving house/pretending to mow the lawn all vied for my time. Any pop culture opinions I had seemed rudimentary or just boring (or, more often than not, spoken by more articulate folk). My comic reviews became largely positive and lost their bite, since I no longer have the disposable income to afford all those terrible books. More than anything, though, I had lost my drive – the innate desire to put metaphorical pen to paper and scribe my thoughts for all the world to see. It seems like there’s more than enough of that happening anyway.

But all that’s about to change.

The “why” is both complicated and not all that interesting, but it largely boils down to a few factors:

 

1 – I’m sick of not writing, and I’ve got some demons to exorcise.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” indeed.

Ironically, it’s very hard to write when you’re an academic, especially if you’re teaching. A big part of it is motivation; many’s the day I’ll come home from a day of tutorials and want nothing more than to flop onto my broken couch and fire up Archer on Netflix again. But to succeed in my field, you need to be writing. You need to write some more. Then, just to be safe, you should write a bit more on top of that.

Between conference papers, a few academic articles, tutorial plans, wedding vows and the odd review piece over at my second e-home, Geek of Oz (where I’m also galvanised into producing more content this year), I had no gas left to pen anything that I had to, let alone what I wanted to. There’s being tired, and there’s being lazy; I started at the former and succumbed to the latter. It’s way too easy for me to declare that it’s been a long day/week/month/century and just call it in.

Not anymore.

I want to write a lot more than I have been. I want to write things I take time to edit, refine and sharpen into the perfect verbal spear. I want to write stuff that’s completely off-script and takes five minutes to put down. I’m buzzing with ideas, and after a long time of not regularly committing to this thing, I want all of you to start to see those ideas – or, in the words of my collaborate Stu, I’ve got some demons in my head that need exorcising (but these are good, nice demons, not the kind associated with clinical depression or satanic massacres).

 

2 – I am more determined to go “pro” this year.

The term professional seems malleable these days, a fact I tell my students all the time. It’s much easier for randos like me to break into creative fields that were hitherto restricted to the classically trained. Now, we’ve all got the online capacity to apply for outlets, or to just make our own.

I plan to do both.

I’ll be continuing to write at both Geek of Oz and here at The Genre Fiend, but I also want to build up work that I can send to other outlets. Maybe you’ll see my rambles on a much bigger site someday…

One day, I’ll be just like this Shutterstock model – looking out a big window somewhere.

 

3 – I want to write more NTROs.

In academia, a Non-Traditional Research Output (NTRO) is a piece of work that furthers academic knowledge on a particular topic, but isn’t published in a traditional research output (eg. a peer-reviewed journal or monograph). I put out my own NTRO last year when I was inspired to write about Horizon Zero Dawn‘s feminist leanings, and I’d like to continue that with a few other topics rattling around my head. The University of Sydney has a great guide on NTROs, so check it out to get an idea of some of the kinds of stuff I might be throwing your way later this year.

 

4 – Christof Bogacs

So there’s this mate of mine who’s broken into the comics business. His name’s Christof Bogacs, and he’s pretty awesome.

Over the last few years, Christof and I have wiled away many a lunchtime bitching about the comic book industry – the state it’s in, the saturation of capes and cowls, the indie gems we manage to find from time to time – and now, he’s finally getting in there as a comic book creative practitioner. In partnership with some sterling artists, Christof’s got some published comics under his belt (here are just a few of them) and is currently working towards getting to Emerald City Comic Con in March 2018 to pitch his work to creative bigwigs.

So what does a shameless plug for my buddy have to do with writing more here?

Seeing and hearing about Christof working his ass off for the last few years has been as inspiring as it is gut-wrenching. It ain’t easy breaking into any creative field, comics more so than most, but Christof’s determination and drive in putting in the hard yakka has really put my own lack of motivation to shame. His work has inspired me to put in a lot more work than I’m doing right now, and probably with far less grace than he has.

Oh, and I strongly suggest you sign up to his “You Snooze, You Newsletter”, not least of all because it is the greatest pun of all time.

Excerpt from “Burger Joint”, written by Christof Bogacs with art by Reda Kahloula.

 

5 – I’ve recognised that I am not a bad writer.

It’s the age-old problem that plagues even the most professional, steely-eyed of writers: wrestling with the internal doubt that your work is not up to snuff. To think of your work as great makes you big-headed, but to think of it as shit makes you an angsty buzzkill.

Here’s the thing that took me the better part of twenty years of writing – through ten-word dinosaur stories in pre-school to full-blown academic book chapters – to finally figure out: I’m not a bad writer.

That’s not to say I don’t write bad stuff sometimes (for example, please do not look at this appalling parody fanfiction that I wrote seven years ago). But I’ve realised that I can be happy with some of the things I’ve written, or at the very least feel that it’s of decent, readable quality. Having some godawful work under my belt doesn’t equate to being a scribe of a similar caliber. I can acknowledge that I have a talent, and that I am determined to see that talent pursued as far as it can be. I don’t say any of this to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but rather to acknowledge something I have, something I’m capable of, and something I love doing.

I love writing, and I think I’m not too bad at it.

This wasn’t a realisation I simply came to after listening to too many Writing Excuses podcasts (though they certainly helped). As with anything worth doing in life, I’ve been encouraged in everything I’m doing by remarkable people, personally and professionally.

By my mother, her partner and my brothers, who are some of my loudest cheerleaders.

By my Geek of Oz crew – Christof, Stu, Billy and Ryan, all of whom have been critical voices of reason and gave me another place to exorcise those demons.

By my Nerd Cave family – Dave, Ben, Tau, Josh, Chris, Sussan, Matthew, Adam, and everyone else who fosters my love of my favourite subject matter, engages me in stimulating nerd debate and (occasionally) takes reading recommendations from my review work.

By my academic colleagues – Kay, Liz, James, Ben, Nat, Ann-Maree, Catherine, Elizabeth, Brent, Olivia, and so many others who continue to encourage me to think critically and keep on keeping on in the tertiary education ballgame.

And, of course, by my lovely wife, who couldn’t be more encouraging if she tried (and dammit if she doesn’t find new ways of topping encouragement every day).

Because of them, and because of those ideas I have, the inspiration I get from seeing my friends kick ass, and the drive to spread my words to other corners of the internet, I can safely say that I am not a bad writer*, and I’m going to keep on writing.

*I might just be an ok writer, instead.

 

6 – I got given some sick noise-cancelling headphones for Christmas…

…and they make writing anywhere so, so much easier.

Seriously, these are noise-cancelly AF.

Justice League vs. Suicide Squad

Let’s not mince words. The only reason Justice League vs. Suicide Squad (hereafter shortened to just JLVSS) exists is because there are prominent movies each bearing the title teams’ names; one of them released to financial success and critical panning, the other due in a few months and with all kinds of negative expectations. Having read the full book, I can’t consider JLVSS as anything other than a cash-grab crossover rather than a meaningful character piece. Much like the similarly ill-conceived Avengers vs. X-Men crossover, the book grabs attention from its title and offers nothing to back it up; succinctly, its ego writes cheques that its body can’t cash.

The story begins fairly rote, with morally dubious ARGUS chief Amanda Waller serving as the catalyst for a battle between the Suicide Squad and the Justice League. The former are carrying out a covert operation that the latter manage to curtail, leading to the title fight of the book. After the League are roundly defeated by the Squad – and the means of said defeat are bound to spark vigorous debate, even by comic book standards – Waller reveals that she engineered this battle to bring both teams together. It seems that the original Suicide Squad, long thought dead after a mission gone wrong, are making moves to take over the world. The only solution is for the titular teams to band together and save the day through teeth-clenched teamwork.

But once the first act concludes, JLVSS pulls something of a magic trick. What was already a bland, flavourless punch-up with the flimsiest of plots becomes something more horrific, when it transpires that the story has some franchise cross-pollination in mind. The book doesn’t just pair the League and Squad for some superheroics, but goes a step further by installing the likes of Lobo, Harley Quinn and Deadshot as Justice League members. No, not just interim partners in the battle against the original Squad, but full-fledged members of the team (installed by Batman, of all people).

There are seeds of interesting ideas within JLVSS‘s miasma of tangled nonsense. The notion of bad guys or less-than-heroes being allowed in premier teams is a concept which has, in the past, led to Venom being an Avenger and the New 52 having a JLA filled with League rejects (and Catwoman). But any invitation to explore the moral and ethical dimensions of turning villains into potential heroes is rejected, the book preferring instead to excise nuance and paint the team-up as a necessity (not to mention a publicity stunt for real world fans of both teams). Once the second act gets going, any character work is discarded while JLVSS proceeds to bludgeon the audience with faux political subtext, including uncomfortable allusions to impending war with North Korea – here rebranded as the fictional nation of “Jangsun” – and the installation of an American autocrat who deigns to protect the country through fear and authoritarian control. The latter is literally embodied in the book’s use of body-hopping supervillain Eclipso, who possesses most of the populace and turns them to rage and violence across the country. To say JLVSS prefers didacticism over subtlety is a gross understatement.

The problems are compounded by the book’s insistence on being bright and eye-catching for most of its page count. JLVSS employs an array of artists and colorists whose styles gel reasonably well with one another; for instance, I didn’t realise when we’d switched from Howard Porter’s pencils to Jason Fabok’s, then to Tony S. Daniel’s, then back again. That kind of flow is good for keeping the book visually consistent (where past examples, like the aforementioned AvX, are artistically erratic), but it dulls the respective impacts each visual team has by diluting their personal styles. The result is the art comes out looking quite generic, crippling the usually standout illustrators (like Fabok) whilst elevating those who are lacking (like Daniel). It’s also hard to take Eclipso’s possession seriously, given that his victims’ faces all resemble blue geodes.

A lone spot of interest in a book otherwise bereft of it is the one-shot story near the book’s midpoint, where Steve Trevor crosses a ravaged city to save his extended family from Eclipso’s control. The chapter reminded me of Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis tie-in issue Submit, though handled here with less finesse and far too much exposition. The best books in the DC Rebirth stable have acquitted themselves well when remembering the humanity of their characters, both super and standard; Steve’s story is the closest JLVSS comes to recognising that its characters have depth and a modicum of emotional complexity.

One could make an argument for the futility of analysing JLVSS with any kind of critical eye. The book is clearly going to break no boundaries or move any mountains. It’s not even the worst crossover in recent memory; that distinction goes to the ill-advised Night of the Monster Men Bat-family crossover. There is little deeper meaning to the text, no substance to be negotiated and no strong threads to pull upon. It’s a product of a corporate comic book culture which favours Debordian spectacle over meaningful impact and produces a lackluster crossover which would have been inoffensive if it weren’t for some truly awful scriptwork – predominantly from current Flash scribe Joshua Williamson – and an almost complete lack of stakes, body-hopping supervillain and American autocrat apocalypse notwithstanding.

The discerning reader could probably grasp that the book is dreck from the title alone, a dead giveaway that spectacle rather than substance lies within. Though the army of artists produce reasonably structured work, and some smaller character beats land well – including a few brief scenes which flesh out Arctic-themed supervillain Killer Frost – they’re not enough to save the story. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad is a hackneyed, cheap as chips reason to get a raft of popular characters to fight each other, eminently forgettable and wholly unsatisfying. In that regard, it’s a bit like the latter team’s film debut; time will tell if the former’s follows suit.

 

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3.5/5

DIALOGUE: 1.5/5

OVERALL: 6.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE: [to Superman] “I remembered the first time I ever saw you… before I became Killer Frost. I was in Metropolis. You weren’t fighting anyone. You just flew over me. It was a real Metropolis moment. I was there for a symposium with a research group. A professor on the trip with us had just told me he didn’t think I had what it took to gain my PhD…that I’d never make it. I was about to call it quits and go home…but then I saw you…and I thought…if a man could fly, I could stay in college.” – Killer Frost

Star Wars: Vader Down

Before the Star Wars Expanded Universe underwent the Great Disney Purge of 2014, I didn’t check out the comics much. My wheelhouse was more the novels and games; not that some of the comics weren’t great, but a lot of them just felt superfluous and uninspired (which, admittedly, is rich considering the direction the Star Wars book canon went around the time Fate of the Jedi started getting released). Maybe it was a combination of the writers penning lacklustre tales and the artists making everything look homogenous across the board – seriously, much of the art in the Dark Horse era looks like it’s from the same overworked guy on most pages – but Star Wars and comics were two passions of mine that never really clicked.

That is, until Marvel started releasing multiple ongoing series in 2015. Not only did it click, it is now in danger of never coming apart from me until the next retconning board-wipe happens around the time Disney plan to release Episode IV.5 in 2060.

I spoke a little while ago about my enthusiasm for the new Darth Vader series in particular by calling it a remarkably twisted take on Doctor Who. Since we know Darth Vader will never die on the page, given his fate at the climax of Return of the Jedi, any attempt to milk drama from a cliffhanger regarding his safety would be pointless. Writer Kieron Gillen smartly circumvents that by crafting a rich array of supporting characters – notably the morally-flexible Dr. Aphra and her dynamic duo of deadly droids – and shaping a narrative trajectory built around drama that isn’t dependent on Vader being left in a new deathtrap at the end of each issue.

With that lack of focus on character mortality established, I was hesitant about diving into Vader Down. The premise offered by the title – Vader gets shot down on a planet where the Rebels subsequently swarm in to try and kill him – sounded both simplistic and self-resolving before I turned the first page. Luckily, Gillen and fellow Star Wars writer Jason Aaron make it perfectly clear that Vader’s fate isn’t the story’s primary focus. At least, his fate in terms of mortality isn’t the focus – his fate in regards to his position within the Empire is another matter.

Chiefly, Vader Down is an excuse to get the diametrically-opposed casts of both Darth Vader and the ongoing Star Wars series to meet, shake hands and get to know each other (or, rather, meet, exchange blaster fire and attempt to get out alive). It’s the first crossover the Star Wars ongoings have had since they started in 2015, and thus feels suitably epic in proportion to the scope of its six issues. Gillen and Aaron have crafted a crossover that’s less about universe-altering plot shake-ups and more about smaller character interactions. Both writers have done a fantastic job making their respective casts interesting and nuanced – a particularly impressive feat especially for Gillen’s cast of homicidal maniacs in Darth Vader – and there’s a sense of excitement when they cross paths with each other. Han Solo and Dr. Aphra exchanging blaster shots and verbal witticisms in equal measure is no less enjoyable than R2-D2 facing off with his black-clad counterpart BeeTee, the latter packing more heat than a barbecue pit. In terms of the few ongoing series plots with developments that stick in Vader Down, the most compelling is Vader’s continued attempts to get back in the Emperor’s good books, his battle against the Rebels serving as an opportunity to regain some face (though not the parts of it that were burned off on Mustafar).

Though the crossover does lack strong storytelling meat to go with its honey glaze of spectacle, that glaze is made all the sweeter by the art department. Salvador Larroca is the unsung hero of the Darth Vader series, continuing to demonstrate how to enhance Vader’s specter through strategic use of shading and lighting.  Larroca manages to evoke some more nightmare fuel from the Lord of the Sith in subtle renditions of his mask features, particularly in the slightly narrower drawing of Vader’s eyes and mouthpiece. You almost see Vader as glaring when he fights the Rebels, the firm black plasteel of his mask slowly morphing into a terrifying grimace. Mike Deodato similarly brings his own admirable artistic corpus to the table, meshing well with Larroca; both artists excel at somewhat more realistic depictions of the characters which look more like their film incarnations, rather than anything overly cartoonish. It’s also definitely worth giving credit to artist Mark Brooks, whose covers for each issue – particularly the one chosen for the trade paperback, seen at the end of this review – each evoke a strong Drew Struzan feel. That meshes well with Jason Aaron’s stated intent for Vader Down to be ‘the movie of the Marvel Star Wars comic books.’

The end result of Vader Down is that it’s a big, pulpy popcorn story (or maybe it’s a honey-glazed ham; see the confusing metaphor in the last paragraph). It serves as a reminder of how both the Star Wars and Darth Vader ongoings are probably the most well-written Star Wars comics in a long time, and that sometimes it’s very cool to see Darth Vader do his one-man army thing. Who knows, maybe this is the story which gave Gareth Edwards the inspiration for Rogue One‘s iconic ending scene.

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 4/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 11.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE:

REBEL SOLDIER: “Darth Vader! Lay down your weapons! You’re surrounded!”

VADER: “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.”

“This is for me, for all I did to make it here”: The Quiet Feminism of Horizon Zero Dawn

The following contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.


About an hour into the post-apocalyptic robot dinosaur hunting simulator Horizon Zero Dawn, the protagonist, Aloy, commences a coming of age ritual. On the cusp of The Proving, the trial which will elevate her from despised outcast to proud Brave of the Nora tribe, Aloy and the other hopefuls light a lantern to seek blessings from their patron deity, the All-Mother. The hopefuls are told by their Matriarchs that they also light these lanterns to honour their own mothers, who gave them to the world.

Aloy doesn’t have a mother; at least, not one we know much about at this point. The story has alluded to her mother being either missing or dead since Aloy was a baby, leaving her to be adopted and raised by fellow outcast Rost. Inhabiting the traditional Obi-Wan role, Rost spends the opening hour of the game – which spans the better part of two decades in-universe – teaching Aloy how to hunt, gather resources and survive in the world. The player follows this bonding journey between surrogate father and daughter, culminating in Rost pushing Aloy into undertaking The Proving, despite knowing that once she becomes a Brave he will never see her again. With this in mind, the Matriarchs prompt the hopefuls to dedicate their lantern-lighting to their mothers. The game then gives the player three dialogue options about who to dedicate the lantern to. The obvious choice for Aloy would be to dedicate hers to Rost. After all, he raised her to be a hunter and a survivor despite never knowing why Aloy was cast out. Aloy wouldn’t be undertaking The Proving if not for him. The player also has the choice of uncertainly offering the lantern to Aloy’s absent mother, even if Aloy has no idea whether her mother still lives.

The final option is for Aloy to dedicate the lantern to herself. This option doesn’t disregard all that Rost has done for her – the game makes it clear throughout that his love for and upbringing of her is never far from her thoughts – nor is it played as a vain or selfish choice. Aloy simply states that she will find the answers she seeks, taking charge of her own destiny. Rather than honour a parental figure, Aloy chooses to honour herself, stating that “This is for me, for all I did to get here, and the answers I’ll get after I win The Proving”. Noted feminist author bell hooks argues that ‘[i]f any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency’ (2000, p. 95). Though hooks was referring more to the sexual liberation of women from men and society in that particular passage, the core idea is one that affirms the kind of self-affirming choice that Aloy makes.

Aloy’s simple, assertive choice – affirming her sense of agency – foreshadows a lot of the feminist qualities which make Horizon Zero Dawn such a fantastic game.

When I use the terms feminist and feminism here, I’m ultimately referring to the ideology of advocating women’s rights in order to secure equality for all genders. In her paper ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’ (1988), Karen Offen investigates how feminism is a term ultimately situated in a history of female protest against male-dominated control. After exploring some of this history, Offen comes to a historically-influenced definition of feminism (pp. 151-152), seeing that:

[F]eminism emerges as both an ideology and a movement for sociopolitical change based on a critical analysis of male privilege and women’s subordination within any given society… Feminism is necessarily pro-woman. However, it does not follow that it must be anti-man… Feminism makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences.

With this in mind, I want to take a look at how Horizon Zero Dawn is an inherently feminist game, which aims to quietly and effectively depict the kind of gender rebalancing Offen describes without drawing obvious attention to it, and to normalise that equality.

Though there’s a lot to be said about the game’s narrative in general, its inclusive nature deserves special attention. This is the first time in a long time where I’ve played a game which takes these equalising factors as read, rather than spotlighting them as subverting real world social norms. There are a host of NPCs and background characters from a diverse range of ethnic and gendered backgrounds, and outside of one or two minor examples there isn’t a substantial focus on distinguishing or discriminating against characters based on their race or gender. Not only is Aloy a feminist protagonist who is empowered by her agency, but equality is ingrained in the social fabric of the game’s world.

It’s made clear early on that women possess significant authority in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In broad strokes, characters worship the powerful All-Mother. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is governed by female elders, and is referred to as a respected, if isolated, society. The Nora are led by a trio of wise Matriarchs, their lands are all named after parts of the Mother (Mother’s Heart, Mother’s Crown, etc) and their rituals, including The Proving, are dedicated to honouring the life given to hopefuls by their maternal figures. In terms of micro details, the game’s world is populated by numerous empowered female characters. Of particular note is the stern and martially-proficient Sona, the military chief of the Nora. Sona is an intelligent, bold and strategic leader, who possesses agency and is itinerantly respected by other characters.

Female characters are rarely undermined or questioned because of their sex, and when they are the implications are positioned as negative. The player doesn’t encounter the kind of boorish characters who feel the patriarchal need to assert control over or objectify women, characters who are common in many other video games. Aloy herself is not overly sexualised, wearing various tribal armours which do not work to objectify her physical attributes or render her an object of the male gaze. According to research conducted by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz in 2015, viewing the heroine of a narrative as sexualised or objectified ‘is associated with decreased egalitarian gender role beliefs’ (p. 213). By avoiding this pitfall and not making Aloy and the majority of the female cast into objects of sexual objectification – a fate which has befallen a number of prior video game heroines – the narrative maintains credibility as an egalitarian, gender-equal game.

By and large, Horizon Zero Dawn does not try to distinguish Aloy’s power as notable for anything other than her talents and abilities as a Seeker of the Nora tribe, as opposed to singling out her gender. Although the virtues of being a woman are nonetheless highlighted and revered by the game, Aloy is seen as a strong person, rather than a strong woman, as the latter is seen to be commonplace rather than an exception. On the rare occasion that somebody does slight Aloy – usually for her prior status as an outcast – their behaviour is swiftly condemned. A male guard reports an ambush to his commander, who then asks (rather than tells) Aloy to investigate. The guard gives his report to the commander while ignoring Aloy, prompting the male commander to swiftly chastise the guard and tell him to look at and speak to Aloy as the person who will be conducting the investigation. A male war-chief earlier in the game similarly belittles Aloy as an outcast, before she immediately asserts her Seeker authority and puts him in his place.

On the subject of outcasts, the one major exception to Horizon Zero Dawn‘s egalitarianism is in the area of class. The idea of class separation – between the Nora inhabitants and the outcasts and between the Nora and the other tribes of the world – is a recurring theme which is unpacked and criticised throughout the game. This is seen mainly through Aloy’s status as an outcast within the Nora, with many characters refusing to talk directly to her when the player attempts to interact with them. One could also interpret this theme as having racist overtones, seen when several characters view the Nora as a somewhat backwater tribe in comparison to others. After Aloy arrives at the Aztec-themed city of Meridian, she ascends the steps of the palace to meet the city’s leader, the Sun-King, while an array of nobles look on and complain about a Nora tribe member – seen by them as a primitive society – being allowed within their walls. One of the first things the player sees the Sun-King do when he meets Aloy is to decry the assembled aristocracy as a host of immature and ungrateful brats, welcoming Aloy to Meridian with open arms and requesting her assistance.

The most potent quality of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s depiction of gender equality and inclusion is its quiet nature. The game’s narrative rarely trumpets the interaction between men and women in different levels of authority as anything other than normal. Gender infrequently enters the narrative’s discourse, and in the rare instances where it does there is little doubt that the game does not favour using gender to depict inequality. Social (and, by the game’s end, a degree of cultural and political) inclusion is an assumed process rather than something deserving of a spotlight.

Ultimately, Horizon Zero Dawn excels in its depiction of gender equality. Though there is power in a text signalling its intentions as a polemic against social and cultural exclusion and inequality, there is also potency in a text deciding the affirmative, ideal result of that polemic as something assumed rather than foregrounded, something illustratively shown rather than didactically told. In this way, the game seeks to normalise equality. Aloy embodies this equality well, from the game’s opening moments – when she attempts to connect with all the Nora despite her outcast status – to its closing ones – when Aloy manages to unite the world’s inhabitants in a final battle against evil. Horizon Zero Dawn is already a fantastic game, but thanks to its gender-positive subtext, it becomes something far more special – and, crucially, far more rebalanced.

REFERENCES

hooks, b. 2000, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Massachusetts: South End Press.

Offen, K. 1988, ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’, Signs vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 119-157.

Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. 2015, ‘The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women’, Sex Roles no. 72, pp. 211-220.

Superman: Son of Superman

Back when it started in 2011, Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman and Robin run was one of the unsung heroes of the New 52. It was a crisp, father-son action book with real heart, gorgeous artwork and, following Damian Wayne’s death, a solid emotional spine.

Sometimes it’s good to stick to what you know, which is probably why Tomasi and Gleason have teamed up for the new Superman comic – a crisp, father-son action book with real heart, gorgeous artwork and, following a battle with a robot on the moon, a solid emotional spine.

son-of-superman-3The Superman the world has loved for so long is dead. In his place is the pre-Flashpoint Clark Kent, who – along with his wife Lois Lane and young son Jon  – has recently been deposited in this universe. Much like a Trump impeachment, the world desperately needs a Superman, so the old-yet-new Clark sets out to protect the world from evil. At the same time, Jon begins manifesting the Kryptonian powers of his father, but has no idea how to control them. When a visit from robot enemy and Superman-impostor Eradicator threatens to tear the Earth apart, Clark must guide his son through his genetic inheritance while finding a way to put Eradicator down for good.

Although I’m fully up front on how son-of-superman-6much Son of Superman cribs directly from Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman and Robin work, I really like the way things panned out. The creative DNA of the latter is present, but it’s taken in a few new, nuanced directions which ultimately enhance the story. For example, part of the conflict between Bruce Wayne and Damian came from Bruce’s unwillingness, at first, to be a father; fate, and Talia al Ghul’s machinations, had pushed him there, and he had to adapt. Clark, on the other hand, embraces being a father, even if he comes to it with some difficulty at first. I mean, sure, raising a son you never knew you had who was brought up by the League of Assassins is tough, but I think that pales compared to having a child who manifests the ability to fry cats with laser vision.

son-of-superman-5What I’m getting at is that the father-son conflict here is less a matter of adaptation, than it is about discovery. Clark wants to be a father from the word go, holding his family up as the most precious thing to him, and a life he chose without reservations. Though Jon’s growth into his powers is tricky, Clark ultimately learns how to navigate it all through embracing the concept of fatherhood more than Bruce did at first. Thanks to that, it’s easier for Clark and Jon to find common ground faster than Bruce and Damian did, which results in them being able to team up and kick robot ass together.

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Father-son superhero bonding sessions are the best.

Standing apart from the similarities to their B&R story, Tomasi and Gleason have written a story that feels at once relatable and extraordinary. On the one hand, early chson-of-superman-2ildhood and learning to be a father is tough, but on the other, they get to go to the moon and beat up a robot who has a bunch of Kryptonian souls inside him. I’ve definitely experienced worse family stories.

Much as I loved Son of Superman, I have to acknowledge that it does little which is revolutionary in its own right. It’s a tightly-plotted, well-written and – thanks to some superlative work by Gleason and cohorts – gorgeously illustrated book. Simultaneously, it feels like a solid first step, and not much more. The series’ appeal is going to live or die on where the creative team take things now that the specific father-son drama has been established. Superman feels ripe with potential, in yet another strong hit for the DC Rebirth initiative.

And if Son of Superman didn’t get you going, maybe this image from the next volume will.

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Consider me very onboard for another Saga of the Super-Sons.

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

STORY: 4/5

ARTWORK: 4.5/5

DIALOGUE: 4/5

OVERALL: 12.5/15

BEST DIALOGUE: “The world needs to see again that there’s a Superman looking out for them. You may not be here in body, but I know you are in spirit… the colors will fly.” – Pre-Flashpoint Clark Kent

Batman: I Am Gotham

I usually try to pitch my reviews to a broad audience. I know I’ve got veterans who’ll occasionally throw an eyeball to my ramblings, and I know plenty of newbies who are looking for recommendations and entry points. Besides, limiting your audience spread on a site like this is akin to deciding you’re only going to breathe half of the oxygen you need for the day, or that joining Scientology is a good life choice.

batman-i-am-gotham-9But this time, I feel I need to split focus. Though nowhere near the level of other DC controversies from the past decade, the new Batman series seems to be drawing boatloads of ire nonetheless. A cursory glance at its Goodreads page shows a number of…let’s call them discontented readers, to be charitable. A disproportionate number of the fanbase seem down on the new run by Tom King, now creeping into its third story arc and, according to some of the more vocal critics, showing no signs of becoming good anytime soon.

The thing is, though, I liked I Am Gotham quite a lot. Though everyone is entitled to their own criticisms, and I would certainly not go out of my way to try and Scientology someone into believing something they don’t, I feel a few unfair criticisms need to be specifically addressed. At the same time, I need to convince new folk that King’s story – while not necessarily the best or easiest entry point for the character – is a beginning worth picking up.

With that in mind, this review is a bifurcated one. I’ll speak a bit to the newbies first, then I’ll have a rant at the old guard. Well, I’ll try less to rant and more to persuade some critics to slide off their high horses when it comes to some specific points.

Actually, that does make me sound like I’m trying to Scientology you. Sorry.

 

FOR THE NEWBIES

Batman’s got a bit of a death wish.

After nearly dying while trying to save a crashing plane, Batman is rescued by new superheroes Gotham and Gotham Girl, a brother and sister with Superman-level abilities who claim they want to help the city they’re named after. Going through something of a depressive phase, Batman takes them on as quasi-sidekicks. Then it turns out they got their superpowers illicitly, then two Batman villains get involved, and it all goes downhill from there.

As entry points go, I Am Gotham is a decent start. It’s by no means the worst, nor does it reach the heights of other first volumes. It’s quite an interesting exploration of Batman’s psychology; we’vebatman-i-am-gotham-5 had it suggested for a while that Bruce is depressed and/or suicidal when he puts on the Batsuit, so to see it play out quite literally here was something I don’t think many other writers have done, or at least done well. It’s also intriguing to see the theme of legacy in play here – a theme quite well-worn in the Bat-titles – but by not involving any of the Robins. There’s an initial suggestion that Batman views Gotham and Gotham Girl as his potential successors, seeing as they can fly, shoot lasers from their eyes and have Kryptonian-level strength. After all, there’s only so much a dude with a sweet car and a grappling hook can do against collapsing bridges and suicide blimps (that said, though, I don’t see why Bruce doesn’t offer Superman a retainer sometimes). But that nice little legacy theme takes a hard right into Problemville halfway through the book, when things get a bit juicier. Without spoiling, the ending had a somewhat unpredictable resolution and the suggestion that things were about to get loopier. So consider me on board for that.

batman-i-am-gotham-7I would recommend I Am Gotham to new readers. If they were able to get some of the other first volumes like The Court of Owls or Hush, I’d go for those first, and I’d definitely offer it to those who’ve maybe read a few books but aren’t yet fully immerse in the canon. David Finch does excellent work on illustrations, the script is solid, if at times a little stodgy, and it’s an overall decent beginning to what will hopefully be a great run.

 

Now, for the rest of you, keep in mind there will some mild spoilers beyond this point.

 

FOR THE VETERANS

Tom King was never going to be Scott Snyder.

This might be the most obvious thing I could say, particularly since both men have completely different names, faces and social security numbers. It might also be hypocritical for me to talk about dropping expectations in the wake of a beloved run, which is exactly what I railed against for both Rick Remender’s Captain America and Robert Venditti’s Green Lantern. I stand by my criticisms there, but I do acknowledge the folly in slamming a work mainly because it’s not as good as what came before it.

I Am Gotham is not an immediately classic like The Court of Owls was, and it seems unlikely that King and his rotating artists will necessarily shake themselves from the shadow of Snyder and batman-i-am-gotham-6Capullo anytime soon. But openly slagging the book off for that fact alone is in and of itself a lacking criticism. From the moment King was named for the book, I knew it’d be a very different flavour; Snyder’s more into the slightly pulpy character stuff with an ultimately optimistic tone, whilst King’s got a background in grimmer fare which goes to dark places, as in The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon. Not that Snyder’s story wasn’t dark (look no further than stories like The Black Mirror and Endgame), but I feel there was a threshold to his work which prevented it from slipping into something more nihilistic, a threshold King gleefully steps over from issue #1.

The biggest criticism I’ve read is that the book is boring. Really? A little dry here and there, with a couple of things that might pay off later, sure. But boring? If you want a Bat-book guilty of that sin then you should check out Knight Terrors, when David Finch somehow got it into his head that a Playboy bunny could work as a villain.

batman-i-am-gotham-4Part of that alleged boringness is Batman’s ineffectual nature, ceding the floor mainly to the Gotham siblings and fostering their character development. One review I read had some colourful things to say about that turn – synonyms for excrement were employed in that critique – because nobody cared about the Gothams. Well, we don’t care yet, because we’re still getting to know them (though I fully acknowledge that Gotham and Gotham Girl are terrible superhero names). King does a decent job giving each sibling enough character that they’re separate from one another, and by the end of the book it’s quite clear why Batman gave them so much more space in his own book. Part of that is because, for once, we really don’t know what he’s thinking.

What’s most surprising – and, for my money, enjoyable – about I Am Gotham is its immediate moves to alienate the reader from the main character. Though Bruce batman-i-am-gotham-1Wayne isn’t the most open book of a person, what King does here feels like a polar opposite to what Snyder and Capullo did with Court of Owls and its subsequent willingness to explore the more humanising sides of Bruce as a character. From the outset with King, though, both Bruce and Batman are unknowable, or at least not as knowable as supporting characters Alfred, Duke Thomas and the Gothams. We have little to help us work out what’s going on in his head when he nearly flies himself to his death, his mental space coming across as somewhat inscrutable. Even when he introduces the Gothams to Commissioner Gordon, it’s hard to know if he really thinks they can help the city, or if he’s just stringing them along as part of a tough love thing to show them they suck at crimefighting. Things do clear up by the end, but I actually enjoyed having to try and work out where Batman’s head was at, rather than have such motivation handed to me through blatant telegraphing or internal monologues.

batman-i-am-gotham-3The legacy theme I mentioned earlier is part of why Batman takes somewhat of a backseat here. Between his implied suicidal mindset and a few spoilery comments made near the end of the book, it’s clear that Bruce is looking at giving up the cape and cowl, probably via his death. Duke Thomas is already on his way to becoming a more integral part of the Bat-family, and it appears Batman legitimately views the Gothams as the next step forward in the war on crime. In the opening, Bruce gives a speech to Alfred on the inevitable mortality of Batman, noting that even his successors, like Dick Grayson, will eventually die and need replacing themselves. Bruce seems to have accepted that his time is nigh, and that what’s more important is Gotham City’s future – hence the greater focus on the two kids coming after him. It’s certainly a grim note to start on, and if King’s work is any past indication, it’ll only get grimmer.

The Gothams themselves have a somewhat interesting backstory, even though it reads as something which needs to be further unpacked as King’s run unfurls. Hank and Claire Clover make an immediate impression as Gotham and Gotham Girl (though their highly bland costumes need work), with the latter in particular offering potential for some richer character stories down the line. I could easily see these characters as part of the larger Bat-family, kicking ass with Nightwing and Cassandra Cain or battling Joker goons. They may not be the most immediately fleshed-out sidekicks Batman’s ever had, but at least they’re not the pair of flying logs that reviews have accused them of being.

Another albatross hung around I Am Gotham‘s neck is its place in Tom King’s body of work, particularly his prior run on The Vision. The latter was a short, self-contained and tightly-written batman-i-am-gotham-8superhero android domestic drama with a significant Phillip K. Dick/William Gibson flavour. The former is the start of what promises to be a much longer, explorative work which also has to make way for crossovers and franchise responsibilities here and there (see for example the upcoming Night of the Monster Men story). Comparing King’s Batman to his superlative work on The Vision is like comparing Mark Waid’s swashbuckling stint on Daredevil to his shorter, grander magnum opus Kingdom Come; yes, they’re written by the same author, but they’re quite different in terms of tone, themes, setting, characters and motivations. I adored King’s Vision duology, and was still able to enjoy how he got the ball rolling on Batman. Given the presence of some of King’s previous material regarding themes about progeny, the implication is that we might get the same kind of character unpacking for Bats which we got for Vision – it’ll just roll out over a longer period and with different purpose.

Now, despite the preceding 1500-ish words of proselytising, I’m not trying to get those who don’t like it to switch their opinions over; dislike it all you want. I’m also not trying to say the book is a flawless gem found at the bottom of a collapsed coal mine. I Am Gotham does have problems, as the dialogue can be somewhat wooden, a few of the art splashes don’t work, the Gothams’ costumes are fairly bland and their names even worse, and the final issue has a few spoilery issues with its pacing and structure. But it’s an ultimately harmless book. It’s not the herald of Bat-Ragnarok that a lot of reviews are spewing it is, nor is it a sign that Tom King signing an exclusivity deal with DC Comics was a bad idea. What it is a fine, solid start to a hopefully good run, with a novel premise that I hope King and his team see to fruition.

Either that or I’ll be proven completely wrong, and you can feel free to stick me in a pillory.

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PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

STORY: 3.5/5

ARTWORK: 4/5

DIALOGUE: 3.5/5

OVERALL: 11/15

BEST DIALOGUE:

GENERAL LANE: “[Batman’s] not going to connect this… incident with us. And even if he did, this site isn’t on any books. He can’t find us. And even if – through a miracle – he did, we’re a mile below Gotham. A mile of concrete, steel vauls, and the best security the U.S. can buy or blackmail. I got six Blockbuster-level guys guarding that door alone. The damn Bat-Man isn’t going to touch us.”

AMANDA WALLER: “Lane… the damn Bat-Man is behind you.”