Category: Blog

The X-Men Legacy

(The following post contains frank discussions of abuse, trauma, illness, and death. I sort of like the way it ends, though.)

Genesis

In 1986, I’m three years old. I have no idea of anything about the world except that I think the Thundercats are great. He-Man, too, but they’re basically the same thing, except one is cats. The transformational aspect of both shows is fascinating to me. I want to say some magic words and become strong. Unsurprisingly, the Transformers themselves are also among my favorites.

I don’t remember this, but it was told to me: At this age, my father was not living with us. He had a drug habit, and my mom had thrown him out. He worked on cleaning himself up. He came to visit sometimes (I still do not remember any of this). Once, he and my mom had an argument in the living room. I’m told that upon hearing the yelling, I came charging out, interposed myself between them, and yelled up at this strange man to leave my mommy alone. My mother also told me that he looked so dangerous at that response that she had to usher me from the room. The gravity of this is lost on me until I’m an adult.

Hope You Survive the Experience

When I’m eight years old, my mother is diagnosed with cancer. I handle the news in the way a child does. I say, “Oh.” I ask a few questions, but it’s too big for me. She’s sick, the doctors are going to try and make her better. That’s enough.

Then I’m nine. That puts the year at 1992, the absolute height of the X-Men’s popularity. There is a brand new X-Men cartoon on TV. It runs Saturday mornings at 10 am. The theme music is so ingrained in my subconscious that I immediately perk up whenever I hear it, to this day. I’m fascinated by these characters, by the idea that nothing happened to them; they’re simply born this way. They are people, but evolved. Transformed. They just want to live. I can empathize with that.

It is around this age I’m first aware of my father’s alcoholism. Again, the concept is too big. I know that he drinks, and I know that he’s mean when he does. I resolve never to drink. I tell him this one day when he’s sober. He smiles, tells me that’s a good choice. He doesn’t believe me. When he’s not sober, he’s terrifying. He yells and screams, throws things, slams doors. I don’t know what will provoke his ire and what won’t. I stop playing in the living room. I go across the street to my friend’s house, or I play in my room. I do not want to draw his attention. I just want to live.

Like a lot of families in the early 90s, we have a Nintendo Entertainment System. My mom is judicious about our use of it–no more than a half hour a day. We own almost no games, but she lets us rent them every now and again. There is an Uncanny X-Men game, but the cover art looks vastly different from the designs I’m used to. Wolverine is brown (such is the imprecise language of a child). Storm has a mohawk. Far from put off by these changes, I want to know more. I am ultimately disappointed by the game–it’s not very good, and the graphics are sparse enough that I’m given no enlightenment by the designs.

Two events happen, the order of which I’m not sure of. My cousin, twelve years older than me and so about twenty at the time, begins visiting from San Francisco. He is very familiar with the X-Men. He’s been collecting their comic for some time. His visits are regular and last for the weekend. I don’t know until later that they coincide with the times my mother has chemotherapy–she is consciously protecting my sister and I from the ugliness of her disease.

The second event is that I get my own first X-Men comics. As I said, I don’t know if this happens before or after my cousin starts sharing his love of them with me. Either way, I find them in a quarter box at a thrift shop. I buy several of them, using some change my mother gives me. They are issues 163, 164, 168, 169, 173, 177, 178, and 180. Of these, 173 is the most striking to me. The cover is all black, featuring only Wolverine (in that same brown look I knew from the game) charging at the reader, with a girl dressed in green behind him. I suspect she is Rogue, because of the stripe in her hair, though she does not look like her cartoon counterpart. I’m not an unintelligent child, I can figure these things out.

The issue grips me for other reasons. I learn that this is the one where Storm first gains her mohawk. The fact that I know the direct parallel between this issue and the art on that game cartridge fills me with delight.  I can see the pattern. I work out that these issues are older than the cartoon, and spend a few years incorrectly believing that the brown costume is Wolverine’s ‘original’ one. There is a fight between him and the Silver Samurai in this issue. I have no idea that the panel breakdown of it is an homage to earlier Miller work. It’s simply the best, most exciting fight I’ve ever seen. The issue ends with Mariko leaving Wolverine at the altar. His shoulders are squared, he doesn’t chase after her. He accepts her word. This sad moment is significant to me, and I will return to it over and over.

The issues I have are an interesting spread. There are character beats that are created and resolved only within those issues. 173 features Kitty Pryde’s negative reaction to Storm’s new look. I don’t understand her upset. I can see that Storm has Transformed. I don’t understand the self-actualization of it, yet, nor do I have knowledge of what her look, her choice of attire conveys, but the framework those earlier cartoons from when I was younger has given me tells me that she has Transformed, and is Better. I will forever think of mohawk Storm as the best version, because of the way it is first presented. Regardless, the conflict between Storm and Kitty is resolved, or at least ameliorated, in issue 180.

I have no idea of Kitty’s significance as a viewpoint character, nor even do I know what a viewpoint character is at that age. I know that she features heavily in the issues I have. I like her. She reminds me of me–quick-tempered and tired of being told what she can’t do. 163 and 164 introduce me to the Brood. I have no idea the movie Alien exists (interestingly, the Brood predate the Alien franchise–many assume it’s the other way around). They impregnate the X-Men (and someone named Carol Danvers) and turn them into hosts. I’m fascinated by this. It’s my first introduction to body horror. I witness Carol’s transformation into Binary. It’s still probably my favorite incarnation of her. I like the idea that she’s not a mutant, but is hanging out with the X-Men. They have friends. I’m too young to notice the way powerful women are featured as a recurring theme within the book, but it has an effect on me all the same.

My cousin moves to Sacramento for a while. I visit him at his apartment, and he shows me his collection of comics. He tells me to wash my hands before I read them, and I take him seriously. His collection starts at 194, an issue featuring Nimrod, then jumps all the way to the Outback era, where it runs unbroken until Chris Claremont leaves the franchise. My cousin has a few scattered issues of the other X-books from the era, but not much, save for Excalibur of which he has almost all of the Claremont/Davis era. I read every single issue multiple times. Later, as an adult, I fill in the missing issues. It’s still the set I’m fondest of. My cousin also has a Sega Genesis. I play the X-Men game that exists for that for the first time. I fall in love with it, even though I can’t get past the first level.

For fifth grade, my mother puts my sister and I into a parochial school at our local Catholic church. I said all the words at mass because I was supposed to, but I didn’t really get it, and it never stuck for me. I liked the school, though. I got to wear uniforms, and I was fascinated by that. No one could tell I was different. No one could tell anything about my life. I looked just like they did. I fit in. In the classroom, someone brings in X-Men issues. We hunch over them like contraband, whispering intently as we pore over them. They’re two issues of X-Men Unlimited, I think. Cyclops is in a snowstorm. He can’t find his visor. I don’t remember how the issues resolve. I’ve seen them in back issue bins since then, but I’ve never actually gone back to reread them.

Catholic School, 5th Grade.

Three quarters of the way through the year, my parents buy their first house together. I’m 11 at the time. The new house is smaller, but newer. It’s been recently added on to. We purchase it from a middle aged lesbian couple. It’s next to a park. I’m upset at the move. My first day at school is the day after spring break. I arrive in the middle of the day, while the class is out at recess. I learn that I am the fourth student to join the class late this year. The class, apparently, is sick of it. I’m standing in the room waiting with the teacher to greet them as they come in. The first thing anyone does is to groan and say “ANOTHER one?!” I’m mortified. Eventually, though, I make a new friend. His name is Justin. He loves the X-Men as much as I do. He lives a quarter mile away, but I’ll be twelve soon, and this is no longer a real impediment.

When I turn 12, Justin and I suddenly have another thing in common. My parents sit my sister and I down and announce that they’re splitting up. My dad is moving out. I’m furious. I’ve begun to understand some of the ways in which the world functions, and I know there is one true thing: You do not turn your back on people when they need help. My mother is still sick, and he’s leaving. I do not know yet that she wants him to. I do not yet have the context to understand that the way he behaves is abusive. I think that if only he would stop drinking, everything would be fine. Our relationship deteriorates to a level it will never quite recover from. Justin and I continue to escape into the world of X-Men. Everyone has lost parents there. Some never had them to begin with. We feel a kinship.

Fatal Attractions

My cousin moves back to San Francisco. He gives me his comics and his Sega Genesis before he goes. I spend many afternoons with them, holed up in my room. Soon I’m thirteen, though. My behavior shifts radically, fueled by hormones and rage. I start smoking, committing petty larceny. The larceny is in support of the smoking, which in turn is because I entertain my first fatalistic, self-destructive notion: My mom is dying, my dad hates me, and smoking will probably kill me if I do it for long enough, so why not? There is a Circle K near my house where they keep the cheap, off-brand cigarettes on a stand at the end of the checkout counter. They’re six feet from the front door, which is propped open in the summer. I park my bike so that it’s angled outward, ready to go, walk in, and take packs, two at a time. I do this on three or four separate occasions before I’m introduced to someone who can buy cartons for me. All I need is the money. I steal three hundred dollars from one of my dad’s clients on a house visit. It’s under the couch, has been there for weeks. They didn’t know, already thought they’d lost it, and so don’t miss it immediately. I’m flush with smokes. I spend more on a Marvel-based card game called Overpower. In a fit of carelessness, I leave the remainder of the money on the desk in my room. The door is shut, I figure it’s fine. My mom, who’s home all day by this point due to how far her cancer has progressed, goes into my room for something. I forget what. I’m caught. I come clean about the money but not what I’ve spent it on. I get by with that for a while.

In the summer, when it’s warmer, I start sneaking out at night. This lasts until my mom wakes up one night and calls for my help. My sister is with my father, it’s just supposed to be me there. In case she needs me. I’m not there when she does. My parents make me demonstrate how I’m getting out of the house. My father is an alarm technician, he installs them in homes for a living. We’ve had one for years, and set it every night. If I were going out the window or the door, they’d know. I show them how I’m able to use the hypermobility of my shoulders to fit through the dog door. It is, I suppose, sort of like my mutant power. They are as amused and impressed with my ingenuity as they are angry with my actions. This will become a running theme of my life going forward.

When I am fourteen, my mom dies. It is Tuesday, September 16th, 1997. I’m two weeks into Freshman year. She dies a little after noon. My father is home when we get there from school, crying in the entry way. He tells us that it’s happened, and even though we knew that it would, I cannot accept it. I say no, I drop my backpack on the front step, turn, and run. I spend a few hours at Justin’s house feeling miserable before I’m up to going back.

My mother is dead. My father moves back in. It’s just him and us now. He lets my sister have her wedding ring. My sister puts it on a chain, but the chain breaks and she loses the ring at school. It is the most grief-stricken I have ever seen my father. He is full of rage, but weeping in a way I have never seen. He drinks more regularly now.

With no tempering influence in the form of my mother, my jackassery now continues unabated. It will be years before I say it in so many words, but my father is my enemy during this time, and my single-minded mission is to test the limits, not of his patience (because I know he has none) but of his awareness. He is canny and clever, like I am, and he attempts over and over to entrap me. He searches the jeans I leave in the bathroom after a shower. He parks in parking lots along my school route to watch me go by. He’s rarely able to catch me in anything after the sneaking out; I’ve learned from my mistakes. He doesn’t find my hiding places for smokes, because I don’t hide them in the places one would expect a teenage boy to. Still, he knows that I’m up to things, so he clamps down on minor infractions as a means of containing me. He tells me to go straight to and from school, and because he’s following me, he knows if or where I stop.

There is a friend’s house just past the high school, where I typically stop for a smoke on my way home. One day, I look up and see him walking up to the gate, looking triumphant. My stomach knots, I’m sure he’s caught me smoking. I drop the smoke anyway, step on it so he can’t see it. Sure enough, he misses it. He’s triumphant at the small act of catching me stopping on my way home. I don’t put up a fight, because I’ve gotten away with the worse thing.

The next time I spot his work van in the parking lot on my way to school, I smile and wave before heading into the donut shop for a coffee. He doesn’t answer my challenge. He knows I know, and he knows I don’t care.

The X-men fade into the background radiation of my life. I still read through the issues occasionally, but I’m into music now, and pissing off my dad. My hair is long for the first time, and I love it, even when it’s a hundred and ten degrees outside. I started growing it out after my mom died, partially because I was fourteen and partially because my mom was the only one who cared enough to make me get it cut. I leave printed sheets of lyrics to Tool on the kitchen table. I know that he can’t resist reading them. He tells me he disapproves. I shrug, and say, “Okay.” It is the most blatant disregard I have ever shown for his opinion up to that point. Our relationship continues to deteriorate.

Toward the end of my freshman year of high school, my jaw is broken. It’s partially my own fault–I’m prepping for a taekwondo tournament and I’m sparring without headgear. I take a hook kick to the face. The guy who does it is horrified, but I never hold a grudge. It was an accident, and I’ve been hit enough times on purpose by that point to know the difference. My jaw is wired shut for six weeks. Somehow, in the way that only a teenager could, I gain ten pounds on a liquid diet (it involves ramen through a blender. I do not advise trying it if you can avoid it.). While in this state, I ask my dad if he’ll buy me a game. I feel like I’m pushing my luck even asking, but because my jaw is broken, he’s a little nicer. He gets me a copy of Wolverine: Adamantium Rage for the Genesis for five dollars at a pawn shop. It’s not as good as the X-Men game but it’s such an out-of-character small kindness from him that I remember it forever.

That summer, I’m introduced to my dad’s new girlfriend. She lives in Washington, where he grew up. She comes to visit, and her first words toward me are derisive. We do not get along. The first time my dad punches me, it’s because I steal a pack of Winstons from her. He apologizes, but I never forget. By the end of August, 1998, we’re living in Washington with Patti. Despite the size of her house, there is no room for me. I live in a converted section of the garage. We’re there for six months. During that stretch, the family dog dies.

Fall of the Mutants

In April of 1999, I’m sixteen years old. We move into a tri-level house in Washington, where we’ll live until I’m an adult and move out. My dad and Patti’s relationship has crashed and burned already by this point. His charm has worn off, and he is a broken, grieving alcoholic with two asshole kids. I remember the specific week we moved into the house, because it’s the same day the Columbine Massacre happened. Strange to be building our new life in Washington while watching the lives of others torn apart.

My visits to comic shops prior to the move had become more sporadic. My father doesn’t approve of the hobby, nor any hobby which puts my nose in any kind of fiction. It’s a strange sort of thing–he didn’t want me to be an athlete or anything, he just didn’t approve of the time I spent with books. I suppose because the inside of my head was the one thing he couldn’t control, and so he sought to limit my access to that retreat in what ways he could. When I was grounded, he’d forbid me from reading entirely.

After the move, in rural Washington, I’m lucky to see the inside of a comic shop once a year, if I hopped on the ferry for an afternoon in Seattle. I stopped buying them entirely, but I snagged an issue of Wizard whenever I could, because in those days before the ubiquity of the internet it was still the best way to find out what was happening in comics as a whole. I still reread my issues of X-Men religiously, but in Washington I have no one to share them with. The new friends I make introduce me to Magic: The Gathering and a host of other games, but they have no interest in comic books. No one does anymore. I keep them to myself.

That year The Matrix comes out. It is everything Hollywood has been looking for in a superhero movie–all of the action with none of the cheesy costumes. The Wachowskis are known as brothers, but this is not true. They will transform, and suddenly the transformative nature of their works will take on a new light. For now, it is a slick action movie with enough generic ‘resist the man’ trappings that I will watch it again and again. Resistance I understand. I have been doing it for years at this point. I am firmly convinced that eventually my father and I will have a knock-down, drag-out fight, because I am immature and I read too many comic books and this is how I see reckonings play out. I’m also convinced of this because when my father cannot verbally force my submission, he resorts to physical intimidation. This is normalized for me to the point where I believe one day that that fight will come, and that winning it will be the only way I will be free of him. I will not understand the unhealthiness of this mindset for some time.

Rural living does nothing to stop me acquiring smokes. Honestly, by this point I’m nearly an adult, and more worldly than most of my school’s students, who have predominantly grown up together in the same three-road town. I mistake this for wisdom, because I am a teenager and an asshole. The new school, the fact that no one knew me until the day I walked in, gave me the excuse to determine who I wanted to be, and so I transform. I become Better, like Storm did. There’s no mohawk, but I cut my hair off, spike it out. I’m loud, brash, and just funny enough to get away with it. I have fun stories about my time growing up in Sacramento. Half of them are made up. Years of vigilance around my father give me the skills to read when enough is enough with each teacher, each classroom. The next couple of years proceed at about the same rate–the different class structure of my new school combined with the difficulties I had in my old one mean that I enter Sophomore year several credits behind. I spend the rest of high school catching up and graduate with a three-point-something GPA.

It’s not good enough for my father, but nothing ever is, and I’m unperturbed.

By Senior year I’m something I’ve never been. I’m liked. I’m not the most popular kid, and I still have issues, but I have friends. People talk to me. I think this is important until we graduate and I never see most of them again.

During that year the first X-Men movie comes out. Suddenly they are a thing in my life again. Everyone goes with me to see it, and everyone is interested as I explain the differences between the film and the comics, and where this bit or that came from. None of them actually want to read those comics. I will repeat this process in 2002 and 2006.

It’s 2001 and I’m 18. I have a high school diploma and no car. My teenage years have been such a mess of fucked up priorities that I am completely unprepared for adulthood. The only upswing of it is that I have to get everywhere via bicycle, which means regular 10 mile biking trips that keep me fit and keep my lungs from getting too bad, despite the smoking. I try to join the military, but I’m disqualified because of my allergy to bees (honey bees will kill me). College is not a prospect because my father will not provide me with his financial information, which is necessary for the FAFSA until I’m older than twenty-six. He won’t do this because he hasn’t paid his taxes for eight years and he’s afraid that he’ll be caught.

Eventually I get a job working at the local Boys and Girls Club. It’s four hours a day, on call but they always need me, and it’s a thinly veiled excuse to hang out with a few of my high school friends a bit longer. Eventually they go off to college and I, with no prospects and a bad attitude, get fired. I make a new friend, Bryan. He’s the boyfriend of a classmate of mine, still in school when we start hanging out, but he’s in the alternative school which means that he’s only there for a few hours a day. We spend the rest of the time hanging out at his house–his mom is never home, and my dad’s perfectly content to rarely see me. We form a group of fast friends, kids with no direction. 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons comes out. I start running games for them, because I’m the only one who’s played before. D&D still has a bad reputation in those days, so they’re unsure until the first session. After it, they’re hooked.

The fighting between my father and I gets worse. In 2002, I get ticketed for not wearing a seatbelt while out hunting for another job. Far from angry, my father is amused by this because I have always been extremely good about this sort of thing. I am only not wearing it in this instance because the buckle is broken, and I am nervous the entire time. I have to borrow $86 from him in order to pay the fine, with the understanding that I will pay him back from earnings I will make working the 2002 Bumbershoot festival. When those earnings take months to materialize, my father blames me for their tardiness. I blame myself as well, but I don’t know how to be better yet.

Sometime later, he drops an ultimatum, as he frequently does. He is very fond of the phrase “as long as you’re under my roof…” This time, I think it’s about smoking in the house, and this time, I’m done, so I call it. I pack a duffel bag full of clothes and I walk out the door. As I’m packing, he asks me where I’m going. I shrug and tell him I don’t know. I don’t care. I leave. I end up in the unlikeliest of places: his girlfriend’s house. She takes me in, and she does what no one has done for me since my mom died–she defends me. When I tell her that I don’t want to see him, she tells me I don’t have to. She doesn’t let him in the house. He, amazingly, respects that boundary. He asks to see me a couple of times, aware that he’s broken something between us (and that we were not in a good place to begin with), and I turn him down each time. I do it because I am angry. I don’t realize until years later that it’s the closest thing I’ve made to a healthy decision in the entire time he’s been in my life.

After three months or so, she informs me that she’s moving in with him. Because I have no choice, I go with her, return to my old room. I’m different now, though. I’ve transformed again. Three months without him in my life has given me time to think freely. My head is finally clear of the sludge long enough that I can see how toxic it is. I resolve that the stay will be temporary, and it is. With military and college off the table, I look for other options. By May of 2003, at 20 years old, I’m on a plane to Nampa, Idaho, where the Centennial Job Corps campus resides. My comics go into the storage space under the living room, where I won’t look at or read them again for six or seven years.

Operation: Zero Tolerance

If three months in my dad’s girlfriend’s house is enough to give me a renewed sense of purpose, then eight in Idaho is enough to fundamentally alter the direction of my life. The campus is highly structured, like a military academy, except for delinquents. That’s what we are–for the first time since moving to Washington, I’m actually the tamest one, the most well adjusted. Some of my dorm mates are there on court orders–it’s that or juvenile detention. Some are even more screwed up than me and just trying to get by. I have a significant head start over most of them in that I actually graduated high school.

Dorms are segregated. There are two female dorms and six male. We’re four to a room, each with a twin bed, half of a four-drawer dresser, and a personal closet. Each room has its own bathroom and shower for its four residents. There is a lights out time, and a time by which everyone must be up for cleaning before attending whatever classes each student is attending that day. The campus has incentivized the cleaning process in order to motivate the students into caring for their personal spaces. The dorm I’m shuffled into has been winning that competition for months on end. The other dorms have accused us of cheating, but after my first couple of weeks witnessing the process firsthand, I realize that we’re just effectively led. Our dorm president is a couple of years older than me, a couple of inches shorter, and built of pure muscle. His name is Ryan. He’d been there for nearly two years by that point, coming in as a wannabe hardass and leaving as a consummate professional. I admire everything about him. I am attracted to him, though I don’t know it yet. I want to be him, certainly–gorgeous and confident and admired. There is also one student from my town, though he’s several years older, so I wouldn’t have known him when we were both back home. His name is Christian.

Smoking is allowed on campus as long as you’re old enough–most of us are, as the age range for Job Corps is 16-24. For the first time, I have a steady income, am of legal age, and have no one telling me that I can’t. I’m smoking a pack a day by the end of the first few months. I feel like hell but the freedom of it is intoxicating.  The first time I try in earnest to quit is because Ryan looks at me and tells me I’m better than that. I start to transform once again. In the campus uniform of color coded shirts and khaki slacks, I look clean and presentable, and I feel like an adult. The schedule, the fact that I need a pass to even leave campus on the weekends keeps me honest. I start going to sleep at reasonable times, getting up in the morning. I start taking things seriously in a way that I hadn’t since elementary school.

Something happens, I can’t remember what, a month and a half in. The entire dorm leadership is removed from power, Ryan included. He’s nearly done anyway, it’s a black mark but he takes it on the chin. Then Summer break comes and I’m being bussed back home for two weeks, having scarcely left. Christian and I end up becoming friends, because it’s a long bus ride and we’re the only two going that far. We spend most of our two-week break hanging out because I still can’t stand my dad. I meet Christian’s sister. Her name is Amber. She’s eight years older than me, with two kids and a failing marriage. Everything about that scenario seems like a bad idea, but there’s a spark when we meet.

By the end of my third month, I’m in dorm leadership myself, and by the end of my sixth, I’m the dorm president. It’s entirely too solemn of a thing, in the way that young men will be when they think they’re doing something important. I take it seriously until one of the students sneaks a girl in and puts me in the position of turning him in or losing the respect of my peers. It’s the first time that childhood notion of “don’t tell on your friends” comes up against the adult notion of responsibility. I tell them I saw nothing, but the girl is caught on her way back to her own dorm, and hangs us all out to dry. Even so, the punishment is minimal, but it puts my time there into stark relief. I decide I need to focus on myself again and step down from leadership.

Christmas break comes around and Christian and I are again on the way home. Our connecting bus fails to materialize somewhere in southeastern Washington and we spend a night stranded before we finally make it home. Amber has a house of her own there now, having left her husband. Things happen in the way that they do and we spend most of the break together. When I go back to Job Corps, we speak daily over the phone. Before the end of the month, I decide I’m done, having completed the first third of a three-part course, and bail without the A+ certification I’d originally signed up for. I leave Job Corps on February 7th, 2004. I’m twenty one years old.

Days of Future Past

I move in with Amber immediately. By the end of March, I’m working full time for a computer anti-virus company and I’m the unofficial stepdad to two boys, three and five years old. Amber is going to school to become a CNA. She gets certified, and starts working at a local rest home. Because we are both not making very much money, we can’t afford a babysitter. I work five days a week, she works the other two. We have no days off together for the first several years of our relationship.

In June, I finally get my driver’s license. I actually buy the car first, for $500 from the grocery store parking lot. I wait to get the license because the car will get me to and from work, but it will not pass inspection. In the interest of not getting a massive fine, I finally get the license taken care of. I go with the girlfriend of one of my dad’s bar friends–she’s the only person I know with a car that will pass other than my father, who won’t let me use his truck.

I have no idea how to be a father–I only have bad examples to work from. Two days a week I am alone with them. I do my best. I have a few moments that remind me too much of my own father, and I work on having less of those. When I do have them, I apologize, and I explain to them why I’ve had those moments. I tell them that it’s not their fault, that it’s mine, and that I’m working on it. They’re young still, too young to really understand, but they understand at least that I was wrong and that I am apologizing. I hope that it’s enough, until they’re older.

In 2006, at twenty three, I finally quit smoking and it sticks. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve made the attempt, and I do it by force of will alone. I think that this is an impressive display of my willpower at the time, but really I am entering a phase of my life where I am so naturally grumpy and unpleasant that the irritation of my not having nicotine for a couple of weeks is hardly noticeable to anyone else. Still, I’m proud of myself. A year later, Amber quits too, after I take her last two cigarettes and break them while we’re on a field trip. She has to go the entire day without access to more, around a class of screaming kids. It is rough and probably a bit cruel of me, but I point out that if she can handle that first day, the rest is a cakewalk. She agrees, and it sticks.

My father and his girlfriend host a camping trip when the boys are young, perhaps eight and six. She has three adult daughters, and her first grandchildren, so they rent a couple of large camping spaces and invite everyone. I bring the boys, and we proceed to have an afternoon with the family. His girlfriend disappears into a tent at some point, citing a headache. We are loud in the way that a large family gathering can be, and as it gets later, a park ranger stops by to ask us to tone it down. She comes out of the tent in a full fury, tearing into the park ranger in the most vicious, over the top verbal assault I’ve ever heard–which, given the story until now, is impressive. She resists any and all efforts to calm her, by her own children, the park ranger, even my dad. At this point I feel the old fatalistic stirrings, and the speed with which I act on them surprises me. I cannot remember the words, but within two cutting sentences I have redirected the entirety of her ire on to me. I have done this intentionally, because I can handle it. I am used to parental figures being angry with me. She informs me that I ruin everything every time I show up. This is the same woman who took me in a few years prior. I realize now that I did not know her then. I find out later that she is an alcoholic on a level that makes my dad seem relatively in control–she had been hiding in the tent with a bottle of liquor for hours. I collect my children and leave, because the situation is toxic and they do not need to experience any more of it.

A couple of weeks later, she reaches out to apologize. I tell her in no uncertain terms that I’m glad she’s done so, but that she’s crossed a boundary that won’t be forgotten. I don’t exactly forgive her, but I make peace, of a sort. The following Thanksgiving, I wear a shirt to the family gathering that reads “I ruined it for everyone.” I can be petty.

The intervening years are shot through with relatively mundane things in comparison. There are school troubles, job troubles, and I continue to struggle with depression. But I have transformed again. I am a Dad now, and I take that responsibility seriously whether or not I believe I am prepared for it. I am certainly taking the task on younger than many–my friends do not begin having children until mine are well into elementary school. I will be only thirty six when my youngest turns eighteen.

An occasional member of our old D&D group comes out, begins her transition. We are not in close contact by this point, but the information is noteworthy. There’s a flicker of something in the back of my mind. Otherwise I feel…compassionate. I know that kind of announcement takes courage.

In 2007, I buy a house.

In 2008, Amber and I are married. We hold the ceremony in front of the old house Bryan and I used to hang out in. It’s not in the best condition by then, but it faces a beautiful pond. We’re married next to the pond, and it’s a lovely, laid back ceremony.

In 2009, my hair is long again. It has been for a while, but it’s at its longest, hitting my waist when it’s pulled straight. It’s naturally wavy to my shoulders, at which point it turns into ringlets that make people envious. I love it. It is one of the only things inherited from my father that I’m genuinely grateful for.

I walk into a comic shop. Iron Man has hit and left theaters. There have been Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four movies. Superheroes have finally returned to the mainstream of pop culture. Surprisingly, it is not the X-Men that bring me back, but Green Lantern. The X-Men of the late 90s are still fresh in my mind, but I am twenty six and have a better understanding of exactly how far the quality of those comics fell. It’s not long before I’m playing some catch up, though. I’ve missed the entirety of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is still only a couple of years old. I pick up some issues here and there, but mostly I focus on filling old back issues I’m missing. I rescue my old boxes from my dad’s house. Amber is mildly frustrated by the space that they take up in our room, but she likes seeing me excited, and I am again. I’m picking up new things, I have new friends to talk to about them.

That year, my dad loses his job. He is in his late fifties, and spends some time looking for a new position, but spends more of his time drinking. It’s the year after the housing market crash, and no one wants to hire a man less than a decade to retirement age.

I read a lot of comics–not just X-Men–over the next few years. I setup my first pull box, for the first time have the kind of money it takes to keep up with books on a monthly basis. I find a lot of stories I’m a big fan of, and I find a lot that I think are absolutely terrible. Often the ones I think are terrible are popular, and slowly I learn that I am a certain kind of comics reader, that I am looking for something different in them than most. Again this begins a process of self-reflection, one that would not pay off for years.

In 2010, I’m laid off from the antivirus company. Specifically, I’m let go on the exact day of my sixth anniversary with the company. In dark humor I find this extremely fitting. That company is a story for another time. I spend approximately five months unemployed. I pick up a new job at a company that assists businesses with sales tax calculation, and it is terrible. Fortunately, I have a new job within a few months.

Sometime in this period, a register jockey at my local comic shop comes out. She takes the name Angelina. I misgender her accidentally once and kick myself about it for months because I do not want to be that kind of person. I start considering the way that I interact with people more. I realize that it is important to me to recognize the validity of others living their lives because I have been so often denied mine. It is a selfish start to a motivation, certainly, but it’s also an empathetic one.

In 2011, I start working that new job. I’m doing interesting work testing and monitoring a newly designed marketing system. The hours are terrible. I start going bald. I cut my hair, but I grow a beard. I am now indistinguishable from a multitude of male tech professionals in their late twenties and early thirties. Part of me is comforted by that fact–I have always wanted to fit in. Another part of me shudders in violent rejection. I assume it is just the rebellious child I once was. Within three years the schedule of this job and the atmosphere of the workplace will lead me to a nervous breakdown. I will start antidepressants for the first time in my life. Truth told, I probably needed them sooner. I will also go to therapy appointments for the first time since my mother died. I definitely needed those sooner.

My dad and his drunkard girlfriend split. It’s not long before he meets someone new. At the bar. Despite this circumstance, she’s sweet. She’s good for him, as far as we can tell. Soon, she’s sick.

I spend a year in therapy over the course of 2013, during which I turn thirty. That therapy ends when I lose my job and thus my insurance. The ACA has not taken effect yet, and so I’m forced to wean myself off of the antidepressants as well. They were not working as well as I’d hoped, anyway. My dad loses the house he bought when I was sixteen. He’s working again, but it’s too little, too late, and he spends too much on booze.

I spend three months unemployed this time, before starting with a contracting company in February of 2014, installing computer hardware in local hospitals. It is the first time I have enjoyed my work in a long time. It changes daily, makes use of my organizational skills, and I excel in the role. Unfortunately, the job ends when the installation is done, and by August of 2014 I’m without a job again.The up-and-down nature of this period is difficult, and I can feel the depression slipping in again.

In March, during that job, my dad’s new wife dies. Of cancer. This is a blow he cannot recover from. He retires shortly after, and begins sitting at home, doing nothing but drinking.

In October I’m hired for another installation job. I need some paperwork that is still in my dad’s files in order to start work. I go to visit him and find that he can’t leave the couch. He’s too inebriated. There are thirty empty bottles of Black Velvet on the counter. There’s a half-eaten English Muffin. Virtually his entire caloric intake is coming from alcohol. My sister and I manage to get him into a hospital, where he spends three weeks in detox. He has given himself diabetes and a mild case of alcohol-induced dementia. When the doctor tells me that, I realize that it’s all over but the waiting.

Something something little boy’s smile

Meanwhile, I’m missing shifts my first week as I try to sort him out. My boss is, thankfully, understanding. Again, I excel at the role, but this one is over two hours away from home. I commute four hours every day on top of an eight hour work shift. I stop being a person, nearly. I get up, shower, eat, drive, work, drive, eat, sleep. I have no free time save on weekends. By then I am so tired from the week that the act of going to the store is too much. I last four months before I find a new job. It’s just in time. I can feel the anger underneath the surface. Even now, I have to work to not be like him.

Age of X

In February 2015 I’m hired at my current place of employment. It’s contract work, but long term. It’s easy, it gives me lots of downtime. Because of that I have lots of time to reconnect with comics once again. I find myself connecting with the comics community, to find that it has again changed. The nature of social media has brought critical voices together, and there is a real, live discussion happening about comics every single day. I’m eager to be part of it. I write a few blog posts here and there, make some friends, make a lot of bad jokes.  

A couple of months later, my dad has returned to his pre-hospital habits of drinking and smoking too much. He has a bad fall in his driveway and hits his head, goes back to the hospital. He blames it on a mistake with his medication, but I don’t believe him–I suspect it’s more likely the fact that he’s mixing that medication with alcohol. I don’t challenge his assertion, though, because it doesn’t matter. I write him a letter. I tell him that if he won’t commit to his own sobriety and health, then I can’t be a part of his life. He cries when he reads it, makes the usual promises. He doesn’t keep them.

Later that year I start listening to a podcast called X-Plain the X-Men. It is a thoughtful, thorough analysis of my favorite comic in the world, in order, a few issues at a time. Listening to it, listening to critical analysis of these artifacts from my childhood opens my own life up to me in a way that I’ve never known before. I’m utterly addicted and I binge every single episode that’s available. Shortly after I begin, one of the hosts comes out. He prefers Jay, provides only the necessarily relevant information, and then moves on with the job of hosting a podcast. The floor is not open for questions, this is the way it is now. The announcement is a firm and succinct line and I like that about it. It’s neat, organized. He’s transformed. More himself. Better. Because of the X-Men, because of the context of my life, vastly different though it is, I can understand this. Something clicks in me as I listen and I mistake it for admiration, but it’s not.

I continue to be surrounded by marginalized voices in the comics community. As I listen, I hear the things I’m thinking reflected in them. I read the things that they say and find myself not just agreeing, but comparing those things against my own life experiences and sorting out the parallels. The align into a clear, precise arrangement of facts and I have to face one in particular: I realize I’m queer. The truth of it is like a physical blow, and the weight of it is something I have to sit down to process. I spend days recontextualizing past interactions.

I realize this in 2016, at thirty two years old. I’ve been married for nearly a decade, I’ve been in a heterosexual relationship for even longer than that, but–I’m queer. This becomes the new skin I wear. I don’t know what to do with it at first. Amber was out as queer when I first met her–she was never once shy about that. I talk to someone online about it, someone I don’t even know, because he’s queer, and because I need an outlet that is unconnected to my life in order to sort out what this means.

Within a month, Amber knows. We’re driving around and she’s talking in the passenger seat, and I can’t even remember how the subject comes up. She says something to the effect of she knows I’m not into guys, and after a long pause I reply back with, “Well, I’m not not into guys…” After a shocked moment of silence, she laughs, I laugh, and we talk about it. It’s good.

In the midst of this, my father has a stroke. He still has not changed his habits, and because of them, he pays another price. His status as a vet enables him access to the local VA home, and he’s lucky enough to get a bed there (it is not an easy thing to do). He spends most of the year there, during which I only visit him twice. My sister now has power of attorney–she will help him where I will not. I feel guilty about this constantly, but I can no longer stand to even be around him. The few occasions I am, his frustration with his situation translates into the same old mistreatment, but I am no longer a teenager, and I simply walk away.

In March, I create a private twitter account specifically to process those feelings. I have a breakdown and delete everything I’ve said up to that point. Later I calm down and realize the instability of this behavior, realize further that my own emotional instability has ramped up again in response to the turmoil and uncertainty of my life.

I struggle with the definition of my queerness, because even though I know that the label does not really matter, I feel the need to label it. I like organization. I try pan- and bi-, and they feel…fine. I discover that the prefixes themselves don’t mean to me what they mean to others. They’re delineations on a spectrum and it’s the spectrum itself that fascinates me. I’m back to just thinking of myself as ‘queer’. I’m attracted to men, and women. I’m attracted to non-binary folk. I’m a little bit on the poly side, but my anxieties make it hard. Trying to define it any more strictly than that feels wrong. It hurts, somehow, and hurting is the opposite of what I want to do.

I spend a lot of time considering what the concept of masculinity means to me. I never struggle to accept the idea that masculinity could be toxic when it is introduced into the global conversation; that matches my lived experiences. It has always been women who made me feel safe. It has always been women who shared with me a sense of community and acceptance. This is not to say that women are not also capable of the cruelties that men have inflicted on me, but the women I have known have never been this way. Too many of them have been victimized, too.

The truth is that masculinity has always felt like a performance. When I need to perform, I can do so, and well, but largely I become more quiet and reserved as time goes on. I shrink back from the role when I can because it drains me. I stopped going out years before, but now I stop contacting friends entirely. I am simultaneously the most myself that I have ever been and the most miserable.

In April of 2016 I attend my first Emerald City Comic Con in almost a decade. It is also the first one I attend where I’m open and out about my sexuality. In May, I write a piece about Captain America in which I publicly come out (in fact, between that post and this one I have not written a single other thing). I alternate between thinking it’s decently composed and feeling faintly embarrassed that it’s out there. I’m embarrassed that I’ve tied the expression of my identity to a comic book character–to an interpretation of that character that doesn’t even actually exist. I spend the next several months deciding at least once a month to delete it. I never do. It is uncomfortable having that moment of honesty there, in its passion and imperfection, but the honesty of it is what was important in the moment, and so I leave it.

Over the summer, Amber has some confessions of her own. She takes her time with it, because she struggles through questions of identity slowly, the same way I do, but the truth comes out: Alex is a trans man. He’s terrified that I will leave him. He’s terrified that he’s ruined something between us with this stark fact about himself. I assure him that this is not the case. He still has not come out publicly, not even to our children, because he is too afraid to disrupt the natural order of our lives. It’s a silly anxiety, but one that I understand, since I still have not come out to them either (Alex has read this article prior to its publication, and approved of the sharing of this information).

In October, Tegan O’Neil publishes One Hundred and Sixty Four Days. It is her coming out essay. It is powerful and personal and honest, and she follows it up with several more posts over the next few months that are full of excellent writing. Several points of it resonate with me; her self-destructive tendencies, her memory issues, her inability to focus. I read it that day and feel a kinship, but in my way I don’t say anything beyond some general words of praise. I continue to go back and reread it several times.

My father is released from the Veteran’s Home. He has convinced them that he is able to care for himself in the way that alcoholics can always convince people that they’re all right unsupervised. It takes him only a few weeks to stop taking his meds regularly. He lives in an apartment now. Once a week someone comes by to help him clean the place. He does nothing other than that but sleep and stare at the TV. He has hearing aids but never wears them, so the TV is far too loud.

Second Coming

In December of 2016, my mental instability hits a critical low. I enter one of what I’ve always called ‘black moods’, wherein my self-esteem and belief in hope are both so guttered that I cannot see a way forward. I’m depressed and angry with myself for being depressed, for being unable to get it together. I write a note entitled ‘If I’m Dead.’ I have no intention of killing myself, but I can no longer discount the possibility that it might happen, and my nature to prepare plans drives me to write the note just in case. It is an apology and an explanation:

I don’t know what this is. I have a problem. I want to die. I want to not exist.

My brain tells me that I should die. My brain is my enemy.

I want to be really clear about that fact. I know that I should not want to die. I know what it would do to the people I care about. I know that many of them would never, ever forgive me. I should say, too, that when I explicitly state ‘I want to die,’ I do not mean that I want to want that. Does that make sense? I wish, fervently, that my brain were not trying to kill me. I wish that it were not my enemy, because it has been my brain for nearly 34 years now, and I am well aware of some of the things it is capable of.

The day I write that, I reach out to an old friend. This carries an anxiety of its own; my problems have made me into a terrible friend. I go months, years without contacting people, each progressive day more and more convinced that after this long, they don’t even want to hear from me. I reach out nonetheless, because I know that I’m in a bad enough state to really need it. Despite my fears, they listen, they read the letter I’ve written, and they talk to me for a solid couple of hours, until I feel like I’m in control. My next step is to immediately call the doctor and schedule an appointment.

It’s January of this year. I explain to my doctor why I’m there. This is a new one. My old primary care physician has moved on, and so I have to find someone new to talk to. He listens, he’s patient. At the end he prescribes me a month’s worth of Zoloft to see how I handle it. My blood pressure is high, so he advises I change my diet and join a gym. I do so. I lose twelve pounds in a month and cut my blood pressure from 138 over 96 to 110 over 72. He’s impressed with my progress. I’m mildly annoyed with myself at how pleased I am to have his approval.

This past weekend was Emerald City Comic Con. It’s my second year in a row, my fourth in total. I am thirty four years old and have attended twice from 2008 to 2009 and now twice from 2016 to 2017. Those experiences are so far removed from one another that the two earlier ventures might as well be by a different person.

The night before last, I decide I want to paint my nails. I have never done this before. My spouse helps me when they get home from work. They are a dusky matte blue. I’m in love. It could be a combination of the diet, medications, and exercise, but I feel something like happiness. I smile when I look at them. I’m nervous about wearing them to work, to the gym, but not enough to let it stop me. That night I have an intense dream. In it, I’m screaming truths about myself to passers by, all wearing faces of people I know. None of them look at me. None of them care. It’s a terrifying intersection of my anxieties and issues. I sleep fitfully and wake up exhausted. I go to work anyway and spend the day admiring my nails and thinking about my identity. I write three thousand words filled with my thoughts, but I don’t publish them. Today, I go back and write another 8000. They’re about the same thing, but the message is transformed. Better.

I spend some time musing about how I was faintly embarrassed by tying my coming out last year to Captain America, only to immediately follow that up by tying this one to the X-Men. But evolution’s the thing. Improvement, progress. Each thing that changes me makes me more myself.

I have never truly felt like I belonged anywhere. I have known for many years that this feeling is not a function of the environments around me, but of the problems within me. Only in the last year or so has my understanding of that sharpened; I do not feel belonging because I am not comfortable with myself. I am not comfortable with myself because my self does not reflect me. I guess that this is dysphoria. It is not the feeling I believed it would be. It is not a gut-heaving revulsion at myself as I imagined, perhaps because I have read too many comic books.

Dysphoria registers as a low-grade humming in the back of my subconscious. It is not articulate or enlightening, it tells me only that something is wrong. And something is always wrong. The intersection of anxiety, depression, abuse, codependency. I am never completely okay. I fake it well. It’s exhausting.

I’m tired of being exhausted. I think I might not be cis.

March 08, 2017

The Ol’ Patriotic One Two

(Spoilers for this week’s release of Steve Rogers: Captain America #1 to follow.)

It’s been a big month for Captain America. Steve Rogers, the kid from Brooklyn, had his third movie premiere earlier this month to great reviews and a billion dollar box office. In a smart, well-planned move, Marvel Comics has returned Steve Rogers to being Captain America just in time, granting him his own title, alongside Sam Wilson, who will also continue to bear the mantle. In anticipation of the many curious folks walking out of Captain America: Civil War and into a comic shop, looking for a good, accessible story about the titular hero, Marvel has crafted exactly that, giving us a Steve Rogers in his prime, wearing the red, white and blue, slinging his shield, and, of course, as years of comics history dictates, being an active sleeper agent of HYDRA, Marvel’s defacto Nazi stand-ins.

Wait. What?

Yes. Marvel is balancing their signature, flagship hero’s return to prominence on the ever-so-well thought out idea of “What if the good guy was really a BAD GUY all along?” To clarify things (because this is comics, after all), editor Tom Brevoort and writer Nick Spencer have doubled down on the fact that this is THE Steve Rogers–the original, the one true, accept no clones, alternate universe versions, or LMDs (Life Model Decoys–it’s a thing). In a USA Today interview, Brevoort essentially takes the tack of “all press is good press,” as he typically has in the past.

If the idea of Captain America, the symbol of freedom, being a villain–and worse, an actual Nazi–strikes you as wrong, well, congratulations, you probably have at least some sense. To make matters worse, this is the second time in two days that Captain America has been at the forefront of the collective consciousness–yesterday saw the rise of the hashtag #GiveCapABoyfriend on Twitter. The hashtag itself was a multifaceted thing; it spun out of a prior hashtag regarding the Frozen heroine called #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, and they both have the same aim; openly queer characters at the forefront of popular culture.

This was, unsurprisingly, quite the contentious subject. There was a lot of back-and-forth over the validity of the idea in the first place, and further skepticism and questioning over the motivations behind it. Comics colorist Nathan Fairbairn opined on the subject yesterday, good-naturedly asserting that Captain America is established as straight, and that queer rep IS a problem, but that that problem can easily be addressed by making Falcon, War Machine, or Bucky gay instead. After that good-natured assertion, he went on to question the legitimacy of reasoning going into the hashtag, and telling those who supported it to go fuck themselves, if they didn’t have the reasons he thought they should.

(There is not a ninth tweet that I can see.)

Several folks responded; making well-reasoned points, and Mr. Fairbairn doubled down on the idea of “Why Cap?”

Now, to be fair, he did argue his points well (click through any of those tweets to get an idea of the response; he had to conduct himself on multiple fronts at once, and he relented on several points), but the answer to the question he’s raising is multi-part.

First: Captain America just had a movie release bearing his name in large block letters only a few weeks ago. He is at the forefront of the public consciousness, and as much as Mr. Fairbairn may think so, it’s not disingenuous in the slightest for him to be the subject, just like it wouldn’t be disingenuous for the same to be true of Iron Man, were one of his movies freshly released. It’s not disingenuous to recontextualize something currently in the public eye as a means of generating discussion–we do that every day.

Second: More importantly, Captain America is the flagship character at Marvel Comics, and in its movies. In this most recent movie, he’s the main character. We don’t need a queer Bucky or Sam Wilson–we don’t need another queer sidekick or also ran. We need a queer LEAD. Since January, in the latter half of this year’s TV viewing season, sixteen lesbian or bisexual women were killed on screen. Sixteen–most of those within a two- or three-week period, and again, just from the latter half of the season. So, why Cap? Because he’s at the forefront. Because we have a reasonable expectation that he’ll survive the story. Sidekicks have a limited lifespan–more so if they’re queer, and even more than that if they’re queer POC.

Third: We need a queer lead in a story that is not explicitly about queerness. Those stories are absolutely necessary and fantastic, but the thing about them is this: Most straight people don’t watch them. Most straight people don’t care about them. We need action stories and thrillers and all sorts of stories with queer leads because we need to see that status normalized on the screen. To put it in perspective, let’s revisit that fourth tweet in Mr. Fairbairn’s diatribe there. “Captain America in the films is clearly straight. That’s been established in several films by now.” Oh, it has? We’ve seen him share a romance with Peggy Carter, and then fumble awkwardly with every other woman he’s encountered since–including a kiss with Peggy’s own niece that may just take the award for the least charismatic kiss committed to film this year.

No, what Mr. Fairbairn is putting forth is heteronormativity. We’ve only seen Cap be interested in girls, so obviously he’s only straight, right? Straight people can’t have boyfriends, so obviously the entire movement’s a wash! Except, oh wait. People can be bisexual. People can even not realize they’re queer until well into their adult life, and it’s especially likely that might be true if the person in question is so busy jumping from one combat zone to the next that he never has time to stop and take stock of his life.

Here’s where it gets personal, and I expound on something that I’ve only discussed with a few people in my life: Hi. I’m queer. I only figured it out recently–so recently that I’m still processing it and trying to undo some really screwed up mindsets. So recently that I still haven’t even figured out the right words to define it beyond simply, “queer.”  So when I put forth the idea that Captain America can and should have a male love interest, I’m putting forth the idea that I would like to see someone who represents, in broad strokes, the exact thing I have spent the last several months of my life going through.

From a straight point of view, does the idea seem desperate? Does it seem silly, that we’re pushing so hard for something to be attached to a lead character? Maybe. But, seriously, name one major queer lead in superhero fiction. Name one in a police procedural. Name one in anything that’s not explicitly a story about being queer.

Fourth (that’s right, I still have more points): Why Cap? Why not a different lead, like Iron Man? Mr. Fairbairn, Tony Stark is not Captain America. Tony Stark is not a representative of the very idea of Freedom. Tony Stark does not explicitly represent the ideals that the United States were founded on. Tony Stark does not definitively stand for the marginalized in the way that Steve Rogers does. That is the explicit point of Steve Rogers–he was created by two Jews during World War II to fight Nazis. He is explicitly the Nazi Party’s own Aryan ideals turned against against them; a Caucasian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed defender of the very people they were attempting to exterminate. So why Cap? Because standing for the marginalized is his role in fiction.

That fourth point brings us full circle to today’s news, and the idea that Captain America is now, and has always been, a sleeper agent of Hydra. Now, it’s not Marvel’s fault that this news is hitting today; comics take time to write, to make, to print, and to ship, and this release date has been in the cards for them for months now. There was no way that Marvel could have anticipated the rise of yesterday’s discussion, and so they can’t be held accountable in that capacity. However.

One day after the call for queer rep on the part of the character who is meant to represent the marginalized, Marvel announced that Captain America is, and has been, a secret Nazi all along. He is a member of an organization whose real-world, nonfiction counterpart actively persecuted gays and lesbians over the course of its campaign during World War II. Marvel literally presented a Captain America who is the antithetical opposite of the thing that was being asked for, and they did it for shock value.

The standard arguments are already cropping up: “Wait until the story’s finished!” “It’s just comics, it’ll change back, it doesn’t matter!” We’re told, in so many words, to have faith, that everything will turn out okay. While that might be true, that’s not really the issue here. People are not upset because this change is permanent; we know that it will not be. People are upset because for something that we know is not permanent, such a subversion is indicative of a shocking lack of awareness and sensitivity for its real-world ramifications. It undermines the moral compass on which the character is built. It undermines the moral compass of the entire franchise built on top of that. It insults the history and the legacy of his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. It is, as Brevoort says in his interview, a “slap in the face.” When Brevoort says that, he seems to forget what a slap in the face is, and what it represents: An assault.

We get enough of that.

 

Batman V Superman, In Brief

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie that features two things:

  • A Superman who never once tries to reason with a single opponent, who responds to every single obstacle with rage and violence, and
  • A Batman who spends the majority of the plot carefully planning premeditated murder.

These are not heroes. They’re not even three-dimensional characters. There is no grace or humility to them. ‘Dawn of Justice’ is a terribly inapt subtitle for a film in which the very concept of justice never dawns on either of the primary characters.

I did not like this movie.

Distilled Essence: Alcoholism and Abuse in Excalibur

If you’re at all invested in comics culture, then by now you probably know about the amazing podcast Rachel And Miles X-Plain the X-Men. On the off chance you don’t, it’s a podcast where Jay Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes do exactly what the title suggests, and explain the long-running X-Men comic franchise. They do so in a rapid style that features competent, well-thought analysis and some great humor, with each episode covering around four issues over the course of forty-five minutes to an hour. I really recommend it.

This morning, on the drive to work, I was listening to Episode 89, wherein amongst other things (this episode being a Giant-Size Special) they discuss the very first Excalibur story, The Sword Is Drawn. It’s a great book, and the start of an even greater series, but I’d rather leave the discussion of the overall story to that episode, and instead focus on something else. While listening, I took a look at the book in question (this was after I was done driving, I am not a madman), and something stuck out to me in a big way–the nature of Brian Braddock and Meggan’s relationship.

Now, much was said over the course of the episode about Brian’s alcoholism, how it stems from the trauma he’s undergone, and also how it informs his life, and the decisions he makes in it. What wasn’t covered in depth though (though possibly will be over time, as it would derail the hell out of an individual episode) is the way his alcoholism affects Meggan.

Meggan is an empath–that is, someone who can mentally read the emotions of others–and moreso, as of this story, an empath largely unfamiliar with the world. She’s been shut away, mainlining pop culture in isolation for years, and as such has a very skewed sense of what makes for a healthy, adult relationship, or even a rational adult conversation. When paired with Brian Braddock, who has died multiple times, gotten better multiple times, and who drinks to cope with those facts, the resulting combination is a dangerous one–and I do not say that lightly.

In the first scene featuring the two together in this book, Meggan is stumbling upon Brian as he’s just heard news of his sister’s apparent death. Brian reacts in typical fashion, by cracking open a bottle and wallowing in his grief. Given the situation–I’m very close with my sister and I’d absolutely be heartbroken in Brian’s shoes–the act itself isn’t the problem. No, the problem comes when Meggan attempts to soothe Brian’s pain. It’s a doomed effort–the pain of losing someone dear to oneself is something that does not fade quickly, if ever. It’s still a noble one, though, and Meggan’s compassion in this scene is beautiful to behold.

MegganCompassion

Unfortunately, in the very next panel, Brian flies off the handle. He yells, throws a full bottle of liquor, and calls Meggan a cow, and launches into a series of further insults against her character, before shouting at her to go away. It is an utterly unacceptable, childish fit, and had he delivered that same speech to any other member of the team, he’d likely have had the sense slapped into him immediately.

BrianTantrum

Imagine Brian calling Rachel Summers a cow. Imagine the hole in the earth where he would’ve once been standing.

Meggan, horrified by his anger, flees into their shared bedroom, where she collapses on the bed, crying to herself. She apologizes to the empty air, for making him cross, complaining that she’s “always saying the wrong thing and doing worse.”

MegganCrying

This moment is where the scene crystallizes. When Meggan flops herself on the bed, she’s apologizing–for the act of showing compassion, even! These are textbook markers of a codependent and furthermore abusive relationship. Brian was absolutely awful to her, and here she is apologizing as though it’s her fault. She’s not angry, she’s not upset with him for the way he treated her (see also: Superheroes and the Gender Politics of Anger, by Jessica Plummer). She’s remorseful. It sticks out, if you’re paying attention, and it’s a very heart-wrenching scene which does an effective job of anchoring the reader’s compassion for Meggan. Unfortunately, it also takes the focus away from Brian.

That focus briefly returns, as Nightcrawler appears, dropping Brian into the water to wake him, before launching into an absolutely deserved tirade about his horrible, nihilistic self-destruction. It’s a wonderful scene, because Kurt really cracks through every flimsy excuse Brian’s able to put up, and just strips the man down, forcing him to take some personal responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s an address of the symptoms, not the underlying cause, and worse, it’s also the only time the book takes to hold Brian accountable. Brian never apologizes to Meggan, and no one ever tells Meggan that it’s not her fault–that none of it is. In fact, when Brian and Meggan later reunite, they embrace and kiss, happily.

She utterly believes in him, no matter how horrible he is to her.

She utterly believes in him, no matter how horrible he is to her.

It’s a testament to Chris Claremont’s writing that we still view Brian Braddock as a “good guy” despite scenes like this, and the reason is that for all of his soap opera flourishes, he allows the characters he writes to have flaws. Alcoholism has cropped up again and again in comics–Tony Stark, Carol Danvers, Hal Jordan, Flash Thompson–but it’s almost invariably treated as a simple obstacle that is easily overcome. “I drink too much” has become the synthesized narrative of the portrayal of alcoholism, and the resulting solution is for the character to stop drinking. Then, hooray! They’re cured!

With Brian Braddock, especially under Claremont’s hand, that’s for once not the case. Braddock’s alcoholism is a recurring problem with no real solution–in the way that alcoholism itself is. It’s not a quantitative problem, it can’t be solved by simply limiting the amount of alcohol consumed. It is a legitimately recognized mental disorder, and one of the chief problems it creates is in interpersonal relationships. I dislike the myth of “angry” drunks and “happy” drunks–there are drunks, period. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re even sad, depending on the context of their lives around them, their own emotional state, and their hang-ups. They may even be predominantly one of these ways, but distilling the description down to “___ drunk” puts the onus on the alcohol, when those traits were present prior to the imbibing. It’s part of the ongoing narrative of not holding an alcoholic responsible for his actions.

And Brian is responsible–I am not defending his actions in the above panels at all–if anything, exactly the opposite. I want to provide the context of them, so that we can discuss what is the really fascinating portion of this scene: Meggan’s codependency. See, the thing that Brian does? Throwing his bottle, shouting insults? That’s abuse. It’s a loud, violent temper tantrum, and furthermore it’s on the part of a man who by nature of his abilities, can seriously hurt a person. He doesn’t (he’d be irredeemable after that), but only barely. Even so, the situation is bad. Consider Meggan’s background, her isolation and her complete lack of self-identity. This is a character whose appearance reflects what people think of her, and now Brian is carelessly calling her a cow, cruelly belittling her. He’s so invested in the idea of hurting her in that moment that he’s out of his chair, he has to force himself to direct that violent action elsewhere–the bottle. Through all that, Meggan is the one apologizing, because she knows he’s in pain. And yes, he is hurting, given the apparent loss of his sister, but that’s no excuse.

The intersection between alcoholism and abuse is a difficult thing to discuss. As you’ve likely gleaned from these paragraphs alone, each subject is by itself a complex and nuanced problem to deal with, and the point where they overlap is doubly so. As a child of both, I can tell you two things. One, that the way this plot thread is handled throughout this issue is an absolutely excellent and accurate portrayal of the insidious nature of both, how they worm their way into a relationship and redefine the parameters of it, so that those within it have trouble even properly recognizing what the problem is. The second thing I can tell you is that had this book taken the time to reinforce with Meggan that Brian’s actions were Brian’s fault, a younger version of myself might have started learning a lot sooner how better to navigate the troubled waters of his home life. That no one did is, sadly, just another part of what makes this arc so very, very accurate.

 

 

 

Context and Choice: Why Crimson Peak Was Great

Last night, my wife and I went to see Crimson Peak. We were pretty excited about the movie from the start; it’s a Del Toro movie, which is enough to pique our interests right away, and listening to Tom Hiddleston talk about it on the Daily Show only interested me further. I’m a complete mark for gothic films. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend, but I did see a great many reactions, and that only made it more interesting. Was it the film as it exists that people were having trouble with, or the film that people thought existed, based on the choices made in the production of the film’s trailers?

crimson-peak

Now, having seen it, I’m struck by the way choice defines this movie. It’s true in the aforementioned ad campaign, the clear sign of marketing folks who have no idea how to advertise a romance film outside of the Nicholas Sparks template. It’s true from a metanarrative perspective; Del Toro’s usage of visuals, dividing sections of the movie with thematic color choices, the several instances where a given scene fades to black by zeroing in on a focal point first. It’s in the design of the ghosts; the focus on their grisly visuals not for simple shock value, but to convey important clues. It’s in the minor visual gag during the final act of each woman reaching for a bigger knife, undercutting the tension and drama only slightly and somehow engaging the viewer even more.

But it’s most true within the context of the film itself. Every action of the film’s lead lady, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), defines the narrative of the world around her, in a way that is almost never true of this type of film. We’re treated to so many damsels, so many victims of events that transpire that Edith herself is a revelation; a young girl and a writer who knows, even early on, what she’s up against. When she’s rejected early on in the film, she makes the choice to type her manuscript instead, so that she is judged on the content of her work, and not her gender. From the start of the movie onward, she is haunted, quite literally, and even though she shrinks in fear from these apparitions, she never lets that fear control her. She remembers, she contextualizes the information she’s given, and she acts on it.

She is deceived, true; this is a thing that happens to her rather than by choice. But this even pivotal thing is not enough to define her ; merely her location (the visceral reaction she has to Allendale’s nickname is absolutely heart-wrenching). When she moves with her new husband and his sister, the Sharpes (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), it’s with the promise of the future, of taking the reins of something and filling it with new life. Even then, as she’s systematically manipulated and poisoned, she’s the agent of her own salvation; each haunting frightens her, as does her new sister-in-law, but she does not back down from the challenges and the mystery that they represent. She gathers clues like a true detective throughout the film; the letter, the key, the wax cylinders, and finally the gramophone. She unravels the truth alone, without assistance, relying only on her intelligence. When her doctor friend, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) arrives late in the film to “save” her, he’s necessary only for a moment to prevent her immediate death. In that moment, he’s horribly wounded himself, and once again Edith must stand on her own. It’s something she does, as she’s proven herself to do throughout.

Crimson Peak is a movie defined by choices, and what makes it truly great is the way it lets its heroine make her own.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Seven

Over the course of this series, I’ve really given Hasbro a hard time. What I want to stress, though, is that I’m doing so because I like what Hasbro does. I like the product they do put out–I’ve bought virtually every Marvel Legend release this year despite the problems that I’ve stated with the line. But that doesn’t mean the problems shouldn’t be stated. The gender disparity issue is real, and it is a significant problem. It’s easy to be dismissive of it: “These are just toys!”

True, they are. That’s exactly why the issue’s important. These are the things that we’re subjecting our children to. These are the lessons we’re teaching them, without saying a word. The problem is in every aisle divide, every character choice, every design choice for those characters, but it is also not solely those things. It creates a system of rules for What Boys And Girls Should Do. It does so with symbols and shapes, with color choices, reinforcing stereotypes about what’s acceptable behavior, and it does so before they’re even able to articulate what they might personally want. It’s a complex, multifaceted problem with a simple summary: Toy Companies Need To Treat Women Better.

The IAmElemental figures.

The IAmElemental figures.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good examples–Mattel unveiled a new line aimed specifically at girls this NYCC, called DC Superhero Girls. The designs mirror the big-headed aesthetic of other lines, like Monster High or Brats, but feature more athletic designs and articulation on par with action figures traditionally marketed at boys. Elsewhere, enterprising mothers have formed their own company using a Kickstarter campaign and released the IAmElemental line, with specific themes that blend emotional intelligence with Super Sentai aesthetics; like DC’s variously colored Lanterns fused with the Power Rangers (or Captain Planet), only all of them are girls, and none of them look the way DC’s female Lantern characters look.

DC's Star Sapphire and Green Lantern. While the Star Sapphire designs have gotten better in recent years, they still operate on the concept of Love as a power being the province of women, and the Star Sapphire Corps is the only one in which women are the majority

DC’s Star Sapphire and Green Lantern. While the Star Sapphire designs have gotten better in recent years, they still operate on the concept of Love as a power being the province of women, and the Star Sapphire Corps is the only one in which women are the majority. Coincidentally, they’ve also never had their own book, unlike most of the other Lantern Corps.

The thing is, Hasbro is not one of those examples. Hasbro has continued marketing toys the same way, year in and year out, despite the changing attitudes in their customer base. I promised an overview of their upcoming 2016 product line, so let’s get into that. I’ve discussed already the upcoming Spider-Gwen figure; as is custom, Marvel Legends remains primarily divided into Spider-Man and Avengers series. Here’s the breakdown of announced figures so far:

The asterisk for Rogue is due to the fact that she's shown with an alternate Onslaught head, but announced as not yet slotted into a series.

The asterisk for Rogue is due to the fact that she’s shown with an alternate Onslaught head, but announced as not yet slotted into a series.

So far, that’s a 5:13 ratio, which is slightly better, although it’s still only about a third as many female characters being produced. If the Rogue figure is indeed included in the Onslaught series, that’ll be the first series since 2007 to include three female figures–and that 2007 series only counted on a technicality, as the Build-A-Figure was a female insectoid matriarch. It’s still not an especially promising look; two women for every six men to a series is incredibly unbalanced. Also of note is the presentation issue I mentioned in the last piece–of the five female characters presented, only one is a woman of color–the half-Dominican Beetle. She’s also the only one who remains entirely masked, without an alternate head. Three of the other four are white and blonde.

2016women

Left to right: Sharon Carter, Beetle, Mockingbird, Rogue, and the as-yet-unpainted Gwen Stacy unmasked head.

Now, I know the Marvel character roster has a lot of these WASPy types. Similarly, I also know that they have plenty who fall outside that category, and that they’re actively working to improve this sort of thing. So why is Hasbro, as their licensed merchandising arm, not following suit? Why is Marvel, focused on improving representation as they seem to be, not ensuring that Hasbro does this? Beetle’s one example, but why is it so hard to produce a figure of a woman of color? Why is it even harder to do so when that woman is unmasked? Where is the Kamala Khan figure? Or America Chavez? Colleen Wing? Monet St. Croix? Faiza Hussain, wielder of Excalibur? Where is Monica Rambeau, the first female Captain Marvel? Or Tamara Devoux, Captain Universe?

Given that we’re not yet through 2015, it’s understandable that Hasbro likely has plenty more product to announce for the next year; I imagine the two currently announced series will both be out before the end of the first quarter of 2016. That said, I can’t help but be a little worried for the year’s prospects. Two women to a series is not enough. It’s not adequate, fair, or even accurate, and while it might be an improvement over years past, the measurement here isn’t relative to those years, but in how they’re serving the needs of their consumer base.

Hasbro needs to do better.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Six

First, a correction: I wrote last week that the new Black Widow figure came with three pieces differentiating it from the prior release; a new head, a new left hand, and a lower torso reused from the Maria Hill figure. I was, in fact, incorrect about the head. It’s the exact same sculpt as the alternate head for the prior Widow release, which means that the only actual new part on the entire figure is the left hand. I gave Hasbro too much credit.

That said, I wrote last week that I’d be talking about the line’s 2016 offerings in this post, and what the path of the future looks like. I’m actually saving that for next week, as this weekend is the New York Comic Con. I’m not sure whether Hasbro intends on announcing more product there, but if they do, saving the 2016 piece for next week makes a lot more sense, as I’ll then be able to include that information.

Right Hand, Meet Left Hand

I said earlier that I gave Hasbro too much credit, but in actuality, I’ve given them a hard time for what may not entirely be their fault. Sure, they have control over things like the above; what parts are made for each figure, when to reuse vs when to create a new sculpt, but when it comes to character selection, Marvel itself is involved. I don’t pretend to know the organizational chain which defines what characters are made and when, but I do know that Marvel has controlling input; permutations of this arrangement have existed for decades now. Mattel similarly has a master license for DC Comics toys, but still requires approval from DC for product they put out. It’s an obvious and thoughtful measure; Marvel has a necessity to protect their brand, and so of course they would want to approve whatever product another company puts out with their license.

The trouble with this, of course, is that Marvel as an entity is not always as sensitive to these issues as it could be. It does feel like they’re getting better, at least on their publishing front. There’s been a large push lately of heroines who are front and center, who get their own space, their own books, etcetera. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s take on Carol Danvers revitalized her character, and Jamie McKelvie’s design sense gave her the long-needed makeover she deserved. Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona then filled the Ms. Marvel-shaped hole in the character roster with a new creation: Kamala Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani-American turned Inhuman. Dan Slott’s Spider-Verse led to breakout hit Spider-Gwen, from an alternate universe where Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s roles were reversed. Gwen’s design was done by Robbi Rodriguez, and is a truly original tweak of the classic Spider-costume design.

Designs for the modern Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, and Spider-Gwen.

Designs for the modern Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, and Spider-Gwen.

Similarly, Kris Anka took the old Spider-Woman design, which could best be characterized as “body paint with a crotch arrow,” and turned it into something modern, fashionable and functional. What we’re left with is a wealth of new designs that are begging for more exposure.

Spider-Woman comparison

Left: Spider-Woman’s old costume apparently defied the laws of physics, both individually highlighting her breasts and her belly button. Right: Kris Anka’s newer, more functional design for the character.

The thing is, I know the Marvel offices aren’t that populated. Marvel editorial understands that these are changes that need to happen. The folks they answer to must also at least understand that these changes stand to earn them a decent amount of money as well. It’s widely reported that Ms. Marvel has been a huge digital hit for them, although numbers have not been released, and Spider-Gwen has also been immensely successful, earning a second #1, despite being born of a crossover, existing as a solo title for five issues, then heading into another crossover (because comics). So, if the money handlers understand that these pushes for representation and diversity enable them to handle more money, then why is that policy not applied to their other merchandizing lines?

There’s an argument to be made for turnaround; it may be possible that these figures are planned! The design, creation, production, and distribution of a toy takes more time than the process of a comic book, and it costs more too. Comics are able to recoup some of their print production costs in digital release; while those releases are typically cheaper over time, they’re generally the same price at release (some will cite the cost of server space and bandwidth fees, but I assure you as someone with an IT background that those are nothing compared to the cost of print production and distribution). A notable example of this is the Mattel production of Blackest Night figures for their DCUC line a full two years after that story occurred in the comics. Mattel claims that fans clamored for them while the story was ongoing, only to ignore them on shelves when they were released.

That turnaround argument falls flat though, in the face of details; first, it’s entirely possible to plan ahead of time. It can be risky, sure, but if the design process for figures is begun in advance of the character’s first appearance in fiction, then it’s possible to mitigate some of the delay time between that appearance and the existence of a figure in stores. The other risk of this is that, if design changes occur late in the character process (as they frequently do), the eventual figure may not accurately reflect the character.

The argument for turnaround falls especially flat in one specific instance, though: Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel. By all accounts a very successful book with a wide audience and a ton of reach, Ms. Marvel has still inspired almost zero merchandising, despite her initial appearance being in 2013 and an ongoing series that began in early 2014. By contrast, Spider-Gwen, the other recent breakout character, didn’t appear until late 2014, didn’t get a series until 2015. Guess which of those two characters is getting a figure in 2016?

Spider Gwen

The 2016 Marvel Legends Spider-Gwen figure. Now shown: This figure will feature an alternate, unmasked head.

If you guessed the blonde girl, you win a prize. It’s troubling because, in a situation where there already aren’t enough women being featured, the inclusion characters of color ends up even more of a secondary choice. This year, Hasbro released a Misty Knight figure. That figure is one of only two women of color to be released under the Marvel Legends banner in 2015–the other, White Tiger, is dressed head to toe, her ethnicity completely hidden. Now, as I said, NYCC is this coming weekend, and it’s possible that Hasbro may announce information that will render this point invalid (I really, really hope they do), but as it stands, in an industry where women, and women of color specifically, are sidelined, to see the way that carries down to merchandising is troubling.

There are, as of this writing, no women of color yet announced for 2016. Again, Ms. Marvel is a hugely popular character and title. People want more of her. So why has this not happened? Why is there no Colleen Wing to go along with Misty Knight? Why do masked women of color not get variant heads that show off their faces, as is planned for Spider-Gwen? Of the men of color that have appeared this past year, why first are there only three, and why are two of those the likenesses of actors? Why is the only other one a limited exclusive, away from general retail?

I feel like I’ve asked that last question before.

Part Seven wraps up the series.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Five

I’ve put a lot of thought into how I’ve structured this series. I was worried, for instance, that three straight weeks of interviews along a similar subject line would feel too repetitive. In the end, though, I went with it, because I wanted to establish the impact of what I’m discussing. It’s easy to point at a line of figures and say, “more of those need to be women.” It’s a simple, casual, and even correct observation. However, it’s also ineffective.

The point of part one was to identify a current practice as it was occurring; that piece published the same day that the Rescue figure was announced. Parts two three, and four were even more important; they establish the impact of that practice. As I said, it’s easy to point at a line, but that pointing doesn’t establish why the change needs to happen. It needs to happen because it affects people. It affects grown women, who look at something like a Play Arts figure or a Bishoujo statue and see, both clearly and immediately, that their desires, their concerns, and their opinions were not considered. This is, arguably, worse than having those desires and opinions dismissed; dismissal at least requires the chance to raise those things first. No, in this situation, those things are not even on the table. It’s as though they’re not worthy of wasting an iota of thought on, and women get to see that on display every time they walk down those store aisles.

A final caveat: Like in the first four parts, I’ll be confining my explorations largely to the 6″ scale Marvel Legends line. While Hasbro has other offerings in many scales with many other franchises, I quite frankly only have the money to spend on one of them. Also, those other lines would only marginally skew the numbers I’m working with here–in many cases, they’re actually worse than Marvel Legends.

Case in point: This small-scale Avengers Vs. Ultron 9-pack went to great lengths to include a large number of characters, but still managed to not include either of the two women featured in the film, despite the fact that the majority of the characters chosen are easily available outside of this pack.

Case in point: This small-scale Avengers Vs. Ultron 9-pack went to great lengths to include a large number of characters, but still managed to not include either of the two women featured in the film, despite the fact that the majority of the characters chosen are easily available outside of this pack.

The Widow Parallel

I discussed in part one the way that Rescue was initially planned for retail release in 2013, only to finally be announced again two years later as an incentive bonus. The path of the Black Widow figure is not identical, but it is markedly similar. In 2012, The Avengers hit theaters. Hasbro, smartly, used the film as a springboard to restart the Marvel Legends line. The line had been having some trouble that ran pretty parallel with the overall economic troubles the US had been experiencing. Having licensed figures of a smash hit film was exactly what they needed, and so they released a six figure line: Captain America, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Loki, and Thor.

You’ll note a character missing from that roster.

It’s worth noting that, despite the rarity of villains from the MCU getting figures, Loki got precedence over Black Widow (and this despite the fact that her best scene in the film consists of playing him like a fiddle). Going back over the timeline, Black Widow’s first MCU appearance was in 2010’s Iron Man 2, which means that she was a part of the franchise before Captain America, Thor and Hawkeye. Still—no figure.

In fact, Widow wouldn’t get a figure for her appearance in Avengers until—you guessed it—two years later. This figure came out as part of a series tied with Captain America: The Winter Soldier—what would be her third appearance in the franchise. Even then, that figure was primarily a Winter Soldier figure in terms of costume design—it just had an alternate head featuring her haircut from the Avengers film. Her release for Avengers: Age of Ultron, part of the oft-discussed Amazon Box Set: a retooled version of the earlier release. The only differences are a new head, a slightly retooled abdomen, and the left hand.

The new Age of Ultron figure on the left, the previous figure on the right. Green circles indicate changes.

The new Age of Ultron figure on the left, the previous figure on the right. Green circles indicate changes. Scowls indicate dissatisfaction with flash photography.

For contrast, Hasbro has released a six-inch figure of every single suit of armor that Tony Stark has worn onscreen in the MCU save only two: The Mark 7, which appeared in the climax of Avengers, and the Mark 45, which appeared in the climax of Age of Ultron. The only repaints in that run are the Mark 3 and the Mark 43, which were repaints of the iteration directly before them in the film as well. Captain America has had four figures (one for each film appearance), Hulk four (two from the Avengers movies, one Norton Hulk and one Banner). Black Widow, who changed costumes for each of her four appearances to date, has only had one costume appear in figure form, and furthermore as an afterthought in both appearances.

It’s what makes the #WeWantWidow campaign an even more egregious oversight on Hasbro’s part—they’ve literally already been called out on this exact subject. The reason Widow came with an Avengers-styled head for her Winter Soldier release was because of how glaring her absence was during that earlier film’s marketing. One such oversight might be considered an easy mistake. Two becomes more suspicious.

Of course, even then, it’s only two if you restrict this criteria to Black Widow only. When you look at the merchandising for the MCU as a whole, you’ll note that only three women have had the action figure treatment: Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. That means: No Sif, no Jane Foster, no Pepper Potts (her upcoming Rescue figure is not an MCU version, remember), no Agent Carter, no Hope van Dyne, and no Scarlet Witch, despite what is again a very prominent role in Marvel’s biggest movie of the year. Furthermore, of the three that were made, Black Widow and Maria Hill share retooled versions of the same sculpt (the abdomen on the new Black Widow actually first appeared on the Maria Hill figure). While retooling and reuse is a long tradition in toylines, the decision to use the same sculpt a total of three times in a sub-line where there are only four female figures total is…questionable.

At any rate, that’s the parallel I mentioned earlier in the series–two female figures, sidelined and finally slated for release two years after the fact, while their male counterparts received multiple releases in the interim.

Hasbro’s 2015 Track Record

Now, I don’t want to ignore the progress that Hasbro has made in this regard. 2015 has been a banner year for the Marvel Legends line. This year they’ve put out over seventy three figures in the six-inch scale, up from 2014’s thirty-seven. Of those thirty-seven in 2014, only eight were female characters. To their credit, they’ve gone from being able to count their female characters per year on one’s fingers to releasing sixteen this year alone. Sixteen female characters in 2015, double the previous year’s! That’s great!

Until you start crunching the numbers. If you do, you’ll realize that, in this same year, they’ve released fifty seven male characters in the same toy line—more male characters than the entirety of releases for 2014—and that number climbs to sixty if you count interchangeable parts for some of those characters.

ML2015

A spreadsheet of Hasbro’s Marvel Legends releases for 2015.

That’s a ratio of more than seven-to-two, for those keeping track. For those keeping even more track, you’ll note that seven-to-two ratio applies to both years. That’s where the numbers really stand out: When doubling product for 2015, Hasbro doubled the numbers of male and female characters released almost exactly. Even so, it’s possible to chalk that up to coincidence–which is why I crunched the numbers on Marvel Legends for every year since Hasbro acquired the license. There was one year–2009–where the ratio is the same, and two where the ratios are better (one of those years had no general retail releases). Every other year has been worseThe ratio isn’t accidental. It’s deliberate.

And sure, with a number that high, we’ve gotten a lot of new, obscure characters out of that mix! However, we’ve also gotten:

  • Five Hank Pyms
  • Four Ant-Mans
  • Four Spider-Men
  • Four Iron Men
  • Three Hulks (or two and one Bruce Banner, if you want to split hairs)
  • Three Thors
  • Two Captains America
  • Two Groots
  • Two Hawkeyes
  • Two Daredevils
  • Two Ultrons
  • Two Visions

Again, to contrast: Of the sixteen female characters released in 2015, only three of them qualify (loosely) as duplicates: Spider-Woman, Ultimate Spider-Woman, and Spider-Girl are all separate characters who share similar monikers, as opposed to the list above, where we’re literally looking at duplicates of the same characters over and over. This point is actually good for the sake of female characters! Hasbro is at least releasing different characters, instead of the same couple over and over.

So—female characters are being made at a rate of two for every seven male characters. Not only are the male characters getting a massive precedence in the production rates, but several of those characters are getting multiple figures, when those slots could be budgeted for, say, a Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel, aka Marvel’s breakout hit of the last couple of years.

To highlight the glaring difference we’re talking about, let’s go back to Scarlet Witch. Scarlet Witch debuted alongside her brother in 1964 as an X-Men villain, then from there did a heel/face turn and joined the Avengers in 1965. Like Pepper Potts, this means that Scarlet Witch has been around for quite some time. She and her brother have been around long enough and are popular enough that they’ve appeared in both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron despite those movies not sharing continuity. And yet—there is no action figure of Scarlet Witch’s film appearance (for Age of Ultron, she was a small child in Days of Future Past, so we can probably let that one slide). There is an action figure of her as she appears in comic books—sort of. That figure is the first Scarlet Witch figure in the Marvel Legends line in eleven years–and the previous one was from before Hasbro acquired the license.

Again: Five Hank Pyms, one year. Two Scarlet Witches, more than a decade and two different companies. This is what I mean when I say that Hasbro has a problem with women. As much as I’d like to believe that problem is getting better, it’s going to take more than two years of a slightly less dismal ratio in order to convince me.

Next week, I’ll tackle the topic of upcoming figures for 2016, and how these decisions are carrying into the future of the line.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Four

In part one of this series, I spoke first about the problems inherent in the decision to release a Pepper Potts Rescue figure as an online exclusive as opposed to its original slated mass release. Then, in parts two and three, I talked to both Claire Napier and El A. about their experiences in the toy market, and how the idea that there are “boy” toys and “girl” toys can be inherently destructive and marginalizing at a very young age. Today, my third and final interview is with Bailey Poland, author and collector, about her experiences.

I’d start with the question of whether you buy figures regularly, but in your case, I’ve seen (and been a little envious of) pictures of your collection. So I’ll start with: What got you started buying figures?

It is definitely a fairly regular habit with me. When I first started dating Gabe, who is now my husband, I had a couple of loose figures, but I was not actually engaged in collecting. He’s a lifelong collector, and he was sort of a guide as I got more seriously into it. Once I figured out what I wanted my focus to be on (loosely, “badass ladies”/Wonder Woman, and Star Wars) I took off from there.

You’re likely very aware of the outcry over Hasbro’s lack of Black Widow merchandise in conjunction with the Avengers: Age of Ultron release, yes?

Oh definitely – including their decision to place Cap in a toy version of a scene she starred in, and her absence on the DVD covers.

Are you aware of the upcoming release of a 6″ Widow figure as part of an Amazon box set?

I am! It would be nice if we could get a better ratio than 3:1 sometime on these. The set with Maria Hill was also 3:1. [1]

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD 3-Pack

Hasbro’s Marvel Legends: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D 3-Pack. Maria Hill is only the third female character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released by Hasbro.

Pack ratio aside, do you see any other problems with that release?

She’s not as sexualized as some versions I’ve seen. I don’t love that it’s a nearly identical sculpt to the previous release, but that’s not uncommon for figures generally.

That’s true. What are your thoughts on the idea of only making her available as a box set, and furthermore as an online exclusive as opposed to a general retail release?

That’s also prohibitive – I had to buy the entire box set to get the Maria Hill figure, which was a big expense to end up with 3 other figures that are not being displayed. For people on a budget, having female characters limited in that way can really be a problem.

How do you feel about the representation of female characters in action figure form? As a collector with a specific focus, are you happy with the amount of offerings out there, or do you wish there was a better spread? Specifically in terms of release rates; every collector I know wants more of their favorite characters in general.

One of the reasons I settled on using Wonder Woman as a focal point is that she is one of the few female characters you can find fairly reliably. Overall, though, there is a massive dearth of female characters in pretty much every line of toys out there, and it is hugely frustrating. The LCS[2] I go to has probably between 15 and 20 male figures for each female figure, and that’s true of most toy stores as well. Part of that is a problem of the culture itself – male characters still dominate a lot of the stories that figures are coming from. However, a lot of female characters end up getting totally left out of the merchandise, which does not help. I’ve built up a pretty large collection of female characters, but that’s after 2 and a half years of serious work on it, which not everyone has the time or resources to do.

And yet the industry perception is that female characters don’t sell.

Yeah, that is another big problem. They devote fewer resources to the female figures, the ones that do get put out are often lower-quality and hyper-sexualized, and the culture itself still has a lot of gatekeeping to getting women into collecting, when we would be a massive market. Can you imagine how well a Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel figure would sell? They wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelves.

Absolutely–the recent Carol-as-Captain figure flew off of the pegs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable buying figures?

I definitely have – there are a lot of assumptions about what I’m doing in a specific environment, what I know about what I’m doing, and what my interests are. I wrote about this some in my piece on why comic shops aren’t welcoming to women – all of that is also true in toy shops, especially given the large overlap between the two. There’s definitely sometimes the sense that I’m being perceived as an interloper, or that my interest is not genuine or not as strong as theirs, which leads to some aggression, some posturing. There are also always the guys who orbit in stores like that and try to hit on me or “helpfully” point out things I already know

Have you ever bought a figure of a female character just because it’s the only representation of that character, even if you were unhappy with the design?

Frequently, yeah. Kotobukiya makes some of the most incredible statues I’ve seen, and their Bishoujo line is no exception, but it also cannot be denied that those figures in particular are incredibly sexualized. I’ve heard every defense in the book for it, but it can’t be denied that the superheroines, for example, are powerful women who are being put into often uncharacteristic poses. That is done for a specific audience, and it isn’t inherently bad, BUT there is so little representation otherwise that if you want a Koto statue of many of those characters, that’s your only option. I have a ton of the Bishoujo figures, but I am always a little disappointed that I can’t just get the characters as they are. Ditto the Play Arts Kai Wonder Woman, Black Widow, etc. Really, really cool figures with about a million articulations, and all of them are unbelievably sexualized in ways that don’t feel true to the characters.

I also once had a couple of guys who were collectors harass me online for hours for pointing that out, so that is a bone of contention for a lot of people.

bishoujo

Kotobukiya Bishoujo Starfire, Mystique, and Spider-Woman.

I have definitely been personally embroiled in an argument over whether Kotobukiya figures are unnecessarily sexualized. It’s always fun when people fall back on the, “Well I don’t see it that way, therefore it’s not” defense.

People get super, super heated when it comes up. “I have a right to my opinion!” Yawn.

Do you think the type and level of representation that women and female characters have in toys, especially when combined with gendered marketing and the fact that the target demographic is often kids, contributes to the marginalization of women as those kids grow older?

Absolutely. I think it’s one of those things where media is part of a cycle – women are underrepresented, and represented in limited/limiting ways when they do appear. That affects who feels welcome in those environments, who remains interested, and where the market goes through time. That also becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where there’s the assumption that women are just naturally uninterested, and therefore nothing about the status quo needs to be (or even can be) changed. Girls grasp from a very young age that they’re not welcome in certain spaces – by the time we get to adulthood, a lot of us have lost whatever interest we may have had at one point.

Had you heard about the Rescue figure before I mentioned it this morning?

I had not! I don’t follow the Iron Man figure releases very closely, so I missed that one.

Well, for background, it’s a figure of Pepper’s armor, and it’s announced as an exclusive for Marvel’s Digital Unlimited subscription for 2016. For more background, it was originally planned as a retail release in 2013, was molded and tooled, but never put into production. It just vanished. Hasbro put out a series of Iron Man figures that year that contained three versions of Iron Man and two of Iron Patriot, however.

I remember there being a massive glut of Iron Man figures for quite some time

It’s interesting to me that the release of this figure so closely mirrors the path of the Black Widow figure.

Yeah, there are some important parallels to draw there.

I’m trying to think of anything to say about that that we haven’t already covered…anything to add on your part?

I think we pretty much hit a lot of the big stuff. One of the key things for me is that even when collecting is frustrating or limited, it’s also still really fun and rewarding, and it’s something I wish a lot more women were into. It’s going to be an uphill battle to change the market to actually be welcoming to women, but getting women interested again will have to be a big part of that.

I’ve talked to a few folks, and the running theme seems to be: Better/less objectifying designs, better availability, and including women both in the design phase and marketing demographics.

Definitely. Having better diversity at all stages of the process will speed that change along immeasurably

Thank you so much for taking the time!

I think that it’s important to note the way that all three interviewees have answered these questions. I selected three of them only on the criteria that they’re generally a part of what’s considered “geek culture”–that’s a whole other thing–and yet their answers are almost uniform in the way that they’ve felt regarding the treatment of women.

I also spoke with the three of them because I’m not a woman. I don’t have these experiences. The collector toy market is, ostensibly, geared directly at me. By and large, my personal relationship to the issue is that characters I’d like to see get made don’t get made on the basis of their gender. I think it’s absurd, but as a man, there are plenty of characters out there for me to identify with. You’ve heard talk of privilege in various spaces of the internet, no doubt, but this is what it is in its essence; I’m considered a prime demographic, these women are not. The extension of that logic is that my expendable income is desired, and theirs is not. Take a moment to consider that concept. These companies are literally willing to cheat themselves out of money in the name of adhering to sexist standards.

Next week, I’ll discuss the parallels of Black Widow and Rescue, to which I’ve alluded in this interview, and also review Hasbro’s overall 2015 track record.

[1]The pack she references was actually a 2:1 male to female ratio. This does not change her point in the slightest, I only include the correction for the pedants out there.

[2]LCS = Local Comic Shop.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Three

Last time, I talked with Claire Napier about her experiences with buying figures, and what ultimately drove her to give up the hobby. I felt that was an important interview to lead with, because it underscores a big point in what I’m trying to say–these practices are literally driving customers away. This week, I’m speaking with El A. of Femmes In the Fridge, and also a large part of the #WeWantWidow campaign on Twitter around the time of the Avengers sequel–a campaign that spilled over into real life.

For those not familiar, #WeWantWidow centered squarely around the lack of merchandise featuring Black Widow, despite both her appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the sheer abundance of products that came out in support of that movie. There were multiple toy lines put out by Hasbro, and while there were a few things featuring her likeness released, Widow was largely defined by her lack of presence in most of those lines. In fact, in the most egregious instance, Widow was actually replaced on two separate occasions in toys that were specifically referencing a scene she starred in. In fact, the most recognizable representation of the character in toy form only just came out yesterday, despite the fact that the movie released May 1st–over four months ago.

Two Quinjet toys depicting the motorcycle-ejection scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Widow is replaced for each toy by Iron Man and Captain America, respectively.

In the interview (and the next one after this), you’ll see me retread some of the ground I covered when speaking with Claire last week–both because I wanted to get differing perspectives on subject and because Claire herself raised some interesting points during that interview that I hadn’t yet considered.

Hello! We talked briefly about figures a few weeks ago–you gave me a wishlist of characters that you wish were being made. Incidentally, that inspired a lot of the thoughts that eventually led to this series, so thanks for that.

Yeah, I remember that! Glad it was helpful!

So, first question: Do you buy action figures regularly?

I probably don’t count as buying them ‘regularly’. I only buy entertaining figures (to me) and the female characters whose design I find empowering. So I have, eh, maybe 30 of them knocking around the house…if I could afford the bombshells I would have them all, natch…

How long have you been buying them for?

Hmm, If you count non-comic characters that I bought at places like Barnes and Noble & toy stores, since Pirates of the Caribbean 1, so 2003…if you just count figures from comic stores, since early 2012.

Does the lack of availability of female characters affect your purchasing habits?

100%, yeah. Availability and design of female character figures is a huge money-saver for me, essentially!

I’ll bet. Does the act buying figures of female characters ever make you feel uncomfortable?

No, though the act of NOT buying the ones that do exist (due to their design or what have you) does make me uncomfortable sometimes!

Can you expand on that?

Sure. I feel guilty because it is a common and legit observation that we must demonstrate that selling diverse-oriented figures, ESPECIALLY to women, is a winning proposition. The reason you often see regressive people say that “the best way to change things is to support the things that exist” is that is creates this guilt. It’s a good silencing tactic in that it makes sense on a surface level.

I feel guilty I own no Batgirl, Batwoman, Spiderwoman, etc figures, but that is being imposed ON me by that tactic, because the reality is that there are no figures FOR me out there of those characters, (except the bombshells) or I would WANT to own them.

Also, I KNOW Hasbro, Disney, Lego actively do not want my money or my active engagement with their products. That adds to the sense that I am doing it wrong; I bought a Captain Boomerang figure recently, because…well, I wanted to annoy my mum by displaying a silly man with a boomerang hat on my shelf where she would eventually see it!

But in so doing, I am effectively invading a space where I know I am unwanted, demanding accommodation from the company that doesn’t want me, and then supporting…making figures of dudes, for dudes. It just generally makes active participation in figure culture feel icky. When DC did that with its comics, I just didn’t buy THEIR comics; for figures, there is no real competitor, certainly not for licensed characters.

So you feel that the solution to the problem is not just to offer a better selection of female characters, but also to actively market to women; to include consideration for customers who are women in the design process, etc.
The solution is to remove the antiquated, self-reinforcing market ‘wisdom’ that women and girls are not viable consumers of toys. Gender-neutral design based on the number of comic readers would fix it. (Even based on the number of physical copy readers, aka the data consumers have access to, which are skewed against new, young and diverse readers, all of whom are far more present on the digital market)

Batgirl of Burnside, who, if accurately molded, would not be hyper-sexualized as a figure, is the second most stable, successful series DC is putting out. A gender-neutral toy market would have made her and released her long ago. Ditto Ms. Marvel, who is the most stable title Marvel sells digitally, and rock solid in physical sales as well.

But instead of targeting characters with the most readers, they target characters with the most male readers, so we have Spider-Woman as one of the Marvel characters I see most often, always in her old, outdatedly icky costume and posed boobs-first. Realistically, many geeky women can and do accept that version in figure form, just like they did in comic form, but that’s never going to be a big draw or a thing that creates new figure collectors among women geeks; we kinda prefer not to see ourselves as sexual objects first, people second.

Marketing to women actively would be swell, but just not deliberately marketing away from women would probably be adequate over time. @LetToysbeToys is huge on that.

I certainly felt that the release of the Spider-Woman figure in particular was especially tone-deaf, given that it occurred right when a new costume was being showcased for the character.

Yeah, that’s either terrible communication between companies or terrible choices by someone in those companies. Especially since the new Spider-Woman costume & art was effectively an apology for the Milo Manara No. 1 variant cover.

 

At the time of #WeWantWidow, Hasbro had a 6″ figure planned as part of an Amazon box set. That set will be available this month. Were you aware of those plans then, and how do you feel about that offering, in relation to the lack of other Widow merchandise?

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6" Black Widow figure.

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6″ Black Widow figure.

Yeah, I was aware of that one. I don’t know that I have any feelings about it? I guess I’m not sure what you mean.

Well, I’m not sure they could have changed their plans for the release anyway; I’m sure certain contracts and deals were signed for exclusivity, but I find it interesting that the one well-sculpted, well-articulated BW figure to hit the market is doing so not only as an exclusive, and not even as a general retail exclusive, but as an online-only offering. I was wondering specifically how you felt about that, and whether it poses a problem.

Oh. Yeah, that’s an ongoing trend. Another example is the only Pop Funko figure of the female Thor being exclusively available in the loot box from Secret Wars (a bit ironic, since she isn’t IN Secret Wars, but whatever..)

It means they don’t put them in their retail catalogs and use up shelf space on the ‘real’ characters, just like the playset that replaced Black Widow with Captain America for the motorcycle scene did.

It is exactly that marginalization of the female characters that perpetuates the notion they don’t sell. She was also in a bundle of already fairly pricey figures, which makes it less likely that mom and dad, having somehow discovered it exists, getting it for their kid, and ditto for the adult fans; $20 on a figure is one thing, but $80 to get the one woman character is a hefty price tag.

(Also, and I’m fine with how we all rallied behind Widow, go with what works, licensing issues may be involved as well, but…you can get AoU Bruce Banner in street clothes, but not Scarlet Witch…)

You highlighted an interesting point re: the marginalization of female characters. Do you think that those choices, combined with gendered marketing and the fact that kids are generally the target demographic for toys, contributes to the further marginalization of women as those children grow up?

Oh, sure. It does. Teaching little boys that they are different from little girls, privileging ‘their interests’ and setting them apart from what little girls supposedly want, cancelling shows because little girls just literally do not count in viewership assessments all help shape the culture that leads to pay inequality, men and women both seeing their counterparts as ‘the other’, does nothing to counteract the negativity society has about those who straddle that gender divide, and, above all, only giving little boys male hero toys, and only giving those little girls who cross into that ‘boy only’ space access to male hero toys is EXACTLY why some dudes grow up seeing geek culture as ‘their thing’ and get hella uncomfy about Lady Thor, etc.

It is training the next generations to grow up with the same privilege sets as the last; the male white people are the heroes, everyone else is on the margins.

The GOOD news is that, as little as I personally like them, shows like Stephen Universe are counteracting those notions while still remaining heavily watched by little boys. The BAD news is that those are not figure-ready properties, and even if they were, toy companies wouldn’t want to make them, since they don’t conform to the standard aesthetics.

It’s definitely a frustrating situation. Thank you again for speaking with me!

El runs the site Femmes In The Fridge, where she discusses comics, pop culture, and the importance of intersectionality in both. You can also find her Twitter at @FemmesinFridges.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Bailey Poland, freelance writer and ardent collector in her own right.