Year: 2016

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.