Unexpected Allies: Decibel Magazine’s Feminist Take on the DC Reboot

In the December 2011 issue of Decibel magazine (“America’s only extreme music magazine”), I read the interesting, but expected Dave-Mustaine-this-time-he-is-totes-over-his-feuds-he-means-it-even-if-he-is-called-SuperDave-and-Junior-isn’t-called-Junior story; lots of short articles with bands filled with fourth-degree clones of Zakk Wylde; and the usual review of extreme albums that I won’t be listening to.

But unexpectedly, especially for a magazine dedicated to metal and other extreme music, there is an actual for-real feminist take on the DC reboot that says that treating women as soulless objects is not entertainment. For an audience that reads a magazine featuring bands with album covers that will give children nightmares.

Unfortunately not online, Joe Gross’ one-page column dissects the reason why the reboot doesn’t make economic sense, by turning away girls and women (and men and boys) that aren’t interested in a “cruel, violent vibe and crueler sexual politics”, asking the question “Who the fuck is this crap for?”

He says that between the reboot “and a noticeable decline in women creators at DC, it would be tough for the company to have constructed a bigger “Fuck you, we don’t want your money” to potential female readers”. And that is a potentially huge loss for an industry that could use new readers — or at least not lose older newly disgusted fans. Perhaps it is just those that I know, but a large percentage of the comics fans I know *are* people of difference (such as women/girls, people of color, gay/queer, some other other, or a combination) — not the stereotype of Comic Book Guy.

One of the benefits of having this article written for this particular audience is demonstrated by the pull-quote on the page:

I’ve seen hardcore, [gnzo p!@#] that treated women with more dignity that DC is treating those two gals [, Catwoman and Starfire]

THAT knowledge is not likely to be found by writers from traditional feminist sources, even third-wave ones.

Gross also references “the terrific essay” by Laura Hudson on Comics Alliance, The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their “Liberated Sexuality”.

Thank you, Decibel. And to Shortpacked (who created the economics of comics comic above). And to all of the disappointed seven-year old American comics fans, may I suggest mahou shoujo (and manhwa)? It isn’t without issues, but that’s where I’m sending the comics-loving kids in my life.

Our first nerd president?

Arguably, Obama is the first nerd president. (Considering that Thomas Jefferson’s books were the basis of the Library of Congress, my vote is for second nerd president).

Obama, who collected Spider-Man comics as a kid, has now appeared in a sold-out Spiderman comic.
And while Obama has more pressing problems to fix — like the economy — there are “nerd” issues that should be considered, such as intellectual property policy.

The Obama campaign, in Technology and Innovation for a New Generation stated

Intellectual property is to the digital age what physical goods were to the industrial age. Barack Obama believes we need to update and reform our copyright and patent systems to promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated.

Public Resource.org has five suggestions regarding how the government can better serve the public. They include

1. Rebooting .Gov. How the Government Printing Office can spearhead a revolution in governmental affairs…[including making government publications, including caselaw, available in an easier to access format]
2. FedFlix. Government videos are an essential national resource for vocational and safety training and can also help form a public domain stock footage library, a common resource for the YouTube and remix era.
3. The Library of the U.S.A. A book series and public works job program to create an archival series of curated documents drawn from our cultural institutions, …
4. The United States Publishing Academy. …
5. The Rural Internetification Administration …bring[ing] high-speed broadband to 98% of rural Americans just as the Rural Electrification Administration did for electricity in the last century.

While the incoming Obama administration is interested in these issues, some have serious concerns about the implementation. Siva Vaidhyanathan says

the General Services Administration is negotiating with YouTube (a Google service) to post federal hearings, etc.

… there is no clear reason for the government to solidify YouTube’s market dominance. In fact, there is no reason why the GSO could not mandate that all federal agencies post their videos in open forms — accessible, repostable, and mashable — on their own sites.

Then We the People could repost them on YouTube with commentary and maybe some cartoon graphics mixed in. Better yet, because .gov can’t deal with the bandwidth demands of too many folks pulling down popular videos, the federal government should post open format video as bittorrent files.

Maybe the Obama administration can help explain why Nancy Pelosi has Congress’ Youtube channel intro video hosted by cats, Capitol Cat Cam, — with a Rickroll (question: is including a section of Never Gonna Give You Up fair use? I doubt the lawyers of the RIAA would think so!)

Goodbye to you: Is changing canon the best way to keep fans happy?

Some stick with reading comics for their entire lives (the norm in Japan, though the type changes over the lifetime), while others put them away after childhood, or give up due to “women in refrigerators” sexism. I gave up on the X-men comics for good during the Age of Apocalypse storyline (glad I missed what happened to Emma Frost with the “bad use of baby” Stepford Cuckoos, and the Scarlet Witch’s family only in her head). A close friend, a literal lifelong comic book fan, had enough with his favorite superhero Spiderman after Peter Parker’s marriage (lasting twenty-one real world years!) to Mary Jane was erased.

But lest one think that striking over twenty years of canon storyline by Marvel would be it, DC ups the ante by changing parts of the origin story of Batman after almost seventy years. And they don’t end it there — with a gihugeic shocker to the entire Batman franchise (hint: the series is called Batman RIP).

Canon defying time, Batman!

Canon defying time, Batman!

This extreme change to the Batman mythos / canon could be undone, but I doubt it. This step seems made to upset both long-term and casual fans. I’m puzzled by the need to make such a dramatic change in canon, after all, the Batman franchise has survived Congressional hearings, and the franchise is flexible enough to include stories ranging from the campy 60s TV show to Frank Miller’s nihilistic misogynistic vision (and as a manga series in Japan). At present, the Batman transmedia franchise includes many varied elements — comics, movies, toys, video games, and these products are marketed at audiences ranging from toddler to adults.

But as Will Brooker discusses in his conclusion to Batman Unmasked, Batman has served many roles over time — and the icon will live on. Similar to Robin Hood, the story of a avenging hero who rights wrongs — in often illegal ways, the story of Batman will continue to be retold. Brooker hints at, and I come right out and state, that one company cannot fully control the limits of who Batman can be as long as children through play use their imagination to create their own stories (Batman is friends with a manatee and Spiderman? Sure!).

Interestingly, much fan anger was not directed at DC, but at the news media for spoiling the ending — in the U.S., USA Today and in the U.K., The Daily Mail and The Sun, which ran panels from the comic before the release date. Newspapers are interested in what is newsworthy (or if you are cynical, what will bring them revenue), so ignoring the fan community’s “I don’t want to hear it, I want to read it myself” impulse makes sense.

I wonder what will be the long-term consequences of changing elements of the origin stories and canonical back stories of these important comic book heroes in ways that veer beyond an easy restart. Will fans be interested in keeping up with the official story from this point on — or are they likely to seek out fanworks? Or will they just give up on the characters and comic books and seek entertainment elsewhere?

The social and economic impact of comics: Kami no Shizuku and Marvel’s Colbert presidential campaign

Interested in finding the right wine or electing the right candidate? Look no further than comics! Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of the Gods), a Japanese manga series is influencing wine purchases across Asia, and the U.S. has had Stephen Colbert as a Marvel superhero comic book presidential candidate.

As mentioned in articles in the Japan Times and the International Herald Tribune (then reprinted in the New York Times with new photos), Kami no Shizuku has been one of the factors in increasing wine consumption across Asia, including a twenty percent increase in Japan. Specific wines also increase sales after being mentioned — Colli di Conegliano Rosso Contrada di Concenigo saw an increase of 30 percent in sales.

But there have been unpredictable consequences of the sommelier suggestions, including

there was so little demand for Burgundy that even top hotels did not bother stocking it. But after the comic extolled Burgundy’s virtues, stores and hotels scrambled to secure stocks, which immediately sold out.

The main character, Shizuku Kanzaki, describes a 2001 Bordeaux from Château Mont Perat as

“It’s powerful but it also has a meltingly sweet taste, with an acidic aftertaste that catches you by surprise. It’s like the voice of Queen’s lead vocalist [Freddie Mercury], sweet and husky, enveloped in thick guitar riffs and heavy drums.”

The idea of a well-received wine-based manga is not strange within the general context of manga. While in the U.S., comics are viewed as the domain of children, in Japan (and increasingly with South Korea’s manwha) manga is read across the age spectrum, with specialty publications, based on gender and interest. For example, there are two successful transmedia franchises based on tennis, one for boys, Prince of Tennis, and one for girls, Ace o Nerae!.

Colbert as President?Moving from the impact of fiction on real life, we move to the impact of a fictionalized version of a real person fictionalized further. Stephen Colbert’s quasi-fictional presidential aspirations were considered to be important enough to be discussed by the Wall Street Journal. According to Marvel, this ten-month campaign was a first,

never before has a real-life person been able to keep himself in the narrative for so long without it being a paid product-placement arrangement

The differences between reality and fiction are striking:

Last October the comedian announced on his show, “The Colbert Report,” that he was running for president. The Democrats declined to put the entertainer on their primary ballot, and Mr. Colbert didn’t pay the Republican’s $35,000 fee to get on their ballot.

Mr. Colbert’s candidacy .. was integrated into Marvel’s fictional landscapes with bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards … in at least 19 of its titles, including “She-Hulk,” “X-Men: Manifest Destiny” and “Secret Invasion.” [He also appeared] as a walking, talking cartoon character in an eight-page insert in “Amazing Spider-Man”.

But the interaction between the reality and fiction leads to an interesting result, with this example of authorized real-person fanfic leading to increased sales for Marvel.

Blurring the line between fiction and reality leading to real-world economic impact has every indication of increasing. It’s interesting to note how much has changed since the guest star as him/herself era to improve rankings in the 70s. I’m looking forward to how this will impact rights of publicity versus creating an accurate/reality-based fictional universe — will licensing increase or will disclaimers? And what happens if instead of increasing sales or viewership, negative statements within the fictional universe have a negative economic impact, such as a negative wine review in Kami no Shizuku?

The Batmobile has two wheels and the Joker stole a schoolbus: tyke Dark Knight books are Two-Faced transmedia storytelling

I cannot stress this enough: The Dark Knight is not a movie for children, as it induces nightmares in experienced adult action fans. While being an awesome action movie, I am shocked that it wasn’t R-rated based on the level of violence, cruelty, and overall negativity.

But if you want your child to have official Dark Knight related merchandise or books there is plenty available including a slew of items for 3 to 8 year olds. Yes, Dark Knight for your preschooler!

The Batman franchise has always been effective at covering the story of Batman from different angles through different media sources, in what is now called transmedia. Pre-Batman Begins Batman transmedia is discussed in Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked and Roberta Pearson’s & William Urrichio (eds.)’s The Many Lives of the Batman. As Henry Jenkins has written, before the release of Batman Begins, DC comics had origin story comics specifically telling more about the back story of this version of Batman. But officially sanctioned transmedia Dark Knight Batman becomes deeply troubling by completely ignoring age and maturity distinctions.

The most jarring transmedia storytelling for tykes takes place in four stories, all the type of paperback “flippy book” usually featuring Little Critter, the Bernstein Bears, Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street, and other children’s favorites. Two are branded as “I Can Read Level 2,” the same level as A Bargain for Frances, the Amelia Bedelia series, the Arthur (chimp, not aardvark) series, and the Frog and Toad series.

But the Dark Knight‘s Gotham is no Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy Town.

The plots of these books infantalize the plot of the movie in disturbing ways. The plot of Batman Versus the Joker is: The Joker steals a schoolbus, the police can’t find him because there are so many schoolbuses on the street — so let’s send Batman to catch him on his two-wheeler Batcycle, and after a short chase, Batman catches the Joker! In two other books, Rachel (as “the girl” — not as a lawyer), is briefly kidnapped by the Joker at the birthday party she throws for Bruce (Batman!) and Batman quickly saves the day!

The Dark Knight is a dark, dark, dark movie, and these children’s books seem almost made in a different universe, perhaps the world of Batman as personified by the 60s television show. Adult Batman fans, especially those familiar with fanworks or the “What If?” and the “Elseworlds” series, can suspend canon / “what I know to be true” for an enjoyable story (even if it is Batman the Vampire).

However, these Dark Knight books are for children, small children, who just cannot handle the movie! Creating children’s books based on this movie is like Two-Face, seemingly nice on the surface, but with underlying pointless cruelty, once the kiddies who have read the book are subjected to the movie.

In discussing video games directed at children, Sarah Grimes mentions transmedia branding deliberately being used to involve kids in non-appropriate materials:

I too think that children are poorly served by the games industry [with] a lot of badly designed games [] using popular media-brands (Bratz, Spongebob, etc.) as a Trojan Horse to create intertextual value and to get kids’ playing them.

I am not the only one disturbed by these books, with a pre-release of the Dark Knight move-tie-in article in Slate and Nell Minow of Movie Mom saying

These books are essentially ads for movies that are inappropriate for children and the Federal Trade Commission and the MPAA should prohibit this kind of licensing for products intended for those who are too young to see the movie.

The idea of a masked crusader who fights bad guys and makes everything better can be done in a (reasonably) child-friendly way. For example, there is a-non Dark Knight movie Batman book that simply describes the origin story, Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight by Ralph Cosentino (interview here). Bluntly, this is the cutest version of Batman I’ve ever seen, perhaps because he looks like a Lego person. While still too scary for the sensitive child, this book is age-appropriate in a way the Dark Knight movie-tie-ins aren’t. I will be reading the Consentino book to the superhero-loving children in my life when they are old enough.

While some fan-created works, such as Harry Potter fanfiction and fanart, has been criticized for taking a children’s series into a more adult arena, in that situation, fans rather than content owners were creating the not-appropriate-for-small-children material. Oftentimes, owners and creators talk about how only they can be true to the story and characters, stating that official equals best.

But in this Dark Knight transmedia case, the owners of the material are creating materials for children that have no legal differential from other intellectual property (copyrighted or trademarked materials) in the Batman pantheon (there is no cause of action for misuse or spoilage of one’s own trademark!). And until the FTC decides to step in, DC has no economic disincentive or legally compelling reason to stop — there is no larger marketplace of ideas for Batman (ownage) and DC can do whatever they want with him. For example, have Batman and Robin work with Scooby Doo and Shaggy in the 70s.

I strongly believe that basing children’s books directly upon the storytelling in a just-about-R-rated movie is a wrong step in creating seamless transmedia storytelling — children deserve to not be introduced to a world beyond their emotional capability through a back door.

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What we talk about when we talk about fandom: Visibility and Invisibility: The Fans

In the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Miranda Bailey breaks out with her mad Star Wars knowledge, both movie canon and the books, prompted by a patient referring to Han Solo. She then turns to her co-workers and declares “What, I’m a fan of sci-fi!” Why should she feel the need to defend her fannishness? Is it because she doesn’t fit the stereotype of who a fan should be — by being an African-American woman?

The possibility of female sci-fi fans seems so obscure to some that Megan McArdle has a blog post on the Atlantic.com about explaining science fiction to women.

She states that

A love for feminine frippery can be, and frequently already is, paired with a love of laser guns.

… talk about it as a fairy tale–only a fairy tale with science instead of magic. The basic emotional space it taps is the same. You might also try to ease her into something with a little more human emotion and a little less space opera.

In response, Iyla Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy concludes that a large part of the explanation is that such female science fiction fans just don’t exist — after all, if there was a market, of course it would be met fully:

If there were a large unment demand for feminist SF or other types of science fiction that may be of special interest to women, publishers and writers would have a strong incentive to meet it. The portrayal of women in science fiction has been debated for at least forty years, and publishers are certainly aware of the issue, and would act on it if they smelled profit. The underlying reality, I think, is that SF has less appeal to women than to men independently of the ideology of the writers and the way they portray female characters.

There are two interrelated assumptions that are made. First, that if female fans require non-misogyny in the fandom that this is the same as expecting these works to be feminist. This is a highly inaccurate assumption; while there are few action movies that would be considered to be feminist, there is a large difference between the non-misogyny of the first The Transporter and Batman Beyond (both movies with barely a female presence, yet with a large female fan following) and the super-sexist Bad Boys. The second assumption is much more insidious — that the only people seeking non-biased materials are those who would have the bias against them. I’d like to think that men would also like to not have their fandom with a side of misogyny.

I also laugh in the face of the idea that all female sci-fi/fantasy needs are being met. For example, if we judged anime based on what is seen on American television it would be as if an entire huge genre, shoujo (shojo), doesn’t even exist (invisibility!) — and according to the above argument, it is because no one would watch. The last shojo anime brought over from Japan, Cardcaptor Sakura, was a complete failure on television — not due to gender-based reasons such as focusing on relationships and costumes or having a large number of female characters, but because the show was plot-ignoringly edited to Cardcaptors.

Yet according to a 2001article, Sailor Moon graphic novels outsold Marvel’s Ultimate X-Men. There is a huge untapped market for this stuff! In response to market forces, some comic bookstores now are selling shojo books and related merch. And lest one think that it is only girls and women interested in these types of “girly” comics, the fact is we don’t know who could potentially be interested because of the ghettoizing of these materials as only “for girls”, often with the signifier of pink; leaving the “real” comics to males.

One of the writers for Sequential Tart, a online zine about comics from the perspective of women, Marissa Sammy writes about the frequent invisibility of women of color fans in a post called Becoming Visible: On Being a Woman of Colour in Fandom

Fandom, by and large, tends to be a white space. And people of colour (PoC) are, by and large, good at negotiating white space. We have to be. We speak the lingo and know the canon, and we do such a good job blending in online that we often … disappear.

I’m tired of being a visible minority in real life and an invisible one in fandom and online; I’m through with accepting the perception that I am never truly the Default.

I’m here. And so are you. Let’s make them see us.

The issue of invisibility for fans of color and women and women of color is of course not limited to science fiction and comics; in Keidra’s Bitch Magazine (and in the book!) article, Sister, Outsider, Headbanger, she writes about the difficulties and joys of being a African-American female metal fan:

if metal fandom is a great big family, I sometimes felt like a second cousin once removed. Though I was drawn to the outsider appeal of the music in the first place, it was difficult for me to forget my double outsider status at concerts, where guys would gawk and point at me and my metalhead clique as if we were Martians instead of black girls and we could count the number of black faces on one hand. But once the lights went down and the band came onstage, we were all headbanging and moshing and howling the words to the songs. The music took over, and we could all share that universal bond of loving the music, if only for a few hours.

Fans that are considered to be “different” or not the right type, can face anything from being leded as the “Unlikeliest Fans” in the case of yeshiva (Jewish religious school) fans of newer-metal band Disturbed — to being beaten for being Mexican emos.

Women, people of color, and especially women of color often need to wade through the negative portrayals of those like them or direct hostility to them to get to the tasty meat of fandom. And for some, that level of active filtering just isn’t worth it.

Note: I realize that there are a myriad of other aspects of invisibility in fandom, such as sexuality, disability, and age. We are planning to have at least two more posts in this series, focusing on creators and critics.

Superman — not faster than a not-so-speeding reversion of copyright ownership

On Notice

The ownership issues involving Superman have always been contentious but not factually disputed — two teenagers created Superman and then sold their rights for a miniscule amount. Litigation ensued in bursts for decades, with the original creators dying and their heirs taking up their cause, and the owner/licensor of Superman, Warner Bros/ Time Warner, making millions of dollars from the character. But a recent ruling allowing for the heirs to retroactively retain copyright back to 1999 has riled up many fans. (For analysis of this case check out these links and the opinion.)

While the idea of the individual creator is a frequent meme within comics culture; after all, Stan Lee (co-creator of Spiderman, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four among others) has his own action figure, the idea of returning copyright ownership to the original creators has upset fans. While fans are not monolithic, overall the negative reactions can be summarized as: 1. The original contract is binding; 2. the time to resolve this issue is long past; and 3. the heirs are greedy.

Unfortunately for fans, the return of the copyright is not an example of “activist judges”, but a termination exception (17 USC 304(c)) built into to copyright law similar to the Jubilee (no, not the glittery X-girl) Biblical return of land to its original owner after fifty years. And Time Warner/ Warner Brothers has been “on notice” about this possibility and its potential economic impact all along — I’m quite sure they have tons of highly competent attorneys.

And by having this lawsuit moving much slower than an an avenging alien at the speed of a train or a bullet has allowed Time Warner to exploit their Superman intellectual property during the almost twenty years of litigation in this case, including the backstory of Superman in the Smallville television show, the ongoing story of Superman in Superman Returns movie sequel/remake of Superman III, and the teamwork of Superman in the various Justice League cartoons, just for starters.

Overall, though not directly stated by fans, it seems like the largest concern is the issue of continuity — fans want the story of Superman to continue to be told. And they are concerned that the problem of ownership will prevent more officially sanctioned products. I doubt that will happen here because the property is too valuable for all concerned to lock that down.

Of course, this would be a non-issue if the U.S. had a more reasonable copyright term of perhaps 50 years (like the biblical Jubilee period). Then instead of worrying about who owns the man of Steel, we would all be beneficiaries of having the man of Steel as part of the public domain.