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.

Being a Princess Doesn’t (Have To) Mean What You Think It Means

I’ve thought about princesses more in the past week than I have in a couple of decades. I read an essay on TheRoot.com  this morning, “There are no Black Kate Middletons” in which writer Helena Andrews laments the lack of black celebrities with which Black women can project their fairy tale fantasies, a la British princess-to-be Kate Middleton.

My first thought when reading the article was “who cares! there are better things to be than a British royal anyway”  But after reading the article again I realized I may have missed another of Andrews’ points: that black women must always consider their burden of race and (often) class, even in fantasy. Her case in point, the recent Disney film, The Princess and the Frog, which features a black female waitress who works and saves money to fulfill her dream to be a restaurant owner.  Andrews says:

As an adult I recognize that the fairy tales I told myself as a kid don’t always come true. That being a “strong black woman” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That there are indeed many cracks in that stank face. That the bitch armor — chinks and all — is no lasting replacement for a knight in shining armor. Nevertheless, I was excited last year when Disney released The Princess and the Frog. Black women and girls everywhere were overjoyed that finally they’d get to see themselves on the big screen. But the movie didn’t tell your typical princess story… Of course, when we get our princess, she’s pushing a broom and counting her pennies. “It serves me right for wishing on stars,” Tiana laments once she’s transformed from a waitress into an amphibian. “The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work….”

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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 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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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.

Manga Nation

Orignally posted in my other blog “Enjoy and Exciting”

I have a subscription to Wired because of my Mediabistro paid membership, and I have to say, I love it. Sometimes it’s a bit too fanboy for me. (Hey editors, chicks read Wired, too!) But it’s really many of the things I love, popular science, soft technology, underground geek culture, all in one magazine. And delivered in a clear, informative, non-snarky way, which is key, since too many publications these days are heavy on snark, low on information.

There’s a fantastic article about manga (japanese comics) and dojinshi (japanese amateur comics, usually based on existing popular manga) and it’s the first magazine article I’ve read that goes beyond limited perceptions of dojinshi among those who know of it in the U.S. — i.e. it’s all fan-fiction, it’s all pornographic. But also the author delves into the even more fascinating (and very peculiar) copyright culture in Japan that allows the sometimes-derivative work to be sold freely alongside its source.

Without getting too much into it (the article does a much better job) it’s not exactly legal, but it’s essentially a live-and-let-live consumer culture,where the content owners assume that fan interest and activity will increase, not decrease, interest in the original work. Its the same perspective employed by musical artists that permit fans to remix their songs, only with manga, it’s industry-wide. Of course now that manga is becoming more of an international cash cow, maybe we’ll see the underground trade of dojinshi become more regulated by U.S. manga distributors.

I don’t exactly how that works. Or if it will work. But after several years of having the discussion go on in fandom circles, I am glad to see it getting some mainstream coverage, because its a small part of a larger issue about copyright reform that anyone who works in a creative industry will have a stake in.