Wicked Weekends: Man of Steel

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

My favorite version of Superman’s origin story comes from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. It’s four sentences, eight words, with accompanying visuals: Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. That’s it. And we’re off.

I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t see the point in origin stories, at least not where the legends of our time are concerned. We don’t start every new series of Sherlock Holmes movies by recounting how Holmes and Watson came to live and work together at 221B Baker Street. We don’t completely reboot James Bond with each new actor who steps into that venerable role. As much as I love Batman Begins, we know the story by cultural osmosis. It, too, can be distilled into a few words: Happy family. Unspeakable loss. Years wandering. New purpose. Or Spider-Man: Spider bite. Wasted power. Fallen mentor. Great responsibility.

So we know Superman’s story. The last survivor of an alien race, he was sent to Earth as an infant, where he was adopted by kindly farmers, protected and raised with their values. Imbued with great powers through his exposure to our yellow sun, he now fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

Man of Steel is an origin story. There’s no getting around that. It’s a reboot for the Superman film franchise, taking up the torch from the classic movies starring Christopher Reeve and the cinematic saga that came to a close with the rather tepid spiritual sequel Superman Returns. I’m not sure we needed that reboot. I’m not sure we needed to be told this story again. As a rule, I would rather see the origins of these characters taken as read, so we can just get on with new tales. But it was an enjoyable, faithful, and thought-provoking ride nonetheless.

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

Yes, thank you, Zack Snyder. GET ON WITH IT!

As sentient beings, painfully aware of our mortality and our ultimate insignificance in the face of eternity, we have been haunted throughout our existence with the same questions: are we alone? Is there something out there greater than ourselves? Do we need to be saved – from ourselves, from forces we cannot control, from forces we cannot yet comprehend or perceive – and, if so, will we be saved? And, above all, are we worthy of salvation? Superman represents a potential answer. Above all else, Superman represents hope that, yes, there is something more out there, a great and benevolent force that sees the good in humanity and will act to protect it. The parallels to religious doctrine, and particular to Christianity, are obvious. It is not surprising that Man of Steel grapples with those questions and draws those parallels, showing human beings at their best and their worst, and depicting Clark Kent’s struggle to find his role relative to our planet and our people in the face of all our complexity and contradiction. The movie’s failures are similarly complex and contradictory: it either goes too far in pursuit of these themes, or not far enough. The Christ imagery is heavy-handed and scarcely worthy of the name ‘metaphor’: Clark is 33 years old when he’s thrust before humanity and compelled to sacrifice himself for all mankind. He has a conversation about whether or not he should sacrifice himself, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, in a church, with a priest, while sitting in front of a giant stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ. At one point he drops through the sky while extending his arms in a Christlike pose. Yes. We get it. (In fact, it appears that Warner Bros. is aggressively marketing the film to Christian churches. I’m not sure what to think about that.)

At the same time, the movie fails to really hammer its points about humanity home. At one point, we see Clark confront a trucker harassing a waitress, backing down when it’s clear that the confrontation will only end in violence – Clark isn’t prepared to use force in this situation, even if the guy is an asshole. Later the trucker walks out of the restaurant to find his rig completely totaled, impaled on multiple telephone poles in an act of destruction and petty revenge that hardly seems in keeping with Superman’s sense of morality and self-control. Maybe the point is that Clark hasn’t quite become Superman yet – and it’s true, he hasn’t – but while the visual was good for a quick laugh, it didn’t feel quite right, somehow. Later, during a vicious attack on Metropolis, we see a Daily Planet intern trapped under some debris, and Perry White, as well as another Planet employee, stay with her even in the face of certain destruction. It’s a sweet moment, but lacks the punch of, say, multiple citizens working together to free her, racing against time, saving the day even without powers.

As for the Kryptonian side of the equation, the situation is similarly muddled. Jor-El’s plans for his son, the last survivor of Krypton, are unclear. In the movie’s story, Clark’s cells have been imbued with the information contained within the Codex, a Kryptonian artifact holding the genetic code for all of Krypton’s future citizens – Krypton now relies on artificial reproduction, you see, and each citizen is born to fulfill a specific role. Clark, as Kal-El, is the first natural-born child of Krypton in centuries, and though Jor-El and Lara clearly care for him, he seems to be an experiment as much as a child to Jor-El, a test of the value of free will. The movie’s antagonist, General Zod, wants to use the Codex in conjunction with recovered Kryptonian technology to turn Earth into a new Krypton, exterminating the human race and breeding new generations of Kryptonians. Jor-El, brought to Earth in Clark’s capsule in the form of an AI, finally confesses his own plan when pressed, claiming that he hoped Clark would eventually use the information contained within the Codex to recreate the Kryptonian race as equals to mankind, and Clark himself, familiar with both Earth and Krypton, would act as a bridge between the two peoples. An ambitious and worthy goal, to be sure, but considering that the Codex is designed to produce Kryptonians only for specific roles, it’s not entirely clear to me how ‘New Krypton’ would be any better than the old one. It’s also not clear to me how the Kryptonians lack free will to begin with. Certainly Jor-El was able to break whatever genetic programming he had to deal with and act in open defiance of the laws and traditions of his people.

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Laurence Fishburne and Amy Adams as Perry White and Lois Lane

Still, despite the muddled plot, heavy-handed imagery and occasional lack of conviction, the movie is a lot of fun to watch, and it does shine in several respects. The cast as a whole is solid. Henry Cavill is an excellent Superman, and Amy Adams is fantastic as a 21st-century Lois Lane. She may not be the fast-talking, nickname-tossing, old-school reporter we all know and love, but she’s a bright, clever, determined woman, a skilled investigator, and a dedicated journalist who only stops chasing the man who will become Superman when the potential consequences of her actions become clear. Despite her decision to abandon the story, she’s pulled into Superman’s life again and becomes integral to the fight against Zod. Though she does indeed form a romantic connection with Superman by the end of the story, it feels fairly natural after everything they’ve been through. The movie adds a new wrinkle to the classic story of Clark/Lois/Superman by introducing Clark Kent as we know him (reporter for the Daily Planet and mild-mannered secret identity for the all-powerful Superman) only at the end of the film, after Lois has already tracked down the mysterious ‘guardian angel’ who keeps appearing out of nowhere and saving lives all over the world and stood alongside Superman in both Smallville and Metropolis. In the Man of Steel universe, the Clark/Superman/Lois love triangle simply does not exist. Lois knows his identity from the start. And frankly, as much fun as that triangle can be, it’s been overused and I’m quite glad to see it dismissed completely in this iteration of the Superman mythology. Basically, I love this version of Lois almost as much as I love Dana Delany‘s version from the old animated series, and the movie is practically worth seeing for her alone.

Similarly, Laurence Fishburne is a Perry White for our time. He may not chomp cigars and shout “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” at the drop of a hat, but he’s a perfect foil for Lois, a caring and dedicated boss who isn’t fooled by her shenanigans but quietly supports her in her crusade for the truth nonetheless. Richard Schiff has a small but memorable role as long-time Superman ally Dr. Emil Hamilton. (Amusingly, Alessandro Juliani, who played Dr. Emil Hamilton in the ninth and tenth seasons of Smallville, also has a small role in the film.) Christopher Meloni doesn’t get a lot of screen time, either, but he makes what little he does get count, particularly as the film reaches its climax. And Michael Shannon chews the scenery a bit as Zod, but, well, it’s General Zod, so I can forgive that.

Jor-El on Krypton

Jor-El on Krypton

Last, but far from least, the movie does not skimp on the eye candy. The Krypton of Man of Steel puts one in mind of Time Lords and New Gods and the Asgard of the Thor movie, with ships and robots and suits of armor that reshape themselves at a thought, impossible architecture, gorgeous vistas, and ridiculous hats to spare. The ideas of John Byrne’s seminal post-Crisis reboot (also titled, in fact, The Man of Steel), are combined with modern cinematic sensibilities into something genuinely beautiful. The powers of the Kryptonians on Earth – their strength, speed, enhanced perception, heat vision and flight – are depicted in ways that, if not precisely revolutionary, are nevertheless decently realistic and fun to watch. The set designers and effects artist have even thrown in a few ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameos to reward sharp-eyed fans – notably Lexcorp and WayneTech logos on key props and set pieces.

All things considered, Man of Steel is not a perfect film, nor is it my favorite version of the Superman myth. But it’s a solid film, well-made and a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s saved by stunning visual effects and a charming and talented cast. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Superman Rating: 4 out of 5 capes. Super.

General Film Rating: 7 out of 10. Well worth seeing in theaters, but not the best movie you’ll see all year.

Advertisements

Media Mondays: Wonder Woman

You may have noticed by now that I kind of have a thing for Amazons. My favorite comic book superheroine, after all, is Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman herself is a very close second. I go by Themiscyra just about anywhere and everywhere I can, and it’s not solely a Wonder Woman reference. And so it goes. The Amazon label is admittedly a problematic one, frequently co-opted by the less pleasant elements of radical feminism (you know, the folks who basically hate me for calling myself a woman, who gleefully throw pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘him’ at women like me when they’re not calling us ‘it,’ who don’t think we have any place in women’s spaces, that sort of thing), but it’s one I wear with pride nonetheless. I’m a firm believer in the power of archetypes – in our ability to draw strength from symbols deeply embedded into our culture. And the Amazons are pretty damn potent. To me, they represent a strength that embraces womanhood, rather than rejecting or denigrating it, as our popular culture too often does. They represent every last woman who chose to stand up and face the world on her own terms rather than giving in to the pressures of the dominant society. So hell yes, I’m an Amazon. Or, at least, I aspire to be one.

That said, of course, I have to concede the point that the Amazons as portrayed in Greek mythology aren’t necessarily perfect, praiseworthy figures. Some of the legends have them slicing off their breasts to better aim their arrows, taking those men they did not kill as slaves, engaging in sexual congress with men only to reproduce and then abandoning or killing any male children. To the Greeks, these were most likely figures of utter terror…and yet, at the same time, they were also clearly figures of intense fascination, because they keep showing up. The Amazons we know today – mostly through media like, well, Wonder Woman – bear only a partial resemblance to the Amazons of antiquity. That’s something I’ve struggled to accept – to the point of having a visceral negative reaction to the Amazons’ recent appearance on Supernatural. (I won’t spoil the episode, but the Amazons of Paradise Island don’t have a whole lot in common with the Amazons of the Supernatural universe, either.)

Wonder Woman’s history is a bit troubled as well: created by William Moulton Marston, whose work contributed to the modern polygraph test, she was not only intended to serve as the world’s first female superhero, but also as a proponent of his philosophy. The idea was to combine “ideal” female attributes – tenderness, submission, and beauty, most notably – with the power of Superman. Wonder Woman would use this power to encourage submission to loving authority. The early stories are thus rather confused, filled with outmoded ideas and instances of bondage that may or may not have been intended as sexual but certainly come off that way. While Marston’s goals may have been noble, he was definitely still rather misguided, and the execution of his ideas was seriously lacking.

And yet, for all the flaws of her creator, for all the missteps along the way, Wonder Woman became a feminist icon. Maybe it was because she was the most prominent female superhero out there – but I’ve always thought there was more to it than that. Wonder Woman is not without her issues, but nevertheless, she’s an undeniably strong woman who embraces her womanhood. She makes no apologies for who she is. At her best, she’s a warrior and a peacemaker at once, a philosopher and ambassador who falls back on violence only as a last resort – but fights capably and ferociously when she must. Yeah, she does all this in a strapless star-spangled swimsuit (and while I ended up avoiding J. Michael Straczynski‘s run on the comic book, I have to admit that I did kind of like seeing Wonder Woman in pants and a jacket in those promo pictures)…but look past that. Look at who Diana is. There’s a lot to love.

Trouble in Paradise

As I’ve said before, I gave up on comics altogether around the time when DC announced the New 52 – a reboot of their entire universe – and made a number of unwelcome changes to characters a loved a hell of a lot. At that point, I really didn’t trust them to do right by Wonder Woman. They’d already messed up Cassie Sandsmark and it soon came out that they’d seriously messed up Starfire. But my friends have been telling me that the current Wonder Woman run is actually excellent, so I took some time in the last week to see what Diana’s been up to.

Well, she’s…different. So are the Amazons. So’s Paradise Island. There are elements I like. I actually like the tension between Diana and her fellow Amazons. It makes for interesting drama. And while this Diana is angrier than the Wonder Woman I’m used to, she’s still strong and fiercely protective of those she cares about. She has the same powerful sense of loyalty and family and the same willingness to build her own family that I remember. She’s a little quicker to jump into a fight, but she’s still clever enough to avoid one.

That said, there are also things that annoy me. The fact that (as revealed in the second issue) Wonder Woman is now the daughter of Zeus, for one. Wait a second – that’s Cassie Sandsmark’s story. You guys took Cassie’s story and shoved it into Diana’s? I’m not actually angry, because it does open up some interesting story possibilities, but I am a little vexed. And, well…Diana’s living in London now. Which is great. Sure. London. I like London. Except…why the hell is she still wearing a costume based on the American flag? Seriously, that’s the whole point of the costume: she dressed in the colors and patterns of the American flag to try and make a good impression on the United States (then one of the most powerful nations on the planet) when she revealed herself to ‘Man’s World’. I’m kind of hoping this will be explained later on – maybe she chose to abandon the U.S. for some reason. And the idea of a Wonder Woman who belongs to the whole world, not just the U.S.A. (which always did seem a little odd), appeals to me. But for the time being, it bugs me.

And then we come to the Amazons. Boy, oh, boy…the Amazons. This is where my opening paragraphs start to become relevant again.

Yeah, by the way, this is not a comic book for children. In case you were wondering.

Let me explain something about how the Amazons in Wonder Woman used to work: essentially, they were all immortal, and they were all childless. After playing their part in Greek mythology, and suffering temporary enslavement at the hands of Hercules, they retreated from Man’s World to the secluded island of Themyscira, or Paradise Island. Diana herself was actually the only child born on the island, and ‘created’ would be the more accurate term – her mother, Queen Hippolyta, crafted a baby girl out of clay and begged the gods to give her life. The rest of the Amazons went on without children or families of their own. They got to live forever, but only in isolation, without any real opportunity for reproduction.

That’s not the case anymore.

As revealed in the latest issue, the new Amazons hew much closer to the old myths. Oh, they still live in seclusion on Paradise Island – a necessary story detail, as otherwise they would have undoubtedly been overrun, destroyed and/or assimilated into other cultures over the intervening centuries. But they aren’t precisely confined there. They don’t hold themselves completely apart. Instead, at certain intervals, they go out to sea, board ships en masse, have their way with the men there, kill them all, then go home to bear any children that may result from the unions.

Oh wait. It gets better.

Yeah. So this happened.

The Amazons also hew to the myths in that they kill any male children they bear…or at least they used to. Turns out they made a little arrangement with Hephaestus, god of the forge, some time ago. They deliver all their male children to him, he takes them as slaves, and in exchange, the Amazons get weapons from his forge. Because…the Amazons are incapable of forging their own weapons? Okay, okay, that’s probably unfair: Hephaestus makes magical weapons, weapons of genuine power, and I’m sure the Amazons can’t really match his craftsmanship there. Even so…

It turns out that Hephaestus actually treats the kids pretty well. You know. For slaves. He certainly treats them well enough that, when Diana offers them their freedom, they refuse and politely ask her to untie their master. ‘Cause, you know, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a thing. They point out that slavery is preferable to death – but they’re still slaves. They were still rejected by their mothers, banished from their homes and sold into servitude because of the circumstances of their birth. Because they failed at a test they had no power to pass.

As I said before, the Amazons of myth did, according to some legends, practice slavery. They did, according to some tales, kill or abandon their male children. This is not entirely inaccurate. But it still leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

All things considered, I think I prefer the Paradise Island of Wonder Woman‘s prior runs. The Amazons who used their time in seclusion to study and grow, creating astounding new technologies and becoming better people. The Amazons who, faced with a world that was now entirely capable of finding them, chose to put the best of them forward, to try and bring what they had learned to the rest of the world, to try and improve the lot of their sisters on the outside. While the Wonder Woman of the current series intrigues me, I still miss the Wonder Woman of Greg Rucka‘s run, or Gail Simone‘s: the Diana who found strength in family and friends, who was an ambassador and an idealist first and a warrior second. That’s my Princess Diana. That’s my Themyscira. This new world…I’m not so sure about it yet. I’ll keep reading, for now, but I feel distinctly unsettled.

As a Greek mythology buff, I appreciate the accuracy. But as an Amazon…and as an Amazon who would have been killed or sold into slavery under the new order…I kind of miss my sisters. Even if they were never really there to begin with.

NOTE: Yep. This is SUPER late. I’ve been caught up in PAX East prep, and it’s not likely to get better. I’m going to try and work ahead so the next few posts will go up on schedule, and I may try to do some blogging and tweeting from the con, but I’m probably going to be pretty quiet as a rule. Wish me luck in the Omegathon – and hopefully I’ll see some of you at the con!

Fangirl Fridays: Rose Red

I know, I know. Technically this is a Fangirl Saturday post. Blame Katie! I was totally going to post last night, but then she invited me over to watch America’s Next Top Model (which is as hilariously awful as ever, but Ashley and Sophie are too cute) and I ended up sticking around for an encore of the Walking Dead season finale and by the time I got home, I was exhausted. Clearly all her fault.

Anyway. I mentioned in my first Fangirl Fridays post that the changes to Wonder Girl, a.k.a. Cassie Sandsmark, caused me to hit my wall and stop reading DC Comics. What I didn’t say at the time was this: I was pretty much heartbroken. I’d seen too much shit coming out of my favorite comics lately, and I was totally burnt out. Even though there were still some series that were going strong, series I still enjoyed, I turned my back on comic books altogether for a while. But slowly, ever so slowly, I’ve been dipping my toe back into the comic book world. Catching up on series I missed. And Fables was at the top of my list.

If I went into all the reasons why I love Fables, we’d probably be here all day. But, unsurprisingly, I’m an especially big fan of all the amazing female characters in the series, each of them strong and capable in their own ways, each of them unique individuals with their own voices. From Snow White to Cinderella to Beauty to Frau Totenkinder…I love them all. But the one I love most is Rose Red – because of all the women in the series, and (with two notable exceptions) of all the characters of either sex in the series, Rose has grown and changed the most.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FEW ARCS OF FABLES FOLLOW.

Rose Red, as described by Snow White

While perhaps not one of the main characters, Rose is a central figure from the very first issue of Fables – when her apartment is found trashed and covered in blood, and Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, is called in to her investigate her apparent murder. Thus, when we first ‘meet’ Rose, she doesn’t get to speak for herself – rather, she’s described by others, most especially her big sister, Snow White, Fabletown’s deputy mayor. In Snow White’s eyes, Rose is the black sheep of the family, and has been since before the fables fled to “our” world and established their settlement in New York City. She’s an unrepentant wild child, a party girl, a troublemaker. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jack (of beanstalk climbing, giant killing fame) describes her in much the same way. She’s his lover, his partner in crime, and even the people who view her most sympathetically wouldn’t exactly describe her as an angel. It eventually comes out that Rose faked her own death, with Jack’s help, and naturally they’re both punished for it. In Rose’s case, that means moving upstate for a period of hard labor on the Farm…and that’s where her life begins to change.

The Farm, you see, is where they keep the fables who can’t pass for human at all. Beast (as in Beauty’s husband) is threatened with life on the Farm a few times when his curse becomes too much to bear and he can’t stop transforming into a monster over and over again. And the Farm’s current residents include all the animal fables that are unable to assume human form, as well as a whole society of miniature people, a dragon, some giants…you get the picture. It’s completely closed off from the outside world, protected by its remote location and a whole mess of spells to distract the “Mundys,” no one is allowed to leave except under very select circumstances, and the whole place is pretty much managed by the human fables without any real input from their non-human counterparts. If this sounds rather unfair, remember that, because it becomes important.

Rose's ignorance in action.

When Rose first heads up to the farm, escorted by her sister, she clearly views the whole experience as the punishment it is, and she’s not terribly kind to the non-human fables she meets. Indeed, she’s clearly ignorant and frequently obnoxious. Then it turns out that the Farm is on the point of open rebellion, led by none other than Goldilocks, who still lives with the Three Bears and has become a violent political radical. When Rose ultimately chooses to join the revolution, it’s a bit of a shock – but, unsurprisingly, she throws herself into the fight with her usual careless, rebellious glee, and soon she and her sister are at war yet again. But there’s another twist yet to come: it turns out at the very end that Rose joined the rebellion to keep Snow White safe, and that she ultimately played a key role in bringing those responsible to justice. By the end of the arc, Rose wholeheartedly accepts her place on the Farm…and, moreover, she rises to become its administrator, working with all the resident fables to make their lives better.

Don’t be fooled, though: Rose isn’t exactly perfect from this point on. And, honestly, that’s kind of what I love about her. She screws up. She makes some serious mistakes. While she proves herself to be a competent administrator, her relationship with her sister remains strained and her personal life is kind of a mess. In later issues, she’s put through the emotional wringer, and she ultimately retreats into herself completely, slowly but steadily self-destructing, pining for everything she’s lost.

Rose and Snow in a nutshell - but there's a lot more to it than that.

But in the end, with a little outside help, she turns things around. A trip down memory lane reminds her how her feud with Snow White got started – and shows her exactly what they once were to one another, and could be again. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the story of Rose Red and Snow White is fascinating, heartbreaking, and powerful, and Rose’s decision to embrace their sisterhood once more feels like a real moment of triumph. So, too, does her decision to rejoin the world, to fight off her grief and sorrow and self-pity and take a stand in one of Fabletown’s darkest hours. She doesn’t save the day – not all on her lonesome – but she retakes the reins of leadership just when she’s needed most, and that decision impacts everything to come.

In fact, in the most recent issues, Rose’s life has changed again: again, without spoiling anything, she’s accepted new responsibilities and seized a vast new destiny. For good or ill, she’s becoming something more than a minor character in Snow White’s tale, a footnote in the fables’ tumultuous history. She’s becoming more than herself – or perhaps she’s becoming the person she was meant to be all along. I’m sure Rose has many trials ahead of her. But she’s already come so far, been to Hell and back and returned in triumph. Her story’s far from over. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rose Red, taking control and returning in triumph.

Media Mondays: Comic Book Men

Behold the original boys' club.

Though my interest has flagged a bit in recent years, I still consider myself a Kevin Smith fan. Chasing Amy, despite a few problems, remains one of my favorite films. Dogma gets gross in parts, but I still think it’s a great commentary on religion as opposed to faith. Clerks and Mallrats are of course pretty damn great. And while I admit one viewing of Clerks 2 was enough for a lifetime, and Red State wasn’t quite the movie I was hoping for, I still like Kevin. I like what he’s doing. I think he’s the kind of guy I’d like to hang with. And though, as a lifelong Bostonian, I consider New Jersey the Eighth Circle of Hell*, I admit I’d given some thought to heading down to Red Bank one of these days to hit up the Secret Stash.

Comic Book Men, which finished its first season last night, has pretty much destroyed that dream.

In retrospect, I probably should have known what I was getting into the moment I heard the title. The show is aptly named. In fact, if I were a Cosmo-sipping, condescending Carrie Bradshaw type, I would probably say it should have been titled Comic Book BOYS, because these immature louts can hardly call themselves men, but I like to think I’m above that kind of clichéd rhetoric. My criticism of this show begins and ends with the fact that there is a serious lack of any kind of female influence in the world of the Secret Stash. Women are never-seen wives and girlfriends, or the poor ladies who wander into the shop seeking gifts for significant others, or the folks who periodically come in to sell off old comics and paraphernalia, or (and I can literally count these on one hand) that vanishingly rare and oh-so-prized beast, the female comic book fan. If there is even one woman employed at the shop, we never see her. Women are not the target market of the Stash in any way, shape or form. It is no surprise, then, that actual female customers are so rarely seen. I can only imagine they’ve found other, more welcoming shops far more deserving of their custom.

But we’ll get back to that.

This is Bryan. His duties apparently include acting like a total asshole and looking a bit like Alan Moore. HE IS VERY GOOD AT HIS JOB.

I knew right away that something was wrong with this show. Actually, for the first few episodes, that something had a distinct name and face: Bryan Johnson. From the first episode, he acted like a sarcastic, obnoxious douche. He clearly thought he was funnier than he actually was, and his treatment of his fellow employees sometimes bordered on the abusive. When he and the rest of the guys were sent out to a flea market to sell excess merchandise, he actually went so far as to take collectible plates off of fellow employee Ming Chen’s table and smash them just because he could. He finally gave Ming cash for the plates after being told off by a really awesome older gentleman…but then, as soon as said gentleman left, he tried to get that money back.

The only thing that kept me from completely hating Bryan – and for a long time, I did – was his behavior in last night’s episode. See, it turns out Bryan has a five-year-old niece, whom he obviously loves very, very much. In last night’s episode, we not only saw him buying superhero Barbies for her (I’ll be getting back to the Barbies, too), but we also saw him get a tattoo in her honor: a zombified portrait of his niece on her bike, right on his forearm where the whole world could see it. When he showed the tattoo design to his co-workers, they obviously thought he was insane, that everyone would be extremely creeped out by the undead little girl on his arm and his niece would not like it at all. But it turns out that his niece LOVES zombies – that it’s something they bond over – and when she came into the shop at the end and he showed her his tattoo, it was hands down the most heartwarming scene I’ve seen on television all week. The man I’d seen as the outright villain (or at least assholish anti-hero) of the show turned out to be a human being. I still think he’s kind of an asshole, but I have a little more sympathy for him now.

That doesn’t really change the fact that the Stash seems to be a really, really awful place to work, particularly if your name is Ming. See, Ming is kind of the Meg Griffin of the shop, as near as I can tell. He’s there to take constant shit from his co-workers. And, okay, look. He’s kind of a dork. He’s a little awkward, he doesn’t know nearly as much about comics as his co-workers, and sometimes he has really awful ideas. But you know what? I used to be like that. I had my ugly duckling phase. And I’m still awkward and shy and kind of a dork at times. And that’s no excuse – NO excuse – to treat someone like crap. It’s hard to tell if Ming’s in on the joke. Sometimes I think, yeah, he totally is, but all too often I’m convinced they’re laughing at him, not with him. And I have to say, if I were in his shoes, I would be done with that shop by now. No job is worth that level of abuse.

And the fact of the matter is that Ming is one of the most dedicated employees the Stash has. He puts up with EVERYTHING. He seems to do a hell of a lot more work than, say, Bryan. And he’s a lot more on the ball than any of them. In one episode, for example, he came up with a zombie-themed ad campaign (and sale day) for the shop. It ended up flopping, and I think his ideas were a little flawed, but he got one thing absolutely right: on the day of the sale, he was busting his ass out on the sidewalk trying to get customers in the shop, and he was talking to EVERYONE. Men, women, older folks, younger folks, all of them. And time and again, his boss and his co-workers kept yelling at him to target more typical customers, but Ming kept plugging away.

You know what? Ming was right. Zombie fans – geeks in general – come in all shapes and sizes. Men, women, old, young, gay, straight, professional, blue-collar, mime. You can’t always judge a book by its cover. The fact that it’s still news that women like comics, sci-fi movies, fantasy, zombie flicks – the fact that this is a controversial assertion – confuses and infuriates me.

This is a recurring problem with the Secret Stash as portrayed on Comic Book Men. Women are ignored, dismissed, tolerated at best. The products made for women and girls are denigrated – such as the aforementioned superhero Barbies. In last night’s episode, a couple of women came into the shop to sell some Barbies dressed and packaged as various superheroines: Batgirl, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc. These were official Mattel products from a few years back, and honestly, they looked great. I have not been into Barbies since I was ten, but I would totally buy them, and I bet I’m not the only one. And Walt Flanagan, manager of the store, flat-out refused to buy them. He refused to believe that any of his customers would possibly be interested in them. Bryan, as I said, ended up buying a couple of them for his niece, but Walt made it very clear – on the show itself and in the podcast studio afterward – that he could not conceive of a world in which he would carry Barbie or Ken dolls, superhero-themed or otherwise, in his shop.

Okay. That’s his right. But this shop sells all kinds of action figures and toys. I’m willing to bet they’ve sold some premium figures that are fashion dolls in all but name. These Barbies were official products, they looked cool, they seemed like they were well made, and they were in excellent condition. I’m willing to bet they would have sold. But Walt rejected them because they were girl toys. That’s what it comes down to. They were dolls, and this shop is for comic book MEN.

To be fair…for certain values of fair…it really, really is. Actual female customers are a rare breed in the shop, and given the sheer amount of testosterone wafting out the door, I can’t say I’m surprised. Especially when you consider the incident that truly infuriated me, the event that once and for all destroyed any interest I might have had in visiting the Secret Stash.

In the fourth episode, a woman came into the shop with her significant other – I’m assuming that’s who the guy walking around with her was, anyway – and it was very clear from the outset that they were both comic book fans and she was shopping for herself. She ended up spending a pretty big chunk of cash on some valuable old comics. The transaction itself went fine – the guys were personable and polite, they rang her up and saw her out the door. But afterward, while discussing the sale on their podcast, they made a bunch of sexual jokes about how “she knew what she wanted” and Ming (who rang her up) “gave it to her”.

Guys, this is a line. It’s a pretty clear line. It’s bright and shiny and painted right in the middle of the road. We used reflective glow-in-the-dark Day-Glo orange. And you just JUMPED right on over it.

Let me be clear: if I were that woman, if I had spent a bunch of money only to find out on national television that the staff who helped me had gone on to make a bunch of sexual jokes about me behind my back, I would be done with that store forever. I would tell all my friends to steer clear. I would do my level best to ensure that they never got any new business. That is not okay. That is not acceptable behavior in polite society. You treat your customers with respect before, during and after the transaction. You treat women as people, not magical unicorns here for your pleasure, not aliens who only rarely deign to descend to Earth. Women don’t shop in the Stash, Walt? Women aren’t your target audience? Gee. I wonder why.

I wanted to like this show. I really did. And there are parts of it I have enjoyed. I actually do enjoy seeing the staff haggle with the people who come into the shop to sell stuff or buy rare items. I like seeing the amazing memorabilia that comes in and the cadre of experts they call upon to assess it. Seeing the staff in full zombie makeup for Ming’s campaign was pretty cool. Watching them film a TV commercial full of all kinds of crazy crap was fun. And, again, Bryan and his niece were the most adorable thing ever. But all things considered, I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 2. They’d have to make some serious changes to the show and the store. They have some serious, heartfelt apologies to hand out. And I really don’t think any of that is going to happen.

All things considered, I’d rather watch a show about New England Comics. They actually employ women there. And, more importantly, I’ve always been treated with respect. Something tells me that wouldn’t happen at the Stash.

In case you’re wondering, New York is the Ninth Circle, with Satan himself dwelling in the frozen waste of Yankee Stadium, his three mouths forever gnawing on Harry Frazee, Jonathan Papelbon and Johnny Damon. I barely need to mention that Connecticut is the Seventh.

Fangirl Fridays: Cassie Sandsmark, Wonder Girl

By the time this actually goes up, it’ll probably be Saturday, but I don’t care. For my inaugural post on this blog, I’m going to start the first of many traditions: Fangirl Fridays.

What are Fangirl Fridays? Simply put, they’re my chance to gush about someone or something I love. It might be a fictional character (and oh yes, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Karolina Dean and Claudia Donovan are all on the docket). It might be a TV show or a movie. It might be an author or a book or a series of books. It might be a shining example of feminist or queer or minority representation. It might just be a guilty pleasure. Whatever it may be, it’ll be something that makes me go squee.

And Cassie Sandsmark is the perfect place to start, because I love, love, LOVE Wonder Girl.

Let me start by explaining a few things about myself: I have always been a nerd. I know, huge shock. But as a kid, I wasn’t the cool kind of nerd – I didn’t really get into video games until I was an adult, and I wasn’t a computer prodigy. I dressed up for special occasions, and I had some pretty cool costumes here and there, but I never really got into cosplay. I didn’t make neat little indie films or shot-for-shot remakes with my friends. My sister got most of the artistic talent; I tried my hand at drawing and sculpting, but never reached her level of mastery. Worst of all, I was, and still am, an introvert. So I was the worst of all nerds. I was a bookworm.

More than that, I was a history nerd. I wrote essays on various historical figures and periods for fun. (I was homeschooled. I didn’t even have to write the essays. They were never even graded.) I would check out a dozen books on Ancient Greece or Victorian England or Edo Japan for light reading. (Two things. One, yes, a dozen books. I was a voracious reader. Two, also yes, I liked steampunk before steampunk was cool.) I dreamed of being an archaeologist, and I don’t mean I wanted to be Indiana Jones, though part of me sort of did. As much as I loved the promise of the future, as much as I enjoyed the promise of the present, the past enthralled me.

As I grew up, all that sort of went by the wayside. I don’t mean I lost interest in history. Of course I didn’t. But I found new interests: folklore and mythology, psychology, game design, creative writing, and eventually, yes, video games. And all of these interests have, gradually, fed into one another. Lately I’ve been delving into history and mythology again as I research the background of my first novel, Fall. But history no longer dominated my life or my reading lists. I didn’t want to be an archaeologist anymore. I found new dreams and started doing new things.

Flash forward to the end of the Young Justice comic book and the beginning of the new Teen Titans. I’d started getting into comic books as a teenager, and had naturally drifted toward DC. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were already familiar characters. I started seeing references to a new Wonder Girl and I decided to check out Teen Titans as a result.

I don’t know when exactly I fell in love with Cassie Sandsmark. I know I was instantly amused and excited, in a dorky fangirlish way, that she shared the name I’d chosen for myself. I also know I didn’t fully understand her backstory at first, and while I thought her character was fantastic – strong, intelligent, beautiful, brave – I wasn’t hooked until I’d started delving into her past. But somewhere in there, I just clicked. I understood her. I empathized with her. I saw in her so much of the person I was and so very much of the person I wanted to be.

See, Cassie’s a nerd made good. And not just any nerd. A history nerd. A mythology nerd. The daughter of an archaeologist. Wonder Woman’s greatest fan. And when the world needed a new hero, she didn’t just jump at the call. She made the call happen. She grabbed the sandals of Hermes and the gauntlet of Atlas and used them to fight the forces of evil. She went up to Zeus himself and all but demanded powers of her own. And, at first, she lived and fought in Wonder Woman’s shadow. She wore Wonder Woman’s emblem and even donned a truly hideous black wig to be more like her hero. But as she grew, and changed, and gained confidence in herself as a hero and as a strong, capable young woman, she stepped out of the shadows and became something more. She lost the wig. She adopted new costumes, paying homage to her hero while establishing her own identity. She even, eventually (though not entirely by choice), gave up her secret identity and let the whole world see exactly who she was. She made mistakes, and she learned from them, but she made no apologies for herself.

When it came out that Cassie was actually Zeus’s daughter, somehow, I wasn’t surprised. When she began to come into her own powers as a demigoddess, shedding the abilities she had been granted by her father and by Ares and becoming, above all else, herself, I was thrilled. Her romance with Superboy still feels like one of the most authentic teen romances I’ve seen in a mainstream superhero comic – and while there were moments, particularly during the period when her powers were fluctuating wildly, when she had to watch her boyfriend fly off and save the day without her, they still felt like equal partners. They loved each other. They respected each other. Cassie could handle her own fights – she could even fight Conner, when she had to – and she didn’t need her boyfriend to rescue her.

Alas, all good things come to an end. In the latter days of Teen Titans, particularly as DC began steering toward the series of reboots that have (hopefully) come to an end, for now, with the New 52, her characterization changed. A lot of writers seemed to be treating her as the Titans’ annoying ‘head cheerleader,’ a disagreeable and tyrannical leader rather than the smart, strong, mature young woman I knew and loved. I slowly began to lose interest. When the New 52 hit, and it came out that DC was reinventing Cassie as a superpowered thief and rebel, I hit my wall. That was when I said goodbye to DC comics altogether. That was when I decided I didn’t need their stories anymore. I had loved Cassie’s stories before, and I would love them forever, but I had no interest in reading the new ones.

I haven’t abandoned Cassie Sandsmark. I still use her as an avatar on so many sites and forums. My personal contact cards (which I had out to new friends at cons and parties) still feature her prominently, fierce and determined and ready for battle. I still look to her and see what I want to be: a nerd made good. The awkward little geek who grew into someone strong, someone beautiful, someone confident and brave, someone unafraid of her intelligence and her power. Someone who makes no apologies for who or what she is. She is, in so many ways, the woman I wish I was, and the woman I try to be. I call myself Themiscyra, and that’s an homage to all the Amazons, both mythological and fictional, but above all else, it’s my homage to her. The superhero who shares my name. The girl who shares my past. The woman who inspires my geeky little heart to greatness.

I don’t care what DC’s done to her. Cassandra Sandsmark, daughter of Zeus, demigoddess, Wonder Girl – she’s freaking awesome. Part of me will always love her. And somewhere, in some parallel fictitious world where the colors are a whole lot brighter and everyone laughs at the laws of physics, I know she’s still out there, blazing her own trail, fighting the forces of evil, and going on some truly epic adventures.

And maybe, someday, the Cassie Sandsmark I know and love will return to the printed page. Or to the Young Justice TV show. I’ll be keeping an eye out. But don’t expect me to sit idly by. This Wonder Girl has her own adventures to see to.