Swissvale Kitchen Table

Today on the site it's the great Ken Parille on the art of the sales pitch in and around superhero comic books

Three recent DC comics Dark Nights: Metal #1, Batman: The Red Death #1, and Batman: The Dawnbreaker #1 include an advertisement for Snickers bars. A reader could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the ad, which looks a lot like the narratives it accompanies, is part of the story:

As super-villain Gorilla Grodd attacks the stadium, he proclaims that “Events mean nothing to [me]!” But, as Superman discerns, this gorilla’s not what he seems: he’s “just a hungry fan.” After a few bites the Snickers works its magic, soothing the “crabby” fan’s rage.

It’s odd to see an ad with an event-hating fan in these particular comics, all of which are part of what the industry calls a Crossover Event. To follow an event’s sprawling narrative, fans need to buy a lot of comic books released over several months. While “events mean nothing” to villains (and crabby fans who refuse to buy the required books), they mean a lot to companies and their bottom line. Each of the twenty-five comics/chapters in DC’s current event Dark Nights: Metal costs $3.99 or $4.99. In the past, a major crossover from the “Big Two” (i.e., DC and Marvel) occurred every few years. Now they pop up once a season. We’re living in the pricey moment of Perpetual Event.

And hey, I have some news: Tomorrow is my last day as co-editor of The Comics Journal. The reason is straightforward: At the end of the summer I took a research and writing intensive curatorial position at a gallery, so I need to focus my energy there and on some longterm projects, including a few features for this site.

Tim will go solo for a week (it just happens that I’m going to be traveling next week), and then (drumroll) in November he and Tucker Stone will be co-editors. Tucker has long been one of my favorite writers and speakers about comics, and has been on all sides of the medium's equation. I couldn't be happier that he is coming aboard. He'll bring fresh energy, ideas, and contributors to the site.

I want to thank Gary Groth for asking me to take a shot at the site back in 2010 (and Frank Santoro, who told me I had to accept!), and for his unwavering support; Kristy Valenti for offering great support from the Seattle HQ; the Fantagraphics team for its logistical and moral support; Mike Reddy for designing this web site and contributing great drawings long the way; and, of course, all the contributors I've worked with over the last six and a half years. I'm proud of what we've done together, and honored to have been an editor at The Comics Journal. For more than half my life TCJ has helped shape my critical and historical ideas about the medium I love. Gary's generosity in allowing me and Tim to steer his great ship is something for which I'll be forever grateful.

Finally, my deepest thanks to my friend of 20 years, Tim Hodler, a man embarrassed by even the smallest amount of praise. Tim I started both The Ganzfeld and Comics Comics together. There is no one I'd rather work with, and I'm looking forward to submitting texts for his and Tucker's consideration. Tim's precision and rigor have kept this site together, and his willingness to stretch and try new things has helped us grow. He is a great friend and the best collaborator I could imagine. I can't wait to see what he and Tucker do together. Bye for now.

 

Everything Sells Everything

A Not-So-Secret History of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the American Superhero.

1.  Superheroes Selling

(Images here and below copyright DC Comics.)

Three recent DC comics Dark Nights: Metal #1, Batman: The Red Death #1, and Batman: The Dawnbreaker #1 include an advertisement for Snickers bars. A reader could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the ad, which looks a lot like the narratives it accompanies, is part of the story:

The Snickers ad/comic and the three DC comics star some of the same characters and use similar art and coloring styles.

As super-villain Gorilla Grodd attacks the stadium, he proclaims that “Events mean nothing to [me]!” But, as Superman discerns, this gorilla’s not what he seems: he’s “just a hungry fan.” After a few bites the Snickers works its magic, soothing the “crabby” fan’s rage.

It’s odd to see an ad with an event-hating fan in these particular comics, all of which are part of what the industry calls a Crossover Event. To follow an event’s sprawling narrative, fans need to buy a lot of comic books released over several months. While “events mean nothing” to villains (and crabby fans who refuse to buy the required books), they mean a lot to companies and their bottom line. Each of the twenty-five comics/chapters in DC’s current event Dark Nights: Metal costs $3.99 or $4.99. In the past, a major crossover from the “Big Two” (i.e., DC and Marvel) occurred every few years. Now they pop up once a season. We’re living in the pricey moment of Perpetual Event.

Several issues include a helpful event checklist.

The candy-bar ad’s “event” reference must surely be intentional (at least I think it is). It’s some meta-fun for attentive fans who will get the joke: “Only cranky readers don’t like comic-book events!” Whether intentional or not, the joke fits perfectly within what we could call “The Crossover Event Worldview,” in which everything is meaningful because everything is meta. Event comics sell themselves as stories about stories, full of Easter eggs and allusions that reward true believers versed in the company’s vast comic-book continuity.

To drive sales numbers, events promise “earth-shattering revelations that will forever change the characters you love,” making it essential to buy every issue. Crossovers reorganize a company’s fictional universe, revise heroes’ and villains’ origin stories, introduce new titles, and meditate on the cultural and personal relevance of the kinds of heroic stories that mainstream fantasy comics traffic in. To both widen and close the loop of meta-circularity, current events typically evoke past ones: Dark Nights: Metal #1, for example, drops references to DC events such as “Final Crisis” and “52”:

Like superheroes, good readers study the multiverse for years.

In these ways, crossovers deliver what they promise — at least until all is undone by the next event, which is just on the horizon. At its core, each event comic book is like the Snickers comic: it’s an ad. Events market the company’s past, present, and future products.

The event’s self-referential obsessiveness may strengthen the bond between fan, character, and company, but it can be turned against the comics by readers tired of being sold the same thing over and over. Dark Nights: Metal #1, Batman: The Red Death #1, and Batman: The Dawnbreaker #1 all begin with the “stories about stories” motif:

"These are the stories from the Dark Multiverse that should NEVER be . . ." Batman: The Dawnbreaker #1.

"Stop me if you've heard this one." Batman: The Red Death #1.

It takes a self-assured writer to draw attention to the possibility he’s retelling the same old super-fable. After reading the first few pages, many readers must have said, “Please stop. I've heard this one.” The tale offered by Dark NightsMetal has been told hundreds of times, both in crossover events and in non-event comics: a cosmic foe threatens the multiverse, dozens of heroes must unite to defeat it, the battle takes a profound toll on everyone, some heroes temporarily become villains, others temporarily become dead, and a few bad jokes try to lighten the oppressive darkness.

And this event relentlessly markets itself as dark: it's called Dark Nights, it's set in a “Dark Multiverse,” the stories involve “dark matter,” the word “dark” appears every few pages. This obsession even works on a meta-level by tying this event to our current comics era, which is often called “The Dark Age.” All these choices represent “brand identity” run amok. Perhaps it’s executed in this blunt way to ensure that readers can't miss the sales-pitch.

Since the early 1990s, fans have been complaining. They regularly criticize Marvel's and DC's comics as too dark, as favoring over-the-top violence instead of subtle characterization and well-crafted plots. In Batman: The Dawnbreaker a character says “Th-the darkness. . . It destroys everything,” a complaint easily lodged against the relentlessly grim comic it appears in:

Perhaps some readers "felt the same," too.

But I'll give Dark Nights credit for “brand commitment”:

Like many comics in the event, Dawnbreaker is metaphorically dark in its content, and literally dark in its coloring:

As these event comics deconstruct themselves (are they daring us to mock them?), they draw attention to the fact that we just bought what might as well be a reprint from last year. (At my local shop on a recent “new comics Wednesday,” a fellow reader said to me, “I’m sick of these ‘grim and gritty’ cosmic comics!” — he no longer collects events.)

Drama, mood, color, and clarity in "The Dark Age" vs. "The Silver Age" - a full page from Batman: The Red Death and a full page from Tales to Astonish 81 (Marvel Comics, 1966.)

2. Selling Superheroes
For many readers and the comics’ creators, though, the meta-narrative driving each crossover event is a high-minded endeavor that plays into one of our most cherished cultural and comic-book memes: “We are the stories we tell.” And events, with their mass gatherings of heroes and villains, tell a grandiose story about our moral striving. In a Superman comic from a few years ago, the narrator extols the hero as the “embodiment of the very best in us. Our inspiration to . . . aim higher. Each and every one of us is . . . Superman.” This transcendent belief grows out of the hallowed American comic-book traditions of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, of seeing superheroes not as corporate properties but as culturally natural and necessary aspirational figures who rise above the petty notions of product and property. In the 1960s Marvel’s Stan Lee proclaimed that super-characters serve the lofty role that gods of classical mythology served for ancient Greeks and Romans, a notion widely endorsed by comic-book readers, writers, and publishers ever since. (Promoting a Smithsonian online course, Lee and Batman Dark Knight Trilogy producer Michael Uslan tell us that “The . . . gods of . . . Greek and Roman myths still exist, but today . . . have superpowers.”) It’s nice to think that Flash and Wonder Woman emerged from the collective unconscious in order to help us become who we really are. While the mythic view keeps everything meta and meaningful, it obscures an important reality: actual people laboring under work-for-hire contracts (or no contracts) created these characters, and the companies who own them have often denied creators royalties or a fair share of the profits.

Like these companies, we fans have a deep need to own other’s imaginative property. A meme that recently made its way around Twitter represents the perfect expression of this covetousness (so much so you might think it’s a parody):

Importantly, this idea isn’t the sole province of the rabid fan, the kind to whom crossover events mean everything. I once heard a scholar tell an enthusiastic audience of comic-book readers and academics that superheroes are genuinely mythic, a part of our shared cultural inheritance and therefore ours to do with as we wish. I knew that if I tried to make and sell my own Flash comic book, expensive lawyers would quickly tell me I shouldn’t believe everything I hear.

3. Selling is Canon

This brings us back to Snickers. How can we square the American caped crusader’s cultural relevance and noble mission with a role the character has played since its debut: corporate shill? Though many heroes’ alter egos have been mild-mannered types like Clark Kent or Peter Parker, another identity — not a secret identity but a very public one — has badgered us for decades: a confident, unapologetically crass character we could call “The Pitchman”:

"Superman says . . . it's good!" 1950s.

"Hey Kids!" 1966.

"I knew you couldn't resist . . . !" 1975. From the 1940s to the present, thousands of ads have employed superheroes as salespeople.

The hero-meets-product alliance represents the most important corporate crossover event: the ongoing merging of our escapist fantasies and capitalism’s desires. It’s a perfect world, this corporate superhero universe: publishers and creators sell the value of superheroes who sell candy in an ad about events that appears in an event comic that sells other comics/other events that sell the value of superheroes and their (i.e., our) stories. The circle is unbroken.

If it seems jarring that the super-being who’s trying to save the world and uphold what’s best in us is also hawking candy, comic books, and amusement park rides, it shouldn’t.

"Be My Guest." 1960s.

More than truth and justice, commerce is the American way boldly personified in these heroes. Superman and his super-ilk may look like examples of what we call, somewhat pretentiously, a “literary character,” but they’re not. They’re a special kind of commercial fiction: the “corporate character.” To best serve those who have trademarked them, they live an existence so unstable and tenuous that, in reality, there is no Superman, only thousands of versions of “Superman.” Corporate characters are by definition amorphous, loosely defined by a name, logo, and a few back-story facts. In movies and countless comic books, however, even these ostensibly “essential” elements are repeatedly up for grabs. Whenever sales flag, the character morphs. Spider-Man is a white male, then he’s not. His costume is red and blue, then it’s not. His name is Spider-Man, then it’s not. He’s dead, then he’s not. Etc., etc… With every new artist, writer, editor, crossover event, or product endorsement deal, the character undergoes yet another metamorphosis. Superheroes, then, are meta-characters; one moment they’re flying around a fictional universe beating up villains, and the next they’re breaking the fourth wall selling us toothpaste, underwear, and fruit pies.

In each of its guises, the super-being enacts its owner’s will. This holds true for 2017’s most beloved character, Wonder Woman. (They're even calling 2017 “The Year of Wonder Woman”). She’s rightly celebrated as a feminist icon, but her history is more complicated, less uplifting. She’s long been a saleswoman happy to hype what she’s ordered to:

"That's Right!" 1981. (Somehow the villains manage to communicate the registered status of the brand through speech. Or do they actually shout "registered trademark" after "Hostess" and "Twinkies?")

Since an eager submission to authority is not the most feminist of traits, we “forget” her crass commercial superpower. It really kills the fantasy.

"Ah, much better." Wonder Woman admires the power of a Snickers in a three-page crossover comic/ad from 2016. Academic and fan histories of the superhero ignore the salesperson identity. It’s a strange omission, as weird as overlooking fundamental features like costumes or logos. (Wonder Woman has a slightly different ownership history than other heroes; see here.)

**

Expressing a level of fan outrage that even a crate of Snickers couldn’t cure, MRA social-media warriors believe the comics industry ruins “our beloved characters” by changing their race, gender, or religion. But they should remember that these “icons” have long histories as elastic properties equally adept at saving the universe and peddling Twinkies. Such fans might feel less horror if they recalled that Thor™, Spider-Man™, and the rest have always crossed over, changing whenever the boss thinks it necessary, licensed out to anyone who’s got enough cash. Whether we like the changes or not, “our beloved characters” have never been ours.

In recent weeks, this alliance has taken a new, and disturbing, turn. Marvel teamed-up with Northrup Grumman, one of the world's largest defense contractors, creating a perhaps inevitable synergy between violent corporate heroes and violent corporations. It's eerie how easily super-beings cross over to the military-industrial complex:

Comic-book fans deserve credit for shaming Marvel into ending this dark collaboration.

If comic-book publishers believed that superheroes were contemporary gods, inspirational role models, or culturally relevant figures, would they pimp them out to Snickers and ballistic missiles? Probably not (and yet . . ).  These alignments reveal the political relevance of superheroes in 2017. Despite their noble words, they're just another bunch of high-powered hypocrites out to make a buck.

So rather than see ads featuring super-beings as separate from comic-book events and continuity, we should embrace them as canon. A crucial part of American superhero history, they remind us that caped crusaders will forever do what they’ve always done: sell stuff.

_____________________________________________________________
PS: Here I write about a DC comic-book series I liked, Batman Unseen, which narrates a world outside of candy, crossovers, canon, and continuity.

Ken Parille is editor of The Daniel Clowes Reader: A Critical Edition of Ghost World and Other Stories. He teaches at East Carolina University and his writing has appeared in The Best American Comics CriticismThe BelieverNathaniel Hawthorne ReviewTulsa Studies in Women’s LiteratureChildren’s LiteratureComic ArtBoston Review, and elsewhere.

 

Episode 24: Annie Mok

 

On the twenty-fourth installment of Comic Book Decalogue, Annie Mok discusses Carta Monir, Emily Carroll, Satyajit Ray, and more.

 

Previous Episodes

Episode 23: Gina Wynbrandt

Episode 22: Katie Skelly

Episode 21: Michel Fiffe

Episode 20: Matthew Thurber

Episode 19: Ben Sears

Episode 18: Maggie Umber

Episode 17: Eddie Campbell (Part II)

Episode 16: Eddie Campbell (Part I)

Episode 15: Trungles

Episode 14: Anders Nilsen

Episode 13: MariNaomi

Episode 12: Anna Bongiovanni

Episode 11: Dean Haspiel

Episode 10: Lane Milburn

Episode 9: Anya Davidson

Episode 8: Gabrielle Bell

Episode 7: Inés Estrada

Episode 6: Dylan Horrocks

Episode 5: Sammy Harkham

Episode 4: Ed Luce/2DCloud

Episode 3: Yumi Sakugawa

Episode 2: Caitlin Skaalrud

Episode 1: Josh Simmons

Jingle credits: Fanfares created by Freesound.org user primordiality, uploaded September 2009. Sounds included under Creative Commons licenses allowing for reuse.
 

Doubling on His Tracks

Today on the site, Greg Hunter brings the latest episode of his Comic Book Decalogue podcast to the site. His guest this week is the cartoonist and TCJ contributor, Annie Mok.

On the twenty-fourth installment of Comic Book Decalogue, Annie Mok discusses Carta Monir, Emily Carroll, Satyajit Ray, and more.


Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Interviews & Profiles. Todd Hignite has fascinating discussion with the underground original art collector Eric Sack.

TH: [Collectors Showcase] was one [published by Leonard Brown and Malcolm Willits’ Collectors Book Store in Hollywood] and Tony Dispoto out of New Jersey put out catalogs [Comic Art Showcase], Jim Steranko [Cartoonists and Illustrators Portfolio]—and Russ Cochran in the Midwest [Graphic Gallery].

ES: Yeah, you would see prices in those, and little by little some artists would command more than others—but the fascinating thing I gradually started to notice is how something, say in the early ’80s, would be an expensive $1,000 and twenty years later would only be close to that still, or maybe $2,000, but other art in that same period would grow to $5,000 or more. So it was interesting to watch the market evolve as the interest in various artists changed. And it didn’t have anything to do with chronology, like I always thought it would coming from that Thomas Nast world—here was this guy doing the most amazing cross-hatching, documenting important historical events, and I could buy his original drawings in the early ’80s for between $200 to say $1,100, and even today some of the good ones can be had for $2,000! You would think because these were so early and well rendered from a godfather of the art form, that for all kinds of reasons those should be $10,000 or $20,000. But they’re not. So it’s an interesting question that I always discussed with other collectors, why such particular multiples started to happen.

TH: I think that’s always hard for collectors to wrap their heads around, especially early on—why aren’t values based on this agreed-upon hierarchy of what is important historically?

ES: Pop culture in general has a strong influence, of course—interestingly, as a parenthetical aside, that was one of the reasons I decided to sell the bulk of my collection when I did—I thought the market had peaked, because the collectors who were buying this stuff drawn in the late ’60s to the mid ’70s were getting to an age of deaccessioning rather than actively collecting, and I wasn’t sure there was another generation of collectors to take their place. But I was wrong!

—Reviews & Commentary. The nominees for this year's Best Online Comics Studies Scholarship award have been announced.

Caleb Orecchio writes about what he learned about color from an old issue of Classics Illustrated.

I’ve been thinking and working with color a lot. In this day and age, where color is an option for cartoonists looking to print their work (color was not always an option for ye olde comics makers, true believer), the quantity of choice of what the colors should be and how to apply them can be intimidating. Fear not. In my opinion, the best way to start in color is the classic CMYK–which is essentially, as you probably know, blue, red, yellow, and black. One reason this is a good choice is that most riso printers carry these four colors (riso being probably the best option in self-publishing in color if you can swing it) AND they are easily acquired in forms of marker or colored pencils, AND because these are the colors comics used in the past and traditions are important to me.

Julia Wertz's new book has been reviewed at both Hyperallergic and the New York Times.

Wertz registers the changes [to NYC] but without polemic. There’s no need; the coda to her project is enough. After 10 years in the city, she was priced out of her Brooklyn neighborhood last year. She wrote this book in California.

Finally, Chris Mautner writes about the mysterious Yuichi Yokoyama.

No one on the globe is making comics like Yuichi Yokoyama. That seems like a foolish thing to say — after all, I haven’t tracked down every cartoonist on the planet to do a comprehensive compare/contrast analysis — but I feel like it’s a pretty safe bet nevertheless. Completely unconcerned with the conventional aspects of storytelling — most notably plot and character — Yokoyama has built a body of work that is utterly unique in its near-relentless exploration of motion, sound, and structure. His comics are enthralling and dynamic, but at the same time drained of emotion, as if an alien race was trying to mimic a typical comic but couldn’t quite get the hang of it.

 

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

In a pivotal scene in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) dons a burlesque outfit in a shop run by Charles Guyette (JJ Field), a man known to history as the godfather of American fetish art. Writer and director Angela Robinson's film is the story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and Olive, and this scene is key to the genesis of the famed heroine. Along with the skimpy outfit, Olive wears a tiara and large bracelets, and she holds a golden rope. While the costume itself is dark, there's gold along the chest and red and blue lights reflect off the shiny black material; the backlighting creates a recognizably iconic silhouette. William looks on with awe and lust as Elizabeth ties up Olive in the sturdy rope, and the film then immediately cuts to him at home writing "Suprema the Wonder Woman" in a notebook.

It is a sensual, compelling scene, and an important moment for all three leads. It is also entirely fictional.

On its own terms, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a very good film indeed. It begins in the mid-1920s when married psychologists William and Elizabeth encounter Olive, a student of theirs at Radcliffe College, and follows the evolution of their relationship from intrigue to lust to love. After initial trepidation, the three form a family, with each woman having two children via William. Inspired by these remarkable women, William creates Wonder Woman in 1941, and the film ends in the mid-1940s, shortly before his death. It's an unconventional love story, and Robinson treats both the polyamorous and BDSM aspects of the relationship with respect and care. The film is sexy without being exploitative, romantic yet frank, and often boldly raw as it delves into the emotional complications of the Marstons' life together.

The core strength of the picture is its winning cast. While there's much to admire here, including the excellent costumes, sets, and design of this period piece, everything hangs on the three leads. Evans, Hall, and Heathcote each embody layered, complex characters. Evans' William is charming but unfulfilled on multiple levels, Hall's Elizabeth is brash but frustrated with the limitations of the era, and Heathcote's Olive is initially straitlaced but curious and ultimately surprisingly bold. The chemistry between all three is palpable from their first scene together, and it drives the film. Despite the many obstacles in their way, their undeniable connection makes it clear that they belong together.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a captivating piece, but it's also a biographical sketch that claims to be "the true story of the women behind the man behind the Woman," and this is where matters get complicated. It's a good story well told, but is it the Marstons' story? All biopics play fast and loose with history, changing details for the sake of simplicity or additional conflict. Creative liberties are to be expected. But at the same time, one also expects a certain level of knowledge and insight into the subjects, their lives, and the world in which they lived.

In terms of this larger setting, the film makes several changes to the history of comic books and the Wonder Woman series. Some are fairly minor, like the erasure of Wonder Woman editor Sheldon Mayer. In real life, Mayer was a major player on the Wonder Woman team, and he was the one who cut "Suprema" to make the character simply Wonder Woman. In the film, this task falls to All-American Comics publisher Max Gaines (Oliver Platt). Gaines is a sort of composite who serves as the sole connection between All-American and William, and while it's unfortunate that Mayer and his many contributions to Wonder Woman were ignored or credited to someone else, this streamlining does make some sense in terms of simplifying the story.

There are larger changes, too. Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a member of All-American's content advisory board, is elevated to a powerful position from which she has the authority to cancel Wonder Woman, and her interrogation of William in 1945 serves as a framing device for the film. All of this is done while children burn comic books to protest their troubling contents and the threat of a Senate subcommittee looms. In reality, the burnings and Senate issues did happen, but they occurred after William's death in 1947 and had little to do with Wonder Woman. Moreover, Wonder Woman was never in danger of being cancelled. While William and Frank traded some letters about the book's bondage imagery via Gaines in the early 1940s, Wonder Woman sold so well that Gaines let William keep doing whatever he wanted and Frank remained on the publisher's advisory board but had her name taken off Wonder Woman. The film's entire conflict is exaggerated and manufactured, overblown for dramatic effect. And understandably so, really. The swapping of strongly worded letters without ramifications for anyone would hardly make for compelling viewing.

The personal history of the Marstons is also changed in several ways to enhance the narrative. Firstly, all three of them have developed movie star good looks, as is the wont of Hollywood biopics. While William was portly and grey-haired by the time he created Wonder Woman in real life, Luke Evans remains strappingly handsome all through the film. The women fail to age much either, even though the story spans nearly twenty years.

Turning to the events depicted, chronology is often changed or fictional. For example, the film introduces the lie detector as a useless hunk of junk until Elizabeth notices something about Olive's responses that leads her to systolic blood pressure, which makes the machine finally work. In reality, the lie detector was fully functional a decade before Olive showed up. Later on in the film, Olive gets pregnant soon after her first encounter with the Marstons, and the birth of her baby spurs the three of them to live together as one family. In reality, Olive didn't get pregnant until several years after the family came together, and Elizabeth had a baby first. Near the end of the film, the family separates after neighbors find out about their polyamorous lifestyle. In reality, this separation never happened, though the bullying of the children depicted in the movie is somewhat accurate. All of these changes, along with many more, enhance the drama of the story. They also add conventional story beats to the often mundane, narratively uneven pace of real life. While it all combines to to a considerable level of historical inaccuracy, such is the nature of a biopic.

This brings us back to the amorous, BDSM-fueled encounter between Elizabeth and Olive in the back of Charles Guyette's burlesque shop. All of the changes discussed thus far are significant but largely expected. The film is a story, not a documentary, and aspects of it were bound to be embellished. This scene is something different. It is wholly speculative, and every aspect of it is questionable. In terms of setting, we don't actually know if the Marstons ever met Guyette or visited such an establishment. In terms of the rope play, we don't know if Elizabeth or Olive were into bondage at all. In terms of the relationship itself, we don't even know if the women were romantically or sexually involved.

We don't know because we can't know. The Marstons were very private people, and details about their life together are few. Their descendants are on the record stating that Elizabeth and Olive were like sisters, there was no sexual relationship between them, and there were no bondage activities in their home. Now, the women may not have been inclined to share such information with their children and grandchildren, but there is no definitive information to counter the family's claims either.

There are reasons to speculate. William wrote at length about "female love relationships" in his psychological work, heartily endorsing sexual activity between women. And, as the film points out, Elizabeth and Olive lived together for almost forty years after he died. That is the most that we've got. With the bondage, a close reading of Wonder Woman and William's other work does suggest a fetishistic preoccupation with such imagery on his part, but again, that's all we know. There's no evidence that he engaged in such activities himself, or that either woman was at all interested in it.

What we do know is that, while married to Elizabeth, William began a relationship with Olive and she eventually joined their home. Sources differ on how this came together; some suggest that Olive was happily welcomed by Elizabeth, others say that there was friction over the matter. Regardless, Marston had two children with each woman. While this tells us that he had a romantic and sexual relationship with each woman, we remain fully in the dark about Elizabeth and Olive's connection beyond sharing William.

Robinson ignores this established information in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and centers the development of their triad on Elizabeth and Olive. While William is attracted to Olive from the start, the women are the key players here. Olive falls in love with Elizabeth first, and kisses her early on. Elizabeth doesn't return her affection originally, then when she finally does, it's the two of them who initiate the trio's first sexual encounter. William just shows up after to join in. The women begin the bondage play in a similar manner: William is intrigued with it to start, but it's Olive who chooses to don the tight burlesque event and Elizabeth who ties her up. While William ends up with all his fantasies fulfilled, it's only because Elizabeth and Olive are drawn to each other and let him in on it.

The mysteries of the Marstons' home life invite speculation. With so few established facts, reading between the lines is inevitable. Robinson goes a step further, not only presuming that the two women had a romantic relationship but also ignoring the few known facts about how the family came together to center them as the trio's driving force. It's a storytelling choice that is unsubstantiated and at odds with history, and calls into question the film's claim to be the "true story" of the family. These decisions go beyond speculation into outright fiction.

Robinson continues to disregard history with the family's main claim to fame, the creation of Wonder Woman. For the first two thirds of the film, one of the film's greatest strengths is the way it presents Elizabeth and Olive as remarkable, intelligent women. William even outright admits that Elizabeth is smarter than he is at one point. But when it comes to Wonder Woman, Robinson removes the women's involvement entirely.

After William, inspired by the burlesque bondage, describes his idea for "Suprema the Wonder Woman," the women scoff. He then makes an appointment with Gaines, sells the idea, and ushers the family into a new era of prosperity as the character takes off. William does all of the work, and Elizabeth and Olive are shown only as inspirations for Wonder Woman. In reality, both women were pivotal to her creation.

While William did meet with Gaines to present his comic book idea, this meeting came about because of an article written by Olive for Family Circle. Olive regularly wrote up interviews with William for the magazine, and one in which he praised the potential of the comic book industry caught Gaines' eye. He reached out to William, who ended up pitching him a new heroine, and this was because of Elizabeth. Originally, William was thinking about a male hero who would showcase the benefits of submitting to the loving authority of woman, but Elizabeth declared, "Come on, let’s have a Superwoman! There’s too many men out there." Without Elizabeth or Olive, Wonder Woman would never have existed.

Moreover, both women had spent the past decade keeping William afloat. The film shows how the family's unconventional lifestyle led to him being blacklisted in academia, but it glosses over his many failures throughout the 1930s. Before Wonder Woman, William had mounted countless endeavors, including psychological texts, a novel and advice books, Hollywood consulting, using the lie detector in advertising, and more. None succeeded. Elizabeth kept the family fed and clothed with her steady job, and Olive contributed by writing articles and running the household. After years of both women running the household while William flitted from idea to idea, he finally landed a steady gig with Wonder Woman.

On several fronts, Wonder Woman was the product of the entire triumvirate, not just William, and to reduce Elizabeth and Olive's role to nothing more than inspiration is a disservice to both women. It also takes us further from the "true story" yet again, and ultimately Professor Marston and the Wonder Women fails as an accurate account of the Marstons and the creation of Wonder Woman. It's a well-made film with charismatic leads, and there's much to recommend it, including a thoughtful depiction of polyamory and queer romance. But while the broad strokes of the story loosely resemble the truth, the litany of speculation, invention, dismissal of established details, and changes big and small add up to far more fiction than fact.

 

Weird Quick Story

Today on the site, Tim Hanley writes about the new film dramatization of the story behind the creation of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. 

On its own terms, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a very good film indeed. It begins in the mid-1920s when married psychologists William and Elizabeth encounter Olive, a student of theirs at Radcliffe College, and follows the evolution of their relationship from intrigue to lust to love. After initial trepidation, the three form a family, with each woman having two children via William. Inspired by these remarkable women, William creates Wonder Woman in 1941, and the film ends in the mid-1940s, shortly before his death. It’s an unconventional love story, and Robinson treats both the polyamorous and BDSM aspects of the relationship with respect and care. The film is sexy without being exploitative, romantic yet frank, and often boldly raw as it delves into the emotional complications of the Marstons’ life together.

Elsewhere:

Brian Nicholson writes compellingly about Connor Willumsen's Anti-Gone, which I'm looking forward to reading. Comics Workbook has a video up about it.

Ryan Holmberg sends word of The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu, an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum. Ryan is an advisor on the show and it's of course based on his books. For more Holmberg action, follow him on instagram. His handle is mangaberg. 

Excellent Leslie Stein comic this week.

Drew Friedman is the guest on the great Gilbert Gottfried's podcast. 

Finally, the Skip Williamson documentary is coming soon. Here's the trailer and one clip and now another.

 

An Interview with Kevin Pyle

Kevin Pyle has had an interesting dual career in comics. He’s been making comics like Prison Town and has contributed to World War 3 Illustrated for more than two decades. But he’s also been writing and illustrating a number of brilliant graphic novels for young adults. I first met him years ago when he was making books like Blindspot, Katman, and Take What You Can Carry, which were the subjects of our conversations. In Take What You Can Carry for example, Pyle writes about a teenage shoplifter sentenced to work for the shop owner he robbed, an older Japanese-American who grew up in an internment camp. Katman manages to meld teenage angst, Jainism, art, and animal welfare.

His most recent project is Migrant: Stories of Hope and Resilience. For a few years now, Pyle has been collaborating with writer and editor Jeffry Korgan on comics like Wage Theft, which are designed to be tools to help teach and illuminate people about social issues. Migrant is a 48 page comic printed in both English and Spanish, and a joint project with The Kino Border Initiative and Hope Border Institute, two Catholic social justice agencies. Pyle admits that the comic is educational, but he hopes that like most of his work, it’s about educating people, but it’s primarily about building empathy. Pyle continues to believe that opening people’s eyes to the truth of a situation can change hearts and minds and affect social change.

We’ve talked a few times over the years but how did you start out in comics? What were you reading when you were young that got you interested in doing this?

I didn’t actually read that many comics as a kid. I read Sgt. Rock because I was into everything World War II and I read Kirby’s Kamandi because the barber where I got my hair cut often had it so I’d buy issues to keep up with the story. I did read a lot of Mad Magazine – and a friend and I used to draw our own version called Crummy – but it wasn’t until college when I saw Raw magazine that I really started thinking about doing comics. It appealed to my own punk aesthetic at the time. Some things in the first issue I saw – number 5 – that got me really excited were Sue Coe, Pascal Doury’s Theodore Deathhead and a World War I strip by Tardi. Three very different things. My first comics were pretty absurdist, much closer to Doury than Tardi or Coe. That early stuff was printed in a xeroxed comic collection I co-edited, Hodags and Hodaddies, that came out once a month in 1990. We were the first folks to print Michael Kupperman, who did REALLY absurdist strips under the name P. Revess. We also printed a Ben Katchor piece, Indoor Cycling, which I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But that work is very different from what people might know me for – the young adult comics for Henry Holt, like Blindspot and Take What You Can Carry or the activist, journalistic things like Lab U.S.A. or Prison Town, which are also different from each other. The work I did for Henry Holt was informed by social justice ideas but not in a real upfront way. It all feels related to me but I’m not sure people see the connection, to the extent they even know my work at all.

What you’re doing in those books are telling these humanistic stories where characters are opened up to an awareness of new ideas and a larger context.

Those things were just what was floating in my mind and they found a way into the stories. In Take What You Can Carry, I was attracted to the shoplifting part of the story because I have this as my own experience with being caught shoplifting and instead of being incarcerated or having to go to juvenile court, somebody, the storeowner, decided that working in the store was a better way to approach the idea of punishment. The fact that he was Japanese and that I had a really great painting instructor in college, Roger Shimomura, who also happens to have been a child in the internment camps, sort of connected in the writing process. Those things came out of my own autobiography. I don’t close my mind to those things that I feel people should know or think more about, things that might be deemed political, but I don’t actively seek them out for those particular books either. They are themes and approaches that seem to assert themselves. I don’t know. [laughs] It’s hard to separate sometimes.

How did you end up connecting with WW3 Illustrated?

I’d seen it when I was in school in Kansas and I responded to the material. When I came to New York I lived in Williamsburg in 1988 and I sought them out. I met Scott Cunningham and some of the other WW3 folks when Scott curated a small press convention at Minor Injury gallery in Brooklyn. The work I first started doing for them was this Bertolt Brecht kind of Threepenny Opera thing, The Odious Omnivore, who would eat and crap all over everything. It was this over the top despotic capitalist, which in some ways was my idea of what should be in World War 3. It took a little while for me to decide that the journalism-based work was really more important to me. World War 3 has been really important for me in providing deadlines throughout the years and knowing I would have a place to publish material, I think, was really helpful for keeping me going.

You’ve edited and co-edited a few issues over the years.

I did a bunch of issues starting in the early '90s. I co-edited a prison issue with Scott Cunningham in ’94. I lived in Philadelphia for a while and then when I came back [to New York] I did some issues as well. I did a wordless issue with Peter [Kuper]. For a while I was the only person who could do computer production. [laughs] So I didn’t necessarily edit, but I touched every issue design-wise and I was pretty involved because nobody else knew how to do that until we got a younger generation of people in. I think we were one of the last magazines that was still doing cut and paste and visiting the printer in Queens to look at negatives. [laughs] So I’ve had a long history with them. In the next issue they’ll be printing an excerpt from Migrant. I feel very strongly connected to them even though I don’t get to edit as much as I used to.

You mentioned you edited a prison issue in the 1990s and Prison Town is about a decade old now. How did you get interested in these issues?

In some ways it has to do with the story told in Take What You Can Carry. When I got caught shoplifting, my dad had the idea that we should spend an hour or two in the jail before we left. [laughs] That experience may have made me think about those issues as I feel I’ve been pretty aware of my own white privilege and what the influence of that on my own trajectory was versus what it might have been for someone else under different economic and racial circumstances. It’s something I was always aware of. A theme that runs through all my work is that of the individual versus society and the I think prison is the ultimate expression of that. Lab USA gets at that. Society has certain rules they need to enforce and they do it in a very clumsy manner – at times in a very unfair manner. How individuals get ground up by institutions has been a focus of a lot of my work and I think prison is a real expression of that.

I would also say that a driving force of a lot of my political work is the belief in the goodness of people. If they know the situation, if they know the abuses of the system, they will actually do something to change it. People do that. I think one of the problems with prisons is how people don’t want to think about these things and they push it out of their heads. I think comics have a unique way of engaging people and reaching people on these difficult issues. Somewhere along the lines I came across this idea that for a certain segment of the population, racism is a failure of imagination. A failure to really be able to understand and empathize with the experiences of people different than oneself. Some of this work is about trying to visualize that. Especially in Migrant we’re trying to connect people to people on a basic human level.

You mentioned when we were setting this up that Migrant and Wage Theft came about through your friend Jeff Korgen who wrote the books. How did you two connect?

I met Jeffry at a party. He asked, so what do you do, and I said, I do comics. He said, I love comics, are you Marvel or DC!? I’m like, well, that’s not really the type of comic I do. I’m doing comics about social justice issues. He said, I love social justice! I’m a big social justice Catholic! He was writing books about globalization and I talked to him about Prison Town, and how successful that had been as an outreach tool. Months later he reached out and said, I have this great idea. He had written nonfiction and he said, I would love to try my hand at writing comics and there are these progressive Catholic organizations that are interested in getting these issues out in front of people. So these projects really came out of his being inspired by Prison Time and by that model. This idea that this tool may be more effective than pamphlets and policy papers and things like that.

I thought Wage Theft would be a one time thing, but our partnership has been an ongoing project. He raises the funding so we can go to places like Houston and interview people who were victims of wage theft or to Arkansas to talk with people working in the meat processing plant about health and safety issues. Most recently in Migrant we were down in Juarez and Nogales with these very dedicated social justice activist groups who are helping asylum seekers and recently deported people. To sit down with the people trying to escape violence in El Salvador and Guatemala and hear their stories is such a powerful experience. The process has been really fascinating and it gives me a real sense of responsibility to produce these comics. The way these comics get used by these activist groups in some ways really reaches that World War 3 ideal of trying to have art function in this activist way. These projects have been very satisfying on that level.

As an artist and a storyteller, this is a short project, it’s supposed to be straightforward, it’s going to be translated. You’re not a really experimental artist but you do have to simplify in a project like this.

In some ways it’s helpful that I have a cowriter. Jeff writes the first draft and he’s very good at thinking about what information we really want the potential reader for these to get. It can be very challenging to get all the important aspects included in a 24 page comic. We really want to expand Migrant and try to have another shot at this material because the page limit and the demands of the project do limit your storytelling possibilities quite a bit. Even though they’re pretty straightforward stories, one thing that really excited me about Katman and Take What You Can Carry and Blindspot was the formal experimentation that I could do with color and different styles or interweaving stories. You do have to give that up for something like this. I think if we get to expand Migrant we can do some different storytelling. It’s also frustrating to do so many interviews and have so much great material and have to boil it down to such brief storytelling.

You and Jeffry went to Juarez and Nogales and talked with migrants and activists and this was a very involved project.

It was. We interviewed close to thirty or more people in shelters, soup kitchens and community centers on both sides of the border. Plus Dreamers and the activists themselves. We also saw this very surreal yet to be occupied processing center on the border forty miles out of El Paso. It was all made out of huge convention tents and they had clothes and shoes for the families that would be there. We were there with a bunch of advocacy groups and there were military people video taping us as we walked around. It had a very creepy X-Files vibe. On another afternoon in Juarez we had to cancel some interviews because there was a bunch of shooting in the area.  So my own inclination would maybe be to try to tell these stories the way Joe Sacco might or the way Sarah Glidden did, where part of the story is where you’re in it, but that’s not really the intention of this project. With Migrant we had to make a lot of decisions to tell stories that would explain the human dimensions of what’s going on down there and what these people are experiencing rather than talking too deeply about the experience or current policy that might change before the comic came out. Comics done in partnership with multiple activist partners can not be as agile and quick as one would like. [laughs] I was able to get it out in two months but things are changing so quickly. We did our interviews right after Trump was elected but before he was inaugurated so it’s very difficult to know what the effect is really going to be. Also the way this administration makes pronouncements or memos but then it’s never really codified into official policy makes it difficult to report on. It’s very difficult to know what’s actually happening right now. Especially in places like the detention centers, most of which are privately run. We really won’t know what’s happening in them for a little while. It’ll take a little while to separate fact from fiction and fact from anecdote. The groups down there know what’s happening, but what’s happening in one instance is different from what is the actual policy.

And as you make clear, there are a lot of unwritten rules and gray areas and it’s hard to know what the policy is in practical terms.

When I was doing work about the prison system I would talk to prison activists and they would talk about how there are black and white rules, but then a bunch of rules aren’t enforced regularly. Their belief is that the reason the prison doesn’t enforce them is because then they become a coercive tool. Because when you do enforce them you have some power. The things that are unwritten and left un-codified give much more wiggle room for doing whatever the hell you want. Or, keeping the people who are affected by these policies off guard so they don’t really know what’s happening. This is true in with the immigration issue as well.There’s a huge climate of fear especially among the dreamer kids who were brought here at five or eight years old and don’t really have any memory of living elsewhere. They are living right now under such a shadow of fear because tomorrow they could get rounded up and be sent somewhere where they don’t know anyone or even speak the language. Plus, under DACE, they gave all their information to the government. 

The comic is mostly people’s stories. What was the initial plan that you and Jeffry had when you went down.

We made a list of issues that we really wanted to focus on – and that list was much bigger than we could totally approach in the comic – but it was our guide for editing what came up in the interviews. Except for some of the history and policy stuff, almost every word balloon comes from an interview text. The content was very much driven by what we got from the interviews. Then there also were touchstones. We wanted to explain what happens when you get picked up at the border, and what are the two or three possibilities of where you may end up. Or how the population of people crossing the border has changed. At one point it was economic migrants who by policy were encouraged to come and go freely because their labor was needed, whereas now it is primarily asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America. There were elements like that, basic things we thought the uninitiated reader should know about what the situation is. That also formulated our questions that we would ask of the different people we interviewed.

I know something about this but then I read things in Migrant like how ICE is required to have a certain number of detention beds, and most of it is private prisons.

It’s interesting because that’s the stuff I get really excited about. I get excited about all of it, but I do think there are policy things like that which are really unbelievable and illuminating which should be included. The bed quota came up in trying to explain how the detention system works and how it intersects with the profit motive.That whole flow chart was interesting because when we were talking to activist groups down there they said “we want something about all the places where you might go when you get picked up because we can barely keep track of it ourselves.” It was only two pages, but it was surprisingly hard to really pin it down in a way that would come across to the reader because it’s very complicated. That’s one of the things that probably has changed. Certainly in terms of numbers.

We were talking about simplifying and I hate thinking of these comics as “educational” but they are tools.

Yes, but I do hope that one of the results of the comic is that by seeing the human faces of the people affected by this and hearing their stories, that the reader feels a little bit of what it would be like to be this kid Ricardo who’s fourteen years old and travels all the way up from El Salvador with his little brother and what it’s like to be reunited with his mom. Or the mom who can’t see her daughter because she’s been deported after living in America for years but her daughter is a citizen and needs to be in America for her health treatment. It’s educational, but I hope it’s more empathy building.

Not just a name or quotation in a news story but a face and a story.

Exactly. Any of these stories could have been five pages longer. If we can get a publisher for a larger book we’ll be able to expand some of these stories. There is a push and pull between the details that you sometimes have to leave out because you’ve only got five or six panels, but sometimes it’s the details connect people to someone.

You put Migrant together in collaboration with two NGO’s. What was that like?

We sent them everything and their only feedback was, is the stuff accurate? They were really comfortable with the way we told the story, but they were indispensable to the process. They set up the interviews. One of the groups we worked with, Kino Border Initiative, have a comedor which is right across the border in Nogales. People who were just recently deported get dropped off across the border and they might not even be from Nogales. In fact there’s a policy that they try to drop people off in a different place from where they came from to discourage re-crossing. There’s an idea that it may break up criminal networks that way, but a lot of people don’t have knowledge as to how to get back right away or have any way to connect with family because they’re in a completely different place. So these people were dropped off or maybe they were trying to cross and they were in the desert for four days and they come to this comedor to get a meal and a place to sleep. These activist groups have established trust with them and I’m sure we would not have been able to achieve this without those institutions and that trust that they’re already established to interview these different folks and to have access to them. They were indispensable in that sense. I wouldn’t say they in any way shaped the narrative except from the stand point of saying it would be good to mention this and that would make the piece more accurate. Things like that.

What is their plan for how they’re going to use the comic?

One of the organizations, Kino, is going to be using it in Jesuit high schools as a way to get their students to better understand the scope of what’s going on there. Hope Border Institute is in some ways the conduit to other organizations. A lot of college groups will come down to the border to really understand what’s happening and this will be given to them as something to take back. There were some UCLA students down there that we walked with around the area of the desert where people cross near Nogales and their excitement about the idea of this comic was palpable. They were excited about that as a strategy compared to other approaches. NPR in Arizona did a story on it. The novelty of it being a comic, those of us in the graphic novel world are tired of that angle on a story, but in this context it’s very helpful. It gives local news outlets another way to talk about this issue. One of the hardest things for these activist groups is getting people to continue to focus on these issues and so this is another hook that helps them stay out there and engage with the media.

Where did the idea of ending with the posada come from?

That came from my co-writer, Jeffry Korgen, who as I said is a social justice Catholic, and these two groups we worked with are Catholic. The majority of people crossing the border from Central and South America are Catholic, or at least a large amount of them. We were in Nogales when they did this posada. The posada is a traditional Mexican ceremony but down in Nogales they’ve tied it to the experience of the migrant, which is a perfect metaphor that’s awful hard to ignore. Given who the targeted group of people is and who the activist organizations are it seemed like a good ending as a way to hit that metaphor home.

It ends perfectly but I can’t help but think that it’s not a story you would not have necessarily happened upon if you were working with a secular group.

That’s true. But these are powerful stories and they have a long history and it’s interesting to make that connection. I think it’s a great connection to make. The best stories are sometimes the ones you find by accident.

Migrant came out a few months ago?

It came out in late May but Jeff and I are going to try and do some events in the fall to give it another push. It’s so pressing at the moment and we want people to connect to it. The activist groups have their uses for it and that’s ongoing. It’s interesting too because I feel like they just have so much on their plate currently because so many things are changing so quickly. Situations that they haven’t had to deal with in the past. For instance there’s a group down there, Humane Borders that’s mentioned in the comic that has had an aid station in the desert for I don’t know how long, helping people lost in the desert, providing medical help. Recently ICE for the first time ever raided the emergency station. It’s always been left alone under the international human rights idea that medical care is sort of a base level of humanity. It was raided and they had to shut down. Situations like that which have never happened before are happening and so I’m not sure how much the groups down there have been using [the comic] but I don’t think they can push it as much as Jeff and I can at this point. So we’re hoping to get it out there.

And hoping to start on a bigger book around these issues and stories.

We are working on proposals to expand the project. There are a lot of environmental issues down there. The fact that down in Nogales you’ve got the Native American reservation and they have their own ideas about what should be done with their border and what kinds of conflicts that could cause. Also updating what is now happening with ICE. The privatization of detention centers, the expanded raids and more aggressive tactics like picking up people in court etc. Things like that need a real spotlight on them. I think the idea for the larger project is it would be more a portrait of the border. All of this material would find its way in there and all the research we’ve done, but also a portrait of the place. Artistically I’ve always drawn a lot on a sense of place for my own work so I’m excited about approaching the material form that standpoint. It’s such an evocative place.

 

Warp

Today on the site, Alex Dueben talks to Kevin Pyle.

You mentioned you edited a prison issue [of WWIII Illustrated] in the 1990s and Prison Town is about a decade old now. How did you get interested in these issues?

In some ways it has to do with the story told in Take What You Can Carry. When I got caught shoplifting, my dad had the idea that we should spend an hour or two in the jail before we left. [laughs] That experience may have made me think about those issues as I feel I’ve been pretty aware of my own white privilege and what the influence of that on my own trajectory was versus what it might have been for someone else under different economic and racial circumstances. It’s something I was always aware of. A theme that runs through all my work is that of the individual versus society and the I think prison is the ultimate expression of that. Lab USA gets at that. Society has certain rules they need to enforce and they do it in a very clumsy manner – at times in a very unfair manner. How individuals get ground up by institutions has been a focus of a lot of my work and I think prison is a real expression of that.


Meanwhile, elsewhere, sickness and other emergencies are making this a short one:

The incredibly destructive California wildfires have affected many in the cartooning community, and burnt down the home of Charles Schulz.

Brian Fies has drawn a comic about the fires.

Douglas Wolk is still insane.