It has often been observed how malleable a character Batman is. Over the past several decades he has found himself equally at home busting the heads of petty street criminals and out-witting cosmic menaces with (new) god-like powers. What unities such diverse plots is a common interest in the humanity of the hero. The tone of the narrative might emphasize oppressive bleakness or optimistic redemption, yet what all the best Bat-stories have in common is an interest in who the man is beneath the cowl. This is true of the movies as well; for example, Christopher Nolan’s masterful Bat-trilogy is as, arguably more, concerned with Bruce Wayne than it is with Batman. In many ways, The LEGO Batman Movie liberally skewers the melancholy tone of Nolan’s films, while sharing with them an interest in the hero’s personality. Amidst the bonanza of gags, Chris McKay’s new film has something to say about Batman’s character.
As superheroes continue to win massive profits at the box office and graphic novels strengthen their literary credentials, the amount of comic book adaptation increase in turn. This year’s crowded slate kicks off on Friday with The LEGO Batman Movie. While the majority of these projects remain dominated by capes and tights, there is some cursory interest in exploring other aspects of the medium. What follows is an overview of 2017’s offerings loosely ranked by level of interest.
2016 might have witnessed a fair amount of upheaval, but one thing remained constant: Hollywood’s love of superheroes is as strong as ever. While DC sat out 2015, Marvel saw three of their properties in theaters; this year The Big Two had six combined. Next year that will edge up to seven. In addition, geek-favorite franchises Star Trek and Star Wars continued their multi-year missions through galaxies far, far away. Almost all of them raked the ticket sales (analysists were divided on whether Star Trek Beyond fell short of breaking even or turned a modest profit). Either way, neither profit margins nor quantity of films produced equal quality. 2016 was a very mixed year in terms of artistic merit, as fans could be forgiven for experiencing whiplash when trying to create a double bill for some of these movies. Some films excelled by being able to break new ground, while others entertained with well-executed tried and true formulas. Some were an utter mess (and not simply in their murky CGI sequences). It could have been worse; viewers were denied anything quite as terrible as last year’s Fantastic Four. Then again, that is placing the bar quite low.
As December continues along its merry way here is another glance back over the past 12 months, this time in the form of comics covers. As in recent years, 2016 saw a variety of talented artists working in a broad range of styles. Whittling down the list, as always, is a bit a difficult, but that is how it should be. Tough choices only serve as a reminder of how much great material is being published these days.
The weather might suggest otherwise, but December has arrived and with it the inevitable year’s end lists. Luckily, at Nothing But Comics, we’re quite fond of year’s end lists. Our first group Top Ten will arrive tomorrow, but first I offer up my annual look back at some of the most memorable character from 2016.
All entries are listed alphabetically. For simplicity sake, characters without code names are listed by first name.
On October 21st, the United Nations named Wonder Woman their honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Diana was cited for her decades long commitment to “justice, peace and equality,” all virtues which have defined the character since her 1941 debut. DC and their parent company Warner Brothers proudly celebrated the UN’s distinction, rolling the ceremony at the United Nations headquarters into another segment of their ongoing commemoration of Diana’s 75th Anniversary this year and promotion for her first solo film in 2017. Wonder Women past and present, Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot, were prominently featured at the festivities. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins attended, as did DC artist/executive Jim Lee. Noticeably absent though were any decedents of Wonder Woman creators William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter. The lack of acknowledgement for their pioneering work should not come as surprise given DC’s decidedly mixed track record honoring their legacy.
However, there were more controversies roiling the halls than The Big Two’s continued stumbles with acknowledging creators and their families. Many criticized the organization’s choice of a fictional character to represent gender equality. Such a choice is not without precedent, as in the past Winnie the Pooh was chosen as ambassador of friendship, Red from Angry Birds ambassador of happiness and, in something that sounds like a rejected Grant Morrison Animal Man pitch, Tinker Bell ambassador of “green.” The more substantive compliant was leveled at Wonder Woman herself and whether her idealized figure was counterproductive in bolstering female self-esteem. Body image issues have long been a problem for the comics industry; anyone reading comics in the 90s could easily see how little effort it took to leap over the line dividing empowerment from objectification. In recent years, publishers have become more attentive to such concerns, as the voices of female fans and creators have grown stronger. Yet, the question remains: in a cultural moment marred by virulent sexism and rising teenage girl suicide rates, is a super-powered, sometimes demigod, heroine with a supermodel-like figure really the best role model? Does her appearance undercut those values she strives so hard to achieve? As is often the case with Wonder Woman, the best answer is found within the work of her creators.
“The next 100 years will see the beginning of an American matriarchy—a nation of amazons in the psychological rather than the physical sense. In 500 years, there will be a serious sex battle. And in 1,000 years women will definitely rule this country.”
-William Moulton Marston, 1937
William Moulton Marston was never one to shy away from publicity; indeed he reveled in it. In 1937 he held a two hour press conference during which he elaborated on his theories concerning the inevitably of an American matriarchy. He must have sounded convincing as a Los Angeles Times headline claimed “Feminine Rule Declared Fact.” All this hub-bub was to promote the release of his new book Try Living, in which he stated the secret to happiness was doing something you love. According to the Times, he offered up six individuals as exemplars for his theory. Ranking them in order of importance, he held Margaret Sanger as #2, right above the current president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (For those playing along at home the first was Henry Ford, a reminder that Marston’s egalitarian views sadly did not extend to racial issues). Still, sweeping away the pseudo-psychological language Marston was so fond of, he was not entirely out on a limb on this matter. The changing role of women in society (what used to be called “The Woman Question”) was a serious political topic. Louis Howe, secretary to President Roosevelt, wrote that the election of a female president was a definite possibility at present, not in some distant future. Howe may have crouched his opinion in more cautious statements than Marston’s grand speechifying, but they were both speaking of the same cultural trends. In an era of Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt, surely women could only expect further improvements in their status?
“American political discourse. The wisdom of the bumper sticker. The eloquence of a toe in the eye and a knuckle up the nostril.”
–Foolkiller #8, Steve Gerber
Ever had one of those bad days when the slightest annoyance enrages? Someone steps on your toe and suddenly they become the embodiment of everything you hate. You want to scream at them, throttle them. Many of us might do the former, while only imaging the latter. It is natural after all, steam blowing off and all that. Eventually perspective returns. However, those violent urges never entirely dissipate. Violence is woven into humans’ DNA; it is a piece of our heritage in being a member of the animal kingdom. Living in society, though, teaches how those impulses can be held in check. At the same time, culture can send quite mixed messages on the subject. Media representations of violence were one of the reoccurring concerns of writer Steve Gerber, who often satirized what he viewed as lax attitudes on the subject. His early 90s series Foolkiller, goes beyond Howard the Duck’s humorous ribbing, offering instead a searing indictment of an ailing body politic and the madman it produces. It is a compelling examination of how far down the rabbit role one man might descend when he accepts the task of cleansing the nation of fools. It is also one of Gerber’s masterpieces.
Two issues in,Animosity is proving to be one of the most original debuts of the year. The AfterShock series takes place on an Earth where animals suddenly gain sentience. Naturally, confusion leads to violence which only ratchets up the narrative’s tension. However, there is more to the title than a tale of animal resentment run amok. Writer Marguerite Bennett, along with artist Rafael De Latorre, are crafting a nuanced portrait of humans’ relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. At New York Comic Con, I had the chance to speak with Bennett about the series.