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.
On Friday at New York Comic Con, Marvel held a panel observing the 50th Anniversary of Black Panther. Created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52. Lee and Kirby were at the height of their collaboration at this moment, having just wrapped a string of stories introducing iconic figures such as the Inhumans, Galactus and Silver Surfer. The issue prior (#51) told the classic tale “This Man . . . This Monster!” Given this high level of quality, it is hardly surprising that they would not miss a beat when premiering The Big Two’s first black superhero. Two years later, Roy Thomas added the Panther to the ranks of The Avengers just in time for T’Challa to share Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ initial encounters with Ultron and The Vision.
Despite their canonical status, the NYCC panel was mostly silent on these earliest Black Panther stories. Instead, they cited the work of writer Don McGregor as the foundational Black Panther tales. In the early 70s, Marvel launched Jungle Action as a low-profile series reprinting old adventure stories from the 1950s. However, much had changed in America since the 50s and McGregor found much of these stories racially offensive. (A cursory glance at the initial covers suggests that these narratives revolved around a generic Tarzan type rescuing a fearful white woman from all sorts of rampaging jungle beasts). Eventually editorial grew tired of McGregor’s complaining and assigned him the task of writing new scripts for the series. As McGregor explained, “jungle books didn’t sell, so what did they have to lose? They could simply cancel the series and say ‘hey we tried.’” Then in the tradition of Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and other creators reviving moribund properties, McGregor refashioned Jungle Action into something iconic.
Previously I discussed the short-lived, though fascinating career of the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Ragman. For several years after Crisis reshaped the DC Universe, Ragman was absent from comic book pages. Given his failure to ever gain much traction with fans, this was hardly surprising. However, in 1991 DC decided the time was right to revisit Rory Regan, handing the assignment to a pair of established writers: Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming. Together they would radically rework aspects of co-creators Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s original concept, broadening the scope of who Ragman is without losing Ragman’s essence as the avenger of the least fortunate.
As with their political counterparts, big-name comic conventions are increasingly morphing into stage managed infomercials, at least, when it comes to generating actual “news”. Major announcements are often made in the days leading up to the con or hinted at so strongly that the actual confirmation seems after the fact. For example, at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, it was nice to have Brie Larson officially named as Marvel Studio’s Captain Marvel, yet it was hardly a shock, as its possibility had been finely debated by fans weeks earlier. One surprise, though, was the news that Arrow would be adding Ragman to its cast of characters in the upcoming season. Not simply for a one episode gig either, but a reoccurring role in the show. Now this was something. Ragman has hardly seemed to be on DC’s radar lately, let alone the writing rooms’ of the CW. Still, for longtime fans of the character, it was welcome news. While Ragman has never broken through to the forefront of popularity, he occupies his own fascinating corner of the DCU.
To observe that “war is hell” is so commonplace now, it has pretty much passed into the realm of tired cliché. It does not help that its sentiment is often cited equally by doves and hawks, the latter extolling the visceral virtue of combat. Violence is a difficult subject to represent, as even the most seemingly clear-cut anti-violence message can be twisted into something laudatory (as Stanley Kubrick was repulsed to discover with A Clockwork Orange). Indeed, there is a line of thought which states that all war films, regardless of intentions, are ultimately pro-war, as it is impossible to put combat on screen without glamorizing it. (This reviewer would extend such analysis to many supposedly “moralistic” gangster movies). For his new graphic novel Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, Dave McKean successfully avoids many of these pitfalls. He accomplishes this by almost entirely skipping the battlefield sequences, concentrating instead of the more intimate emotional toll of warfare for the fallen and survivor alike. The result is a moving mediation on the true cost of war.
Before Grant Morrison led readers on a trip across DC’s Multiversity, before he guided Animal Man through the wastelands of Character Limbo, before DC hit the reset button of Crisis on Infinite Earths in the first place, there was Ambush Bug. In 1985, DC published a four issue mini-series starring the absurd hero of the same name co-written by Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming and illustrated by Giffen. The series is a wacky, almost surreal dance through the current state of DC continuity. Along the way, Giffen and Fleming find plenty of targets for ridicule, while at the same time celebrating the silliness that is superhero comics. Does some of it get too silly? Perhaps, yet, in the same spirit of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there is an anarchic spirit which enlivens the books, rendering nearly every page of it inspired fun.