Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How Captain Marvel Converted Me To Superhero Comics

While I've always been an unabashed comic nerd, before I met Mr. Reluctant Femme I didn't read superhero comics. They were just not a thing I read. I had stacks of comics, but none of them anything remotely superhero related. Well, okay, there was the occasional exception; I did read X-Men, mostly because of my deep, long held, ferociously intense crush on Wolverine. But apart from that, I simply wasn't interested. I never got the impression from the outside that there was anything in superhero comics for me, as a woman. It all looked like bulging biceps and pert female buttocks twisted in biologically improbable ways, with plots so ludicrous they're barely comprehensible even to the hardcore fans. I mean, just look at this summary of Infinite Crisis, a recent superhero "event" story. Superboy punches the universe so hard it shatters. Seriously. That is a thing that they wrote and which we were expected to take seriously. Why would I spend my money on things like that when well written, beautiful books like The Sandman existed? Why would I read about a guy with a magic ring that makes stuff from the "emotion" of willpower when books like Tank Girl are just as ludicrous, but WAY more fun? 

Lawd, I love Tank Girl. It's such wonderful, magnificent, unashamed nonsense.
This wasn't something anyone ever saw as any sort of problem until I got together with Mr. Reluctant Femme, who is possibly one of the most devoted Batfans on the planet. He loves superhero comics. He recognises that a lot of them have some really super serious issues, but he loves them all the same, and as we fell in love, he started wanting to share the things he loved with me. Slowly, in that gentle but persistent way that you can only really pull off with someone you're sleeping with on the regular, Mr. Reluctant Femme eased me into the world of superheroes. A little Batman here, a little Avengers there, some selected cartoons just to round out the experience, and I slowly realised that there might be some gold hidden under the morass of "Hulk In Space" and "Robin Hood But Green" after all. 

Of all the superheroes, I was least against Batman, so he started there, Obviously, being a complete Batobsessive, he knew what ones would reel me in. He subtly nudged me to give the Batman Black and White series a try, since it was the one most similar to the indie comics I preferred, and kept travesties like Red Rain (Batman does Dracula, I'm not even joking) at the bottom of the pile. Once I'd finished those, I conceded that they were actually kind of okay, but complained about the lack of women in the Batverse. So he handed me Ed Brubaker's wonderful Catwoman run, which I powered through in a matter of days. The way Brubaker portrayed Catwoman was so different to how I'd seen her previously; so strong, smart, and capable. And miracle of miracles, she wore FLAT SHOES. I don't know why it bothers me so much more than everything else about the portrayal of women in superhero comics, but women trying to fight in stiletto heels just ticks me right off. But here was a strong, interesting, sexy woman stealing loot and having adventures in biker boots! Amazing! 

Darwyn Cooke did the costume design for this particular run of Catwoman, and I think
he's MAGICAL. 
The first tiny stirrings of a hero fandom began to rustle around in the back of my mind, but I still didn't think of myself as someone who REALLY read superhero comics. Not REALLY. I mean, I went and made a classic 60's Catwoman cosplay, but I wasn't REALLY a superhero fan. Batwoman was taken out of mothballs, and given a beautiful new book to lead, and after picking it up on a friend's recommendation I felt further fandom stirrings - once again for a woman fighting in flat shoes. As with the Brubaker run of Catwoman, the combination of great characterisation and beautiful art suckered me right in past my preconceptions of superhero comics in general. 

Apart from their shoes, both these books starred women who weren't defined by heterosexual romantic relationships. While Catwoman writers often spend an almost creepy amount of time obsessing about her apparent relationship with Batman, Brubaker's run cut all that crap out and let Selina Kyle be a character in her own right for once. And Batwoman...well, her alter ego, Kathy Kane is gay, so heterosexual romance isn't so much part of her characterisation either. I'd never seen women allowed to be so...well, free in superhero comics before. There have always been tons of female characters in books like X-Men - it's one of the reasons I'd made an exception to read them. But they're always involved in some nonsense love triangle rubbish. Rouge is in love with Wolverine, who's in love with Jean Grey, who's in love with Scott Summers...none of the women are allowed plotlines that don't involve the male characters. Apart that time all the female X-Men went shopping at an LA mall, of course, but that particular episode is much better left forgotten.

Ha ha! Girls like makeup, right? That's a girl thing?

But as much as I blathered about how great Batwoman was to anyone who would listen, and how Catwoman really was pretty great with the right writers, and while I was actually reading quite a few superhero comics, I was still resisting. It still wasn't something I really wanted to stand up and announce that I was a part of. There was still too much I was uncomfortable with, too few exceptions to the rules of boobs and butts on every panel. And then came Captain Marvel. 


To be clear, I'm talking here about the wonderful book starring Carol Danvers, who is also Captain Marvel, that is currently being written by the enormously talented Kelly de Connick. You see, I have to be specific to be clear when talking about Captain Marvel, because there are approximately fifty billion other characters also named Captain Marvel, for reasons Mr. Reluctant Femme sums up very eloquently here. Captain Marvel is the kind of character I usually stay away from at all costs - it's been rebooted, rewritten, moved around, chopped up and pasted back together again so many times that none of it makes a lick of sense anymore. But two things convinced me to give it a try - firstly, I'd heard excellent things from people I trusted, and had been told it was more or less a clean reboot, so I wouldn't have to touch any of the past bullshit. Secondly, look at that costume. Jamie McKelvie was responsible for the costume redesign, and while I knew he drew great clothes for women (his work on Phonogram is basically fashion porn) the brilliance of this design still blows me away. Just fucking look at it. Look at the beautiful, clean, perfectly put together design! Look at the tasteful little button accents that create a visual hook to the character's military background! The sash draped across her hips to add a little feminine flair! LOOK AT THOSE FLAT SHOES!

From the very first page, I was so glad I took a chance on Ms. Danvers. Firstly, miracle of miracles, she's single and not looking. She's smart, and no-nonsense, but she's also really witty and funny as well. She's strong and physically capable, but also still quite femme. While she can probably toss things around just as capably as The Hulk, she's still written with a certain softness, and a little of the traditionally feminine, without being too "girly". This is an enormously difficult balance to pull off, but DeConnick manages to make it look easy. Finally, someone has created a superhero that I actually really, (quite desperately) want to be! While I love Catwoman and Batwoman, neither of them are really what you'd call role models as such. But Carol Danvers is a character I would want any daughters I might possibly have one day to know, and look up to. I think a lot of women dream of having incredible strength, while still remaining relatable and approachable. It doesn't seem like an option that's on the table for us a lot of the time, in the reality we live in. Too often, women are given just two options; being strong, and inevitably being perceived as scary or overly aggressive; or we have the option to be weak, meek, and beloved. But Carol Danvers is portrayed as being strong, assertive, AND beloved - and I like to think it's planting the seeds of a possible third option for more women one day. 

And now...now, I'm in. I've finally found a superhero I can unreservedly get right behind and just love the shit out of. Captain Marvel is written by a woman, about a woman, for a fanbase of largely women - it's everything I thought I'd never see in a superhero comic, all in the one place. Also, she punches dinosaurs, and it's AWESOME.

 I am officially, wholeheartedly in. I'm following the Carol Corps fanclub on Tumblr, I'm making Captain Marvel pendants, I'm even considering breaking a lifetime of insistence that I will never read comics digitally just so I don't have to trade wait for more Captain Marvel awesomeness. I am a person who reads superhero comics, thanks to Ms. Danvers. I am now a proper superhero comics fan - and I think I'm okay with that. 

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