Showing posts with label superheroes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label superheroes. Show all posts

Monday, July 14, 2014

Power Girl vs. the Slut-shamers of Skiffydom: on cosplay and feminist pulchriphobia

My first love had large breasts. Barbara was rich—her parents lived on the Riviera with at least three servants—and breast size often has class implications and always has fashion implications. In the early '70s, fashionable rich women did not have large breasts. Barbara got comments about her breasts from men and women, which made her extremely self-conscious. The hardest part for her was the disapproval of her mother, a small-breasted woman who had been a model as well as an athlete. Barbara wore loose tops and slouched, which only made her mother criticize her posture and sloppy clothes.

Now, Barbara's breasts were not gigantic. They were Playboy in the 1960s large. If she had been middle class, and especially if she had been poor, she might very well have been proud of them. She might have modeled for Playboy—she looked remarkably like Barbi Benton, a Playboy model who was popular when I was fifteen.

To be a perfect daughter and to become innocuously attractive rather than conspicuously attractive, Barbara had breast reduction surgery. Among the risks were losing sensitivity and the ability to breastfeed. When she told me that, I cried, which I say as a man who was brought up believing men should not cry, so, to this day, I very, very rarely give way to tears. But a woman who I loved hated her body so much that she was willing to accept those risks in the hope of ending her torment.

The surgery did what she hoped. Aesthetically, I can't say I preferred her larger or her smaller breasts—I've always been more of a leg and butt man. She seemed to be happier, so I was happy for her, but I've always been sorry that she felt she had to change something that was fine in order to escape the attention of petty, petty people.

Which, I suspect, is the oddest introduction ever to a discussion of Power Girl.

On DC Comics' primary Earth, Superman's cousin is Supergirl, who modeled herself after him. But on the parallel Earth called Earth 2, his cousin chose to make her own identity, so she named herself Power Girl and wore a costume with different colors. Most notably, Superman has a logo, and Power Girl has none.

What she has where a logo might be has many names, including boob window. It's an ancient fashion choice, as noted at Main/Cleavage Window - Television Tropes & Idioms. The subset of feminist fans who believe women should not expose their bodies hate Power Girl's costume. But many cosplayers love it. There are two reasons:

Purely visually, it's a great costume. It's simple and striking. DC periodically tries to update it, but the updates are either too busy or too boring, and the character reverts to her classic red, white, and blue with bare legs and a boob window.

For large breasted women, Power Girl's costume is empowering. I'm not sure when I first noticed that many large-breasted women enjoy cleavage, but I especially noticed it at Renaissance Festivals and the Single Action Shooting Society.


So when Io9 took on the subject in a couple of posts, I took part in the comments. At What's The Most Embarrassing Superhero Costume Ever Designed?, I said in response to someone's complaint about Power Girl's high heels, "If you can fly, your heels can be anything you want them to be."

At Why Must Dudes Ruin Perfectly Good Superheroine and Action Franchises with Their Requests for Diversity?, I said:
Mocking Power Girl's costume always makes me wonder: Aren't you slut-shaming the cosplayers who choose that costume?
Someone said Power Girl's costume is seen as "attention seeking", so I shared a video by Ardella, a cosplayer who has played Power Girl:

When DoILookLikeCharlieBrown?! asked "What does wearing a revealing costume have to do with being a slut?", I replied:
Women who are slut-shamed are often shamed for wearing revealing clothes. Wikipedia's definition includes "Some examples of circumstances where women are "slut-shamed" include: violating accepted dress codes by dressing in sexually provocative ways..." People who tell women to dress conservatively to avoid being raped are often accused of slut-shaming, and I think the charge is valid. We all should be free to dress as we please.
DoILookLikeCharlieBrown?! suggested, "it is possible to critique clothes without slut-shaming."

I asked, "Okay, help me out here: shaming women for showing cleavage is slut-shaming, except when they're wearing a Power Girl costume?"

Clearing Things Up said,
There's a difference between shaming a woman for wearing revealing clothing, and critiquing an artist for choosing to portray a character in clothing that is sexualized for it's own sake.
The women cosplaying should absolutely be allowed to make their costume and wear it without feeling uncomfortable or attacked in any way.
The original character, however, was created by a team of male artists and writers, ultimately to sell comics.
The critique is not directed at the women who like the character and choose to dress as her. It is directed at the creators and the comics industry that make the revealing clothing and unrealistic poses (to name a few of the issues) the norm.
I said,
You're erasing the women who are choosing to wear the clothes. Isn't that like a slut-shamer telling women who are being slut-shamed that it's not those women who are being shamed, it's only the people who designed their clothes?
Kovitlac said,
They didn't design the costume, ergo, mocking the original design doesn't just automatically mock them. It's the same thing with any other artist. I can make fun of how ridiculous the general design of Power Girl is, but still recognize that someone drawing her can be an excellent artist.
No one is shaming cosplayers (or traditional artists, or what-have-you) for liking the character. We're more shaming the original designer, for coming up with something so ridiculous.
I asked,
if someone says you look like a slut in a short skirt, are they only mocking the person who made the short skirt?
Kovitlac said,
We're not talking about 'a short skirt', here. We're talking about a character's entire design. And pointing out the obvious flaws in such a design (or 'mocking' it) isn't at all the same as making fun of people who wear it.
No one here, that I know of, is saying to cosplayers, "You look like a slut in that outfit," so I fail to see why you're bothering to ask me that in the first place. Regardless of how I feel about the costume itself, I'd never say that to anyone. It's not only insulting (because you know nothing about them, personally), but it's slut-shaming, which I don't do. Last I checked, having a lot of sex wasn't a crime, so why would I try to insult someone with it?
I said,
The issue with Power Girl seems to be the boob window, an ancient element of women's fashion and hardly unique to her. Otherwise, her costumes aren't more revealing than Wonder Woman's or the original Robin's or the Green Turtle's. Power Girl's invulnerable, so there's no practical reason why she shouldn't show as much skin as she wants to.
I have no idea what your favorite items of clothing are, but let's stick with short skirts: If someone mocks short skirts, aren't they also mocking the people who choose to wear them? If someone mocks a band, aren't they also mocking the people who like to listen to it? The people who don't like Power Girl's costume have a right not to, of course, just as prudes have a right not to like short skirts, but it seems to me you're either on the side of modest clothing or you think people should be able to expose whatever they want to expose. If you haven't listened to it already, I recommend the video by the cosplayer that I included earlier in this discussion. 
Kovitlac said,
Women should absolutely be able to wear what they want. Real, live women. Here, we're talking about a character (created by men) who was clearly not intended to be a beacon of power and inspiration to women, but a typical sexy, barely clothed chick for men. If a Real Live woman decided to wear something like this, fine. She's making her own choice. Power Girl is not a Real Life Woman - she's a creation, and she looks the way her creators intended her to look.
That is why making such comparisons to the real world is pointless, because Power Girl (and Wonder Woman) are not real people, who made their own choices. That isn't to say that women in comic books or video games or movies can't ever look sexy. But don't try to justify the clear difference between women in media who look like they do because they're intended for other women, and women who look the way they do because they're intended to be pleasurable for men.
I said,
Sure, she was created by men, but so was Wonder Woman. She was created to be a Kryptonian who does not model herself after a man a la Supergirl imitating Superman. She's been written by women; after I began this discussion here, I did some googling, and I found that one of her writers, Jen Van Meter, made a defense of the costume that upset people who want their female heroes fully covered.
There's also a short bit of fan comics on the subject that's nicely written by a woman: Power Girl, in Real Time | Hannah Doerge.
And to bring this back to cosplaying, cosplayers are real women who make real choices to wear costumes that some people say are slutty or too sexy.
Kovitlac said,
And Wonder Woman isn't always hailed as a beacon for inspiration, either. Some of her costumes have been nearly as ridiculous as most other women superheros. It's not being designed by men that's the problem - it's that they (most of the time) design her solely for other men - NOT for women.
No need to bring it back to cosplaying, since these are still two completely different subjects.
 I said,
But these are not different subjects. Real women are choosing to wear real costumes that you are calling ridiculous. Wonder Woman was designed by men for girls as well as men—the superhero genre has always had female readers, and sometimes the publishers tried to court them, as with Wonder Woman. Every part of her original costume was based on existing fashions.
Do you think the cosplayers who wear those costumes are mocking them? Ardella doesn't seem to be suggesting that in her video.
Kovitlac said,
Yes, they're completely different subjects. One is concerning a made-up character who looks the way a man intended her to look. The other is concerning real life people who are choosing to look a certain way, which is every bit in their power to do so.
If you don't see a difference in those two scenarios, or agree that one can dislike something without disliking those who enjoy it, then I suppose I really can't change your mind.
I said,
Hmm. You're probably right that we won't change our minds. For me, cosplayers are real life people who are choosing to look like "a made-up character who looks the way a man intended her to look", just like a real life person who chooses to wear a short skirt or a tight shirt that was designed by a man. According to Wikipedia, "The modern bikini was introduced by French engineer Louis Réard and separately by fashion designer Jacques Heim in Paris in 1946." Would you mock women for wearing bikinis because they were designed by men?
At Pundits debate Power Girl's boob window, caseyjonescaseyjones said, "It's entirely possible to create comics with fully dressed superheroines." I answered,
Sure. I'm fond of the Lois Lane Superwoman from 1947. Marvel's latest Captain Marvel has a great costume. But male superhero costumes range from Namor's speedos to Iron Man's complete coverage. Why shouldn't female superheroes have the same range of options?

The conversations haven't gone further, and I doubt they will. The reason is that Power Girl's boob window has become a symbol for all the silly sexism in superhero comics. But many of us make a distinction between sexy and sexist, and for us, skin isn't inherently sexist. It's the approach to skin that's sexist. And cosplayers are a surprisingly good guide for the difference. This costume that the Invisible Woman was briefly stuck in?

So far as I know, it's never been cosplayed, and if it has, I'm pretty sure it was done ironically. So my suggestion is that the first time you're tempted to make fun of a costume, see what people who specialize in costumes think of it.

Related: Chain mail bikinis: context matters

Sexy halloween costumes and social justice neo-puritanism, Parts 1 & 2

"On the Depiction of Women in Games" And books, movies, comics....

Recommended: Power Girl Women's Liberator of the 1970s, Running Boog-Gag of the 2000s

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What would Wonder Woman wear? Amazonomachy has the answer

Just read (and recommend) The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?. Its mention of Amazonomachy, "the portrayal of the mythical battle between the Ancient Greeks and the Amazons" in Greek art, made me think of the long argument over Wonder Woman's skimpy costume. I can't see DC going with something like this:

(Though people who are concerned with butt shots and twisted torsos for fighting women should note they're nothing new.)

But a fine costume might be inspired by these Amazons:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why fantasists should write about rape (a response to Why fantasists should not write about rape)

George Carlin said,
They'll say, "you can't joke about rape. Rape's not funny." I say, "fuck you, I think it's hilarious. How do you like that?" I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. See, hey why do you think they call him "Porky," eh? I know what you're going to say. "Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky. Porky couldn't help himself, he got a hard- on, he got horney, he lost control, he went out of his mind." A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it's the woman's fault. They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, "she had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt." These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock teasers. Don't seem fair to me. Don't seem right, but you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke.
If I was going to keep arguing that fantasists should not write about rape, I would use Carlin's example of Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd. The humor comes from the inappropriateness of rape in a funny-animal universe. It's like zombies eating the cast of Glee or Superman saving the day in Game of Thrones: it's funny because the choice is artistically incongruous with the kind of story that was being told.

But now I'm arguing the other side. I completely agree when he says, "You can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke." One of my favorite quotes is from Terence, the Roman playwright who had been a slave: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. ("I am human; nothing human is alien to me.") Artists should never restrict their subjects.

Rape has been a subject in fantastical stories since The Epic of Gilgamesh. It's a brutal thing that men and women do to other men and women, so it has to be one of the things that humans write about. The challenge is to avoid the snares that catch too many writers:

1. The degree of trauma suffered by people who have been raped varies enormously, but no one shrugs it off.

2. Rape is a human problem. If a story implies that all rapists are male and their targets are female, its characters are not human. What's sexist about the Red Sonja trope is not that the female hero is raped; it's that none of her male equivalents suffer the same injustice.

I've written fantasy stories about rape and sexual abuse. I wanted to create some sympathy for a villain in my first novel, Cats Have No Lord, so, knowing that about ten percent of abused children go on to become abusers, I made her one of the broken who tries to break others. I wrote "Dream Catcher" for Terri Windling's The Armless Maiden: And Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors. I can't remember just now whether it's explicit that any of the characters in my Bordertown novels have been raped, but Bordertown is a setting where all the elements of dark fantasy may occur. That includes rape.


Midori Snyder's The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey

Kate Harding | 15 Rape Jokes That Work

Friday, August 23, 2013

Why fantasists should not write about rape

The woman who is raped and then becomes a hero is a fantasy cliché that many readers have hated since it became famous with Red Sonja. For decades, I've felt there was something wrong with it, but I've only recently known what it is.

Fantasists who write about rape are suffering from a failure of imagination. If you want a rape in your story, write naturalistic fiction. If you're writing fantasy, find a fantastical equivalent of rape that conveys the powerlessness and degradation of rape. Write about someone hypnotized, compelled, possessed, or otherwise supernaturally forced into doing anything they would not do of their free will.

Fantasy is the literature of literalized metaphor. What would be metaphors in naturalistic fiction—where a train can come at a character like a dragon or a capitalist can drain a community like a vampire or a down-and-out bum can make a comeback like a superhero—are treated as literally true in fantasy. But the symbolism remains: Any fantastical weapon is a metaphor for power, any fantastical obstacle is a metaphor for the difficulties we face in the real world, and any fantastical aid is a metaphor for the things that help us make it through our days. Tolkien might swear on ten thousand Bibles that Lord of the Rings is only a story and not an allegory, but it's a story about people dealing with a power the corrupts those who use it. The metaphors of fantasy may be denied, but they cannot be escaped.

But where is the metaphor in rape? In fantasy, something as mundane as rape is a failure of imagination.

Related: about rape in fantasy and fact

ETA: Someone was upset by my choice of "mundane". I was using it in the sense of the opposite of fantastical, like this dictionary definition: "of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one". Fantastical literature has fantasy in it; mundane literature does not. That doesn't mean one's better than the other, just that they provide different possibilities for writers. If you're going to write fantasy, use it to do what isn't possible in any other genre.

ETA 2: Elsewhere, I said:
War is a metaphor for social conflict. Sword fighting is a metaphor for conflict between individuals. But what is rape a metaphor for? 
I can’t speak to Patricia Brigg’s books. I haven’t read them. But I do believe there are exceptions to every principle, so if people have written well in fantasy about the consequences of rape, more power to them. 
And I must stress that I’m not objecting to writing about rape—I fully believe no subject is taboo. I’m saying that rape is the least imaginative choice that a fantasy writer can make. 
ETA 3Shetterly, you hypocrite, you wrote a story about rape!

ETA 4: Why fantasists should write about rape (a response to Why fantasists should not write about rape)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

chain mail bikinis: context matters

Ask me if the chain mail bikini is stupid, and I'll agree with you.

But so are any number of pulp fiction conventions. Shooting from the hip or fanning a six-shooter for example. The Lone Ranger never took off his mask, which had to get mighty uncomfortable. Why Batman isn't constantly getting tangled in his cape when he fights, I dunno.

But in stories that are not supposed to be realistic, what looks coolest always wins.

Ask me if the chain mail bikini is sexist, and I'll ask at least two questions.

The first is why cosplayers like to dress as Red Sonja.

© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

The second is "What are the men wearing?"

I love this video because it explores a double standard:

But when you look for the origin of the chain mail bikini, you don't find a double standard. Red Sonja went from this:

To this:

Originally, Conan showed more skin. When Red Sonja got the mail bikini, it was a draw: she showed more hip and belly, but she sometimes had higher boots, she had some upper torso protection, and she had gloves.

Now, if I was writing Red Sonja, she'd go back to something like the earlier costume, because the mail bikini only makes sense for a circus performer or a gladiator, not a wandering adventurer, and I like a bit of realism in my fantasy.

But while stupid and sexist often intersect, they ain't the same. So long as Conan's showing as much skin as Red Sonja, both costumes are sexist or neither is.

PS. If I had to be in a swordfight and my choice of costume was a furry diaper or a chain mail bikini, I would choose the bikini in an instant. Are there women who would prefer the diaper?

PS 2. In patriarchal societies, women publicly showing skin is a transgressive act. Part of the appeal of costumes like Wonder Woman's or Red Sonja's for cosplayers is the thrill of flouting a social convention. If this was a serious essay, I would mention nudity at Mardi Gras—most societies have holidays when people are allowed more freedom with their flesh than usual.

PS 3. While it's very true there's a double standard in the amount of flesh most superheroes display, anyone talking about the issue might want to consider 11 Rather Risqué Male Superhero Outfits - Topless Robot. And any serious essay about fantastic heroes who show skin would probably have to start with Tarzan, Jane, John Carter, and Dejah Thoris.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Over 100 Black Female Superheroes!

(Yes, I'm once again pandering to popular search items for this blog. People want black female superheroes, so I'm delighted to deliver.)

It's not my best work, but I'll always be proud of writing Captain Confederacy, the first black female superhero to have her own series* from a major publisher, Marvel's Epic division:

I forget how I came across the following fanvids, but discovering that Captain Confederacy is included makes me feel right chuffed.

Here's an interview about my comics: SHETTERLY CAPTAIN CONFEDERACY & CHARITY

It probably will never happen, but I'd love to do more with those revamped public domain characters someday.

And here's an interview with Vince Stone (‘Captain Confederacy’ artist) | "Lessons learned from Star Trek? Be open to different experiences, be tolerant of others and if that doesn’t work – launch photon torpedoes!"

* Marvel's Monica Rambeau, their second Captain Marvel, was the first black female superhero who had her own comic from a major publisher, but it was a one-shot special issue released to secure Marvel's trademark on the name:

Still, she should've been in the Avengers movie. Just sayin'.

ETA: Strange factoid: two of the first black female superheroes were sound-alikes, Bufferfly and Bumblebee.

Friday, June 1, 2012

on "Before Watchmen" and DC making the forgotten Green Lantern gay

I don't know whether the Before Watchmen books will be worth reading, but I know they won't be worth publishing for at least four reasons:

1. Before Watchmen already exists. It's every superhero comic ever published before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created Watchmen. The point of Watchmen is it's the culmination of the superhero comics everyone knew.

2. Before Watchmen is a prequel. People don't want to see a backstory fleshed out that only elaborates on what they know. I haven't read Before Watchmen and don't plan to, but I suspect DC has created their Phantom Menace.

3. DC's reason for doing Before Watchmen isn't artistic. It's pure Capitalism 101: when you have something that's profitable, milk it and shear it until it's time to send it to the knacker.

4. Before Watchmen is designed to be compared to something that's greatly admired. Working on Before Watchmen would be like working on Before Casablanca: Do you really want to be despised?

As for DC's decision to make Alan Scott—the Green Lantern they don't promote much, the Green Lantern on the "alternate" Earth that's not the one that counts in the DC universe—their gay superhero, yawn. They're right that at least one of the original 1940s superheros should come out of the closet, but if they want to make a meaningful change in the DCU, they also need to out a hero who was relevant in the '60s, a hero from Earth One, the world that matters to casual readers. I suggest Elongated Man or the Martian Manhunter, even though both of their names inspire obvious jokes. Or better yet, Hawkman—a gay Hawkman and a straight Hawkwoman could make an entertaining duo.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

about Captain Confederacy

On the short list of things that make me proud is creating the first black female superhero with her own comic book series from a major publisher.

But when Vince Stone and I started Captain Confederacy in 1986, I didn't dream of that. My initial idea was simple: In an alternate universe where the South seceded, Captain America, a blond male patriotic hero with a shield, would be Captain Confederacy, a blond male patriotic hero with a whip. Then I started thinking about why someone would appear on TV wearing a country's flag, and I made Captain Confederacy part of a propaganda campaign to shape public sympathy—an idea that The American explored a year later—with enhanced abilities thanks to a serum that had been tested on black folks—an idea that Truth: Red, White and Black explored sixteen years later.

I set the story in a Confederacy that had given up slavery but kept people of color in second-class positions. When I made that choice, I knew I was making a simplistic assumption about what would happen if the South seceded. The economic and political pressures to end slavery were in place in the 1860s, and without the heavy hand of Reconstruction, the brutal backlash of Jim Crow might never have occurred. A successful Confederacy could have become a more enlightened place than the South that rose from the North’s victory.

Or it could have become worse. Southern slaveowners were multicultural—there were white, black, and Cherokee plantation owners—but they were united in their greed. As the South industrialized, they would’ve hunted for ways to keep slavery profitable. In the game of If, there are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories.

The critics have been kind:

"...plots are intricate and creative.... This is not a comic book for children." - Southern Magazine

"...excellent alternate-Earth science fiction."
Comics Buyer's Guide

"Written with intelligence and no fear of controversy. Buy it!" - Graffiti 

"From the retooled Stars and Bars of Captain Confederacy's costume to the mapping of urban and rural southern places, the series takes up the symbols of the South and imaginatively reconstructs them, shaking loose the stock figures, geographies, and temporalities of southerness. If Octavia Butler and Kara Walker alter the meaning of the southern lady, Shetterly reconfigures the southern gentleman, unfixing his location in an idealized Civil War past, instead deploying him for a different understanding of our present." -Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South, by Tara McPherson (Duke University)

The books can be bought at Amazon, but Vince and I get more of the cover price if you buy them at CreateSpace:

Captain Confederacy 1

Captain Confederacy 2

Ebooks are available too, at Barnes & Noble as epub files for most readers:

BARNES & NOBLE | Captain Confederacy 1: the Nature of the Hero

BARNES & NOBLE | Captain Confederacy 2: Hero Worship

and at Amazon for the Kindle:

Captain Confederacy 1: the Nature of the Hero: Will Shetterly, Vince Stone: Kindle Store

Captain Confederacy 2: Hero Worship: Will Shetterly, Vince Stone: Kindle Store

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Misfits: working-class superheroes

If I was still a blogging fool, I would do a long post about the first two seasons of Misfits. The quick version is this may have been my favorite TV superhero show ever, but having just seen the first episode of the third season, I'm prob'ly stopping now.

Warning: it's not a show for everyone. Not only do you have to like superheroes, you have to like all kinds of things that are too adult for US broadcast TV and too immature for HBO. My inner fourteen-year-old was pretty happy. Not as happy as he was with The Avengers and Captain America movies, but happy.

The third season has a bad replacement for a character that I hadn't realized I would miss. I'll spoil no more than that. I don't think the problem with the episode can be pinned on the replacement actor or character, though. It just felt like the writers stopped having fun.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Interracial romance in comic books

The earliest interracial kiss in a comic from a major publisher that I've found was in 1943, when Blackhawk kissed a Chinese woman:

It's not quite what it looks like, though—the woman gets her dying wish, a kiss from Blackhawk.

Though they never kiss, there's a strong hint of interracial romance in a 1952 comic book of King Solomon's Mines. On the cover, a white man and a black man appear to be fighting for the love of a black woman.

Sure, she's paler than the black guy, but she's still black in a time when interracial marriage was illegal in many states. As Gallup notes, only 4% of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites then, while 77% approved by 2007:

DC Comics missed a chance for a semi-interracial kiss in 1970 when Lois Lane became black for a day:

To give them a tiny bit of credit, they did have her ask if he could love her if she was black:

He responded with a variant of the standard superhero cop-out line of the time: "my enemies, blah blah, deadly danger, blah, blah..." (There's a copy of the full story here, but I only recommend it to folks obsessed with comics, race, and romance.)

The first straight-up romantic kiss in comics didn't come until 1975, in a Killraven story in Marvel's Amazing Adventure #31:

But the first interracial kiss involving superheroes came in 1977, when Iron Fist and Misty Knight finally snogged.

Monday, April 23, 2012

the Buffy lessons: learning from the dead

The following thoughts are edited from blog posts. I've trimmed them a little, but I haven't tried to make this a proper essay, so some parts end without formal conclusions.

For its first five years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my favorite TV show, and may be my favorite TV show of all time. Sure, not every episode was great, but the show had what I love: strong women, funny dialogue, clever plotting, a fun fantasy setting, and my kind of moral subtext, that friends matter and it's better to do what's right than what's popular. I'll admit that in many ways, other series are better than BtVS, but I didn't love them so much for five years that I would then endure them for two more.

So, what did I learn about writing a series in those seven years?

1. Honor the metaphor.

BtVS began with an astonishingly clear metaphor: "high school is hell." When high school ended and Angel got his own show, the writers didn't take the time to rethink the underlying nature of their shows. At that point, two choices could've been made about the metaphor for BtVS:

They could've stuck with "school is hell" and examined the conflicts at college between frat kids and ROTC kids and radical kids and town kids and rich kids and scholarship kids and tenured professors and new professors and administration and sports departments and arts departments and kids who have enough money that they don't need jobs and kids whose part-time jobs are killing their social lives and their study time—

Or they could've evolved the metaphor: "college is heaven, and heaven must be defended." That's the story that still involves all the groups that exist in "school is hell," but it's about the joy of finding what you want to be. What made BtVS's seasons four and five fun was that they started down this path. Well, they started Willow down it. They let Buffy thrash around--which is not an unreasonable choice for your main character in a series. But they forgot that it would've been very easy for Giles to get a job at the U. teaching or in a library or a museum. They decided to leave Xander living in the family basement, even though Sunnydale's university is a state school, which shouldn't have been too tough or expensive to get into. They finally put Giles in the Magic Box, a setting that's more appropriate for a sitcom than an adventure series; it made BtVS's universe a little less grounded in the world we all know.

Whether BtVS stayed with "school is hell" or evolved into "college is heaven," Buffy could've stayed in college for four years, then gone on to grad school. School is a limbo realm, neither home nor work. It's a place of becoming, of transition. And that's the perfect backdrop for Buffy, whose hero role was forced on her, not part of her personal world of friends and families nor part of a professional world of co-workers.

A piece of what went wrong with Season 6 was that the writers decided to mature all the characters, to make them post-collegiate, as though there really is an objective "real world" that is more valid than the world of education. They ended up creating a much smaller world in which almost everything seemed to happen in Buffy's house, the Magic Box, or the graveyard.

A metaphor may sound restrictive, but it’s not. A series' metaphor isn't a template that every story must fit. A metaphor is a proposition for a series to explore. It's the way the settings, characters, and situations comment on life. The metaphor doesn't narrow possibilities. It points out possibilities.

Every series has at least one metaphor, though the writers may not realize it and may not exploit it. It's the metaphor of the genre. This is going to be a gross oversimplification (and for the first and only time, uh huh), but to some extent, all genres have an implied metaphor:

In mysteries, the world is a lie, and only the dedicated seeker can find the truth. In romances, the world is lonely, but love conquors loneliness. In fantasies and westerns, the community is threatened by greed or power, but selfless perseverence can set things right. In superhero stories, the world is always under assault, but struggling anonymously will bring the reward of knowing you've done the right thing. In science fiction, the universe seems like a strange and threatening place, but knowledge will save you. In horror, the universe is a strange and threatening place, and you'll only survive with the right combination of the virtues and luck. All of those propositions say something that's true about being human.

But the best series also have a specific metaphor that distinguishes them from others of their type. In Buffy 's case, the specific metaphor for the first three seasons was "high school is hell." That metaphor gave us shows in which popular kids acted like hyenas, teachers were monsters, parents had their minds taken over, the principal was evil, and no one recognized that the supposedly uncool kids were really the heroes. You know, the basic high school experience that everyone can relate to.

And that specific metaphor was layered onto the genre metaphors of fantasy, horror, and superheroes. That's a great combination when it's explored well.

A series doesn't need a specific metaphor for its writers to do good work. The Angel show has had some great episodes, even though it only has the same general metaphors as Buffy. Angel 's stories are about a group of friends who live together and don't want much more from life than to fight evil and have satisfying romances. Well, to be fair, there's one other general metaphor that applies to Angel, the metaphor of most shows about friends: "Friends are family."

The best or most memorable series mix general and specific metaphors. With the X-Men , the metaphors of superheroes and science fiction are layered with a strong metaphor from young adult fiction: "We're all freaks."

The metaphors can certainly change over the course of a series. What's sad about Buffy is that the specific metaphor became vague. If Season 6 had a metaphor, it was "life is hell." And if Season 7 had one, it was "life was too much hell last season; how do we wrap everything up?"

One last point: Metaphors in fantasy are especially tricky because fantasy is literalized metaphor. Huck Finn's journey feels like an epic quest; Frodo Baggins's journey is an epic quest. They're different ways of doing the same thing in a story, of exploring the implications of being human, and encountering problems, and learning or failing to learn to change.

2. Remember the destiny.

The "destiny" is a sense of fate in a series: Robin Hood must defeat Prince John and marry Maid Marion. The destiny can be less precise: James Bond must defeat many different villains, each deadlier than the one before, and he must have many loves, each more exciting than the one before. If the main characters aren't moving toward something that seems like their destiny, despite or because of the many obstacles between them and it, a series feels stagnant.

BtVS began with a clear romantic destiny: "The vampire slayer's true love is a vampire with a soul." When I watched the first three seasons, I didn't like Angel because, face it, he's only interesting when he turns evil. But boring Angel was a small price to pay for an otherwise great show. When Angel went off to his own series, Buffy's creators were at a loss for what to do next. They tried Riley, but they didn't think through his function as a romantic interest. Then they decided to send Spike down the same path we had already seen Angel take, making him another "vampire with a soul," making him Robin to Angel's Batman and making neither of them unique in the Buffyverse.

BtVS also began with a clear dramatic destiny: For five seasons, Buffy's opposition grew more powerful than what she faced before: the Master, Spike and Drusilla and Angelus, the Mayor and Faith, Adam and the Initiative, Glory. But that fell apart in Season 6, when the recurring villains were three nerds who could've made a fun standalone episode or maybe a two-parter, but had insufficient weight to carry a season. Season 6 was like watching three James Bond movies in a row in which Bond was unable to defeat Curly, Moe, and Larry. Yes, the ultimate villain of Season 6 was the evil Willow--but that was too little, too late.

As for seventh season, the theoretical Big Bad was fine in theory: The First, the oldest and greatest evil. But what did we get? Actors we'd already seen, who couldn't touch anything, and who talked a lot. Bringing in Caleb helped, but, as in Season 6, we got too little, too late.

As Buffy ends, we feel cheated on the story as a whole. Buffy can't achieve her romantic destiny since it's been derailed. And she can't achieve her dramatic destiny, because the threat she's facing feels like it's less of a challenge than Spike and Drusilla in Season 2.

3. Preserve the tone.

I noticed tone for the first time when looking back at THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., a show that Emma and I adored as kids. It began as a semi-serious spy show in its first season. It became a hit. People thought it was fun and a little silly. So the producers decided it should become campier, and making it campy killed it. The fourth season producers made it more serious, but that change of direction came too late.

By BtVS's sixth season, we had too many supernatural characters that were more goofy than menacing: the three nerds, the floppy eared demon, Anya's hex-demon friend, etc. Sure, BtVS villains always had some silliness to lighten their menace—the Mayor was an amazing mixture of funny and frightening. But tone is a tightrope. With Season 6s, the writers began leaping back and forth over the rope rather than staying on it.

Their leaping included inappropriately dark elements involving Buffy's sexuality. Glum, loveless, submissive and subordinated sex is the wrong choice for a show that's supposed to be about strong women.

4. Make most episodes complete unto themselves.

As a comic book fan, I remember the thrill of the first two-part story I read. I loved it because the story was big. I hated it because I had to wait for the conclusion; I lost the satisfaction of experiencing a complete story in a single reading. Multi-part stories were rare in comics then, a treat and not the main course. Then comic books became more and more episodic. And comic book sales plunged for many reasons, not the least that it was hard for new readers to start a series.

BtVS's first five seasons had plenty of episodes in which the season's story arc was a minor element in an otherwise standalone story. Then they switched to soap opera storytelling, abandoning crisp beginnings and ends in favor of unending middles.

5. Keep the world larger than the cast.

For five seasons, Buffy balanced school and home and her duty as the Slayer. She lived in a world in which characters could become significant for an episode and then disappear. Her world felt enormous. In the last two seasons, she gave up school and her world shrank, consisting almost solely of the people who lived in her house, something you'd expect in a soap or a sitcom, not in an adventure series. As a result, it looked like the show had cut its budget at a time when it was making more money than ever, and Buffy's world felt claustrophobic.

6. Respect the story's character types when the casting changes.

In the first three seasons, the writers found a balance that worked nicely for the main cast: Buffy as the champion learning about life, Giles as the mentor finding his own purpose by guiding the champion, Xander as the champion's goofy but dependable sidekick, Willow as the champion's quirky but capable best friend, Cordelia as the goofy sidekick's self-obsessed but oddly dependable love interest, Oz as the best friend's kind but troubled lover, and Angel as the champion's extremely troubled romantic interest,
With the fourth season, the show lost Angel, Cordelia, and Oz. They did an excellent job of moving Anya into Cordelia's job. They did a fair job of moving Tara into Oz's, though in retrospect I believe that had more to do with the charm of the actors than in the way their story was presented. But the writers floundered for a new love interest for Buffy.

7. When one character's love life sucks, make sure another character's love life is good.

I was reminded of this on GILMORE GIRLS when Rory's romance fell apart as Lane's evolved. It kept the show from becoming too depressing, and it heightened the pathos of the crumbling relationship by contrasting it with the evolving one. The BtVS crew once knew that: Xander's finest moment is when Buffy's romance with Riley fails, and Xander commits to Anya.

8. Don't marry off main characters.

Adventure includes romance, so romance must stay as uncertain as every other element. You have at least three choices: move your character through a number of romances in search of the right one, create a triangle so your character is torn between two equally promising people, or set up an insurmountable obstacle to romance with the lover who is clearly right for the character.

BtVS took the third path in its first three seasons. But when they lost Angel, Buffy began a relationship with Riley that had no inherent tension, that was every bit as comfortable as a main character's relationship on a sitcom. The only tension in the Buffy-Riley relationship came at the end, when the writers desperately shoe-horned in an excuse that felt false because it had not been established.

9. Don't hesitate to marry off supporting characters.

The Xander-Anya relationship was a comforting piece of stability in an unstable world; it reinforced the sense that friends stood by each other, and friendship could become love. FRIENDS understood that when they let Chandler and Monica marry. BtVS threw away the Xander-Anya romance and left both characters hanging around with no strong function in the show.

10. Eliminate characters that don't have a distinct dramatic purpose.

The greatest tragedy of BtVS's seventh season was the number of actors occupying the set with no distinct role in the story. Xander and Andrew both occupied the awkward nerd-guy niche. Dawn and the potential Slayers were all girls who were kind of like Buffy, but less interesting. Principal Wood might have developed into a love interest for Buffy, or a new mentor, or a new menace. Instead he became Mr. Token after he attacked Spike. He would seem like less of a token black guy had he at least gotten a heroic death, perhaps saving Buffy—or better yet, Spike—from the First as soon as the writers realized they had nothing more to do with him.

11. Let your villains love.

BtVS's best villains were capable of love—twisted love, but love nonetheless: Spike loved Drusilla, and the Mayor loved Faith. That love gave them dramatic possibilities that the Master, Adam, Glory, the three nerds, and the First never could have achieved, not because of the actors or their parts, but because the writers restricted their possibilities by not giving them anything more to do than be evil.

12. Divide your hero's wants and needs.

Buffy wants a human life. Buffy needs to save the world. That's a classic dynamic. Buffy, as a character, is fascinating when she tries to balance her needs and wants. She only becomes tiresome when she stops trying to balance them and mopes around for several episodes or most of a season.

13. Burn story.

For the first five seasons, the plots for the main arcs evolved rapidly: look at the changes with Spike and Angel in the second season, and Faith in the third. Then look at seasons six and seven, where there were few surprises beyond, "Yeah, Willow's going to turn evil, how much longer do we have to wait for it?" and "Yeah, Buffy's going to fight with Caleb some more, what'll happen next? Oh, she's going to fight with Caleb some more."

14. Stay true to each character’s history

At the very beginning of sixth season, Spike selflessly protected Dawn and went on patrol with the Scoobies while Buffy was dead; he seemed to have learned about love and loyalty during the two years when he believed the chip was keeping him from killing humans. But after Buffy returns, we're told that Spike has always been evil and can only be redeemed by getting a soul.

Xander made one of the all-time great commitments of love to Anya at the end of season five; he's not the man who wimps out in Season 6.

Dawn hung around for three seasons with plenty of potential, and that potential might've been realized if the writers had focused on her. They dropped the question of what it means that she was in some sense made from Buffy. She could have become the Slayer-In-Waiting, someone that Buffy trained and who was capable on her own. Or Dawn could've developed as Buffy's human self, the girl Buffy would have been if she had never become the Slayer.

At the end of season five, Buffy loved life and the world so much that she was willing to sacrifice her life, but in Season 6, having been in heaven makes her think life doesn't much matter, a storyline that looked like it would be resolved with the musical episode, but instead dragged on.

While it dragged on, Buffy began working for a fast food restaurant, a choice that ignored the character's job history and her needs at that moment: income and a flexible schedule. She had worked in a diner a few seasons earlier; an experienced waiter would get better pay and far more flexibility working anyplace other than a fast food restaurant. (And, I confess, I think a diner would've made a more interesting setting for Buffy than a fast food restaurant.)

concept and execution

Here's the quick list of what the audience wants from a story: intriguing ideas, characters, settings, dialogue, narration, and observations about life. Observations come in two forms: the way things should be, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the way things are, as in The Grapes of Wrath. The list can be roughly divided in two:  Ideas, settings, characters, and observations about life are concepts; dialogue and narration are the execution.

For five seasons, Buffy did a generally good and often great job at all of those. The ideas were interesting, the characters were fun, the settings were enjoyable, the dialogue sparkled, the narrative moved briskly, and the observations about life focused on the way things should be: women were powerful and friends were true to each other, no matter what.

The story arcs for the last two seasons were conceptually as strong as any that came before. Season 6 set out to explore what it meant for Buffy to return from the dead and make a new life as a mentor instead of a student, for Willow to be tempted by power, for Spike to explore the nature of love, for Xander to confront his fears of his family, for Anya to face what it meant to have been a creature of vengeance. Season seven promised the First Evil, something that understood the primordial darknesses in all of us and knew how to exploit them, something that would test the Scoobies individually and as a group, something that truly would be the greatest opponent anyone could face.

But other aspects of the concept changed.

The settings focused on the boring (Buffy's house) and the silly (the fast food place).

The characters changed. Buffy moped around. Xander became middle-class and incapable of commiting to love. Willow developed an addiction to power. Giles ran away to England because he thought the best way to help someone who had literally returned from the dead was to abandon her. Anya sulked a lot because Xander had become a jerk.

The observation on life changed from charming idealism to bitter realism. For Willow, the message was that women can't control power. For Buffy, it was that women should endure abusive relationships. For Spike, it was that sex is about power, not love or fun. For Xander, it was that if your family history is terrible, you must not commit to a future of love. For Anya, it was that if you were violent, you'll fall back on violence, because you can't learn and grow. For the Scoobies in general, it was that friends betray you.

As for execution, those seasons were disappointing. The dialogue provided few memorable lines. The pacing became jerky: much was said but little was done, and little changed over the course of a season. The writers seemed to have forgotten the histories of their characters.

The interesting ideas of the last two seasons were often developed in simple-minded ways. The notion that being tempted by magic, a metaphor for power, could be a metaphor for addiction is not inherently stupid. Having Willow go down what looks like a sleazy alley and into what looks like a crack den to meet a guy who looks like a crack addict is incredibly stupid, because it ignores the nature of the thing that's being used for a metaphor. If you want to write a story about magic and addiction, don't think about crack dens. Think about Hollywood and Wall Street, where temptation comes in a beautiful shell.


I realize I've come down on BtVS awfully hard, but that's tribute, honest. You don't see me listing what I learned from HAPPY DAYS.

For me, the canonical BtVS ends with Buffy's death at the end of season five, and the musical and the season seven finale are pleasant pieces of apocrypha. But for all that I love many things about seasons four and five, like the Xander-Anya relationship and "Hush," the purest BtVS consists of seasons one through three, when the show's metaphor and destiny are firmly in place, and the hero's journey properly ends when she saves the world in general and her classmates in particular, and they recognize her as the champion we've always known her to be. The only thing lacking was a kiss from Angel of "hello" instead of "goodbye."

While the first three seasons are the strongest overall, I prefer the characters in seasons four and five. Spike is more fun than Angel, Anya is more fun than Cordelia, and Tara is more interesting with Willow than Oz. As for the original cast, Buffy and Giles are as entertaining as ever, and Xander is remarkably well delineated. In those seasons, the actors and the writers knew exactly what to do with the characters' dialogue and relationships, despite shaky steps with the story arcs.

For all that Riley wasn't used well dramatically, I thought he was swell; ignoring the fact that it makes for a boring story, why shouldn't the heroine have a dependable, goodlooking boyfriend who is great in bed? (And, okay, I always identified more with Captain America than Batman. I like people who do the right thing because it's the right thing, and not because they feel really, really guilty. And I like spies. So I didn't mind the absence of dramatic tension in the original Buffy-Riley romance. I rather liked it, in fact. Riley's approach to Buffy—being there when she needed him, getting out of her way when she didn't, and not being threatened by or envious of her strengths—is exactly what I've strived for in my marriage to the multi-talented Emma Bull.)

There were moments that I liked throughout seasons six and seven. But the only episodes during that time that I thought fired on every level were the musical and season seven's finale. I don't, for example, understand the fondness for "Conversations with the Dead," which was conceptually nice, but dragged out and had some odd choices for the First's manifestations. That was probably based on the availability of actors, but still, if a choice is dramatically odd, it's odd, whatever the excuse. All the actors did their usual excellent work, but my advice to someone who has not seen Buffy is this: Start at the beginning and go forward. If the sixth season doesn't feel like fun to you, watch the musical and the seventh season finale, then quit.

foolish things smart people say

Hey, we're all human, so I hope anyone who comments on my inanities will be kind enough to preface them with something like, "Will Shetterly's an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but—"
Joss Whedon's an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but in his interview, he says, "...the characters have to feel the way the audience does. If the audience doesn't buy that Buffy's brought back from the dead, then Buffy can't buy it. They've got to go, "I can't believe this has happened. It's horrible." If the audience is feeling the loss of Angel and feeling that she can't have a relationship with Riley, she's got to feel the same way. You feel that out."

Sorry, but that's not true. The characters need to be ahead of the audience, not with them. The audience needs to be running to catch up. The audience needs to be saying, "Hey, that's not what I thought. That's so much cooler!" I had not thought before that Mutant Enemy was too guilty of listening to its core fan base, but I think that explains a number of things about the show, beginning with the decision to dump Riley.

Which ties into this comment from the same interview: "...we had Angel go bad when he and Buffy got together. Because—and I've gotten into so much trouble for this phrase—what people want is not what they need. In narrative, nobody wants to see fat, married Romeo and Juliet, even if fat, married Romeo and Juliet happen to be Nick and Nora Charles and they're really cool and having a great time in their lovely relationship and really care about each other and have nice, well-adjusted children. Guess what? People don't want to see it. "

He's dead on saying, "what people want is not what they need." But that has nothing to do with the fact that some people want to see Nick and Nora. They also want to see Steed and Mrs. Peel. They want to see Holmes and Watson. Sometimes we need to see partners who work together well, and whether they're having sex is irrelevant to their partnership. It might be dramatically more fun for partners to have tiffs every story. But it's not your only choice.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

if I rebooted the DC universe

This is a collection of posts about revamping DC characters. The first one is tongue-in-cheek, but the rest are straight fanboy.


  1. Dear DC, Please Keep Captain Marvel Black!
  2. If I rebooted Wonder Woman
  3. If I rebooted Batman and Robin
  4. If I rebooted Superman
  5. If I rebooted the Justice League: Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter
  6. If I rebooted Atom and Green Arrow
  7. If I rebooted Aquaman
  8. Why Aquaman is the greatest superhero ever (or, rebooting Aquaman, part 2)
  9. If I rebooted Zatanna
  10. If I rebooted Sgt. Rock
  11. The gender-reversed Justice League
Dear DC, Please Keep Captain Marvel Black!

Dear DC,

You’re about to reboot your universe, and I approve. Comic books should be rebooted every decade to keep them vital. Having a younger Superman who was never married makes sense. I only have one plea: please, keep Captain Marvel black.

I’m old enough to remember the early ‘70s when DC had the best female superheroes, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl, and Marvel had the best black superheroes, the Black Panther, the Falcon, and Luke Cage.

But everything changed in 1973 when DC expanded its universe with characters that had been published by other companies. Justice League #107 introduced the Quality Comics superheroes. Here’s that groundbreaking cover:

With one stroke, DC accomplished two things. The obvious one: it leapt ahead of Marvel on diversity, creating four African-American heroes, a Mexican-American Black Condor and a Japanese-American Human Bomb (which seems simplistic now, but was a daring commentary on nuclear weapons then).

Sure, DC got flak from racists who said Uncle Sam had to be white. DC bravely answered that the spirit of America could manifest in any of its citizens, and all the major media news media agreed, giving DC publicity that no amount of money could buy. Until then, Marvel Comics had threatened to surpass DC, but DC's bold integration of its world pushed Marvel back into second place.

DC's other accomplishment is easy to overlook now. When independent comic book companies were competing, they had slots to fill. Among them:
  • The white supernatural guy.
  • The white woman in a skimpy costume.
  • The white guy who flies.
  • The white guy who shrinks.
  • The white guy who is super-fast.
  • The white guy whose power makes him a tragic freak.
Imagine if DC had left the Quality characters white. They would’ve been redundant: the Spectre, Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, the Atom, the Flash, and Robotman had those roles covered. But with a simple change, DC made the DCU look more like the world of its readers.

When DC saw that sales didn't suffer from having characters who weren’t white, they did it again with the Fawcett characters in Justice League #136 and #137:

Can you imagine what those covers would've looked like with all-white characters? You would think you were in an alternate universe where Hitler won.

Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Robin, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern had already taken these slots in the DCU:
  • The white guy with demi-god powers.
  • The white woman with demi-god powers.
  • The rich white athlete guy with gimmicks.
  • The rich white guy's boy sidekick.
  • The white guy who flies.
  • The white woman who flies thanks to her boyfriend.
  • The white detective guy.
  • The white guy with a supernatural doohickey.
By making the Fawcett characters black, DC told its readers that anyone could be a superhero, regardless of race or gender. Who was stronger, the white Superman and Supergirl or the black Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel? No one knew whether a Kryptonian could defeat the magic of Shazam, but one thing was very clear: the people at the top of the power spectrum could be of any hue or gender.

Comics could sell a million copies in those days. Did the black Captain Marvel and Isis make it a little easier for Jesse Jackson to be elected president in 1988?

Probably not. Comics can’t change the world, even if they change the discussion for a few people. If DC had stuck with a white Captain Marvel, I'm sure capitalism would still be in crisis today and the Republicans would've still given us a moderate like Barack Obama to cope with our changing world.

But it’s nice to imagine that things would be a little better because DC saw a need and acted on it.

So, DC, when you revamp your universe, don't make the most powerful men and women white again. Keep the Marvel Family black.

ETA: RAB reminded me of this panel from Animal Man, which features characters this fanboy would love to see again:

Sunshine Superman

ETA 2: Walaka reminded me of the alternate Justice League in Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1, with Earth-D's black Superman and Superwoman. For pics of the rest, see his post, Earth D-lightful.

If I rebooted Wonder Woman

This is the Wonder Woman I would choose:

She's from a one-shot, Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. The designer solved a problem that's defeated every other attempt I've seen to fix her costume: he turned the original bird insignia into something that both holds up her costume and suggests armor.

I dunno who suggested the costume, but I strongly suspect the writer, Marv Wolfman, suggested that she look Middle-Eastern. It makes sense. In classical literature, the island of the Amazons has been located in Libya and Asia Minor.

ETA: While I like the skirt, I would be tempted to give her pants. 

If I rebooted Batman and Robin

This is a light modification of a panel in Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. I could go either way on making Batman's costume black and gray or blue and gray, but for a creature of the night, the yellow belt made no sense, and the panties were just too 1940s.

My Batman's personality is inspired by the 1960s "New Look" Batman: he's a detective who has mostly made peace with the fact that he can't bring his parents back from the dead. He doesn't like putting Robin in danger, so Robin would be a supporting character, someone who goes undercover in places where Batman can't and who usually has adventures on his own or with the Titans. Their styles are so different that they shouldn't team up often: Batman's inspiration is the creature of the night; Robin's inspiration is the people's hero, Robin Hood. The only reason Batman trains Robin is because he realizes that the kid will fight crime no matter what Batman does, so he might as well do what he can as mentor and friend.

The Bruce Wayne playboy is not a "cover". Batman thinks of himself as a soldier or a spy who works hard and parties hard. He knows he needs R&R to keep doing his duty, and he wants fun that won't result in anyone becoming too fond of him. He's an adrenaline junkie, and sometimes, late at night, he wonders if he has a bit of a death wish. If so, so long as it helps him do his job, he's fine with that.

ETA: The capes can become rigid and serve as gliders. Otherwise, why are acrobats wearing capes? Other than they look cool? Which, I grant, in a comic book is never automatically the wrong answer.

ETA 2: The trick to making the original Robin cape work is to use the collar. Perez understood that:

ETA 3: I would be tempted to make Robin's cape green.

If I rebooted Superman

For background on Superman's look, try SupermanPage and Superman's Symbol, Shield, Emblem, Logo and Its History!. Part of what I like about them is they disagree. For example, was the original Superman meant to have red boots, and the printer or the colorist screwed up? No one seems to know. Blue boots are plausible:

So are red:

What's clear is that Superman was meant to resemble a circus strongman. And that's what's wrong with DC's current attempts:

Is he supposed to look like a kid playing superhero by tying a towel around his neck?

The amount of blue and the high neckline makes it look like a he's wearing a uniform, and the hints of armor make it worse: a superman doesn't need armor.

The fact is that the basic Superman costume is surprisingly delicately balanced. Get rid of the cape? It works too nicely in flight. Get rid of the panties? He becomes too streamlined. I considered giving him red pants and blue boots:

But that does odd things to the icon, too. Much as I hate taking the conservative choice, on Superman, this can't be improved:

Make fun of his panties. I do. It doesn't matter. Superman is perfectly comfortable with his sexuality, thank you very much. I hear men mocking his look, but I can't remember ever hearing a woman saying there's something wrong with calling attention to his crotch.

As for powers, he should be able to fly into space, but he shouldn't be able to move planets and he shouldn't be faster than the Flash.

Clark Kent works for the Daily Planet as an investigative reporter. He doesn't worry about the deadlines that come with TV or radio reporting. The Planet has a web presence that's giving the New York Times a run for its money.

Romance? Complicated. Lois Lane is simultaneously a best friend, love interest, collaborator, and, on some stories, competition. Clark and Lois should see other people while they're working that out.

Best friend? Jimmy Olsen, the only reporter with less experience than Clark, and the only reporter who is as gutsy as Lois.

Boss? Penny White, a black woman.

Completely new character? A Korean-American male reporter and former Marine who works with Lois and Jimmy, and is Lois's current romantic interest.

Clark's current romance? His relationship with Lana Lang is getting rocky. His work has taken him to Metropolis, and she's on an archeological dig in South America, where she's falling for a local. 

If I rebooted the Justice League:
Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter

According to a friend I trust, when the trailers for the Green Lantern movie appeared, kids asked, "Why did they make Green Lantern a white guy?"

That's not a joke like "Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?" It's because, to folks under thirty, this is the Justice League:

But this is DC's reboot:

How many ways is it awful? The short list:

• Instead of being a team of individuals, they look like they went to the same tailor.

• Aquaman is one of my favorite characters, but he shouldn't be part of the core League. He should only appear when a case involves the seas.

• Cyborg is great in the Titans, but he doesn't have a distinct role in the League unless they turn him into a brilliant scientist. Also, his name is generic—it's like calling a character Robot. Give him back to the Titans.

• One woman? Are you kidding me? Humanity is 51% female, and there's one woman in the core team?

My reboot would have the Big Three, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and:

• Green Lantern. John Stewart, a black man who is the one and only Green Lantern of Earth. In the reboot, he's the guy Abin Sur Katma Tui* chose to wield the ring. (Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner would make cameos as people who might've been picked, if things had gone differently.)

• The Flash. Ricky Estrada, a Mexican-American man with the personality of Wally West.

• Hawkwoman. Shayera Hol, a Thanagarian cop who comes to Earth in pursuit of an alien crook. Her partner, Katar Hol, is killed, and their ship is destroyed, so she stays on Earth for longer than was planned, and comes to love the planet.

• The Martian Manhunter: The original always seemed goofy to me: a green version of Superman who can change shape and gets weak in the presence of fire? Use Miss Martian instead:

Miss Martian photo

A fundamental principle should apply to characters like Green Lantern and Hawkwoman: Heroes should be unique—unless someone offers a lot of money to make a movie or TV show about a variant like Supergirl or Batgirl.

* Using Katma Tui instead of Abin Sur to make it clear that the ring can go to anyone who is worthy.

If I rebooted Atom and Green Arrow

On the list of simple comic book truths: Superhero comics need major female superheroes. I like the idea that the Flash should be a woman. A speedster called Jesse Quick briefly took over the role:

It'd be great if The Fastest Man On Earth was a woman.

But DC is conservative with the characters it considers its most valuable properties, so I doubt they would go with a female Flash, even though that's the best way to get a second woman into DC's Big Five of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash.

That argument doesn't apply to the Atom and Green Arrow.

There've been several male Atoms over the years, including an Asian, Ryan Choi. I'm a big fan of the Earth-D Atom:

And the female Atom on Earth-15:

So I would make the female Atom a black or Asian-American scientist, then give her a jet pack and ray guns. That would be an Atom who'd be a lot of fun to write.

Then there's Green Arrow, one of DC's most durable characters, probably because he's usually a supporting character. He's Batman if Bruce Wayne was inspired by Robin Hood crashing through his window instead of a bat.

So let Batman be Batman, and let a woman be Green Arrow. An American Indian woman could work nicely if you avoided the obvious cliches, or you could use the character who has been called Arrowette and Miss Arrowette:

She was updated for Young Justice:

Put her in a hooded costume:

And that's my Green Arrow.

If I rebooted Aquaman

For at least a summer, Aquaman was my favorite comic. It was the only comic I subscribed to, and the only reason I stopped subscribing was because as I was such a fanboy that I wanted to be able to pick out the best copy of each issue from the spinner.

I loved everything about Aquaman. I loved his weird underwater world. I loved his relationship with Mera, his girlfriend and then wife who could do everything he could, and could manipulate water as well. I loved his orange and green costume with the scales. I loved his conflict with his half-brother.

Okay, I didn't love his sidekick, Aquaboy in his stupid shorts. But annoying teen sidekicks were the price of DC superheroics.

So, what would I change?

Make him Polynesian.

Aquaman and Green Arrow appeared at the same time, in More Fun Comics #73 (Nov.1941). Like DC's Big Three, they slid from the Golden Age into the Silver with few physical changes: Green Arrow was briefly a brunet; Aquaman's gloves were often yellow before they settled on green.

This is the Aquaman DC is rebooting:

I don't mind the neckline, though I prefer the boatneck collar of the '40s and '50s. But the trident is just a stupid thing to have to carry around. If you want to give Aquaman a gimmick, give him a harpoon gun.

Also, ditch the gloves. He doesn't have a secret identity or any reason to protect his hands.

Here's an early appearance of Mera:

I wouldn't change a thing about her. Superhero comics could use an interracial marriage. If you have to give someone a trident, let it be hers.

Aquaboy? Aquagirl? Heroes should be unique. Forget them, and Topo the Octopus too.

PS. I don't know how many Aryan heroes DC needs, but really, they can spare a few blond guys.

Why Aquaman is the greatest superhero ever (or, rebooting Aquaman, part 2)

Aquaman has a bad rep for one reason: Superfriends didn't know what to do with him. And to be fair to the show, he doesn't fit as a regular member of a team that operates primarily on land divided into nations.

Here's why:

1. Aquaman is the ultimate anarchist superhero. His father (or, in some versions of his origin, step-father) was an American and his mother was an illegal alien, an Atlantean. He grew up an outcast, a citizen of no nation.

2. Aquaman works for justice on the whole planet, but especially on the three-fourths where human law is weak. Every other superhero has a home beat, the city they live in. Even Superman, who should be international, is seen by the world as an American because he operates out of Metropolis. Only Aquaman roams the world.

3. Aquaman is strong enough to survive at the bottom of the sea. How many other heroes can keep him company there? Only Kryptonians, the Marvel Family, Green Lantern, and a few magical folks.

4. The creatures of the sea obey Aquaman because he's just that awesome.

5. Aquaman has a strong enough sense of self-worth to marry someone who is objectively more powerful than he is.

So, what mistakes have been made with Aquaman?

1. Originally, he didn't have any limit on how long he could be out of water. A limit makes sense for Atlanteans, but Aquaman should be unique, half-human and half-Atlantean, incorporating both group's strengths and neither's weaknesses.

2. He should never have become King of Atlantis. The job should've been offered and rejected.

How would I write Aquaman?

He and Mera are kids in their early '20s, cruising the world and looking for adventure. She has the power to shape solid things out of water and he does not, but she can't stay out of the water for more than an hour or two, while he can survive anywhere a human or an Atlantean could.

If I rebooted Zatanna

I would have her look like a dark-haired Marlene Dietrich in drag:

But this cosplayer could sell me on keeping the old costume and making her Asian or black:

(photo from here)

If I rebooted Sgt. Rock

I would make him the black leader of a black company. Popular culture has forgotten that the US Army was not integrated until the 1950s.

I was reminded of that by My Very Own Captain America -

The gender-reversed Justice League

From The best cosplay of Comic-Con 2011: