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October 24, 2017

Heroines #1-4 (review)


Heroines #1-4
Space Goat Publications, 2017
Writer: Ted Naifeh

Writer Ted Naifeh has written a superhero comic book which ostensibly has a feminist, or at least a mildly subversive agenda. The lead character, Marcy Madison, has the innate ability to cause very bright flashes of light that can debilitate her adversaries. She is idealistic, young, fresh out of college, and wanting to change the world for the better. When a giant robot called a “Walking Eye” decides to attack a nearby building during Marcy’s college valedictorian speech, she uses her powers to assist a group of costumed superheroes called the New Sentrymen to repel the assault.

One of these superheroes, a speedster named Bolt, decides after the battle to give Marcy a tour of the New Sentrymen’s headquarters. This goes poorly. One of the characters, the armoured and aloof Xenon, does not so much as acknowledge Marcy’s presence. Another superhero named Storm Crow aggressively challenges Marcy on her purpose of being at the headquarters. She says her intention is to join the New Sentrymen. Bolt, as it turns out, assumed the tour was a date, and not an induction into the organisation’s ranks. It evolves that the New Sentrymen is a closed shop with a subtly misogynist bent (there is only one token female member). Angered by her reception by the New Sentrymen, Marcy resolves to form her own group of superheroes, consisting entirely of women.

Over the course of the first four issues of “Heroines” which are the subject of this review, Marcy gathers together a mixed collection of female superheroes. These are Storm Crow’s ex-wife, the hyper-intense Raven, a ninja assassin named Shataru, and a phenomenally strong, androgynous lesbian named Jones. This ensemble eventually become embroiled in inevitable superhero fisticuffs. The team fight Thundergirl, a rogue New Sentryman who seems to have adopted an anti-imperialist, Marxist-Feminist attitude towards authority. The group foil Thundergirl’s bank robbery and capture her.

Superhero stereotypes indeed are layered thick in these first four issues, quite deliberately. Xenon is an analogue for US publisher Marvel Comics’ character Iron Man. Bolt, notwithstanding his carbon fibre blades, is an analogue for US publisher DC Comics’ character The Flash. Storm Crow is an analogue for Batman (like Batman, Storm Crow refuses to use firearms). Thundergirl’s name rhymes with DC Comics’ property “Wonder Woman”, and the two characters entirely resemble each other in appearance. There are secret identities, masks, posing, punching, energy beams projected from clenched fists, and all of the other indicia of the superhero genre.

But Mr Naifeh paints this backdrop with a laconic eye. This is most clear in a ninja battle involving Shataru and a former colleague, a flurry of martial arts and swordplay punctuated by mid-fight diatribes concerning vengeance and skill sets. Neither character seems to draw a breath while they are trying to kill each other. It is deliberately over the top, a sequence which underscores the silliness of the stylised rituals of violence in superhero comics.

The subtext, however, is meatier. Raven, Storm Crow’s ex-wife, has a particularly jaded view on fighting crime. She believes the “war on drugs” is a failure. Raven asserts that she could easily close down a nearby drug den, but chooses not to because of the social consequences of landing the dealers and addicts in jail. Instead, her dictum is to at least not perpetuate a downward societal trend caused by the illicit drug industry. It is a starkly pragmatic view on crime fighting, far removed from the moralistic, black-or-white altruism which is typical of this genre. Drugs may be bad, in Raven’s paradigm, but that societal issue will not fixed through superheroic violent apprehension and detention. “Look! The DEA and their whole “war on drugs” crap have a body count in the million,” says Raven. “I got one rule… don’t make things worse!” It is an acute observation.

Mr Naifeh rides the formidable and very contemporary wave of feminist texts in comic books. “Pretty Deadly”, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which we have reviewed previously is mystically feminist. Amidst the crash and thunder of the US superhero genre, “Captain Marvel” and “The Mighty Thor” have deliberately feminist agendas. All advocate women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the genders. Another critique, by Michael C. Lorah of CBR.com notes of Mr Naifeh’s work in this title, “Building his universe in this manner has led to some interesting dynamics, including commentary on the far subtler ways that women and people of colour are often portrayed.”

But, notwithstanding the expressed sympathy to female characters, does Mr Naifeh’s “Heroines” genuinely share in that? There are some lines of dialogue which advance a feminist subtext:

1. At the beginning of the tour of the New Sentrymen’s building, Marcy says to Bolt, “Zaha Hadid designed it, right?” Bolt replies, “He sure did!” “Uh, she,” replies Marcy. Bolt’s sexist default position, his assumption that a man was the architect, is laid bare.

2. It does not come into Bolt’s consideration that the person who saved the day might be at the New Sentrymen’s headquarters wants to join up. Instead, Bolt sees the tour as an opportunity for sex. When Bolt quickly then leads Marcy out of the New Sentrymen’s headquarters, Bolt notes, “Look, this may come out wrong but we’ve had bad luck with girls on the team.” And it does indeed come out wrong. Marcy is excluded and ejected from the building because women do not fit in, and because she is not actually there to sleep with Bolt.

3. Bolt explains to Marcy that Raven had to leave the team when she divorced Storm Crow. Marcy confronts Bolt on this – “And you couldn’t possibly dump him!” Bolt responds that Raven was not ejected because she was a woman, but because his mental issues were not as pronounced as her mental issues. Yet when we meet Raven, while she is jaded and brutally frank in her assessment of the world, she is hardly deranged. Storm Crow in comparison has apparent hygiene problems, and his angry provocation of Marcy by pulling a gun on her all suggests some mental health issues. When scrutinised, the New Sentrymen’s choice of embracing one over the other appears to be motivated by something other than what they say.

4. Thundergirl, upon her defeat by the new team, proclaims, “They might be women, but they’re still working for the man.” Thundergirl seems resolved to disassemble paternalistic and gender-oppressive institutions like banks. That is a radically feminist agenda.

Of the four major characters, Raven rings most true. Marcy is a vehicle for the story, and does not have much substance behind her motivation to become a superhero – although that is often true of many characters in the genre. Raven on the other hand is more than that. She has not let her divorce define her. She is freethinking and determined. Raven embodies a feminist agenda.

But two of the other main characters, Jones and Shataru, are where the feminist credentials of the title collapse. Despite being described as a ninja assassin, Shataru looks like a bondage mistress. She is rendered an object of sexual desire by her physical appearance. There is nothing empowering about depicting a female character with black crosses over her nipples, the rest of her breasts exposed. No ninja has ever dressed like that. The aim to to focus attention on the character’s breasts. The nipple crosses allure and tease by concealing. As the fight commences, she whips off her cloak, a stripteaser with a sword, undressing for the audience.

And it cannot be said that her male ninja adversary, in being dressed in identical sex slave attire, evens out the objectification. The message of equality of the sexes is not conveyed when both a male and female character are dressed as sex objects (and indeed, the male ninja’s nipple coverings are plainly a ludicrous justification for the female ninja’s sexually suggestive attire). Shataru’s costume seems vaguely reminiscent of characters seen in the pornographic publication, Penthouse Comix, in the 1990s. It is as if the writer wanted to espouse a feminist message, but decided to use suggestive art so as to not lose the traditional audience of the superhero genre, hormone-charged teenage boys.

Further, Shataru is a shallow vehicle. There is nothing about her character at this point in the story which might counterbalance the sexualisation of her exposed breasts. Shaturu is a brooding ninja assassin who wants to do good in the world. There is no novelty in that, nothing which might remedy the character’s appearance.

Jones is a different character: a lesbian who looks like and dresses as a man. At one point, Jones has no qualms in staring at Marcy’s breasts, thereby becoming distracted from the otherwise serious dialogue occurring between the parties.

Objectification of a female character by another female character is still, in our view, objectification. As noted in this article in The Atlantic, even in women’s magazines, where a woman is sexually objectified by another woman, the message is that the objectified woman is a mastered thing. (If Jones were a male character, the unpleasantness would perhaps be more obvious.)

In any event, it is made worse as the punchline to a joke. Staring at Marcy’s breasts is the gag. We are being invited to laugh at a character sexually objectifying Marcy’s breasts.

There are some genuinely funny moments in the comic:

a. Shataru apologies to Marcy for the ninja attack. Mary responds breezily, “Well, we all have baggage.”

b. Raven admits that she does not know her ex-husband’s real name. Marcy, like the comic’s audience, is astonished. “You were with each other for three years… and you don’t know his secret identity?” Raven concedes that this is strange, but that the excitement of being sexually intimate with a notorious, masked man made up for not knowing her husband’s name and face. This is a very original and amusing extension of the paranoia of crime-fighting characters like Batman, who go to extreme lengths to protect their real identities.

This sardonic humour does not serve to dilute the murky and ambiguous message of the title. The impression that we have is that Mr Naifeh tried to write a positive story about female empowerment and to chip away at the glass ceiling in a superhero context. But despite what appears to be the best of intentions, Mr Naifeh has only smudged it with messy handprints. This title makes the glass ceiling easier to perceive, but not in the way Mr Naifeh intended.

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Out of a sense of fairness, we provided a draft copy of this review to Mr Naifeh for his comment. Mr Naifeh has responded as follows:

“Some of that stuff I’m trying to explore is more complex than a single issue can contain. Your criticisms are completely justified based on what you’ve read. You might be assuming my only goal is to create clear feminist icons for people to stand behind and root for. I do, but I also want to examine the very things you’re complaining about a little more deeply. Things like the male gaze and objectification. But to do that, I have to set them up… [P]lease give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t give up on the book. I think you’ll be interested to see where it goes.”

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