The Fandorica Opens: On Gallifrey One 2012

As expected, I had a fantastic time at Gallifrey One’s Network 23 Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles. There are already many great write-ups online (check the list at the bottom of the post), all well worth reading. This review differs in that I’m trying to balance my fan and academic perspectives on the event.

The obvious point of comparison is with academic conferences. I’ve been going to both fan and academic events for almost the same amount of time (over two decades), and in many respects, fan conventions have a remarkably similar vibe, but with the critical difference of less anxiety and judgement. As with academic conferences, the main engine of cons is social: striking up conversations with strangers, or just picking up where you left off with old friends. While there are differences–not everyone can be on a panel or have an awesome costume or hang out in the green room–cons are a far less hierarchical space than any academic conference. Almost nobody’s actual real-world career hinges on their demeanor or appearance at a con; given most of the con goers, including many of the celebrity guests, hang out in the lobby talking and drinking till the wee hours, this is a very good thing indeed. Because of this lack of rank, discussions at Gally were always as relaxed, open, random, profane and long as they could be (once past that nerdy awkwardness that all of us shared, and that Radio Free Skaro podcaster Warren Frey pointed out is now, bizarrely, a trendy affected hipster trait). Indeed, many of the best conversations I had at Gally did not even involve Doctor Who, or television.

Tiki Dalek

The Tiki Dalek, or, as I called it, Gilligan's Dalek (Flickr photo credit: jtrummer)

As at MLA, NCA, SCMS or every other academic gathering, there were also many discussion panels at Gally. However, rather than a series of anxiously scripted presentations, panels were instead joyfully rambling gatherings that nonetheless produced much more engagement than the usual scholarly session. A panel of SF writers discussing managing their creative lives was particularly energetic and direct, offering up seasoned, pragmatic, and occasionally contentious advice on work-for-hire, creative control, and finding an agent. Interaction between panelists and audience throughout the weekend was always informal, with a minimum of restraint, especially given the rapid 55-minute sessions. Understandably, some sessions, in the large main room, functioned more formally, with media-savvy fans interviewing guest actors, directors, and writers. But even then, discussions were lively and intriguing, as was especially the case in the revealing “Doctor Who in the 60s” panel which featured long-time fan/producer/writer/editor Gary Russell interviewing original 1963 actor William Russell and director Waris Hussein, and 1965 companion Maureen O’Brien. While certainly not all panels were as coherent or engaging as they could have been, that’s always the case at SCMS and every other academic gathering I’ve ever attended as well. In that regard, thankfully Gally doesn’t go rigidly non-stop from 8 till 6 in two-hour chunks, but rather has a more open and sociable schedule that encourages sleeping in and staying up late. Nothing “officially” started till 10am at the earliest each day, and in addition to the perpetual “lobbycon” (the unofficial party that ran nonstop in the Marriott lobby from Wednesday through Monday nights), there were many late-night events and panels, a few starting as late as 1am, each night of the con.

Moreover, the vibe at Gally was also very distinct from that at Comic-Con, and most other cons, for that matter. While the sheer scope of Comic-Con insures its own particular appeal to geekdom (myself included; this year will be my fourth), it’s also a much more impersonal experience. One cowers at the foot of the temple of pop culture amidst tens of thousands of teeming pilgrims at Comic-Con. In contrast, Gally, while growing rapidly (with a record 3183 coming this year, a 45% growth from the previous record set in 2011), still feels homey and informal, rather than public and anonymous. It’s a huge party, vs. a massive festival. In comparing the events, a few of us reasoned that the physical exhaustion of just one day of Comic-Con is about equal to that of three days of Gally, with the net enjoyment of the latter much greater than the former. Moreover, given that all involved at Gally love love love Doctor Who, there were no turf battles over space or influence of particularly distinct demographics or fandoms (as has unfortunately been the case at Comic-Con, especially in the recent years of its massive growth).

That said, as undeniably enjoyable and community-building an event as Gally is, there are certainly a few issues with the way time and space are manipulated there (see what I did there?). Despite an overwhelmingly positive and welcoming atmosphere, and a near gender balance (on the whole; see below) and diversity of sexualities, the con is still not as racially diverse as I thought it would be. Then again, neither are academic conferences, unfortunately. Diversity of fandoms is also an intriguing tension, as Emily Kausalik examines in her account of the weekend. Gally provided panels on many avenues of interest–from interviews with the series’ actors to discussion of its works in other media forms to explorations of its production history to critiques of its representations of sexuality to discussions of fancraft–but this resulted in some Balkanization along interest and (to an extent) gender lines. I missed a few more typically female-oriented fannish panels (on topics like shipping and cosplay) that I had planned on attending in favor of hanging out with several of my old, and admittedly mostly male, fan friends. Again, a situation not unlike SCMS, sadly. I owe fellow acafan and feminist Doctor Who blogger Courtney Stoker a particular apology for missing her late-night cosplay/crossplay panel in that regard, but look forward to her write-up (until then, here’s a great interview she gave to io9, along with some excellent photos).

Courtney Stoker as the TARDIS

Acafans cosplay too! Here's Courtney Stoker, as the TARDIS (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

Speaking of cosplay, this was an area which frankly blew me away at Gally. I’ve been going to cons off and on for over 25 years, and have  probably seen thousands of costumed fans. But the creativity and craftspersonship I saw at Gally was at another level of awesome. There were the expected sea of scarves, bow ties, fezzes, and skinny bespoke suits that you’d expect from the most popular Doctors. But there were also many companions, obscure villains, and even more obscure one-off characters, all in amazing detail. Most impressively, however, were the overwhelmingly female cosplayers who “versioned” particular characters or themes. I lost count of how many incredible crossplay and femme Doctors, Captain Jacks, Daleks, and even TARDISes I saw; the pictures here indicate just a fraction what went on all weekend. The typical Comic-Con costumes seem like castoffs from the Halloween rental store by comparison.

The great level of dedication and love shown to Doctor Who by the most devoted fans–most clearly in cosplay and other fanart, but also in more archival endeavors, such BroaDWcast‘s mission to catalog every run of the classic series in every country–is probably what most discomforts academics. However, it’s also fandom’s greatest similarity with academia. Who other than the academic or fan devotee would trawl through dusty archives looking for discarded bits of knowledge, or frequently re-read or re-watch a text with an eye for new analyses and interpretations, or critique and reconfigure the very acts of devotion? While I still don’t agree that everything is/could be fandom, or that “acafan” is a useful long-term designation, I left Gally more encouraged than ever that these worlds are not only compatible but could powerfully work together. I’m working on a few projects that hopefully do just that.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve already registered for The 24 Hours of Gallifrey One in 2013, celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who. Hopefully I’ll see you there as well!

Eleven and the Girl Who Waited

The Amy Who Waited and a Femme Eleven (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

More Gally coverage…

Twitter hashtag: #gally (unofficially; the con itself prefers #gallifreyone, but most of the attendees favor #gally)

Forum: Gallifrey Base (the largest, and one of the longest-running, Doctor Who online communities)

Some Reviews:

Emily Kausalik, “Gally Rewind: A Tale of Two Cons” (with an excellent back-and-forth between Emily and Courtney Stoker in the comments)

fangirlknitscarf, “Geek Girl Gushes: Gallifrey One’s Network 23”

Kyle Anderson, “The Wrath of Con,” Nerdist.com

Armillary Observations, “The Maturing of Doctor Who Fandom, or 3 Reasons Gallifrey One is a Must-See for Who Fans”

Crave Online, “Gallifrey One 2012 Video Interviews”

Teresa Jusino, “Gallifrey One 2012: The Who-iest Place on Earth,” Tor.com

Andrew Reynolds, “Gallifrey One Review,” Kasterborous.com

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DC’s New 52: Week 4

The Flash #1Finally, my take on the last batch of DC’s new titles.

Again, here’s my ratings scale:

Pull = I’m putting it on my pull list, picking up every issue

Ponder = I’m wobbly with it, and may stick with it for another issue or two, but haven’t yet committed.

Pass = No thanks; not working for me, and there’s too much else out there to give this any more attention.

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All Star Western #1 – Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, art by Moritat
While crime, fantasy, horror and SF all contend and mix with the dominant superhero flavor, other genres are few and far between. The western, ruler of the roost a half-century ago, is one that keeps flickering along on the margins. Here, DC promises a serialized anthology of their stable of wild western characters, though this first arc is led by their most famous creation, Jonah Hex. And it’s not technically a western, but more of an “Eastern,” with Hex brought in to 1880s Gotham City to deal with some gruesome murders. While this is somewhat standard Sherlock Holmes/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff, its urban American setting is a nice variation. Moreover, this past will connect with the further reaches of the DCU past as well as its present. In addition, Moritat’s direct yet grotesque art, and Gabriel Bautista’s outstanding sepia coloring, keep this stylistically separate from the present. While I hope we do get out west, and see some other characters (e.g., the much-neglected Cinnamon), this is a great start.  Recommendation: Pull.

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Aquaman #1 – Written by Geoff Johns, art by Ivan Reis
Poor Aquaman. Always the after-thought of the top level of DC characters, and usually considered a joke (based largely on his exposure in Super Friends in the 1970s and 1980s) as the guy who talks to fish. DC’s continually tried to make him relevant (and frankly, butch him up a bit), going so far in the 1990s as to lop off his hand in favor of a big hook. The reboot gives yet another chance to redo Aquaman, though it’s doubtful that this version will fare any better. Johns acknowledges that most people in the DCU don’t think much of Aquaman, with criminals, cops and civilians shown dismissing and laughing at him. However, he’s still a pretty powerful being, on land or water, much to their surprise. He even eats fish and chips. Noble intentions here, with a creepy new deep-sea menace and the trademark solid work from Ivan Reis (this generation’s Gene Colan). However, the chip-on-his-shoulder-“I-am-too-a-superhero!” tone could get tiresome quickly. Recommendation: Ponder.

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Batman: The Dark Knight #1 – Written by David Finch and Paul Jenkins, art by David Finch and Richard Friend
How many Batman-led titles can DC sustain? The magic number seems to be about three. This title is number four. While Detective is standard (despite some hatred for it out there), Batman & Robin expansive, and Batman superb, The Dark Knight is a bad hodge-podge of dusty story elements. Political intrigue for Bruce Wayne? Check. Mysterious beauty? Check. Trouble at Arkham Asylum? Check (and double-check: ripping off the Arkham Asylum videogame as well). This is paint-by-numbers Batman, with no soul or pulse. Finch’s too-calculated style borders on Liefeld-land; pretty stuff, for some, but too belabored. In a strong lineup of Batbooks (including the above, Batwoman, and possibly Batgirl), this is conspicuously superfluous. Recommendation: Pass.
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Blackhawks #1 – Written by Mike Costa, art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley
This is another example of updating an old idea, making over the WWII Blackhawks air combat team as a 21st century, stealthy quick-strike anti-terrorism unit. Conceptually, this could be fascinating, and fans of high-tech speculation, team-based shooters like Battlefield or Call of Duty, and (yes) anime will find much to enjoy here, with some bold ideas (e.g., saliva-borne nanotech weapons). The execution is solid, with Nolan and Lashley’s art giving it the requisite sweep and punch. That said, the tone’s a bit too over-the-top for me, and feels out of synch with the rest of the books. Good stuff if you like sexy body-armor clad badass warriors bristling with guns and spouting military jargon, but if you don’t, it’s meh. Recommendation: Pass.
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The Flash #1 – Written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, art by Francis Manapul
Despite some convoluted continuity, the Flash has been one of the most popular and significant characters in the DCU for years. Indeed, he’s apparently solely responsible for this reboot in the first place, via Flashpoint. DC sticks by its decision to make Barry Allen the Flash (sorry Wally West fans: no sign of him yet), and Manapul delivers the goods. This is textbook 21st century superhero storytelling, involving both Allen and the Flash, laying out some of the character’s key complications and relationships, and setting up an intriguing mystery from the get-go. Moreover, Manapul’s art successfully conveys the speed and movement of the character (always a favorite challenge of DC’s artists over the decades). The constant lightning bolts are a nice element in this regard, instantly conveying his instability. Great stuff, and next to Wonder Woman, the best relaunch of one of the A-List. Recommendation: Pull.
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The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1 – Written by Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone, art by Yildiray Cinar
Firestorm’s long been an intriguing, but difficult character for DC, fusing the worlds of magic and science like no other, and embodying a core psychological complication (two identities in one body). This reboot attempts to embrace these contradictions, combining both earlier versions of the character (Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch) into hybrid superbeing. While I’m sure this looked great in brainstorming sessions (and particularly the opportunity to address race dead-on), the execution is a mess. Perhaps it stems from an uneasy working relationship between Van Sciver and Simone; the latter has reportedly already left the book. The terrorist subplot is way too grim for the overall material (e.g., a family is tortured and killed to open the issue), and is poorly grafted onto the story of Ronnie and Jason. Cinar makes what he can out of the mess, but the damage has been done. A bold idea, but completely botched. They need to shut this down quickly. Recommendation: Pass.
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Green Lantern: New Guardians #1 – Written by Tony Bedard, art by Tyler Kirkham
Here’s your Kyle Rayner fanservice, and it’s actually not bad. After a neat condensed origin story, we’re whisked into a story involving multiple lantern rings converging on poor old Kyle. Again, as with the other GL titles, you’re either into this sort of thing or not. I’m not. Still, as with the previous week’s GL Corps, this is entertaining and appropriately epic in its scale, with a few touches of humanity and wit. Bedard’s an underrated writer, with a good sense of plotting and ear for dialogue. But again, I’m not on board with the whole Lantern concept, so… Recommendation: Pass.
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I, Vampire #1 – Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Andrea Sorrentino
Vampires are to popular culture in the early 2010s as cowboys or processed cheese were in the early 1960s: ubiquitous well past the point of banality. So here we have more vampires, only this time set in the DCU, and they’ve decided to come out into the open. Apparently vampire plots are as banal as vampires. Anyway: immortality, desire, betrayal, bloodlust, superiority, blah blah blah. That said, Sorrentino’s stark and moody art is outstanding, and raises the material much higher than it deserves. Sure, it’s more than a bit reminiscent of Mignola, but he’s set the bar high for this sort of material, so fair enough. She’s a rising star, and deserves more exposure, and better story material to work with. I’d love to see her on some of the other dark/magic DC titles. Recommendation: Pass.
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Justice League Dark #1 – Written by Peter Milligan, art by Mikel Janin
Here’s where things get complicated. Take the dark magic of some Vertigo characters (most notably John Constantine) and blend it with the relatively primary colors of the mainline DCU. The result is uneven but definitely intriguing. Milligan wisely foregrounds the weirdness and horror of magic (even to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman), keeping the stakes clear and high. The mysterious and terrifying images and plot points here (a massively multiplied amnesiac woman, a raging storm of Enchantress’ teeth. Yes: teeth) keep the events moving briskly. It’ll be interesting to see how the component parts of this odd Justice League come together over this arc, but Milligan generally has a good grasp on team dynamics (e.g., X-Statix at Marvel). Janin’s art bridges the gap between these worlds effectively, leaking the nightmares into otherwise normal-looking scenes. Recommendation: Pull.
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The Savage Hawkman #1 – Written by Tony S. Daniel, art by Philip Tan
Like Aquaman, Hawkman’s a perpetual second-line hero. His unique properties are intriguing, but not enough to keep him consistently in the A list. However, over the years a rich (though convoluted) backstory has developed around him, which has made him more interesting, but has also kept him more on the margins than others. This reboot strips away a good chunk of this backstory and restores the mystery around him. The “Savage” in the new title is also meant to raise the character’s stakes: think Wolverine or even Hulk, rather than the stoic warrior of the past. Tony Daniel’s story is all physical and emotional, with a lot of torment, and people shouting “RAAAARGH!” This isn’t a whole lot to go on, though there’s a leanness about it that’s not totally unappealing. Philip Tan’s expressive lines (coupled with Sunny Gho’s painterly coloring) is well-suited to this tone. Still, that’s not enough to make this a compelling read. I’ll prefer Hawkman as a role player in the Justice League. Recommendation: Pass.
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Superman#1 – Written by George Perez, art by George Perez and Jesus Merino
As Grant Morrison showed in Action Comics, you can’t go too wrong with the classic notes in relaunching Superman. Here, this comes via George Perez and Jesus Perino. This is a dense script; there’s much more dialogue and action here than in the standard decompressed 21st century style of quiet panels and simmering gazes.This is talky, noisy, old-school action, with the requisite big throwdown with a giant monster, but also a huge and complex story of the role of journalism and the fate of the Daily Planet. There’s more than one hero here. Perino’s art, following Perez’ lead, is well up to the task, loaded with expressive faces, actions and textures. Bold and dynamic but also very much the classic, ideal Superman that we hoped for. Recommendation: Pull.
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Teen Titans #1 – Written by Scott Lobdell, art by Brett Booth
Another legendary DCU team, though even more change coming. In the boldest relaunch of this team since 1980, Scott Lobdell offers up both new characters (or at least points to them showing up soon) and new versions of old favorites. Only Tim Drake’s Red Robin seems close to the character left behind in the old DCU, with Kid Flash, Superboy and Wonder Girl more emotional and unstable than before. Unfortunately, all this energy takes the whole thing off the rails, with Drake chest-deep in international metahuman intrigue already, and Cassie Sandsmark (i.e., Wonder Girl) hamming it up as a larcenous schizophrenic with expensive and dangerous tastes. Brett Booth’s meaty, exaggerated art is a good vehicle for this material, but the book as a whole comes across as too energetic and chaotic, like a 15 year-old after a couple of energy drinks. If you’re already pegging the action meter at the start, where can you go? Recommendation: Pass.
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Voodoo #1 – Written by Ron Marz, art by Sami Basri
The last of the controversial books of the new 52 which have led many to wonder how the men at DC relate to actual women. The eponymous character is a mysterious stripper who happens to be a mysterious and dangerous shape-shifting alien. While there’s a lot to applaud about the mystery in general (we can’t tell where this story might be going, what/who she really is, or whether or not she’s even “good”), it’s unfortunately rendered under a thick layer of unapologetic cheesecake. Most of the book is set in a strip club, resulting in a whole lot of flesh and leering looks (e.g., no less than 30 panels of cleavage). It could be argued that we’re meant to feel shame (like the title’s only interesting character, Fallon), but the environment is rendered so meticulously and seductively that any ambiguity is drowned out. Worse, the book culminates this display with graphic, bloody violence (though directed at the smug male agent pursuing Voodoo). There’s certainly room for all sorts of depictions of women in comics, and it has to be said that Sami Basri’s art is legitimately gorgeous in that regard. I defend DC’s right to publish this, and fans to read it. It’s just that this is yet another wasted opportunity to change the discussion, to broaden the landscape of representation, to offer something significant. Instead, like too much in comics these days (see for example the entire ouput of Zenescope), its particular mashup of fantasy sex and fantasy violence functions largely to stimulate straight pubescent fanboys. Comics should aspire for more. Recommendation: Pass.

DC’s New 52: Week 3

Wonder Woman #1, art by Cliff ChiangFalling behind a bit, but such is academic life. We’re deep in the run of second issues already, but here are my thoughts on Week 3 of the relaunch, with far and away the most controversial of the new books. Week 4 will follow shortly.

Again, here’s my ratings scale:

Pull = I’m putting it on my pull list, picking up every issue

Ponder = I’m wobbly with it, and may stick with it for another issue or two, but haven’t yet committed.

Pass = No thanks; not working for me, and there’s too much else out there to give this any more attention.

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Batman #1 – Written by Scott Snyder, art by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion

This is one of the most assured books in the reboot, smoothly continuing Grant Morrison’s setup, and locating Bruce Wayne at its center. Most importantly, this isn’t a one-note brooding Batman: he’s got a dry wit and a definite soft spot for his three sons (Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne). His detection skills are on full display as well, leading to the shock climax (with repercussions with Nightwing in particular). Capullo is a good match for this style, similar to Cameron Stewart or even Kevin O’Neill, with just enough exaggeration and flourish to keep the tone fantastic rather than grim. One of the definitive cornerstones of the new era. Recommendation: Pull.

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Birds of Prey #1 – Written by Duane Swiweczynski, art by Jesus Saiz
Despite having some significant fears (no Gail Simone?!?), I found this book to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire batch. Swiericzynski pulls back a bit on the banter and  madcap tone that defined Simone’s run, and instead gives us a story that’s not only well-paced and action-packed, but also surprisingly grounded, with well-drawn (in every sense of the word) characters and a distinctive team vibe. Moreover, unlike a few other titles this week, this is a comic that respects women beyond their appearance. Saiz’ style is conventional but fresh: there’s no doubt Black Canary, Starling, and Katana are superheroes, but they’re defined much more by their intelligence and actions than by their cleavage. While we’re still a long, long way from gender equity in mainstream comics, Birds of Prey (alongside Batwoman and the new Wonder Woman, and so far, the new Supergirl) is a solid step in the right direction. Recommendation: Pull.
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Blue Beetle #1 – Written by Tony Bedard, art by Ig Guara and Ruy Jose
Arguably the only truly interesting character created at DC in the 2000s, Jaime Reyes was a lock to return to the DCU as Blue Beetle. All of the elements of his high school and family life in El Paso are retained, with a few subtle shifts (Brenda’s Tia Amparo now lives on the US side of the border), enabling these relationships to continue (if started from scratch again). The most significant change has to do with the Beetle scarab itself. While its powers and intentions were always a bit mysterious in the last version, here the reader is presented with the scarab as a weapon of invasion of subjugation, and a long-time foe of the Green Lanterns. Jaime doesn’t know this yet (the scarab has just infected him at the end of the issue), but his version of the “power/responsibility” superhero dynamic looks to be more challenging this go around. While this likely means this darker take won’t be as Buffy-esque in its humor as the original, it will certainly keep things intriguing if played right. Too early to commit, but the potential is there. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Captain Atom #1 – Written by J.T. Krul, art by Freddie Williams II
Oddly, one of the most forgettable of the titles, and I’m not sure why. It’s tone and remit screamed Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan, so much so that I’m still sure DC has something up its sleeve to actually go there. But so far it feels more derivative and less a homage to Moore and Gibbons’ character. There’s nothing wrong with the story and art; I like Williams’ new character design. There’s nothing all that remarkable about it either. I may give it one more issue to see if the Dr. Manhattan allusions go anywhere, or if Krul can successfully advance a completely different take on this idea (the near omniscient science-created super-being), but otherwise there’s nothing compelling here. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Catwoman #1 – Written by Judd Winick, art by Guillem March
I really wanted to like this. I even re-read it a few days later to give it a second shot, but nope, there’s now no doubt: this is a tragic failure. Selina Kyle was one of the five best characters in DC in the 2000s, a model superhero who worked by her own code, which often left her stuck between the more conventional battle lines. Unfortunately, this relaunch basically channels her self-esteem away from the grim determination and sheer smarts she showed in her 2000s run and towards her body. More specifically, her breasts, with many panels featuring them perilously close to spilling out of lacy D-cups. While the situations presented could be intriguing (if not so narratively confused), Winick and March rely entirely on the suggestive appearance of her body. The hugely controversial spur of the moment hook-up with Batman that closes the issue is actually narratively and thematically fine (it’s certainly happened before); it’s the execution here that’s so, so wrong, culminating in a page causing many to ponder the design of each of their costumes, and the sexual maturity of both writer and artist. Don’t even give this a look; hopefully DC will end this travesty shortly. Instead, read the fantastic run of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and Cameron StewartRecommendation: Pass.
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DC Universe Presents #1 – Written by Paul Jenkins, art by Bernard Chang
This is a great title to resurrect, because it offers stories featuring characters that may not be enough of a draw for their own book. This is the perfect sort of short-term relationship with a title that many readers are seeking. Deadman kicks things off here, with a moody and effective first issue that introduces him to new readers, centering on his voice. Boston Brand was more or less the star of Brightest Day, and that’s the version we get here as well: sad, regretful, resigned to his fate, but also dutiful. The twist at the end is that precisely who or what he’s being dutiful for may have betrayed him. Great story, and great art from Chang. Recommendation: Pull.
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Green Lantern Corps #1 – Written by Peter J. Tomasi, art by Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna
Another week, another GL book. This one’s not bad for what it is, actually. Centered on the odd couple of Guy Gardner and John Stewart, GLC focuses less on threats to Earth and more on the galactic scope of the Lanterns. In this case, it’s the threat posed by an invisible baddie slicing right through Lanterns. Pretty grisly stuff in the opening pages, but done well enough for what it is. Again, I’m just underwhelmed by the entire concept of the Green Lanterns, so this book isn’t quite for me. Recommendation: Pass.
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Legion of Super-Heroes #1 – Written by Paul Levitz, art by Francis Portela
Sigh. You think there’s a lot of X-Men? There are no fewer than 16 Legionnaires featured in this issue alone. While some of them can be intriguing in doses, the overall effect is disorienting. Who are these people? What’s going on? Again, as with Legion Lost, this seems to be written exclusively for existing Legion fans and nobody else. I expected something a bit more open and pragmatic from Paul Levitz. Portela’s art is passable, but limited due to the sheer scope of settings and characters involved. Recommendation: Pass.
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Nightwing #1 – Written by Kyle Higgins, art by Eddy Barrows and J.P. Mayer
Not a radical reboot here, and more of a return, like slipping on a favorite jacket found in the back of the closet. Dick’s done with being Temp Batman, and back to being Nightwing, with a clean slate to start things off (no apparent backstory with either Barbara Gordon or Koriand’r), though he’s visiting his old circus and opening those wounds. In addition, he’s the target of a new violent assassin (a storyline that ties into the flagship Batbook). This is meat-and-potatoes stuff, competently done, with lots of interior monologues and a couple of well staged fight scenes. Its lack of grand ambition (thus far) is almost refreshing, but it may take a bit more to make it more than a passable but thoroughly inconsequential part of the DCU. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 – Written by Scott Lobdell, art by Kenneth Rocafort
When people who don’t read comics complain about comics, it’s issues like these that unfortunately show they might have a point. This issue embodies what way too many people working in comics apparently consider “mature” material. See, this is “grown-up” stuff precisely because the characters are violent, amoral and have emotionless sex. While all three principals (Jason Todd/Red Hood, Roy Harper/Arsenal, and Koriand’r/Starfire) have been substantial characters in the past, here they only exist to look cool and spout zingers. The most insulting thing about the much-derided bikini page isn’t as much that Starfire looks like that as it’s presented as the end-all of her character. As several reviewers and fans have noted, this approach takes the Starfire girls might have loved from the DC Animated Teen Titans (2003-06) and turns her into a sexbot. This feels cold and calculated all the way through, aiming precisely for the 15 year-old lizard brain of het masculinity. The saddest part is that both Lobdell and Rocafort are and have done better; this is beneath them. Recommendation: Pass.
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Supergirl #1 – Written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, art by Mahmud Asrar
Supergirl was another one of the intriguing female characters potentially cut short by the reboot. While she’s certainly been controversial (particularly in the first couple years of this iteration of the character, which made her out to be a panty-flashing badass), she’s also been a good counter to Superman. Thankfully, this relaunch distills the most intriguing parts of her character (in particular the fact that she has memories of life on Krypton, and is thus much more Kryptonian than Superman), and puts us in her shiny red boots as an outsider who finds herself on our primitive world. The writing and the art complement each other well: lean and assured, keeping to the basics. She’s portrayed here as understandably disoriented, but also strong, smart and resourceful, and far from the hypersexualized fembot she could have been. One to keep an eye on. Recommendation: Pull.
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Wonder Woman #1 – Written by Brian Azzarello, art by Cliff Chiang
This is the book of the week. WW is the character that everyone wants to succeed, but whose books have always been overshadowed and underappreciated by the readership. She’s been an integral part of the action in recent years (particularly in the aftermath of her murder of Maxwell Lord), with great runs written by Greg Rucka and Gail Simone (respectively). Unfortunately, the last run, by J. Michael Straczynski, hasn’t been as assured. Thankfully, Azzarello and Chiang are well up to the task of forging a new Wonder Woman. They draw from the best of the older versions of her character, delving back in particular to the essence of Greek mythology, and present a tough, no-nonsense, decisive, no-BS heroine. The tone is one of vague supernatural menace, with moments of shocking but quiet violence, and silent panels of movement and action. This is clearly the best of the new books, with a fearless ambition and style. Highly, highly recommended. Recommendation: Pull.

Bonus: Here’s another Laura Hudson piece, with comics creators discussing the representation of women, and what can be done about it.

Console-ing Passions 2008

Last weekend I attended the Console-ing Passions conference at UC Santa Barbara. The event, focusing on feminist media studies, has been held roughly every two years since 1992. While it is still primarily concerned with television (as it started as a counter to the predominance of film studies in the 1980s), it has always welcomed papers and presentations on a wide array of media. However, and despite occasional calls to broaden its official purview, it still importantly maintains its central focus on feminist analysis and politics. This focus has helped it maintain a particular sensibility and community over the years, and this year’s event was no exception. Indeed, it was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended in recent years.

I should say upfront that much of this was due to the setting. Santa Barbara is one of those supernaturally beautiful places, with mountains, the Pacific Ocean, lush vegetation, and near-perfect weather. The UCSB campus, like every other UC campus I’ve ever been to, makes the best of use of this environment, with open spaces, winding walkways, low-slung buildings, and sunlit rooms. The event organizers, UCSB Film and Media Studies professors Anna Everett and Lisa Parks, shrewdly planned the schedule to make the most of this setting, with extended breaks between some sessions, over an hour for lunch each day, and two outdoor receptions (including one on Goleta Beach, adjacent to UCSB).

I bring all this up because it makes a qualitative difference in the conference experience. The best conferences are about what happens in the spaces between the panels: in hallways, restaurants, hotel bars, and (yes) beaches. I’m not as up on my Richard Florida as I should be in this regard, but there’s clearly something about the effective organization of time and space that foster greater intellectual and creative energies. It’s a lesson I hope the leaders of SCMS heed as that conference continues to expand.

The theme for this year’s CP, broadly speaking, was gender and production. Most panels took this issue head-on, presenting work ranging from the theorization of “production” per se, to representations of media production on television, to the conditions and practices of actual media production. This focus indicates the growing expansion of media studies’ objects and methods of study. The days when entire conferences would consist of dozens of individual “readings” of particular films or TV series are thankfully long gone. Instead, effective media scholarship-i.e., “doing” media studies-requires interaction with (if not mastery of) a wide array of theories, methods, media forms, texts, producers, and users. Despite the increased expectations this places on media scholars, students, and practitioners, this is how it should be. Media is too chaotic and important to be carved only into arbitrary approaches or areas of focus. There is so much to learn-about methodologies, about industrial practices, about different formal paradigms, about reception communities-that can benefit us all in ways, I think, that our present moment, with its cultural, economic, technological, political and even biological uncertainties, demands.

That said, CP’s feminist ethos still provides an effective, and critically important, banner under which the new media studies can productively work. At CP, feminism is not so much a discrete approach (as it still tends to be taught) as an overarching principle: i.e., advancing work that broadens our understanding of gendered categories, and contributes to the improvement of the lives of real women and men. Here as well the organization of the event contributed to this goal, as not only media scholars but media producers and media fans interacted in this space; I saw presentations and/or chit-chatted with women television writers, studio executives, porn producers, and media acafen throughout the weekend. As someone who otherwise occupies several central social positions of contemporary American heteronormative patriarchy (white, middle-aged, straight, married, and parenting), I feel it’s important to listen to and engage in these discussions as much as possible.

(That said, I don’t mean to suggest that this makes it all or only “work”; I had a blast all weekend.)

Coming up in the next two installments: CP-presented work on gender in television programming, and work on gender in television production.

MIT 5: TV 2.0 – Remixing Battlestar Galactica

OK, now it was over two months ago; great googly moogly! I’ve finished my summer session class, and, while I’m neck deep in writing projects, they are, indeed, writing projects. Which means I’m writing. So here I am. Writing.

Two months on, and MIT 5 is still relevant in this post-iPhone age. Not only that, this panel, on Battlestar Galactica (BSG) and its fandoms, was the most intriguing panel of the weekend for me, and has given me a lot to chew on as I work through my own issues with authorship and fandom.

Before I get into it, though, I want to point to Julie Levin Russo’s podcasts of the panel. She organized, moderated, and presented on the panel, and recorded it all for posterity. I found these ‘casts to be immensely useful in revisiting these papers. All too often, conference papers recede from memory all too quickly once you’ve left the airport back home on Sunday night. They only function from that point out not as memory, but as a vaguely documented trace of scholarship (i.e., a line on the vita). True, they’ll hopefully also evolve into something more permanent, like an article or book chapter. However, the moment itself is gone, unless recorded. Maybe I’ve just got a thing for reruns, but I really appreciate being able to hear this panel again. Thank you, Julie!

Melanie Kohnen opened the panel with an overview of BSG’s much-discussed war-on-terror iconography and thematics. She argues that the series complicates default media constructions of terrorism and religious fervor by remixing its elements. For example, in BSG, it is the ostensible “bad guys” (the Cylons) who are evangelical monotheists, and the “good guys” (the humans) who (in S3’s “New Caprica” arc) mount an insurgency and plot suicide bombings. Such “remixing” occurs throughout the series, over axes of politics, gender, religion, ethnicity, and technology, questioning the strategies of power, and the tactics of resistance.

Next, Sarah Toton described the history of online BSG fandom from its “old school” roots in single-edited webistes of 1990s webrings (maintained by fans of the original 1978-80 series) to the more open-source, collaborative communities inspired by the new series (link to full paper). Along the way, and in addition to this generational split, fan expression has been gendered. The parameters of BattlestarWiki, for example, are only relatively open in that it seeks to assemble “factual” information about characters, places, events, and objects within the BSG universe (and as if it itself existed in that universe), and marginalizes more interpretive and speculative arguments and accounts of the series. Still, it, and other sites, are potential sites of collaborative canon (or at least “fanon”) generation, and for that reason, should continue to be explored and expanded.

Toton’s paper commanded most of the Q&A, but I can’t recall what transpired. Julie did record it as well, though, so maybe I’ll go back and hear it again!

The final two papers were most interesting to me in exploring the interface of the “sourcetext” (fanspeak for the actual TV episode, in this case) and fan desire.

Anne Kustritz examined the issue of relationships in long-running media texts, arguing that possibilities work best for fans when they remain possible, i.e, left open. BSG, over its first two seaasons, developed an intricate network of possible romantic entanglements, as most of its characters regularly interacted with each other. However, these possibilities, Kustritz argues, began to be shut down as the series went on, with definitive, and heteronormative, relationships becoming the norm into S3.

My observation for Anne (two months later!) is that sustaining openness, on a tightly serialized program like BSG, strains its realist conventions. In other words, while some fans may want the possibilities to linger, others, and the writers, may want to move the story on. There’s no narrative movement, no decisions, no regrets, if nothing tangible happens. That said, I agree that it’s sadly conventional in most of its choices in this regard (though there’s still going to be a lot to say/write about Kara Thrace and her passions when it’s all said and done next spring…).

On a similar path, Julie Levin Russo explored the queer possibilites the series has opened up thus far, revealing tensions between fans’ desires (their multiform love for the characters and its possibilities) and authorial actions that complicate that love. She donned her “girl slash goggles,” her chosen love technology, to show how queer modes of love could be found in the gaps and interstices of the text. (Note: you can see Russo, and the BSG GSGs, in the video clip of her paper). Most persuasively, she pointed out how the video clips made available on the official BSG site for fanvid production were generic and CGI-centric, favoring a particular kind of fanboy techno-love, in contrast to the fangirl-produced, character-centered fanvids at iMeem and elsewhere.

This paper was as compelling an account of queer online media fandom as I’ve ever read or heard. The primary point, about whose love is validated, and how, was particularly relevant to ongoing debates about the parameters of fandom. While at the time I thought she was a mite unfair to Ron Moore when she criticized his excuse for not having any gay characters on BSG, in retrospect (i.e., in “watching” the rerun of her paper), I can see her point. He is fighting the “good fight” on many fronts (as Kohnen argued), but obviously taking on heteornormativity isn’t one of them. It is telling that the one definitive space opened up for a “queerer” love on the show – the quaintly domestic and sorta Pottery Barn-ish threesome of D’Anna, Caprica, and Gaius – while vaguely utopian (as with much of the Cylon ethos, to the show’s credit), was also limited to these three “baddies,” and fell apart anyway pretty quickly (though it has to be said, that was all Gaius’ fault!).

So, a strong, thought-provoking panel overall, and one I was glad to revisit. This meta-issue about the boundaries of the “official” text and fan desires/creativity is particularly relevant to my work right now, as is the problematic gendered constructions of “fans” (“girls” and “boys”) and “The Powers That Be” (by the media, by fans, by academics, and by acafans). These papers gave me a lot to process.

Next up, the final MIT 5 retrospective!: Getting Lost (or “where the hell is Building 1?!?”)

More fan debate: what’s “traditional fan behavior” anyway?

Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova have a great discussion in this week’s Fan Debate offering, querying not only the limits of the category “fan,” but what does all these gendered distinctions offer to the discussion. I’m particularly in agreement with Ksenia’s points about how the construction of fandom in academia and in particular fan communities has itself structured what “counts” as “fandom.” To wit, here she wonders whether, in all the current focus on LiveJournal-centered fandom (in academic writing, at least), we’ve lost contact with other, more mundane, and more numerous, venues and practices:

That’s one of the striking things about sites like Livejournal for me – the way it places personal thoughts and conversation into a semi-public, semi-permanent arena – and the accessibility of blogs and discussion boards is obviously a gift for fan-scholars. But obviously, if we rely on those easily-accessible forms of fan discourse, we’re also overlooking all the more elusive discussion that goes on every day in the living room or the staff canteen, and perhaps we risk taking the part as representative of the whole. Again, let’s bear in mind that there are a lot of people, male and female, like myself – who enjoyed Serenity and Firefly but don’t create anything about it or engage in any communities about it. A lot of people who value a specific cultural text and for whom that text is an important part of their lives don’t engage in easily-recognisable, visible, traditional fan behaviour.

It’s this notion of “traditional fan behaviour” that really nails it. What’s “traditional” in one venue may be an outlier in another. Part of the problem the whole endeavor of fan studies has is that the parameters of fandom are simultaneously crucial and indefinite. The identification and observation of myriad borders, boundaries, territories, and the like (e.g,. public vs. private message boards, friendslists, official vs. un-official sites, gen vs. slash, etc.) are what seemingly fuels much fan studies…and yet there is no map of the entire fan “universe” (nor could there ever be*). The debate about fandom being either a matter of degree or kind in the past few weeks’ discussion at fandebate and elsewhere points to this missing whole: is it totally distinct (from “regular” reading/viewing), or is it “regular” readingviewing, only amped up the scale?

Moreover, what is it exactly that separates these territories? Gender has been the default marker of this entire discussion, but I’ve always had the nagging feeling that what we’ve really been talking about was more particular practices (and within that, particular kinds of “progressive” creative output and/or reading strategies) than anything as unwieldy as “gender” per se. I’m more interested in understanding these practices first, and understanding how they’re deployed and managed, than in starting from a label of “male” or “female” or “fangirl” or “fanboy.” I hope Will and Ksenia have helped move this discussion forward this week.

* That said, the notion (spectre?) of quantitative analysis and demographics keeps surfacing in these discussions like a kind of epistemological whale in a sea of theorizing, with most acknowledging that it just hasn’t been done enough (but few volunteering to do it!).

MIT5: Fans and Producers

Time flies, even in the summer. I’m pulled between several different projects at the moment (and teaching a summer session class) so the ol’ blog sometimes falls off the radar.

Anyway, continuing on with my review of MIT5…

The “Fans and Producers” panel was a highlight of the weekend for me, not only for presenting some work that had been gestating a while, but also for the ensuing discussion and subsequent eruption of academic/fannish (i.e., “acafan”) discussion. As noted earlier, Henry Jenkins has dedicated the summer to this topic on his blog. Kristina Busse has worked hard to keeping several discussions going, and has just added another LJ community to continue the debates started on Henry’s site.

At the panel, this debate was framed in a variety of ways. The first presenters, Joan Giglione and Robert Gustafson, took a more psychological approach to the issue, positing the fan-celebrity encounter as fraught with various anxieties. While I’m fascinated with the overall issue, the presentation itself meandered with little sense of organization (and, ruthless panel moderator that I am, I cut it off at about 22 minutes). I can’t really comment much on it because of this, but important differences with this approach emerged later in the comments.

Sam Ford next presented his work on the longstanding relationship between soap producers and fans (Here’s the full paper (PDF).). This was an important paper in a number of ways, pointing out the complex ways that fans and “TPTB” have viewed (and used) each other in this particular genre, tracing its history over a few decades of viewership, and raising the idea of the “old” (i.e., older than 49) viewer-historian as a key resource not only for soap fandom, but soap production.

Finally, I gave my initial version of my work on the authorship discourses produced around Doctor Who‘s Russell T. Davies (the PDF of which will be up on the conference site shortly). While this is part of a larger project on contemporary television authorship, I am developing it into a stand-alone piece about this particular conjunction of “fan” and “producer” discourses–as shaped primarily by press and PR venues–as a model of “cult TV” production and promotion (I’m still working on how I’m dealing with its actual reception, and am in the process of getting up to speed on fan studies).

While the panel went off well, the real indication of its success came in the comments, when the room erupted in response to Joan Giglione’s (it has to be said) dismissive treatment of an audience question. She asked if the questioner (Bob Rehak, if I remember right) if he had “ever been on a Hollywood set.” When he answered no, she and Gustafson threw their hands up as if to say “well, there’s your problem.”

This elicited an intense exchange about the very epistemology of our object(s) of study. Giglione seemingly, and uncritically, located direct observation of “Hollywood sets” as the “truth” of media culture, while most of the room (including myself) viewed such access as but one particular discourse which, while important, does not necessarily trump other accounts. In my case, for the purposes of this paper, I’m more interested in how what goes on on the (Cardiff, not Hollywood) set of Doctor Who is packaged and presented to various publics, than in what the “actual” production is like.

The question itself – “Have you ever been on a Hollywood set?” – has stuck with me ever since that weekend, as I’ve pondered its explicit hierarchies of knowledge generation, and considered its several ironies (e.g., Hollywood sets are for the production of fantasy; scholarly access to a Hollywood set does not equate with the labor of Hollywood production, etc.). The knowledge gap it suggests cuts right to the core of what we do as media scholars, drawing in everything from Media Effects to Political Economy to Textual Analysis to Cultural Studies. More to come on this one, I’m certain.

This panel also partially fueled Kristina Busse’s response to the conference (which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts), which revealed another set of knowledge discourses that I (as scholar and panel moderator) had previously neglected: the fans themselves, and particularly the viewpoints of female fans and acafans to issues of knowledge, authorship, and textual authority.

I was (unknowingly) seen as one of the “fanboys” attending other “fanboy” panels, rather than the “fangirl” ones. In retrospect, judging by the company I kept that weekend, I can certainly see how that perception emerged. This realization has been important for me in opening up consideration of various codes of power (in that old Foucaultian sense) in my work and scholarly life: gendered, classed, academic, aged, textual, etc. Perhaps I’ve let these differences slide from my conscious thought too much (especially at conferences, where I’m still getting used to friendly grad students coming up to me about Rerun Nation). Regardless of where this comes from (gender, age, race, class, etc.) I’m working out how to maintain this awareness in future.

Next up in the MIT5 review: Towards a Culture of Collaboration (on interactive and online art)