June column up at PopMatters

The latest “Worlds in Panels” posted yesterday. I consider the different articulations of time and space in comics and film with the SHIELD helicarrier as a case in point.

On the page, as opposed to on a 30-by-70 foot movie screen, the helicarrier as spectacle is more an idea than an experience. More significant is what the helicarrier signifies in terms of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s power and purpose. Jack Kirby’s concept is a useful signifier for an agency charged with planetary surveillance and protection, and that symbolic function is more important within a comics narrative than is its role as a technological wonder.

Read the column.

The question of adapting comics to film is a recurring topic for me in the column. So, for additional reading:

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Kelly Thompson at She Has No Head! – Dear Marvel: Please Stop Ruining Everything

Earlier this week, Kelly Thompson posted a new column on CBR reacting to Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada’s statement, reported at Ain’t It Cool News, that, in effect, there is no combination of actor and character he can think of that would make for a viable female-led franchise from the Marvel Universe.

Thompson points out how disappointing this is in the wake of The Avengers and the critical role played by Black Widow in that film. She also underlines the absurdity of the statement, particularly coming from someone with the word “creative” in their job title. Most hilariously, she uses a series of images of characters and actors to show what a colossal failure of imagination this claim is given the whole universe of choices available to Marvel producers.

Most saliently, she points out that, increasingly, there is little rational basis for assertions like the one made by Quesada. Whether one is looking at who goes to see movies, including genres like the superhero film, or who leads a film, there is no reason to assume that a) women won’t go or b) that female-led films are box office poison. In the face of successes like The Hunger Games, as well as the other films pictured in the column, and the fact that a substantial part of the audience for movies like The Avengers is female, the idea that featuring a woman in a Marvel film is to necessarily court disaster is ridiculous.

Simply put, what matters more than who leads a film is whether it is well made and is backed with the intent to build the audience. If you hire hacks, people with no vision for the character or an understanding for the genre, and show no faith in the film in promotion and publicity, then your movie will fail, regardless of character or actor. I can’t believe that Quesada truly thinks that not only is there no combination of character and actor that would make a female-led franchise from the Marvel universe work, but that there is also no combination of creative talent and Marvel/Disney resources that could make that same franchise a success.

One of the insights derived from semiotics about concepts like gender is that, in many language systems, certain categories of people and things become “marked” in ways that privilege some identities as “normal” and marginalize others as deviations (hence, the need to be “marked”). What is “normal” is left unmarked. In American English, “female” is a marked category while “male” is unmarked.

This is clearly illustrated in fields like college sports where the unmarked term, “basketball”, “soccer”, “lacrosse”, etc., signifies men’s teams, while women’s teams are marked by the term “women’s”. At some universities this is further bolstered by applying the term “Lady” in front of the school’s nickname, as in “Lady Bulldogs” or “Lady Wildcats”.*

While less starkly illustrated in fields like popular film, does anyone think of Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America as, primarily, “male-led” titles? I suspect that these are thought of as, simply, “superhero” films. I also suspect that the only context in which the gender identity of the leads in those franchises matter is in the context of discussions like this where the real issue is the success or failure of female-led movies.

The people behind the scenes at Marvel clearly made a decision at some point that The Hulk would be a key part of their movie plans and they have stuck to that decision despite financial disappointment and creative problems related to the character. It is worth pointing out that, creatively, this seems to have been a good decision despite the difficulties encountered on the way to The Avengers. If the same initial decision had been made with regards to She-Hulk, I don’t think we would have seen a second film devoted to the character, let alone found her in The Avengers (and, of course, in light of Quesada’s comment, it seems pretty clear that this scenario is a flight of fancy in the first place. Plus, did you see what just happened when going from “Hulk” to “She-Hulk”?).

The problem here is that “female superhero” is a marked category, and the gender identity of those characters is made into an issue that, for the moment at least, is deployed as a reason not to make movies based on women characters from the Marvel Universe. Meanwhile, as Thompson notes, ” … if we blamed box office failures on the gender of the star we’d simply have no films. There are thousands upon thousands of failing films with male leads, but nobody suggests that we stop making them because people don’t want to see movies with male stars…because that would be INSANE.” Films with male leads are just films, while films with female leads are female films. Whether the latter “succeed” or not is secondary to the fact that they are always already constructed as deviations from what is conceived of as “normal”.

And it is this perception of inherent strangeness, not some absolute lack of creative choice or available talent, that keeps the Powers That Be, like Joe Quesada, from seriously considering the possibility of making and supporting a movie with a female lead. That same perception also explains why the reporter at AICN is able to glibly follow Quesada’s comment with their own  – to wit, “I’m thinking I might agree with him on this one actually” – and also why so many find it easy to offer rationalizations for why such a film won’t work (scan the comments on the column to see this in action).

Read Kelly Thompson’s column at CBR: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/05/21/she-has-no-head-dear-marvel-stop-ruining-everything/

*College sports is also an indication of how language can change. The “lady” appellation, for example, is increasingly archaic, even though it can still be found in use at certain schools and among certain groups of fans. I’ve also noticed that, in the past few years, as women and girls playing sports comes to be a seen as normal in some contexts like basketball and soccer, some sports reporting agencies have started to mark both categories of teams, using abbreviations like “mbb” and “wbb” in their tickers, for example.

Latest column at PopMatters

My latest “Worlds in Panels” posted yesterday. I take a critical look at narrative form and the Marvel Universe in books and on film.

The question … is whether moviegoing audiences will invest, both financially and affectively, in a common universe, not just for a single recognizable cast of characters, but for a bevy of characters, characters who sometimes appear in their own films and sometimes in “team” movies, or in films headlined by different characters. If I’m a James Bond fan, all I have to do is look for the next Bond film. Marvel producers are anticipating that people will become not just fans of particular characters, but of Marvel.

Read the full column.

May “Worlds in Panels”: the wider fandom for comics adaptations

This month’s “Worlds in Panels” posted at PopMatters yesterday. I speculate on why people who don’t read comics get deeply committed to TV and film adaptations of comics characters, particularly superheroes.

Comic books, more particularly comic book characters, especially superheroes, are woven into the warp and weft of American popular culture. People can and do become fans of characters like Batman and Spider-Man without reading comics. More importantly, I can start conversations about iconic characters with all kinds of people in all kinds of places in the United States, and most likely, I will get responses that show a clear idea or image of those characters. Those ideas or images maybe positive or negative, or something else, but that flash of recognition is a sign of comics’ familiarity and meaning for readers and non-readers alike.

Read the column

Recommended daily reading – 2 March (yes, I still do this edition)

I finally compiled enough links to post a new round-up.

In the area of teaching and learning:

  • At Inside Higher Ed, Robert Eisinger writes about the importance of “teaching ambiguity”. This is one of my great challenges. Cultural geographers deal with subjects that are ambiguous in their meaning and significance, and one thing I try to do is to help students develop tools and perspectives that enable them to effectively address topics where answers can be open-ended and much depends on the questions asked and in what context.
  • Curiosity Counts provides this quick hit about teens and geo-location services.

Turning to geography-related matters:

  • Jake Tobin Garrett has a defense of “messiness” in Toronto, and in cities in general. While one way to look at telephone polls plastered with fliers is as eyesores, Garrett points to them as indicators of a city’s creativity and energy.
  • SightLine has an interesting look at traffic volume in the Pacific Northwest, and how it has fallen short of expectations, suggesting that transportation planning need not be as car-oriented as it has been.

Renee French posted this image of a woman with a closed eye that I can’t quite shake. I think there is something compelling in the contract between the enclosed eye and the open one.

This, via ComicsAlliance, is awesome news, even if it is speculative.

Finally, I found The Mary Sue, a new blog devoted to girl geek culture, via GeekGirlCon on Twitter. And at The Mary Sue, Susana Polo has an interesting post arguing for women, and sexual minorities, to strategically gender or “out” themselves online as a way to break down the idea that the internet is a male/masculine space. The discussion in comments is well worth reading, too. While you are there, read Polo’s introduction/mission statement for the site.

Recommended daily reading – 9 February

Despite the time that has passed, only a few items here.

Fun item linked from the Torontoist about a program to tap maple trees outside of people’s homes in the city.

Staying in Toronto, here is another of the “Street Scenes” being posted at Spacing’s Toronto blog.

At Newsrama, Jill Potzzi has a smart discussion of what Dave E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman series for NBC needs to do. I think that this passage is particularly on-target:

Wonder Woman is just as much, if not more ferocious than Superman and Batman yet they won’t let her act that way in live-action. I understand having to have a balance between her feminine side or a secret identity but I can all-but-guarantee you she is going to spend way too much time in the “office” on this show. NBC and Kelley would do themselves a big favor by following what the Wonder Woman animated film by Lauren Montgomery, Michael Jelenic and Gail Simone presented to audiences as far as tone.

And, via Project:Rooftop, yes, please, to this.

Adapting B.P.R.D. to film, or for television?

At the end of last month, MTV’s Splash Page posted highlights from an interview with Dark Horse Comics and Entertainment president, Mike Richardson, in which Richardson broadly hints that the next movie out of the Hellboy-universe might not be a third Hellboy, but a BPRD adaptation (the article is vague as to whether this project is being looked at or worked on by Guillermo del Toro or not).

I would be happy to see either a Hellboy III or a BPRD movie, so long as it is made with the same care and affection for the characters that mark the first two Hellboys, and I can see the logic in shifting the franchise to BPRD, but, as I have noted previously, what I would really like to see is for the team title to be made into a TV series.

Making the next movie about the Bureau instead of Hellboy would follow logically from the end of Golden Army, where Hellboy quits the organization, much as he does at the end Seed of Destruction in the comics. Moving Hellboy along would do for the movies what it has done for the books, which is to give the other characters more room for growth and development and for extending the storyworld beyond the horizons of a single, titanic figure.

One crucial difference between the comics and the movies, though, is that in the former, Hellboy quits on his own, while in the latter, Abe and Liz also quit. I think that any BPRD movie would need to reintegrate at least one of those characters to be viable. In terms of their cultural resonance, Hellboy isn’t Batman and the BPRD is not the X-Men, which means that the next film, whatever it is, and if it is, can hardly afford to lose all of the characters that have anchored the movies to this point.

It is easy to think of ways to bring Abe back into the fold, but, due to her pregnancy, it is difficult to see how Liz could be part of a BPRD movie without also including Hellboy. You could write a big break-up between the two, or have Liz’s power threatening to leave her control again, maybe leaving Hellboy as a single dad (wouldn’t that be interesting), but that seems a strange turn to take once you’ve decided to essentially marry Liz and Hellboy and give them a child. Can Abe provide enough continuity to make the average moviegoer or comics fan excited about seeing the film? Probably no way to answer that question in advance.

One way to short circuit this problem is to look at a BPRD movie as a reboot, but I’m not sure what that would look like, or if it would be smart given that much of the potential audience will only have the Hellboy movies for reference. Most importantly, Hellboy needs to be part of the background for the Bureau and if you don’t pick up where Golden Army leaves off, how do you effectively do that while also making a BPRD adaptation and not another Hellboy? Clearly you need to be more clever than me to figure these questions out.

This is one place where I think adapting the series for television makes more sense than a film. I think that a change in medium would offer more of an opportunity to restructure the storyworld in the adaptation process, if for no other reason than you don’t have to deal with the legacy of prior works on TV. I can easily see how a BPRD television series could be made without Hellboy as a primary character, as a recurring character, maybe popping up in flashback, or as someone who crosses paths with the Bureau on occasion, but I think you can make his presence felt without needing to build the show around him, given that you would be starting from a unique beginning on TV.

However, in a more general sense, I think that BPRD is simply better material for television than it is for film.

Movies adapted from serialized fiction, especially genres like science fiction, fantasy, or superhero, are a chance to see the spectacular aspects of stories rendered in a spectacular way, but inevitably, this comes at the expense of character and narrative development.

Yes, BPRD has its epic qualities, but you also have years of complex character interactions and stories that have been unfolding through multiple-interlocking layers of narrative for essentially the entire run of the series, and even back to Hellboy. BPRD, to me, suggests The Wire or Lost more than it does Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars.

Hellboy, by contrast, is, on his own, a bigger than life character and, maybe for that reason, in the comics, is used for more episodic storytelling than is the whole, evolving crew at the BPRD. Generally, I think that it is probably easier to take a single character and use him or her in different contexts because you have less to manage in terms of relationships and character development than you do when trying to focus on a group of people. In short, I think that movies play well to the strengths and qualities of Hellboy, both book and character, and in the same way, I think that television is a better medium for adapting BPRD.

Where would such a series find a home? That’s a hard question to answer, but I am thinking more SyFy or AMC than Fox or NBC.  Done right, this would clearly be a cult-y niche show, and a channel or network that has a business model that works with showcasing interesting, alternative type programming without requiring some sort of buy-in from a wider audience would be best. I also think that it would be helpful for the series to be programmed on a more intensive basis, ten or twelve episodes a season instead of twenty-two or twenty-four, and, with scripted programs at least, that is still more common with off network shows than it is for those on the big four.

Of course, all of this is from a fan’s perspective and what I’d like to see happen. Richardson may have been cagey in the MTV interview because nothing may get made. And that would be ok, too, at least so long as the books are still going strong.