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Friday, December 05, 2014

"Good is not a thing you are, it's a thing you do" : 3 Reviews


This week I read two (relatively) recent anthologies: the first volume of G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, followed by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson’s Teen Titans: Earth One. I also perused yet another first volume, the New 52’s Voodoo by Ron Marz, Josh Williamson and Sam Basri. The title of this post is lifted from the pages of Ms. Marvel.

The first six issues of the new Ms. Marvel’s adventures are collected under the fitting title of No Normal, the implication being not only that there is nothing ordinary about a shape-shifting teenager in a world of marvels and monsters, but also that normalcy is itself a construct without any real moral status. Kamala Khan’s struggle to control her newfound powers mirrors her search for a functional identity; the usual sources are not forthcoming with solutions to either problem. American/secular values and familial/religious authority are shown to be as ill-equipped to assist Kamala with her shape-shifting abilities as they are ineffectual at helping her navigate her dual identity. 

No Normal is moreover highly atypical for a superhero story arc: we don’t encounter a real villain before issue 4, and none of the altercations show Ms. Marvel achieve unambiguous victory through the use of force. The focus is decidedly on character development, which is achieved through her many interactions with a colourful cast of New Jerseyan high-schoolers, wage-earners and misfits. Though it may not conform to the expectations of most readers, this focus on character development does not make for a slow pace: fortunately for us, Kamala has a knack for getting into trouble, and her Jersey City environment is depicted in such a vibrant way as to provide much comic relief.

No Normal has many highly interesting things to say about religion and ethics, but it shies away from giving any single character the theological or moral upper-hand. The numenal is encountered in a surrealistic dream-state which is almost a parody of both superhero fiction and traditional iconography. The conversational style of the hierophany undermines the traditional separation of sacred and profane, standing in stark contrast to the stodgy moralism of school and mosque.

+ Watch this insightful video on how Kamala Khan is changing the world of media for the better.
+ Read these G. Willow Wilson interviews with CBR and the New York Times.

. . .

Lemire and Dodson’s Teen Titans is a reimagining of the celebrated Wolfman/Pérez creation for the low-fantasy series Earth One. Focussing on a teen-aged ensemble cast rather than on a single adult protagonist (as in the Superman and Batman novels of the same series) makes for a very different kind of book. The plot’s progress is somewhat hampered by the need to provide background for all six of the main characters so that by the end of the first volume there are still more questions than answers.

In this new incarnation, the Titans are connected by more than just their heroic proclivities; five of them are orphans recruited without their consent into a Star Labs experiment. One can hardly help but wonder how much of the novel’s conflict makes sense seeing how most of it could have been avoided through a few lines of realistic dialogue. The plot depends rather excessively on the teenagers’ rebelliousness and extreme distrust of authority, perhaps even more so than it does on the cynical machinations of machiavellian scientist Elinore Stone.

Despite the seemingly gratuitous conflict, it is interesting to see the trope of the “evil stepmother” subverted in that at least some of  the Titans' foster-parents’ grow genuinely attached to the test-subjects. On the other hand, I am not sure how to interpret Lemire’s decision to make Elinore the architect of Cyborg (instead of Silas, Cyborg’s father in the original Wolfman/Pérez run). As much as I am in favour of reinterpreting popular narratives to include more women in positions of power and prestige, it is not clear to me that turning a martyr into an evil mastermind is an improvement on the source material. 

. . .

Having not read the whole of WildStorm’s Stormwatch/The Authority, I cannot really comment on Voodoo’s (un)faithfulness to earlier source material. The titular character is a mind-reading, shape-shifting human/Daemonite hybrid sent to report on Earth’s heroes in advance of an alien invasion. Marz, Williamson and Basri’s take on the character unapologetically straddles the line between representation and reproduction: while the decision to have a shape-shifting spy pose as a dancer in a strip-club attended by military types makes sense for plotting purposes, Basri’s treatment of the subject leaves little doubt that sexualization was the primary motivation for this creative direction. In fairness to Basri, it could be noted that Voodoo is rarely as sexualized in the story proper as much as she is on the Tyler covers; moreover, Basri exerts remarkable restraint in his imaginative depictions of brutal mayhem.

A vague sense of “the search for truth” drives a fast-paced plot as Voodoo alienates herself from both sides of her hybrid identity, leaving many bloody corpses in her wake. Her only capable, non-superpowered antagonist is revenge-driven special-ops investigator Jessica Fallon; ordinary men are expendable yokels whose hormones rule out the very possibility of free will or lifelike personality. Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern and a new Black Jack are thrown into the fray to remind readers of the larger DC universe in which this otherwise straightforward sci-fi thriller takes place. By the end of the volume, the reader is left in very much the same position as the protagonist, knowing neither where to go nor for which faction to root.

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