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Category Archives: Recommendations

A Year of Reading (Books)

I measure my reading year from an undefined point in June, because that’s when I started keeping track four years ago, so it is time for the listing of the books, and perhaps some words on what I thought of them. I’ve read more this year than I have in quite a long time, because I work at a bookstore, and I really liked a lot of the things I read, to the point where I wonder, a bit, if I’ve started to read less critically, or if I were really ever reading very critically at all. If the former, it might be a consequence of trying to read more poetry and nonfiction, which requires me, in some ways, to relearn reading. If the latter, well, it’s probably valuable to realize that I am less clever than initially supposed.

Anyway, I’ve included some short reviews of some of my favorite books from this year below, with the complete list at the bottom. This is also the year I fell back in love with comics, but for the sake of space and because I want to go into the subject in more depth, I’m not reviewing any of the series comics that I read in collected trades. If you have any questions about any title on this list, whether I talked about it or not, I assure you I’d be delighted to discuss what I think. To see what I’m reading and get an abstract idea of what I thought of a book without any explanation of what makes the difference between three and four stars, follow me on Goodreads.

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Ms Marvel (2014- )

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Artist: Adrian Alphona

Color Artist: Ian Herring

Editor: Sana Amanat

 

Ms Marvel

It seems like last week, when I should have posted this entry, I started seeing write-ups and video reviews of Ms Marvel all over the place in comic and geek circles, with everyone talking about how well done and important and all around great it is. Well, let me tell you something: it is great, and important, and very well done. And before I can tell you why, I need to tell you something about myself.

I got into comics through Spider-man and the X-Men (with a detour through Alpha Flight and The New Mutants, but I’ll talk about that some other time). Peter Parker was a huge nerd who transforms into a super-powered hero with a quick wit. The X-Men develop powers around puberty and suddenly are both extremely special and extremely different, alienated from a society that doesn’t understand them. When I was a kid, I wanted that! Like Parker, I was a nerd, with big plastic frames on my glasses and a fascination with Magic: The Gathering that left no room in my brain for the rules of sports games. I wanted nothing more than to spontaneously develop super-powers through accident or birthright, and be capable of astonishing feats and incredible adventures.

Sauron-Xmen115-1

Also, one of the villains on the X-Men cartoon show was a DINOSAUR MAN.

Of course, the 90s were also the Age of Wolverine, whose tough-talking, cigar-chomping, anti-heroism was so popular that he began to eclipse Spider-Man as Marvel’s mascot and began, as Lore Sjöberg said, to be displayed “on the cover of comics in which he didn’t actually, technically, appear.” I, and probably most of my friends, began to be drawn more to grim-faced badasses like Cable, the Punisher, or Batman, and eventually I left wish-fulfilling superheroics behind altogether and discovered Vertigo titles like The SandmanPreacher, and 100 Bullets.

I’m not necessarily trying to extrapolate from my own experience to describe a trend in comics, but it’s clear from this Vulture article about Captain America that I wasn’t the only one who fell into the trap of thinking that stories were for babies unless they reflected the gray moral landscape of the “real world”. There is, of course, value in deconstructing standard superhero tropes like Alan Moore did in Watchmen or Warren Ellis did in NextWave. Those are superlative comics, and it’s important to not just passively accept, in a cultural sense, the stories we are given. I think the problem comes from assuming that because those kinds of stories have value, the other kinds of stories have none. This leads to a lot of Missing the Point, with writers glomming on to the sex and violence and “oh what if The Flash were alcoholic” and then everything is The Boondock Saints and we have to dynamite the Earth to prevent the infection from spreading.

Ms Marvel is the other kind of story, and it has everything to do with the best things about Spider-man, and the X-Men, and the Captain America we’re seeing on the big screen these days. It calls back to the classic tropes of superheroism while updating them and interrogating them in a very smart, very thoughtful way, one that is totally relevant both to contemporary teens and the kind of conversations we, as adult comics fans, are having about our favorite media. The new Ms Marvel is a hero we can understand and empathize with as well as aspire to be, and it is written in the new spirit of inclusivity and diversity that Marvel is clearly making a concentrated effort to get in front of. It is, quite frankly, everything that we need in comics right now.

everybody gets to be normal

Kamala Khan is, like Peter Parker, a huge nerd, and way more of an outsider than I, or Parker, both cisgendered, heterosexual white boys, could ever claim to be. She’s a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl from a Pakistani immigrant family. She writers Avengers fanfiction, and idolizes Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, the blonde, buff fighter pilot who punches giant robots and can fly in space. She wants to be normal, but she also wants to be exceptional. This is her central conflict.

i want to be you

There are lots of great things about this comic. The art, for one thing, is wonderful and expressive, and the writing complements that with geeked out teenage whimsy. Together they work to bring characters as disparate as Aamir, Kamala’s devout, unemployed older brother, and Zoe Zimmer, the blonde, popular “concern troll” who Kamala wishes would accept her, to instantly recognizable life. G. Willow Wilson also does a great job of writing a classic superhero origin dilemma in a recognizably contemporary world with text messaging, Internet searches, and online gaming. The series feels classic and contemporary at the same time, and similarly marries genuine, heart-felt characterization with laugh-out-loud humor.

cultures are so interesting!

nggh

KAMALA KHAN

But what makes great is the way the story offers a new take on the aspirational superhero story. Kamala’s struggle bears a lot of similarity with Peter Parker’s realization that with great strength comes great responsibility. And I see it in a similar vein as the  cinematic interpretation of Captain America, as someone who is recognizably human (as opposed to classic, flawless pulp science heroes, or indeed, most anti-heroes) while also being undeniably good. So good, in fact, that he makes others aspire to be better. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury says “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be” and Steve Rogers emphatically rejects that viewpoint. This is what makes him a hero. And what we see in Kamala Khan is a real effort, upon being granted tremendous power, to live up to that standard.

saved all of mankind

And what makes this so important, and so much more than just a Good Old Days throwback superhero story, is who Kamala Khan is. She’s brown. She’s Muslim. She’s female. She is American, definitely, but she is also Other, and reminded of that fact often by her peers. The heroes she aspires to be are all white and, with the exception of Iron Man, blonde. No one in her entire pantheon of superheroes looks like her. That’s what makes it so powerful, and so difficult, as she struggles to figure out how to be the kind of hero, and kind of person, she wants to be. And in a “real world” in which women in the comics community are still routinely subjected to sexist abuse, in which we still don’t have so much as a promise of a Wonder Woman movie, and in which attempts to add some diversity to the heroic universe are greeted with vocal racist opposition, a hero like Kamala Khan is exactly the kind of hero we need.

the most amazing girl from Jersey City

G. Willow Wilson, herself a Muslim, has written a great story, and a great character, one that hearkens back to all the best things I remember loving about superhero stories (before the Dark Times…before the Empire). She has done so with a consummate awareness of the ongoing growth of comics as a medium, in terms of narrative complexity and depth of character, as well as the pressing need for more diverse voices in our superheroic universe. The Ms. Marvel team have put together what may be the most important superhero book in years, so let me add my voice to the increasing number of people speaking up about Kamala Khan and Ms. Marvel: do yourself a favor. Read this book.

wannabe hipster punk

 

Read Ms Marvel at Comixology, or, better yet, pick it up at your local comic shop!

The Fall (Season 1)

Starring Gillian Anderson, Jamie Dornan

Created by Allan Cubitt

The-fall-highres_8col

I am, in general, not a fan of serial killer stories. I am squeamish about the fearful final moments of victims that filmmakers and storytellers like to linger on, and these killer stories in particular tend to fetishize violence against women. And yet, somehow, I’ve found myself consuming and enjoying a lot of them lately. I’m currently hooked on Larime Taylor‘s comic series A Voice in the Dark, about a young late night college radio host struggling with her compulsion to kill. I recently finished reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, about a time-travelling killer driven to snuff out the lives of brilliant, vibrant young women.  And, most recently, I accidentally watched all of the BBC drama The Fall, in one sitting, right before I was supposed to go to bed.

In The Fall, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a coolly professional police officer brought to Belfast to formally assess an ongoing murder investigation. Soon, she is in charge of a task force chasing a serial killer, while an explosive scandal simmers in the department. Meanwhile, the killer himself puts his children to bed, kisses his sleeping wife, and opens his notebook to plot his next kill…

Part of what makes these killer thrillers palatable to me is that they actively work to confront or subvert the establish tropes of the killer genre. Every murder scene in The Shining Girls is from the victim’s perspective, not the killer’s, denying readers a voyeuristic thrill. Beukes’s says she hoped to establish the girls as “characters rather than pretty corpses”, and as a consequence, each death is painful, sad, and terribly frightening. A Voice in the Dark, though superficially similar to Dexter and other Heroic Psychopath stories, more deliberately attacks the demographics of the slasher genre, putting the knife in the hand of a young biracial girl and populating the story with women of all shapes, sizes, races, and sexual orientations. Also, like The Fall‘s creator, Allan Cubitt, Taylor is explicitly aware of the racism and sexism so often inherent in both these kinds of crimes and the fictional genre inspired by them.

“One of the ways the killer is able to perpetrate such crimes is by objectifying and dehumanising their prey,” Cubitt says, in an article before the finale of the first series. “I think it’s important that drama doesn’t do that.” This awareness shapes the way the story of The Fall is told, so that Spector’s victims are entirely human to us, characters not corpses. Although we spend a lot of time with the killer, and he is driven by a need to literally and explicitly objectify his victims, the show takes pains to ensure that we don’t see the victims the way he sees them. They are people brought to a horrifying end. And although the killer may try to erase their humanity, DSI Gibson never forgets.

Through Stella Gibson, the show is able to call out and criticize the violence against women endemic to the genre and the world at large. Gibson finds nothing poetic, sexy, or fascinating about these killings. “It’s just misogyny,” she says. “Anyone have any doubt about the gender of the person responsible?” Gibson rarely raises her voice, but she asserts her feminism constantly, refusing to allow her detectives to judge or shame the victims, refusing to dignify Spector’s misogynistic spree, refusing to express embarrassment for having a one-night stand with a fellow officer. We rarely catch glimpses of her personal life, but through her actions we come to know her as methodical, quick-thinking, and relentless. She is, in some ways, the antithesis of Luther as a police detective. Though equally as driven, Gibson isn’t volatile, and never risks destroying an investigation through egotistical grandstanding. That kind of behavior is left to corrupt police officials. And the killer.

The cool force of Gibson’s personality meshes with the tense, muted mood of the chase to create an atmosphere punctuated by startling thunderclaps of violence. While Gibson does vocally criticize the misogyny of the crimes, the story does most of its emotional and psychological work with greater subtlety. The men around Gibson, from the obsessive, murderous Spector to smoothly competent Detective Eastwood, are revealed to be wearing masks of fragile stoicism over barely controlled emotions. It’s a powerful recurring device that the louder a character is, the weaker his position. The Fall is a quiet storm, a carefully constructed cascade of emotional reactions that feel all the more real for being so actively and constantly suppressed.

The serial killer genre is prone to exploitation, to fetishization, to gimmick and cliche. The Fall is none of these qualities. What it, and The Shining Girls and A Voice in the Dark, share is a willingness to acknowledge the sexism and misogyny at the heart of these kinds of crimes and stories, and to address it directly. The viewer should be upset and horrified by the deaths we witness; we should feel that the victims are people, not props. We should see that women populate our fictional world as much as our real one, not just as the victim but also as the detective, the medical examiner, the constable, the hero. We should see the emotional truth of the characters, male and female, struggling against a violently misogynistic worldview. The Fall works at every level to deliver a compelling, tension-filled story that is laced throughout with the unfortunate truth: men are responsible for terrifying violence against women. It makes you grateful for Stella Gibson. She sees that truth with clear eyes, and like a scalpel, she means to cut it out.

The Fall is instantly viewable on Netflix, and for purchase on Amazon on DVD or digital download.