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Lara Eckener

Diorama of a woman exploding

In which there is helplessness and hope.

This post is ostensibly about a short story anthology I have the honor of having work accepted into, but it’s also about how important I think this anthology is and what it means to me to have been accepted.

UNDERCITIES: A Short Story Anthology – An anthology that focuses on queer narratives in an urban fantasy setting, featuring queer and POC characters.

I have this recurring thought about my own stories. I worry a lot of the time that they’re not relevant enough, that nothing I have to say is important in the scheme of things. Why should my words be important when I am mostly a frivolity of a person—a scared little girl who grew into an anxious woman who mostly feels helpless in the face of the oncoming future? Why should I even write these things? I ask myself. Why do I furiously jot down poetry that no one will ever read or build convoluted histories for main characters in novels that I may or may not write? Why, when the words won’t come, do I collage instead?

Why do I find such comfort in manifesting my small, awkward beauties when so often they’re only for me? If I was the last person on the planet, would I continue to leave my words splattered all over every surface? Would I feel the need to prove that I was here if there was never anyone else to see it? I think I would. Writing has always been a mechanism of hope for me and I learned long ago that even if I’m not Writing I’m writing. The words will out whether I want them to or not.

Lately, I am made of helplessness. I wake up every morning singing a little song I made up about it in my head, because singing my frustrations to myself is a thing I started doing a while ago so I didn’t shout them at others. This is not the romantic young Elizabeth Schuyler in Hamilton helplessness. This is not beautiful or desirous or even in tune. This is the overwhelming sensation of fear that is not creeping, but that is already here.

I wake up feeling helpless and I check my phone to see what new fresh horrors were perpetrated while I slept: what gag order has been signed, which environmental agency has been targeted, which group of people have been beaten or incarcerated for displaying the rebellious unrest that was to be lauded when it shook up status quo two hundred years ago, but demonized when it tries to shake up the status quo now. I don’t have to tell any of you that the current status quo is dangerous for the majority of people living not only in the US, but in the world. It needs to be shaken. I should do more shaking.

So I wake up feeling helpless. Helpless for myself and my friends and for strangers who are stronger and braver than I am and who are being vilified for it. My friends, who are from different places and made up of different ethnicities, who are mostly female or non-binary or transgendered and mostly queer, who are mostly millennials, who are mostly no stranger to being told that everything about them needs to be cleaned up and trimmed down and beaten into submission. My friends who are entirely, bravely, proudly non-compliant in the face of all of it.

I should stop singing quietly and go back to shouting loudly. I should do it for myself and for everyone I love and everyone I admire. There’s power to be had in making yourself seen and the words you use to do it. There always has been and always will be power in stories. That sounds trite, but honestly, when the day is being ruled by “alternative facts” that are little more than falsehoods spun into pyrite, what else can you do but counter with fictions that show actual truths more deftly and completely than their news sound bites ever could?

Fiction has always been a vehicle for truths and a way for those who have a hard time shouting—or who have already shouted until their throats gave out-to be heard. It’s a tradition I’ve always wanted to be a part of and it’s for that reason that I find telling stories to be a mechanism of hope. In fiction I can sing for myself and for others. In fiction I can see myself reflected and subsumed and reborn. In fiction I can find the tools I’ll need to move past this helplessness and into strength.

The main character in the short story I submitted to Undercities exists in my head because she was someone who didn’t exist outside of my head when I would have needed her most. She is made of my fears and doubts about being a bisexual woman and also being a woman with no real connection to her family’s history. At this point you can just imagine me as Molly Grue and my main character as the unicorn in The Last Unicorn. Where were you when I was new? I shout. I’m here now, she says.

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No person should live in a vacuum. No person should be told by their family that they don’t exist or that they need to hide themselves. No person should have to accept a false narrative that overwrites their own lived existence, and yet, so many of us do. Anthologies like this are one small step toward reclaiming our voices and our visibility. Being encouraged to share my stories and allowed to write things that reflect my hopes and fears is one small step toward working past the helplessness.

I am very proud to have a story included in the Undercities anthology, and proud of the hard work the editors and other authors have done in promoting the voices of people who aren’t often allowed the breath they need to sing. We need each other and we need each other’s stories. Please support them when you can.

As of this posting there are 21 days left for funding in the Undercities Kickstarter. You can check it out here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dirtybirdspress/undercities-a-short-story-anthology

We’ll turn ourselves into paper and kindling, devotion and truth.

It’s been a busy second half to the year over here in my neck of the woods. I’ve been working away on several things that will come into print as we come into the new year. I’ve also been trying real hard not to talk about them too much lest I jinx something and all the editors decide to take it back. That’s not going to happen today though, because today I’m super pleased to report that the first of those projects has been released in print!

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Paper & Kindling: A 3-4-1 Collection is available from Amazon in print and kindle editions! This anthology includes short stories from authors Kaitlyn SudolNicole DeGennaro, and Christine Ricketts, as well as poems by myself and art by Katie Grosskopf, Alex Griggs, and Cleopatria Peterson. (Cleopatria’s art is the best, but I’m biased, because she illustrated my poems.)

I’ve long been attracted to the idea of artist’s telephone and this anthology was created along those lines, except instead of working in a long vine-like chain what we have is four seeds with tendrils and flowers growing from each. Christine, Nicole, Kaitlyn, and I each wrote a beginning story or poem and then we all switched and wrote things based on each other’s stories. The illustrations were created in the same way. Through inspiring each other we all got to dip our toes in different worlds and stretch our voices and the result is chock full of horror, science fiction, romance, and fantasy. But most importantly, it’s full of possibility and new beginnings. As it says in the description copy: the end of one story is just the start of another.

One of my sincerest life wishes is to write beautiful things to share with the world, and I thank every one of my fellow contributors here for helping to make that possible. So if any of this sounds like something you’d be interested in reading, please pick up a copy and let us know what you think!

“We’re all going to have to learn to live with less oxygen.”

The river still runs and the leaves are burning,
regardless of this grey sky.

The river will run and leaves twist and fall away,
regardless of the value of a life.

The river will run and the leaves will fly,
regardless of a morning’s fear.

Your false family’s hatred will paint you as leaves,
ephemeral, frivolous, and made to burn,
regardless of this you are the river.

The river still runs.

I feel like I don’t yet have the proper words for my fear and disappointment, so instead, here are some words of support for other people’s fear and disappointment. If I can help you, let me know. We’ve always been in this together, but this is a good reminder of who we are and who we’re fighting.

The Destination of Touch

What is everyone you know doing right now, and where are they standing and in which direction?

I think a lot about touch. I’m a very tactile person, by which I mean I learn best by methods of physical manipulation, but also that I like to be in direct contact with the people and places that I love. No, not like, need. I’m fed by it in the same way extroverts are fed by emotional interaction. I think a lot about touch, but I no longer do a lot of touching. Somewhere along the line I’ve lost my way to these easy intimacies.

I talk about this a lot with my therapist, how it boils down to having lost the ability to intimate myself. I’m uncomfortable with existing and holding shape. I am suspect of what other people see when they look at me and some days it’s just too much. I want to disappear. It hurts to be looked at, let alone to have to touch someone and be reminded of the fact that I possess a whole, displeasing form.

To alleviate this pain sometimes I sort of just, let go. I wouldn’t characterize it as disassociating so much as I’d characterize it as compartmentalizing my experience, and the compartment where I keep the fact that I inhabit a body in is usually shoved in the back of the closet behind the comforter my mother sent me my first winter in Boston. So while I never stop-or indeed want to stop-existing, I do tend to push pause on the awareness of inhabiting.

But it’s hard to claim a voice and know where you are in the world when there’s no tether between you and it. It’s a thing I wonder about a lot, so it’s a thing that works itself into my writing a lot. In one of my current projects I’ve ended up pulling these things directly from my fear banks and putting them into a character’s mouth, because I don’t know how else to get them out in the open for proper study. “I don’t like having a body,” my snippy gay cyborg says. “It’s never really felt like I belong it.

So I think a lot what it means to touch someone. What is the emotional impact of being pressed against a stranger on a bus seat for an hour as opposed to the emotional impact of being pressed against someone you know for several minutes? Do the people who step on your feet on the train ever think of you again? Does your face or your indignant grunt get filed into their subconscious so you can show up as unrecognized dream fodder? And what of those people you do know? Is it possible to map a person from the inside out without ever coming into physical contact with them?

Because that’s the problem of dis-inhabiting, isn’t it? You start to evaporate off emotional maps just as surely as demolished structures disappear off physical ones with each new update. The past is a constantly moving and hungry thing. The further away your last encounter with a person gets from the present, the less of an impact it has on them. And the point of dis-inhabiting is to not have to have an impact on the people around you, or indeed at all, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving one. It relieves just a little bit of the stress of existing, for certain meanings of ‘relieve’ and ‘exist’.

And how is each oriented toward the sun? And where is each located in their own mind? That is another map.

A couple weekends ago I and a friend went to a performance of Nichole Canuso’s The Garden. I knew going in that it was interactive and that there would be movement involved. I was a little anxious about the audience size of four, because it’s harder to blend into the background when there are so few people, but mostly I was curious and expectant. I love watching people perform and I love art of all kinds and the conversation that springs up between a person and an object or event. I took the headphones they gave me, followed my fellow audience members into a room surrounded by gauzy curtains and filled with soft light, sat in a random chair, and went about the quick work of turning myself into a receptacle.

The show is, well, it’s delightful and wonderful and all sorts of other adjectives. The show is both a high wire and a net. It asks for your trust and gently pushes at your mental and physical boundaries until suddenly you have a breath of a moment to look down and realize that there’s nothing but air beneath you and it’s your decision whether to float or fall. At one point during the performance I actually gave another one of my fellow audience members a literal gentle push, when prompted to of course. I did a lot of things in the confines of that space that I would never do outside of it with respect to interacting with strangers.

It’s the prompting from the recordings that I’ve most wanted to discuss in the week or so since the event, but I haven’t really been able to find the words to do so. Even this attempt has gone all wriggly and wrong. Every time I feel like I might reach the end of the tether this show turned me into the thought slips away. Every time I think I’ve got it I’m circled by another question and have to stop to consider it some more.

How much should we trust art and, by proxy, the people who make it? Is the intimacy inherent in the artistic conversation a false one? I feel like most people are familiar with the aching feeling of unrequited love. Do some of us learn it from objects and events before we learn it from other people? Is that the destiny of every museum goer and play watcher? How is it different when the art can watch you back?

THE GARDEN 3 minutes from Nichole Canuso on Vimeo.

There’s a portion of the show where I was instructed by the headset to sit on a bench and take the hand of the person in front of me. Earlier in the performance I had been instructed to offer my hand to other people and to let them guide me, but those had been performers, people with whom the social contract between artist and audience was obvious. I stepped into their space and offered my time, attention, body, and trust up to them and in return they molded my experience into something crafted with care. This person in front of me in this moment was not a performer, he was another member of the audience. I looked into this person’s eyes for the first time and then, as I was told, I took his hand and started to softly trace his palm with my finger.

There is nothing in my life as a creator and consumer of art that could have prepared me for that moment. As I touched this man the recording asked me to think about how many hands I knew very well, how many palms I had memorized. The answer is startlingly few. The last hands I knew so well left me close to four years ago now and I have been avoiding getting to know any other hands since. I wondered how many hands most people know and if I was deficient. I thought about all the hands I am afraid of that I should have been comforted by and all the hands I have been avoiding that I so desperately want to know.

I traced and I traced. For a full minute I traced and waited for the recording to let me do anything else. What would this man have done had I refused my instructions and instead sat for a minute staring down into my own hands? I don’t know what his recording was telling him to do or if it warned him about what I was about to do. Would my refusal have made a difference in his experience? Would he have felt annoyance? Guilt? Shame? Did he feel those things anyway? Was he curious about me? Or was he also trying to process how his body had suddenly become an anchor for his spirit instead of something he merely wore around, an incidental artifact of being? I didn’t even notice when all my anxiety and embarrassment fell away. It’s almost as if, when I pushed him off afterwards, he took it with him. I had been worried that he would think I was a crazy person, but I also knew that he had instructions of his own and he too had let himself be made into a receptacle.

This is what life is like, of course. Things happen around and to you and you just do your damnedest to make your choices your own, but sometimes it’s impossible to separate them from circumstance. Sometimes you’re just sitting on a bench, or in a coffee shop, or in a movie theater, staring at another person and waiting for them stop being a stranger. When is the changeover? Is it with the exchange of names? Or laughter? Or physical intimacy, either platonic or romantic? Right this very moment, somewhere in Boston, there is a man who I will probably never see again, but with whom I deliberately shared a small intimacy. I still don’t know if that thought is comforting or stressful.

We talk about the weather as if it is the only thing that has happened to all of us. When really almost everything that has happened to you has happened to someone else who felt they were alone.

Touch can haunt us. Exceedingly good touches and exceedingly bad touches alike leave ripples through our futures, create behaviors, and form emotional mazes we’re not even aware we’re in. When I was seventeen I was forced and coerced into a slew of sexual encounters by a boy I was dating. Someone I had chosen to trust even though I shouldn’t have. The trauma of those encounters taught my body to fear and recoil and want to flee.

Many years later I was in a dissolving long term relationship with another man. What I had once assumed to be solid ground became shaky as he and I both grew and changed. Cracks appeared all over our relationship. In those moments when things became uncertain and I most needed the comfort of physical contact, my body started to dread it in a way my mind was unaware of. The old terror seeped back in, even though this man had never hurt me physically and never would. This showed in many small ways I couldn’t decode at the time, but the most disruptive of them was the night panic.

When a person is asleep they are vulnerable. At the time these panics started I was sleeping in very little clothing if any at all. I would cuddle up next to him, skin to skin, and cling. Sometimes the nights went as one assumes they should. I felt safe with the person I loved and their warmth was a comfort. But sometimes their warmth was a warning and I would wake in the middle of the night in a blind panic, terrified of being touched and used, of my body being improper and shameful as I knew it had become in the months of those initial traumas. I would scramble out of bed to put on clothing, any clothing I could find. I would inevitably wake up fully as I was digging through the dirty laundry basket or wrestling a tank top over my head. Then I’d sit down on the floor and breathe and try to remind myself that I was safe and everything was fine. That this man loved me and wouldn’t hurt me and that my body wasn’t the liability I still feared it was deep down. But for as long as we were together it kept happening, so I guess I never really convinced myself of that.

It’s taken me the better part of eight years to understand that this fear and that trauma are connected. In hindsight it’s really very obvious. One of the terrible first experiences with that other boy that I remember most vividly happened in my own bed in my parents’ home and sleeping has been a gamble of a prospect ever since. Once a vulnerable area proves unsafe we shore it up. These days I sleep lightly if at all. Small noises wake me. I have night terrors. And I’m afraid to get to know someone, to invite them into my bed, for fear that I’m still broken and they’ll see that. I’m afraid to truly and intimately touch people, but I just did in the name of art and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Lately my body hasn’t felt as heavy. I don’t want to claim that The Garden is the impetus for this. As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a therapist and she’s been trying to get me to acknowledge my physical form and push out all the shame it brings me so that I can feel comfortable in it. It’s been rough going. But I do think that art has always been a vehicle for catharsis and that The Garden was a glimpse around the corner at how simple just existing can be when you open yourself up to it.

There’s a portion of the show, the portion the quotes between these sections was taken from, where you’re asked to think about your place in the world and then think about it in relation to the places in the world where all the people that you love are. It asks you to consider their physical placement and their mental placement. I am often standing on the corner outside my office building, but I’m almost never standing on the corner outside my office building, if you know what I mean. I’m always elsewhere, and so very often those elsewheres are places of fear and shame and escape. I don’t want to be on the corner. I don’t want to be anywhere at all, and this way of thinking isn’t fair to me or the corner.

I moved to this city because to me it vibrates with a positive frequency. It’s true that I no longer wanted to be at home–driving over the same streets and going to the same restaurants and sleeping in the same bed where I once inhabited the world with the ex–but it’s also true that there are a hundred things about this place that make me feel like I could become the truest version of myself. It’s in the quality of light that changes with the seasons and in the city streets that might as well be wind tunnels and reflected in the friends I already had and the ones I’ve made since. I don’t want to compartmentalize my existence. I don’t want to merely inhabit. I don’t want to keep being lonely. I want to live. To live one must be aware of their place in the world. To live one must be an open and willing receptacle. To live one must be tether and anchor and wave all in one.To live one must know where they are, why they are, and how they are.

I don’t want to be afraid of myself and everyone else anymore. I don’t to miss out on contact. I don’t want to view hope and the gazes of others with the same terrified suspicion. I learn best by touching, and if I’m going to continue to grow, I need to take the gentle prompts from within me and outside of me. I must allow the terror to slip away and then turn to the door to watch the dance happening just over the threshold and join the choreography when beckoned. The world is large, the maps are full, and there is always someone beckoning.

Where are you? Where are your thoughts? How are you feeling? We always have these maps with us.

Monster Story

Back in February I went home to visit friends and family. I spent part of my time wandering through familiar parts of my old city with people I love and unsurprisingly ended up in a B&N flipping through books and prattling on about whatever. One of the books we picked up had a monster in the front cover. He was quite dapper and quite feathered, which are two of my favorite traits in a monster. My friend said, “write me a story about him.” So because I do what I’m told, I did.

This is that. Actually, I think this is the start of that. I want him to go after the girls, to stay with them and slowly turn back into a person, or maybe watch one of them turn into a monster. But there are other, more pressing things to write, so we’ll stick with this small victory for now.

Continue reading “Monster Story”

Tree People – The Inception

This is a reposting of a thing I initially wrote and posted to Tumblr several years ago. It’s a little bit prose and a little bit poem and was the very beginning of what has become a bit of an obsession with tree people. It was inspired by the lovely work of Lotte Hobbes.

Continue reading “Tree People – The Inception”

I know what you are, Kavinsky said.

(Crossposted from here.)

I spent the ages of 18 to 25 or so in cars and parking lots with boys. And other girls too–I lived with one of the girls for about a year, I still frequently wish I’d kept in touch with her–but my car club experiences were dominated mostly by boys with thin chests built of bravado and mouths that bubbled insults and boasts like spring swollen rivers.

Over the two days it took me to read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves I’ve had almost as many nostalgic, indulgent thoughts about those boys and their cars as I’ve had about the characters I’ve come to love. I was a very different person then, still becoming. (I guess my breath, by definition, means I’m still still becoming). I was a lot like Ronan, though admittedly my violence was restricted to words and walls and the stupid, stubborn pipe of my cold air intake.

I was a lot like Ronan, and I have known a lot of Kavinskys.

I often talk about wanting to teach myself to run because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to flying, but my memory knows that’s not entirely true. The closest I’ve ever been–may ever be–to flying the way ravens do has been sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s Honda S2000, top down, wind pummeling my hair as we did a buck twenty through the sticky hot central Florida night. Nights like that are printed indelibly on what I’ve become. Drag races and street races and autocrosses, smoke pouring from tires and slipping NOS hoses, alcohol and weed and adrenaline. Those are things that have made me feel like I was soaring even as my feet remained on the ground. (Or on the poor, abused clutch pedal on my ex’s truck. I never have been overly competent with a stick.)

But like most people, I also spent that period of time trying to figure out just who I was and who I wanted to be. I opened my big mouth when I shouldn’t have. I stayed quiet when I shouldn’t have. I was too quick to shrillness and too slow to learn how to calm a racing heart. I tried to blend in and mimic behavior, practice and homage, because that’s how you learn to do something, right? Even becoming.

There was a phrase people used to throw around on the boards and at meets. Only fags wear white shoes. It was a phrase that made me uncomfortable and that discomfort, the way I couldn’t put my finger on it, was a second secret of my own. What their words meant was that a pair of hideously ugly white rims were never going to improve your car. What their words did was reinforce a tight, sinuous brand of homophobic misogyny that was cutting off circulation to my heart and my brain. Derision and deflection so often have the same voice.

Ronan’s gradual becoming in The Dream Thieves is a thing of wonder to me in a book spilling wonders. It’s a story I desperately wish I could have had at twenty, because no matter how certain you are you’ll finally reach a destination, some journeys are just better with a well-creased map. There’s a certain amount of grief in growing, to be sure, that no map will help you avoid, but there’s also a limit to how much grief you take before you start reverting again.

Maggie Stiefvater has managed to capture the balance of that grief remarkably well. She created a character whose main desire was to be true to himself, who fought with others and his own dreams for the privilege of becoming, and whose reverb shook my fingers on the page just as Kavinsky’s bass shook everyone within hearing distance of the Mitsubishi.

In Ronan Lynch I see speed and asphalt and anger and truth and the creeping, adolescent feeling that you could crawl out of your skin and leave it behind if you tried. There’s a subtle grace in his character that I’d still like to see more of, even though it’s been some time since I had to answer the questions he’s so recently thought to ask. Thank you, Maggie, for creating a character who I could see my young self in so perfectly who was allowed the time and space to discover his sexuality, but not allowed to disappear into his sexuality as if he were a cipher.

Becoming is a constant process, but the creases in Ronan Lynch will now continue to remind me where I’ve been. That too, makes me feel like I’m soaring.

.031 – Girls Rule, But Don’t Tell Them, They’ll Get Uppity

I’ve been home from Dragon*Con for four days and I’m already biding my time until next year. The con is, as I will explain to any brick space people who are silly enough to ask, my favorite weekend of the whole year. It’s like coming home, really. For five days that slice of downtown Atlanta is host to many musical acts, performers, fans, industry reps, artists, and academic experts across almost any field or genre you can think of. It’s a safe space for enthusiasm that will also make you think if you let it. I’d been looking forward to con with extra zeal this year due to some sharp downturns in my personal life, and con did not disappoint. Or rather, it didn’t disappoint until 11:30AM on Monday, which has kind of put a damper on the whole madcap experience.

The Comics and Pop Art track at D*C is one of my favorite tracks. It’s presented like a mini academic conference within the confines of the larger convention, and you’re just as likely to find an in-depth study on the feminine pose in comics as it relates to art history as you are a panel devoted to the literary wells we draw our comics ideas from. The attendees are usually as curious and well-read as the presenters. The Gender and Race panel I attended earlier in the weekend was standing room only, and it made me incredibly happy to be there as someone asked about the inherent issues in writing a minority character from the side of the majority. These are things I think about quite a lot as a writer and I’m always put a bit at ease when I see other people think about them too. I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want you to think that my issue here is with the con or the track, but with a specific group of panelists and with the moderator who was not prepared and who couldn’t get a handle on her panel.

The 11:30 Monday morning panel was called Girls Rule! and the blurb said that it would be a “discussion of the many incredible female characters and creators who are capable of kicking butt.” I know, right? Doesn’t that sound amazing? Doesn’t it sound like a place where you can get together with like-minded people and talk about Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps? Kate Kane and how she resonates with all of us queer comic loving ladies? Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone and Becky Cloonan and the rest of the accessible, intelligent, creative, and inspiring women who work in the industry and fight for us every day? That would have been such a great panel! That was not the actual panel.

During the actual panel I got to sit in a room that was about 75% female and watch in shared disbelief as a panelist held up the picture below and, without a hint of irony in his voice, explained to us that this character was a good, strong female character because she was armed to the hilt. She can totally defeat the vampires! Look at all these weapons! Think about what she could do to vampires with them! And while you’re thinking about that, be sure to ruminate on how conveniently attractive and improbably built she is! This is a woman who refuses to be held down by the patriarchal idea of functional clothing! Her tits defy you! They’ll defy you long time!

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[Lady Van Helsing, as proposed for their upcoming Unleashed event.]

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there, but you see where I’m coming from, I’m sure. This particular image is one of the characters from Zenoscope Entertainment’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales comic line. She’s their answer to Van Helsing and I can’t help but think that way too many of her important arteries are exposed for effective vampire fighting. This is a line of comics that I have been warned not to read by a male employee at my local comic shop because of how dreadfully misogynistic it is. I had picked up the book to flip through it, because I love both fairy tales and sexy ladies and I’m not opposed to the Skinemax version of Fables on principle as long as the stories are interesting. In this case they’re not. Some books actually are just what they say on the tin. When the panelist in question was asked about the functionality of her wardrobe and the overtly stylized design he deflected by telling us how women of all stripes read these books and dress up as the characters. That’s…nice, but it doesn’t answer the question. Another non-answer we received is that his wife tells him things about ladies sometimes, so he’s justified in this presentation of them. I’m not even going to touch the ignorance in that.

I am also not going to bash cosplayers or people who enjoy these books. Personal preferences and tastes vary and that’s integral to the way the world works. This company is filling a demand in the market and kudos to them for being able to exploit everything at work here. However, I am going to call into question the mindset that can’t quite comprehend the fact that it’s problematic that we need to ask these questions at all. There is a dangerous fallacy at work here, and that fallacy is that brute force and artillery can stand in for strength of character. They can’t. They can inform it, but there needs to be something better under the surface.

In response to a similar question about the importance of character design in inclusion one of the female panelists told us that if we wanted our characters portrayed differently we needed to vote with our dollars (which is a bit of common sense information I got from my Economics teacher in high school), but she seemed to entirely miss the point as well. The point of these questions, and supposedly the whole panel, was that this common representation of women in the comics industry does a poor job of reflecting not only individual women, but the subset of women as a whole. What we learned throughout the hour was that at least a part of the comics industry acknowledges that people want this and will purchase it, but that they’re too lazy or bored or untalented to give it to us.

I resent being told that there are totally character driven comics with lady leads if I just dig for them. I shouldn’t have to dig for them. Fully realized women make up more than half of the population of the planet. I’m not asking for something niche and gauche that society looks down on. Or, on second thought, maybe I am. Look, I know if I just want tentacle rape and yuri with werewolves that La Blue Girl is a thing, and I find it disturbing that it’s easier for me to get my hands on that than it is to get my hands on a realistic portrayal of a woman reflected in my media. I double resent the fact that there was a woman telling me this, because when women say this to other women their opinion is often used as a way to write off legitimate complaints. We’re told, but this woman likes it, so why are you still mad? It’s almost like these writers and artists don’t see women as individuals. Oh, wait.

It wouldn’t be hard to create the kinds of characters we’re asking for. The things we love about Captain Marvel and Batwoman and Wonder Woman are not the extraordinary things about them, it’s the ordinary things. We know women like this. We know women who are strong and capable and who fight for what they love and what’s right. And yes, sometimes those women really love heels and cleavage and red lipstick and men, but it’s reductive to treat them as if these are the traits that define their character or drive their plot. A lot of comics still treat female characters as if this was the case. That is the problem. Books like Grimm’s Fairy Tales are part of the problem.

One of the men in the audience raised his hand and stated rather smugly that he didn’t know what the big deal was, because men are sexualized too. Don’t women get enjoyment out of men in spandex? Why do we complain when men get to benefit from this enjoyment as well? Half of the panel enthusiastically agreed with this statement. I tried to remain passive. I really did, but I have never rolled my eyes so far back into my head in my entire life. I think I uncovered some hidden childhood memories while they were back there. You’re reading this on the internet, some of you might even be here via Tumblr, so I don’t think I need to break down the willful ignorance of this statement for you. Instead I’m going to talk about a comic character I’ve loved for as long as I can remember: Dick Grayson.

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[From Nightwing #20, May 2013]

I have this joke with myself and a few of my friends where I will refer to Dick Grayson as a Strong Female Character. Dick Grayson spends more time swooning than poorly written Regency romance heroines who wear extra tight corsets on hot days. Dick Grayson is often drawn in that dreaded/celebrated boobs and butt pose for the sole purpose of calling attention to his assets. (They’re fine assets. If I was Dick Grayson I’d spend all of my time in front of the mirror and never get dressed enough to leave the house.) In fact, when asked about that particular Nightwing ass shot, penciler Brett Booth said:

“I thought that was required of all Nightwing pencilers? I remember seeing the Nicola Scott image and thought that was a ‘thing’ you do when drawing Nightwing. So I decided to do one and I wasn’t going to do it half…. baked. I was going all in! .. Wait, that sounds bad… Full Monty?… no… I’m very tired…”

I don’t have any such images easily accessible, but I would bet you a each cup of chai that there are completely canon images of Dick Grayson wrapped around a woman and sitting at her feet as if he was being subjugated. Dick Grayson’s milkshake brings ALL OF EVERYONE to the yard. He’s tied with Vince Noir as the greatest confuser. Dick Grayson is all of these things, but he has one advantage that your average comic book female doesn’t, and that’s that he’s Dick Grayson.

Originally brought in to the comic in 1940 as Bruce Wayne’s ward after his parents’ death left him an orphan, Dick Grayson is a complex character with over seventy years of backstory that runs the gamut from Superman fanboy to reluctant leader. At no point in time has Dick Grayson’s overtly displayed sexuality been used as a defining part of his character. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t flaunt it or use it to his advantage–I’m looking at you, Brothers In Blood–it’s just not the thing that drives his story lines and character development. If he was to be wrapped at the feet of a woman he would still be himself. Female comic book characters are often stripped of their costumes or distinguishing characteristics when posed this way, but male characters are left alone in most instances. This way they can be seen as contextually adding strength to the woman who has enthralled them. (And in some cases, nefariously captured them, because why would a man decide on his own to support a woman?)

As your average male superhero, Dick doesn’t look the way he does because that’s what will sell comics or because a male writer or artist personally fetishized trapeze artists. He looks the way he does because he needs those muscles to perform acrobatic feats and because the idealized male body is seen as inherently heroic. It commands power. Unlike the ‘idealized’ female body which is designed to attract heroic men and make them feel strong. The ‘idealized’ female body through a man’s perspective is sexualized, because that is a woman’s worth to a man, ultimately, when boiled down through the lens of our media. Dick Grayson is not Dick Grayson because he’s sexy. Dick Grayson is sexy because he’s Dick Grayson. The difference there is not as subtle as the English language would have you believe. I’m not arguing that male comic book characters are never fetishized, I’m arguing that that’s not their default purpose and hasn’t been historically.

Things have gotten better, though. Natasha Romanoff is a woman who knows she can use her looks to her advantage, and she does, but lately her storylines have been driven by other parts of her character with that as an incidental tool in her belt. She is actually empowered (in some books, I’m not currently reading all of the titles she’s in) to be the best version of her character, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. It’s a really great thing to see. (Even if I am still bitter over the end of Black Widow Hunt.) If a woman’s wardrobe is so important, why can’t we at least create more female characters like this who understand the world around them and are smart about it? Or we could even retrofit older characters to be like this. It’s certainly not uncommon for characters to go through an editorial evolution. DC rebooted their entire universe full stop two years ago. And if I ‘m speaking of DC, the Kate Kane that I know and love is a reintroduction of an entirely different character from DC’s past. She’s just been heavily updated to reflect the time. I’m not really that picky. Dress her up however you like, but make her a whole person whose wants and desires are not defined by the men around her.

So no, random panel goer, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing at all, and it’s incredibly disheartening to me when the gatekeepers and creative forces in a massive industry can’t tell the difference either. The fact that we have to have these discussions is the reason why I needed a panel about how women can rule. It’s really too bad no one was prepared to give me one. I’d like to leave this as official feedback for the panel, but I don’t think it will fit into the box on the app. It would be nice if, next year, there was another panel about women in comics that managed to carry the academic tone of the Comics and Pop Art conference as a whole, and it would be wonderful if the panelists respected their audience.

Addendum 1: The saving grace of the whole ordeal was panelist Chandra Free, who is a talented and intelligent woman. She tried many times to bring the conversation back around to context, but was more or less ignored by the other panelists. She’s just the sort of person I would love to see on the new and improved version of this panel for next year. She does great work that you should absorb and read. So, go do that. I’ll be here when you get back, ready to actually discuss women in comics. I’ll have a gold star for each of you.

Addendum 2: The abstract for the great talk I saw earlier in the weekend on feminine poses in comics in the context of Art History can be found here.

Addendum 3: In light of recent Batwoman news, I’d just like to remind the universe that I still have a lot of feelings about that character and that Plunge magazine let me write an article on it.

.030 – Marry me, Lois Lane?

Five weeks ago we reviewed Superman: Man of Steel for the Wrong Opinions About Movies podcast. The movie itself is muddled and violent. I came away from it confused. I don’t want to go too in-depth into why, because we talked about it at length on the podcast, but it boils down to the fact that I don’t know very much about Superman. In not knowing very much about Superman I have a very specific image of Superman in my mind that’s been cobbled together from 30 years of seeing him show up in Batman cartoons and hearing the way other people and the media refer to and revere him. Let’s say my understanding of Superman lives somewhere about my shoulder like a parrot, and the Man of Steel version lives two states over, possibly Mississippi. After I talked this out with my podcast cohorts I decided I had some learning to do.

Earlier this year I took a Gender Through Comic Books SuperMOOC, which on top of being fun and educational, forced me to read some of the comics that I had long known I should read but was avoiding for various silly reasons. One of those books was Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Francis Yu. Birthright is an excellent comic with a well-told story and I would encourage you to pick it up. It does a good job of staying mindful of Superman’s Kryptonian origins while giving Clark Kent some dimension of his own. It lets him occupy his own space in the DC universe without growing too large for it, which has always seemed to be part of the problem with the character from my place on the sidelines.

In my prejudices Superman is the boy scout. He’s too powerful as a being to be interesting in a fight and too mindful of his power and his place among the people on the earth to really break out and fill his own space in it. Reading Birthright began the process of breaking down those barriers by introducing me to the larger world around him and letting me see how he interacted with people of different creeds and races and locations. I got the sense that he’s a good guy to have in your corner. He’s understanding and patient and fiercely protective, which are all traits I can admire. But, I still wasn’t convinced that I could actually care enough to read more about him.

Up until Matthew had us watch Superman II to pair with Man of Steel, I had never seen Superman in a live action incarnation. Never a movie or an episode of Smallville or Lois & Clark. I was prepared for it to be somewhat hokey, given the age of the practical effects and the source material. Superman II took my breath away. It’s not the best movie ever, and I still haven’t seen the first Christopher Reeve Superman which might make II make more sense really, but Superman II perfectly captures the awe and reverence that I get the general sense of from Superman fans. It captures everything I understood about Superman from the collective conscience and it really is inspiring in practice. I can cotton on to why so many people would want to stand behind the arbiter of truth, justice, and the American way. (Well, truth and justice anyway. I hear he stepped a bit away from America and became a world citizen before the New 52 took hold of the DC universe.)

So, Superman. He’s not so bad I guess, and I have an oddly large amount of respect for the reverence we have for the look of Superman. Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill, and Tom Welling all bear striking resemblances to one another. Clear blue eyes, square jaws, black hair that can be sculpted sleekly into a front curl or modified pomp. They worked to build physiques for themselves that would make audiences believe they could pluck and aircraft out of the sky. I can’t think of another superhero that has worked his way across the collective conscience in such an acutely specific way. When you’re talking about Batman, for instance, the look of Bruce Wayne as a man isn’t as important as the look of the suit or the feel of the world. Because Kal-El’s face IS the face that Superman shows to the world, it’s imperative that casting agents get it right. This brings me back, in a roundabout way, to Tom Welling, who is not really that great as an actor, but who looks the part in a way I think most people in their early 20s can’t.

After watching Man of Steel and being confused by my own Superman feelings and how they’d just been trampled all over, I decided to give myself a Superman education. I’m going to try to un-puzzle him for myself, which will involve watching all of the things and reading a whole slew of comics. Because it’s something of a tradition for me now to watch terrible TV for teenagers over the summer, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and tackle Smallville as the first step to that end.

Smallville ran from 2001 to 2011 and, at the beginning, was meant to show us Clark Kent’s life without the cape. What would it be like for Clark to grow up as a powered being among mere mortals in a town where the very dirt and drinking water was teeming with kryptonite? This is an interesting premise which, unfortunately in this case, has an exceedingly poor execution. I’m not a stranger to WB/CW shows geared towards teenagers and how frustrating they can be. I was ripe Dawson’s Creek age when it aired. I am familiar with the formula of the frustration/betrayal of the week and the circular relationships and the holier than thou dialogue that’s supposed to make the teenagers seem wise beyond their years. On top of this, because Smallville has to acknowledge the impact of kryptonite on Clark himself and the rest of the world, it started as a monster of the week series. And it drags.

It took me five weeks to make it through the ten seasons. The acting doesn’t really get better. The number of times I yelled at Clark for telling someone not to do something and then TURNING AROUND AND DOING IT probably hit a hundred. It’s rife with my least favorite of superhero tropes, which is that of the “I have to protect you, so I’m leaving you.” (In speech with my friends I refer to it as Peter Parkering, which sounds dirty, but is really just a call back to how he did the very thing to Mary Jane.) YOUR PARTNERS ARE ADULTS. LET THEM MAKE THAT DECISION. Well, they’re mostly adults, with the exception of Lana Lang who was a boring teenager and then an aggravating young woman and then pretty badass for about fifteen minutes before they wrote her off the show entirely.

Their main objective from the start was no capes, so in practice the series gave us the boring parts of Clark’s life: his frustrations with Luthors, his need to be on the football team AND save a revolving door of students we’re supposed to believe are his friends even though they definitely weren’t going to that school in the five episodes before, his failed college career, and his eventual and accidental slide into journalism, which I’m pretty sure only stuck because every one of his bosses was uber obsessed with the ubermensch and wanted him in a place where they could study him easily. This is what we get ten seasons of with Smallville. People have been asking me, since I announced triumphantly over Twitter that I was on the last episode, if it was worth it. And no, no it was not. Do not watch all ten seasons of Smallville. Especially do not watch them at the break neck speed of two seasons a week. At some point the name Clark starts to lose meaning, like when you say refrigerator a hundred times in a row. A season or so after that the same thing happens with Tom Welling’s face. I think I stopped recognizing it entirely. Why would you do that to yourself? Justin Hartley would really like to know. It will not teach you about Superman.

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But it wasn’t all bad. Their Green Arrow (pictured above), while wildly different from the Ollie I got used to in CW’s new Arrow series–which is pretty good! watch that!–is incredibly charming and affable. Even when he’s been possessed by Darkseid I can’t bring myself to be mad at him. I would watch the show of him dating Lois Lane for ten seasons. Lois is another good thing about that show. Actually, pretty much every time that show introduced a recurring female character she was awesome. If you’re going to get something right, I can stand for that to be it.

Kara Zor-El threw Clark for a loop. Neither Oliver Queen nor Clark Kent was a match for Lois Lane. Even the introduction of Tess Mercer, as the Luthor proxy when Michael Rosenbaum stepped away from the show, could more or less handle her own. In the later seasons when Ollie had pulled together a group of heroes and entrusted Watch Tower to Chloe Sullivan, who had been a pretty rad female character from the beginning, there were glimpses of the show that I wanted to be watching. That show could have been amazing for ten seasons, but by that point they were only begrudgingly making that show, because Clark and Welling were getting older and eventually you would run out of Time When He Could Not Be Superman.

So, Smallville was a terrible plan for the beginning of my Superman education. It showed me a version of the character that was self-righteous to a fault, overprotective, paranoid, and dull. But maybe it’s for the best that I got this out of the way early. Maybe now as I do my further reading and watching I won’t be slowed down by this parody of the character that so many people love. I’ll be free to explore what it is that makes Superman so much a part of the fabric of our comic culture.

As of right now my plan for furthering my education involves the movies Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Superman (1978), the television show Lois & Clark (1993 – 1997), and the comics Trinity, Kingdom Come, Superman: Red Son, and All-Star Superman.

Are there other things I should read or watch? What parts of the Superman character speak most to you? What should I be looking for and keeping in mind as I do my research? Have you watched ten seasons of Smallville? What did you think of them? Let me know! Link me to proper analysis, or heck, link me to your Ollie/Lois fanfiction. I won’t tell anyone it’s yours.

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