Friday, December 4, 2009

December Answers From the Vault part 1

Welcome back to this month's edition of Answers From the Vault. Yesterday we threw open the doors of knowledge to the general public and the result was a torrent of queries. The reading public has an insatiable appetite for information and we here at the Vault are happy to oblige that noble quest. So, after carefully winnowing down the literally quadrillions of questions we received yesterday, here are the answers to the select few that made the cut. Don't worry, though, if your question isn't answered today, we'll probably cover it tomorrow, because this batch was so big we had to split it into two parts!

So are you ready to get your brain enlarged?

Following up the occasionally heated discussion of how women are portrayed in comics, can you identify your favorite villainous female character in comics (in spite of criticisms to the way said character may have been drawn)? And how might said appearance attract or detract from the character herself (or does it at all?)? -- Chesley

Wow, Chesley, that's a mouthful. But we'll give it a go. Strong female supervillains are about as rare -- or even rarer -- than strong female superheroes. When you think of the pantheon of great supervillains, pretty much none of them are women. For instance, when IGN did their NCAA bracket-style battle of the super-villains a few years ago, only six of the 64 contestants were women and of those six, most of them weren't necessarily villains per se. It's an interesting point to note: very few women in comics are really allowed to be full-on evil. Most female supervillains have a softer, more sympathetic side to go along with more ambiguous motivations. This often ends up with the villain becoming a hero or anti-hero or at least someone who the main heroes sometimes identify with or team-up with.

You're not going to see that happen a whole lot with, say, Joker or Dr. Doom, but it happens all the time with female supervillains. Probably the most famous female supervillain is Catwoman, but she's hardly a villain. Heck, she's Batman's main love interest. The six so-called villains who did show on on the IGN list also included Dark Phoenix (deranged alter-ego for X-Man Jean Grey, thus only sort of a villain), Elektra (Daredevil's girlfriend and not really a villain) and the White Queen (sometimes a villain, sometimes a member of the X-Men). The only true villains on the list were Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, neither of whom are quite A-listers, though I guess Poison Ivy is fairly close. Other examples of this include some of the most prominent female villains at both Marvel and DC, such as the Enchantress (who teams up with Thor as often as she opposes him and is no longer considered a villain by most), Scarlet Witch (who was so popular and sympathetic when she debuted as a villain that Marvel quickly turned her into a hero) and Star Sapphire (usually Green Lantern's girlfriend, Carol Ferris).

So why aren't there more good (or, to be more precise, evil) female villains? I'm not entirely sure. I suspect it might have something to do with the traditionally male readership (and creator pool) and the assumptions and stereotypes that have come along with that. In some ways it's the flip side of the sexulization issue -- comics might have their heroines be overly sexed up, but they also don't want their women to be too mean, so many of the villains end up having softer, more sympathetic portrayals. In other words, the idea of femininity doesn't necessarily match well with being a supervillain. Perhaps because of this, relatively fewer female villains seem to be (consistently) depicted in an overtly sexual fashion compared to their heroic counterparts (Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Poison Ivy did get a mention in my essay, but Gotham Sirens treats them as protagonists rather than villains).

The only major female villain that comes to mind who has an overtly sexual nature is White Queen, but for her, I think it works because it fits in with her manipulative personality. She uses her sexuality as just another tool to control people, which makes it fitting, I think, for her to wear an altered dominatrix costume, because that's kind of her whole schtick; she just usually does it through telepathy and mind control rather than physically.

Anyway, I haven't technically answered your question because I'm not sure I have a favorite villainess in comics. There are some solid female villains who break some of the stereotypes I mentioned; DC's Cheetah is probably the best known of these, while Marvel also has Moonstone as an intelligent and mostly evil woman (though even she sometimes plays a good guy when it suits her). Another well done female villain was the Mist in James Robinson's Starman (more on Starman in a later answer). But a favorite? Hm. Well, Mystique would probably have been my choice back in the 80's when she was still a real villain, but nowadays she seems to just be Magneto's moll thanks to the X-Men films. Hela is great in Thor when they bother to use her, and Sin has been turned by Brubaker from a footnote into a legitimately evil and fun character. Giganta has promise. But my favorite female supervillain is probably Viper (aka Madame Hydra), in part because she is the one female supervillain that is crazier, deadlier and more downright evil than just about any other.

What about some Image coverage? How has the creation of that company and titles affected the big two and the industry in general if at all? -- Ben

Well, Ben, the answers to your questions actually go hand in hand. There isn't a lot of Image coverage on the Vault mainly because I don't like Image. I know that will come as a shock to some of you (as I know there are some ardent Image fans reading this) but it's true. That, in turn, means I don't know too much about what is going on in their books or with their characters. And one of the reasons I've never cared for Image is because I think the creation of the company had a negative impact on both the big two (especially Marvel) and comics in general.

Now, to be honest, a lot of the problems that came up because of the founding of Image were caused by Marvel, so there's plenty of blame to go around. But essentially, the creation of Image (and the hype that guilt up around the Image founders prior to their defection from Marvel) was the height of the speculation era. Millions of copies of books by hot artists were flying off the shelves, being bought up by speculators who figured they could sit on the books for awhile and then turn them around for a big profit on the secondary market. Because of these artificial sales figures, both Marvel and the artists began believing in an art first idea, where the storytelling was secondary to the kewl pictures. This was exemplified by Marvel's decision to dump Chris Claremont off of X-Men after nearly 20 years on the title that he had taken from nothing into the biggest book on the market, all because Marvel wanted to placate their new hot artist Jim Lee by giving him creative control. The big problem here is that a) most of these sales were to speculators, not fans, and thus weren't a fair assessment of what was actually popular or artistically successful and b) those new fans that were being brought in by the hype were receiving sub-par products because all the good writers had been dumped in order to let the artists write everything.

Now, there are plenty of artists who are fine writers, but as Marvel and DC chased the golden goose and began having all of their artists ape the Image style at the expense of story and storytelling, fans began fleeing in droves. The product just sucked. For a few years there in the early 90's it did seem that the industry as a whole would still be okay, because a counter movement began, with self-published books booming like never before, to the point where they actually were commanding a pretty large part of the marketplace (something like 15-20% at the peak if I remember correctly). This actually kind of mirrors the rise of grunge and alternative rock as an antidote to the processed pop and hair metal being put out by the major labels during that same time period. But then Marvel decided to buy out all the major distribution companies, which in effect shut out all their smaller "competitors", with the result that the entire market crashed and burned, Marvel went bankrupt and comics have never recovered. With no indie alternatives to the mainstream rubbish being put out by Marvel, Image and DC, fans just left comics entirely.

Obviously, not all of that can be laid at the door of Image, but some of it can, and more importantly, I've never enjoyed any of their titles. I read Spawn for awhile but that was more out of habit and a feeling of obligation than out of real enjoyment. Plus, the company rarely seemed to live up to it's own premise; it was supposed to be a haven for artists to control their own properties, but it seemed instead to only be a haven for the select few big names that had the box office clout already to get into Image's exclusive club.

And then a lot of the creators ended up farming out their titles to freelance employees anyway, like McFarlane with Spawn, meaning they hadn't created a revolution at all, they had just built their own version of Marvel. Sort of like the Pilgrims coming to America for "religious freedom" and then persecuting the Quakers for worshiping differently. Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.

To be honest, for me, Image ended as an entity years ago even though they still put out books. After all, some of the founders ended up taking their titles to other places (Jim Lee's Wildstorm went to DC, for instance) for reasons that still escape me, meaning that the Image imprint seems to be little more than a distribution plot; there's no cohesion to the line, it's just a bunch of random, unconnected studios putting out whatever they want and slapping the Image logo on it. Which makes it even more difficult to review, because you are in effect talking about a bunch of separate companies. While Invincible is supposed to be one of the best hero books on the market, is it really fair to lump it in with Youngblood?

Tell you what, though. If Image ever does anything I like or that is newsworthy, I'll discuss it here.

Are there any decent super heroes that don't wear spandex and why don't more heroes realize that a pair of jeans can go a long way as far as durability goes. For that matter who are their tailors? -- Ben

Good question, Ben. To answer the last part first, the creation of superhero costumes has been handled a number of different ways over the years. Marvel in particular has highlighted the ways their costumes come about, with various explanations. For instance, most costumes are made from unstable molecules, invented by Reed Richards, which allows them to stretch and get burnt and whatever without just falling apart like normal fabrics. As for the design, different costumes have different designers. Some people got new costumes, for example, during Secret Wars thanks to an alien costume generator. On the lower tech side of things, Spider-man and Kitty Pryde were both shown in their early days struggling to hand-make their own costumes, while the Wasp's alter-ego of Janet Van Dyne is a noted designer in the Marvel universe and not only made all of her own costumes but frequently designed costumes for other heroes.

But I think you were more curious about the jeans thing. Well, there have been some notable heroes who wore their jeans into battle. One of my favorite Golden Age heroes, Crimebuster, had perhaps the simplest and most utilitarian costume in comics history, as his "costume" was actually his high school hockey jersey, except with a cape. Over the course of time he eventually even dumped most of that; in order to impress a girl, in Boy Comics #50 Crimebuster ended up ditching the cape and his hockey pants, meaning that for the rest of his long career, he fought crime wearing jeans and his hockey shirt, something that a number of rappers would later more famously emulate.

Another case of a hero duking it out in his denims is, of course, Luke Cage. It's not entirely clear in some of his early appearances whether his pants are jeans or spandex... or fleece... but that's mostly due to the presence of his giant buccaneer boots. These days, there's no doubt that Cage is wearing his jeans into battle; this cover from New Avengers #49, for instance, apparently shows Cage just as he's about to go out on patrol with his group of fellow gigolos.

But probably the best example of what you are looking for would be Jack Knight in Starman. Knight was the younger son of the original Golden Age Starman and was a bit of a black sheep. Rebelling against his father's superhero ways, and dismissing all that superhero stuff as juvenile nonsense, Jack was understandably out of place when he was suddenly forced by circumstance to become the new Starman. So he decided to keep true to his style and, rather than adopt the classic Starman red spandex, he got a pair of vintage flight goggles to shield his eyes when flying, threw on a leather jacket for warmth and protection against body blows, and fought crime just like that. His outfit was suitable for either crime fighting or catching the Smashing Pumpkins down at the local civic center. Fittingly, Jack ended up retiring for good after being active only a few short years, deciding to live a normal life rather than deal with the craziness of the superhero world. His protege, Stargirl, fights crime the old fashioned way: in colored pajamas. (By the way, Starman also was arguably the best superhero title of the 90's and is more than worth the time to read).

Tomorrow: The next batch of questions and answers. Aquaman! Mary Jane! What If?! And Brother Power the Geek! Be there!

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Thank you! That was excellent in all respects. Except I'd've liked pictures of Cheetah, Myst (oops, heh heh, I mean Mist), and Moonstone.