More NonSense: Established Media


This week's news was dominated by the corporate reshuffling at DC Entertainment. Outgoing publisher Paul Levitz was replaced by five people: Dan DiDio and Jim Lee - co-publishers of DC Comics; Geoff Johns - chief creative officer of DCE; John Rood - executive vice president-sales, marketing and business development; and Patrick Caldon - executive vice president-finance and administration. They report to new president Diane Nelson. With the exception of Rood, Nelson chose to promote existing DC employees. Dirk Deppey has link roundup.

Caldon explains what should be taken away from this announcement:
Today’s announcement signals change, but change that comes with continuity. Familiar faces (Dan and Jim and Geoff) and familiar people behind the scenes ... are joined by new faces (Diane and John). It’s a dynamic team, one with an eye on the future and an appreciation for the past.
We'll see whether that's true in the coming months.

Gary Groth finally responds to the complaints about tcj.com, begun by no less than their own Noah Berlatsky, by announcing some design and personal changes. Noah initially criticized the site's weak design last year before moving on to attacking Groth's self-congratulatory intro to the relaunched site. Noah took exception to Groth's air of superiority towards bloggers - a typical stance of print journalists towards online writing:
Another way people often denigrate blogging, I think, is by suggesting that it’s not as concentrated, or thoughtful, or ambitious as writing a book. Again, it’s true that ambitious blogs don’t look like ambitious books, but I don’t think the difference is necessarily one of quality or thoughtfulness per se. As a blogger, I’m currently in the process of writing at length about every single issue of the Marston/Peter Wonder Woman run. Economically, that’s simply not something you could do in print. Similarly, a collaborative work of criticism like Tom Spurgeon’s massive series of holiday interviews on comics of the decade would be much, much more difficult to organize in a print magazine than online.
Not surprisingly, there's been some schadenfreude from the online community over tcj.com's teething problems after Groth's remarks. As Johanna Draper Carlson points out:
If Groth wants to slam online work for being “amateurish, shallow, frivolous” (as he did as a site welcome, a badly chosen introduction if ever there was one) and think that they’re going to show all those bloggers how things should be done… well, the contrast between those intentions and the actual site should be in the dictionary as the most obvious example of “hubris” I’ve seen in a while. Gary, your baby was out-of-date before it launched. Your contempt for online work shows through in the lack of effort put in here, with the site ignoring common best practices apparently through ignorance that there even were such things.
As someone who read the Journal in print (whenever I could find copies), I'm still pretty hopeful for its new online incarnation. But it's many ways a johnny-come-lately to the fast changing World Wide Web; and its print history doesn't automatically translate into online appeal as other established gatekeepers of older media have learned to their chagrin.

Whatever its problems, the site deserves praise for gathering some of the brightest bloggers on the web. For example, R. Fiore has written an excellent post comparing Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) and CCI (Comic Con International). The former was once the larger convention. But the latter outgrew the former by leaps and bounds because it adapted to changes in popular culture, while Worldcon stagnated and now only appeals to the hardcore crowd. Of course lots of fans now complain about the changes to CCI.

In other news:

Cindy Au summarizes the reactions to The Last Airbender Super Bowl ad (More on Avatar Racebending).

Michael Murphey, CEO of iVerse Media; Jeff Webber, director of ePublishing for IDW Publishing; Brett Dovman, CFO of PanelFly, and writer Andy Ihanatko, debate the proper format and presentation for digital comics at Macworld 2010. There's also a separate video interview with Ihanatko where he relates his year-long experiment to consume comics and other media exclusively in digital forms. The results for comics were dismal if someone were to avoid BitTorrent. I get the feeling he doesn't read manga.

The Yes Men attend the offsite TED Conference and discover that anti-corporate activism isn't cool there.


Wonder Woman #40

Wonder Woman #40: The Crows
The last time I reviewed the current Wonder Woman, she was battling the forces of darkness in the form of evil doppelgänger Genocide - a creation of war god Ares. That turned out to be part of a larger plan to destroy the Amazon nation. The chaos that created provided cover for Ares to impregnate a couple of Amazons. Divinely conceived children grow up so fast; so it wasn't long before they graduated to terrorizing the DC population with their creepy mind control powers. They're an obvious homage to the The Midwich Cuckoos, except in this issue they're referred to as the Crows.

Wonder Woman #40: Serpent God
They also continue the recent fad of victimizing the gods of other pantheons by inducing a Meso-American feathered serpent to swallow some commuters. But Wonder Woman easily defeats the wayward god. It's a basic rampaging monster smackdown to establish the hero's credentials. Penciller Aaron Lopresti gets to show off his creature design skills yet again, which doesn't change my opinion from the last review. But for writer Gail Simone, Diana is different breed from the usual ass kicker: First she beats you up; then she talks you to her side. So Diana shows concern for both the serpent god and its regurgitated victims. This is also the DC universe where WW, labeled as one of the big three, is supposably deified to ludicrous levels. Even a little skepticism from the public is treated as a major crisis. So the Crows naturally start working on undermining her reputation. Didn't she once get a lot of flack for killing a villain in self defense? I guess people have moved on.

Wonder Woman #40: Etta Candy
The in-universe perspective hasn't always reflected her real world treatment. But Simone loves WW's history. As with Superman and Batman, the reverence can be pretty annoying. But it's made a bit more palatable by old school fan service. Giving Diana a squad of super-powered apes bought back some Silver Age wackiness to the title. Bringing back supporting characters Etta Candy and Steve Trevor was another fan pleasing move. Etta in particular has imparted some much needed levity since her reintroduction as loyal sidekick; and the centerpiece of this issue is an explanation for her suddenly improved fighting abilities. There's also a lot of personal affirmation of sisterhood; something missing in previous recent interpretations of the character. But fan service works both ways. One moment WW's bonding with her best friend; next she's being pummeled by a clearly enchanted Power Girl - DC's walking plot device for angry irrational female superhero. The reader will have to wait till next issue to see how WW will talk her out of that spell.


Imaginary Asians

The latest trailer for the upcoming movie The Last Airbender aired as a Super Bowl ad last weekend. Here's the part that shows the Southern Water Tribe with main characters Sokka and Katara front and center:

Frame from the The Last Airbender trailor.

And here's a still from the animated series that inspired the movie:

Frame from Avatar The Last Airbender.

This has given more ammunition to critics of the film's casting choices. Two Caucasian actors (Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz) surrounded by a supporting cast from different ethnicities. Racebending.com has compared this scene to Earl Derr Biggers playing the Asian hero of the Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s.
Eighty years later and still people of color are only allowed in the background. An entire tribe populated using extras from Greenland – a nation that is almost 90% of Inuit heritage – is championed by two Caucasians.

Chan was conceived at the time as a progressive alternative to the Yellow Peril stereotype; but not so progressive that he could be played by an actual Asian person. The Avatar The Last Airbender series doesn't self-consciously portray Asians in opposition to a particular negative preconception, and its treatment of racial issues is rather broad. But the casting choices of its film adaptation not only dredges up Hollywood's long history with Yellowface and the more recent whitewashing of foreign properties, but highlights the problematic nature of translating any animated property to live action.

Despite recent technological advances that allow animators to realistically render characters in three dimensions, most animation still utilizes a relatively simpler "freestyle" manner (to adopt a term from R. Fiore). This has the advantage of allowing for enormous expressive range by using relatively simple linear renditions. But it's also a double-edged sword. What can be magnified isn't just emotions, but physical characteristics. Since the artist decides the characteristics to be rendered, this tends to reflect what the artist perceives as important. When the artist is influenced by particular racial attitudes, the end result can be a portrayal that exaggerates what are in reality only minor differences between individuals. Cartoonists influenced by the Blackface theatrical tradition drew people of African descent with large googly eyes, disproportionately thick lips, and exceedingly dark skin. Those influenced by Yellow Peril tend to depict Asians with narrow eyes and sallow skin. In Japanese manga, it's not uncommon to draw Westerners as tall, clumsy, and blond-haired. This isn't a simple East vs. West thing: It's also not unusual for mangaka to draw Korean characters with stronger "ethnic" characteristics when interacting with Japanese characters.

Emma and Otoyomegatari by Kaoru Mori.
Western European and Central Asian characters from mangaka Kaoru Mori's historically-based fiction.

However it would be a mistake to imagine that all cartoonists are interested in highlighting racial differences. On the contrary, cartoonists can often use a detail-oriented "liberal" approach that can still appear ambiguous. This ambiguity can often lead to confusion and misunderstanding when the audience doesn't understand the conventions that the artist is following. The most obvious example is the “Why do they look Caucasian?” question raised by an audience unfamiliar to Japanese manga conventions. To the Japanese the characters are not necessarily white, but they end up looking so to many Westerners applying their particular expectations to the Japanese market. To quote critic and translator Matt Thorn:
...Non-Europeans living in a European-dominated society absorb these standards themselves, and not only are continuously made to be aware of their “otherness,” but adhere, out of necessity, to the Eurocentric system of signification. If an American of Asian descent wants to create a children’s book intended to build self-esteem among Asian American children and educate other children about Asian American experiences, she must first make sure the readers know that the characters represented are Asian, and so, consciously or not, she resorts to stereotyped signifiers that are easily recognizable, such as “slanted” eyes (an exaggerated representation of the epicanthic fold that is often, but not always, more pronounced in East Asians than in Europeans or Africans) or pitch black, straight hair (regardless of the fact that East Asian hair can range from near-black to reddish brown, and is often wavy or even frizzy). So it is that Americans and others raised in European-dominated societies, regardless of their background, will see a circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, free of racial signifiers, as “white.”

...Japan, however, is not and never has been a European-dominated society. The Japanese are not Other within their own borders, and therefore drawn (or painted or sculpted) representations of, by and for Japanese do not, as a rule, include stereotyped racial markers. A circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth is, by default, Japanese.

Tails by Ethan Young.
Webcomics creator Ethan Young alters his art in order to clarify his characters ethnicity. Before (left), After (right). Link by Sean Kleefeld.

Avatar is drawn in a style that largely avoids the abuse of exaggerated racial markers; hence the confusion about their ethnic identities. But another aspect of Avatar that is often used by people who defend the casting choices is the fictional nature of the original series. Co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have often credited their Asian influences in every aspect of the series design. But the world they create isn't "real" in the literal sense (adopting Fiore): There are no historically authentic Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Inuit, Koreans etc. that inhabit Avatar. And because Avatar is a fictionalized, romanticized and simplified version of Asian culture and history, there are people who feel that they can literally insert a Caucasian presence into it since the series sidesteps the need for historical accuracy. As far as they're concerned, two white guys imagined this, so what's the harm?

Avatar the Last Airbender.
The core characters of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Alternate timelines are a staple in many fantasy stories. Many of the most popular Japanese imports are alternate worlds. Take the megahit Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. It's largely set in a nation called Amestris that's modeled after early industrial Europe and Weimar era Germany. The country is in conflict with its neighbors, including the vaguely Middle-Eastern Ishbalans. Are the Amestrians white? Or more specifically German? Given the style of cartooning, the answer isn't immediately obvious except to people who see manga characters as Caucasian. But looking at the fictional culture they inhabit, there are some pretty strong signifiers for their Western identities: They have Western names; they read and write using Roman characters; they sport Western style clothing; They inhabit European style buildings. So yes, they are imagined Europeans from an alternate universe. But Arakawa is free to incorporate Japanese-style elements into his fantasy world. Anyone very familiar with shonen manga can identify them: The struggle to become stronger; the concept of nakama; the sempai-kohai relationship; a particular attitude to pacifism vs. war. Even alchemy, the story's most publicized element, is fitted to become a mystical form of hand-to-hand combat not unlike the quan-fa inspired bending arts of Avatar. The Elric brothers alchemy is superficially similar to earth bending. To readers of the original manga, they speak Japanese. In the animated adaptation, they sound Japanese.

Fullmetal Alchemist
Amestrian characters of Fullmetal Alchemist.

A similar thing is happening with Avatar. The world is largely a blend of classical Asian elements. The characters posses Asian sounding names; they read and write with Chinese characters; they sport Asian styled fashions; they inhabit buildings that are a fusion of Eastern styles; they know kung fu (sigh...) So yeah, they're Asian, albeit through a fantasy world. But its co-creators freely blend Western elements into the series: The story's slapstick humor, timing, rhythms, and characterizations are more Western than Eastern. While the voice cast is fairly multi-ethnic, the characters all speak with an American patois that would sound anachronistic in a period story. The most touted narrative element of the series (and most vulnerable to accusations of ethnic stereotyping) is the concept of bending, which is organized according to the four categories of Western alchemy.

But the most relevant feauture of Avatar is that it's a Western-style fantasy epic about the struggle against totalitarianism - an aspect of the superhero genre since World War II, and a component of any fantasy that mimics Lord of the Rings. Avatar sidesteps the skin color-defined racial struggle between Caucasians vs. everyone else, found in J.R.R. Tolkien, by inventing a pan-Asian world. Instead of skin color, race is defined more as spirituality manifested by the four nations in their respective bending arts. The most technologically advanced nation (and most Western?) wages a war of conquest based on the idea of its own superiority of its culture to the more "primitive" cultures. This is demonstrated in their rejection of Avatar Aang - a supernatural entity who embodies a mélange of ideas about spiritual wisdom,  harmonious balance, and universal peace. As the main protagonist of the series, Aang combines tropes about Eastern mysticism with that of a conventional action hero - he's a Buddhist saint who kicks ass.

Bryan Konietzko poster
Detail of a Bryan Konietzko poster created after the onset of the casting controversy. The character Aang suddenly acquires stronger Asian features. Photo from flickr.

The loose non-literal style used by most animated serials combined with the  metaphorical inventiveness of fantasy make it easy to create a flexible blend of cultural elements. There is of course an unavoidable commercial aspect to this formula. Even the most exotic imaginary world benefits from characters that the native audience can identify with enough to pay to watch or read about. But no matter how inventive the creators, they can't completely escape their own skin. There's an undeniable viewpoint informed by the creators native background that I think sometimes glibly romanticizes and stereotypes foreign cultures under the heading of fantasy world-building. But as long as these fantasy characters remain cartoons, pinning down their exact ethnic identity isn't exactly an urgent issue, and ultimately beside the point to enjoying the story.

The problem however comes when the cartoon transitions into live action: The literal invades and changes the equation. The actors who play the parts will posses actual ethnic backgrounds, which have political complications. What was loose and ambiguous suddenly becomes concrete and rigid. Thanks to a casting choice decision, Sokka's and Katara's American twang and other mannerisms were given precedence over all the other things that identify them as Asian. And apparently in Hollywood, the default for American is white. But the trailor indicates that the actors who play their immediate family, relatives, and clan members, are people of color. Not surprisingly, this is being justified as a form of multicultarism, and ironically also excused under the pretense of fantasy world-building. While in an ideal post-racial world it would be possible to cast an actor for any part regardless of ethnic identity, in this world the entertainment industry's history of racial discrimination are an inescapable reality. So while Paramount's actions towards the casting conform to standard operating procedure, it would inevitably clash with some of the series more devoted fans who may, or may not, have initially given the issue much thought.

More on Avatar Racebending


Siege #1-2

Siege by Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Eliopoulos, Laura Martin, Mark Morales, Oliver Coipel.Siege by Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Eliopoulos, Laura Martin, Mark Morales, Oliver Coipel.

by Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Eliopoulos, Laura Martin, Mark Morales, Oliver Coipel

It's a hallmark of the Marvel Universe that its characters have to fight hard just to maintain an even keel. Even on their best days, Marvel's superheroes face a world that fears and loathes them. At least that's the general idea Marvel wants to convey anyway. But as anyone who's been paying attention to its company-wide events for the last three years, its superhero in-universe stock has been dropping rapidly. They've been outlawed, arrested, identities publicly exposed, murdered, kidnapped, impersonated, and suffered the indignity of watching their mortal enemies being put into key positions of power. Eventually this downward spiral had to reverse itself before it alienated even Marvel's most diehard fans. Which leads to the latest company-wide event Siege.

For an event that is much hyped as the culmination of several years of storytelling, the main Siege miniseries, which is currently halfway through its four issue run, is a fairly pedestrian effort. While it's easy to blame writer Brian Michael Bendis, Siege is, like most events, a part of a much larger commercial package designed to appeal to hardcore fans and completists. The miniseries functions as a spine from which the reader attaches several interconnected titles. The fact that it has become SOP for Marvel to supply the checklist for company-wide events just to keep the story straight is not only a sign of the kind of mental and financial investment required by the reader, but also how much synergy is required between at least half a dozen writers. The miniseries is a gigantic spectacle and little else. Presumably the subsidiary titles are there to supply a additional narrative substance. But the result is that the central story lacks any context or emotional pull to its proceedings.

Siege Issue #1

The setup is simple enough to those who've been following Marvel: über-villain Norman Osborne has spent his time accumulating political capital while successfully discrediting any effective opposition from the superhero community. Now he decides to eliminate the Asgardians, who for reasons too complicated to go into, have relocated Asgard above Oklahoma. With the help of evil god Loki, he engineers an incident as a pretense to launch a full-scale invasion of Asgard with all the military and superhumans under his command. In what is either an act of symmetry or just lazy writing, the incident mimics the one that sparked Civil War. But while Mark Millar used Civil War as a platform to deliver ham fisted political messages, Bendis plays it straight. While Iron Man and Captain America fighting over superhero rights in the former pretended to be relevant, here Osborne is clearly in the wrong, necessitating the intervention of Thor and the real Avengers. It couldn't be any more obvious if Bendis had Osborne and Loki cackle maniacally. So in place of ponderous discussions on whether superheroes do more harm than good, we have a perfunctory scene that barely registers the death of thousands of civilians, followed by several scenes of Osborne cowing, bribing, and lying his way in order to commit an act of genocide. Osborne has never had much dealings with the Asgardians in the past; so his motivations for listening to Loki and attacking them seem like an empty exercise in rote villain behavior.

Siege Issue #1

The battle of Asgard proceeds at a similarly clipped pace: Thor is quickly taken down; Ares and Balder have a brief exchange; a B-lister dies to stress just how evil Osborne is; Steve Rogers rallies the superheroes driven underground by Osborne. The art supplied by Oliver Coipel and company is fairly conventional, but slickly drawn. There are some pretty splash pages, but overall the backgrounds and surface details are rather generic and kept to a minimum. Unfortunately this doesn't help convey the sense of scale needed for these grandiose battle set pieces.

Siege feels very much like a means to an end - to establish a new status quo. The first issue cover already promises the triumphant reunion of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. If it does that while ending Norman Osborne's reign of terror, it may be the cathartic experience many fans want. But as a story in itself, the miniseries is a rather stilted excuse to justify one big fight.

Siege Issue #2

When Nerds Challenge Jocks

Fedor Emelianenko let them off easy