The Four Faces of Typhoid Mary

Writer Ann Nocenti, during her time on Daredevil from late 1986 to early 1991, told many unconventional stories that addressed a number of controversial topics.  One of her vehicles for exploring certain issues was the character of Typhoid Mary who she co-created with artist John Romita Jr.

Marvel Comics Presents 150 cover

Typhoid Mary is definitely one of Nocenti’s most memorable creations.  Mary Walker is telepathic, telekinetic and pyrokinetic.  She also suffers from multiple personality disorder, switching between the sweet, innocent, naïve Mary and the sadistic, domineering, seductive Typhoid.  This transformation is not merely mental but also physical, with her pulse rate & temperature changing.

After Nocenti’s departure from Daredevil, she continued to develop Typhoid Mary in a pair of serials that ran in the biweekly anthology Marvel Comics Presents.  Working with artist Steve Lightle, she teamed up Typhoid first with Wolverine and then with Ghost Rider.  The arcs of these two serials culminated in the full-length two-part story “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” that appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #150-151, published in early 1994.  The artwork was by Lightle and Fred Harper.

MCP #150 opens with Typhoid ostensibly in the care of psychiatrist Doctor Hunt.  Unfortunately Hunt is badly in need of a refresher course on professional ethics, as he believes he has fallen in love with Mary, and their “sessions” involve having sex with her.  Hunt is supposedly planning to integrate Mary’s personalities together, although more than one character suspects that what he really intends to do is obliterate the kindly Mary persona so that he will have the kinky Typhoid all to himself.

Marvel Comics Presents 150 pg 5

Wolverine removes Mary from Hunt’s care, not only because he can see that the psychiatrist is a quack, but also because he requires Typhoid’s help.  A young mutant empath & chameleon named Jessie has been abducted by the Fortress, one of those innumerable nefarious scientific conspiracies that populate the Marvel universe.  Wolverine needs Typhoid to infiltrate the Fortress and extricate Jessie.  He is able to sell this mission to Mary by explaining that if Jessie is not rescued she will be subjected to unscrupulous experiments, much as the two of them also have been.

Typhoid’s rescue attempt goes awry and she is captured by the Fortress.  She unconsciously sends out a telepathic SOS to not just Wolverine, but to her old paramour / adversary Daredevil and to Ghost Rider… although at this point in time the flaming-skulled cyclist is dead (well, deader than usual) and the mayday is received by his replacement Vengeance.

The imprisoned Typhoid is probed by the Fortress scientists, which results in a third personality bursting forth.  Bloody Mary is a ruthless man-hater who vows to avenge the crimes “the patriarch” has inflicted upon women.  She brutally decimates the Fortress personnel and departs with Jessie.

Later, arriving at a woman’s shelter, Bloody Mary is shocked to discover that Jessie is, in fact, a boy; his empathic abilities had previously caused him to mimic first Steel Raven, the female mercenary who brought him to the Fortress, and then Mary.  Now, though, he is reverting to his true gender.  Bloody Mary is furious.  Calling Jessie a “filthy liar,” she violently slaps the teenager.  Stealing the shelter’s files on battered women, Mary flees, intending to avenge them.

Marvel Comics Presents 150 pg 24

Bloody Mary embarks upon her mission of retribution, brutalizing the husbands and boyfriends of the women in the shelter, inflicting upon them the exact injuries they gave their victims.  Attempting to track her down are Wolverine, Daredevil and Vengeance, who each have their own ideas about how to deal with Bloody Mary.  The three vigilantes at odds with one another, as they argue over whether Mary deserves psychiatric help, imprisonment, or death.

Added to the mix is Steel Raven, dispatched by the Fortress to retrieve Jessie.  Raven is beginning to have second thoughts about her employers, though, unsettled by their experiments on children.  When Raven catches up to Bloody Mary, she finds that she is in agreement with her quest for retribution against abusive men.  The mercenary holds off Vengeance and Wolverine so that Mary can continue on her mission.

Vacillating back and forth between her three personalities, Mary once again encounters Jessie, who has been looking for her.  The empathic teen begins to copy each of Mary’s personas in rapid succession…

Mary: Look at you, my multiple personalities, they’re contagious. Look at you. You echo all I am. Stay away. I can’t be responsible!

Jessie: I want to be with you, Mary. I want to help you.

Mary: How did you manage to trick me, make me think you were a girl?

Jessie: Because I am a girl. I’m just trapped in this boy’s body. I want to be like you.

Mary: Oh, yeah? Which me? Who shall I be for you?

Jessie: That Wolverine man was right. There’s one more in there. One more that’s the best of all. Don’t you feel it?

Prompted by Jessie, Mary looks within herself, and uncovers a fourth personality, a woman who refers to herself as “Walker.”  This identity shares certain aspects of the other three.  Walker is kind but assertive.  She is not abusive, nor will she allow herself to be abused.

Marvel Comics Presents 151 pg 24

Walker reflects upon her various natures…

“I began to hate all the shrinks and doctors, all the men, and I divided myself into four parts: one helpless before men, one using them, one hating them… and now me, indifferent to them. Beyond them.”

Walker returns to the hospital where she was being treated and confronts Hunt on his unethical, criminal behavior, and then exposes what he did to her.  As he is being led away by the police, she turns to address the reporters on the scene.  Walker vows to continue Bloody Mary’s quest to avenge women, but it is apparent she will be doing so a more rational manner.  And with that she departs, Jessie accompanying her.

The first time I read “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” I was 18 years old.  I found it incredibly thought-provoking.  It raised so many questions that I had never really considered previously, about women’s roles in society and how these are often imposed upon them by men, about homosexuality & gender identity, about crime & punishment.  Two decades later, re-reading it, Nocenti’s story still stirred a great deal of contemplation.

Interviewed in October 1998 by the Daredevil fan site Man Without Fear, Nocenti explained the creation of Typhoid Mary…

“As for where Typhoid came from, you’ll have to ask the shrink I’ve as yet never gone to. I think I wanted to shatter the female stereotypes–virgin, whore, bitch, ditz, feminist, girl scout, all-suffering mother, et al.–into tiny fragments and yet keep all the pieces in the same little female bundle.”

Through her character Nocenti addresses the identities that men often assign to women.  Typhoid Mary is a challenge to the Virgin-Whore Complex, the idea often perpetuated by male-dominant cultures that a woman is either a virtuous, chaste innocent or a sinful, promiscuous seductress, with no middle ground in-between.  Mary is the “virgin” and Typhoid is the “whore,” and neither of them is healthy.  These two halves are the result of fission of personality.  The splitting of an atom initially results in tremendous energy but ultimately leads to radioactive decay.  Likewise, Mary Walker’s personality split to protect her from trauma, but over time this became detrimental, with neither aspect able to function as a whole individual.

Marvel Comics Presents 151 pg 16

Mary by herself is kind and caring, but also helpless and unsophisticated, unprepared to cope with the complexities of the world.  Typhoid, on the other hand, protects herself from harm by acting as the aggressor and manipulating others, but this renders her incapable of forming real friendships and relationships with others.  Both Mary and Typhoid possess attributes that, if united, would make them a strong, independent, healthy person.

Bloody Mary is another unbalanced splinter of Mary Walker’s personality.  Nocenti casts Bloody Mary as an embodiment of the stereotype of the militant feminist, what some derogatorily refer to as a “Feminazi.”  Bloody Mary views the conflict between men and women in absolutes, declaring that “All women are political prisoners.”  She regards all men as victimizers, not realizing that she is guilty of the same broad judgments as those she opposes.

If, however, the determination and convictions of Bloody Mary were united with the qualities of Mary Walker and Typhoid Mary, once again you would have an individual who is secure and balanced.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think that all of us, men and women, are incredibly complex.  At different times in our lives, in different setting among different people, we play different roles, we assume different identities, emphasize different parts of our personalities.  Sometimes we have trouble deciding exactly who we are.

Even with someone such as Hunt, Nocenti demonstrates that people are complicated.  For all his sins, at one point the psychiatrist does express self-doubt and begins to question his objectivity.  Ultimately, though, Hunt pushes aside his uncertainty.  He attempts to rationalize his actions to Walker with a misogynist rant about how all women are seductive manipulators.  Sometimes, when you get right down to it, people really are jerks.

Marvel Comics Presents 151 pg 28

Jessie is an interesting figure.  Through him/her, Nocenti touches upon the question of what determines sexual orientation and gender identity.  How much of it is conscious individual choice, how much is a result of socialization, and how much of it is biological?

When I was in my teens I was still trying to make up my mind about homosexuality.  I will admit at one point I knew very little about the subject and the thought of people of the same gender having sex seemed really weird.  Then in the early 1990s I read newspaper articles about how homosexuality was likely determined by genetics.  At that point I must have started to understand that if sexual orientation was something that a person was born with, just like skin color or eye color or height or being left-handed, then it was unjust to discriminate against someone on that basis.

As for the transgender aspect of Jessie’s character, two decades later sex change remains even more controversial than homosexuality.  It still seems a bit odd to me.  The concept of a person’s psychological gender identity being different from their physical one is difficult for me to understand.  But just because something is beyond my conception doesn’t make it wrong.  It is important to keep an open mind.  And I recognize that it is crucial for people to be comfortable in their own skin, to be happy with who they are.

“Bloody Mary” is a good story, although not without its flaws.  Perhaps Nocenti’s plot is overly ambitious, attempting to fit in its in-depth exploration of Typhoid Mary, appearances by Wolverine, Daredevil and Vengeance, and the introductions of Steel Raven, Jessie and the Fortress.

There may have been certain editorial directives at work that Nocenti had to work within, such as the use of Vengeance.  It would have made more sense to have Ghost Rider appear but, again, the character was (temporarily) deceased, and so Vengeance was slotted in even though he’d never met Typhoid before.   He doesn’t have much to do in this story.  Daredevil also seems to be fighting for space.  Halfway through MCP #151 he rather abruptly agrees to just let Wolverine handle Typhoid, and then vanishes from the story.

The division of artwork between Steve Lightle and Fred Harper isn’t ideal.  Both Lightle and Harper are very talented artists, but they have extremely different styles.  Consequently the two halves of this story are visually quite different.

Marvel Comics Presents 150 pg 16

Lightle’s detailed artwork on the first half of “Bloody Mary” is amazing.  I have been a fan of his since I first saw his covers for Classic X-Men in 1989.  So I was happy his work began appearing regularly in MCP starting in 1992.

Lightle works in tangent with colorist Maryann Lightle who, as you can probably guess by that last name, is his wife.  It seems likely that her familiarity with her husband’s work enabled Maryann Lightle to do an extremely effective job coloring his art on this issue.

I especially liked Lightle’s design for Wolverine’s stealth uniform.  Lightle also designed the Steel Raven character, and co-plotted the first half of the story with Nocenti.

It appears that Lightle was originally intended to illustrate the entire story.  In late 1993 I met MCP editor Richard Ashford at a store signing.  He had preview artwork for upcoming issues including this story, which he stated was going to run in #149-150.  Fast forward to early 1994 and MCP #149 came out with no sign of Typhoid Mary but instead four stand-alone eight page stories.  “Bloody Mary” by Nocenti & Lightle did begin in the next issue, but the letter column announced that the artist on second part would be Harper.

I don’t know if there were deadline problems and work on this story was running late (hence the story being moved back an issue), or if Ashford was worried that it would come in behind schedule, but whatever the case he assigned the second half to Harper, who was a regular contributor to MCP.  Lightle did illustrate to cover for #151, though.

Marvel Comics Presents 151 pg 5

On the second half of “Bloody Mary,” Harper does very solid work.  His layouts and storytelling on many of his pages are dramatic and inventive.  As I said, Harper’s art is very unlike Lightle’s, but judged on its own merits it is good.

Regrettably sometimes the coloring doesn’t do Harper too many favors.  I don’t blame colorist Joe Andreani, who did quite a bit of work at Marvel in the 1990s.  Apparently MCP didn’t get the best color reproduction that was available at the time.  Or perhaps it is just that Harper’s style with its heavy use of blacks is better-suited to appearing in black & white.  I’ve seen a number of his original pages from MCP and they look so much more impressive in person, revealing a lot of detail that was unclear or obscured when they were printed.

In any case, despite certain problems, Marvel Comics Presents #150-151 are still a strong pair of issues.  Ann Nocenti’s writing on “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” it thoughtful and intelligent.  Nocenti does an excellent job continuing to develop her creation Typhoid Mary, and through her addresses a number of controversial topics while crafting an entertaining story.

UPDATE: I was just notified by Steve Andreski, via the Back Issue Magazine group on Facebook, that there is an upcoming trade paperback from Marvel collecting the Typhoid Mary serials from MCP including “Bloody Mary,” as well as several other excellent stories featuring the character written by Ann Nocenti.  Here’s the info…

Typhoid's Kiss TPB solicitation

I highly recommend purchasing a copy of the Daredevil: Typhoid’s Kiss trade paperback when it comes out.  There are some really great stories that are going to be contained in this volume.  Thanks for the info, Steve!

Donald Sterling: It’s All About The Money

“Everything good that is not based on a morally good disposition, however, is nothing but pretense and glittering misery.” – Immanuel Kant

Time for one of my rare political posts.  I do not do these too often, because I usually want to make sure that I actually have something intelligent to say, and that I’m not going to make a fool of myself.  Would that others were capable of such self-restraint!

I really don’t follow sports, so until a few days ago I had never heard of Donald Sterling, the billionaire owner of the LA Clippers basketball team.  However, Sterling made the headlines in a big way when taped voice messages for his mistress, a part-Hispanic, part-black woman who apparently goes by several names, including V. Stiviano, were leaked to the press.  The 80 year old Sterling was caught on tape criticizing the 31 year old Stiviano for posting photos of herself with African American basketball legend Magic Johnson on Instagram.  According to CNN, Sterling told Stiviano “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.”  He went on to add “I’ve known (Magic Johnson) well, and he should be admired. … I’m just saying that it’s too bad you can’t admire him privately. Admire him, bring him here, feed him, f**k him, but don’t put (Magic) on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

Well, the shit immediately hit the fan, and Sterling has been up to his neck in a public relations nightmare for the last several days.  The mostly-black line-up of the Clippers showed up on the court with their warm-up gear inside out.  Over a dozen corporate sponsors made the decision to pull their support for the Clippers.  It all culminated in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning Sterling for life, fining him $2.5 million, and urging the Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Following Silver’s announcement, former NBA player and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson publicly praised the decision.  He announced that “it delivered a statement about where we are as a county.”

Oh, yes, it delivered a statement, all right.  It declared, loud and clear, that the god of the American people is the almighty dollar.

Donald Sterling cartoon by Chip Bok

Let’s take a look at Donald Sterling’s long, sordid history.  He is a serial philanderer who was most recently carrying on a relationship with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, apparently showering her with $2 million in gifts, all the while undoubtedly bringing embarrassment to his wife & children.  Sterling was unsuccessfully sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor for age & racial bias.  In that same year, Sterling paid $2.725 million to settle a housing bias suit brought against him by the Justice Department, which alleged that he systematically drove blacks, Hispanics and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.

All of this is in Sterling’s past.  But none of it previously seemed to bother the NBA, the players on the Clippers, or the team’s corporate sponsors terribly much.  Hell, even the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award after his contribution of $45,000 to their coffers.

However, once Sterling was caught on tape making racist remarks, causing a huge PR debacle, seething anger among the Clippers line-up, and sponsors to start fleeing from him like he’s come down with a case of the bubonic plague… then, and only then, does the NBA decide that Sterling is a reprehensible human being.  Yes, it took the looming threat of a gigantic loss of revenue to finally cause the NBA to cut Sterling loose.  Oh, yeah, and the NAACP is now keeping their distance.

This entire situation reminds me of what happened back in February in Arizona.  The state legislature had passed the controversial SB 1062, which would have allowed businesses in Arizona to deny service to gay & lesbian customers if that decision was “substantially motivated by a religious belief.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was a week away from deciding whether to sign or veto SB 1062 when all hell broke loose.  Companies such as American Airlines, AT&T and Marriot voiced concerns over the bill.  Apple, which was in the middle of building a plant in Mesa that was expected to create hundreds of new jobs, urged Brewer to veto SB 1062.  The state Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and a number of local businesses all came out in opposition to it.  Even three of the state legislators who had originally voted yes for SB 1062 were suddenly back-peddling furiously, urging Brewer to exercise her veto power.  The general dawning realization among many seemed to be “Wait a second, if this thing goes into effect, we could lose a shit load of money!”

In the end, Brewer did veto SB 1062.  But while it was the right decision, it was quite clearly done for the wrong reasons.  Instead of making her choice for reasons of social justice, Brewer’s motivation was financial.

It is a terrible tragedy when freedom and liberty are at the whims of economics, that the defense of civil rights is predicated on whether or not it is financially judicious.  Sadly, though, that has often been the case.  One of the most powerful tools of the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the economic boycott.  Now more than ever, though, it seems that significant social progress is unlikely without a monetary incentive behind it.

As the old saying goes, money talks and bullshit walks.

Separating the art from the artist: creators and bad behavior

As someone who reads a lot of books & comics, who watches television & movies, who listens to music, from time to time the question arises: can you appreciate a work of art purely on its own merits, even when you do not like the artist who created it?  If you know that person is unpleasant, or sexist, or racist, or holds an extreme political view that is anathema to your sensibilities, are you still able to enjoy the products of his or her creativity?

That question has once again reared its head for me in the last couple of days.  It concerned independent comic book creator MariNaomi, author of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22.  I learned that MariNaomi, while she had been participating on a panel discussion on LGBTQ issues at a comic book convention, had been, in her words, “sexually harassed” by a fellow panelist.  It very soon was revealed that mainstream comic book writer Scott Lobdell was the individual who had harassed her.  I do not want to get into the unpleasant details of what MariNaomi experienced, or discuss Lobdell’s apology, but you can read both of them for yourselves via these links.  I’ll still be here when you get back:

http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/marinaomi-harassed-comics-panel

http://comicsbeat.com/scott-lobdell-i-apologize-to-marinaomi/

Are we all caught up now?  Good.

When I was in high school and college in the 1990s, I was a huge fan of Scott Lobdell’s writing on books such as Excalibur, Marvel Comics Presents, and Uncanny X-Men.  I found his stories to be both extremely funny and emotionally moving & poignant.  Aside from a couple of issues here and there, I have not read his more recent work on DC’s New 52, simply because I’m generally dissatisfied with the tone of that whole line, and the top-down creative style where editorial micro-manages their writers, leading to a lot of lackluster material.  I’d heard people complaining that within the pages of Red Hood and the Outlaws, Lobdell had turned Starfire into a nymphomaniac or something like that, but I just shrugged and figured it was something that his editors had directed him to do.  It didn’t really matter to me, since I wasn’t reading that book.

Now, though, having found out about Lobdell’s behavior at that comic convention, the manner in which he treated MariNaomi, suddenly I’m wondering to myself if I can now go back and re-read his Marvel work from a couple of decades ago and still enjoy it.  In the pages of Uncanny X-Men, he often wrote about how mutants were outsiders or outcasts, very effectively continuing the theme of mutants as metaphors for minorities such as Jews or blacks or homosexuals.  Lobdell would script powerful scenes where characters such as Charles Xavier would encourage tolerance & acceptance towards people of all backgrounds.  Is all that just going to seem hollow and hypocritical now?

Remember to practice what you preach.

Remember to practice what you preach.

I realize that Lobdell is only human.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  Maybe he’s a practical joker with poor judgment who acts like this around everyone.  Should he be crucified for behavior?  Yet at the same time, we definitely cannot just casually brush aside all of the mental and emotional anguish MariNaomi obviously experienced because of his behavior.

So, getting back to my question, can I still, personally, read Lobdell’s work and enjoy it?  Thinking it over, there are numerous examples of creative types who had all manner of glaring flaws & defects, who behaved badly but who were brilliant writers or artists or musicians or actors.  Is anyone familiar with Ty Cobb?  He was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived.  He was also, according to numerous sources, an extremely nasty individual who treated other people like crap and who would get into violent arguments with anyone & everyone at the drop of a hat, on or off the baseball field.  His teammates often hated his guts, but they wanted him up at bat because they knew he could help lead them to victory.

H.P. Lovecraft was an anti-Semite, and Robert E. Howard was probably something of a racist.  I still very much enjoy the fiction of both men, although if either of them were still alive, I doubt I would want to be in the same room with them.  Looking at a much more recent example, after September 11th Frank Miller seems to have gone off the rails, turning into an ultra right wing reactionary who demonizes Liberals and the Occupy Wall Street protestors as traitors.  Am I still able to enjoy his work?  Yes… sometimes.  I still think that Batman: Year One is amazing.  But I am totally repulsed by the extreme xenophobia and the idolization of fascism & violence on display in both 300 and Holy Terror.

So, yes, sometimes I can enjoy the works of controversial, offensive figures, as long as their ideologies do not permeate their creations.  But on other occasions, their upsetting behavior has become so associated for me with them that I find it distasteful to look at their works, even if their art has nothing to do with their beliefs.

What I really need to do is give this some time, and see how I feel about Lobdell’s writing a few months from now.  Maybe distance will give me a better perspective.  But right now, in the present, I really do not want to look at anything he’s worked on.

There is one last thing.  I see that the usual Internet trolls have, predictably, come out of the woodwork, either to defend Scott Lobdell, or to attack MariNaomi, arguing that she is “oversensitive” or “cannot take a joke” or whatever.  To those people, I have this to say: Imagine that was your wife or girlfriend or daughter or mother or sister who had been subjected to Lobdell’s poor, tasteless attempts at humor.  Would you have found his behavior towards your loved one to be acceptable?  Would you tell your significant other that they needed to “get a sense of humor” about what happened?  For your sake, I hope not.

Yeah, I've been there.

Yeah, I’ve been there.

As for myself, I’m not perfect.  God knows I’ve made mistakes.  When I was in my teens and twenties on a few occasions I said or did things that were sexist.  And there was this one kid in Junior High who was always being an asshole & treating me like crap, someone who I’d heard rumors that he was gay.  So one day I just got so pissed off at him that I shouted a homophobic slur at him.  And even to this day, from time to time I will put my foot in my mouth and accidentally offend people without meaning to because sometimes I’m still socially awkward.  Looking back on all those incidents, I realize what I did was wrong, and if I saw any of those people today I would absolutely apologize for my behavior.

I guess we can all take this incident as a lesson that we should be careful about what we say to others.  Even when we mean no harm, if we choose our words poorly we can unintentionally end up really hurting other people.

The myth of the fake geek girl

The last few months on the Internet, one of the more interesting, as well as controversial, debates has revolved around the notion of “fake geek girls.”  One of the major aspects of this has concerned the phenomenon of attractive women cosplaying as sexy female comic book characters at comic book conventions.  There has been a lot of back-and-forth about whether or not these ladies are “real” fans.  I’ve had some general thoughts about this percolating in my mind for a while now, but I didn’t really take the time to organize them into any coherent form.

Then a few days ago on Facebook, someone posted a rather humorous image. Someone had created a meme featuring a girl cosplaying as “steampunk gender swapped Joker in a Willy Wonka hat,” stating that this lady was “trying too hard.”  Right next to it was a screen capture from a message board where someone else astutely pointed out that this gal was portraying an actual comic book character, Duela Dent, and that the next time someone accused someone else of being a “fake geek” they ought to do their research first.

Open mouth, insert foot.

Open mouth, insert foot.

I think my initial reaction to this was along the lines of “Oh, shit, the guy who created that first meme got totally pwned! Ha ha!”

(Credit where credit is due department: I just learned that the responses on the right, and the final image epically putting down the ill-informed douche who created the original meme, were assembled by Lizzie Taz Scism, a cosplayer herself and a friend of the lady who was garbed as Duela Dent.)

So I was at my temp job today, doing a whole bunch of data entry.  My mind began wandering, and it somehow conjured up the memory of the above image.  This started a whole row of mental dominos tumbling for the next couple of hours, leading to this blog post.

Please keep in mind, in addressing the “fake geek girl” controversy, I really do not want to make any sort of sweeping generalizations concerning any aspects of fandom.  That is why, as with my other recent post, Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who, I am attempting to frame this solely from my own individual perspective and experiences.  I think a lot of people have been dancing around a certain aspect of the reason why these accusations occur, so I’m just going to come right out and confront it head on.  If I offend anyone, I really do apologize.

When I was growing up, I was painfully shy and socially awkward.  I had few friends and mostly kept to myself.  When I wasn’t busy reading science fiction novels or comic books like Captain America, Batman, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was watching reruns of Doctor Who and Star Trek, plus innumerable cartoons.  I had a hell of a lot of action figures.  In other words, I was a major geek.  And the other kids at school knew it.  Throughout most of my public school years, I was taunted on a daily basis, repeatedly called a “nerd.”  I was fortunate enough to avoid getting beat up most of the time.  But, as some people observe, words can be just as painful as physical blows.  And a few times in high school I did get punched in the face.  Once, someone even hit me in the head with a football during gym class.

Significantly to my young self, a great deal of the taunting and mockery seemed to come from the girls in school.  I don’t know, maybe it was my young imagination, but practically every single girl I went to school with seemed to find it especially enjoyable to torment me with those mocking cries of “nerd.”  And when I hesitantly attempted to befriend any of those girls, or even tell them that I thought they were pretty, well, that just encouraged them to redouble their efforts to make my school life unbearable.

By the time I was in high school, it appeared to me that most of the popular guys were the ones who played school sports, or who were in the band or orchestra.  And they were also the guys who always seemed to be going out with one cute girl or another.  I couldn’t think of a single kid I knew who was into stuff like sci-fi or comic books and who had a girlfriend.  The girls seemed to automatically gravitate to the jocks or the musicians.

In my college years and my twenties, I began to gradually come out of my shell.  Even so, I really did not date much.  Most women still seemed to be attracted to the athletic type, or guys who were in bands, or just plain “bad boys.”  I did befriend a few comic book artists who I ran into regularly at NYC comic cons.  Hanging out with those guys at parties and bars, I did notice that a lot of women did think that it was really awesome and cool if a guy was an artist who made their living drawing comic books.  But if you actually read the damn things, well, the ladies still found that pretty unappealing.

Next person to say I'm not a real fan gets decapitated!

Next person to say I’m not a real fan gets decapitated!

So, yeah, in the last several years, when I’ve started to see female cosplayers become more and more prevalent, attractive women dressing up in sexy superhero costumes, there is a part of me that cannot help thinking “What the fuck is going on?!?”  I mean, it seemed like every single cute girl in school made it their mission to inflict as much misery upon me on a daily basis, and that they found guys like me completely unappealing.  So what the hell were all these women now doing hanging out with all those “nerds” and “geeks” that they had derided years before in their teenage years?  Why were they at comic book conventions dressed up as Wonder Woman and Power Girl and Black Widow and Witchblade, when based on all the evidence of my experiences they ought to be on the arm of some jock at a football game, or swooning while their hard-living musician boyfriends belted out tunes on the stage of a trendy nightclub?  And there’s inevitably that extremely paranoid, neurotic, irrational part of my thinking that ends up concluding that the reason why these women are cosplaying as sexy superhero babes is for some sort of ulterior purpose.

I am sure some of you are wondering, what sort of underhanded motives could possibly cause a woman to dress up in a revealing, skin-tight spandex outfit?  Well, let me put it this way: there are a lot of comic book and sci-fi fans who have a lot of money.  I used to work in downtown Manhattan.  There was this one comic shop that was literally two blocks away from Wall Street. And every Wednesday, aka “new comic book day,” at noon, like clockwork, a whole bunch of businessmen & stockbrokers would come flooding in and spend a ton of money.  Even more telling, many people I know in the original comic art hobby will regularly drop several thousand dollars on a single piece of artwork.

Let us say, then, that you had a childhood similar to mine, full of awkwardness & insecurity, marked by a lack of friends, especially female friends.  And from all of your experiences in the past, it seemed like every girl you came across regarded comic books and sci-fi as things only a loser would be interested in.  Now you are an adult, still a fan of those same things, and suddenly there are all these hot babes parading around in sexy, revealing outfits at comic book conventions.  Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to wonder if maybe some of these women are in fact “fake geek girls” who are looking to sink their claws into a well-off, socially inexperienced guy and milk him for all he’s worth.  It is probably not a logical reaction.  Hell, as I said, it veers dangerously into paranoia.  But from a certain perspective it makes sense that some guys are afraid of this.

Even after all this time, I still haven’t overcome a lot of these types of fears.  I mean, I’ve been in a relationship with Michele for five years now, and a lot of the time I cannot help thinking to myself “What the hell does she see in me?”  I mean, she’s attractive, outgoing, funny, intelligent and clever.  She’s also a talented artist who has been published nationally.  Guys seem to flirt with her all the time.  She could probably have anyone she wants.  And I’m a depressed, moody, neurotic, short-tempered geek who suffers from mood swings who spends half the time either acting like a crab-ass or isolating from people.  So why is she still with me?

Pondering all of this, I have to conclude that two major factors come into play (and, yes, here I am going to risk engaging in generalizations).  The first is that that, after all these years, many adult comic book fans, myself included, still suffer from insecurities that linger from their childhood.  Sometimes those traumas aren’t easily overcome.

The second is a fear of female sexuality.  Let’s face it, not just comic book fans, but the majority of men, at one time or another, have done their thinking with their crotch and not their brains.  Men can do extremely stupid things when motivated by lust.  And so there are plenty of men (again, not just limited to geeks) who worry that a sexy woman is going to take advantage of that and use their eroticism to control them.

On that later point, I think that ties in with society’s misogynist desire to sexualize women yet, at the same time, control them, turn them into non-threatening objects.  But that’s opening a whole other can of worms, and you could write entire books on that subject.

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a

Anyone who accuses Harley Quinn of being a “fake geek girl” gets a mallet upside the head!

You may well ask where the hell I am going with all this.  Well, my point is that, growing up, many of our peers, because of their narrow-minded views & biases, prejudged and labeled us, put us down as unworthy of their respect.  I believe that when we as adult comic book fans allow the baggage of our pasts to influence our perspectives, to judge a wide swath of female fans as “fake geek girls,” we are doing the exact same thing that was previously done to us.  I realize now that just because you didn’t happen to go to school with any girls who were into comics or sci-fi doesn’t mean that they weren’t out there.

Fandom is full of diversity.  It is made up of an entire spectrum of fans that enjoy many different things.  It is a mistake to offhandedly dismiss any one of those groups simply because of our own preconceptions.  And, yeah, that includes female cosplayers!

UPDATE:  Here is a link to an extremely intelligent article by Laurie Penny of New Statesman that actually addresses some of what I wrote about above.

http://www.newstatesman.com/laurie-penny/on-nerd-entitlement-rebel-alliance-empire

I wish I had been able to read this a year and a half ago when I first wrote this post.  Perhaps then I would not have made assumptions that had little to no basis in reality, and would have had a better understanding of an alternate perspective on this issue.  But I guess that is the important thing, that you learn from your experiences & mistakes and going forward don’t repeat them.

Objecting to Objectivism: A Rant about Ayn Rand

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for his running mate has brought to the forefront the philosophies of Russian-born author Ayn Rand (1905-1982).  In her novels and essays, Rand laid out a philosophy she referred to as Objectivism.  Although Ryan is currently attempting to distance himself from Rand specifically due to her atheism and pro-abortion views, in the past he has very publicly embraced her Objectivist ideologies in regards to economics and capitalism.

I originally became intrigued with Ayn Rand’s philosophies about a decade ago, due to the adherence of comic book creator Steve Ditko to her principles.  A brilliant artist, in the early 1960s Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics.  After a falling out with Marvel, he left to work for various other companies, and eventually ventured into self-publishing.   His work took on a more and more Objectivist tinge over the years, culminating in his creation of such uncompromising vigilante crime-fighters as The Question and Mr. A.

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

Mr. A, by Steve Ditko

I was very curious to learn who this Ayn Rand was, and what her Objectivist philosophies were.  I knew that Rand had written two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  However, each of these was several hundred pages long, and I admit that I did not think I had the patience or stamina to make my way through either book.  So instead I read Rand’s fifty page essay, “For the New Intellectual,” in which she sets down the tenets of Objectivism.

And, I have to say, I was quite awestruck by the sheer pomposity and arrogance with which Rand lays forth her ideas within “For the New Intellectual.”  At times it appears to be less of a foundation for an ideological movement than it does a smug, self-indulgent rant.

Rand offers up a bluntly simplistic summation of the entire history and philosophical outlook of humanity, basically regarding the two driving ideologies since the dawn of time as “Attila” and “the Witch Doctor,” i.e. those who impose an ideological system of belief by force & conquest, and those who impose it through superstition.

Rand seems to regard practically every movement throughout history as having been an aspect of either Attila or the Witch Doctor, or the pair working in complicity with one another.  The first significant worldwide break with either of these forces, in Rand’s view, is capitalism.

Rand lifts up capitalists upon a pedestal, looking upon them as intellectual giants who have helped raise humanity from the mire of pre-industrial times, and who have been rewarded for their noble efforts with nothing more than scorn and derision.

She regards the notion that the entrepreneurs of capitalism have a duty to society as an absurd idea.  Rand regards any form of altruism to be hideously unjust.  On several occasions, she likens society’s expectations of altruism to a primitive culture performing human sacrifices to the gods to bring benefit upon the tribe.  Except that, in her view, modern altruism causes even more suffering and misery.  Why should the capitalist be expected to give up the rewards of his endeavors to society, when he achieved those rewards solely through his superior intellect and driving abilities?

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

For the New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand

Rand’s worldview seems to have been shaped extensively by her early years.  Coming from a middle class Russian family, she witnessed her father losing everything to the Bolsheviks during the rise of the Soviet Union in 1917.  As a result, Rand appears to have developed a pathological hatred of socialism in any way, shape, or form.

As far as she is concerned, a mixed economy of capitalism and socialism will always fail, because any movement towards socialism, no matter how slight, will inevitably result in an economic system being totally subsumed by it.  She regards the natural outcome of socialism to be extreme suffering and misery, as witnessed in such “socialist societies” as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Capitalism, in Rand’s mind, can only work in pure, undiluted form, with absolutely no interference by the government.  As she regards it, “all the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.”

What Rand completely fails to recognize is that human nature will inevitably corrupt attempts at pure capitalism, just as it does experiments in pure socialism.  Rand seems to think the intellectual giants of capitalism are at a mental pinnacle wherein they will always follow the path of reason, rather than that of irrationality and emotion.  She does not acknowledge that capitalists are just as susceptible to the lures of greed and power as any others.  Her whole underlying premise seems to be that capitalism is intrinsically good, and therefore anyone who practices pure capitalism will do good.

Rand, in denouncing altruism, writes of “man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  But in doing so, she turns a blind eye to the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution who did sacrifice others to themselves in their exploitation of the working class.  Rand sees a vast difference between serfdom and a wage-paying job.  But just because one is given a salary does not automatically mean that one is not still being exploited.  There are different degrees of exploitation.

Speaking of degrees, there is an appalling lack of the appreciation of the complexity of morals in Rand’s philosophy.  She regards ethics and morality as a completely black & white affair, deriding any attempts to recognize other viewpoints and achieve consensus.  She doesn’t seem to appreciate the multicultural nature of the United States.  Compromise and understanding are crucial to holding this nation together.

Of course, Rand seems pretty well dismissive of any non-US society, and her statements occasionally contain rather racist undertones.  She refers to America as “the greatest, freest country on Earth” and despairs that “our wealth should be given away to the savages of Asia and Africa, with apologies for the fact that we have produced it while they haven’t.”  She also writes “Americans have known how to erect a superlative material achievement in the midst of an untouched wilderness, against the resistance of savage tribes.”

I think that Rand’s ideology is especially dangerous in this day and age.  America cannot survive on its own.  The world is now more connected than ever.  There are great inequities in wealth not just throughout the world, but within the United States itself, and these have inevitably resulted in anger and violence.  Some of this has exacerbated by the de-regulation of the financial industry and the increased return to a laissez-faire approach to capitalism during the Bush/Cheney years.

If we hope to bring peace and security to our nation, we need to stop being greedy, and become more altruistic.  A self-centered view like Rand’s will only result in placing us in opposition to and isolation from the rest of the globe.  It will also result in even further growing economic & social inequalities within the United States itself, and a widening of the already-gaping divide between the ultra-wealth and the remaining 99% of the population.  And that is something that will inevitably destroy us.

Not all futures are created equal

“Oh, our old future.” – Crow T. Robot, Mystery Science Theater 3000

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow blogger posted the cover to an old science fiction paperback short story collection (I finally located that post again, and it can be viewed at this link).  The art was what you might regard as your typical mid-20th Century vision of the future: an image of a gleaming metallic cityscape with flying cars darting back & forth above it.  The blogger made a comment along the lines of it isn’t the future unless you have some flying cars in it.

This got me thinking about how popular culture has conceived of the future playing out.  Growing up in the early 1980s, the 21st Century still seemed far enough away that all of the images of personal jetpacks, robots in every household, and traveling to other planets being just a few short decades away still seemed at least semi-plausible.  Whether in a cartoon series like The Jetsons or more serious fare such as Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was a commonplace prediction that some sort of hi-tech, shiny future was just around the corner.

Where's my flying car?

Dude, where’s my flying car?

I remember when 2001, that is to say, the real year 2001 rolled around, I half-jokingly commented to some friends “What the hell is this? Shouldn’t we have flying cars by now?  Where are the colonies on the Moon?  Why aren’t we flying back & forth in outer space in rocket ships, fighting aliens with ray guns?”  I say half-jokingly, because there was still that part of me that was just the tiniest bit disappointed that none of this had come to pass.  Well, okay, I can do without the bug-eyed monsters packing heat.  And if we really did have flying cars, I’d probably drive one just as poorly as I do a regular automobile.  But, still, the future just seemed like it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

And most speculative fiction from forty or fifty years ago really did miss the mark as far as what kind of technology we would have in the early 21st Century.  Instead of teleportation and time travel, what we got was the microchip revolution, the Internet, MP3s, iPads, flash drives, etc.  We’re still stuck on Earth, unable to colonize the galaxy, but the ability to spread information across the globe has grown in astonishing leaps & bounds.  Perhaps some of the disappointment lies in the fact that these developments, as incredible as they are, were not what we were led to expect.  And there is also that lingering disappointment left over from the previous century that technological advancement would eventually lead to the betterment of humanity.

Of course, it’s not like most fictional conceptions of the future were totally utopian.  George Jetson had his flying car and his home in a floating city, but he still had to deal with a douchebag boss, nagging wife, and spoiled kids.  Kubrick & Clarke’s vision of 2001 saw humans traveling to the other side of the solar system, but we still did a half-ass job at programming computers, to the point where HAL 9000 wanted to kill off its entire crew.

So I guess it wasn’t so much that those visions of the future were perfect, because they weren’t.  It’s just that they had such cool stuff.

Mind you, for every romanticized prediction of the 21st Century, there were also plenty of conjectures that the future might turn out to be a much darker place.  On one hand, the mid-20th Century rise of both the Axis powers and Communism begat visions of the all-encompassing totalitarian dystopia, best exemplified in the George Orwell novel 1984.  On the other hand, nuclear proliferation led to forecasts of ragged survivors roaming radiation-ravaged post-apocalyptic wastelands, as seen in such films as The Road Warrior.

The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there

The Lost World: a nice future to visit, but you certainly wouldn’t want to live there

And if you want a really pessimistic outlook on the day after tomorrow, you should consider the so-bad-it’s-good David Worth film Warrior of the Lost World, which I would have to describe as “1984 meets The Road Warrior.”  In that future scenario, you would face the prospect of having both fascist stormtroopers and mutant cannibal biker gangs simultaneously chasing after your rear end.  Not a pretty picture!

(Incidentally, Warrior of the Lost World was screened on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which brings us back to quote that opened this blog post.)

So, considering all of the options, the real future that we have right now isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.  Yeah, it isn’t The Jetsons, but at least we haven’t had to live through World War III yet.

That said, I’m still holding out for flying cars.  But knowing how things work out, we’d probably still have traffic jams.

Real Women Have Curves

Over the last year or so, walking around New York City, riding the subways and busses, I’ve noticed something.  A lot of younger women nowadays are thin.  And I do not just mean that they are skinny.  These teenagers and twenty something gals are so thin that they look unhealthy.  The most striking aspect is their arms and legs, which look like twigs.  The rest of their bodies are ultra-svelte, in certain cases even appearing pre-pubescent.  It is not much of an exaggeration to say that some of these ladies bear more than a passing resemblance to victims of starvation from some Third World country than they do grown women.

I’ve pointed this out to my girlfriend.  She typically just shrugs, and informs me that it’s the style nowadays with younger women, the fashionable way to look.   In all honestly, I find that a rather disturbing phenomenon.  Thinking it over, I wonder how some of these women achieve their lean appearances.  I would not be at all surprised if at least some of them suffered from eating disorders.  I realize that we lived in a country where obesity is a serious problem.  But going to the complete opposite extreme is no solution!

Obviously it is a matter of personal preference, and different people are attracted to different body types.  But I have always had a fondness for more voluptuous, Rubenesque females.  Immediately coming to mind are such mid-20th Century sex symbols as Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe.

Both of these women were stunning, sensual beauties who exuded their own unique manner of sexuality.  Each of them is regarded as a cultural icon.  But I very much believe that if Bettie Page or Marilyn Monroe were alive today, attempting to break into modeling or acting in the early 21st Century, they would meet with little success.  In fact, they’d probably be considered “overweight” by the powers-that-be in the fields of fashion and showbiz.

I think it’s a tragedy that so many young women feel compelled to pursue excessive weight loss, striving to reach some kind of nearly-impossible waif-like physical ideal that has been imposed upon us by mass media and the corporate world.  Especially when these ladies may be risking their health to achieve that look.

Obviously if a woman wants to become thin, she should be allowed to.  But I hope she would do it for herself, instead of striving to be skinny because she believes society expects of it of her.  If you are going to lose weight, do so because it’s healthy and it will make you happy.  Don’t do it to try to please others or impress strangers.

And just remember: some of us do not find that ultra-skinny look to be beautiful.  Instead, we would much rather see a woman with a natural curvy figure.