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Swamp Thing’s Abigail Arcane as a 21st Century Persephone

14 Mar

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In Swamp Thing #18 by Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette, Abigail Arcane evolves to become the Avatar of Death. An avatar is defined as a deity in bodily form on the earth. Through her acceptance of this role, she becomes one of the most dynamic and courageous women in comic history. I would like to take a moment to compare Abigail to another Queen of the Underworld, Persephone. Fair warning, if you’re not caught up on Snyder’s complete run, this contains *spoilers.*

The mythological tale surrounding Persephone’s coronation as Queen of the Underworld begins with her abduction. As the daughter of Zues and Demeter (goddess of the harvest) she spent the early part of her life surrounded by nature. One day, she was alone in a field when the earth cleaved and Hades (god of the underworld, and brother of her father) appeared in a fiery chariot. He then grabbed the maiden goddess and returned to the Underworld.

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carryLet’s look at the parallels so far. Abigail was born into a lineage connected with the rot, while she is not the daughter of the king of the gods, her family tree does seem a deciding factor in regard to the role she will play in the future.

Her uncle, Anton, is similar to Hades. He is connected with death, and serves as her connection to it as well. He also takes her against her will to be his queen early in this series It seems the same thing might have happened when she was younger, to a lesser degree.

Now back to our story. During Persephone’s time in the underworld, her mother, Demeter, is heartbroken. She wanders the earth looking for her daughter, during this time no crops grew, famine and hunger were widespread and the crops rotted in the field. Demeter refused to let plants grow while Persephone was missing.

This might be a stretch, but the takeover of the rot after Abigail’s death might have ties to this part of the myth. Here’s where things start getting tricky, lets talk seeds.

pomWhile Persephone is in the underworld with Hades, she eats a handfull of pomegranate seeds. Zeus commands Hades to set her free, so that her mother, Demeter, will allow the fields to bear crops and the people of earth will not starve. Hades agrees, and Persephone is released. When her mother realizes that she has consumed the food of the underworld, she is heartbroken. By eating the food of the dead, Persephone unwittingly bound herself to the underworld. Because of this she must return to the underworld for a few months (sometimes three sometimes six depending on the text) each year to reign at Hades’ side

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Now you might say I am comparing apples to oranges (or pomegranates to orchids) but do you recall one Dr. Alec Holland sneaking something into Abbie’s peaches? He slipped her a few orchid seeds before she was transformed to become the Queen of the Rot by Anton Arcane and his minions. In this case, the seeds became an agent of life, growth, and resurrection. The seeds help pull Abigail back from the darkness. They still act as the force negotiating her ties to life and death. We begin to see a schism in Snyder’s work and the mythic text here. It’s no longer a perfect mirror, but an evolution of this story that has stood the test of time.

While Persephone served her time in the Land of the Dead, her mother mourned. During this time there was no growth on the land. The winter months were a time of rot on the earth. This myth serves to explain the seasonal changes that ancient humans experienced. While the similarities are obvious the contrasts between Persephone and Abigail make a beautiful comment on power and agency.

Abigail_Arcane_010 (1)Firstly Abigail is not a queen, defined as the wife or widow of a king; she is an avatar, a god made flesh. She briefly bore the title of queen, which was forced upon her against her will. She was a beastly terror, no part of her personality or essence remained. Though she retained power, her consciousness was all but absent.

This is a powerful statement, as the queen, an extension of the king; her power could only serve as an extension of his. All of the qualities that made her remarkable disappeared. Persephone was a queen, who indeed retained little agency. Both the decision to take on the position, and the actual ruling of the Land of the Dead were out of her hands. It was a position of submission, even as a goddess she was unable to escape her fate or change her circumstances.

Abigail’s episode as Queen of the Rot much more closely resembles the Persephone myth. In her second encounter with Anton she turns the tables and becomes something completely new.

comeAbigail goes looking for Anton. Because of her love for Alec, and her commitment to balance in the world. She knows that he is evil, and that he must be stopped at all cost. Unlike Persephone she is not captured while looking the other way. She goes pursues her destiny, despite her trepidation, because she believes it is the right thing to do.

headThis confrontation costs her her life. Through the intervention the Parliament of Decay, Alec is able to intervene and give her a second chance at defeating her uncle.

abby-and-alecAlso, Abigail is given the opportunity to willingly accept her role as avatar, while Persephone was never given the same chance as Hades’ queen. It seems that both Abigail and Alec were destined for the roles that they play as avatars and for one another. Ultimately it is their choice to accept these roles that gives them their power.

Another interesting feature of Snyder’s version of this story is the inversion of traditional gender associations. Swamp Thing, Alec Holland represents the traditionally feminine aspects of nature, the life-giving forces. Conversely, Abigail Arcane is associated with death and destruction, extensions of the traditionally masculine pursuits of war and nation-building, and also the binary opposite of feminine life-bringing traditions.

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Abigail and Alec shed their human bodies, becoming fully identified with life and death. The love that sustained them and gave them the strength to become what they have become loses any chance for unity, as they now represent one another’s destruction. Where life exist, death cannot be; and where there is death, life stops. They have become a paradox, both depending on one another and repelling each other by their very nature.

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While Persephone is a victim, Abigail is triumphant. She accepts her fate, ask for her power and ultimate emerges as the victor. Persephone’s tragedy is her powerlessness. Abigail’s tragedy is that of a Capulet without a dagger. She cannot uncross the stars. For a pair like this, that could be a fate worse than death.

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Review Batgirl #17

16 Feb

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Something Old, Something New, Something borrowed, Something better?

So, here we are, sans Gail Simone. I expected to be outraged, disappointed, and then finish off my pout by feeling an intense sense of relief that Simone would return to the title soon.

Instead, I read the book and realized what BATGIRL has been missing. Fawkes’ third person narration stuck me as emotionally rich and thought provoking. This story, told from the perspective of James Gordon, Junior, made me do two things I haven’t done when I read the title in the past: think and feel.

It’s really not fair to compare this issue to what Gail Simone has been doing on the book. It’s such a departure, residing inside the mind of a villainous character, and only partially concerned with Barbara’s self-affirming internal pep talks. When James, Jr. tells us that Barbara is ‘fascinating,’ it’s the first time in a while that I have considered that a possibility in a long while.

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I love Barbara, but recently I feel our relationship has devolved to one of those where I take her calls because imagining what happens if I don’t makes me very anxious. I listen to her talk about the same old things over and over, trying to seem interested—even though we’ve been over this and she is clearly making no progress. She never asks me how I feel about important issues, or makes me think about things in a different way. My love for her is very one-sided; I am not getting a lot out of the time we spend together. I expect at member of the Bat-team to be a bit more complex than the Barbara we have been presented with thus far.

This issue was very successful. It had a clear rise and fall in action. The twists and turns were thoughtful and surprising; and the voice used to tell the story was genuinely inspired and original.

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Sampere’s artwork is dynamic and visually appealing. I would love to see him stay on the book, I really love the way he draws Barbara. His representation of The Firebug helped characterize the villain even though he only appears in a few panels. The medals on his chest tell us that he was not always a menace, but in a past life might have even been a hero.

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The highlight of the issue for me was the large panel featuring James, Jr. sitting on a hotel bed in the dark. He looks just like his father here. The clear nod to BATMAN: YEAR ONE reminded me of everything the Gordon family has been through, and how truly horrifying it must be for Barbara and the commissioner to see their own flesh and blood as a force of evil. This scene had real resonance.

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This issue by Fawkes and Sampere was thoroughly successful. I am interested to find out what happens next month. Perhaps in the myriad of Bat-titles, one focusing on James, Junior could support its own weight. I’ll stick by Barbara and Simone, for all they have done to promote strong women in comics and female readership; I just hope to see ‘something better’ soon. If anyone can realize the full potential of BATGIRL, I believe it is Simone. I will be waiting and reading in the highest hopes that she will do so.

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Jean Grey And Pants: The History of Modern American Women in a Flash

7 Feb

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In Brian Michael Bendis’ series All New X-men, Jean Grey, along with a team of  her peers travel to the modern world from “the past.” Bendis remains purposely vague about when exactly the team hails from. I suppose, judging from the costuming choices, we are to associate them with the original 1963 team. However, Bendis is smart, and realizes that readers can do math, and readers will realize that no man who was old enough to legally drive a car in 1963 could look like Scott Sommers does now.

So let’s follow Jean’s costumes over the years and see what her appearance tells us about Women’s History.

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Jean Grey’s original uniform was a utilitarian garment, not unlike swimwear popular in 1963, but with the added coverage of tights and long sleeves. She wears pants, in that she does not wear a skirt, but it is function over form. When not on duty with the X-men, Jean wears shirt waist dresses, and occasionally hats.

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For the time Jean’s appearance is not out of the ordinary, Title IX which prevented public schools from prohibiting girls to wear trousers was not enacted until 1972. It is likely that most women at that time were wearing pants only for function, not for fashion. Pants were considered “loungewear,” and deemed inappropriate for wearing in public among most circles. In fact in 1960, a judge ejected a woman from his courtroom for wearing slacks; not in the Deep South, but in New York City.

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So it is no surprise that When Jean later takes it upon herself to update Marvel Girl’s appearance, a sensible, albeit short skirt injects some femininity into her ensemble.

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Marvel Girl’s new look premiered in X-men Vol 39 in December of 1967.  That is the same year that the Supreme Court ruled that states banning unmarried women from purchasing birth control pills were unconstitutionally invading those women’s privacy. It was beginning to be acceptable for women to possess their own sexuality. Perhaps this has something to with Jean’s gams and décolletage being so prominently displayed.

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So time moves on, women stop connecting their worth to housework, and start taking ownership of their sexuality. Jean evolves, becoming Phoenix in 1976. In the nine years that passed had seen everything from the Summer of Love (1969) to the landmark decision of Roe v Wade (1973), more and more women were delaying family life in lieu of pursuing careers, the phenomenon of single motherhood was on the rise, and there was disco. Jean returns from the dead, empowered with a new force, much like her real world female contemporaries.

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But as good things will, the Phoenix Force went the way of disco, leaving people scratching their heads, wondering why they ever thought it was a good idea in the first place. Women began to demand equal pay for equal work; it became clear that two working parents in a household meant more out of home child-care, threats like AIDS loomed right around the corner (1981). All of these things meant that the novelty of the women’s liberation was wearing off and the patriarchal society was left making the walk of shame, from the one decade stand they shared. So, Jean gets dark.

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Jean came back too powerful, so naturally she was corrupted by evil. She steps in place as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club in mid-1980. Scantily clad in black leather, she may represent a woman, left to her own devices, unchecked by social mores. She is hyper-sexualized, incapable of dealing with her own power, and hopelessly impressionable.

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Jean is ultimately corrupted in this arc as she becomes the Dark Phoenix

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Jean is planning on consuming the world, but in the end, decides to sacrifice herself so that things can continue on the way they were. If that is not a comment on the modern woman’s dilemma I don’t know what is. There is more of course, but lets stop there, and just consider for a moment, what face’s Bendis’ Jean as she learns her future.

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These women exist, the ones that watched our world change, they were Rosie the Riveter, and June Cleaver, and bra burners, and workin’ 9-5; they were our mothers and grandmothers, and us… and for some of them; I imagine they felt they watched the changes happen at this speed.

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And find Brian Michael Bendis’ All New X-men here: http://marvel.com/comic_books/issue/43462/all-new_x-men_2012_1

Violence Against Women in Revival (And why Seeley and Norton Are NOT Misogynists)

3 Feb

The following contains *SPOILERS!* If you haven’t read issues 1-6 of Revival by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton published by Image Comics; first of all what’s wrong with you, go pick it up! And secondly you might want to check back after you’ve caught up.

So, the girls in the series Revival take their fair share of lumps. I do not think that means that the creators have some awful grudge against the fairer sex. Here’s why, more often than not; the women get up. They don’t limp lamely to a refrigerator and wait for a man in tights to come to the rescue. It should be noted that they dish it, and take it. The team takes the time to show the consequences of violence in the world they have created in Central Wisconsin.

The whole getting up when you get knocked down thing can be applied pretty literally here. I mean, with the whole “reviving” shtick, some characters are basically a walking Chumbawamba chorus.

All images used in this post are from Mike Norton’s interior artwork.

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Arlene Dittman is basically unstoppable. She survives, and survives, and survives. Arlene provokes a great deal of the violence that she endures. I have to say, the reflexive nature of these conflicts is one of the major reasons that I am on board with this series. No one cries foul, or starts picketing when Batgirl lands a punch on Catwoman’s face. I like to think that is what we are seeing here. I mean just look at the havoc Arlene was creating.

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Chopping the top of someone’s skull off with the farm implement that they just impaled you with=fair play. Look what Arlene did to her own daughter.

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Arlene eventually ends her own life by setting fire to the funeral home where her daughter’s wake was being held. The end she meets is her own decision and it seems a great relief to her.

Martha, or “Em,” as she prefers; gets in enough trouble for ten issues of a cape comic every month.  She initiates a bar fight and winds up looking like this. When she is later confronted about her motivation, she state’s that the woman, “had it coming,” despite the fact that she never caused any physical damage, she seems to believe that her agency in initiating the fight gives her some sort of victory.Image

Part of the mystery in the series centers around the event that lead to Em’s initial revival. She and her sister, Dana, believe she was murdered, and they plan on finding out who is responsible. With the removal of the threat of death the murder becomes a symbol. Instead of simply being a tragedy, the murder functions to remind us of the pain and suffering caused by violence. Em is haunted by the experience, it effects her in ways the scrapes and altercations she later seeks out, do not. The idea of being a victim is something that she appears unable to tolerate. What is tougher than refusing to be a victim?

Em actually rescues another female character, May Tao. She shows great bravery facing down Blaine Abel, who attacks her with a giant wrench…

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…And a bow and arrow

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Eventually during a snow mobile (I am guessing that is what those things were, we have no such vehicles in Louisiana) chase, Em leaps from her own vehicle to Abel’s causing him to collide with a train. She takes him out, and ends up a little worse for wear herself.

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Of course she gets up and walks away moments later. Again I want to say that the damage here is a product of Em’s own scheme. She is willing to sacrifice her body (though with the knowledge that she will heal, I don’t know if the word sacrifice applies) to stop a man who did this to May Tao.

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Unlike Seeley and Norton, the character they created, Blaine Abel, seems to really have it out for women. He physically threatens young Kelly Merrit during her would be exorcism. He begins his conversation with May like this:

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I’d like to say that May, possessing no special training or superhuman powers fights back here. She tries pepper spray, and does not go quietly. Abel eventually overpowers her and ties her up in a subtly symbolic manner on the back of a tow truck as seen above. (Okay, so maybe its not that subtle, Abel’s not really one subtlety.) Abel even goes after poor Mrs. Vang, jabbing a rake in her back and leaving her for dead in her own basement.

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In this case May rescues Mrs. Vang, who at the time I write this has survived her attack. Its not clear how stable her condition is, but she is able to carry on a conversation with May in the hospital. She is not giving in either. I love that these female characters rescue one another, and then need help themselves from time to time. It reminds me that women are nurturing, often selfless, and powerful allies.

Dana is a trained police officer, the episodes of violence that involve her are a result of professional responsibility. She is attacked by Arlene Dittman in the first issue of the series during an investigation. Later in issue 6, she gets into a physical struggle with Jamie Hettinga’s enraged husband Rick. Image

Dana is not maliciously attacked, but instead faces threats because of the job that she was empowered enough to take on, and that’s tough. Similarly, Jamie Hettinga stands up for her belief that reviving is a miracle, and takes criticisms and threats as a result of her stance.

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The murder of her step-brother and lover, Justin Hine, seems to have the aim of terrorizing her. The doubly deviant affair (adultery and incest-ish) is reveled in the same breath as the gruesome disembowelment of the object of her affections.

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By showing the effects that this grizzly murder has on Jamie, the creative team once again reminds us of the consequences of violence, and the way it so often effects the loved ones of the victim in ways they couldn’t expect. I’d like to thank them for making not making Jamie the victim here, but allowing us to see her response and learn more about her character.

Rick seems unhinged, possibly by the news of Jamie and Justin’s affair, or by the murder of Justin in a more general sense. He goes to the home of Nurse Ann Moss to speak with Anders Hine (the reviving father of the pair). Even a character as minor as Moss stands her ground in the face of a threat.

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So, from the main characters to the most minor; Seeley and Norton never allow a woman to go quietly. They stand and fight, for each other, for their lives, and for what they believe in. In the chaos of this world these women are warriors. There is nothing weak about this cast.

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Women, Women Everywhere: The Female Dominant Cast of Revival

2 Feb

This week I sat down and read issues 1-6 of the new Image series Revival (written by Tim Seeley, art by Mike Norton, covers by Jenny Frison.) It was wonderful. There are a ton of strong women in the cast, which is worth noting since they essentially don’t have to be there. These roles could have gone to men; the story could have easily supported an all male cast, but instead Seeley chooses to showcase women with a wide variety of temperaments, ages, and histories. Good for him.

So spoilers start here.

I want to take a look at the cast for a moment. First there’s Dana Cypress: single mom, police officer, sister and daughter. She seems insecure and often makes fun of herself, and focuses her efforts on taking care of those around her instead of herself.  (This and all other images are from Mike Norton’s interior artwork.)

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Her younger sister Martha “Em” Cypress becomes very important to the story early on. She is a student, favorite child, and amateur poet, and reviver. Martha seems a bit flighty and absent-minded. The revelation that she is a reviver seems to reinforce her reckless tendencies. She has a hard time accepting affection or praise, and seldom smiles.

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Next we meet the antihero, or maybe the villain, its great to have so much moral grey to work with; Arlene Dittman who is a reviver, struggling with what has happened to her.Image

Arlene murders her daughter, Theresa “Terry” Stankowicz during an episode of rage brought on feeling cheated because she is unable to die and rest in peace. Again it is very interesting to note that this episode involves two women.

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Arlene struggles with what she has done. Her soul is tarnished, her daughter gone, and her very existence is in her own word an, “abomination.” Her story helps put the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of the dead coming back to life in perspective.

Kelly Merrit appears in only one issue (issue 2) so far. She fakes a demonic possession and effectively “exorcised” by Blaine Abel, who knows what she is up to. She is driven to act out this way because everyone’s attention is diverted by the revivers. She is desperate to be noticed. This extreme case shows a response to the revival that one might expect of a angst ridden young person. (The image below is taken from Jenny Frison’s cover of issue 2)

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The woman Em confronts in a local pub is a hossy lady with a mean streak. I mention her because the job of kicking Em’s ass could have been given to a male character very easily. Instead we see a woman acting in a physically aggressive, brutal manner, Seeley includes a whole new type of female character here.

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Thang Vang seems harmless upon her first appearance, but as the story progresses we realize that some major action revolves around her and the choices she has made.

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Then we meet two female reporters. Each of these women take their profession very seriously, but beyond their similarities stop there; they are two very different people. First we meet Jamie Hettinga whose publicly sympathetic stance on revivers has brought some very negative attention her way…

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And May Tao, who has acquired celebrity status as the reporter who broke the reviver story nationally. May struggles with balancing ethical responsibility and professional notoriety.

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There is also a nice supporting cast including: Bonnie, the secretary at the police station; Ann Moss, the nurse for the Hine family who knows Jeet Kune Do; May’s editor, Bogs; and Ami, who works for the CDC.

Seeley and Norton do some incredible work here. Personally I believe they are on the right track; not characterizing these women solely by their gender, and allowing them to be different and three dimensional. I look forward to seeing what they do next.

I plan on writing more about these women created by Seeley and Norton in later posts. I am working on a piece about the violence against women in the series. Though many of them are victims, they refuse to be refrigerated. Also I want to look at the complicated relationships these characters have with sexuality. So, those are coming soon, stay tuned.

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