On Inside Out and the Necessity of Sadness

(This is not actually a review or critique of Inside Out. It might be one or the other of my emotional state. Spoilers abound)

Inside Out

Inside Out

Last night I saw delightful children’s film, Inside Out, which just opened in Ireland. The twisting knife it jabbed joyfully into my insides has been working through me ever since.

Anyone who grew up with Disney and later Pixar cannot really claim to be surprised by the occasional emotional gut punch delivered by way of colourful children’s entertainment. I suspect Mufasa’s fall was my particular initiation but whether you first encountered it in Bambi or Finding Nemo, the existential tragedy of mortality has been Disney/Pixar’s stock in trade for generations.

Up, for instance, is perhaps the best example of this. Just think about that film, and you will find ghosts fluttering in the vaults of your memory. I think of my grandmother who died about six or seven months before I saw it. The first ten, fifteen minutes of Up stand as a mission statement for Disney/Pixar’s capacity and willingness to provoke distress. A friend of mine recently commented that Up is perhaps the most harrowing, honest short film about mortality ever made; the last hour is just sleight of hand to cheer us up. Wall-E, the ‘cute’ robot film, is not so much concerned with literal death, but it is still littered with stark images of decay, abandonment and isolation. The Sisyphean monotony of his task, as well as his heart-breaking optimism and crushing image of his loneliness conspire to present a bleak, melancholic view of our reality. The child viewer might, and I stress might, be assuaged by the ultimately happy resolution, but the older we get, the more we are forced to deal with unspoken, tragic vision of existence that lingers around the fringes of these narratives. We begin to recognise Wall-E’s wasteland in the inhabited world all around us.

Inside Out continues that proud tradition of ripping out your emotional heartstrings and playing with them for fun, even waving them gleefully in your face.

The story of Inside Out involves an eleven year old girl named Riley as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco where her father is starting a new software company. Much of the plot, however, takes place inside Riley’s head, played out in the interactions between her anthropomorphised emotions. These emotions inhabit a control room inside Riley’s mind and are shown to be responsible for her daily interactions, and reactions. Irish and UK folks might be familiar with The Numbskulls from The Beano/Dandy, which operates on a similar concept. Let Amy Poehler (the voice of Joy) explain it much better than I can:

The plot largely revolves around the competing stresses placed on Riley as she negotiates the move, starting a new school, fitting herself and her needs into a new situation. The action plays out in the necessarily map-cap adventure undertaken by Joy and Sadness as they attempt to get back to Headquarters after getting lost in Long-Term Memory. We also get glimpses inside the heads of other characters, to see their emotional make up. For instance, while Joy is the ‘lead’ emotion for Riley, Sadness and Anger take point for her mother and father respectively.

If the deck seems stacked in favour of emotional distress, you can believe me when I say I was prepared for that. I didn’t quite expect, however, that days later I’d still be picking it over, examining myself and my new (and/or suddenly exposed) neuroses. I have spoken a little, here, about my particular sense of self, and while Inside Out hasn’t quite provoked a crisis of identity, it has certainly encouraged me to starkly examine some realities I generally rather leave to hang around the edges of my consciousness. I imagine it is hard to watch the personified antics of the Emotions, without at some point finding yourself wondering about your own emotional make-up, which leads quite directly to wondering about your emotional health.

This act, perhaps, is innocently curious for a child. The question, “Who Am I?” is fundamental and foundational, after all. As we age, I feel like it becomes increasingly fraught with terrors and disappointments; the edifice on which we build ourselves becomes infinitely more prone to fracture as it solidifies. In this respect, the challenge of self-examination presented by the film becomes more emotionally charged. Indeed, for adults, I feel like each of these films carries a darker, bleaker undercurrent. When my sister brought my younger cousins to Toy Story 3, she bawled crying (as so many of us did), during that particular scene in the rubbish incinerator. My cousins, the children, the supposed audience, saw this as standard film threat, soon to be resolved. For my sister, for us adults, it is not the threat of death, but the toys’ resigned resilience to it that engenders our reaction. It is the sight of them as they reach for one another, joining hands, in the face of certain death, that brings us to tears. We wonder, I suppose, if we will face our ends with such composure? If we will be lucky enough to be in such fine company when our time runs out? If we will, as we secretly suspect, be alone when our day comes? We know, with certainty, there is no Claw coming to our rescue.

Toystory3-36

That is not to say, however, that adults and children have wholly irreconcilable experiences of these films. Disney’s continuing commitment to plumb the depths of emotional turmoil actually provides fertile ground for mutual understanding. For parents/guardians/teachers or even simply adults who are willing to engage with these concepts, they can provide excellent tools. While a child is busy following the bouncing giddy adventures through these lavish imaginary landscapes, they are also developing the vocabulary to discuss mortality, death, loneliness and tragedy. This is healthy, and indeed helpful. Both communication and society are built on the foundation of shared vocabulary. In the case of Inside Out, it seems clear that the creators (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera) have done an amazing job creating a largely accurate template by which adults and children can engage with their emotional structure. You can read more on that here, here, and here.

Of course I cried. Of course I did. I’ve never hesitated to cry for unreal worlds, imaginary people. In real life, in my real life, when these moments come there is so often so much, too much, to be done and there’s no time for tears. I know I cried for my grandfather, in the dark outside the pub after his funeral, when I lied and went to smoke a cigarette alone so no one would see. My grief doesn’t belong to anyone but me.

It is so much easier to cry for fiction.

There are moments of supreme sadness in Riley’s story throughout Inside Out. As adults we’re probably quite familiar with the elements of loss that pervade the narrative; her friend Meg, left behind in Minnesota; the (thankfully brief) collapse of her love of a particular hobby; and interestingly, the loss of her “goofball” aspects. Watching these pieces fall into oblivion, and seeing how that warps her reactions in the real world, I can’t think of any more appropriate response than grief. We’re not simply responding to Riley, of course. In many respects, we’re also drawn into considering the aspects of ourselves that have been shed, abandoned or destroyed in the march to maturity. For Riley, these tragedies are worked out positively by the narrative, but the film never strays too far into fantastical optimism.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Inside Out is its concern with the concept of sadness. Not just grief, but the more pervading, engulfing, lingering kind of sadness. The film has a remarkably mature attitude to Sadness. We live in a cultural and social construction where sadness is often framed in a particularly negative context. There is a pressure, which we all sometimes unconsciously collude in, to be happy. Be careful, when reading the word sadness, not to conflate it with depression; depression, as much I can condense something so vast and poorly understood, is perhaps differentiated from sadness by a sense of emptiness. It is marked by its hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, a sense of worthlessness, helplessness, mania and/or fatigue.

Sadness is not this.

We live in a damaged, broken world, and we are damaged, broken people. It is all right to mourn, from time to time. This is something that is not merely neglected by our mainstream, utterly consumerist society; you are not meant to be unhappy. If you are, there is a solution. There is a product. A distraction. There is something to consume. “Why are you not happy?” you are asked. “Well here then!” you are told.

Sadness is often considered as a selfish act, particularly in public. Who among us hasn’t demanded, or begged, either ourselves or another person to cheer up, to put on a brave face? I am certainly guilty of both. However, sadness is not easy, and comes with specific and awful burdens. It is a great strength of Inside Out that its resolution revolves around the acceptance of sadness.

I want to note here that there is a lot of symbolic importance in making Riley female, as girls and women often face more explicit societal calls to police their emotional responses, and to perform happiness publically. There is a mountain of reasoning behind having “Goofball Island” be the first personality trait to crumble as Riley negotiates growing up. Riley’s turmoil extends from the fact that her parents need her to act “happy” while her father deals with the stress of setting up his new life. Riley doesn’t want to make it any harder, but in denying her authentic emotional response her repression leads to frustrated, explosive bursts of erratic behaviour and upset. When she finally explains to her parents that she misses home, and articulates her sadness, she also begins to function emotionally again. Both Joy and the audience are expressly invited to examine how Sadness is necessary, how it can be useful, and that there is often a profound need to experience it. When Riley cries, for instance, her parents comfort her; but more explicitly, metaphorically, once Sadness is returned to the control room and allowed to act, Riley’s internal workings begin to function again.

It is possible that Inside Out’s message can operate as a much needed panacea to the Latter Day Cult of Positivity that infects our culture. In one way, this manifests as the aforementioned casual, omnipresent insistence that we preform public happiness, in our social circles, in our work, etc. There are those who consciously press the ideology further, insisting that performed happiness will contribute to real joy, even in private. These are the people who (often innocently) tell you to think positive thoughts. They are those who insist that if you want something hard enough, that if you preform positivity well enough, the universe will provide. Whole industries exist around this dogma, selling “wellness” like it’s a shower gel. Businesses bring in agencies to teach “work-life balance” but essentially operate on the principles of enforced optimism, coerced public happiness. Rather than address the significant issues that threaten public/staff/personal moral, we are trained to buy into the cult of delusional positive thinking. Any sadness, unhappiness, or anxiety that cannot be bought off with material products or expensive mental rhetoric is rendered taboo.

Inside Out affirms the right of people to be emotionally honest, not only with themselves, but with society at large. It affirms the absolute necessity of this act. The most personally profound realisation I had, since watching the film, is the idea that Sadness is most likely my ‘lead’ emotion, that it is my core. It is not that I have realised I am in some way more sad than I had previously believed; I know, with varying degrees of insight, who I am. I still feel like Inside Out provides a new critical tool for measuring my internal structure.

I’m well aware that I struggle with anxiety and stress. I grind my teeth in my sleep to the extent that I’ve literally shattered one of them. My job sucks, I’m broke and I work hard at a long-term solution that eats up most of my free time, leaving me with little or no time to enjoy myself. The best hours of the twenty-four come on either end of too little sleep, either in the swimming pool before work, or reading before bed at night. I’m relatively lucky that I have good friends and reasonably stable support structures, as well as enough money to cover my dental costs. That doesn’t invalidate my problems.

We live in a broken society with a constantly widening gap between rich and poor, continued explicit assaults on every aspect of social progress in the name of austerity. Internationally, xenophobia and racism are on the rise. Cultural, political and social apathy fester like a sore. The pervading socio-political structure seeks to commodity and control women’s bodies and actively, insidiously orchestrates my participation. Dangerous machismo lurks at every turn, offering a place at the foot of a table I don’t want to sit at in exchange for becoming my worst self, in exchange for damaged mental health and a heap of vague but supposedly glittering rewards. Just because I’m privileged enough that many of these issues don’t directly affect me, or affect me less than others, doesn’t mean they don’t impinge on my mental outlook.

I know I’m lucky. I know I’m sad.

Sometimes I am sad about things actively happening my life. Sometimes I am sad because of what I see when I look at the world. And sometimes, even when I am enjoying myself, I know that the entire superstructure of my selfhood is tinted entirely with a morose, pessimistic blueness. I can look at a beautiful sunset and think first of the day the sun will swallow our world, and worry that we won’t have gotten off the planet before it happens. That we might have already wiped ourselves out before ever having a shot at Earth 2.0. That perhaps every intelligent species in the universe grows up alone and dies the same way, never meeting, whole universes and eons distant from each other. That maybe it’s the same for people.

So, yes – I think that Sadness is the primary emotion in my metaphorical control room. I don’t imagine that Joy and Sadness are inherently opposite, and to its credit, neither does Inside Out. Rather than being at war with each other, they have their own specific functions. Sadness runs the show. Fear and Anger act as stalwart lieutenants, providing the heavy lifting, the fuel and determination to exist. Disgust keeps us from trusting broccoli. For me though, Joy will perhaps always be a small, flitting thing, precious and wondrous, but utterly fragile. That is not to say that I am not often happy; it is just small, mixed and tinged with a hint of melancholy. Joy, pure and alone, comes in only the stillest, rarest of moments.

I am a broken thing, damaged and warped by traumas and anxieties and neuroses I cannot even remember or articulate, and I am built of memories and dreams and hopes and responses that come because of and despite this damage. I am formed of the scar tissue left in the wake of my life. I exist as I am because of my experiences, and much like Riley, like all of us, my core is shaped by hurt and loss, disappointment and sadness, as much as joy and love and support.

It is interesting that Riley’s mother’s lead emotion is also Sadness. Yet, she is a fully functioning, caring and committed individual – she is not in any way lessened, broken or damaged simply because of her emotional construction. This, I believe, is the essential message of the film. Who we are, who we have come to be, by way of experience and fracture, is profoundly correct. You are entitled to be angered by this world, its injustices and failures. You can laugh at its silliness and be awed by its majesty. You can mourn it. No matter how you are built, what life has carved into you or how the scars have healed over, you are still an authentic self. You get to choose what to do with who you are.

So I shall fear, and I shall rage. I will have my moments of joy, precious, quiet and still.

And right down in my deepest core, I shall be sad.

And I shall be me.

Dear Undecided

Vote Yes - May 22nd

Vote Yes – May 22nd

In about a month, Ireland is going to hold an important referendum. That it is important is likely the only thing both sides of the question can agree on. In some respects, there is a uniqueness to the situation in Ireland because, while an increasing number of countries have, or are in the process of, legalising same-sex marriage, Ireland may become the first in the world to enact it by popular vote. We, the voting population of Ireland, will be asked if we agree to amend our Constitution, so that it includes the declaration:

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

As the campaigns for and against pick up steam, various interpretations of what this actually means are being advertised. One particular reading suggests that this means we are being asked to redefine the institution of marriage, that we are rewriting the fundamental unit upon which society is built. On the other hand, it is argued, the change has already occurred and we merely updating the law to catch up with the lived reality of many existing families. Some argue that we court social disaster, that children for generations to come will pay an unforeseen cost for our acceptance; other’s that we can restore some measure of fairness to those who have already lived through disenfranchised childhoods. Some sincerely believe that our acceptance will marginalise and discriminate against whole sections of society, will rob them of the right to their faith and beliefs, will demean the special sanctity of their particular kind of family structure. Some of us see that we have a historic opportunity to enshrine this small piece of equality, not only in Law, but in the document that governs the fundamental rights of every citizen of this country.

There is no choice for me at all. I can only vote Yes to this. And there are those who can only oppose it. I’m not writing this for either the Yes or the No sides of the debate, though you are welcome to keep reading. I cannot imagine I have any special words to change the minds of those firmly resolved in their sincerely held belief that we of the Yes are about to blindly usher in the end of society. In truth, though, the polls suggest that those of us entrenched on either side of the divide will not be the deciding voices.

There is a suggestion, mostly touted by the No campaign, that there are legions of citizens so afraid to be seen to oppose Marriage Equality that they won’t admit to it, or go so far as to lie, leading to successive artificially inflated polls. (This strategy has the added bonus of allowing them to portray their opposition as brave, noble, rather than simply the self-serving outrage of a suddenly impotent ideology) They argue, come polling day, that the undecided and the so-called “soft-yes” voters will actually turn out to oppose Marriage Equality, though their rather vigorous campaigning suggests they are rather less certain of this than they advertise. They’re not wrong though, in all likelihood this referendum will be settled by the doubtful, and the not-quite-sure, and the undecided.

It’s those undecided amongst you I’d like a word with; the hesitant, those quivering on the cusp of a decision, in either direction, those thinking Yes, but full of wary, cautious doubts, or leaning No but open still to possibilities. Let me pull up my metaphorical chair, if you wouldn’t mind, and steal a moment of your time, and let us talk honestly. To lay my cards firmly on the table, I’m a heterosexual, educated, middle-class, white male; there are few positions more privileged than mine. The outcome of the referendum will not substantively change my life, so while my opinions and concerns about the marriage equality referendum are presumably reasonably valid, it would absolutely be beneficial if you were to seek out gay, lesbian or otherwise queer voices to understand their needs and desires.

That said, the LGBTQ community has made their case, passionately and eloquently, and collectively they must be blue in the face from constantly having to express and defend their entitlement to live lives free from interference, ignorance, intolerance, and far too often, exclusion and hate. This is an opportunity to show that we have heard what they have to say. All they want is the safety, security and stability that we have the privilege to take for granted. For them, a significant part of that is equal, legal recognition for their relationships and access to the same structures upon which we build our families. The No Siders may roll out their quisling Paddy Mannings as often as possible to destabilise the image of LGBTQ people as a united community, but the reality is that not only are they united, they have substantively made their case for equality and are utterly justified.

The question, however, of marriage equality is unlikely to be settled by LGBTQ voters alone or by the hard-core religious who oppose them. Rather, it seems probable that the deciding vote will be cast by those of us who are heterosexual and cisgendered, despite that fact that the outcome arguably impacts us least. Given that this referendum, which isn’t even about us, likely rests in our hands, it seems beyond time that we sit down and consider what our decision will mean.

Some of us believe that equality for LGBTQ people is the most important civil rights issue of the decade. The No Side consider it a battle for their religious freedom at best, and at worst about protecting the very fabric of society from . . . well from something anyway. There is, however, a feeling among many that this issue boils down to a conflict between the LGBTQ community, their allies and an assortment of right-wing conservatives, traditionalists and religious voters, and actually has little to do with the majority of Ireland’s population. It is, in fact, my greatest concern that many of us may simply abdicate our responsibility. Although we might not necessarily buy into the fear-mongering David Quinn and his Iona ilk spout at every opportunity, we might not actively turn out to vote. I believe this option to be a waste in any referendum, but if I cannot convince you of the importance of voting, perhaps I can still show you that this one particular question matters.

What, after all, are we really being asked? At its smallest, at its most plain, the question is if we think a marriage, with all of its joy and affection and love, and its tribulations and pain and sorrow, is something that can be shared by any two adults, regardless of their gender. This is not the sum total of the issue though. Those on both sides are intimately aware that the result of this vote will be an implicit but profound statement about the nature of the society we want to inhabit, that we aspire to, for ourselves, our children, and the generations yet to come.

The No Campaign inarguably stems from the religious right. Its main campaigners include David Quinn, Breda O’Brien and the rest of the Iona cohort so I cannot imagine too many people would argue with me when I say that the version of marriage the No Campaign wishes to enshrine for our society lines up more or less completely with that of Christian or Catholic dogma; that marriage is a holy union of a man and a woman, under God. The religious argument regards this joining, and the children born of it, as the true expression of family, and the fundamental unit of society. They do that right up until you mention men and women who cannot biologically produce children and they dither a little and say something generally appeasing, while still sort of intimating that yes, the proper kind of family is a man and a woman and their biological offspring. God decreed it so. It has always been this way. They say that by allowing same-sex marriage (or rather marriage without regard to gender, which is actually a little more complicated than simply “same-sex”; gender not being a binary dichotomy) we are fundamentally altering this traditional family structure.

In the real world, family has always been a more messy designation. There are the legal, formal adoptions, which are the bane of the No Campaign’s arguments. We have families composed of half-siblings, or lone parents, or bereaved orphan’s raised by non-biological guardians or foster parents. We have those subtle, unceremonious annexations, by which that family friend becomes Aunty Jo, or her kids become de facto cousins. We are so very messy in our affections and we have the capacity to be so very generous when we are extending the notion of family. Why, then, does it become problematic when the question of family is applied to LGBTQ people?

The reality is that LGBTQ people already have families. They have partners and lovers and loved ones with whom they have already established unions. Children who already live as part of these relationships – be they adopted, or biological offspring, or born of surrogacy, or however they come to be there, these children already have parents, have families. All these many, many people, are looking for is recognition, is the legal and social right for their families to be considered just as valid, just as equal, as heterosexual ones. They’re looking for us to recognise their already existing legitimacy.

In truth, this is exactly what the No Side is fighting, this legitimacy. They want the right to patronise and exclude, to dismiss the agency and lives of the LGBTQ community, to relegate it to the shadows, or stuff them back in the closet, secret and hidden, away. They don’t want to sell them stationary, or pizza, or bake them cakes; they don’t want them to exist at all, but if they must exist they want them silent and shamed and above all, they want them different, less. And if we decide on May 22nd to pass the Marriage Equality amendment, the No Side rightly fear that the intolerance they wear as a badge of courage will be the first casualty.

I speak of intolerance but I have to speak carefully too, don’t I? Because that would be tip-toeing closer and closer to that word that we are not allowed to use. You know the word, the one they say is bullying. That word is insulting. It destroys discourse. It is full of hatred. After all, you aren’t homophobic just because you don’t want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, you’re just defending your own sincerely held beliefs; we know that to be true, don’t we? Or at least, we know we don’t have American money paying for lawyers to defend us from the inevitable lawsuits we will incur if we dare to suggest that anyone like Quinn, O’Brien, or Waters are anything like homophobic. Yet that word lurks in the shadows behind their statements, their actions, their motivations for trying to sell you a bag of lies and fears to keep you from agreeing that yes, people have the right to be treated equally. It’s easier to imagine this is just about a culture war between contrarian conservatives and utter right-wing-bigots on one side, and us loony, lefty, liberal, deviant SJWs on the other, but there are real people, real lives, caught up in it.

Ultimately, it is people that this is all about. We use the phrase LGBTQ (or LGBTQ+/LGBTQI) and while it is a serviceable shorthand for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer community, I fear it can also sometimes engender a sense of distance, of separation, creating or perpetuating an “us-and-them” binary. In reality, this community is composed, quite simply, of people. They are enmeshed in everyday life as deeply as we are. They share the bus, work in our offices, or shops, they stop to let us pass on the street or we stop for them. We went to school with them. They are uncles and aunts and cousins and they are our friends. Our sisters, brothers, parents and children; they are our family.
They are us, indistinguishable. That is who this about. Not some manufactured, ephemeral threat that somehow endangers our whole way of life. They’re just people, just wanting to be treated like all the other people living around them.

What will happen if we pass this referendum? People who want to get married will get married.
The Iona crowd have some rather facetious suggestions, about all the unforeseen changes, but honestly, how will it affect your marriage, or your parents’ marriage, or some friend’s? It won’t. Those marriages will trundle on, just as before, just the same. Will people marry their sisters, their brothers? No. That’s still illegal – why the hell do they keep bringing that up? Brothers and sisters can’t marry now; why would they think brothers and brothers would be able to marry just because men are? That’s a really weird and stupid argument. “Straight” marriages will stop being legal? No. What? Where do they even come up with this nonsense?

Of course someone can’t marry their cat.

Don’t let the petty arguments of fear-mongers and bigots distort the truth of what is happening here.

The question is simple. Should people, should consenting adults, regardless of sexuality or gender, be allowed to marry each other, be allowed to have that expression of love and union recognised? If we, if Ireland, can find it in ourselves to say Yes, we have the opportunity to be the first country in the world to embrace equality by democratic choice. We can show that we know lesbian, gay, transgender, queer people are every bit as worthwhile as anyone else, their loves every bit as meaningful, and it will take just one word to recognise that.

You have until May 5th to get on a Supplemental Registry if you are not already registered to vote.

You have until the evening of May 22nd to decide what you will say.

My Pick Of Feminist Comic Books

Following this list I have written a little about why I wrote it in the first place, and a little about what I mean by “Feminist Booklist”. It’s not likely that everyone will agree on the confines of the term, but I have done what I can within my subjective understanding of it.

There are some things to note about the list itself. Firstly, there are a number of men on this list. On the one hand, there may be too many men on this list. There is any number of reasons for this, but it’s no secret that there is a significant gender disparity amongst comic creators, particularly as you gravitate towards the mainstream. This is hardly limited to the comic book industry, and is something which is improving, as far as I can see. On the other, I’m glad that there are men on this list. Because feminism isn’t “women’s territory”; just like comics, feminism is for everybody.

Secondly, I have limited this to books which I own or buy regularly, either in single issues or trades. There are other books which I have not been able to pick up yet (or haven’t even heard of yet) which most likely deserve to be on this list. If I’m not paying for them, it seems unfair to recommend others should be doing the same. However, one thing that is FREE, that has been recommended to me, is NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson.

Thirdly, the list is divided into two sections, relatively new on-going series and concluded series from the last couple of years. With both lists I have limited myself to relatively new entries. There are many other series that have been going for years or from previous decades, which are equally feminist and equally brilliant, things such as Fables, Sandman or Y: The Last Man. However, the landscape of comics has changed and continues to change rapidly, and I believe is rapidly improving in terms of inclusivity. As such, I think it makes a certain amount of sense to focus on current and modern books, more than the classics. The best way to get into comics is to jump into the conversation happening now.

Also, as with any list of stuff, this is subjective and imperfect and certainly does not include everything it should or could.

On-going titles

Captain Marvel (teen and up)

Captain Marvel #1 Cover

Kelly Sue Deconnick, David Lopez, with Lee Loughridge

The Carol Danvers character was reworked and relaunched in 2012, with a new non-swimsuit costume and a promotion to Captain. Under Kelly Sue’s direction the character has developed a significant and vocal fan base, gathered under the CarolCorps moniker.  Their visibility and inclusivity has done wonders for the comic itself and for the image of Marvel in general. The latest arc has seen Carol take a jaunt into space. Becoming involved in a classic prairie town versus mining company via superhero space opera, Carol had the chance to stare down one of Marvel’s most thoroughly patriarchal a-holes, Emperor J’Son of Spartax with predicable awesomeness.

Morning Glories (late teen and up)

Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, with Alex Sollazzo, Johnny Lowe

The initial covers for this series did a great job of turning me away without a second glance, but on the insistence of the guy who runs my local comic book shop I read the first two volume, loved it and caught up with the rest of the series. There’s a mostly growing cast (bar a few casualties here and there) of kids of various ethnicities, genders and orientations, playing out an extreme but familiar rendering of the secondary (high-school) experience. Agency plays a huge role in the series, which pits the students of the Morning Glories Academy against their psychotic teachers, and possibly demonic headmaster, as their overbearing authority figures attempt to prepare the students to shape, or control the future. Generally with extreme violence, and/or murder. Possibly some of the kids are magic? Or super-powered? Or something? We don’t know. At times maddeningly mysterious, but always brilliant, Morning Glories is a particular must-read for anyone missing Lost.

Ms. Marvel (suitable for teens and up I think)

G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, with Ian Herring

Announced and launched to enormous, and probably daunting, levels of publicity, to me this is the little book that could. Charting the floundering, awkward first steps of new hero, Kamala Khan, as she assumes the mantel of her hero, Carol Danvers, negotiates teenage life and the strictures of her devout (but not as devout as her brother) Muslim parents. One thing I have loved since I first came across Peter Parker is awkward teenagers with no training being very bad at being superheroes and just about muddling through. We’ve all been there. That Khan is teenage girl and Pakastani-American was an interesting hook, but it is the humour, delight and exuberant energy that the team fill her with that make it such an endearing, enjoyable book.

Lazarus (late teen and up)

Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, and Eric Trautmann

Set in a dystopian future, ruled by a few tyrannical family dynasties, Lazarus follows the titular heroine as she negotiates a pretty messed up social structure, a maximised conflation of capitalism and fiefdom, and a fractured and often Shakespeareanly homicidal family. I feel I should point out this is possibly the most divisive books on the list. Some people just really, really hate it.

Lumberjanes (all ages book)

Jumberjanes #1 Cover

Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, Shannon Watters

This is another smaller book that has been punching higher than initially imagined. Envisioned as an eight-issue mini-series, it was pushed to a regular ongoing not long after its release. It follows five girls spending the summer at camp, where they are attacked by demonic wolves, explore underground labyrinths and encounter talking, adolescent Yetis. Largely, I have no idea what is happening, but I love the group dynamics, particularly that a group of girls is being portrayed without constantly falling back on melodramatic infighting and discussions about boys. They’re just busy being friends and fighting monsters.

Rat Queens (adult)

Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch

Rat Queens is refreshing take on the fantasy epic, taking all the right queues from dungeon crawlers and RPGs, while carving away all the dead weight that has built up around the genre. In many ways, it is arguably the other branch of the revisionist tree from A Song Of Ice And Fire’s ultra-realistic, low magic take. This is a book filled with spells and orcs, a teaming landscape of monsters and magic. Our heroines are brash, quick to draw steel (or throw fireballs), utter fun, completely different from each other and happy to make their own (quite very stupid) mistakes as much as they please, and consume a substantial amount of drugs in a given story arc. Their town mostly hates them, and you can basically understand the attitude of wondering if they don’t cause more damage than they prevent. The current arc features an extra-dimensional Lovecraftian Squid, so you know I’m completely sold. There’s a TV adaptation on the way as well, so be sure to look out for that.

Red Sonja (late teen and up)

Gail Simone, Walter Geovani

Red Sonja is not meant to be a feminist icon. One look at the steel bikini and you just think that is a certain type of book and it isn’t what you’re looking for. You think that, and then someone hires Gail Simone to write it so you pick up the first one and fifteen issues later you’re still here – or rather, I am. Sonja drinks far too much beer and refuses to bathe, wants sex and is always spoiling for a brawl and through it all Simone presents a captivating argument for Sonja’s personal agency, for equality and the authenticity of diverse representations of femininity. It is an astounding book at times, and contains some powerfully iconoclastic representations of womanhood and warriors.

Saga (adult)

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The main characters, Alana and Marko, come from opposite sides of a Romeo-And-Juliet-styled war between the technological Landfall and the magic wielding Wreath. Rather than follow the ascribed path of desperate and avoidable suicide, they skip out, have a baby and end up on the run from both sides, who want to kill the child in case she becomes a symbol of peace and reconciliation. It’s a family drama, fantasy/space opera filled with tree-space ships, bounty-hunters, truth-seeing cats and TV-headed robots. Heaped with sexual politics, examinations of gender roles and family drama there is a reason why this book on almost every Best Comics list going.

Sex Criminals (adult)

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

This is a book about people for whom time stops when they orgasm. I have no idea how to sell it to you without making it sound weird and ridiculous. It’s such a bittersweet comedy, filled with drama and honesty, but also it’s a crime-caper sort-of. It honestly appraises and lays out the absurdity of sex and relationships. It’s brutal and heart-warming and delightful, and also it’s utterly madcap and ridiculous. I think maybe it’s like the Matrix; I think you need to see it to believe.

The Wicked + The Divine (late teen and up, maybe adult)

The Wicked + The Divine #2 Cover

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson

This is my favourite book. Ever, probably. The series imagines a world where, every ninety years, twelve Gods are reincarnated to live for two years. They’re modelled specifically on pop stars. Following Laura, an English teenager, as she gets swept up in the events surrounding these Gods, it’s a story of mortality and what Godhood and stardom mean. It wrote a lot about the first issue here.

(Please note, creative teams change around, particularly with on-going series. I have tried to give the most current, regular teams as best as I can figure)

Concluded Series

Batwoman (late teen and up)

Greg Rucka (Elegy), J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman with Trevor McCarthy

Starting with Rucka’s Batwoman: Elegy and continuing through the 24 issues of Williams and Blackman’s New 52 run, this series presents a complex take on the vigilante superhero. As a character, Kate Kane is notable for her open homosexuality as well as her distance from the Bat-family, despite her prefix and costume. She is an independent actor in Gotham, not reliant on the mechanisms put in place by Batman, and flat out rejects his interference on occasion. The book also focuses on the effect of her vigilantism on her life, friends and family; examining the negotiations we all make between our personal, romantic, and professional lives. Unfortunately the series was marred by editorial interference which ultimately led Williams and Blackman to leave the book when plans to marry Kane to her partner, Maggie Sawyer, were scuppered.

The Fearless Defenders (mid teen and up)

The Fearless Defenders Vol. 1 Cover

Cullen Bunn, Will Sliney

Much like The Movement, which also features on this list and was also cut tragically short, The Fearless Defenders was an example of something new in the sometimes very staid superhero genre. It follows Valkyrie as she negotiates her mission to recreate the Valkyrior from the heroes of Earth. The book features an all-female team, led by Valkyrie and Misty Knight, basically wandering around saving the world from the machinations of an evil sorceress. It features one of my favourite issues of anything in the last few years, where the boyfriends, lovers and partners of the titular heroes sit in an Irish pub in New York and bemoan their exclusion from events, while the women run late battling monsters. Hercules cries misandry, a lot.

Friends With Boys (teens and up)

Faith Erin Hicks

A lot of what this book is summed up in the title, but it’s essentially a coming of story about Maggie, a teenage girl who has lost her mother, whose brothers have become distant and complicated, who doesn’t really have any friends, and who is also haunted by a ghost. Leaving aside the literal ghost, the book is largely concerned with the fraught nature of personal negotiation demanded of teenagers, of bullying and shifting nature of relationships. I finished this book standing at a bus stop near my house because I didn’t want to waste time walking home before I finished it.

I Kill Giants (not quite all ages, but mostly)

Joe Kelly, J. M. Ken Niimura

I can’t even pick this book up without sniffling a little. Have tissues and maybe don’t read on a public bus. It’s about a little girl who fights giants with a huge hammer; it’s about something else entirely. It’d spoil the book to say anything more. I am actually getting emotional just thinking about it.

Locke & Key (adult)

Locke & Key Vol. 1 Cover

Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez

The book follows the continuing horror and tragedy which haunts the Locke family. When their father’s past returns to haunt them, the Locke family face their new home in Lovecraft, teenage drama, murder, homophobic assaults, sexual abuse and a demonically possessed lunatic bent on unleashing a horde of its species on the world. Armed with otherworldly keys, the Locke kids juggle saving the world with the emotional horrors of friendship, dating, growing up and the rapidly approaching Prom Night.

The Movement (late teen and up)

Gail Simone, Freddie Williams II, Carlos M. Mangual, Chris Sotomayor

I’d put good money on The Movement being the most diverse superhero team, certainly from the Big Two (DC and Marvel), in mainstream comics. Featuring women of colour prominently, the characters come in a variety of shapes and ethnicities and orientations, the series takes specific aim at the notion that comic books are wish-fulfillment and escapism for a specific, narrowly-defined audience. Vengeance Moth is rare superhero figure who is a wheelchair user and whose power set does not simply allow her to circumvent it, and is powerful, valuable and possessed of her own self-agency. Virtue, a black teenager, exists as an antithesis to that habitual straight, white male leader figure that pervades comics, and yet her authority is not casually and constantly under question. When it is challenged (usually by the team’s bruiser, Katharsis) her suitability or otherwise is in no sense linked to her gender or age. Mouse, one of the two male characters, presents me with a welcome, much needed figure; a male who is utterly different to the constant stream Superman archetypes; the well-built, charming, tanks of masculinity. Mouse is messy, nervous, bumbling, weird, emotional, and still manages to be heroic. To be reminded, every so often, that you don’t have to be something you are not, and never particularly wanted to be, is both welcome and refreshing. There isn’t even a middle-aged white mentor figure from whom they will inherent their mission upon his tragic, sort-of-their-fault death at the hands of an old enemy. They build their own undertaking and are fully responsible for their own destinies. Riffing off the Occupy movement, the book blends a deeply cynical view of the current political and social structures with a hugely optimistic dream of a potential future.

Pretty Deadly (late teen and up)

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Ríos, with Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles and Sigrid Ellis

For some reason not everyone is into metaphysical western horror-folk stories, but if you like that sort of thing this is definitely a book for you. Deathface Ginny rides to seek out “men who have sinned” and victimise women, while Death himself moves against a group of travellers protecting a young girl who is not supposed to be alive.  Westerns, even in the revisionist cycles, are not known for particularly great examples of female characters, though there are obvious exceptions. DeConnick and Rios create a vital world here, in direct opposition to that masculine narrative of personal and geographical domination.

She-Hulk (teen and up)

Dan Slott, Juan Bobillo, Paul Pelletier, Scott Kolins

In some ways this is the most problematic of my picks here. That said, if we had to exclude problematic materials from our reading I could just set fire to all my stuff now. On the other hand, She-Hulk is very clearly negotiating the concerns of feminism. She was created to operate in direct opposition to the mindless violence of the Hulk, an intelligent and powerful feminine counterpoint to desperate, uncontrolled masculine anger. Her story charts a fraught relationship between her statuesque, imposing and indestructible Hulk-form and the squishy, human vulnerability of Jennifer Walters as much as it does her legal career or superhero brawls in space. Identity, both internal and physical, forms the main theme that runs through the overarching journey.

Trillium (teen and up)

Jeff Lemire, José Villarrubia

Visually intriguing and clever, this is a playful love story about a World War I veteran and a space-faring botanist from 3797, who meet when they step through doorways, thousand years and light-years apart. The book plays with the comic book format as well as established and historical preconceptions of gender roles.

The Young Avengers (late teen and up)

Young Avengers #13 Cover

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton

When it comes to superhero books I’ve always been more of a team-book than solo-adventure kind of person. With a large and continually present group you get better dynamics and better leverage for drama, tension and comedy. The line-up includes one of my favourite Marvel couples, Teddy and Billy Kaplan, as well as the ever popular Loki, stuck as a prepubescent child. It also served as my introduction to America Chavez, who likes to punch Loki in the face and is also an inter-dimensional powerhouse. The plot is ostensibly about an invading entity from another dimension who turns the teens’ parents evil and wants to conquer our reality, but mostly it’s about the messy business of being a young adult. Sexual identity and politics plays an important role. Kate Bishop articulates the right of young women to be sexual, and to enjoy sex, rejecting the socially mandated shame that she is supposed to feel for sleeping with Noh-Varr. America Chavez and Loki both give voice to the idea that sexual identity is significantly less stable than we are socialised to believe. Teddy and Billy are just the best, remaining mature and awesome and cute even in the face of personal and relationship meltdown. Also, this book has a lot of Loki being Loki, if all the other stuff hasn’t quite sold you.

Up-Coming Stuff Worth Looking Out For

Angela: Assassin Of Asgard – Kieron Gillen, Marguerite Bennett, Phil Jimenez, Stephanie Hans

Thor and Loki’s sister presumably kills a lot of people/aliens/monsters/stuff.

Thor – Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman

Marvel’s new female Thor takes up the hammer later this month. I’ve written about why I think it’s a good thing here.

Gotham Academy – Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl

Set in GOTHAM, in a school funded by BRUCE WAYNE, filled with oddball, super-something TEENAGERS, there is literally no way anything could ever go wrong in a place like this . . .

Batgirl – Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, Babs Tarr

The series is re-launching to a lot of fanfare, with a redesign described as “hipster” Batgirl and the promise of more fun and less grim. Hopefully the reality will live up to the hype.

Edward Scissorhands – Kate Leth, Drew Rausch

An authorised sequel to the Tim Burton film, set 20 years later. Seems safe in Kate Leth’s hands.

Ody-C – Matt Fraction, Christian Ward

A gender-bent space-opera retelling of the Homeric classic.

Wayward – Jim Zub, Steve Cummings

The first issue just hit the stands and was intriguing enough that I’m in for more. Following an Irish-Japanese teen moving to Tokyo to live with her mother, and also fight monsters, though that wasn’t part of the plan.

Please note, I am terrible judge of what is appropriate. I’m quite liberal because no one ever policed my reading at all and I came out mostly functional, so I tend to think anyone over 14-15 is old enough for just about anything, but I’ve tried to take into account everyone does not see things that way according to definitions I think are generally agreed by people other than me. I’m sure that won’t go wrong (please, please I beg you, check with a responsible retailer before handing any of these to a young person).

If you are new to comics, I’m not going to lie and pretend comic book shops are always a safe space for women, or even newcomers. If you are interested in any of these books and don’t know where to start, this is a handy list of safe-space shops that seems to be well curated. If you find you like these books, Kieron Gillen has provided this pictorial and ridiculous guide to ordering a comic series (creating a pull list). They are also largely available digitally.

I’ve been meaning to do up something like this for the longest time, but I haven’t got around to it because I keep being outraged by other things that demand my attention. Reading two articles the other day though, I decided to knuckle down and get it done. One, from The Mary Sue, articulates some of the issues which serve to keep young girls and women alike away from becoming habitual comic readers. The other is this review of Sin City 2 from the always insightful Vagenda Magazine. Both largely revolve around the sexist, or outright misogynistic, tendencies and physical objectification present in a significant percentage of comic book-related media.

This is a list of comic books that are ostensibly feminist. That is a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I won’t get into the finer points of what feminism is or isn’t, as I’m barely equipped to do so, but there are a few things which bear mentioning. There is a powerfully pervasive cultural perception that feminism is an aggressive, excluding force which seeks to dictate to women how to be women, and to demonise and diminish men. That’s more than just misrepresentation, it is fundamentally nonsense and without substance. Speaking as a man (I said that deliberately – I know my clichés) there is more to the project than simply inverting the beneficiaries of the status quo. Trust me, existing as a dude inside the narrow definition of masculinity that our society promotes is not something I wish for any future boy-children I may have, any more than I want it for me, despite all the privilege we certainly enjoy. Switching the system so that any potential daughters, my sister and friends can reap the benefits of a broken, damaging power structure does nobody any favours; it just shifts the vector of damage. Feminism is about a different approach to the existing framework. The actual feminist project benefits all of us, because it allows a more equal, dynamic and inclusive definition of personal value, and it allows us to set the terms of our engagement ourselves.

These books will not, necessarily, teach you the minute details of Feminism as an ideology. Many of these books, you may be surprised to find, do little to overtly push any imagined, militant FEMINIST AGENDA!!! at all, but simply treat women as equal partners in the events of their story. They are not stories that are trying to tell women and men how they should be; they are stories telling us what we can be, who we are perfectly entitled to be, and that we get to decide what to aim for. That is, to me, the fullest extent of the feminist agenda. It’s a terrifying reality, I know.

Some of these books imagine worlds where it is taken for granted that people are equal, while others are stories which serve to articulate the habitual struggles of women in something like the “real” world. Some of them are just about crazy people in bright costumes punching bad guys in the face and saving the universe. The one thing – maybe the only thing – that they all have in common is that they all respect the personal agency of the characters. The other thing about them is that they are all (subjectively) good in radically different ways. Liking one does not mean you will like another, though it is possible to like all of them.

If you don’t like, or are confused by, the term “feminist” consider it this way, these are comics in which women are presented as more than just background decoration or masturbatory fantasies for a presumed male readership – but also, please stop thinking of feminist as a dirty word. These are stories in which the women are entitled to their own agency and existence. They are stories where men get to be more than some caricature defined by testosterone and barely-contained violence. These are stories about people who have a right to their identities, their space, their own places.

What I really mean by a feminist booklist is that I would be happy to give a copy of any of these books to any person safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t come away feeling diminished or objectified. That they would see images of men who are interested in women for more than sex, who value them as peers and equals, and see that it is okay to expect that in the real world. That there would be images of manhood beyond the narrow definitions provided by mainstream media, allowing them to see men who are something other than sex-hungry engines of brutality. These are books that show you can be value women for anything other than sex without being considered weird, weak or intrinsically damaged. Some of these comics even dare to imagine gender as more than a strict binary system.

Cultural Leakage; Or Why I Can’t Hack This Social Paradigm

At this point it’s probably redundant to mention that Jennifer Lawrence and a number of other celebrity women have had numerous private photographs distributed on the internet without their knowledge or consent. Originally circulating on 4chan, the images have since made their way to sites like Reddit and Imgur and finally to vulture gossip sites like TMZ, Perez Hilton and The Superficial, who have blatantly shared the images knowing full well that the actresses in question did not consent to their publication. Of course, as in previous cases, these sites remove the images (though often not links to existing copies on other sites) as soon as the lawyers get involved, protesting that they didn’t know they were published without consent, that they didn’t know it was x or y actress, but they do so with several thousand extra clicks and all of the attendant revenue.

It’s very easy to see this purely in the terms the gossip industry prefers. The way they portray it, they function to provide public access to celebrity “news” and these pictures constitute fair game under the existing legal and social structures, until they are reconstituted as otherwise. Under their terms of reference, there is explicit public entitlement to these photographs which hover murkily on the fringes of the public domain. They sell the idea that not only the existence of the images, but the actual content of them, is news, thereby legitimising their decision to publish, as well as the audience’s act of viewing. Under their mentality, you are not invading the privacy of a celebrity, or a person, but engaging with a news item.

This is a fiction; they know it’s a fiction even as they sell it, and a large portion of the audience knows it’s a fiction, but it is one that is used to deescalate the action, to excuse and justify it. In reality it is essentially the zenith of capitalist, patriarchal entitlement. The society that we occupy is hinged upon the notion that financial accessibility is the larger part of propriety. In this instance, clicking a link is your payment as you access a page filled with advertising and providing traffic which will facilitate the sale of that advertising space in the future. Regardless of whether you are affected by that advertising (and if advertising has no effect, an awful lot of people have been wasting an awful lot of money for an awful long time, and somehow haven’t noticed), you are still participating in a financial transaction, which conditions your access to this material; material being packaged overtly as “news”. We are entitled to this “news” product because we have the capacity to access it, to engage in the transaction which purchases it. We are encouraged to ignore the idea that the provider, Perez Hilton or The Superficial, is selling the product disingenuously. In many respects we are literally trained by our social structures to accept this version; capitalism never, ever wants you to question the product, or consider your entitlement to it.

Of course, what we are talking about is not simply a “news” item or a commodity. In very real terms we are talking about private images illegally accessed and distributed, images of real and factual human beings with all the intendant rights of personhood. Imagining that these sites have some entitlement to distribute these images (and that you have a right to see them) is essentially the belief that the right to profit outweighs the right of human beings to control/regulate their own bodies and images. Using those sites to view those images is, without doubt, participation in an agenda, an ideology, which configures real people as less than the vested financial interests of businesses. Even if you are “just curious”. Curiosity is fine; but in this instance indulging that curiosity is violating someone else’s personal sovereignty. Just because it has been made easy doesn’t make it okay. I can understand the impulse, the desire. I have wanted to see some, or probably many, of these women naked, but with their consent, their active participation. What I don’t want, however, is to violate their personal space, to invade their privacy, to participate in what is at best flagrant voyeurism and at worst sexual humiliation. Without consent, or knowledge, viewing these images is participation in the abuse of these women. Feeling your curiosity (or lust) outweighs another’s right to self-determination is a definitive example of capitalist and patriarchal entitlement, as well as a method of social control, where it is used to indicate and leverage positions of hierarchical control.

These commercial, capitalist and patriarchal systems stratify the world. Jennifer Lawrence becomes fair game because she is explicitly engendered as not being like us. She doesn’t inhabit the same paradigms. She has, according to the logic of commodification, traded her personal sovereignty wholesale for financial success and celebrity status. As such, “the public” as lead by various gossip sites with financial motives, are entitled to scrutinise and invade her life. She is no longer entitled to anything like privacy. Her entire existence is part of the commodity, not just what she willingly provides in her acting career or the adjacent press circuses. As such, the invasion is marginalised, minimized. It is rendered as a minor theft, rather than a gross violation. Theft is obviously a crime in the capitalist ideology, but it is actually relatively minor and often engenders little more than monetary reimbursement in most cases.

Here is the reality. This is not theft – this is violation. Jennifer Lawrence is as entitled to the control of her own bodily sovereignty as you are. Under the structures of capitalism and patriarchy, of course, you are actually entitled to very little personal control. Women, particularly, are denied personal autonomy. Whether that is the literal denial of freedom, or the restriction of reproductive rights, or the lack of economic parity with male peers, women are codified as of less value and less importance than male figures. The whole of society, however, suffers from commodification. In very real economic terms, our governments have been complicit in transforming large swathes of the population into educated but cheap labour for international companies. In Ireland, for instance, we have JobBridge, in Britain there is the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme, while similar schemes exist in many European and Western countries. These schemes seek to mobilise an educated workforce while providing as little reimbursement to workers as possible, exploiting labour and individuals for gain of businesses; they operate to instil a modern fallacy that we must now work in order to earn the right to a “fair” wage. I would explicitly argue that it is the same capitalist ideology that commodifies Jennifer Lawrence’s body and legitimises its dissemination and consumption against her will and without her consent, as seeks to shatter the labour/pay relationship for the current generation of wages. It is the ideology of the patriarchy which demands we accept this, that there is, in fact, no issue at all, which insists that Lawrence has no more right to control her body than we have to order ours. Note; it is a common misconception that patriarchy is “oppression by men” when in fact it means “rule by the fathers”. In the modern day, it is not limited to masculine figures as much as previous eras, but is concerned with the domination of the many by the dictates of a few (still largely male) authoritative elders. Under their rule, we are all entitled to be exploited by the existing power structures, each according to the stratum they have socketed us into, for as little return as can be managed.

Of course, there is another element to the release of these images which is purely and totally unique to the treatment of women. There is an obvious sexual element which I have only sort of touched on, and it is one that is not exclusive to the treatment of high-profile figures like Lawrence. In very real terms, this kind of exposure is almost always directed at women. There are rare exceptions, such as Collin Farrell’s sex-tape, but even then, the language surrounding the cultural discussion is utterly different. In his case the same aspect of victim-blaming is absent, and he is allowed, and even encouraged, to feel proud of it. On the other hand, Lawrence and the other victims have been publicly shamed and blamed. Misogynist language abounds. All the familiar, old reliables have manifested; comments suggesting these women are sluts for taking these private pictures in the first place, saying that their promiscuity or attention-seeking behaviour legitimised the release. Others have suggested that if they didn’t want these images to get out, they should never have, in the privacy of their own space and relationships, taken the photographs. This is essentially the digital-equivalent of suggesting “she was asking for it”, and no more legitimate than any other form of victim-blaming. Lawrence has now become a high-profile figure for something that happens to women around the world frequently. She is no different from any other woman who has had a phone or mail account hacked, who has had a partner or friend distribute images online. This is nothing short of an example of mass-scale revenge pornography, disgruntled keyboard warriors visiting retribution on their fantasy figures for some perceived failure of imagined expectations.

Neither Lawrence nor any victim of this kind of attack, celebrity or otherwise, are “silly girls”, they are not “sluts”, they are victims of the entrenched entitlement of misogynists and a patriarchal ideology that codifies women as controllable, distributable sexual objects. You can own as many copies of The Hunger Games film as you like, you’ll never own Jennifer Lawrence, or even her image. You can choose to click on links to those images, or other variations on them, but there should be no question that your participation legitimises the violation and sexual exploitation of those specific people and women in general.

My Many-Tentacled Space-Squid God Hates You And That Is Okay By Me

I have a God with whom I have a deep and personal relationship. The many-armed space-squid who is my God flows through this universe, devouring life, munching through whole cultures, civilisations, small planets, believing utterly in the survival of the mightiest, which is He. He hates life, hates it with a cold and infinite passion, with a hunger both literal and metaphorical. His great arms sweep the cosmos, seeking out prey, not with just with malice but with the great, essential hunger of the divine. He will eat us all, all the worlds, all the life, all the cacophonous rubble of existence, until only the silence of the worlds’ end remains, the haunting melody of absence which He will delight in, the song of the universe’s beginning played again.

I call my God a ‘He’ though really, that’s maybe inaccurate. Really, He’s a non-Hobbesian construct of Darwinian metaversal world-structure manifesting in our ontological paradigm in a Platonically-informed zoomorphic atom-frame and gender isn’t really a factor. But still for argument’s sake, we’ll go with ‘He’. He, this many-tentacled space-dwelling kraken, doesn’t like you very much, and I’m fine with that. He doesn’t like people much at all, with our noise and our clutter; He definitely doesn’t like me. That’s fine. We don’t need our Gods to like us, so long as they do what we need them to do.

Not many people follow my God, though his essence will be familiar to readers of Lovecraft or China Mieville These fictional gods are precursors to my divine master in much the same that Adonis or Mithras are considered foundational precursors to the reality of Jesus, as mythological expressions of Jupiter made way for the Catholic God. Read these books and you will begin to see a tenth of a shadow of my God’s power and majesty.

Our society is largely only familiar with a singular, anthropomorphic form of godhood, though historically animal representation was equally prevalent. Given that the dominant, even exclusive form of philosophical world-view has stemmed from a monotheistic, hierarchical patriarchy many of the cultural and social systems that are in place today are not surprising. Social adherence to the rubrics and procedures enacted by generations of unmarried, old, straight, white men makes sense given that this is the preferred form of the mainstream divinity. In many ways, it is arguable that the great cosmological kraken would do little or nothing to overtly change these power-structures. Work with what is in place; it’s a strategy that the existing Churches used to great advantage during their own rises.

In truth, the male, bearing his penis before him like a miniature tentacle, is probably the closest symbolically to the form of the Many-Armed Void-Swimmer. While He gropes through the darkness Space and Time, in search of nourishment, can we not say it is not unlike the flapping japery of the man-bits? In this way it is should be most obvious that the male personage is best equipped to be representative of the Will of my Celestial Cephalopod. This is not sexist, or deliberate exclusion, but rather the fullest expression of divine logic. It is simply the sincerely held ethos that the Space-Kraken has delivered onto me. We are not responsible for it. Understand, the Many-Armed Space-Squid God hates men, would devour me and any other man wholesale in an instant as He slides uncaring through the depths of the cosmos, but that does not diminish the reality that the penis is the closest biological symbol of His greatness.

Of course, in light of the religious and subsequent social realities pervading many nations, this may not even be an issue for most potential recruits. Living in Ireland, a Western and supposedly civilised and compassionate society, the influence of patriarchal indoctrination is perfectly evident. Despite multiple warning following the death of Savita Halappanavar, the Irish Government pushed ahead with legislation which was in no way fit for purpose and largely continued to pander to the concerns of traditional religious powers and the patriarchal inclinations of a particular segment of the dominant political party’s voters. This legislation came into force in January and it has taken only eight months for it to result in the abuse, dehumanisation and torture of a vulnerable, asylum-seeking, teenage rape-victim. Despite the public furore, and UN condemnation of the medieval attitude of the Government’s attitude in general, our representatives refuse to continence requests for a referendum which would allow the public the opportunity to change the constitutional laws enforcing the draconian Catholic ideology that actively deny women the right to define and regulate their own bodies.

Of course, women are not the only people denied autonomy over their own existence. Like many other nations, Official Ireland has a dismal attitude towards the LGBTI community. For instance, there are little or no protections for non-traditionally-oriented teachers in schools administered by religious institutions, which equates to the vast majority of schools in this country. Any teacher may be dismissed from their position if their personal sexual orientation contravenes the ethos of the school. Given that there is a surplus of teachers, this pressure becomes significantly heightened, since schools can easy replace teachers, particularly those serving on long-term contracts, for a fraction the wage. Despite considerable media attention, and public outrage, the Department of Education, and Government in general, seem disinclined to legislate for protections which might contravene the right of the religious to persecute. Quite recently, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), in response to complaints, ruled that LGBTI people had no right to discuss their lived reality or future aspirations without a bigot present to denounce them. Given the impending referendum on Marriage Equality, it is read by many as a chilling, heavy-handed reminder by Officialdom that they have no entitlements or rights until they are specifically afforded by legal disposition. Explicitly, the rights of LGBTI people are still “an issue that was of current public debate and Controversy” in the words of the BAI, and thus, the experience and desires of those people must be subject to rebuttal and dissent at all times.

Given the explicit social support for marriage equality, and the rights of LGBTI people in general, that has being growing in every poll undertaken in the national media for the last several years and now stands at a potential 86%, and that the upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum was triggered by the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention, a non-partisan citizen body, and that all major political parties have agreed to support it, it seems that the BAI might recognise that the issue is not actually quite as socially divisive as it has been for previous generations. Rather, they are bowing to the minority objections of a small group of fundamentalist religious people who are entitled to an unequal share of the discourse because of their traditional ethos.

That is just the kind of disproportionate clout my Many-Tentacled Space-Squid Lord desires. Not because He needs it, but given His divinity, He does feel a certain inclination to be adored and blindly worshipped; that His Will, whatever that should be, be followed with rigorous, uncritical irrationality. This Squid-God of mine, He doesn’t care about many of the details which the current Christian Sky-Tyrant obsesses over. Indeed, the preoccupation with controlling the wombs and fiddly bits of the lesser-beings seems an odd neurosis to my Squid-God. My God, He just doesn’t care what consenting adults get up to in their own time with their own bodies. We’re all basically just miniscule quasi-intelligent self-propelled meatbags to Him (although the penis-baring members of the species are still obviously the physically closest to his resplendent form). He’s going to eat the whole of reality eventually; He doesn’t really care what you do with it beforehand, as long as there is a certain amount of adoring and cowering before Him thrown in for good measure. In fact, He would rather, as He is Merciful, that people of all genders, orientations and denominations had the briefest moments of joy before His Holy Maw descends upon the world in hunger and rage. It amuses Him too, that we might know some flicker of happiness before we go screaming into the eternal night of the metaverse’s ending, just that we might more keenly feel its loss.

He is a cruel God, and He hates you, all your noise and clutter.  It is only the silence He loves, and the hum at the beginning of reality. As much as the Christian God hates you, my Squid-Lord hates you more. Of course, that seems to be a selling point, considering the number of people who stick with the God-thing despite his vacillation between obvious disinterest and blatant cruelty. Honestly, from the outside it looks like a relationship built on unhealthy dependency with a flavour of sadomasochism. And really, if it is hatred and fear that drive your religious choices, I can assure you, the Space-Kraken is an infinitely better choice. Think this through, which is more terrifying; an old man living in the sky, spouting off about sin and who gets to live in his house when they die, or a massive, angry, all-devouring Kraken who swims in space and is going to eat the multiverse? The Eternal Cephalopod hates everything about you, but He hates the monstrously degrading and unfair power systems which pervade your reality too; mostly He just hates the noise you make and the space you take up, and this He will solve sooner rather than later. He, however, is still deeply uninterested in controlling your body prior to divine ingestion, or determining who you are entitled to spend the brief span of days you have remaining with.

I will admit it is a tremendously beneficial deal. You get all of the hatred and loathing of the Catholic God, if you need that sort of thing, you get impending Ragnarok and annihilation, and it all comes without the shame-fixation, mono-mythic power hierarchies and legally-enforced control of the bodies of an inordinate percentage of the population. Why wouldn’t you sign up? Who wants, or needs, a God that might love you if you can negotiate a litany of chaotic, contradictory rubrics which deliberately foster bigotry and exclusion? I don’t need a God who likes me, so long as He provides the requisites of civilised existence. In exchange for our devotion, the Glorious Squid-From-Above is offering all I honestly want in a God; freedom from the dictates of the entrenched bigotry of patriarchal social domination. Isn’t that worth believing in?

The only real question I have is, exactly how many straight, white dudes do I have to get to sign up, and how much cash do we need, before I can start imposing my Squid-God’s ethos all over everyone’s lives? How many straight, white men are required in the club before we can start making rules for the other genders, the other orientations, before we can set out access to healthcare options, the right to equal treatment under the law, who can partake of social and community structures like marriage or family, or has the simple right to speak of their aspirations, their lives, their reality?

How many of us have to believe in the right to self-determination, wrapped up in ethos of my glorious Many-Tentacled Space-Squid God, before the country is allowed to have that?

 

The Church of the Divine Space-Dwelling Kraken is now accepting both members and donations.

There Is A Darkness On The Edge Of Us

Note: I have considered posting this for a week in various incarnations. Shifting my position back and forth, I am fairly familiar with either aspect of the argument. I have no special insight. I have no answers. Yet it seems to worse to leave it unsaid, since the very crux of this matter, for so many, lies in the inability to express. But understand, I have nothing that has not been said or known before. My only hope is that I will not make anyone’s situation worse, if I cannot make it even marginally better.

Robin Williams died. I woke up to that news, woke up to it like a slow moving hammer in the gut, like it’s still sinking in, the incontrovertible weight of it, a week later. Even the early reports were fairly clear about what had happened; that Robin Williams had killed himself. I write that, fully aware that it sounds like he made a choice. I don’t believe that he did, not for a minute. He didn’t make a decision to die; not that way you choose to have a cookie, or you choose to get a haircut. Depression doesn’t leave you with any choices.

This is not a fresh, new observation; I will not be the last person who needs to make it either. Suicide is never an easy topic to approach, not for anyone. In Ireland, we have finally begun, as a society, to discuss it. The entrenched Catholic mentality that it is a sin has withered; the once-accepted notion of its inherent selfishness is starting to fade. It is no longer simply too taboo to discuss. We are fortunate that a number of high-profile figures have spoken out about their personal experiences, such as Conor Cusack and John Murray. Donal Walsh used what little time he had left to attempt to persuade our youth that life was worthwhile and precious. Broadsheet.ie has been unwavering in its support of the growing conversation. As a society, we have taken the first fleeting steps towards understanding what many individuals have been trying to tell us; that suicide, that depression, these things are not mind-sets, they are not choices.

I’m not the only one who has been sitting at a keyboard, hammering buttons in the hope of turning up an answer (something I have certainly not found, by the way). There have been obituaries and goodbyes, there have been stories, pleas and tributes. It’s been a week since Robin Williams died and the loss still seems to hang there. He is someone who meant a lot to an enormous number of people. Clearly, he meant something to me. I didn’t know him, but there is a wound of loss gouged into me all the same. I’m not really going to talk about him though; because I didn’t know him, and what could I say that his family, his friends, those who knew him have been saying for days. He was a good man, by their account. He was a nice person, a comical genius. He was a father, husband, friend, person. I like his films, I grew up seeing him, and now he is gone and I am saddened.

There have been, in the wake of his death, many reminders to talk, for those suffering to seek help. Jason Manford wrote an eloquent piece on reaching out, on its necessity. It is naïve to imagine the act of reaching for help is simple, when it plainly is not. To speak truthfully of things, to breach the habitual daily armour we build, is more than difficult for many of us; for those suffering it can feel akin to an act of destruction, as if by speaking the pain they will crack the last vestiges of whatever keeps the dark thing at bay, that they will invoke it, summon it into reality. In silence, perhaps it can be contained, perhaps it will slink back to wherever it came from; named, or summoned, who knows what will be unleashed. This is fear, and it is human. To speak is an act of courage and act of faith. Every assurance aside, it is difficult to be convinced that those we might go to are capable or equipped to deal with our agony.

It would, however, be wrong, and dangerous, to suggest that the simple act of talking is the only step in the process. When something like this happens there is always the question, “why?” Always the question, “how do we stop this happening again?” The need to talk, to express, is both necessary and simplistic. It is not always enough. There also need to be systems in place to deal with those suffering from depression health, from any form of disordered mental health. David Wong, of Cracked.com, writing about the prevalence of depression and mental health issues among comedians, pointed out that Robin Williams could probably have tapped any stranger on the street for help or reassurance. We would gladly have given it. Robin Williams spoke about his depression. He wasn’t closeted away hiding his pain from an uncaring world. He is still gone.

The systems that deal with these issues are utterly unfit for purpose. There may be places were this is not the case, but I don’t know where they are. In Ireland they are a shambles. Gareth MacNamee, Lisa and Oisin McKenna are just three examples of the failures of the existing systems in Ireland. They are harrowing accounts of what can happen to those for whom speaking isn’t enough of an answer, who need more help than a sympathetic ear. It is an easy, comforting narrative to assume that talking is a catch-all solution. It is one that allows our authorities to shift the blame away from their financial and professional disinterest and inability. It falls, very often, for underfunded charities to bridge the gap between broken services, and families and friends who are unequipped or unable to provide the necessary support.

High-profile suicides always prompt a cultural soul searching, a quest for an answer. It is easier if there is an answer. If you can identify the point at which the failure occurred, you can take precautions, and you can safeguard against it. Otherwise, you are faced with the stark, terrifying thought that this is something that can repeat. There are reasons, general and specific. They didn’t Talk; they didn’t Get Help; The System Failed. Push further and there are more Reasons; the society in which we live is fundamentally damaged, infinitely damaging. Those who outlie the traditional heteronormative denominations are still bullied, othered, abused; they are denied basic rights, have their voices stripped away, told their opinions must be offset, “balanced” by the voices of “normal”, traditional voices. It must do wonders for your mental stability to know that every time you speak to a body of people, there must always be a bigot on hand to put you back in your box. And we teach our children that this, this horror, is acceptable, because they are different. We teach our boys that their value is tied up in their earning potential, that it is their social and familial duty to provide. We teach them they must be physically strong. To mock fatness and smallness, slowness, bookishness. We teach them to despise femininity, to use it as an insult, and then we teach them what is feminine. We train away the ability to express pain, to cope with it; the very act of feeling becomes inherently feminised and thus, worthy of scorn. We train them to procure sex for validation, to expect it, a lot of it, that their just reward for compliance is female companionship and sexual congress. We teach our girls to accept their role as prizes, convince them they want to be won, chased. We teach them to be small, and quiet and dainty. That they need to be pretty more than they need to be anything else; that they are in competition with every single other woman alive. We teach them to buy shoes and not eat in the service of the project of their appearance. That to be successful they will need to be bitches, that authority requires a brutality. We teach them both a philosophy of marriage, monogamy, mortgage like it is a fact, not a possibility, and build social structures that punish those who fall outside of it. We teach them that the structures that surround them are natural, correct, and inviolate; they are broken. We are – we are broken. We literally pile neurosis on top of ourselves and wonder then how people fail to cope. And this still, is not a total answer to question of where depression comes from, of how we solve it. It suggests that if only we could stop this problems, help people not to feel this way, they would stop choosing to kill themselves. Robin Williams was successful, loved, and he is gone.

Depression comes, from wherever it comes from, and it wounds and it hurts, and too often it takes like a thief. On a very fundamental level, we don’t understand it. Some of the science is becoming clearer, but we have no robust answers. There are some, most unfortunate in their experience, who are acquainted with it on a very intimate level. I am not one of these people. You could say I’m lucky; I know so many people who have tried to die. I’m lucky because I don’t know anyone who has succeeded. A lot of my friends know people who have died by suicide. I think we all know of people who have; friends of friends mostly, extended family maybe. It is there, though, on the periphery of all of our lives, when it isn’t closer. Like I said, I’m lucky; I don’t know anyone who has killed themselves. There’s a line of a Lene Marlin song I know. It goes, “I heard about your story from a friend . . .” and it makes me wonder about those people that I missed, those that didn’t make it far enough for our lives to intersect. Sometimes, I wonder how very large that number might be. I’ve never been through what Robin Williams, or millions of others have been through. I have no special perspective on what they’ve had to endure, and I don’t have a solution for them or for you. Fiction, for me, has always provided the best path to fundamental truths. I imagine that’s true of a lot of us; I think that is why we so keenly respond to the loss of someone like Robin Williams; because he provided a voice and a form to so many of the fictions which led us to strength, upon which we condition our existence. My entire worldview is conditioned by interactions with such fictions, my understanding of everything is informed by them. It should, then, be no surprise that depression takes a particular form in my mind. Some of you will be familiar, though most won’t I suspect, with the image of Sephiroth. To me, he is the ultimate expression of despair, the avatar of the suicide solution. You can understand his anguish and outrage, and the horror at what he is beneath his own skin, you can understand his point of view. He is a thing of rage and death and he is a monster, and he is so very full of rationales and reasons and logic. His philosophy of murder is couched with such clarity as an act of compassion, of relief, that he is utterly terrifying. He does not merely kill; he is the one-winged angel of despair, bestowing a favour, in the name of a terrifying logic, a Reason all too easy to understand. You don’t choose to go with him or not, you simply survive him. I read the stories of survivors, of sufferers, and it’s an image that makes sense to me. They know better. I’ve never had the knife in my hand, and I’ve never stood on the edge and stared over.

I’ve never stared into the darkness where the monster swims. I can’t claim that I have, and I don’t wish to pretend of been in a place worse than I have. I don’t know what people who battle daily with depression and suicidal ideation go through. I’ve never had to live in, or through, that kind of battle. I’ve just got this one night, from maybe three years ago; this one night where all my Reasons, and there seemed so many of them, were lit up like balefire. I was unemployed, and sending out dozens of CVs a week and getting nothing or nowhere. Most of my friends lived in different countries and I didn’t have the money to do anything with the ones that were here. I was upset, lonely and surly all of the time. I wasn’t who I wanted to be physically, mentally, financially, personally. I was failing to fulfil responsibilities I have invented for myself in the first place. I’d been staring at a bank of DVDs for more than an hour, completely unable to care what I watched or did next at all. Exhausted by doubts and fears and the sheer struggle to keep entertained in the face of monotonous days of simply enduring, awaiting some promised economic resurgence so I might be gifted with some job I didn’t want anyway, a cog in The Man’s Machine. I don’t know what it was about that night, what made it different than the one before. I remember no special significance, doubt there was one. I don’t know what turned reasons into Reasons. But something did; the kraken breached the surface. This dark and hungry thing was swimming through me then, and all I saw was more of this same trudging awfulness. There was no voice, no Sephiroth, even the monster is a metaphor I’m constructing here. There was just this idea – simple, obvious, and yet utterly appalling – that I didn’t have to have a tomorrow.

I didn’t choose not to do something drastic. I dodged it. That’s how I see it. I sat there, for the longest moments, mulling that thought over. And in an instance of clarity I realised I didn’t like what I was thinking. I left the room I was in. It was late, past the middle of the night, and everyone was asleep. I got my dog and I sat with her and I took many deep breaths and ate some chocolate, drank some water. I scared myself, don’t doubt it. Eventually – minutes? – hours? – I went to sleep. I woke up and the thing, whatever it was, wasn’t there anymore. I still had all those same problems, all those same reasons why my life was shit and not likely to improve any time soon. But they weren’t Reasons with a capital R anymore, they weren’t pointed at something, they didn’t mean that I was useless, valueless, a waste, a burden anymore. They were simply a reality of my life. My life isn’t so much better now. I’ve had a shit job for year and eight months that doesn’t pay enough and doesn’t allow me to have the life I’d like. I’m not going to pretend what I had was a unique experience. The consensus seems to be that a worryingly large number of people go through moments like mine. The lucky ones, like me, have only the briefest of glimpses of the monster; others live with it, day on day. They go through years suffering through it, and knowing that any respite might be temporary.

We’ve finally begun to reach a place, culturally, where we can share things like this without having to worry that some stigma might become permanently affixed to us; and because of that, we’ve started to learn that we are not unique in our distress. Unfortunately, that isn’t an answer. Saying, “Well a lot of people go through this” is not an answer, or a solution. It should be a rallying cry, a call to arms. Sadly, it is too often used to suggest that those suffering from depression, from suicidal ideation, simply need to “toughen up”, to “wait it out”, to “remember the good things in life”, to “be happy with what you do have”. In that state of mind, answers become irrelevant, they vanish into the murk, swallowed up by questions, by the appalling logic of the monster, until there is only one path, one ending on a horizon of infinite affliction. For those in that position, I can only offer the advice of Matt Fraction – find an anchor, something, anything to tether you until you can get to the help and stability you need.

Robin Williams had answers. I know because he gave them to me; he’s been quoting them off the screen in front of me all week. Robin Williams had access to support. He provided support for others too. You’ve probably read that he rang up Spielberg to keep him in good spirits during the filming of Schindler’s List, that he called on Christopher Reeves after he was paralysed. He was familiar with the concept of relief. Depression takes away that rationale, the logic of survival, swallows it whole or blinkers you to it. It steals your choices, until there’s only the bleak reality of endurance remaining. It is not a sickness you can cure. It’s not like a rash, or a chest infection. Can’t shovel money into a research project and hope to wipe it out by 2018. It’s not malaria; it’s not AIDs. When we climb into the stars and spread across a dozen worlds, we will likely take depression with us. That is not to say that there are no options, no defences. Quite plainly there are a range of avenues of treatment, from medicinal to institutional intervention, which can work for some, and not for others. A long-term regime of intensive psychiatric therapy may work for one person; for another any form of counselling might be useless. The most dangerous notion we could assume is that there is a singular right path to mental health. Real monsters are rarely susceptible to silver bullets. We need social and medical structures conditioned to respond to distress in multiple, complex and affirming manners, able to differentiate and respond to the variable and fluctuating needs of a host of people. Most particularly, we need care that begins from a place of compassion; one that sees sufferers as people, rather than statistics, or worse, unproductive social units, one that would construct failure as the responsibility of the intransigent ill.

But we need to recognise a fundamental truth too. We treat our social structures as though they are inherently natural, as if they are a level playing field, when in fact they are designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many, that they marginalise and stigmatise any who seek to exit or challenge them. They prioritise traditional (and archaic) identity and power constructs, punishing any who fail to fulfil narrow designations. There is nothing intrinsically right about society as it stands, and we cannot continue to punish those who flounder in the face of its flaws. We cannot continue to pretend that the constructed mechanisms of our societies are perfectly functional and fit for purpose, laying the blame for alienation and disenfranchisement on people who simply cannot, do not, may not, or refuse to conform to its imagined, invented standards of propriety.

It is time to say to those suffering, that yes, they are entitled to their pain, that they need not be burdened with guilt for having those feelings, that pain. That it is not only acceptable, but that we acknowledge that it is real. We need to make a sincere, honest, long-term commitment to providing the mechanisms for healing, for treatment and for survival.

Robin Williams was successful, beloved, and probably financially capable of affording more than basic care and treatment. He could have turned to nearly anyone in the world, at any given moment and asked for help. Robin Williams is dead.

Consider those who don’t even have Robin Williams’ advantages.

Helplines (Ireland)

Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)

Aware 1890 303 302 (depression anxiety)

Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)

Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Helplines (International)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines

http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

Moon Knight: Agent Of (A Moon) God

When I first heard about Marvel’s re-launch of the Moon Knight solo, I was not immediately frothing at the mouth, given that I was largely unfamiliar with the character. Reading a little closer, I noticed the names attached; Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Shalvey and Bellaire were just coming off a great run on Deadpool’s “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” arc. Shalvey also worked on Venom with Cullen Bunn, which I deeply love. Eisner-award-winning colourist Jordie Bellaire colours about 80% of my favourite books. So Moon Knight’s potential was already looking up. And then I realised I hadn’t read any new Warren Ellis stuff in a good while. I mean, definitely, I had reread FreakAngels earlier in the year because when do I not want to be reading FreakAngels? I just hadn’t read anything fresh off the assembly-line new. Suddenly, there was a little bit of excitement building for the book. It helped that my local comic book shop was doing a signing, just for the added poke in the right direction.

Moon Knight is not a character I had read a lot of. He had popped up in Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, so I had a vague sense of the gist of his backstory; mental health issues, white suit, moon-adjacent, bit punchy, that sort of thing. I have heard him referred to as Marvel’s “Batman” which is true enough, in that he assumes the night-stalking, crime-fighting elements of the Batman motif, while Tony Stark does the “genius, playboy, philanthropist” world saving stuff.  The actual history of Moon Knight and his origins is a little involved, much like any superhero who has been around for a few decades, but basically Mark Spektor, an American veteran turned mercenary, dies in an Egyptian temple and is resurrected by Khonshu, the Moon God, ostensibly as a spirit of vengeance. Spektor manifests secondary personalities, suggested to be related to his service to Khonshu. As Ellis has veteran Marvel reporter Joy Mercado put it in the first issue, “Now, Khonshu, he has four different aspects.  So the mercenary, he comes back to the States, becomes the Moon Knight, and two other people.”

Warren Ellis plays loosely with the material, essentially cutting out the skeleton of the established myth.  If there were one word, in fact, to describe this run, it would be “minimal”. Everything is pared back, reduced to the bare minimum. The backstory exists in hints, some from Spektor, much of it from Mercado and Flint – “L.A. There’s footage of him standing in the middle of Sunset shouting at Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America”, “Cut off a guy’s face once”, “One of the first cases we ever worked together was a slasher”. Ellis treats the audience like they are smart enough to figure out who Moon Knight with as little direction as possible. In the first pages, we learn a little of the Khonshu tale, that he’s possibly unstable and definitely dangerous, and that he rocks a spiffy suit. The opening issue actually makes a point to discuss his look, pointing out that the glaring white gear is not particularly circumspect for a night-stalking vigilante. As both Joy and Moon Knight note, he enjoys that his targets see him coming. “Because he’s crazy.”

Given that Moon Knight himself has such a distinctive look, it seems only appropriate that the artwork itself would be so meticulous and engrossing. His runs on Venom and Deadpool certainly showed me that Declan Shalvey does creepy well, but the artwork he’s produced on these six issues of Moon Knight are a level above. Added to that, the scrupulous attention to detail in Jordie Bellaire’s colours and you have a dream-team book. The decision to keep Moon Knight himself uncoloured is inspired, granting a visceral contrast between Moon Knight and the world he stalks through. It is particularly effective when the Moon Knight mask is removed and the “real” face of Spektor sits imposed above the ethereal suit. There is a fantastic moment where Moon Knight enters the den of the murder, you seen a throwing-moon in his hand, and then it is gone with a small, innocuous movement line on the page. Some fourteen panels later, the pay-off comes, when Moon Knight informs the villain, “I killed you two minutes ago. Look down.” You can find the little blade peeking out of the bad guy’s side in two panels before the reveal, not buried by any stretch, but carefully placed within the context of overtly detailed shots examining the broken, ravaged physique of the ex-soldier antagonist.

There are obvious parallels between Spektor and this unnamed ex-SHIELD soldier, who is at least partially a victim of the same systems that left Spektor dying in an Egyptian desert; Moon Knight, although the dialogue hints that he understands the soldier’s plight, does not actually feel any empathy, or sympathy for that matter, with the deranged, abused man – “You prey on innocent traveller’s at night. That’s all I care about.” This is the essential mission statement of Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight. It’s possible to suggest, even probable, that Marc Spektor is not even truly the lead of this book. Ellis’s primary concern throughout is Moon Knight, not as an aspect of the man, but as an agent driving the vehicle of Spektor. His take on the mythos of the character is not that Spektor is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, but rather that Spektor is a remnant haunting the body hijacked by Khonshu’s resurrection, becoming only an aspect of the God; “. . . Whether that be Marc Spektor, Steven Grant and Jake Lockley, or Wolverine, Spider-Man and Captain America . . . your brain has conjured them to explain what has happened to you. You’re not insane. Your brain has been colonized by an ancient consciousness from beyond space-time.”

The second issue, “Sniper”, is where we begin to see that this run is something unexpected. It is also the issue where you begin to feel like Warren Ellis might actually just be trying to slowly destroy Shalvey’s mind. It opens with an eight-panel grid, ending in a headshot. Next page only has seven panels, with another red-splashed kill-shot. Every turn of the page has another victim and one less panel, until there is the one page, one panel, red-splattered, exploding exit wound of the final headshot. It is a testament either to his intention to crush their spirits or to his trust in the team that Warren gives the seven pages which succeed this only one dialogue bubble. Between them, Shalvey and Bellaire are perfectly capable of carrying off the action and the storytelling without the crutch of text boxes everywhere to carry the audience. This is something they return to later in the fifth issue, “Scarlet”, where Moon Knight ascends a building to rescue a young girl. It is an issue essentially devoid of dialogue, bar a couple of key scenes. Most of the issue however, is driven by Moon Knight beating the crap out of people, counting the floors as he climbs. It, again, reinforces the central theme that Moon Knight is the divine vengeance (what the ancient Greeks referred to as nemesis) visited on those who would attack overnight travellers.

The metaphysical framework of any fantastical story tends to attract me; it is part of the reason I respond to the kind of stories of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Hal Duncan so particularly. Moon Knight draws deeply, but sparingly, on its own foundational myths. ”Box”, the third issue is perhaps the most expansive in terms of the mythological basis of Moon Knight as he takes on a band of ghost-punks who have been terrorising a small section of New York. Initially defeated (or rather, battered bloody) by the ghosts, Spektor sits in his home in sullen consultation with his other aspects. The grim, suited, bird-skeleton that represents Khonshu reminds him of the Egyptian fascination with the dead, points him towards artefacts he doesn’t even really remember buying. It is another hint at the lack of agency devolved to Spektor himself, further confirmation that Khonshu, and Moon Knight, have more dominance than might be suspected. Mystically armoured in ancient bones, the ghosts represent significantly less threat. And yet, Ellis doesn’t leave the story at that. Much like the previous issues, the audience are left mulling over the melancholy victimhood of Moon Knight’s antagonists. Certainly, they are rarely sympathetic, but there is some aspect of their story that we empathise with; we are left to contemplate the tragedy of that life, to consider what, if anything he deserves from us. Certainly, Moon Knight does not care. He only came to silence the ghosts, and achieving that, leaves their bones behind. He is, quite frankly, not a heroic character. He is a force, an agent. He does not do the things were necessary expect from our idols. He does not bury the bones, or lament the dead, he does not judge guilt or worth. He does save little girls. He saves them when it is his purpose, when divine laws of natural human interaction has been breached. He is not a crime-fighter, he is the punishment of a wronged God.

Moon Knight #4

The mushroom dreamscape, by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, from Moon Knight #4

My personal favourite issue is the fourth, “Sleep”. Ironically enough, it was probably a nightmare to draw and colour. Just look at that gorgeous monstrosity there. What even? The imagery that Shalvey and Bellaire provide has an epic grandeur to it, matched only by the detail in it. In fact, it is almost as if the detail of the art exists in utter counterpoint to the minimalism of the dialogue. The combination paints a character who is laconic, while emphasising the Holmesian attention to detail in his detective aspect. He is a watcher, an agent of observation, as much as a vehicle of violence and vengeance, if only because he must see where to point himself, before unleashing.

I imagine this is something I’m bringing myself, rather than a direct influence, but this issue seems to be some weird and delightful confluence of two particularly good Irish poems, Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” in particular and the final lines of W.B. Yeats’s “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”. Mahon’s poem, envisioning the neglected, unremembered victims of death-camps and massacres, the abandoned of humanity, is perhaps easily understood within the context of this issue of Moon Knight. That opening line, “Even now there are places were a thought might grow – ” speaks quite directly to the events taking place in Moon Knight. With Yeats’s poem, the stretch is a little further, but consider that half-hopeful begging whisper of:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

It seems almost a counter point to the urgent accusation levelled by Moon Knight, raging, “You’ve been breathing in his dreams.” Certainly, much of this is baggage and iconography I am bringing to the table, but any art is at least half audience participation. There are those who will never be able to think of mushrooms with considering Cordyceps-zombies and the Last Of Us. In a sense, what the issue plucks out of me is what I like best about it. Comics as medium is always working with shorthand, with a range of twenty-pages or so to tell a story, it almost certainly relies on the reader to provide some of the substance; the gross foetor stench of mould or head-ringing dizziness of a head-punch, we do not need every aspect of a scene described, only to have our thoughts directed to it.

Sadly, just this week, “Spectre”, the sixth and final issue of this team’s run on Moon Knight arrived. The series itself will continue with Brian Wood, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire, and I have every intention of continuing to read it; but that does not mean I do not lament the ending of such an intriguing take on the character. This sixth issue plays quite heavily with the opening of the series. The cover is an inverted reference to the first, depicting the Moon Knight antagonist Spectre. It opens in the alleyway where Moon Knight first takes on the “slasher” case, showing us a different side of the conversation. Following a disgruntled police officer, we see the origins of the opening dialogue which introduced us to Moon Knight, and follow officer Trent as he attempts to usurp Moon Knight’s position as nocturnal protector. It goes about as well as you can expect. It does, however, afford Moon Knight the opportunity to explain the difference between himself and others, those like Spectre who challenge him, those who would take up his position; “Let me tell you a thing about me. People who love me suffer and die. I never want to be loved. That’s why I always win.”

The purpose of this run, it seems to me, is to tell you who Moon Knight is. It is not so much a continuing adventure of, but rather an attempt to create a holotype example of the Moon Knight character and his mythos. It serves as a defining piece of mythology, six vignettes which set out that stall so to speak, giving us glimpses of the wider story, but plucking the most essential parts and reinforcing them, refining the Moon Knight archetype and laying it out for the audience, both new and old. I firmly believe that this is a book which will serve as the creative touchstone for future incarnations of the character, as well as for new readers who come to character. When people ask, who is that guy, people will point to this run for the answer.

Interestingly, not long after the new comic’s release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dropped a “man from Cairo” reference, that has led many to suspect it will be part of the Phase Three releases that lead up to the third Avenger’s film. Given the success of The Guardians Of The Galaxy in its first week, and that a Doctor Strange film is in the works, it does not seem impossible that Marvel could go with Moon Knight at some stage. Although, and I mean this quite sincerely, if the next film announcement from Marvel is not a female-led piece I am likely to lose my patience completely. They have made ten films, with three more in various stages of production, all of which have essentially been headlined by straight white men; it is very much past time to make one with a female in the lead. I still have my hopes pinned on either a Black Widow or Captain Marvel film (or both), but there are plenty of other characters for them to work with. That said, if a Moon Knight picture ever does come to fruition, the Ellis/Shalvey/Bellaire run will serve as a great introduction to the character for anyone who (like me) likes to get a little look at the source material before seeing the film.

For anyone else who is also sad to see the team go, there was good news out of the Image Expo a few weeks ago. While they won’t be working on Moon Knight, they will be launching a creator-owned book Injection in 2015. The Moon Knight trade paperback will also be available from all good comic book shops come October, and it will absolutely be getting pride of place in the over-stacked, bulging monstrosity that is my comic’s bookcase.