No More Straight White Men: On THOR, Entitlement, and Representation

It should be no secret that modern media and mainstream entertainment have something of a representation problem. Look at current examples like Ridley Scott’s whitewashing in Exodus, or the worrisome representation of women in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise – reaching its logical but awful conclusion in characters quoting statutory rape defences to absolve problematic relationships. Pull a random film or boxset from my collection and chances are the protagonist will be a heterosexual white man. For someone raised with iconic heroes that ranged from Buffy to Captain Sisko, it seems sometimes unfathomable, the preponderance of the singular physical pattern of the archetypal hero which continues to inundate the entertainment industry.

Of course, society at large has a representation problem, let us be honest; the overspill into the media and entertainment industries is just a wider part of the ongoing cultural discourse. In a particularly Irish context, just this week the UN took the Irish State to task for its attitude towards women. In particular it drew attention to the situation where women made pregnant by rape were “by the law clearly treated as a vessel and nothing more”. The definition of women as vessel is not something unique to our political landscape; it is a widespread cultural problem that manifests in the presentation of women as secondary characters, important for their relationship to the male characters in their lives, rather than as agents in their own stories. These are the unrequited loves, the girlfriends, the kooky best friends, victims, beloved princesses; they are the women in refrigerators. POC characters have, historically, fared no better. Take, for instance, something like Noah, re-imagining one of the great creation myths of western Christianity, a story borrowed wholesale from Middle Eastern culture. Here it is portrayed as a fantasy story, set in unhistorical time, rather than a “realistic” rendering of a folk-tale. As such, it had plenty of scope to play with aspects with the mythology; unfortunately it chose to configure our antediluvian ancestors as totally Anglo-Saxon in appearance. POC characters have no place in the genesis of our culture, even when that culture is actively being borrowed from them.

Korra, protagonist of Nickelodeon’s ‘Legend Of Korra’

That is not to say that there are not numerous companies and creators who are making excellent art with good representation for POC and female characters. Orphan Black’s premise virtually dramatizes the feminist critique of social/religious/corporate control of female bodies and representation. Despite recent award snubs, it seems its popularity has surged in the second season and has been renewed for a third. The Legend Of Korra, the Nickelodeon children’s show, for instance features a main character who is both female and of colour. The fact that it is critically well received and commercially viable is an aspect of the sea change which various aspects of the entertainment industry are slowly starting to accept. This is in stark contrast to the cancellation of Young Justice, on the basis that its growing audience of girls would not buy the available merchandise. The runaway success of both Frozen and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games franchise will undoubtedly contribute to a continuing improvement in female representation.

That is not to say that all entertainment which is disappointing in terms of gender or colour representation is necessarily terrible. Some is excellent; True Detective and Sherlock spring directly to mind. Doctor Who is a particularly good example of the lack of diverse representation. Although the show has gone to some lengths to indicate that neither gender nor colour are fixed concepts in Galifreyan biology, as the Doctor enters a thirteenth incarnation he remains utterly white and male. Obviously Peter Capaldi will make an excellent Doctor, but that doesn’t quite assuage the disappointment that the status quo has not been challenged. That said, the fact of diverse casting does not in and of itself guarantee positive portrayals of those characters. The second and fourth seasons of A Game Of Thrones have shown how easy it can be to make a mess of representation, when the agency of the female characters is downgraded in the name of melodrama and rape becomes an unaddressed shock tactic. Penny Dreadful, a show I still cannot figure out if I like or not, is made up of a cast of characters literally and figuratively haunted by their pasts. All of the main cast have some secret curse, affliction or ghost, and the first 8-episode season has teased out the majority of those mysteries. However, with the character Sembene, the only person of colour in the show, when his past is approached, he responds that he has no story. This could easily be setup for the second season; but it could equally be commentary on the invisibility of POC characters in Victorian literature, their virtual erasure from the history of the time. They are good servants, guides and/or shamans, exotic mysteries, rather than realised individuals. Whatever the intention of the remark, Penny Dreadful will, in its sophomore season, need to make good on the commentary or the mystery inherent in Sembene’s depiction or run the risk of marginalising the only non-white main character they have featured.

Both of the Big Two comic publishers, DC and Marvel, can trace their origins back from the late thirties right through to the 1960s. Given the prevalent cultural climate of these formative decades, it should probably not be a surprise that the characters who emerged from this age are predominantly straight white males. A few women were peppered into the universes, many as love interests, some few as individuals in their own right – Wonder Woman being a particular example. Although later decades brought newer characters and improved diversity, these new entrants rarely immediately achieve the kind of instant recognition of those iconic originators. Batman is instantly recognisable, but I can guarantee that my parents would not recognise either Luke Cage or Captain Marvel. As such, I would suggest that new characters face an utterly uphill battle to claim their readership. Just because something like Gail Simone and Freddie William III’s The Movement has a diverse cast representing disabled, LGBTI and coloured teenagers does not mean that it will be able to tap every aspect of the potential audience. Many people who would be interested in the story of these diverse teenagers in literal battle with vested capitalist, political, and social interests will never hear of this group of heroes, particularly since their story ran for only twelve issues. This is a story competing with three or four Batman titles, a similar number of Superman ones, possibly as many as seven X-Men titles, all of them established and familiar. Anyone who walks into a comic book shop has thousands of trade paperbacks featuring decades of Avengers or Spider-man story arcs to choose from; the twelve issues of The Movement or Bunn and Sliney’s The Fearless Defenders do not have the steam to outpace, or even match, the familiar giants that dominate the shelves. Twelve issues, or two volumes, of these stories are practically invisible beside the wall of continuous history presented by established titles. Many people argue that new superheroes simply have to earn their place in the pantheon, whether they are female or minority characters. This is a kind of Darwinian capitalist essentialism. It is a philosophy that suggests that woman and minorities – and indeed, straight white men – are only as substantial as their bank accounts, and one which favours the inheritors of historically racist and marginalising systems. Adherence to this system presupposes that the playing field is level, rather than infinitely stacked in favour of the straight white male. It imagines that people are buying straight white men because that is all they want, rather than because that is predominantly where the industry has been focusing its attention for decades.

The new THOR (Russell Dauterman)

Marvel have been making inroads for a few years now, attempting to promote new, more varied characters. The recent debut of Kamala Khan, a teenaged Pakistani-American female superhero, under the Ms Marvel legacy has won considerable phrase, particularly since the resulting book as been of such high quality so far. Obviously, I am a fan of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and it is in no small part to their stellar Young Avengers run, which was particularly concerned with gender and sexuality representations. Captain Marvel’s popularity exploded with her reworking under Kelly Sue DeConnick. Marvel also launched an all-female X-team under the title X-Men, grouping many of the most popular female X-Men into one title, as a sort-of challenge to any preconception that they X-women might in an context be considered supporting characters. Last week, Marvel comics took perhaps it greatest step yet and announced a number of changes to its line, two of which were calculated specifically to address some of the deficit in terms of POC and gender representations. On Tuesday, it was announced that Thor would, from October, be a woman. On Wednesday, they followed with the news that Sam Wilson, currently the Falcon, would be taking up the mantle of Captain America from a depowered, aging Steve Rodgers. Bolstered by the fact that these announcements came on high profile American TV shows, The View and The Colbert Report respectively, certain tracts of the internet subsequently went ballistic. There are many who are delighted. There many who are pleased but will want to see the finished product before passing judgement. And then there are those who are angry. Those who are very, very angry.

Some examples, from Marvel editor Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr, are presented here –

how much money Marvel gets the Pentagon to create ideological propaganda in your comics?

Just because Planet of the Apes is a big hit doesn’t mean you have to make Captain America one.

So you pea brains are Marvel know nothing about the history of slavery, so you have white guilt due to ignorance on the subject, and think a black Captain America will erase the images of the white devil that you’ve been manipulated into believing?

Watch your sales drop, you arrogant fucks! Turning Thor into a woman is the stupidest thing ever! You guys are full yourselves! You guys have made him a woman several times out of continuity, now you want to inside of it. It’s bullshit! BULLSHIT! UP YOURS YOU FAT BASTARDS

Sam Wilson in the first look at the redisigned Capt America costume. (Stuart Immonen)

Given these extreme reactions, it seems prudent to question what changes Marvel announced. They didn’t, for instance, announce the wholesale slaughter of all straight white male characters in their universe. In fact, they are explicitly not killing off either of the current figures helming these titles. The current Thor, it is suggested, will perform some action which will render him unworthy of the hammer Mjolnir. We can infer, perhaps, that he will abandon his name, or be stripped of it, as part of his penance. The new female character who takes up Mjolnir will also assume the title of Thor. Jason Aaron, the current writer of the title, will continue to pen the series. In the Captain America book, Steve Rodgers has been depowered and is aging rapidly. The Falcon, a secondary character in the current ongoing, will assume the mantle of Captain America. Contrary to the impression on the internet, he is neither the first successor to Steve Rodgers, nor even the first black Captain America. Following the admittedly-temporary death of Steve Rodgers in 2007, Bucky Barnes wore the flag-themed costume. Isiah Bradley, introduced in 2003 as a 1940s contemporary of Rodgers, is considered the ‘black Captain America’, a figure largely unheard of outside of Marvel’s African-American community, but an inspiration to modern heroes such as Wilson, Luke Cage and Monica Rambeau. He is representative of the disguised, ignored or forgotten history of black figures, those marginalised by the dominant, white narrative. There is considerable precedence for Wilson to take up the shield in Captain America. As he already functions as supporting character in the ongoing series, providing air support for Rodgers. He is an obvious and natural successor. Again, the current writer, in this case Rick Remender, will continue to script the series. Certainly, these books are unlikely to be fundamentally different in tone after the characters changeover, even if the story beats presented turn in a new direction. Marvel, I would argue, is not looking to revamp the titles themselves, because they are both relatively successful; rather it is a chance, a concerted effort, to make some of the core, established characters of the universe representative of aspects of the audience that have previously been neglected. As I have said, new characters struggle to match the saturation levels of the classic characters. By reconfiguring them, Marvel are hoping to bypass the necessity of popularising new characters, while still capitalising on the decades of backstory already in place.

The cinematic universes of the comic franchises actually present a slightly distorted image of the reality of reading comic book stories. For those who only partake of the films, these stories appear infrequently enough, many months between different aspects like Captain America and the upcoming The Guardians Of The Galaxy, and years between direct sequels, like the various instalments of Nolan’s Batman franchise. The actual comics, however, come out month on month, in some cases shipping twice a month. Particular arcs might last for five or six issues, or for a writer’s entire run, sometimes totally thirty or fifty or over a hundred issues, but the story is always continuous, inhabiting the same universe as those published in the 80s or 90s. Essentially, mainstream comics are mythological soaps, Coronation Street with superpowers. Every so often, upheaval kicks the status quo a little out of place. I’m not sure how many times Thor has died, but at least twice in the last fifteen years. Nothing is permanent in terms of any superhero universe; it is a genre fuelled by reinvention, escalation, upheaval. One legitimate criticism of this act, is that it will not last; Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-man ran for 30-odd issues, and eventually Peter Parker returned. In twenty, or fifty, or a hundred issues, Steve Rodgers may take up the shield again, male Thor might be redeemed, his hammer returned. It is not merely possible, it is likely. That reality does not negate the attempt to try something new, in my opinion. It is always possible that one or both of these changes will hold in the long term, but experience would tell us this is optimistic.

Given then, that male Thor and Steve Rodgers have not been erased, that their return is possible, some would argue inevitable, it is almost doubly difficult to understand the full extent of the bile these announcements have aroused. I think it is fair to say, that if the industry has a representation problem, the fandom has an outrage problem. A certain amount of this is bleed-through from an internet culture which considers typing in capital letters and hyperbolic misrepresentation the highest form of discourse. It is borne, very clearly, of western educational systems which privilege test-scores over and above instilling comprehension skills or any form of critical thinking. It is an issue with those aforementioned inherent (and inherited) systems of entitlement. Certain elements of the fandom presume that consumption is the same as ownership. This is a particular form of fan entitlement that leaves some confused and even enraged when the corporate or artist decision-making process no longer lines up with their own reality. Marvel, in this instance, own the content; what they do with it is essentially their business. Criticism is both allowed and necessary; whether it is directed at a perceived deficiency in the materials or at changes to accommodate those previously neglected by the status quo constructive, critical discourse is essential to the survival of any medium. Certainly, there are legitimate concerns, but both these announcements have garnered an incredible level of outraged warbling misogyny and racism. Marvel is not making a good business decision, capitalising on neglected elements of the market, according to this ideology; it is not improving disproportionate representation; it is pandering to a PC agenda which seeks to disenfranchise straight white men, to erase our idols. So preciously held is our privilege, some of us cannot tolerate even the slightest encroachment into what was once perceived as white/male territory, when in truth it is at best public space, and in actuality, the intellectual property of a private corporate body. I do not own Thor, any more than manhood in general does. In very real terms there is no more about the God of Thunder that is inherently male than there is anything intrinsically white about Captain America. There is nothing to prevent me, as a straight white man, from identifying with female or coloured characters. Any arguments to the contrary is, without doubt, nothing but thinly veiled racism or misogyny.

No one is obliged to be thrilled by these announcements. No one is obliged to buy these comics upon their release, but few to none of the arguments against them have any real weight, particularly those which suggest that this is some kind of attack on straight white men. Tom Brevoort, editor at Marvel, responding to a disgruntled reader, said it best –

I’m sorry that there are no longer any white male heroes in comics that you can relate to.

The Meaninglessness of Labour’s Leadership

This weekend saw the final tally of a dazzlingly lacklustre and uneventful race for the leadership of the Labour party, which seems to have raced by without anyone much noticing, or even caring. Joan Burton was elected to the shrugging shoulders of a nation infinitely more concerned with gleefully glancing at the Twitter-thingy on their phones to see if any more has come of the Garth-Brooks-debacle, while yet another World Cup match goes to penalties. It is not, I would suggest, that we don’t care who leads the junior coalition partner, in general, it is just that in specifics this race was essentially meaningless. Given that this race was essentially born out of Labour’s catastrophic showing in the local elections last May, it would not have been madness to expect some sweeping specific promises of reform, a return to core principles, but at the same time, that might have meant admitting that they had done something wrong. Despite the “shellackling” delivered by voters, there seems very little desire by sitting Labour party figures to accept what it is they have done wrong, only that some things have to change. They admit they must stand up more the Fine Gael, that mistakes have been made, but concrete proposals on the direction and practicalities of that change have been nearly none existent.

Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of the election, steps were taken to appease the wrath of the people, and indeed the party members baying for blood. There can be little doubt the end of the review of discretionary medical cards, and the enactment of legislation to enshrine entitlement for certain long term, chronic, or incurable illnesses and conditions, was purchased by the vote of 23rd May. It would be hard to argue that politicians did not know that people were angry; the stories existed in the media and anecdotally for at least a year, but the palpable consequences of that anger manifested quite clearly in the polls. Utter terror in the face of Sinn Fein’s rise created the need action. The sick got what they needed, so quibbling over the implicit logic of the act is only of so much value, but we should be careful not to pat either Labour or Fine Gael too forcefully on the back for giving in to human decency.

Also in the wake of that electoral disaster, Eamon Gilmore resigned as leader of the Labour party and Tánaiste. It was hardly a surprise. The pressure had been mounting, and everyone knew going in that the scale of the disaster would ultimately dictate the conditions of Labour’s response. Gilmore was the obvious scapegoat, though he was, and remains, by no means the only problem of Labour tenure in government. Ruairi Quinn has already stepped out of the frame, resigning before he is pushed we can infer, and it seems likely, particularly in light of his absence from Burton’s victory parade, that Pat Rabbitte will not survive Burton’s rise. Kenny has his own issues to deal with in the forthcoming reshuffle, but an obvious sop or two to Joan Burton’s sparkly new and “reformed” Labour will be necessary for appearances sake. For all her bluster though, Burton’s position is effectively weaker than Gilmore’s ever was. We know now exactly what the results of General Election would mean for Labour, rather than just being able to imagine it. Burton’s Labour has to keep the coalition alive, at least until they have an opportunity to redeem themselves, because they are facing the stark prospect of devastation.

For the Labour party, this leadership race was a chance to show that they understood why they had received such a drumming in the local and European elections. It was a chance to signal that they were both capable of and willing to reform; to essentially be something like the party they promised to be, prior to their election in 2011. Unfortunately, it appears they have elected not to take the opportunity and to continue with the current status quo. I do not say this because I think Alex White would have made a significantly better leader, but rather because I cannot really see any effective difference between them. There are some circumstantial differences, certainly. Burton is the more well-known, more senior figure. Alex White did not enjoy a particularly high public profile, prior to the race; in fact his claim to notoriety might have been a “hacked” Twitter account. However, neither one of them is untarnished by the Gilmore-administration legacy, or their own complicity within it. As a minister with a role in the Department of Health, White has been linked, at least circumstantially to the medical card scandal. Burton on the other hand was the senior minister in charge of the Department of Social Protection, a role she claims she wishes to keep and is responsible for the JobBridge programme and its uglier cousin, the Gateway scheme.

The idea behind these schemes is essentially fine; no one is disputing that work experience is valuable to the unemployed, or that the training or insight garnered could not be of real benefit in the future job-hunt. Many college courses require work-placement as a condition of conferral. Outrage at the JobBridge and Gateway programmes stems from the reality that the government-sponsored schemes utterly fail to provide these things in the majority of cases and often amount to little more than extremely low-paid skilled jobs that can last for as long as 18 months. Essentially, the Irish Labour party has colluded in the creation of a section of the work force that is mandated to provide long-term labour for little fiscal return, under the threat of losing their entitlements. Both the ScamBridge website and Broadsheet.ie have done an excellent job of exposing elements of its failures, which are apparently legion. Some of the more odious examples include work with the national broadcaster which is already subsidised to the hilt with taxpayers money, coffee barista, fitters with Advanced Pitstop, filleting fish, and for good measure a full page of wait staff internships. JobBridge could have served as an effective gateway to experience and employment, if handled properly. It seems, however, the Burton is deeply uninterested in using it in such a manner. Rather, it is a cynical means to massage spiralling unemployment figures and an attractive source of cheap labour for companies, struggling or otherwise. Burton is further complicit in the failures of the scheme when you consider she refuses to release names of companies availing of the government scheme, citing privacy concerns, despite the fact that it provides government-subsidised labour to them and that she has nominal control over the terms of the scheme. No one of my peer group is voting for a Labour party led by Joan Burton, any more than we are voting for a Labour which fails to recognise that the scheme in its current incarnation flies in the face of the party’s stated ideology.

It may be a truism, but it seems noteworthy all the same; only a party of principle is punished for breaching the confines of those principles. The Labour Party is meant to be concerned with the rights of workers, with promoting social equality and fundamental human rights. In their electoral drive they promised reform, a new way of conducting politics. So far, more than half way through the Coalition’s first term, we have seen no evidence that Labour is committed to those principles or promises. JobBridge creates indentured labourers for big business. The Direct Provision System continues to dehumanise trap people in dangerous and dehumanising circumstances. Our Public Health system is utterly failing patients at every turn, not only in the medical card scandal, as chronic mismanagement leaves it bloated with middle-managers, understaffed on the frontlines, and without resources at any level. Our educational system crumbles under the weight of cuts, schools unable to hire new teachers, relying on short term, abusive contracts, or administrators to double job, holding teaching and management positions for the price of one. Administrative college fees rise yearly, putting a lie to the claim that we provide free education, while the ministers and industry figures continually push for our third level institutes to “partner” with businesses to provide education tailored to demands of businesses. Perhaps the most obvious failing of the Labour Party has been in the handling of Alan Shatter’s repeated, consistent mismanagement of the Justice Department. With every new whistle-blower, with every new scandal, Labour Ministers were falling over each other in the race to be first to have Shatter’s back, while he colluded in the cover-up of pretty awful failings in the force. The penalty points issue became onto the tip of the proverbial, as claims of failures to properly investigate murders, collusion with drug dealers and illegal recording scandals emerged. All ignored or downplayed by Shatter, backed up by Labour ministers right up until the cusp of the Local and European elections, where he became the sacrificial goat, meant to purchase back some credibility for the government parties. So much, then, for the four principles of Socialism – Freedom, Equality, Community and Democracy.

Fine Gael is not suffering the same electoral retribution because most of us did not expect them to act other than they are. Some might argue that Labour have wilfully, greedily abandoned the principles on which they were elected, in order to preserve their position in power. It’s much the same flawed methodology we have seen from the Progressive Democrats and the Green party while they were in government. Both we decimated in subsequent elections and it seems quite likely that without a serious attempt at appeasement, Labour can expect the same thing. I, for one, voted for Labour in every single election I’ve been able to vote in, bar the last one. I cannot imagine I will be voting for them in the next one. I also find it difficult to imagine a scenario where the youth of Ireland – well, those who have not emigrated – will turn out in record number s to vote for a Labour led by the woman instrumental in the running JobBridge programme. Alex White did not represent a significant divergence from the party line, but at least he might not have been quite as tarnished by failure and conformity. The real stupidity of this leadership race, however, is that no figure who was not deeply entrenched in Gilmore’s administration could be found to run. Instead it seems that Labour are content with more of the same, an act that amounts to sleep walking into their political demise. Rather than attempting to foster sense of renewal, a return to core values, Labour have chosen lip-service and appearance. While Burton may be culling certain members of the old guard, in reality little of substance looks likely to change. JobBridge and Gateway will likely remain, possibly with a cosmetic lift, if it can be managed without it reflecting negatively on Burton. The Budget will contain some concession, but still plenty of hardship. The next time a failing Fine Gael Minister stumbles into scandal, Labour will be found eagerly propping them up, saying “no, no, sure they’re a great reforming minister, yes they are, and the Coalition is stronger than ever” because if a considerable act of redemption is not achieved before the next general election, I can only envision slaughter for Labour. So no, no one bothered getting excited about this leadership race. It’s an exercise in face-saving, a little game of musical chairs, a lot of meaningless talk and nothing of substance offered, never mind followed through on.

The Wicked + The Divine #1

It seems almost inspired that the first comic book I sit down to talk about (discounting me ranting excessively at friends) should be The Wicked + The Divine, given that I feel like I’ve

Luci Cover, The Wicked + The Divine #1, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson

been waiting a lifetime for its arrival. That’s not even a slightly passive aggressive reference to Gillen and McKelvie‘s long running sales drive; genuinely, there is a very real sense in which my literary, cultural and educational trajectory led inevitably towards loving this book. There is a twelve year old version of me who happily listened to B*Witched and The Corrs while reading The Odyssey and found nothing incongruous in that. While my taste in music has shifted to more angry rock vibe, my mythological proclivities have only deepened. Gods were my superheroes before Batman or Spiderman ever impinged upon my consciousness, stories of Cuchulainn and Finn, Maeve and the Morrigan (who will feature in future The Wicked + The Divine issues) were bedtime fare, along with clever foxes and Christmas robins. Later, came the Greeks and the Norse. Much, much later, about the time I turned 6 or 7, I first met the modern American Gods, the heroes of the DC and Marvel pantheons. These, and other popular modern franchises, like Star Wars, Transformers, Harry Potter most likely fulfil some of the same cultural necessities that the heroic legends did; enforcing, resisting, conforming, disturbing, rewriting, breaching and mending the contemporary cultural identity in a constant slew of back and forth as the mass seethes over interpretation of the symbolic meaning.

If you don’t know what I mean, ask two different people what Superman means. Any answer from “a symbol of freedom, truth and justice” to “the fetish of white-male-saviour privilege wrapped up in dangerously imperialist ideology” to “an expression of America’s immigrant-hero story, celebrating a nation built by the other” will come up, and textually the evidence exists to support any of them. (Side note: I dislike Superman. More on that some other time.) Mythologies are not meant to be facts, they are constantly changing, being made to represent who we are, wish to be, are glad we are not; they are the story of us, socially and culturally, as much as individually. This is the mechanism by which Battlestar Galactica becomes a meditation on post-9/11 America, or Captain America: Winter Soldier on the surveillance culture which congealed in its wake. We don’t agree, as individuals, as a society; common reference points, symbolic figures, reimagined familiar stories give us the tools to frame debate, dissent, acceptance.

In The Wicked + The Divine, Gillen and McKelvie take a handful of these ancient mythological figures and give them a contemporary rework. In one sense, these are not these figures as we know them; Gillen has brought his own unique rule-set and vision to the story, which will inform and frame how they are characterised, as much as our contemporary expectations of divinity and religion will inform our reception of them. In another sense, we cannot help but be aware of aspects of their natures. From the moment Luci – Lucifer to you and me – shows up, we cannot help hear Admiral Akbar proclaiming, “It’s a trap!” Obviously, we must suspect something of Luci. How could we not? Our theology, our culture, our folklore has spent centuries writing her as our antagonist, our seducer, our betrayer. Certainly, this is territory which Gillen has explored before with Kid Loki in the Marvel universe, examining the degree to which a character can rebel against the strictures of their story. But then, Lucifer is all about rebellion, and I have this sneaking suspicion that Kieron might, quite knowingly, be of the Miltonian “Devil’s party” himself.

In the framework of The Wicked + The Divine, the Gods are configured like music-stars. It’s not much of stretch; It is the figurative language most often associated with popular musicians. They are encoded as “rock gods”, “teen idols” and the cult of personality which surrounds many is nothing short of fervent. Culturally, we are all aware of concepts such as Beatle Mania, or the more modern (possibly less comprehensible) Bieber Fever. Gillen and McKelvie, in perhaps the most Gillen and McKelvie move yet, have simply danced happily out of the figurative and made the concept literal. These Gods are stars; they are the fullest, most drastic realisation of the concept of spiritual revelation through music. “It’s not mass . . . It’s what masses aspire to be.” This is, perhaps, the crux of the idea presented by The Wicked + The Divine, an idea which pervades modern culture; that organised religious expression is essentially jaded, rote and empty, while music fandom garners exactly the kind of zealous devotion which mythological divinities always seem to desire and enjoy; the status, the awe, the unabashed love. Our churches are empty, while every night the young are bowing, screaming and crying in awe to their chosen idols. Where do you think the Gods returned would go?

If this is the first “twist” in the mythology which The Wicked + The Divine presents, it is one deeply grounded in an intriguing sense of rationality. The other core concept of the rule-set we are presented with is that they return only for two years, every ninety years. These Gods live mayfly eternities, brief, bright gasps stuttering through forever. And that too, makes a tragic kind of sense; certainly these are not one hit wonders, these Gods, but popular music is fickle, more in flux than even our cultural mythologies, this year’s rising star can quickly become next year’s burnt-out nobody. Some, the lucky few, transcend. Consider the cult of personality that surrounds Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Somewhere around the release of Bleach in 1989, Nirvana started to become mainstream popular, in 1994 Cobain died. That is quite a brief window of popularity in terms of a human life, albeit one cut short. Yet, only last year I overheard a fresh-face little sprite of a thing telling his friend how he liked Nirvana before they were cool. I was nine when he died, and I can’t imagine that this kid could possibly have been born prior to their breakout. For this guy though, Nirvana began the moment he discovered them. The legend revives, begins again. Right here, I could easily launch into another few hundred words about watching the Nirvana Hall of Fall performances, particularly Joan Jett’s. Following the conceit pro-offered by The Wicked + The Divine, it’s like watching Athena pick up Mjolnir and dive headlong into a band of Frost-giants. It’s epic, awesome and ultimately so completely right I almost can’t believe I never thought of it beforehand. This St. Vincent rendition of Lithium is actually my favourite. I’m not going to get (any further) side-tracked, but that rush of giddy excitement I get just thinking about a four-song resurrection of Nirvana, goes just some way to illustrating the power musicians hold over us.

The story of The Wicked + The Divine begins with glimpses of the previous incarnation as it comes to a close. Well, actually, it begins with a Zodiac-esque wheel and a massive skull (which McKelvie has gone to a lot of trouble gorgeously detailing) – it is a hell of a subtle opening. I’m not sure, but this book might be about mortality or something. As the viewpoint pulls outward, the skull becomes one of a number, one for each of the already fallen gods. The remaining incarnations drop cryptic, tantalising hints about what might be going on, and ultimately either decide or begrudgingly admit it’s time to move on. With clicking fingers and a flash of light, they’re gone and we’re hurtling into the contemporary. We’re introduced to Laura, the human protagonist, heading out to a gig. There is the suggestion that Amaterasu is her favourite of the resurgent gods, as well as that she has seen several others. This is a new but escalating movement. McKelvie’s art is glorious as he gives us Laura, standing in a mirror, imagining herself as a God, delighting in her look for just a moment before she fails in the act of sustaining her own self-image. It’s that crestfallen look at the bottom of the page that sells the character; that just seventeen look of just losing your self-belief the instant you’ve caught it; the floor collapsing out from under you, just as you finally get to that place you wanted to be.

If Laura represents the fan/disciple, then it seems utterly – even joyfully – obvious that Cassandra’s disbeliever should be cast as an interviewer, a cynical, jaded industry-insider, bored and slightly annoyed at the piece of theatre being acted out here. Lucifer (of all people) even calls her out, asking if “Cassandra” is her real name. You can see Gillen is having fun, teasing us with every step of the way. We’re introduced to three of the Gods in this issue; first Amaterasu, who we see in performance and later being interviewed by Cassandra. Then the Bowie-inspired Lucifer, who is waiting for Laura when she wakes up after fainting at the climax of the Amaterasu concert, and who is just so fun to read. We also get a look at Sakhmet, an Egyptian cat God, who McKelvie has drawn very much after the style of Rihanna. She is, according to the creators, a hybridised version of Rihanna and Kieron Gillen’s cat. I know precisely nothing about Amaterasu, and remember very little about Sakhmet, bar she featured in an episode of Stargate SG-1, and some vague details of a story where she butchers a whole lot of people, only stopping when she drinks red-dyed beer and falls asleep, so I imagine that’ll be interesting. Lucifer, as I’ve said, we are intimately familiar with. Clearly, I think she’s up to something with Laura, and although we can’t be fully sure about exactly what it is just yet, there’s a fairly Faustian bargain floating just over the horizon. That’s the implicit logic of the character. Did I mention that Laura literally stood in front of a mirror and thought about wanting to be a God? Not that those two sentences are related or anything. Dot dot dot. Wink.

The direction of the book changes suddenly when two men on an opposite building open fire on the Gods and their humans. In the hail of bullets and intricately rendered shards of glass, Luci goes on the offensive, despite the protestations of Amaterasu. With a Rolling Stones quip and a click of her fingers, she explodes the men in fireworks-flash of violence. This is probably the strongest stuff I’ve ever seen McKelvie do. It’s the detail of it; whether it’s the shards of glass, or Luci’s face while bullets impacts on nothing in front of her, the awe/terror on Cassandra’s, or the hint of a crucifix beneath the exploding head of a gunman, it’s sublimely done. This scene also delivers the epic comeback, from Luci to Cassandra, with a horrified Amaterasu in the background, “Why would we be so coy with the miracles, Cassandra? . . . Maybe we didn’t want to scare the shit out of you.” What follows is possibly the logical extension of her actions, but Luci seems to relish it. Standing in the dock, just daring a judge to declare her divine, she’s in her element. In fact, right up until the judge explodes, seemly because of her, you can be pretty sure she’s about to walk away from it. The judge’s death introduces a new aspect, a conspiracy of sorts. Laura doesn’t believe that Luci did murder the judge, and neither do I, but if in twenty, or fifty issues time, after revelations and seeming acquittals and acres of proof of her innocence, if after all of that, it turns out that Luci killed the judge, I’m pretty much not going to be surprised. It’s literally impossible to trust a character called Lucifer; I imagine that’s the point, to be honest.

So that’s The Wicked + The Divine #1, and I’ve never read anything like it. The closest thing that springs to mind is Hal Duncan’s The Book of All Hours, a grungier vision of Gods and apocalyptic war, but fused with a similar mythological imperative. The soundtrack for The Book of All Hours would probably be prog-rock and heavy metal, against the pop stars of The Wicked + The Divine, but the real difference is probably the colour. The Book of All Hours is rendered in greyscale, it’s all nightscapes and wastelands and Matthew Wilson has made The Wicked + The Divine a riot of colour. It exudes brightness and light. The concert is a wash of light against the backdrop of a crowd in shadow, but even there picked out in shades and hues of colour. It is a rainbow palette that is the perfect visual pitch for the story of pop-music Gods. These aren’t shadow-haunting figments on the fringes of the human narrative, entering the story here and there to nudge their pieces this way or that; they’re on the stage, proclaiming their gospel. They are doing it in the daylight or under the spotlight; it’s public, flashy and obvious.

I could read this book forever, just stare at it for hours. I’ve read it at least three times, just because, and a couple more times while writing this. I’m sold – hell, I was sold before I’d ever seen a preview, but the reality has met expectation and it has been quite amicable. I want the second issue, I want the trade and I am deeply envious of some future me who has a whole section of a bookcase just dedicated it, who can mull over the entire run again, and again, and again, restarting the magic with the simple act of picking up that first issue and turning the page for the hundredth time. That phrase the old lady says, that’s going to be not just the motto of these Gods, but of my relationship with the book itself – “Once again, we return.”

Thoughts On #YesAllWomen And Agency

On Friday 23rd May in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, a young man murdered six people and injured seven others, in an attack which he claimed was retribution against the women who had ignored and rejected him all his life, against the men they chose instead. In the aftermath, two familiar arguments were suddenly in the public spotlight again. One, that of gun control, is a particularly American issue, and I’ll leave it aside, saying only; obviously have controls on guns. Obviously. The second issue brought up by the murders, that of violence directed at women, is a more global phenomenon. There is a certain narrative which couches Elliot Rodger’s actions as aberration, which is interested as seeing him as only the unknowable lunatic; unfortunately this is neither accurate nor helpful. Certainly, mental health issues have played a role in the tragedy. Rodger’s family was concerned about him and various professionals, including law enforcement officials, had been in contact with him prior to the attack. There were clearly failures. To consider this the sum total of the incident, however, does a disservice to Rodger’s victims, as well as the victims of others who share his ideology.

Make no mistake, Elliot Rodger adhered to an ideology. His world-view required sexual gratification in order to measure his personal worth. In his videos he made explicit reference to feeling “pathetic” because he was still a virgin, because of repeated rejections by women as a whole. Further, he could not understand the rejection, because, in his own mind, he met some set of criteria that entitled him to sex. He considered himself the consummate gentleman and thus that it was his absolute right to be sexually and personally gratified. Female bodies are explicitly codified as being a – or rather, the – source of pleasure which will fulfil him. In this context, the man cannot be fully realised because women refuse to provide what he is fully entitled to. Denied this affirmation, Rodger’s frustration manifested in violence. His final video, Retribution, might make reference to humanity, but it also more specifically targets women, “the hottest sorority”, those who rejected him, as those deserving of his anger. The men who prefigure in his revenge are the undeserving recipients of that which was rightfully his; namely, the bodies and pleasure provided by women.

This ideology is not something that Elliot Rodger plucked wholesale from the ether, nor is he one of a small coterie of adherents living on the fringes of decent society. Rather, he is the worst-case scenario of what happens when Western culture’s rigid gender roles reach crisis. Capitalist commodification and that pervading brand of lazy, uncritical media conflate to perpetuate, if not actively, consciously reinforce easy and controlled definitions of normative sexuality. This is the narrative that produces phrases such as “boys will be boys” and seeks to excuse predatory male behaviour as something “we all do”, when we know it is not. It is the same culture that seeks to silence female experience of the consequences of male social privileges. Rodger was – all of us have been – sold a vision of gender relations that gives primacy to male identity, where our role is to ‘win’ female affection as part of the image of heteronormative actualisation. The criteria for proving may have evolved from bride-stealing, but the result is the same; women are a commodity for men, an object to provide social and person affirmation, as well as sexual pleasure. Women are sold as inherently requiring a man; all the male actor must do is prove capable of fulfilling the prerequisite criteria. He is then entitled to affection; from a woman, any woman, all women.

Women, in Elliot Rodger’s world, betrayed the prevalent social framework and thus were the deserving victims of his revenge. Rather than unfathomable, his actions should be viewed as the logical extension of any misogynistic ideology that privileges the male role in society over and above the female. When a woman is no longer entitled to her own physical agency, because she chooses to drink, or wear particular clothes, or any other excuse, we are codifying the attitudes which create future Elliot Rodgers. His behaviour is that of an ideological extremist, someone for whom the ability to control and oppress women is a right, as much a zealot as suicide bombers in the Middle East or dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Laurie Penny writes more fully on the topic here. His philosophy might be considered social, rather than political, but there is no denying his inherent radicalisation, manifested in massacre. Elliot Rodger should not be simply considered a violent madman, but the poster-boy for male sexual entitlement and violence, the misogynist terrorist, now martyred for his cause.

Consider the scenario. A man approaches a woman; directly or indirectly, he attempts to begin a conversation, desiring sexual or personal gratification. The woman is uninterested. He responds to her rejection with anger. This is the Elliot Rodger story, but it is also one that virtually none of the women I know are unfamiliar with. Delving into my own personal experience I can think of infinite occasions where one of my female friends had me pretend to be a boyfriend in order to deflect the unwanted attention of aggressive, relentless men. I have done this for virtual strangers as well, because for many men, a women’s agency is irrelevant, her refusal negotiable. Only another man’s presence requires respect. When I was fifteen, taking a bus, a guy decided he wanted to sit beside my friend. He was in his mid-twenties, she was fifteen. Obviously, she wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of sharing the bus journey with a rather drunk and aggressive man, growling that that I’m in his way. He dragged me out of the seat, many punches were exchanged, he bit my face, my friend reefed a load of his hair out trying to get him off me and then it was over and that was that. Sometimes, when I tell this story, I tell a story about me, but it’s not, is it? It’s a story about how on a specific occasion, a specific fifteen-year old girl was lucky enough not to have to sit beside a creepy, violent man. It’s about how her personal agency was not enough of a barrier, and another (male) body had to be. How often do you think fifteen-year old girls are trapped in that situation?

I hope that is an extreme example, although within the context of the Elliot Rodger’s story, it becomes considerably more benign. Examples of a lesser order teem however. Only a few months ago I was leaving a fairly well-known Dublin pub with three female friends. Two guys had been hitting on them, and were sort of nonplussed that we had decided to leave. The girls had gone just ahead while I put on my jacket and one of the guys grabbed me, demanding that I “share”. In his mind, I was hoarding these women to myself, denying him and his friend something they were socially entitled to. Their opinion of the matter was secondary to mine, and indeed, his. These may be familiar examples, but they are also cherry-picked from a litany of examples in my rather male life. There is no doubting that the female experience of these kinds of events is both different and infinitely more prolific.

Within days of the Isla Vista massacre, the #YesAllWomen tag exploded on Twitter. It is a continuing litany of the failure of our social structures to deal with male privilege, and to hear female voices. It is remarkable the degree to which men (including myself) are unaware of the daily, grinding degree of sexism women toil through. The #YesAllWomen tag is a platform through which women can express, and are expressing, a universal experience; that they have been, at some point, treated like an object by a man, like their only value was in their sexual significance, and most worryingly, as if their own agency was of secondary importance to that of a man. Many men continue to view consent as a negotiation, refusal as an obstacle to be circumvented, others still that the strictures of consent do not apply equally to all levels of physical contact. Some men are “just handsy”, runs the excuse; it is a hazard women expect to encounter. If the thread is a useful mechanism for women to let each other know they are not alone in their experiences, it can also be a harrowing object-lesson in reality for men.

Predictably, the response from men has not been all positive. Firstly, most obviously, a deep swell of misogyny arose to greet it. There are any number of posts suggesting women must simply “suck it up”, “learn to live with it”, or worse, literally blaming women for the Isla Vista murders, suggesting that if one of them had just slept with Rodger, none of this would have happened. Remembering the reaction to Caroline Criado-Perez’s attempts to have a woman represented on British banknotes, we should note that the issue of women’s representation, and the violence and anger with which it will be opposed, has not significantly changed. Lewis’s Law, suggesting “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”, applies to the response directed at the #YesAllWomen campaign; that fact that there are those who reject the right of women to express their lived experience, who would reduce it to “whinging” or “attention-seeking”, inherently remind us why it needs to exist.

Perhaps equally as predictable is the common refrain of #NotAllMen. This tag makes the suggestion that women, for highlighting their experience, seek to tear down men as a totality, that the chosen form of expression borders on misandry, of all things, because it does not actively, at all moments reassure that not all men are encompassed in their complaints. At its most extreme it operates in total opposition to a chosen form of female expression, mocks, undercuts and denigrates it; at best it is a wilful misunderstanding of female experience, and an immature response to the merest hint of personal criticism. It is men crying, “But not me, right!?” instead of actively hearing and engaging with the lived female reality. In a sense, at a moment of social significance for women, men are demanding, not merely to be heard, but to be affirmed by women. Sounds familiar, right? Women are firmly aware that not all men are misogynistic, abusive monsters. Many women consider us to be loyal friends, worthy peers and equal partners. How frustrating then, to have their attempt at honest communication of real experience met with demands for personal exemptions and affirmations, denials and protests, rather than with understanding, empathy, engagement or the desire to improve either the self or society. Make no mistake, men have a profound responsibility in the project to improve the social space women inhabit. We have been, for the longest time, the gatekeepers, and there are those of us who are vehemently opposed to giving up that privilege.

Following on from the debacle surrounding Janelle Asselin’s completely correct comments on a Teen Titan comic cover, Andy Khouri wrote a call-to-arms for men, not just in the comic book industry, but in wider society, to end the gatekeeping which seeks to silence and denigrate women’s voices, particularly in previously male-dominated spaces. Chief among his suggestions is the idea that men must take active responsibility for the kinds behaviour that is tolerated in their social sphere, not just their own individual actions. Rather than telling women “Not all men”, we men need to say to other men “That’s not acceptable.” We need to hear women when they are telling us it is unacceptable to direct certain behaviour at them. We need to be listening, not asking to be assured that we are “not one of those guys”, and perhaps most importantly, we – I – must be ready to push over on the stage, so that women also have their opportunity to be heard.

 

Paper Aeroplanes – Dawn O’Porter

I remember being fifteen. Fifteen was tough, a long, brutal slog that seemed to last from until I was at least half-way through sixteen. Obviously, I remember something rather different than Dawn O’Porter presents in Paper Aeroplanes, the story of two girls growing up in Guernsey in the mid-90s, given that I’m male, Irish and didn’t hit fifteen until after the Millennium, but God do I remember fifteen. Being fifteen sucked. If you offered me a choice between being 15 again or having my legs broken, I’d go fetch the sledgehammer myself. Normally, when I read books about teenagers (I do this regularly enough that you could use the phrase “a lot”) it is teens in exotic alternate universes with pet dragons, fighting evil empires in horrific sacrificial games, or fighting quite literal demons invading the earth. It is a lot of metaphor, escapism and symbolism dressed up in the fantastic. Jumping into the world of Flo and Renée then was quite different, given there are no Gandalfian figures who will steal them out of their lives, take them on a grand adventure and return them equipped to deal with their messy lives. Dawn O’Porter’s story is one where, just like us, the characters have no choice but to suffer through being fifteen. And being fifteen sucked.

O’Porter plays loose and fast with genre convention. For instance, Flo and Renee’s difficult journey to friendship begins at a party where both of them kiss the same boy. The standard dynamic demands that this be a significant hurdle, that this male now becomes a pre-eminent figure in their lives, as they attempt to negotiate their friendship and love for this boy. This novel is smarter, and more realistic, than that, and quickly dismisses both of their alcohol-fuelled interactions with the boy. He is meaningless; a poorly made choice with little or no consequence. Instead their friendship is constructed on a favour, a sprinkle of niceness in an otherwise awful world, and like all proper friendships, a heap of embarrassment. If anything, in fact, embarrassment forms the backbone of the novel; almost all the conflict, the pain and heartbreak can be traced to someone’s shame or guilt. Be it Renee’s inability to buy tampons or Flo’s almost terrified sexual and social inexperience, it is embarrassment, shame and guilt that serve to drive the characters further and further into tragedy.

Renee and Flo start the novel only tangentially aware of each other, as two people who share any number of classes but very little else. The only truly common factor is Sally, Flo’s domineering, controlling “best friend”, who functions as a social adversary for Renee. Sally occupies the classic “mean girl” paradigm; controlling, belittling, bullying in order to maintain a status quo which privileges her authority. O’Porter manages her characterisation with a certain deftness that makes her both believably vile and pathetically, even obviously, clichéd. We wait, somewhat gleefully, for her inevitable comeuppance – a vicarious catharsis for all those analogue characters from our own teens – and when it comes, we’re left uneasily feeling sympathetic. Sally, however, does not actually function as the novel’s antagonist. In all honesty, being fifteen, the status quo, biological and social reality, the totality of their entire lives, everything serves as the enemy. Renee’s world is constructed on grief, her sister’s impending mental deterioration, her grandparents’ inability to cope, and the guilt caused by an empty relationship with a boy she isn’t able to love and isn’t able to be friends with it. Flo, on the other hand, is caged and scarred by the expectations of others. Her mother’s disinterested parenting leaves Flo to raise not only herself, but her younger sister as well, while Sally sets unrealistic and contrived standards as a means to maintain social primacy, and Flo struggles to provide a sense of affirmation and purpose for her father.

While much of their tragedy also functions as comedy, it is that black comedy born of cynicism that we can maintain only because personal experience has taught us these familiar events, and the subsequent, awful embarrassments, are ultimately survivable. That doesn’t necessarily undercut the pain or awfulness that Flo and Renee are living through, any more than it reduces the intensity of our own remembered horrors of being fifteen. It is just that, from a slight remove, it is possible to see that fifteen cannot last forever. If there is one singular point to the novel, it could be that; that fifteen is not infinite and that it is, ultimately, survivable.

There was one scene in this book that was an eye-opener. That, for me is the sign of a good book, presenting you with something you’ve never seen a certain way before. Without giving too much away, it involves a high-level of intoxication and the application of a feminine hygiene product, which is, in this instance, a disastrous combination. It isn’t the reality of the menstrual cycle that shocked me. I’m rationally acquainted with the idea, but this is, perhaps, the first time I’ve ever come face-to-face with the practicality of it, with the spiritual significance. The only similar scene I can think of is the opening of Stephen King’s Carrie, but rather than horror, I think in the main this scene is meant to be funny. And that is what has thrown me, that the reality of genital bleeding becomes so habitual as to become the source for humour. It’s a remarkable idea (for a semi-grown man writing this in a tee-shirt with a cartoon character emblazoned on the chest); that women are capable of finding comedy in something that, from an outside perspective, seems like an unfair biological quirk.

All in all, I loved Paper Aeroplanes. Funny in tragedy, heart-breaking in comedy, insightful and clever. I have already started pushing it on friends and family, and have picked up the sequel, Goose. I wish this book had been out in 2001; I think fifteen-year-old me might have benefitted from the insight. I think some deeply personal embarrassments might have been avoided with access to some of the ideas it presents, but then again, fifteen being so terrible, I’m sure I’d have found something equally awful to replace them with.

Who Am I?

Who Am I? It is a valid question, since you’ve come here to read what I have to say. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I have a good answer.

I have no idea who I really am. Only the people who know me could know that. I am the only one who knows who I am. These are equally true statements for me; I imagine for most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves. Even if we know why certain things elicit particular responses, understanding those reactions presents a more complicated task. I know that Waltzing Matilda makes me sad because it was sung in the pub after my grandfather’s funeral; untangling the mess of love, childhood memory, existential terror, historical knowledge of the song’s actual meaning, my guilt at failures real and otherwise, and the certainty of bereavements yet to come however, is a set of Herculean labours. If that’s the kind of neurotic questioning I can conjure for a sad song associated with an obviously sad moment, imagine the level of interrogation I bring to bear on thoughts or actions of significant mystery. I might, for instance, not be particularly bothered about what a person, X, thinks of me. But I might care significantly about why I don’t care, or about why I care that little bit at all. I might spend hours worrying that my disinterest in X makes me a shallow, cruel or idiotic person; and then I might spend more time worrying that worrying makes me any one of those things instead. Then I’ll have to wonder if my self-absorbed personal exploration is merely an act of petty self-aggrandisement, meant to, if nothing else, affirm my opinions and excuse my disinterest. The level of paranoid, panicked overthinking I can bring to the most habitual of situations is worrying, terrifying, hilarious, and quite possibly completely normal. Probably a lot of what I am is normal, but “normal” is its own kind of problematic word, and certainly something that is danger of a thorough, unasked-for, over-analysing.

Normal, of course, is a deeply loaded term. As a concept, it exists in a state of constant flux, warred over by various societal, media and cultural factions. Normal people buy X, normal people go to Y, they are Z; by manipulation, the project of control warps these designations so that normal is Z, so normal must go to Y and must buy X. These become the conditions of normality. Failure to conform becomes rebellion, otherification, blasphemy. Of course, the concept is muddled by the fact that many factors and factions are at work on forming normality at any given moment. The capitalist and Catholic paradigms might share any number of characteristics, from blind devotion regardless of consequences, the accumulation of finite resources and the effacement of downwards responsibility, but ultimately, their synergy diverges at the upper echelons of the paradigm, each attempting to stamp their authority and control on the final design.

When I speak of psychological normality, I probably mean that I function “within safe operating tolerances”. Like, the radiation from the core breach is still within safe levels, or the water is mildly contaminated, but it’s still okay to drink. If I were a factory, there would be press releases to the outside world covering just how normal systems were operating, while inside frantic and deeply concerned staff barrelled about the shop floor hoping to keep production flowing, while one guy was unequivocally advocating a systems halt while the quirks were ironed out. I am the frantic voices inside, as much as I am the guy who wants to stop and sort this shit out; I am the mess of quirks and fiddly hang-ups. Like most normal people I exist in fracture; the facets of me that are visible depend on where you are standing as much as where I am. Like most normal people, I am the most surprised by my subconscious traits, while being the one most intimately familiar with them. You see them when they get out, the terrors and hates and the fears, while I’m the jailor and the therapist, trying to rehabilitate the problems I don’t even have. I’m me, is what I’m saying, and I’m fine. Although I could probably stand to have a few less mental hang-ups, to be less concerned with the unconscious underpinnings of my psyche and imagine it works in a manner relatively consistent with the general population. But then, I don’t really know much of anything about normal.

If I know anything at all about what it might entail, it is only knowing what shouldn’t exclude you from that definition. It is a social and cultural battleground. Most simply, it can vacillate between those who consider it a synonym for standard, acceptable, mainstream or common. Those are four separate designations by the way. Subtle shades of meaning conspire to efface, exclude and condition normality. For me, average and normal have always been divergent concepts. By the most obvious statistical indicators, I belong to the societal average; straight, white and middle-class. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad though, but I own all the box-sets of A Game Of Thrones; I don’t have an iTunes account or a Spotify, but I bought four albums in the last two months; I spent about e5 on alcohol last month, but dropped a small fortune on paperbacks. I have no idea who plays for Man United, but I could probably rattle off the roster for several iterations of current Avengers books. Much of these things might single me out as uncommon, my wardrobe of mostly black, but it is mostly innocuous, benign. No one really minds these divergences anymore (possibly because many of my fandoms have become highly commercialised), but historically speaking, choosing to watch Orphan Black on a Sunday morning rather than attending Mass would have been grounds for social ostracisation. At what point does the benign uncommon stray into punishable subversion?

If my, and your, choices are acceptable only because society has become more tolerant of divergence, is that the same as society having become more inclusive? There are many who consider “normal” a purely rational, statistical value, based on the habits and traits of the average human. This “normality by numbers” is often presented as a rational, non-partisan form of social demarcation, but this mentality fails fairly dramatically to evaluate its own historical prejudices and biases or the rationale behind them, or to seek any form of active inclusion or betterment. Once there are enough of you, you can come into the clubhouse. Those of a more capitalist ideology rather obviously would suggest that normality is a condition of having a requisite bank balance and of using it. In these philosophies normality is reasonably flexible, changing to suit the whims of population or cash flow. For others, “normal” is a fundamentally rigid set of principles, maybe set out by an external religious text, or maybe by tradition or simply by the accumulated prejudices and assumptions of a life. Where all these ideologies become problematic is when adherence to “normality” becomes seen as proper behaviour, or worse a vital component of social inclusion. To deviate from the philosophical tenants is seen, firstly, as disordered, but also as a choice, as weakness of character, as something succumbed to, as deliberate insult. There is an escalating language of otherifaction which pervades this kind of discourse; people who will not conform are contrary, snotty, brattish, ungrateful, weird, stupid, mean, unfathomable, ignorant, vile, savage, dangerous, a problem, a contagion, a threat.

Certainly, I occupy the lower end of the scale in terms of the social criteria I fail to fulfil, and even at that, it could be my persecution complex talking. I am a straight white middle-class dude; I’ve got a lifetime membership card for normality, should I choose to use it. However, I still feel, as I’m sure many do, that I am often considered slightly weird, a little contrary, or childish at times, because I choose to wear slightly dour clothes, inject dark ink beneath my skin and often wear tee-shirts adorned with grim lone-wolf superheroes. I have covered my tattoos for interviews, and kept quite my opinions on corporate responsibility; I have temporarily made myself over in the image required, saying not “this is who I am” but rather “I know who you want me to be”, and I have the privilege of this being a very easy task. There are those for whom the act of “passing” is impossible, or difficult, or requires a surrender of selfhood that is unconscionable. I do not suffer from social exclusion, I’m not claiming to be either; at best I am slightly peeved that sometimes social norms infer that my choices are, at best, a little weird. In this country, this city even, there are teachers who cannot reveal their partners’ names because school boards, backed up by their religious “ethos”, can dismiss them based on their sexuality; there are people who are spat at, beaten up or insulted because of the colour of their skin or the lilt of their voice; there are children, born here, who are locked up in virtual prisons because of where their parents had the misfortune to be born; there are people who are threatened with sexual violence, groped, assaulted, and denied bodily control because their reproductive organs are inside instead of out. I am under no illusion that my little bumps with social inclusion come anywhere near these paradigms; they emphatically don’t. I am occasionally mocked or belittled for my choice of entertainments and personal philosophies, while LGBTI people are denigrated, assaulted, abused, ignored, tortured and murdered because of the simple, and intrinsic fact of who they are attracted to, or how they express their sexuality. It’s not the same thing.

In my case, it helps that I am in the privileged position of not wanting to be all the way in the club and being able to hop back in when social, economic or cultural make it desirable or necessary. Imagine I want to watch a football match; no stranger will second-guess or challenge my position, and I would have to actively disprove my expertise before it will be dismissed. Yet, at the same time, women who watch sports are often, even constantly, met with fierce resistance and suspicion by self-appointed gatekeepers. They’re only interested in good-looking footballers, or meeting men, or any myriad of reasons that are not simply because they like the sport. Gatekeeping is, sadly, one of the great human pastimes. We seem to forever be finding reasons why X isn’t like us, and while it might be a minority, there are those who use this difference to other, to disenfranchise, to terrorise. The narrower the definition of “normal” the greater its use as a tool of social exclusion, concentrating power in the hands of these hoarders of tradition and definition, those who would control and direct the acceptable choices of others. Twenty, maybe thirty, years ago the social definition of normal included adherence to Catholic dogma, probably demanded you vote for one of the two major political powers, and valued silent compliance to established authority above pretty much anything else. These standards of normality were utterly complicit in every scandal and tragedy that we now have the privilege of being sickened and outraged over. Be it the Mother and Baby Homes, the Laundries, the planning tribunals or the banking corruption scandals, our anger and voiced dissent is a privilege, as well as a responsibility, because we are a society that finally has the rights and the means to challenge the dominant narrative of those who would be our authorities. It is something that we as a society, a global community, and a culture have dragged out of the hands of would-be oppressive forces, bit by bloody bit with philosophies and texts of our own, building new technologies and staging grounds, subverting the old, rewriting the rules, buying, taking, winning and building the spaces where we can set out a safe space for not just ourselves, but everyone, to have a say in the project of our cultural destiny. It is a space where the most utterly common, the slightly offbeat and the foreign can congregate, mingle and each be entitled to their position. That is the optimist in me talking, the part of me that can envision a future space that encompasses, respectfully, all positions, a place without gatekeepers, a space where the boundaries are insubstantial and we can all cross in and out as we please, entry is not a privilege, but a taken-for-granted right of all. It is a space so habitually open that we will not even notice as we stray back and forth from it.

Ask me who I am, and I start raving about normality and gatekeeping, which says quite a lot about who I am. It probably gives more insight than any single thing I’ve written here. Really though, if you want to know who I am, I don’t really know. I’m someone who can feel like an outsider while feeling intimately sure I fulfil most of the criteria of a Silent Bob cliché. My favourite songs change, but this is a fairly consistent number. I have a breakdown when people ask me my favourite book or author or comic book. When I’m really stressed, worried or upset building Lego sets helps me. I drive a ten-year old car that I quite like. I think 2009 was the best year of TV in my lifetime. I’m absurdly proud of the fact that I got John Noble to make his evil-Walter face for me at Comic-Con. I think Sephiroth might be one of the most awesome, terrifying and relatable villains ever created. These are some of the facets of me. My personal philosophy strays from certain atheism to an outright fascination with death, its rituals, grief and mourning, existential contemplation and a grim, determined optimism that a hereafter might be possible, but it damn well doesn’t belong to the Catholics or their tyrant God. I like my boots and my leather jacket and I don’t understand the appeal of most popular music, and I am very, very proud of this fact. You wouldn’t go far wrong in reading Si Spurrier’s prog-rock infused X-Men Legacy, if you wanted to see the kind of thing I like, as well as a look at something fairly close to my own thoughts on self-hood and personal identity. “I rule me” is the refrain, more of a hope, a prayer, than a fact; it is not the reality, it is the goal.

I don’t know who I am, but I know who I hope I can be. Optimus Prime, Spider-Man, Buffy and Captain Picard were the heroes I grew up with, that showed me what it meant to be a proper person. I don’t know if I can be like them but I hope I am someone who will not be silent when speaking is required, someone who will not turn when seeing is needed, someone who will not step aside when standing is necessary. What does a cliché like that mean in real life? I have no idea, but I imagine it will be annoying for everyone who has to listen to me blunder through stupidity and righteousness in equal measure. Hopefully it means that some of the time I will be saying something worth saying though, and that I can shut up and get off the stage when someone else has something worth saying.

Identity is not a stable thing; it is a shifting mess of competing designs and concerns, foibles, unconscious ticks, fears and hopes and dreams. It is the maelstrom of personal history, cultural legacy, inherited and self-inflicted damage. We are the scars we carry with us, as much as we transcend and surpass and defy them. I am me, unknowable, indecipherable, silently trying to explain myself to a mirror that doesn’t want to know or care, broken bits of meaning shored up to make a person.

The question isn’t, “Who am I?” If we haven’t established that I don’t know the answer to that, then really, I might want to reconsider this whole project. Who the hell knows who I am; maybe you do, maybe no one does, but even if you do know, how am I supposed to know who you are, when I don’t even know who I am?

A Brief Disclaimer

This is just a short note to say that the items I’ll be writing about books, comics, TV shows or films shouldn’t be considered reviews. They will invariably be things that I enjoy and I will more or less be gushing enthusiastically about them. I don’t intend to be particularly critical or insightful about them in general, but rather, to highlight the aspects I enjoy. I may point out some flaws, I may not. Certainly, I won’t be going looking for them. I don’t intend, for the most part, to tell you why you should like something, or why you should shouldn’t. I’ll just be saying why I liked, or failed to like, some particular piece of content.

The critical value of my gushing will be dubious at best. I like things a lot of people hate, find weird or simply have never heard of. Even when I like things that other people like, it is often for radically different reasons. Sounds familiar, doesn’t? That is actually sort of the reason I find criticism in general to be of fairly dubious merit. We can all like different things for the same reason, we can all like the same thing for different reasons. Taste is too irrational for criticism. We can all find reasons why something might be good, why something is awful. Some of these reasons might even be objective; it doesn’t mean that perfectly rational people do not actively like the worst, most awful crap you’ve ever heard of. Their reasons might be perfectly valid, it will still seem like madness if you don’t also like the same thing, and no amount of me pointing out why they are wrong will change their mind.

My disregard for criticism doesn’t extend as far as proper academic critical analysis, I should point out. That has a very necessary place in cultural discourse. It’s just not something I am particularly good at when it comes to source material I love, so I tend to steer clear of. Instead, I will be unabashedly be writing about why I love things, teasing out some of the reasons, and possibly giving some insight into either myself, or why you might like something, if you share some of my passions.

Some things to bear in mind, though, if you are going to stick with my rambling “why I liked” pieces. I loved the end of Lost. To me, it made perfect sense. The threads of it all come together in a way that I understand, appreciate and enjoy. A lot of people would disagree with that. I am deeply enthusiastic about seeing Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor and also bitterly disappointed that the next Doctor isn’t a woman or a person of colour. I unashamed love A Song Of Ice And Fire and am unlikely to ever stop comparing A Game Of Thrones to it. And as the TV show rumbles onwards I become more and more convinced, firstly that the things I love about the books are not the things that the show’s creators love, and secondly, that they are only a few episodes away from making a mess of the entire thing.

So if anything I’ve said, makes you cringe or flare with rage I suggest this is a fairly decent place for us to part ways. It’ll be better for everyone involved. Mostly you. I don’t even know why you’re here in the first place, but I’m only going to disappoint you or enrage you (or bore you), if you stay. That is literally the only guarantee I can make you.

(P.S. This short note is now over 600 words, so I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of brevity either)