Whys and wherefores

I still haven't tackled a bell hooks book yet; it's next on the agenda. But I have just read some more comics, and I want to talk about them.

Let me skip through the others first. I say others, because not long ago I realised I had a favourite comic ever, and today I read the last of it and I teared up. But I'll come to that.

I borrowed some more Moore - proper Alan Moore - and some Brian K. Vaughn this time around. The Moore was Tom Strong volumes one and two - a far cry from the magical philosophy of Promethea. Tom Strong is Moore's stab at unadulterated fun, a pulp adventure comic and modern heir to Doc Savage and Jules Verne-syle science adventurism. It's pulp adventure informed by Alan Moore's intelligence and flair, of course, but while it's excellent fun it's not deep. I enjoyed it a lot, though.

Half of the Vaughn were volumes three and four of Ex Machina. This is a modern, political fable; the world's only superhero, a man who can talk to machines, gives up his costume and jetpack after saving the second tower on September 11, 2001 to become mayor of New York city. There are, of course, some superpowered hi-jinks, but in a way it's like a comic book superhero version of Boston Legal - the main story is a hook on which to hang socio-political commentary. It's good, very good; Mitchell Hundred, the mayor and ex-"Great Machine", is a very modern and "realistic" superhero, himself influenced by comic books. He feels like a real character, and he's serious about doing good, even if he doesn't always manage to get it right. And the book has lots of great touches - Mitchell's sexuality is not so much ambiguous as dismissed as irrelevant; his popularity rises and falls, rather than heading in one direction; there's a good mix of "science" and "magic" (both of the comic book variety) , and there's not an issue that's shied away from.

But for all that, it's not my favourite comic. It's not Y: The Last Man. I read the final two volumes of Y today, and I cried a little.

Y: The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic tale in which every male mammal is killed - save two. The survivors of the "gendercide" are Yorick Brown, a young escapologist and son of a congresswoman, and the Capuchin monkey he'd taken on to train as a helper animal, whom he named Ampersand. It's neither a utopia nor dystopia in the usual sense; it feels distinctly realistic. Society doesn't universally fall nor rise from the ashes of the disaster; the main characters travel all across the world in their quest to find both a way for the human race to move forward and, eventually, for Yorick's girlfriend, Beth, and along they way they encounter humanity at its best and worst and everything in between. They also meet hardened secret agents, assassins, cult leaders, mad scientists, religious zealots, patriotic soldiers, optimists, pessimists, heroes and villains...every one a woman. And they all feel like women, too - not just male characters drawn as women. But then I'm a guy, so I might have it all wrong. Perhaps bell hooks will set me straight.

The art is great - the whole series was drawn by Pia Guerra, and I think her distinctive character designs helped make the whole 60 issue shebang feel like a genuinely long journey. It doesn't hurt that the story takes place over nearly five years. And by the end of it, I felt every step had been worth it, and I shed a tear for friends lost. It's perhaps one of my favourite endings to any story I've ever read.

Here's hoping the rumours are wrong and Shia LaBeouf isn't playing Yorick in the upcoming film version. To be honest, I'm much rather there was a television series based very closely on the whole comic - it'd be an extraordinary work.

I think that'll be it for comics for the moment. Even with only ten books to go on project Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors, I should get back on track - and in any case, if anything written by a man can get me ready to read black feminism, then it's Y: The Last Man.


  1. 'And they all feel like women, too - not just male characters drawn as women.'

    I think the mark of a truly well-written character is when you can switch them between genders and it doesn't feel wrong or forced. Aside from a few physical things, the only differences between male and female characters are the preconceptions and assumptions placed on them by readers and writers.

    I'm really keen to read Y: The Last Man and would love to discuss it properly once I have - gender-wise and in general.

  2. If it weren't that gender was such an integral part of Y: The Last Man, then 355 (the mysterious agent assigned to protect Yorick) or Dr Mann (the geneticist trying to find out how he survived) or any of the other characters could just as easily have been drawn as men without changing a single line of dialogue. I guess what I mean was none of them felt like a woman written using the preconceptions and assumptions normally used for male characters, or that the preconceptions and assumptions usually ascribed to women were conspicuously absent. They're just good characters.

    On the other hand, gender is at the heart of Y's story, so while there are plenty of times when it doesn't matter - and Yorick's gender effectively becomes a MacGuffin - much of the time gender is pretty relevant.

    In hindsight, I apologise for how my original statement reads; I know what you're saying, though I think what I wrote exposes some of my own biases and conceptions. As I now realise, I believe - for good or ill - that women and men are necessarily different, but not in the simple and traditional ways in which society dictates they are different. Y satisfied me because when it mattered, I felt the women were behaving in a way that seemed naturally "female", no matter how "masculine" or "feminine" their attitude or actions by society's default standards.

    Even as I write this I realise I don't quite know what it means or how to explain it. THis is deep water, I think... This is why I'd like to read more feminism, and one of the reasons why I would love to hear your thoughts on the whole thing, gender-wise and in general.

  3. I took a 'sociology of gender' class in school and I remember that the first thing we were told was that 'sex' is biological, but 'gender' is psychologically and socially constructed. So I guess what I meant is that when we think of masculine and feminine traits, we're thinking of things that we've learned ought to be masculine or feminine, based on our culture, society, generation...and, of course, the gender expectations we feel have been placed on us personally.

    But I think that's what you're saying...that the characters have been written without those gender stereotypes, or at least with the intention to push those boundaries and explore a wider range of female characterisation than you normally see? I think a lot of characters are written first as women, or as men (or as a particular race or age or any other demographic you can think of) - they're just set up with a bunch of stereotypes. Whereas these characters sound like they've been drawn first as people, with all the possible traits that human beings are capable of...but they all just happen to be women. This, to me, sounds like a huge step towards a future of more interesting storytelling.

    I do agree that men and women are different, but I couldn't say whether that's a fundamental difference, or if we've just been socialised to be different. Ultimately I think that we're all different, as individuals, and that men and women are capable of every trait that makes up both the 'masculine' and 'feminine' sets - there's no human emotion or trait that belongs just to one gender. As far as media portrayal and characterisation go, I'd just like to see more acknowledgement of this and more flexibility in the portrayal of women AND men. I think the mainstream media goes a long way towards creating gender in real life for both men and women - the more we see certain portrayals of gender the more we feel like we should conform to what we see, which unfortunately is very limiting.

    No apology necessary - especially not for being a guy. There's no right or wrong here. Personally I'm thrilled to hear a male point of view, and I strongly believe that men have as much right as women to get involved in discussions on gender issues/politics. Male characters (and male humans) are alarmingly stereotyped as well, and I don't think you can address one gender's role without considering the other.