Superman the Dictator

In a former life, I minored in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies. So, I arrived at Superman: Red Son from a place of somewhat biased interest. Soviet Union iconography is extremely interesting to me, and that’s what I wanted to see: the utterly American imagery of Superman juxtaposed against Soviet propaganda.

When I look at Red Son in this perspective, I loved it. The images of the Soviet Superman are appropriately stark, and I was treated to a cold-eyed, ushanka-wearing Batman. Image-wise, Red Son is a great success.

But plot-wise, something does not set right with me. I was expecting an honest look at a Superman who belonged in the Soviet Union. What I did not want was a look at a Superman who was mistakenly born in the USSR. But, unfortunately, that was exactly what I got.

First, there’s the occasional aside from Superman that is a direct reference to “if he was the Superman we knew.” The most obvious is when he first meets Lois. Superman remarks that “Centuries later, after a thousand interpretations of this meeting, a famous poet would write an alternate history of the world where Lois Luther and I became lovers.” These references continue throughout the book, and make it clear to the reader that Superman belongs to our universe, and that this simply a flight of fancy.

More striking is Superman’s sudden need to become a Soviet dictator. Yes, when he is an American superhero, he is sometimes said to fight for the “American Way.” But this is often said of him, not necessarily by him. And while comics have of course had him reflect the politics of the day since his inception, Superman’s most recent reaction to politics was to renounce his American citizenship so that he could help people without the interference of politics.

Yes, in Red Son, Superman gets to a point where he sees that he should not be a dictator. But not until he tries to take over the world. I find it rather insulting to Superman (a superhero that I admittedly do not greatly enjoy) to say that simply because he was born in the USSR he suddenly becomes a world-dominating dictator.

Of course, I’m not sure how I would have liked this to play out. Maybe just to see the Superman that we know, one thatmaintains an interest in the welfare of people outside of politics, interact with the Communist system in a way that reflects his true character. That would have been fair, at least.

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A Love Letter to Sarah Dessen

You YA readers out there know that Sarah Dessen recently came out with a long-awaited new book, Saint Anything. I was privileged enough to beat the library crowd and check it out before anyone else, and I was so happy to see that it fell right in line with the Sarah Dessen books I know and love. It made me immediately want to start rereading her old works (I’m currently rereading my favorite Dessen title Just Listen, if you really want to know).

But, admittedly, I came to the Sarah Dessen game late. I only began reading her books maybe 5 years ago, and started following her blog almost immediately before she stopped writing it. So to assume you know the brilliance of Sarah Dessen, even if you are a strong reader of YA titles, might be a mistake.

In case you need any convincing, here are five reasons that you should love Sarah Dessen:

1. She seems genuinely nice

Ok, it seems weird to start out a list talking about the personal attributes of someone I don’t know. But seriously, at least on Twitter (and through every single thing I’ve heard through librarians and readers who have met her), she seems so likable. In fact, I followed her on Twitter after a friend of mine tweeted (and this is a paraphrase) @sarahdessen is the most adorable person on Twitter! And she’s right. Even though our tastes don’t always converge (for example, she was a superfan of Good Morning America for years, something I simply can’t care about), she is so clearly genuine about what she loves, that it makes me love reading her gush.

2. Her books are extremely comforting

To describe the tone of her books, I would say something like “a modern-day Sweet Valley High.” Not that she writes about identical twins, but that she rides the line between sweet and edgy extremely well. Her characters deal with real issues, such as death, anorexia, and prison, all from an extremely caring way.

3. She’s been there

In 2013, Dessen wrote to her fans about drug problems she had in her younger days. I feel like this was surprising for many, as she seems to have such an ideal and cheerful life, so I was extremely happy that her confession was met with support and love. Bustle put it best in their post YA Author Sarah Dessen Reveals Past Drug Problem, and It Just Makes Us Love Her More.

4. She’s honest

I love that on her website, she shares insights on where the inspirations for her books come from. I love that she talks on Twitter about the challenges of balancing writing and having a daughter. And I love that she was honest with her audience about needing to take a break from her writing when a book simply wasn’t working out.

5. The writing

And finally, she’s simply wonderful at bringing you into a character’s mind, or into a community’s setting, and making you want to live there. Even when the character is having a hard time, even when it seems like the community is less than ideal, she makes it so you want to go back again and again.

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Endings I love, and one I wish had been

As you may have surmised, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings – particularly, the endings of serialized stories. Here’s a list of a few endings I loved and will defend to the end, and one that wasn’t the true ending but fulfilled the purpose of an ending for me.

Sinner
If you know me at all, you know that I love Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle. It’s a possibly unhealthy, wanting-a-Raven-Boys -tattoo, type of  love. And while I also enjoyed The Scorpio Races, I was not as enamored with her earlier Shiver trilogy. The main characters were simply too sappy, and the series had too many werewolves for me. I kept wishing that they would stay with the side characters Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpepper more, and while I appreciated the somewhat open ending of the original series, I was left wanting more.

So when it was announced that there would be a follow-up, standalone novel focusing on Cole and Isabel, I was pumped. It was somewhat fan-servicey (Is that even a word? It should be.), but I loved it. It offered these two characters, sarcastic and meandering in their unhappiness, a happy ending. And while I may find some arguments that this wasn’t a true ending, being a standalone novel, it will always be the ending of the series that I remember.

Fruits Basket
Speaking of happy endings, is there any manga that ends happier than this series? This shojo manga has so many characters, and the characters develop so subtly, that I’m actually amazed that we got to a happy ending for nearly everyone involved. Normally I would roll my eyes at a “and they were married into their old age” ending, but for this series, so tinged in death and sadness, it totally worked.

How I Met Your Mother

I know, I know. Everyone hated the ending of this show. But really, I feel like my only real problem with it is the pacing. The mother’s death is glossed over, and spending an entire season on a wedding, even if the marriage ended well, seems unnecessary. We needed more time to say goodbye to the mother, and we needed more time to watch the dissolution of Robin and Barney. I agree with all that.

But am I mad that Robin and Ted end up together? No. This ending worked great for me in that it made me rethink the entire series. It is an adult assessment of love, and shows that people can have relationships that change and evolve, and that the world is not made for happily ever afters.

Mad Men: The ending I wished for

This is not a complaint regarding the real ending of the show. I actually really enjoyed it, and I was especially happy to see Peggy get a happy ending (And, no, this happiness does not take away her feminist credentials, by the way. She is a three-dimensional character with three-dimensional needs, and I feel like we left her at a great place to see all of those needs met).

But the episode that I will always think of as the emotional ending of the show is “The Strategy.” It’s the ending of this episode that shows Don, Peggy, and Pete as a true, if dysfunctional, family. They have all been trying to find happiness and success, but it seems that together, they have at least achieved comfortability and closeness. And seeing these three characters at ease, especially with each other, was my favorite moment in the series, bar none. There’s a great article on this episode over at Wired that encapsulates it better than I ever could.

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Series I never finished (but should)

Thinking about what I’m going to read this summer, and thinking about series’ endings (which I will talk more about next post!), got me thinking about series that I wished I had finished. For whatever reason, I never finished these series, not because I didn’t enjoy them, but simply because of distractions and, well, life. My goal this summer is to finish these series, and to reflect on their endings to see if they alter my view of the stories.

DMZ

DMZ11Brian Wood’s reflection on government infringement of people’s rights, alternatively through poverty and violence, is beautiful in the characters’ resilience in the face of collective attempted shaming. This series ended back in 2012, and you can read a great piece on the series over on popmatters.

Fables

Fables (1)I feel like Bill Willingham’s Fables series both gets accused of being a knockoff of The Sandman and gets forgotten in the midst of the truly subpar Once Upon a Time. I loved Fables, but when the plot changed course around the time of The Great Fables Crossover, I “took a break.” Which I guess means, put the series down for years until I realized what I’d done.

Vampire Knight

vampire knightWhen Twilight  was popular, I described Vampire Knight as being the “Twilight willing to go there.” By “there” I suppose I meant actual violence, actual drinking of blood, actual sexual deviance. Eventually, though, this series started slowing down, and I had caught up to its current American release, and I just stopped following it. Now, however, I’ve read a bit of its conclusion, and it seems there is enough true evolution of character that it’s time for me to revisit this series.

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What is a bad ending?

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 14 – Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings, specifically the endings of stories that are told in any serialized form. Stories end all the time, of course, but I’ve had several stories that I love end (and one that will end early next year). And my main question here is: can there be a good ending to a series?

More than stand-alone stories, the endings of series are often held up to ridiculous standards. The implication here is that an ending can completely make or break a story – if it’s a bad ending, it makes the rest of the series moot. I obviously don’t believe that; as I talked about in my previous post, I wasn’t thrilled with the ending of Dengeki Daisy, but still love the series.

So maybe first it would make sense for me to first examine what a bad ending means to me. For a lot of people, a bad ending seems to be one that reveals a meaning to a story that the reader or viewer disagrees with. For example, people were up in arms when the ending to Lost didn’t reveal the mysteries they desperately wanted answers to, and fans of How I Met Your Mother thought that the ending was some kind of betrayal to the mother in question.

But hey, it is the writers’ right to end a story in the way that they seem fit. A serialized story simply gets a bad name when it comes to this, as the ending is separated from the rest of the story, and people have ample time to decide what the ending should be. I personally love endings that make me see the story in a new way, and that put the rest of the story in a different perspective.

For me, a bad ending is an incomplete one. The worst ending is when the story doesn’t conclude at all; my heart was broken when the webcomic Teahouse was dropped by its creators. And I know I am still harping on this, but the anticlimatic ending to Dengeki Daisy is an ending that the series simply does not deserve.

My wish for all endings is that they be at least well thought out, and true to at least the creators’ vision. No matter if I agree with the endings, I want them to put the story in perspective and give it meaning.

Next up! I’m going to take a look at some endings that I love, and an ending that I wish could have been.

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Dengeki Daisy: The (very uneven) end

I don’t write many straight-up reviews on this site, but I feel the need to say at least a little something about the final volume of the shojo manga Dengeki Daisy.

First off, let me say that, however I feel about the final volume, my love for this series remains untarnished. I read this title patiently from the first American release to the last, and I maintain that it offers a lot more complexity of plot than most shojo. The heroine, Teru, also evolves subtly and dramatically, starting out as a typically helpless shojo girl and changing slowly into someone who is a major part of the action.

That said, the final volume was a stellar example of the unevenness of this series, and thus a stellar example of the dangers (and benefits) of serialization itself. It was the very definition of anticlimax, offering only one chapter relating to the actual story, with the rest being merely bonus chapters. And the one chapter? It started out by saying “don’t worry, everyone’s ok.” *shakes head*

It would be easy for the dry spell in the middle of this series, the over explication of the middle of the series, and the disappointing ending to spoil my enjoyment of this story. And it would be easier to say that this spells out an argument against serialization. But the slow dolling out of stories means that, even if there are bad points, I can point to fabulous volumes that save my love for the story. And when I look at the series as a whole, I know that it is the great volumes that I will remember, and it is this remembrance that will allow me to give other series a chance.

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The Brilliance of the Superhero Sketchpad

In my last post I mentioned that I was auditing the edX course The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture. So far, this course is an insightful look at the history of superheroes, and their place as our modern mythology.

But what I really want to remark on today is the course’s main activity (and main source of a grade): the Superhero Sketchpad. To those without an art background, this activity at first seemed to intimidate some of the participants. But after just the first week, I can already tell that this activity is going to force even the most passive learners into active learning and critical thinking.

It sounds fancy, but the Superhero Sketchpad is really just a set of slides, offered in a template that the students themselves fill out. During the first week, while thinking about how the first American superheroes were created as a response to their social influences (the Great Depression, the rise of the mafia, WWII), students are asked to think of a current event or issue and create a superhero in response to that. Students are asked to also take mythological figures into account, as the original superheroes were created as reflections of these as well.

Forcing students to not only think of what their superheroes would look like, but what their strengths and weaknesses would be, and what social evil they would be fighting, brings this class from a history class to a true critical thinking experiment. This activity could be easily adapted into a number of educational environments.

If you want to see this in action, just go hop on over and sign up for the class. It’s free to audit, and you still get to participate fully!

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Why don’t I like superheroes?

Here’s my confession: superheroes are just not my thing.

I don’t think so, anyway.

The fact of the matter is, however many graphic novels I’ve read, and however many shojo (and yaoi) manga I’ve devoured, traditional comics have never held my attention. Not even long enough for me to truly give them a chance. And that’s *particularly* true when it comes to comics revolving around superheroes.

But I want to like them. I do! Or… I want to at least give them a chance. So much so that I’ve enrolled in the new edX course The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture. My hope is that by exploring the superhero’s place in our overall culture and history, something will click within me. I’ll have an a-ha moment. I’ll finally understand why everyone cares.

And objectively, I get it. I remember an episode of the American Queer as Folk where Michael teaches a class on the superhero, and he emphasizes how reading about superheroes gave him a sense of power that he, at the time, didn’t feel like he had. It gave him an allegiance, a brotherhood.

At the same time, watching and reading the introductory course material, they consistently equate superheroes to mythological figures. And here comes my first a-ha moment: mythology was also a subject that I desperately wanted to be interested in, that objectively I saw value to, but that I could not fully seem to appreciate or even pay attention to.

Will this class help me in my hopes of becoming interested? Maybe. At the very least, I hope that it will provide some insight into why I have trouble caring in the first place.

P.s. Go check out edX – now! They have a ton of high quality online classes that you can audit for free! And no, I am not paid by them to say that.

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The Scott Pilgrim Generation

I’ll admit it – I saw the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World before I read the graphic novels. As a matter of fact, I *just* read the graphic novels (and yes, I binge-read them). I remember the movie coming out, loving it, and being baffled that anyone felt any different.

But apparently a *lot* of people felt very different. And I think it has to do with age.

And, no, I’m not saying that “young people like it, and old people hate it.” True, my father said that it was the most horrible film experience he had ever, well, experienced. But I have heard the same sentiment come from a 25 year old. In fact, I have met a ton of young people who hate Scott Pilgrim.

So who loves Scott Pilgrim?

A post over at Cinemablend claimed that people under 30 don’t get it, and that people over 30 don’t get it. If that’s true, who could relate?

i09 narrowed it down by equating the movie’s appeal top what they call the Nintendo generation, but reading the article, it seems that all they’re basically saying that folks who grew up understanding “video game logic” will love this movie. And that’s true, but folks of all ages play video games (even Nintendo games).

The Scott Pilgrim Generation

Here’s the thing. The first volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was published in 2004: Scott Pilgrim was 23 (22 in the movie!), and I was 22. I was born in 1982, which has been said to be at the tail end of Generation X or the very beginning of the Millennial generation, depending on what date range is being used. And there are a lot of age ranges out there.

Generations are big. There is no way that I feel like I am in the same generation as someone who was born in 2004, or someone who was born in 1965. And there is a fair amount of evidence that there are a lot of people born around the late 70s/early 80s who share this frustration, particularly because the technological and cultural shift that happened while we were growing up was so massive.

These inbetweeners, those that grew up with the internet, are our own mini-generation, and a lot that defines it is front and center in Scott Pilgrim. Of course part of it is the video games. Part of it is the indie music scene. Part of it is Scott’s wonder of “dude, this thing says I’ve got mail.”

And part of it was the small scene where the Seinfeld theme was played with a laugh track between Scott and Wallace. This is a show that ran from 1989-1998… when I was going through middle school and entering high school. Seinfeld is a show that is still relevant today, still remembered and beloved, but also remembers that people used to have to erase messages off of physical answering machines. People in Generation Scott Pilgrim remember life before the internet, but can function in the post-internet age.

There are cells in the Scott Pilgrim universe, but guess what. Scott uses a landline.

As for the books? I loved them. But that’s for another post.

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Psychology Today now has a comic strip!

Working in an art school library, the calmest part of my day comes in processing the new periodicals. Looking through the April 2015 issue of Psychology Today, I was extremely excited to see that they have unveiled a new comic strip, Dear Interior,.

Eleanor Davis (@squinkyelo), the artist, posted this announcement on her Twitter account.

dear interior

So why did I get so excited about this? I mean, I love comics and all, but there are comic strips everywhere. I could go pick up any newspaper or New Yorker and find similar strips.

A comic strip appearing in Psychology Today speaks to something that I have believed for a long time – that the visual symbolism of comics, and the ability for the reader to both view an emotion or meaning and instantly interpret its meaning for themselves, is nearly therapeutic in nature. Scott McCloud talks a bit about this idea in his Understanding Comics – the more cartoonish you make a character, the more the reader puts himself in the character’s place. This way, the reader can both explore what’s happening with the character, and with themselves.

There has been other talk of this regarding superheros specifically (see The Rise of Superhero Therapy, for example). This specifically reflects the idea that avidly reading about superheros, and maybe putting ourselves in their place, is an empowering act. I believe this is true, but I also believe that this can apply to anything a reader is working through. And I am so excited to see how Eleanor Davis represents these internal struggles.

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