Welcome to our guest blogger, Vanessa Verduga for her pov on how she has been influenced by comics history, the Major in particular and her creation of a new female Super Hero. I love her enthusiasm and find her take on the various media refreshing. It’s good to get a different view and it’s definitely food for thought! NWN
For years, the comic book medium and recent movie adaptations have been exploring the question, “What makes a superhero?” Boys and girls are quick to say the “powers”, the “skills” or in Iron Man’s case, “the money” makes the hero. And maybe when I was a kid, I felt the same way, although I was a bit “eccentric” and liked El Chapulín Colorado best, who was “more agile than a turtle, stronger than a mouse, nobler than a lettuce, his shield is a heart.”
As I grew up, and I think as all comic book fans grow, we tend to redefine what a hero means to us. Eventually, we realize that the magic is not in the super powers or in the fantastic world, but in the writing, in the character development, and in the meaning of the story–what this superhero stands for in life. And only as an adult did I realize that my heroes, my “superheroes” in comic books, were not aliens, men in iron suits or, building-hopping spider mutants. They were talented people who loved storytelling.
One of my heroes was Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the founder of DC Comics. Everyone talks about Stan Lee, Bob Kane, and Will Eisner and their credit is deserved, but I do feel as Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was such a modest guy, his talents, and his contributions to the medium, are sometimes passed over by the mainstream. The Major was not only a writer of pulp fiction (the hard and underground story telling that later birthed comic book writing) but was also the creator of the modern comic book. After his more down-to-earth career as the youngest major in the U.S. Cavalry, and an inventor, he took flight and created the American comic book company National Allied Publications, which would eventually evolve in D.C. Comics.
A lot of guys in comics, especially early comics, had the world’s greatest job. They could create archetypes, draw primitive character sketches, and have fun with those extra pulpy story lines. (This, of course, was long before corporations cared about character continuity.) So imagine what it was like for a pioneer like Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson to go beyond just drawing and writing cartoon strips, and actually create an untested idea, the new “medium” of comic book entertainment. This was in the Great Depression era, mind you, back when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was grabbing up all the gold and when the “super villain” meant the Nazi Regime. Really complicated times!
It took a radical entrepreneur like the Major to make his company work. And I really believe that at the heart of his adventure was a love of storytelling. And not just book storytelling as in The Great Gatsby or The Lord of the Ring, but pictorial storytelling, the stuff kids enjoy. He must have been a kid at heart with a wondrous sensibility for teens and for grownups who loved escapist fare, pulpy picture books that had a completely unique market.
The Major was adamant about the potential of comic books and if he only knew just how accurate his “prophecy” was for graphic short stories in the 20th and 21st century, well, I think he would have been blown away—especially by how serious and passionate comic book fans are nowadays. I think times of depression or recession DO actually contribute to the popularity of escapist entertainment, such as comic books and superheroes. If movies are a reflection of society’s most cherished hopes and deepest fears, then superhero stories perfectly capture the planet’s current mood of uncertainty and dread. Everyone wants a Hero nowadays, in uncertain times when we feel powerless. We would rather think about hostile aliens, mad scientists, and clown princes of crime than about the disastrous economy or higher crime rates. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Superman was the first beloved mainstream superhero, who debuted right in the middle of tragedy—the 1930s.
Now Superman is being rebooted for the umpteenth time, and re-imagined by 300’s Zach Snyder, who is, in my opinion, at best, a hit or miss director in love with visuals and green screens but fearful of human interaction, or “real acting.”
I think in many ways, superhero movies are made for a society that has basically given up. A society that has given up on legal justice and is now asking for a vigilante to save them. In the creation of Justice Woman, developing her “mythos,” I wanted to create a character that is so intent on living in a just world that she is willing to fight against corruption. She is an avenging angel of sorts, because she goes beyond the law to expose criminals and protect innocent people. However, she still holds true to the ideals of superheroism, in the spirit of Superman, Wonder Woman and the others from the Greatest Generation era of entertainment.
My background in law influenced some of Justice Woman’s personality and motivations. She is a rising attorney who became disillusioned because of the corruption around her, caused in part by big business, by the good old boys club who run the courts, the legislature, and even the executive office. It’s no coincidence that movies today are a reflection of society and do seem to capture the current mood, politically and economically speaking.
And for a while everyone was wondering why Superman was coming back, and why they would reboot it even after WB/DC just released a not-so-great movie a couple of years ago. The answer was obvious to me; Superman is the American dream and he is appearing as our collective conscience. The original Superman debuted during a particularly dark time in the world’s history. Today we’re once again battling recession, war and violence. Society cries out and superheroes are coming out of the woodwork—which is a good thing.
Of course…as a female comic book fan, and a feminist, I do lament that there are STILL no strong lead female characters in comic book movies. They are emerging in the comic book medium, but in movies we seem to have stalled out. We’ve re-launched almost every franchise in the public consciousness EXCEPT lead superheroines, like Wonder Woman, one of my favorites.
What we’ve observed is a mass market run of male heroes and SUBMISSIVE female sidekicks. I mean, seriously guys, how many more female sidekicks do we need besides Pepper Potts, Jane Foster, and all the others? We do have The Black Widow who’s not really submissive…more like pissy-faced, and far more concerned about looking sexy than portraying a real character. I believe that D.C. Comics has ruined Catwoman by filing off her edge (which Michelle Pfiefer did very well in the 1990s) by giving such a scenery-chewing role to the likes of Halle Berry and Anne Hathaway—great actresses who excel in playing WEAK WOMEN.
I am so psyched for a possible Wonder-Woman movie and yet am really nervous at how all those Mad Men in Hollywood would handle a reboot. I have heard from the grapevine that Wonder Woman may make an appearance in the next Man of Steel movie, which will, unfortunately, be directed by Snyder. I don’t think Snyder’s THAT much less talented than Joss Whedon of The Avengers fame. I just dread how these big shots are treating women in their films. They are eye candy, they are reactionary characters, they kick ass and everything…but they’re not that deep. And my friends, Wonder Woman was deeeep!
Lest we forget Wonder Woman was an Amazon Warrior, trained to kill, and suddenly plunged into a world where men were in charge. She had to adjust to this foreign world and, frankly, she has the capacity to be a real monster if she wanted to—or at least a real ball buster for sexist guys who would rather stare at Scarlett Johansson than watch a movie with a strong female voice. There is a world of potential with Wonder Woman, and a full movie needs to be made by a woman—or at least someone who gets the female ego. I love Jane Campion…if anyone could lure her out to do one comic book film, I could die a happy girl. (And hey, before you laugh at that idea, Kenneth Branagh did Thor!)
The time is nigh for strong comic book heroines to come back into mainstream movies and bring some hope to little girls. We’re coming very close…we have Lady Gaga, a strong, powerful female…but alas, she has no superpowers and doesn’t really fight bad guys…she sort of just hatches from eggs and what not.
This is just one of the many reasons I created the Justice Woman web series and developed a strong female lead. Everywhere I looked in comic books I just wasn’t seeing anyone inspiring or really powerful that I could look up to as a symbol for hope. Growing up in the Bronx, and having seen firsthand how bullies and corrupt politicians influenced the society around me, I really needed someone strong, someone to reassure me that the world wouldn’t crush me—that justice was a force more powerful than greed.
For a time, Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman served this niche pretty well. However, by the time her show ended comic books were shrinking back into the medium and moving away from TV—relegated to cartoons. I wanted to give people some hope that there were still superheroes among us. And most importantly, they don’t all look the same. Sometimes justice comes in the form of a Latina woman, dressed in spandex, not looking anything like Superman, but still getting the job done.
Am I cracking jokes about wardrobes? Yes, I am! As a feminist as well as a comic book geek, I have to walk a fine line between satire and social relevance. I do admit to loving the pulpiness and the outrageous visuals and humor of the original Batman TV show, which sought to recreate the National Allied Publications universe in a very gaudy, gay and funny way. And a lot of people tell me they’re surprised at how funny Justice Woman is, for being a dramedy and live action comic book series. I could have stopped at cheesy.
However, a purely comedic show with no topical relevance isn’t going to do much to advance feminism, or serve as a symbol of hope for women who will hold out for heroes. I want Justice Woman to touch on relevant issues, stuff that kids and adults are facing. I want my fictional character to live in our real world, to reflect the injustices that we see and can’t reconcile. All the while she is fighting in the real world, she still keeps her commitment to justice, her humor and wit, and her happiness. She stands for something.
I know that giving the show an edgy comedic element challenges some people who are used to Christopher Nolan’s work. My view is that comedy is a weapon—you might even call it a super power. I think we as social activists can say so much more when we temper our outrage with comedy. People listen after a good laugh. Criticism seems much less harsh when you crack a teasing joke. Sometimes making people laugh is the only weapon we have. (Technically Roger Rabbit said that, but he was at least an animated action hero if not a superhero)
So yes, I am holding out for a heroine on the big screen even while I play one on the small screen. Dreaming big and rising to challenges…it doesn’t make sense to some people. But it’s what comic books have taught me my whole life. To hope, to fight and to aim big. I’ve seen it not only in pictorial literature but even in the real world, with heroes like Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who proved that the impossible is possible even in the worst of times. If the Major can create an entire medium while the country was in shambles, I am confident our generation can create a strong female superhero worthy of comparisons to Wonder Woman, even if this seems to be the age of recession and of post-feminism stupidity. Until the next Wonder Woman emerges, Justice Woman answers the call of the country who is desperate for a new breed of socially-conscious hero. And Justice Woman is whipping crime into submission and opening people’s eyes as we speak!
Vanessa, You’re so right about female characters in superhero movies. A few months ago, Entertainment Weekly had a graph showing the percentage of screen-time given to the female lead in the major superhero flicks. Don’t recall the exact figures–oops, numbers–but I think they were about 8-15%. Then there’s Zach, who you mention in regards to MAN OF STEEL. His WATCHMEN has the most complicated women of any superhero film I can think of. He’s generally faithful to the graphic novel, but the women in the novel started to annoy me on the second reading. Too one-dimensional, particularly Silk Spectre II. It was one of the upgrades in the film script to breath life into them. The great casting didn’t hurt either.
In my opinion, the depth of Silk Spectre I and II came from Alan Moore, who gave both women very conflicted feelings about the men in their life and their roles as crimefighters. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he handled dialog perfectly. In fact, Silk Spectre II was borderline unlikable, and yet still a tragic figure.
Malin Akerman is not really an A-list actress and played SS as a sweet-hearted bimbo, not nearly as cold-hearted as the comic book version. I suppose you could argue that Zach Snyder doesn’t really micro-manage his actors, which is a flaw of his as a SFX filmmaker not necessarily his cast. I really think Jackie Earle Haley was brilliant as Rorschach despite Snyder’s weakness as an acting coach.
Still, I didn’t hate Watchmen…just wanted it to be a little more than it was.
[…] a lifelong fan of superheroes, I was so honored when Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s granddaughter, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, asked me to write for the Major’s blog. The man […]